Zen in the Art of Hypocrisy

(Warning: major spoilers about the plot of Atlas Shrugged follow. This is in addition to the usual spoilers about the meaning of life and stuff.)

This little video snippet shows my namesake explaining his path to Zen enlightenment—the buttering of French bread. Robert Pirsig's picked a killer title for his 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the reader who looks for much of anything about Zen is going to be disappointed (as is the reader who looks to learn anything about motorcycle maintenance). My bookshelf holds another book Zen of Code Optimization, which I suspect to be almost the exact opposite of Zen, in that it relies on meticulous analysis. Leo Babuta's Zen to Done productivity system is Zen-like in spirit inasmuch as it tries to simplify as much as possible, but as far as I can tell has no real connection with Zen philosophy.

Don't get me wrong. All the foregoing are worthy products, and it doesn't bother me that the "Zen" buzzword has become something of a marketing gimmick—although a Zen priest might take a different view. It seems a harmless and possibly amusing superficiality, like the legendary Japanese department store that used a crucified Santa Claus as a Christmas decoration.

Then again, the word Zen has passed into common usage as an everyday adjective, difficult to define precisely (which is what makes it useful), but generally referring to that which is holistic, surprisingly indirect or even seemingly paradoxical, as when Mr. Miyagi teaches karate through car-waxing. Come to think of it, this doesn't bother me either.

What will make me snort and spit out my coffee is when someone claims with a straight face to be a Zen adherent when all they have done is read a book or two, or perhaps not even that. It's as if watching every episodes of "Hogan's Heroes" qualifies one to march in the Veteran's Day parade.

This came to mind again recently when I saw the trailer for the new Atlas Shrugged movie coming out on April 15. From the trailer I can't tell whether the version of Objectivism presented is the genuine, Ayn-Rand version, or the superficial version that's been going around for the past few years, which we might call the Glenn Beck version.

Among Atlas Shrugged discussion group I discovered that two people might agree on a certain tenet of the book but disagree diametrically on how to map that point into the real world. Is Bill Gates a John Galt or a Wesley Mouch?

In the aftermath of the stock-market crash a couple of years ago, we were presented with the spectacle of incompetent investment bankers, who got tired of reading bad stuff about themselves in the newspapers, threatening to "Go Galt"—that is, renounce their chosen profession and leave the rest of us to struggle along without them—to which my unforced reaction was always Yes, please! Put that in writing and we'll sign it.

Will Wilkinson put it neatly: The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. Zen and Objectivism, though very different philosophies, seem to share a common misfortune of attracting dilletantes who like the charisma factor but reject (or more likely are ignorant of) the discipline demanded of real adherents.

One of my friends who is a genuine Objectivist remarks with amusement on the many politicians and pundits these days who claim to be both serious Objectivists and devout Christians. I mean, have you read Atlas Shrugged, people? (In all seriousness, I suspect probably not.) It would be difficult to find a more implacably contradictory pair of philosophies.

But then again, such people seem to flunk the Christianity test as well as the Objectivist test—that inconvenient business about selling all you have and giving to the poor, or refraining from casting the first stone. One benefit of embracing two contradictory creeds is that one can piously cite a justification for whatever shallow, self-indulgent whim possesses one at the moment. I guess that's the point.

The Dark Side of Positive Thinking

As a long-time cynic, I found this little ten-minute lecture (from the RSA series) most rewarding. Take a look.

Lip Reading Concluded

Photo by kavehkhkh

So I'm here to report I finished the Read My Lips! DVD series. I have little to add to my earlier observations. I think the series is effective to a certain extent. I feel decidedly more proficient than when I started--but, just as language classes in school seldom bring you to fluency, I am not ready to go out and be a spy just yet.

I intend to go back to the DVD's occasionally to maintain what proficiency I have. I haven't decided on whether to attempt some further formal training. There isn't much out there, beyond some YouTube videos.

I'm pretty sure I could create a lip-reading course that would take it to the next level--if only I didn't have too many other things to do that sound more interesting.

To wrap it up, here are a few of the more memorable quotes from the "Read My Lips!" series. I am not making these up:

You've had too much to drink.

That rhinoceros reminds me of your mother.

Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law.

I took a butcher knife from the kitchen and went down into the basement.

The Secret Alien Agenda Behind Feminism

Between 1966 and 2001, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women in science and engineering fields roughly quadrupled. Even so, the number is less than half the number of similar degrees awarded to men. Lots more data is available here.

A lot of discussion goes on about the reason for the disparity—whether it's discrimination, some inherent gender distinction, or something else. One phenomenon that probably plays a role is a misguided belief that for women, professionalism in math, science, and engineering demands sacrificing one's femininity. This idea strikes me as rather ludicrously old-fashioned, and I would be disinclined to believe that anyone buys into it any more—if I had not witnessed some tension over exactly this issue among some of my own acquaintances who happen to be both female and scientists. The Nerd Girls movement is explicitly dedicated to helping women choose careers in science and engineering and stay girly at the same time. See Erin Cech's interesting discussion here.

There is a place, however, where women are entirely free to become scientists and engineers and celebrate their femininity at the same time. It's the world of the 1950's science-fiction B-movie. We don't think twice about Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park (1993)—although she explicitly mentions sexism—but it's interesting to see paleontologist Lee Hunter appear in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms during an era (1953) in which women in real life were expected to stay home, wash windows, and change diapers—and none of the characters finds her gender at all incongruous.

And these are not the girls who stayed home and studied because they couldn't get a date on Saturday night, either. They wear skirts and heels, their hair is nicely done, their nails, too—in fact, any of them could take up a second career as a lingerie model if that whole science-engineering thing failed to work out. I wonder what effect these figures on the screen had on young girls sitting in the audience?

That question will likely never be answered. But if the movies teach us anything it is this: integration of women into the ranks of scientists and engineers is a prelude to alien invasion. You have been warned.

(Above: Nuclear physicist Dr. Ruth Adams from This Island Earth pursues some extracurricular activities.)

(Update 15 February) Some late-breaking [I hate that word] news on the issue.