Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Invest in loss

The last couple of weeks have led to another one of those weird breakthroughs I have been having in the process of becoming a better person. This is actually one I was given the clues to years ago, except I wasn't really listening.

When I first moved out to New Jersey after college, I was spending a huge amount of time at a kung fu school in the city. One of the things my teacher used to do was occasionally let students come along with him to a Sunday training session where he and a bunch of other middle aged Chinese masters of different styles would get together and train/push hands/talk martial arts. The friendliest and most intriguing of the group was a tai chi practitioner (his own words. Personally I'd have no problem using the word 'master' to describe someone at his skill level). I've been priviledged to practice with some immensely talented people but pushing hands with him was a very different experience. With just about every other really good person I've met, there was a sense that they definitely had a center, I just couldn't reach it because every attempt I made would be turned away or deflected . With him, there was nothing there. Any attempt at offense fell into a void and then all of a sudden I'd be in a wrist lock or off balance or my hands would be tied up. All the while he'd be laughing , making jokes and helpfully pointing out weaknesses in my structure. I ran into him again at the world Tai Chi day celebration in Central Park and, as usual, we pushed hands and I ended up on my ass. After we were done, he casually mentioned that one of the reasons he liked my teacher was the fact that he was always willing to compare skills with anyone. Not because he thought he was the best, but because he was felt that he could learn from the experience whether he won or lost. It took me this long to figure out that he was talking about me too.

Like most perfectionists, I am deathly afraid of putting in my best and the result not being, well, perfect. Therefore, to avoid the possibility that my best isn't perfect, I allow myself to do halfhearted, slipshod work which is obviously not perfect so I can comfort myself by pointing out that it obviously wasn't my best effort so its ok if it wasn't perfect. Therefore I won't study as hard as I could for an exam and then when I'm average I'll feel great about the fact that, had I studied the way I could have, the people at the head of the class would have some real competition. In social situations where I'm afraid of saying/doing the wrong thing and people not liking me, I'll settle for saying/doing nothing. I don't exersise or train as hard as I could because If I did I'd expect nothing less than perfect skill and I'd be unable to live with anything else. Basically, on my bad days I am incapable of trying something I could possibly be bad/fail at and so I settle for being mediocre. On my good days, of course, the cocky Akan part of my breeding kicks in and I'm unafraid of anything. Unfortunately, the bad days have been making a resurgence of late. Something about my trying to be better is stirring up all sorts of emotional muck in my system. I guess that means more meditation and the 'fear removal' technique Steven Barnes talks about on his blog. Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Its Spring. And other misc. thoughts

Birds are chirping, the sun stays out for more than 10 minutes a day, trees are starting to flower and clothes are beginning to come off. Honestly, it is at times like this that I love where I live. Basically its a middle class predominantly brown (black people, latinos and an increasing Asian population) neighborhood in what is considered one of the nice parts of Newark. Basically the kind of place where your neighbors blast loud salsa music on a warm spring day. In this warm weather I get to see a parade of beautiful brown women every day. Honestly, it just makes me feel better.

The warm weather also means I can begin to train outside. I went for a short run through the park today to find a suitable space where I could work on my kung fu basics without too much publicity. For some strange reason, martial arts training tends to attract all sorts of unwanted attention. First of all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much stamina I still have. Plus I found a clearing about a mile away from the house that is perfect. I'll be out there tomorrow morning.

Anyway, since its spring, its about time for me to get rid of the afro. The last time I had a haircut was sometime in November so I have a fair amount of hair on my head. The reactions I've gotten from people have been really interesting. However, spring has come and I feel like it would be nice to be almost bald again. Plus I get to see how people's reactions toward me change now.

Another thing. Since its spring and I haven't bought new clothes in almost two years, I'll need to go shopping. That presents a rather interesting problem, though. You see, genetics and years of really low stance training have left me with a disproportionately large posterior and legs that look that they belong on a soccer player. Seriously, its one of those things just about every girl I've ever dated has mentioned. It presents interesting problems when I go shopping for khakis because if they are the right size for my waist they are almost skintight. I end up having to buy stuff significantly large than me so that I'll actually have some room in there. This is less of an issue when it comes to jeans and shorts but I'm trying something different this summer. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I'm validated

Further proof of what I spoke of in my previous post comes courtesy of New York Times writer Thomas Friedman's book 'The World Is Flat'. He explains the premise of his book in this article. Basically, the rest of the world is catching up scientifically while school systems in this country are wasting time debating the validity of evolution and scientifically accepted theories on climate change are ignored.

He appeared on the daily show to discuss his book yesterday and mentioned the area where I believe the lack of funding for basic research is going to hurt american industries a lot in hte next couple of decades, alternative energy.

Lets assume that corporate oil concerns keep masive government funding from going in this area until the technology has already been created by, say, the Chinese. While your evonomy will still be chained to a depleting natural resource, your biggest potential industrial rival will be totally independent as far as power generation and will be gaining influence throughout the developing world by passing on this technology.

As an African, I have a fairly serious interest in solar cell technology. Anyone who knows about Ghana's oil issues can understand why. I'm actually trying to get unto the research team of the professor who works in that field. The lack of funding in this area is something that really bothers me. Well, I was planning on learning mandarin anyway because of the fact that its useful in NY's kung fu community. I guess now it will also come in handy for reading Chinese research papers.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Are you guys trying to become irrelevant?

I was reading Slashdot during one of my study breaks when I came across this article. Basically, DARPA, the research arm of the pentagon, is cutting its funding for open ended research in favor of more focused research with short term goals. For those of you unaware of DARPA, the most visible success was the invention of the internet. Their open ended research has yielded massive amounts of technological innovation which then crossed over into the civilian world and helped this country maintain its technological dominance.

This shift in funding isn't an isolated incident either. Corporate funding for research has also been shifting from the kind of open ended scientific research that could take a decade to pay off to short term projects that pay off in a few quarters. I imagine some people are wondering why this matters. Well, simply put, you're handing your technological dominance over to the Europeans and Asians on a silver platter by letting the bottom line dictate where research money goes. While short term research pays off faster, it does not create anything new. The kind of radical ideas, like the Internet, that end up shaping the future come from long term open ended research. You find a couple of really talented people, you give them money and leave them alone. Every once in a while you check on them every once in a while to make sure they're remembering to eat and shower. That's what DARPA used to do. So did formerly great American institutions like Bell Labs, HP and Xerox.

The Europeans still fund lots of basic research and Asian countries, particularly India, Japan, China and Korea are increasing the strength of their academic institutions. Incidentally, the increased barriers to immigration you've been throwing up are helping them by keeping the foreigners who populate your science and engineering programs at home. If they end up holding the patents to the next great thing while American research groups are still looking at the ground in front of their feet, there goes your dominance. Personally, It doesn't make a difference to me who is in charge. I just don't see why anyone would willingly take themselves out of the race. Plus I don't want to have to learn another language just so I can go somewhere else to do good research.