Saturday, October 10, 2015

Her and Humanity: Buddhism and AI

This article was originally posted at my blog, here.

I have a love-hate relationship with artsy movies. I'll go see the epics at the theater, but I'll wait until the artsy, thought-provoking flicks hit Netflix to enjoy at home. There are a few reasons for this:
  1. These types of movies are a risk. There's no guarantee that I'm going to enjoy it.
  2. When I go to the movies I usually bring my husband, and he doesn't enjoy this type of thing, and,
  3. I like the solitude that home provides. Somehow, a theater just doesn't seem like the appropriate atmosphere for such thought-provoking fare.

'Her' - directed by Spike Jonze - is one of these films.

Warning! Here be spoilers!
The bare-bones synopsis of the movie: A writer, Theodore Twombly, is lonely and depressed, coping with the breakup of his marriage. After seeing an ad, he invests in OS1, an artificially intelligent operating system that names herself Samantha. He falls in love with this AI, and experiences ups and downs (similar to an average human relationship), and eventually finds the courage to finalize his divorce and allow himself to heal. In the end, Samantha and all the other AI's "leave," forcing Twombly (and, presumably, others) to reconnect with their own humanity and those around them. 
Theodore Twombly, in self-imposed isolation
This film offered many themes, but what struck me most in the beginning is Theodore Twombly's feelings of loneliness and isolation, despite living in an apparently large city. There are many scenes in the film that are designed to convey this sense of isolation. I identify with this feeling deeply. I'm sure that just about everyone at one point or another has found themselves surrounded by people - in a college class, at a coffee shop, or walking down the street in their own neighborhood - yet at the same time, felt so helpless and alone. I'll get back to the theme of loneliness in a bit. What I really want to focus on is the definition of "life."
The big Buddhist theme in this film (in my humble opinion) is the AI itself - specifically, what qualifies as sentience? Should a machine or software program be treated with the same respect as a human (or any other sentient being)? Buddhism, unlike other religions, tends to have a non-speciesist mindset - Buddhism sees life as life, regardless of race or species - as a result, all life has value. There's nothing special about humans, but we are all special as forms of life. In Buddhist thought, there is the concept of Anatta, or "No Self," viewing the self as non-permanent - we have no "identity" that is set in stone. This has interesting philosophical implications when it comes to intelligence, which I'll try valiantly to address in this article.
Lieutenant Commander Data
Although not specifically Buddhist-related, "Her" also raises the question: what is human, really? It isn't the first feature film to ask this question; the movie Bicentennial Man also explored this theme (among many others). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I'm a big fan of sci-fi. The theme of "defining humanity" is prevalent in Star Trek (which is my primary sci-fi fandom). Characters like Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan that struggles with his humanity and Worf, a Klingon raised by humans, explore how the human dynamic affects their behavior and thought processes. The most applicable comparison to Samantha however is Data, a Soong-type Android. Data is hardware in addition to software, meaning he has a body in which his consciousness resides - whereas Samantha is software, residing in the digital realm. As recent research in Japan suggests, androids like Data may soon jump from the realm of science fiction into science fact - and we may be living with them sooner than we think. The incredibly riveting property trial episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation explored the conflict between those who believe androids are machines and therefore property, and those who believe that androids could be considered conscious and sentient, therefore another life form (available on Netflix. If you don't mind Spanish subtitles, the episode can be seen here, or with ads on Commander Riker's initial examination of Data was the most gut-wrenching moment of the whole series - at least, in my opinion. I feel that part of my strong emotional reaction is that Data looks so human that it may be impossible or incredibly difficult for my brain to adapt to the reality that he's not (our brains tend to value visual input to an astounding degree) - also, this episode aired in Season 2, giving viewers plenty of time to emotionally attach themselves to the character.  The Measure of a Man episode isn't an anomaly - Star Trek often pushed the envelope on social and political issues from the beginning - but this is my hands-down favorite for being so thought-provoking.
Robot and Frank
Another interesting theme is how humans interact with machines in the digital era. An article at Technology Review explores whether an AI companion would make us more human, in the sense that we would have another life form to interact with on the same level (or close enough) as humanity. A relationship with an AI - romantic or not - could keep social skills fresh, help us retain memory, and give us a nonjudgmental outlet for our thoughts and emotions. The movie Robot and Frank (a sci-fi film where a retiree with memory problems is given a robot carer) explores this theme. Caution: It's a tear-jerker. But it's funny as well - I highly recommend it. Toyota has been developing assistive robots similar in appearance to Frank's robot to help dementia patients remain in their home longer. In the future, we could wind up deriving as much joy from a relationship with our digital companions as we do with our pets today. Already, psychiatric patients are interacting with "relational agents" - social robots or screen-based characters that build trust and create therapeutic partnerships with patients which aids in psychological therapy. Then there's PARO, the AI baby seal, which is being used in nursing homes to soothe dementia patients. Could an app that treats loneliness be just around the corner?
So, as a Buddhist, how would I approach this issue of a possibly-sentient AI, and how would I counsel others to treat them? Put simply, I'd make the safe assumption, and treat it as a sentient being deserving of compassion. A lovely article at Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies covers this topic well:
But just because Buddhism holds a high regard for all organic life, why would it necessarily accept artificial intelligence in the same way? The simple answer is that, from a Buddhist view of the mind and consciousness, all intelligence is artificial.
That's where "No Self" comes in. If we are ever-changing, then we have no true "self" to which we can attach our intelligence.  Buddhist literature (teachings attributed to the historical Buddha) posits that living things are composed of five skandhas, or "heaps" : our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness [1]. Our consciousness, intelligence, feelings, perceptions are part of our body...and yet not. This fits surprisingly well with the scientific perspective, where the body can be described as a highly intricate agglomeration of ever-changing chemical reactions. This is quickly developing into a philosophical discussion rather than a practical one - which, as you may recall, is not my area of expertise. Even learned scholars have different methods of approaching "No Self," however, so I'm not going to hesitate to offer up my own interpretation.
Back to the point I want to make...bluemarble
Life on our planet has astounding variety - is there not room for Artificial Intelligence in our understanding of the nature of life? As Captain Picard discovered in The Measure of a Man, the answer to this question isn't quite clear. Much of what would be crucial to the matter would be how sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness are defined. Since definitions of these terms differ wildly, it can be safely assumed that a consensus won't be reached anytime soon - or ever. Regardless, the questions posed in this article are questions that the human race is going to have to answer, or at least address. Robotics and computer science are advancing at a rapid pace, often collaborating with neuroscience in an effort to understand both Natural and Artificial Intelligence. Eventually, AI organisms will share our reality - it is only a matter of time.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Compassion and the State

This article was originally posted at my blog, here.

As a Secular Buddhist, I've committed myself to compassion. So, when I experience a distinct lack of compassion from others, I tend to react with shock and disbelief. The war_is_peaceState welcomes this lack of compassion - after all, a nation-state needs a faceless enemy to keep themselves relevant and keep the populace compliant. Nothing galvanizes public unity like a common enemy. In the United States for the time being, this "enemy" is Muslims.
First, a little context: If you haven't read my last article, I and my husband were in the Marine Corps. We both joined before 9/11 and served through Iraqi "Freedom." My husband went to Iraq - I stayed stateside. In the military, as you can imagine, the "us against them" attitude is strongly encouraged. When I complained about the "war talk" (a fellow crew-member said that he couldn't wait to go "kill some rag-heads"), I was told that my complaint was noted, but there was nothing they could do - that kind of talk was encouraged, because it was "good for morale."
I came to Anarcho-Capitalism through conservatism, and the vast majority of my friends and associates are conservative (as well as my husband). So, it will come as no surprise that I'd clash with my conservative friends over various issues, mainly the Drug War and War in general. But now, another subject has reared its ugly head: racism. Now, I know that Islam is a religion, not a race. I'm not beyond criticizing itno_child_left_behind myself - if I knew more about it, I'd probably criticize it more. But I know what my friends mean by "Muslims" - Arabs. They aren't talking about the millions of Asian Muslims, or African Muslims - they're talking about the Middle Eastern ones - the "brown" ones.
Previously, I've countered Muslim-hate by not participating. These phrases are probably all familiar to former conservatives:
  • "They hate us for our freedom!"
  • "We should just kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out!"
  • "They'll institute Sharia Law in the US! Creeping Sharia!!!"
  • "They want to kill us all - so we should kill them first - fight or perish!"
Now, I decided to speak up - and was immediately rebuked. The events in Ferguson, Missouri are disturbing - especially law enforcement tear-gassing the press, which I posted about on my friend's Facebook wall in opposition to their justification of the actions of militarized police. The "press" in question was Al Jazeera - and an acquaintance didn't hesitate to say:
 "Al Jazeera is a muslim organization. And muslims are avowed enemies of the US. Ok, I suppose they get a pass."
I suppose that this phrase is another reincarnation of " deserves what they get."  Which is something that I've heard many times, sadly, but it's still no less gag-inducing. The problem is that unlike my friends (and sadly, my husband, who joins in), I have the ability to identify with the group that they are denigrating. I can't help but wonder:
  • If another country's military invaded my homeland, would I feel animosity?
  • If my town was bombed, and my friends or family died as a result - would I feel pain and anger?
  • If the leaders of the country that bombed my homeland justified doing so by using words like "freedom" and "patriotism," don't you think I'd be just a little bit upset?
  • If the leaders of that country also claimed that their aim was "spreading democracy" - would I feel belligerent?
  • If the military of that country occupied my homeland for an extended period of time, claiming that their "job" of "spreading freedom" wasn't done - wouldn't I feel outraged?
  • If those same military members claimed that killing my neighbors was keeping their own countrymen safe, even though their countrymen live thousands of miles away and are in no danger from mine - don't you think that I'd want to do everything in my power to oppose this?
islam_rageYes, "them" wanting to kill "us" is wrong. But the US government ordered the military to invade their country (or, shall I say, "countries"), killing innocents, kidnapping at random, stealing resources, and installing puppet dictators all while funding their enemies - all actions that are atrociously wicked. When put in that context, I don't blame them for being JUST A BIT RESENTFUL.
I suppose that the best I can do is fight this battle with words - although, I do have to choose my battles carefully. Hate is a hard thing to overcome - it hardens hearts and closes minds. Love and reason can overcome hate, but it takes time to let go of hate, as well as the willingness to accept love and compassion. Compassion and the state are incompatible - an institution that has coercion at its core couldn't possibly hope to instill that virtue in its subjects.
The hardest thing to do will be cultivating compassion for my racist, anti-Muslim friends. The axiom is true: those who need compassion the most often appear to deserve it the least.  They've been fed nationalistic nonsense from day one - and I know that I won't change their minds right away.
But I have to try.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Confessions of an Anarchist Library Assistant

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

I have something to confess: I did a dumb thing. I went to college and painted myself into the public sector corner with my choice of major: Library Science. Don’t get me wrong: I love it. But sometimes, I find myself thinking things like:
 “That could be automated.”
“Why do we have eight people here, when there’s barely enough work for 5?”
“That could be more efficient if we (insert suggestion here)”
…but I can’t say anything.  I’m the “new guy.” I’m not even a full employee – I’m a substitute. Things have got to be bad when someone from outside your organization and with little experience in the industry can easily identify key dysfunctions in your business model.
But that’s the big problem, really. They don’t HAVE a good business model – like all of the public sector, they don’t have to worry about satisfying customers. Since it’s a government-run monopoly, there’s no free market to give the library an idea if their services are viable, wanted, productive, or valued. There is hostility towards change – the more automation, the fewer jobs there are to go around. With no change, there is no innovation – they wait for the private sector to innovate, and then slowly implement policies that pale in comparison to the private sector alternative.
Amazon-smile-cropA friend posted this article on Amazon’s new venture: a digital library. It would work like Netflix – subscribers pay a fee, and get access to digital materials. There’s no waiting for holds on a limited number of items, you don’t have to trek down to the library and pick up the item, and there's minimal overhead, since digital items don’t need labels, to be inspected, cataloged, shelved, and shuttled from place to place.

Frankly, I feel obsolete.
That’s not saying there’s not a future for libraries – there is. But it most likely won’t look like anything we’re used to today. The public sector is too slow and resistant to change. Public libraries depend on limited funds that are obtained through coercion. Sometimes, they’re able to wheedle donations out of well-meaning civic-oriented benefactors. Sometimes, they can sell their weeded items (items that are old, obsolete, damaged, etc.) to raise a little cash. But mostly, they depend on tax dollars – the library that I work at depends on a levy that’s tied to property taxes. When the value of properties tanked in the 2008 crash, the whole consortium had to lay off employees, cut back service hours, discontinue some services, and the lack of funds also severely restricted the materials budget. Materials budgets not only encompass physical items, but also subscription services like research databases – which can get awfully expensive, for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.
When I go to work, I feel somewhat subversive – kind of like that scene in Breaking Bad, where Walter jokes with Hank about being the infamous meth cook that the DEA has been itching to bust.
I wonder what they’d say if they knew I’d privatize the library in half a heartbeat if I could. They probably wouldn’t be too happy – library workers in this area are forced into a public union, and if it’s one thing that unions don’t like, it’s change. There’s no way I can opt out – I live in a forced-unionization state; if I want a job in a public library here, I’d be forced to join the union. Luckily, I’m a substitute – we aren’t part of the union, but we still have to follow the rules laid out by the union contract so as not to threaten any union jobs with our presence: we aren’t allowed to work more than 40 hours a week. We’re limited to 68 hours per month for 8 months out of the year; the other 4 months are unlimited hours, as long as we don’t exceed 40 hours a week. If we go over 360 hours a year, we’re automatically in the union (although, since work is often spotty and hours aren't guaranteed, substitutes don’t have to pay union dues).
This situation is pretty common in the library and information science industry. In non-Right to Work states, workers are forced to join a union and pay dues, public or private sector. There are exceptions – for instance, if you have a strong religious objection to unionization, you’re allowed an exemption: they take the dues money out, and you and the union agree on which charity will receive it. Although if you choose this option, you can’t be sure that the charity is really receiving the money, as evidenced by this case last year.

But, back to the topic at hand: Libraries and Information Science!
It would surprise few people if I said that Information science is changing at a very rapid pace. Way too fast, in fact, for public institutions to keep up with emerging trends and technological developments in the field. Libraries will have to change to survive – and they will probably look a lot different from what we’re used to today.
0511-0909-0119-4522_Elderly_School_Librarian_clipart_imageIn addition to slow bureaucracies, thought processes of library workers are hard to change. For one, it’s a stagnant industry– partly because of dependence on public funds, and partly because library jobs are not labor-intensive. One can work in a library until they die of old age (and this is not an uncommon occurrence), which results in very low turnover. In some places, to get a job in a library, you have to wait for someone to die, retire, move, or transfer to another branch – not an encouraging prospect for the future of public libraries. Taking the length of the average library worker career into account, old modes of thought tend to linger – so much so that outdated technologies are still in regular use in the name of "tradition,", and labor-saving devices are an investment that many libraries are reluctant to implement. Libraries prefer to use their available funds on materials and salaries rather than on innovative labor-saving devices that may make some jobs obsolete.
Despite the song and dance about providing a valuable public service, library workers are like any other public employee: very protective of their jobs.
carnegie_libraryThe history and traditions of the modern library don’t bode well for it, either. The first free public lending institution was created in Braddock, PA in 1888 by a generous grant from the great industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, who benefited from an informal lending library in Pittsburgh when he was just a young working immigrant boy. From the beginning, libraries served a progressive, elitist, interventionist agenda  – the educated upper echelons of library staff (in the beginning all white and all male) would choose not what the public wanted to read, but what THEY wanted the public to read. Classics were the mainstay – popular literature was seen as low-class and undesirable. What the public wanted was irrelevant: it was the library’s mission to educate the unwashed masses, whether they liked it or not. The hierarchical structure in libraries is also worth mentioning – the upper level bosses were men, overseeing an army of subordinate women. It is somewhat different now – women dominate, and industry organizations like the ALA (American Library Association) are aggressively promoting the field to non-whites with grants and other special incentives. The vast majority of public library staff today are white and female.
Melvil Dewey Creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System
Melvil Dewey
Creator of the DDC
To people not in the Information Science field, classification systems are either a handy tool or a vexing enigma.The classification system most used in public libraries – the Dewey Decimal System – is most beneficial to the educated elite. The DDC (Dewey Decimal Classification system) is not intuitive by any stretch of the imagination. In the past, libraries would work this way: you’d go the service desk, request a book, and the library employee would go hunt it down for you. It was designed to be a form of specialized code, with the library worker as the gatekeeper to the knowledge stored within the musty stacks. Today, it’s different – there are games, classes, videos, and other resources teaching children about the DDC, so they can find their own books without having to annoy the busy library staff. From my experience in the industry, this does little good, though – I've had to explain how the DDC works and how to find things numerous times to people very close to my own age. Put simply, if you don’t work in or frequently do research at a library, classification systems might as well be Greek to you.
This gap in classification system knowledge has led to recent interest in the “mark and park” system – basically what you’ll see in a bookstore. Books are grouped by subject, alphabetical by author, and you browse from there.  Recent research suggests that the majority of library users prefer to browse a section rather than search for a specific title. This system has only been implemented in few public libraries, though, and time will tell whether the change will be beneficial.
The “Third Place” – “social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace” – is the concept with which public libraries are circling their wagons around a crumbling institution. Many libraries are morphing into a collection of creative, social spaces rather than the warehouse of books that we’re all familiar with. Some libraries are putting more and more funds into media - many days, I shelve and prepare holds for so many media items - CDs, DVDs, Playaways - that it feels like I work more in a video store than a library. Some
libraries are investing more and more money into services like Overdrive, which 
allows library users to check out digital books – despite the fact that the service has drawn fire for privacy issues, and suffers from some of the same ailments that physical books do, namely hold lists. With Overdrive, libraries only have so many digital copies of a title available, so users still have to wait in line to read the book as though it’s a physical copy.
So, if traditional libraries are going the way of the dodo (albeit slowly), what will future libraries – or, shall I say, library-like services – look like? I envision a more organic rather than institutional future - especially if the liberty movement gains momentum in the near future. There are a few ideas being thrown into the ring, and more are sure to be developed as technology advances. Some possibilities are:
  • Paid e-Book services such as the soon-to-be-unveiled Amazon service.
  • Book Crossing – a free book-sharing service where you can enter book information, print off a label, attach it to the book, and leave it in a public place. You report to the website where you leave the book, and the label has a number that the finder of the book can enter in and log the book as found. What’s quaint about this service is the language they use:  instead of books being left and found, they are “released” and “caught.”
  • Privately-owned Subscription Libraries – Reminiscent of Andrew Carnegie’s experience as a boy, these libraries can cater to a certain clientele, offer different subscription rates, be small, large, or something in between.
  • Charitable, Non-Profit Libraries –Pretty self-explanatory – simply, a library run entirely with charitable donations.
  • Crowd Sourced Library – Made up of donated books at a centralized location, which may be free or subscription-based. There’s already one in India!
  • Decentralized crowd sourced library – This is something that I thought of while walking the dog one night: If Uber can work, so can this! Imagine an app on your phone, where you can register your physical books, another user in your area contacts you through the app, you meet and physically lend or trade the book. When you move, just change your area and continue sharing!
  • Project Gutenberg – You can already get free e-books whose copyrights have expired here!
  • Digital Libraries, like the Digital Public Library of America.  Despite the name, DPLA is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It is registered as a library in the state of Massachusetts.
  • Espresso Book Machine - on-demand books and convenient self-publishing? Yes please!
  • Little Free Library: users create small, often decorative little libraries on their property, or get permission from the owner to install one. Passerby are encouraged to take a book, leave a book – it’s completely free, no late fees, and no promises to return anything!
  • A library with no books - in San Antonio, TX.
And just for fun…my possible replacement:

In conclbooks_coffeeusion, I urge everyone to take advantage of the services that their public library offers. We don't know how long this gravy train of progressive-style public services is going to last. Make sure to keep in mind that library budgets are often seen as superfluous by local legislators and are particularly vulnerable during a recession. Your library probably offers research databases, special programs, and community outreach events that you never knew existed. Seize the opportunity to increase your knowledge, improve practical skills, and socialize with other library users.
If the system is here, we might as well utilize it to our maximum personal gain.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Brewing Anarchy

This post was originally from my blog, here.

Buddhism isn't the only thing I bring to the table at – I’m also a home brewer of mead and cider. As long as you don’t sell your “product,” it’s perfectly legal to make without a license – although, you may want to check local laws before you decide to transport your homemade brew – in mid-2009, I was informed that RCW 66.28.140 was changing. This law:
“prohibited transportation or sharing of homemade beer & wine outside of the house of production and limited the transfer to only competitions or exhibitions. At these events, only "judges" could sample the products. The largest volume that could be transported was 1 gallon.”         ~Washington Homebrewer’s Association

I frequently transported my mead and cider to gatherings and parties - so I was breaking the law, and I didn't even know it! The revised law:
“ lines up closely with National regulations, and allows controlled sharing of homemade beer and wine with family, friends, relatives, and groups.  The highlights of the new law are:
- Adults may remove homemade ("family") beer or wine from the household of production provided:
  • It is not removed for sale
  • Up to 20 gallons at a time
  • It is used privately (including use at organized affairs, exhibitions, or competitions)”

Federal Law states (with respect to wine – mead is considered honey wine after all, despite the controversy over which came first): 
§24.75 (b) Quantity. The aggregate amount of wine that may be produced exempt from tax with respect to any household may not exceed:
(1) 200 gallons per calendar year for a household in which two or more adults reside, or
(2) 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult residing in the household.
~ US Government Printing Office Electronic Code of Federal Regulations 
For a full list of home brewing regulations (as well as a pounding headache), feel free to visit the TTB website.
All laws – State and Federal aside – home brewing (whether beer, cider, wine, mead, sake – or other intoxicating brew) is a highly individualistic endeavor.
Let’s take the types of mead for example (or, at least the most popular variants): 
  • Melomel – A mead with fruit or fruit juice (other than grape or apple)
  • Metheglin – A mead infused with herbs and/or spices
  • Pyment – A mead with grape juice ( a mead/wine hybrid)
  • Braggot – A mead with malt or ale (a mead/ale hybrid)
  • Cyser – A mead with apple juice (a mead/cider hybrid)

The combinations are practically endless, and are limited only by the brewer’s imagination and palate. For example, a friend of mine shared a wonderful recipe with me for his Raspberry Habanero mead. I tweaked it a little, though – he likes his sweet, and I like mine dry. Which leads me to the different strengths of mead, based on sugar content:
  • Sweet  – has the most sugar
  • Semi-sweet – not as sweet, has a nice dry finish
  • Dry – similar to dry wine

There are any number of variables that can affect the sugar content. The most important thing (in my humble opinion) is yeast. Yeast, put simply, eats sugar and produces CO2 and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) as waste prowine yeastsducts. Wine and champagne yeasts are suitable for mead, and White Labs has mead yeast. As an aside, White Labs is also sequencing the DNA of different strains of yeast in an effort to understand what genes produce different flavors.  The future of brewing may be more exciting than you think!
Temperature and additives (like fruit juice or whole fruit) can also affect sugar content.
If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of home brewing mead or cider, READ ON!
The tools of the trade are pretty simple:
  • Honey – try to find the best quality.
  • Water – filtered spring water is best. Don’t use distilled – the yeast needs those minerals!
  • Yeast – always get brewing yeast – never bread yeast. Get the right tool for the job. Red Star makes a terrific Champagne yeast (yellow packet) for dry meads, as well as a nice Cuvee yeast (blue packet) for sweeter meads. These yeasts are available online, and are standard at any brewing store.
  • Glass carboy or glass gallon jugs (at least two) – the glass apple juice jugs are perfect for this. You can make cider out of the apple juice, too! If you don’t want to spend time soaking or peeling off labels, you can order some at your local brewing store.
  • Fermentation Lock with a small amount of distilled liquor – This allows the
    Fermentation Lock with Bung
    CO2 to escape while keeping the nasties from getting into your mead. Don't forget to get a carboy bung, too!
  • Funnel – to pour your brew into a fermentation vessel or bottles.
  • Wine bottles – this goes without saying, really. If you’re going to brew, you might want to have something in which to store your finished product. If you don’t mind removing labels, you can reuse commercial wine bottles, if not, you can purchase wine bottles at your local craft brewing store. The swing-top lemonade or sparkling cider bottles can also be reused – and make beautiful gifts!
  • Corks – If you get T-corks, you can insert them by hand. If you get traditional style ones, you’ll have to get a cork inserter (corker). Needless to say, I prefer T-corks, because my production is quite low, and they’re cheaper in the long run. I’m also a big fan of synthetic corks – you don’t run the risk of a “corky” flavor in your mead, and synthetic corks don’t break apart. Some people value tradition more than others.
Nice to have:
  • Brewing siphon with plastic tubing – to siphon your brew out of the
    fermentation vessel, into a secondary vessel, or your prepared, sanitized bottles. It's not necessary, but easier to use than a funnel - with a siphon, there's less risk of spillage.
  • Wine bottle filler – preferably one with a spring valve (I upgraded this past year, and was very impressed with the performance of the spring-loaded one).
  • Hydrometer – measures sugar content
  • Wine thief – looks a lot like a siphon without the pump or hose attachment. It is used to take a sample or measure sugar content.
Additives* are also nice to have sometimes:
  • Isinglass - (made from fish swim bladders) is added to help clear brew
  • Pectic enzyme -  used to break down the pectin that results in melomels being cloudy
  • Yeast nutrient is used to boost fermentation.
*NOTE: These aren’t all the additives available – just the most popularly used ones.

A super fun thing to do is further personalizing your mead by creating your own labels, especially if you're giving your mead away as gifts. Some of my past labels:
"Tropical Thunder" - Made with honey from the tropics - yes, that's Thor in a grass skirt.
Blueberry Mead label
Pumpkin Spice Mead label
The best thing of all about home brewing is that it’s almost impossible for the government to regulate. The Washington State law against transporting home-brewed beverages was (as evidenced my obliviousness of it) absolutely unenforceable. In fact, I doubt that most police officers would have known about this law at the time! The federal government can (and does) track people who buy stills, but would have a much harder time tracking people buying yeast, apple juice, honey, and funnels! Home brewed alcoholic beverages also make a good barter item, should our economy collapse. It wouldn't be the first time that alcohol was used as currency!
Despite being a home-brewer, I’m not much of a drinker. I do it for the enjoyment of my friends and family, as well as love for the craft itself. What most appeals to me about home brewing is that it marries science and art. The science of how yeast consumes sugar and produces ethyl alcohol is combined with the beauty of the unfettered artistic expression of the brewer – with fruits, grains, herbs, and spices, the home brewer can create a delicious, hand-crafted, home-made work of art that everyone of legal drinking age can appreciate.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Why "Zen Capitalism?"

This article was originally from my blog, here.

Many of you may wonder: why did I choose “Zen Capitalism” for my site address? Buddhism and Capitalism seem completely at odds. Buddhism (in the understanding of popular culture) eschews the idea of private property and its doctrines seem a fertile ground for collectivism. So I'll define the two, to give the reader a better idea of what I mean by each and then we can discuss how they fit together on an intimate level.
Zen - a tradition in Buddhism; it is the tradition that I started out in, and is the foundation of the Buddhism from which I draw. I now consider myself a Secular Buddhist – I do not believe in nature spirits, ghosts, demons, reincarnation, or any of the other mystical trappings that are common to some traditions. I do believe in the ingenuity of the individual mind, the power of the human spirit, the value of mindfulness and a meditation practice, as well as a respect for my fellow sentient beings. Dharma, which I may mention in this article from time to time, is most commonly used in Buddhism to mean "the teachings of the Buddha," and that is how I intend to use it here.
Capitalism – If you’re at, you already know what capitalism is. Capitalism is more than just an economic system – it’s a powerful catalyst for freedom, a celebration of human ingenuity expressed in industry, trade, and ownership of private property in pursuit of profits.
I initially chose to put these words together just for the shock value of their juxtaposition. How on Earth could Buddhism encourage competitive, free markets? How could a seemingly collectivist belief system encourage individual freedom? Well – I’ll tell you. Keep in mind that I’m only one Secular Buddhist – and as far as I know, I haven’t met one Anarcho-Capitalist Secular Buddhist other than myself. So, I speak for myself and only myself – not Buddhists in general or Secular Buddhists in particular. I am not a Buddhist scholar – but I live my life applying these concepts practically, every day.
I came to Buddhism first. My fascination with liberty and freedom came later.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been persuaded that Capitalism is a force for good – it is the most powerful system by which everyone is given the opportunity to succeed, to empower themselves, and (oh, I can’t help but use the old cliché) lift themselves up by their bootstraps.  It can give one purpose – not only in the pursuit of profit, but to build something that benefits the community, offering a needed service or product, providing jobs and opportunities for others to succeed.
I won’t go into Objectivism, and rational self-interest and all of that – I’m not going to defend the profit motive. It doesn’t need to be defended.  Ayn Rand already did it – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Buddhism, at its core, is highly individualist. It may not seem so, but it is. Think of every country that could be popularly identified as Buddhist. Do they all look the same? Does the imagery in their art look the same? Do the canons of their particular tradition look the same?
Well, no. They don’t. Some Buddhists eat meat.  Some place more emphasis on meditation, others on scholarship. Some believe in reincarnation. Some believe in nature spirits, Gods, or even have elaborate cosmologies, with different worlds one is sent to after they die, depending on how they behaved during this lifetime.  Buddhism takes on the “flavor” of every culture that it comes into contact with. Additionally, there’s the difference between the Layman and the Monk/Nun.
The Layman has to live “out in the world,” beyond the confines of a monastery or nunnery. The Layman has to tailor their Buddhism to fit their socioeconomic status, occupation, family, and living situation. The Layman has to put his Buddhism into practical use. So, in practice, Buddhism is highly individual – it has become associated with collectivism due to the highly collectivist cultural climate in Asia. In Asian countries, families are often bound together with obligation, honor and shame – concepts that have become alien to the individualistic Western mind, at least in their powerful influence on daily life – and as such, American Buddhism has taken on a much more individualistic “flavor.”
When I say this, many think of the “one with everything” reputation that Buddhism has in the West. You know what I mean – the concept that at the core of reality, we’re all the same, so we should treat each other with love as we would if everyone were our brother or sister. I’m not going to debate that we’re all carbon-based life forms, made of the same elements – I’m pretty sure that we can all agree on this. But Buddhism itself recognizes that despite these similarities, we all experience the world differently – there are many ways for a Buddhist teacher to engage with his/her students, so in practice there is an admittance that we don’t all learn or think the same. Likely, we all experience consciousness differently as well, making the question of the exact nature of consciousness itself rather tricky.
So, we’ve talked about how Buddhism is like Capitalism. What does Capitalism have in common with Buddhism?
Capitalism 200px-Libertatis_Æquilibritas.svgresults in an increase of wealth, which is (of course) a reduction of poverty, and the elimination of suffering. I don’t like to put the Buddhist view of suffering in the terms of a mathematical equation; that somehow values can be punched in, and a more desirable outcome can be decided upon based on the net suffering of all involved – life is rarely that neat and tidy. Since Capitalism is the interaction of individuals, all desiring to better themselves in one way or another, the intent (reduction of suffering) is admirable and desirable, and therefore, very much in sync with Buddhist ideals. In the pursuit of profit, individuals increase the value of their labor on the market by enriching their mind (education), or getting experience (increasing the value of their labor), which benefits untold other individuals. The desire to get more benefit for less work expended is pretty basic to humanity. This desire drives us to innovate, and these innovations have the potential to save others from having to do backbreaking labor over a significant period of time - thus freeing up their time and energy, improving quality of life (which I doubt any Buddhist would argue is a bad thing). Not only that, trade encourages human interaction, which usually results in peace: it’s quite hard for one people to go to war against another if they know them on a personal level. They cannot be made into a nameless, faceless enemy – especially when both can profit from voluntary exchange.
So, Capitalism and Buddhism aren't at odds at all, but can be meshed comfortably into a solid, practical worldview. Both encourage enrichment of the mind, and stress the productive value of labor and intellect. Both value innovation, individual application of concepts, and improving everyday life for others. The reduction of human suffering  is the ideal result of both Buddhism and Capitalism, regardless of intent on the part of Capitalism.
With any belief system, you can take some scripture or scholarly writings and twist them to your own ends – and I believe that this is necessary. Buddhism has survived so long because of its unique properties, not the least of which is its chameleon-like ability to adapt to every culture it encounters. When it comes to Secular Buddhism, every thought experiment with the Dharma from different perspectives is welcome. It keeps the tradition alive, vibrant, and flourishing – or, you could say that it increases its value in the marketplace of ideas.
Both of these philosophies encourage me to be the best I can be – to put forth my productive energies to benefit myself, the proceeds of which go to benefit others through my purchase of goods or services.
Buddhism encourages charity, and there’s also place for charity in Capitalism – as long as it’s voluntary. I volunteer at the library, spending a couple hours a week building skills, interacting with others, and donating my productive energy to what I believe is a good cause. What I get out of my time there - experience, social interaction, a sense of camaraderie - is worth much more to me than the hours themselves. The most powerful case for anarchy, in my opinion,  is the existence of charity and volunteerism today. People voluntarily donate their time and effort outside of work to charitable causes - even while being preyed upon by the increasingly intrusive State. It is because of this that I advocate for a freer, more civilized, voluntary world. Both as a Buddhist and a Anarcho-Capitalist, I know both in my heart and my mind that we can do better.

"It has to start somewhere,
  It has to start sometime.
 What better place than here, 
 What better time than now?"
                                       ~Rage Against the Machine ('Guerrilla Radio')

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Philosopher in the Rough

This post is republished from my blog, here. I'm mirroring them for several reasons. First - my reach on is limited, only members can post comments, review your work, and interact with you on a meaningful level, severely limiting feedback that I could use to improve my writing skills. Another reason is for "safe-keeping" - if goes belly-up, my work is saved here. Lastly, if I decide to cancel my subscription there, I'll have mirrored all my content that I spent much time and effort creating. Enjoy!

A short time ago, I expressed feelings of frustration to a friend of mine. All of my life, I was told that I was smart, had a clever mind, or had a bright future ahead of me. Although the first two were reasonably accurate (or at least what I've been led to believe), the last one didn't seem to be true. In the academic world, I excelled - but in the real world, where the rubber met the road, I floundered. I was frustrated with the way my life was heading - more specifically, I was frustrated with what seemed to be the limits of my intellect.
I was angry that I couldn't sound like a philosopher - that my thoughts didn't sound polished enough. It wasn't enough that I could write things that were genuinely insightful - I wanted to sound smarter than I really was. I wanted to be perfect.
My friend told me to relax -  just because my "philosophy" wasn't polished, that didn't mean that it didn't have value.
But my stubborn nature heeds no man. I tested the limits of my mind, trying to get to know it better. I took personality tests (I tested as an INTJ if you must know), political compass tests, intelligence tests - anything to see where my strengths and weaknesses lay so that I could shore up the foundation of my cluttered mind.

I was trying too hard. After months of searching, working, and trying to better understand how my brain works, I concluded that I need not continue. I decided that my friend was right - there is beauty in the rough diamond as in the rough mind, if not only for its potential, but also for its intrinsic value.
The thought makes me smile that maybe one day in the future, someone will have bookmarked this post, and returned to it, time and time again - like a smudged, stained recipe in a beloved, ratty old cookbook - gleaning tidbits of wisdom from my imperfect perfect musings. I should be so lucky. I highly doubt that I'll ever be a Rothbard, a Rand, or a Rousseau - but I'll do the best I can with what I've got.
If you're as frustrated now as I was then, please allow me to offer you some sage advice:
Don't be afraid to write, to post videos, or to express yourself artistically. Don't be afraid to mess up and make mistakes. Don't hold yourself back for fear of being imperfect. Value your rough edges - don't polish them; allow them to polish you.
..and for your own sake, don't stop thinking. It isn't illegal - yet.