February 14, 2009

The Untrustworthy Reptile offers a way out of the recession

For first time visitors to this blog, it is our practice to devote weekday posts to fairly serious human issues. From time to time, however, we open this space to include commentaries by animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

We are not entirely pleased to run this commentary by an occasional visitor who declines to give his proper name and is referred to around these parts as the Untrustworthy Reptile.

His appearance on this blog does not imply an endorsement of anything he may say and we further must deny any liability for consequences, medical or otherwise, that may follow from taking the advice he offers. Indeed, we only allow this commentary to be published because of our reverence for the First Amendment, although the extent to which it applies to reptiles is unclear.

Without further ado, we present


Hey you! Yeah, the funny looking one. C'mere. I got something for you.

You know how the economy is in the toilet? All those jobs lost. All those banks going under. All those foreclosures. All that debt. Well, you know what? There's an easy way out.

That's right. I just happen to have in my possession my own economic recovery plan that would put everybody back on Easy Street in no time. And it's painless and so simple nobody could possibly be against it. Everybody would wind up smelling like a rose.

Wanna see it? I've got it right here. It's in my mouth. Way back there.

Just put your hand right in. C'mon, reach for it. Just put it part way in for a second...

Hey, wait! Where are you going? Come back here! I hate you! I hope you starve!


February 13, 2009


This pyramid at Teotihuacan has some fudoshin going on. It would be kind of hard to turn it over.

Today is the final day of Cool Japanese Words Week at Goat Rope. Each day has looked at a word or concept from the martial arts and/or Zen tradition that may be of interest to people who want to make the world less nasty. You'll also find news and links about current events.

Today's word is...fudoshin (rhymes with judo shin), which means "immovable mind."

As you might expect by now, the idea needs some unpacking. It does not mean dogmatism, rigid thinking or fixed ideas. Instead it implies a rooted mental state or level of determination as well as equanimity. Fudoshin in that sense is a necessity for anyone committed to working to improve things over the long haul.

In karate there is a posture called fudo dachi or immovable stance. It looks like a cross between a horse stance and a forward stance and has a low center of gravity. Things and/or people with high centers of gravity are easy to trip, throw or turn over.

Think of the song "We Shall Not be Moved."

I had a fudoshin moment a few years ago when I got summoned to the office of a high state official who was upset about things I'd written in newspaper columns about the shabby way poor people had been treated at the time. I'm not sure what the intent was, other than to "get my mind right" a la Cool Hand Luke. When I got the call, I agreed to go and was very polite, but all the while I was thinking, "Fudoshin, dudes. Deal with it."

In looking around to see what others have written about fudoshin, I found a pretty good summary in wikipedia. I'm not sure whether it's a quotation from another source or one written for the entry, but it works for me:

A spirit of unshakable calm and determination,
courage without recklessness,
rooted stability in both mental and physical realms.
Like a willow tree,
powerful roots deep in the ground
and a soft, yielding resistance against
the winds that blow through it.

WHAT PASSED. Here are some key ingredients of the economic recovery package agreed to by the conference committee. A vote in the House is likely today, with the Senate to follow possibly this weekend. While the bill isn't perfect, as Paul Krugman points out here, there are lots of good things in there and some bad things are taken out.

Some wheeling and dealing continued after the agreement had been reached. Final votes in both houses may occur today.

THE SHOCKING TRUTH. Here's an account of a revisitation of Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority.

TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO REMEMBER. Science finds a strong link between sleep and memory.



February 12, 2009


Seamus McGoogle spends most of his time in a state of mushin.

Welcome to Cool Japanese Words Week at Goat Rope. Each day looks at a word or concept from the martial arts and/or Zen tradition that may be of interest to people who want to make the world less nasty. You'll also find news and links about current events.

As I mentioned Monday, most of the words have to do with paying attention. Kamae, the subject of Tuesday's post is all about readiness before taking action. Zanshin, see yesterday's post, was about the state of mind on completing an action.

Today's word is mushin, with the mu being like a cow sounds and the shin being what it looks like.

Here's a paradox. Mushin represents the highest mental state, but it literally means "no-mindedness." Far from being stupid, it means responding spontaneously and appropriately to a situation without having to stop and think about it.

As esoteric as it sounds, most of us have probably had this experience at some point. A good basketball player probably doesn't have to think about a lay up--he or she just does it.

In the martial arts, sometimes if you're lucky you do something without thought and then think "that was cool." As the late great Bruce Lee put it,

...when an opportunity occurs, I don't hit. It hits all by itself.

In the context of Japanese swordsmanship, the Zen master Takuan wrote of that state:

The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes.

The use of the term flow by Takuan fits in well with modern psychology. The researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote an excellent book some years back titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience about just that kind of thing.

People in a state of flow, which can be experienced in lots of ways, are so absorbed in what they're doing that they may lack self-consciousness altogether. I think the slang term being "in the zone" refers to the same kind of thing.

Here's another paradox, in martial arts and other traditional disciplines, the way to get to mushin is through drill, drill, drill. You train so you don't have to think.

People who want to work to make the world a better place can approach mushin by getting so competent at pulling things together that you can do it without having to start from scratch every time. That may involve good alliances, media and communications competency, an understanding of strategy, and ready access to good information.

Mushin is a nice place to be, although you usually only become aware of it after it happens.

STIMULUS DEAL. The House and Senate conference committee reached a tentative deal on a scaled-back recovery package which many economists believe is too small to jolt the economy. It now goes back to each house.

CONTRACTING OUT federal jobs to the private sector leaves one out of five such workers in poverty, according to the latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot.

ONE TO WATCH. The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments March 3 in a case that will determine the propriety of WV Justice Brent Benjamin hearing cases regarding Massey Energy. Benjamin, a political unknown, was elected in 2004 with the help of millions of dollars from Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

DARWIN AT 200. Here's another look.


February 11, 2009


Master Wu demonstrates zanshin after doing his laundry.

Welcome to Cool Japanese Words Week at Goat Rope. This series looks at interesting (to me anyhow) concepts from the martial arts and related Zen traditions that might be useful to people interesting in making the world less nasty.

Yesterday's word, kamae, was about a state or readiness before going into action. Today's word, zanshin, is about the state that follows the completion of action. Literally, it means something like remaining mind, but it is really hard to unpack.

Imagine the silence that follows immediately from a powerful live performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony that just stands there and is as strong in its way as the music itself.

In karate, zanshin is the state that should follow the completion of a kata or a real application of techniques. Katas are solo exercises of pre-arranged series of fighting movements that have been passed down from generation to generation. They can be beautiful to watch when properly performed and contain a multitude of practical applications.

Each one is different but they follow a similar pattern. They begin and end with a bow, illustrating the maxim that "karate begins and ends with courtesy." They commence with a state of kamae or readiness. The first move is generally defensive, reflecting the moral maxim that "in karate there is no first attack."

After a series of explosive movements that also contains the contrasting elements of speed and slowness, hardness and softness, and expansion and contraction, the sequence ends in perfect stillness. But somehow the awareness and intensity continues silently after all motion has ceased.

I told you it was hard to translate. But here's an example.

C.W. Nicol relates how a senior sensei explained zanshin in his book Moving Zen: Karate as a Way to Gentleness:

...Zanshin is comprised of two characters. The first one, 'zan,' means to remain, to continue. The second one, 'shin,' means heart or mind. When the movements of a kata are finished, do not think that the kata is finished, do not relax your attention and spirit. You must come to the closing position, keep your eyes ahead, your body and spirit ready for anything. You must be aware of all that is around you. Kata is not just a practice of movements, and neither is it a way of retreating into your own self. When you practice kata you must be acutely aware. You must have a mind like still water, reflecting all things. Finish your kata with zanshin, otherwise, no matter how brilliantly you perform it, it will be considered a failure.

It's easier to see than describe. Nicol reports that

From then on, I watched the teachers and high ranking black belts much more closely when they finished their kata. Their performance of kata flowed, and the flow of the kata did not end with the cessation of bodily movement. How difficult to catch this feeling, to explain it!...

With lower-ranking belts, even with most brown belts, the flow was cut off when the kata movements were completed, like a clockwork doll that had suddenly been switched off. Without good "kamae" or readiness at the beginning of the kata, and without zanshin at the end, the kata was only a physical exercise, and not a moving practice of Zen.

Some lines from the Tao Te Ching may help to explain the practical importance of zanshin:

People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning.
Then there will be no failure.

RECOVERY. The Senate passed its version of economic recovery legislation yesterday, which will now go to conference with the House. This would be the time to push for getting it right. Here's a simple action you can take today.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, we lost nearly 600,000 jobs in January and there's no end in sight. The Economic Policy Institute reports that there are now 4.1 job seekers for each available job.

OBJECTS OR EXPERIENCES. Which of the two are more likely to make people happy?

URGENT ANTARCTIC WORM UPDATE here. It makes its own antifreeze and goes into suspended animation when it dries up. How cool is that?


February 10, 2009


Kendo practioners in upper and lower kamae positions. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to Cool Japanese Words Week at Goat Rope. Each day will include a discussion of a useful but hard to translate concept from the Japanese martial art and Zen tradition, which are kind of intertwined. It is El Cabrero's belief that some of these ideas can be helpful in making the world less violent and more just.

Today's word is kamae, which is sometimes translated as stance, posture or ready position, although there's a lot more to it. In a deeper sense, it refers to a state of calm alertness before action. It doesn't imply a fixed position or attitude or a pre-conceived rigid plan but rather a focused awareness prepared to respond to the moment.

C. W. Nicol, a British martial artist who studied karate in Japan in the early 1960s came close to it with these words describing the katas or forms of advanced students:

In perfect stillness, they exuded strength. I saw it, and I thought of herons, poised above a pool, ready to spear a fish; of high-soaring falcons ready to stoop; of a cat, sitting patiently by a mouse hole...

My own favorite description of it comes from Erich Fromm's discussion of hope:

It is neither passive waiting nor is it unrealistic forcing of circumstances that cannot occur. It is like the crouched tiger, which will jump only when the moment for jumping has come...

Without good kamae, one can miss opportunities for action (and in some cases, get clobbered in the bargain). As Hamlet said, "the readiness is all."

RECOVERING THE RECOVERY? The economic recovery bill cleared a major hurdle in the Senate yesterday, with a final vote expected for today. After that, the bill goes to conference where differences between the House and Senate versions will be reconciled.

The Senate version weakened some key provisions of the House bill that would affect those hardest hit by the recession. For more details of the differences, click here. Some of these defects may be improved in the final version, but that will depend in part on how much noise people make.

The American Friends Service Committee is still making a toll-free number to the Capitol switchboard available for those who want to support the bill. AFSC recommends a passage without delay and without reducing aid to families and states. It also opposes the flawed “E-Verify” measure and the $1 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration. The number is 1-800-473-6711.

THE S WORD is discussed here.

A NOD TO CHUCKIE D. Darwin, that is.

POSSIBLE ALZHEIMER'S BREAKTHROUGH? New research suggests that a naturally occuring protein can stop or reverse cognitive impairment in animals.

NOTE. It's been a long day on the road, so I'm scheduling this post to be published a few hours from this writing. Here's hoping nothing really bad happens between now and then.


February 09, 2009

Attention, attention, attention

Arpad has trouble paying attention.

One interesting thing that happens when you encounter a different language is that you find words that are full of meaning but are hard to translate into your native tongue.

One example is the Greek word kairos, which can be translated (badly) as time, but means so much more (something like "the time is at hand" or a time of crisis or decision).

There are quite a few words in Japanese that contain concepts that people interested in making the world less violent or more just might find useful. Many of these originated in the martial arts but their application goes far beyond that.

(Full disclosure: my Japanese is limited to technical terms and a Japanese-American friend laughs at how I butcher the words I know.)

Not surprisingly, many of these words are related to paying attention. There's an old Zen story about a student who asks a master for the inner meaning of the dharma. The master takes up his brush and writes the word "Attention."

The student isn't satisfied, so the master writes "Attention, attention."

The student still wasn't content, so the master wrote "Attention, attention, attention."

Woody Allen is often quoted as saying that 80 percent of success is showing up. I wouldn't argue with that. But a lot of the other 20 probably has to do with paying attention.

Tomorrow's word is kamae and it's all about attention.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, I'd advise paying attention to the economic recovery vote in Congress this week. The Senate and House versions are very different and will have to be reconciled.

Unfortunately, the Senate version reduced aid to states and for urgent human needs programs such as food stamps, unemployment and covering workers who lose insurance along with their jobs. Here is Paul Krugman on that subject.

The American Friends Service Committee is still offering a toll-free number for people to call their representatives in support of President Obama's plan and to call for improvements in the final bill. The number is 1-800-473-6711.

A RECENT ECONOMIC CASUALTY is Blenko Glass, which recently shut down production. Here's an op-ed of mine on that sad news.

MONEY FOR NOTHING. A new report by the WV Center on Budget and Policy looks at economic development policies that give away state money and get little or nothing in return.

FRYING OUR BRAINS. Are we overdosing on digital devices?