Friday, April 27, 2007

Rise of the Robot Pets

"We understand that potential parrot owners are attracted by their beauty, their ability to intelligently interact with humans, and the attraction of owning an exotic pet... But when their physical and emotional needs are taken into account, a parrot can be as high-maintenance as a small child. The fact is that parrots have the social and intellectual development of a 2 to 5 year old child.

"Imagine such a child: He screams unimaginably loudly at dawn and dusk (and all times in between), chews the furniture and drapes, is unbelievably messy, constantly demands your attention, and engages in projectile pooping! But unlike a human, the parrot will remain this way for 80 years!

"It often gets worse as they get older. Upon reaching sexual maturity, a loving, cuddly young parrot may become aggressive... Remember, parrots are not domesticated creatures. They are only 1 to 2 generations removed from their natural habitat, and cannot be trained out of their natural instincts of screaming, chewing everything, and being messy.

"Because many people who purchase birds are ill-prepared for such a long, intensive commitment, parrots are often the subjects of abuse and neglect... No wonder the parrot becomes mean, depressed, or insane as a result...

"Please consider this information before deciding to own a parrot. The birds of Garuda Aviary represent a small fraction of the thousands of abused, neglected or unwanted birds."

--Garuda Aviary / Sanctuary for Birds

Kill the Buddha

"Whether you are facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go."

--Linji, in The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi lu by I-Hsuan, translated by Burton Watson

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Difference Half a Year Makes

This article from a year ago contrasts completely with the article from six months ago ("The Sumo authorities appreciate the excitement and ticket sales that foreign wrestlers generate."):

"Ticket sales are dropping as sumo stars like Bulgaria's Kotooshu and Mongolia's Asashoryu shove contenders from Japan out of the spotlight...

"Ticket sales have been declining, it is becoming harder for sumo to find young recruits and TV ratings have fallen significantly compared with a decade or so ago, when Japanese were still more of a factor in the six annual tournaments."

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Problem of Other Minds

“The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own. It is one of the hallowed, if unfashionable, problems in philosophy. Various solutions to the problem are on offer. It is noteworthy that so many are on offer. Even more noteworthy is that none of the solutions on offer can plausibly lay claim to enjoying majority support.”

—Alec Hyslop, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Der Philosoph

The Philosopher
1606-1669 Dutch


“Gloomy saints who abstained from all pleasures of sense, who lived in solitude in the desert, denying themselves meat and wine and the society of women, were, nevertheless, not obliged to abstain from all pleasures. The pleasures of the mind were considered to be superior to those of the body...”

—Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Front Cover of The Steppe

The Steppe

Crossing Mongolia on horseback one summer, Rad encounters a man who lives alone upon the steppe. Known to the nomads as “Buddha” but calling himself “Baatar,” the man lives without a horse, a ger, or a herd of sheep, but with a large, mysterious sword that may once have belonged to Genghis Khan. He claims to survive by hunting and eating monstrous, nocturnal “creatures” of the steppe.

As Rad questions Baatar, seeking the truth, he becomes drawn into the man’s strange reality. Soon, Rad realizes that he, like Baatar, may never wish to leave the steppe, nor be able to.

The Steppe imparts a horrifying, challenging truth—that except for your knowledge that you exist now, you do know nothing, and you can know nothing.

Quotations from The Steppe

“I do not know and cannot know what is out there, nor whether anything is out there at all.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“We are in Mongolia.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“You have turned your back on all the world.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“The creatures are as real as the steppe.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“Why would they want to kill you?”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“I have memories of drinking the blood of the creatures, and I anticipate doing so again.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“Behind me I see distant, dark movement. Other shapes to the north, others to the south. They are coming in at different angles, coming in from all directions.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“What you might believe has no bearing upon my ukhaan.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“I do not know, and I cannot know.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

“Maybe he eats grass.”
The Steppe by Radigan Neuhalfen

Chapter One of The Steppe

The steppe is like the sea. When you are out upon it, it and the sky are all you can see. It is as wide as it is long; it forms a far horizon in every direction.

I crested the small hill with my two horses—riding the one and leading the other as a packhorse—halted, and looked down into the shallow, narrow valley and at the ger at the nadir of it. The day was ending, and shadows were filling the valley.

I rode to the ger. Inside, the approach of the horses must have been heard. The colorful—blue and orange, with wide vertical stripes of red and yellow—short wooden door swung open, and an old man bent through the jamb and stepped out. I raised my hand in greeting as I rode up, and called out, “Sain baina uu?” Are things well?

“Things are well,” he said. Sain, sain.

I drew the horses to a halt and climbed slowly out of the saddle, my knees sore from riding. I tied the leads of the horses to the zel, a rope strung two meters off the ground between two poles, set up beside the ger. Two other horses were tethered to the zel, one of which was saddled.

As I walked to the old man, I reached into the front flap of my deel, found my tobacco bottle, pulled it out, and unwrapped it from its cloth bunting. I offered it to him. He reached out his right hand to accept it, and suddenly grinned. Closer to one another now, he could see my facial features clearly. He accepted the tobacco bottle, pulled the cap open just a bit, held it to his nose, and sniffed.

He pushed the cap almost closed and handed the bottle back to me, asking, “Where are you from?”

“From Ulaanbaatar,” I answered, holding the bottle in my hand without re-wrapping it.

He grinned again. “Ti russki?” he asked, in Russian. Are you Russian?

“No, no—I am American,” I said, in Mongolian.

His grin was large and cheerful. He turned to the door, opened it, ducked down, and went through. I bent down and followed, even as he turned slightly to wave his hand at me and say, “Come in, come in.”

As I pulled the door shut and straightened up inside the ger, the old man was saying laughingly to the women inside, “Look! It is another American.”

An old woman and a young woman were at the stove. They had both looked up from their cooking, their faces blank, their mouths hanging open. I spoke quickly. “Things are well? Are your animals fattening up well?”

They both grinned, and the young woman said, “Very well, very well.”

There were no other men in the ger, so I tightened the cap on my tobacco bottle, wrapped it, and tucked it into my deel.

I walked around the women at the stove, between them and the saddle rack against the wall, and sat on the short stool at the left side of the low, orange table. The old man had seated himself at the top of the table and had found his tobacco bottle. He proffered it to me, still grinning.

I took it with my right hand, touching my right arm at the elbow with my left hand. I opened the cap slightly, sniffed, then replaced the cap loosely and handed it back to him.

“You speak Mongolian well,” the old man said, pushing the bottle into his deel.

“Thank you. It is a beautiful language.”

They all three laughed. “If you say so,” the young woman said. Then she spoke to the old woman, and they began chatting between themselves.

“What is your name?” the old man said through his smile.

“Radnaa,” I said.

“That is a Mongolian name!”


“What is your original name?”

I told him. “Eh?” he said, bending his head down and leaning his ear closer to me.

“Call me Radnaa.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, grinning. “That is actually a Tibetan name.”


“Where did you get it?”

“A friend gave it to me in Ulaanbaatar.”

“That is good, that is good,” the old man said, nodding his head in approval.

“He told me that many Mongolians have Tibetan names.”

“It is true! We are very connected to Tibet. We are both Buddhist countries.” He asked, “Are you Buddhist?”

“More or less,” I said.

He laughed. Then he leaned closer to me, conspiratorially, and said, “Me too!”

He had poured two glasses of vodka and set the bottle in the center of the table. He handed one glass to me, then picked up the other glass from the table, raised it, and said in Russian, “To health!”

I raised my glass and said, also in Russian, “To Lenin!”

He laughed. “Yes, to Lenin, to Lenin!” We drank the shots and set the glasses on the table. He immediately refilled them.

For a moment, the ger was silent.

“So who is this other American?” I asked...

The Steppe #5

The only thing that exists is the sea, and a barque as tiny as a man’s body, with Mind as captain.

—Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

The Steppe #4

That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment...

—Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

The Steppe #3

A man is born in a ger but will die fighting in the steppe.

—B.Rinchen, Lady Anu

The Steppe #2

Honey has, on the limited occasions we have tasted it, been sweet, but whether it is sweet we do not know. We certainly do not know if it is the nature of honey to be sweet...

—Guy Davenport, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon

The Steppe #1

I am, I exist.

—Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Steppe: Ulaanbaatar Playground

Children's Playground, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Descartes in Ulaanbaatar

All winter, I walked passed three copies of this portrait of Descartes taped to a sign for a photo shop on the sidewalk on Peace Avenue. I often wondered how many people on the streets of Ulaanbaatar recognized the founder of modern Western philosophy.


Knowledge Advances

“Ever since Thomas Jefferson began collecting Native American artifacts and displaying them in his foyer, many theories have been proposed to explain how people first came to North and South America. The most widely accepted was the Clovis-first theory, named for the elegant, fluted spear points found in association with the remains of mammoths, bison and other animals near Clovis, New Mexico, in 1932...

“In the 1960s and early 1970s the ecologist Paul S. Martin and the geoarchaeologist C. Vance Haynes Jr., together with James E. Mossiman, began to develop a dramatic theory about how the Americas were settled. They hypothesized that about 11,500 years ago, at the end of the most recent Ice Age, a single band of mammoth hunters from Siberia crossed the Bering land bridge into Alaska, and from there began spreading across North America. According to this theory, there were no people in the New World until that time. The new arrivals and their descendents prospered and, in just a few centuries, purportedly settled two continents.

“The Clovis-first model gained enormous scientific prominence—in fact, to question it was to risk virtual professional suicide... Now, however, thanks to the new archaeological finds and analytical advances, the Clovis-first model has been refuted.

“In 1977 Thomas D. Dillehay began excavating at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile. Dillehay’s work showed Monte Verde to be at least 12,500 years old, and he was widely criticized for challenging the validity of the Clovis-first theory... Three years ago a special team of archaeologists, including avowed skeptics, inspected Monte Verde. The result was vindication: the experts confirmed that Monte Verde was a legitimate pre-Clovis site... Other sites—and there were many—that had been in limbo because they seemed to predate Clovis could now be acknowledged...

“Not only has the idea that the Americas were devoid of people until 11,500 years ago been disproved, but a second important tenet of the Clovis-first theory has also crumbled: the assertion that the Americas were colonized only once. The latest research shows that the New World probably underwent multiple colonizations: instead of originating in a small area of northeast Siberia, as predicted by the Clovis-first model, the first Americans probably came from many parts of Eurasia.

“Perhaps the nail in the coffin for the Clovis-first theory is that no Clovis-style artifacts have ever been retrieved from archaeological sites in Siberia...

“The idea that the Americas were settled more than once and by different groups of people is supported by evidence from ancient skeletons that been examined with new techniques, such as the study of the DNA in the mitochondria of cells...

“The molecular anthropologist Theodore Schurr and other investigators have identified five distinct mitochondrial lineages, or haplogroups, as they are called, in modern Native Americans. Four of the haplogroups—A, B, C and D—are also found in varying frequencies in different Asian populations, which suggest that early immigrants to the Americas may have come from more than one region of Asia. The fifth haplogroup, known as X, is much rarer than the other four haplogroups, and its origin is not clear. It occurs among certain European populations but is absent in contemporary Asian populations, which suggests that it may record another distinct migration to the Americas, possibly from western Eurasia...

“The advent of the personal computer has enabled Paleo-American investigators to apply powerful statistical techniques to multiple sets of data...

“The work has yielded some tantalizing results that corroborate much of the DNA evidence. For example, the physical anthropologist C. Loring Bruce and his research team have concluded that the modern native peoples of North America are the descendents of at least four different colonizing populations from two different parts of Asia...

“Likewise, the physical anthropologists D. Gentry Steele, Douglas Owsley, Richard L. Jantz and Walter Neves have compiled and analyzed measurements from the earliest known North and South American skeletons. Their research has demonstrated that early New World skulls are quite distinct from the skulls of modern Native Americans...

“The reasons for the difference between early and later New World skulls have yet to be fully explained. The discrepancies may be the result of gradual evolutionary changes that took place over time. On the other hand, the differences may indicate that the early skeletons are unrelated to those of modern Native Americans.

“Thus a radical new idea has emerged: the people who inhabited the Americas when Columbus arrived—the tribes referred to today as Native Americans—may not be descended from the earliest Americans. There is no reason to assume that the first immigrants to the Americas took hold and prospered. Perhaps some of the early colonizing groups died out before later groups arrived. Or it may be that later colonizing groups replaced earlier groups as a result of warfare, the introduction of new diseases, or higher birth or survival rates.”

--Robson Bonnichsen and Alan L. Schneider, “Battle of the Bones,” first published in The Sciences, 2000 July/August


“Have you decided what you are going to do yet, Harold?” his mother said, taking off her glasses.
“No,” said Krebs.
“Don’t you think it’s about time?” His mother did not say this in a mean way. She seemed worried.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Krebs said.
“God has some work for every one to do,” his mother said. “There can be no idle hands in His Kingdom.”
“I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.

“Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?”
“No,” Krebs said.
His mother looked at him across the table. Her eyes were shiny. She started crying.
“I don’t love anybody,” Krebs said.

“I’m your mother,” she said. “I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.”
Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.

--Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home,” 1925

Twinkle, Twinkle

Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific,
Fain would I fathom thy nature specific,
Loftily poised in ether capacious,
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Going clubbing?

"Federal laws in Canada give a sealer three ways to hunt his prey. He can shoot a seal with a rifle or shotgun—provided it's above a minimum caliber or gauge; he can break its head with a blunt club (like a baseball bat) that must be at least 2 feet long; or he can smash in its brains with something called a hakapik—a 4- or 5-foot wooden pole with a bent, metal spike affixed to the end.

"In general, a sealer will use a hakapik or club if at all possible. That's because with these weapons, it's much easier to aim a blow directly at the seal pup's head. One swing from a hakapik will usually kill a pup right away. By law, you have to keep clubbing the seal in the forehead until you know for sure that it's dead. Sealers are supposed to 'palpate' a pup's skull after they've clubbed it, to feel the caved-in bone beneath the skin and blubber. Or they can perform the 'blink reflex' test, which consists of touching the seal's eyeball—if it blinks, you've got to club it again. (Few sealers actually perform these tests, though; some say they can feel the skull collapse as they make contact with their clubs.)"

Saturday, April 14, 2007


DEATH: “There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. The merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd, and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

--W. Somerset Maugham, Sheppey, as quoted in Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments, Second Edition, 2003

At which point, if I had been the merchant, I would have asked Death if she could bring my horse back tomorrow.

Jesus Christ

“Many scholars have noted (to their dismay or glee, depending on which side they were taking) that Jesus’ miracles were in fact entirely typical of the tradition of performance magic that flourished around the Mediterranean at that time. Lucian, a Roman born in Syria, writing in the second century A.D., catalogued the range of phenomena that the ‘charlatans’ and ‘tricksters’ could lay on. They included walking on water, materialisation and dematerialisation, clairvoyance, expulsion of demons, and prophecy. And he went on to explain how many of these feats were achieved by normal means. Hippolytus, too, exposed several pseudo miracle workers who had powers uncannily similar to those of Jesus, including a certain Marcus who had mastered the art of turning the water in a cup red by mixing from another cup while the onlookers’ attention was distracted.

“So close were the similarities between Jesus’ works and those of common, lower-class magicians, that several Jewish and pagan commentators at the time simply took it for granted that there was little except style and zeal to distinguish Jesus from the others. In their view, while Jesus might have been an especially classy conjuror, he was certainly not in an altogether separate class.

“Celsus claimed that Jesus had picked up the art during his youth in Egypt, where the Samarian magicians were the acknowledged masters. Having listed the tricks of the Samarians, such as expelling diseases, calling up spirits of the dead, producing banquets out of thin air, and making inanimate objects come to life, Celsus (according to the Christian writer Origen) went on to say: ‘Then, since these fellows do these things, will you ask us to think them sons of God? Should it not rather be said that these are the doings of scoundrels?’

“Christian apologists were, early on, only too well aware of how their Messiah’s demonstrations must have looked to outsiders. They tried to play down the alarming parallels. There is even some reason to think that the Gospels themselves were subjected to editing and censure so as to exclude some of Jesus’ more obvious feats of conjuration and to delete references to the possible Egyptian connection...

“The somewhat lame solution, adopted by Origen and others, was to admit that the miracles would indeed have been fraudulent if done by anybody else, simply to make money, but not when done by Jesus to inspire religious awe.”

--Nicholas Humphrey, Leaps of Faith, 1996, as quoted in Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments, Second Edition, 2003

Barack Obama on Political Discourse

"If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

--Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, 2006

Friday, April 06, 2007

Inevitable Human-Machine Merger

“By the close of the next century, nonbiological intelligence will be ubiquitous. There will be few humans without some form of artificial intelligence, which is growing at a double exponential rate, whereas biological intelligence is basically at a standstill. Nonbiological thinking will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than that of its biological progenitors, although it will be still of human origin.

“Ultimately, however, the earth’s technology-creating species will merge with its own computational technology. After all, what is the difference between a human brain enhanced a trillion-fold by nanobot-based implants, and a computer whose design is based on high-resolution scans of the human brain, and then extended a trillion-fold?

“This may be the ominous, existential question that our own children, certainly our grandchildren, will face. But at this point, there’s no turning back. And there’s no slowing down.”

--Ray Kurzweil, “Live Forever,” first published in Psychology Today, 2000 January, collected in Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments, Second Edition, 2003

Bundle Theory of Personhood

“It was the split-brain cases which drew me into philosophy... We control each of our arms, and see what is in each half of our visual fields, with only one of our hemispheres. When someone’s hemispheres have been disconnected, psychologists can thus present to this person two different written questions in the two halves of his visual field, and can receive two different answers written by this person’s two hands...

“One of these people looks fixedly at the centre of a wide screen, whose left half is red and right half is blue. On each half in a darker shade are the words, ‘How many colours can you see?’ With both hands the person writes, ‘Only one’. The words are now changed to read, ‘Which is the only colour that you can see?’ With one of his hands the person writes ‘Red’, with the other he writes ‘Blue’...

“[A] view is that, in these cases, there are two persons involved, sharing the same body. Like Professor MacKay, I believe that we should reject this view. My reason for believing this is, however, different. Professor MacKay denies that there are two persons involved because he believes that there is only one person involved. I believe that, in a sense, the number of persons involved is none...

“According to the Bundle Theory, we can’t explain either the unity of consciousness at any time, or the unity of a whole life, by referring to a person. Instead we must claim that there are long series of different mental states and events—each series being what we call one life... Each series is like a bundle tied up with string...

“The first Bundle Theorist was Buddha, who taught ‘anatta’, or the No Self view... Here are some quotations from Buddhist texts:

“‘A sentient being does exist, you think, O Mara? You are misled by a false conception. This bundle of elements is void of Self, In it there is no sentient being. Just as a set of wooden parts Receives the name of carriage, So do we give to elements The name of fancied being.’

“‘Buddha has spoken thus: “O Brethren, actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not. There is no one to cast away this set of elements, and no one to assume a new set of them. There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements.”’

“Buddha’s claims are strikingly similar to the claims advanced by several Western writers. Since these writers knew nothing of Buddha, the similarity of these claims suggests that they are not merely part of one cultural tradition, in one period. They may be, as I believe they are, true.”

--Derek Parfit, “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons,” first published in Mindwaves, 1987, collected in Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments, Second Edition, 2003

Camels in Arkhangai from Altaa