Thursday, October 22, 2009

Return to Planet Mac

I was a Mac user exclusively between about 1986 and 2001. At that point, I got a job that required me to learn to use a PC, and I eventually ditched the Mac for home use in 2002. This was due to frustration with the state of OS X at the time (I was staring at that spinning beachball a LOT), and secondarily for reasons of cost: the Mac I wanted cost roughly twice as much as a PC that could do the same thing, more or less.

I'm back to Mac only, as of day before yesterday. I've been using one at work for the past year or so (a MacBook, with Linux and WinXP running under VMWare), but my home computer was a rather nice, if aging, PC I built myself.

I had decided to switch back when I realized I'm better off giving up on gaming. The nice thing is that it suddenly removed lots of constraints on choice of machine, meaning I could get one that fits the rest of what I do to a T.

It's a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I jazzed it up with a Kingston 128 GB SSD and 4 gigs of RAM. Obviously, this isn't enough to store my photo library (currently weighing in at about 300 GB), but then I don't really want to keep the library on the workstation anyway, as long as I can access it easily. We already have a NAS for backups, so I simply decided to keep the library and any other files I don't want to lose there, plug another disk into it via USB, and switch on its autobackup feature.

(Why a MacBook Pro rather than a MacBook? Because I wanted one... and the price difference between the two really isn't all that big.)

I've never had as painless a setup experience as this. The disk and memory were incredibly easy to install, and everything "just worked." The only thing that hiccuped a bit was getting the system installation started -- it refused to boot from DVD the first time; I had to re-insert the DVD a few times and hold down the C key to get to the installer. Once up and running, everything went really, really smoothly: a totally different experience from the two-day slog of re-installing Vista on my old box after a hard disk crash.

The machine is by far the most responsive I've used. It boots up in about 15 seconds, wakes up from sleep as good as instantly, Chromium starts up as good as instantly, and even OpenOffice takes maybe ten seconds from click to cursor. It's not a slouch by the numbers, but it's far from a speed demon -- but in use, it just feels several times faster than anything else I've used. I figure this is due to Snow Leopard on the one hand, and the SSD on the other: my work MacBook is, technically, a hair faster (2.4 GHz Core Duo, as opposed to 2.26 GHz on the new one), but it sure doesn't feel that way. I'll probably upgrade it to Snow Leopard as well, somewhere along the line, although the SSD will probably have to wait.

Foul mood

I was in a foul mood yesterday. So I did zazen for an hour.

When I got off the zafu, I was still in a foul mood.

I felt better about it, though.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ResellerRatings for meditation masters

I've taken up Zen during the past six months or so.

In practice, that means that I sit staring at a wall a fair bit. About a half-hour every day, in principle, although of course I miss one every once in a while, whereas on other days I sit twice or even three times, and I go to the zendo to sit a bit more once a week or thereabouts. For those who care, the sangha I belong to belongs to the Sanbo Kyodan school in the Soto tradition.

I know, just what the world needs -- another Zen blog, and one by a complete beginner to boot.

Thing is, this stuff is complicated. Not Zen as such -- it's dead simple, really, all you do is "sit down and shut up" as Brad Warner puts it -- but everything around it. There's an incredible amount of potentially dangerous bullshit flying around, about various flavors of "Oriental Wisdom" in general and Zen in particular. The Net is chock-full of people promising instant enlightenment (with seven free gifts if you act quickly), solving all your personal, interpersonal, financial, and spiritual problems for evermore, and what have you... and there are lots of entirely legitimate, or at least harmless, but massively diverse meditation-oriented groups out there, from yoga schools to Tibetan Buddhist traditions, executive retreats to... well, anything, really.

It's not trivial to make sense of all that. This shit gets very close to the skin, and there's real potential for damage. Meditation techniques cut deep, and if misused, they can fuck you up pretty seriously. I like to think I'm smart enough not to get fooled by some phony guru suckering people into his thing -- but then I'm pretty sure so was everyone who did get fooled by them. John Lennon was no dummy, but he fell for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi big-time, for a while anyway.

The first Buddhist thing I went to last spring didn't smell quite right to me. It was a dharma talk and meditation session organized by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's gang. A guy named John from Britain -- apparently the leader of their London sangha or something -- came here for that, and me, my wife, and her mother went to check it out. There was a quite a bit there that was pretty sensible, but then again there was a quite a bit that wasn't. There were two things in particular that stuck in my craw: the way John couldn't stop singing Geshe Kelsang's praises or quoting his books (his photo on the altar, with the candles and chocolates piled up next to it didn't help), and the feeling I got that he was trying to sell me something. I even remember some shit about "all your problems will just go away."

Later I looked up the group, and found out about the Dorje Shugden controversy. It's a spat between Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dalai Lama, about some kind of spirit called Dorje Shugden who Kelsang says is an enlightened being and Dharma protector and the Dalai Lama says is an Earth spirit and as such not worthy of veneration (or whatever they do in the Tibetan tradition; I don't really know much about it at all). Doctrinal disputes. Yay.

So maybe it was just that John fellow. Maybe it was just me. Whatever it was, it wasn't my thing.

So I Googled "zen helsinki" and found the Helsinki Zen Center. I went to their introduction to zazen course, and liked what I saw and heard. I've been going since then, and I like it more all the time. The people are about as down-to-earth and normal as any you're ever likely to encounter (i.e., not very, when you get down to it), and I liked the Swedish sensei who visited Helsinki too. Sort of like Max von Sydow as Yoda; very "present" and down to earth, but at the same time immensely impressive in a hard-to-define way. He has some funny ideas about reincarnation and stuff, but does not smell like someone out to reprogram you or extract your money.

Meditation teachers are a necessary evil. Zazen -- any meditation, really -- is basically just sitting quietly and letting shit happen. Zen masters keep saying that that's ALL it is, and I'm willing to take them at their word. Kinda. The trouble is that a lot of shit does happen, both when sitting and afterward, there's a surprising variety of ways to sit quietly and let shit happen, and "discriminating mind" or not, at least I need to make some sense of it. That's where the teacher comes in -- it's incredibly helpful to be able to just ask someone you trust about it. But finding someone worth trusting... now, that's another matter.

I wish there was some equivalent of ResellerRatings for meditation masters -- except, of course, that it couldn't work, because the creepy cult guys always have the most vocal supporters and would get most of the attention. As it is, it's sort of like buying into a camera system. You only know what it is you needed years after the choice is already made, so the best you can do is try to figure out what NOT to do, and then hope for the best. Trouble is, that's not all that easy to do either. About all I know is that I want to avoid (1) anyone who promises obviously too much, (2) anyone who wants more than reasonable amounts of money for services rendered, and (3) anyone who demands belief in anything obviously irrational. I'm willing to be flexible with the rest.

If someone has better advice on the topic, I'd be happy to hear it.

The way to Hell is paved with good intentions

...and as intentions go, starting a blog is a classic, as far as the Net is concerned.

I had a blog once. It was supposed to be about politics. I made a bunch of posts, but then abandoned it. Partly it was because I discovered that I wanted to post about other things as well; mostly it was just that I found a better arena to express myself. Specifically, RPGWatch -- a site dedicated to computer role-playing games, but that also hosts what must be a nearly unique phenomenon on the Internet, namely, a forum dedicated to politics and religion that isn't (a) constantly engulfed in flames, (b) an echo-chamber, or (c) tyrannically moderated. Check it out. It's brilliant.

I left last week, and I miss it already.

Why set off, then?

The main reason is that I decided to give up on computer games. They've been something of a hobby for, oh, 20, 30 years or so. The problem is that I cannot control my gaming, and I finally mustered up the courage to actually admit this and face this fact. I'm not a basement-dwelling a-social olm or anything -- I have a wife and a job and stuff -- but I am a binge gamer. That is, when I'm playing a game, it takes over every minute of my free time; I can't stop thinking about it; I get nervous and surly, and it makes me neglect stuff I enjoy at least as much but that doesn't have these nasty side effects. Not to mention neglecting my loved ones, especially my incredibly patient wife.

What's more, I don't, ultimately, get all that much from them. There are a few games I've played over the years that have made a lasting impression -- Planescape: Torment and Fallout to name two; The Path by Tale of Tales is a recent one, and The Witcher by CDProjekt is another one. However, for each one of these I must've played a dozen that offered me not much more than obsession.

So, as I cannot moderate my gaming, my choice is between obsessive binge gaming and no gaming at all. Given that choice, I'm going to have to go with no gaming at all. I understand that it's generally not considered a great idea for binge drinkers to hang out with the drinking buddies at the old watering hole, so I figured I'd have to leave RPGWatch as well. Perhaps I'll return there at some point, once I've put a bit of distance between myself and my compulsions so I can watch them rhapsodizing about the character development system in Dragon Age (or whatever) without feeling compelled to go buy it RIGHT NOW and then disappear off the face of the planet for whatever-hundred hours it takes to complete.

Pity, but there it is -- and I hope I'll be able to find better things to do with my time. This blog, for example.

(Credit: XKCD.)

There are other reasons, too. One of them is that somehow I don't feel like getting into net.debates anymore. Sometimes they can be entertaining, informative, or stimulating. Sometimes they even go somewhere. I've even heard a rumor that someone, somewhere, has once changed their mind about something due to a net.debate. However, they mess with my head much like games do -- I keep thinking about them, keep manically checking the forum, and get annoyed and jumpy, not to mention stay up late. That's just not all that much fun, and it's even less fun if I actually end up getting into interpersonal stuff and say something I regret.

Sometimes it's worth it. There are issues I care about deeply enough for that. However, right now most of those have receded into the background as well. The exciting bits of the financial crisis seem to have passed, America is no longer irredeemably evil, the Green movement in Iran seems to have been corralled, the Middle East has returned to its default state of grinding slow-motion crisis, and watching Afghanistan circle the drain is just kinda depressing rather than interesting. And I can't really work up a good lather about health-care reform in the USA, not having any skin in that game.

But I still have an over-active mind that I need to empty out in words from time to time. Therefore, this blog. I don't know how often I'll be posting. I don't know what I'll be posting about. I certainly don't know if it'll be interesting to anyone. If anyone reads it, great. If not, that's great too. But here it is all the same.