Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Once someone has great talent, we assume that they must have great taste

I was listening to KDFC, classical radio at 102.1, on my way back from the gym today when I heard that the next song they were to play was composed by "Beethoven's favorite contemporary musician." I think it was they said his name was Cherubini or something. Anyway, when I heard that he was one of Beethoven's favorites, I perked up. I don't know much about classical music, but I do know that Beethoven was really nice, and if he thought this Cherubini cat was all right, then I should probably listen up. Right?

The more I thought about it (and the more I thought the piece was boring), the more I realized that this we go through this sort of thought process all of the time. If somebody excels in their field, then we assume that they must be apt at deciphering who else is talented in their field. For the most part, I think that we are correct in reserving talent analysis to those that have had success in their field. Certainly a soccer pro would be better at determining talent among a high school team than one of the parents. But I think that it is not always the case, and I have come up with two reasons to support my opposition:

a) If somebody is really skillful, it is possible that they will be focused too much on the details while everybody else cares more about the bigger picture. For example, a director or two might really appreciate a movie because there are some great angle and lighting shots, but the rest of the audience might think the movie sucks because there is little plot and no excitement (ahem, Rear Window, ahem). In this case a an experts opinion is clouded by his obsession for minutia, which is essential when working at the highest levels, but not always necessary for functioning in the more intermediate.

b) Experts in some fields may be more likely to support up-and-comers in which they see bits of themselves over the up-and-comer with the most overall talent. To continue with the soccer analogy, if a pro is known for his prowess in the air, he may overrate a young player with a penchant for heading, or even a player who excels at crossing the ball into the box, because that was his niche. In doing so, he may underrate the midfielder with good ball control or the striker with exceptional speed.

There you have it, simultaneously a theory about Beethoven's ability as a movie critic and concrete proof that Classical music promotes the creative thought process.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We all know that it's coming

So, I was thinking today about what terrible timing it would be if there was an earthquake while I was in the middle of doing squats at the gym. I think about good and bad times for earthquakes all the time; for example, it would be good during a really hard test, but bad during wisdom teeth surgery. But then it hit me: not everybody knows that we Californians/San Franciscans think about this stuff all the time. I had a flash in my head of news reports after an earthquake in the future, with reporters and analysts alike accepting it as fact that "nobody expected this to happen."

Well, let me set all of you people in the future straight. We realize that an earthquake will probably hit California soon, and hard. It will probably be bad timing for most but may be good timing for some. Either way, the important thing to remember is that we all know [knew] that it is [was] coming.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Buddhism Part II

There was some reaction to my previous post that Buddhism would be a hard religion for a working man to follow. You can read the post and the comments here. Dario and Ben had a pretty interesting idea of taking only the parts of eliminating worldly desire that you can, and keeping the desires that you have to have in order to maintain a business and social life.

The natural progression of this idea is to segregate worldly desires into "things that you can't control" and "things that you can control," and only care about the things you can control. This would be a great idea except that a) it's impossible and b) well, (a) pretty much sums it up.

Why? Because first of all, it's very easy to argue and truly believe that nearly everything which matters is in your life is conceivably either in your control, or not in your control. Most things that you care about you probably could have had more control over, if you could go back and change something you did, even if you didn't think you were didn't anything bad at the time.1 On the flip side, you could also say that you can't control much stuff, because your bosses may have previous experiences that predispose them to dislike people like you, or you may be really weak and skinny not because of a lack of power cleans and protein shakes, but because of bad genes. It's hard to say.

People's experiences and genes collide at a million miles each day, and most of the time that it happens I'm left reeling. I'm just trying to remember what the person's name was, much less what what we talked about, what type of person he is, or whether his influence made me do something, because perhaps I would have done it anyway.

It is much too confusing and time consuming to try to accurately determine which things you can control and should worry about and which things you can't and shouldn't. In fact, the successful completion of the task itself could be easily construed as a desire, meaning that by actually becoming a Buddhist, you are probably living a less Buddhist lifestyle.

Which leads me to the only way to make Buddhism really work. To make everything simpler, you define which parts of your life you think are most important to you, the things that you need to maintain your healthy professional and social life, and you invest all your desire in only those things. This idea works in theory, and is actually a very appealing notion, until you realize that you are now actually considering what is essentially a virtue ethics philosophy and are nearly as far away from Buddhism as you can possibly be.

So here I am, at the crossroads of deciding whether or not it is both possible and reasonable for me to be Buddhist in our society. I've come to the conclusion that my whole life I'm going to have this conundrum looming in the back of my mind and thriving in the periods of my stress. My whole life I'm going to struggle with this. And then the moment that I'm about to die, whenever it is, I'm going to be absolutely positively sure that I've have reached a state where I lack desire, what many would consider enlightenment. Maybe I'll even say something profound, or write a death poem. But then, I think I'm going to have to laugh, because I'll know it's all just bullocks anyways.

1: This phenomenon is known as regret. If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask--I am the unofficial king of regret.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Stem Cell Debate

The stem cell debate has always struck me as slightly off-base because the two sides seem to be arguing separate problems. The opponents of it have been saying that it is morally wrong, while supporters argue two distinct issues, a) that the government shouldn't legislate morality issues that like, and b) even if the government did legislate morality, this should still be legal because it probably would save more lives at no real human cost.

Probably because it is simpler, the opponents to stem cell research actually have some credibility, although let's remember that these embryos for the stem cells were generally taken from failed fertility trials, which weren't going to lead to a pregnancy. The supporters of it, on the other hand, haven't been able to get their case straight. From my perspective, they really should give up trying to argue that the government can't legislate morality because they pretty much do; a lot of the laws in this country have been based on our moral code (what is equality if not a moral value?). The point they should be making is that stem cells could potentially lead to new discoveries which could help current people, and wouldn't stop anybody from having kids if they wanted them.

These are the issues I was thinking about when I saw the bill to allow stem cell research passed in congress, but which would soon be vetoed by the White House. Then, later today I saw this article from the NYT Science section pop up on my Google reader explaining this sweet new technique where you can essentially replicate all the effects you want from a stem cell in skin cells. The process has only been shown in rats, but then again stem cells themselves were still rather experimental. Pretty cool stuff, and it certainly could be the quickest end to this debate that I, at least, can imagine.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Is Buddhism only for the very rich and fairly poor?

I've wanted to be a Buddhist for pretty much as long as I've heard of it. The idea of ridding oneself of worldly desires, and the stress and worries that accompany the pursuit of it, really appeals to me.

But as I've become more serious about actual applying this lofty goal to my life, I've come to the realization that it would be pretty much impossible for me to accomplish without completely overhauling the structure of my life. If I completely rid myself of these desires, which is what I am told to do, then what reason would I have for ever going to a basketball practice that I don't want to at the moment, what reason would I have to write a tedious lab manuscript on soil, what reason would I even have to get a job over the summer? These are all things that I have to do in order to maintain a relatively "normal" life by society's standards, in order to pass my classes, have somewhat of a social life, and have enough money to do things like buy food. So, reasonably, there is no way that I can get rid of my desires because if I think it would be nearly impossible for me to have a normal life.

As the title of this post suggests, I think that there are two exceptions to this rule: the very rich, who have enough money to pretty much put every thing on auto pilot and not worry at all, and the fairly poor, who would be able to survive pretty much just on subsistence living and generally do their own thing. But for a normal person that wants to live a normal life in our current society, we have to have desire in order to have ambition, which you have to have in order to do really anything at all.

All of this leads us to the question, is Buddhism still a viable way of living even if you cannot completely follow its tenants? Is it an all or nothing thing, or can you follow most of the basic ideas while still having a little bit of ambition and still consider yourself a Buddhist?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Small conversations can have a large impact

About four years ago when I was a rising sophomore in high school I was a regular at the Presidio YMCA, where I try to throw up plates on the bench press while completely disregarding my form. Sometimes I would see a tall white guy on the basketball court who would threes from all over, while his trainer rebounded. Pretty soon word got around that his name was Dan Grunfeld and that he would be a junior at Stanford, where he got some playing time on the basketball team. At the time I thought it was pretty cool but I didn't really think twice about it. What did he have to do with me?

The winter changed all that. Both of us ended up with torn ACLs, me for the second time and he for the first time. I actually watched the game that when it happened, and I "called" that he had torn his ACL (I did that with every leg injury at the time, but that's besides the point). It was a somber moment for me when I saw a tough player who I had seen in person have his career ostensibly ruined just as my fledgling career was ostensibly ruined at the time.

That summer, we were both rehabbing at the YMCA. Of course, I knew why he was there, but he had really no idea why I was there. Finally, I mustered up the courage to tell him that I too had torn my ACL, that I knew how hard the process of recovery would be, and that I wished him the best of luck. From what I remember, he thanked me but seemed a little bit reserved.

The summer ended and I watched him on TV play out his senior year. He did much better than I expected him to, and as his rehab process went faster than mine did, I felt confident that I too would be able to get back after it.

Two years had passed until I saw him again in person today. It was rush hour at the gym, so only one hoop was available, next to the hoop he was shooting at. He was still bombing tres from deep and he still had the same trainer working him out.

Then all of a sudden after he missed a shot, he looked at me, said hi, and asked how my knee was doing. It really blew me away that he remembered me and even took an interest in me. We chatted for a while about what we were each doing with basketball. Apparently his knee is stronger than it has ever been and he's still working at and playing the game he loves. He seemed like an awesome guy, and was happy for me to be playing at a "great school" like Vassar.

I have no moral to draw from this story. While it might sound corny, it was really just one of those moments that made me feel happy to be alive. Sometimes a seemingly small interaction can have a large impact.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Chess misdiagnosed as a game of intellect

My brother and I were playing an intense game of chess this afternoon at a pretty sweet bar in downtown Denton, Texas, called the Jupiter. As my mom came back from antique shopping (she is an addict), she asked who was winning, adding the caveat that no matter who was winning, she would still consider us both very smart.

But while it was a kind gesture to make my brother feel better, her statement has no basis in reality. Chess is not about how book smart you are or how quickly you can do long division. It's about imposing your will on your opponent, and crushing him completely. While chess is a noble pursuit, don't make the mistake that my mom made in considering chess an intellectual game. It is a game of strength, mental fortitude, and willpower. So the next time that you beat somebody in chess and they try to give the excuse that you must have just been a little bit more alert that day, calmly explain to them that what you really did was enforce your will. That especially goes for you, Bingo.

Are you there God? It's me, LeBron.

In case you missed the pivotal game 5 of the Pistons -- Cavaliers series last night, the synopsis of the game went something like this: the Pistons were a better team, and they were playing at home, and they were probably about to win until near the end of the 4th quarter. Then LeBron James decided that his team was going to win. He scored the last 25--that's right, count 'em 25--points for the Cavs and they won in double overtime. If you remember back in the Warriors series, I posted a couple of photos of guys dunking over people that were trying to block them. James doesn't have any of those photos because nobody tries to block his dunks. Instead, they back away and cower in fear. He is on a whole other level right now. Last night he thanked God after the game for blessing him with his abilities, which I generally scoff at because clearly even if God exists he wouldn't care about a sporting event. But last night when James was talking about how he was given his abilities by God, I found myself nodding along. To quote David Blaine, if you watch the NBA playoffs, there's really no other explanation.