Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Esperanto, a created, living language

I thought it was a kind of dead language, like Klingon. But apparently, it's not:



The creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhoff, was a very interesting fellow:
[...] Zamenhof was born on 15 December (3 December OS) 1859 in the town of Białystok in the Russian Partition (north-eastern Poland) in the age of national insurrections. His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and his wife was born in Kaunas, in one of the biggest Jewish centres of the time. He appears to have been natively bilingual in Yiddish and Russian,[3] presumably the Belorussian "dialect" of his home town, though it may have been only his father who spoke Russian with him at home. From his father, a teacher of German and French, he learned those languages and Hebrew as well. He also spoke Polish, one of the major languages of Bialystok alongside Yiddish, (Belo)Russian, and German, and it was Polish that was to become the native language of his children. In school he studied the classical languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He later learned some English, though in his own words not very well, had an interest in Lithuanian and Italian, and learned Volapük when it came out in 1880, though by that point his international language project was already well developed.[4][5]

In addition to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority, the population of Białystok was made up of Poles and Belarusians, with smaller groups of Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others. Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among these groups. He supposed that the main reason for the hate and prejudice lay in the mutual misunderstanding caused by the lack of one common language. If such a language existed, Zamenhof postulated, it could play the role of a neutral communication tool between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

As a student at secondary school in Warsaw, Zamenhof made attempts to create some kind of international language with a grammar that was very rich, but also very complex. When he later studied English, he decided that the international language must have a simpler grammar. Apart from his parents' native languages Russian and Yiddish and his adopted language Polish, his linguistics attempts were also aided by his mastering of German, a good passive understanding of Latin, Hebrew and French, and a basic knowledge of Greek, English and Italian.[6]

By 1878, his project Lingwe uniwersala was almost finished. However, Zamenhof was too young then to publish his work. Soon after graduation from school he began to study medicine, first in Moscow, and later in Warsaw. In 1885, Zamenhof graduated from a university and began his practice as a doctor in Veisiejai and after 1886 as an ophthalmologist in Płock and Vienna. While healing people there he continued to work on his project of an international language.

For two years he tried to raise funds to publish a booklet describing the language until he received the financial help from his future wife's father. In 1887, the book titled Международный язык. Предисловие и полный учебник (International language: Introduction and complete textbook) was published in Russian[7] under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto" (Doctor Hopeful). Zamenhof initially called his language "Lingvo internacia" (international language), but those who learned it began to call it Esperanto after his pseudonym, and this soon became the official name for the language. For Zamenhof this language, far from being merely a communication tool, was a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures.[2] [...]
What a fascinating man. Read the whole thing for embedded links and more.

I've been reading about Esperanto lately, because I've been reading a book about language learning, Fluent in 3 Months. The author, Benny Lewis, recommends learning Esperanto as your first second language, because it's easy to learn, you make progress quickly, and many studies have shown that people who learn Esperanto as their first second language, have a much easier time learning other languages successfully. Benny talks about this on his website:

http://www.fluentin3months.com/esperanto/
[...] I always encourage people to spend just two weeks learning Esperanto, for the purely pragmatic reason of it giving them a boost in their main focus language. There was a great recent TEDx talk specifically about this idea of using Esperanto as a springboard to learning other languages. But moving on from that, those you can use Esperanto with make it all the more worthwhile to learn.

At Esperanto events, I’ve made some fantastic open minded friends, and sang, laughed, argued, flirted (and more…), played, explored and eaten with them there. And while travelling, I’ve met up with other speakers who I know will share the philosophies of the community of open mindedness and friendliness, while being modern and forward thinking.

One way you can meet Esperanto speakers in many cities is via Pasporta Servo, which is kind of like Couchsurfing, only it started many decades before. I also simply use Couchsurfing itself and search for speakers of the language and Google info about the local city’s community. It turns out every city in China has an active Esperanto community, and I’ve met up with several speakers in this trip already!

Of course many of them are into language learning and travel, but we tend to talk about whatever else comes up. In many situations, the structure of the language actually lets you be more expressive than non-constructed languages. [...]
Read the whole page for embedded links, videos, and much MUCH more.
     

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The evolving demos, raised living standards

Why did the British surge ahead during the industrial evolution? Would you believe, it was awareness of numbers, and patience?

How learning to pass the marshmallow test explains global economic evolution
[...] Paul Solman: So we get to 1800 and now suddenly things become dramatically different. If you’ve got a line for growth per person that’s basically horizontal along a timeline of all human history, suddenly after 1800 it looks like it’s going straight up?

Greg Clark: Yes. Sometime around 1800 this dominant feature of the world up until then, which was very slow technological advancement, changed, and we moved to a world where technological advancement was systematic, expected, occurring all the time. But I should emphasize that that change is actually much more gradual than that 1800 date would suggest.

There was a break at some point between, say, 1600 and 1900 from this Malthusian world to the modern world, and that, for the advanced economies, just dramatically changed their nature.

What I want to emphasize here is the bizarre and puzzling nature of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s important to understand that this is one of the intellectual puzzles of history that’s on a par with the biggest puzzles in physics, or in astronomy, even though people generally don’t appreciate this. And perhaps the reason is that modern economists have constructed a false history of the world in their minds. They tend to assume that since high-income modern economies have certain economic features –

Paul Solman: Free markets, rule of law…

Greg Clark: …stability, peace, open government, and that low-income modern economies tend to have violence, market interference, restrictions — what must be the case is that the pre-industrial world suffered from all of these problems, and that then somehow people stumbled on the right institutions, and then growth occurred.

Paul Solman: And by “institutions” you mean markets, the sanctity of contracts?

Greg Clark: That’s right. Property rights, markets, representative government, limitations on the power of government. And it does turn out that England, which was in the vanguard of this movement, was a politically stable society with limited democracy, and very little government interference.

However, when you study the long history of the pre-industrial period, it becomes apparent that, for example, if you go back to 1300, England already had all the institutions you needed for modern economic growth.

England had a government tax rate that averaged 1 percent. It had, for hundreds of years, zero inflation. It had no government debt. It had absolute security for most people of their property rights. Most markets were free. For hundreds and hundreds of years, England had everything it needed for modern growth. If you go back to ancient Greece or ancient Rome, or probably even ancient Babylon, they had institutions enough for getting growth.

Paul Solman: We have the tablets from ancient Babylon because they were incised in clay, and there were all kinds of contracts.

Greg Clark: They had home mortgages, they had rental contracts, they had labor contracts, they had urban societies.

But, says Clark, the Babylonians obviously didn’t have modern economic growth. Nor did the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese or anyone else, even though they had many of the institutions that economists credit with the advent of prosperity.

Greg Clark: It’s the dominant paradigm in modern economics. The idea in this is that economics has an amazing power. Institutions – I mean, it’s just the rules of the game in any society. If we don’t like the rules we have, why don’t we just change them? And then apparently, we could have endless growth.

That I think, is what gives economics its power and its appeal. But that’s what I’m trying to argue against.

I think the key was that there is very strong evidence that people were changing through this long Malthusian interval. Human nature seems to have been changing. It may well be culturally. It’s impossible to rule out that it’s actually genetically. What we find, if we look back at the earliest societies, is that people tended to be violent, impulsive, impatient. They didn’t like to work.

When we get to societies like England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, you can see that people are accumulating capital in ways that they never did before. There’s much less violence – ordinary day-to-day violence — in the society.

People’s levels of education have expanded enormously. They are much more aware of numbers.

The upper classes in ancient Rome mostly didn’t know what age they were. On their tombstones they would record ages that were just fantastical – 120 in a society where life expectancy at birth was 25 to 30. No one seems to have thought: “This is crazy.”

You also get in these early societies people giving numbers for battles that just make no sense in terms of what we now know about history.

Paul Solman: What’s an example of that?

Greg Clark: They typically quote 80,000 for some reason as a standard number, and it just seemed to mean “big.”

There’s a case in medieval England where someone testified in Parliament to having fought in a battle in his youth, which occurred more than 100 years earlier. No one interrupted to say, “What are you talking about?”

And so we really see big changes in terms of work effort, patience, interest rates in very early societies at astonishing levels. If you go back to ancient Babylon, your house mortgage would cost you in real terms 20 to 25 percent interest rate per year.

These were societies that offered fantastic profit opportunities – profit opportunities that even venture capitalists now would die for. They were available to everyone, and no one took them.

In ancient Greece, your standard return from completely safe investments was 10 percent. But on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in England, the rate is down to 4 percent. There’s just a fundamental change in people’s psychology. What that implies is that people were historically very impatient.

Paul Solman: So you mean the time value of money — the value of waiting — has simply gone down as time has gone on?

Greg Clark: Yes. There’s very clear signs that with risk-free investments, the amount you have to pay people to wait declines very dramatically. We know, in the modern world, that people vary in their degree of impatience and how much they have to be paid.

I have three children, and they vary very significantly across that factor.

We also know in the modern world that psychologists were able to test four-year-olds and say, “You can have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if you wait for a few minutes.”

There’s a bunch of kids that have to have the marshmallow, and others that just have this different psychology where they can wait. It turns out that’s a very good predictor of how they’ll do later in life. It seems to be a fundamental feature of peoples’ personalities: how willing they are to wait for gratification.

There seems to be this possibility that on a world scale, this was actually changing as we moved from hunter-gatherer society, to 1800. [...]
I'm sure one reason that people were "historically impatient", was that they didn't live very long!

Read the whole thing for embedded links and video.

     

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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Dark Chocolate and Leg Circulation

Does the former help the latter? A recent study suggests it does:

Could Dark Chocolate Help Ease Poor Leg Circulation?


[...] In a small study, people with artery problems in their legs walked a little longer and farther right after eating a bar of dark chocolate, the researchers said.

Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. The researchers believe polyphenols improve blood flow to the legs by affecting biochemicals that prompt arteries to widen.

"Our body secretes chemicals that naturally dilate blood vessels in response to certain stimuli, improving the blood flow to certain areas," said Dr. Richard Chazal, vice president of the American College of Cardiology. "Some of the chemicals inside dark chocolate could affect the way these enzymes are metabolized in the body," suggested Chazal, who was not involved with the study.

The pilot study involved 20 people aged 60 to 78 who suffered from peripheral artery disease, a narrowing of the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the legs, stomach, arms and head. Reduced blood flow can cause pain, cramping or fatigue in the legs or hips while walking.

The patients walked on a treadmill in the morning and again two hours after eating 40 grams of dark or milk chocolate -- the size of an average American chocolate bar -- on separate days. The dark chocolate in the study had a cocoa content of more than 85 percent, making it rich in polyphenols. The milk chocolate, with a cocoa content below 30 percent, had far fewer polyphenols, the study authors noted.

After eating dark chocolate, patients walked an average 11 percent farther and 15 percent longer than they did earlier in the day. That's about 39 feet farther and about 17 seconds longer, according to the study, published July 2 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

[...]

The researchers found that levels of nitric oxide, a gas linked to improved blood flow, were higher after eating dark chocolate. They suggested that the higher nitric oxide levels may be responsible for widening peripheral arteries and improving the patients' ability to walk.

Both the results and the theory are "intriguing," said Dr. Mark Creager, director of the Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"The results are certainly interesting but modest, in terms of the walking distance improved," said Creager, who also serves as a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "With information such as this, one would anticipate these investigators will conduct a much larger trial with long-term treatment to confirm their observations."

Creager and Chazal noted that chocolate is also high in fat and sugar, and eating too much can contribute to health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.

"People need to be very aware of the fact that there are many substances in chocolate bars that could have an adverse effect on health," Creager said. "I would not recommend that people eat chocolate bars to improve their walking distance."

Chazal agreed, saying the study's true value lies in identifying the way that polyphenols might affect blood flow to the legs.

Polyphenols also can be found in foods with less added sugar and saturated fats, such as cloves, dried peppermint, celery seed, capers and hazelnuts. [...]
So more polyphenols may be the answer, rather than just dark chocolate specifically. The article went on to say more studies should be done to confirm these findings.
     

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Palestinians can save Israel from itself.

Can the Palestinians really do that, to the benefit of everyone? This article says they have the power:

Israel doesn't have peace because peace and fear don't mix well
Israel simply cannot bring itself to use the bargaining chips it holds in exchange for the big prize. Why can’t it deliver the goods?
[...] A feeling of victimhood – as if our lengthy national childhood was one characterized by abuse – has turned us into a country that behaves like an abusive parent. This is how it works in 
nature, where violence is perpetuated from one generation to the next. The parents were fearful and beaten, so the children become thugs, yet remain fearful and lacking in self-confidence.

Where are the keys needed to break this impasse? One of them is the passage of time. Maybe there is no such thing as “Peace Now.” Maybe our temporal proximity to the trauma of the ovens does not allow us to act with cold logic, only with hot passion. Maybe we need to wait for the next generation, already born, to accomplish what two generations – ourselves and our parents – totally failed at doing.

The other key is unfair, placing responsibility for Israel’s wellbeing on the Palestinians, for their own good as well. I liken Israel to a lazy elephant, sprawled across the road. It has no motivation to budge. It enjoys seeing itself as big and powerful, heavy, reclining and satiated.

It’s not surprising that in politics it is the weak and hungry that are agents of change. In contrast to a strong agent that has no motivation to move, the weak Palestinian can effect change. How? Violence has not wrought change, since we have become inured, even addicted to it. Each blow only adds to the historical fate to which we believe we have been subjected to over time – to justifying the present situation on the backdrop of our traumatic past.

Only one thing will raise the elephant from its current pose: a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience, a creative and determined insurrection aimed at one goal – attaining equal rights. It seems as if there has been a recent awakening among Palestinians in this direction. This is reflected in a transition from a discourse about interests, power, terror and honor to a conversation about values, rights and liberties. Many Palestinians are rightfully angry at Israel, holding it accountable for many wrongs, but they are no longer afraid of it or feel threatened by making peace with it. They have internalized the positive aspects of a political settlement, and, in terms of their political mental framework, they are well ahead of many Israelis. More and more Palestinians are acting in the political arena without fear and with an ideology of nonviolent resistance. Israel has no response to such a course of action, neither a military, political nor moral one.

In contrast, Israelis are still an anxious collective. Since peace and fears don’t mix well together, we still don’t have peace. The dread inside us has taken on a life of its own, to which we’ve become accustomed and even addicted. Fears can play a positive role, keeping us alert in the face of dangers and threats, leading us to deal with them in an appropriate manner. For too many Israelis, any kind of peace is enmeshed in an existential dread, a condition that supposedly conceals a plot to eradicate us, posing risks but no opportunities.

There will only be peace here when the masses and their political leaders internalize the fact that peace is a therapy for our fears. It is the total, completely beneficial alternative to all our historical phobias – a condition that can replace or erase them. Paradoxically, the Palestinians – who now bear the brunt of our current historic phase of fears and phobias – can save Israel from itself. A million Palestinians who relate to Israel and its corrupting occupation with peace and conciliation, rather than with terror and hostility, will do well for themselves and us. [...]
Well, civil disobedience has worked as a political strategy in other places, most recently in South Africa. But I don't know how much of a chance it would have in Israel, as long as rockets keep flying over their borders at them.

If you read the whole thing, it explains a lot about the historical/psychological dynamics at work, that need to be overcome. That's a hard sell though, while the rockets continue to fly, reinforcing the old dynamics.
   

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

The perennial philosophy in philosophy

Aldous Huxley wrote about The Perennial Philosophy that runs through all theologies. It's made me think recently, about the commonalities that run through many philosophies.

Recently, I've posted about Buddhism as a philosophy. More recently still, I've been reading about Epicureans and Stoics, and have been struck by the similarities they share with each other, and with Buddhist philosophy.

I'm not the only one who has noticed:

Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism
[...] Stoics aimed not at getting rid of emotions (despite the popular caricature of Stoics as Spock-like figures), but rather to channel them in a more productive direction. This was achieved through a combination of logic, concentration and reflection, and eventually evolved into various contemporary forms of cognitive behavioral therapy. (In this sense, both Buddhism — with its various meditative techniques — and Stoicism have entered the realm of modern practices, which can be pursued essentially independently of the philosophies that gave origin to them.) The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (again, with due consideration given to the significant differences in the background conditions and specific articulation of the three philosophies). And of course Stoics too had a ready-made recipe for their philosophy, in the form of a short list of virtues to practice (nothing compared to the above mentioned panoply of Buddhist lists though!). These were: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom.

I am sure one could continue with this conceptual cross-mapping for a while, and of course scholars within each of the three traditions would object to or modify my suggestions. What I am interested in here, however, is pursuing the further questions of what the common limitations of the philosophies of Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism are, as well as what positive contributions they have made to humanity's thinking about (and dealing with!) the universe.

I am inclined to reject both Buddhism’s and Stoicism’s metaphysics, being significantly more happy with the Epicurean view of the world. I don’t think there is any reason to think that concepts like logos or karma have any philosophical substance, nor do they do any work in actually explaining why things are the way they are. The Epicurean embracing of a materialist metaphysics, instead, is in synch with the development of natural philosophy and eventually of modern science. [...]
Read the whole thing, for a thoughtful comparison of the three philosophies. And for the embedded links, and some interesting comments afterward.

While reading about the Stoics, I came across this informative timeline on the Stoics' wikipedia page:




Since I don't have a lot of leisure time to study philosophy, I decided to cut to the chase and read Marcus Aurelius, who seems to be the culmination of the stoic philosophers. I had read a little bit of his writing in the past, and was favorably impressed, so I've ordered a book of his meditations.

Even though Marcus was a Stoic, he had studied Epicurus. I wondered if one could mix Marcus Aurelius and Epicurianism as practical wisdom for a good life? It seems I am not the first one to ask that question:

Can one mix Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius to create a great recipe for a good life?
It is time to present two of my all-time favorites among humanistic thinkers of the past. Number one on my list is early Greek philosopher Epicurus. He did create a comprehensive and wholly rational recipe on how to attain a maximal state of peace of mind.
My second choice is the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He did teach how to use self-restraint for achieving tranquility of mind.

These two great men had much in common. Marcus Aurelius was well aware of the teachings of the much earlier Epicurus, even if he belonged to a competing school of philosophy. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic and Stoicism did compete for followers with Epicureanism in the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Stoics did, in fact, at times pour scorn over Epicurus. However, the fact remains that their philosophy contains very many elements that were taken quite straight out of Epicureanism. Many ideas that were presented by Marcus Aurelius could have as well been uttered by Epicurus or his followers as well. [...]

Marcus Aurelius

I think we are blessed to have so many great minds from the past that we can still learn from. Wisdom we can build on.  I'm very much enjoying all this!


Also see:

"Never let the future disturb you" or Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus on foundations for a good life

   

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People who say they "Don't care about money"

A recent example is the Clinton's daughter:

Chelsea Clinton: I tried to care about money but couldn't
The daughter of former President Bill Clinton and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton explained in a recent interview why she left lucrative professions and opted for working with her family’s philanthropic foundation. ‘I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t,’ she said.

[...]

Comparing her experience to the average millennial, the 34-year-old former first daughter defended jumping around to different careers — from consulting to a hedge fund to academia to journalism — before finding her true calling working with her parents.

“It is frustrating, because who wants to grow up and follow their parents? I’ve tried really hard to care about things that were very different from my parents … it’s a funny thing to realize I feel called to this work, both as a daughter and also as someone who believes I have contributions to make,” she continued about her reluctant status as a boomerang kid.

The Clinton name likely opened doors for the political heiress, including an eye-popping $600,000 annual salary for an irregular stint as an NBC special correspondent, but Chelsea insists her work speaks for itself.

“I will just always work harder (than anybody else) and hopefully perform better,” said Clinton, who along with former banker husband Marc Mezvinsky, purchased a $10.5-million Gramercy Park apartment in 2013. [...]
Didn't her parents spend $3,000,000 on her wedding? I wouldn't be surprised if she has a trust fund, too. I doubt she ever has to worry about becoming homeless.

Given that she has more than enough to live comfortably, perhaps what she means is, she doesn't wish to work hard trying to earn more, because she already has enough? That she doesn't care about striving for more cash?

That would be understandable. But it's not quite the same as not caring about money. It's not like she's giving it all away, and becoming a renunciant with a begging bowl or anything. In fact, I find that people in her income class usually do care, and take steps to hang on to their money. Her parents have:

Wealthy Clintons use trusts to avoid full estate tax they back
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have long supported an estate tax to prevent the United States from being dominated by inherited wealth. That doesn't mean they want to pay it.

To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. These moves, common among multimillionaires, will help shield some of their estate from the tax that now tops out at 40 percent of assets upon death.

The Clintons created residence trusts in 2010 and shifted ownership of their New York house into them in 2011, according to federal financial disclosures and property records.

Among the tax advantages of such trusts is that any appreciation in the house's value can happen outside their taxable estate. The move could save the Clintons hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes, said David Scott Sloan, a partner at Holland & Knight L.L.P. in Boston.

"The goal is really be thoughtful and try to build up the nontaxable estate, and that's really what this is," Sloan said. "You're creating things that are going to be on the nontaxable side of the balance sheet when they die." [...]
All this posturing about not caring about money is easy when you have more than you could ever need, but IMO it rings hollow to someone whose annual income is only $11,000 a year. At that level, you HAVE TO CARE, and you know it, if you are reasonably smart and don't wish to be living in the streets.

I'm not envious of people for having wealth; who doesn't want to be better off than they are? That is perfectly natural, and I'm glad for people who manage to do it, because I want to be better off too. But it does grate when those who have so much more talk about being "broke" when they never were, like Hillary does, or not caring about money, like her daughter. Couldn't they be more honest? And shouldn't we insist that they are? Especially if they involve themselves in making laws about what is to be done with OUR money?

   

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Buddhism: a philosophy for the 21st century?

NOT a religion, but a philosophy. I've recently finished reading this book:


Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition, presents the definitive book on Western Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker.

The radical and compelling message of Buddhism tells us that each of us has the wisdom, awareness, love, and power of the Buddha within; yet most of us are too often like sleeping Buddhas. In Awakening the Buddha Within, Surya Das shows how we can awaken to who we really are in order to lead a more compassionate, enlightened, and balanced life. It illuminates the guidelines and key principles embodied in the noble Eight-Fold Path and the traditional Three Enlightenment Trainings common to all schools of Buddhism:

Wisdom Training: Developing clear vision, insight, and inner understanding -- seeing reality and ourselves as we really are.

Ethics Training: Cultivating virtue, self-discipline, and compassion in what we say and do.

Meditation Training: Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and awareness of the present moment.

With lively stories, meditations, and spiritual practices, Awakening the Buddha Within is an invaluable text for the novice and experienced student of Buddhism alike.
I actually struggled with this book quite a bit. There were several times, where I almost quit reading it.

There was much I simply could not agree with. In fact, it very much reminded me of why I never pursued Buddhism, even though I like a lot of the things the Buddha is said to have taught. Every time I've tried to learn more about Buddhism, there would be something irrational that would put me off.

I felt that many times while reading this book, but it was a mixture of things, it wasn't all off-putting. I persevered with it, and by the end I was glad I did. I bought the book in the first place because I was hoping that it would:

A.) Teach me about Tibetan Buddhism.

B.) Be an interesting story of the life Surya Das (formerly known as Jeffrey Miller from Long Island) chose for himself, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist Lama.

C.) Teach me some things I could integrate into my own life.

In the end, I have to say it did all of those things. Surya Das has lead a life I would not have liked to have had, but thankfully he did it and I got to read about it and get the benefit of his insights from that, without having to do it myself. Sometimes you can learn a lot from a book, even if you don't agree with much of what it says. It challenges your ideas and makes you think. This was one of those books.

While reading the book, I found myself looking up a lot of things he was referring to on the internet. It was on-line that I found this essay by Sam Harris. I found myself agreeing with much of it:

Killing the Buddha
“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

[...]

For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

[...]

Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. At the level of societies, the choice is between conversation and war. There is nothing apart from a fundamental willingness to be reasonable—to have one’s beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments—that can guarantee we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.

[...]

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

It is as yet undetermined what it means to be human, because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight. We do not know what we will be a thousand years from now—or indeed that we will be, given the lethal absurdity of many of our beliefs—but whatever changes await us, one thing seems unlikely to change: as long as experience endures, the difference between happiness and suffering will remain our paramount concern. We will therefore want to understand those processes—biochemical, behavioral, ethical, political, economic, and spiritual—that account for this difference. [...]

Read the whole essay for embedded links and more. Harris expounds further on some of the ideas mentioned in the above excerpts, as he makes his case, and it's a good read. But back to the "Awakening the Buddha Within" book:

At the end of that book, even Jeffrey - oops, excuse me, "Surya Das" - said there were many types of Buddhism, and that one didn't have to embrace or believe in many of the beliefs held by Buddhists, or even believe in God. In the end, he said you could take from it what you wanted or needed.

I appreciated the lack of insistence on following dogma, but also found it a little ironic that he seemed to be indirectly supporting at least a portion of Sam Harris's essay; that Buddhist teachings don't have to be mixed up with religion.

I would not go so far as to say the two authors agree, but they seem close to agreement on some points. I think perhaps that Das is saying the teachings don't have to be mixed with religion, whereas Harris is more forcefully arguing that they should not be. That's not agreement, but pretty darn close.


Also see:

On criticizing fellow Buddhists
The tyranny of "Consensus Buddhism"!

     

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Proverbs from around the world

Cultural proverbs:

Ten proverbs and sayings to help you around the world
It’s taken me a long time as a language learner to come to terms with proverbs. I always resisted them for various reasons. They’re a pain to learn, they can sound silly and unnatural, and it’s often hard to imagine a scenario in which you’d actually use them. However, they’re actually a really important part of every language, and as an English speaker I find I’m often unaware of just how many I use every day.

Knowing these sayings, and being able to produce them spontaneously at the right moment, is an important component of fluency. They’re the colour and spirit of a language, and help you to get deeper into the mentality of it. Here is a list of ten great proverbs in different languages, that perhaps one day will come in handy for you! [...]
You may well find a few chuckles here - I did!
     

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One Priest's perspective

I thought this was a very thoughtful and well-considered piece:

What our parish does about gay relationships
Pope Francis has asked our bishops to report to Rome on what is actually happening in the parishes in regard to marriage and family life. Among the many topics to be discussed are "same-sex unions between persons who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children."

I think that our parish is a fairly typical middle-class, mostly white, English-speaking, American parish. I also think it would be fair to say that our approach to same-sex couples, including marriage and adoption, is evolving. One might characterize our approach as public silence and private acceptance.

In public, we are silent about the fact that some of our fellow parishioners are gay, even though some people are aware of their relationships.

In private, we are accepting their relationships so long as we don't have to acknowledge them.

Such a modus vivendi is not really an ethical resolution to the question. In fact, it is merely a strategy for avoidance.

There seem to be two great divides in my parish over issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. One divide is generational. The other divide is personal.

The generational divide is the most obvious and clear-cut, but not absolute. Older people are less accepting of LGBT relationships. Younger people see no problem. In fact, younger people often think the church should move beyond mere acceptance to affirmation. The dividing line seems to be about age 50.

This generational divide is radical and serious. For some young people, it determines whether or not they will remain Catholics. One young man left our church over the issue. As the older Catholics die off, the church will find very little acceptance of its current negative position on gay relationships. We will find ourselves culturally marginalized in countries like the United States.

The personal divide is more subtle and harder to quantify. People who know someone in their family or circle of friends who is publicly gay are much more accepting of LGBT people than people who claim they don't know anyone who is gay. Of course, the fact is, everyone actually does know someone who is gay. They just know that their friend or family member is gay but does not admit it.

Personal experience is important. More and more people are coming out as gay. More and more people will have to accept their relationships. Our younger people nearly always know someone who is out as gay and find it very easy to accept. This is a sea change from a generation ago.

More and more gay relationships are being discussed, even in a conservative community like ours. In the past few years, at least a dozen parents have come to me to tell me that their children are gay. They are supportive of their children. They want to know how I will respond. I always encourage them to accept and love their child.

Two of my friends who go to other parishes left the Catholic church when their children came out. They simply could not accept a church that judged their children to be "intrinsically disordered." If someone is put in the position of choosing between his or her child and the church, they will obviously and quite rightly choose their child.

The hyperbolic and harsh language of the church will have to change. It is not accurate, and it is not charitable. [...]
It's worth reading the whole thing. He chooses his words carefully, and explains his reasoning well. The story he told at the end left me a bit teary.

I thought it was a great response to what the Pope was asking about. But judging by some of the comments left after the article, it would seem that there are still plenty of people who don't want the "hyperbolic and harsh language" to change at all, and they are willing to give away free samples too.

     

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Low Vitamin D levels kill?

One study says yes:

Low vitamin D tied to premature death, Study
People with lower levels of vitamin D are twice as likely to die prematurely than those who have higher levels in their blood, said Univ. of Calif.-San Diego researchers.

Lead study author Cedric Garland said 30 nanograms per milliliter of vitamin D was associated with the lower death rate, and that two-thirds of the U.S. have estimated blood levels below 30 ng/ml. Humans can increase their natural production of vitamin D through exposure to sunlight.

“Three years ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that having a too-low blood level of vitamin D was hazardous,” said Cedric Garland, professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at University of California – San Diego and lead author of the study.

“This study supports that conclusion, but goes one step further. The 20 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) blood level cutoff assumed from the IOM report was based solely on the association of low vitamin D with risk of bone disease.

“This new finding is based on the association of low vitamin D with risk of premature death from all causes, not just bone diseases,” Garland said. [...]

     

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Where Keynes got it wrong, and why

And what we might glean from the "why":

Paul Mason: what would Keynes do?
The revolution in IT and how it is transforming our world in ways that even economists are struggling to understand.
In 1930, while the world was still reeling from the impact of the Wall Street crash, John Maynard Keynes published a remarkable essay: in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” he imagined a world where, as he put it, mankind’s “economic problem” has been solved. By 2030, barring unforeseen wars and given the population did not rise too fast, a combination of technological advance and rising wealth could leave enough for everybody.

This would be quite a big change, he pointed out, because the entire history of humanity has been determined by there not being enough for everyone.

“For the first time since his creation,” Keynes wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

[...]

Keynes imagined and fought for a society based on liberalism and aesthetics. The market would eventually provide for all and create a confident, socially adventurous leisure class, whose purpose was to understand and create beauty – and to work as little as possible. That view had been dented by the First World War and would now be shattered by the Depression. So the “grandchildren” essay stands as almost the last utterance of Keynes’s pre-Depression world-view.

[...]

So, as with all insights into the future, Keynes’s essay is full of misunderstandings about the present. (In 1930 the great wave of bank insolvencies that triggered the Depression lay 12 months ahead. Herbert Hoover was in the White House, no developed country had yet left the gold standard, Ramsay MacDonald was still in Downing Street and the Nazis held just 12 of the 491 seats in the Reichstag.) Its underlying tone is: don’t worry, these are growing pains; the market will – with the help of governments – create the solution. And that was wrong.

Yet there is something breathtakingly far-sighted about the “grandchildren” essay. At its heart is the proposition that one day:

• capitalism will grow into something else;

• if that happens the cause will probably be technology;

• we will have a major psychological problem adjusting our lifestyles to a situation where money is not important;

• the love of money will come to be seen as a disease;

• economics will become as mundane as dentistry.

Keynes looks into the future using three yardsticks: the rate of technical innovation, the growth of population and the growth of capital through compound interest. He estimated that productivity would safely grow at least 1 per cent per year, and that capital would grow by 2 per cent per year. If so, it was safe to assume that by 2030 the standard of living in advanced countries could be four to eight times what it was in 1930 – and if technology improved faster, eight times could be an underestimate.

[...]

The idea was that technological progress would create fresh demand, so that even as the price of today’s goods got cheaper (because of productivity) there would always be new, more complex human needs created that require higher-valued things and a higher-skilled workforce to create them. That has been capitalism’s get-out-of-jail card for 200 years, confounding Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, each of whom in his own way believed there were limits to capital.

It happened spectacularly in the Progressive Era, the second industrial revolution, when Victorian-era cities were suddenly populated with Arts and Crafts-style pubs, cinemas, libraries, automobiles, electric lighting . . . prompting Virginia Woolf to declare that “on or about December 1910, human character changed”. And sure enough human character is changing again, under the impact of technology. This third industrial revolution is having a different effect, however: certainly there are more complex needs being created, but it’s not obvious how they will be commercialised.

“Information wants to be free,” said the hippie-ideologue Stewart Brand – to which the open-source movement added: “free as in freedom”. If physical goods are getting cheaper the drivers of demand are of course energy (which has to get dearer) or services. But services, too, can be automated. And so what we may be left with is the nightmare the French writer André Gorz envisaged: that just as it tried to privatise water in the 1980s, capitalism is forced to privatise and commodify simple human interaction. That just as we have sex work now, we might have affection work, sympathy work, anti-loneliness work in the future.

[...]

The present situation breeds not only a widening inequality of wealth but an inequality of power not seen in Keynes’s time except in Fascist Italy or Stalin’s Russia. I think it may all end in tears again – with unchecked oligarchic governments such as those of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan repressing their population with tear gas and arbitrary detention, while the democratic-world elite stands by, once again convinced that its economic interest lies in supporting dictators against their own people, and increasingly prepared to use repression, surveillance and arbitrary power against their own populations.

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

Keynes’s critique of Marxism was that by basing itself on the working class it asked too much of the intelligentsia. He wrote in 1925: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above bourgeois and the intelligentsia, who, with whatever faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement?”

Well, now (thanks to education and technology), we have a mass intelligentsia: yes, for sure, spoon-fed tick-box learning on degree courses whose intellectual level Keynes would have scorned. But they have shown themselves willing to stand somewhere between the mud and the fish, and able to create science and art and ideas that make this a thrilling time to be alive. It was they who launched the Arab spring, the Quebec spring, Occupy, Taksim Square and the Russian democracy movement.

When I look at the picture of the miner’s relative and the man kicking him, I find it hard to prefer the fish to the mud. I suspect that Keynes, placed for one hour in a Rolex store, or in any of the yachting ports where British politicians frequent the vessels of Russian oligarchs, might also begin to find this whole “fish v mud” thing not so useful. But we have gone beyond the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We have an educated demos alongside an underclass, and we are all toiling in a social factory where every act of production, consumption and leisure sucks us into a system of value creation based on debt, finance, monopoly.

By 2030, according to the Oxford Martin School, 47 per cent of all US jobs, mainly in retail and services, will be automated. Automation used to mean the replacement of physical labour by machines; now it means the replacement of mental labour by software – and software is just a machine that never wears out and costs nothing to reproduce. Unless whole new industries based on whole new sources of economic demand grow up, the purchasing power of the majority will fall; and ultimately there is only so much money you can print, and only so many asset bubbles you can stimulate, until it comes to a full stop.

Keynes imagined a future where rising wealth led to falling inequality. Instead, economic wealth has grown more slowly than he imagined but physical and information wealth has grown faster and begun to detach itself from the value system. The moment is coming where we have to recognise this and redesign society as boldly as Keynes’s generation did in the mid-1940s.

I think a modern-day Keynes would be obsessed with how to decouple work from income, production from price, organisation from ownership. We know what he achieved in practice: a workable system that revived global capitalism. But he also dreamed of something better than a system based on the pursuit of money. [...]
Yeah, dreamed is exactly the right word. And what is this: "That just as we have sex work now, we might have affection work, sympathy work, anti-loneliness work in the future." WTF?

This article does have some interesting parts, and parts of it seem to be backed up with some pretty good arguments and observations. But it's got it's weak spots too.

The author says "Even as we grapple with the aftermath of our own Wall Street crash, we are facing a new problem: the rise of information goods whose abundance is probably the indirect cause of – and solution to – our current state of low growth, high inequality and growing social unrest." And tries to explain why. Some of his arguments are convincing. But others, not so much. And I have to say, I'd like to hear more about how the abundance of information goods is "the solution to".

He does an excellent job of explaining the failures of Keynes predictions, but then seems to go on praising Keynes's vision as some how achievable anyway, due to some vague "post-capitalist" society that we need to become.

I don't object to the discussion of this. But I've heard plenty of people fantasize about a "post-capitalist society", yet they never show you the beef; it just sounds life a fantasy. And since Keynes HAS been proven wrong about so many things, you have to wonder if it isn't a mistake to keep holding on to the future-fantasies he envisioned as well?

This article identifies a lot of problems, but it seems unfirm and vague about solutions. I can't get excited or enthusiastic about vague references to a "post-capitalist" society, without it being explained how such a society would actually work. It's been tried before, with dismal, even deadly, results. So any talk about a "post-capitalist" society should, IMO, provide the details and prove itself to be something other than another deadly experiment in social engineering.


   

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The UK's most multi-lingual student

He talks about how he did it. In several languages:



How do you become fluent in 11 languages?
[...] Twenty-year-old Alex Rawlings has won a national competition to find the UK's most multi-lingual student.

The Oxford University undergraduate can currently speak 11 languages - English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian.

Entrants in the competition run by the publishers Collins had to be aged between 16 and 22 and conversant in multiple languages.

Alex drew on all his skills to tell BBC News about his passion for learning languages and how he came to speak so many. [...]

     

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Added benefit to being multi-lingual

Speaking two languages keeps brain's aging at bay
NEW YORK: If you speak more languages than one, it is good not only for your social image but also for the health of your brain, a research said.

Bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life.

Individuals, who speak two or more languages, even those who acquired the second language in adulthood, may slow down cognitive decline from aging, the research found.

"Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence," said lead author Thomas Bak from University of Edinburgh.

Bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults. [...]
They wanted to eliminate the possibility that bilingual people had better cognition, that led them to be bilingual in the first place. Read the whole thing for the details of the study.

I love to study languages, I'm studying Spanish presently. Nice to know there can be long-term cognitive benefits too.
     

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Tax Collection: where to find 3.3 billion

The government's own employees:

Federal workers owe IRS the $3.3 billion
Lots of people haven't paid all their taxes -- including employees of the federal government.
The IRS released data this week showing that roughly 3.3% of federal employees and retirees owed $3.3 billion in unpaid taxes as of Sept. 30.

That means they either couldn't pay the full amount owed when they filed a return, or they got snagged by an IRS audit and were told they owed more than they already paid.

The data, released after USA Today requested it under the Freedom of Information Act, broke down delinquency rates by departments and independent agencies.

At the low end of the scale was the Treasury Department, which had a 1.2% non-compliance rate.

A big part of Treasury is the IRS itself, which had a delinquency rate of 0.9%, according to an agency spokesman.

The rate among the population at large is at least 8.7%, the IRS estimates.

A few weeks ago the IRS found itself in hot water with Congress for having paid $1 million in bonuses to 1,100 IRS employees who were late in paying their taxes or had willfully understated their tax liability or income.

But it turns out the delinquency rate among Congressional staffers is higher -- 4.87% in the House and 3.24% in the Senate -- than those of IRS workers.

The government departments with the highest non-compliance rates were the Department of Housing and Urban Development (5.29%), the Department of Veterans Affairs (4.38%) and the Army (4.28%).

Among large independent federal agencies, which have at least 1,000 employees, the biggest offender was the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (8.05%), followed by the Government Printing Office (7.99%), the Smithsonian Institution (6.7%) and the Federal Reserve's board of governors (6.51%).

On the low end of the scale was the National Credit Union Administration (1.75%), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (1.97%) and the Executive Office of the President (2.05%).

     

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Flying Droids a Reality on ISS

Space station's flying droids embrace Google smartphone tech
The free-flying Spheres, inspired by "Star Wars" and now aided by Google's Project Tango, will handle more of the mundane tasks for astronauts.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Imagine you're an astronaut who has just arrived at the International Space Station. You need to assess the supplies on hand, but counting everything demands so much of your limited time.

That's exactly why NASA originally turned to Spheres, autonomous, free-flying robots that take care of mundane tasks and are based on the flying droid that helped teach Luke Skywalker how to fight with a light saber in the original "Star Wars."

Now, Spheres are incorporating Google's Project Tango, cutting-edge tech that is expected to help the space agency increase efficiency.

For some time -- since 2003, to be exact -- space station crews have had access to free-flying robots known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. That ungainly title is best abbreviated to a more palatable acronym: Spheres. Originally designed by aero/astroengineers at MIT, Spheres were meant as a flying test bed for examining the mechanical properties of materials in microgravity. The inspiration for the project, said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA, "comes from 'Star Wars,' as all good things do."

Now, NASA is bringing an especially innovative commercial tool into the mix. Starting this October, Spheres will incorporate Project Tango -- a smartphone platform built for 3D mapping that also happens to be packed with just the series of sensors and cameras that NASA needs to handle many of the mundane tasks aboard the ISS.

In 2003, Spheres were fairly rudimentary -- at least for flying autonomous robots. They relied on liquid carbon dioxide for propulsion and on an ancient Texas Instruments digital signal processor.

About four years ago, Fong's Intelligent Robotics Group took over the project. Since then, it has been slowly improving Spheres robots by using the small computers better known as smartphones. At first, NASA worked with Nexus S smartphones, which are jammed with cameras, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and modern processors. [...]
I remember reading about these years ago, about how they could fly around the ISS because of the zero gravity. Now they are evolving, using smartphone technology. See the whole article for embedded links, photos and video.
     

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