Taichi Ch’uan: First, Invest In Loss

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I recently began studying taichi ch’uan, an ancient Chinese practice that develops strength and balance, reportedly has positive effects on mental and physical health, and can be used (in its advanced stages) as a method of self-defense. A book my teacher recommended, “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-Cultivation” by Cheng Man-ching, contains the following nugget of wisdom in a chapter entitled “Three Types of Fearlessness”-

Do not fear losing. The fundamental principle of taichi is: “Yield to follow others”. Yielding up your position to follow your opponent is, most decidedly, losing. … While listening to your opponent’s advance and attack, not only should you not resist, you should not even consider a counterattack. Simply adhere and stick to him, then you can lightly turn and neutralize. Moreover, a beginner cannot possibly avoid losing and defeat, so if you fear defeat you may as well not even begin. If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. An investment in loss eliminates any greed for superficial advantages. Greediness for petty advantages results in minor losses, while greediness for large advantages results in major losses. On the other hand, a tiny investment in loss brings minor benefits, while a large investment in loss brings you great long-term benefits.

A Google search for the phrase “Invest in success” came up with 33,000 hits. A search for “Invest in loss” came up with 7,340 hits, most of which were connected to sites associated with taichi or other Asian systems of thought. Of course, the point of investing in loss (at first) is eventually to benefit. But investing in success is direct, short term, and anything but subtle; investing in loss to eventually gain benefit is indirect, longer term, and subtle. It will be interesting to see which approach – and which culture – survives in the distant future.

The Culture(s) Of Entitlement

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A headline story in The Northwestern today caught my eye-

MILWAUKEE (AP) – Wisconsin Republicans endorsed Ron Johnson in the U.S. Senate race Sunday after the Oshkosh businessman delivered a fiery speech in which he said it was time to end what he believes is the nation’s culture of entitlement.

This led me to wonder – rhetorically – about just which culture of entitlement Johnson delivered a fiery speech about. It seems to me that there could be at least three such cultures:

1) The culture that involves feeling entitled to survive from day to day – that is, having enough food, a few pieces of clothing, and some sort of shelter – while one looks for ways to improve one’s condition.

2) The culture that involves feeling entitled to decent education, decent health-care, and a decent retirement for those who are working hard, or who have worked hard most of a lifetime.

3) The culture that involves feeling entitled to become richer and richer, usually off of other people’s labor, and often without producing anything of value in the final analysis.

Republicans who criticize “the culture of entitlement” usually have (1) or (2) in mind. To support their disapproval of (1), they find examples of “freeloaders” who are living on the dole without putting any effort into improving themselves or their conditions. But for the most part, the feeling of entitlement here seems bound up with what some call a “natural right” to life, which, it seems to me, Republicans should feel uncomfortable criticizing. To support their disapproval of (2), they claim that we can’t afford to provide everyone with such goods. It seems to me that whether they are right about this depends on many factors that are rarely discussed in any depth: whether we can devise rational and efficient educational, health care, and retirement systems (the recent debate over mere health insurance reform showed just how difficult this can be); whether we need to support a military-industrial complex at the level we do (as a Republican president once wondered); and so on. However, it seems to me that the feelings of entitlement involved in (1) and (2) are at least as justifiable as those found in (3), a culture of entitlement that goes entirely unquestioned in mainstream politics, and almost entirely unmentioned by the mainstream media – an astounding omission, given the latest financial disaster.

On Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing

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An article today in the New York Times reports that, in physics anyway, we are on the verge of discovering why there’s something rather than nothing… or at least why the Big Bang has produced more matter than anti-matter. It all has to do with “the behavior of particularly strange particles called neutral B-mesons, which are famous for not being able to make up their minds”-

They oscillate back and forth trillions of times a second between their regular state and their antimatter state. As it happens, the mesons, created in the proton-antiproton collisions, seem to go from their antimatter state to their matter state more rapidly than they go the other way around, leading to an eventual preponderance of matter over antimatter of about 1 percent, when they decay to muons.

Whether this is enough to explain our existence is a question that cannot be answered until the cause of the still-mysterious behavior of the B-mesons is directly observed, said Dr. Brooijmans, who called the situation “fairly encouraging.”

The observed preponderance is about 50 times what is predicted by the Standard Model, the suite of theories that has ruled particle physics for a generation, meaning that whatever is causing the B-meson to act this way is “new physics” that physicists have been yearning for almost as long.

Dr. Brooijmans said that the most likely explanations were some new particle not predicted by the Standard Model or some new kind of interaction between particles. Luckily, he said, “this is something we should be able to poke at with the Large Hadron Collider.”

Okay guys, get poking! But, of course, a new model that explains the matter-anti-matter asymmetry better than the old “standard” model won’t solve the Really Big Question that metaphysicians, like very young children, always have at the ready: why? Why has this (fill in any impressively predictive physical model you like) ever happened? It seems unlikely that any merely descriptive theory, no matter how useful, will ever satisfy those who find this question engaging. Of course, it’s easy to write the question off as presupposing a sort of anthropomorphism, as if a universe had to be designed for a reason or purpose. But I think the question goes deeper than that, because even if you recognize that expecting the universe to have a purpose or a raison d’être is committing a sort of logical error or “category mistake”, the question still feels sensible. Maybe such a feeling just indicates that one is banging up against the limits of the human mind… and maybe not.