Wed, 30 Nov 2005

Microsoft is not evil

Microsoft is not evil. I know that a lot of people will disagree with me, but they are wrong. Microsoft is an organization of people (just as is the US government, the Red Cross, my handbell choir, my family, and my town). An organization is not a moral entity, because the organization has no attributes beyond those held by the people who make it up. An organization takes no action beyond that which its members undertake.

Microsoft is made up of a group of individuals, each of whom is responsible for the decisions they make. "I was acting under orders" didn't work for the Germans at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and it won't work for anybody who works at Microsoft. Anything that Microsoft does that you may wish to label as "evil" is being done by a person. That person may deserve the label "evil".

Similarly, many people who work at Microsoft are not responsible for the decisions made by corporate management. No doubt some people at Microsoft disagree vehemently. Everyone has their own opinion of how things should be done. We're all individuals -- even those who deny it.

It's strategically important to remember that Microsoft is made up of disagreeing individuals. We in the open source community need to reach out to those individuals who are sympathetic to our goals and principles. If we treat Microsoft as a uniform entity, we give up the only method likely to convert Microsoft to our way of thinking. If we are always hostile to Microsoft even when they do the right thing.

Posted [15:57] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Ride starting Tue Nov 29 11:33:55 2005

18.87 km 61911.09 feet 11.73 mi 4722.00 seconds 78.70 minutes 1.31 hours 8.94 mi/hr

Simply gorgeous out today. See the temperature graph below. It's only going to last one day, so I went for a ride into town to run some errands. Blowing like a sumbitch in my face, whipping up the sand spread earlier on the snow and ice of last week. Kept up a nice pace coming back downwind, though. Cruised at 18mph, making up for the time I spent in the post orifice.

Posted [14:23] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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US Citizenshp for sale?

Startupboy points out an interesting idea: Securitize Citizenship. In other words, give every US citizen a blank passport, and let them do whatever they want with it. This is a great idea! It solves several problems. First, it allows people who don't like immigrants to buy up passports and destroy them. Second, because there will certainly be a market for purchasing these passports, it lets all US citizens benefit from their hard work in making the US a nice place to live. Third, because the price will change, it will give citizens a personal reason to increase the quality of their government as seen by the rest of the world.

Posted [11:39] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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NYS License Plate "Watermarks"

I recently discovered that New York State license plates have a "watermark". It is an invisible badge imprinted into the reflective background of the plate. All three of my family's cars have this watermark. You can see it if you stand behind the car and shine a flashlight downwards at the plate. It's only visible within about a twenty degree cone, so if you don't see it, move around a little.

Apparently license plate aficionados know about these watermarks and look for them to help date license plates.

Posted [01:29] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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The Nokia 770 is not an embedded system

The more I look at the current state of applications for the 770, the more I realize that all the problems come down to the application installer. Basically, it's crippled. Somebody seems to have made a decision that the 770 is an embedded system. As such, it needs to be a pristine execution environment into which applications are installed, and don't ever frick with the root filesystem.

Unfortunately for that concept, the 770 is actually a fully capable Unix box. It has communications, mass storage located on multiple partitions, multiple I/O devices, and supports multiple user privilege levels (root and user).

The application installer won't let you do anything interesting. For example, I've not yet figured out how to install Python. I suspect that the problem is that the Python package was written for the developer's image, but who wants to use that -- it doesn't have a web client.

Nokia wants to have a device that it sells in droves to consumers. Consumers are going to want all the crunchy goodness that we developers are creating. Nokia knows that the customers are going to complain to Nokia whenever anything goes wrong. I think that the best solution has in essence two classes of users: naive (who get tech support) and self-supporting (who don't). Here's how my plan goes:

Nokia positions and sells the 770 as a nifty web interface, with a web browser, email client, mp3 and Internet radio player. Additional applications are available via the Nokia store, and people have to purchase these applications. Nokia wallows in the gravy, and uses some of that income to certify that the applications aren't going to fux0r users, and some to compensate the developer of the application. The application installer actually installs packages into the system rather than a sandbox, so packages are full-fledged peers (that's one reason why why Nokia has to charge for the applications -- to ensure that no badness passes into the user experience).

There are, however, alternate sources of packages. When you install a non-Nokia-certified application, you are prompted "This will void your warranty. Continue or Stop?" You can always get your warranty back by reflashing with a pure Nokia image. If a naive user calls for tech support of a machine with no warranty, they are sent to instructions on how to reflash back to in-warranty status.

Hardware repair policy is simple: Nokia always reflashes if it has any trouble running diagnostics.

Obviously, developers have an interest in creating applications that Nokia will sell for them, and which keep the user in warranty. If they choose to develop applications which aren't blessed by Nokia, that's okay too.

Everybody's concern is met: Nokia gets to ship a product with an enhanced revenue stream, Customers get an easy-to-use product, and Developers get full access to the whole machine and only need to develop for one image: the standard image shipped with the 770. No need for a special developer's image.

Posted [00:56] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 27 Nov 2005

Sick Days

New scientific evidence shows that 40% of all sick days are taken on Mondays and Fridays! That's nearly half of all sick days!

That would seem to be evidence of employees cheating their employers, wouldn't it? If so, it would make sense to clamp down on employee laxness by restricting the number of Mondays or Fridays that an employee could take off.

The trouble is that the other 60% of sick days are taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, thus it makes more sense to restrict mid-week sick days.

And the trouble with both of these conclusions is that 40% is 2/5th and 60% is 3/5ths of the whole, exactly what one would expect of a random sample of events spread over five days. Hat tip: Liberal Order.

Posted [01:46] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 26 Nov 2005

Expert Analysis of Risk

You see this all the time. An expert stands up and says "Through my expertise, I see a problem that nobody else sees." If you listen a little more closely, you find out that the reason the expert concludes that nobody else sees the problem is that they're not paying him money to solve it. That may seem excessively cynical. I don't think so. Being experts, they overestimate the importance of their field of study (no blame: this is the human condition).

The general public lives in a sea of risk. You know what they say: "Life is short and then you die." For some people life is shorter than others, if only because humans are fragile. People perceive some risks irrationally, particularly when you get into very small risks of very bad things. I think that that is simply because people cannot make the proper mental trade-off. Which risk is worse: the risk of dying in a coal-related accident or the risk of dying in a nuclear accident? Mathematically, coal is a bigger killer, and yet people are opposed to replacing coal with nuclear power.

Nonetheless, people who mis-estimate risks under their control are likelier to die. In this way do trees serve to eliminate the imprudent from the pool of automobile drivers. It's reasonable to assume that people are correctly evaluating the risks in their life. So when an expert says "I know better than you", they're technically correct in their field of expertise, but their recommendations do not automatically make for good policy.

Posted [12:33] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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It's a feature, not a bug!

In the world of computer programmers, we have a phrase: "It's a feature, not a bug!" We use that phrase when somebody doesn't understand the subtleties of how something should work. They apply a naive analysis to it and conclude that it was a mistake, and needs to be fixed.

Many people do not understand the structure of the US government. Sadly, they are as likely to be Americans as not (the blame for which I lay at the feet of Social Studies as taught in government schools.) Because they fail to understand the subtleties, they call for the government to be fixed. Usually this entails centralization of power.

This morning on our local NPR customer I heard a news report about the dangers of chemical plants. The main thesis of the story was that mere citizens don't understand the risks of chemical plants, because if they knew what the experts knew, they would call for federal laws regulating these plants. There are two problems with this idea. I'll tackle the problem with expert analysis of risk in another post. The other problem is the call for federalization. The NPR reporter whined at the end of her report "Without a federal law, when one state restricts chemical plants, that only transfers the problem to other states."

The structure of the US government is designed to handle error. Part of being human is making mistakes. Part of being a god is being omnipotent. So did The Christ know he was making a mistake as he was doing it? If that never happened, then he was either not human or not a god. But I digress. Complete knowledge is not available to us. What we know, we know because we have experimented.

The US government is one vast, continuous experiment, or so it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, we have greatly reduced the amount of experimentation in space, and turned it into experimentation in time. That's just plain stupid. Everybody knows that "many hands make light work." That just says that work goes faster if you have lots of people doing it. The same effect works in government.

The original structure was designed to be an parallel experiment in space. The federal government was strictly limited in the laws it could pass. All other laws were to be passed by states. Of course, not all states would pass the same laws. Thus, some states would make mistakes that others would not make. That's how science works: you have a control and you have a test. You keep one thing constant and you change the other.

We have destroyed all this experimentation by allowing federalization. We no longer restrict the federal government, and in doing so we have given up science. We no longer have a control. Everyone is a test subject, so we never really know what are the effects of laws. Without having US citizens who are not subject to those laws, we can't tell if they had good results or bad. Also, instead of running multiple experiments, we can only run one experiment across the entire country. If that experiment fails, as some people have said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed, all of that time has been lost. With a more distributed set of laws, other states could have been trying something different.

The other problem with federalization can be seen by flying over the US. The many regions of the US are radically different. We have mountains and streams and lakes and deserts and plains and cities and forests. How can anyone think that one law could fit everywhere? Take, for example, telecommunications. The way you address "tele"communications depends on how far is your "tele". Telephone service in an apartment building is vastly different than telephone service out west where it's not unusual to have miles between customers. Beehive Telephone serves rural Utah and Nevada. They own an airplane to fly between their central offices. I can't imagine any eastern telephone company needing an airplane.

I'm not opposed to the use of governmental power. Many problems are easier to solve by forcing everyone to solve a problem the same way (e.g. water and sewer systems). I'm opposed to the use of governmental power in inappropriate situations. But how do we, as fallible humans, to discover which solutions are inappropriate without experimentation? If you agree with me that federalization is a philosophical mistake, please contact your state representatives and tell them to take back the power that is rightfully theirs.

UPDATE 11/16: Roy asks "How exactly are they supposed to do that?" Roy, you're trying to solve problem #2 before you solve problem #1. Problem #1 is to get the state legislators to realize that the federales have stolen their power. Each individual citizen is relatively powerless. In order to magnify their power, they need to convince the powerful to do their bidding. Since power seeks more power, the most effective path is to get the slightly less powerful to attack the more powerful. Right now, the most powerful single entity on the planet sits on Capitol Hill. Collectively, the state legislatures approach them in power, but first they must be convinced to exercise their power. Exactly how they do that is problem #2. First things first.

UPDATE 11/16: Scott contributes two examples:

Flush toilets - Al Gore (and many others) thought it was great idea to limit flush toilets to 1.6 gallons per flush. The unintended consequence is that many people flush *twice*!. However, while the dry western states might very well have thought such a law was a good idea and passed it on their own, does someplace like New Orleans, literally drowning in water even when not flooded, really need to suffer through such a restriction? I was in New Orleans back in 1991, and I saw city employees clean the streets with firehoses!

911 service - I live in Israel and got a Packet8 VOIP service earlier this year. One reason I chose this service was the cost, which didn't include the overhead of 911 service. Packet8 was going to eventually offer 911 as an option. But no, that wasn't good enough for the Feds. They completely overreact to a few people who obviously didn't read the not-so-fine print that their VOIP service 911wasn't the same as standard 911, and instead of merely requiring more visible notice or disclaimer, they required all VOIP services to provide 911, whether the user wanted it or not. I live in Israel. I want an American phone line for various reasons. I don't want or need 911 service and I don't want to pay for it. I had a choice before. Now I don't.

Posted [12:32] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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ipkg versus dpkg

On the maemo-developers list, people have been arguing about the advantages of ipkg versus dpkg. Hopefully I can show rather than explain why we (the hh.org) folks prefer ipkg.

I have Debian 2.2 on a server and Familiar 6.2 on a handheld. Since we're talking about using either dpkg or ipkg on a jffs2 filesystem, all space consumption is given as a compressed tarball. Here is the space consumed by the package manager's overhead for installed packages and for available packages against ipkg and dpkg.

packages size bytes/package
ipkg total 378K
ipkg available 939 317K 388
ipkg installed 147 61K 415
dpkg total 10620K
dpkg available 15272 8660K 567
dpkg installed 301 1860K 6180

Here's how I got these numbers:

ipkg total is:
tar cfz - /usr/lib/ipkg | wc -c
ipkg available is:
tar cfz - /usr/lib/ipkg/lists | wc -c
ipkg packages installed is:
ipkg status | grep ^Package: | wc -l
ipkg available packages is:
ipkg list | wc -l
dpkg total is:
tar cfz - /var/lib/dpkg | wc -c
dpkg available is:
tar cfz - /var/lib/dpkg/available* | wc -c
dpkg packages installed is:
grep '^Status: install ok installed' /var/lib/dpkg/status | wc -l
dpkg available packages is:
grep '^Status:' /var/lib/dpkg/status | wc -l

Posted [11:24] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 23 Nov 2005

GPS Receiver

My Nemerix BT77 GPS receiver arrived today. A quick few minutes on the charge, and it's already successfully paired with the 770 and emitting NMEA data. Now to get gpsd compiled.

Posted [23:52] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Maemo is not a distro

So, as it turns out, Maemo isn't a Linux distro. It's a Linux image. If you want to remove packages, guess what? You lose! They have dpkg installed, but initially it thinks it has no packages installed, because ... it doesn't. Everything in the image has been carefully placed there, and then forgotten about. I think that by only filling up the flash half-full, they figured that nobody would ever want to delete something from the base package.

I worked on handhelds.org's Familiar distribution. We shipped images, sure, but those were images that had been created by the package manager, and retained all the package manager information. So, for example, if one package was found to have a problem, it could be upgraded to another package. I don't see how Nokia can do incremental updates except by pretending that an update package is a completely new package to be installed.

It really looks like Maemo has started back in 1999 and is intending to reproduce all the mistakes that we made. It would be better if they made new mistakes.

UPDATE 11/24: Tomas points out that Maemo isn't even TRYING to be a distro, so my anti-thesis cannot be correct. He says that the 770 is just an embedded device. If you want it to do something different you should expect to reflash it. Perhaps he's right, but I never thought of the 486 EISA machine sitting next to me as an embedded device, and yet the 770 has more resources available to it. Why should a computer cease to be a computer simply because it fits in your pocket?

Posted [17:28] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Done playing, now time to hack

Okay, I'm done playing with the vanilla 770 as shipped by Nokia. I've gotten root access, installed xterm, vim, and dropbear, so I'm all set to hack. I bought the wrong bluetooth keyboard, the HP iPAQ Bluetooth Foldable Keyboard. However, it might be possible to use it with Nils's kbdd. Don't have that working yet.

Next thing to do is get pygps and mapview to work on it. That means getting Python, pygtk, and libglade installed and if necessary ported. After that, I need gpsd, but everything in its time.

Posted [00:27] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 22 Nov 2005

Don't ask to link to somebody's page!

Do NOT ask anybody for permission to link to their page. Freedom of speech and the press includes the right to tell people where information is found. Anybody who says that you can't link to their page is LYING. Absent a contractural relationship, they have no legal ability to stop you from publishing a URL. There is no legal theory (of which I am aware, but I'm not a lawyer) which gives them that control.

Trade secret law? As long as you received the URL from someone who had no obligation to protect a trade secret of theirs, you can publish it. If they have (for example) published the URL on their website by linking to the page in question, they can hardly claim that they are keeping a secret, can they? And if they don't keep their own trade secrets secret, you have no obligation to.

Patent law? You can't patent a URL, thank god.

Trademark law? But you can always use a trademark truthfully. If a company has a trademark in their domain name, and you use it to say that a web page is at a certain location, you are either right or wrong. Either way you haven't misused their trademark. You might lie and create a URL which disparages their trademark, but you'd have to lie first, and we all know that's not free of risk.

Copyright law? You can't copyright facts. An address is a fact. There may be a creative element in an address (e.g. Apple's "1 Infinite Loop" or FTP Software's "2 High Street"), but I know of nobody who thinks that that approaches the threshold needed for copyright protection.

DO NOT ask for permission to link. When you do it, you give other people the idea that they should also. This is the web--without linking it would be useless. Don't ask, just link.

Posted [10:58] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 20 Nov 2005

Workers "vs" Capitalists

I've been corresponding with someone who has a Master's degree in Economics (he doesn't say where from; I'm sure it's because they won't admit that they gave it to him), and calls himself "The Real Economist". He says this about workers and capitalists:

There has been and there still remains a simple fundamental fact in any capitalist economy; the capitalist who has to hire at least one worker, by definition, needs that worker to help operate the business; but, the worker, if and when organized and united with other workers, don't need the capitalist employer. The workers collectively can, if they want, form and operate their own government and economy. In other words, in the macro sense, the capitalists need the workers in order to operate and grow their businesses in any major way (workers aka 80% of consumers), but the workers don't need the capitalists in order to grow and exercise their power in any major way.

That's an admirable sentiment. "Bah! Who needs capitalists anyway?" Strictly speaking, it's true. Workers don't need capitalists. They can fore-go spending, accumulate their own capital, and form a worker-owned business. It's done all the time.

But there's something invisible going on here. He's trying to claim that "Capitalists" describes a set of individuals who have it in for workers. He's further claiming that once workers have capital, they'll remain workers and won't become capitalists. The problem with these ideas is that "Capitalists" describes many people. They didn't come into that role with a predisposition to screw workers. People who have capital behave a certain way. They have to, in order to remain capitalists. If they don't behave that way, they become "Philanthropists", who have an entirely different set of goals.

Workers who have capital are no longer just Workers. They are now Worker-Capitalists, who have the interests of both classes, at the same time. If they want to keep their job and their capital at the same time, they will cheerfully cut costs by firing workers (who lose their jobs but keep their capital). The alternative is for all of the workers to lose their jobs and their capital (aka life savings).

Real Economists are trained to see the invisible.

Posted [02:52] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 19 Nov 2005

I'm an X economist

From time to time you'll hear people say "I'm an X economist", where X might be labor, historical, Marxist, behavioral, Hayekian, Chicagoan, or Austrian. It is generally a mistake to say that. I don't mean that all schools of economics have produced equally valid results. I mean that the quality of economics is independent of the school that produced it.

There are no X economics. There are only good economics, and bad economics. Limiting yourself to only one school of economics is adopting an ideology. I have found much of value in Austrian economics, but I don't think of myself as an Austrian economist. I want to be open to useful economic results no matter the source. Perhaps someday a Marxist economist might produce something of value?

Posted [03:00] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 17 Nov 2005

Nokia 770 stylus door

I got me one of those nifty-spiffy Nokia 770 Internet Tablets. It has an interesting two-piece construction, with a cover that goes on front-ways to protect the screen, and back-ways to allow access to the screen and buttons. It has a magnet and sensor to detect when the cover is hiding the screen, so the machine sleeps when the cover is on. The cover also keeps the stylus from falling out when it's closed. Unfortunately, when it's open, it also prevents you from accessing the stylus.

This is easily fixed with a little bit of Dremel Moto-tool(tm) work:

removed bit of cover (Thumbnail)

I suspect that Nokia didn't build the cover this way because they thought it would look funny. Perhaps so. Another reason to build the cover with one side shorter is that it's easier to put the cover on the 770. The lower side would help you get it into the cover more easily.

Hat tip to Simon, who photoshopped this:

asymmetric case (Thumbnail)

Posted [01:50] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 16 Nov 2005

Intelligence and Wisdom

Some people have not yet figured out that intelligence and wisdom are independent variables.

UPDATE 11/30: Dossy contributes the following observation:

Russ points out why it's important that people play Dungeons & Dragons at some point in their life. Everyone who plays D&D knows that Intelligence and Wisdom are separate stats.

Posted [01:34] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 11 Nov 2005

Licensing as value subtraction

Businessmen like to talk about their products' value-adds. After all, customers buy the products because of the value that the business adds to the raw materials. The business converts paper into documentation, and media into a copy of the software. Nobody says much about value-subtracts. For example, if you purchase gasoline, you take the risk that the gasoline will spill into the ground and contaminate it. That's the value-subtract for gasoline. You can't possess gasoline without taking the risk of it spilling. The use of it (the value-add) is inseparable from the risk of the possession of it (the value-subtract). The first exceeds the second, which is why people buy gasoline.

A software business may think of itself as selling software, but it actually sells a bundle of goods. They sell media containing the software, service, support, training, documentation and/or handholding. Those are all value-adds. Those are the things that customers desire and will pay for if offered separately from a license for the software. The company also requires that the user license the software. No customer would separately pay for a license that restricts their rights. That would be a subtraction in value. People buy the software because the combined value of the value-subtracting license and the value-add goods exceed the price.

Bare copyright law prevents a user from redistributing the software without a license. An open source license allows recipients of the software to redistribute it, thus an open source license is a value-add. An open source license may impose some requirements on the recipient, but those requirements are usually less onerous.

A business may want to transition from a proprietary business model to an open source business model. They may, upon introspection, notice that the income they receive from the value-subtract of licensing may be much less the income they receive from their value-adds. Licensing may only be serving to reduce the income from the value-add. In that case, the company would not need to change their business model. They would need only change the license.

An additional way to bring in income is to license the software under a license with lots of requirements, such as a reciprocal license, or a grant-back license. At the same time, the company would sell the software under a standard proprietary license with no reciprocal or grant-back clause. If a customer has an active interest in not copying the software, they may perceive a proprietary license as a value-add. This provides an means for a company to have the same product be both open source and proprietary. It can be tricky, since you need to have a contributor agreement for open source contributors, but that's reasonably well understood and not terribly controversial.

Posted [11:44] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 08 Nov 2005

"I want to pay higher taxes"

I was conversing with someone recently, and they said that they wanted to pay higher taxes.

No, they didn't.

The proper response to that statement is to ask them "So what's stopping you?" Nothing is stopping them from paying higher taxes. All you have to do is send in the check. Every taxing department is perfectly happy to have you pay higher taxes.

No, what they really want is the political power to force other people to pay higher taxes. If you can get them to admit that, then you should ask them whether they think other people's money would be spent more wisely by a government employee or by the person who traded his life energy for the money.

Posted [16:55] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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First, there is a mountain

Persons above a certain age may remember the Donovan tune There is a mountain, which starts "First there is a mountain then there is no mountain, then there is." Donovan, along with other pop rock stars of the day, had looked at Zen Buddhism and (I presume) was struck by the poetic turn of that phrase.

I'm working on regulating my breathing. First, there is no breathing (you don't pay any attention to your breathing), then there is breathing (you pay attention to breathing), then there is no breathing (having succeeded in training yourself to breathe correctly, you don't need to pay attention to it anymore). Right now, I have breathing. It will be some years before I have no breathing again.

This last sentence tells you why the young do not study Tai Chi very successfully.

Posted [02:26] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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