Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nuclear Power

Moonrise with Smokestack
Moonrise with Smokestack, Helsinki, 2007

Finland just approved a plan for our sixth nuclear reactor. That'll make us one of the most nuclear-powered countries in the world. A part of the background is that one of our industrial mainstays is paper and pulp, and that requires electricity; that means that our industrial lobby has always been very big on power infrastructure.

I'm somewhat at odds with many of my friends and peers about this issue. As in, I'm not categorically opposed to nuclear power. In fact, I'm sort of cautiously positive about it.

What bothers me about the most common arguments against nuclear power is that they're so often presented as a simple dichotomy—nukes or no nukes. The choice is really a lot more complicated than that. In Finland's case, for example, our choices for dealing with energy include things like:

  • Conservation. A smarter grid. Transitioning to less energy-intensive industries. Taxes on electricity. Tighter regulations on power consumption in devices. 
  • Wind. Solar is pretty much out at these latitudes; it's so dark half the year that it's not feasible. Wind, however, is. We have a lot of empty space, being sparsely populated, and especially the archipelago has a lot of wind. 
  • Hydropower. Finland's hydropower potential is already pretty well exploited. We could build a significant amount of new capacity, but that would involve creating another major artificial lake in Lapland—Three Gorges it isn't, but still a pretty major feat of environmental engineering, with all that that implies.
  • Biomass. We could build plants to burn wood chips, grow stuff for energy, and so on.
  • Import. We're currently importing a lot of power from the efficient, safe, and impeccably-run nuclear power plant of Sosnovyi Bor (the same design as Chernobyl), just over our Eastern border.
  • Coal. Helsinki produces a lot of its power with coal-fired plants. There are mountains of Polish anthracite a stone's throw from where I live.
From where I'm at, conservation is an obvious no-brainer. There are lots of little things we can do (and have already done, for that matter), which will do stuff like shave down the peaks of the power curve and lower overall power consumption somewhat. However, we can't scrap our paper and pulp industry overnight, and I don't really see that we should, either—if we did, it would just move elsewhere, taking its emissions and environmental impact with it. I don't think that's particularly responsible to the planet.

We should also build a lot more wind power. People are yelling about the visual impact—and no doubt about it, those turbines do look pretty spectacular, and if we stick the archipelago full of them, there won't be any way to pretend that it's a wilderness anymore. (It isn't, and ecologically the turbines won't have all that much of an impact, but the way they look and the noise they make will certainly inconvenience people.)

I'm not quite sure what I should think about the proposed hydropower project in Lapland. I'm leery of major environmental engineering projects such as that one, especially in what is just about as close to untouched wilderness as you get in this part of the world. The submerged vegetation will also emit CO2 as it decays. On the other hand, the environmental impact is mostly local, and once built, the power is emission-free, reliable, and low-cost, for a very long time. However, even if we do build it, the project won't be anywhere near enough to make a big difference to our energy requirements—the new reactor being built at Olkiluoto is rated at 1600 MW, whereas the two hydropower projects being discussed amount to a paltry 50 MW.

I'm not a huge fan of biomass. It's politically very vulnerable to flexible definitions, for example including peat from bogs in the definition, which just makes it another fossil fuel. It's also relatively expensive to harvest, in terms of work and land.

I have nothing in principle against importing electricity. However, I think we should be just as scrupulous about the production methods of the electricity we import as the electricity we produce. In fact, I find the categorical opposition to nuclear power in Finland entirely hypocritical as long as we're importing a single watt-hour from Russia. If not building a reactor here means that the Russians build another one in Sosnovyi Bor, things are worse, not better.

And coal? That's the worst. Coal kills, all through the supply chain, from mining accidents to permanent underground fires to transportation to emissions. Coal kills more people every year than nuclear power (not counting nuclear weapons) has killed through its entire history, never even mind the greenhouse gases. Coal, really, is the reason I can't oppose nuclear power. I just think it's hypocritical to march against nukes while not marching against coal.

So, on the one hand, I'm not entirely opposed to nukes because I don't think it's as bad as what we're currently relying on. On the other hand, I think that some of the most commonly stated arguments against it are flawed.

Take nuclear waste, for example. From listening to what gets said about it, you easily form the impression that nukes will give us radioactive glowing mountains of stuff that'll be killing things for 100,000 years or more. That's not quite true.

First, there's the matter of scale. I don't think most people realize how incredibly energy-intensive nuclear fuel—and nuclear waste—is. It's incredibly nasty stuff, to be sure, but there's very little of it produced relative to the amount of power generated. Nuclear power plants get refueled by a single truck showing up once every couple of years or so. Somebody calculated that if all the electricity you used in your life was produced with nuclear power, the resulting waste would fit in a beer can. Even if the stuff in it is incredibly nasty, it's still a manageable problem.

Second, it's by no means a given that the stuff will be with us for 100,000 years. We already have the technology to dispose of the stuff. It just costs money that nobody's willing to pay. In fact, we know—in theory—how to build a power plant that burns nuclear waste and produces electricity into the bargain. It's called an accelerator-driven subcritical nuclear reactor. We should quit chasing the fusion energy phantom and instead focus the research resources on them.

The bottom line? Yes, nuclear energy has problems. There's the proliferation issue, the ecological impact of mining and refining, the nuclear waste problem, the terrorism issue, and so on. These are very real and potentially very nasty problems. However, even with all that, we have 50-odd years of experience with large-scale nuclear power, and the track record is much, much better than that of coal, and pretty good compared to anything else out there.

Weapons-grade nuclear material hasn't made its way from power-generating plants to terrorists. There haven't been successful terror attacks against nuclear plants. There's been exactly one major disaster, but even Chernobyl is small potatoes compared to the constant ongoing disasters related to coal power—for example, the underground fires burning even now, not to mention the mining accidents, coal dust, and other hazards that claim lives all the time. Nuclear power won't save the planet, but it is an improvement over what we have. Our first priority must be to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. Until we have truly sustainable energy sources, nuclear power will have to be a part of that transition.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Zen and the Art of Computer Programming

Asymmetrical Structure in Tension
Asymmetrical Structure in Tension, Berlin, 2010

I work in software development. I'm in a pretty intensive phase right now, working on a whole bunch of new stuff. It messes with my head, not unlike computer games. 

Working with computers is, in a way, the antithesis of Buddhism. While Buddhism is all anatta and sunyatta and paticca-samuppada, computers live in a crystalline world of precise definitions and hard edges. Even the flaws in the crystals almost always turn out to be precise, reproducible, quantifiable, and understandable. Something only exists if it's defined somewhere, right down to the last bit that gets flipped somewhere deep in the bowels of the nested abstractions that I'm working with. Conditions are either true, false, or null. Loops run their course and terminate. Recursive structures walk lattices of logic and either emerge with whatever they were designed to do, or hit bottom. Even the unpredicted, unthought-of situations resolve themselves, as error messages, halts, or occasionally more spectacular misbehaviors. There are no fuzzy edges; everything that exists has a precise, permanent, hard-edged identity. No question of anatta here!

Developing software puts me into compulsive mode. The design problems of constructing those castles of logic don't leave me alone. There are insights into what needs to be done, and insights into how it should be done, and the one feeds into the other. It's alluring and addictive, and tiring, and very hard to let drop. It also gradually wears me down; it sharpens my mind into a hard point where everything else becomes an irritating distraction; it interferes with my sleep patterns; it makes me difficult to be around.

Zen helps. It's almost a lifeline. When I'm sitting, those lattices of logic still spin around and nag at me; my mind is even busier and buzzier than usual, and I don't think I'm actually going anywhere much with my sitting, if indeed there is anywhere to go. When I finish, I feel a little better and more peaceful. 

Zen also helps with the frustration of just not being able to get some stupidly simple thing to work. I still curse at the computer under my breath and sometimes even out loud, but I haven't yet gotten near the kind of screaming, powerless rage of frustration I've sometimes had before with especially stubborn problems. I recognize the frustration and can, perhaps, let it drop a little, or at least not invite it in for tea. 

What I'd like, though, is to find a way to actually practice Zen while programming. It's relatively easy to do that, at least a little, when doing stuff like cooking or cleaning or cycling or walking the dog or even sitting in a meeting, but I haven't found a way to do it when having to engage my discriminating mind full-on with a software design problem. Software and sunyatta don't mix, at least not easily. Maybe some day...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Misunderstanding New Atheists

Magen Avraham Synagogue, Beirut
Magen Avraham Synagogue, Beirut, 2005

Back in the mid to late 1990's, I was active on the Usenet newsgroup alt.atheism. Those were good times. We talked about all kinds of stuff, from ethics and morality to politics, economics, and metaphysics, with the occasional fundamentalist providing enough entertainment to keep things cheerful. Lately, all that stuff has popped up in the mainstream, under the label of New Atheism. Much of what gets said about it appears to be either complete nonsense, or based on significant misunderstandings, or at least confusion between any of a number of concepts.

So who, or what, are we dealing with, exactly, when we talk about New Atheism or New Atheists?

First off, we need to make a few distinctions. Lower-case-A atheism is not the same thing as the loose collection of somewhat like-minded individuals that fall under the New Atheist label. Plain ol' atheism simply denotes a lack of belief or disbelief in a personal god or gods (theos). Any number of people with any number of belief systems are atheists, and any number of conceptual systems, from mathematics to physics, are atheistic as well, even if many people who use them, aren't.

New Atheism isn't a philosophical movement as much as an activist one. It's a reaction to a number of societal problems that revolve around religion in general and some religions in particular. While individual New Atheists can range in philosophical and political views from Objectivists to Marxists, and everything in between, they do share a narrow but identifiable agenda that comes with the identity.

The special privileges of religion should be abolished. We have stuff like state churches and tax exemptions for religious organizations. If you run a business and fire someone because you find out he's gay, you're liable to be sued for discrimination, except if you're a religious group whose religion forbids homosexuality. New Atheists hold that religious organizations should be treated the same way as any other associations or businesses; that religious views should not give you a free pass to do—or avoid—something that you'd otherwise have to deal with.

Religious speech should be treated no differently from other speech. The concept of blasphemy gives religious concepts special protection against criticism or mockery: while it's entirely acceptable to make a no-holds-barred attack, complete with mockery, imprecations, moral opprobrium, and what not on Marxism or libertarianism or Tea-Party-ism or Liberalism, it's not acceptable to make the same kind of attack on religions—at least not some religions. (In the USA, for example, Christianity and Judaism clearly enjoy a more favored status than, say, Islam or Hinduism.)

Public morality, ethics, and laws should be based on reasoned argument. Arguments from authority, tradition, or the bandwagon, or other logical fallacies, should have no place in public speech. Instead, ethics, morality, and laws should be based on open and explicit rational argumentation and debate.

Religious education has no place in schools. If religious matters are taught at all, they should be taught as comparative religion studies, in the context of social sciences or history. Instead, schools should teach children to think rationally, to understand the basics of the scientific, rationalist worldview, and to learn enough skills and knowledge to be able to navigate the masses of information our society is bombarded with.

And that's about it, really. Individual New Atheists will hold a huge variety of different views on any number of other political issues, but this is about as far as any shared agenda goes—a frontal attack on the special position of religion in society and thought. New Atheism doesn't really make any claims about the nature of the Universe; the theory of evolution doesn't have any special place in its conceptual apparatus, other than being talked about a lot because religious fundamentalists, especially in the USA, try to stop schools from teaching it. Individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas on these topics, but they won't always agree on them. What they have in common is a shared perception of what needs doing vis à vis religion. New Atheism isn't a philosophy; it's an in-your-face attitude about religion and believers. Back on alt.atheism, we called it BAAWA—Bad Ass Atheists With Attitude.

Incidentally, I'll gladly support any of these causes.

However, things get a little bit more thorny once you delve below this activist surface, to find out what kinds of values drive the agenda. They also get a lot more complicated, because things start to diverge quickly between individual New Atheists. Nevertheless, I think we can identify a few ideas that most New Atheists would probably agree that they support.

Religion today is a net negative. While most New Atheists will admit that religions have resulted in good things as well as bad ones, either as relative improvements to the social situation where they arose (e.g. the way Islam gave women legal status as individuals, such as the right to own and dispose of property), or as enduring cultural artifacts (e.g. the religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach), they argue that in today's world they are holding back society (e.g. the way Islam defines a woman's property rights as half a man's).

"Moderate" believers are enablers for dangerous fanatics. By providing cover to religious irrationalism, nonfundamentalist Christians or Muslims are complicit in the offenses of fundamentalists, whether we're talking about gay-bashing televangelists or suicide-bombing Al Qaeda terrorists.

Religion is nothing more or less than a set of (flawed) propositions and behaviors accepted on faith. These propositions include statements about the nature of the universe, ethical imperatives, values, and rituals. The physical and metaphysical claims have been superseded by scientific discoveries, the ethical imperatives and values are based on nothing but irrational belief in authority, and the rituals are merely "mind viruses" set up to replicate themselves.

People are, or should be, fundamentally rational. People behave irrationally because of the irrational values and behavior patterns transmitted to them by society, in particular by religions. Should these pernicious influences be removed, people will naturally start to behave rationally, and most of society's woes will go away. If a problem cannot be solved by reason, it is insoluble.

The world ends at Wittgenstein 7. If something can't be defined or verified, it's as good as non-existent and therefore not worth talking about.

This is where I part ways with New Atheists. Human reason is powerful, but it's not unlimited. Conceptualized thinking—"discriminating thought" in Buddhist terms—by definition excludes direct experience. We can talk about the color red all we want, but ultimately we have no way of knowing whether your experience of red is anything like my experience of red. Just because something isn't tractable by reason doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or isn't important; in fact, I believe that the things that really matter fall in this category. For them, we leave the realm of reason, and enter the realm of music, poetry, art—and religion. While individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas about music, they'll no longer have these ideas qua New Atheists. With that stuff, they become just another guy with an opinion.

Moderate believers aren't mere enablers for fanatics; they're our best hope for keeping the fanatics from taking over. As the world becomes more globalized, there won't be such a thing as a religious majority. That means that the best way for any believer to protect her freedom to practice her religion is a society that doesn't take sides among religions. A secular state is in everybody's best interest, except the fanatics'. By explicitly alienating their biggest potential ally in the struggle for such a state, New Atheists are doing their cause a huge disservice.

The tragic irony of New Atheism is that while they start out with an entirely laudable goal—that of putting religion on the same footing as any other human activity—they so often overshoot it. They fall into exactly the same trap as the one they're trying to dismantle, and end up treating religion not like football or opera or Lady Gaga or libertarianism, but as something altogether different. The only difference is that they treat it as different and nastier, while the status quo treats it as different and better. I don't think religion is fundamentally any different from any of the other stuff we do. It's all just stuff, and it all has its flip side. Football is great for keeping fit, making friends, and being entertained and excited, but it also gives you hooligans, fixed games, corrupt gambling, and what have you. Religion can be deeply meaningful in ways that go beyond words, or it can lead you to throwing rocks, or worse, at people who believe differently. 

They don't quite get what religion is, or can be, either. That's probably because so many of them either have had no deep personal contact with a living religion, or they hail from a fundamentalist background that really does match their caricature of Bible-thumping, hellfire-throwing, obscurantist fanaticism. Shame, really.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Serious Cyclists

And Yet Somebody Loves Me
And Yet Somebody Loves Me, Helsinki, 2007

There are a few ways you can know that winter is gone, up here in the North. Two of the certain ones are the annual rantings about dog poo and cyclists. The dog poo is revealed when the snow melts, and the cyclists appear once the dog poo has washed off.

Cycling in Helsinki is a bit... interesting. In fact, it's sometimes uncannily close to pure chaos. That leads to hate all around: pedestrians hating cyclists for cycling on sidewalks, drivers hating cyclists for cycling on the streets, cyclists hating pedestrians for getting in the way and drivers for trying to run them over, or off the street, and everybody hating the street planners who made the mess in the first place.

From where I'm at, the problem is pedestrians who don't take cycling seriously, drivers who don't take cycling seriously, street planners who don't take cycling seriously, and cyclists who don't take cycling seriously. 

Pedestrians who don't take cycling seriously consider bike lanes just extensions of sidewalks. They cheerfully walk on them, stop on them to talk, and cross them without looking if anyone's barreling down it toward them at breakneck speed. Drivers consider bike lanes extra parking or stopping space, and consider a cyclist on the street a public enemy and criminal, and will honk at them, overtake them at a very close distance, or worse. Street planners will put cycling lanes in combination with busy sidewalks with no partitions, or at the edge of the street between the main traffic and the row of parked cars, where anyone getting out of a car will have to open their door blocking the lane, or will introduce sudden breaks or loops or switching sides or just omitted signage from them.

Cyclists who don't take cycling seriously fall into two groups: sheep and wolves. Sheep are often a bit uncertain in cycling technique, don't know or don't care about the rules of the road and will, for example, yield in unpredictable directions, will cycle on sidewalks, will ride side-by-side hogging the entire road, and so on. Wolves are hard-riding lone heroes who treat the city as a parkour course, weaving among pedestrians, cars, obstacles, and other cyclists with masterful technique, breakneck speed, and considerable danger to themselves and others.

What all of these groups have in common is that they consider cyclists to be, essentially, pedestrians on wheels. They aren't. A bike is faster in the city than a car, and getting hit by one going full tilt can kill you. A cyclist has more in common with a driver than a pedestrian, and they should be treated accordingly—with both rights and responsibilities that go with the status.

The police have recently introduced bike patrols. These are cops who patrol on bikes, doing what beat cops do, but keeping a particular eye on cyclists. They've handed out hundreds of tickets to wolves and sheep already. That, in my opinion, is a good thing. However, it's not enough: the pedestrians, drivers, and street planners need to change their behavior too, not just cyclists.

In my opinion, the heaviest responsibility lies on street planners. Anyone who gets around Helsinki by bike more than occasionally will plainly see that there's no coherent vision about how cyclists should navigate the city. There's a quite a lot of bike lanes, but they're chaotic and random. They suddenly stop after an intersection without so much as a traffic sign indicating that the bike lane stopped and the cyclist should now move onto the street. The worst ones are like the ones on Bulevardi, where they hug the parked cars so closely that it's simply not possible to use them safely—anyone getting out of the car who didn't check his mirror beforehand will suddenly open the door right in the cyclist's face, and people getting from the tram stop to the tram will have to cross the bike lane en masse. A very common if less bad feature is a zebra crossing that has the marker for the cycling lane, with no cycling lane at the other end, plunking the cyclist right in the middle of pedestrians with no way of knowing whether it's a sidewalk, a combined lane, or what.

Cycling is a great way to get around town, at least when it's not knee-deep in wet snow. A bike is fast and nimble, takes up little space, emits no pollution, and keeps the individual on it fit. It's also a really good way to see the city. However, if we want to really make it work, we need to take lessons from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Stockholm. To start with, we can import their approach to cycling infrastructure, and then get started on the culture that goes with it. With a bit of respect all around, I'm sure we can slowly wind down the state of war between cyclists and others.

In fact, this is already happening. While it's still chaos, it's not quite as chaotic as it was ten years ago. Most pedestrians do look where they're going and keep clear of the cycling lanes, most cyclists do follow the rules of the road and don't go weaving among pedestrians, and most drivers do treat cyclists like regular vehicles in traffic, and many—if not yet most—cycling lanes are perfectly functional. We only need to deal with the still relatively large and extremely visible minorities in each of these groups, and to iron out the kinks in the infrastructure. In another decade, Helsinki can be the cycling-friendly city it likes to think it is.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gypsy Thieves

Fair Trade
Fair Trade, Helsinki, 2003

With the sunshine and the heat, the Roma of South-Eastern Europe are with us again, begging on their knees on the streets of Helsinki. This intrusion of abject misery into our Northern welfare state has disturbed many. When they first started arriving a few years ago, after Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU, they made pretty good money—Finns aren't used to seeing really dirt-poor people begging, and many of us have softer hearts than it appears from the outside.

Eventually, it turned out that some of the begging was professionally organized, with higher-ups busing in the beggars, supplying them with tents, pans, blankets, and even crutches and other stuff to make them look even more miserable, and, of course, siphoning off most of the money they made. Some of the beggars—or people who came with them—turned to petty larceny; pickpocketing became a regular occurrence rather than an exotic rarity, some were caught shoplifting or breaking and entering, and we encountered people first pushing flowers on us and then demanding money in somewhat aggressive ways.

Last year, one bunch figured out a loophole in our legal system: they discovered that if they showed up and applied for political asylum, they would be provided with housing and pocket money until the applications were processed (and denied; we don't grant political asylum to citizens of EU countries), which took as much as a few months.

Things went downhill fast from there. I hear that most of them now make no more than 5-10 euros per day begging (although I'll be damned if I can imagine how the journalist who quoted that figure verified it), while supplementing that by collecting bottles and returning them to shops. They've also been yelled at, spat on, and had their begging bowls kicked over.

We have a problem.

The problem isn't that we have a few dozen—or even a few hundred—Roma beggars (and pickpockets) working the streets of Helsinki. That's a minor inconvenience. The problem is that supposedly the most advanced part of the world—and not just materially—has a million people stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. That's not just a problem. It's an outrage.

The Roma are the most unfortunate ethnic group in Europe. Most European countries have at least a small minority. They've been here for at least 500 years, and have had to deal with institutionalized racism that's as bad as anything any other group has ever encountered throughout most of that time. Hitler tried to wipe them out along with the Jews, gays, and Communists (and the didn't get any compensation for that, to speak of). A few hundred years ago, many cities had ordinances that had Gypsies hanged without trial if they entered city limits.

Things have not improved a great deal, and in many countries, they've gotten worse. Industrialization killed their traditional forms of livelihood as migrant agricultural labor, horse-traders, and artisans, without diluting the racism they face should they try to work in more conventional jobs or doing much at all to give them the infrastructure and access to education that mainstream society enjoys.

The upshot is that the Roma—especially so in Southern Europe, but also, although to a somewhat lesser extent, in the rich and supposedly egalitarian North—are locked in a vicious circle of deprivation and misery. In the Balkans, they have lousy schools or no schools at all, lack of basic civil infrastructure, the police can beat them up or burn down their camps with impunity, and the prejudice they face makes it as good as impossible for them to enter the mainstream, should they even try. It's hardly surprising that most of them don't, and instead many stick to honing survival strategies on the basis of "whatever works."

So here they are, on our streets, rather than Bucharest's. It's kinda telling that a fair bunch preferred to stay here during last winter, which was cold and snowy, rather than going back there.

What to do about it?

First off, let's get a few things straight.

I have no time for any approach that only intends to get them off the streets of Helsinki. There are initiatives to ban street begging here. The Roma have been hit with similar restrictions, sometimes overt, sometimes indirect, usually informal—rules that only get enforced if you look Roma. They don't work, and they're wrong. Anything we do has got to address the structural problems the Roma face. If fewer of them turn to begging and larceny and we get inconvenienced less, that's a side benefit.

Only the Roma themselves can break the cycle of misery that brings them here. It would be naive, not to mention paternalistic, to pretend that we, or anyone else, can somehow magically fix things for them.

Yes, it's our problem too. We admitted their home countries into the EU, and we had full knowledge of the way they treat the Roma. Now we're dealing with the consequences of that choice. Some of these consequences we'll like. Others not so much. We can't just pick the raisins out of the bun. Romania's problems are now our problems too.

While we can't solve the problems of the Roma for the Roma, we can—and should—do something about the conditions that make the problems as good as impossible to solve.

However, these kinds of problems are very tricky to address. It's very easy to err on the side of idiot compassion on the one hand, or viciousness on the other. I don't think it's a great idea to give the  beggars money; that will only maintain the structures that keep them begging, and there's a good chance that the money won't even go to them. Nor do I think that we should give the ones who turn to petty crime or exploitation of our social security system a free pass on the grounds that they're miserable and deprived. Nor do I think that we should expect any immediate results from whatever it is we do; problems that take 500 years to develop won't get solved overnight. Whatever anyone does, it'll take a long time to sort itself out. Those Roma beggars will be with us for the duration, and all of us will just have to deal with them. Perhaps we can use a little reminder that not everyone has it as good as we do.

There are some things that I think we ought to try, though. Some of them look like sticks, others look like carrots. I think we'll need both, and neither will work quickly, if at all.

Put serious pressure on their countries of origin to address the institutionalized racism the Roma have to face. We may have admitted them, but they submitted the application, and we should take human rights very seriously. If Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the rest want to be EU members, they'll have to treat their minorities fairly, whether they want to or not. The EU has a quite a bit of power, if it only wants to use it.  If we don't want to use it for something like this, then what is it there for? Bailing out banks?

Divert some EU funds for a Roma infrastructure bank. Say, we could take just a tiny slice of our agricultural subsidies—or a big slice, as far as I'm concerned—and use that money to fund basic infrastructure—both physical and immaterial—in Roma towns and villages in the EU. We're talking pretty simple stuff here: roads, plumbing, electricity, streetlights, healthcare, phones and other communication networks, Internet access, libraries, schools, teachers, and so on and so forth. And no, we shouldn't expect quick results. In fact, I'd expect that much of the infrastructure will get wrecked as soon as it gets built, that there will be problems maintaining it, and so on and so forth, but I also believe that if we just keep rebuilding it, eventually it'll stay up. There will be people in those villages who want to see improvements like this. If it starts happening and keeps happening, they will gain in influence, and mores will slowly change.

Create employment opportunities. As far as jobs go, street begging or collecting bottles has got to be one of the worst ones out there. Surely we can think of something better for them to do. Many of the Roma beggars interviewed in our media have said that they're looking for work. Of course, that's what they would say to a nosy interviewer, but I'm prepared to take them at their word. There's plenty of stuff that needs doing here, and that wouldn't be all that expensive to do—cleaning parks, shoveling snow, cutting brush by the roadsides, picking mushrooms, and so on and so forth. I would not do this as "positive discrimination"—the jobs would have to be open to anyone willing to do them. However, I don't see any problem with marketing them specifically to the Roma who show up here. Some of the money for this could come from the EU fund above; some we should provide from our own pockets—dealing with consequences, again. I know, this would have all kinds of knock-on effects, but I'm quite sure it would hurt Finns less than it would help Roma, which would make it a net positive.

Work with them, both here and there. We have to get boots on the ground. We have to talk with them, get to know them, to figure out what might work and what probably won't.

Stick with it. This will take time. We're talking generations. Some improvements will be visible relatively quickly, but real structural change is slow, unless it's a collapse—and the Roma have nowhere to collapse to.

And yes, we should fix our own society as well. While their situation is nowhere near as hopeless as their consanguinaries in the Balkans, the Roma in Finland experience discrimination and racism too—certainly more so than, say, blacks in the USA. The one option we don't have is just keeping on with business as usual—not for any compelling political or economic or social reason, but for a moral one. The way we're treating the Roma is wrong. We must change that, and stick with it, no matter how long it takes for things to change.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Wishlist for Diaspora

Fading Mural
Fading Mural, Dresden, 2010

Facebook has lost some of its glow recently, largely due to the way it's played fast and loose with its privacy policy. A few enterprising computer science students decided to do something about it, and started a project called Diaspora. They intend to challenge Facebook with it. There's clearly demand for it, since they got together their seed money by just making a call on the Net—in twelve days, they had about a hundred and fifty large, which is enough to get started with.

I'm very interested to see where they're going. I don't think it would be impossible to mount a serious challenge to Facebook's dominance, especially if you're doing it as an open-source project. However, it's not enough just to be "not evil;" you also have to be good—and not just in the ethical sense.

Facebook's central political choice is one person—one identity. That, in my opinion, is a fatal flaw. We don't have just one identity. We have many. I do not relate to my wife the same way I relate to my boss, my sister, my friends, or my Zen group. If I can't make a distinction between them, I'm forced to only connect with all of them at the lowest common denominator—I can only share with any of them what I would share with all of them.

Diaspora should do the opposite. Instead of trying to out-Facebook Facebook, it should try to become an identity manager—something that lets you use the other tools out there on the Web, including Facebook, in a fine-grained way, so that you can easily control what you share with whom.

Here's how I'd like it to work.

First, I'd like a very easy-to-expand pool called "contacts." This would be analogous to Facebook's "friends"—it's just a connection that both connecting parties accept.

Second, I'd like to be able to easily sort my pool of contacts in to "channels." So, I could have, for example, "everybody," "intimates," "Zazen friends," "blogosphere," "business," "family," and "friends." I should be able to flag each of my contacts as belonging to one or more of these channels.

Third, I'd like to be able to register my various on-line identities to Diaspora, so that it would know, for example, that I have a Facebook account, a Flickr account, a LinkedIn account, and a number of email addresses. Then, I would be able to connect these channels to the various other social networking tools out there. So, for example, I could connect the "everybody" channel to Facebook, the "business" channel to LinkedIn, and "intimates" to email. Diaspora itself would naturally be one channel among the others.

I, and only I, would control this part of the transaction. My contacts would have no say over which channels I choose to talk to them. They would not even know what channels I have, other than the ones that they're seeing.

Now, when I wanted to publish something—a status update, a picture, whatever—I would pick the channel or channels to which I'm publishing it. My contacts would only see the update if I've flagged them with one of those channels.

Naturally, I would also want to control what I see from my contacts. Therefore, the events being published to my contacts, and read from these other services, would contain metadata that would let me do some filtering. So, for example, if one of my contacts spammed me with Limited Offer Act Now! over his "business" channel, but sent some highly interesting stuff over his "blogosphere" channel, I could block his "business" channel but keep his "blogosphere" one. The same goes for stuff read from Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or whatever—I would still want to be able to block that incredibly annoying Mafia Wars and Farmville noise.

The technical ideas behind Diaspora seem solid enough. It will, however, stand or fall based on what it does. Facebook as a pretty huge head start at what it is. Diaspora shouldn't try to attack it face on. Instead, it should do what Facebook doesn't, and then gradually siphon away its users by serving us better—by letting us keep our different faces for different situations, and let us control what we share, with whom, and how.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Discipline in and out of practice

Remains of the Wall
Remains of the Wall, Berlin, 2010

During the break on yesterday's zazenkai, we did what we usually do—talked trash about other, altogether inferior Buddhist groups and traditions.1 (Nope, our zazenkais aren't—usually—wholly silent, unlike our retreats; there is conversation during the two tea breaks we have over the day.)

Well, sorta. A couple of the people there had experimented with a whole variety of groups and traditions before settling on this one. One of the people there had tried pretty much all of 'em, up to and including some Vipassana retreats that make our sesshins look like the Club Med. Others had practiced with Thich Nath Hanh's outfit, or the FWBO, or the Tibetans. (There are two groups active in Finland, but they can't stand each other, so neither participates in the rather new pan-Buddhist thingies some people here are trying to start. Dorje Shugden, natch.)

One observation that came up in that discussion particularly struck me. These folks said that the atmosphere in our group differs significantly from the others in one particular way. Namely, we have a very disciplined formal practice, bells, incense, ban on adjusting position, and what have you, but we behave, for want of a better word, much more "normally" when not practicing. Those chats over tea range over all kinds of topics, from ice hockey to politics, dharma to travel stories; in fact, they're pretty much the kind of chatter you'd be likely to hear from any group that likes to get together over beer or coffee somewhere. There's a wide range of opinion aired there, too. I pick up a sense of camaraderie, but not a sense of hierarchy or strong social mores that we're expected to stick to. We're a pretty diverse bunch in most ways, really, for Finland anyway.

The folks who had some dealings with those altogether inferior traditions said that the atmosphere in them is quite different in this respect. That, for example, the FWBO folks always smile benignly at you and look you deep in the eyes; the Thich Nath Hanh folks give you a hug when you walk in the door; the Tibetans openly revere their teachers, that sort of thing. Each of the sanghas had a pretty strict mold to which they expected the members to conform. They also said that the practice with them is much less rigid or disciplined; that many of the people there are downright scared of the "military" discipline of our group.

So, compared to our group, they have a stricter code of behavior outside formal practice, and a more relaxed code of conduct in formal practice. One of the instructors surmised that maybe this isn't entirely coincidental: that we draw a clear line around the formal practice, which makes people feel freer outside it. He also added that that's just how he likes it (and added that as far as he's concerned, people should feel entirely free to talk trash about Zen or the Buddha or Dogen or whoever at the zendo over tea, as long as they sit still after the bell rings.)

I wonder if there's something to this: does a stricter formal practice foster less conformism, and vice versa? If so, what are the upsides and downsides?

Personally, I don't think I'd last very long with a group that had strong social pressure to smile benignly at everybody and make sure to look them deep in the eyes, or give hugs all around all the time. That, however, could very well represent a failing of mine. I especially like the feeling that everyone's welcome, and they're welcome to be who they are, without trying to conform to a mold of behavior.

On the other hand: the whole idea of Zen practice is that you don't leave it at the zendo; that you do it everywhere and all the time, ultimately. Does our way of drawing a line around formal practice build an obstacle to that?

1Joke! Joke!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hot Times, Zazen in the City...

May Heat
May Heat, Helsinki, 2010

We went straight from March to June on Friday. Before, about five degrees C. Now, about twenty-five. Feels like taking a plane to the Costa del Sol, or something.

Today was another zazenkai. The window was open much of the time, because of the heat, and I could feel the city outside. Somebody was playing the Finnish national anthem. People talking animatedly as they walk by. A motorcyclist revving his machine. A low-flying jet. A tram going "ding-ding-ding" to get people to get out of the way. Birds singing. Something that sounded like a patter of raindrops on a tin roof, but wasn't, because it wasn't raining. The fresh air from the window waging single combat with the piny scent of incense.

And that's pretty much it. Not too well attended, this zazenkai; we were less than ten people. Probably people felt like sitting in the sun instead. Given how few days like this we get, I can't say I blame them.

It was good, and I feel much more together again. Strange stuff, this Zen thing.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Zazen Technique

Barouk Cedars
Barouk Cedars, Lebanon, 2003

Pretty soon, it'll be about a year since I started to do zazen. I've had some instruction on how it's done, and I've read a quite a bit more, on-line and off. I'm still not much good at it.

Everybody's favorite posture Nazi, Brad Warner, said that zazen is just like yoga, except you only have one asana and hold it for fucking ever. Even if I think he may be a bit too categorical about it, there's certainly something to that.

When I started out, my legs were awfully stiff -- a consequence of not stretching for 38 years, while using them a fair bit for stuff like cycling, walking, and running. When I sat cross-legged, my knees were maybe 20, 25 cm from the floor, no lie. I've gradually been coaxing them down, and am still making constant, if slow progress.

For the past month or so, I've been doing my daily sitting in quarter-lotus without needing any support cushions, and it's just a hair easier every time. I've even managed to twist my legs into an approximation of half-lotus once or twice, but I'm still a long way from being able to do zazen that way. In another six months, perhaps...

But damn, is it complicated. It takes me about five minutes to settle into a posture. As I'm still gaining flexibility, the position of my hips is a bit different every time, which changes the position of my spine. Even tiny changes of less than a centimeter in the hips or knees can make for pretty big differences in the position of the spine, and it feels different. That means that every time, I'm sort of starting over, looking for the right way to position my back.

For a while, I think, I tried to sit up too straight, which tightened my lower back muscles until they tired, and I slumped, which caused me to sort of constantly adjust my back. For the past few days, I've been consciously relaxing a bit from that position, while trying my best not to let the relaxation go further into a slouch. That seems to be working: I move around less, and my thoughts settle better, too.

At the zendo, I alternate between seiza and quarter-lotus or Burmese; there, it's even more complicated because I never get the same zafu twice, which means playing around with support cushions and still not getting quite the same position as at home.

How hard can it be to sit still facing a wall? Pretty hard, it seems.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Leaving Facebook?

Profile Picture
Facebook Profile Picture for May 1, 2010

I haven't been on Facebook all that long, nor am I all that active on it. I do check my stream every once in a while, and update my status perhaps every week or so. Still, it has been fun to connect – on a very superficial way – with old classmates and such. Leaving Facebook would not be a huge personal hardship, unlike for people who really have built a space for themselves there.

That's why I'm seriously considering it.

Big corporations aren't perfect. Business is competitive, and competing exclusively by being nice and doing the right thing is a difficult ideal. If you succeed, you get a great deal of power, and, as the old saw has it, power corrupts. Yet there are degrees of corruption. There is a difference between, say, a tobacco company and a company that makes fair trade and sustainable production a part of its brand. The direction Facebook has been taking in the recent past has been towards the former.

I don't feel comfortable supporting a company that acts the way Facebook is acting. Many of my recent status updates have been links critical of Facebook. Yet the more I read and think about it, the more unhappy I feel about being there. Yet I do like the idea of being findable on the Net, and being able to connect with people I know. Up to now, I've salved my conscience by making noise on Facebook about my concerns, with the pious hope that it'll do a tiny bit to put pressure on them to reform. I'm a big believer in reforming systems from the inside whenever it's possible; abandoning them or fighting them is often just an abdication of responsibility.

But if there's a viable alternative to Facebook that's significantly more scrupulous ethically, I'd like to know about it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mysterious Island

Miniature Landscape 1
Miniature Landscape 1, Bengtskär, 2008

I just revisited a childhood favorite: Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island. Being a little nerd, I remember being fascinated by the detailed explanations of brick-making, pottery, smelting, forging, shipbuilding, nitroglycerine-brewing, demolitions, and what have you. I think that's what made the book so special for me, above and beyond the other Robinsonades that I read.

Re-reading it was also very interesting, but for rather different reasons. The unspoken attitudes and values that I never thought to question as an eight-year-old now came through loud and clear.

On the surface level, there's Verne's famously unshakeable faith in science, technology, and human determination: the overarching didactic message of the book is that there is no obstacle over which Cyrus Smith the Engineer couldn't triumph (except perhaps a volcanic eruption that wipes out the ground on which he stands, although mysteriously leaving him unharmed).

I think Verne must have been something of a progressive at his time. His adulation of American democracy and her pioneer spirit, the inclusion of Neb the Negro among the colonists of Lincoln Island, the sympathetic light in which he portrays Captain Nemo's struggle against the British all put him politically pretty far outside the European mainstream, although probably more in tune with the French.

On the other hand, despite having his intelligence vaunted on multiple occasions, all Neb gets to do is cook and demonstrate his loyalty to his master, Cyrus; there's a casual comparison of the facial angles of a Lincoln Island monkey with those of Australian aborigines, and Captain Nemo's quarrel with the British is presented in purely nationalistic terms and, of course, as ultimately futile, since he attempted to stand in the way of the inexorable march of Progress. Verne's racism is accepted as a matter of course; it's clear that it would not have occurred to him to question it any more than to question the theory that the Sun generally rises in the East.

The most strikingly barbaric attitude in Verne's book is about nature. It is simply a resource to be exploited and "tamed" -- the jaguars and tigers must be exterminated; native species displaced in favor of imported, more productive ones; coal mined and burned; iron smelted; forests felled; animals killed in ever-more inventive (and cruel) ways. It would be quite possible to rewrite Verne's book as a story of a band of Tolkien's Orcs landing on a beautiful, pristine desert island, and proceeding to promptly turn it into a smoking waste of mills, mines, and quarries.

When I first read the book some thirty years ago, I did not question any of these attitudes. Then again, I was seven, eight, or nine years old. However, I don't remember anyone else questioning them either. There was a TV series made from the book that I watched around then, too. My grandfather's attitude to nature and Negroes was certainly not unlike that in The Mysterious Island.

Times have changed. I doubt that even the most ardent drill-baby-drill advocates are entirely unconcerned about the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – even they admit in principle that nature is something that's worth preserving. And certainly Verne's overt racism is beyond the pale, even if it's moved partly into the covert realm.

I'm pretty sure that a hundred-odd years from now, many of our attitudes will seem as barbaric as Verne's racism, casual cruelty to animals, or entirely exploitative attitude to nature. I'm also sure that it's as hard for us to see what those attitudes are as it was for Verne – he would've been genuinely surprised at the way we think about race or nature, even if we're a long, long way from actually solving any of the problems we've recognized.

Nevertheless, I'll venture a guess. It's not like I'll be here to be laughed at anyway.

One thing that we take for granted almost continually is this: more is always better. A 10-megabit Internet connection is better than a 2-megabit one. A latest-generation MacBook Pro is better than the previous-generation one. A 100-square-meter apartment is better than an 80-square-meter one. A salary of five grand a month is better than a salary of four grand a month. And because these things are better, we want them and strive for them. If we ever pause to consider if these things actually make us any happier, beyond the brief flush of pleasure we get from acquiring them, it almost never goes beyond pious platitudes about the emptiness of consumerism.

If I had to take a guess at what people will shake their heads in disbelief at, a hundred years from now, that's where I'd put my money.