Information and Entropy: Be Careful What You Ask!

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Some say that the universe itself IS information. That way beyond our dependency on information as individuals and as a civilization, information is essential, is fundamental.

Certainly no information is very boring, very static. A basic yes/no 0/1 opens up all of computer language, but no variation of 0’s and 1’s, just a universe of all 1s or all 0s, doesn’t get a computer program very far. No information, no this and that. Certainly information is the realm of the relative.

Some say entropy is the heart of any first this then next that, that entropy defines time itself. Though I, and many philosophers and scientists and other deep thinkers like Lanza and Dogen don’t think that is true, that time is essentially just entropy, it is just as true that entropy certainly plays a role in our quotidian experience of time.

While Humpty Dumpty falling off a wall and breaking is an easy and quick thing, it is hard to put back Humpty Dumpty together again. Broken Humpty doesn’t just scrunch back together and fly up that wall, sitting pretty and smiling widely again, after the fall. It is possible for that to happen, but it is really, really, really very unlikely.

If you drop an egg and film it, you can tell pretty much if the film is then played forward or backward. Very rarely you may be wrong. Simply, broken eggs are more disordered, breaking them took little energy to make happen, just open your fingers and gravity does the rest, but an intact egg is very ordered, and took a lot of energy (ask mother chicken) to get there.

Entropy captures that difference qualitatively and quantitatively. It evolved in thermodynamics (for steam engines, trying to understand what all that inefficiency and wasted heat was about)  as the statistical likelihood of a state evolving due to there being more “disordered” than “ordered” states in a system.

As a rule of thumb in physics and chemistry, entropy is really good and implies this then that! No engineer can ignore entropy and keep a job.

Information theory also uses entropy as a quality and a quantity to be reckoned with. So how are information and entropy connected? Is it in some sense related to heat wasted, energy spent. Yes, computers heat up and energy is spent, and organization, efficiency  and predictability are all part of it. Information Theory was first interested in the efficient transmissions of signals in communications. What was important was whether the message, the information, the data, the signal that was sent was the one received.

To start, you could say  high entropy is a measure of little information, great disorder, hence ignorance, at least of the details. You can see how such ignorance may impact a message and the information sent. To get an intuitive grasp of this is pretty easy, as is seeing why our perception of time is influenced by entropy, order and disorder, at least relative order and disorder, going back to Humpty Dumpty. When the egg breaks the yoke is all mixed up with other stuff, shells and albumin, sticky and hard to tease apart, hard to say just where all the yoke is.There are, of course, many more ways for the molecules in a smashed egg to be mixed and splattered than in an intact egg where yoke is here, albumin there, all neatly wrapped in a shell. That’s a measure of higher entropy of Humpty Dumpty having fallen. And it helps predict which chemical reactions will go which way and how much energy will be wasted in heating up the atmosphere by your engine (or your computer, or your brain, for that matter).

Information theory is at the heart of computer and communication science and needs a more quantitative understanding of ignorance and entropy. We need to know the probability of surprise, and so the extent of ignorance of what happens next.

Information theory, a great intellectual and technical insight by Shannon decades ago, says that the amount of surprise in a message relates to entropy. And in this, entropy relates to ignorance, because you are only surprised if you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t want surprises popping up in your message if you are in charge of communications! You want what is received to be the same as what was sent, no issues of garbled text.

All of this also suggests that it matters, to some extent, exactly how you ask the question of the system about how much entropy there is.

I am not surprised if a fair, six-sided die with a different number on each face and those numbers are the sequence 1 through 6, comes up with a number 1 through 6 when I role the die. So if that’s the question I ask is, will I get any number 1, or 2, or 3 or 4, or 5 or 6 on the next role of the die, the answer is clearly yes, of course, and simply reflects that I asked a trivial question of a simple system I understood. Probability (p) = 1.0, 100% sure. No ignorance, no high entropy, and not very interesting, either. If I ask whether I will get an even number on the next roll of the die, there is a bit more uncertainty. I have a 50:50 chance of an even or odd number. That is less ignorance and lower entropy than if I ask if I will get a 5 on the next roll, which is only 1 of 6. In this situation the outcome is random. I am not surprised whatever number I get here either, as any number can come up. But my surprise with this question is different from when I asked if I will get any number, but not very different. Same basic conclusion, just asked a different way.

Now if I ask if will I get a number other than 5, then the answer is on average I will 5 of 6 times I roll the fair, unbiased die, I will get a number other than 5 with the probability of 5/6 for each roll. Good odds, so little (but some) surprise when I get a 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 6.  Lower entropy, less surprise, and less ignorance. If I don’t get a 5 I am not so surprised, if I get a 5 I am surprised and delighted if money was riding on the outcome. Same system each time, a six-sided die with each face having a different number 1 through 6, but different questions, and so different ignorance/surprise/entropy.

But notice the 1/6 is of a 5 on the roll just 1, the probability I will get a number 1 through 6, minus the probability of getting a number a number other than 5. And vice versa! SO these are related. We have constraints based on our question, our delusions don’t come into play, we don’t set the odds however we like them. We can set the system up with an unfair die of course.

An important idea scientifically is that we have to explain any deviation from random in a system. There is random, then everything else on a continuum of probabilities, of more or less ignorance of the outcome before we roll the die, before we send the message.

So, low entropy is good, right? Entropy is disorder, entropy is ignorance, and we don’t want that. While what we want does matter to engineers and programmers, and to us if we are pure of heart and mind, seeking a way out of suffering for ourselves and others, does it define good and bad to the universe, in terms of the unfolding of creation?

Not necessarily.

As in the entropy as an answer to a question about our ignorance and about randomness versus certainty and all between changing depending on the question you ask of the system, as in the results of a quantum experiment revealing a particle or a wave depending on how you ask the question, so does the answer to whether entropy is “good” or “bad.” What you are asking and how the answer comes back matters. And the universe may not be asking the same question as your monkey brain at any given moment! Maybe that’s our practice, aligning our questions with those of the unfolding universe!

Maybe you create entropy and ignorance with your expectations!

Anyway, I suppose low entropy is good if you don’t like surprises, but it is a kind of boring universe that universe of all 5s.

We think we want certainty. Perhaps that is an illusion.

Now, say we go back to that fair six-sided die with a different number on each face. Large entropy if I ask whether a specific number will come up next. I have no idea which number from 1 to 6 will come up next, so large ignorance, room for surprise! I get more information each roll than with the all 5s die: I get information the die was rolled (because there is a new number 5 of 6 rolls) and I discover the resulting number. If I play a game where a 5 wins, every game is life anew. Not so in the universe of all 5s. No games, no surprises, little information.

As for the symmetry test, the one that says an object is symmetrical if you can’t detect a change when the state of the system is changed (say a circle rotated when you aren’t looking), I will know 5 of 6 times whether you rolled the die (in 1 of 6 rolls on average you will get the same number), so again more information obtained there and less symmetry as well with the die with different numbers on each face than the one with all 5’s. Symmetry is associated beauty and the absolute, the unending. But it is in the breaking of symmetry that we end a certain kind of ignorance, where things happen, where circles become waves and waves become all things..

Is symmetry beautiful and useful? Kind of depends on what we are looking for, what questions we ask; our state of mind, as it were.

Not so straightforward, this ignorance, symmetry and entropy thing. Those who study chaos theory and complexity theory say the best stuff happens at the edge of chaos. Too random, can’t sustain anything even close to life. Too static, no change, just same old, same old.

After all, a single tone has little entropy, is very organized with no surprises, we know what comes next exactly, but it isn’t the most fun music. Similarly static that is randomly generated has endless variation, is not organized, but it also can be pretty annoying (but some people thrive on “white noise.” Go figure) and wont hit the top 40 on the charts.

So entropy can be computed, and ignorance and surprise can be quantified Computer science and communication science (where this came form) depend on it. But what does that really mean?

We seem to need variation without total randomness in our music and our stories. And what are we without our stories? Maybe liberated? Maybe awake? Maybe it is our state of mind that counts? There is the story about where at UCLA when the studied his samadhi they were shocked that Yasutani Roshi found each tick of a metronome to be unique, he didn’t adapt to the repetitions, didn’t experience them that way. He seems to have experienced each tick as existing in a universe that is never the same, always changing. No expectations, perhaps. Being truly awake, perhaps.

 “What does it really mean?” is a trick question. There is no really mean. The problem is that when we think in terms of values as determined by our evolved monkey brains, we are constrained by our perspective and scale of living, the way we like our stories. Something happens and we ask ourselves, gee, what will happen next? What does it imply for me, my sense of well-being? A reasonable question of course, and that’s why we evolved brains to ask and answer it. Does that noise I hear in the bushes mean a lion will jump out and eat me, does that rhythmic sound coming from my husband encode words that I should interpret to mean that he doesn’t love me anymore? Or is it just atmospheric conditions generated by sunlight heating the air above earth and sea unevenly creating wind shaking the leaves that I hear, my husband clearing his throat, expelling bursts or air, nothing more? The meaning of information in that sense is what we project on the universe with our monkey brains. It can be very useful, it can be critical for our health, happiness and survival as smart primates, but is again, like the entropy of infomration  depending on the question we ask of a system, the meaning of information is also dependent on our expectations, hopes and fears.

And on top of that, we are kind of lazy sometimes. Well, all things (composite things, Buddhist might say, deep impermanence) tend toward lower energy (oh, and higher entropy as energy is released as unused heat and composite things come apart). Both the word ”random” and the word “unchanging” take about the same time and effort for us to say and both things will be boring to us. So in that sense what we might think of as information when we address it with our usual language is about the same whether it is randomly generated white noise or a single sustained note; since both would be annoying over time and would have very little other import to us, we may think they are about the same. Since a random weather report and one that never changes regardless of the state of the local atmosphere would be equally useless (though both would be occasionally right, like the broken clock twice a day) we think they have a similar lack of information.

But both have a history, both contain information we may not perceive. How is the random noise generated? What is keeping that note going?

That’s how it often is. We project our day-to day experience on the universe. We decide on what is true and useful based on our brain and body needs, our need for a weather report that tells us whether to wear a coat or plow our fields, or our need to be entertained, our need to feel certain ways (loved, special, comfortable).

Information, the universe, is not sentimental or goal directed in the same way we are. Our self-perceived needs, our ego’s delights, are not primary, but rather a subset of the functioning of the universe. Our minds may be totally entangled with the universe of Mind, but the universe need not respect our biases.

The universe of Mind or consciousness, of Zen or Biocentrism, need not be designed in some dualistic fashion by a separate designing entity to live on the cusp or chaos and order. It doesn’t necessarily use information and entropy as we would ask it to, our questions born of our karma and desires, our craving and our fear.

Mind is not defined by some human definition of “intelligence,” consciousness need not be “smart” in human terms (intelligence is a dicey concept at best), though Mind contains and embraces human intelligence.

Equally, information is not inherently goal directed, it is simply question directed. Our egos have goals, our perceived needs, and these determine the questions we ask. That’s our problem, our need for interesting stories that make our lives “better” in some imagined way, that make sense to us in terms we dictate, often based on total delusion, though it is true that information does have value in our goal to be compassionate and live our lives with grace when compared to ignorance.

Of course, that idea of information is important. If we want to live with “no self deception as Maezumi Roshi exhorted us to, and I think central to Zen practice as I understand it and as taught by Nyogen Roshi and others, we want good information with minimal static. Ignorance is one of the poisons in Buddhism. This is also why scientists and others worry about intelligent design (religious dogma in scientific garb, a Trojan horse of the religious fanatics) and superstitions that lead to grave errors and great pain. I do not mean to say these things don’t count. This has not reached the level of functioning of some of the most powerful people in the world, and to many voters around the world, to our great peril. Hence we get climate change deniers, a president that eschews reality, racism run rampant, overpopulation, talk of a renewed arms race just as we got Iran to back down from nukes and hope Korea some day just might, and you can fill in the rest, there are so many examples of willful ignorance to serve greed and enacted out of fear.

After all, Buddhism does concern itself with pain, suffering and compassion and being awake, an end to ignorance!

I’m just saying the universe isn’t sentimental about it. The earth would be fine without us. A supernova destroys worlds on end but creates many of the atoms we are made of. Information is found in random noise.

None of this excuses us from taking responsibility for knowing what it takes to decrease suffering and wake up.

In the realm of the relative is entropy a “bad” thing? It inherent in change, it is the manifestation of form; it is the world of the relative. It is where things happen. Bad vs. good isn’t too helpful a concept in this context. Like the Tao, it has no difficulty, no obstruction, just avoid picking and choosing, the poem the “Xin Xin Ming” of the second patriarch says.

So take care with what questions you ask, your assumptions about good and bad, symmetry and beauty. Watch how you ask your questions, and what you do with the answers.

 

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No Time, No Space, No Problem

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A riddle:

What is so small that you cannot measure any dimensions, and has no mass; you can fit any endless number of them in one place, yet it can extends across the entire universe with no time elapsing and with no intervening space; that exists in a real sense without space or time, yet it is real and you can experience it directly and your very life, your very existence, is dependent on it?

Maybe a thought fits that description? Or God, if you lean that way? Or Buddha Mind, or the 8th Riki, Alaya consciousness, the Akashic record?

Sure, seems to fit.

Or a photon. That fits, too. Light.

A photon, the force carrier of electromagnetic energy, that also carries energy from fusion reactions between atomic nuclei that occur, say in the sun, fueling photosynthesis at the base of the food chain (well, at least our food chain; other forms of life can depend, for example on thermal energy, for deep sea vents, but one can argue that is indirectly form nuclear reactions in the earths core). The infrared photon that you feel as warmth on your skin, and the higher energy  photons of visible and ultraviolet light that make vitamin D in your skin and gives some unlucky people a melanoma. The particle that powers the photoreceptors of your eye so that you see your loved ones  (well this is more complicated; as Buddhist philosophy makes clear there is sensation but then conception, discrimination, awareness. The photon is how you see your loved one but that is not just a matter of photons and photoreceptors. As cognitive psychology, neuroscience, quantum physics, the Lankavatara sutra and Biocentrism suggest, you project, of course, you are creating your world of loved ones. Well, we also chant in the Heart Sutra: except in emptiness where there is no sensation, conception discrimination, awareness. But I digress).

The photon can detected  in the detector of a double slit or interferometer experiment (though so can objects with mass, protons or electrons, atoms, Bucky balls, etc.) in physics that reveals to us the mysteries of non-locality and entanglement. A particle that is so focused and localized that it can knock an electron out of an atom (the photoelectric effect that Einstein won a Nobel Prize for), but that is just as much a wave without defined boundaries, until it interacts and is measured. A wave that can interact with endless numbers of other waves in the exact same place and time. A particle that can also be stacked in infinite numbers in the same time and place (a “lepton” with no dimensions, no mass).

A photon, the “particle” or basic unit (quanta) of light, does not exist in time or space.

The basic algebra of special relativity is clear and experimentally validated.

In the denominator of the Lorenz equation of special relativity for the effects on time and space for objects in motion (and vice versa; see, for example, the appendix in Biocentrism by Lanza and Berman) there is a mathematical term: the square root of 1, representing the speed of light (c) minus the relative speed of an object of interest (well, velocity (v) relative to the velocity of light, but no difference between velocity and speed here for us; velocity is speed with direction, and here that just says both the speed of light and the velocity of what we are interested in are moving in the same direction)  So, if we take the speed of light to be 1, the speed limit, and the speed of the object is some fraction of 1 (how fast it is moving relative to the speed of light), and that object is also moving at the speed of light (as it would be for a photon), the result is the square root of 1-1 = 0 in the denominator.

Well, you can’t divide by 0, it is not allowed they tell us, so right there we get a mathematical absurdity, as the photon does of course travel at the speed of light, it is light. In any case, any mathematical absurdity notwithstanding, as the denominator approaches 0, that is, the speed of the object approaches the speed of light, the time dilation approaches infinity as one expects when one gets some number over 0. 1 over a very small number is a very large number (1 over 1/2 is 2, that is, 2 halves make 1, and 1 over 1/10 is 10, as ten tenths go into one, etc., ad infinitum, as they say).

At the speed of light a tick to tock for that object, that photon, takes forever. The tick to tock can be any measure of “time,” which means in our experience any regular, repeating event we can observe (a tick-tock of the second hand on your antique pocket watch as the spring uncoils, the swing of a pendulum, the time of orbit of the moon around the earth, the half life of a cesium atom, the days of our lives, etc.). The tock never comes as long as the photon is free to do its speed of light thing.

That is the reason for the “twin paradox” you have probably read about that says that if a twin that goes on a journey in a fast moving spaceship, she is younger than her sibling left behind on earth upon her return. Equally there is a proportional length contraction; the faster moving object is squished. As pointed out in “Biocentrism” page 115, if you were to run across your living room at 99.999999% of light-speed, “your living room would be 1/22,361th its original size…barely larger than the period at the end of this sentence.” Yet to the inhabitants of that living room time and space would not respectively seem dilated and squished. “It’s all good,” they would say, “nothing different here in our friendly little living room.” Same for the twin in the rocket who didn’t age as much as her sister because the tick to tock took longer relative to her sister’s so less ticks became tocks, and who was similarly squished relative to the space experienced by her sister. “All good,” she would say. “Ticks become tocks, and I am not squished. Just as it ever was.”

Well, it’s not that simple; the twin on earth is essentially moving away from the twin in the spaceship just as fast as the twin in the spaceship is moving away form earth, just in the other direction; that’s relativity! The living room is moving just the same as you are, but in the opposite direction. Seems perfectly symmetric, so why don’t both twins or you and the living room have time dilation and length constriction relative to each other? How would that work?

The answer is that it isn’t perfectly symmetric for all entities involved. It is a question of how the system of two twins or the system of you and the living room got where they are: the twin in the spaceship accelerated relative to the twin on earth and you accelerated relative to the living room. The two twins both started in the same place and time but only one blasted off, accelerating into space, and you started at rest at one end of the living pumping your legs as you left off the starting block running. In both cases, the space-travelling twin and running you, used a different amount of energy from the other objects in the system to get things started, to get things moving. So it isn’t a perfectly symmetric situation in either case. [This energy portion can get us to that E=MC squared thing of general relativity and how a massless photon can effect space and gravity, but I digress]

Karma!

Back to the photon! Some small percent of the static on your car radio comes from photons that are almost 14 billion years old, as old as the visible universe we can measure. Yet for an object moving at the speed of light time dilates so much that a tick or tock takes forever. Tick, but no tock, not ever, until it slows down, say hitting your cornea then your lens then your photoreceptor if it is of certain wavelengths, or becomes static on your radio of photons with the energy of about 3 degrees above absolute zero). Almost 14 billion years? No tock, no worries, no passage of time, effectively no time. And space? The photon’s space is squished to nothing. No space. No time no space.

Only objects with mass can experience time and space. An object with mass cannot accelerate to the speed of light because the faster it travels the more the mass, as if it picked up mass with increasing speed like snowball effect in a cartoon as a rough analogy; as the snowball rolls down hill picking up more and more snow and getting larger and larger (ignore momentum and gravitational potential energy decreasing and kinetic energy increasing for the snowball speeding the snowball up for this analogy, maybe better think of you rolling a snowball along level ground, though that image isn’t as much fun or dramatic as a cartoon snowball rolling downhill picking up trees in the process, chasing our cartoon hero). So as an object with mass approaches the speed of light the mass of the object would approach infinite mass and so become harder to accelerate and eventually impossible, making the speed of light an unattainable goal (think of mass as a measure of inertia, i.e. how hard it is to get things going.).

That’s where the Higgs field comes in. That is mass. The moving object picks up mass in the form of Higgs bosons like the snowball above. So maybe Higgs is really the Un-God particle, the particle that gives us gravity, space and time. It gives us the experience of life and death.

No mass, no time, no space. The entire universe is here and now, quite literally for the ubiquitous photon and other massless entities (the photon is not alone, just the one we depend on in our lives on earth), there is no there or then.

So how big is photon, a wave, a quantum field, a particle that is without mass, the smallest thing, if thing it is (it isn’t, of course)? Smaller than can be, as it has no mass or dimension as a particle, yet as a wave it is larger than all that is, as a wave it has no bounds. At the same time, it is neither big nor small, since it does not exist in time or space. This is Indra’s net where all interstices are jewels that infinitely reflect all light instantly. Until it registers in your eye or as static you hear. Then it is in your massive world of the relative, of quotidian experience. Your eye that brings the photon released from a star light years away into temporal and spatial existence, mind creating a world of light! Until then, as far as you and that photon are concerned, the star had no existence in time and space.

Crazy world, huh?

 

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See You In Hell

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I have flirted with despair and anger, feelings of betrayal and even hopelessness, over this election, as have many people I know.

But time to “cut it.”

Time to get real.

Along those lines, the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, a couple of old friends, have a new book I picked up as an “impulse buy” last week called “The Book  of Joy.” I find it timely and helpful. Not because it is chock full of deep or subtle dharma and cosmic vision, or that I even agree or resonate with all aspects of their conversations, but these old guys have been through hell and have some credibility, or at least experience, when it comes to dealing with hard core, vicious and violent racism and oppression.

And we are going to need those skills!

As the ground of our Buddhist practice is compassion, it isn’t just a matter of being compassionate when it is easy and the lines are clear.

As the grounds of being a liberal, progressive, or a sane person without political agendas, is fairness and justice, not idealism for its own sake, we have to be clear and real about what that means.

Yes, we need to care about the refugees, many of whom were displaced, directly or indirectly, by our interventionism. And we need to care for minorities and marginalized people.

But to have any meaning our compassion has to also be for the blue collar worker or woman or hispanic who, in fear and loathing, voted for Trump!


Our tradition says the Bodhisattva Guan Yin goes to hell because she hears the cries of the suffering. Not just the suffering of people she approves of. Didn’t see that in the fine print.

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The memorial to victims of war and oppression, Berlin. You see a statue of  a woman cradling a dead young man. The red on either side are two wreaths of flowers. It is Guan Yin in hell.

Did we (progressives, democrats, reasonably sane and caring people of all stripes) really do that? Michael Moore warned us that we were tone deaf or worse.

Where were the Democrats when big pharma and my fellow docs were pushing oxycontin? Too busy raising money to buy votes they couldn’t earn? I heard 20 million opiate addicts now and each has, or had, a family…

Our tradition says anger just gets more anger. Natural to feel anger and shock that our neighbors are so driven by fear and despair (and yes, in too many cases, outright racism and hate for the “other”), but how long do we indulge our anger and despair?

If we are all one, no separation, or if we say we are for the “people,” we have Trump and over 50 million actual people who voted for him to be “one” with! It isn’t a matter of having to like or agree with them, but we can’t just dismiss them or hate them. Despair and rage is counter-productive. 

Our tradition says buddha stopped a war caused by his family being arrogant and deceitful. Until he didn’t the second time and his clan was wiped out.

Our tradition says buddha’s cousin tried to kill him.

Yet he kept buddha-ing!

He didn’t give up even though (or maybe because) it looks so hopeless, because desires and suffering beings are inexhaustible, numberless.

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I love that about our tradition!

And remember: we DID get the majority of votes, despite a flawed candidate who to many represented the very  unsatisfactory status quo.

You and me, we are not alone. We can do this dance together.

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We were in a bubble, but it was a pretty big bubble; together lets pop it and get to the hard work of opposing fascism, fear and racism, not out of anger and hate or because of some progressive agenda, or some concept of a left wing paradise, but because it is right effort, because it is what is right, period!

Whatever system we find ourselves under (as did our spiritual ancestors), whether we are ruled by an emperor, shogun, republic, democracy, socialism, feudalism, whatever, we stand for justice and compassion if we have a Mahayana  practice, or if we have no formal practice but simply have two synapses that work and we care at all and aren’t just as selfish and short sighted as the people we decry.

This blog Zengut  is in large part about the visions of science and zen. Well, in both science and zen we deal with what is in front of us, we don’t waste time and energy wishing it were different, imagining and hoping for a better past or different universe so we could have a more comfortable future that matches how we think it should be. We don’t indulge in fantasy and dogma. We see what the data says in science and we don’t fake it or fudge it, and we own the ground we stand on in zen; no difference there.

I’m not saying be passive. Stand up for what is right. Racism and misogyny and homophobia and climate denial and the fox guarding the hen house are NOT OK. It’s not “all good” and we are not going to be alright. When someone says “oh, we’ll survive this”, I get chills down my spine. Like we survived WWII? The Cultural Revolution in China? The monks and nuns in Tibet? Like kids in Syria? Like our own devastating civil war? Like so many throughout history under colonization and oppressive regimes throughout the world of all colors and beliefs?  No, I am not saying it is all good, we will be fine. We may be a failed evolutionary experiment, and if so, it will be painful. This may be how this chapter of the greater story ends.

Neither Buddhism or science is sentimental about suffering or survival.

So:

Be strong. Be loud. Effect change. Fight the good fight for truth and justice. Out of human decency. But not out of anger, not out of hate, and not out of fear or despair.

That is our tradition(s) at its(their) best.

And it is our only hope.

Love, and see you in hell.

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I Just Self-Published a Novel for Young Readers

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I just self-published “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World,” an adventure-fantasy-mystery story for young readers.

“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” contains real history and culture, introducing readers to Emperor Wu (China’s only woman emperor), the Teacher Wise-and-Able (Chan/Zen master Hui Neng), the Old Sage and the butterfly dream (Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou, the ancient Daoist), Chinese dragons (powerful shape-shifting water spirits, not fire-breathing reptiles), and other stories, characters and critters from history and legend.

I wanted to write a story for kids that would have positive values without being heavy-handed.  “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” is about being centered, brave and compassionate, even when it’s tough and things get really weird. Like in life! I do allow my love of Zen, science, history and the environment to peek through, just a bit, but if I have succeeded, young (and older) readers won’t notice that I stuck all that stuff in there, they’ll just have fun reading the book!

You can try it out. I have posted almost a quarter of the book on my author’s website ralphlevinson.com, as well as on booklocker.com/books/8819.html.

“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World” is available as an eBook for $2.99 from booklocker.com, and also for Kindle at Amazon.com, and NOOK at Barnesandnoble.com. It is also available as a print on demand softcover book for $14.95 from Booklocker.com or from Barnes and Noble for those who, like me, love to hold a real book in their hands, or to give as a gift.

Link for Booklocker:

booklocker.com/books/8819.html

 

Link for Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Aidan-Dragon-Girl-Save-World-ebook/dp/B01M2X5XVY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital text&ie=UTF8&qid=1476567264&sr=1-1&keywords=aidan+dragon

Link for Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/aidan-and-the-dragon-girl-save-the-world-ralph-levinson/1124797691?ean=9781634916332 – productInfoTabs.

 
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KoKo an integral part of the story! And a great dog.

Beware Being Seduced by the Cool in Quantum

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I have written about the fascinating and weird quantum mechanics of double slit experiments and entanglement. Gotta love it!  I will write more about quantum mechanics, time, far out speculations, and I am thinking more and more, along those line about entropy. Entropy is often thought of as a measure of randomness, disorder, and in information theory, ignorance. It seems to be on the one hand trivially statistical and on the other hand deeply embedded in our experience and how energy interacts with energy. Some think it is why we perceive time. More on that later. I have some more thinking to do about that first.

Part of what has inspired me in that direction is a book I am reading now, “Now, the physics of time” by Richard A Muller. I just came to a part where he wrote about the worst theoretical prediction in science, and it was a result of the mathematics of the most beloved and trusted theory, quantum mechanics. It concerns dark energy and the predictions as to whether quantum vacuum fluctuations, the variations in energy and virtual particles demanded by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and seen experimentally, could explain the accelerating expansion of the universe we seem to observe. This would be instead of dark energy, a kind of negative gravity that is also quite speculative but would better explain recent observations about the dynamics of space and galaxies at the scale of the visible universe. Well, the prediction of the magnitude of the effect of these quantum vacuum fluctuations on the expansion of the universe was off by 10 with 120 zeros after it. That is one big number! That isn’t just wrong, that is bizarrely, sarcastically, profoundly, embarrassingly wrong.

He points out this has been called the “worst prediction in the history of physics.”

Well, quantum mechanics does describe some things exquisitely well, but there is a reason that scientists in some cases spend their careers on speculative mathematics such as string theory. And while we can’t deny the wonderfully tantalizing hints about reality that quantum mechanics serve up to us, we have to remember it isn’t infallible. It is a reflection of the questions we ask. Ask the right ones, it gives great answers. Ask others, it gives answers that surprise and delight and tantalize. Ask yet others, total nonsense.

And that is my main point! So you don’t get quantum mechanics? Well, you can’t get it! It is at its best a great tool but as fare as understanding reality, mind, consciousness, and who you are, it is still just a peek. A peek that is important because it reminds us that the solid, this and that, this then that, the material, the existence of linear time and space  as we experience it in our daily lives, is not quite how it is, that it is an illusion of our sureness, of the scale we live in.  Now, somehow my last sentence was autocorrected but I liked it! I meant to write “illusion of our senses” and it spit out sureness. OK both work, and maybe an illusion of our sureness is even more accurate!

Anyway, that’s how I approach it. Nobody really thinks science can give us a final answer that is experimentally valid. The energies involved are technically not feasible, but beyond the technical limitations, we are limited by demanding answers that fit our brains. No experiment can get outside “reality” to measure it.

To me quantum mechanics, beyond how it helps us make better toys, is just a hint that what we perceive and measure is not how it really works.

It is kind of liberating. How do you see the universe when you know time and space and the nature of what you perceive is the tiniest slice of the pie and sometimes so wrong it is “not even wrong”? How crazy is it when science leads us to that precipice?

I am not so concerned with all of the interpretations, though I will read about them, share them, and get mind blown by them, but they won’t ever prove anything without some uncertainty because they cant ever be certain. And I don’t think that is just due to technical limitations, but limitations of what we can grasp with our senses, however expanded by technology, as being observations in time in space, defined by time and space, experiments performed in time and space, themselves dicey concepts at best.

But besides being mind-blowingly beautiful, elegant, interesting and of value in reminding us of our limitations, if nothing else, quantum mechanics reminds us how deep and profound and unanswerable by the intellect that the very fact of existence, the very fact of consciousness, at its root, is.

It isn’t permission to think every silly delusion you can come up with is therefor true or has equal probability of being true. But it does mean that it is a wild and crazy universe and allowing yourself the freedom to explore the craziness, to embrace and transcend the craziness, to not be limited by the paucity of data, the lack of imagination, the concrete materialistic linear time and space thinking, and certainly to go beyond the dictates of the metaphysics of scientists who disagree with each other (e.g. string theory anyone? Time and space a real entity? Well, certainly not every scientist agrees!) seems a “reasonable” approach. Not that “reasonable” has all that much traction when we get to the level of quantum mechanics, horrible errors, and unproven theories, whether string theories, multiple dimensions,  branes etc.

We can be liberated by the weirdness, and needn’t be limited by the limitations and definitions of what seems reasonable, which will change from one scientist to another when we are at this level of science.

Note that I am not talking about technical, cool observations like discovering exoplanets, or important matters that can be measured and assessed with the tools of science, like the effect of immune therapies for cancer on the pathogenesis of ocular inflammation, and when seemingly paradoxical effects are seen, as me and my fellow researchers have, understanding what that means therapeutically and for how the immune system works (a current research interest of mine), or for understanding and trying to deal with issues like water use, climate change and other environmental problems (bees, date pollution, health of the oceans, etc, etc.), for example. Deny this stuff at your peril and at the cost of great suffering.

I am talking about how we try to answer the big questions of our lives, and science won’t do that. It can approach it, but never reach it. It isn’t built for it.

At the core, it is about who you are that counts. And while that entails quantum mechanics, it isn’t limited by it.

What is it that  “is”? What is consciousness, your very experience of being, what it is like to be? Is that limited by our senses, by time and space, when time and space are themselves called into question by science?

What really is life itself, beyond a working definition of replication, carbon bonds, information, variation, and handwaving ideas like “emergent properties”?

Cool as the quantum world is, as much as it is our world, there is more, it isn’t the whole story.

Or maybe there is less.

You, however, are the whole story.

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Time and Brain

What do you think your experience of life would be without dressing up reality in a matrix of time and space?

How does the world appear to a creature without a brain?

How is your grasp of what is true and real limited by, or even more, actually defined by, your constraints?

Keeping in mind that most living organisms, at least on earth, have little use for brains or time, and no awareness of any assessment of their strengths and constraints, yet function perfectly well (or they wouldn’t have evolved and still be here over 4 billion years), this is not an idle line of inquiry.

What does your gut tell you?

Here’s what I think:

Don’t confuse knowledge based on measurements and thoughts and models of reality with the totality of being. Our perspective is limited as we are wrapped up in time and space, and it is all neatly tied with a bow of our delusions. Wrong tools for the job. We mind are embedded in Mind that has no beginning or end. Don’t let the painful and awkward bits throw you. Be kind to yourself and others. How hard we make it for ourselves!

Oh, and vote for Hillary. I mean really, come on! That other stuff is awesome, but lets be real in the moment here. Trump is a fucking disaster, and the fact that so many of my fellow Americans don’t see that means that we are in deep shit. Forget Biocentrism and Zen if you must, meditate if you are so disposed (I encourage it) or don’t if you’re not, but under no circumstances give in to fear, hate and ignorance, or hang out with or procreate with those that do. It’s just so UGLY and WRONG!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deathbed Wishes

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For whom the bell tolls?

I saw a posting on Facebook where someone suggested that what most people regret on their deathbeds is what they didn’t do.

Certainly Buddhism, Zen,  (and for that matter, Biocentrism) is about the big questions of your life and death, and how you face your life and death, and indeed understanding that death can come at any time.

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It’s easy to think the other road, the one not taken, was the one to abiding happiness and success and joy.  I suspect it is at least possible that some people who do feel that way on their death bed, that they regretted what they didn’t do, if they were honest with themselves, felt that way before they new they were dying.

That is an important pursuit in Zen practice, being aware of your life, knowing yourself and your mind. Not waiting till it all falls apart.

Now, one point, one conclusion, that the person who wrote about that death bed reaction made was: follow your dreams. Write that book, sing that song.

But consider: is this just wishing for a better past?  If you didn’t go after something you thought you wanted, or thought would have been oh so cool, maybe you had a good reason, something more important you had to attend to. Maybe you knew or even just had an intuition that another course of action was needed, even if you aren’t so sure now. Memory is selective. It is easy to think it could have been better, that the path not taken was THE key to all sweetness and light and a great life!

Now, if you didn’t pursue some activity out of fear, or delusional feelings of guilt, or concerned about not being worthy or not being good enough, and that is how you still respond, that’s the issue, isn’t it?

Living life fully isn’t a matter of pursuing some specific great idea or activity, of doing all the awesome, rewarding and artistic and adventurous things you can get into or out of your “bucket” of cool stuff. I personally have no interest in “bucket lists” of “must do stuff” (there’s always more and more and MORE).

You don’t need to fill your life with things and activities, artistic, creative, cool, or otherwise.

Life is full if you just look at where you are, what’s in front of you; as they say in Zen, cover the ground you stand on. You don’t need more doing.  Most of us actually need LESS doing. Less going after that wonderful experience you imagine will make it better, that creative glorious life over the rainbow. Less re-writing the past. Less seeking praise and fearing blame. Less drama.

As it says in the heart sutra: no idea of gain, so no fear. No hindrance in the mind.

And as the very, very accomplished (you and I should be so accomplished!) Laplace reportedly said on his deathbed when someone commented on just how wonderful and accomplished he had been in his life (he was perhaps THE  foremost mathematician and scientist and philosopher of his age, hobnobbing with the “in” crowd, hanging with artists, authors and even Napoleon Bonaparte, the most powerful man in the world at the time):

“Ah, well, we do chase phantoms, don’t we?”

So, sure, I suggest that you don’t waste your time on dumb stuff, and certainly don’t hold back out of fear. Do what seems right, compassionate, just and good, but don’t chase phantoms. Don’t make some artistic endeavor, some idea or concept of success (however awesome), of creativity, some experience on a bucket list, a fantasy lover never loved, or a dream you think you should have or would have pursued “if only”, into something to moan about, something to regret, into just more busywork and useless striving, something more to feel bad about. Don’t set yourself up for misery and failure.

If you do, it’s just another phantom. A bad dream.

Sing the song, paint that painting, take that photo, take that trip, get a better job, write the novel, if you like and it works for you. If not, that’s ok too.

Try this: Don’t waste your time. Pay attention. Do what is right when you know it’s right. No self-deception. don’t wish for a better past, it does no good and causes great pain (you can tell I really like that; thanks Lily Tomlin!).

Compassion is a good thing, including compassion for yourself.

Creativity is the Way, is life. You don’t have to strive for it. Don’t try to fake it. You ARE creativity in form and function! You can’t be otherwise.

Creativity, living a full life, is what happens when your ego, your delusions (including your idea/conditioning/concept of creativity and a full life), don’t get in the way. Compassion and ethics are like that, too.

That’s more than enough!  What more is there? What more can there be?

Life is full just in this breath, this heartbeat. Live fully in the moment.

Simple, not easy.

Living life fully is not about some specific experience or activity or doing cool stuff. Not what society or your fantasy defines as artistic or creative or successful or glorious. The Universe, Mind, your mind, is cool enough.

I have found meditation, practice, really helps with this.

Zen, Buddhism, is about life and death. The book “Beyond Biocentrism” is a good place to start about Mind and Consciousness and Life and Death if you aren’t into Buddhism or Zen.

But I do agree with the main idea of that person who wrote about deathbed regrets: Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed. That seems kind of sad.

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Quantum Mechanics: Not Just Kinda Cool But Essential to Life

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It has long been clear quantum mechanics (QM) effects are basic in life. This was something I have taken for granted from what I learned starting in pre-med about cellular biology, though research bears this out in many new and interesting ways.

An interesting recent book about some surprising quantum effects in biology i s”Life on the Edge” by McFadden and Al-Khalili.

As I have written here before, life is energy and energy transformations (well, everything is). Cellular life uses reduction/oxidation reactions as energy “currency”. These reactions are basically the passing along of an energetic electron. They are the same kinds of reactions that causes fire to burn (which is why you need oxygen for a fire), or iron to rust. As Nick Lane writes in his book The Vital Question energy, evolution and the origins of complex life:  “electrons [in oxidation reduction reactions the cell uses to capture energy when oxidizing fuel i..e. food] hop from one cluster to the next by quantum tunneling”

The clusters he is referring to are proteins containing iron that are critical in accepting and passing on electrons.

This electron tunneling, these reactions, are the foundation of life, as we know it anyway. It is the very basis of energy used in all cells on earth. Bacteria, plants, us.

In quantum tunneling particles kind of “cheat” an energy barrier to a chemical reaction by just going through the energy barrier or wall rather (metaphorically) than over it. That is, it pops through the wall where without QM it shouldn’t. To clarify: most chemical reactions need energy to get going. If an electron is involved, say, as is often the case, for example in the oxidation/reduction reactions critical to life (or for example when a photon stimulates a photoreceptor in the eye) the reaction only happens if there is enough energy to get it going, to kick start it. But this can be skirted a bit by the uncertainty, the indeterminacy of QM that allows the electron (or photon) to be in unusual or unexpected states of being. By classical chemistry and physics, that shouldn’t happen, making the reactions much less likely, if they would happen at all, under normal circumstances.

That is, no QM tunneling, little or no passing of electrons from protein-iron complex to another, no usable energy for living things on earth.

By the way, we do use only a light bulb’s worth of wattage of energy to power our entire body, as Bob Lanza points out in “Biocentrism”. But still,  that is 10,000 times more energy per pound than the sun puts out! That’s because the sun is mostly just a big old ball of gas molecules just bouncing around at any one moment not putting out any energy (just being pushed around by the energy released by the nuclear reactions at the center of the sun). On the other hand, all living cells are prodigiously generating and using energy just to stay intact. The way cells store energy is in bonds between phosphate groups in ATP (adenosine tri phosphate) molecules, and a single cell goes through 10 million ATP molecules per second on average.

At its core life is quantum tunneling. It’s all energy.

Very Zen.

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Self publishing a kids novel

 

I haven’t been posting on this site this last month or so for several reasons:

Because of Ango; the  summer training period of more intense meditation in Zen tradition. While I only participated part time, I did spend significantly more time meditating.

Because I am thinking I have said a lot of what I intend to and might organize it and add to it and self publish as a book. Even so, I will keep posting periodically when the inspiration hits me.

Because I have been finishing up a short novel aimed at kids 8-11 primarily that is a fantasy that tries to have some of the sense of the dharma without dogma or Buddhist jargon.

The title is “Aidan and The Dragon Girl Save the World.”  Since it is self published (it will be available as book or e book through amazon and nook and the people I am paying to help publish it, Booklocker) as a real paper book as well as e book it will be a bit more expensive than I like since it won’t be high volume (so more expensive per unit to produce). In any case, as long as I am doing this small run self publishing, if there are miraculously any profits they will go 100% to organizations I like such as Smile Train or Plenty or SEVA that are non-profits that benefit kids.

This is, so far ( I am still tweaking it), the back cover, to give you an idea:

Aidan Alvarado is given a mystery and a mission as his birthday present by his very odd grandparents. With his new friends from Ancient China and modern day Los Angeles and the power of his dreams, Aidan has to save the world from two men who want control the power of the Dragon King of the East Ocean.

Advanced praise for “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World”:

This wonderful story is a fun way to get people of all ages to think about what is real and what is important.

Robert Lanza M.D., author of “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism”

“Aidan and The Dragon Girl Save the World” was a pleasure to read with my 8-year-old son. The imagery, action and relatable characters kept us captivated. Universal themes … are presented in a fresh new way. This book would be a wonderful addition to an upper-elementary classroom.

Felicia Linares, National Board Certified Teacher

I LOVED it! A delightful adventure! Aidan and his friends must trust their wisdom to save the world

Julie Snider, Showrunner Assistant, Network TV Drama.

 

Ralph (Shikan) Levinson is a Health Sciences Professor of Ophthalmology at UCLA. He is a big fan of the Teacher Wise-and-Able (Chan master Hui Neng).  This is his first novel.

You Think You Can Find Here and Now?

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A building in the former East Berlin

It is easy to see that our idea of the future is simply probabilities and assumptions. It is also easy to see the past is stories we tell ourselves and can’t be found except in effects in the present for which we assume causes in the past. Neither has firm, concrete, reproducible reality, even if they seem fair enough approximations for day-to-day activities and decisions. For “practical” purposes, you might say.

But we are aiming to be living in the here and now, right?

There is a now we experience of course, isn’t there?

Are you so sure?

No matter how brief, there is a finite time, a gap, between event and experience, stimulus and response, energy change and sensation and perception. One study says the brain can integrate a simple visual scene in as short a time as 13 milliseconds, though most studies have suggested it is closer to 100 milliseconds. I suppose there are many factors at play for a given scene and brain. It certainly feels instantaneous, but that’s what our brain does, of course. It fills in the gaps.

The same goes for any sense. Impulses from sense receptors release chemicals that then change the physiology of a nerve creating electoral impulses and ions race in and out of the nerve. That nerve then signals others, which end up in some brain center ,which then sends signals to multiple brains centers. Some time after that, you put words on it and tell yourself a story about what is going on. That takes longer than 13 milliseconds of course; words are slow cumbersome things even when you think them.

So by time you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think something, it is already past and you are anticipating the future.

Can we know the now? Sure for practical purposes. We don’t want to get lost in futures that may never happen or obsess about a better past we wish we had, so paying attention to something that seems ongoing and most proximate seems a good idea.

But lets not fool ourselves. Most of what we call the present is really the past, and we are already dressing it up in words and stories and anticipating the future when we think we are in the now.

And related to perception and time, is space. We speak of space-time. The here and now. No now, does here get a bit slippery too? Of course it does. Here relative to what? We know space seems to bend, expand and contract given relative motion. That’s Einstein’s relativity and the details aren’t important for this discussion. But I think it is instructive to look at one of the most basic of all entities in science, the massless energy quanta of light, the source of all we see, the embodiment of what we think of as color, the force carrying transmitter of electromagnetic energy, the photon.

There are many ways to look at the phrase “name the color, blind the eye.” The most obvious is that when we dress up an experience in labels we loose the immediacy of the experience. We pigeon hole it for future reference, falling into a dualistic trap. It may be useful if you are trying to paint a picture and want to be efficient in choosing what tubes of paint to open, but that’s about it.

There’s another way that color is a dicey concept that I like, and I think it is very telling about how things work regarding our dream of time and space. You probably know about the Doppler effect; most up us have experienced a sound becoming high pitched as it races towards us (a siren, for example, or a car), then becoming a lower pitch as it races away from us. The waves of air that make up a sound are in effect compressed as that sound comes toward us, then stretch as it goes away form us.

So what is the sound “really”? Is the high pitch sound or the low pitch sound more real? Of course neither, they both are predictable effects of motion. But it does make it hard to talk about THE sound the car or siren makes (even not taking into account all the modifying features of the environment, the atmosphere, other sounds, your ears and most importantly, your brain that turns the energy pulses in the air into sound then tires to make snense of it and relate it to your prejudices and conditioning).

A similar thing happens with light. You may have heard of the “red shift” in the light from stars as galaxies race away from us. Well, this happens all the time. You can only speak of a photon of a given energy being a certain “color” if the object creating that photon and your eye are perfectly still relative to each other. If that object is moving toward you (or you to the object, or both to each other, doesn’t matter, the photon doesn’t care. Relativity and all that), it shifts to blue. If it is moving away from you, it shifts to red. Same photon, full spectrum. Sure, this effect is too small to percieve at most speeds, but it is real and universal. The photon is no one color, no independent color. It all depends on the relationship of the observer to the photon.

And of course we are always in motion. Breathing, heart beating, land masses moving, earth moving, solar system moving, galaxies moving all relative to each other, Indra’s net of interconnections.

No past or future, and even now is a dicey concept. No there, no here, no in between.

Are you sure about here and now? Sure we want, as the Zen saying goes, to occupy the ground we stand on. And we don’t want to miss what is in front of us worrying about the past or future. But do we really grasp the present? How many ‘presents’ make up the thought of a now? How many instants combine to make up a perception? Is ‘Be Here Now’ just another cockamamie concept we strive after using our dualistic notions? Can we hold on to the fleeting moment, trying to encompass it with our thoughts and feelings, our fears and hopes, without missing the next one? Are we impressionists, who see the ever shifting play of light but then try and nail it to a canvas to contemplate at a later time? The later time of our idea of now?

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On the other hand, outside of our dualistic concepts, our sense of self and other, is there anything except now?