Dale Napier writer Tai Chi Chuan Tai Chi In Your Life Queen Joan politics martial arts cyberwar
Dale Napier writer Tai Chi Chuan Tai Chi In Your Life Queen Joan politics martial arts cyberwar
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The Paranoid Style in American Politics

17 Jul 2016
The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Paranoid Style
View on Amazon
One of my favorite silly sayings of politics is "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes". One hundred years after the birth of American historian Richard Hofstadter, I'm rediscovering one of his great works of a half century ago. When I read the book in college it read like a story of distant past history. When I reread it again this month, The Paranoid Style of American Politics read like it was written for this year's presidential election. This year we are rhyming like the lunatic ravings of a psychopathic poet.

The eye-opener as a student was the discovery that American's anti-Communist fanaticism was preceded by earlier waves of xenophobic fantacism, exactly like Donald Trump's ranting and raving against Mexicans and Moslems. Starting in 1797 there were broad claims of a conspiracy to control America by the Bavarian Illuminati - a secret society so controversial that it was ended in Bavaria before it could spread abroad, but which has been blamed for any number of ills for centuries. That wave was followed by anti-Masonism, which was vaguely associated with anti-Jacksonianism because Andrew Jackson was a Mason (in Texas it is believed that Sam Houston, a Jacksonian Mason, failed to execute Santa Ana at the Battle of San Jacinto because the Mexican general employed secret Masonic hand signals). By the time the fervor against Masons died down in the mid 19th century, anti-Catholicism was set off by nativists upset by millions of Irish, and later Italians, flooding into the country.

I've given enough background to make it clear that the politics of Trump fall into the classic style of American paranoia, but it doesn't take much to see the same paranoid style in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton, although to a lesser extent. To make this point clear I need to quote from the book's lead essay.
The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.
Keep in mind that Hofstadter wrote this in 1965, not this year. And he was aware of the difficulties of sorting out real conspiracies from those of fantasy.
All political behavior requires strategy, many strategies acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. (In that thinking) History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoia spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.
That starts out sounding like Trump, but by the end sounds more like Sanders, who along with his zealous supporters has long railed against the vast forces conspiring against his campaign and against the 'true values' of the American people. And if you've followed American politics long enough you know that Hillary Clinton has long claimed that a "vast right wing conspiracy" has tried to take down her and her husband. Watch for it in her fall campaign.

Hofstadter goes on to describe how the paranoid sees the enemy, which helps us see that the Clinton criticisms against Trump are remarkably similar to long-standing Republican critiques of Democrats.
This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.
If you see in this description your favorite criticisms of Trump, Sanders, Clinton, Cruz or anyone else - congratulations! You are a classic paranoid in the style of American politics. Read the book's lead essay: It will be, I fear, a look in the mirror.
Police, Violence and Change

10 Jul 2016
Location of Houston's police-ninja standoff of 1991

Location of Houston's little-known police-ninja standoff in Memorial Park, circa 1991. closeup
The lower closeup shows Memorial Parkway at the bottom, a jogging path, and the utility break above them. In between is the the area that was heavily wooded, but the drought of 2011 thinned it out considerably.
About 25 years ago on a beautiful Saturday morning in Houston's Memorial Park, police were summoned to a remarkable scene: a group of 15 or 20 black-clad white men wielding sticks, chains and wooden swords had surrounded a smaller black man in what appeared to be a sinister situation. The group was not out in the open but hidden behind a stand of trees in a clearing for power lines.

The men watched the police emerge from all directions - five squad cars creeping carefully through the broken field, two officers on horseback and a helicopter hovering above. The leader of the black-clad group, a former Army Ranger captain who was later recommissioned for service in Afghanistan, told his compadres to continue. He walked casually across the field to the nearest police car with his hands clearly empty. None of the police had dismounted or left their vehicles. He talked to several officers for five minutes through their open windows. The black man waved at the squad cars to show there was no problem. Soon everyone was waving and the police left without further ado.

No doubt you're wondering how such an event, which has achieved legendary status in certain circles, would turn out today: I am too, which is why we stopped training in the open. We were training in Japanese bujutsu (battlefield) arts alternately ascribed to the ninjas and the samurai. The young man in the middle, a good friend also named Dale who spoke with a peculiar English accent that marks native Virgin Islanders, was in the middle because he was the best student in the class, and given a difficult training assignment: to be surrounded by a motley crew who attacked in no particular order, with no predictable method, and to defend as necessary in standard single attack-and-response style. I was one of the newbies on the outer ring. Like the most of the others I was uncertain and hestitant. I was starting to learn that hesitation is a major cause of defeat in battle.

Fast-forward a dozen years: I was practicing a Chinese sword form with my training jian, a straight two-edged tai chi long sword which weighs two kilos (four and a half pounds) but which cannot be sharpened into a live blade. Because of the rainy weather and water-soaked ground I was practicing in an empty parking lot in my apartment complex rather than the secluded space I preferred. I should have known better: I was in full view of the street, and a police substation was only a quarter of a mile away. When a cop drove by and made a fast U-turn I prepared myself.

As with the incident in the park, I continued my practice - this time slow, smooth, continuous - rather than stop and seem to act guilty. As he drove into the parking lot the cop instructed me by PA to drop the sword; I placed it casually on the ground and stood, raising my hands so he could see they were clear. As he stepped out I chatted with him easily, telling him I was a tai chi teacher. Soon the city cop was joined by four deputy constables and deputy sheriffs. I invited them to inspect my sword to verify that it could not cut; they also inspected my sword bag and found nothing but my ID. The lead cop hefted the sword, realized the weight was serious, and commented that it could probably still do damage, as can any long piece of metal, but lost interest when he saw the blade could not cut. He consulted with his peers, then came back to mej. His body language told me we were cool. He said they had "voted 4 to 1" to let me go; the one turned out to be a female constable who had introduced herself with a big fat lie that I had diplomatically let slide. As he was leaving the lead told me I had an outstanding traffic warrant that I needed to take care of - a warrant that gave him every excuse he needed to arrest me! I didn't even know about it, but you can bet I took care of it.

The starting moral of this story is that there are clearly ways to deal with police officers without making them feel angry or threatened; otherwise I and my buddies would all have police records, or worse. Make yourself their friend, or make yourself their enemy, and they will treat you accordingly. Keep in mind that when they stop you now, they are concomitantly terrified that they are about to die. Some have earned that feeling but most have not. Help them feel safe and they will help you feel safe. The last cop who gave me a speeding ticket, about six years ago in small town Texas, thanked me for my courtesy, which made me think courtesy is not common.

That's the starting point, but let's be honest: I'm white. It saddens me to witness this truth, but my skin color gives me a tremendous advantage in credibility even today. I experienced two incidents as a young man, both times in the company of black friends, that drove home the fact of police racism. While mild compared to today's horror stories, each event taught me something.

The first time I was 18 in Fort Worth in 1972, still in high school, and had discovered an adult night club that illegally served alcohol to teens; I took my best friend Galen, whose skin is about the same tone as President Obama's. The cop-bouncer at the door waved me in but stopped Galen; he didn't ask either of us for ID. A year later that club, and its sister club in Dallas, were closed by a civil rights lawsuit for their discriminatory policies. Today Galen is a college professor in Pittsburgh.

The second time I was 20 in Austin, attending the University of Texas. A group of us held a street party on a block west of campus bordering some of the hippie dorms and co-ops where we lived. We did it by the book, complete with city council permission, one-day beer license, insurance, damage deposits, the whole nine yards.

The afternoon that we set up for the night party, police showed up to cordon each end of the block, just after we brought in a flat bed truck to deliver the beer kegs and for the bands to play on. My buddy Newell, a wiry guy who had very dark skin and corn-row hair, was helping unload the kegs but was stopped by the cops as a suspicious character. Newell was about my age, one of the musicians scheduled to play and one of the organizers. I was embarrassed for both of us: Newell had to have the cops call me over to vouch for him. They didn't know me from Adam, but because I was white I could vouch for him. I did so and the cops slinked off immediately to find another suspicious character. Today Newell is a professional musician in Portland.

You may have noticed by now that nowhere in this hodge-podge of anecdotes lies a fixed and certain lesson. Anyone who views these matters in absolutes makes the most grievous error of all. These are mini-lessons of the type that most of us experience throughout our lives, for better or worse. The incidents involving the police, if they occurred today, might turn out much worse than they did then; or because of my skin color, go no worse than before. It's impossible to say. So let me take this away with one last anecdote.

I attended a multi-day martial arts workshop in Atlanta in 1990, a Tai Kai led by Japan's most famous teacher of ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi. Although this is off topic I can't help but note that at the back of the room on the first day I met a famous spectator, Fred Rogers. Yes, Misterrogers was watching ninja training. In one of his trademark sweaters. Contrary to popular mythology, Misterrogers never served as a navy frog man in World War II; never fought at Iwo Jima. Doesn't wear a sweater to cover Navy tats. But he was interested and had lively chats with some of the teachers. He autographed my training schedule, now long lost.

Back to topic: I trained a lot with a blonde German with a similar body type, which made it easy for us to work together - that, and his English was pretty good. He wanted to know one thing about America, one thing only - how bad was the racism, really? Pardon me for my prejudice but I choke when a guy with a German accent asks about racism. Mostly I was floored by the question because I not experienced seen racism recently, not since 1983 anyways (I had a manager at work who was terrible), and there was little racial violence in the news. When I told him things seemed to have gotten a lot better, I was thinking about the problems of Turkish immigrants in Germany, as three of my family members were Turkish immigrants to America in 1960 and fully integrated in American society, which was not allowed in Germany.

If he asked me the same question today I would have to give a different answer. Since then we have seen new black segregation, racial violence in public schools, growing inequality in education, and an increasing chasm between police and non-police. This has happened even as racially mixed marriages have become common and non-controversial, even as we have elected a two-term "black" president, suggesting that the general public has far less problem with race than police do. Non-whites get the worst of the police problem, but it's not isolated to them: both of my children, as young adults, have been assaulted or abused by police in non-arrest situations.

Most of the proscriptions we hear for fixing police-public problems seem to focus on changing police behavior, but I think we also need a better understanding of the stresses of that job. Street cops need as much R&R as we give our professional combat soldiers: soldiers who survive combat without PTSD do so with a lot of R&R. Their needs are attended to. It's not a full solution, but it is important. Police officers never get the breaks, never get the time off, never get the attention except in a negative way. How can that produce the good results we all want?

They also need ongoing psychological counseling - not psychiatry, but counseling. It needs to be a requirement, because when a police officer seeks counseling voluntarily it is a stigma. It hurts his reputation, goes on his record and damages his career. If they all receive it as a matter of course, that problem can go away and the ones most who need the attention can get it without fearing penalty.

As I say, these are bits and pieces without a single point, but they go in this direction: Handle with care your interactions with dangerous people, handle with respect everyone from whom you wish respect, and handle the police as fragile instruments rather than blunt force weapons. When police stop seeing themselves as weapons the police can start being our friends again, and when we can stop seeing police as predators we can be unafraid to offer our friendship.
Book Review - Heart of Europe

26 Jun 2016

Heart of Europe
Heart of Europe
by Peter Wilson(2015)
When I read a book of history my goal is to fill gaps in my knowledge of the subject. Sometimes the gaps are large, sometimes they are small, but every so often a book comes along that completely transforms my knowledge of a subject, filling gaps I never knew existed. So it was with my recent completion of Peter Wilson's Heart of Europe, an all-encompassing history of the Holy Roman Empire.

For those who know nothing else of the Empire, we begin with Voltaire's famous statement that it was "neither holy, Roman, nor an empire, " a cynical depiction with more than a dash of truth. What I came to realize was that most of my knowledge of medieval times was based on English and French history and culture , which took a path quite separate from that of the Empire.

Wilson's works is a non-linear approach to understanding the politics and the social structure of the time, which evolved and grew in complexity over the centuries. There is too much material for me to discuss in depth, so I will touch on some of the matters that struck closest to home for me; if any of them reach you, I encourage you to seek out the book for yourself. You might consider using an e-reader, because the hardcover form is physically heavy. And it is academically serious: The glossary, footnotes, bibliography, appendices, chronologies, maps and family trees make up almost one-third of the 942-page book.

What was the Holy Roman Empire?

The Empire was a polyglot composition of large kingdoms, smaller principalities, and even smaller duchies, counties and electorates. Created by Charlemagne in 800, in 814 it was split into three distinct regions that quickly evolved into France, Germany, and the regions in between, such as those eventually controlled by the Luxembourg family. France turned into a nation relatively quickly: Though England was conceived as a nation before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Wilson looks at the 13th century as the time that the concept of France as a nation, greater than the Frankish people, solidified. The Empire, by lasting so long, put off the consolidation of the German people into a nation until 65 years after its end, in 1871.

Electoral College

The Empire's approach to choosing its leadership, its emperors and kings, was far different from those of ordinary kingdoms. Unlike England and France, where primogeniture dictated that heirs of monarchs would be the oldest sons, or the closest possible equivalent, the Empire had no such dictate. No, emperors were elected. They were elected by the Electoral College, wherein electors were the most powerful of the kings and nobles in the Empire. Every new emperor had to be elected by the Electoral College and every new king had to be approved by the other kings of the Empire. Although preference was given to eldest sons, on many occasions they were passed over in favor of more competent choices; and when a family dynasty died, the electors turned to other families without it causing a civil war. This, not English or French approaches, was the model for America's government. Emperors took this requirement so seriously that they commonly got their heirs pre-elected, before their deaths, in order to assure the transition they desired. Some, such as Charles IV, were unsuccessful but most were not.

German Legacy

Adolph Hitler talked of the Third Reich, the regime of Germany's National Socialist (Nazi) government, lasting for one thousand years. To the average non-German that sounded like idiotic bluster. Having read this book I now understand where Hitler was coming from: The Empire was the First Reich, and lasted from its creation by Charlemagne in 800 until its final destruction by Buonoparte in 1806 - just more than one thousand years. Since the Empire is often referred to as the German empire, before Germany even became a nation, this reference makes Hitler's point understandable. Even Buonoparte himself, having vanquished a millennium-old empire, felt it necessary to pay homage by arranging his coronation to take place with the accoutrements of Charlemagne's coronation.

Protestant Reformation

Ironically, the Holy Roman Empire was the home of the Protestant Reformation, with began with Martin Luther. Although the Empire was putatively the protector of what we now call the Roman Catholic church, back then Catholics were simply Christians. This all changed when Martin Luther and his followers broke from the Church, protesting its rules and insisting that true Christianity must take a different path. Rather than fight it, as the Tudor monarchs of England did, the Empire found a way to accommodate both sides. Catholic or Protestant kings and nobles were moderated in their approach: In most cases, in most places, rules evolved to protect commoners against cruel religions dictates of their leaders. This approach took a long time to evolve but it did so without the bloodshed of the English Civil War.


Any student of the American Revolution knows that Hessian soldiers assisted in the fight, but who were they? I never met a teacher who could answer the question, but Hessians were mercenaries from the Grand Duchy of Hessen in the Empire; hiring out mercenaries was one of the specialties of the Hessian economy.


It's impossible to summary the work of a thousand pages in only a thousand words. If you find yourself the least bit tempted by this subject, Wilson's work is an excellent starting point. By the time you finish with it, encyclopedic as it is, you may not feel the need to visit the subject again for a long while. And if you do, it may be with it as an accompaniment to an associated subject, such as my parallel read of The Norman Conquest, but let's save that one for another time.
How Round Is the World?

30 May 2016
The Invention of Science

Invention of Science

When I was a schoolboy we were taught that when Columbus sailed to America, almost everyone believed the world was flat and if you sailed too far from the coast you would eventually sail off the edge of the world. This ridiculous piece of fiction is typical of falsehoods that school teachers teach when they know little or nothing about their subject. But a recent jewel I just finished reading, The Invention of Science, helps set the story straight on a wide variety of subjects our teachers never got right, such as Aristotle's errors, how he set back the pursuit of knowledge for more than a millennium, the real reason Columbus' "discovery" of America was so important, and the real reason Amerigo Vespucci's influence made him more important than Columbus.

The Invention of Science is an encyclopedic work of such scope that it is tough to discuss in one sitting, so I'll restrict my discussion to the more salient subject of Columbus, Vespucci, and what science and society of their day really thought of the nature of the world.

Most people of the fifteenth century understood the world is round, for all the obvious reasons. It was known among Greek "natural philosophers", as early scientists were known, because Eustarchus estimated the earth's circumference, and with surprising accuracy. But when people today think of the earth being round, we think of something quite different from what was imagined in 1492.

The most educated people in the world of 1492 thought in ways far different from what we expect today when we look back. When Columbus discovered America he was in a sense discovering discovery. There were no words for 'discovery' because the concept, along with 'invention', simply did not exist. As Portuguese sailors began embarking on voyages of discovery, the word discobrir was finally arrived upon, and quickly passed to the other languages of Europe.

Invention and discovery were unheard of because Aristotle taught that all knowledge was already known; to medieval Europeans no new knowledge was ever uncovered, it was merely rediscovered. So there were no discoveries, no inventions. But beginning with Columbus' discovery of the "new world", that changed rapidly. Soon all of Europe was forced to accept that something fundamentally new had come to the world of European knowledge.

Columbus himself had no idea what he had wrought. He died believing he had found a western route to Asia, not that he had found a new continent. He was a noteworthy sailor not because he dared to sail to the edge of the flat earth, which no one believed, but because his navigation instruments were so primitive that few captains had the courage to sail so far from coast. This limitation went back to the times of the Greeks and Romans, but changed when the compass came into use.

What Europeans believed about the Earth's constitution was far stranger than mere flat earth theory. Earth was known to be a world, but not recognized as a planet like Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. This is one reason why it was easy for them to believe the Earth could be at the center of the universe, as Aristotle taught. And while Earth was known to be round, it was not considered a sphere - it was seen as two spheres!

The ancients suspected that Earth's land masses constituted one sphere, which floated on a separate, larger ocean sphere - a two-sphere concept. Even stranger was the belief that the seas loomed above the land masses. When you stand on the beach and look at the ocean, it seems as if you are looking up, but it's all a matter of perspective. The misunderstanding changed as Renaissance artists discovered how to use perspective to improve the realism of their works. Once perspective was understood, it became easier to understand that the lands stood higher.

This new understand of the relationship to land and sea was significant in undermining belief in the Biblical account of the flood that supposedly inundated the entire world. When the seas were believed to stand higher than all land, it was easy to believe it could cover all land; indeed, it was hard to understand why the land was not always flooded. Once the land was known to sit higher, it raised questions about the validity of the flood story in Genesis.

The Invention of Science is so rich with detail and information on so many subjects that it is a shame to cut short the discussion with these brief highlights, one word for each page of the tome. It is a work to be read, reread, and, like Aristotle's knowledge, continuously rediscovered.
Movie Review - Batman v. Superman

26 Mar 2016
Batman v Superman
Ben Affleck, at 6 foot 4, makes Batman three inches taller than Superman.
As a young boy I was drawn to the Superman character because of the message of hope, goodness and heroism, though I was too young to understand that Superman's acts were not truly heroic because he rarely risked anything to save lives; he was just doin' what comes naturally. At one point in this movie Batman, whose age is set at between 45 and 50 by the dates on his parents' tombstones, flaunts his human superiority at his younger (by a decade) Kryptonian opponent: "You're not brave," he intones. "Only men can be brave." That tone of determined arrogance perfectly represents the attitude of Bruce Wayne, who is angered beyond measure by the destruction of Wayne Tower and hundreds of his employees during the events of Man of Steel, in which Superman and his Kryptonian enemy, General Zod, lay waste to most of Smallville and a great deal of Metropolis. In the end this movie is truly about Bruce Wayne. Batty Ben Affleck gets billed higher than super Henry Cavill, and his performance merits it. But there are a lot of details to this movie, most of them good.

First, my ten-mile-high assessment: this movie is better than the early reviews and better than I ever hoped. If BvS had some of the lighthearted dialog and banter of The Avengers it might have ranked up there as one of the very best superhero movies of all time, but in that regard it falls short, and deliberately so: DC is going for a darker vibe to set itself apart from Marvel. BvS, in fact, pulls on ideas and themes going back to some of the early representations of all the characters – Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth (I like Jeremy Irons sooooo much better than Michael Caine), Martha and Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman and most of all, Lex Luthor. No one has ever done Lex right until Jesse Eisenberg was cast in the role; due to Eisenberg's slight stature the casting is not perfect, but it's way better than good enough.

BvS keeps its dark tone while undoing some of the damage of Man of Steel, which broke some of the oldest Superman conventions, such as reverence for life and refusal to take it (Superman's creators, 19-year-olds Siegel and Schuster, were Jewish liberals opposed to the death penalty, an attitude which permeates their comic). BvS not only bests MoS, it also beats The Dark Knight Rises hands down, but keeps it in the same universe. It briefly recreates Batman's origin scenes from Batman Begins, but strengthens the story rather than contradict it. We get to see Bruce meditating his situation in the burnt out husk of stately Wayne Manor, destroyed at the end of Batman Begins, shown to represent the emotional stagnation in Bruce Wayne's life as he approaches middle age. Growth is replaced by resignation. At one point Bruce's butler/partner Alfred points out that Bruce is proposing criminal acts, at which point Bruce says "we are criminals." And they have been for 20 years, he points out. Instead of getting Robin the Boy Wonder we get Alfred the Aging Butler, playing the tech guru role better suited for a youngster like the non-existent Dick Grayson. Even so Irons' understated performance suits.

BvS is, at least for Bruce, a story of redemption. He can redeem himself by stopping the greatest menace to humanity, the alien originally known as Kal-El who almost destroys Metropolis in much the same way that the Avengers lay waste to Manhattan in Marvel Comics' movie universe. By taking on the most unwinnable fight one can imagine, Bruce can somehow make up for the impotence he felt as he watched Wayne Tower come crashing down a la 9-11. Alfred insists Bruce's crusade against Superman is futile, but Bruce has plans, and eventually we see him thinking along the same lines as Luthor even though they plan and act separately: He raids and steals Luthor's secret stash of Krytonite, knowing he would need it for the coming battle.

In fact, this movie presents an interesting juxtaposition: Luthor and Wayne are both billionaire geniuses with a flair for action. Clark Kent is everyman, and in spite of his physical power he has everyman's mental powers, which are only slightly better than average. Wayne has data and technical resources that Kent, in spite of his powers, cannot match with heightened senses. In many ways Superman is outmatched, and if it were not for the power of motherhood, Batman might well have killed him. Bruce Wayne is a better match for Lex Luthor than is Clark Kent.

How can god-like Superman be outmatched? It hearkens back to a comic I read as a child, when Superman has to fight a big, tough guy after losing his super strength. Superman shows his heroic nature by fighting as if he still has the power, but the crook just laughs: the punches are powder puffs. When you can destroy a 6 foot 8 behemoth with the flick of a finger, do you learn to fight with finesse? Do you learn to to punch hard? Of course not, because as it is you have to work hard not to turn the bad guy into mush. So when Clark and Bruce go toe to toe, Clark's the guy who grew up afraid to fight back and Bruce is the guy who fights out of existential angst. As Batman begins assaulting Superman with Kryptonite gas grenades, we realize he isn't kidding. And when he raises the Kryptonite-headed spear to end the fight once and for all, we wonder how the screenwriters will manage to end the scene without Superman's death. The screenwriters get themselves out through a plot contrivance that I won't give away, save to say that Bruce and Clark suddenly bond through the connection of love for their mothers, both of whom are named (correctly and consistently) Martha.

Why Fight?
One of my earliest reasons for skepticism about this movie is over motivation. What could possibly motivate Batman to take on such an impossible task as the denouement of an alien being whose speed, strength and physical resilience make him untouchable? And why would Superman even bother to fight?

Keep in mind, this question has been asked and answered in the past. In 1989 and 1990 Frank Miller penned two Dark Knight graphic novels that depicted an aging, brooding Bruce Wayne/Batman. In many ways Miller redefined the Bat-genre and served as the inspiration for Christopher Nolan's three Bat-movies. In the series Batman is no longer accepted by the police and goes toe to toe with them on numerous occasions. The confrontations are increasingly deadly; and his emotional state is questioned by his acceptance of a new Robin, a 13-year-old female tech wiz who recruits herself. Eventually Batman goes so dark that the president recruits Superman to stop him.

Miller gives us a Superman versus Batman fight that makes sense: only Superman can stop Batman. Batman takes the fight to heart and attacks first, with a Kryptonite-tipped nuclear missile, followed by a machine gun attack with Kryptonite bullets. Superman wavers at first, but eventually he prevails, as Batman is only human and he is not. In the closing scene of the comic Clark Kent attends Bruce Wayne's funeral – but hears, however faint, a heartbeat. No comic story is ever truly over! Marvel and DC comics are filled with dramatic deaths and even more dramatic reanimations, reincarnations and resurrections.

BvS had to work hard to create a scenario that made sense for Batman to attack Superman, but they actually managed to achieve it. This was the problem that made me most skeptical about the film's premise, and made me vow for quite a long time to boycott it. The screenwriters' success, through means that are traditional for thrillers everywhere, gave me a much deeper appreciation for the film. Major spoiler alert! Lex Luthor manipulates Batman into attacking Superman. Early on Luthor realizes Superman is the greatest threat to his megalomaniacal plans, so even while he works to corner the market on Kryptonite he is maneuvering Bruce into an anxious mental state, by creating messages and situations that play upon Bruce's feelings of guilt and helplessness. Bruce never sees it coming. And when Superman confronts Luthor himself, he is surprised to discover that Lex is ready for him. He's kidnapped Superman's mother! So Superman has to kill Batman, or his mother will be killed. What a choice! Perfect for comic books, TV spy shows and more than a few thrillers. It works.

More major spoilers coming! The apocalyptic fight scene in this movie is not between the title characters, but between Bruce, Clark and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) on one hand and Doomsday on the other. Doomsday is an artificial behemoth created by Lex Luthor from the body of General Zod, with some of his own genetic material tossed in for yucks and narcissism. You may recall that in the comic, Doomsday kills Superman. This occurred a couple of decades ago, when DC devised the death to spur sales for a lagging group of Superman titles; it worked. For more than a year after the death DC teased us with a group of titles that suggested Superman would indeed rise from the dead, but they teased with five different potential Supermen, daring us to guess which one would turn out to be the real deal. Don't be surprised if the next Justice or Superman movie includes an extended scenario with that general plot line, ending with the real Superman emerging just in time to save the day. Don't count on being convinced with the explanation for his resurrection.

In the movie Doomsday and Superman also fight to the death. Both die, for real, although even for-real deaths are suspect in comic books and their movies. At Clark's funeral Bruce tells Diana that they must create a group of people with similar talents and proclivities, and that his research has already revealed some candidates (who will become The Flash and Aquaman). This is the dawn of the Justice League of America, a comic book that never interested me any more than did the Avengers – until the movie came out. Now they've got my attention. Meanwhile I'd like to comment on the major characters and how their roles were handled.

Bruce Wayne/Batman
Bruce's angst drives this movie; it is what makes him susceptible to Lex Luthor's manipulations. Ben Affleck was an unconvincing Daredevil, but as an aging Bruce Wayne with issues he works well, much better than Christian Bale would have (and I loved Bale in BM1 and BM2). One bare-chested scene in particular makes it clear that Affleck has done his duty in preparing physically for the role, at least as much as Cavill. I expect Bruce/Batman to be the leader in the first Justice League movie, with Diana/WWoman as a close confidante. She's Bruce's kinda gal! She's played by a gal, Gal Gadot, who sports, against type, an Eastern European accent.

Clark Kent/Superman
MoS went out of its way to emphasize Superman's alien nature, which is one of the things that made that movie makes so hard to stomach. Traditionally Superman grew up as an uber-representative of Truth, Justice and the American Way. The original story of Superman is the story of a grown Superboy, who grew up on a farm and began flying and saving lives by the age of nine. Clark's best friend is the nascent genius Lex Luthor, until one day in their high school years Luthor has a fire in his private laboratory and Superboy saves his life, but not before the fire destroy's Lex's hair and Lex blames his savior. This is the origin of Luthor's hatred for Superman. The MoS depiction of Clark Kent as a wanderer alienated from his farm boy origins never made sense, because in the original comic depiction Clark grows up with his full abilities, knowing full well who he is and what he could and should do. The question of where he comes from, as for many late-generation descendants of immigrants, rarely arises or matters.

Lois Lane
Amy Adams is without a doubt the best Lois Lane so far. She's not stand-out fabulous, but better than all the others. She is attractive enough to be interesting without being too attractive to be believable. Even when she stays pushy she stays interesting. Lois is classically three or four years older than Clark, but in this movie the difference is noticeable only for aficionados. Since Lois and Clark are living together we will be very disappointed if she isn't with child in the next movie.

Diana Prince / Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman has gotten short shrift due to her poor treatment in Lynda Carter's 1970s TV show, but if handled with respect, deserves more attention. Coming from a 1940s era comic with heavy BDSM overtones (which is the specific reason the Comics Code Authority was created), Wonder Woman is the protector/csar of a tribe of only women, "Amazons". These Amazons are the source of the term Amazon for large, athletic women, and Diana Prince is their leader. She appears mysteriously, without explanation, at numerous points in the film and eventually pulls Bruce's and Clark's fat out of the fire, but never offers much for our evaluation; most of it comes from Bruce, who figures her out from his own research - including her appearance in a combat photo a century old. We'll learn a lot more about her in upcoming movies, starting with a Wonder Woman solo foray. Only complaint: Gal Gadot does not look like an athletic warrior type. Where is Rhonda Rousey when you need her?

Sigh. This is tough to talk about because Doomsday is the AI/human construct specifically created by Lex Luthor to end the "problem" of Superman without regard to the creation of a Doomsday problem. He kills Superman, without question, but only while Superman kills Doomsday once and for all. Comic logic leads us to expect Superman's resurrection but not Doomsday's. In the end Batman's leadership presence gives us reason to have hope. Now what?
Perry Mason Meets James Bond

18 Mar 2016
In the past I've written about books that were turned into movies, but I left out a couple on purpose - Perry Mason and James Bond - because both were/are franchise characters that require closer attention. Like all small or big screen adaptations (Mason was in film before the famous Raymond Burr TV show), changes were made. Almost without exception when we think of either character we think of them as they are depicted on the screen, but in both cases the characters were much different in print. It is safe to say that the very qualities that made them so appealing in books were eradicated as quickly as possible by Hollywood, reducing Mason and Bond to formulae guaranteed to succeed, even though no formula was required to make them succeed in print.

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote more than 150 novels from 1933, when the first Mason novel appeared, until his death in 1970. Ian Fleming wrote one James Bond novel a year from 1953 (Casino Royale) until his death in 1967 (Octopussy, 1966).

I originally read the entire Mason series as a 14-year-old, the same year I read the entire Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. The Wolfe series influenced me more, but I'm not writing about it here because Nero Wolfe never entered the public consciousness the way Mason and Bond did. I remember fairly little about Mason series but recently the earliest novels have come back into print, so I've read the first four, and boy are they different!

First let me say what they're different from, because if you've never seen the Perry Mason TV show, which originally ran from 1957 thru 1966, you won't have a benchmark. By comparison the first James Bond film, Dr. No, came out in 1962, so both franchises permeated entertainment throughout the 1960s.

The hallmark of the Mason TV shows was a client accused of murder, guilty by all appearances from the evidence, who goes to trial and Mason gets him/her - mostly her - off the hook. Most of the time this happens because Mason grills a witness under cross-examination. The witness breaks down under his interrogation and admits to the murder of which Mason's client was accused. Although the stories and details were always challenging, the formula became a bit of a joke because Mason always won and his client was always innocent, which is quite different from criminal justice reality. Of course, when the accused can afford upscale attorneys as Mason's always can, it's far less unusual for them to get off, so in that sense the series is quite realistic.

In the novels it's not nearly that simple. I've only re-read the first four, so there's no telling where the next 130 or so will lead me, but even so some early patterns stand out. The TV show is set in 1950s-1960s Los Angeles, but I notice that these Depression-era novels are set so that the location is not so obvious. The second novel, The Case of the Sulky Girl, makes a reference to Cloverfield which gives it a definitive Los Angeles area setting, but Gardner skillfully makes it as easy to think they are set in New York, as the Nero Wolfe books are, instead of southern California. Perhaps the later novels written in the 1950s and 1960s will be different.

But in 1933 Perry Mason is perhaps 35 and his secretary Della Street is described as 27. Della is by no means his "right hand man"; she is young, emotional, impetuous, and opinionated about Mason's activities. His boldness frightens her. Over time he teaches her to have faith in his vision and abilities, but it takes a lot of hand holding. Still, Della is capable: if created today, she would spend most of her time on the Internet doing online research for him. Instead she is not only his secretary but his front-line researcher as well.

The curious thing is, of the first four novels, only two have courtroom trials! Those trials were the set piece of the TV show, but so far they are largely a sideline. And of those two trials, Mason gets but clients off even though one turns out, after the fact, to be guilty. The key is, Mason is a schemer: He does not stay in the office. He goes out in the field and does his own research. Detective Paul Drake and his agency are in the story from the earliest novel, but they are secondary to Mason's own efforts. Mason uses Drake without ever letting him in on his entire plan.

Mason doesn't simply uncover evidence, he manufactures it. Long before the prosecutors even have a case for him to contest, Mason see what is coming and creates alternate scenarios, complete with fabricated evidence, that mislead them so that he can craft a defense even before his client his charged with a crime - and as a result, in two of the novels the client never goes to trial. Perry Mason skirts the edge of the law at every turn, and he makes it clear why he does it: for the rush. He also talks about doing it for the money, and justifies his high fees, but it's clearly about the excitement. Mason is an adrenaline junkie. He likes being smarter than the police and the district attorneys, and he plays them the way a chess grandmaster plays a school boy. He always skirts the edge of the law and runs the risk of disbarment and prison, getting his rushes by his very complete service to his clients, who often do not even understand that they need his help.

We almost forgot about James Bond, so let's talk about Ian Fleming's vision of Bond. Like Mason, the printed depiction is different from the screen depiction, but I have to say that the Bond model deviates a lot more does the Mason model. Why do I say that? Because the pre-Hollywood version of James Bond, the original and most honest James Bond, is an earthy misogynist who has no respect for women and wants nothing to do with them while he's on the job; they only get in the way. And Bond is no action hero, at least not at first: He is internal and driven by his own forces. He could never work for a female M; the very idea is ludicrous. The first novel, Casino Royale, is little more than a protracted game of baccarat - not Texas Hold'em, thank you - with the skillful introduction of a secondary character, Felix Leitner, who would make his way into many later novels and movies. Later, after Dr. No makes it to the big screen, Bond suddenly becomes a big-picture action hero, and Fleming's novels adjust accordingly; by the time of his death his novels are practically screenplays, in a case of art imitating art in reverse.

If you're waiting for me to draw a common thread between the Mason and Bond franchises, it's mostly already done: the screen versions were significantly different from the original print versions. Had the original print version been like the Hollywood versions, I doubt they would have lasted so long: Gardner's first Mason novel alone, The Case of the Velvet Claws, sold more than 15 million copies. Written two decades before television started making its way into homes, it's style and approach that, like Fleming's in the 1950s, was far more interesting than in the derivative screen renditions. Stories drawn from modern books such as the Dexter series are of a different mien, but that's a discussion for another day.
Presidential Breakdown

1 Mar 2016
Critical Elections
A few months ago a Democrat friend of mine asked a question, somewhat in shock, about whether we are watching the death of the Republican party. I doubt that we are, but more and more we see signs that a complete realignment of the Republican coalition is taking place. What most Democrats fail to understand is that their party is going through the same thing. Many Sanders supporters understand this because they came from outside the party, but Clinton supporters tend to ignore these warning signs, which could spell doom in November.

Or not. As my statistical hero Nate Silver discusses in this column, we could be undergoing a political realignment of the kind that used to take place every seven or eight elections, but have been less common since the War of Northern Aggression, as my father's South Carolinian forebears called it. Silver calls Trump's success an "existential threat" to the Republican party, but I see it more as an identity crisis. Let's backtrack to see what realignments are all about, then see how they might be in store for us this year.

Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham identified realigning elections as the focal point of American politics in his book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. As a young student of presidential elections I found his thesis compelling but not terrible applicable to the mid-1970s, when we were clearly overdue for a new realignment (which came, arguably, in 1980). Writing in 1971, Burnham identified these realigning elections --
  • 1800 - The Republican Party of Jefferson takes the White House and holds it for a longer sustained period of time than any other (1801-1829). The Federalists hold on in Congressional and federal judge seats until the administration of James Monroe; the period is known to historians as the first party system, who often refer inaccurately to Democrat-Republicans, a party that never existed. The beginning of the post-Washington era.
  • 1828 - The Democratic Party of Jackson / Van Buren vanquishes the Republicans, who never take the White House again. Dislocated Republicans quickly reorganize as Whigs, who vanish by 1852 after electing only two presidents in the 1840s. The Whigs failed due to a slavery identity crisis; their failure led to the third party system. The beginning of the era of the common man.
  • 1860 - The Republican Party of Lincoln takes power. The entire southern base of the Democratic Party rumps to form the Confederate States of America, meaning that even after the War was over national Democrats would have influence only from the north. The beginning of the post-slavery era.
  • 1896 - The Republican Party under William McKinley rebuilds and reorganizes, strengthening its hold on the nation. This is the first realigning election to strengthen rather than destroy a party. The beginning of the big business era.
  • 1932 - The Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt takes charge after the Republicans fail to slow down the worst depression in U.S. history (ironically, the first depression was caused by the first Democrat president, Andrew Jackson, and gave the Whigs their first administration, William Henry Harrison / John Tyler). The beginning of the era of social justice.
These realignments were characterized by massive changes nationally on the local level, not simply the presidential elections. I remember watching the results of the 1980 realigning election in Texas, where third-generation union neighborhoods, operating out of the oil and chemical plants in and around Houston, abruptly shifted to Ronald Reagan and began kicking Democrats out of the state legislature. That process took more than a decade to complete, but now appears to be set in concrete, unless the likes of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders gets the upper hand.

This year we are seeing signs of fracture on both sides. Like previous realigning elections, we can read the writing in the tea leaves; the elections taking place around us are already telling the story, like the 2014 red wave landslide in a previous blue-purple Nevada. In Texas the Reagan landslide was presaged in 1978 by election of the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Bill Clements . I just watched an interview with former New Jersey Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman, who declared she would vote for Democrat Clinton over a Republican Trump - and I read another piece identifying Bernie Sanders supporters who say Trump is their second choice. By some measures they constitute as much as 20% of the Sanders support base.

If you are an unrepentant progressive it may be hard to see the connection between Sanders and Trump, but it is clear they are two sides of the same coin, and this year the coin of the realm is change. In this environment dynasty candidates like Clinton and Bush have no real chance. It is the reason Clinton is a danger to the entire Democratic party. Her complacent candidacy has infected the party, making it vulnerable to attacks on every front, and those attacks will soon be coming on every front.

Let me close with another piece of political science I picked up in college. My poli sci professor, Sam Popkin, was tight with the McGovern campaign, so in 1974 he gave me access to all the datasets from McGovern's 1972 summer polling operation. One finding I will always remember over all others: the overwhelming second choice of George Wallace supporters was Ted Kennedy. It was all about economic populism, a lot of which bled over from Bobby's 1968 campaign.

So if you think Donald Trump is an odd second choice for something like 1/5 of all Sanders voters, you don't know the politics of change - and you will likely be among the very surprised on November 9.

You may also be interested in my blog Who Will challenge Hillary?
For Bernie Sanders

16 Feb 2016
Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders I am writing today to declare my support for Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee. Income inequality in America is approaching a tipping point. If we do not reverse the trend soon we will find ourselves faced with a permanent oligarchy, similar to but far worse than the royals and nobles of England and other medieval states of the past.

Bernie Sanders wants to end that oligarchy. Hillary Clinton wants to join it. To a considerable extent she and her husband are already part of the oligarchic establishment, which transcends party affiliation: just ask Donald Trump.

The contrast between Sen. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton could not be starker. To pretend they are not far apart on most issues is to pretend we really know what position Clinton will support tomorrow or the next day. When you have no moral center you will do whatever you think necessary to protect yourself, such as her efforts to ruin the women whose charms husband Bill preferred to her own. This is the position Clinton finds herself in: the Democrats’ answer to Richard Nixon, but without the charisma. And even Richard Nixon, creator of the EPA by executive order, argued in favor of a “socialistic” guaranteed minimum income. But while Bernie Sanders marched for civil rights, young Hillary Rodham campaigned for right-wing icon Barry Goldwater.

Bernie Sanders is no socialist. In the classic definition of socialism, workers control the means of production. The workers replace stockholders, which is what makes socialism an actual alternative to capitalism. Why does Sanders insist on calling himself a socialist? Who knows? Maybe he’s a political romantic with misplaced aesthetics; I don’t really care. Neither is he a democratic socialist, which is merely a socialist who advocates the institution of socialism via democratic means.

Bernie is a classic social democrat, with roots deep in the New Deal. Historians of that time say that Franklin Roosevelt did not hate capitalism. No, Roosevelt saved capitalism from true communists who threatened our political stability in the mid-1930s, during FDR’s first term. Much of the craziness of that time is depicted in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic It Can’t Happen Here, wherein the fascist Democrat President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, an apparent role model for Trump, advocates a guaranteed minimum income at the same time as outlawing communism and socialism.

Like FDR, Bernie Sanders does not oppose capitalism. He opposes the depredations of unrestrained capitalism, and the inequities that result. Hence he supports regulation to protect the water, the air, the climate, workplace safety, automotive safety, and more.

Most noteworthy, Sanders advocates strengthening and expanding the social insurance policies that keep our country stable. He proposes a national pension system based on the expansion of social security; a new system for distributing the availability and funding of higher public education; and a new national healthcare administrative system that removes the middle man – the health insurance companies – so that patients can work directly with their doctors without outside interference or wasteful profits. None of this is socialism. Sanders has been advocating such measures for years, but Clinton’s interest in these subjects has been in short supply until her campaign consultants wrote a platform for her; and even so, she opposes much of the progress so sorely needed.

Democrats watching the Republican election meltdown marvel at that party’s internal fractures, but in truth The Democracy, as Democrats once called the party, is equally fractured. This election may well turn out to be one of political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s realigning elections. The past realignments occurred, by his model, in 1800 (creation of the first Republican party, of Jefferson), 1828 (creation of the Democratic party), 1860 (creation of the second Republican party, of Lincoln), 1896 (redefinition of the Republican majority), 1932 (the Depression), and 1980, a revolt against an accumulation of excesses from the New Deal era. We’re about due for another realignment, and the signs are all there. But whether it is a decisive realignment or merely a shuffling as we had in 1896 and 1980, remains to be seen. After the election our hindsight will be twenty-twenty, but for now we cannot even divine which way the realignment will go; it may be up for grabs until the last minute.

We need to keep in mind that the Republican nominee is almost certain to be Donald Trump. Who will be most vulnerable to Trump’s tirades – the woman whose presence he demanded at his wedding after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to her family, or the man who will stand tall against the economic lifestyle of the rich and famous that that woman pursues?

Mrs. Clinton’s primary accomplishment in life has been to marry well. Without that decision, we would never have heard of her. She has held two offices for twelve years, but the accomplishments were minimal. Her votes for the Iraq war and the Patriot Act prove that her judgment is unreliable and her militaristic tendencies undeniable. The Hillarycare initiative during her Good Wife years was a massive, embarrassing failure that caused a Republican takeover of Congress. For people like me, who see guaranteed health care as one of the most important promises our government has yet to deliver, this was a significant let down that the (un)Affordable Care Act has done nothing to ameliorate. Sanders has held three offices, with much foreign policy exposure, for almost three times that long, which is why it is absurd to hear Clinton supporters claim she is the most experienced.

My 28-year-old daughter is one of those millennial feminists who oppose Clinton. Does she want to see a female president? Of course she does, but she believes “if she’s elected we probably won’t see another female president in my lifetime.” Like many in her cohort, she is an independent registering as a Democrat only for the purposes of supporting Sanders. If Hillary gets the nomination, the party could lose a lot of the recent party registrants who came out of the woodwork to support Bernie. In that event, Trump will be in a position no Democrat would have thought possible only a few months ago, and the realignment might well be his.

Postscript: We are seeing signs that if Sanders prevails over Clinton, former New York mayor and Wall Street plutocrat Michael Bloomberg will jump into the fray as an independent. Bloomberg is worth maybe $37 billion versus Trump’s $4 billion (source for both: Forbes). What could be a better contrast – a social democrat of modest means running against two billionaires worth 80,000 and 740,000 times as much as he. Their money would turn into a liability and Sanders would gain the edge.

Even in a two-way race, Sanders has far fewer vulnerabilities than Clinton. All signs point to a Sanders candidacy far stronger than a Clinton candidacy, with wider and deeper coattails. If any of Clinton’s scandals further erupt during the middle of the fall campaign, it could be a death knell for down ballot candidates in tough races. I’ll vote for Sanders at the Nevada caucus and conventions, and if Clinton gets the nod, hope the fallout in the fall won’t be too bad. Sanders will turn the state blue. With Clinton’s shallow support and deep collection of enemies we could be saddled with a red Nevada until the middle of the next decade.
Tai Chi
What is an Internal Art?

7 Feb 2016
Five Levels of Taijiquan
Taijiquan Theory
Five Levels
Dao of Taijiquan
When you hear that Tai Chi is an internal art, what does that mean? More than twenty years after my first Tai Chi lesson, I had still not heard a satisfactory explanation from any of the teachers with whom I studied. In the end I had to forge my own understanding from a wide body of teachings.

Sometimes internal arts are explained by contrasting to external arts like karate, tae kwon do, or "kung fu" (a misnomer for Chinese martial arts, which are best referred to as kuo shu). This comparison serves as a form of differentiation but satisfies no one, especially since internal martial arts like bagua and hsing-i have aspects that seem very external, not to mention vicious. Let me help.

You're not likely to hear about it in beginner classes, but Tai Chi movement initiates internally. Properly practiced, after years of training, all external physical actions result from internal cultivation of the three treasures - qi, jing, and shen (roughly translated as mind, body and spirit). The circling, spiraling movements of Tai Chi and kuo shu start with spiraling of internal energy, which manifests physically in the movements you see with your eyes. The more important movements, the internal actions, you cannot see with your eyes; no demonstration can make them obvious. The more accomplished the practitioner, the less that shows. Large circles become small circles, which become points. Only your own practice, and the experience of your own internal spiraling energy, can make this apparent to you.

What does it mean to initiate internally? It means that all actions start from within. Think of a sphere in your belly, your tan tien. When it rotates forward over the top, you may move forward; backward, you may move backward. When it rotates from side to side, as if a planar circle perpendicular to the ground, it moves you to the left or to the right. When it rotates side to side over the top, perpendicular to the other directions, it may facilitate aerial acrobatics.

In all cases your internal energy reaches out from the tan tien to the extremities through the middle. This is not a virtue that can be created through muscular effort. In fact, much of the work is cultivated through static meditation, either standing or sitting. You build your internal energy by directing it with your mind through various meridians or channels, usually in circular orbits. Tai chi uses all of these methods, including the ability to orbit while moving, but it goes beyond them until internal energy infuses your entire body, regardless of path.

For more information on this subject I recommend three books, all of which you can find on my Books page: The Five Levels of Taijiquan, by Chen Xiaowang; Taijiquan Theory by Dr. Yang Jwing-ming; and The Dao of Taijiquan, by Jou Tsung Hwa.
Books in Review 2015

1 Jan 2016
Book of the Year 2015

Man's Search
Great Zoo

2015 was a year where I discovered I was reading more and enjoying it less, so I started making changes, such as using the library for throw-away fiction. Now my purchases are largely restricted to non-fiction I might have future use for, such as Jon Meacham's 2012 biography of Thomas Jefferson, and advanced topics in Tai Chi Chuan.

The 97 books I read this year split 60/40 between fiction and non-fiction. My favorite novel read this year is a translation of a Japanese work, while my favorite non-fiction work is by an Austrian Jew who explains the mental attitude that allowed him, and others, to survive the Holocaust.

Favorite Non-Fiction Work

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Runner ups

Infinitesimal; Contest Land, Contested Memory; Superforecasting.

Favorite Novel

Taiko, Eiji Yoshikawa

Runner ups

Satori; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Great Zoo of China


By far the best book I read this year was Viktor Frankl's classic Man's Search for Meaning. The only surprise is that I did not run across it sooner. Frankl's work is an excellent example of a simple idea, conveyed simply, to maximum effect: He explains the mental attitude that made it possible for him to survive the Holocaust. Frankl's point is that survivors were not the physically strongest but the mentally strongest, those who used love to motivate them to keep going - in his case, his memories of his wife.

By contrast I read several works by astrophysicists who had very complex messages, delivered with complexity, that made very little impact, such as Stephen Weinberg's To Explain the World and Lee Smolin's The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Weinberg's history of physics, math and astronomy is exhaustive and provides details of Arab influences that few others mention - but was not quite what I was looking for; I had hoped for a history of the development of the scientific method. Otherwise I recommend it, especially for the technical appendix. Smolin is one of my favorite rogue physicists, but he let a philosopher get involved in this book and it just did not work for me; modern philosophy is filled with technicalities to no good end.

A better work is Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence, which uses a textbook-style approach to methodically explore the problems of artificial and/or enhanced intelligence in all its possible manifestations, including physical enhancement of the human brain. My primary takeaway was that artificial intelligence is a notion best laid to rest, and is unlikely to be achieved in any real sense in this century, if ever, movies and television notwithstanding. I expect Superintelligence to stand as a primary reference in the field for some time to come.

Another high-impact book was Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander, a story of mathematics and manipulation by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Among other things Alexander demonstrates that one reason Italy lost its prominence in science and mathematics was due to Jesuit interference with Galileo and his intellectual descendants. The mere thought that a religious order can feel threatened by the concept of infinitesimal smallness is mind-boggling, all the more so because of the lives they destroyed. I was also impressed by Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, even though the book was clearly intended as a political attack. Schweizer made some errors, later corrected, but the core truth of the book shone through, which is what caught my attention: another Clinton White House will be filled with wheeling and dealing, and will be ripe for opportunities of cronyism and corruption.

One of the most thought-provoking books of the year was This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Brockman, who runs an edgy science website, has access to scientists of all stripes, which this book demonstrates. The authors provide short essays of one to five pages identifying an "idea that must die" - an idea that is no longer intellectually or scientifically useful, if it ever was. The scope of the ground covered is mind boggling, for instance: string theory; the theory of everything; IQ; the universe; the multiverse; brain plasticity; entropy; infinity; cause and effect; race; spacetime; falsifiability; common sense; free will; one genome per individual; evidence-based medicine; randomized control trials; artificial intelligence; the uncertainty principle; left-brain right-brain; Moore's law; the scientic method; and dozens more, many by famous scientists like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, and Lee Smolin. This smorgasboard covers a lot of ground, and well, making it a must-have for the library of any fan of natural science or social science.

Two other books had a lot of influence on my analytic approaches: Mindware Tools for Smart Thinking, by Richard Nisbett; and Superforecasting by Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Both look at the use of statistical tools, few of them difficult, for analytic thinking in business, politics, and our everyday lives. Tetlock and Gardner focus on Bayesian analysis, which I put to immediate use building a predictive model for the 2016 presidential election. Of particular interest is Nisbett's criticism of the use of multiple regression analysis in epidemiological studies - exactly the approach being used for "proving" the efficacy of acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, meditation and related activities. I'm about to analyze a 20-page study of the utility of mindfulness meditation, so it will be interesting to keep his thoughts in mind as I look it over.

I might also mention the Meacham work on Jefferson, The Art of Power, because he is the first biographer of note to have an opportunity to discuss the Sally Hemmings relationship in depth. We already know that judging Jefferson's actions of two centuries ago by modern standards is not productive, but Meacham provides details that shed new light on the matter. For instance, Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha! Her mother, Elizabeth Hemmings, had been the consort of Martha's father, and the Jeffersons inherited her father's property when he died. Sally apparently was fair skinned and may have resembled Martha, which would help explain Jefferson's attraction to her. Sally did not originally go to Paris with him, but her brother did; later she came over as escort to Jefferson's younger daughter. She discovered that under French law, she was automatically a free woman, so she used that to her advantage. Soon pregnant, she refused to return to America with Jefferson unless he met her demands, which he acceded to, making her the closest thing to his wife that a woman of color could be in those days; it is the reason he freed their children. But Jefferson did not free his others slaves at death, as Washington did, because he did not own them - his debtors did!

In closing let me mention Contest Land, Contested Memory, by Jo Roberts - a study of how differently Israelis and Palestinians remember the Israeli invasion of Palestine in 1948-1949. My Zionist friends absolutely hate the fact that I read this book and actually believe some of it … but how much should we believe? Gardner's agenda, if she has one, is that of a former peacekeeper who learned how differently the events were seen and interpreted by different participants. You might summarize the differences by saying they believe what they want to believe. If you know little about the subject, the book is a good starting point. If you know a lot about the subject, or think you do, you may not like what you read - which is the best way to learn and grow.


Of the 97 books I completed this year, 60% were fiction but few of the novels were noteworthy. Two of the best, Golden Son by Pierce Brown and The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, were second volumes of science fiction trilogies - the former about caste-based warfare throughout the solar system, the latter about an extraterrestrial invasion from the Alpha Centauri system that seems to lose steam as the invasion approaches. I also enjoyed 2010, Arthur Clarke's first sequel to 2001; together the books explain the happenings of the original movie, which is otherwise inexplicable.

But my favorite sci-fi book of the year was Matthew Reilly's The Great Zoo of China, the only creative successor to Michael Crichton's original Jurassic Park. Instead of rehashing the Jurassic Park scenarios as we saw this summer in Jurassic World, Reilly takes the concept to China, where real flying dragons are bred (not engineered) for an open-air park, and the Chinese military is on hand to make sure no unfavorable publicity leaks out into the rest of the world. This novel has enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that two characters actually compare their situation to that in Jurassic Park - and realize their own dilemma is worse.

I read several good books in the crime/mystery/thriller genres, but I was surprised to discover that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler employed thuggish two-dimensional detectives that could not compare to the greatest pulp detective of their day, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Mike Lawson's current Joe DeMarco series, about a fixer for the Democratic Speaker of the House, works better for me than does Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, which I can no longer read; Reacher clearly belongs in a mental institution but would more likely, in the real world, have gone to prison by book two. I also enjoyed Jeff Lindsay's capstone to the Dexter series, Dexter is Dead. Dexter ends up no more conclusively dead than does Tony Soprano, and certainly less so than Sherlock Holmes, so we could conceivably see Lindsay revive him in the future, independently or in tandem with the TV show.

In this genre I most liked Don Winslow's Satori, written as an authorized sequel to Trevanian's 1979 work, Shibumi. Shibumi was an exquisite work and Winslow is more of a journeyman writer, so I was surprised to discover that Satori works every bit as well as Shibumi does. I also read, for the first time, Edward Abbey's 1975 groundbreaking classic of ecoterrorism, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Before I moved to Nevada I had no appreciation for the themes, but now the context and the book's wide influence is obvious. The book's flaw, for this reader at least, was the choice of lunatics and psychopaths as the anti-heroes standing up for the cause of an unmolested environment. Having been involved in progressive causes off and on for decades, I have seen how a work of this type moves people in the wrong direction for effecting constructive change.

I have two more books to mention: my novel of the year and my amusement of the year. The amusement, read for the first time, was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The Yankee is transported backward in time many centuries and ends up in King Arthur's legendary court, which is dreadfully boring to the visitor - so he changes things by introducing profit, advertising and a stock market. Ludicrous satire can be the funniest, and Twain is in top form in this book.

My novel of the year is Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa, whose previous series about the life and times of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi is classic. Taiko, another story of feudal Japan, portrays the rise and fall of Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi as they fought for shogun power in the late 16th century. No mere story of samurai battles, Taiko portrays the rich fullness of these men's lives - their mothers and wives, their children and cousins, their lieges and soldiers. Any student of literature of this era will want to include this work in his library.
War Is Over (You Only Have to Want It)

25 Dec 2015
Happy Xmas

Xmas Card

Christmastime is a perfect time to discuss the ending of wars, everywhere. John Lennon even wrote a song about it, Happy Xmas (War Is Over), which you can listen to here. Sadly, some people choose to ignore the celebratory message of this song in favor of making up a message of their own - decrying the non-existent "war on Christmas". It's time to realize that there is no such war, and that the only war is by those pretending otherwise. Christmas should be a time of celebration, not of complaint. In that spirit, let me explain why Xmas is very Christian. Or should I say Xtian? Both originated hundreds of years ago as standard abbreviations for signs with limited space for messages. More recently it was used for early Christmas cards, such as the one above, from 1910 (courtesy of Wikipedia).

"Xmas", "Xtian" and similar phrases gained usage almost 1,000 years ago in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In fact it will be exactly one millennia in 2021. To understand why the abbreviations were used, merely examine the Greek derivation of the word Christ:
Transliteration gives us Christos, where X is chi (rhymes with guy), and the final letter is not the s of sigma but the cz of zeta. Chi, rho, iota, sigma, tau, omega, zeta. Even before Xmas was the popular use of the Chi-Rho symbol for Christ, which was used by Constantine in the 4th century C.E., again courtesy of Wikipedia:
Constantine, you may recall, gave status to Christianity by favoring it across the Roman Empire.

With Greek as the context it becomes obvious that X is a logical abbreviation for Christ, logical at least when brevity is at a premium. Today some evangelists have taken up the banner of anti-Christianity as a publicity gimmick; their efforts suffer a paucity of both grace and love. But despite the history of Xtianity going back many centuries, a modern man uses the X terms advisably, with the understanding that it may be offensive to others. In modern times we have plenty of room on our signs, and the cost of ink is no longer an issue, so why go there?

Tai Chi
Rebooting Tai Chi

30 Nov 2015
Dale Teaching Tai Chi
Dale teaching tai chi

I'm starting new tai chi classes in Boulder City, Nevada at the first of the year - a culmination of my work this year on creating a new curriculum and "scientific" method for teaching tai chi and building a body of qualified teachers for new schools as I open them. What the heck is a scientific method for tai chi? This is what I asked my teacher George Hu long ago when I heard that Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, an esteemed kung fu and tai chi teacher, was using that phrase to describe his teaching. Since Dr. Yang is a retired engineer it's not a surprising choice of words, but also not obvious.

While it's not a technically correct use of "scientific", he, I and others are making an effort to put a method behind the teaching. Of all the master teachers I've trained under, few had an apparent method of any kind. They would simply teach whatever they wanted to teach each day. Classes were often not segregated by experience level, which meant the curriculum was often rebooted when new students came along. It was great for beginners but terrible for the rest of us. My goal is to avoid those shortcomings in order to enhance the student's experience.

There are a lot of implications in the decision to structure the teaching. Among other things it means classes need to be segregated by experience level. And to show progress in this context, a ranking system of some type is needed. I'm not interested in a belt system per se, but I am tending more toward a Japanese-style 20-level (10 and 10) system than I am toward the 9-degree system being adopted in China today. My concern is that rank differentiation is most important in the early years as the student absorbs new material, so more levels are needed.

Another implication is that as teacher I must have control, or at least signficant say, of the class schedule at the venue. For this reason the best possible choice, if finances are not considered, is to open a stand-alone tai chi school. How can this be financially viable? How many tai chi schools in America are not only viable but give a respectable living for the teacher(s)? Not many, but I have ideas about that as well. Part of the answer is that a full school must not revolve around a single teacher, but around a common body of material taught by many, which is the reason for building a body of teachers. Another partial solution is to add closely related curricula such as kung fu, qigong and yoga.

Building a body of teachers is a tricky subject. As many of us know, it is hard to find students dedicated enough to become authentic teachers. Some teachers succumb to the allure of providing quickie certifications for "coaches". Often these certifications are expensive and occur in exotic locales, which makes it more of a vacation experience than a learning experience. Even so this approach shows recognition that teachers are not created overnight, but still creates a body of people who think of themselves as teachers but who are really only intermediate students.

I'm writing curricula right now, and testing it in my new round of classes beginning January 4. The interesting thing is that the curricula can easily be adapted for other tai chi styles. If you teach or own a school, do you have ranking? Did you creating the ranking system, or inherit from someone else? Do you uses sashes for the ranking? Please send your comments to TaiChiInYourLife@hotmail.com.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

17 Nov 2015

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner (2015)
What is the likelihood that Donald Trump will be elected president next November? This is the test question I contrived in order to examine my understanding of this book, which demonstrates how the world's best "superforecasters" use numeric and non-numeric techniques to produce results that are often strikingly accurate.

A good deal of the book is based on Tetlock's multi-year Good Judgment Project, which seeks to discover who makes the best forecasts and under what circumstances. One interesting result, which might well be applied to a judgment of Ben Carson's bid for president, is that experts forecast quite poorly when venturing outside their areas of expertise. Non-experts seem to fare far better because, out of awareness for their lack of expertise, they dig deeper and more thoroughly to challenge pre-conceived notions and conventional wisdom. Teams do even better when the members are diverse enough to provide complementary skill sets.

Much of the numeracy is based on a sound understanding of probability, in particular Bayes' Theorem, which allows us to parcel a probability computation into manageable pieces. For instance, take my test question. The first thing we know is that in order to be elected president, Trump must receive the Republican nomination. Thus his chance of being elected president is equal to his chance of receiving the nomination, multiplied by his chance of winning the fall election.

But the chance of his winning the fall election depends on his opponent; for simplicity we will treat it as a purely Democrat-Republican contest. So Trump's chance of winning in the fall is equal to the sum of these three numbers: the probability of Clinton receiving the nomination multiplied by the probability of beating Clinton; the probability of Sanders receiving the nomination multiplied by the probability of beating Sanders; and the probability of O'Malley receiving the nomination multiplied by the probability of beating O'Malley.

If you compute the same probability for a Democrat it is messier because there are so many more Republican candidates to account for, but the principle remains the same. Tetlock maintains that many of the best forecasters do not necessarily make explicit computations, as I have for the leading presidential candidates, but they are familiar with the principles and take them into account.

The book has powerful implications for those who wish to learn to tighten their predictions, to question their assumptions and to measure results. How do you test predictions? How do you measure them? Although the book is all about numbers and how they are used, it is light on number crunching; most data is represented graphically, and I recall finding only one equation, which demonstrates Bayes' Theorem, a perfect lead-in for my test question.

You can measure my progress on the question at http://www.dalesdemocracy.com, which I expanded to include the top six presidential candidates; there is insufficient data to cover more. And true to the superforecasters' best practices, I am adjusting the data and the methodology as the campaign progresses. But don't wait to see how close my predictions get to the final results--read the book and make up your own test question. Three and a half stars.
Book Review - The Consultant

25 Oct 2015
The Consultant

The Consultant
The Consultant, by Bentley Little (2015)
If you're a corporate employee reading Bentley Little's latest offering in the horror genre, you may not pick up on the anti-corporate subtext that gives this steak its flavor. And if you truly hate the horror genre you may not want to read this book, but if you have any background at all in the corporate world you may end up like a highway rubbernecker examining a grisly tableau: horrified but transfixed. In the case of Little's new book, The Consultant, the real horror comes from realizing you are already living and working in a world much like this story's barely fictional setting.

The novel centers around the hiring of a top-level management consultant to help software firm CompWare regain its mojo and stock market momentum. CompWare has a mélange of offerings - office-style applications and games, being sold by a unified sales staff - that bog down the firm's profitability and muddy its vision. The path should be obvious but in a moment of weakness the founder and CEO hires BFG Consulting for advice - and BFG, largely personified by a single Consultant, takes over.

Perhaps I enjoyed this turn more than the average person because in 1992 I was employed by a firm called BSG Consulting, and it was an awful experience. It was the first time I witnessed both sides in action together; the last time, also as a Consultant, I watched my firm, a French-owned consulting behemoth, feed off the corpse of Enron as it collapsed in 2001. I even watched the second World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 in real time, on a flat-screen TV in an Enron elevator, the first having occurred while I waited in line at the Starbucks in the lobby. I knew as I watched it was the foreshadowing of Enron's future, which indeed filed for bankruptcy three months later. The ending of The Consultant is no less momentous. But in the process ...

In the process The Consultant takes over like a banana republic dictator. He quickly cows management by either destroying them (physically and spiritually) or by making them satanic minions. Soon he is issuing a series of dictums and actions that would seem familiar to workers from an earlier corporate age -
  • Only certain types of footwear allowed
  • Only certain colors allowed for clothing
  • Every worker is followed by a consultant who logs their every movement into a networked tablet computer, including exactly how many minutes they arrive late or leave early; how much time they spend in the bathroom; how much time they spend on each task, or on no task at all; and so on.
  • Monitoring of the home lives of the top executives. I enjoyed this one because Ross Perot used to do this to EDS executives, as did John Rockefeller to Standard Oil executives before him. It's a golden oldie.
Eventually people are targeted for layoff, but instead of being fired they die under unbelievable circumstances that bring to mind the Final Destination movie series. Targets appear to be chosen based on their hostility to the new regime, not their usefulness to the firm, which means a lot of the best people are dying - or if they resign, committing equally horrific suicides. All of these actions might be seen as standard fare for a horror fan, but if you're a corporate wage slave you realize you live in a very similar world. In fact two such deaths occurred after the collapse of Enron, including a "suicide" that took place in a car in the middle of a street.

But wait, there's more! BFG specializes in the new forms of corporate imprisonment as well as the old ones, and manages to blend the old and new forms together. Additional developments include --
  • Universal non-random drug, alcohol, and mental health testing
  • People monitors replaced with cameras using directional microphones - everywhere
  • Cameras in the bathrooms used to claim toilet paper wastage and theft
  • Weight watchers meetings for overweight employees
  • Requiring "overweight" employees to lose weight
  • Creating an employees cafeteria in order to control the time spent eating, and to force employees to eat healthy - and deducting the costs of the meals from paychecks of all employees, including those who bring their own lunch.
  • Locking all external doors during lunch hour so that no one can go elsewhere to eat
  • Holding required executive retreats with no content except for physically threatening undertones
  • Changing employee work hours for no reason other to impose control
  • Encouraging executives and managers to marry, so they will be stable.
  • Encouraging subordinates to stay single, so they can work longer hours.
How many of these sound like your workplace, or of someone you know?

Bentley Little has been writing in the horror genre for twenty years, with stories that follow a familiar pattern but with fresh characters most of the time (he does not always succeed). If you're a Little fan you will like this book as much or more than any of them. I put it right up there with The Association, about a homeowners association from Hell - literally. If you're a college student check out The University, about a university from - you get the idea.

If you're a corporate employee who reads about these conditions and doesn't see what all the fuss is about, you're working exactly where you should be. If you think you recognize yourself in one of the characters and that worries you, it's time to find a new job, but you probably knew that already. But if all you do is switch to another corporation that hires consultants - or worse yet, join an actual consulting firm - will you be any better off? Read The Consultant and give it some serious thought.
Boulder City
Toxic Rocks in Boulder City

6 Sep 2015
The view of Martha King Elementary from the asbestos field, 500 feet away.
King Elementary
The view of Martha King Elementary from the asbestos field - 1/10 of a mile away.

When we think of asbestos or mesothelioma we tend to think of men who have worked on ships or in construction that used asbestos for a building material. One celebrated case was actor Steve McQueen, who died young in 1981 from mesothelioma, having worked closely with asbestos as a teenaged Marine in the 1940s. Buildings constructed before World War II are regularly subjected to asbestos abatement before demolition, because the greatest danger comes from disturbing fibers previously lying untouched. But former Congressman Jim Bilbray, an attorney by occupation who never smoked or worked in construction, suffers from lung disease caused by asbestos - and he is not the only one with a suspicious illness. "I've hiked all around Boulder City and all over Southern Nevada," Bilbray said recently on George Knapp Reports on local Channel 8, CBS ( view the video, Asbestos in the Backyard, here.)

Last week residents of Boulder City were given a rude awakening: asbestos exists in the soil, occurring naturally. It exists not only in the routes for the new Interstate 11, it exists all over Boulder City, a mid-mountain town (elevation 2507, give or take) with a lot of wind blowing up off the desert. The exact extent, the exact details of the danger, are not yet fully determined, but they are enough to justify concern and a desire to know more. Every time the wind blows, it may well blow asbestos fibers from your yard into your home and into your lungs; every time you walk your dog you may both be at risk. Every time your children play outside at Martha King Elementary, your kids are possibly, perhaps probably, at risk. Even the grounds of the Old Boulder City Hospital, though untested, give the appearance of rocks with naturally occurring asbestos. But exactly how big is the risk? These were the questions pondered by a trio of scientists this past Tuesday (Sep.1) at the Boulder City Library. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of 100 concerned Boulder City residents, UNLV geologists Dr. Brenda Buck and Dr. Rod Metcalf, along with EPA toxicologist Dr. David Berry, presented enough data to worry anyone who pays attention.
the 3 dox
Left to right, Metcalf, Buck, Berry

Asbestos Ain't Just for Highways Any More

Previously Boulder City residents knew that asbestos had been found in the soil of the highway route, but we never knew it was in the dirt here in town. Dr. Buck and Dr. Metcalf found asbestos in the soil next to Martha King Elementary - only a block from where I live, along a path where I regularly walked my dog until I learned of this. I actually chose my neighborhood to use that trail! To follow up on their investigation I gathered a few sample rocks of my own,
asbestos rock asbestos rock
which you can see here. These are granites; the flecks of green are the suggestion of asbestos. If you see rocks like this, particularly the larger one, stay away. I showed them to Dr. Berry and his only comment was, "I hope you don't take those home with you." They also found asbestos in the Dry Lake Bed and at the end of Adams Boulevard. Tests at a local garden provider show asbestos in ornamental lawn gravel as well. Too bad we don't know which provider!

Meso the Tip of the Iceberg

As it turns out, mesothelioma is not the main health concern, it's merely the worst. A wide variety of non-cancer diseases are more likely to result from asbestos exposure - asbestosis, localized pleural thickening, diffuse pleural thickening, small interstitial and systemic auto immune diseases. Buck and Metcalf pointed out that they only sampled six spots in the Boulder City area, which leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The current work on Interstate 11, for instance, involves mining and blasting in the mountains with the highest concentration of asbestos. And the city of Henderson is already encouraging the building of thousands of new homes in one of the potentially dangerous areas.

How to Stay Safe

"They're doing the blasting at night," Buck said. "Keep your windows closed at night." This advice seemed to suck air out of the room, as people considered their desire to enjoy the almost-autumn evening air. "I already do all that", one man complained. "And when I get up the next morning everything's covered with dust. What else can I do?" That man expressed the concern of many, especially after the toxicology presentation.

How Unsafe is it?

Dr. David Berry, the EPA toxicologist, made a presentation about the results of research in three other locations he was familiar with, starting with the Libby, Montana mine where he has worked for almost a decade. The Libby miners and their families were exposed to every type of regulated asbestos, and quite a few unregulated ones as well. He has performed long-term longitudinal studies that make it clear: there are noticeable differences between illness caused by occupational versus recreational (NOA) exposure to asbestos. The clearest marker is that in occupational exposure, mostly men are exposed and become ill; in Libby the ratio is more than eight to one, male to female. A similar indicator is the percentage of cases for victims diagnosed under age 55, like former Metro police officer Doug Chasey, whose hobby used to be off-road biking around the Dry Lake Bed, one of the danger areas. In Southern Nevada the percentage is over eleven percent, which cannot be explained by occupational exposure along. And our male-to-female ratio for meso, which is closer to even, suggests women victims who were not exposed occupationally. Even more to the point, a child with mesothelioma is a clear indicator of a problem - and Boulder City has had at least one.

"Mesothelioma is not naturally occurring," Berry said. "Something causes it. Whenever we find a mesothelioma case we need to find out where the exposure came from." In a place like Boulder City that's not always easy. Plenty of people have moved here from other parts of the country, and plenty are military veterans who may have been exposed as McQueen. And as he reiterated on several occasions, most of the illnesses caused are non-cancerous, and physicians rarely know to look for the connection. As a result many of the illnesses may be misdiagnosed and never make it into public health records.

What Can We Do About It?

Asbestos rocks
Note these blue and green rocks found on the grounds of the Old Hospital, pre-demolition.

The question on everyone's minds was, what can we do about this? Can we protect ourselves? How can we know for sure how dangerous the problem is? What we need, the scientists all declared, are activity-based data sampling and analysis. Buck and Metcalf took samples at six locations around Boulder City. Where else does it occur - everywhere? Only certain places? Your yard? Your church's property? The Old Boulder City Hospital? Veterans Memorial Park? "It could be the threat only exists under certain conditions, like heavy wind from certain directions. If we can prove connections with data, we can adjust our behavior." As an example, Buck said, "I have the red head gene. I know I have sensitive skin susceptible to cancer, so when I go out I wear long sleeves, sunscreen, hats, and try not to go out in the middle of the day." With activity-based data it may be possible to minimize exposure - but maybe not.

The data gathering is too big a job for the city to pay for, Berry said. "In Libby it costs $1.2 million dollars a year just for the lab testing. That doesn't include the sample gathering." To make the problem worse, Buck said, "This isn't a Boulder City problem, it's a Southern Nevada problem." Boulder City asbestos is blowing up to Nellis. Arizona asbestos appears to be blowing in to Boulder City as well as occurring naturally. This public meeting was just the beginning of a discussion, hosted by U.S. Agriculture Department soil scientist Doug Merkler, acting privately. Merkler's group is Boulder City Citizens Advisory Group. Merkler plans for his group to meet soon to create a plan of action for soliciting state and federal assistance in the activity-based data gathering effort.
Merkler Merkler
Doug Merkler speaks the the group (left). It's hard to show exactly how full the house was, but this photo gives a decent idea (right).

There's another side to this story that I didn't have room for today: the State of Nevada disagrees that there is a problem, but their support at some level is needed to get the EPA involved. In many places that would be the end of it, but perhaps not here. Stay tuned for details.

What can you do? Brenda Buck's Action Ideas

1. Write to the Governor.
2. Write to your Clark County Commissioners
3. Write to your Senator/Congressmen
4. Write to your Local Boulder City/Henderson/Las Vegas Governmental officials.
5. Write to everyone who can make a difference.

What actions should you request that they do?

1. Adopt the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations for NOA - make these laws official in Clark County. Here they are: http://www.arb.ca.gov/enf/asbestos/asbestos.htm Right now we have nothing that regulates NOA. This would be a good start.

2. Ask that funding be provided to collect the data you need to make informed decisions regarding NOA exposures. This means answering the questions about: (a) what are residential exposures to NOA?

So far the only measurements taken are for the I-11 bypass, which only looked at occupational exposures for the construction workers building the highway. All of those air monitors that have been set up are, to my knowledge, for understanding occupational exposures and for monitoring how much fibers leave the construction boundaries. This is being paid for out of the funds to build the highway. Nothing is being done (yet) to find out what citizens' exposures are. The only reason I present those highway data is because that is all we have right now.

YES - ALL human activities and natural processes that cause asbestos fibers to go in the air, have the potential to expose people. Whether or not specific activities are doing this needs to be measured.

The highway is only one of many potential mechanisms. If you have a specific concern, tell the government officials, who have the power to do something about it. I cannot collect samples on private property, so I cannot do some of the testing that some of you want me to do.

(b) What are citizens' exposures to NOA when we do activities that potentially could expose us to NOA? This is where the activity based sampling comes in: Measuring potential exposures that occur because you walk on soils that contain fibers, because you ride your bike, ride your horse, ride your ATV, have a garden, etc. etc. etc.

YOU think up the scenarios that concern you and let your government (and me) know. I will try from my end to get some data collected but the real solution here will come MUCH faster, if your letters make a difference and our government at all levels takes this seriously and finds the money to get this done.

I can tell you that Clark County Air Quality has done an excellent job of listening to your concerns: They were the first to respond to our published results and the first to build a web page to provide you and others with information on this topic. They were instrumental in getting Dr. David Berry from the EPA to Boulder City last night to speak. They could carry out the necessary measurements for #2 action above, if the funding to pay for them could be obtained. They could also implement the regulations for #1 above if the Clark County Commissioners put those regulations into law.

I'm sure you can think of more, and if so please share with me. As always I will try to support everyone getting the answers we need as much as I can. Attached are the documents from EPA and ATSDR which offer common sense methods to reduce your exposure to NOA.

- Brenda Buck, Pearl83@cox.net

Extra Material

Asbestos FAQ (Buck)
Asbestos in the Backyards (CBS) - George Knapp's Report
Boulder City NOA Citizens Advisory Group (Merkler)
California Asbestos Regulations (Buck)
Limiting Exposure to Asbestos (Buck)
Toxicity of Amphibole Asbestos (Berry's slides)
UNLV NOA Research
Net Metering Lives!

31 Aug 2015
NCES 8.0

Fans of rooftop solar power in Nevada by now are conversant with the net metering debate, which I first introduced in my May 4 article Billionaires Battle for Solar Power Supremacy . The latest round in the controversy took place this week with a one-two punch  first a live debate at the National Clean Energy Summit (NCES) last Monday, then a decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) last Wednesday.

The dispute is more a sign of solar powers transitional period, wherein storage technology is not sufficient to fully eliminate a solar electricity users need for The Grid, otherwise known as the local utility monopoly. That state of affairs is changing quickly, but not quickly enough to salvage the solar rooftop industry, which has created thousands of jobs in southern Nevada in recent years, if net metering is killed.

The NCES debate placed solar liberty advocate Dr. Charles Cicchetti against an advocate for the large corporate utilities, Dr. Lisa Wood. Both hire out as consultants to the energy industry in a variety of capacities. Because I am an advocate of open-ended net metering I had no difficulty preferring Dr. Cicchettis point of view to Dr. Woods.

Wood started by claiming a special role for The Grid, such as the electric surges required to start up heavy motors. All well and good, but this argument will become obsolete quickly as solar rooftop improves. She resorted to scolding new solar users: The net metering subsidy is the failure of rooftop solar customers to pay for their use of the grid. Nothing could be farther from the truth, because the real problem is that solar customers are being forced to overpay for their grid use. NV Energy insists on paying customers far less for the solar electricity they sell to The Grid than for the power they buy from it.

I was lucky to eat lunch afterward with Dr. Cicchetti, who successfully changed the tenor of the net metering feud at the conference with his new slogan, Storage is the new Solar. This became the mantra of the summit. Storage is the next game-changing technology to be introduced to the energy revolution; solar is largely solved, although efficiency improvements are still needed to get the cost below parity with coal and natural gas. The Tesla and Panasonic battery systems are a start but are insufficient by a factor of ten. That will change as well.

Cichetti completely challenged the notion that solar customers are buying and selling electricity from The Grid. This is not a sale, he said. Its putting electricity in the bank. That grid has already been paid for, probably multiple times. They should get virtually nothing, perhaps maybe a handling fee. Which is what banks typically charge customers, a monthly fee for their accounts; preferred customers pay nothing. Why cant it be that simple for solar rooftop customers? Even Senator Harry Reid castigated NV Energy for continuing an eighteenth century business model begun by Westinghouse and Edison.

Cicchetta told me the next key decision point would come a few days later when the PUC made its own decision on net metering, and sure enough, it did  a middle of the road decision that keeps everyone calm that you can read about here.

The previous legislative session had put a cap of three percent on the number of solar rooftops to which NV Energy was required to provide net metering. That limit was reached sometime in the last week or two, the exact date depending on your source. Legislation passed in the recent session gave further authority on the matter to the PUC. What was to be done about the cap being reached? Continue as is, the PUC said. Net metering lives, at least for now. Soon net metering, like Yucca Mountain, will be an obsolete concept.
Dog Days of August

24 Aug 2015
Stogie Zoro Stogie and Zoro

As the time for my vacation drew near, I became apprehensive. Such a state is not typical for me; I look forward to the interruption of my daily routine, to seeing new people and places. But this time I was fearful, filled with dread. The day before I left for Portland, it was time to put my dog Zoro in a kennel for boarding, and I cried as if I would never see him again. What was wrong? By the time I was on the plane, which I had to force myself to do, it had become pretty clear.

I haven't vacationed for ten months. My vacations rarely last more than a week at a time, so last year I took several to use up some accumulated vacation days. With my new dog Stogie, a one-year-old rescue who enjoyed car travel, my daughter and I visited Mount Charleston in June and the Grand Canyon in July. After Nicole returned to Houston, Stogie and I drove to Boulder, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains together. In October we drove to a writers' conference in Salt Lake City, and that was our last trip together; on the way home he got loose and ended up dead, clipped by a pickup truck, joyfully chasing a pigeon that acted like it was used to luring predators to their untimely deaths.

I realize now that watching my dog die, unable to stop it, was the most traumatic event of my life going back at least 20 years. I feel no shame in admitting that it was far more difficult than the death of my mother, which was neither unexpected nor untimely. The only other sudden death in my entire life was 49 years earlier, when I watched my first dog die on the street with a punctured lung after a street urching kicked its ribs in. But this time was more personal.

Looking back over the past year I realize I let it cripple me in numerous ways: I stayed at home, stayed to myself, I drank more than usual. My training declined. I wrote less. My self-confidence went into hibernation. I was afraid to drive my car. That has't been an entirely bad instinct because my car is almost seven years old now, with 80,000 miles on it, and it has needed work. I'm happy not to have discovered these shortcomings while driving in the middle of the desert, whose vast expanses sneer at AAA's 200-mile free towing radius. But I finally realized that for the first time in more than 20 years, I was depressed.

Depression for me is situational, not chronic. My last depression was more than twenty years ago, related to unhappy work situations; once resolved, the depression went away. This time was much different, because I did not lay awake at night, unable to sleep. It festered beneath the surface, perhaps hidden by the relative seclusion of my current lifestyle. Without a doubt I was unhappy and even though I acquired a new pup six weeks after I lost Stogie, it was not quite the same. Stogie was my dog-boy companion, and Zoro is still a baby, younger than Stogie was when I got him.

As I contemplated leaving Zoro in a kennel I asked my #1 sister, who has owned many more dogs than I and often left them in kennels, if she ever felt guilty about leaving them. "No," she said tonelessly. "But that's because you're heartless," I said. We laughed; she's known me longer than anyone and understands my humor. I am more affected by such things than she is, but it's a foolish kind of guilt: when I picked up Zoro from the boarder, he acted no more anxious than if I had left him for an hour.

To recognize a problem is to solve it; at least that's the mindset I try to live by. To say that depression disappears overnight would be fatuous, but it is safe to say that it is resolved, and I am taking the steps required. That means a return to rigorous training, and a return to my most important writing project. People may fail, circumstances may fail, but training and writing always work for me.

Postscript: While in Portland I visited the world-famous Powell's City of Books. I picked up two books with titles and themes suitably lofty for a city block inhabited by one and a half million books: The Meaning of Human Existence, and Why Does the World Exist? Unless you tend to religious absolutism these are intractable topics, but the second book is an excellent read - the perfect fuel for that long-festering writing project of nine years.
Dog Days of August

24 Aug 2015
Stogie Zoro Stogie and Zoro

As the time for my vacation drew near, I became apprehensive. Such a state is not typical for me; I look forward to the interruption of my daily routine, to seeing new people and places. But this time I was fearful, filled with dread. The day before I left for Portland, it was time to put my dog Zoro in a kennel for boarding, and I cried as if I would never see him again. What was wrong? By the time I was on the plane, which I had to force myself to do, it had become pretty clear.

I haven't vacationed for ten months. My vacations rarely last more than a week at a time, so last year I took several to use up some accumulated vacation days. With my new dog Stogie, a one-year-old rescue who enjoyed car travel, my daughter and I visited Mount Charleston in June and the Grand Canyon in July. After Nicole returned to Houston, Stogie and I drove to Boulder, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains together. In October we drove to a writers' conference in Salt Lake City, and that was our last trip together; on the way home he got loose and ended up dead, clipped by a pickup truck, joyfully chasing a pigeon that acted like it was used to luring predators to their untimely deaths.

I realize now that watching my dog die, unable to stop it, was the most traumatic event of my life going back at least 20 years. I feel no shame in admitting that it was far more difficult than the death of my mother, which was neither unexpected nor untimely. The only other sudden death in my entire life was 49 years earlier, when I watched my first dog die on the street with a punctured lung after a street urching kicked its ribs in. But this time was more personal.

Looking back over the past year I realize I let it cripple me in numerous ways: I stayed at home, stayed to myself, I drank more than usual. My training declined. I wrote less. My self-confidence went into hibernation. I was afraid to drive my car. That has't been an entirely bad instinct because my car is almost seven years old now, with 80,000 miles on it, and it has needed work. I'm happy not to have discovered these shortcomings while driving in the middle of the desert, whose vast expanses sneer at AAA's 200-mile free towing radius. But I finally realized that for the first time in more than 20 years, I was depressed.

Depression for me is situational, not chronic. My last depression was more than twenty years ago, related to unhappy work situations; once resolved, the depression went away. This time was much different, because I did not lay awake at night, unable to sleep. It festered beneath the surface, perhaps hidden by the relative seclusion of my current lifestyle. Without a doubt I was unhappy and even though I acquired a new pup six weeks after I lost Stogie, it was not quite the same. Stogie was my dog-boy companion, and Zoro is still a baby, younger than Stogie was when I got him.

As I contemplated leaving Zoro in a kennel I asked my #1 sister, who has owned many more dogs than I and often left them in kennels, if she ever felt guilty about leaving them. "No," she said tonelessly. "But that's because you're heartless," I said. We laughed; she's known me longer than anyone and understands my humor. I am more affected by such things than she is, but it's a foolish kind of guilt: when I picked up Zoro from the boarder, he acted no more anxious than if I had left him for an hour.

To recognize a problem is to solve it; at least that's the mindset I try to live by. To say that depression disappears overnight would be fatuous, but it is safe to say that it is resolved, and I am taking the steps required. That means a return to rigorous training, and a return to my most important writing project. People may fail, circumstances may fail, but training and writing always work for me.

Postscript: While in Portland I visited the world-famous Powell's City of Books. I picked up two books with titles and themes suitably lofty for a city block inhabited by one and a half million books: The Meaning of Human Existence, and Why Does the World Exist? Unless you tend to religious absolutism these are intractable topics, but the second book is an excellent read - the perfect fuel for that long-festering writing project of nine years.

13 Aug 2015

Infinitesimal, by Amir Alexander (2015)
There was a time when the average school child learned before high school the story of the Catholic Church's persecution of Galileo Galilei for his advocacy of the Copernican view of the solar system - for saying the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice-versa. I don't know what is taught today, but I suspect it is far less than the whole story. The subtitle of Infinitesimal hints at much more to come: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World.

That subtitle speaks ironically, because theories of infinitesimals and invisibly small numbers shaped the modern world not because they are dangerous but because they are key to everything in science, math and technology today, including integral calculus and its twin brother, differential calculus. Indeed, differentials are nothing but indefinably small differences. What made this concept so dangerous - or who?

The Jesuits. As author Alexander relates, before infinitesimals were used to solve the specific problems of orbital mechanics and the broader problems of calculus, they were studied in great detail by Galileo and his followers, Bonaventura Cavalieri, who wrote the definitive pre-calculus work on the subject; and Evangelista Torricelli. By the time the Jesuits finished destroying their efforts, Italy had lost its pre-eminent position in mathematics and ceded it to the Royal Society of England.

The Society of Jesus was less than a century old when it took on Galileo and his adherents, but it had already built an important network of schools throughout Europe. Jesuit schools were based on Aristotelian principles and the mathematics of Euclidean (plane) geometry: order and predictability. Ironically this absolute nature of geometry is what attracted young British philosopher Bertrand Russell, an atheist, to mathematics in the nineteenth century. Early European mathematics, going back to Greek times, were based on geometric proofs that started with simple, obvious facts and deductive reasoning to build more complex structures and concepts. This orderly framework, a seemingly unchallengeable foundation, was nourished by the Jesuits and considered an essential part of their theology. In school today mathematics emphasizes modern algebra, which did not exist in either Aristotle's or Galileo's day, so it is easy to overlook the importance of the absolute certainty that seemed to accompany Euclidean geometry. Absolute certainty has always been highly coveted and claimed by religious orders of all stripes.

These concepts were at the heart of the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, which is usually depicted as Protestants versus Catholics, but which was actually a much broader conflict of ideas and power. One philosopher greatly influenced by that conflict was Thomas Hobbes, who conceived his book Leviathan as a solution for the anarchy that he grew up fearing and abhorring. Hobbes was so scarred by what he saw that he believed an absolute police state, a leviathan, was a desirable alternative. He was also a lay mathematician who fancied himself a bit of a savant. Throughout his life he claimed to have squared the circle, to much ridicule, and as a result his other theories were never welcomed in mathematical circles. Alexander includes an extended description of Hobbes' works in both arenas. Although this side trip is interesting, its connection to the main story is peripheral at best; it rounds out the century and fleshes out the book, but it did not need fleshing out.

Alexander's historian roots show. He spends a lot of time talking about the religious, political and military conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so much so that you start wondering where the infinitesimal part of the book would begin; then it does. He digs deeps into some of Aristotle's early geometry, demonstrates how it forms the basis for the theoretical conflicts that follow, and then shows how later proofs by Cavalieri and Torricelli deviate from a once-orderly approach. I was surprised that he never got around to discussing what makes infinitesimals important to calculus. For him that's a different story, which is what makes this book a work of history first and mathematics second.

What Alexander does not do, and does not try to do, is convince the reader of the utility of this "dangerous idea" of continuous functions being infinitely divisible. He seems to take it for granted, but I still see it as controversial in some respects. As a result I can agree with the Jesuits to a point, but only to a point because their interest was in defending previously captured intellectual territory, while mine is in arriving at the approach that works best.

At the heart of the problem with infinitesimals is the idea that something can be infinitely small. The first problem is that infinity is a mathematical concept with no provable physical basis. The second problem is that when you have a continuous function, as soon as you begin dividing it, it ceases being continuous. Integral calculus requires a continuous function. So the early ideas of infinitesimals as being real things - infinitely small and thus unmeasurable, but still real - I do not accept as viable. And yet these were the early concepts of Galileo and Cavalieri, concepts that eventually revolutionized modern mathematics. Euclidean geometry is no longer king. After all, Euclid's plane geometry only works on a flat surface, and the Earth is not flat.

The later stage of infinitesimal theory goes to a place that makes a lot more sense to me: infinitesimals as paradigm rather than as real things. For me the classic example comes from solving an equation of integral calculus. The solution is equal to the area beneath the curve between two points (which may be zero, infinity, "negative" infinity, or any real value in between). If the curve is a straight line the calculation is obvious, but if it is non-linear the calculation was impossible until solved, independently, by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

The solution comes from dividing the curve into slices - thin rectangles - that together are almost exactly the same size as the area under the curve. When you make the slice thinner, the error is reduced, and so the approximate calculation comes closer to the correct answer. Today we think of this as approaching a limit - for instance, the area under the curve is the limit of the sum of the slices as the slice width approaches zero. We consider a calculus equation solved when we can fit it into one of the innumerable solved forms (for instance, the integral of [x to the power of n] is [x to the power of n+1], divided by [n+1], plus an unknown constant c). As long as the width of the slice is assigned a finite amount, no matter how small, there will always be an error. Only by fleeing the slices and going to more powerful concept of limits to we get exact solutions. So using the idea of infinitely small slices - infinitesimals - works as an idea only. You could say it has limits, pun intended. Once you start calling those slices "real", you lose your connection to reality.

Infinitesimal does a decent job of covering this ground, but the story is erratic and incomplete, much like the modern maths that the Jesuits feared. It should be part of your math/science/history library, but if you read it as I did you will give it 3.5 stars.
The Great Zoo of China

2 Jul 2015
The Great Zoo of China (Matthew Reilly, 2015)

The Great Zoo of China
The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly (2015)
I fell in love with Jurassic Park when Michael Crichton's original book came out, before I knew there was a movie already in the works (Crichton showed the manuscript to Steven Spielberg before the book hit the shelves). Not many people recall it now, but the idea for extracting dinosaur DNA from amber was first proposed in an article of Omni Magazine. Omni was a brainchild of Bob Guccione, the publishing pioneer of Penthouse Magazine. Omni was a magazine of science and marvelous science photography before the Internet made such things available to all. It was a far cry from Penthouse, and gained Guccione respect he could never have otherwise earned.

Crichton read the same Omni article that I read, and soon turned it into a novel. In later years the amber DNA concept was proven impossible, but in the early 1990s it was enough to hang a book, and a movie, and now a movie franchise on. If Crichton were alive today he might be happy to cash the new paycheck, but I doubt he would be impressed with Jurassic World.

Jurassic World is so derivative that even before viewing it I began imagining a column called "101 Jurassic movie plots that would have been better than Jurassic World". Some of my ideas involved giving velociraptors the power of speech, fingers, things like that. Put the dinos on dry land and watch them go berserk. As it turned out the column wasn't necessary because once again an imaginative novelist has done it for me. The Great Zoo of China is in many ways a J-Park knock off, but it delivers quite a few of those creative improvements that I was looking for, including the top five.

As you might guess this zoo is not on an island in the middle of nowhere. It's in the middle of China, land-locked. China as a nation wants this park badly as a symbol of international dominance, but "The Great Zoo of China" has remained a secret while Chinese officials work out the kinks. You see, they too have seen Jurassic Park (referenced on pages 57 and 63), and they know what can go wrong. And it does go wrong. For some reason that knowledge does not prevent them from make the same mistakes, only bigger and worse. Before page 100 we have all-out warfare between guests and dragons. That's right, dragons. Hundreds of them - some pickup-sized, some bus-sized, and some Boeing 707-sized. And they fly. And just when the visitors think they have prevailed, another enemy emerges - but I'll let you discover that part for yourself.

The dragons are Great Zoo's twist on Jurassic Park. The author manages to make dragons more viable than J-Park's dinosaurs, though no more likely. These dragons are created from discovered eggs with extraordinarily long hibernation periods, which presumes to explain why they have been seen rarely, if consistently, throughout human history. That's at least scientifically possible, unlike the J-Park dinos. But from there the author gives them high intelligence, the ability to see the electromagnetic and sonic cages that imprison them, and the ability to learn vocalization. And oh yeah, they fly.

So why don't they fly out of the park? The electromagnetic cages react with surgically implanted microchips, causing pain when they reach the outer limits. Supposedly this keeps them in their virtual cage. It works about as well as the virtual fence on the Mexican border: Remember that electrified fence that was supposed to hold back the T-Rex in Jurassic Park? Yeah, well, these electromagnetic cages have the same flaw: When the juice goes out, all hell breaks loose. So of course the juice goes out.

The book is a bit more suspenseful than the J-Park scenarios because, being on the mainland, the protagonists can have a hope of escaping and running away. The reader can have a hope that the dragons will break loose. The author makes up for this with other impediments, which are too good to give away now. Just trust me when I say that if you need a summer J-Park fix, forget about J-World and read The Great Zoo of China instead. 3-1/2 stars.
Warren Buffett, Favorite Son

13 Jun 2015
Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett has been liberals' billionaire cuddle-bear for a decade or longer. It's hard to track back to when it all started, but I do know he was currying favor among the media and political intelligentsia as early as 2007, when he scored Brownie points by complaining to the media that his $60,000 a year secretary paid a larger percentage of her taxes than he did on his $46 million income from the same year. While the media picked up the income inequality meme that he was going for, in truth he was just another billionaire complaining about taxes in his own sly way.

If that disingenuous behavior was his only sin he would be a saint indeed, but the truth is that many of Buffett's business practices are no better than those of the Koch brothers - and it is no accident he is worth as much as the two of them combined. But through years of coy remarks and calculated alliances he has skillfully created an image completely out of sync with his business activities. Now, even as his trains carry the fracked oil that the Keystone XL Pipeline wanted to carry, he heartily endorses Hillary Clinton for president. For our latest shark in sheep's clothing, meet Warren Buffett, the most successful stock investor of all time.

Buffett's business practices, as personified by the actions of his Berkshire Hathaway companies, are based entirely in the profit motive and are antithetical to broader social, economic, or environmental interests. While the average gigacapitalist may consider these points bragging rights rather than complaints, Buffett clearly has a different agenda, as underscored by his repeated support for Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy. Whether his business practices become a problem for her remains to be seen, but the issue implications are extensive. For now I will restrict myself to practices in three distinct industries prominent in his portfolio, practices completely opposed to the progressive/Democratic agenda:

His Mobile Homes are financed with Predatory Lending Practices Although all the items I am reporting are serious offenses, if you are concerned about the collapse of the middle class you will be shocked to hear the accusations about Clayton Homes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. Clayton is the country's largest builder of manufactured - "mobile" - homes. Stories abound of usurious interest rates for loans, last minute surprise fees, and aggressive collection practices more at home on The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy than in the penthouse suite of America's most storied softie. Clayton's average finance rate is 7.0% above national averages for home loans. Such practices are exactly what consumer watchdogs have come to expect from gigantic companies that dominate an industry, especially those with the reach of a David Koch or a Warren Buffett.

His Railroads are Plan B for fracked oil and gas - after the Keystone pipeline. Few people realize it, but every time the Obama Administration has refused to permit the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, Warren Buffett's BNSF railroad has struck oil - $15 billion dollars since the 2009 purchase - as the sole transportation outlet available for the fracked oil and gas of Canada and North Dakota. Normally Republicans would scream about such a sweetheart deal between a Democratic president and his favorite billionaire, but they hate it the way Br'er Rabbit hated being thrown in the briar patch - laughing, winking, and nudging while protesting too loudly. To further underscore this point, the downturn in oil prices in the last year has meant a downturn for BNSF's profitability as well - the only dim star in the Berkshire Hathway galaxy of supernovae. But Buffett stands by the investment, because he is confident it will be transporting fracked oil and gas at record rates again soon. Read more about the BNSF deal here. And be sure to send Buffett an e-mail thanking him for keeping the fracked oil flowing!

His electric utility, NV Energy, is fighting the expansion of rooftop solar panels for homes. When Berkshire Hathaway bought Nevada's own NV Energy last year progressives were almost giddy over news of their commitment to close coal plants and put more resources into solar power instead. What we didn't realize is the Buffett's boys are committed to making a monopoly of the one resource we thought was untouchable: the power of the sun itself. And now NVE is trying to back off its commitment to more solar electrical production, via last-minute legislation that passed last week.

But wait, there's more! NV Energy recently revealed in filings to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) that it has failed to pay at least $126 million to the IRS - money already collected but never passed on.

The solar issue has revolved around the ability of ordinary homeowners to use solar panels on their homes to defray electricity costs, but be connected to the grid for times when the sun is down, which seems to happen almost daily, or otherwise unavailable. I discussed this in last week's column, Billionaires Battle for Nevada's Solar Dollars. Until SB 374 passed last week, NV Energy's obligation to provide net metering was capped at three percent of the marketplace. Now that issue will be handled by the PUC, which is mandated by the bill to create a new customer class for net metering customers. Supposedly this will keep that class of customers from raising the rates for other classes, but in truth it all comes out of the same pot. NV Energy's lobbyists - Warren Buffett's lobbyists - fought tooth and nail to keep the cap at three percent. Now they only have to lobby three people, the members of the PUC. They like solar power, but only if they have absolute control of it. Who would have thought they could monopolize the sun? Apparently they do.

Compared to the Koch brothers Warren Buffett may seem warm, fuzzy, and comfortable, but don't be fooled. Buffett and the Kochs arrived at the same place, professionally speaking, by being the same kind of people. While one may be better than the other, don't be fooled into thinking that either are our friends.
The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson (2014)

6 Jun 2015

The Innovators
The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson (2014)
When I was a young reader I gobbled up biographies - by and large, the life stories of individuals whose actions helped change the world. As a result I read mostly about explorers and innovators, but the biographies available to children are substandard at best. They're often designed to promote an ideal or mythology cherished by the author, with crucial details intentionally omitted. As an adult I want a lot more details, the details that explain how and why someone acted as they did, but I'm not always up for an entire book on a person's life. In this manner Walter Isaacson's latest work, The Innovators, provides a useful role in our understanding of the technologists who shaped today's world.

Each chapter is a biographical vignette of one or more individuals who contributed to one major aspect of the modern computer industry - the creation of early computers; of programming; of the transistor; of the microchip; video games; the Internet; the personal computer; systems and application software; and the World Wide Web. The industry continues to develop so rapidly that fully half the book is devoted to changes of the last twenty-five years.

The first chapter is something of a departure from the rest of the book, focusing on the early computing ideas and efforts of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Isaacson focuses on Ada, whose ideas were important but which have been mythologized far beyond her actual accomplishments. Ada's chapter puts her accomplishments in perspective without diminishing them, but in the end it was Babbage who created the first computing device.

More important and even less appreciated are the creators of America's first computers, which evolved out of efforts at Bell Labs, IBM, and a handful of universities. Although the first efforts were sponsored by the military - ENIAC, the first functional computer, was created to compute ballistics trajectories for naval guns - these quickly morphed into commercial efforts to use the computers for basic counting and collating, such as for accounting and the census.

These early computers could be "programmed" only through extensive rewiring, but visionaries such as Alan Turing imagined a "universal computer" that could be "soft coded", or programmed, to behave like any other computer. In theory, all personal computers, tablets, and smart phones today fit that description although that is not what they are intended for. This chapter includes descriptions of one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century, John von Neumann, and one of the great early programmers, Grace Hopper.

The chapters on development of the transistor, the microchip, and video games are all moderately engaging but even a career technologist such as myself, having lived through most of these eras, finds them only peripherally interesting. These chapters do not answer open questions of current interest, although it is slightly interesting to read about the early video games that I watched emerge in bars and pinball arcades in the late 1970s.

The pace picks up with the early development of the Internet before the World Wide Web, the personal computer, and early software like CP/M, DOS, Visicalc, and Windows. I had already read several books on the early development of the Internet. The Innovators adds further evidence to my observation that there is no single, good explanation of the development on the Net. It seems to depend on one's orientation, either toward the universities that lead much of the technical research, toward the National Institute of Science, or toward the military. For instance, one long-standing belief is that the Net was created to be a redundant network that could provide communications to survive a nuclear attack. Isaacson interviews a number of early developers of the various networks that became the Internet and finds no consensus on the subject: some insist that was never even discussed, while others, such as the military sponsors, insist it was always an intended and important feature. So while the chapter on the Internet provides more information and some great stories, it provides little illumination.

More illuminating is the chapter on software, with its emphasis on the development of Microsoft by teenagers Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates and Allen each provide insights into the early motivations and personality of the other, and Isaacson fills it in with details of their early business deals and observations by others. From Microsoft he goes on to describe some of the software breakthroughs that sealed the early success of the Apple II+ computer; and Steve Jobs' early discoveries at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, which led to the development of the Macintosh, Windows, and most modern user interfaces.

By the time Isaacson gets to the development of the World Wide Web and the modern online world, the reader could not be faulted for flagging attention. After all, history is interesting when it fills in our gaps of past accomplishments, but when it catches up to modern times it reads more like yesterday's newspaper - current in a basic sort of way but not up to date enough to inform.

If The Innovators had been written as a comprehensive work on a single subject it would have to be said that the pace is spotty. Some chapters, especially the middle chapters, hold our attention with its plethora of details on subjects a half generation to a generation in the past, while others are interesting only for the sake of comprehensiveness. Since each chapter stands and falls on its own, the reader can put the book down and pick it up again later without losing context or tempo. There's a lot to be said for such a format on this topic, and allows me to rate it with four stars instead of three - great as a beach book or holiday treat.
Tesla Redux

20 May 2015
Tesla Powerwall
Tesla Powerwall In a recent column I rhapsodized about Tesla's announcement of battery technology that seemed to promise a turning point in the role of solar power in home electrical generation. No such luck. The news isn't all bad, but now that we have a more complete picture, the good news is incremental at best.

In my column I cast the situation as a contest between two billionaires, one with a purely greedy motive (Warren Buffett) and the other with a profit motive that coincides nicely with the public interest (Elon Musk). Or seems to. In this column I look more closely at the hype of Musk, a man I admire. The financial community, ever skeptical of Tesla's inflated capitalization on Wall Street, is raising questions about the competitive utility of his battery technology and the financial prospects for his car business. Some think he's robbing Peter to pay Paul at a time when Peter is just as broke as Paul.

Recall that efficient battery tech is the Holy Grail of the solar power industry, because rooftop solar panels will generate excessive electricity during sunny hours and none at all at night. Hence the ability to store the day's unused electricity has been a critical unmet need. Heretofore it has not been possible - that is, not financially viable. There is no breakeven.

The solution to the bad battery problem has been "net metering", whereby the home user sells his excess electricity back to The Grid - the local electric utility - and buys it back as needed, such as at night or during extreme weather. Utilities don't like to do that because they're in the business of selling power, not trading it; trading it deprives them of sales volume. So in Nevada the state legislature requires NV Energy, a Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett) company, to net meter up to three percent of homes. This has become a problem because the rooftop solar industry has developed innovative financing that has caused the business to boom - and promise soon to overtake the three percent requirement. NV Energy doesn't want to buy solar power from you, it wants to sell it to you as a monopoly. So right now a bill before the state legislature, AB330 proposed by Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, would revise the law to revise or remove the cap.

Visit the Nevada Legislative Portal to read about AB330's progress in the State Assembly and, hopefully, Senate.

Into the middle of this debate comes Musk's announcement of the Tesla Powerwall, a home battery that will store and issue up to 10 kilowatts (kW) for a cost of $3,500 -- but as we have learned from Forbes reporter Christopher Helman, there are details.

One detail is that full installation brings the cost up to $7,000 or more, depending on how much adaption is required in your home. Helman calculates that electricity from the Powerwall will cost 15 cents a kilowatt hour, while the national average from utility grids is 12.5 cents (unless you live in California, where it is much higher). So the Powerwall is best used in situations where electricity is expensive (Hawaii, California) or completely unavailable, such as remote undeveloped regions of the world. Or if you are serious about going off the grid. It also makes sense if you own your own solar paneling, but in Nevada, most home rooftop installations are financed through SolarCity and other firms that lock homeowners into 20-year leases at today's rates. For those folks the Powerwall does not make financial sense.

The second detail is that while the average home may need less than 10 kW on average, rather ordinary peak events can easily bring peak needs above 10 kW. By one user's reckoning this could happen by the simultaneous use of an electric stove, electric clothes dryer and air conditioning - a commonplace occurrence in many homes on a summer Sunday evening, as well as many others.

Thus Helman suggests the Powerwall's best use is in arrays for small communities, where electrical use may be smoother than in a single household. Whether that use is actually better than in an individual home remains to be seen.

A final detail is that the Powerwall is not new tech: it is a lithium-ion battery. The battery business has plenty of entrants already. If Tesla cannot compete on price, it will be challenged to improve the tech quickly or have another money-gobbling business on its hands. Since the tech challenge is already a worldwide race with billions of dollars in play, Tesla's barriers to success seem high.

The battery business comes on top of Tesla's heretofore core business, cars, which remains a money-gobbling proposition itself. By one measure Tesla could face bankruptcy in late 2016 or 2017 as it is faced with its promise to car owners, to buy back their cars if offered. Tesla has yet to sell enough cars to be anything more than a boutique manufacturer; its competitions - BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, Ford - all have staying power that Tesla will take a long time to approach. No one knows how many cars will come back next year or what it will cost Tesla, but if the hammer falls as some fear, it will be an excellent time to short Tesla stock. Tesla's car losses may be one reason Musk is diversifying into batteries, but whether he can be competitive in batteries is also open to question.

Read Helman's entire Forbes article here.

As I mentioned earlier, I admire Elon Musk. I admire him for his pioneering entrepreneurial endeavors in arenas that need leaders of vision like him - in online payments (PayPal), in green cars (Tesla), in space (SpaceX), and now in electricity tech. It takes a lot of chutzpah to build businesses that are doomed to lose money for the foreseeable future, even with government handouts. It's easy for people like you and me see what he is doing, admire it, and be certain that his ideas are so good that they are bound to end up well, but there are no guarantees. His vision may be bold but his delivery still lags - for the foreseeable future. Thomas Edison lost control of the light bulb and the electricity delivery business due to financial stresses. A decade from now we will still be talking about Musk's green-friendly business ventures. Whether we will be talking about them as successes or failures, that I would not bet on, but as long as he perseveres I expect to be cheering him on. And if it makes sense for me, I will even buy in.

Tesla Powerwall Specs
Clinton Cash Redux

15 May 2015

Clinton Cash
Clinton Cash Redux
May 15, 2015

The feedback to my Clinton Cash book review has been heartfelt on both sides, but the most interesting responses come from Hillary supporters who have not read it but gossip about it to no end. At least some of it comes from a vigorous disinformation campaign from her campaign staff, which was to be expected. They got an advance copy of the book before publication and had ample time to pick it apart. The $136 million in speaking fees that Bill and Hillary have earned since 2001 are chump change compared to what they will "earn" if she is elected president, so they have strong financial incentive to do what they can. That said, there are problems with the book - no surprise to me - that bear discussion.

The book's publisher has already re-released the Kindle version of the book with "7 or 8 corrections". You can read the details of the corrections here. This is rare for a publisher to do. It's only natural that the book's detractors would focus on these errors, but these are errors of detail, not of the general picture portrayed. The qui pro quo transactions that author Schweizer discusses are detailed and serpentine; I assumed as I read the book that there were some errors of detail because the book is full of details, unlike a typical political attack book. A short book with 57 pages of footnotes was easy to pick apart, so the fact that the footnotes are provided is unusual evidence of an author who wanted to be taken seriously.

The bottom line, unchanged by the corrections, is that both Clintons have milked the political system for everything it's worth for their personal financial advantage. No doubt the Bushes are unspeakably envious, since the old man taught Bill Clinton a lot of the tricks he now uses. Most of the attacks on the book are based on attacking the author personally. I admit that I am unimpressed with a lot of his background, so I was prepared for a bad book, but the book is substantive and almost incremental, given what we already know about Clintonian politics.

The pervasiveness of the corruption has been underscored by a revelation from Politico that ABC News fakir George Stephanopolous has been a secret Clinton Foundation donor ($50,000) himself - a fact that he deliberately failed to mention when he grilled author Peter Schweizer on his This Week show a few Sundays ago. Given that he used to be mouthpiece, I mean press secretary, for Bill Clinton, this is no shock either, but it does go to show how deeply the corruption has burrowed into our political system. Stephanopolous has proven to be a journalistic fraud no one should take seriously.

Am I too harsh on the Clintons? Just read these quotes being circulated in an e-mail from The Nation magazine, a 150-year-old progressive publication:

Reform-minded progressives agree: Clinton Cash is serious investigative journalism that demands serious answers about crony capitalism and how Hillary and Bill Clinton amassed over $136.5 million of wealth.

Columbia University Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs says, "The new book Clinton Cash: is compelling reading on how Bill and Hillary have mixed personal wealth, power, and influence peddling."

Progressive columnist Eleanor Clift says Clinton Cash: author Peter Schweizer "is an equal-opportunity investigator, snaring Republicans as well as Democrats."

Demos Senior Fellow Nomi Prins agrees: Clinton Cash: "provides a damning portrait of elite and circumspect power and influence.'"

Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig concludes: "On any fair reading, the pattern of behavior that Schweizer has charged is corruption."
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #10: Stillness

13 May 2015
Thirteen Treatises Lately much attention and some criticism has been given to the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness focuses on the idea that we at our best entertaining only one subject, one thought, for a period of time without flickering between many others. It is the polar opposite of multitasking. Mindfulness is based in stillness, a much-misunderstood concept. People may speak of it without being still themselves but more often these days, they are simply not aware of stillness. Thus when I wrote recently about the usefulness of avoiding music during tai chi practice, one old friend objected because he saw tai chi as a "to each his own" practice. It is not. Let's investigate stillness, our tenth essential of tai chi practice. Yang Cheng-fu put it like this:

Seek Stillness in Movement

"Tai chi uses stillness to counter movement," Cheng-fu elaborates. This is difficult to understand for one who insists on constant movement. "Even when we are moving we remain still," he continues. The movement is external, but the stillness is internal. Until you reach a high enough level in your tai chi practice, intrusive noise such as that presented by music can only disrupt the stillness. For this reason it is to be avoided until the student is a master.

What is movement? A vibration. What is stillness? A lack of vibration. To experience both together requires a pureness of movement that causes no disruption in its environment - like diving into a pond and leaving no ripple. A laser beam reminds us of the purity of stillness: its power comes from radiating at a single, pure frequency. Ordinary light involves an uncountable number of frequencies, all mixed together.

Another famous work of tai chi is The Song of Thirteen Postures, whose author is unknown. It addresses stillness in a similar fashion:

Find the movement in the stillness, even stillness in movement. Even when you respond to the opponents movement, show the marvel of the technics and fill him with wonder.

In Cheng Man-ching's book Cheng-Tzu's Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Cheng elaborates on this:

If you are not still, you cannot perceive your opponent's changes. Let him change, but you can still control him with stillness. That is what 'fill him with wonder' means.

In stillness we can respond best to change because we have no movement to cause resistance; we can simply go with the flow without having to make adjustments. This is similar to the need not to be equally weighted on both feet.

In stillness we can observe the world around us in objective serenity, untouched by the stress of a life of hustle and bustle. If you do indeed live such a life, stillness becomes even more important as it becomes more difficult to attain.

In your earliest practice you are fortunate to acquire any kind of stillness at all. Simply sitting still is a chore that many cannot get beyond. For the longest time your internal energy will be in constant movement. Indeed, many types of Daoist neijia (internal cultivation) are based on orbiting our qi through various pathways in our body, pathways closely associated with accupuncture meridians. This is valuable training but it is not stillness If you practice neijia arts, approach stillness by bringing all your qi into your lower (navel) dan tien. Leave it there to rest. If it helps, imagine as you sit, with eyes are closed, that you are looking into the cauldron where you are storing and preserving your essence. Is it moving? Is it bubbling with hot, uncontrolled energy? Turn your mind to relax it, smooth it, and still it.

There is so much more to say about stillness. Entire books have been dedicated to the subject. In my coming columns I will spend more time discussing essential elements of "What is Tai Chi?", including some that are debatable, not essential. In such debates there is no right or wrong, there is only what works and what does not work. I will also spend more time discussing some of the very best books on tai chi that any serious student should read and study, along with non-tai chi references on stillness.
Clinton Cash

10 May 2015
Clinton Cash

Clinton Cash
Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer (2015)
If Clinton Cash is one of the most talked about books of the political season, it's with good reason: Hillary Clinton is the front runner for the Democratic nomination for president, and may end up as president. Any insights we can gain into the inner workings of a potentially important leader are worth making some effort to acquire. That said, Democratic friends of mine have attacked the book, and the author, with a vicious, unthinking gusto normally reserved for climate-denying pedophiles who breed fighting dogs for a living. One fellow tried saying the author was a right-wing lunatic, but when challenged did not know the author's name. Into this void of rational thought I step, in an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Clinton Cash relates the coordinated activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton as Bill trots the globe collecting donations for the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative, intervening in local affairs for international businessmen who need help with their ventures, with Hillary manipulating U.S. legislative, regulatory and diplomatic processes. And oh, yeah, providing occasional charitable works as well, although not always with success. While a small part of the book focuses on activities in the latter part of the Clinton administration, most of it emphasizes the benefit that Bill and the Foundation received from Hillary's stint as Secretary of State. Schweizer presents a series of situations in which the Clintons used Hillary's Cabinet position for substantial personal benefits, leaving the logical assumption that such activities will continue and extend in a new Clinton administration.

Books of this type tend to fall into one of three categories, all of which speak to credibility. A book full of the kind of detailed claims Schweizer makes stands or falls on its credibility. The worst such kind of book is written by an Ann Coulter or a Michael Moore: a complete polemic with twenty opinions and names called for every fact presented (but never sourced). These books have a point of view to push; you know whether you agree with them before you buy the book, because you only buy it if you are sympatico. Thankfully, Clinton Cash is not such a book. I determined this from watching George Stephanopoulous interview Schweizer a week before the book was released, else I might not have read it at all.

Another type of such book is at the opposite extreme, the academic approach, a dense packing of information that leaves us longing for fewer pages, larger typeface, and a historian who takes himself a little less seriously.

What we are left with, and what we get, is a fairly happy medium: a book of less than two hundred pages, most chapters a self-contained story that can be read without the others, in a popular style that makes the book readable. Schweizer also provides a surprising amount of footnotes, which is important: footnotes allow for fact checking. Political hatchet jobs are short on facts and even shorter on the specifics that make the facts checkable. Clinton Cash, by contrast, is 184 pages long with another 57 pages of footnotes. Three pages of notes for every ten pages of text is an unusual achievement for a non-academic political work. Schweizer clearly wants to be taken seriously, and he has earned that right.

Schweizer takes the position that political bribery of this type is transactional: donations are associated with favors granted, associated closely enough that quid pro quo may be safely assumed even if not immediately proven. The SEC investigates insider trading on this basis, he points out: They see a pattern of closely related trades - transactions - and infer the possibility of abuse. The pattern is not the proof; it is the suggestion that leads to the investigation, which provides proof, or not. So when George Stephanopolous grilled Schweizer on whether he had uncovered proof of illegality, Schweizer correctly answered that is not his job. It is a prosecutor's job. As a journalist it is his job, and ability, to raise questions only. History bears this out: Woodward and Bernstein never found a "smoking gun" either. The straw that broke Nixon's back came from the Congressional investigations that followed.

With this in mind, Schweizer lays out situations that range from Russia to India to Nigeria to Haiti:
  • When Hillary became Secretary of State, Bill's speaking fees rose from about $150,000 a speech to $450,000 ranging up to $700,000 - and the biggest fees always took place when a government-manipulated business deal was part of the package. Instead of curtailing his activities for ethical reasons, Bill escalated on every front. Many charitable visits overseas take place with a business deal / government influence component built in.
  • Bill cut a deal with the dictator of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to allow the takeover of a Kazakh uranium mine by a crony, Frank Giustra, who subsequently donated $31.3 million to the Clinton Foundation. Nazarbayez was notorious for his human rights abuses, and was so criticized by U.S. officials such as Vice President Joe Biden. Days after Clinton endorsed him and he left the country, the headquarters of Nazarbayev's opponent was burned and the opponent arrested. After the dictator was re-elected, Clinton sent him a congratulatory note that was promptly made public. Although Hillary expressed early concerns publicly about this project, as Bill sealed the details she went silent. Not long after more than a half dozen of Giustra's business associates made sizable donations or pledges to the Clinton Global Initiative, with most amounts ranging from $1 million to $5 million each.
  • With several multimillion-dollar Clinton Foundation donors at the center of the deal, as Secretary of State Hillary enabled Russian efforts to take control of Kazakh uranium assets and later, American uranium assets from Wyoming, Utah, Texas and South Dakota - over the objections of Congressmen and Senators from the affected states. This occurred only after Bill met with Vladimir Putin and held a "plenary session" involving top Russian officials and businessmen eager for a piece of the pie. The company involved, UraniumOne, is positioning itself to dominate uranium markets worldwide. It even made a stab at opening a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon, but plans were killed by protests from the Navajo Nation, whose participation was needed for land access. Eventually the Clinton Foundation and related initiatives received more than $145 million in donations for this transaction.
  • After years of the Clintons opposing nuclear trade with India, Indian businessman Sant Chatwal and Indian parliamentarian Amar Singh wined, dined, and funded the Clintons and their Foundation to the tune of millions of dollars. Foreign businessmen cannot donate to American political campaigns, but they can donate to the candidates' foundations. At the heart of the question was lifting restrictions on nuclear trade with India. As Senator, Hillary introduced amendments keeping the restrictions tight; but even after she lost the presidential nomination battle with Barack Obama, New Delhi politicians remained focused on turning her around. That year Chatwal arranged for a $450,000 payday for Bill to give a speech; Singh then sat down to have a heart-to-heart with Hillary, after which she reversed her long standing policy opposing nuclear trade with India, against the recommendations of her top staff, and the needed trade bill passed the Senate with her support. In so doing, the Clinton helped destabilize Asia by allowing the development of nuclear technology in India. Singh was later arrested for bribery of Parliament officials in relation to the deal, and last year Chatwal pleaded guilty to illegally funneling more than $180,000 dollars to Hillary and two other federal candidates.
  • Canadian businessman Lukas Lundin made a $100 million pledge to the Clinton Foundation in order to secure Hillary's assistance in maintaining the status quote in Congo - then controlled by a vicious warlord - in order to keep his lucrative mines in the Congo: "What benefited Lundin was the status quo in Congo. That status quo was preserved by Hillary's disappointing failure as secretary of state to implement any of the key provision in the law she had strongly advocated only a few years before--before Lundin made his contribution." When competing companies tried to do the same as Lundin, however, as secretary of state Hillary intervened directly to stop them. A similar situation arose in Ethiopia, where human rights abuses were tolerated on the behalf of Clinton Foundation or Clinton Global Initiative donors.
  • Bill controlled the Haiti disaster recovery funds, which he generously doled out to Clinton Foundation donors to build more than 25,000 houses and other needed infrastructure. The money was spent but less than 2,000 homes built; many were inhabitable from the day they were poorly built.
The list of abuses does not stop here, but to continue detailing them would mean writing my own book. Near the end Schweizer does start sliding away from his researched facts to start harping on old Clinton war stories of varying veracity. On that basis the entire concluding chapter is a throwaway, but it's not representative of the book, which is well worth the short time required to get through it.

If Hillary was new to the presidential game I think this book could be a death blow to her aspirations, but she's not. Voters have gotten so used to the stories of political manipulation and abuse by the Clintons that quite possibly all such considerations have already been factored in by supporters and detractors alike; these stories and more like than might help explain why Democrats stay home rather than vote.

True believers believe Hillary can do no wrong, so will ignore the facts happily - and like some of my friends, slather the author and the book with disdain while never reading a word. Republicans are happy to see more criticisms of the Clintons, but the accusations make them uncomfortable because in principle they believe in such behavior: Instead they want to see one of their own in charge of the unethical action. This leaves other Democrats in middle because the charges go to the heart of what makes a Democrat, the desire to see good government working on behalf of the small man instead of the big business. With widening income inequality the focus of increasing scrutiny, this is a major concern. Such Democrats are more likely to read the book, be horrified, and turn to Bernie Sanders for solace; indeed, I already see it happening. Will Sanders become the new Eugene McCarthy, proud poet of the hip generation, and vanquish the inevitable behemoth, just as McCarthy scared LBJ from the 1968 race? We'll see. Meanwhile, if you care about political bribery and financial corruption, read this book and draw your own conclusions. So far the facts have yet to be successfully disputed, and the investigative trail has been picked up by the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Herald, all in apparent agreement that Schweizer's accusations are substantive. 3-1/2 stars.
Billionaires Battle for Solar Power Supremacy

4 May 2015
Elon Musk Warren Buffett Two of America's most storied billionaires - Elon Musk and Warren Buffett - are battling this week for solar power supremacy. Surprisingly Musk, who owns no utilities, has a new advantage over Buffett, whose Berkshire-Hathaway owns NV Energy in Nevada. Lately NV Energy has taken major PR hits as it tries to monopolize solar power in Nevada. Musk's latest foray may have doomed those plans forever.

With all the publicity this week about Baltimore and related subjects, you can be forgiven if you missed Musk's announcement. After all, who would expect a small car company to revolutionize our use of solar power in America and throughout the world? The question of battery storage technology, while not served perfectly, has been largely laid to rest by Elon Musk's Tesla, now no longer merely a car company.

Tesla has announced a line of industrial-strength batteries (no doubt to be produced at its new “gigafactory” outside Reno) for use in the home and, one assumes, cars. Their high-end product is a 10kWh item for $3,500. How good is that? Layman to layman, it’s hard to explain, but think of this: 10kW is 10,000 watts. An average light bulb once took 40 to 100 watts; today it’s more like 10 to 25. Plenty of households will get all they need with 10 kilowatts per hour, especially since it will be a backup, not primary, electrical source.

Speaking of backup, let’s back up and talk about what battery tech does for solar power and how it revolutionizes the industry. Among other things, Warren Buffett and everyone else who owns an electric utility just took a big hit. In Nevada this means Berkshire Hathaway’s NV Energy, which has been duking it out with the Nevada solar power industry in an attempt to re-establish its near-monopoly of electricity.

Solar power works because sunlight, when it strikes certain metal alloys, creates an electric current. We call this the photovoltaic, or photoelectric, effect. It is the basis for “seeing eye” technology. Albert Einstein wrote the seminal paper that described the effect in 1905, and it was the reason for his 1921 Nobel Prize in physics.

Since sunlight is free, why has solar power cost so much? Is it a conspiracy by the oil companies, like some of my friends darkly suspect? No, not at all. Sunlight may be free but building the equipment to make it work in an industrial-strength capacity is much more difficult than observing an “effect” in the laboratory, as Einstein and his peers did. The efficiencies required to make solar power cost-effective have taken decades to perfect, and we’re not done yet. But now that we have begun to leap the efficiency hurdle, the next problem is – storage technology.

The next problem with solar power is that it is feast and famine. Solar power works during the daytime, and only when the sun’s shine is not impeded by clouds, volcanic eruptions, or Republican elections. During such times we need another electricity source. And during the sunny-shine Mohave Desert day it may well generate more electricity than is needed at the time, so what do we do with it?

The answer to date has been called net metering. Since the battery technology has not existed that would allow us to store our solar power and save it quite literally for a rainy day, the solution has been to turn that electricity over to The Grid (in Nevada, NV Energy). And since we are providing The Grid with a commodity that it will turn around and re-sell, it is only fair that we be compensated as any fuel supplier would be compensated. Hence we have net metering, which is essentially a market access tool.

Net metering has allowed solar power to flourish. It solves the problem of what to do with excess solar power. Home users can stay attached to The Grid and thus have a source of power when the sun is hiding behind things, like the other side of the world.

In Nevada net metering has been capped by the state legislature at 3% of total users, which once seemed like a lot, but in the last few years solar power installers have devised some creative financing schemes for home rooftop solar panels. As a result the industry is flourishing and has pushed it close to the 3% limit. This has resulted in a call during the current legislative session to increase or even eliminate the cap. NV Energy is fighting the solar power installers on this tooth and nail. NV Energy wants to establish a monopoly on solar power for residential users. It is completely in favor of building its own solar power plants and selling the electricity back to home users, but absolutely hates the idea of homeowners doing it for themselves. If Buffett’s boys can effectively abolish net metering, they must figure, home electricity users will have no choice but return to good old NV Energy. Polls taken in the last week show Nevada voters supporting the solar power installers over Buffett by a 2-to-1 margin. Click here to read more about net metering & NV Energy in Nevada.

Which is where Tesla fits in. With battery tech like Tesla's, net metering becomes a moot point because access to the grid will, for many, become a thing of the past, like land line telephones. To be honest, Tesla’s battery technology is no more revolutionary than Apple’s iPod was. Each has taken a boring tech, made it cool, and put a lot of hot marketing into it. The popularity of Tesla’s tech will take off, further lowering costs, furthering accelerating the trend. It will be a real example of a rising tide (Tesla) lifting all boats (its battery competitors). That's the rosy scenario: as usual the truth is less stellar, though still impressive Click here to Scientific American's objective assessment of Tesla's announcement. Even though Tesla's announcement is not revolutionary, just the same the NV Energys of the world could well see their gross power numbers decline, even as home users use more and more electricity. Too bad!
The Age of Ultron

1 May 2015
Ultron and Iron Man: The Early Years
James Spader Ultron and Iron Man: The Early Years
An avenging teenager in Tuff Turf
First Cylon
Zoe Graystone, the First Cylon
Whether you know it or not, we've been in the Age of Ultron for several decades now. The idea of computers taking over the world, once frightening enough all by itself, has evolved into the much more dangerous idea of an artificial intelligence technology (AI) hosted in a weaponized robot chassis - the Terminator of the James Cameron films and before that, the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. We fans of all things Marvel have all been wondering whether Joss Whedon could follow up the massive success of The Avengers with a sequel deserving of similar success. If you became a Marvel fan because of the quality of their characters, both good and bad, you also wondered whether Ultron could offer anything more for the fast-tiring psycho robot/AI subgenre.

I went into the movie skeptical whether Ultron could be new and interesting enough to make this movie as entertaining as its predecessor. Tom Hiddleston as Loki entertained us well enough in The Avengers to make us almost root for a guy who would make Hitler look like a softie. Could Ultron attain that lofty pinnacle of comic book badguyness? The answer is no, he could not, but James Spader did turn out to be a fairly inspired choice to play the new maniac. He did not have to dig deep to find the freaks in his characters from Blacklist, or for that matter Boston Legal, and use them to good effect as Ultron. I doubted that the mere sound of his voice would be enough to energize Ultron, and clearly the movie's makers agreed, because they used modern motion tech to make the robot move and feel like Spader himself moving naturally, often lurching around as if drunk or stoned with his signature tilt of the head. It made me think back to his wildest characters-perhaps the werewolf who fought Jack Nicholson in Wolf? It's hard to say because Spader earns his pay and pulls from all of them.

Spader may have made as much of the character as could be made, but in the end the treasure of this movie, like the first one, was the magical mix of the main characters, the Avengers and their coterie of followers-on. They make this movie special. Since the mix of characters in the Avengers will change quite a bit in the next two Avengers: Infinity movies, whether this A-list quality of scriptwriting and character interaction can be maintained is anyone's guess. For now, Marvel has another well-deserved massive hit on their hands.

We can't talk about this movie without discussing where it fits into the plans for the future Marvel Universe, but first let's look more closely at Ultron. How does this new psycho robot, along with its robot slaves, compare to its most popular predecessors, the Terminators and the Cylons? After a recent re-viewing of the Syfy channel's Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica, I realized that the answer lies in the age-old question of method actors everywhere: what is the motivation? Ultron has very little, while the Cylons had an amusing genesis that would make anyone go "ah-haaaaa!" In a moment let's back up and talk about the back story of Battlestar Galactica, which provides some interesting insights into what makes a good robot go bonkers. The Terminators, who were nothing but killer robots, had a limited mission that does not interest indefinitely, but the Cylons are a different matter.

Ultron's genesis, like too many comic book origin stories, leaves much to be desired. We get no sense of why it is "bad". First it reveals a mission to "keep the peace" and kill the Avengers; before long the mission has morphed with the logic that there is no difference between killing the Avengers and killing all of humanity. Huh? Where does this come from? It is no spoiler to say that this part of the story is weak to the point of speciousness, but this is a good time to reiterate: it's not about the bad guy, it's about the good guys. In Avengers 2 the bad guy is nothing but an excuse to get the gang together again. It's a pretty good excuse.

By contrast, Syfy's short-lived show Caprica seeks to provide a valuable missing link, the answer to the question of why the Cylons go crazy and try to wipe out all humanity. The answer lies in the AI: who is it patterned after? That source provides the motivation. In Ultron we have no real motivation: Tony Stark examines a mysterious (digital) bottle and a genie pops out, malevolent without coherent cause.

But in Caprica, we have weaponized battle robots controlled by an AI based on-a 14-year-old girl, an adolescent genius and terrorist to boot. Anyone who has raised a teenage girl can understand how such a girl, given the powers of a nearly invulnerable robotic weapon, might be the downfall of humanity. We see it every day, and I do not mean this ironically. It was a stroke of genius to write the Cylons as confused, angry teenaged girls. Ultron was not created with such ingenuity, but in Avengers 2 it simply does not matter. The magic we were looking for is there again, probably for the last time. Enjoy it! And now for this column's Easter Egg -

The next phase of the Marvel Universe is leading into relatively unfamiliar territory. By now most of the major characters of MU have been introduced, with a few noteworthy exceptions still missing such as Prince Namor (the Sub-Mariner) and the Inhumans. MU fans know that some confusion has been caused by the fact that, before Marvel began producing films for itself, it licensed its most popular characters to other studios - Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. Those studios keep their rights as long as they use them. In the comics these characters all intermingle freely but in the movies, because of this licensing, no such luck. This is slowly changing; contractual changes have made it possible for Spider-Man to appear in upcoming Avengers movies, and (rumor has it), the FF and XM may end up working together soon. This is a key development, because the next phase of MU movies will focus on Civil War.

In the comics, the Civil War was after my time. It's a post-9/11 story line with a gripping premise: super-powered people with secret identities are a menace to society. Expect a comparable story line in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie from DC. In Civil War, Congress passes a law requiring super-heroes to publicly reveal their alter-egos. Some agree and some do not. Within MU a schism occurs as the costumed vigilantes come down on one side or another-with Tony Stark/Iron Man for forced revelation, or with Steve Rogers/Captain America for freedom over despotism. We see Peter Parker's life ruined when he reveals his Spider-Man identity. The conflict between the two groups, which boils over into open warfare, clearly reflects the split feelings within the American population about freedom and security, so it was an inspired story line. We will see it first in Captain America 3: Civil War, starring Robert Downey Jr (RDJ) as Iron Man versus Chris Evans as Captain America. It will carry over into the next two Avenger movies, currently referred to only as "Infinity". RDJ has confirmed that while he will continue with CA3 and Av3/4, he will not star in any more Iron Man movies. Iron Man may well continue, but Tony Stark could turn those honors over to another man, eliminating the need to replace RDJ. But for now, just go to Age of Ultron, and enjoy.
Man's Search for Meaning

18 Apr 2015
Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (1962)
Man's Search for Meaning may be one of the most celebrated books of the twentieth century but until recently I never even heard of it. Unlike many celebrated books, this is among the most important as well, which is not so common; important books often go uncelebrated, but that is not the case with Man's Search for Meaning. If you've never read it, perhaps never heard of it, take a moment to hear about it. This book, brief and simple, is as profound as it is easy to absorb. For some it could be life changing.

In the book Frankl (1905-1997) says he had already completed a great deal of work on a manuscript for his signature psychiatric achievement, logotherapy, when he and his wife were taken prisoner by Nazi soldiers and shipped off to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Frankl managed to smuggle his manuscript in with him, but he lost possession of it during his early days there. He began writing another book, which evolved and eventually emerged as the form of Man's Search for Meaning that we read today.

I will be frank in stating that I do not care for books about prisons, concentration camps, torture or other forms of inhumane abuse. Depictions in books like Empire of the Sun and King Rat, great though they may be, take me outside my comfort zone in directions I rarely find profitable.

Although Man's Search has the Holocaust as its context, that catastrophe is not his story; he leaves the story, the day to day details, to others. Frankl's purpose is to treat human psychic suffering. Since Auschwitz inmates with unbearable mental suffering were often considered unfit for work and hence doomed to the gas chamber (he says they called such prisoners "Moslems"), Frankl had plenty of work on his hands even while enslaved himself.

Frankl rejected Freudian style psychotherapy, which was in vogue before the war, in favor of helping his patients find meaning in their lives. That is the essence of his message: that a man's or woman's purpose in life is to find meaning. To find that meaning is to end their suffering; and that meaning may be different for each of us, but he suggests it is most easily derived from love. Hence a parent who loses his children may feel he has nothing left to live for, because he lived to love them. Even such a person may find new meaning in life.

Auschwitz was certainly a place to find suffering, and it provided the toughest possible test of his approach. How does man find meaning when all is lost? It comes down, he said, to attitude. Who were the survivors of that horror, and who capitulated? The survivors were often not the physically strongest, he says, and the dead were often not the weakest. The survivors, he believes, were those with the strongest internal lives, those who found something to live for even when everything was taken away. How did they find this? They looked to the ones they loved. Frankl says he and many survivors he knew spent a great deal of their days inside themselves. He would see his wife, talk to her, have long conversations with her, have her talk to him, and see every detail of every word she spoke or gesture she made. Even knowing she might not still be alive - and indeed, she died in Auschwitz without being put to death, as his mother was - he kept her alive in his heart, and in so doing sustained himself.

There are great lessons to learned in Frankl's simple book, but an honest person must recognize that finding meaning is not as simple as acknowledging the need for it, just as having a good attitude does not instantly arise from the understanding that a good attitude is good to have. People who are pathologically depressive, for instance, struggle daily for that good attitude; saying it is not enough. And yet by saying it, Frankl has made a giant stride for many of us. Read this book, re-read it, keep a copy for your permanent library, and pass on a copy to others. Keep it alongside your Bible, Torah, Qoran, or other holy books of similar importance. Few books of value are so quickly taken to heart, and so slowly lost. Five stars.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #9: Continuity

13 Apr 2015
What is it about Tai Chi practice that draws us in - that makes us feel so good that many proponents adopt the language of joy in describing their practice of this, the ultimate martial art? The keys are relaxation, balance, slow speed - and smooth, continuous movement. These components allow our chi to move freely in the "internal massage" that so many of us are hooked on. Continuity is, at long last, one of those tai chi essentials that we all grasp without struggle; it is one of those commented upon the most. Indeed, I made it Principle 4 in my 2010 book, Tai Chi In Your Life. Yang Cheng-fu put it like this:

Continuity Without Interruption

Although this principle seems straightforward, you must consider the nuances in order to get full benefit. In the process you should discover that the continuity principles of some styles do not apply in other styles. So while I deem continuity an "essential", some teachers practice continuity in a way that is neither essential nor universal. Keep in mind, this observation not a criticism of any of those styles, it is simply a point to be recognized.

The biggest mistake, however, is to believe that continuity is an end in and of itself: continuity is the result of correct movement, it is not the correct movement itself. This is why it is a mistake to practice your tai chi with the goal of "looking pretty", a kind of internal selfie.

Instead realize that if you practice correctly your tai chi will be smooth, continuous, and yes, pretty. The key comes from essential #3, moving from the waist, and essential #6, moving with the mind. When your body moves in unity from the waist, your hand and feet will move in a smooth, continuous fashion; when you move from your hand or foot, it will remain jerky. If you practice with tai chi sword, the jian, such problems are amplified. For this reason many tai chi teachers will introduce sword early in the lessons, which is the opposite approach in Japanese martial arts. The sword amplifies seemingly subtle mistakes so that even a beginner has a chance to comprehend them. The Japanese approach is different because Japanese sword is purely utilitarian: for killing.

In 2009 when I interviewed six tai chi grandmasters at the Tai Chi Symposium at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, all agreed upon the value of continuity as a key virtue. To this Yang Jun, the young successor of the Yang Family, added the point that a great deal of tai chi movement goes into striking, often with the hand but sometimes with the foot. In order to train for this striking, he emphasized, our practice of form must reflect real strikes. For this reason form movement is not purely continuous. When it is purely continuous, all martial intent is lost. This means the practice of continuity is a high-level practice, not merely for beginners.

Although Chen stylists agree with this philosophy, many other stylists do not. Disciples of Cheng Man-ching and T.T. Liang were taught that form must be practiced a single speed, without change. Those who practice only for health are more inclined to think that an even speed is preferable, while those who practice for martial arts have a different view. There are numerous good reasons for each approach. Keep in mind that the Classics refer to good tai chi as "flowing like a great river without end", but a river does not run continuously at a single speed. Its flow speeds and slows according to the requirements of the natural contours of the ground as well as the vigor of the rains. In like manner your speed may change according to the requirements of natural movement.

My personal starting point for this subject involves a lesson learned in tui shou practice, called "pushing hands" by most but "sensing hands" by others, such as Stuart Alve Olson. In pushing hands the goal is to connect with your opponent so that you can sense his/her intention and hence anticipate an attack: You connect as much as you need to to sense your opponent, but as little as possible. The primary goal of practice is to perfect that yin/yang balance, and to take advantage when you can do so without giving away your own intention.

In pushing hands practice the less skilled partner is more likely to launch an attack, while a skilled partner will listen for an opening. What does the skilled one "listen" for? The feel of tension, an attack. Since all tension connotes imbalance, when you find that tension you have a source of imbalance. That is your opening, not to attack, but to use it to "go with the flow" and let the imbalance increase until the opponent is defeated largely of his own accord. If it were a fight and not a pushing hands match, at that moment you would strike with a devastating blow that breaks as well as uproots.

As a result one of the early goals of a less skilled practitioner is to learn to feel his/her own tension and relax it without cues from others. Every time you notice tension building, you stop the action causing the tension. With practice the parallel to your everyday life should become obvious: whenever you are taking actions that cause a building of tension in your life, or at least in your internal feelings, you need to back off those actions and reduce the tension. Often we feel that tension, ignore it, proceed, and then regret the result, especially when we realize it could be been prevented by heeding your feelings. This tension is a discontinuity in your life. If you can develop the internal awareness that allows you to recognize these matters before they come to a head, you can eliminate the biggest problems in your life.

There are many more aspects to his lesson. In the Continuity chapter of Tai Chi In Your Life I discuss these aspects, and include some training exercises to help cultivate continuity. For a free download of this chapter, click here.

5 Apr 2015
Zoro after grooming
Zoro after grooming
Zoro after grooming Me at 14 months
Me at 14 months - no hair cut needed yet Me at 11
My crewcut at age 11 Me at 23 - before
My hair at its longest, age 23 Me at 23 - after
Two hours later - see how thin I look! My hair is longer today.
My pup Zoro is just over six months old and had turned into a fur ball. When the temperature topped 90° twice last week he was getting uncomfortably warm on our walks. After all he had been perfectly comfortable in 45° weather so you figure he had to be getting warm. Time for his first grooming! When he returned with his sleek, no skinny, new look it gave me cause to reflect on how we react to hair and hair styles in our culture.

My own first haircut caused a furor in my family. My father, with masculine instincts in many ways typical of a prewar South Carolinian, was looking forward to taking me. Unknowing of his desires and unbeknownst to him, my mother's favorite aunt (Mom's mother, like me much later, helped raise four younger sisters), took me for my haircut "as a favor". According to family legend it years before Dad would speak to her again. From that day forward he kept my hair cut in a crew cut or a military-style flat top that was popular back in the day, until I reached my teens. When I turned 13 I was allowed to grow hair as I wished, as my father had not kept it short due to conservative values: He just didn't want to be responsible for taking care of it when I was little. Until he was shipped overseas (compliments of the United States Air Force) Mom and Dad split the job of raising us kids equally: He got the boy and she got the girls.

Although I grew my hair as I wished, I never used it for rebellion, but that didn't keep me from having problems. When I was 14 I got my first job, working concessions at a local drive-in theatre. At the end of my first week our boss, a guy who seemed really old at the time but was probably 45 or so, lined up the kids, all boys of course, and inspected our hair. He ordered me and a few others to get haircuts. At the time I combed it back like my older second cousin, as we both had straw-colored hair and I knew he was cooler than I was (he drove). Since my mom agreed with me that my hair was already plenty short enough - I'd just gotten a haircut - I went back to the job as is, and was fired. That was Fort Worth in 1968, maybe two years after they got rid of the whites-only water fountains and rest rooms.

The following year I was stuck in the junior high school of Del City, a suburb of Oklahoma City. My hair was slightly longer than the year before, but I wasn't the one with hair problems, it was kids all around me. My math teacher caused me unwitting torture by praising me in one breath - he put a poster of Albert Einstein right behind my seat, I swear to God - and in the next haranguing boys with lesser math talents but longer hair, offering to pay for them to get haircuts. Who could blame those guys for hating me? I know they did, but to their credit not a one bullied me (no, that was in band class). The following year I showed a picture of John Lennon from the Rubber Soul era to a hair stylist, who gave me my first layer cut, a style I essentially kept until it was shortened on a TV set when I was 40.

But a buddy in senior year was not so lucky. Vernon Phillips got the worst haircut of his life, or so he said, so immediately had his hair cut down to the skin, boot camp style. As it happened we were seniors entitled to participate in the annual beard growing contest, so Vernon started it all at once. We were treated to the spectacle of a guy whose hair and beard grew at the same length together until the end of the month when we all had to shave.

All of this is a narcissistic way of tossing around the role and importance of hair styles in our culture. Today anything goes and is accepted, so the past hair wars seem distant and almost mythological. The truth is when we see a person's hair style, it tells us something about them, but we may be kidding ourselves about what that something is. When I was younger, into my thirties, I certainly looked at women according to their hair styles, among other things: Longer hair was desirable and shorter hair was questionable at best. What can I say? I was and am a child of the sixties. But attitudes change. My ex-wife recently cut her hair shorter for the first time in her life and to this discerning eye, the result was fabulous. When we were married, all those years ago, the very thought would have horrified me.

When I was 39 my new hair stylist, Linda Davis, tried to get me to agree to a slightly shorter hair style, just above the ears, without success. One of her selling points was that "fat hair" over the ears made my face look fatter. Although she didn't quite accomplish her goal, it was a telling blow, because as my mother's son I was always interested in not looking fat. But about six months later I was given a small role in a TV drama set in the early 1930s, which required a shorter hair style, provided on set by the producers. The next time I went in for a haircut, Linda was triumphant: See how much thinner you look, she trumpeted. She was right; I was sold, and so it stayed until last year when I decided to see just how long my hair could get if I let it. It's barely over my collar and ears and already it's driving me crazy.

Which brings us full circle to my pup, who now looks almost anorexic. By my measurements he lost about 10% of his body weight with that haircut, but it looks like 30%. If I could achieve either metric I'd cut my hair shorter in a heartbeat.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #8: Unify Inner and Outer

25 Mar 2015
Tai chi is said to cultivate the spirit, shen, because it can move freely through the body when we learn to move as a single light, supple piece. In this regard spirit is sometimes confused with chi, which is called energy by some and breath by others, but which is neither. In any event we can satisfy our desire to be light and supple only by learning to relax, turning our mind inward, and moving as one piece. In Essential #7 we looked at this in regard to unifying the upper and lower parts of the body, which is difficult to understand. Essential #8 is perhaps the most esoteric, so even more study is required:

Unity of the Internal and External

Yang Cheng-fu made some very important comments on this, about opening and closing, but before I get into them I want to address a more fundamental issue that even many teachers miss: The question so many students ask their teachers, for which they never receive a decent explanation, is "What do we mean by internal?" A teacher who cannot answer this question is still a student and certainly not a master.

The internal arts that contribute to tai chi, nei jia, are based largely in old Taoist ideas that project a kind of cosmology into our body's internal structure. The origins of astrology go back to these beliefs and practices. Within this cosmology are the three treasures-chi, jing, and shen- that work through the three "palaces". Also known as dan tiens , there is the upper (in the head), the middle (in the heart), and the lower (in the abdomen). When teachers refer to "the dan tien" they mean the lower one. So internal arts are devoted to the cultivation of these three treasures, particularly by orbiting and transforming our chi in a variety of practices. In time chi and jing can be transformed into shen, which transforms us into higher spiritual beings, at least in theory. In practice decades of dedicated effort are required. Much of this work involves moving our chi through a variety of orbits, particularly the smaller or "microcosmic" orbit, and the larger or "macrocosmic" orbit, often called the grand circulation. In time the student learns that exercising the grand circulation contributes directly to our ability to issue power from the ground, through the feet, through the waist, through the shoulders, through the arms.

Thus we have unity of the internal and the external when our internal activity drives our external movements. If my body is circling or spiraling, it is because first I am circling and spiraling internally. When you see Chinese acrobats or kung fu monks spinning through the air, what you see is an external manifestation of their internal activity, which is what makes them so different from the acrobats of other cultures.

Now you know what internal means. In our practice of tai chi, our external movements should be manifestations of internal activity; otherwise they are inferior.

In his notes Yang Cheng-fu discusses the idea of being open or closed. That is a very tough subject to address through writing, but as usual we find easy understanding in a physical demonstration. Later this year I hope to introduce video clips to accompany these columns, but for now pen and ink, speaking euphemistically, will have to do.

Descriptions of open and closed hardly do the subject justice, but it comes down to this: if you are one piece, unified, upper and lower, inner and outer, then you are open. Otherwise you are closed, broken.

But let's get one thing straight. To external martial artists like my karate and kung fu brothers "open" means you have left yourself vulnerable to an attack. When I speak of open in this context I mean your body is full of chi, expanded like a balloon but not so full as to be tense, available for anything. Closed means broken, not available to respond as needed. Open means sealed, invincible.

That's a short description of a complicated topic; it leaves much to be desired. Before I go further, though, I want to hear from my readers. Our next essential will be much more down to earth - Continuity, the subject of chapter four in my book, Tai Chi In Your Life.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #7: Unify Your Body

13 Mar 2015
Bent back leg: Ben Lo

Yang Cheng-fu's straight back leg as shown by son/successor Yang Zhen-duo

Cheng Man-ching's bent back leg as shown by disciple Ben Lo
When I wrote about using the mind to guide the body in essential #6, I referred mainly to the idea of using the mind to issue all power from the center of the body, and to keep the mind away from the arms and legs. In just a moment I would like to discuss the idea that the body should function as one piece. The "one piece" concept can be applied at many levels, but it is of particular importance in regard to essential #7:

Unity of the Upper and Lower Body

As Yang Cheng-fu explains it, the upper and lower body must be unified into a single whole (hence one piece) as energy that comes from the root in the feet "is issued through the legs, controlled by the waist, and expressed in the hands." (Douglas Wile, Tai-chi Touchstones, p.13). This wave-like motion is possible only if the upper and lower parts of the body are connected as a seamless whole. The chi moves through the body in a single circuit comprising a portion of the grand circulation.

While I am applying the one piece concept here to the entire body, it may be easier if we start by isolating the discussion to the leg only. Beginning students, and some intermediates, spend some time stabilizing their legs, which tend to be wobbly. Usually the problem is partly strength and muscle tone, and partly mental attitude. They must be taught to hold the legs open in a strong structure that cannot collapse in upon itself.

This collapse is avoided by making one leg "one piece" where the other is not (yang and yin), such as in a forward (bow) stance. Many teach that one piece means straight. For instance, the straight back leg in all frames of the Yang style is taught with that in mind. However, Cheng Man-ching learned from his older kung fu brother Zhang Qing-lin that the back leg could be one piece without being perfectly straight; this allows some interesting opportunities for power expression through the legs. When Cheng created his own form out of Cheng-fu's, the "one piece bent" is what he preferred.

To see how a bent leg could be one piece, think of a piece of wood. A straight stick is obviously one piece. But suppose you have a tree branch with a bend in it; the bend is a wide angle and the strength is fully sustained. That is one piece. As long as any opposing force can be directed along the natural lines of strength, it is one piece. If the bend is too acute, however, the branch becomes two pieces which no longer work together effectively. For a leg, how wide an angle is that? Every leg is different, but it should be obvious that a strong leg can do more than a weak one. So the bent leg is one piece, a unity, as long as the bend does not "break" the leg into two pieces.

What does all this have to do with unifying the entire body in movement? First, the idea of unity is noteworthy because we learn early in our training to separate our motion at the waist, so that the lower body is firm and rooted, and the upper body is loose like the branches of a willow tree. Now we see that those two pieces are not truly separate. Second, the how of unity derives directly from our previous lesson to apply our mind to guide the body. It is important to understand that the mind, properly directly, guides the unity of the body, but when improperly directed, breaks it into pieces so that it is easily defeated.

How does this happen? It happens whenever you direct the mind to any spot other than the lower dan-tien in your body's center. Instead you must first direct the mind to the dan-tien, then direct it outward into the limbs and the digits as if exploding out from the center and filling it like a balloon.

This is a tricky matter. The minute you try directing your chi outward from your center to fill the body, there is a temptation to make it happen by applying force. When you do this, typically you focus your mind directly on a point without going through the body. This breaks the one piece into two pieces at the point of focus by moving your center of gravity to that spot. If you send your mind to your chest to fight with your upper body strength, you will be top heavy and broken, easily twisted or upended. If you send your focus through the limb by radiating it from the center, you will have no problem.

You can test yourself for this problem while you train for fa-jing. Master Yang Jun, head of the Yang family, teaches an exercise that makes this point easy to understand. To perform the exercise, begin by standing with your feet parallel, shoulder width apart.

Hold your arms straight out to the side, parallel to the ground, fingers open, palms facing forward. The exercise alternates between a right side and left side palm strike. To perform the strike, twist your waist strongly to the left (counter clockwise), allowing your right arm to follow your body so that the palm swings out in a palm strike at chest height. Stop the palm at the mid point, not by using the arm but by arresting the waist twist to the left and suddenly changing to the opposite direction. Turn the waist back to the right so that the right arm/hand returns to the original position. Do the same with the left arm, twisting the waist first clockwise, then back to the left.

You can perform this exercise correctly to develop effective fa-jing power only if you do not use your arm or hand muscles to swing the palm, or to stop it. If you use a muscle, you will feel the hand or arm tighten up. Often the tightening will be severe enough to cause painful cramps at some spot. When this happens, move your mind away from the hand, away from the arm, and focus entirely on the waist movement. The hand and arm should feel totally relaxed at the moment they stop.

Apply this approach to any fa-jing training. If the movement comes from applying the mind to anywhere other than the center, the center of gravity moves to that spot, and you will feel your body cramped and broken there. When you get it right the result is a single effortless whipping movement, with no part of the body vulnerable to attack.

This time we unified the upper and lower. Next time around we will talk about unifying the inner and the outer.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #7: Unify Your Body

13 Mar 2015
Straight Back Leg: Yang Zhen-duo

Yang Cheng-fu's straight back leg as shown by son/successor Yang Zhen-duo

Cheng Man-ching's bent back leg as shown by disciple Ben Lo
When I wrote about using the mind to guide the body in essential #6, I referred mainly to the idea of using the mind to issue all power from the center of the body, and to keep the mind away from the arms and legs. In just a moment I would like to discuss the idea that the body should function as one piece. The "one piece" concept can be applied at many levels, but it is of particular importance in regard to essential #7:

Unity of the Upper and Lower Body

As Yang Cheng-fu explains it, the upper and lower body must be unified into a single whole (hence one piece) as energy that comes from the root in the feet "is issued through the legs, controlled by the waist, and expressed in the hands." (Douglas Wile, Tai-chi Touchstones, p.13). This wave-like motion is possible only if the upper and lower parts of the body are connected as a seamless whole. The chi moves through the body in a single circuit comprising a portion of the grand circulation.

While I am applying the one piece concept here to the entire body, it may be easier if we start by isolating the discussion to the leg only. Beginning students, and some intermediates, spend some time stabilizing their legs, which tend to be wobbly. Usually the problem is partly strength and muscle tone, and partly mental attitude. They must be taught to hold the legs open in a strong structure that cannot collapse in upon itself.

This collapse is avoided by making one leg "one piece" where the other is not (yang and yin), such as in a forward (bow) stance. Many teach that one piece means straight. For instance, the straight back leg in all frames of the Yang style is taught with that in mind. However, Cheng Man-ching learned from his older kung fu brother Zhang Qing-lin that the back leg could be one piece without being perfectly straight; this allows some interesting opportunities for power expression through the legs. When Cheng created his own form out of Cheng-fu's, the "one piece bent" is what he preferred.

To see how a bent leg could be one piece, think of a piece of wood. A straight stick is obviously one piece. But suppose you have a tree branch with a bend in it; the bend is a wide angle and the strength is fully sustained. That is one piece. As long as any opposing force can be directed along the natural lines of strength, it is one piece. If the bend is too acute, however, the branch becomes two pieces which no longer work together effectively. For a leg, how wide an angle is that? Every leg is different, but it should be obvious that a strong leg can do more than a weak one. So the bent leg is one piece, a unity, as long as the bend does not "break" the leg into two pieces.

What does all this have to do with unifying the entire body in movement? First, the idea of unity is noteworthy because we learn early in our training to separate our motion at the waist, so that the lower body is firm and rooted, and the upper body is loose like the branches of a willow tree. Now we see that those two pieces are not truly separate. Second, the how of unity derives directly from our previous lesson to apply our mind to guide the body. It is important to understand that the mind, properly directly, guides the unity of the body, but when improperly directed, breaks it into pieces so that it is easily defeated.

How does this happen? It happens whenever you direct the mind to any spot other than the lower dan-tien in your body's center. Instead you must first direct the mind to the dan-tien, then direct it outward into the limbs and the digits as if exploding out from the center and filling it like a balloon.

This is a tricky matter. The minute you try directing your chi outward from your center to fill the body, there is a temptation to make it happen by applying force. When you do this, typically you focus your mind directly on a point without going through the body. This breaks the one piece into two pieces at the point of focus by moving your center of gravity to that spot. If you send your mind to your chest to fight with your upper body strength, you will be top heavy and broken, easily twisted or upended. If you send your focus through the limb by radiating it from the center, you will have no problem.

You can test yourself for this problem while you train for fa-jing. Master Yang Jun, head of the Yang family, teaches an exercise that makes this point easy to understand. To perform the exercise, begin by standing with your feet parallel, shoulder width apart.

Hold your arms straight out to the side, parallel to the ground, fingers open, palms facing forward. The exercise alternates between a right side and left side palm strike. To perform the strike, twist your waist strongly to the left (counter clockwise), allowing your right arm to follow your body so that the palm swings out in a palm strike at chest height. Stop the palm at the mid point, not by using the arm but by arresting the waist twist to the left and suddenly changing to the opposite direction. Turn the waist back to the right so that the right arm/hand returns to the original position. Do the same with the left arm, twisting the waist first clockwise, then back to the left.

You can perform this exercise correctly to develop effective fa-jing power only if you do not use your arm or hand muscles to swing the palm, or to stop it. If you use a muscle, you will feel the hand or arm tighten up. Often the tightening will be severe enough to cause painful cramps at some spot. When this happens, move your mind away from the hand, away from the arm, and focus entirely on the waist movement. The hand and arm should feel totally relaxed at the moment they stop.

Apply this approach to any fa-jing training. If the movement comes from applying the mind to anywhere other than the center, the center of gravity moves to that spot, and you will feel your body cramped and broken there. When you get it right the result is a single effortless whipping movement, with no part of the body vulnerable to attack.

This time we unified the upper and lower. Next time around we will talk about unifying the inner and the outer.
Health & Fitness
Heal Yourself

10 Mar 2015
Overlooking Lake Mead

Fabulous Feng Shui Overlooking Lake Mead
Three days ago I pulled my back in one of the toughest spots for self-manipulation: the middle, between the shoulder blades. This time it was on the right side. The pain is sharp in certain positions and movements, but dull or barely noticeable at other times. The sharp times including laying down to sleep and sitting down to work, so the challenge is considerable. The next day, Sunday, I tried the sedentary approach since I was still on vacation and reading an epic novel of Japanese medieval history, a mere 926 pages. As long as I sat in just the right position I was okay, but otherwise I was in excruciating pain. Aspirin helped a little but not much; I have non-narcotic painkillers by prescription, but I've never found a prescription remedy (narcotic or not) that helps my back, which is plagued by herniated disks. I tossed and turned all night, and slept very little.

Today I had to work, but afterwords I took the pup for a long walk and noticed improvement as soon as we started walking and I adjusted my spinal alignment. Then I found a spot with fabulous feng shui and practiced tai chi chuan for about an hour. I finished just as the sun went down; eighty to ninety percent of the pain was gone. Is that true, or is it all in my mind?

That's a tough question because one could argue that all pain is in the mind. However, that argument would border on sophistry, since such pain does have a physical source. What is true is that as I practiced my forms, I used every opportunity to open and stretch my back. When I do that I literally stretch the vertebrae apart, giving them space, removing the cramped conditions that pinch my nerves and cause me pain. Sadly, they do not stay apart - I am not yet that advanced, if ever I will be - but when they gently slide apart and open they have a chance to readjust and fall into the alignment intended for them. The slow, careful nature of the movements makes the process safe as well as gentle.

This subject is not all about me: everywhere you look you find people seeking self-healing. Many of us do it because the medical doctors cannot help us; some do it because the cost makes no sense; some do it because the side effects of the medical approach makes no sense. Most recently I found a video of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and likely presidential candidate, with a message that seems off-topic for him: self-healing of diabetes. Huckabee offers a sound and simple case that Big Pharma makes Big Bucks off the medical approach to diabetes, because they cure nothing and thereby lock in a perpetual sale of an expensive product. Huckabee, who once was a very heavy man, cured himself by changing his diet and losing weight. A bad diet and weight gain gave him the diabetes; the one sure way to cure it was to reverse the process.

Simple? Not so much, or everyone would do it. Self-healing requires a determination to do whatever it takes to reach the goal, often without outside support or help. Many people with chronic diseases just give up and stop trying to take care of themselves at all; that just worsens the misery and hastens the death. And not all of us have a condition that lends itself to self-healing, such as those with most forms of cancer. But if you do have a self-treatable condition, such as one brought on by lifestyle mistakes, you may have a chance to heal yourself. That doesn't mean you should go off and try anything and everything offered to you as "alternative health care". Most of it is alternative because it is unproven, and most of it will never be proven. Accupuncture, for instance, works no matter where the therapist puts the needles. This likely means that its power comes from the belief of the patient, not the method. Many alternative methods "work" only because we want to believe they work, which usually means we are kidding ourselves. External validation of such beliefs is always helpful, which is one way an M.D. can be useful. So take care in trying to heal yourself. Expand your own knowledge before you jump to conclusions, and seek outside counsel. But who knows you better than you know yourself? Certainly not a doctor who sees you five minutes at a time.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #6: Mind Over Matter

22 Feb 2015
Brick Hand

Brick Hand
Our latest essential carries into all parts of your life: the idea that you must use your mind to direct your actions. To some this is a philosophical notion; to many it remains an obvious truism though without obvious application to life; but to those of us devoted to the study of tai chi chuan it is a governing principle. As such it is one of the easiest to echo, but one of the most difficult to acquire. Full acquisition means you are stepping into the arena of advanced attainment.

Yang Cheng-fu put it this way:

Use the Mind and not Strength

He explains that all tai chi power as issuing from a relaxed state. Instead of issuing from brute muscular force power issues through the power of chi flowing through the meridians, or pathways, that traverse the body.

As a junior student I struggled with this. When I started training with George Ling Hu, my primary teacher, I was lifting weights at the gym to bolster my strength and muscle tone. No matter what I did, I could not divert my mind from the idea of using physical strength. My muscles felt powerful and seemed the only obvious source of power. I couldn't let go.

At his suggestion I quit weight training in order to turn my mind away from my musculature. See how complicated this essential can be: even if you are using your mind, chances are you are sending your thoughts in fruitless directions. To get essential #6 correct you must not only use your mind, you must focus it correctly. To understand this better let's turn to the first object of this lesson, punching.

Say you take a swing at someone, with the intention of punching them. What part of your own body do you turn your attention to? Almost certainly you focus on your fist or arm. When you focus on your fist, what are you punching with? Your fist. Is that the most powerful way to punch? Even if you are six foot six with a Hulked-out body, that is not the most powerful way you can punch. As Wang Yen-nien (another of my teachers and a junior kung fu brother of Cheng Man-ching) once put it, "your hand is not a hand. Your whole body is a hand."

Thus you must use your mind to punch with your whole body. Cheng-fu and his famous student Cheng both emphasized this point. Cheng Man-ching once said that he failed to understand this point until one night when he had a dream that his shoulders were broken, and could only move his arms and hands by moving his body. Stories like his are illustrative but rarely help anyone else achieve their goal.

Let's return to a physical discussion of the punch. When you turn your mind to your fist, you tense it up along with your entire arm structure, including at least part of the shoulder. You are immobilizing yourself! You reduce the kinetic energy as well as the ability of chi to flow through your meridians. You turn your arm into a handle that your opponent can use to manhandle you. Can you find a way to punch without turning your mind to the fist?

To begin with, focus on the waist instead. Focus on swiveling side to side with the waist. Focus on the bagua in your tan tien. Use your mind to rotate it vertically, thus facilitating the easy movement of your shoulder. In the beginning even this is not enough, so try a trick that George Hu used with me: punch with a brick.

Not a building brick. A yoga brick is best because of the size and light weight. Hold it in your hand with your fingers clutching only as much as needed to hold it, no more; this is why a light weight is important. Try punching through the leading edge of the brick, leaving your fingers, palms, wrists, arms and shoulders loose. Move from the waist, sending your chi up through the shoulder and into the arm, spiraling around a line that goes through the arm, through the palm, and out. In no time at all you will realize the futility of trying to punch with that brick as you did with your fist. Once you realize that, practice the punches from your tai chi form, at first using the slowest motion you can muster, until you can learn to remove all tension from the hand-arm structure. It won't happen overnight but once you get it, you got it.

This principle does not apply merely to the hand or arm, so will examine it more after I introduce the seventh essential. Coming up: moving your body as one piece.
Health & Fitness
Meat Is Good For the Brain

19 Feb 2015
I recently wrote a column about the problems of overcoming established obesity. Diet will always be the main culprit in establishing the problem, but we have good news from a survey of recent data in New Scientist magazine: fresh meat does not have bad health consequences - not red meat, not any kind as long as it is fresh. One study alone involved half a million Europeans in 10 different countries, so the data is wide and deep.

Processed meats like bacon and sausage remain dangerous. By one measure, for every 80 grams of processed meat eaten each day (almost three slices of bacon), your cancer risk increases by 15%. That's a substantial increase, but for a substantial bacon/sausage intake as well. Bacon or a little sausage with pancakes once a week won't hurt you, but more than that is an unhealthy practice.

Questions about cancer and heart health due to red meat turn out to be a big false alarm. In fact there is a bigger concern: not getting the nutrients (protein, iron, vitamins B-6 and B-12), you need if you are avoiding meat. Toward this end I gleaned information from the New Scientist article and put it into this table highlighting the tradeoffs of acquiring 50 grams of protein per day from various sources:
Food Source Weight Calories Vitamin B-12 Vitamin B-6 Iron Saturated Fat
Steak 200 g (0.4 lb) 407 3.32 mg 1.2 mg 3.6 mg 7.0 g
1.5 Salmon fillets 200 g 364 0.0061 mg 1.9 mg 2.0 mg 2.5 g
9 Eggs 522 g (1.2 lb) 566 0.0035 mg 0.0007 mg 7.0 mg 12.4 g
200 almonds 240 g (0.53 lb) 1,390 0 0.3 mg 9.0 mg 9.0 g
1.5 cans kidney beans 600 g (1.3 lb) 762 0 0.7 mg 13.0 mg 0.4 g
Dried crickets 75 g (2.6 oz) 341 0 0 4.60 mg 0

Clearly, as a comprehensive nutrient source, steak is a more powerful delivery mechanism than any of the other options, although eating a lot of salmon comes close as long as you can get the remainder of your iron, B-12, and B-6 requirements elsewhere.

If you think vegetarianism is healthier than eating meat, just remember that meat eating was the adaptive feature that made the human race possible in the first place. High-density protein sources are required to build the human brain. As we learn the truth that meat eating is not unhealthy, we also see that vegetarianism is not only not inherently healthier, it runs counter to your needs for long-term brain health. Eat fresh meats, but avoid sausage and bacon.

If you would like to read the original New Scientist article, click here.
Health & Fitness
Get Fit Before It's Too Late

15 Feb 2015
Are you obese, or know someone who is? Is that person a family member, someone you can influence? If you can, influence them before it's too late. Recent research indicates that long-term obesity is a stubborn condition that, once it sets in, is nearly impossible to remove - except perhaps through surgery, an undesirable approach. In an article published Thursday in the journal The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, four weight-loss specialists step forward to set the record straight on the challenge of overcoming obesity.

Fitness advocates like myself have long said that weight loss is 85% diet and 15% exercise. I stand by that statement to a point, but the Lancet articles points out that the human body is programmed to defend against long-term famine. This means that it gains weight - puts on body fat - when it can, and holds onto it as long as possible. Once the obesity becomes a chronic condition, counting calories comes nowhere close to solving the problem. If you are obese this is hardly new news, but now the science is backing you up.

As an exercise instructor specializing in martial arts I have lived by the notion that fitness isn't something you do only "when you need to", but it something you do continually because you need it continually. One of my physicians once pointed out that if you live a long life there is no getting around the fact that the last year or two of your life could be of low quality. But through diet and exercise the ten years before that can be very high quality. Even if you are obese you can do much to maximize strength and muscle tone.

If you are afflicted with obesity for whatever reason, seek medical help. Don't rely on alternative remedies, diet, or exercise, although diet and exercise can certainly help you improve your fitness. They remain important to wellness no matter where you are in life.

But if you are not afflicted with obesity but flirt with weight issues, quit flirting and establish a serious dating relationship with your gym. The more you exercise and keep your metabolism active, the more forgiving your body will be in keeping or letting go of any excess calories you pick up. But don't use exercise as a crutch for overeating! If your weight is higher than you'd like it to be - me personally, I don't go by weight, I go by waist - make sure you include the diet component in your regimen. Keep your calories below 2,000 a day no matter how much you exercise (unless you are an active athlete); in many cases 1,500 calories is a better ceiling. That's if too much weight is an issue; but if you are thin, keep your calories up. Don't go overboard in the other direction.

Moral of this story: Don't become obese, and if you do, deal with it immediately, before it gets locked in. You have a chance, briefly, to fight it down. After that you will be stuck with lifelong health problems. Don't be stuck with lifelong health problems!

If you would like to read the original Lancet article, click here.
Golden Son

8 Feb 2015
Golden Son

Golden Son
Any sequel to a novel must navigate carefully between a tedious repeat of the first book's success and a departure so great as to negate the value of a follow-on story. Golden Son, Pierce Brown's second book in the trilogy begun with Red Rising, walks this line carefully.

For the uninitiated, Red Rising begins the story of an attempted revolution against Mars' oppressive caste system. Mars' denizens die in the color-coded career caste to which they are born. In this system the lowest are the Reds, the miners of Mars, and the highest are the Golds, the kings, princes, and generals constantly jockeying for power on Mars and throughout the solar system.

Recruited for this revolution is Darrow, a young Red whose supposed death provides cover for his conversion. Darrow is genetically, cosmetically, and bionically enhanced to pass as a Gold, with a cover story straight out of the CIA playbook.

In the first book Darrow is sent to a training school that becomes, as the story drags on, suspiciously similar to a medieval knights fantasy. Only at that point do we start worrying about we have wandered, quit unintentionally, into a well-disguised YA novel. As that book continues we eventually realize, along with Darrow, that it is no fairy tale and that the competition for domination of the entire solar system, not just Mars, has for them already begun. He survives at the end by allying himself to the Mars-dominating house of Augustus.

From the start Golden Son turns this medieval fantasy into a space opera, wherein the wars of the first book are writ large across terraformed Mars and Lune (Earth's moon), with implications for sovereign control of all. The transportation, tools and weapons have all the tech we expect of a story set 700 or more years in the future, which allows for far greater situational variety than we saw the first time around.

As time and action continue, we the readers wonder along with Darrow whether the revolution, personified by the near-mythical Sons of Ares, still exists. Does he still have a duty to the Sons, or is he now on his own? He has good reason to wonder, but as the wars continue, the look of the final battle for domination begins to take shape. The battles are every bit as political as military, with prominent members of ruling clans constantly struggling for position, sometimes forsaking parents and siblings in the process.

I found Rising Son far more robust read than Red Rising. Red dragged in places as the true point of its story took uncertain turns, but we find nothing uncertain about the story of Golden Son. Red left me wondering whether I really wanted to read the sequel but, having read it, I look forward to the series wrap-up. Note: this series has been compared to Hunger Games, Ender's Game, and Game of Thrones. I find it superior to all of them. Warning: If you dive into this book without reading the first book, you will find you are in over your head.
Tai Chi
Essential #5 - Drop the Shoulders

4 Feb 2015
Wuji Stance

Wuji Stance
Some years ago I visited, or tried to visit, a taekwondo school in the neighborhood to which I had recently moved. The school's owner/teacher, who advertised himself as a 7th degree black belt in taekwondo and a 5th degree black belt in judo and also in tai chi (!), looked me up and down and refused me entrance. I'm not a large guy. I'm not a threatening or imposing person unless I purposely wear my war face, which is rare, so when I discussed this with a senior kung fu brother later, we speculated about why I looked intimidating to a teacher putatively my senior; at the time I was not yet teaching. My sigung thought the school owner looked at my shoulders and saw that I could handle myself. With this roundabout story we come to Yang Cheng-fu's 5th Essential :

Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows

This requirement of tai chi is one of the earliest to be identified and corrected in class. Learning to relax the shoulders is a great example of something that cannot be learned by watching videos. While some of the first four essentials I have discussed so far may be more essential than this one, the need to sink the shoulders and elbows is better understood. All beginning students come to class with stiff shoulders; indeed, their entire upper bodies are tense. If a newbie walks into your class claiming to be a beginner but has soft shoulders, keep an eye on him: he's a ringer of some sort, come to check out your school. That's why I was not allowed into that taekwondo school.

Drop the elbows along with the shoulders because if your elbows are up, so are you shoulders. You can raise your shoulders and drop your elbows, but if you raise your elbows you will find it quite difficult to drop the shoulders.

To get specific, why sink the shoulders? The shoulders are, in a sense, gatekeepers to control of your upper body. To issue power through your arms, the energy must go up your back and through your shoulders, issuing from the feet through the waist. If the shoulders are tense the energy is blocked from flowing through. Without that energy your striking power will not be noteworthy. If your only goal is health, it will not be enhanced by a stiff upper body.

That's the energetic reason. The physical reasons are even more obvious. If the shoulder joints are tense, the arms cannot move with the rotational flexibility you need to neutralize and attack. Your punches and strikes will be feeble. Worst of all, when your shoulders are up your center is high, which means you are easy to unbalance or knock down. As they might say in a familiar commercial, don't be knocked down. Instead keep your shoulders down.

How can you train for soft shoulders and dropped elbows? I advise zhan zuang, standing post meditation, in wuji stance. In this posture your arms remain by your side, which makes it easy to relax the shoulders. In many standing meditative poses the arms are held at rib height in a circle in fromt of the body, which is not helpful for relaxing the shoulders, so use the wuji stance. Even if you are accomplished and like more challenging stances, for pure relaxation opt for simplicity. For now, stand and breathe naturally at first. As you stand, increase the length of your breaths. Make the exhale thorough. Relax your neck, shoulders, and down your entire body as you exhale and sink your weight and roots into the ground, through the bubble spring in the middle of your feet.

Make your stance a moderate one, with feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Stand straight up but do not lock the knees. Relax the hips, knees and ankles along with the shoulders and elbows. The middle point in your palm, the laogong, should face the middle line down the side of your leg. The fingers should be open and alive but not tense, forming small bowls with your palms. Keep tennis ball-size pockets of space under the arm pits. This prevents the arms from collapsing against the sides of your body and becoming dead.

Standing meditation is always good. While many people favor sitting positions, as in zen meditation, standing is more natural and more conducive to full body relaxation. It is also optimal for practicing the grand circulation (macrocosmic orbit).

With this essential we finish those that have the most obvious physical components. The coming essentials, while sounding mostly mental, in every case carry key truths for physical realization of tai chi chuan.
A Mad Catastrophe

23 Jan 2015
A Mad Catastrophe (2014)

Mad Catastrophe
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Geoffrey Wawro (2014)
In the last year we have passed many one-century milestones marking the beginning of World War I, known then as The Great War. That decade was a remarkable time, resulting in the fall or reconfiguration of many dynasties and empires - the fall of the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, the Russian tsars, the Manchurian rulers of China, and the first German reich; the decline of British influence; and the rise of America as a world power. The Italians and Ethiopians were affected as well, but to a lesser extent. The realignments that followed, including continued Chinese weakness during its brief flirtation with democracy, led to the rise of the Japanese empire as well.

To all but the most dedicated history buff, not to mention quite a few historians, the Eastern origins of World War I have long remained a mystery, even though it famously began with the assassination of the Habsburg crown prince by a Serbian terrorist. As author Wawro points out, the vast bulk of the scholarship has focused on the Western conflict involving Britain, France, Germany and later the United States. Some have gone as far east as the Middle East, where Western fighting centered around control of the oil fields, but little history of the readable variety is available to satisfy the many compelling questions about the fall of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Mad Catastrophe succeeds in its goal of handling the latter.

Wawro lays the blame for the Habsburg fall squarely on the shoulders of Emperor Franz Joseph, whose decisions from the mid-nineteenth century fostered the decline of the military and the Dual Monarchy schism that destroyed governance. His age of 84 at the time of the crown prince's assassination in 1914 goes a long way toward explaining the catastrophe caused by Archduke Franz Ferdinand's death. However, Wawro makes a strong case that by that time the empire's fate was sealed regardless of Franz Ferdinand's premature departure.

The internal decay of the Habsburg influence was marked by several events not given enough attention at the time they occurred, in which an inevitable Austrian victory was incorrectly assumed. For some reason military observers of the time failed to notice how poorly equipped were the Austrians and Hungarians, and how poorly generaled.

Adding to the problem was Hungary's desire to be independent of Austrian rule.

After years of political and military pressure tactics Franz Joseph agreed to a "Dual Monarchy" in which Hungary would have its own kingdom but would continue to bow to the rule of the Habsburg emperor. They would jointly contribute to the military. Franz Joseph was completely fooled: the dual monarchy was part of a long-term Hungarian plan to split away. The Hungarian rulers created their own bureaucracies. What military they built stayed home, not in Austria.

In public school and college history classes what remains unexplained was why the assassination of an obscure Austrian archduke by an even more obscure Serbian anarchist. Again, Mad Catastrophe serves well.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was nephew and heir to Emperor Franz Joseph, who was born in 1830. By 1914 even Ferdinand was in his fifties. With Franz Joseph in his dotage, Franz Ferdinand was chief operating officer for the empire. Later after his death a secret sanctuary of the archduke was found to contain maps and papers detailing his plans to break up the empire and remake Europe after he took power, but it was not to be.

That Franz Ferdinand's assassination by a minor Serbian terrorist like Gavrilo Princip was even possible should have signaled the Habsburgs' military weakness. The killing took place only after a series of attempts and mishaps throughout a day of festivities; any intelligence operation worthy of the name should have picked up on the pattern and spirited the archduke away from the scene. Instead Franz Ferdinand died, and the emperor, now left without an heir apparent, had no choice but to attack Serbia. It was to be a quick, easy war of a Goliath against a David with no slingshot. Instead, Austria was soundly defeated. The destruction of its entire military establishment had begun. Franz Joseph dithered between fighting Russia, even then a gargantuan against which it he had no real chance, and Serbia, the brat he could not break.

The demise of Austria-Hungary was important on the Western front because Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany was depending on the Habsburgs to keep at bay the troops of Russian Tsar Nicholas Romanov, his first cousin through Queen Victoria. Without Franz Joseph's assistance Germany's attention was split, and its plans to make a quick finish of France were thus spoiled, allowing America to enter the fray.

The complete moral dissolution of the empire, as Mad Catastrophe lays it out, becomes obvious. What can you say about a war that starts with the entire general staff taking five-week personal vacations? A Mad Catastrophe has a lot to say about it. This book is a great read for any twentieth century history buff, and a must for any collection. Five stars.
Tai Chi
Essential #4 - Full and Empty

20 Jan 2015

Yang Cheng-fu's Single Whip.
Our new essential has a couple of unusual characteristics. Its martial aspect is far more obvious than its energetic aspect. This essential is also the first that is difficult for many beginners to understand. Sometimes that is the result of their teachers' own inability to put the concept into words, but we can remedy that problem. Let's take a look. Yang Cheng-fu put it this way:

Distinguish Full and Empty

The brevity of these points belies their importance, and perhaps even emphasizes it. Brevity is typical of older martial arts writing, because it is intended only for close students, not the general public. The purpose of the writing is not to provide encyclopedic instructions, but to provide bullet points to remind the student of lessons already taught. The purpose of columns such as mine is to elaborate upon the points that many students have not had access to, because their own teachers did not have access to them.

"Full and empty" most commonly refers to the use of legs, though it is not restricted to legs. Its opposite is "double weighted", which simply means you spread your weight equally between the two legs. I prefer to call it by a more accurate term, "equally weighted". You can say that you have not started practicing tai chi until you split at the waist and empty one leg. You empty one leg, for instance, when you step out to one side from a posture with both feet together. You empty the stepping leg and fill the supporting leg.

Does this mean the weight ratio must be 100% and 0%? Not at all; far more common is 70% and 30%, but that is not carved in stone either. As you move in transition from one posture to another, you constantly change the full leg, which means the degree of fullness of either leg is constant changing. Because of the importance of having full and empty, this means transition movements are a potential time for attack: you may attack others in their transitional moments, and you may be attacked yourself in your transitional moments.

The essential is important enough that Cheng Man-ching, Yang Cheng-fu's last disciple, commented about it in his book Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan: Separate the substantial and the insubstantial. Cheng claimed that the transition can be protected only by keeping the back erect - not merely straight, but vertical as well. This is a controversial belief that disputes some of Cheng's early Yang family training. In my lineage, the Yang medium frame to which Cheng was secretly exposed outside of Cheng-fu's school, the back may be tilted as long as it is otherwise straight.

Not controversial is his point that a full left foot is attached to a full right arm, just as the right foot has a power attachment to the left arm. These attached limbs are full and empty together. Thus Brush Knee & Push, if pushing with the right arm, is supported over the left leg. In Single Whip when the left leg is forward, the right hand, back in a hook, is equally full. If it seems counterintuitive that in this posture the front hand is empty, with the back leg, study the use of the back hook for striking (through the back of the wrist), which is not taught in Traditional Yang Style (large frame).

If you're still not getting the point of full and empty, try thinking of it this way: You want to be Ready to Run. Ready to run literally means you can run away at a moment's notice, but the phrase means more: It means you are ready to move in any direction at a moment's notice. When your legs are equally weighted you cannot move until you shift your weight to one leg or the other - in other words, until you are full and empty. If you have to shift, you are not ready to run. To be ready to run you must already be full and empty.

Cheng Man-ching's dictum of full arm and leg opens us to energetic possibilities. We can attack from the leg, through the arm, if they are connected as both full, or both empty. The energetic "full" line goes from the root in the foot, up the back of the leg, inside the thigh to the sacrum, up to the shoulder, then splitting out to the opposite arm, palm and fingertips - regardless of the posture.

Full and empty is a yin-yang concept. Aside from your legs and arms, can you experience it in other parts of your structure? Let me know.
Tai Chi
Feedback - Tai Chi Essentials 1-3

13 Jan 2015
Water Meets Mountain

Last month I began a series of columns starting with the general question, does Tai Chi have standards? From there I proceeded to write individual columns about each of Yang Cheng-fu's Tai Chi "essentials". Three columns into it and I've already accumulated enough feedback to pause and recap what has been said. To put these comments in context, I publicize each column heavily on two Twitter feeds, @DaleNapierLV and @TaiChiYourLife. The tweets are deliberately provocative in the hope of drawing readers and comments. And it works! I generally agree with the comments I received, but would like to add some footnotes to emphasize the basic points of each column.

Column #1 - The Essence of Tai Chi:
Tweet -
What is Tai Chi? Are their standards? Does anything go? Guidelines to go by.

susan harkins @susanshark3
@LCTKD @TaiChiYourLife yes there are standards, its a meditative movement and a martial art.

H.M.E. Taiji Int. @HeavenManEarth Dec 9
@TaiChiYourLife Judge a practice by its results. Historically, "non-martial" practice is qi gong. Anything goes, until you choose a goal.

The last comment is interesting in a couple of ways. Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, a prominent author and teacher of Chinese martial arts, refers to Tai Chi as "martial qigong" in his book Taijiquan Theory, which pretty well agrees with @HeavenManEarth's point. However, the term qigong has been in usage only for the last thirty years; qigong is really the coalescing of four separate practices, not all of which correspond to Tai Chi. To refer to Tai Chi as qigong, therefore, puts an extremely modern spin on Tai Chi that, by all signs, did not exist before. The temptation to hold the two as nearly equal comes from the fact that there is some overlap, but Tai Chi is very specific goals while qigong is available for just about any goal you care to make up, at least according to its popular promoters. @HeavenManEarth makes this point well by saying "anything goes until you choose a goal". For the martial artists among us, this is exactly what is wrong with practicing Tai Chi for non-martial purposes: there is no basis for setting standards.

Tai Chi Essential #2 - Sink the chest
Tweet -
Sink the chest, raise the back. What is the energetic reason for this Tai Chi essential?

Sean O'Donohue @SeanSeanod Dec 28
@TaiChiYourLife @CynthiaQuarta to connect your arms to your spine and then to your Dan Tien and your root. Body becomes round, connected.

Agreed. The column speaks only of rounding the upper back, but the higher goal is to round the body so that all parts are connected.

Tweets -
Tai Chi's 2nd essential is called "anti boot camp". Is that good or bad?
Tai Chi's 2nd essential is called "anti boot camp". Is that good or bad?

Tai Chi Cheshire @TaiChiCheshire Jan 4
@TaiChiYourLife "anti boot camp" from the classics right? nonsense :)

Hehehe, this statement reflects a slight misunderstanding. I never said the classics call it anti boot camp! That's my own phrase, just a catch word to help remember a couple of principles. But the principles are straight out of the classics.

Essential #3 - Loosen the waist
Tweets -
Tai Chi waist is superior to karate's hip. Why?
Karate says use the hip, Tai Chi says use the waist. Which works best? Why?

Sean O'Donohue @SeanSeanod Jan 6
@TaiChiYourLife I don't know who is right. The TCC classics liken the waist to an axle to turn loose and relaxed to get power from the root

Michael Joyce @chencenter Jan 6
@TaiChiYourLife waist or "kua" in Tai Chi can be multi-directional. Using the "hip" in ext. styles emphasizes sudden rotation. Just my take

Medway Tai Chi @MedwayTaiChi Jan 5
@TaiChiYourLife Different phrases, same idea.

Jade Sun Tai Chi @JadeSunTaiChi Jan 4
@TaiChiYourLife @qigongqi Use the Dantien. Deep healing and true power comes from the inside out. @JadeSunTaiChi

Michael and Medway reflect opposing viewpoints. I agree with Michael: they are for different purposes. Karate's first and most enduring secret is that punching power that comes from acceleration through hip rotation. That's a very specific usage. Tai Chi's waist usage is not specific: it covers everything. In a sense my comparison was not valid, but it did serve as a useful basis for highlighting the point of Tai Chi waist, and it answers a question that none of my teachers could ever answer for me. So in this column I lay out the reasons as I have discovered them. To anyone who believes waist and hip are the same, I encourage you to dig deeper.

On a final note, I ran across an online article from Black Belt Magazine that backs up my point and then some. You might want to check it out here.

Next up: Essential #4, Empty and Full.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #3: Relax the Waist

3 Jan 2015

A key secret to the power of Shotokan karate is the use of the hip in completing a punch, often a reverse punch. Most karateka and taekwondo students are taught this hip movement, but many beginners find it unconvincing because their teachers cannot explain why. If you know about the use of the hip in karate, without an understanding of why you use it, you will find it tough to separate from the idea of using your waist, not your hip, in tai chi. If you have no karate background you will not have this problem; instead other problems will emerge.

Put your hip into the karate punch because the angular momentum arising from the twist will provide last-minute acceleration to the punch, increasing the force (force equals mass times acceleration). In tai chi our punching power is derived by totally different methods, so our use of the waist has different reasons as well. First, let's examine Yang Cheng-fu's words:

Relax the Waist

What can I say? He was a man of few words, at least in this context. Relax the waist to make it fully available for free rotation. Use your core muscles to put power into the rotation, which ironically is important in that karate punch as well. In tai chi those core muscles contribute to every movement, in every direction. For this reason some schools emphasize core muscle training and even have a 'bounce the quarter off your tummy' competition to see who has the most core power. Turns out it is easier to bounce a five-pound weight off your stomach than it is a quarter. Try it and see! Can you figure out why a quarter is more difficult?

One martial reason to relax the waist is that you can neutralize. In tai chi we neutralize an attack against us in order to deprive it of power. In theory you do not need to counterattack to prevail in a fight, you only need to neutralize your opponent. In practice this easier said than done: It requires perfect action. One mistake and you get plugged! But if you fight the attack then you have to rely on brute power to prevail. So your goal is to move freely from the waist and simply move out of the way. In the process you create an energy flow that allows you respond with a counter, if you find it appropriate.

Sticking with the physical perspective for a moment, when we move from the waist we can use our entire body to issue power. When you kick with your leg and foot, and when you punch with your arm and fist, you use only a fraction of the power available to you: You can use only the power of the limb in question. But when you turn from the waist and a kick issues through the leg, then you have power. When you turn from the waist and a punch issues through the arm, then you can do real damage (to your own hand as well as your opponent, if you are not careful). As my most senior teacher, Wang Yen-nien (1914-2008), once explained to our class: "Your hand is not a hand. Your whole body a hand." Of course this principle goes hand in hand (pun intended) with the previous principle involving the use of the upper back.

As with all tai chi principles there is an energetic aspect, this one with significant physical results. You don't necessarily have to believe the neijia basis for the work, but without the work itself your tai chi will never be complete.

So far I've talked about relaxing the waist and moving freely, rotating side to side like a wheel parallel to the ground. When that wheel turns, your limbs follow, which is how your limbs work from the waist. But often we require movement in a different dimension. Sometimes we must move as if the wheel is perpendicular to the ground, facing us like a buzz saw without jagged edges. The wheel may also move in either direction, and can be quite powerful. A third wheel, the third dimension, involves the same perpendicular wheel where the flat of the wheel faces us, so that we have another type of side to side movement.

Put these three dimensions of movement together and what do you get? A ball, centered in your core muscles, at a spot just below the naval and inside your belly. In neijia this area is called the dan tien (okay, the lower dan tien; there are three, but this one is the one often called "the dan tien"); it is a cauldron where your chi is nourished, but it is also the trunk of your body from which physical power is issued. It is built through meditation and similar exercises, in addition to physical core-building exercises.

You don't have to buy into the Chinese mysticism to see how your use of the waist improves your tai chi. Waving Hands in Clouds (Cloud Hands) is a good exercises for practicing the use of the waist, but I also recommend Golden Rooster. In Golden Rooster you need to raise one arm and one leg simultaneously. If you lead from the arm, your arm will arrive first, throwing you off balance. If you lead from the leg, your leg will arrive first, which is also imperfect. Instead, lead from the waist. Imagine a single ball, or wheel, with strings that attach to your arms and legs like that of a marionette. When you do it right, you arm and leg will arrive together, making them equally dangerous attacks.

With all respect to the teachers and students of what is called sitting tai chi, or wheelchair tai chi, the requirement to move from the waist makes it impossible for those practices to actually be tai chi. You could call them tai chi-like, in much the same way that Velveeta is cheese-like, but between this and other requirements of tai chi, those exercises belong in a different category.

Next up: How to be Full and Empty at the same time. Sitting down? Unlikely.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #2: Sink Chest, Raise Back

26 Dec 2014
Tai Chi Peng
The second essential, regarding the posture of the chest and back, carries another "anti boot camp" element: instead of puffing the chest out in a show of macho posturing, the chest is hollowed inward. First let's look at Yang Cheng-fu's words:

Sink the Chest and Raise the Back.

As a young student I had difficulty absorbing this lesson except through a separate art my teacher introduced, tongbeiquan, the white ape system. Tongbei (pronounced tong-bay) emphasizes the use of the upper back for power. Although that art has other elements as well, this aspect is a common influence on tai chi practitioners because of Cheng-fu's second requirement. Digging deeper, we discover that this principle has energetic as well as physical goals.

Sinking the chest is a physical requirement because when we expand it, our body tenses up and we resort to brute force rather than internal power; the strongest person wins. Power is manifested from within. To manifest it externally we pass the energy through our upper back, our shoulders, our arms, our palms, our fingertips. Note: Some teachers eschew the use of fingertips while others, such as Cheng Man-ching disciple William C.C. Chen, teach their use to great effect. Cheng Man-ching devotee Scott Meredith also discusses it in his book Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising.

To accomplish this we start by moving the energy into our upper back, which we round. As we round our back we create a cavity into which we can sink our chest. If someone pushes to your chest, do you push back or do you accept it and yield? Accepting and yielding are possible only if we sink the chest. Going through the back, if our application is martial, power is issued through the arms. We are allowed complete use of our upper back muscles, because they do not interfere with the need to relax for balance, and they are more powerful than our arm and chest muscles, at least for martial purposes. You still may need that upper body strength if you lift boxes for a living!

Douglas Wile, in Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, says that when the chest is hollowed that the back will rise naturally in the manner proscribed, but this hides a dirty secret of tai chi: Many actions that are intended to arise "naturally" are actually available only through assiduous training, including strengthening and conditioning of key muscle groups. Thus tongbei focuses specifically on training for the use of the upper back, and thus its usefulness in tai chi. But we cannot rely purely on the back: we must be able to sink the chest of its own volition.

If your application is energetic the chi passes through the upper back to the crown. From there we may wash the crown and brain with the energy, or continue it down the front of the body through the governing channel. Both types of neijia (internal) exercises have a lot of details that are beyond the scope of this article, but are crucial to a deeper understanding of the Daoist nature of tai chi.

Side note: One need not be a Daoist to approach mastery of this material, but inevitably some exposure may result through the practice, without any threat to a student's religious preferences. I have taught more than one class where the students represented Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism and at least four variants of Christianity in one class. In this the practice of tai chi is truly universal. In one class, an Iraqi in a head-to-toe burkha practiced side-by-side with two Israelis. Our art brings people together. For this reason close attention to tai chi's special requirements is worth the effort.

Next up: Move from the waist, but not the hips.
Cuba Libre

22 Dec 2014
Cuba Libre

The first time I took part in a debate about American recognition of a foreign power, the year was 1968, I was barely a teen, and my soldier dad was furious at the notion that we establish diplomatic relations with China, a Communist country. He and I argued about Communism and freedom as we watched on TV the Chicago police riot on the streets outside the Democratic National Convention. Although America had recognized the Soviet Union only months after the Bolshevik Revolution, almost 20 years after Mao Tse-tung seized power we had failed to recognize his new government. Five years later even America's premier anti-Communist, Richard Nixon, saw the value of normalizing relations with China.

Then as now part of the discussion was clouded by ideological disdain of Communism, even though diplomatic recognition is not a matter of approving of a government. Recognition allows us to exchange ambassadors and open embassies, which are critical steps to communicating and to keeping the peace, as we discovered in 1962.

The American economic embargo, if it ever worked at all, stopped working so long ago that it remains a relic, like the 60-year-old American cars driven on the streets of Havana. Countries around the world trade with Cuba, so it has all the goods it can afford - which is not very much, sad to say. Communism will continue to stifle the country's economic or humanitarian growth until the Castro brothers die of old age, which could be any day now. Most of the country is under 30 years of age; they have no memories of Fidel Castro's dalliance with the Soviets or of Battista, the dictator he replaced. There is no reason to think that, given half a chance at a different life, Cuba will tolerate Communism more than a decade from now. That is soon enough.

America's cold war with Cuba was not a foregone conclusion when the Fidelistas took Havana in the late 1950s. Castro was a revolutionary bumpkin who knew he was out of his league, and was smart enough to seek patronage. He turned to America, the big elephant in the Caribbean living room, but Eisenhower's cold warriors suspected Castro was a commie in sheep's clothing. The Republican paranoics were not completely off the mark, but the embargo forced Castro to seek solace elsewhere - the Soviet Union under Nikita Khruschev. Within a few years the Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a nuclear war that would have destroyed America, Russia, possibly most of the northern hemisphere. What saved the day? Diplomatic channels that existed only because we had normal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, even while we were at each other's throats.

That seems like ancient history to many. As our election results demonstrate in every single election cycle, Americans are impatient with the lessons of history. This more than anything else gave President Obama his opportunity to lead the nation, and Cuba, hand-in-hand out of the shadows and into the light of normal diplomatic relations. Those who oppose the change can only sputter that the change will not turn Cuba into a paradise. Cuba Libre? Hardly, at least not for now, but when did mere diplomatic recognition ever work such magic? For now this is a new beginning today with prospects for a better tomorrow. America, and Cuba, can use more of those.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Essential #1: Crown Up

18 Dec 2014
Crown Point - Bai hui

Yang Cheng-fu's first "main point" of tai chi describes the posture of the head and neck. The ramifications are physical but also energetic. If you miss this principle you will never get far in your tai chi practice.

Tai chi scholar Douglas Wile in his book Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Touchstones, translates Cheng-fu's description as follows:

The Energy At the Top of the Head Should be Light and Sensitive

Like most tai chi pearls of wisdom, we get a lot of back story packed into a small number of words. As I mentioned in my last column, my class recognizes this as Crown Up, Chin Down, Throat Relaxed. The goal is to make the entire head feel light and natural. Natural means the head and neck feel loose and relaxed without tension or stiffness. When the head is light and natural, your spirit (shen) can float to the top of your head. Though many people misinterpret this reference to energy as meaning nothing but chi (qi), chi is only part of it; shen, which is spirit and the highest of the three treasures, is the more important part. Before you can work with your shen, though, you must first have strong, healthy chi, which we will get to in a moment. First let's look at a few structural details, which will seem like a lot of discussion about very little. When you get it right it is very little, but when you get it wrong it is a big deal.

Hold the crown (bai hui) up, almost as if suspended from a string, but not quite. Many teachers fall short by saying "as if suspended from a string", without saying "almost". The absence of that word is worrisome. If you are suspended from a string, your neck is stiff and your vertebrae are separating. You are not relaxed, light or natural; you are dying. Almost mean your head is almost pulled up, but of your own volition you are putting it into place, allowing your neck and shoulders to stay relaxed.

Your chin is down as part of holding your crown aloft. Sometimes I call this "anti boot camp" because on the drill lines in boot camp everyone is expected to stick their chin out. Anyone who sticks their chin out in tai chi practice has not yet passed from the beginner stage. The problems it causes will be apparent in tui shou (pushing hands) practice; such mistakes require one to adapt or continue failing.

Hold your head thusly in order to maintain perfect balance. Perfect balance means that your center of gravity is inside your body, That point is inside the middle of the box formed by your stance. When you accomplish that balance you are relaxed and "ready to run", ready to respond to an attack from any direction, ready to move in any direction. Sticking your chin out pushes your crown back, which pushes your center onto your heels, making you easy to defeat.

Finally, hold your crown up to facilitate the movement of chi through the orbits of your body. This is not the same as allowing your spirit to rise. Allowing your spirit to rise and mix with your brain's chi is a higher goal with many nuances, but first you must learn to circulate your chi through the small and grand orbits. Both require that your chi move up your spine, through your neck, over the top of your head, and down the front of your body. The grand orbit requires a few additions. To accomplish these orbits, hold your crown up, light, loose, relaxed, natural.

An excellent way to practice crown up is in standing post meditation, or zhan zhuang. If you have no experience with standing meditation, the first track from my CD, Tai Chi Meditations, describes it in detail and provides practice. For a free download of that track, click here. The download is free but if you'd like to buy the entire CD either physically or as a download, click here. It is also available on Amazon, iTunes, and most other MP3 venues.

Sci-Fi Book Notes

14 Dec 2014

I read a lot and rarely take breaks for book reviews. Many books I read are throwaway thrillers, read to study my craft; they deserve little mention. But others, such as true literature, special science fiction and non-fiction, are worthy of at least a note. Let's play catch up with a few.

At the Mountains of Madness is the first and perhaps only story I will read by H.P. Lovecraft, the Victorian age horror writer whose influence pervades modern horror but whose actual works remain largely unknown, perhaps for good reason. Mountains is the original story of monsters in Antarctica, inspired by the early South Pole expeditions of his time. Sadly, Lovecraft knew nothing at all of the Antarctic, except that some people went there and it was exciting because it was one of the last real frontiers on Earth. As a result he filled the book with impressionistic depictions of a place he would never see, depictions he could never validate. That must approach have been far more impressive in his time than it is today, when hyper-scientific realism is required in all but fantasy. Much of the book is incomprehensible for just this reason. Worth a read only as a historical curiousity, because it is shorter than the shortest Stephen King "short story", and because it is out of copyright and hence quite cheap.

Red Rising by Pierce Brownis the first of a new series set 700 years in the future on a terraformed, colonized Mars. The humartian (my term) society is stratified into rigid castes, strictly defined by function and associated by color. The Golds, for instance, are the CEOs of the world; the Reds are the miners, born and raised underground. Underground is where the Reds live, work and die, never to see the sky. Seen through the eyes of middle-aged miner Darwin, who is sixteen, we learn that Reds are controlled by the myth that Mars is not yet been terraformed and that the miners are doing crucial work, making the sacrifices required to make Mars habitable for future generations. A revolutionary cabal recruits Darwin after revealing to him the truth behind the myth. Through surgery, training, and identity fraud they insert Darwin into Gold society, where he is trained alongside born Golds who think he is one of them. The goal: insurrection and revolution. Darwin finds himself, along with his new classmates, subjected to a strenuous role-playing scenario with a medieval setting that escalates to modern weaponry, complete with war, rapine, and death. At one point we find ourselves wondering whether Red Rising is really a YA novel with fantasy elements, but the book is skillful enough to keep us going without being distracted by these never-quite-realized possibilities. Whether the series can sustain the façade remains to be seen, but so little is resolved in book one that we can be assured of ample opportunity to find out. This solid three-star read merits reading at least one more in the series. I'm curious: will book two also be about Darwin, or will it be from the point of view of an entirely different caste, as Piers Anthony did in each book of his Incarnations of Immortality series?

Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is translated from Chinese. This alien invasion novel is unique in its Chinese settings, with roots in the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. A young female scientist persecuted by the Red Guard gratefully accepts the opportunity to participate in a top-secret program that could imprison her for the rest of her life. What does the project do? Monitor the plans of an alien civilization to come to Earth, because its existence on a planet in a three-star system - yes, that's right, the nearby Centauri system - is jeopardized by their inability to predict future solar configurations and weather, which are catastrophic more often than not.

Read this novel and be astonished by the secret goals of a cabal of Chinese scientists: to encourage the Trisolarians to take over Earth, not to fight them. Discouraged by their view of humanity, living in a totalitarian society, they see no hope for the future. Could life under the Trisolarans be any worse, they reason? So they send a signal inviting them to our world. What happens when they arrive? We'll have to read the sequels to find out, in the original Chinese, since they remain untranslated. Try it out anyways: it's a rare alien invasion novel that fails to feature BEMs (bug-eye monsters). The method used to introduce new Chinese scientists in the project, and new readers to this book, is too unique to spoil here with a description. This work of hard science fiction toys with fantasy without really going there. For many, this is the best of both worlds.
Tai Chi
The Essence of Tai Chi

8 Dec 2014
The Yin and Yang of Tai Chi Chuan

What is tai chi chuan? We must ask this question with tact because it is a sensitive matter. A lot of exercise passes as tai chi that probably is not, often taught by people who have no idea what tai chi is. At the same time many advanced practitioners hold opposing views about what tai chi is or is not, and what it should or should not be. Chen style practitioners famously advocate tai chi's martial methods, although they are not alone. Others claim exactly the opposite, that tai chi was never, or at least should not be, a martial art. This is easy to understand among those who have never been taught martial methods, which is increasingly common. Others conduct classes in sitting tai chi, or wheelchair tai chi. Who is right and who is wrong? More importantly, is there even a right or wrong? Does anything go?

Anything does not go. Tai chi is not a "to each his own" practice. True, there are many styles and many differences, but just about all adhere to a common body of principles that make it the art that we, those who study it deeply, recognize. In the highest sense an ultimate goal is formlessness, but you cannot throw away form until you first acquire it. In this message and the ten or more that will follow, I will examine the ten essentials of tai chi stated by Yang Cheng-fu, third generation successor in the Yang family. I will refer to Douglas Wile's translation in his book Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, but the explanations are largely my own, culled from many senior teachers and my own experience as well as scholars like Wile.

One problem with discussing these essentials is that they only begin to address the problem of what is tai chi. Quickly we bump up against the question of what is good tai chi? Standards imply the ability to judge quality, and hence the ability to describe the quality to be judged.

In the classical writings of two of tai chi's modern leaders, Yang Cheng-fu and near-successor Chen Wei-ming, we quickly discern a pattern: All tests of good tai chi are based in martial principles and applications. Without these tests, established in the early days of tai chi, there is no tai chi. Without standards, anything goes, and you can make up anything and call it tai chi. Many do just that. So how can a newbie or would-be student tell the real tai chi from the feel-good "tai chi" that is made up? We will begin with the ten essentials, and progress to the deeper tests of more advanced tai chi accomplishment. Use these essentials as a starting point for evaluating your own tai chi practice. So many students practice with a single teacher and never know anything else. With the upcoming columns a standard will emerge that may influence your practice to go deeper.

In my next column I will discuss the first essential, which my students will recognize by our most common class reference: Crown Up, Chin Down, Throat Relaxed. Details to follow.

By the way, it is still possible to obtain Tai Chi In Your Life at the great holiday rate of $10 plus shipping. It is not too late to get it shipped to the destination of your choice before Christmas! Just go to MastersoftMedia.com and use the code THTC14.
Tai Chi
Do you Tinkle when you Tai Chi?

22 Nov 2014
Stogie Memorial Bracelet

Do you tinkle when you Tai Chi? For the last month I have practiced with my late dog Stogie's collar on my wrist, in his memory. The collar has two aluminum tags that used to tinkle when he walked, so I always had a good idea what he was up to without having to look. When I started wearing the Stogie Memorial Bracelet I was both comforted and saddened by the familiar sound of the tinkle.

Within a few sessions, however, I realized a deeper truth: the better my practice, the less the tinkle. If I practice smoothly, evenly and without interruption, the tags will travel together and never meet, so there will be no tinkle. Can you do this? Create your own dog tag bracelet, or a near equivalent, and practice with it on your wrist. Can you at least reduce the amount of tinkling? Before I continue, let me back up.

A recent Facebook post on my blog Tai Chi and Music got some attention from a Tai Chi practitioner who indignantly proclaimed his preference for practicing with music, which I generally advise against (Invest in Silence). Clearly frustrated with the idea that Tai Chi should be done without his favorite entertainment providing accompaniment, he tried to be generous by saying "to each his own".

Tai Chi Chuan is not a "to each his own" practice. It has standards and principles, one of the most fundamental being the cultivation of stillness. Music is movement; stillness cannot be cultivated while it is playing. Stillness can be maintained by those with a high degree of cultivation already, but such people are not common.

Despite these principles, many Tai Chi practices really are a matter of preference, to a point, which brings me back the Tai Chi Tinkle and "to each his own". A lot of teachers, and I am among them, are not fixated on the idea that movement needs to be stuck at a single routine speed. Chen style, for instance, is full of powerful whipping moves that defy that single-speed approach. My own style, the old medium frame of Yang Jin-hou, retains those Chen characteristics. No power issues from perfectly even speed. We learn this lesson from physics: Force equals Mass times Acceleration. When speed is even, acceleration is zero, so force is zero (yes, there is momentum that may be transferred, but that is not force). To whip, to strike, to create fa-jin, you must accelerate. And that which accelerates must surely decelerate. You go faster and you go slower.

The choice of even speed versus more aggressive movements is little different from the choice to practice "for health" and the choice to practice as a martial art. Both choices are reasonable, but stillness and quiet are required for deep benefits. In my own experience, both are required for the best result. To tinkle or not to tinkle? To play music or not to play music? The answer to those questions is yes.
Cyber / Military
Are You In Denial?

14 Nov 2014
Active Denial System on Humvee

Active Denial System mounted on a Humvee

November 14, 2014
Are You In Denial?

My recent novel White House Storm features Zumwalt-class destroyers being controlled remotely by a hacker. The book is a little ahead of its time because our three Zumwalt destroyers are not yet operational, but another exotic weapon I depict in the book, an Active Denial System, has been available for ten years. Sometimes it is called a heat ray because it works by heating the skin with an electromagnetic beam at 95 GHz. By comparison a microwave oven works at 2.45 GHz. ADS penetrates 1/64' into the skin, while a microwave penetrates 2/3".

How does it work? If you are the target, the operator points the device at you and triggers the device continuously. You feel like you've been blasted with tremendous heat, as if you had opened the door to an unbearably hot oven. You run away without consciously deciding to run away. As soon as you are out of range the effect goes away. Test subjects have demonstrated that most people react to it within three seconds, and no one lasts longer than five, including hardened military personnel used for testing.

Although intentionally designed as a non-lethal weapon, ADS will be quite controversial if ever deployed into civilian settings, which is no longer a minor concern. Incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and other police departments have revealed that the Pentagon has been unloading military hardware to local police departments around the country. If ADS was ever deployed by say, Ferguson police to break up demonstrations, it would be a disaster. In 2004 Raytheon was licensed by the FCC to demonstrate the technology to police departments.

Lurking just below the surface of this story is the fact that the military has not yet used it in combat or near-combat situations. It was deployed once, in Afghanistan in 2010, but was removed from service within two months, never having been used. No one is saying why it has not been used, leading military critics to suspect there are dangers in the use of the device that are not publickly acknowledged.

Another possibility is that these denial systems are easy to deny. Water, mist, and other conditions might reduce its effectiveness enough to make it useless.

And no, this is not the same weapon used in the campus fight scene in The Incredible Hulk.

Two sonic cannons prepare to attack the Hulk. Sonic cannons have been favored weapons in Marvel comics for decades. While early R&D is now taking place, these weapons still do not exist.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi and Music

9 Nov 2014

November 9, 2014
Tai Chi and Music

Almost five years ago I wrote a blog called Invest in Silence, about the importance of eschewing music and other entertainments during our tai chi practice. I recommend you read it first to lay the ground work for what I say next.

Stillness is the essence of what we seek in tai chi as well as meditation, though it is less obvious with tai chi, a physical exercise of movement. Since music is energetic and generates non-stillness, it is difficult acquire deep focus while musical or video distractions are at hand. That said, it would not be tai chi if an absolute could so easily be spoken with truth. Let's dig a little deeper.

From a Western science perspective, music is our brain's interpretation of certain types of air pattern modulations - vibrations. Vibrations may be trasnmitted to other objects and across extended distances, although efficiency declines with density of transmission material as well as distance. Because we seek to harness, purify and extend our natural energy, we do not mind calling upon the power of musical energy to motivate us; it's a good thing as long as movement is called for. When stillness is called for it is more difficult to justify.

Difficult though it may be, the justification is available by referring to tai chi chuan (taijiquan), the tai chi of martial arts. Fighting takes place under a wide variety of trying circumstances, with the common element being the trying nature, the stress level. Most of our tai chi is practiced in circumstances of low stress, which is one reason people enjoy class. Even our challenges in the most difficult pushing hands matches are minimal compared to those of the least challenging fight situation.

This provides us with one reason to practice with distractions: so that that we can be used to performing under distracting and difficult circumstances. The next reason is to cultivate the mental tranquility that allows you to mental dominate a situation that is trying to dominate you. When your music is trying to dominate you, don't let it! Practice as if you only hear silence.

If you're going to practice as if in silence, why bother to play the music at all? Good question. Let me know what you discover.
Spaceship Down

7 Nov 2014
SpaceShip Two Pieces

SpaceShip Two in the Mohave Desert

Arkyd 3 (height 12")

November 7, 2014
SpaceShip Down

Media pundits have tried to characterize last week's space tragedies as a one-two punch to the civilian space program. In reality they were two very different events. Neither will be long lasting, but the recoveries will be quite different. Let's start with the manned mission of Virgin Galactic, which justifiably received the bulk of the attention, and then work back to the Antares explosion, which was unmanned and different in many other ways.

Virgin's first spaceship intended to transport groups of people, SpaceShip Two, crashed after "anomalies" yet to be disclosed to the general public. It was a blow because Virgin founder Richard Branson hoped the craft would be fully tested and licensed in the near future; he was prepared to ride on it with his family. One assumes that plan is on hold.

The media has incorrectly chracterized it as costing $500 million; the entire program, which includes design and construction of a second spaceship already well underway, is included in the deal. Nonetheless it is a huge amount of money, recalling the time of early world sea voyages many centuries ago, obscenely profitable and yet so prone to failure due to weather that the insurance industry was invented to deal with it. But Branson has had setbacks before and is determined to move forward. He still hopes to be in space before the end of next year.

The asteroid minining mission of Planetary Resources prefers a different route using robotic technology. That does not make them smarter than Branson since Virgin's business model of space touristry clearly cannot go that way, but it does give them options not otherwise available, such as alternative choices of launch vehicles. Planety's strategy is to create swarms of networked modules that explore together and later mine together. Each module would be simple, relatively cheap, and easily replaced. With the explosion of the Antarest rocke this approach has been tested sooner than expected.

Planetary's first module headed for space, Arkyd 3, was a test payload under 15 kilograms basically a mobile space telescope without the telescope. Arkyd 3 was part of the payload destroyed in the Antares explosion last Tuesday. The supplies headed to the Internation Space Station copped the media attention. It's probably more of a setback for Planetary than ISS because it was it's first space payload, but the setback is on a totally different scale from what Branson is facing. The Arkyd is relatively cheap to build and the drawing board already had more coming.

Each company is revolutionary in its own way. Someday soon, with Virgin's help, people will be able to fly into space as tourists, helping popularize and pay for the space future to come. Not long after that, with Planetary's help, people should be able to rent and remote-control their own Arkyd space probes, around and away from Earth to the asteroids of their choice.
Heinlein, Scientology, and Star Trek

23 Oct 2014
Heinlein Biography Vol. 1
Recently I wrote two pieces about what interested me most in William Patterson's two-volume biography of Robert Heinlein: his connection to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and his connection to Star Trek. Here they are together - not exactly a book review, but I rarely find another writer's life interesting enough to merit a biography: Heinlein's Trouble with Tribbles, and Heinlein, Hubbard, and Scientology.

Heinlein's Trouble with Tribbles

Websters II Dictionary defines 'trek' as "a slow, arduous journey", which aptly describes the task of reading fan boy William Patterson's detailed two-volume biography of Robert Anson Heinlein, the 'Dean of Science Fiction'. Like most biographies of writers but especially those that go multi-volume, a good part of the trek was indeed uphill.

In case you've forgotten, Heinlein's best-received novels were Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although two of his books made it to the big screen: Puppet Master and Starship Troopers. Until I finished volume two I had no suspicion that Heinlein also made it to the small screen, in the form of Star Trek.

It turns out the famous episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles", wsa a direct steal from Heinlein's YA novel The Rolling Stones, wherein the eponymouse alien pets were call 'flat cats' but were otherwise similar enough to be called plagiarism. Star Trek coproducer Gene Coon knew it and actually asked Heinlein for to "waive the similarity" without having to pay a licensing fee or worse, a lawsuit. Heinlein, who didn't own a TV, had no idea what he was giving away, but he soon regretted it, because the young writer thereafter advertised that he had Heinlein's permission! For a young man on the way up, it was all good. But when Heinlein discovered there was a merchandising tie-in that he did not benefit from, he was nearly apoplectic.

I did not read enough of the bio to justify a full review, but Heinlein's close friendship with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, bears discussion in the near future.

Heinlein, Hubbard and Scientology

When I was a college student a wild melange of rumors floated around concerning Robert Heinlein and his relationship to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Turns out a lot of the broad strokes were essentially correct, though details were lacking. In essence Heinlein and Hubbard were friends before World War II, and after World War II were close until a personal crisis drove them apart. Two years later, when Heinlein was barely paying attention, Hubbard published Dianetics and eventually kicked off the Scientology 'revolution' after finding a soon to be jettisoned financial backer to fund the expansion. Hubbard was nothing if not manipulative.

William Patterson's two-volume biography of science fiction great Robert Heinlein yields a lot of insight into this relationship. Heinlein and Hubbard met at a dinner party in 1939 when both were in their early 30s; they became close friends during the war, and in mid-1945 Heinlein provided Hubbard a place to live and write, sharing a workspace, after Hubbard received a medical discharge from the Navy. Soon Hubbard's friends noticed him acting erratically, unbearably, in behavior that would probably be called post-traumatic stress syndrome today; he had been in a lot of tight spots in the Pacific naval war. During that time he probably had an affair with Heinlein's wife, but the Heinleins had an open marriage and practiced wife-swapping, so it was not a factor.

In any event Heinlein cut him more slack than their other writing friends were willing to do. Heinlein told others he thought Hubbard's "moral decline" was due to the war, but in a letter to Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, who introduced Heinlein and Hubbard, called that "hogwash". He said Hubbard had been that way his entire life.

Soon Hubbard moved out to live with Jack Parsons, a notorious practitioner of "sex magick" arts that sound like Satanism or dark paganism to an outsider; and after that he began his activities that led to Dianetics and Scientology. Science fiction writers and fans were among Hubbard's early supporters, but Heinlein did not go along; he said Hubbard "was doing himself no favor" with the direction he was taking. He read an early draft of the paper that lead to the Dianetics book, but refused to comment until he read the entire book. When the book arrived some months later, Heinlein's wife Ginny read it first. Ginny was so disturbed that she made Heinlein promise to wait at least five years to read it; as far as I can tell he never got around to it. Heinlein and Hubbard remained in touch but were never close after 1950.

My takeaway from all of this, along with a biography by Hubbard's son, was that Hubbard was probably a borderline psychotic whose hatred for psychiatry, vividly manifested in Scientology today, stemmed from his inability to accept or cope with his own mental problems. Could a healthy man created a psychotic organization like Scientology? I don't think so. He certainly lived, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times.
Self-Publishing Rises

19 Oct 2014
Writers' conferences are a great idea in concept, but until last weekend I never attended one that satisfied, the key metrics being time and money. Is it a coincidence that the Indie Recon Live, which might also be called the Western Self-Published Writers Conference, had not a single workshop on how to right good, I mean, write well?

Probably not. Self-published writers are torn between two worlds. What self-published writer wouldn't like to be published by traditional means? There are a few, but these are folks who already have a successful publishing career going. Once a writer makes the decision to self-publish, many of the commonalities with the traditional writers disappear quickly.

Traditional writers conferences are based around two types of activities: writing workshops (How to Write a Query Letter to an Agent, How to Develop Characters, Guns for Writers), and pitching to agents. I've never yet attended a conference, or even looked at a conference online, that had agents in my genre, thrillers. The genre still hums but the agents are few and far between. The writing workshops can be useful, but if you go to the same conference two years in a row you will discover a lot of recycling and not much new material, which makes that high-dollar conference admission, usually $400 and more plus travel costs, a depreciating asset. Those conferences with real promise, such as the Los Angeles Writers Conference, require a minimum investment of at least $2,000 for admission, travel, hotel, and food. Such an investment could easily yield no returns at all, whereas investing it in self-publishing would definitely yield a result.

Which shows you how authors end up thinking about self-publishing. We do it not to print out of vanity, but because the traditional publishing pipeline is so clogged that it requires introductions from people who are connected in order to get anywhere.

Enter Indie Recon Live. Now the subjects are How to Create a Cover That Sells, Bookstore Distribution through IngramSpark, and most importantly, marketing. And no agents! More than 80 percent of those attending, about 300, were already self-published. About 20 percent of those are developing a side business guiding others through the self-publishing process - which I have done holistically, when others come to me for editing or relating services.

Held outside Salt Lake City, Indie Recon Live was a great event that will surely be repeated. It could stand to be repeated in other parts of the country, in fact. The one thing missing, the one thing that would have made it a complete writers' conference, was workshops on the craft of writing itself. With that addition, traditional writers' conferences would become irrelevant to a lot of writers who see their future in self-publishing. On the other hand, if much more was added it might be overload. The balance is delicate but worth considering.

To learn more and to subscribe to the Indie Recon Live newsletter go to http://www.IndieReconLive.com . To learn more about my most recent self-publication go to http://www.WhiteHouseStorm.com .
Dale's Doggies Die

15 Oct 2014
Stogie's Regal Pose
What is it about dogs that make them so special to us? My family always had dogs and cats when I was growing up, so I took dogs for granted. As a Cub Scout I once read six dog books in a week, until my mother tried to put a stop to my obsessive-compulsive reading tendencies that emerged right around that time. But I never had a dog as an adult, mostly due to living in apartments, I thought, because I would not have a dog without a yard. As I dig into my own psyche, I wonder if the reasons go deeper.

This year, living alone in a house in a small, desolate town in the middle of a harsh desert, I decided to get a dog for company. The joys and the heartaches are comparable to those from a child, with the obvious notable exceptions.

Before we continue with my story of the present, let's back up for a minute so I can elaborate on the context. The context is: all my doggies die young.

At age eleven my parents decided to make the next family dog "my" dog. Of course, he was only mine in the sense that I was responsible for his feeding and fouling, but at that age it was a totem position of responsibility. All that ended when someone - a sister or a friend, I cannot recall - came running to my house to breathlessly exclaim, "Something's wrong with your dog!" I was led outside to the street.

We lived in an agrarian Portuguese village, where animals running freely were commonplace. My dog was wheezing and breathing with difficulty. Between my judo training and my Boy Scout first aid, I instantly saw that he had broken ribs, and a punctured lung; someone had kicked him. I watched as the poor dog died within a few minutes. I was not closely bonded to the dog, cannot remember his name, and was not seriously affected by the incident.

Later in Austin at age 24, shortly after finishing graduate school and working in a new job, I adopted a stray puppy who had gotten separated from its master. When I went to work I tied the dog by a long leash to my back stairs - eight concrete stairs about four feet high with a metal hand rail. One day I came home and the poor dog had gotten tangled up, fell, and broke his leg. With an income of $13K a year I could not afford the surgery bill, so we had to put him to sleep. My girlfriend cried all the way home.

Fast forward to this year. I wonder if I subconsciously avoided getting a dog because of the experience in Austin? Three of my sisters had dogs, but in many ways you might have expected me to be the first, not the last, to get one. So I bought myself a birthday present for my 60th, a little 7-week-old puppy, Kuno, who was a real sweetie of a pup. Five weeks later I proved that I knew nothing about taking care of animals properly: I left Kuno in my back yard for an afternoon. The yard was fully secured so that he could not escape, but the gate was not locked; when I returned home, Kuno was gone. I searched high and low; I am confident she did not escape and get lost. I believe she was taken; I hope and pray she was taken.

But I was clearly at fault for leaving the little girl outside. I was too tender hearted and couldn't stand to leave her cooped up alone inside; I didn't know. I didn't consider the worst-case scenario, which is the gold standard for risk management. Aggrieved by my culpability, I even went to confession/ reconciliation for cleansing. My priest suggested I get a rescue animal. Three days later, at the Las Vegas SPCA, I adopted Stogie.

By now I was nervous and jumpy. Three dogs of mine had come to an end that was premature, all in unhappy ways. There was no way I would leave Stogie outside alone. For months I did not even allow him in my gated back yard without being leashed.

Now I understand that leashing the animal is the essence of keeping it safe. Three times this summer Stogie and I went on long road trips - to the Grand Canyon, to the Rocky Mountains, and to Salt Lake City. I got in the habit of removing his lease inside the car so he could move around with getting tangled up. Always present was my memory of a dog tangled up with a broken leg.

Outside Salt Lake City returning to Nevada, I stopped for a water break; Stogie got out of the car when I wasn't looking. Although I got him under control, he took off after a low-flying pigeon that led him across a six-lane highway. Stogie made it across safely, but died trying to get back to me. I am heartbroken. I cried all the way home, for six hours.

Anyone with a sense of self will wonder about this record. Am I a bad owner? Am I simply learning the hard way how to own a dog successfully? My #1 sister has had numerous dogs who lived to old age; I've never had a dog that lasted more than the five months I had Stogie. Am I meant to be alone?

I learned, as millions learned before me, what a great joy a dog can be. A dog properly cared for loves unconditionally, without judgment. Although never smarter than a young child, they are smart enough and capable of learning. I adopted Stogie as a kindness to him. My next dog I will choose as a kindness to me, to heal my broken heart. Stogie, I am so sorry.
The Science is Never Settled.

6 Oct 2014
I like word play as much as the next guy, probably more, but a handful of sayings have crept into the language in recent years that try the patience of anyone who believes that words have meaning. Even allowing for the plasticity of English, there are limits to reasonable flexibility. Let's examine the top five that really get my goat. Do you have some of your own? Let me know.

#5 - Look It Up On My Web Site. This saying pops up with increasing frequency in discussions with political candidates. Instead of talking about the intricacies of an issue with you, they want you to "look it up on my web site". In other words, they want to get rid of you. They don't want to talk to you, and least not about the issue at hand. They want you to scram, get lost, vamoose. When I question a candidate I am judging how he/she delivers the answer as much as the content of the answer. When I hear this "look it up on my website", the candidate generally loses my vote. This "get lost" was first used on me by an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate back in Texas, surprisingly another Democrat, who loathed my close connection to Howard Dean. Just the other day, though, a local Congressional candidate used it on me. She now has a BIG hole to dig out of to get my vote, but she has until Election Day, since I never vote early.

#4 - The Definition of Insanity is Doing the Same Thing and Expecting a Different Result. Widely and incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, this saying has no validity in either a scientific or social context. This is the definition of Perseverance, not insanity! Ask any soldier, or inventor, or anyone who has had to fight through failure before finding success. To put it in martial arts terms, if I punch you in the face and you do not fall down, am I insane to think that if I keep punching you will eventually fall down? The correct answer: you're insane to stand there and let me punch you, but if you do, sooner or later a different result is inevitable.

#3 - It's a No-Brainer. Arrrgh! The best response to any who says this is something along the lines of, "thank you for self-identifying as a non-brain user". Seriously, anyone who says this is identifying herself as an ideologue who will believe what she will believe in spite of evidence. You don't have to use your brain because the processing of evidence is irrelevant! That's what's being said. Do you really want to advertise to people that your beliefs are absolute and disconnected from rational thought?

#2 - The Exception That Proves the Rule. Students of logic, unite! The idiots of ideology surround us. My friends, exceptions NEVER prove rules. By definition exceptions DISPROVE rules. It goes something like this: The first dog I ever see has three legs so I say to myself, "a dog is an animal with three legs". The next time I see a dog and it has four legs do I say, 'AHA! The exception that proves the rule!'? No, I say I was wrong, some dogs have four legs. One of the most fundamental rules of logic is this: something cannot be always true if an exception can be found. You can qualify the rule and say "sometimes" or "under certain conditions" a rule is true, but if there is an exception you can never say it is always true.

#1 - The Science Is settled. Like #4 above, anyone who says this is exposing himself as knowing nothing about science. It might well be used by someone who also uses #3. The essence of science is probabilistic assessment, which is subject to change as new information arrives. It is the opposite of absolutism, which is why religious people take exception with scientific theories. In recent years we've seen dozens of modifications to theories of human evolution, human migration, exo-planet count and size, climate change, and much more. Two human species, Denisova hominims and homo floresiensis ("hobbit people"), have only recently been discovered. Science is based on models that are only as good as their ability to predict the future. Climate change data has forced scientists back to the drawing boards to explain the recent decade's pause in temperature increase. Does that mean their models are completely wrong? Not necessarily; more often it means adjustments are needed, not rewrites. But when someone says "the science is settled" about anything, they are saying they have turned from science to ideology (or theology), and they are dead set to believe something without regard to new data. The science is never settled.
This Week on Cable or near-Cable

3 Oct 2014
New kid on the block

New kid on the block
As I finish launching the publication of White House Storm and move into my final edit of the sequel, Queen Joan, I'm reading less and turning to current cable TV more for inspiration. Such a wild and woolly scene it has become! Soon it will be all but impossible to recall the days of childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when TV was so timid that Jack Parr was forced to leave The Tonight Show for making an oblique reference to a "water closet" - a popular euphemism of his day for speaking of a room with a toilet. Today we call them bathrooms (or "half-baths"), which is funny because water closet is actually more accurate.

I'm going to try my hand at a short weekly blog with comments on the events and prospects for my favorite shows. Sometimes I discover those shows, like Jericho, years after they leave the air! But if they are interesting I will toss them in the mix. This week we have a lot to talk about starting with a Jump-the-Shark episode for the Season 4 premiere of Homeland. My timing is perfect for Season 4, because I just finished watching Season 3 on Netflix DVDs. I choose to watch HBO and Showtime shows on Netflix DVD, I refuse to pay for extra subscription channels. With 500+ channels I already have more TV than I have time to watch.


Season 3 ended all the major story lines that began in the series premiere, and did them with success given the absurdity of almost every subplot offered. The show is high in drama and tension but low in believability, so the death of Brody at the end was a blessing for viewers as well as for Brody. Between that, the retirement of Saul and the promotion of Carrie, the series reached a perfect final resting place.

So naturally they're going to keep going. They have an entirely new story line and new characters except for one, a manic-depressive CIA station chief who wouldn't last two minutes in a real intelligence organization. The hope is that the changes will be more realistic, but is that hope realistic? I don't think so. Carrie as a female station chief in Pakistan? Really? Homeland should have stopped while it was ahead.


Gotham is a DC/Batman spinoff show that is far better than we had reason to expect, especially after the disaster that was Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a weak Avengers spinoff. Gotham covers the period immediately after the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. We see the rise of young James Gordon as a new police detective forced to cope with police corruption all around him, encountering the criminal and non-criminal oddities of city Gotham. Among them are a gymnastic 13-year-old street urchin with an affinity for wayward cats, Selena Kyle ("Cat" she hisses); a 20-something psychopath, Oswald Cobblepot, whose extreme makeup falls just short of white face, and whose busted-leg hobble results in a cruel nickname, "Penguin", that spells immediate violent death for all who utter it; a young police analyst, Edward Nigma, who delivers all his answers as quirky questions ("anyone ever tell you to get some help?" one cop asks); and a criminal gang boss, Carmine Falcone, eager to use the vicious talents of all the miscreants who pass his way.

In the first two episodes Gotham establishes itself as a setting for character studies. When you see the pathetic home from which Cobblepot comes it almost feels like a soap opera, but with better writers than usual. I watched the first episode completely by accident, assuming the worst after the stale characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I was pleasantly surprised. We only see a little bit of the long-term protagonist, Bruce Wayne, but that's a good thing. What we see is interesting: A boy of about 12 struggling to come to terms with the wrenching change that violence has brought to his life; a boy already making plans, a boy looking to transform himself, but doomed to be a boy for years to come. Meanwhile Gotham has a slew of interesting bad guys in development, and I look forward to seeing them learn and grow. It would be fun if they twisted the Dick Grayson story a little bit and made him more of a peer to Bruce than an adopted foster child, but don't expect that. New episodes on Mondays.

Sons of Anarchy

The comic book violence of DC, though relatively graphic when viewed through the prism of Gotham, is thin gruel compared to the violence of Sons of Anarchy, which delivered 20 new murders in the latest episode, including 2 police officers and 16 innocents whose sole crime was working in a legal brothel. The sheer quantity of the killing has gotten so out of hand that they can no longer show them all. Like the latest slaughter some are simply implied and it is described via the aftermath.

Sons of Anarchy has had a good run and maintains a solid, faithful fan base, but in truth its Jump-The-Shark moment came years ago in Season 3, when the MC snuck into Belfast, Ireland on an illegal cargo flight with their motorcycles and never had any problems with police while they were there, in spite of their California license plates, gang colors and thuggish appearance.

Since then the most interesting question to emerge is how many members of the club will be tortured and killed before the show runs its course, and when. As a viewer this is among the least desirable or tasty directions for the show to take. Who will last longest? Presumably the final episode will feature the showdown between SAMCRO "den mother" Gemma Morrow and her son Jax. Gemma doesn't have as much blood on her hands as Jax or late husband Clay, but she encouraged the death of both her husbands and personally murdered Jax's wife Tara; that death she delivered with savagery using a kitchen utensil in last season's finale.

Facebook betting on which characters will survive the series finale has been heavy for months. If you believe there is justice in the world, they will all die except the children. All of them. Every single one. Who on this show is without guilt? Only the children, and even one of those turned a machine gun on his classmates when the last season began. The Sons murdered the boy's parents to keep them quiet, because the gun came from the Sons' gun-running operation. Which characters will survive the final episode? The ones that FX wants to hold on to for possible spinoff series. Who could they be? I don't know. Better call Saul!

Hell On Wheels

Hell On Wheels is the Western we always needed but could never get from postwar Hollywood. Later Western movies like Silverado and Unforgiven hinted at the possibilities, but it took a series with dozens of episodes to fully play them out. And play they do! Confederate soldiers and freed slaves working and fighting together on the railroad; evangelist preachers with dark souls; whores and widowed women desperately fighting to avoid their fate; savage but intelligent Indians, one of whom struggles with a switch to American society; pitched battles between railroad workers and Indians; Mormon forts among Protestants and Baptists who loathe them; Irish entrepreneurs struggling to make their way; and federal politicians scheming to use them all for power and self-aggrandizement. This show has it all, including occasional visits from the likes of Brigham Young and General/President-elect Grant.

The show started out being about friendships and rivalries formed around the building of the Union Pacific's transcontinental railroad in the months after the Civil War ended, but over time the story has morphed somewhat. You might say the camera has panned out and beheld everything going on around it, not just the railroad.

Holding together the first three seasons was the Odd Couple friendship of railroad boss Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, and former slave Elam Ferguson. Over time their stories took them in different directions, but I also suspect that rapper Common, who played Elam, had other interests and obligations. HOW killed off Elam in a sad but kindly tragedy. Elam, while in the wilderness searching for the then-missing Bohannon, is attacked by a bear while holding only a hunting knife for self-defense. He prevails, barely, but the fight leaves him blind and insane; in the end he must be put down for the safety of others. It was a respectful send off for one of the most important characters of the show. .

The power struggles of the early seasons featured Bohannon and Ferguson facing off against railroad manager/owner Durant, but with the exit of Elam comes a change in the axis of power: Grant has appointed a governor to civilize the Wyoming Territory. Governor Campbell doesn't want the job, but he accepts it and makes it his own. Campbell quickly becomes a despot. In particularly venal and unnecessary ways he seizes power over the railroad and everyone else in Cheyenne. In the latest episode he seduces the female newspaper owner in an effort to control what she prints. Whether she capitulates to be close to power and gain an advantage or out of sheer loneliness remains to be seen, but this show's track record suggests she has her own agenda.

The next episode should feature the final showdown between Bohannon, now acting on behalf of Durant, and Campbell's new marshall, an outlaw killer and lawman in name only. The marshall has imprisoned most of the railroad worker's on the frontier equivalent of outstanding warrants, purely to control the railroad's overseers. How will the show's producers stretch this story arc into a season finale? The marshall is Campbell's primary henchman; once he goes down, Campbell's remaining defenses should be meager. But the clock hasn't run out yet, so I'm expecting surprisSaturdays, but on hiatus until November.
A Crippled Presidency

2 Sep 2014
President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

Wilson's Vice President, Thomas Marshall

Wilson's Secretary of State, Robert Lansing

Wilson's Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer
Who runs the government when the president is incapacitated? The easy answer is the vice president, as Acting President under the 25th Amendment, but suppose there is debate over whether he (or she) is truly incapacitated. Suppose, like Ronald Reagan in his second term, his cognitive impairment is border line, "manageable". Suppose the Cabinet is split down the middle over the issue. What happens? Basically, nothing. But what happens when the President's confidantes starts scheming to take advantage of the situation?

That actually happened once at a critical time for America in world history. The most important paper I wrote as a college undergraduate concerned the stroke that incapacitated Woodrow Wilson (Ronald Wilson Reagan's namesake) for the last 18 months of his term (1913 to 1921). I walked away from that paper with more questions than answers. Why did Wilson not resign? Why did his vice president, Thomas Marshall, not step up to the plate? How did Wilson fool the U.S. Senate and American people into thinking he was fit for duty?

First, a quick historical recap: After the United States' entry into World War I, we made quick work of a European war that had been in stalemate for years. The war turned America into a world power and Wilson into a world leader. Wilson dominated the proceedings at the Paris peace talks. He forced all the world leaders, Winston Churchill among them, to accept the creation of a League of Nations to negotiate great power disagreements. They didn't want it, but they were afraid to make him mad because he controlled so many purse strings, and the international food bank organized for him by Herbert Hoover.

League support in America was equally mixed. Senate Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge (father of the man Jack Kennedy beat in 1952) opposed the League, so Wilson went on the road. He organized a 10,000 mile train tour through the Midwest and West to rally the American people behind it. Off the back of the train he gave as many as a dozen speeches a day, all of which he wrote himself. Halfway into the trip Wilson suffered a stroke that forced them back to the White House, where he had another stroke, this one far worse. The left half of his body, including his face, was paralyzed. Though his mind remained basically intact, his legendary memory was destroyed, his spirit depleted, and his body teetered near death. His speech was like that of so many stroke victims, inadequate to the task of expressing what his mind continued to think.

In spite of all this Wilson gradually improved, somewhat. He continued in office for the eighteen months remaining in his second term, but a pale ghost of his old self. There was no White House staff to speak of back then, so his wife with only an eighth-grade education, Edith Bolling Wilson, served as secretary, gatekeeper, and policymaker for him. To her credit, she did ask the question of Woodrow's physician: shouldn't her husband resign and let the vice president take over? The physician vigorously disagreed and said that if he left office it would destroy Woodrow's spirit and hopes for a recoverly. So Edith decided to protect her husband as best she knew how. She decided who could see him, and what he was allowed to learn.

There were numerous officials who could have and should have acted, but Thomas Marshall was terrified of becoming president; notorious pundit Alice Roosevelt Longworth claimed he fainted upon hearing false reports of Wilson's death. Alice was unfair: Marshall merely went catatonic. Secretary of State Robert Lansing actively pursued a Wilson retirement, but Wilson held on with the support of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, father of the Red Scare and anarchist raids led by young J. Edgar Hoover. Palmer hoped to use Wilson to further his own fantasies of being elected president in 1920, but came in a poor third at the Democratic National Convention.

The opportunities for political mayhem of the worst sort are obvious in such a situation. Two recent TV shows - Boss and 24 - address the possible problems. In Boss, only the boss (Kelsey Grammar as mayor of Chicago) knows about the problem, and he ain't tellin', but he knows his condition is a ticking time bomb that he cannot control. He knows that when he finally loses control people might be hurt, but he holds on anyway. In 24 the President (played by William Devane) has revealed his Alzheimer's to one man, his chief of staff, who immediately starts second-guessing and undercutting his boss's decisions. Even a man with the best of intentions can become untrustworthy if the cognitively impaired boss continues to work as if nothing is wrong.

In my upcoming novel White House Storm the president is a once-powerful man who stills feeds off his celebrity. As his mental faculties slide, some near him connive while others show concern. Suppose President Obama was diagnosed with a permanent cognitive disorder of this sort. How do you think he would handle it - sweep it under the rug, resign, tell the American people in a speech and stay anyways? Suppose his staff noticed before he did. How would they handle it - abuse their authority, or move to bring in the vice president? Let me know what you think by leaving your remarks at http://ow.ly/B0iLl.

I should also mention that a recent Wilson biography by A. Scott Berg provides remarkable new details about the build up to Wilson's stroke, and the aftermath, unrevealed until now. Berg had access to new documents, and it shows. He provides a lot of specific information about the incidents in Paris and on the train that preceded the stroke, and also the extent to which Edith Wilson and Robert Lansing went to actually end Wilson's presidency in favor of the vice president. No matter how much you may think you know about Wilson's life and in particular his last two years in office, there will remain huge gaps in your knowledge until you read Berg's biography of America's first southern president after the Civil War.
Self-Publishing Emerges

25 Aug 2014
Blue Ridge Boys by Patrick Napier
Are you are considering the self-publishing route for your book? If so what's holding you back? For some, it might be the cost; for others, it might be the overwhelming desire to see their books on the shelf of bookstores, before they all close down; but for most, I suspect, the problem is that they don't want to become publishers. They don't need the hassle. They just want to write, and see their writing in print. I can sympathize.

Five years ago I was hunting for a publisher for my then-new book, Tai Chi In Your Life . The timing was terrible, only a year after the big economic downturn, and no publishers were taking on new projects like this. Knowing that tai chi is a niche market and there are even fewer tai chi practitioners who will read about it, I saw the writing on the wall. I wanted to publish my book and move on. The traditional publishing route could easily take three or four years to complete, but I had a long list of writing projects waiting for more immediate attention, so I self-published.

Publishing isn't as new to me as perhaps to others. My bachelors degree is in journalism, quite literally a B.J. In 1980 I wrote a statistics guide commissioned by textbook publisher Allyn & Bacon. Because of the heavy reliance on mathematical notation, they gave me money to have it typed up, so I was responsible for page layout and design as well as the math and writing.

Fast forward to 2010. Self-publishing Tai Chi In Your Life through CreateSpace was a good experience; I enjoyed the full immersion in the publishing world. Soon I came to understand that the traditional publishing industry is based on a business model more than a century old. But as I networked with fellow writers I discovered that an awful lot of them are clueless about the process, and are unlikely to improve their lot to any great degree.

Following a hunch I created a business card to represent my writing activities, and included the designation Editor/Publisher. I handed out no more than a half dozen before writers and would-be writers began pitching their books to me. Most needed an editor first and foremost, so soon I was taking editing jobs; another hired me as a ghostwriter for his political polemics. Others, once edited, turned to me for assistance with the self-publishing process.

Then I took on a full editing/publishing project at no charge, to produce a personal memoir for a family member whose strengths do not include writing. He wrote the memoir in episodes, which were assembled into a whole presenting an interesting set of stories about boys living in the shadow of World War II, in a boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. One of the boys was my late father, his older brother, hence my interest.

Then the work began. My uncle would have been satisfied printing it as is without editing, but my father's name would be in it, and if I was to be involved I wanted to set a higher standard. It took three complete rounds of editing the 127,000 word manuscript before I was willing to move forward.

Editing inexperienced writers can be a real eye opener. They make all the mistakes you have ever learned about in a workshop, class, or writing book, and then they make up some of their own. For instance in every other sentence where someone spoke to the author, they always prefaced their remarks with his name, Pat. No one talks like that, but I happen to know that Pat really likes his name, a lot, so it was not hard to imagine him unconsciously conjuring words never spoken. No matter how much he insisted that his memory was superb and the details were intact, I was unable to ignore it when he got his own father's name wrong. But that's why we have editors! How good is your memory about things that happened when you were seven, eight, nine years old? For him that was more than seventy years ago.

There were plenty of run-on sentences, plenty of tangled clauses, and substantial overuse of indefinite pronouns. This is where the search features of Microsoft Word can be quite helpful. Before I was done I had created a long list of bad writing habits to watch out for in future work.

Now when I write I think of these many lessons. The result of the effort, Blue Ridge Boys, came to life on August 15; you can find it on Amazon, and soon on Kindle. To finally complete it was satisfying, but the lessons of writing and editing, in what seemed like a thankless task, I will take with me into every new writing project in the future. That's experience you can't buy no matter how many classes or workshops you take.

We all know that the publishing industry is in turmoil as technology changes everything. While I do not expect traditional publishing to go away completely, more and more writers will take control of their work as musicians have been doing for years. The trend to self-publishing, and the need for skills so lacking in so many writers, creates a market opportunity that blends the best of agencies and publishers, and tosses out the rest. I'm in for the long haul. Who will join me? Contact me at mastersoftmedia at Google's mail.

(Note: my self-published novel White House Storm, the story of a general attempting a military coup when he secretly discovers the President has Alzheimer's, should be in print by September 15. Watch for it.)
The Tyrant of Cable

14 Aug 2014
The last decade of cable TV has seen remarkable growth, perhaps more than we want or need, given The Walking Dead and The Strain. As shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Dexter, 24 and soon Sons of Anarchy literally die off, we are seeing new suspenseful thrillers with high octane but more implied than actual violence - shows like Homeland, The Americans, and now Tyrant. All have an overseas tie-in that help leaven the stories.

Homeland could end at any time, due to plot holes that make even House seem realistic. The Americans is real, too real: it asks us to root for KGB agents even as they convert their children to the cause of Communism. Even though they help by giving us FBI agents who are as corrupt the Russians and twice as ugly, it is hard to see this going on for several years.

The real winner of this group maybe Tyrant, which on its face seems even more unlikely than The Americans. Instead of anti-heroes in the form of old enemies who no long scare, they ask us to root for anti-heroes in the form of modern enemies who do still scare, Arabic Moslems. The twist is that our putative hero, Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeen, has lived a thoroughly American life as a pediatrician in Los Angeles for 20 years. He's so American that his wife and daughter are blonde, and his son a closeted gay.
As a writer and student of popular story lines, I was sure I knew where this one was headed. Barry and family go back "home" to the fictional Arab state of Abbudin, where his father has ruled with an iron hand holding a spiked club since before Barry's birth. Barry's brother Jamal, the older of the two, has been raised to succeed their father in the traditional fashion of primogeniture, thus freeing Barry to pursue the life he preferred - one far from his father, who he loathes for committing horrible atrocities against his own men.

The visit is supposedly for a family wedding, that of Jamal's son, but as worldly TV watchers we know it will not be that easy. In fact, in short order it appears Tyrant will become a Godfather update set in the Middle East - wherein Dictator Dad and Brother Jamal die unexpectedly, leaving Barry in the family face-saving role held by, in another story, Michael Corleone.

Close, but no cigar: the show's writers have seen that movie too. Instead imagine a Godfather with only two sons, Fredo and Michael. Fredo dutifully tries to run the family business - Abbudin - as his father intended. Son Michael sees his brother's incompetence and maneuvers to ease him out, for the good of the country, so he can assume the position he has avoided like the plague his entire life. As he does, Barry likely becomes the man he always hated, his father; without a trace of self-irony he comes to see that his dad wasn't such a bad dictator after all.

In spite of the early Godfather foreshadowing, this story has its own interesting cast of characters and subplots to keep the story going: scheming wives, grasping generals, power hungry political rivals and more. But the core story, the idealistic youngster of the family called to duty earlier rejected, is pure Puzo (as in Mario Puzo, author of the original Godfather book). Pull up a chair and watch power turn a liberal democrat evil, in Tyrant. Unlike Godfather or Breaking Bad, you can still believe redemption is possible. Watch Barry's takeover of Abbudin: will he kill his brother as Michael did Fredo, or will brother Jamal go out gracefully? I'm not yet ready to take that bet either way, but I will enjoy finding out.

11 Aug 2014
The Constant Art of Being a Writer

My interest in reading about the subject of writing was a long time coming; my interest in writing on the subject is even more of a late arrival. Over the years I plugged away, not with great consistency, but long enough to realize the problem is with the writers as well as the reader.

In time the situation has improved, with noteworthy gems emerging. My recent favorites are
  • The Constant Art of Being a Writer, by N. M. Kelby
  • Hit Lit, by James M. Hall and
  • On Writing, perhaps the shortest book Stephen King ever wrote.
Kelby and King counseled me in the ways of regular writing, while Hall identified the major elements common to fiction bestsellers, using examples I actually knew something about.

Although I continue to subscribe to writer's favorites like Writers Digest and Writers Market, I have serious doubts about continuing. I keep reading to stay in touch with the industry but the more I do, the more I feel the industry is not in touch ith me. These industry publications, while acknowledging the rift between traditional publishing and self-publishing, have done little to bridge the gap. Sure, they cover each side to one extent or another, but it is seen as a binary. In truth the situation is fluid and multidimensional. As such it is rife with opportunity for those who work within both spheres. Columnists focusing on traditional publishing may fail to understand that even bigger changes are afoot, bigger than any technology-inspired revolution. The face of publishing is changed forever, regardless of the medium.

If I want to publish books I have no choice put to face them head on. While I have published in traditional media and still have a strong emotional attachment to bookstore distribution, my business brain is dragging me into self-publishing. This month I will release my second and third self-published books, with more to come in short order. In one case I am the editor and publisher, not the writer, because the writer would never have the wherewithal to get through the process. With my journalistic training I am comfortable in the role, and foresee a future for this kind of work.

That said, my outlook on self-publishing has been fraught with indecision. Writing is a lonely activity, but with the changes in publishing today, with the decline of agencies and traditional publishers, the business of writing is getting lonely as well. New forms of organization must emerge. What do you wish they would look like? These changes will be the focus of my upcoming blogs on writing, appearing here every Monday morning.
Cyber / Military
Hacking the Weapons

8 Aug 2014
Destroyer USS Zumwalt
Reports of large-scale cyber hacking have become so common that the latest round - of 1,200,000,000 user names and passwords from 400,000 websites, for an average of a mere 3,000 per website - still fails to feel like the wake-up call that our Internet-addicted society needs if it is to survive a real cyber war.

Three months ago I thought perhaps a TV show like 24, depicting what happens when a terrorist group hacks a fleet of drones, then uses them for international blackmail and mass murder, would serve the purpose. Then I realized we've become too put off by the psychochotic behavior of Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer to take it seriously either, even though tens of thousands of lives were putatively at stake.

Consider instead the stories of real-life drone hacking which inspire what is hopefully 24's last season. In 2009 a group of Iraqi Shiite fighters used a $26 off the shelf program to grab the video feed from an American Predator drone. The story was widely reported in papers like The Guardian. To read one of the articles, CLICK HERE.

In case you're skeptical that such a thing is possible, you can start hacking drones today with the exact same SkyGrabber software BY CLICKING HERE. Warning to the legally naïve: There are many, many reasons to think that use of this software in the United States, particularly in regard to military vehicles, is a violation of federal law. Consult an ACLU attorney and bondsman before proceeding. But there you have it: It's that easy to do.

Of course, taking control of a drone's total command and control system is a different matter, but you would have to be doubly naïve to think this is a substantial barrier. America, China, Israel, Iran and other countries are actively pursuing drone programs with remote control weapons attack capabilities of increasing significance. The days of autonomous drones are still ahead of us, but how far ahead is hard to say.

US Zumwalt
USS Zumwalt in preparations for christening
But let's not limit the conversation to remote-controlled small-frame aircraft. What if a nuclear-armed B-52 could be remote controlled? Could it be hacked with software available even to Third World enemies? The U.S. Navy is building the Zumwalt class of destroyers with electronic integration of all command, control and fire systems. Could those be made remote controllable? If so, could they be hacked? The correct answer is yes, they could be hacked. The lesson of the last few years is that everyone is hackable. Don't you wonder whether Vladimir Putin chuckles over President Obama's private text messages? I'm pretty sure he does.

Stay tuned for updates, because this issue is not going away. If you'd like to get onto a private subscription list to follow cyber war issues, CLICK HERE.
Comics Begin

1 Aug 2014
Superman Silver Anniversary
Superman Silver Anniversary

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four #24

Tom Swift
Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space

Moon is Hell
The Moon Is Hell

Foundation Trilogy
The Foundation "Trilogy"

The Fury
The Fury

Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park

Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a Strange Land
Hollywoodland is growing stale from the success of its comic book movies, enough that there is reason for concern even if you are an uber-fan like me. To get right with it all, I have to return to my roots. My earliest memory of comic books comes from 1963, the year I turned nine. Going through the checkout line at the Carswell Air Force Base commissary I spied a silver anniversary special issue of Superman, which my mom surprised me by buying. Supes was 25 that year, a number that would have seemed impossibly old except Mom was already a whopping 30.

Later that year I discovered a Fantastic Four comic at a local pharmacy, #24, a story about "The Infant Terrible", an alien infant with un imaginably catastrophic powers. Even then I had a discerning eye for narrative consistency and could see no way that Reed Richards could concoct an intergalactic communications device that would, first time out, work perfectly to contact the infant's parents across countless light years. But I was drawn to the Human Torch because he was a blond like me, still just a big kid only a few years older. I identified with him physically, and with Reed Richards intellectually. I admired Reed's scientific presence but realized his achievements made no sense at all in the technological context of the burgeoning Marvel Universe.

The year's end was capped by a Christmas gift from my cousin Wayne - my first book, and science fiction at that: Tom Swift and His Outpost In Space. Five years later in junior high school study hall I discovered it was only one book in a series of dozens - and within a few months I had read them all, just as I had the entire Hardy Boys series by the same author, the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II. But unlike Tom Swift I did not have a wealthy industrial engineer for a dad, and never imagined actually going into space myself, as Tom did at age 18 (piloting his own rocket, naturally).

You may have already deduced that I was an obsessive-compulsive reader from the earliest age: I was even kicked out of my first grade reading class for "skipping ahead". By age eleven I was reading Melville and Verne, but my imagination was equally moved by the Fantastic Four, Superman, and Batman. That year I read (and recorded) 127 books; the following year, 211. In 1966 I discovered Isaac Asimov's science essays, which fueled my interest in the science fiction aspect of Marvel and some DC comics. I occasionally tried out other lines like Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man, but none held my interest; the Avengers and the Justice League of America left me snoozing. Perhaps that merely reflects who I am, more of an individualist than a group thinker.

At age 12 I learned that librarians were gatekeepers and censors, not facilitators. I began reading books that my dad brought home from the library, a combination of political thrillers and science fiction. I specifically remember The Moon Is Hell, a story of astronauts stranded after crash landing on the Moon, by one of sci-fidom's earliest stars, John W. Campbell Jr. That was my first adult science fiction. After that Dad sent me to the science fiction section to find my own, so I would leave "his" books alone.

Keep in mind that this was on an overseas American military base of only a couple thousand people; everyone knew everyone. The librarians, who distrusted me for being a fast reader, chased me away because science fiction was too "adult", you know, in the same way that Sean Connery's James Bond was too adult, only less so. I learned to sneak back when they were busy checking books out; and then I learned which librarians would let me check out the books I wanted. Through this circuitous route I discovered Asimov's Foundation stories - not truly a trilogy, but a loosely connected group of stories with a similar moral and narrative structure based on the decline of the Roman Empire. I actually wrote a letter to Asimov when I was 15, and he responded with a confirmation of this foundation for the story line.

By the time of the moon landing in 1969 I had read a lot of classic sci-fi like the Foundation and Robot stories. This eased my next foray into Marveldom, to X-men, on the sage advice of my comics broker. A few years later as a constantly broke grad student I discovered that for the first time Peter Parker and I had a lot in common, and I became a Spider-man fan. It was to be the acme of my Marvelosity.

By the mid to late 1970s I was losing interest. Call it maturation if you will, but as a reader and aspiring writer I felt the genre's limits had long since been breached, particularly after the first two Superman movies demonstrated how far away we were from video technology that delivered convincing superpowers. About the same time Brian de Palma's second movie, The Fury, explored the dark depths of super human skills when pushed to unhealthy limits; its ending, where Kirk Douglas and his psychic son both die after a pointless bloodbath, left me feeling empty. In my mind I was hearing the Queen song "We Are the Champions of the World", and imagining it as a virtuoso theme song for an X-men movie of a much lighter nature. I was only a quarter century early!

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. After Jurassic Park proved that we could believe in dinosaurs, it was only a matter of time until Stan Lee and Marvel started cutting deals with Hollywood studios. With all the technology needed close at hand, the question has long been, how long can Hollywood sustain the massive story machine that is the Marvel Universe, without degrading the narrative quality? With the release of X-men: Days of Future Past, we are starting to see the answer to that question; it is not pretty. We have seen a Spider-man reboot, a Hulk semi-reboot, and an X-men semi-reboot that has carpet-bombed narrative reality. Next up: A Fantastic Four with changed ethnicities and talk about Thor as female, which is a slap in the face to German mythologists everywhere. Reviving of dead characters, long among the most odious of comic book land's bag of tricks, has alredy begun. Desperation abounds.

And as we look out five years into the future, to a string of seven unnamed Marvel projects recently announced, how long can we expect to look forward to new Marvel fare? Can the later entry of DC fare make it any better? I don't think so.

After all, at the beginning of the summer I found myself faced with a choice of movies: Godzilla 23 (give or take), Captain America 2, Spider-man 5, and X-men 7. Having gotten what I asked for long ago, dare I ask again: may we see something original, with narrative consistency, on the big screen? Announcements of Batman 8 / Superman 8, Star Wars 7, Avengers 2 & 3, Spider-man 6, X-men 8, Iron Man 4, Thor 3, Fantastic Four 3, ad nauseum no longer seem inspiring. Instead they are simply & expected. The summer's most inspired entry, sad to say, appears to be Guardians of the Galaxy. You know you're in Hollywood Formulaland when "creative" means using a raccoon and a tree for your serious adult superheros.

So I say it is time to raise expectations. When was the last time you watched a movie not part of an old or new movie franchise? I just watched a silent movie from 99 years ago, but perhaps that was going overboard. I'm still waiting for that film adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land. Valentine Michael Smith would be the role of a lifetime for Tom Cruise. Can you grok it?

Who Will Challenge Hillary?

26 Jun 2014
Hillary Clinton
Ed Muskie
Ed Muskie
Remember President Muskie? Yes, former Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, Hubert Humphrey's running mate in the near-miss 1968 election against Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. By 1970 the media and Democratic intelligentsia had all but crowned Muskie President, a sure thing who could not be challenged. It was too soon after Chappaquiddick for Ted Kennedy to run, and few wanted to face the long odds of challenging a strong incumbent President like Nixon. Muskie was to be the Democrats' Great White Hope.

But reality stepped in. During the campaign for the New Hampsire primary, Muskie and his wife were attacked personally by the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, New Hampshire's primary media outlet. At a press conference, Muskie wept real tears (later claimed to be snowflakes), offended by attacks on his wife. His reputation for calm and composure was shattered. He would have lost fewer votes if he had simply shot the right-wing owner, but in any event he was finished, and Humphrey himself had to run to stave off the McGovern challenge. Humphrey lost to the best-organized campaign since his defeat by Jack Kennedy's primary romp in 1960. Humphrey was a well meaning but fuzzy-headed liberal who believed in spending but not counting. George McGovern and his campaign manager, future Colorado Senator Gary Hart, were counters.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Now we have Hillary Clinton, crowned the presumptive nominee and President by today's equivalent of the same media-political intelligentsia who anointed Muskie. Hill knows the history: she is one gaffe or controversy away from oblivion. Can she, and her entire campaign organization, successfully walk that fine line? The last presumptive nominee to go all the way was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Before that, Herbert Hoover in 1928. Ike and Hoover both were so popular they could have had the nomination of either party. Is Hillary that popular? I don't think so.

Clinton's entre into politics was only possible because her famous husband got her started. Having gotten that boost, she has proven herself every bit as capable as Bill has long claimed, but is sheer competence what the voters want? Having chosen George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama, the answer is an obvious not necessarily. Hillary has the much bigger challenge of appearing likable, which is not natural for her. As they said in 2008, would you want to have a beer with her? Personality is the reason she needed Bill's boost to get started in the first place.

The most credible argument for her election is the lack of viable challengers. She dominates the Democratic pack and shows every sign of dominating the Republican pack. But as Karl van Clausewitz once said, no battle plan survives after the first shot is fired. Once the former senator enters the fray against real competitors, can she survive? It comes down to the emergence of a viable contender. Who are the possible choices?

Gov. Martin O'Malley
Gov. Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley, governor of a very Democratic Maryland, is already running. Smart money is not on him; so far he is judged a lightweight. Insiders have told me stories that make me think of him as the Rick Perry of the Democratic Party, which is not a desirable comparison. He may be secretly shooting for vice president, but who was the last Maryland governor to become Vice President? That was Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's corrupt choice who ended up resigning and pleading no contest to charges of bribery from highway contractors. O'Malley would have to work hard to overcome that stigma, even though he comes from the other side of the partisan fence. Chances of nomination: 20%. Chances of winning in the fall: 45%.

Jim Webb
Jim Webb
Jim Webb, recently retired senator from Virginia, is a likely candidate. Webb is a Vietnam veteran whose son has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His recent book, I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir, appears to be a traditional campaign biography similar to those recently issued by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. He is making the talk show rounds but so far remains under the radar. I rate him as 85% likely to run, with a 75% chance of finishing at or near the top of the primary vote getters. If nominated he could destroy any of the likely Republican candidates. Chances of winning in the fall, if nominated: 70%.

Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, Independent senator from Vermont, is a self-described socialist. He has made public his desire to run, but for him the question is whether to run as a Democrat or an Independent. He seems to be leaning toward a third-party run, but any political scientist will tell you that is a long shot; even the very popular Teddy Roosevelt was unable to pull it off. He could, however, draw anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the vote and like the late George Wallace, take electoral votes and the election away from the Democratic nominee. Chances of running: 85%. Chances of running as a Democrat: 35%. Chances of destroying Hillary's election if they are both running in November 2016: 95%. Chances of winning: 0%, unless he is the Democratic nominee against Chris Christie, this generation's Spiro Agnew, in which case he has 55% chance. The details of Christie's corruption are likely to be deadly, but balanced by Sanders' left wing platform.

VP Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden
Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, was barely 30 years old when he was elected to the U.S. Senate 42 years ago, and almost immediately was faced with an immense personal tragedy: the death of his wife and baby daughter in an auto wreck, and the severe injury of his two young sons. The experience left him angry and with doubts about his Roman Catholic upbringing - the kind of second thoughts all too rare in a politician. Unfortunately this is missing from the Joe Biden of today, a guy who glibly tosses off insensitive one-liners that leave him sounding tone-deaf and out of touch. He would also bear the burden of defending everything his boss, Barack Obama, has done since 2009. A similar problem, defending LBJ's Vietnam War, helped kill Vice President Hubert Humphrey's chances in 1968. Biden's long record will haunt him in any electoral undertaking in the future, but pundits would be foolish to count him out. In his first Senate race at age 29, with almost no support and a 30-point disadvantage, he came from behind to win by several thousand votes. If the Joe Biden of today can revisit the spirit of the Joe Biden of 1972, he has a chance of pulling off an upset. Chance of running: 60%. Chance of nomination: 30%. Chance in the fall: 40% to 60%, depending on the opponent. A Biden-Christie fight would be a real treat, but Christie will never make it out of the primaries.

Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown, governor of the Most Democratic California and three-time presidential contender, at 78 (in 2016) still has the ego to want to run one more time; his staff is already entertaining the possibilities. After Brown cleared up Arnold Schwarzenegger's $20 billion budget deficit with a wave of a magic wand - a tax increase that the voters bore without complaint - he has credibility. Remembering his highly contested run against Bill Clinton in 1992, he may well think he could do it better this time. He may even see Hillary as an easier target. The reality is that at his age, he would do nothing but help make her 69 years (in 2016) look young, which will not otherwise be possible. If Hillary is elected she will take office at the same age as Ronald Reagan. Chances of nomination: 10%. Chances of winning the general, if nominated: 40%.

Howard Dean
Howard Dean
Howard Dean, former governor Vermont and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is slightly younger than Hillary and looks a lot younger. He dyed his silver-gray hair blonde and has kept a media presence on CNBC and other venues. Having been shut out of the Obama Administration, he may well be ready to try again, perhaps as a Democratic version of Rand Paul, fighting drones and military interventionism. With little data to go on, I rate this as no more than 35% likely, but if he ran could end up at or near the top as well. Chances of nomination: 40%. Chances of winning the general: up to 60%, depending on platform.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts, has gotten a lot of favorable attention for her attacks on Wall Street. She has written a book that looks a lot like a campaign biography, A Fighting Chance, but has now denied her presidential ambitions so loudly and so often that now she would lose credibility if she ran. Chances of running: 10%. Chances of nomination: 20%. Chances of winning in the fall: 15%.

Summary: All of the Democrats' chances, Hillary's included, depend upon the Republican nominee. In spite of the polls, I see Chris Christie and Jeb Bush as the easiest to run against. Christie will have major corruption problems, and Bush will be seen as Bush III in the family dynasty, which few people want (to make it worse, his son George P. Bush will soon be a statewide officeholder in Texas). A Hillary-Bush matchup would give a third-party candidate like Sanders a lot of room to run. He could do as well or better than Ross Perot did in 1992, but would steal votes from the Democrat instead of the Republican, resulting in a Republican victory.

Best bets for the Democrats, in declining order of likelihood to win in the fall: Jim Webb, Howard Dean, and Hillary Clinton.

Keep tuned. The fun has barely begun.
Reading the Movies, Part 3

20 Jun 2014
A while back I began a three-part series on Books that made the Movies - best-selling books that became movies. Typically we readers see the book before the show, such as my early reading of the Dexter series, and our expectations are set accordingly. Some movies, however, I have read only after the fact. My reflections on both versions are much different for the change in order. For my final set of books I have not full reviews or even mini-reviews, but reflections of the differences or similarities I found most striking.

Planet of the Apes
(Pierre Boulet 1963 / Franklin Schaffner 1968)
Like many of the books on this list, Planet of the Apes is also short, but has some differences from the film that intrigue. The book is written by a Frenchman, in French, for French, not English readers. Never in the book does Boulet, as Schaffner does in the movie, absurdly depict the apes and chimps as speaking English. After all, the astronauts don't even speak English, they speak French! And the apes speak their own language. The astronaut George Taylor, translated to the screen by a Charleton Heston with a verve for dramatic silliness, does not speak the apes' language: He must learn it. As a result the great scene that changes the direction of the story, the revelation to apes that a human can speak to them in their language, takes place in a far more dramatic fashion. In front of a gathering of scientists, he speaks to them in their own language and answers their questions, using complex reasoning. The film ending was completely fabricated for American audiences and had no counterpart in the book, but who cares? I was fourteen when the film came out. The Statue of Liberty ending had a profound effect on me at the time, as throughout my childhood I had lived with nightmares of nuclear holocaust.

The Other
(Thomas Tryon 1971 / Robert Mulligan 1972)
One of my favorites on this list, The Other is a Depression-era farm story of eleven-year-old twin boys with two extraordinary secrets - one of a psychic nature, and the other more psychiatric in nature. The cultural setting makes this unique horror story all the more compelling, and ultimately terrifying. The shocks at the end of Parts I and II, translated perfectly to the screen, lead to a compelling climax that can be read or watched over and over again without losing its power, even with the secrets long revealed. Tryon's later work Harvest Home is considered a genre-changer, but The Other remains his most intriguing work.

Stepford Wives
(Ira Levin 1972 / Bryan Forbes 1975)
Ira Levin knocked out several hits with a direct line to the big screen, including Sliver and Rosemary's Baby. Levin's writing style is both direct and readable. He delivers a book that is leaner than some of Stephen King's short stories. Anyone who insists on having the details spelled out for them will be disappointed by this book, as the ending is open ended: You have no idea how the wives are transformed, only that they are. The movie happily fills in the gaps with details that change the flavor of the book; any hopes for subtlety are quickly dashed. Levin's book portrays attitudes of 1960s "women's lib" as cartoonish stereotypes while Forbes' movie reflect more mature attitudes that had evolved into 1970s feminism. The book can be unsatisfying, depending on your tastes, because it never explains the behavioral transformation of the wives, but many argue that the best horror is often left to the imagination. Half the book is devoted to two wives trying to figure out what is wrong with all the other women in town, and what causes their transformations. But silly sixtie stuff keeps creeping in: On one hilarious occasion they are thrilled, simply thrilled, to discover that Stepford has accepted its first black couple. When one of the untransformed wives meets the black wife, an author of minor note who comments on the standoffish behavior of the other wives, our heroine hastens to assure her that they are not treating her that way because she is black.

The untouched wives are terrified, truly terrified, that The Change will happen to them - and not at all mollified by the assurance that once changed, they will be happy. This important subtheme has similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another science fiction horror story about people being replaced with plain vanilla, non-individualist versions of themselves. In the book, the wives' theories to explain the changes range over all the possibilities, including the technologically laughable idea that they could be robotic substitutes. In the movie, the wives never discuss these things. Instead we see them played out, with the viewer being expected to take the laughable, unsupported idea seriously. To this writer, who often admires simplicity and directness in storytelling, an ending that leaves the details to the readers' imagination is more satisfying. Seeing what we imagine is often difficult to portray well, as the movie's silly ending demonstrates. When horror unintentionally turns into humor by overplaying its hand, the director has failed.

What I found interesting about Stepford Wives is the subtext. Far from being a book about men desperately trying to maintain dominance over their wives in a new era of women's liberation, the book is purely about the women. The movie has an agenda, so men are given a stronger role, but the book uses them as wallpaper. The wives share a vision of new roles for women in society, a vision ordinary and largely fulfilled in today's world, but remain insecure because of the lack of moral support. As a result they react desperately to influences around them. Their responses are seen through the prism of 1960s liberalism and women's lib, which is almost childish compared to today's realistic feminism. They see the men doing something they envy, so they plot to do something about it. All of their actions are reactionary. For instance, the husbands have a Men's Association; the new wives want to form a NOW (National Organization of Women) chapter to oppose them, for the purpose of forcing them to allow women in the Men's Association (in the movie they make it a "consciousness raising" group). The ironies and contradictions of such actions are far more humorous than they are horrifying, but it is impossible to tell whether Levin intended this story as a work in irony or whether it is liberal pap with no sense of self-irony at all.
Six Days of the Condor
(James Grady 1974 / Sydney Pollack 1975)
Six Days of the Condor was filmed as Three Days of the Condor, which removes three days of the protagonist's (Robert Redford) strategy and tactics and replaces it with a tryst with a randomly-chosen "helper", Faye Dunaway. Even though the movie was made a scant year after the book's appearance, the orientation changes considerably, from a novel about intelligence machinations on behalf of big oil to a story about a rogue CIA unit. At the time of the film's release the CIA was a much hotter topic. And while Redford's character walks away from the Agency to become his own man, the book's man returns from the cold and goes to work for the Agency out in the field, eventually to star in a book sequel. Like David Morrell's First Blood, the book is more internal and less provocative, which is to say, less oriented toward popular passions. As a result a reader who likes the movie may like the book even more.

The Boys from Brazil
(Ira Levin 1975 / Franklin Schaffner 1978)
The idea of cloning ninety-four Hitlers comes more from science fiction than history, but the modern theme of bioethics, cross-pollinated with the thriller mainstay of real Nazis on the loose doing crazy things in modern times, is compelling. Levin makes no attempt to justify the science, especially the idea of cloning performed in 1961, but this works out just fine because the story is character driven. The book and movie are mirrors, but reading the book after seeing the movie helps satisfy the desire for just a little bit more. Once you have seen Gregory Peck as Joseph Mengele, you will hear his voice and picture his white- suited, pink-faced visage in his every scene as you read the book.

First Blood
(David Morell 1972 / Ted Kotcheff 1982)
Morrell, a professor of writing, struck it rich when this novel was picked up for what became the Rambo series. The book is darker and more personal than Stallone's treatment, but not by much. If you are not a fan of such movies, you can be forgiven for missing this little gem, but you would not be disappointed with the book. The story of a Green Beret home from Vietnam, harassed for no good reason by a small town police chief, is packed with powerful themes and memorable characters. You may notice that some of them were created by this book and since have been copied endlessly. Stallone opts for a lighter ending than Morrell, allowing the Rambo franchise to live. The primary difference between the two is approach: During the period 1968-1971, when a young Morrell was working on the book, the Vietnam War was raging all around him, culturally speaking. When Kotcheff made the movie the war had been over for almost a decade, and reflected more recent views of the war. In fact, Stallone was criticized by some veterans' groups as pretending to speak for veterans, but Stallone was not to blame because it was not his movie; he just acted the role. By now the war has been largely discredited, which is a view that neither reflect, though the book makes the effort. Everything by Morrell is a good read, but First Blood stands out. Five stars.

(Stuart Woods 1980 / Jerry London 1983)
Chiefs was Woods' First Blood: a first novel with a deeply personal style and memorable characters. After this successful novel was made into a TV mini-series, Woods' writing became formulaic and uninteresting, with wooden, predictable series characters and unlikely stories.

Chiefs is the story of three generations of police chiefs in the mythical small town of Delano, Georgia. It starts with Delano's first police chief trying to create a professional organization, just after the Great War; follows with the post-World War II chief, a war hero bully and racist thug; and ends in the civil rights era of the 1960s, with the controversial hiring of a black chief. Each chief finds himself investigating the mystery of disappearing teenage boys. The search for clues almost kills the first chief, who dies young by other means; the second one is killed by the evil that lives in their midst, and simply disappears. Until the story's conclusion, no one else knows about the mystery, the investigation, or the suspicious nature of the two chiefs' deaths. When black chief Tyler Watts stumbles upon the same secrets, it is almost his undoing as well: For decades a homosexual pedophiliac serial killer has lived among the citizens of Delano, realistically portrayed by Keith Carradine, who clearly enjoyed aging on the screen. The series faithfully depicts the story of changing times and how people adapt to them, unsuspecting of an evil whose banality allows it to lurk among them unnoticed.

Character Matters

10 Jun 2014
Today is the Primary Day in Nevada. In this campaign cycle I have seen behavior that defies all reason, but that's par for the course in politics. Conservatives and liberals trade places, and beds, with an abandon that would make Alfred Kinsey blush. Over the years I've come to realize that issues come and go; they change in form and substance. From the time of a campaign to the time the elected takes office, much can change that substantially alters the point of view that a candidate might need to take on issue. The final legislation will certainly be crafted with different wording from that posed on the campaign trail.

Consequently, the only reliable barometer for behavior in office is character. Look inside a candidate's character to see how they will behave when issues arise that are different from what arose during the campaign. Look inside to see how they will respond under pressure.

Character can be measured on many levels, as noted by the saying that "an honest politician is one who stays bought." Many people believe it is a mark of character for a candidate to take a position and never budge from it, as if the ability to learn, grow, and change is dirty and sinful. I believe character starts with the ability to learn and grow from new information, but that does not excuse a candidate who makes different promises to different audiences. Being wishy-washy, disingenuous, or all over the board is a sign of political deviousness, not character. This is why Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Sue Lowden, having donated thousands of dollars on many occasions to liberal Democrat Harry Reid, has no credibility posing as a conservative. Conservatives who support her, after she slashed their throats as chair of the 2010 state Republican convention, show every sign that they will continue hurting themselves with their bad choices. They don't seem to know better.

Another sign of character is evidence that a candidate is willing to live and act within the requirements they make of others. Al Gore's enormous carbon footprint, for instance, left by his many estates and private jet transportation, makes his dire warnings of carbon-based disaster ring hollow. For this reason, when a candidate campaigns as a conservative in favor of fiscal and personal responsibility, it is fair to look askance if he (or she) does not personally meet that standard. By this standard Sue Lowden, who owes more than a half million dollars in 2010 campaign debts, completely flunks all the tests of fiscal integrity. So does Republican Congressional candidate Niger Innis, whose debts include his income taxes; as did former Congressional candidate Danny Tarkanian, who had millions of dollars in court judgments against him while he ran for office.

Innis is a special case in other ways, because according to state voting records, he only recently realized that he is a Republican; he has only voted Republican in Nevada once in his life. If he only recently changed parties, fine, but why did he only recently begin voting at all? Is nonvoting now a civic virtue to be used as a qualification for office?

I first happened upon the candidate integrity issue when I was a young Democrat. In 1975 I was a 21-year-old student area coordinator for a liberal slate of candidates for Austin City Council - at a time when conservatives still ruled the Texas Democratic Party. We won a dramatic victory that year, flipping the council split from 2-5 to 5-2 and electing a 29-year-old lawyer and war protester as mayor.

One of my precinct organizers was a gung-ho 17-year-old dormitory resident assistant, the late Lena Guerrero. Lena was easily my best organizer and seen by everyone as a rising star. Nine years later my wife and I were walking door-to-door for Lena in her first, and successful, campaign for state representative. Seven years after that, Governor Ann Richards made history by appointing Lena as the first female and first Hispanic member of the Texas Railroad Commission - the state's regulatory body for oil and gas, not railroads. The Railroad Commission is The Show in Texas, so Lena's future seemed boundless.

Then it was discovered that she had lied on her campaign materials about having a college degree with Phi Beta Kappa honors, though she had never actually graduated. That was bad enough, but the coup de grace was the discovery that Lena barely spoke Spanish and had flunked Spanish in college. That was the kiss of death for her credibility in the Hispanic community. Soon the rising star was plummeting into the sea and forced to resign. I watched and learned from afar the hard lesson of being honest despite all temptations.

Today candidates seem to be able to drag all sort of personal baggage into their campaigns, and the Blind Faithful just don't care. I look for candidates who talk the talk of righteousness, morality, integrity, and humanity - and who walk the walk in their own lives. Those are the ones you can trust. The rest are a roll of the dice: Loaded dice. Play that game at your peril. Now, look again at your candidates of choice. Do they really measure up? If not, and you vote for them anyways, whose fault is it really when they implode on center stage?
Tai Chi
Tai Chi and Balance, Western Style

28 May 2014
Wuji Stance
As a young student I mistakenly believed that centering was a mental-spiritual idea and nothing more. As a result one of my earliest important "light bulb" moments came when I realized that balance is first physical. From physical balance can arise mental balance, and from mental balance can emerge spiritual balance. I say "can" because more work is needed after achieving physical balance, but by taking the first step you make the later steps possible.

Today I wish to explore balance as a scientific concept. All objects naturally seek balance according to their center of gravity. When I speak of center, I mean center of gravity. The center of gravity in an object is the spot where an equal amount of mass can be found in each direction of each dimension. In a perfect sphere or cube of uniform density, for instance, the center is easy to find: just go halfway in from the surface. In a pyramid the center sits lower than the midpoint, because most mass is at the bottom. In a non-symmetric object like the human body, the location of the center is a more complex matter. You can change it simply by tensing or relaxing muscles or joints.

If your center of gravity is seriously out of whack, your body may seek balance by making you fall down. In a martial arts context, if you do not keep your center under strict control, it will be easy to knock you down; it will also be difficult for you to launch an attack.

If your body is trying to make you fall down in order to achieve balance, it is common to tense up your muscles as you try to fight the call of nature. When you create tension in your body you throw your center further away from its ideal local in your abdomen, making it even easier to defeat you.

So the answer is to use directed effort to relax and maintain your center in its ideal area, the center of your lower abdomen, inside your body, between the navel and sexual center. Now let's explore center of gravity a little more closely.

feet parallel
Stand with your feet parallel, shoulder width apart. Your center side-to-side should be exactly in the middle between your feet. Your center front-to-back should be on a line between the middle of your feet. This means stay off your toes and stay off your heels: Connect to the ground through this middle spot we sometimes call the Bubble Spring or Bubbling Well.

You may be asking yourself, why isn't the Bubble Spring, the perfect center, exactly in the middle between the heel and toe extents? The answer is that the center of gravity is not the midpoint if the short side has greater density than longer side, which is the case with the foot. However, a complete answer is much more complicated, concerning a method of maintaining center by flexing the ankles, knees, and hips. For a discussion of that method we will have to wait until the next time.
Pet Trafficking in Las Vegas

16 May 2014
Stogie at 1
The meet took place at dusk, on the far west side north of Summerlin. Our only communications had been by text message, where I found out more about what I was getting, how much it would cost me, and where to get it. I plugged the street address into Android Maps and left Boulder City for a 100-mile round trip to a vice I never knew existed.

Arriving at the address, I was dismayed to discover it was a convenience store set on a pad in a large shopping center. Now I wondered whether I would leave unsatisfied. After a couple of quick text messages confirmed our cars' descriptions, soon she pulled up next to me in her car.

My relief gave way to a nervous concern about what else could go wrong. I scanned the parking area to make sure she did not have a confederate nearby, possibly with ill intentions, because the hookup had turned unexpectedly clandestine.

Then she got out of the car and handed me one of the cutest little puppies I have ever seen, a little brown thing with Yorkie hair and highlights but a Chihuahua's long body, about two pounds and seven weeks old. The pup started licking my face and though nervous, was a happy little girl. I handed over $200 to the owner, who handed over a starter bag of food with some quick instructions about feeding and getting shots. Soon little Kuno and I were in the car and headed back to Boulder City.

I had found Kuno on Craigslist, which is a far more reliable place to get a dog, apparently, than it is to get a date. When I spent a couple of months making a decision whether to get a dog, I thought that was the biggest decision I would have to make. As it turned out the really tough decision was how to buy a dog for less than my first car ($600), or for that matter my last bicycle ($400).

My son bought a mini-schnauzer from a breeder near Houston last year for $350, so I was optimistic until I saw the same (breed of) dog at Petland, for a heart-stopping $2,499. At that point I got real: I did not need a thoroughbred, I needed a companion. So I hit Craigslist and found ads for all sorts of dogs. Had I not found Kuno so quickly I might have discovered the seamy underside of Las Vegas pet trafficking before she disappeared from my yard, and saved us both a lot of sorrow.

Two weeks ago Kuno and I started playing a game in my gated yard. The game was this: I would put Kuno in yard and close the patio door, in an effort to train her not to defecate in the house, and Kuno would get out through the gate  often to be returned by a neighborhood teenager that would see her wiggling around the front yard like a cross between a gopher and an earthworm. I sealed the gate with chicken wire; she went under the gate. I put rocks under the gate; she went around the chicken wire. I tied a block of wood in the gap; she pushed it aside. I finally tied it firmly enough to keep her in the yard, so last Saturday I had the mistaken confidence to leave her in the yard while I went to the Jamboree in the park.

When I returned she was gone. I found no sign that she escaped, no sign of a little body trapped in the bushes, no word from neighbors. She did not appear at animal control or the hospital. I was, and remain, heartbroken.

Knowing it would be hard to find an animal that touched me as little Kuno did, I have not been as quick to reach out. In the week I spent online, looking for a replacement, I learned she was most likely stolen for resale, a breedable female. As I read more and more ads I discovered quite a few warnings about the depths to which people will stoop to in order to breed dogs to death and make good money off their litters, as long as they live.

A lot of the problem is a classic supply-demand dilemma caused by regulations written to favor the high-end suppliers by trying to reduce demand. Like so many urban areas, we have a distressing overabundance of homeless dogs and cats. To cope with the problem, Clark County requires that all dogs and cats be neutered within six months unless they are raised by licensed breeders. Such breeders must pay fees and some must pass requirements intended to make sure that animals are protected in breeding situations.

The requirements are well intentioned and do some good, but by creating these stringent regulations, county officials have given amateurs incentive to breed at home, under the radar. When animals are bred in the black market, the babies in the litter are typically cared for, but the mothers are treated as chattel to be used and disposed of. I heard of one mother dog who was breeded for five litters a year: 25 mixed-breed puppies that together probably brought in $5,000 or more.

The situation provides an ethical dilemma: is it better to avoid the black market breeders and thus (hopefully) discourage their practice, or is it better to buy their pups to make sure they get good homes? The answer to ethical dilemmas is usually obvious, but not always.

I solved the dilemma by buying a rescue dog from the Las Vegas SPCA, which seems to have the most and best choices of any local pounds. Stogie is a happy one-year-old Australian silkie terrier who was abandoned but not abused. He has the energy of youth and the friendliness of a pup who appreciates a loving home. I'm tempted to get him a companion, but if I do I will not turn to the black market: my daughter, who volunteers at nursing homes and hospices, has discovered permanent residents who need new home for their dogs. I have a feeling Stogie will have a new buddy soon.
Six Amendments, by John Paul Stevens (2014)

6 May 2014
Six Amendments
Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, John Paul Stevens (2014)

Lately politicians and pundits have been piling on with proposals to amend the Constitution. Particularly curious is the phenomenon of activists who show their support for the Constitution by demanding that we change it. Last year we were inflicted with the ranting of conservative talk show host Mark Levin (The Liberty Amendments, 2013). More recently we have Philip K. Howard (The Rule of Nobody, 2014), who wants to break government deadlocks by giving the President the power of a dictator.

Into this fray steps retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, with Six Amendments. In contrast to the aforementioned politicos Stevens steps gingerly indeed, with proposals couched in legal nuance. Consequently he wields far more authority through care and diligence than the others achieve through bluster.

Stevens steps through six noteworthy Constitutional issues in a sparse one hundred twenty pages, which is a miracle of no small note, coming as it does from one of the nation's pre-eminent jurists. It is also a blessing, because once he gets going he wields case references, some dating to the Founding, with a dexterity that rivals Machete with his weapon of choice.

One of his best decisions was to not propose a laundry list of amendments to add or remove. The long-difficult issues he proposes to resolve can be changed by the addition of a few words here and there. Some of his issues are well known political hot potatoes, but others are obscure and require more explanation. His six amendments fall in the realms of 
  • Supremacy Clause: clarifying Congress' ability to direct state officials
  • Political Gerrymandering
  • Campaign Finance
  • Sovereign Immunity: making it clear that the federal government cannot refuse lawsuits against it on the basis of sovereign immunity
  • The Death Penalty
  • The Right to Bear Arms
For you as a reader the question is, can you read a legal analysis of this sort and appreciate its thoughtful perspective for what it is? Are you so politically minded that you can enjoy the book only if you agree with it in its entirety? If the latter, stick with Ann Coulter or Michael Moore, depending on your preferred mode of masochism.

I fall in the former category. As such I found Stevens' work to be a fast and compelling read  but it was fast because it was concise, a blessing (I repeat) in these days of encyclopedic works. Stevens does fail to satisfy on one count, but it is a count common to legalistic works. The changes he advocates are grounded purely in legal issues. As he advocates changes, he completely ignores the political concerns. Stevens blithely assumes that the direction of the changes he wants  federal dominance over the states, an end to the general right to bear arms, an end to the death penalty  are desirable, with no discussion at all. Let's look at a couple of his choices.

The first choice relates to the anti-commandeering case law that has emerged around Article VI of the Constitution, commonly called the Supremacy Clause. Under this clause Congress may give orders to state judges but no other state officials. Stevens spends a lot of time reviewing the cases of note in this area, but in the end he simply wants an amendment that will allow Congress to give orders to state officials whenever it wishes. He spends no time at all discussing the political implications of this change, which would be at odds with the rights of the states as defined in the Tenth Amendment.

In the realm of campaign finance Stevens does indeed advocate a brief amendment, to modify the power of the First Amendment: Neither the First Amendment nor any other portions of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns. If you are in general agreement that we must find a way to curtain campaign spending, this amendment is reasonable to a point: it never defines what is reasonable. The years that followed such an amendment would see numerous court cases challenging the reasonableness of the legislation that emerges. This is a necessary shortcoming of any such amendment.

Finally, Stevens advocates an end to the right to bear arms without any discussion of the pros and cons of the issue: as he does throughout the book, the discussion revolves around case law. He would modify the Second Amendment to read as follows: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the rights of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed. While that change would not end the right to bear arms among ordinary people, it would certainly allow individual states to end it. Pitched battles would likely take place of the definition of Militia. A militia is not an armed gang of hoodlums like the fellows gathering at Cliven Bundy's ranch; a militia is a paramilitary adjunct to the army, subject to the orders of army officers. If the army does not recognize the militia, it's not a militia. Militias typically exist only in places without a standing professional army, but the United States has had a standing professional army ever since the Civil War. The last time regiments of unaffiliated volunteers were allowed to participate was during the Spanish-American War, with groups such as Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

Six Amendments is a book well worth reading with an open but critical mind. Everyone will have their favorite chapters, but I think those concerning gerrymandering and campaign finance are the most compelling. These two issues are on the verge of destroying our democratic republic, so I am heartened to read Stevens' advocacy of viable solutions. Will you agree with them? Don't take my word for it  read the book!
Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis (2014)

24 Apr 2014
Flash Boys
I remember that day in October 1987 when the stock market crashed. Since I was not in the market at the time, I stood outside the event, watching, wondering if this would lead to another depression as it had almost 60 years before. I was young with a wife and child, financially unprepared, and completely at the mercy of what was to come.

I got lucky: Neither depression nor recession were in the cards, but the crash did lead to clumsy attempts by the Securities and Exchange Commission to shelter small time investors from the effects of such events. Those attempts in turn led to a federally mandated computerized trading system that foreshadowed the Rise of the Programmers

I have been a computer programmer for 45 years as well as stock market investor, off and on, since 1981. For the last two years, while posting buy orders for stock, I have often watched the price of the stock tease upward  like a shop owner who jacks up prices when he sees how much a shopper wants his goods. Similarly, my attempts at sales would result in the stock teasing downward. In each case I learned that if I took the bait, it promptly popped back to the original price I had tried to target. I imagined writing a program that intervened in the middleware and played with bids and offers in order to make money. Dang, can't a daydreamer like me imagine something happening just once without it actually coming true?

As we learn in Michael Lewis' latest expose of the dark inner workings of the financial world, Flash Boys, this is Wall Street at work, not my imagination. If you hear a TV pundit or reporter speak of this book, as I have this week, as an expose of high frequency trading (HFT), that is proof they have not read it or they have not understood it. HFT is merely the context. Lewis reveals that new stock exchanges are springing up right and left around Wall Street, run by computer programmers who deal in micro seconds (millionths of a second) not just so they can trade faster, but so they can use their extra speed to spy on the opposition and do end runs so they can buy and sell the stock out from under the order makers.

The shocking news of the story is this: for investment bankers like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, the opposition is their clients. Banks and investment houses that handle trading for their clients now run the trades through dark pools that strip the metadata from the proposed trade, run out and steal the trade, then re-sell at higher prices, at a profit, to their own clients. Some of them make a billion dollars a year and more doing this, so you know it is a serious business.

Lewis' story goes into more depth than the point I've just made. As usual he does a masterful job, taking projects like mundane utility digs and making them endlessly fascinating. He also has an interesting sociogeopolitical story of Russian nerds overcoming adversity from their homeland. While making themselves rich, they accomplished something never approached by their Communist forebears: sabotaging, through technical innovation, the stable capitalist foundation on which Wall Street has been based for more than two hundred years

If you trade or invest in the stock market, or trust someone to do it on your behalf, these revelations are far more disturbing than the knowledge that Wall Street is a big casino. We've known that for generations. Now we know that Wall Street is a rigged casino. Insider trading is a joke compared to this travesty. Martha Stewart should demand a retrial! Imagine the Mafia completely controlling modern-day Las Vegas without state gaming regulation, and multiply that by 1,000: that gives you a modest notion of the seriousness of the problem that Lewis presents to us.

Should you stay out of the market altogether? Truth is, modern America provides limited choices for parking our investment and retirement funds. Keep your 401K or IRA in the market, but otherwise the smartest thing you can diversify your funds. Buy real estate, buy businesses, buy CDs, buy gold, and keep cash in CDs. Five years ago I bagged a long-term CD at five percent. The yield is not massive but it beats anything available today, and it is rock solid; CDs never lose money. And when you do have to invest, leave the trading to experienced professional money managers with strong institutional resources to weather the coming computer-generated crash

As for Lewis' latest book, it is a quick and easy read  if you are a computer programmer. Time and time again the book demonstrates the difficulty of explaining the situation to bankers with no programming background. My hunch is that you can understand a lot of the book fine without it, and if you invest in the stock market, you can't afford to ignore it. Michael Lewis hits another home run with Flash Boys.
The Full Life

17 Apr 2014
Year of the Wooden Horse
By Chinese standards, I have lived a full life: Today I am 60 years old. I was born in a Year of the Wooden Horse, which comes around once every 60 years  and here we are again, Year of the Wooden Horse. I am a true Trojan. For you Westerners, my birthstone is diamond, so the perfect gift would be a wooden horse stuffed with diamonds instead of soldiers.

Full life? What the heck is that all about? The Chinese Zodiac is based on one animal per year, as opposed to the Western variation, which goes by months. So I was born in a Year of the Horse, 1954. The Year of the Horse recurred in 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, and now 2014.

Toss into the mix another aspect of Chinese culture called Five Element Theory. For many people it is essentially a religion, but for me it is a paradigm that helps me dig deeper into internal work. The Chinese call this work neijia; if you are Western, think of it as a way to plug directly into God without prayer. Throughout the centuries it has been treated as the work of monks and saints, not ordinary churchgoers, but for world mental health I would like to see that change. I entered the training more than three decades ago; for more than a decade I have been a teacher, but in my heart I remain a student.

At any rate, each 12-year Zodiac goes through an element  the five elements being water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Since I was born in the spring, which is associated with wood, that element of my Wooden Horse heritage is strengthened. Wood is associated with spring, the color green, the liver, negative feelings of anger, and positive feelings of kindness. Thus it is believed that anger may be managed and liver health may be improved by meditating on the wood element, its associated color, green, and its associated sound, which cannot be replicated in writing. In the last decade I have worked with this meditative practice, called Six Healing Sounds, a lot; my 2011 CD, Tai Chi Meditations, is largely devoted to it.

As a teenager I was afflicted with hepatitis, a liver disease that might have killed me. Three years ago my primary care physician informed me that my blood shows no evidence of any prior liver disease. He gave me carte blanche to donate blood for the first time since childhood! He believes my earlier doctors were in error in their diagnosis, but I have all my medical records since 1963, with which I can confirm the diagnosis, made at the hospital where I was born, on Carswell Air Force Base in North Texas. Perhaps both are correct, and my antigens were cleaned out by my neijia work. Possible? Perhaps. Provable? Not at all. Neijia is essentially religious work, which means faith is an important component. I find it can be connected to Christian traditions without much difficulty, if you are inclined to expand your mind to allow such possibilities.

All this is skirting the real issue: Now that I have entered my second life, what will I do with it? In old China, men who could do so would retire at 60, often to become monks or sages. That's not a bad direction for me, but a bit premature by a dozen years or more. All around me I have friends who are retiring from their jobs, and in many way retiring from life. I am headed in the opposite direction with my second life. I cannot imagine abandoning the producer (or at least contributor) class. I am a maker, not a taker. I will keep going until I drop, which I am not planning to occur any sooner than 2062, when I turn 108. (Although, yes, I have a will and a personal trust fund, just in case.)

For my remaining decades I am fully yielding to my true nature. That came easily to many people I admire, but not for me. I have denied my true essence for so long, and to what end? In biographies I read, great people have not allowed themselves to be hung up on external considerations. I just read my first biography of Nikola Tesla, with whom I feel a strong commonality (except for the part about being an engineering genius). Tesla largely went his own way and paid a price for it. My work requires efforts made in solitude, which is ultimately a lonely business.

Perhaps a lot of people reside in this space where I find myself. Being single and relatively unencumbered, I can allow my journey to take me where it must. It's about time! I am writing prodigiously; some of that writing would have gotten me excommunicated, imprisoned, or even executed in prior centuries. Some of it may yet. The next time you hear from me it will be to let you know more about my Muse's musings, and where you fit in. Trust me, you do fit in.
Las Vegas v. Houston, Part 2

16 Feb 2014
The beginnings of my attempts at growing my own lawn. Notice the bare ground beyond. See the resemblance to the side of the house and the sidewalk?
I have committed one of the greatest sins available to me in Sin City, which is saying a lot in a place that markets debauchery in all available extremes. Worse yet, I have done it in the Sinless Suburb, Boulder City, which allows neither casinos nor liquor stores.

I have planted grass.

My friends back in Houston will laugh at that. Subtropical Houston exists at the nexus of a coast, a forest, and a swamp. The humidity is so high that the shade offers no relief, and the night's temperatures do not vary much from the day's. Everything grows in Houston. You need a machete to keep it at bay, because the grass will grow head-high in a season if you let it.

Now I live in the River Mountains by Lake Mead, perched about four hundred feet above the Las Vegas Valley to the west and Esmeralda Valley to the south, where Boulder City located its solar power plant and its upcoming drone testing base. That's not very high by Rocky Mountain standards, but compared to pancake-flat Houston, where I lived at 14 feet above sea level (it said so on a street sign), living a half mile up means something.

The mountains are really just piles of ugly dirt and rocks. The entire area is inhospitable to plant life in the extreme, as I found out last year when I made my first efforts at potted plant life - efforts that shot out the starting gate at full speed, but did not go the distance.

Why is planting grass a sin? Water. The area is in its twelfth year of drought. Lake Mead is sitting at historical lows, so much so that one of the intake pipes for water access may soon be above water, and hence unusable. In an effort at water conservation, a few years ago the water authority started offering a $1,900 one-time payment to anyone who replaced their lawn with xeriscaping.

I try not to be a hateful person, but I hate xeriscaping. I want grass. I miss green plant life. I miss practicing Tai Chi barefooted in the grass on a reliable, level surface. In Chinese culture I was born in a year of the wooden horse. In the Five Element paradigm wood is associated with the color green, spring, and liver health (let's save that part for another time). Wood baby that I am, I like green. I should mention that in no part of the Chinese pantheon is found brown, the color of the desert.

This year I have a house with a completely undeveloped side yard. Desolate, forbidding, and nasty are words that come to mind when I try to describe its appearance, but there is the advantage that houses on each side prevent it from getting much direct sunlight, which is so deadly here, but allows a lot of indirect sunlight. So instead of potting plants, I am planting, but face new challenges.

The native soil resembles tawny cement, without the gardening-friendly attributes we normally associate with cement. It crumbles away to a depth of two or three inches, then resists all attempts at pulverative rehabilitation.

Having never grown grass before, I deemed the circumstances inpropitious for planting seed. The cost alone of so much bagged soil - 40 bags would barely do the trick, by my estimate - was prohibitive, so I decided to try sod. My main area covers 200 square feet, but the oleander bush I bought, native to the desert, should grow substantially, so I am really only looking at about a 120 square foot area. For my initial effort I bought 50 square feet, in long rectangles of five square feet each. Six of them I placed together, and the remainder in staggered stripes. I am filling in the empty spaces with dirt, in the hope that the grass will grow and fill in the empty spaces. I have seen that done before, but have always wondered how well and how quickly it worked; I may get impatient and buy more sod.

This morning my newly planted grassy area looks nice, but is only large enough for a standing post meditation. For Tai Chi I still have to go to the park, which is where I am headed right now.
Double Down: Game Change 2012

13 Feb 2014
Game Change 2012
Double Down: Game Change 2012 (2013)
By Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

A great deal of my early political interest as a teenager was stimulated by Theodore White's Making of the President series of books, for the elections of 1960 through 1976. I still have my original copy of the 1972 edition, and recently re-read the premier book covering John Kennedy's razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon.

The two Game Change books are nothing like the Making of the President books. Both are good in their own ways. White's series focused more on how the campaigns were shaped by the state of the nation and its people. He does not not have the deep inside information that the Game Change authors have, though he has some. The White approach is journalistic; the Halperin/Heilemann approach is for political junkies and would-be insiders. As a guy who studied journalism as an undergraduate and public affairs as a graduate student, both approaches work for me. Double Down has a lot of inside goodies that would make any political junkie salivate  such as early evidence that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's background is littered with pot holes overflowing with broken glass and rusty nails. He will never be president. More about that in a minute.

Most striking about this book is how its depiction of the Republican primaries differs from my memory of it. When we are in the middle of an event, time moves differently than when we are outside it. At the same time, I think the authors missed the essence of the Republican problem in this book. The authors are clearly, though not flagrantly, in favor of Obama over the Republicans, who they think are either lunatics or just not ready for prime time. They do a reasonable but not great job of holding their bias in check. That's a lot of generalities to toss out, so let me get specific.

The campaigns for the Republican nomination took place in the fall of 2011 as well as during the 2012 spring primary season, with almost more than a dozen debates going into the primary season, with Most of the candidates were dead in the water before the first caucus, Iowa, or the first primary, New Hampshire, although several held on. Why is this significant?

National Republican leadership recently set new rules for their 2016 primaries. The purpose of the rules is to cut the primary season short, to make sure that the nominee is chosen early and not picked apart by minor or losing candidates who don't mind sticking around to humiliate themselves, like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. In the process they have caused a major rift with conservatives and libertarians who understand that the real goal is for establishment Republican to cut everyone else out.

If the Republican leadership had read Double Down closely, they would understand that the problem was not the primary season, because most candidates were effectively knocked out by the debates, partially or completely, before the primaries began. As a result almost all were gone before Super Tuesday, which from now one we will have to call Super-Duper Tuesday, because effectively it will be a national primary day.

Their plans to compress the primaries are for naught because the problem in 2012 was not the process  it was the candidates. In most dysfunctional organizations, the problem is almost always people, not process.

Back to the book. The list of inside goodies is endless. Spoiler alert! I'm going to list some of my favorites. If they sound interesting, just read the book. If you were alive and conscious in 2012, it will be a familiar and easy read.
  • Chris Christie seriously considered running, not because he wanted to, but because the public and private pressure to run was intense. He did not thinkg he was ready, but realized that he was facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unlike Obama in 2008, he held back.
  • Obama's campaign did indeed examine the possibility of replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton as vice president. Obama was not involved, and Biden was not told of his near miss (though he suspected): all the polling showed that Hillary would not help the re-election chances, so Joe was left alone.
  • Biden's and Obama's decisions to do a flip-flop in favor of gay marriage was an event coordinated carefully over several months. Even so, Biden jumped the gun because he was not kept in the loop by staff, so it did not go as planned.
  • Early on, the Bush family tried to recruit a number of senators and governors, folks like Ohio senator Rob Portman and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Daniels and his wife were lobbied hard; Laura Bush even called to reassure his wife that raising kids in the White House wasn't so bad., but to no avail. Daniels let his daughters veto it.
  • Michelle Bachman thought Sarah Palin was prettier than her, but resented intellectual comparisons between the her, a tax lawyer, and the moose hunter.
  • Jon Huntsman floundered partly because his campaign strategy was based on the premise that family money would kick in. Jon Huntsman Senior, is the founder and and chairman of Huntsman Chemical  among other things, he got rich designing and making the boxes for Big Macs. He is believed to be worth several times more than Romney, but as it turned out, neither Junior nor Senior had the cash flow to fund the campaign, and it died for lack of oxygen. When questioned, Huntsman refused to call himself a conservative, which made him the kind of guy the Bushes have their eyes on. In 2016, with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie out of the running, Huntsman may well be the most viable Republican moderate in the campaign  if he runs and if he can get better traction in the primaries.
  • Mitt Romney vetted, or tried to vet, five men as candidates for vice president  Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, and Marco Rubio. He wanted Christie so badly that in his second pass through the collected information, he tried to ignore the fact that Christie had supplied almost none of the information requested, and refused to supply more. Missing were key financial documents, legal disclosures, government documents, and medical records. Romney's chief Christie vetter, Mark Nielsen compiled a list of ten major questions unanswered by Christie. Keep in mind that this was before Christie's re-election last year. Nielsen concluded that if Christie had run for president, he would have been so damaged by the disclosures against him that he could not have stood for re-election as governor.
  • Obama won. He was not confident of victory until after the last debate. From the beginning he was worried about the deluge of money going into Republican Super PACs.
Later during the fall campaign, Obama and Romney struggled with their debate preparations, though in different ways. Double Down describes their travails in considerable detail, almost none of which became public during the campaign. The preparations, and the candidates' handling of them, tell us more about both men than any other study. Read the book if only for this study, but you will be amazed at the other things you learn along the way.

If you care about the presidency and its elections, read this book. 4.5 stars.
Boulder City
Boulder City Tomorrow

22 Jan 2014
Boulder City Area
What will Boulder City look like tomorrow, next year, next decade? Will it successfully continue its steady-state, slow-slow-growth policy, or will it be forced to adapt to changing times? Does the shuttering of the Goatfeathers consignment empire reflect an economic decline of our community, or is it just part of the ups and downs of all small towns?

Forty years I saw my newly-adopted community of Austin, Texas, facing similar concerns under drastically different circumstances. Having moved there the year before to attend the University of Texas, at age 19 the Austin City Council appointed me to a citizens' assembly called Austin Tomorrow. The goal of Austin Tomorrow was, ostensibly, for citizens to learn modern urban planning techniques to map out the growth of the city with care.

I say ostensibly because the real reasons for Austin Tomorrow were far less about citizen guidance of the future, and far more about establishment control of Austin's burgeoning progressive movement, which was notably anti-growth.

What does this have to do with Boulder City? Austin's progressives were dead-set against a fast-growing Austin, while the developers and car salesmen then in charge relied upon economic growth for their prosperity. Like most cities, sales taxes and property taxes fuel the city government. Austin at 250,000 was a comfortable place to live; many of us did not want to see it become another Dallas or Houston, as we commonly put it.

As a graduate student of urban affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public affairs several years later, I tried to create a viable economic urban model that did not include growth. I did not find a single economist willing to work with me on that. The Austin metro area has since more than quadrupled in size, with traffic so bad that you can be gridlocked on a freeway after midnight: it skipped right past Dallas and Houston and became San Francisco instead.

So now I move to Boulder City and discover a town that has successfully negotiated a no-growth path for two decades. The growth is not absolute zero, but so slow that anyone can admire the successful acquisition of the goal. I salute this success, and love Boulder City for it.

The question is, can this model stand indefinitely? Are the economists wrong? Even if the City of Boulder City maintains its land use controls, which have a certain soviet flavor disinterested in the needs of the average citizen, will the world outside stand still and allow us to continue in Pleasantville? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends on what the definition of us is.

As a community we are economically threatened by the Interstate 11 bypass now in the early stages of planning and construction. The I-11 bypass is the third and largest nail in a coffin begun with the rerouting of Highway 93 around the city, and then the building of the Hoover Dam bypass.

Fewer and fewer travelers have a reason to stop here. When I-11 is completed drivers will be able to move between Las Vegas and Phoenix without thinking once, much less twice, about stopping in the dusty little town of Boulder City. This will devastate the small businesses in the old part of town while leaving the warehouses and golf courses unaffected.

What is the city leadership doing about it? Mayor Roger Tobler has formed an informal stakeholders group that smacks of the back room machinations of Austin Tomorrow  informal in a way that means membership and meetings are by invitation, and unadvertised. They are open if you can find them, but you will not find them on the city or chamber of commerce calendars.

The result is a set of policies that can sustain the city revenues indefinitely, regardless of how badly the local economy declines. Since moving here only one season ago I have watched the closing of Goatfeathers I & II, Central Market, two art galleries, a restaurant, our only bookstore, and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken  and those are just the closings that I, a newbie, heard about through GPS orphan searches and word of mouth.

With what does the city propose to replace them? A practice park for remote-controlled weapons of mass destruction, and maybe a couple of warehouse or truck terminals. Jobs for locals? Zero. Economic multiplier effects? Zero. City fees for land leases and sales that ignore the needs of locals? A lot. At this rate Boulder City could end up a lot like Indian Springs.

Meanwhile, proposals to open actual operating retail/low commercial businesses in the early bypass corridor (western Phase I) are backpedaled  in Boulder City. On the Henderson side of the road, plans are underway. The corridor will be developed, at least on the other side. What will the small business folks of Boulder City get to do? Like the folks trapped Under the Dome: Watch, wither, and slowly run out of water.
Tai Chi
Tai Chi Roots

24 Dec 2013
Official Family Crest of Clan Napier
I'm not much for holiday TV fare, but today's showing of Roots, in all its flawed glory, was special. The show brings memories of thanks and of lessons learned about the study of the history that we care about, our own. At the end of the TV mini-series, when I learned Roots was a story that emerged from Alex Haley's personal quest, I thought, if the descendant of a slave can learn so much about his past, surely I can learn as much!

That was only five years after my father's premature death in 1972, so I grasped onto this idea and never let go. Over the next dozen years I slowly became the family historian, as I plugged into established family trees going back as far as 30 generations, to the 10th century C.E. and (later) the Norman Conquest.

I started the way anyone would start, with the family in front of me. My mother's parents were in their late 70s, in declining health, and lived in Dallas. The drive from Austin was an easy one, I went to visit them. I interviewed them for hours and wrote the results on a series of green five-by-eight index cards. I learned of three generations of my grandmother, and five generations of my grandfather. Eventually I would connect the maternal line to the only Union soldier in our otherwise very Southern family; I would connect the paternal line to the family tree of Lord Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, which connected us to princes, prime ministers, earls, presidents, and a conqueror. I contacted my father's mother by phone and mail; she provided me with even more surprises.

That was long before the ascendancy of Ancestry.com, DNA testing, and the like. It was before the World Wide Web. Back then I had no clue how to proceed, so I put the index cards in a file folder and stuck the folder in my file cabinet, where it remained unmolested for a dozen years.

In 1989 I was working on a contract at Pennzoil where a co-worker, Tom Peacock, told me of the Clayton Genealogy Library. Only a few miles south of downtown, it is part of the Houston Library System and the best genealogy library in the South west of Atlanta. The Clayton Library opened me up to the world. It revived my interest in history. I took those index cards, still in that folder in my file cabinet, and went to work.

Genealogy library research involved reading old censuses on microfilm, after locating them through index searches. Even today the indexes vary greatly in quality from state to state and decade to decade. The work also involves visually scanning hundreds of books, by state and country, for references to your family. I am fortunate that my family tree is devoid of names like Smith, Jones, Johnson, or Garcia. Even a name like Napier has multiple sources, multiple interpretations, and many lines of descendancy - just enough to be interesting.

The details of my discoveries are interesting only to family members. The next part of my story involves the discovery that in writing Roots, Alex Haley lied. He made up stories. No doubt he had strands of facts and filled in the blanks, in order to create a story that could be told. I have lots of strands like that; occasionally I am tempted to posit a story of what might have happened - such as how 45-year-old Frenchman Jean Francois D'Autel, one of my father's maternal ancestors, ended up with a boatload (literally) of Germanic children, and left for Baltimore from Wurzburg in 1820. A Napoleonic soldier who went native in Germany and started life anew after being widowed? Perhaps.

To understand my reaction to this discovery, you have to understand me: I have a fact fixation. I want anything represented as fact to indeed be true. You give me a rule, and I struggle with attempts to finesse its meaning. Good thing I never became a lawyer!

Fiction - storytelling - need not be true, which is its great virtue, because ideas can be represented without being dragged down by reality. Reality is messy. A fiction writer can gloss over the rough edges with a clean conscience, if he chooses. Religious mythmaking often falls into this category, but then betrays its value, and worthiness, when portrayed as a depiction of something that really happened. At that point I lose respect for the storyteller. Learning is process of recognizing and abandoning delusions, so a delusional teacher is of little help.

In Haley's case, it wasn't my family history that he messed with. My takeaway was the value of getting to know your own roots, especially when circumstances have cut you away from them. For that lesson I salute Alex Haley.

The question of fact versus fiction resonates more deeply for me in other arenas, as it gets to the heart of questions of the history, and hence meaning, of Tai Chi Chuan - and ultimately, most religion as well. The origins of Tai Chi are as murky as the origins of man. Some historians and experts are close together despite disagreements, but others make wild claims that shatter any hope of closing in on the truth. Even within my own lineage, for which I am a lineage holder, I have been astonished to discover that some, perhaps most, of the stories of the last century cannot be true. I also uncovered a myth in my family's genealogy just three years ago. As long as I know they are myths, I have learned from the process of discovery. If I ignore that knowledge, I take a step backward.

Most recently, some Tai Chi and Qigong grandmasters have begun concocting new myths and fairy tales about the origins of Tai Chi and Qigong - not only contradicting most of the pre-existing stories without new evidence, but creating words and circumstances completely out of character with the times. It reminds me of Marvel Comics' periodic attempts to update their characters by rewriting their origin stories. Marvel's material is known to be fiction, but when a grandmaster speaks, people tend to take his words at face value, as they might a priest. This is how myths become regarded as truth, and truth evaporates like mist.

Why is that necessary? Why is it not sufficient that we drink deeply of an exercise form that seems to have no limit to mysteries and wonders? People make up untruths to cover for insecurities. Why should we feel the need to prove the value of Tai Chi with fictions? The value of Tai Chi lies in its fact.
The Bad Boys of Cable TV

19 Dec 2013
With one down for the count and two KO's, this year's bad boys of cable TV - Jax, Dex, and Walt - have left us breathless in anticipation of what new anti-heroes may be lurking around the corner.
Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey (The Shield) were bad boys and soulless killers, but now we know they were just warm-up acts for true evil, the kind that lures not by repulsing, but by drawing you in with an intimacy rarely seen outside the boudoir or the abattoir.
Particularly fascinating has been the public reactions to the series finales of these shows, only one of which (Sons of Anarchy) has not yet run its full course. Even though the ending of The Sopranos was telegraphed throughout its last mini-season, its meaning was still widely debated, as if the concept lights out can sustain more than one realistic interpretation.
Vic Mackey
The downfall of Vic Mackey was more interesting: Think about it, a corrupt cop, a man of the streets used to controlling his own schedule and running around like the poster boy for ADHD, and he ends up required by law to take an 8-to-5 office job shuffling papers. For him, this ultimate hell was his only option outside prison, which almost looked inviting by comparison. The deep irony of this delicious ending - a fate worse than death, in many ways - captured the attention of few.
The man behind Mackey was Kurt Sutter, now the man behind Jax Teller and Sons of Anarchy. We know from watching Sutter's interviews and post-mortems that he planned much of the final two seasons of SOA years ago, when he first blocked out the show's main story arcs.
Jax Teller
Like all of the bad-boy shows, SOA has had so many improbable story lines - like the trip to Belfast, Ireland, motorcycles, colors and all (but no fake ID) - that the realists among us threw our hands up in despair long ago. In fact, until her death in the season finale, Jax's wife Tara seemed as likely as anyone to be the sole survivor, running the M.C. until Jax's son Abel came of age in the final season, set 20 years later. It was a crazy plot line to hope for, but no crazier than Juice's or Tig's abilities to survive disasters that would crush nuclear-hardened cockroaches. The bloodletting has increased to a pace only Dexter could envy. As a result the betting on SOA's last season has devolved to guessing who the survivors will be, since few are expected. Wayne Unser? Chuckie? The Administrator? Inquiring minds want to know.
Perhaps most talked about were the finales of Dexter and Breaking Bad - the former being generally panned, and the latter generally lauded. Let me offer opposing perspectives.
My first thought was, why not have both Dexter AND Walter White survive? Together? They meet on the lam. What could be more fun?
Dexter Morgan
People reacted to Dexter's ending - he goes bonkers, runs away, and starts life anew secretly, alone - as if he wasn't really a psychopathic killer. Like they thought he would, you know, get better and not kill any more. Kind of the way a Really Good Christian might want to "cure" a gay man. In reality, it was a perfect ending. True, Dexter did not suffer the ultimate punishment, but instead he broods in a living hell, pondering his dead wife, lost love, and abandoned child, knowing he can no longer pretend to the normal life for which his stepfather trained him.
Walter White
Did Walter White really suffer the ultimate punishment in Breaking Bad? No one who watches comic book movies, soap operas, or franchise films really believes in death. Screenwriters will resuscitate their characters at will: Agent Coulson died last year in The Avengers, only to go on and star in his own TV show this year. You get the picture. We saw Walter White, at the end of Breaking Bad, dying. Not dead! We don't know he's dead until we see them cut up the body, which they might well do in shows like BB or DX. Until then, he's fair game for a last-minute save.
Which leads me to the final setup - a TV movie, or even mini-series, that brings Dex and Walt together, head to head. Breaking Blood. In Alien versus Predator, who wins? Who cares? The main thing is, we get to enjoy cheering the demise of all the characters, without guilt. On cable TV, that's a win-win.
Conspiracy Theories

2 Dec 2013
Conspiracy Theory
I never heard of a conspiracy theory before President Kennedy was assassinated. No doubt they existed before - no doubt someone knew how Julius Caesar was really killed, and certainly the Lincoln Conspiracy continues to draw enthusiasts - but they never went mainstream until the 20th century's first pop-culture political superstar died under unusual circumstances. In the last 50 years they have proliferated like mushrooms in cow patties.

Anyone can see the draw to conspiracy theories: they ask questions often not fully answered, sometimes even conspicuously avoided, by the authorities who created the Official Explanation. If you enjoy questioning authority, as so many of us do, you can't help but wonder how, say, a poor gunman like Lee Harvey Oswald could pull off a nearly impossible double-tap under such conditions.

Wondering such a thing, of course, reflects ignorance on multiple counts, which is common in the media and not uncommon among conspiracy theorists. Oswald was not a poor gunman, as his Russian gun club friends have testified; the shot was not nearly impossible, but relatively easy, as numerous shooters have proven; and shots from the Texas School Depository, due to low-parallax conditions, would have been simple compared to the high-parallax requirements of the infamous grassy knoll. No experienced gunman would have chosen the grassy knoll as a shooting site.

I became hyper-aware of conspiracy theorists after watching some friends go crazy over the BATF storming of the the David Koresh cult compound outside Waco in 1994. One buddy offered a video as proof that flame-throwing tank cannons had set the compound on fire. What his video showed was a building already on fire, and a tank backing away from it. Behind the tank, fire was streaming in such a way that a person not paying close attention might think it was coming from the tank cannon.

But tank cannons do not act as flamethrowers. They shoot shells. A flamethrower affixed to a tank would have a noticeably different configuration. In this case, the video was proof of nothing except my friend's extreme desire to prove that the evil government had done something really bad, as if the assault itself was not bad enough.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem with conspiracy theorists: First and foremost, they want to find conspiracies. They don't give up, not because the evidence points them conclusively in another direction, but because they tend toward obsessive-compulsiveness with a dark view of the world. For the most extreme, conspiracy theories give them a way to maintain a sometimes tenuous hold on reality. Mel Gibson portrayed this tendency quite well in the cult classic Conspiracy Theory, wherein black helicopters really do come after the good guys. His character's level of preparation sets the standard for doomsday preppers everywhere.

How can you tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate alternative hypothesis? A great deal of the time, conspiracy theorists have no alternative hypothesis, only their criticisms of official pronouncements. The validity of their criticisms help lend them credence, but rarely can they go beyond criticism to formation of an alternative scenario that is more viable than the theory they criticize.

So I believe in the Lee Harvey Oswald lone-gunman theory not because it fully satisfies, but because nothing else comes close. As Isaac Newton put it: "We are to admit no more causes of things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances." When you evaluate conspiracy theories, Newton's variation on William of Ockham's Razor provides the only functional results.
The Late, Great Johnny Ace

22 Nov 2013
Jack Kennedy learned to live with death from an early age. Like many second sons, he was a pale shadow of his older brother, who was named for their father and bred for the presidency from an early age. Jack was frail and of ill health; even during college special arrangements were required to make it possible to keep up with studies while spending extensive time in the hospital, where he almost died. Only Joe Junior's premature death pushed him into the family limelight. He was so thin, so fragile, that he looked like a kid until his late thirties, when cortisone shots filled him out and gave him a seeming appearance of newly found maturity.

None of this was public knowledge on the day he died. That day was destined to be remembered as a milestone in life - in the lives of everyone. My parents, who at 31 and 32 were barely younger than Jackie on this day 50 years ago, identified strongly with the new, younger generation of leadership; my dad, also called Jack in place of John, in particular experienced it in the military, where the postwar generation came in with new attitudes, such as enthusiasm for desegregation.

Dad was overseas that fateful day. Most of my awareness of the event was reflected through others. I was in fourth grade in Fort Worth, my principal the brother of Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson's former running mate. Everyone knew that Kennedy was in town that morning, and going to Dallas; one classmate went to Love Field for his arrival, and related the experience over the school's PA system - just about the time he was being shot. Rumors spread throughout afternoon recess. We knew something was up because the teachers were visibly upset but saying nothing.

Immediately after recess, the shooting was announced over the PA system - and many students cheered, reflecting their parents' extreme hatred for Kennedy (right-wing oil man Nelson Bunker Hunt had paid for "Wanted for Treason" posters that were spread around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex).

My mother came to pick me up early from school due to a doctor's appointment. Since our TV was broken that day, my teacher had to tell her the news.

"Oh my God," she exclaimed. "You mean Lyndon Johnson is President?"

In the coming days she often compared the event to her own experience as a child - the death of Franklin Roosevelt. She was 12 years old, and he had been President her entire life.

Whether it is an experience of recent generations, or whether it is common for each generation to have a milestone tragedy around which their lives are centered, I do not know. Since Kennedy's death there have been two more: the Challenger explosion, and the 9/11 attacks, which I know my children's generation will always remember. I will be happy if I have reached the limit, but I am not betting on it.

In the last 50 years there has been much mythology about the politics and presidency of Jack Kennedy. Conservatives in particular try to co-opt his agenda when they can, while ignoring his essentially progressive tendencies.

If nothing else, John Fitzgerald Kennedy saved the world. Literally. It is possible this can be said of no other man, but he crafted the uneasy truce and stand-down from the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time of the his showdown with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, one of my now-retired veteran friends was sitting in a B-52 nuclear bomber, fueling for takeoff from Biloxi Air Force Base - where I was living at the time. We were closer to world nuclear war than anyone in the public realized at the time. If Kennedy had served two full terms and accomplished nothing else, that one accomplishment is good enough to put him near the upper ranks of presidents.

We Baby Boomers have long said that the sixties began on November 22, 1963 - and ended on August 8, 1974, resignation day for Richard Nixon, who lost to Kennedy in 1960 by less than one vote per precinct. If Nixon had been President during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wonder, would any of us be alive today?
Tai Chi
Why Do We Train?

11 Nov 2013
What is the purpose of martial arts: Fighting, preservation of a historical culture, or character refinement? All are viable reasons, depending on the practitioner's goals, but a small moment of training recently illuminated a wide array of controversies and concerns in the practice of modern martial arts today, including Tai Chi Chuan.

I was invited to participate in a black belt workshop in historical Japanese jujitsu. Of the fifteen participants, five were judans (10th degree black belts), so the rest of us got high-quality attention. At one point the most senior of these red belts was demonstrating the finishing moves of a complex technique that, if executed effectively, will likely destroy the neck, shoulders, knees, and hips of the opponent.

As techniques go, it is complex. The chances of completing such a move on the street in a self-defense situation are remote; and if you did, chances are the opponent would be killed or crippled before the final finishing moves.

At the point of the body drop that destroys the knees, which was clearly difficult even for the most advanced guys there, I noticed that the flats of the opponent's feet were pointed upward, completely exposed.

"Why not just punch his kidney-1 point and be done with him?" I asked the sensei. My understanding has long been that punching kidney-1, the point in the middle of the foot that the Chinese call yang chuan, can be a killing blow if struck just right, but how often do we get a chance to punch the bottom of a foot? Not often. We also know that in a fight situation, our ability to control our finer muscles is almost non-existent. For this reason only the simplest and most direct techniques, such as the close punch I suggested, are likely to work. I was just curious about the reason for the complexity when a simple and direct punch to a vital point should suffice.

"I don't know, I've just been doing this for 60 years," he said sarcastically. "I haven't had time to learn that pressure point stuff."

Had I been less experienced I might have been shaken up by that rebuff, but the truth is that my question, and his response, perfectly illuminate two different points of view about why train the way we do. Neither is wrong; neither is right. It comes down to personal goals.

In other words, asking that question gave me more insight into intentions than into the technique itself.

The red belts in attendance, like most teachers top-ranked in their systems, are dedicated to the exact preservation of their historical art-their art as it was practiced in the days of medieval Japanese battlefield warfare, before firearms. Many techniques are based on the assumptions of battlefield realities of the day, where everyone wore suits of armor. Against armor, jujitsu and similar arts can be effective by attacking the joints, which are vulnerable. Against such armor, striking arts such as karate are ineffectual.

The response I got was made in that vein. Had I thought about it a little more before asking the question, I might have predicted it. Instead I opened my mouth and asked. Opening my mouth has been known to get me into trouble, but it has also opened the door for knowledge not otherwise obtainable. Like all power, advanced martial arts insights are not given, they are seized.

I asked the question because my goal, my own reason for participating, was to get more practice doing things that are street-effective. In my practice of martial arts, if it doesn't work for the original martial purpose, it's a waste of time. The difference in my point of view, and that of many of my previous senior training buddies, is we recognize that over the centuries, circumstances have changed what it means to fight and be fought.

Such a realization leads some to abandon certain old techniques, while sprucing up others as the environment requires. The "environment" includes our own body types. Each of us has a different body and body type. Any techniques learned must be adopted with an understanding of these differences. Short, heavy guys, for instance, are tough to throw; taller guys are easier to throw and find it harder to get low enough to throw their opponents. Taller guys are more likely to do well with higher kicking attacks, unless their shorter opponents can get beneath them.

Had he chosen, the sensei might have pointed out that in a battlefield situation, the opponent would be wearing boots, not going barefooted as we practice in the training hall. A punch to the bottom of a booted foot would be pointless, as I mentioned earlier. To make that point, though, he would have had to concede the futility of training barefoot, when the only time we are likely to fight barefoot is in the bedroom or on the beach (and I don't mean Normandy or Inchon). Barefoot training is part of the cultural preservation that some give preference to, rather than fighting effectiveness.

Keep in mind that I am making observations, not criticisms. Our reasons for training vary, but are always personal. Even over the course of our martial arts careers, our own reasons and goals evolve as our bodies age and our minds mature. Every day in training, at least at advanced levels, we hold our partners' lives in our hands with every technique practiced. Successfully maneuvering through such a training landscape, over years and decades, inevitably adds to our appreciation of the fragility of life, and the need to protect it.

In my primary art of taijiquan, changes are threatening to take place fast. Tai Chi marketers are exerting pressure to abandon the martial roots and techniques, and turn it into either a New Age or medical health practice. Most of these practices are more accurately termed "exercise mildly influenced by a tiny fraction of Tai Chi principles". They have a place, but they bear the same relationship to historical Tai Chi that Velveeta bears to real cheese. Does that mean they are bad? Does that mean they have no value? Not at all, but neither are they Tai Chi. When it comes to Tai Chi, I am one of those red belts who want to preserve the historical authenticity of the art, which includes its fighting effectiveness.

The technique I suggested, that the red belt scorned, was not jujitsu. In essence, that was what was wrong with my idea. Like many advanced martial artists, I cross-train in other disciplines in order to gain insights into and refine my primary art. I do not train to earn an advanced rank in everything I do. I am not trying to help preserve every system that I taste or absorb. My question was made by someone looking to incorporate a technique into his already-existing bag of tricks, not preserve jujitsu. That's not wrong, but without guys like the judans, these arts would not last another generation - and then we would all lose the benefits of the art. I appreciate their role, and look forward to future training with them.

This discussion still leaves a lot of uncovered territory, such as questions of character refinement versus martial effectiveness. In my experience, the best fighters are often the most uncouth; conversely, some of the most couth are among those least interested in martiality. The individual who hones both sides to a razor point, that is a true master. Few can claim such an accomplishment.

I ran across another problem in the practice of modern martial arts, common in every school in which I have trained, whether Japanese, Chinese or Korean-the problem I have heard called dojo syndrome. Let's save that for next time.
Health & Fitness
Are You Fit?

31 Oct 2013
Pumpkinman Sprint Winner Sprint winner Luigi Grullon of the Dominican Republic easily crosses the finish line. Photo by Laura Hubel.
Are you fit? Fitness can be defined in many ways, but chances are you thought of the answer the moment you saw the question.

My friends and family think I am fit, especially for your age, but for me, watching the Pumpkinman Triathlon two weeks ago was Part Two of a wake-up call. Part One happened the week before, when I participated in a black belt jujitsu workshop in town.

Mike Chubb, Boulder City's resident jujitsu expert with a 10th-degree black belt, brings together a tight group of high-ranking friends every so often to practice dangerous advanced techniques we can't practice on our students. In this group from the Southern California-Nevada-Arizona region, there are not one but four judans (10th dans). I was privileged to spend the first morning training with one of them. In the practice Chubb would introduce a technique, then we would pair up to practice on each other. Pretty standard as martial arts workshops go.

What is not quite so standard is to be slammed to the ground repeatedly for hours by a judan eager to practice with full force. I managed to return the favor well enough that my training partner bowed out halfway into the day, but that was not my takeaway. My takeaway came the next morning when I was able to get out of bed only by rolling over the edge and falling on the floor. My major leg muscle groups barely worked. Although my only bruises were from being grabbed on my arm, my whole body felt like a bruise. It's all about conditioning, not strength or ability.

Fast-forward to Pumpkinman. Let's not even talk about the fact that I am the same age Pat Hayden was before he died during the swim portion. I suspect the autopsy will show a heart attack. I could be wrong, but no one seems to think that drowning was likely in a man who swam regularly.

The triathlon consisted of three events  swimming, cycling and running. The least of the full competitions was the sprint, which consisted of a 750 meter (almost a half mile) swim, followed by a 12.4-mile bike ride going into mountainous terrain, and finally a 5K (three mile) run up a 200-foot elevation to the finish line in Wilbur Square.

Having the shortest requirement, the sprinters finished first. Some were breathing hard as they finished, but quite a few burst across the finish line with explosions of energy.

I realized that I could not come close to finishing such a competition. Almost as quickly I knew that I wanted to. I also realized that few guys at the jujitsu workshop, while we could destroy a group of triathletes with deadly force in record-breaking time, could hope to compete in these events. Not many people realize it, but most advanced martial artists are older. Many train, but do not stay in shape. They remain deadly because their techniques still work. They can finish a fight fast, before their lack of stamina becomes a factor.

Real fights don't drag on for a quarter of an hour like they do in the movies; they are usually over in less than a minute, often in seconds. Actor-aikidoka Steven Seagal is a prominent example of this phenomenon. His weight gain has been satirized mercilessly, but you would be glad if he had your back in a tight situation.

I had already gone back into the gym this summer, but it's not enough. I added a treadmill routine for the gym. I'm running on the street daily when I'm not there; it hurts, but I'm building on it slowly, methodically. I'm cycling instead of driving. I'm punching and kicking my body bag more than I have in years.

I've been a Tai Chi teacher for more than a decade. Tai Chi doesn't make you fit all by itself, but it does make you hyperaware of your state of fitness. Even so, my training has lagged since I moved here from Houston two years ago. It's easy to kid yourself until you get a wake-up call.

Are you fit? No? What are you going to do about it?
Longevity Lessons

28 Jul 2013
Prince Charles at Willem's Coronation
A long time ago I read an Isaac Asimov story portraying a future society with human life spans extended by several centuries. The effect on society was to slow social and scientific progress in equal proportion: Feeling no rush, people took their time.

Further adding to the problem was the fact that children could no longer look forward to the deaths of their parents, which can be a key event in freeing people to become themselves. Nothing turned over; nothing changed. Estates were not inherited; offices were not succeeded to. Civilization stagnated.

Although the average life expectancy is still twenty percent less than a century, we can already see some of the social effects that Asimov projected with such prescience. The problems caused are hardly devastating, but they are telling. And growing. In the case of the institution of marriage, much suffering occurs.

The problem occurs in areas that grant lifelong privileges or responsibilities. So often, survival into extreme seniority means that the duties of the senior in question go increasingly unfilled, while the capable juniors below them chafe and await their demise.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima at Coronation

Queen Emeritus Beatrix of the Netherlands

No one understands this today better than the Prince of Wales, age 64 and heir to the monarchy of the United Kingdom, who recently watched Prince Willem-Alexander of Holland, age 46, succeed to his own throne, after his mother’s abdication at age 75.

Charles of the House of Windsor, who is only a decade younger than Queen Beatrix, has no duties but to await his mother’s death, who has sworn not to step down. Even his obligation to not embarrass the family is minimal, which is a good thing for him, and a lesson his younger son has taken to heart.

Prince Charles and Consort Camilla

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

Queen Elizabeth is 87; her mother lived to 102. Even though Elizabeth will be doddering and perhaps even demented, Charles could be 80 before he becomes King. Fortunately for the governance of the United Kingdom today, the monarchy has no real importance, or changes would be required. In today’s political environment, whether the monarch is Elizabeth, Charles, Williams, or even Baby George, the result will be the same: the paparazzi will pay more notice than the parliamentarians.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

America has its own problem with lifelong office in the Supreme Court. The Founding Fathers wrote this requirement into the Constitution in order to ensure the independence of the judiciary. By guaranteeing a justice a life-long position, the hope was that he would never feel to need to craft his decisions in order to secure his livelihood.

Since most justices are appointed in their early fifties, that allows terms that to approach and even exceed three decades. Right now four justices have served twenty years or longer, and one is approaching thirty years of service.

As in marriage, the rule of lifelong commitment was made in a time when “life long” was rarely more than a decade or so. In today’s world, however, that commitment can extend to four decades, at least in the case of one justice who took office at age 43. For a justice to serve that long, freezing his (or her) world view into law for more than a third of a century and longer, means that law can no longer keep up with our fast-changing society. Somehow this arrangement needs to change to address the changes in life spans.

Even worse is the lifelong commitment built into the institution of marriage. The marital contract is so freely flaunted that it would be laughable if not for the devastating impact on so many lives. Five thousand years ago when this institution emerged in the world’s six civilizations, life expectancies were about thirty years. Even at the turn of the last century life expectancies in the best nations were below fifty. So the idea of enduring a marriage gone awry was far more palatable then than today, with life expectances in the late seventies and often going far beyond.

Consider the many phases of life we go through, even in adulthood, if we live to our life expectancies in our late seventies. A couple that gets together in their early twenties has, within a decade, progressed to a much different life stage. By the time they have children approaching adulthood, their own lives, bodies, and emotions start going through substantial changes as the hormonal systems of men and women lose their power. By mid-life a couple together is often unrecognizable from that couple a quarter century earlier. Their hopes and dreams may well have evolved, at different paces and in different directions. And in seniority, the need for compatibility and intimacy takes on an entirely new meaning.

With all these changes over six decades of life and more, it is no surprise that married couples grow apart; when they do not we celebrate the exceptionalism. If you insist on viewing marriage in a purely religious context this fact can be difficult to comprehend or cope with, but otherwise the reality is evident: At some point in their lives, most people need to move on. This fact shows in divorce statistics. To never go through the life-wrenching changes of divorce, that is a blessing to those who enjoy it. But as life spans grow, the likelihood of lifelong marriages lessens.
Reading the Movies, Part 2

22 Jun 2013
A few weeks ago I began a three-part series on Books that made the Movies. Since then I have read World War Z , which is quite a departure for me, as I do not care for urban fantasy or dystopianism. I saw an early trailer for the movie that made me think it might have some intelligence, so I went ahead and read the book, first written in 2006. Apparently the only connection between the book and movie are the title, zombies, and presumably the transmission of funds to the author's bank account.

The movie, still unseen by this author, is described as Brad Pitt's quest to find out the origin of the virus that causes zombies to arise. In the book you find out the source on the first page: rural China. Next movie!
I recently saw Man of Steel , which does not have a book as its origin, but I did run across a novel that appears to be the true progenitor to the superhero. The Siegel & Schuster origins of the Superman comic are well known. Less well known is the novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie, later the co-author of When Worlds Collide (1933) . Gladiator was published in 1930, almost a full decade before the introduction of Superman. The story covers the life of Hugo Danner, son of a mad scientist who injects a super-steroid type serum into his pregnant wife's belly around the turn of the last century. The resulting son develops super strength, speed, invulnerability, and the ability to leap great distances. As a youth he races speeding locomotives for fun. Unrestrained by the ethos of Ma and Pa Kent, Hugo goes on to become a college football star. Fighting in the trenches of France during The Great War, he becomes a legend credited for the Armistice, having lept from trench to trench, destroyed cannons, and killed thousands of German soldiers.

Now for my next installment of movie books:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(Jack Finney 1955 / Don Siegel 1956, Philip Kaufman 1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is largely a story of implicit horror: extraterrestrial plant-like organisms copy and destroy human bodies, taking control of the world from within. The horror is reserved for those not yet copied who slowly realize what is happening all around them: the horror of knowing their turn is coming. Unlike the unconverted Stepford wives, Finney's characters discover the mechanism by which their friends are transformed - but as with the wives of Ira Levin's book, simple knowledge of the end does not lessen its inevitability.

The 1978 remake was a complete rewrite of the story, which was originally set in rural Marin County, not the big city. The characters in the book are easier to get close to and care about; you feel their sense of urgency more than in the movies. In the remake, you feel like you are watching a group of friends you never connect to; in the book, you feel like you are part of the group, which is much more terrifying. The original 1956 movie was often spoken of as a metaphor for McCarthyism, but this 1955 novel of science fiction horror provides no evidence for such an interpretation.

(Robert Bloch 1959 / Alfred Hitchcock 1960)
I first saw the movie during its first release, at age six, in the drive-in. My parents had assumed I would be sleep after the first feature, but they were so-o-o-o wrong. I remember the shower cleanup scenes better than the stabbing scene. Afterward my mother long remarked about how I impressed I was with the ending. The book had one sequel that never made it to the big screen, and another that mirrored the first movie sequel.

Psycho portrays a man with a split personality and a serious mother complex. The movie is faithful to the book except in one regard: Robert Bloch's Norman Bates is a fat, bald forty-year-old with an asocial character incapable of coping with women at any level. Anthony Perkin's Norman is a shy guy that many women might try to mother, a guy who can be mildly entranced by a non-threatening woman, but Bloch's Norman is a creepy misfit who would attract or be attracted to no one.

To Kill a Mockingbird
(Harper Lee 1960 / Robert Mulligan 1962)
The evolution of Harper Lee's novel is of particular interest to budding writers, because she was a complete novice when she showed her early drafts to an agent. The early version was little more than a collection of stories with a common set of characters. Over a couple of years of hard editorial and rewrite work it evolved into the book we have today.

My impression of the movie centered around the race trial near the end. Such an impression may be natural given its production during the heart of the civil rights era, but a read of this book, set in the 1930s, does not suggest the same emphasis. Instead the stories depict the cultural trappings of life in the Depression-era South. The scene that will always stand out for me is one in which a nine-year-old boy must explaining coming home without any pants on: Not wanting to admit he had been spying on a neighbor and lost his pants in a thorn bush, the boy lies and says he lost them playing strip poker. The mothers in attendance are horrified not that the boy is buff naked, but that he had been playing cards. Harper Lee certainly knew her South.

Seven Days In May
(Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey 1963 / John Frankenheimer 1964)
A President combats a general's attempted military coup in this political thriller that half-heartedly pretends to a futuristic setting. Frankenheimer made a movie that appears set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, with an Adlai Stevenson-like President going against a Douglas Macarthur-style general. The book is a bit different, set in the distant future of 1974, not long after a war with Iran. Despite these differences, the bulk of the book and movie follow the much the same track, the President's efforts to fight the conspiracy. The prescience of this book impressed enough to think of my new novel, May Day, as a tribute to Seven Days In May. The movie, which is long on preachiness and short on action, is less impressive, despite the always brilliant performances of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in key roles.

Coming Up in Part III:
Planet of the Apes (Pierre Boulet)
The Other (Thomas Tryon)
Six Days of the Condor (James Grady)
The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin)
The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin)
Chiefs (Stuart Woods)
First Blood (David Morrell)
Trust Is a Tricky Thing

4 Jun 2013
When can you trust a con man? If your answer is never, you are either smart, cynical, or you've watched The Grifters as many times as I have. How about when a con man is trying to warn you against being conned by someone else, as in trust me, I should know  can you trust a con man then? The Spanish Prisoner, a film I recently viewed, is based on a classic con with exactly that premise. So when I attended a lecture recently by Frank Abagnale, the real-life character portrayed by Leo DeCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, it was amusing to hear him tell his audience how to protect ourselves against fraud in today's cyber-dangerous world. Amusing, and impressive enough to trigger immediate changes to my financial methods.

In case you missed the book and the movie, Abagnale left his broken family at the age of 16 and became a world-class paper hanger  writer of bad checks. During the 1960s he successfully pretended to be a Pan Am pilot for millions of miles of travel to twenty-six countries, a pediatrician in a hospital, and a government attorney. By the time he was busted by French police at the age of 21, Abagnale estimates he made off with more than $2.5 million. He spent six months in a hellish French prison, more time in a dorm-like Swedish prison, and four years in U.S. federal prison. Under the terms of his parole, he worked for the FBI for years, often undercover. Today he works as a security consultant, with the FBI only one of his clients.

A fast-talking, charismatic hustler like Abagnale would never be safe to fully trust, unless you can be sure that he has nothing to gain from his advice to you. In his lecture Abagnale has a lot to say about the dangers of identity theft in today's world. Facebook, of course, is simply out of the question. Posting your birth place and birth date makes it easy to steal your identity, he points out. Your Facebook photos make it possible for strangers, using commercially available facial recognition software, it identity you within seconds after taking your photo.

If you want to protect your identity, just do as I do, Abagnales advises. Are you ready? I've never owned a debit card, he says, and I've never allowed my kids to have them. One of those kids is now an FBI agent himself. Abagnale uses credit cards exclusively. When you use a credit card, you are using the bank's money, and they assume the liability. When you use a debit card, your entire bank account is at risk. You are using your money, not theirs. You assume the liability. Even if you only use it at the ATM machine or gas station, someone could be sitting across the street with a laptop, intercepting everything. Indeed, some shady gas stations may have scanners that record the debit card information directly from the pump.

Abagnale points out that if you are helping college-age children deal with their finances, you can acquire a supplemental credit card that is attached to your account, but which helps the student build a good credit score (something a debit card cannot do). If you pay the bills promptly, you can get by with little or no interest to pay.

Perhaps the bigger surprise comes from Abagnale's advice against using checks except under the most constrained circumstances, such as to pay your mortgage. Your check has your name, address, bank account number, and bank routing number, he says. That's all I need to wire transfer everything out of it, or to create phony checks of my own. Why take a chance and give that information to any stranger who sees the check?

While I have never suffered the worst forms of identity theft, on two occasions I have had my debit card information stolen. Each time hundreds of dollars was taken from my bank account. The first time was in Houston; the money was taken in an ATM transaction, which means my card was cloned. The second time was in Las Vegas, but the card data was used for an online purchase across the country. In both cases I believe the card information was stolen at a restaurant. If you give your card to a server for payment, there is ample opportunity to copy the magnetic strip before you get it back. So don't do that!

Now I never hand over a debit card. Chase Bank has a strong customer protection policy, so I was lucky. Because I monitor my accounts daily online, I caught the problems within hours. Chase reimbursed my money within twenty-four hours. From friends using other banks I have heard horror stories, particularly those with accounts at Wells Fargo. Some people have gone weeks before they were reimbursed, if they were reimbursed at all.

If you use a debit card, it is up your bank to decide whether to help you out or not. If you use a credit card, you're covered. I am convinced. I have already acted accordingly. Do you have a cyber theft story to tell? Unless you are careful, you will have one soon.
Stay-at-Home Retreats

28 May 2013
Do you write at home? Most writers do. Like most dedicated writers, you write almost daily. You write for a certain period of time or for a certain word count. Sometimes that is not enough: You may have a deadline, or hit a good patch. You want to write and write until you are drained. Time for a writing retreat!

Traveling for a writing retreat, even a road trip to a motel or state park, can cost more than is in the budget, especially if family must be accounted for. Further complicating the problem is a matter of personal style: When I go somewhere new, I want to explore. I get restless. Settling down and writing in a sterile or unfamiliar environment, such as a motel/hotel room, is also tough for me. I need comfort and familiarity.

The answer is a stay-at-home writing retreat. I know, that's easy for me to say: I'm single. During my married days I learned the difficulty of writing creatively with high-energy humans (i.e., wife and kids) constantly running around. So when I ran across an article that addresses this and other issues, 6 Essential Tips For Your Own Stay-at-Home Writing Retreat, naturally it piqued my interest. While the blog makes a few good points, I was surprised by what was missing.

In summary, the article says:
  1. Set reasonable goals for yourself. For instance, if you've never written all day before, do not expect to start now.
  2. Make it fun - go to fun places, eat fun things.
  3. Use time limits.
  4. Congratulate/reward yourself.
  5. Plan your efforts in advance.
  6. Communicate your plans to support community - family, fans, and so on - so you can have a cheering section.
It's a lightweight list. #1, #3, and #5 are essentially the same. #2 and #4 are not only the same, they have nothing to do with writing. #2 even requires leaving home, and not alone! #6 is a self-congratulatory crutch. These proscriptions rely a lot on having fun, feeling cool, and self-rewarding. In fact, the joys of chocolate are mentioned twice while the joy of writing goes unheralded, giving the entire blog an air of self-indulgence bordering on narcissism. The omissions are even greater than the redundancies, so I offer my own list.

1. Have a major project to work on.

You either want to finish a project, perhaps for a deadline, or you want to break through any mental barriers that are holding you back on your project. You want to go from a trot to a sprint. If your personal psychology of writing is like mine, once you start sprinting it is hard to slow down, which is a great place to be. But sometimes getting to a sprint mentality takes a special effort, hence the potential value of a retreat.

2. Have a schedule.

Unless you are used to doing day-long writing sessions, do not expect to start now. Pace yourself. For instance, one schedule I have used is:

9 - 11 am Edit last writing session, then write.
11 am - noon Work out. Yoga does not count as working out.
noon - 2pm Lunch and rest
2 - 4 pm Edit last session, then write.
4 - 6 pm Walk, cycle, Tai Chi, yoga. Mix it up according to the weather and location.
6 - 7 pm Light meal.
7 - 9 pm Edit last session, then write.

Everyone has to find their own schedule. If the writing is going so well that I don't want to stop after two hours, I will keep writing. On such occasions I might move my morning workout to the afternoon. Or if I am feeling blocked, I may work out even more. I will eat and exercise, though, because mental health is impossible without physical health. Medical research has shown that forty minutes of aerobic exercise can cause an instant increase in cognitive ability by fifteen to twenty percent. If I feel a need for a mental change of pace, I will switch to a smaller writing project for one session. A smaller project could be a blog or story, but I will not go online and publish during a retreat.

3. Make a comfortable space

I've spent the winter and spring writing on my balcony patio, so well shaded you could call it a cave. To make it more enjoyable, I've built a small garden of large potted plants - rose bushes, tomatoes, snap dragons, that sort of thing. In the evening I may include a glass of wine or cocktail - but only one.

4. Pick your sounds wisely

I find it impossible to write creatively while music with lyrics is playing, but I want something to camouflage background noise. I stick with calm, meditative sounds that add to, rather than detract from, my cognitive processes. Even high-energy classical music can be too much at times, because when the music takes control, you lose control of your writing. I've even found some CD sets specifically created by a psychologist for stimulating alpha, delta, and theta brainwaves. If I have to tell you to leave the television off, I don't know why you are even reading this article.

5. Cut off the Internet

I don't mean stay off of Facebook. I don't mean close your browser. I mean DISCONNECT THE INTERNET. Most of my writing I produce on a laptop, because there is a button for cutting off my wi-fi connection. Even if you need to research something, save it for a research time that you do not mix with your writing time. An alternative approach? Start your writing session with the online research, then shut off your connection and start writing. Never interrupt the session to go online.

6. Forget about making it fun.

If you are a serious writer, writing is fun. If writing is not fun for you, forget the retreats and projects. Join a bowling league or something. By pacing your writing with a schedule, you can have fun all day and all evening long.

7. Forget about congratulating and rewarding yourself.

If giving yourself a writing retreat is not reward enough, what's the point? Congratulate yourself when the project is complete, not a moment sooner.

8. Forget about recruiting friends and family to cheer you on.

Send your family away for the duration of the retreat, or lock yourself in a room or space they cannot violate. Except at home, do not solicit family and friends for support, because they can only help you by ignoring you. Keep your distance. In the end a writer's motivation has to come from within, not from without.

That's my list. We all have our own needs for writing comfort. Have you ever tried a stay-at-home retreat? What would your list look like?
Tai Chi
Two Faces of Tai Chi

20 May 2013
Tai Chi Chuan evolved as a vigorous martial art between two hundred and three hundred years ago - but now, throughout the world, it is primarily known as a gentle exercise practiced by people with physical shortcomings due to age, infirmity, or nature. Thus we have the yang and the yin of Tai Chi, which embodies the Theory of Opposites.

Although I have trained extensively in external martial arts - judo, karate-do, budo, kung fu, and tae kwon do - after a long personal struggle I yielded to my true nature, which lies with Tai Chi. What has caused me even greater difficulty is accepting the true nature of Tai Chi.
HarvardMedicalSchoolGuidetoTaiChi Peter Wayne manages in his new book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, to strike a path that helps point the way. Let me explain.

A hallmark of martial arts is that if you want respect, you must be willing to fight. Some people put a lot of stock in how many stripes they have on their black belt, but in the end it is about the fighting. So to have the heart of a martial artist and practice Tai Chi, one wishes to demonstrate that Tai Chi is a true fighting art. The result can be an extreme ego attachment to this particular idea of Tai Chi, which threatens to distort our practice and our teaching. I have witnessed extremely proficient teachers who were unable to keep students because, in their hearts unconvinced of their own art, they try too hard to prove something that may be unprovable.
My teacher, who I love and respect dearly, took me a long ways down the martial path. I observe this not as a complaint or a criticism, but as a realization that any hope I have of mastery cannot occur without resolving conflicting philosophies: resolving them by accepting both rather than rejecting either. Master Hu, even in his seventies, thinks of himself as a fighter. To him and his best students, my kung fu brothers, the art is validated purely by our ability to use it to fight. You wish to practice Tai Chi for health? Then practice it as martial art, and you will be healthy.

That point of view is true as far as it goes, but for my teaching it does not go far enough. Every time I hold a class I see in my students the need for comprehensive exercise that does not demand deep athleticism. Some feel challenged just standing up for an hour; others are challenged by balanced movement. Almost all are challenged by slowing their respiration to four deep breaths a minute. Martial veracity is the farthest thing from their minds.

An important role of Tai Chi's martiality is validation. How can a person differentiate true Tai Chi from feel-good spaghetti Tai Chi, except through martial validation? The answer, until now, has always been that you cannot validate it any other way. You can do whatever you want, and if it makes you feel good you may choose to call it Tai Chi, but does it observe recognized principles?

The beauty of Wayne's book is that he has begun the process of establishing a new standard of validating Tai Chi, with science as the basis of sorting through the wheat and the chaff. Using standardized experimental techniques, the work of identifying the efficacy of individual Tai Chi movements has begun.

The next generation of Tai Chi will evolve away from the long, complex forms based on Chinese cultural teaching from a century or more ago. In their place will be smaller sets of individual movements created and practiced for specific benefits - more like meditative physical therapy. They will be easier and faster to learn; as a result more people will stick with the program. Wayne outlines a twelve-week starter program in his book. It is not the specific program itself that excites me, but the realization that through research we will see the creation of many such programs. Some will be refined for specific physical therapies, while others will pursue a more spiritual approach.

Meanwhile, we martial artists will keep fighting for the fun of it. We are not talking about the end of Tai Chi as a martial art, but let me offer an observation on this subject that I have never before heard discussed: I have never met a person serious about Tai Chi as a martial art, who does not have extensive background in external fighting arts as well. Some will openly admit this, but others are quite cagy in discussing the subject. I have yet to meet a purely internal stylist who looks at Tai Chi as a martial art. If you are such a teacher and reading this, please contact me. In my experience only the external fighters accept, or expect, the validity of purely internal fighting. As a result our efforts to martially validate Tai Chi are differentiated from external combat arts only with great difficulty.

Now, with all this talk, how will Wayne's work influence my teaching? I am comparing his twelve-week program closely to my pre-existing style and mode of teaching. I see a lot of overlap, but I am looking for differences that will enhance my work. Wayne identifies eight core principles of Tai Chi success, several of which match principles I chose for my book, Tai Chi In Your Life . In a few months I will begin a new class, in a new venue. Using ideas from Wayne's book, I will simplify the curriculum while retaining the quality and core principles. It will remain faithful to the medium frame principles of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, the style I transmit, but forms practice will change. My hope is to improve our retention rate for students and as a result, help a lot more people.

Postscript: I started out thinking I would review the book. Instead I ended up talking about how the book is affecting my personal journey, and as a result the journey of any who follow me. The best, highest use of Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is probably for medical practitioners seeking a solid foundation for evaluating the health/wellness efficacy of Tai Chi for specific patients. More than half the book is devoted to a discussion of the literature on specific benefits of Tai Chi. You will not learn Tai Chi from this book, just as you will not learn Tai Chi from any other book. Add it to your Tai Chi library as a cornerstone work that turns Tai Chi away from the dark, obscure corners of ancient Chinese mysticism, and toward the learning light of modern Western scientific thought. Treat it, if you dare, as a new beginning.
Reading the Movies, Part 1

13 May 2013
Books about the craft of writing and publishing are a cottage industry. Over the years I have collected and read about three dozen, but only three have made an impression. Two I have read in the last year: Stephen King's On Writing and James Hall's Hit Lit. King's book was interesting (particularly his self-analysis, which explains so much), but Hall's book has made a big impact on my life: not so much on my writing as my reading.

Hit Lit is Hall's analysis of why a dozen bestselling novels of the last century did so well. What themes, stories, character types, and transformations did they have in common? On rare occasion do I enjoy such books, because most discuss works I have never read and never want to read. Hall's choice of a dozen top bestsellers of all time overcomes this problem. I had read six of the twelve on his list before beginning his book (and one more since), but had more than passing familiarity with the stories, because every one was made into a hit movie, only two of which I have never seen:

  • Gone With the Wind
  • Peyton Place
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Valley of the Dolls
  • The Godfather
  • The Exorcist
  • Jaws
  • The Dead Zone
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • The Firm
  • The Bridges of Madison County
  • The Da Vinci Code

  • Hall turned me on to books that became good movies. How many times have I endured movies poorly made from books I enjoyed? Until reading Hit Lit I never thought to go backwards and read the books after seeing the movies. In recent months I have read more than a dozen such books.

    Six or seven would be considered horror or have classic horror elements, though I never thought of myself of a fan of horror; five have science fiction elements; and several have both. Those books were made most faithfully into video counterparts. Of the six with historical or political elements, three - Spartacus, From Here to Eternity, and Six Days of the Condor - made it to the silver screen in a drastically edited or rewritten fashion.

    What follows are not so much reviews as comments on elements or differences that I found noteworthy - not on Hall's list, but on my own. Many of my choices were hits, but not blockbusters like those on his list. Notice that after each title I list the author and year of publication, followed by the movie director and year of release. The entries are listed in order of book publication. Due to the length of these expositions in total, I will split them among three separate blogs.

    Dracula (Bram Stoker 1899 / count 'em)
    As a childhood fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was pleased to find much of Dracula written and cast in London of the same time period. The big joke about this book was that on one occasion, I was walking in my neighborhood, reading an Easton Press edition bound in gilded black hard leather. I ended up chatting with one guy who saw the book and wanted to know if it was a Bible. Talk about off the mark! I laughed.

    The book's key distinction from film versions is setting. The movies are typically set in either Transylvania or in London. The book, presented as a series of diary entries written by the various characters, covers events in both settings, in detail. Most interesting is the subplot involving Dracula's plans for expansion. The Count scatters a dozen vampire bases throughout London, secret homes for a sleeping army. He knew the value in de-centralizing. As a result the central problem of the book is not how to kill Dracula, who is a sitting duck in his coffin during the day, but how to find and destroy the bases. Stoker's writing is a bit stilted, but compared to the Scottish dialects in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, it is a walk in the park.
    The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan 1915 / Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
    Thirty-Nine Steps is the only book in this collection whose movie I never saw. Set at the start of the Great War, the story portrays early intelligence efforts to protect the English coast from German invasion. In those days novels were lean and to the point, without multiple subplots and extravagant character development. Hitchcock's early style is a good fit.
    From Here to Eternity (James Joyce 1951 / Fred Zinnemann 1953)
    A large portion of this story never made it into the film version. No doubt one cause is the eight hundred-page length, unusual for its time, but the nature of the excised story line must be part of the reason. Never in the movie do we see a hint at the subject of about one-third of the book: the American male homosexual culture in Pearl Harbor, and the way the soldiers interact with it. Non-closeted gay men of the time had to tread carefully to avoid homophobic violence, but the problem was not extreme, and to be closeted was to forgo the hope of a social life. The gays of Joyce's pre-war Hawaii are exploited more than persecuted. They are depicted as pathetically controlled by their desires. Straight soldiers easily work them for money without violence or ever performing an act even remotely sexual - not unlike the way the female prostitutes, whose professions are only hinted at in the movie, string men along for financial benefit. All of Joyce's characters have dreams, dreams that rarely coincide. The complexity of the characterizations takes the book much deeper than the movie, but in the end the film delivers a more manageable story in a less cumbersome package.

    (Howard Fast 1951 / Stanley Kubrick 1960)

    The plot and characters of Kubrick's film vary little from the book, but the manner of telling is almost unrecognizable. Spartacus the book is a disjointed series of flashbacks based on memories of Romans as they walk along the Appian Way, where more than six thousand slaves are freshly crucified as punishment for supporting the book's heroic namesake in open revolt. Your primary take-away from this book will be the graphic depiction of the mechanics of crucifixion, carried out with an assembly-line efficiency that will chill all but the most hard-hearted. Readers will be interested to note that Howard Fast was an active member of the American Communist Party from the early 1930s. Kubrick was considered courageous for making a movie of a book written by a man jailed in the 1950s for his lying about his Communism. Many believe Fast's novel was as much a leftist parable as a historical drama, but you do not have to be a leftist to abhor slavery. In any event Fast delivers his parable with such a light touch that only the most sensitive will notice, or mind.

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955)
    Psycho (1959)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
    Seven Days In May (1963)
    Planet of the Apes (1963)
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi in the Workplace

    8 May 2013
    Some years ago I was invited to teach a trial class at General Electric, to investigate establishing an ongoing class at their offices. I was told that the workplace was fast-paced, fast-changing, and hence stressful. Their hope was that a Tai Chi class at the end of the week, on Friday afternoons when meetings were never called, would help participants come down from their corporate high long enough to relax and de-stress, however briefly.

    The benefits of Tai Chi in such environments are increasingly well established by Western science, as described in Peter Wayne's marvelous new book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi . But when Friday class rolled around, almost no one who registered showed up because management had called an emergency meeting! I was assured that all meetings were emergency meetings. Having worked in many such companies as a computer professional, I recognized the signs of managerial dysfunction. Clearly the GE folks needed that Tai Chi class, but the very need ensured its failure.

    Few of us have employers who offer Tai Chi in the workplace. That leaves it to us, as active practitioners, to make our own Tai Chi in the workplace. Obviously many jobs make this impossible (I know chefs and police officers in this category), but in an ordinary office environment you can probably make the opportunity during lunch hour, break times, or slack times.

    Before I proceed down that path, let me stop for a cautionary note. This column was inspired by a young man I met, a student of Shaolin martial arts and taijiquan, who confided in me that when he practiced in his workplace - he is a college law enforcement intern at a municipal police department - his co-workers treated him funny.

    Don't laugh! Okay, go ahead and laugh. Ah, to be twenty again! The practical reality is, only people who play in our world can appreciate it; otherwise, they would play too. This is true whether you play golf, tennis, cello, karate-do, or taijiquan. The foreign derivation of our practices makes public display of our training all the more problematical.

    So unless you have a firm understanding in your workplace, your goal should be to practice so that no one knows you are practicing . Since Tai Chi is an internal art whose greatest strength is never seen, that is a reasonable goal. In fact it is desirable as well.

    What useful exercises will go unnoticed? Start with standing postures. With a standing posture you can regulate and deepen your breath, relax completely, train your root, guide your qi, meditate, and even pray, if you are so inclined. If you have the training, you can practice any number of neijia (internal alchemy) exercises without anyone being aware.

    What postures are most useful? I always start beginners with a standing post Wu ji posture, because it is the easiest (see page 18 in Tai Chi In Your Life ); it only requires that you be able to stand. I describe and guide this zhan zhuang posture on the first track of my CD, Tai Chi Meditations .
    Wu ji Stance
    Wu Ji stance

    Perhaps the best-known posture is Holding the Ball (p. 23, Tai Chi In Your Life). Hold the arms at upper rib height, forming a large circle with the extended middle fingers pointing toward each other, with the laogong center in the palms pointed to third eye spot on your forehead. This is more difficult than Wu ji because it requires training the arms to hold the ball. It quickly reveals tension, because tension will stiffen your muscles and tire you quickly. Both are good, but start simply until you have confidence.
    Holding the Ball Holding the Ball Holding the Ball
    Holding the Ball

    In Mantak Chia's Universal Tao system, I was taught a whole series of postures. One set had eight postures, ideally practiced "each for one hour". Posture number one is Holding the Ball at throat level, which few beginners can do for more than one minute. It is also a little strange looking to outsiders, so stick with the simplest, least obtrusive postures. You can also hold the ball at waist level, with the palms facing each other, forearms parallel to the ground.

    How long should you hold the posture? Twenty minutes is superb. Some teachers say less than that is a waste of time, but I find that ten minutes or even five is vastly preferable to none at all. At ten minutes, if you have relaxed your body while maintaining a sound energy structure, you experience the weight of the air as if it is a gel. When you choose to move, you move slowly and smoothly, without a desire to exert effort. If you practice your form after ten or twenty minutes of standing posture, you will have a profoundly deeper experience.

    Of course, if you have qigong training, there are any number of minimal exercises you can perform at your desk, or in a remote corner, that will not raise any eyebrows. But if you can do that, you might just as well dissect your Tai Chi form into one or two component movements, and practice only those, a lot. Tai Chi originally began as postures and single movements, so for you to do the same is not a weakness. It is a reversion to the earliest foundational training, from centuries ago.

    Some examples would be Waving Hands in Clouds (Cloud Hands); Ward Off; Apparent Closing and Push; and perhaps Carry Tiger to Mountain. Take any favorite movement from your form. Your choice truly depends on whether you will have spectators or not, and how they will react. If you stick to the workplace, best to have none at all. If you can walk to the park for practice at lunch time, your reward will be a new serenity at work in the afternoon.
    Tai Chi
    World Tai Chi Day

    27 Apr 2013
    World Tai Chi Day 2009 at Houston Arboreturm
    World Tai Chi Day was created more than fifteen years ago as a twenty-four hour event in which Tai Chi is expressed from one time zone to another, continuously, until it circles the world. It starts at the International Date Line on the fourth Saturday of each April. At 10 a.m., the groups in that time zone begin their practice of Tai Chi for one hour (in theory), until the group in the next time west can pick it up at 10 a.m., their time. So it goes each hour, around the globe, until it returns to the Date Line, like a wave line at a sporting event of worldwide proportions.

    For most participants the event is all about celebrating our love of the practice of Tai Chi - for the few martial artists among us, Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan); for most health-only practitioners, Tai Chi Kung (taijigong). However, it was created by its founders as a commercial opportunity for marketing t-shirts, books, and DVDs. I observe this not as a criticism per se, but merely a recognition of the truth. Even today, the founders market these items relentlessly with a torrent of e-mails and a website.

    As marketing goes, this is small potatoes. Few of us Tai Chi teachers begrudge them the right to take advantage of their great idea for showing Tai Chi to the world. Beyond that, though, I fear World Tai Chi Day is, in many places, devolving into an event for unhealthy competition and self-promotion. Because my personal experience is limited to a handful of places I must be careful about how far I generalize about what I see taking place. What follows is a discussion of personal taste in the practice and promotion of Tai Chi - and not a criticism of other tastes.

    My teacher taught me that "Tai Chi is not for entertainment". This is a lesson I took to heart. Tai Chi Chuan is a deep study of self-cultivation that at its highest levels, eschews ego inflation. The minute we turn Tai Chi Chuan into a show piece we destroy its essence and its efficacy. As a martial art, efficacy is crucial to Tai Chi Chuan; if you practice merely for wellness, efficacy falls by the wayside and the essence is easily forgotten. Any time we find ourselves trying to create a "Kodak moment", as Master Hu called it, we have a picture in our mind of how it must be. At that point we are concerned with how we look, not whether our technique works. As a result that picture, even if temporarily useful, is always wrong. So it is with all preconceived notions in our lives, as I discuss in Chapter 8, Detaching the Ego, in Tai Chi In Your Life .

    Unlike Nevada, where I currently reside, my native state of Texas has a large Chinese martial arts community. There are dozens of serious, active Tai Chi instructors in Houston and Austin, a few of them true masters. As a result the World Tai Chi Day events there have become massive productions that require significant planning to manage. Houston's main event, which exceeds 300, went so far this year as to schedule activities by style and time block. It has an itemized agenda that precedes the 10 o'clock event, and more activities after.

    I have no criticism of my kung fu brothers who hold and participate in such events. I have certainly participated in the past. But as a whole they do not work for me. I cannot see how to encourage the flow of qi in the community by boxing it up into a lot of little competing categories. Qi just needs to flow.

    So I have experimented with variations. Three years ago, while still actively teaching in Houston, I hosted a separate World Tai Chi Day event for four teachers and their students, all connected by style, teacher, or personal relationships. We attracted four dozen people, which was enough to have fun without causing scheduling and parking problems.

    Last year I was on sabbatical, not teaching. I spent World Tai Chi Day - now officially up-marketed to World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, to provide a larger target audience - at a retreat at the Sanctuary of Dao in Phoenix, under the tutelage of Stuart Alve Olsen. We observed WTCQD by not observing it.

    At the moment I practice Tai Chi Chuan without venue, so today I held my own one-man WTCQD in Boulder City, my newly adopted home town of 15,000 out by Hoover Dam. My sense is that most WTQCD events are smallish groups meeting together, despite some mega-urban aberrations in America and China. I started in the park outside the police station promptly at 10 am. Before the hour was up I was joined by a young man, a college student and police intern, who is learning Yang and Chen taijiquan. We practiced separately, then met and practiced together. I gave him a CD to encourage his practice of standing post meditation. So it is with the world Tai Chi community: When you take away the competition and schools and self-promotion, all you are left with is the pure enjoyment you receive from the Tai Chi Chuan practice to collect, refine, and strengthen your qi, and every joint, sinew, ligament, muscle, tendon, and organ in your body.
    Area 51 and Roswell

    25 Apr 2013
    Area 51 at Groom Lake
    Once I drove my two Iranian roommates onto a military base, a nuclear base of the Strategic Air Command. I just flashed my ID at the front gate, and we drove right on through. They were astounded, but that was just the beginning. I drove them past a line of fighter jets and nuclear bombers, including two B-52s. They were speechless. Few people in their home country, generals included, had ever seen such a display of the world's leading military technology.

    That was five years before the Iranian revolution, when the Shah of Iran was still America's best friend in the Middle East. My buddies were sons of top-ranked men in the Iranian government, one a general. In spite of their stature this everyday occurrence for me was beyond their wildest imagining. The idea that foreign national could be allowed there, unescorted except for me, was hard for them to believe: I was not even a soldier.

    Some bases have always been more secret than others, but perhaps none more so than Area 51, an hour's drive fm rhere I live today. For years the very idea of Area 51 was considered mythological. Whether it existed or not was irrelevant, because no one would ever know if it existed.

    This point was driven back home to me recently when I reviewed a segment of the 1996 film Independence Day. In a key sequence someone suggests to the President that they flee to Area 51. The President informs that person that there is no such thing as Area 51. His Secretary of Defense clears his throat and says, "Mister President, that's not exactly true." I had to laugh. I first located Area 51 with a tourist map in the gift shop of the Hoover Dam.

    According to the recent book Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen, this super-secret base was carved out of the Nevada Missile Range in 1955. Along with Roswell Air Force Base in New Mexico, the primary purpose of this base was, in the beginning, to administer nuclear testing in the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas. The entire range was devoted to this purpose. Hundreds of nuclear tests, above and below ground, were conducted there until 1992. Residents of Las Vegas used to hold nuclear lawn parties to watch. At one point a gigantic explosion damaged Area 51 so badly that it was closed for years. Eventually it was reopened for other purposes.

    Yucca Flats
    Yucca Flats Nuclear Test Range, southwest of Area 51 See massive volcano-like crater in the upper right, and the dozens of "normal" craters in the foreground

    The missile range was divided into dozens of areas numbered sequentially from one to fifty-one, but Area 51 was always special. It was the CIA's playground. The base was larger and contained Groom Lake, a dry lake bed that became useful for testing CIA spy planes like the U-2. You can see the base today on Google Earth. Most noteworthy are the airplane runways, which by all appearances are more substantial than those at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

    Area 51 Base
    Area 51 base, south of Groom Lake in foreground See the grid of long runways for large aircraft

    Just as interesting as a history of the area is an account of the Roswell incident of 1947. The author claims that in the process of researching Area 51 and its Roswell connection, she came across an elderly source who reluctantly discussed the Roswell incident, in detail. The result is interesting and plausible, but impossible to confirm.

    According to this source, what Roswell experienced was a flying disk with individuals inside, but its alien origin was the Soviet Union, not another world. As the story goes, the U.S.S.R. was determined to show the U.S. that even with our nuclear monopoly (at that time), we were not secure. They used unknown technology - the flying disk - and easily penetrated our air space, just to make us nervous. Remember that this was before anyone had created an intercontinental ballistic missile. The passengers were mistaken for aliens, the story goes, because the Soviets used passengers with severe genetic anomalies, for the specific purpose of making the event more frightening. The intention, we are told, was a psychological operation (psy op) against the U.S. military.

    If true, they succeeded. My uncle Patrick Napier was stationed on Roswell AFB in 1950. He relates that it was a base with unusual security protocols. The locals hated everyone on the base. Why the hatred? Because after the 1947 incident, the military came into town and made severe threats to shut everyone up. Rumors have long circulated that some people disappeared in the desert, but talk of that sort cannot be substantiated.

    Area 51 is a fascinating book with photos, names, places, and dates. It has recently declassified information, and information that perhaps is not yet declassified. Much of the information is publicly available, but the author dug deep to get the juiciest historical details. A book this forthcoming about secrets makes this writer, who received his own security clearance two weeks after graduating from high school, a bit suspicious.

    Suspicious I am, because the CIA excels at false-information games of this sort. It could easily provide doctored photos for Google Earth, and dummy photos and documents for the book. I struggle to accept it at face value. If my doubts are justified, that means that the entire book is open to question. But some of the satellite photography of the region is clearly true: endless acres of nuclear craters. Appearing as they do on the already-desolate desert gives them an almost lunar appearance.

    Examine the book, by all means, but do so skeptically. It is an accessible source and a pleasant read. Trust, if you wish, but verify.
    Growing My Own

    15 Apr 2013
    The Future, by Al Gore (2013)

    23 Feb 2013
    The Future
    Any attempt to sort out this book is inevitably colored by our knowledge, and opinion, of all that has gone before with Al Gore. I carry as much baggage in that regard as anyone else - for good and ill in equal measures - but will endeavor to set it aside as I review his latest effort. Indeed, there is no point in reading a book of this scope without a willingness to consider fresh information and opinions.

    The Future is a book about all the cool things that interest Al Gore, many of which project into the future. The good news is, the cool things that interest Al Gore interest a lot of us. The bad news is, it's amazing all the cool things that don't interest Al Gore, and hence did not make it into this book (such as cyber warfare, space exploration/colonization, robotics, bionics, designer pharmacology, and life extension science).

    In The Future, Gore takes so many opportunities to give us a history lecture -about the agricultural revolution, geology, capitalism, the history of plant breeding, and on and on -that we ultimately find ourselves wondering why he calls this tome The Future. He even tells us the history of this book. This is clearly a personal work.

    So let us consider what this book is not. If you are looking for a book that projects into the future in the manner of Alvin Toffle's Future Shock series, you will be disappointed. Indeed, it is a mistake to think of this book as a comprehensive survey of the future as it looks today. As a partial survey it is quite compelling in the arenas he does touch upon. While he strives for synthesis, he succeeds more at sheer accumulation.

    The six drivers of global change that he identifies are Earth, Inc; the Global Mind; Power in the Balance; Outgrowth; Reinvention of Life and Death; and The Edge. Earth, Inc. is about the emerging dominance of the corporate organizational model. The Global Mind is about the idea of an emergent unitary consciousness based on the Internet and its offspring - including the emergency of global government. Power in the Balance is about the changing balance of power among nations, and how that relates to Earth, Inc. Outgrowth is about the changing populations, and population growth/decline, around the world. Reinvention of Life and Death is about the bioengineering of plant and animal growth - about humans taking control of evolution. The Edge is about his favorite subject of all time, climate change.

    The book is complex; the ideas are heavily entangled. At times Gore's wonkishness exasperates to no end, giving us such sentences as One neednot believe in a deity, however, in order to entertain the possibility that the web of life as an emergent holistic integrity features linkages we do not yet full understand and which we might not risk disrupting if we did. He goes on to use mythological examples of this point, helpingus remember that this book addresses the future only upon occasion, in glimpses.

    The overbearing tendentiousness of such phraseology, which fills the book, in conjunction with its ADHD-like tendency to jump from one subject to another without warning, made me put down this book more than once. In one instance, I turned my attention to a recent book by Ralph Nader, Seventeen Solutions. Given that I struggled mightily in choosing between Gore and Nader in my 2000 presidential vote, I thought the juxtaposition could prove interesting, if not informative.

    I will not review the Nader book here, partly because I had to put it down, permanently. Nader's reversion to pure political polemic makes it difficult to find value in his rants. Despite being a trained lawyer with a background in research, he appears to have left the investigation and documentation of raw facts to his past.

    Gore's style is a welcome contrast. Having tasted of Nader, I was happy to eat a full meal of Gore. Whether you like the food, though, will depend a lot on your predisposition toward the objects of Al's attentions, because there are no surprises. Three stars - good but not great.
    Tai Chi
    Deep Relaxation

    10 Oct 2012
    Relaxation is a far more profound concept than most people think. Since balance is an early and fundamental requirement of Tai Chi Chuan, and since relaxation is the key to balance, it is a lesson I teach beginners from the first class - and a lesson I never stop teaching.

    When most newbies hear the word "relaxation", they think they have a pretty good idea of relaxation. This is a great deal of the problem. As persistent students eventually learn in their Tai Chi practice, preconceived notions are the only enemy. What we think we know is almost never correct. You can have a picture in your mind of how something works, and it may even work a little bit, but soon you will have to use a new, improved picture and throw the old one away. This cycle is repeated indefinitely.

    Relaxation (song, pronounced soong) is required for a number of reasons, both internal and external. Some of the most important are: 1) Balance; 2) Ease and speed of movement; 3) enabling of the cultivation and movement of internal energy, or chi (qi) ; and 4) rooting power. The first two are obvious to any athlete, but the last two make Tai Chi Chuan unique among martial arts (kuo shu). I explain the importance of relaxation in my book, Tai Chi In Your Life. In this article I would like to discuss methods for attaining relaxation beyond the normal.

    Your approach should be to alternate between stillness and movement in your training. Movement is a constant challenge to relaxation: One moment you are relaxed, but the next moment you have moved into a position that is not as easy, and you lose your relaxation. You become tense, raising your center of gravity or moving it off balance. For this reason stillness is the easiest way to cultivate deep relaxation. The stillness exercise is zhan zhuang, often called standing post meditation.

    Wu ji stance Many standing postures are available, but your starting point should be wu ji stance. Wu ji stance requires you to stand straight, feet parallel and shoulder width apart. You hold your arms bowed slightly out to your side as if you have tennis balls in your arm pits, palm centers facing the center of the side of the leg. Start with the essentials: raise the crown, drop the chin down, relax the throat and back of neck, drop the shoulders, hollow the chest inward, sink the ribs, relax the lower back, bend the knees and shink at the kwa (inguinal ligaments), connect to the ground through the bubble spring, the Kidney-1 point next to the ball of the foot. Stay off your heels, though they may touch the ground.

    Once you have achieved these basics, you must methodically turn your awareness from one spot to another. Seek out tension, and using your mind, tell the sources of tension to relax. Experience the specific muscles involved, and let them go. Sometimes letting go requires you to adjust other parts of your body as you become aware of imbalance in places you never noticed before.

    As you let go, balanced, you drop your center toward the ground. The closer your center is to the ground, the more rooted - the more immovable - you become. Your feet are as if they are nailed to the ground through the bubble spring. Your foundation becomes like the trunk of an old oak, while your body above your waist becomes supple like the branches of a willow.

    You will first focus on relaxing your shoulders and chest, then your lower back and hips. As a result of your movement exercise, you will become aware that you also exert a lot of tension in your knees and ankles, which interfere with your rooting. Your standing exercise will give you insights into how to let go of your muscles while moving. You will turn moving exercises into new standing postures, such as a forward stance, that allow you to meet new challenges of relaxation.

    There are certainly more levels of relaxation. As you go deeper inside, you learn to actually create your meridians of energy by relaxing the muscles along the areas of the intended pathways: You do not simply exercise the meridians, but you create them by creating pathways of relaxation.

    Relaxation is the key to all progress in Tai Chi Chuan. For a guided standing post meditation, try my CD, Tai Chi Meditations. For details, Click here or paste http://www.taichiinyourlife.com/mainpage.cfm?pagename=buymain into your your browser.
    Sons of Anarchy Meet Amity of Jaws

    20 Jun 2012
    Mongol Motorcycle Empire
    A motorcycle club named Mongols, with a reputation as serious as its name, began its invasion of a small town today. Its actions proved its tactics to be more in line with the pacifist anti-war and anti-nuclear groups of the 1970s than with the Sons of Anarchy - at least for now. Five days from now we will know the full truth.

    Boulder City is a small tourist/retirement town of fifteen thousand about ten miles outside Las Vegas. Boulder City was created as the new home for workers building the Boulder Dam a few miles away - as it was known until 1947, when its name was changed to Hoover Dam. It's a sleepy little town that deliberately limits the amount of business growth it allows, and makes up the shortfall of revenue with proceeds from the country's largest solar power plant.

    So when the Boulder City police chief was approached by a fourth-generation resident, an attorney representing the Mongols on behalf of an upcoming national convention of the group's memberhip, it presented a law enforcement challenge. The Mongols expect up to 400 members, family and friends; the Boulder City police number 36. As you guess, they have called for help.

    But the Mongols are no fools. They stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before them - many who have been beaten or killed by riotous, rampaging police. Plenty of us still remember the bloody street riots of the 1960s; plenty of us remember Chicago in 1968, where the entire police department went completely insane, beating senseless the student anti-war protesters.

    By the 1970s, those of us who had inherited the movements and built some of our own - such as the successful anti-nuclear protest movement - looked for and found a better way: Communication. We would send a leadership team to our target community, inform the police of the event so they would have no fears or worries about our intentions - making it so much easier for them to relax and stay peaceful - and train the protesters in tactics of non-violence. Amazing, it actually worked. Until recently, with a new generation of technology, no nuclear power plants have been built in this country since that decade.

    Communication. As I told one of the Mongols at the Boulder City town hall meeting last night, communication is the basis for all trust. They were smart and did the right thing, approaching the police through legal channels. These are men who demand respect; with these actions, they earned it.

    Neither the police nor the townspeople are worried about trouble from the Mongols group. What they are worried about is the presence of a Hells Angels contingent only a few miles down the road. In 2002 some HAs attacked some Mongols at a casino in Laughlin, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas: three bikers died that day. More recent was a fight in a Las Vegas wedding chapel in 2008. No one wants a repeat of those events. And though the HAs have reportedly vowed to the Mongols to stay away, no one in law enforcement is taking them at their word. They are watching, and ready. Nellis Air Force Base, the world's leading drone aircraft command center, is only twenty miles away. If any Hell's Angels head out for Boulder City, I think they'll be spotted.

    This fear was a counterpoint to the shopkeepers' obvious desire for the extra business the Mongols will bring. They've rented an entire motel, party room, and private lot. Wives will want to shop. Several ladies who spoke at the town hall were practically begging the club members to come to their restaurants! It reminds one a lot of the early scenes of the Amity shopkeepers in Jaws, more worried about loss of business than of a shark chomping on their young-uns. This time, though, concerns of safety seem well in hand. We've learned a lot since the 1960s.
    Einstein's Mistake and the Rise of Religious Science

    18 Apr 2012
    Albert Einstein
    Albert Einstein died 57 years ago today. Einstein revisionism has swept America more than once in the past eighty years, but one thing has always been certain: His greatest genius was his ability to throw out old assumptions that get in the way of progress.

    Today he would be amused and amazed to see that his "new" assumptions of a century ago have become dogma, protected by the scientific establishment with the same ferocity as the Vatican in its opposition to contraception. Now it is his assumptions that stand in the way of progress in modern physics. Without a post-Einsteinian revolution in modern physics, we will continue to see it decay into a corpse that has the disadvantages of religion its advantages.

    Problems with Relativity

    The problems are the twin toxins of dark matter and string theory. Each, in its own way, stains and defiles every rational basis for scientific inquiry. I start with dark matter because the scientifically religious belief in this non-existent substance is based in a problem with Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he published in 1916. We will also see parallels between ether and dark matter, both of which cause(d) problems for the rigorous scientist.

    Dark Matter and Religious Science

    Dark matter is a theoretical construct created for the purpose of explaining a defect in the predictions of general relativity without having to say, hey, Einstei's theory doesn't work after all! In modern physics Einstein is God and disputing him is heresy; few have the guts to do it, especially if grant money is on the line.

    General relativity makes a prediction that does not come close to matching our observations. This is ironic because it was originally accepted because it matched early observations so well (such as with the solar eclipse of 1919). Observation and computation tell us that all the matter in the universe combined accounts for only one percent of all the gravity that is observed. Matter causes gravity, so if there is more gravity than expected, there must be more matter than expected, right?

    So goes the reasoning of the largest part of the scientific establishment, but the logical flaw is obvious: it might well be our calculations  the equations we use  that are flawed. This is not mere speculation; there is good reason to suspect it.

    Galaxies and Super-Galaxies

    Einstein created general relativity at a time when the Milky Way was the only known galaxy. In solving problems of gravity in the universe, his primary concern was with the gravitational effects of stars. Galaxies, however, are composed of milllions and even billions of star systems. The combined gravitational effects of these super-huge constructs cannot be computed by the equations of special relativity, although physicists have been making the attempt for several decades.

    Why do we know the gravitational effects cannot be computed at this time? Because the computed results is a mismatch with observation by a factor of 100 to 1.

    The physics establishment's failure to deal with this problem threatens to make modern physics as irrelevant as religion in making scientific progress. This sounds like an extreme claim, but when we examine the definitions of science and of religion, it is shocking to see how much the boundaries have blurred, at least in cosmological physics.

    Requirements of Science

    The goal of the Reformation and the Age of Reason was to replace superstitious thinking with confirmable understanding. Religious leaders made unsupportable claims that were expected to be taken on faith. These claims often resulted in widespread suffering among followers. Science was created for the purpose of establishing realms of knowledge and understanding firmly based in physical reality, as opposed to the seemingly unknowable spiritual realms.

    To accomplish this, a method evolved over several centuries that lay out these requirements (among others):
    1. To be accepted as true, a hypothesis must make predictions that can be objectively measured and shown by independent observers to be correct or incorrect.
    2. The method of observation of measurement must be a documented procedure that can be replicated by others, and when so done, reliably produces the same results.
    3. When the predictions of a hypothesis do not match observation, either the observations were made incorrectly, or the hypothesis is invalid and must be modified or discarded.
    Einstein's Rejected Assumptions

    When he postulated his special theory of relativity in 1905, Einstein dealt head-on with one of the big mistakes of the physics establishment in the nineteenth century: ether. Few scientists of the day were willing to concede that light could pass through the vacuum of deep space without some kind of medium to conduct it. They called this medium ether. Although they were certain ether existed, no one was ever able to prove it.

    And oh, did they try. The later efforts were magnificent meticulous and precise, as were the magnitude of the failures.

    Light was the primary subject of Einstein's study in at least three of the five major papers he wrote in 1905. He dealt with ether in a summary fashion by saying that if its effects could not be measured or experienced at any level, it was safe to assume it did not exist at all. Perhaps it does he exist, he said, but if its effects are not measurable, it is functionally the same as if they are not true at all. Such thinking was revolutionary and dangerous, largely because it was uncertain. Science is best when it disproves, and ether was not disproven, only unproven.. Observational evidence would be required to prove him right.

    Einstein then accepted a controversial theory, postulated by mathematician James Clark Maxwell, that said the speed of light remained constant regardless of the movement of the frame of reference. This was also considered revolutionary by the physics establishment, but within a few years of publishing his special theory of relativity, Einstein was honored worldwide for the insights gained therein.

    Parallels to Dark Matter

    When we consider the history of ether and of the utility of its rejection, it is stunning to realize that theories of dark matter travel on the same trajectory. It remains for a new genius to come along and say imagine that dark matter does not exist. What are the implications? This process has already begun. Scientists well enough established that they can take risks, are looking for ways to modify or overthrow Einstein's general theory of relativity. They acknowledge that his predictions about gravity do not match observations that were unavailable a century ago.

    Religious Science, Dark Matter, and String Theory

    I coined the term religious science to refer to so-called scientific theories that stray from the rigorous requirements of the scientific method. Because they are unattached to observational confirmation, they must be taken on faith, hence are religious. I do not mean this as a judgement or criticism, but as an observation of method.

    Since today's essay is mean to honor Einstein, I will not go into the details of string theory. I merely consider string theory to be another example of religious science, because it offers no predictions or ability to establish observational confirmation. String theory is mathematical masturbation. Hence it was and probably always will be a matter of faith, not science.


    Nothing I have discussed herein should be construed as a sign that I think I personally have the ability to fill in the gaps left by the shortcomings of Einstein's theories. I have no such ability. All I have is the benefit of a full century of astronomical observation that was unavailable to him; and the insights of experienced, knowledgeable physicists who are grappling with the science. I once thought my destiny was to be a scientist, but at the age of twenty I learned the trick of science, and turned my gaze to other directions. Not a day goes by without my questioning that decision, but it stands.
    The Myth of the Kennedy Tax Cuts

    28 Feb 2012
    Anti-tax fetishists love to use President Kennedy as their poster boy for tax cuts, which is curious since so many of them have such contempt for his family and its popularity. If this "liberal" Democrat from Taxachusetts can support tax cuts, their reasoning goes, why, everyone should always support income tax cuts under all circumstances.

    To begin with JFK was a cautious moderate, no more. The concept of a Kennedy liberal came along after his death.

    On the contrary the myth of the Kennedy tax cuts, which is the myth that tax cuts will always have the same beneficial effect as they did in 1964 after President Kennedy's tax cuts were passed by Congress with the the lobbying of President Johnson, must be laid to rest once and for all.

    "A rising tide lifts all boats," the Cape Cod yachtsman once said. That's fine for people who own boats, but too many people today are barely even treading water.

    President Kennedy did indeed support and propose a significant income tax cut (passed after his death, in 1964), reducing the bracket for the wealthiest Americans by twenty percentage points: from 91% to 71%. A twenty-point reduction today would reduce the top bracket to 15%, which is less than I have paid for a long time now, and I am by no means wealthy. The legislation floundered until after his death, when President Johnson championed it in Congress and made sure it was passed. The question is, what would it take to produce a tax cut with power comparable to that passed at Kennedy's instigation?

    It cannot be done. Consider the real impact of the Kennedy tax cut: at that time, a wealthy person only got to spend 9% of his earnings. That's one dollar in eleven! The other ten dollars went to the IRS. JFK's tax cut gave that person 29% of their earnings, which is a tripling and more - almost three dollars in ten. That was a major improvement in disposable income for the haves and have-mores. Who could be surprised that this was great for the economy?

    Today that is not possible. If you pay the top rate of 35%, you have still 65% of your money to spend - more than twice what was possible after the Kennedy cuts. You cannot triple 65%, at least not in this context. So to talk about raising or lowering the top rate by five or even ten points would have a (literally) marginal effect on disposable income for the upper income earners.

    You can be against tax increases for ideological reasons, but as a practical matter it should not hurt the economy to raise the upper brackets a bit, especially considering the insanely high upper incomes we have seen in the last two decades.

    Tax cuts can be useful when taxes are a true burden, but by historical standards that claim cannot be made accurately today. America's fiscal woes today are due to overspending, not overtaxing: That is where Congress and the White House must focus their energy.
    John Glenn, My First Hero

    20 Feb 2012
    Astronaut John Glenn
    Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Earth orbiting of John Glenn, my first hero. I was seven years old, in second grade, when he orbited Earth three times. At recess a friend pulled out what was the iPhone of our time: a tiny cigarette-pack sized Japanese transistor radio. At the time most Japanese technology was synonymous with crappy, but possession of this radio marked him as wealthy and otherwise special. He had an ear plug not much different from todays iPhone earplugs, though of course vastly inferior to todays engineering. Together we listened to a network news reporter describe John Glenns second orbit of Earth. I was hooked on space, and on John Glenn. Later I heard that some guy named Alan Shepherd had been in space first, but who cared? He wasn't John Glenn. John Glenn orbited the Earth! If he wasn't a guy worthy of a military boy's heroic worship, I don't know who it could have been.

    I was never seriously tempted to go for it myself: I like my life, and space never looked like a good place for ensuring or enjoying it. At some level, no doubt, I hoped for the day when the pioneers would make it safe for the rest of us. But realistically, when would that be? The first space race ended with Americas complete victory in the Cold War. After that, few were interested in spite of the technical and commercial benefits available to America.

    The prospects for America in space today are grim. President Obama got elected with a promise that included support for space programs, but he turned his back on his promises after taking office, perhaps in an attempt to punish Republican-leaning states with heavy investments in space. America is slowly developing commercial capacity in near-Earth orbit projects, but only nations have the resources to support deeper initiatives. This is an arena that America defined; to lose it to other countries, by default, would be a criminal default of American leadership - but lose it we will, to India, China, and other countries actively working on moon programs. No one who fails to understand this deserves to be President.
    Houston v. Las Vegas, shopping, liquor and casinos

    30 Jan 2012
    No one would doubt that a big move like my relocation from Houston to Las Vegas would result in a lot of big changes. The ground cover went from green to brown, the air color from green-orange-brown (petrochemicals) to brown (sand), and the humidity went from wet sauna to dry sauna. The general climate went from sub-tropical to desert, which means cooler winters by ten to fifteen degrees, as well as hotter summers by even more.

    The little things have hit me the hardest. A surprising number relate to grocery shopping and the like. For instance, I have yet to find satisfactory replacements for Mrs. Bairds soft white bread or Blue Bells homemade ice cream. One store, a western Whole Earth wannabee called Trader Joes, considers white bread to be alternative bread! Sorry, but Im under doctors orders to avoid wheat bread, at least the kind thats brown. Im not required to go gluten free like some of my unfortunate friends, but I do have to watch my digestion. Of course, Whole Earth is hardly better, where the only white bread offering could substitute for plaster board without a discernible decline in strength or appearance. Of course, plaster board would be cheaper.

    On the plus side, the grocery stores carry liquor. Liquor stores exist, but only a discerning drinker would require one. In Las Vegas, Jack Daniels displays share foor space with the flour and sugar. The curious result is that Im more likely to have liquor in the household, but less likely to drink it.

    But is that any different from my response to the casinos? The average person outside the region, when you think of Las Vegas you think of the big casinos, the big tourist destinations. For a local, its a different matter: unless you live in the Hoover Dam suburb of Boulder City, you have gambling on every street corner. Every neighborhood bar is a casino. Even the gas stations and grocery stores have slot machine rooms! Unless youre a gambling addict, the normal reaction is to ignore it and never avail of it at all. Not unlike the aversion to ice cream I developed temporarily in high school, due to overexposure, while waiting tables at OLearys Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant back in Fort Worth ...
    Houston v. Las Vegas, Part 1

    3 Jan 2012
    Two months ago, I was on the road. All my possessions in Houston were shipped or stored, and I was heading to Las Vegas for my new home. Having lived in Texas continually since 1969, and in Houston since 1981, I knew it was time for a change.

    The sociocultural differences  not to mention climatic and geological differences  are staggering. My culture blog will be devoted largely to documenting American sociocultural differences as I discover them through the Las Vegas  Houston lens. In many cases, its more like a Nevada  Texas lens. What is it like to live in the desert West after living in the marshy South? What is like to live in a way station with few pretenses to moral goodness, after living in a Bible Belt state where most people pretend to moral superiority, but rarely live it? Read on.

    Most noticeably, the big difference is geography and climate. Houston stays warmer in the winter  most of the time, though this week is different  but Las Vegas is hotter in the summer. Houston is quite muggy  the summers are like outdoor saunas  because of its posture at the nexus of a coast, marshland, and the East Texas forest. It is subtropical and one of the greenest (florally speaking) cities in America. Las Vegas may be one of the brownest, and driest. The amount of brown is staggering. This summer in Houston, brown meant dead grass and trees: as many as 60 million trees estimated dead in this summers drought. The threat of an inner-city wildfire was real. With brown carrying the connation of dead and dying, it is hard not to feel the Las Vegas area lacks wildlife. The wildlife is not absent, merely different  and hiding. This weekend I checked out the Red Rock Canyon area, which is popular for hiking. There are desert trails, mountain trails, box canyons, and water sources hidden in the canyons. Wild burros and horses abound like deer in Texas. The dominant tree may be the Joshua, which looks like a hairy cactus; in Houston, the pine tree. Given Houstons propensities to host hurricanes, the reverse may be a better fit: the tall pine trees, with their shallow roots, are easily destroyed by harsh storms of the type that Nevada rarely sees.

    Finally, Houston is flat (elevation, 15 feet), while Las Vegas (elevation, 2100 feet) is in a valley surrounded by mountains; the nearby Hoover Dam is more than 400 feet higher. These are mountains that disappoint, though: brown and sandy, they resemble giant dirt hills more than stony mountains. For real mountains you must drive at least 45 minutes out of town, to Mount Charleston (79 degrees in the summer when Las Vegas is 100). Even better, travel 3-1/2 hours to the Grand Canyon, or to Sedona, Arizona, where I spent Christmas week. All the talk about electromagnetic vortexes is pure silliness, but the area is special nonetheless.

    Now that Ive scoped out a number of promising areas for meditation and Tai Chi practice, my next step is to find exact spots, and use them. The magic in the stillness of the desert cannot be ignored.
    Modern Investment Dilemmas

    27 Dec 2011
    Jim Cramer has his detractors, sometimes deservedly so (Jon Stewart), but he made a point on today's Mad Money show that is right on the money. But whether by design or by accident, he missed out on an implication that should set investors and would-be reform legislators thinking about the nature and future usage of America's stock markets.

    His point was this: starting in the 1980s, hedge funds began creating derivative vehicles for investment because they were running out of equities to invest in. That's right! That had so much money to spend that they just plumb ran out of stocks to buy!

    Well, almost but not quite. Cramer's caveat was that they could continue to invest in stocks, but they would have to actually buy the companies. Then they would have to do real work! That's not fair!

    Instead they created indexes like the Standard & Poors 500 stock index. They created REITs and ETFs and futures where no commodities would change hands. Cramer's point is that this trend tends to make stocks move together with the market, rather than individually on their own merits. As a result it is increasingly difficult to pick good stock investments based on company fundamentals, which should be the only basis for picking stocks.

    I wish Cramer had pursued that line of thinking. Why is there so much money available? Why doesn't it go elsewhere? Perhaps this is why Ted Turner has spent the last two decades becoming America's largest landowner. Perhaps he had no stomach for this trend, but wanted a sane, viable investment vehicle. So he bought land! I hear they aren't making it any more.

    Why are second and third order derivatives allowed? Allowing them means that investors no longer have a stake in the success of companies they invest in. Instead, they have a stake in the overall market. This is a very different breed of horse.

    The fundamental value of the stock market, which is to reward or punish the performance of companies with dollars and cents, is reduced and ultimately destroyed. When this happens, American capitalism is further weakened, potentially making it more of a threat than a benefit to economic society.

    Writing as an individual investor, Cramer's comments strike a chord with my most successful recent investment strategy. I've found that I can make more money trading call and put options as the market trades up and down. Instead of buying shares in a blue chip stock, I trade options in blue chip stocks. Done correctly, this helps reduce the general risk of options trading. The key is to be intimately aware of the stocks' trading patterns, and then sculpt the buy and sell points to the cent and the second. The average investor with a day job cannot do this, at least not often, but it works, sometimes stunningly well. Other times it flops just as stunningly, such as when a stock moves to a new trading channel.

    I follow this strategy, and make ridiculous profits, but I can make ridiculous losses, too. In the end it is not satisfying. I'm searching for, and finding, low-risk investment strategies that take advantage of Cramer's trend. Unfortunately, I'm afraid this is a situation where what is good for investors, is not good for the stock market or capitalism as a whole.
    Deregulate Health Savings Accounts

    25 Dec 2011
    Let's stop talking about repealing Obamacare, and start talking about reforming the American health care system. Obamacare is a fait accompli. Meanwhile, a simple reform can go a long way toward easing the cost burden of the everyday patient.

    Changes to the American health care system passed in 2009, referred to disparagingly as Obamacare, are no longer a single, separate thing, if they ever were. They are in effect, or going into effect, in a very complex way. They cannot be repealed, only destroyed as you might perform an autoproboscisectomy because your face puts you off. As with any complex system, destroying a portion of it will certainly cause damage throughout. Since we all have to worry about health care in our lives, we all have a stake in a sustainable, reliable health care system. Affordable would be nice, too.

    The primary accomplishment of the recent changes is to creep a little closer to universal coverage. And when we say coverage, we do not mean health care per se, we mean possession of a health insurance policy. A person can have insurance and still not be able to pay the co-pay or deductibles.

    Much of the expense of this coverage is likely to born by the taxpayer. As additional health care demands are processed by the existing health care system, demand will drive up prices to patients. New regulations are already driving up prices. The mandate to require coverage for pre-existing conditions, while laudable, does not get at the primary problem: the cost of such insurance. I have a buddy, a single adult male, whose insurance went up to $1,700 a month due to his pre-existing condition. This is simply a death sentence for someone who cannot fight back, as he can, barely.

    Here is a simple reform that can go a long way toward easing the financial burden of today's health care receivers  that is, everybody: Allow any U.S. citizen to create a Health Savings Account with essentially the same requirements and caveats as a Traditional IRA, with these changes: No maximum deposit and HAS withdrawals may be made at any time for medical purposes, tax free. Children would have an HAS set up at the start (or at birth), controlled by their legal guardians until they reach 18.

    A few adjustments would be required to make this a viable approach. Clearly some agency, perhaps the IRS, might have to monitor the types and amounts of medical purposes that go tax free or serious abuses will result. It would be regrettable but a small price to pay. It might also be wise to limit the extent to which such funds may be invested, but we can see possible problems with forbidding all speculative use. It would be reasonable to forbid trading of all commodities and derivatives, though  and margin trading of anything at all.

    Another adjustment would be to federal spending. Widespread use of HSAs could put a serious dent in federal tax revenues. Legislators would be faced with raising taxes to make up the difference, or reducing spending. The choice is classic, but the cause would be far more just than most: For once it would affect everyone instead of a favored social class.

    HSAs already exist today, but they are so burdened by requirements for your employer (if you have one) that they are meaningless for most purposes. By deregulating HSAs we can create a path toward individual financial responsibility for health care.
    Obama Hurts Social Security

    20 Dec 2011
    President Barack Obama
    Why is President Obama so eager to destroy Social Security? When President Bush proposed a modest change to Social Security it was decried as a back-door attempt to end Social Security. If that was true then Obama's 32% Social Security tax cut is far more dangerous.

    Bush's proposal had two basic components: give workers the option to reduce the amount of taxes withheld from their paychecks for Social Security, and the concurrent right to place those funds in an investment account for retirement that they controlled. The only thing that made this proposal different from an IRA was the idea that funds targeted for Social Security would go straight to the workers' coffers, not that of the U.S. Treasury.

    Objections were raised to his proposal because workers who invested their retirement funds would be putting their retirements at risk, if they invested in the stock or commodities markets. There was also great concern that reducing funds paid to Social Security would hasten its shortfalls, causing a true Social Security crisis for the first time in history.

    Amazingly, Obama's tax cut, now renewed, perpetrates the very worst parts of Bush's proposal, but leaves the good parts ignored.

    Just to review: the tax cut just renewed reduces Social Security withholding from 6.2% to 4.2% of your pay check. Journalists who know nothing about arithmetic call that a 2% tax cut, but it is actually a 32% tax cut: two percentage points divided by six point two percentage points. By comparison, Bush proposed cutting only as much as 25%.

    We are putting 32% fewer funds into Social Security than two years ago one hundred ten billion dollars less annually. As a result Social Security's financial soundness is in much, much greater trouble than when Obama took office.

    How many workers are saving that 2% a year of their income? How many are putting it toward retirement? Not many, it is safe to assume. Under Bush's proposal, everyone would have been saving toward retirement, even if some level of risk was attached. Under Obama's tax cuts, nothing new is going toward retirement, and the financial health of Social Security is worse than it has ever been. Under Obama, workers nearing retirement are in greater jeopardy than ever before.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Ball

    19 Sep 2011
    Now that you know that Tai Chi Chuan movement from the waist can go side to side or front to back, you are probably wondering whether the third dimension enters the picture. Of course it does! Once you fully absorb the ideas of the rotating disk and the crashing wave, it is only a small leap to the Tai Chi Ball.

    The Tai Chi Ball is a conceptual sphere in your lower dan tien, which is the energy center just below your navel, inside the abdomen. You should lead all movement in any direction from the rotating ball in your dan tien.

    Most movement is complex enough that movement in a single dimension is unlikely. In the first blog on this subject I discussed it in a single dimension, but that was only as an introduction to the subject.

    Consider Lion Opens Mouth, which is featured in the medium frame (Michuan) variant of Yang Style. If your right foot is leading, you "open the mouth" by rotating the ball in your dan tien from the left hip to the right shoulder. The horizontal component moves your right foot outward, rotating on the heel, while the side-to-side rotation leads the right hand to open up toward the shoulder and the left hand to open down toward the hip. The third dimension, the crashing wave, is invoked by your reverse breathing, as you open up and create an empty middle.

    In your early years of working with the Tai Chi ball in your lower dan tien, you will inevitably do so by physically twisting your abdomen. That's not correct, but it is unavoidable as a starting point. A skilled observer will be able to tell if you are moving from your dan tien or not. Watch your teacher and fellow students. Who is using their dan tien, and who is not? Does their use of the dan tien correspond to their ability to move in a unified fashion?

    You bet it does. As you link your movements to the turning of the ball in your dan tien, you movements will approach unity.
    Tai Chi
    Crashing the Wave

    12 Sep 2011
    When you learn in Tai Chi Chuan to move from the waist, you begin by thinking of a horizontal disk that rotates to the right or left around a vertical axis. Not long after, you begin to realize that your movement also involves rising and falling. Thus you must abandon the image of the flat disk for something else: a crashing wave.

    The crashing wave becomes evident in the practice of Ward Off (peng) and its sister movement, Push (lu). When your opponent pushes into your forearm, do not fight the assault; that would be artless shoving, not Tai Chi Chuan. Instead, accept the attack by yielding to the line of movement.

    More specifically, accept the movement in a downward spiral. Your goal is to suck in the attacker and spit him out again. To do that, your yielding becomes an irrestible draw, pulling the attack into your empty middle like the undertow of a dangerous wave.

    As the attacker falls into the empty middle, continue directing the line of movement in a circle, down, up the inside, and finally, crashing over the top. Your discharge of energy (fah-jing) corresponds to the crashing of the wave, whose final burst of power comes from the simple drop that occurs when you allow gravity to take over.

    The crashing wave is also present in the final strike of Brush Knee and Push, and in Single Whip. In all three cases, the final crash is possible only if you can allow your body to drop naturally. This ability is one of the many things you cultivate in standing postures (Zhan Zhuang): your body's ability to create great power through dropping. This dropping, closely related to rooting, is only as good as your ability to relax your body.

    In order to properly "let go" and drop naturally, you must cultivate relaxation in parts of your body that may seem quite impossible to relax. Once you pay attention, though, it becomes a matter of practice.

    In Yang Style, focus on the movements that involve a forward stance with the front knee over the middle of the foot, and the back leg straight. You do this with Ward Off, Single Whip, and Brush Knee and Push (this is true in the medium frame as well as the "traditional" large frame). Practice moving into each movement, on both the right and left sides. As your forward knee moves into place, let the knee go: relax it. Allow the supporting foot to take the weight. Feel your body sink into it, just as you have experienced when you relax your shoulders, hips, or lower back. Be careful not to let the back leg sag; it must remain straight.

    With the image of a crashing wave we come closer to the truth. So far we have only considered moving from the waist in two dimensions. When we add the final dimension we arrive at the Tai Chi ball, the subject of our trilogy on Moving From the Waist.
    Tai Chi
    Moving From the Waist

    5 Sep 2011
    Tai Chi beginners frequently express the desire to "look pretty" when they move in Tai Chi Chuan. Such a desire can create a large roadblock in your early progress: the more you try to look pretty, the less you will succeed. Instead, practice correct movement, expressing the external from within, and the beauty will emerge naturally. The key is to move from the waist.

    Moving from the waist is not too difficult, but it is radically different from what most people are used to. In Japanese martial arts, movement is from the hip. You see it in karate all the time. Budo arts are derived from battlefield methods, where armor was worn. The armor moves at the hips, not the waist, hence, the requirement for hip movement.

    In China, internal martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) are personal fighting arts where neither a battlefield setting nor armor are assumed. The attacking techniques require moving through a line of attack based on the direction of the navel - cutting through the opponent's center. The movements are further refined by the idea of the lower dan tien (tantien), which sits just below the waist in the abdomen.

    In the early months of Tai Chi Chuan practice, a student should set aside time to exercise the waist on a regular basis. Side-to-side arm swings are a start, but more is required. You must also pay special attention to separating the waist movement from the hips.

    In other words, be careful to turn only the waist, and not the hips. In general, the hips, navel, and shoulders must point squarely to the front toe direction, which is the line of attack. The more closely your navel cuts through your opponent's center, the more powerful your discharge will be.

    Such exercises are only a beginning. As you practice form, you must carefully delineate the order of your movements for maximum effect. The expression "move your body as one" is often misinterpreted to mean "do everything all at once". Nothing could be further from the truth. You must express your movement as a unified whole, but that whole consists of many different currents of movement that merge together in a harmonious flow.

    In form practice, be sure to lead your movements from your waist. For instance, it is common to enter a movement by turning one foot out forty-five degrees, preparing for it to become the back leg in your next stance. Do not initiate the movement with the foot. Instead, turn the waist and let the foot movement follow it. There is no exception to this rule: lead all foot movements from the waist. For that matter, lead all hand/arm movements from the waist as well.

    As you fully absorb this lesson, you will come to realize that sometimes your waist movement is not side-to-side. Moving your waist to the left or to the right is important, but it is only a single dimension. To go deeper, you must explore the other dimensions as well. This will be the subject of upcoming blogs.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi vs. Qigong (Chi Kung)

    28 Jul 2011
    Having announced the beginning of my first round of pure qigong (chi kung) classes in two or three years, I am surprised to hear so many students ask what is qigong? Surprised and amused, since they have been practicing qigong with me in class from the beginning.

    Qigong is the cultivation of qi (chi) the fundamental energy of our life force  through external exercises. In other words, movement to cultivate qi. Another branch of exercises, neigong, is devoted to cultivating qi without moving at all  such as the standing post meditation I offer on my new CD, Tai Chi Meditations. Neigong is purely internal, while qigong is internal work with an external component.

    Most qigong movements are simple and straightforward, though not always easy; some will challenge you as much as the most torturous yoga asanas. All in all, qigong has most of the same pleasurable qualities as Tai Chi, without the long, complex forms that are the hallmark of most Tai Chi styles.

    Qigong is a health practice, pure and simple. Tai Chi Chuan, as a martial art, is healthy because martial arts require extreme fitness, but the martial component is key; some (such as Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming) even call Tai Chi a martial qigong, though that is clearly a modern spin on an ancient art.

    Qigong exercises are often prescribed, just as medication is prescribed, for handling specific ailments. Heart, lung, liver, kidney, digestive, and sexual problems all have exercises intended to help. These exercises work by moving qi through the meridians (as in acupuncture meridians) associated with the organs in question.

    Everyone who is alive has qi, but the strength of your qi determines your health. As the strength wanes, so does your health and vitality. You can cultivate the strength and power of your qi through qigong exercises.

    Sometimes our problem is with stuck qi: due to tension in our bodies, our qi is stuck partially or completely, so that it cannot pass from one part of the body to another. To understand how this works, just think of a garden hose running at full blast: even a small crimp is enough to reduce the flow to a trickle. So it is with qi flowing in a tense body.

    When we are relaxed, qi flows smoothly and easily from one area to another. It is not too thin in one spot, so that an organ is deprived of energy; it is not too thick in another spot, so that an organ is not poisoned from too much energy.

    Qigong allows us to cultivate relaxation with smooth, flowing motions. As we relax, our energy balance improves, and overall energy increases. The exercises are easy and enjoyable. The new classes are posted on the schedule. Why not try it?
    Tai Chi
    Practicing Too Much

    16 Jun 2011
    Can we practice Tai Chi Chuan too much? In a word, no. Some forms of exercise, such as weightlifting, carry an inherent upper limit, but Tai Chi does not. However, there are many ways to practice. If you practice a lot but practice the exact same way each time, you may be disappointed in your lack of progress. Some say that practicing Tai Chi is like peeling away the layers of an onion; but an onion has limits, and the practice of Tai Chi does not. If Tai Chi was an onion, the best part would come only after all the layers had been peeled away. The secrets are hidden in the empty middle.

    Let's look at some of the options available for varying our solo practice. Keep in mind that this article only scratches the surface. Your challenge is to use your mind to dig deeper, using these ideas as a starting point.

    One favored method is to practice your form (at least) three times each day, but practice each one at a different speed. The method I have heard of says practice the first time moderately slowly, the second time faster, and the third time the slowest of all. Others gloss over the subject by saying "practice faster twenty percent of the time", or something similar.

    So speed variation is one approach, but there are pitfalls at each speed. The faster you go, the more you are inclined to put your ego into the achievement of power, with the result that your effort is external, not internal. You can tell when you do that because you will feel physical strain as either muscular effort, or muscle cramps. It is easy to lose the core muscle linkage essential to internal power. That said, practicing at a high level with speed is an important part of your progress - but only after you have moved beyond the beginner stage. Don't assume you know when that is; let your teacher tell you.

    There are also pitfalls to practicing too slowly, what my teacher Master George Hu used to call "stuck chi". The solution to this problem is not to practice faster; the solution is to turn your slow practice to the exquisite relaxing of every muscle in your body. Stuck chi at any speed is due to tension, so you solve the problem by eliminating the tension. Removing the tension also improves your rooting.

    A less discussed method for varying your practice is to practice energetically. That does not mean doing it fast and externally; quite the contrary. Practicing energetically means, once you have reached a relaxed state, you consciously move your chi through the meridians in your body.

    Do not tell yourself, "someday when I am accomplished enough, it will just happen". Only if you are very, very special will it just happen; it is best to assume you are not that special. Instead, as you practice the form, turn your chi on.

    Now, if you have never practiced any sort of chi cultivation exercises, your experience with chi may be too limited to do this practice. For the purpose of discussion let's assume you have some experience so that at least a little accomplishment is available. Even if it is not, you should be able to understand this discussion at some basic level.

    Begin by turning it on: turn it on like a light switch, by turning your attention to the crown point (Baihui, Gv-20). Feel the energy in your head rush to the point. If you treat it like a flick of the switch, the movement will be one-time, but if you focus continuously on it, it will flow continuously.

    You can achieve "ignition" in many ways, but this is a good one. Some people ignite at the Life Gate (ming men, Gv-4) opposite the lower dan-tien (abdomen); some prefer the Heart Gate, on the spine opposite the heart.

    Your next goal comes in the form when you are stepping. As you roll your foot forward from the heel to the Bubble Spring (Yongquan, K-1) next to the ball of the foot, draw the earth's energy in through your Bubble Spring: up the inside of the leg, wrapping around the calves and behind the thighs to meet at the perineum, (Huiyin, Co-1), where the Conception Vessel (front line meridian) meets the Governing Vessel (back line meridian). From there your chi can move up the spine (Governing Vessel, Gv) to the Life Gate.

    As you move, continue drawing the chi up your spine toward your shoulders. Between the shoulder blades at the Heart Gate (Shenzen, Gv-15), your energy should split and issue equally through the arms to the center of the palms (lao gong, P-8) for discharge. This discharge will precede the end of the exhale.

    As you inhale, gather the remaining energy back in the spine. Eventually your goal is to orbit that energy over the top of the crown, but for now, drop it straight back down into the ground.

    As you practice your form, experiment with this exercise through different transitions and moves.

    When you finish this practice, be sure to gather your chi in your lower dan-tien (abdomen).

    What other ways can you think of to vary your solo form practice?
    Tai Chi
    Practicing While Not Practicing

    1 May 2011
    When can you find time to practice your Tai Chi Chuan? Everyone must find their own answer to this question, even though the answers invariably devolve to morning, noon, or night  or for us dedicated spirits, morning, noon and night. But if you practice the movements enough, it is only a matter of time until you realize that you are always practicing, even when you are not practicing.

    To make sense of this seeming paradox, realize the practice can mean many things. We typically think of practice as repeating the solo form, or two-person applications, or sensing hands (pushing hands). So if we are not doing any of these things, we are not practicing.

    Look deeper, and you will realize that all of life is an opportunity to practice. In one way this is the message of my book, Tai Chi In Your Life. Just as you can turn Tai Chi lessons into life lessons, so can you use your entire life to practice Tai Chi. Can you think of some examples?

    Start with standing. You practice standing meditation, which starts with balance and centering. When you stand around talking to people, do you follow the same principles as in your standing meditation? Why not? Why not use the opportunity to relax and center? If the conversation is stressful, this is all the more reason to relax your body and allow your mind to follow.

    Look at how you walk. In class we talk about moving with complete control of our center, so that each step is issued with complete control  compared to the barely-controlled fall that passes for walking amongst most people. Do you practice relaxing and centering as you walk? Are you endangering yourself with your careless stepping?

    When you reach for a door to open it, how much muscular effort do you subject yourself to in the process? How much do you lose your balance, or adjust your balance by using brute muscular force? Instead, reach for the door handle through your palm, extending through the middle of the arm, just as you should reach during the practice of your form. Pull the door open using your core muscles, not your shoulder or arm. Find a way to move the door without tensing your arm, chest, or shoulder. The solution will not come immediately, but it is a worthy exercise. Part of the challenge come from the wide variety of doors  their height, their density, their center, the shape of the door knob/handle. If the door has a handle that must turn downward to unlatch, you can literally punch the door open, even if it is latched at the outset. Eventually even the heaviest door can be made to fly open with a slight flick of movement from your abdomen.

    When you reach out to pick up or set down an object, do you keep your arm, wrist, and fingers relaxed? Do you link your arm movement to your core muscles? If so, you can move smoothly and freely, without tension. A good test of this comes from ice trays: fill up an ice tray and walk around while holding it in the air, as you might while walking from the kitchen sink to the icebox. Set it in the freezer. Does the water slosh around, or does it stay still? Does it spill? Sloshing comes from a tense arm or hand. Relax and try again.

    These are a few simple examples from some of the more common and repetitive activities in our daily lives. Can you find additional ways to apply your Tai Chi principles in your daily movement? How should you dig with a shovel? Cut vegetables with a knife? Write with an ink pen? Think about it, and relate to me some of your own examples.
    Tai Chi
    Hiding it

    9 Mar 2011
    The problem with demonstrating Tai Chi Chuan is that the highest level expression of its movements hides all the goodies. The more that is shown, the less worthy is the showing: the best demonstrations show the least on the outside. Tai Chi Chuan is first and foremost an internal art.

    As a result, merely watching the demonstration of a grandmaster can be a lesson unto itself.

    A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to revisit this lesson while watching a public demonstration by my long-time teacher, Grandmaster George Ling Hu, at the Lone Star Kung Fu Championships.

    Demonstrating Tai Chi Chuan at a primarily Kung Fu event is an ego challenge. Kung Fu is external - big, flashy, fast. Many demonstrations are with groups as well. As a result Tai Chi Chuan looks small and insubstantial to anyone who does not know what to look for.

    Knowing this, many Tai Chi demonstrators feel the need to make a big, flashy demonstrations of their own, lest they look inadequate. This is the ego challenge the Grandmaster Hu taught me to avoid. What is more important, showing the true expression of Tai Chi Chuan, or impressing spectators by displaying Tai Chi as if it were really Kung Fu?

    Grandmaster Hu's demonstration hid all the goodies. He hid them so well that even his style was indistinguishable to all but a handful of spectators, mainly his senior students. How many others knew that those hands flowing with the grace of a gentle wind, can also break rocks with the power of a tsunami? Not many, because he did not show it; but the ability is there.

    Which brings us to an interesting dilemma I face as I teach. Because newer students cannot see the hidden goodies, and because I want them to at least form a concept of what those hidden goodies are, there is a constant temptation to draw out the essence of a movement by making it big. Only problem is, making it bigger makes it worse, a lesser expression of what Tai Chi Chuan should be.

    In Tai Chi Chuan you can only draw out the essence of a movement by making it small. A primary reason we practice slowly is because it is easier to examine the essence of such a small movement. The more we allow fear, self-doubt or ego attachments to creep into our practice of Tai Chi Chuan, the longer it will take to achieve the goal. So don't do that!
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Community

    13 Feb 2011
    "Today's Taijiquan," Yang Jun said in a recent interview, "is a multi-purpose exercise. It is both a martial art and a health exercise. It also allows practitioners to join a social community." Yang, who became the latest Yang Family successor in 2009, now lives and teaches out of his school in Redmond, Washington. He also maintains a busy schedule of teaching around the world as he builds a network of Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Centers and certified teachers.

    Many students never see this social community beyond their class, although even within a class, social groups strike up spontaneously. This weekend we have a chance to see more of that community, at the Lone Star Chinese Martial Arts Tournament/Houston on Saturday. In April we will have another chance with World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. Both are excellent opportunities to see more of the Tai Chi community and learn more about your art, so I encourage students to attend and participate, or at least observe.

    There are four types of events of interest to Tai Chi practitioners. In the Tai Chi portions of the tournament, a forms competition will be divided into groups by style and by years of experience. Those events are scored by judges, with the average determining the winner.

    The pushing hands events take two approaches: fixed step and moving step. In fixed step, competitors must basically stay in one place, while in moving step, they may move around within a designated ring. In both events points are awarded to competitors who cause their opponents to lost balance and become uprooted - staggering or falling, sometimes vigorously. These events are divided by weight, age, and years of experience.

    There are also events for Tai Chi weapons - most frequently straight sword (jian), saber, spear, and fan. These are handled like the empty hand form events.

    At some point every serious student of Tai Chi should participate in a few of these events. There is no point in compulsively signing up for every event that comes along, but two or three years of competition is an excellent way to hone your skills. Since one of the most difficult skills is the ability to relax in the face of adversity, a competition is a safe and effective way to work on this skill.

    But you can learn a lot by just attending and watching. The competition will be throughout the day, with the master's demo at 7:30 pm, when I will perform along with many local and nationally recognized masters.

    The schedule, in brief, is:
    • 8:00 am - Registration Begins
    • 9:30 - Opening ceremony
    • 10:00 - Competition begins
    • 7:30 pm - Masters Demo

    To learn more about the exact schedule and location of the event, at the Crown Reliant Hotel near Reliant Center by the Astrodome, go to www.KungFuChampionship.com/Houston. If you attend, drop by my table for my book, Tai Chi In Your Life.
    Tai Chi
    Accepting in Everyday Life

    2 Nov 2010
    Election Night is the ideal time to discuss Accepting in our Everyday Life. Recall that in order to master our martial art, we must be willing to throw off preconceived notions of truth; willing to accept the reality we experience, rather than the reality we wish for. Only by accepting the truth can your Tai Chi Chuan ability progress.

    Progress in your life requires that you accept all truth, no matter how unpleasant you may find it. In politics this means finding a way to accept our opponents' points of view as valid. So-called "bipartisan politics" is only possible if we can accept our opponents as valid. Clinging to ideology destroys our ability to relax and flow with the vicissitudes of life. This requires us to detach our ego as well. To quote from Chapter 7 in my book, Tai Chi In Your Life: 8 Principles That Can Change Your Life While Learning and Growing with Tai Chi:

    The key to successfully accepting in your life is to be in touch with who you really are: to be linked to your center, as we discussed in the Sixth Principle. Once you are linked to your personal center, you can move safely and without tension in an energy space created by your awareness and intention. That movement can be projective and powerful, if you wish, unaccompanied by feelings of doubt or guilt. You must have confidence and, yes, faith in your ability to accept safely.

    Once your life is linked to your center, you can accept the vicissitudes of life with aplomb. You can deal with events as you would items on an assembly line. By reducing the emotional component of daily stress, you learn to accept events rather than fight them at every turn. You might think of this as a go with the flow approach to life, but it is a flow that you can steer in the direction of your choice.

    To quote from Chapter 8, Detaching the Ego:

    Detaching the ego allows you to go with the flow: to accept whatever comes along and deal with it accordingly. Most problems in our lives occur because of our unwillingness to accept reality and deal with it. Thus accepting and detaching your ego are closely connected. We build fantasy models of reality in our minds. We create these fantasies to make us comfortable and happy. Such comfort is based on personal predilections….

    Ending your ego attachment to bad ideas and habits can truly revolutionize your life. Letting go of a bad idea is as liberating as cutting the rope connecting your ankle to a boat anchor; as rejuvenating as a foot massage after two shifts of waiting tables.

    The key to applying these lessons to our political beliefes is to realize than in the grand scheme of things - such as in the history of human affairs - no political belief carries any lasting meaning. Perhaps it does for the moment, but only from one point of view. Every issue carries many points of view. Can you learn to see more than one? When you can do that, you have made a giant step down the path to enlightenment.
    Tai Chi
    Accepting in Martial Arts

    27 Oct 2010
    Lately the wind has been quite strong here in Houston, up to 15 miles per hour. This is a great opportunity to practice accepting. Accepting, which is closely related to yielding, is a key ingredient to perfecting your martial arts efficacy. As we will see in the next blog, it is key ingredient in living a happy, balanced life as well.

    Accepting means receiving, acknowledging, and yielding to absolute reality.

    For instance, imagine you are attacked with a punch toward your head. If you are not prepared for it, all you can hope to do is to avoid the attack. To avoid it you must relax your body. To relax your body, you must relax your mind and accept the reality that you are being attacked and that it is too late to arrive first. So you accept the attack and re-direct it with circular motions that first intercept the line of attack, then redirect it.

    If you are indeed prepared for the attack, you may have other options. You still must accept the reality of the attack, but you can strike first. This is where we get the saying that "I do not attack, but if you attack, I will strike first." You accept the attack so quickly that you can strike first. To do this requires a level of awareness and acceptance that comes only from training.

    To begin practice accepting, move very slowly, as if through water instead of air. Houston's humidity is quite conducive to such imagery. Visualize an attack every second, and accept it. Step it up to two times, three times, five times, twenty times a second. This exercise can have a profound impact on your practice of taijiquan, and your ability to accept in a pushing hands (tui shou) or fighting (kuo shou) context. Accepting not from a single directions, but from all directions simultaneously.

    Build on this exercise by practicing in a high wind such as Houston has experienced lately.The stronger the wind, the more useful the exercise. It is particularly a challenge to accept from all directions, since the wind comes from one direction. This reflects the reality that in a self-defense situation, you may be attacked from several directions, not just from the front. It is not enough to focus on only one direction.

    Accepting works for all sorts of attacks, not just physical confrontations. Such attacks can take place in any part of our lives. They are more likely and more frequent than street attacks. Watch for the next blog for a discussion of this subject, which is also addressed in Chapter 7 of Tai Chi In Your Life.
    Tai Chi
    Neural Plasticity

    5 Oct 2010
    When I was a boy in school, I recall being taught that our brain cells stop growing at about the age of 35, and that they do nothing but die from that point on. We all thought it creepy, but at the age of 10 or 12 you don't worry much about turning 35.

    In the last ten years neuroscientists have made tremendous discoveries about the brain that completely change how we think about it. They have discovered that new brain cells often grow, and new neural pathways are often formed deep into old age. This brain growth, or neuroplasticity, has tremendous implications for the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

    Tai Chi can be thought of as a method for reprogramming the brain. We have long known that Tai Chi is good for balance - good for regaining balance, good for repairs to our nervous system, good for leg strengthening. Now these benefits can be thought of in the context of stimulating new brain growth directly. This new brain growth is likely the method by which many Tai Chi benefits occur. Neuroscientists know that the type of exercise, whether physical or mental, or a combination as Tai Chi is, directly affects the type of brain growth that occurs. This is the reason that post-middle-age adults are encouraged to engage in cognitive exercises, to keep their minds alive through continuous growth of brain cells and neural pathways.

    Other aspects of brain research have focused on what causes long-term memory versus short-term memory. The answer is - repetition! Short-term memory residing in the pre-frontal cortex is built easily, but long-term memory resides in the hippocampus. The details of how memories transfer from the cortex to the hippocampus are still not clear, but one thing is clear: repetition, through practice, stimulates the transfer.

    So go practice!

    Tai Chi
    Dental Song

    14 Sep 2010
    One of our greatest challenges at total relaxation (song, pronounced soong) comes from a simple visit to the dentist. I always laugh when they take my blood pressure, because what is normal in a dentist is office - 160 over 100?

    But dental pain is no laughing matter. It is easy to relax in the chair until the first time they scrape your gums or drill into a nerve. Then, watch out! I find it easier to relax in rush hour traffic than in this chair. That said, it is possible to relax, and the practice will make it much easier to relax in other adverse situations.

    In many ways it is easier to relax in the chair (at least until the dentist enters the room) than when standing. You don't have to hold yourself in a perfect stance; you can relax any part of your body as easily as any other, even more easily than lying on a bed, because on a bed gravity tries to unnaturally straighten the spine.

    But once we've felt the first pain from the dentist, it is hard to mentally relax, so start with breathing. Take long, slow, thin, deep breaths. Make the breaths quiet and soft. Feel your body settle and relax with each exhale. It is soothing.

    As you feel your body generally relax, mentally search typical sources of tension - shoulders, chest, lower back, hips, feet. As you discover the tension, mentally let the tension go, as if you had been gripping something and then relaxed your grip. The relief is palpable.

    In case you're wondering, this missal is not simply about relaxing at the dentist's office: it is about figuring out how to relax no matter how adverse the circumstances. Not only will the relaxation do you good, but the process of figuring it all out will provide cognitive stimulus as well. Learning this trick can take your practice of Tai Chi Chuan to a new level as well.
    Tai Chi
    Habit Forming

    12 Jul 2010
    Do you have bad habits you would like to stop, or good habits you would like to start? They are effectively the same task; both can be handled simply, but only if you put your mind to it. It's as easy and as difficult as that.

    In my recent book, Tai Chi In Your Life, I discuss eight principles of Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) that you can productively incorporate into every aspect of your daily life. At the core, the book is about cultivating useful traits and, you might say, de-cultivating negative traits.

    One early teacher I had put habit formation like this: ideas lead to actions; actions lead to habits; habits form character. That does not tell you how to cultivate new habits, but it tells you how why it is important to do so. Our habits define who we are.

    In class, students are constantly gaining new insights into movement, which makes them want to reform their own movement to perform more correctly. But how? Where does the process begin and end?

    It starts with relaxation, the first principle of Tai Chi; without relaxing, you can do nothing correctly. You can't even relax your mind enough to grasp the new reality presented to you.

    Next comes awareness (third principle): awareness of the correct movement, of the mistake previously made, of the need to make correction.

    Your awareness must extend to the point that you accept (seventh principle) it, and yield to the reality of what is needed. In order to accept it, you must detach your ego (eighth principle) to the point that you can overcome preconceived notions and accept newer, more valid, approaches.

    Now the real work begins: applying the lesson to the creation of a new habit. As you train, you must be constantly (i.e., continuously, fourth principle) alert to situations arising that call for the correct new habit to be performed.

    When you recognize the situation that calls for the new habit / improved movement, you must focus (fifth principle) clearly on the correct approach. Every time you do it correctly, you reinforce the new habit. Every time you miss and do it incorrectly, you are holding back on your potential.

    You form the habit by keeping your awareness continuously alive and then focusing on the correct response. Translate your mental awareness into physical action. With training and experience, your habit will become more and more a part of you, until it is what you do without effort, like breathing.
    Tai Chi
    Best Practices

    11 Jun 2010
    Do you have a regular training regimen? In my last blog I discussed the value of a morning ritual, but this question takes a slightly different orientation. Whether it is morning, noon or night, do you have a regular practice schedule?

    "It is better practice 15 minutes each day than 3 hours on Saturday." This is another way of saying "don't be a weekend warrior", but it means much more. The practice of Tai Chi Chuan is cumulative in its benefits. Part of it is the acccumulation of muscle or cognitive memory; part of it, the accumulation of chi (qi).

    The most reliable way to build a training regimen is a little bit at a time. If you tell yourself "I'm going to start training 3 hours every day," that's great, but if you go from zero to 3 hours, chances are you will not stick with it. It will be easy to find excuses not to take up 3 whole hours every single day. As a result, you'll end up training maybe 3 hours on Saturday only, if that much.

    So literally start at 15 minutes or so, if you are starting from scratch. If you are in my class, I will be showing you how to spend that time: standing meditation for centering, breathing and relaxing; linking movement for exercising the Linking Vessel and dropping your chi to your dan tien; and Step Back and Whirl Arm, for using the waist and coordinating the arm and leg together.

    Add time slowly as you adopt additional exercises. As you begin learning form, add what you are learning. It will come slowly, so practice a lot. You may not be practicing correctly at first, but you will begin to train your memory, and it will lead to valuable questions to ask your teacher.

    Beyong Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong, though, everyone needs basic strengthening and conditioning. This does not require weights, though weights are one way to approach it. Pushups and stomach crunches are useful. If you really like pushups, there are many different kinds to choose from. From there, Chinese pole training; leg swings; stretching; and kicking and punching on a bag are all useful types of conditioning. These will all help provide a cardio workout. If you do a lot of long, slow, deep breathing of the kind I teach, you can build your pulmonary fitness that way. Otherwise, consider cycling, walking, swimming or, last because of impact trauma but not least, running.

    Too many people think you have to be a jock or athlete to enjoy working out. It's just a frame of mind! As soon as you begin your training, you will find your frame of mind taking on a much more positive cast. Think of your workout as a treat, not a chore, and the rest will take care of itself.

    Tai Chi
    Morning Ritual

    17 May 2010
    Do you have a morning ritual? Aside from the obvious daily preparations - showering, shaving, dressing, applying makeup - do you have a morning regimen of meditation or exercise? If you are intent on making Tai Chi Chuan a pillar in your life, then you will find great benefit from starting first thing in the morning.

    Some people rely on Tai Chi in the evening to de-stress, to unwind after a difficult day at work. There is great value in using Tai Chi in that fashion. But if you can find time to do even a little Tai Chi, or qigong, or standing meditation first thing in the morning, you will discover that the need to de-stress in the evening will be much less.

    An important part of your morning ritual should involve stretching. Yoga asanas are useful for this, but you have a lot of choices. Your choices should be based on your need: while you practice Tai Chi, notice what parts of your bodies are the tightest and least giving. Focus your stretching on these areas. This can include your neck, calves (hamstrings), thighs (quadriceps), your arms, your fingers, your hip tendons, your lower back, your kua, and even your feet - all depending on you. We all have different sets of challenges, but with a lot of commonalities.

    Another important element is breathing, standing postures, and some light qigong designed to quiet your internal energy. Of course, you want to practice your form as well, once you learn how to make time.

    Another part of anyone's training regimen should include strengthening and conditioning, whether with weights in the gym or Chinese poles or something else. It is not so important for this to be part of the morning ritual - just as long as you fit it in somewhere.

    If you are naturally a morning person, someone who retires and rises early, creating a morning ritual may not be difficult for you. It is tougher for the folks like me who are naturally inclined to stay up late and sleep until the last moment. If you sleep until the last moment, there is never time for a morning ritual! Something has to give.

    I solved the problem by paying attention to my body's signals. I realized that often I stayed up late as a sort of compulsion, not because I was still feeling awake and energized. I learned to pay attention and take sleep as early as my body told me to. As soon as I did that, I started rising early and easily finding time for training. Anything is better than going to work early!

    And so it begins. Program your mind, and your body will follow.
    Tai Chi
    Intention - Fantasy versus Reality

    12 Apr 2010
    In Tai Chi Chuan - indeed, in all martial arts - we say there are doers and talkers. I suspect it is this way among a wide range of pursuits, but we see it in martial arts a lot: a person who enthusiastically talks the subject into the ground, but never carries through on promises to pursue it for real. He'll come to a class and talk for a half hour before and after class about how enthusiastic he and how much he loves the class and how he ready to devote his life to Tai Chi, then never show for a second class.

    The point of mentioning this is our need to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Many things we think we want to do with our life, is really just something we find interesting. Interesting enough to read about or watch on video, but not interesting enough to practice on their own.

    This gets to the heart of the nature of true intention, the subject of the second chapter in Tai Chi In Your Life. The basic point is that until we get real with ourselves about what we want to accomplish, it will never happen. You can dream about wild success or happiness as a rock star or elected official or CPA or dentist or whatever tickles your fancy, but you either take the steps required to achieve your goal, or it is just a dream. You have no true intention.

    Think about your dreams and reality. Perhaps it is time to start making things happen. Are you ready?
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Your Life

    7 Mar 2010
    Is something missing from you life, or is your life at least so disjointed that stress has become a way of life for you? Our society bombards us with messages, overloads us with sensory experiences, and requires stressful multi-tasking that makes it well-nigh impossible to live a balanced life. Too often even the deepest religious affiliations fail to address these problems in everday life.

    Enter Tai Chi Chuan. With Tai Chi in your life, you have the opportunity to find balance, in addition to all the other benefits of this ancient art - self-defense, gentle strengthening, condition, building internal energy, retention of youthful vitality, and healing or preventing a wide variety of physical, mental, and spiritual maladies.

    Until I dove deep into the well of Tai Chi's offerings, my life was unbalanced. I was often oblivious to the errors of modern living. I knew things were wrong, but did not see with clarity either the wrongs or the ways to right them.

    As I dove deeper and sharpened my practice, everything came into focus. I came to understand that the principles I used to put my Tai Chi practice to good use - defined as good martial arts applications - were useful in improving every aspect of my life. This occurred without my even trying to make it happen.

    Thus I came to see the utility of introducing relaxation from tension or stress into every part of my life; the utility of living my life with true intention; of living my life with full awareness of the social landscape around me; of applying my efforts continuously; of applying my efforts with unremitting focus; of linking all of my actions to my core values; of accepting the things I cannot prevent; and of removing my ego from many aspects of my thinking and decision making.

    With this realization came my writing of Tai Chi In Your Life: 8 Principles That Can Change Your Life While Learning and Growing with Tai Chi, now in print at Amazon.com and other venues.

    One thing I learned about Tai Chi in my early years of teaching is that not everyone who studies Tai Chi is interested in learning about Chinese culture. So a key aspect of my book is the attempt to translate Chinese concepts into Western notions. I toss in some of the the most common words and phrases - which helps us make sure we are all talking about the same thing - but for the most part spare the reader the need to worry about it.

    I also offer physical and mental exercises for cultivating the principle. This means that you can adopt and make great use of Tai Chi In Your Life even if you are not a student of Tai Chi Chuan. But if you do, you'll sure want to find a teacher!
    Tai Chi
    Invest in Silence

    22 Jan 2010
    When you practice Tai Chi, you have a great opportunity to invest in silence. Silence is so difficult to come by these days, you would think that people would celebrate the opportunity to achieve it. Instead, a surprising number of Tai Chi practitioners choose to practice with music on - even TV. For what purpose? Tai Chi practice is an opportunity to search deep within ourselves, and to move to our own beat. External distractions like music or television defeat the purpose.

    Most of us listen to music because it moves us. It establishes a beat or rhythm so infectious that we adopt it. It's what we loved and adults hated about rock & roll in the 1950s.

    Tai Chi should be practiced smoothly, softly, with continuity - without corners or gaps. It is best practiced at a smooth, even pace, without interruptions of acceleration. Music, with its beat, makes this impossible. Music wants to take over.

    Tai Chi is meant to be driven by our own internal rhythms, created by the interaction of the movements with our personal chi.

    Another reason to avoid music during practice is because for the best results, we seek deep tranquility. How can your body relax if the mind is not tranquil? How can your mind attain further tranquility if your body is not relaxed? Constant work in both areas creates a feedback loop, continuously refining the process. Every note, every chord, every beat threatens to interrupt that process.

    So while it is rare to practice in total, utter silence, your practice will profit most if you can keep it down below a dull roar. To profit, you must invest - in silence.
    Tai Chi
    Steel Mist

    13 Dec 2009
    "Steel mist" is what I call Houston's weather today and yesterday, and it provides perfect imagery for the segue from autumn (metal) into winter (water). In a week we will witness in the winter solstice a "reboot" into a new year, with the days once again elongating and northern weather patterns slowly warming, allowing eventual rebirth of flora and fauna.

    Looking out the window, we see only fog, but walking amidst the fog we see more. The water is so heavy in the air that it appears as points, hence a visible mist that thickens into fog. In Taoist thought (Five Element Theory) we say that metal leads to water by condensing it from the air. Hold a piece of metal in this air and you will quickly see the condensation - ask any swordsman, who would prefer to preserve his blade by training in drier air.

    For some people, if their life lacks clarity and purpose, every day may seem like a fog. So many people wander through their lives, good people perhaps but still people who never see their goodness truly realized.

    Walking in the steel mist provides an opportunity to work on development of clarity and purpose. Begin by simply walking. Walk well: crown up, chin in, shoulders relaxed, chest sunken, waist loose, hips and back relaxed, moving forward from the dan tien (core muscles). Do not initiate movement with your legs or feet, but simply allow yourself to be drawn forward.

    As you raise your crown and loosen your body, feel your qi (energy) rise to your head. It opens your eyes and clears your vision, and with it your sense of purpose. But a sense of purpose is not enough. You need an actual purpose!

    True, these purposes involve material desire as well, but at a higher level. We are, after all, living in a material world, but hopefully not at a base level of existence.

    And purpose does not always come to the young. You may be well past youth and still in need of a stated purpose to your life. Or, having raised a family or built a successful career, may need a new purpose.

    As you walk in the mist, stare at the indistinct fog in the distance, a quarter mile away or more, sorting through your options. Let them wash through your mind, then sort them into a list for individual consideration. If you are harshly realistic with yourself, you will realize that most of your potential purposes are really just fantasies. Each has one or more elements that would spell disaster in real life. A realist has to accept these elements and move on, or live the life of an unremarkable Greek tragedy.

    As you sharpen your options, bring the focus of your intense gaze closer, within one hundred yards. As you do this the fog can begin to take on a distinctive shape, like seeing a very slow wind in action. You may see semi-transparent clouds in front of you, with faint outlines to the mist, but that means you are already seeing with far greater clarity than when you saw only a white wall of fog.

    Continue to refine your gaze into the mist by slowly bringing your focus closer and closer to yourself. Your sense of purpose should be approaching with greater and greater clarity. By this point you may already know your purpose, and need to focus on the steps required to get there. Or determining your purpose may require more work, especially if you are unable to accept the realities of yourself and the world around you.

    Eventually, if you succeed in your quest for attainment of purpose, you are looking at the mist directly in front of you. You see the drop of water hanging in the air as individual particles; you approach the closest drop with a piercing gaze, walking through it and attaining greater confidence with each drop you penetrate. You have the feeling of penetrating molecules, and atoms, and subatomic particles, and the stuff of existence itself. You keep walking, and become the mist.
    Tai Chi

    22 Nov 2009
    Do you use crutches? By that I mean not the walking tools sometimes needed by people with walking difficulties, but the mental blocks that so many of us inflict on ourselves. When we rely on these crutches, we guarantee a failure of accomplishment. So a crutch can just as easily be mental as physical.

    The context of this reflection is physical exercise. When a surgical nurse spotted me practicing Tai Chi outdoors nine days after colon surgery, he remarked that the surgery was "debilitating" and that he would expect me to be at home in bed. Now THAT would be a crutch, at least in my case.

    Sure, I could just lay around for a month, but for what purpose? To be oh-so-careful that I do not hurt myself while I recover? If I cannot be careful while I practice Tai Chi, I must be pretty careless. But Tai Chi practice has made me hyperaware of my body's changes, both inside and out, so I have been able to use my Tai Chi sensitivity to listen to what my body tells me. I even went back to the doctor once just to be sure about what I was "hearing", but that was just my hyperawareness in overdrive.

    Tai Chi made the surgery easy on me; I am convinced of that. Practicing now is speeding my recovery along. I am not shortcutting the doctor's advice, but I am certainly augmenting it.

    The sad thing is that so many people today use any excuse at all to avoid exercise, both physical and mental. Those people, I would say, are living on crutches. One thing we know about crutches is that we never learn to walk using crutches. We never recover from a leg injury while using crutches, because recovery requires normal activity. Crutches are incredibly difficult to use under the best of circumstances. You cannot restore your body's structure, or balance, or muscle or nerve health, as long as you simply hang off of a fancy pair of sticks. You have to walk the walk.

    Similarly, you can never improve at anything as long as you make excuses. The only improvement you can hope for comes from doing.

    Are you living your life on crutches? What can you do to stand on your own?

    Think about it.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Recovery

    12 Nov 2009
    My recent surgery and recovery were remarkable only in how smoothly everything went. The doctor's typical daily comment was "I'm going to go look at some sick people" and the nurses pretty much ignored me after the first day because I could get around as well or better than they could.

    The big question had been how much I may exercise, and when. The basic answer is, no strenuous exercise for one month; no lifting more than twenty pounds for one month. But what is strenuous exercise? I discovered that none of the doctors knew what Tai Chi is, so were unable to make an informed decision. In the end I had to rely on my own judgment. Of course, I could just kick back for a month and do nothing, but that felt all wrong. I feel healthy, energetic, and strong - although surgical nurses tell me my surgery should have been debilitating. Someone forgot to send me that memo, so I decided to proceed, though carefully. I've heard too many stories of hernias from people who overestimated their recovery speed.

    My rules of exercise are, nothing strenuous. That allows me to do any qigong except hard qigong, any neigong or meditation, and any Tai Chi that is not stressful to any muscles or tendons. That means no stretching, no high kicking (slow or otherwise), and no low crouches. In essence I am reduced to doing Tai Chi correctly because my body's limitations require it. This state of nature is one of the great ironies of Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art.

    What remains is 90-95% of the forms. So although I am technically in recovery, I am practicing Tai Chi as much or more than ever. I am convinced it is my Tai Chi training that made me healthy enough for an easy recovery. As long as I do not introduce new stress, I am convinced that practicing will help speed my recovery even more.

    Before that, I practiced neigong - internal orbiting - while I was in bed. I practiced standing post meditation, largely to relax. Pain creates stress, so I had a lot of pain-related tension to work on for four or five days. Once relaxed, I orbited to keep my qi meridians open and active, to be sure that my qi circulated healthily to aid my recovery. This reminded me of the exercises the doctors used to improve circulation in my legs after the anesthesia.

    My recovery was all about being healthy before I "needed" to be. It allowed my body to be resilient, and my emotional state to be strong and responsive. I did not get this from lifting weights or running, I got it from practicing Tai Chi Chuan, qigong, and neigong daily.
    Tai Chi
    Illness as an Investment

    22 Oct 2009
    Illness, weakness, or loss comes to us all at one time or another. Most of us use the opportunity to invest in grief, sadness, fear, or despair. I see it as an opportunity to learn about myself.

    A strong, healthy winner can talk about this subject until the cows come home, but to truly understand it you must experience it - "got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues". Lately my opportunity to truly understand has arrived in more than one vehicle.

    Tai Chi Chuan is a unique art in that softness, acceptance, and yielding are the core principles for success. External martial arts such as kung fu, karate, or tae kwon do essentially rely on brute force, albeit skillfully applied.

    As a result, strong, healthy people can have trouble fully appreciating the health benefit of Tai Chi, and even more trouble appreciating the need for softness and yielding insteading of force-on-force contention.

    Perhaps this is why some of the masters of high attainment began when they were sickly. Not being invested in strength, they had nothing to lose by giving into softness and yielding. Cheng Man Ching (1900-1975) began Tai Chi practice as a young man after being diagnosed with tuberculosis - which went away after a few years of practice. Jou Tsung Hwa began at the age of 47 after being diagnosed with a mortal illness. Again, after a few years practice, he too was cured. Both went on to become accomplished and widely recognized masters.

    When we are strong and healthy we want to use our strength for all of our regular activities. It is normal and easy, or we would not do it. So when we get older and weaker, or ill, we do not know how to handle it. Many people take it as a sign to stop all normal activity and put their lives in crisis mode. This causes disruption and stress that only add to the problems in hand. If the health problem is long term, they compound it by foregoing the exercise that helps keep them healthy. I saw this happen with my own mother after she contracted lung disease.

    I am getting my own investment opportunities these days. First I experienced lower back difficulties, which gave me the opportunity to understand the difficulties of people with chronic back pain. I do not use this as an excuse to do nothing; I use this as a chance to find optimal forms of movement that avoid the pain. In the process I have come to understand - through personal experience - that the entire problem of back pain involves muscle tension. If vertebra are misaligned, they cause stress on muscles, resulting in pain. Back pain is an indicator that give us a very sensitive guide to muscle tension and relaxation. I also seek out exercise that makes the back problem subside, such as stretching, leg swings, and kicks.

    My next opportunity involves recovering from serious surgery, beginning in a week. I will be allowed no exercise at all for a month, perhaps longer. When I return to exercise I will be weak, perhaps off balance, and may have to build up my routine only very slowly. Recovering wisely will be my entire health and wellness approach in November. I can also do neigong and perhaps, near the end, qigong as well. I expect to learn lessons I cannot anticipate now … but will report in due time.
    Tai Chi
    Indulge Yourself

    1 Sep 2009
    When it comes to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, I have an insight that I will convert to advice: Indulge Yourself. For some people, indulging means eating chocolate or ice cream or strawberries, or imbibing drugs or alcohol. As for me, I'll take Tai Chi.

    At the Tai Chi Symposium in July, I noted that all the grandmasters practice their forms with exquisite care and slowness. I did this sometimes, but not all the time. I asked myself if I was missing out on something.

    I was.

    On the way home I practiced by the Parthenon in Nashville, on the beach in Biloxi, and in a park in New Orleans. Out of my element and on vacation, I allowed myself the time to truly relax and practice Tai Chi at the pace for which it is intended.

    In some ways I felt as if I was experiencing Tai Chi for the first time. My level of physical relaxation and mental tranquility was greatly elevated. I felt the soreness of tight muscles and an overloaded minded melt away, like an internal massage. Aches and pains that others cure with drugs and alcohol went away with an amazing ease that gave me a sublime feeling of being in touch with myself and all of nature around me.

    So I repeat: Indulge Yourself. I do so, daily.
    Tai Chi
    Illness and Tai Chi Challenges

    28 Jul 2009
    As some of you have heard, I had an unexpected health problem last week: I had a kidney stone attack. While lying in the Emergency Room, before being medicated or assigned a doctor, I found myself dealing with attacks that struck for about five minutes every thiry minutes: stabbing pains into my right kidney that are reputedly worse than childbirth. It was indeed terrible, but fleeting enough that I was able to maintain a lucid state of awareness.

    While I waited, I used deep breathing to deal with the pain. A big problem with pain is that it makes your body tense. A big problem with tension is that it makes pain worse. The cycle is vicious. When it worsened, I caught myself breathing shallowly and quickly. I took control of it and began low, slow, deep breaths. I will not kid you: it was very difficult.

    But the pain stayed at bay. I was neither shocked nor fearful. My Tai Chi awareness of my body made it obvious that the problem was in my kidney. My concern - not fear, but distinct concern - was kidney failure. Kidney function is essential to basic health, and to muscle strength. Once I knew I was dealing with a kidney stone, I knew I was dealing with a routine and non-chronic malady.

    My situation just reinforced a lesson learned long ago: sickness and weakness is not a time for succumbing. Sometimes we have no choice; sometimes we do. We often have a choice when our situation seems bleakest. At that point courage must assert itself.

    Sickness and weakness are an opportunity to observe our Tai Chi at work. When does it work? When does it not? What adjustments do I have to make to make up for my weakness?

    Dirty little Tai Chi secret: make no adjustments. Whatever works when you are weakest, is what works when you are not.
    Tai Chi
    All Tai Chi Chuan is Good

    16 Jul 2009
    At the Tai Chi Symposium last week I listened to the five grandmasters discuss their theories and philosophies of Tai Chi Chuan. I watched their performances in demonstrations and in the workshops. All were amazing, though in different ways.

    If you have been practicing one style for a long time and are exposed to another, it can be difficult to open your mind enough to accept the idea that two very different types of movement can both be Tai Chi Chuan. Once you can accept this, it greatly deepens and improves your understanding - of Tai Chi Chuan and of many other things in your life.

    Listening to the grandmasters talk, there is almost complete agreement on the principles -- lift the crown, relax the shoulders, hollow the chest, relax the waist, sink the tailbone, and so on. But once you see them in motion, though, you see seriously different interpretations of the Tai Chi Classics. To hear them talk you would never know they have any differences at all.

    In the early days of Tai Chi there no discussions of Chen style or Yang style. There was simply Tai Chi Chuan. In that spirit everyone came together, and left friends.

    Inevitably there are discussions of the age old question, which style is superior? In a fight, which style would prevail?

    Such debates are pointless. The actions and abilities of individuals determine all outcomes. What matters is what you can do, and intend to do. Will you pursue your practice of Tai Chi with intent, or haphazardly? Will you practice with moral intent or carelessness for the concerns of others? Just practice Tai Chi. The benefit is cumulative. Any style you are happy with will do.

    This was the lesson of the Tai Chi Symposium: all Tai Chi Chuan taught sincerely, from the heart, and with knowledgeable instruction is good. All differences are insignificant compared to the mutual benefits.
    Tai Chi
    Training with the Grandmasters

    7 Jul 2009
    As I sit typing this I am watching Ma Hailong, 72-year-old grandmaster of the Wu Style, take 150 students through the "Wu 16" form, a short form created for teaching at short (1-week) events like this one. Every grandmaster has a "16 step" form to teach this week.

    The proximity to the masters and grandmasters is exciting. Yesterday as I practiced the Wu form in Ma Laoshi's (Laoshi: master) first session, Yang Jun - 6th generation successor to the Yang Family style - practiced it next to me - and gave me my first correction in a long time. The traditional Yang style, and the Wu style, uses the legs differently, so I am getting used to it. The attention from Yang Laoshi was special because more than a hundred people around me were making worse mistakes; I took the correction, and attention, as a complement.

    The Wu style is derived from the teachings of Yang Luchan, founder of the Yang style, and his son, Yang Ban-hou, both of whom taught Wu Quanyou, Ma Laoshi's great grandfather. In the Wu form I see movements that are found in my primary style, Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan (YMT), but as far as I know, not in any of the other styles - definitely not the traditional Yang style, which they are now calling Yang Chengfu Taijiquan.

    This afternoon I complete the instruction from Yang Zhenduo (4th generation Yang successor, and Yang Cheng-fu's youngest son) and his grandson Yang Jun in the Yang 16 step form, which I plan to learn thoroughly - the essence, not just the sequence - and offer for instruction at a later time, when I am happy with my progress. I will also attend a series of research presentations on Tai Chi efficacy for treating a variety of mental and physical difficulties in the elderly.

    There is a lot more to say, so watch this space once or twice a day. If you have any questions for me to investigate, drop me an e-mail on Hotmail or on Facebook.
    Tai Chi
    Zoning Out

    19 Jun 2009
    I recently read an article studying two types of daydreaming it identified: purposefully thinking about subjects not immediately at hand in front of you, and zoning out. Zoning out so that you just lose track of everything going on around you, staring into space. As long as you are not driving a car or pursuing a similarly dangerous activity, zoning out is OK. In fact, the study shows, everyone does it, and it is not only healthy, but actually necessary to mental health.

    Zoning out is an interesting subject in Tai Chi and related subjects, because zoning out achieves a state of wu wei: no mind. The effort to achieve this state voluntarily is one of the first steps on the road to the higher levels of martial arts and meditation.

    The higher levels are internalized. Few people can see beneath the surface to the subtle secrets. This means that the more you try to achieve these levels, the less you accomplish.

    Somehow you have to learn to accomplish the effort without trying to accomplish the effort. This is done in stages.

    In the practice of Tai Chi, the first stage is to learn the sequence of the form. Then practice it incessantly. No-mind is possible only when you can achieve the movement without thinking about it.

    Practicing the form unceasingly not only gives you familiarity with the movements and and helps polish the details, but it also helps stop your mind for wandering to various topics ... slowing it down, making it more tranquil. Even as you move, seek stillness of thought in all your Tai Chi practice.
    Tai Chi
    Form and Practice

    8 May 2009
    Among martial artists there is a lot of debate over the value of forms practice. This is largely because in many martial arts, the forms have no value for self-defense. They teach you to practice a form, but when sparring begins, what you do has nothing to do with what you practice in your form.

    Tai Chi does not have that problem. Of course, if you practice Tai Chi mainly for health, that problem is irrelevant. But no matter what your goals in Tai Chi, you must practice form in order to gain a deeper understanding of what is available. Long term, deep practice of Tai Chi makes available to you an understanding of yourself that you do not even suspect at the beginning.

    For this reason it is important that you practice form as much as possible - not just every day, but as much as you can every day. I have heard it said that "in China, those who are serious about Tai Chi practice their form 15 or 20 times a day". That was referring to a 15 minute form, which translates into four or five hours a day.

    That's pretty serious practice. We're talking about people with a lot of spare time on their hands. It certainly beats watching mindless TV! But even practicing your form once or twice a day bring immense benefits.

    Many of my students have heard me warn them not to practice so much at the very beginning. When you first start out, your understanding the of the form's sequence and essence is so limited that practicing a lot simply means learning how to do it wrong, deeply. That is not a worthy achievement.

    My warning should not be used as an excuse for not practicing. Anyone who has attended class for two months or longer should practice regularly. If you feel comfortable practicing sooner, by all means do so. If you want to make true progress, you should practice diligently, as much as you can. Coming to class regularly is important for making progress in your understanding, but by itself attending class for an hour or two a week will not get you far for long.

    Practice in the morning if you can, before breakfast. If you can practice at lunch, practice before you eat. If you can practice in the evening, practice before dinner or no sooner than two hours after dinner. Otherwise your digestive processes interfere with the proper cultivation of your qi (chi).

    Why should you practice diligently? For one thing, Tai Chi certainly is a health practice even if you consider yourself a serious martial artist. It benefits your balance, your leg strength, your nervous system, your mental stability, and your internal organs. It keeps you young and vital, improves your endurance, and your focus. Tai Chi makes you more aware of the world around you, and increases your enjoyment of it.

    If you are a martial artist, form should be practiced in conjunction with applications training and tui shou (pushing hands) training. The form you practice should reflect the lessons you learn in application. In this manner forms practice allows you to practice applications even when alone.

    Finally, practice of Tai Chi form takes you to a deeper level of mental and spirtual awareness. It provides emotional balance so you can enjoy more the good things in your life, and be less distressed by the difficulties you encounter. How you experience these benefits is a deeply personal matter, but all Tai Chi Chuan practitioners experience them. If you do not experience them, you are not practicing enough.

    Have you practiced today? Go to it!
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Friends Around the World

    5 Apr 2009
    Friday evening I was practicing Tai Chi outside of my neighborhood, near a duck pond just south of the Galleria. After more than a half hour of practice I was approached cautiously by a Chinese man, about my own age, who apologized for interrupting me, and introduced himself as a Tai Chi practitioner visiting from Las Vegas. Since he is a Yang stylist, as I am, he recognized my movements and soon we were exchanging lineages and stories about common Tai Chi ancestors; as such as are cousins, in the Tai Chi way of referring to fellow practitioners in terms of filial relationships. We ended up trading phone numbers and e-mail addresses like long-lost relatives.

    Our exchange was one of the beautiful aspects of Tai Chi. It is not unusual. Tai Chi Chuan unites people of nationalities and ethnicities from all around the world. In my classes I have, or have had,students from Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Israel, Italy, Mexico, the Phillipines, Romania, South Africa, and Thailand. AND the United States.

    In three weeks this beauty will span the globe, on World Tai Chi & Qigong Day - Saturday, April 25. Beginning in New Zealand, Tai Chi practitioners will start moving at 10 a.m. In every subsequent time zone it will continue, at 10 a.m., for an entire day, until Tai Chi has continuously and completely encircled the globe with a veil of qi (chi), the energy that maintains the life force in all of us.

    Locally we will meet at the Houston Arboretum for our own observation of World Tai Chi & Qigong Day. You do not need Tai Chi experience to participate; there will be opportunities for everyone, experienced and inexperience alike, to feel the joy of Tai Chi first hand. I hope you can be there, and bring some friends or family members. They will not forget it.
    Tai Chi
    The Yin and Yang of Season Change

    30 Mar 2009
    Nine days ago at our Start of Spring Celebration, I pointed out that while the vernal equinox is technically the first day of spring, that by no means guaranteed that winter was completely over. Up north, such as in Fargo, North Dakota, that message would have seemed obvious, but Houston's spring-like weather actually began in February - when we normally have some of our coldest weather. Our strongest winter weather was last November, during autumn. But little did I suspect that it would take only a week to re-validate that observation, even in Houston's semi-tropical climate.

    The point is easily understood by looking at the Theory of Opposites, Yin Yang. Tai Chi (Taiji) is Yin Yang. In Daoist cosmology, before the Tao (what some might compare to the universe, or to God) began there was only a state of Wuji, nothingness (oneness). When change occurred the one, Wuji, became two, Taiji -- Yin Yang. The black and white swirly symbol - at least as well known around the world as the symbol of the cross - is known by most as "the Yin Yang symbol", but it is more correctly known as the symbol of Taiji.

    The key feature of the symbol is that Yang (white) area is not pure white: it contains an element of black, Yin. Conversely the Yin area contains a bit of Yang. This represents the notion that nothing is all Yin or all Yang. Where there is good, there is evil; where there is evil, there is good. Where there is male there is female; where there is female, there is male. Where there is softness there is the hard; where there is hardness there is the soft. And so on, without end.

    So it is with the seasons. They flow in and out, back and forth, although a progression is evident. While we may have entered the spring season, winter is not fully gone; it will not be fully gone until we have entered the summer season, when spring will not yet be gone. Even so, the seasonality of weather does not allow for a strict delineation of the seasons; climatic fluctuation causes a wide array of weather possibilites. Last July it snowed in London. Today Fargo is flooded while snow cascades into it, and Houston enjoys temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

    So the week before our Spring Celebration, class took place in 52 degree weather; the celebration was in 75 degree weather; and this past Saturday we had 42 degree weather. All three classes were wonderful. Cool weather in Houston is not a challenge, it is an opportunity; we warmed up nicely Saturday within a few minutes. Soon we will be warming up before class even begins. Every change bring a new opportunity. Take advantage of them all!
    Tai Chi
    No Strain, No Gain

    22 Feb 2009
    In my last message, "No Pain, No Gain?" I addressed the issue of inappropriately grueling training -- the kind that breaks us down rather than builds us up. But by using the expression, "No Pain, No Pain", I may have inadvertently left the wrong impression. As one commenter put it, "that's also the credo of the couch potato." True enough, so allow me to elaborate.

    Physical training aimed at accomplishing a significant goal requires significant effort. There is no getting away from this fact. The question becomes, when does signficant effort become damaging effort? The early days of Yang Family Taijiquan have stories about young sons of master who ran away from home or half-heartedly attempted suicide in order to avoid legendarily grueling training. Ah, for the good old days!

    Seriously though, Tai Chi Chuan is famously misunderstood for the level of effort required for true accomplishment. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show once cracked a joke to this effect: "Chinese men are taking up golf. Apparently Tai Chi isn't easy enough for them." Aside from comedians, most people understand that mastery of Tai Chi requires long term effort with a lot of repetition of form. Fewer people understand that it also requires strengthening and conditioning exercises that push us to the limit of our physical abilities. These are not the same exercises you practice in a modern gym, but we push ourselves.

    Does this apply to everyone who practices Tai Chi? Some people practice "only for health", while others want to achieve their full martial potential. Are the requirements different for them?

    Yes and no (he laughingly answers in true Yin-Yang fashion). People who practice only for health need to remember that strengthening and conditioning is an important component of staying healthy. But it seems obvious that serious martial artists must train harder than those with no martial intent.

    Where do you draw the line? Not everyone believes in drawing the line. My number one teacher, Master George Hu, is such a person; he believes in total immersion. My own experience as a teacher is that when no line is drawn, a lot of people who can benefit from Tai Chi will drop out before they get a chance to get healthier. As a result I choose to initiate students more gradually than he does. At least within my own practice, I see that people who are older, injured, or not martially inclined are sticking with it longer, and become more adventuresome as their practice progresses. And if you want to be pushed to the limit, I am happy to oblige.

    Where should you draw the line? Please don't. Let me draw it for you. Practice diligently, and push yourself. Allow yourself to feel the "pain" that goes with strain but not injury. As you get stronger and healthier, it will take more and more effort to feel such pain. And that's a good thing.

    To read or review the previous message, "No Pain, No Gain?", Click Here.
    Tai Chi
    No Pain, No Gain?

    4 Feb 2009
    Athletes of all types, including martial artists, are susceptible to the macho posturing epitomized by the foolish doctrine of "no pain, no gain". In my own training, and the training I proscribe for my students, I prefer to say "no pain, no pain". In other words, the only gain from having no pain is the simple and obvious fact that you have no pain, and hence are not damaging your body. Anything else is drivel, and dangerous drivel at that.

    The foolish philosophy that pain is a prerequisite to physical improvement has caused a great deal of suffering. That suffering takes a myriad of forms. Many people believe that extremes of weather, for instance, should be ignored in favor of toughening our bodies and building endurance. Karate founder Gichin Funokoshi famously tested his strength by standing on a rooftop through a tropical storm. He might not have known that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said "that which does not kill us makes us stronger", but if he had known, he would probably have approved. Somehow people who quote this manage to forget that Nietsche's philosophy was also used to justify Nazi triumphalism and a host of inhuman atrocities.

    The truth is, that which does not kill us usually cripples us or breaks us down to a shell of our former selves. If you doubt this, just ask any former soldier suffering from traumatic stress syndrome. The better way is to train our bodies and minds so that they are built up in a healthy, steady, holistic fashion. We Taoists say that to gain a healthy spirit we must first have a healthy mind, and to gain a healthy mind we must first have a healthy body. The three treasures cannot be separated.

    Many of my old karate buddies glory in telling stories of the macho cruelties to which their teachers subjected them, and they to themselves. Stories of outrageously difficult black belt tests are fodder for such follies, and students who fancy themselves as modern-day samurai or ninjas eat it up. The truth is that most high-ranking karateka, middle-aged, are beaten up and broken down from their training. They hurt themselve in training as bad or worse than any attackers they fight. I broke and dislocated a few bones of my own before realizing the errors of such training.

    That's where Tai Chi training is different. It builds you up and strengthens you with age. In 2005 I met a young ex-Navy Seal, retired from combat before he was 30, who told me he had broken just about every bone in his body at one time or another. "I thought I would never be able to practice martial arts again," he confided to me, "until I took up Tai Chi".

    Doctors around the world increasingly prescribe Tai Chi as a gentle strengthening exercise to rebuild broken bodies. I have taken in students with nerve damage to their feet, hip replacements, damaged knees, osteoporosis, even extreme diabetic conditions, and more. Some conditions are more reparable than others, but all are improved.

    Meanwhile, in the midst of brutal summers and cruel winters, it is important to carefully monitor ourselves and to arrange our training to show respect, not contempt, for the elements. This is Taoist philosophy at its most practical: balance in all things allows us to thrive; imbalance pulls us off center and away from our goals. Understand what the elements can do for us, and what they can do to us. If it is cold and wet outside, or hot and humid outside, use common sense. Arrange to train indoors where possible. Train long, and hard, and tough, but pay attention to the common sense wisdom that pain is intended to provide.
    Tai Chi
    Cheer Up!

    11 Jan 2009
    When I was a teenager, my mother used to deal with my sister's dour outlook by admonishing her simply to "Cheer up!" Mom, a former cheerleader, was quite cheerful, even chirpy, in her approach. Sis was irritated to no end.

    At the time I understood her irritation but now, as a result of my Chi Kung (qigong) practice, I see that Mom really was right about this.

    To understand my reasoning you must practice enough qigong or neigong to experience at least a little movement of chi (qi) in your face. Having achieved that, add this step to an appropriate point in your practice (go ahead and try this even if you are a beginner):

    Smile. Turn the outer corners of your mouth lightly upward. Feel the qi radiate across your face to your ear lobes, and up to your eyes. Smile with your eyes and feel the qi spread further across your face and scalp. Exhale out any negative feelings and inhale in, drawing in positive qi to seal out the negative.

    While I often practice smiling in the context of a larger exercise, there are times when I do this in isolation. At times when I am feeling stressed and worrisome, if I think to smile, I can make it all go away. I smile with the intention of massage my face with gentle, smiling qi, and suddenly everything changes for the better.
    Tai Chi
    Gong Qi and Qi Gong

    19 Dec 2008
    My gong is alive. Pardon this play on words, but it is so. A few months ago I acquired an ancient Chinese gong with excellent timbre. The more softly you strike it, the more subtly transcendent the sound. Recently I discovered I do not need to strike it at all. It lives!

    I discovered this during Hurricane Ike. Although sheltered from worst of the winds, my humble abode was soundly buffeted. The wind vibrated the windows, which in turn disturbed the air inside, which was sufficient to breathe life into the gong.

    Apparently only the slightest of air perturbations are required to enliven the instrument, setting off a very low level, metallic sound like a cymbal threatening but never realizing a crescendo. Any number of similar low-level events can have similar effects  a book slapping shut, a cough or sneeze, or hands clapping. It is more fun than The Clapper.

    So if my gong has qi, is that qi gong?

    Traditional Taoist thought holds that qi (chi), is energy contained in everything in the universe. Qi connects us all. Thus we practice exercises that help us pull qi into our bodies from the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. But we think of qi as a life force that animates us; without it, we are dead. What, then, are we to make of the idea that qi inhabitates inanimate objects as well?

    If this seems contradictory, do not accept it as merely another zen-style paradox. The truth is that qi exists in more than one form. We give it animation when we draw it from the outer cosmos into our inner cosmos, just as the wind animates my gong. When you can use this understanding to connect to your personal reality, you have taken an important step. As always, this connection will come not because you made it happen, but because you allowed it to happen.
    Tai Chi
    Winter Solstice Celebration

    8 Dec 2008
    Has any season been as celebrated as the start of winter? As the shortest day it observes the beginning of the "new year" - that is, the lengthening of the days -- as well as the beginning of the coldest part of the seasonal cycle. Winter has been celebrated by perhaps every spiritual system of man. Most recently this has meant Christmas, but in the past it has also included the birth of Mithras, Saturnalia, and countless winter festivals of every imaginable kind. Winter festivals are so ingrained in our culture that in many places they have long been stripped of their religious or spiritual associations.

    Our Winter Solstice Celebration strikes the middle road. We practice Chi Kung according to Five Element Theory, which is a spiritual paradigm that exercises associations between seasons, elemental forms, emotions, sounds, and other aspects of our experience.

    Winter is associated with the water element, the kidneys, the color blue-black (some will say dark purplish), fear, and gentleness. We are emerging from autumn, associated with the metal element, the lungs, the color white, grief and sadness, courage and righteousness.

    This month we will consider these elements and associations in our practice of Six Healing Sounds. This saet is popular throughout China in that the exercises are easy to learn, and provide great benefit through the cleansing of unhealthy thinking and strengthening of internal health.

    What is the purpose of all this? Longer, healthier life in every sense of the word. We say there are three treasures: jing, qi, and shen. Roughly speaking, this corresponds to body (power), mind (energy), and spirit (sublimation). Without a healthy body, the mind cannot be healthy. Without a healthy mind, the spirit cannot be healthy. To be balanced and enlightened, our spirit must be healthy. Our goal is to make all of these available.

    The Celebration is at 10 am this Saturday, December 13, at the Nature Center in the Houston Arboretum. We will probably move to the Emmott Circle outdoor classroom for the event. Watch the website for further details.
    Tai Chi

    2 Dec 2008
    One of the most difficult, and fundamental, concepts in Taijiquan is that of accepting. For the true warrior, it goes against every instinct. For the pacifist, its truth is surprisingly elusive.

    We should no longer be surprised when taijiquan goes in the opposite direction of our expectations, since that is the nature of yin and yang, but warriors have the most difficulty being comfortable with the notion of accepting. You might say they have trouble accepting accepting.

    To make the idea easier to swallow, let us turn to a classical military scenario where accepting was crucial to victory: Napoleon's attack on Moscow. Wait! You say. Napoleon lost that campaign. Exactly. Accepting was the strategy that won the victory for Russia.

    Napoleon was famous for military campaigns that were insanely audacious. He may have only won half of the time, but it was enough to make kings and generals throughout Europe terrified of him, and fearful of his attacks.

    The year was 1812, and Napoleon dominated central Europe. Russia was not about to fight directly his Grand Armee of almost a million soldiers. Instead of fighting, it suckered the French deeper and deeper into the interior. Napoleon was equipped with better supply lines than usual, but he was not equipped for an assault on Moscow, which is eventually what he ended up with. The Russian landscape was sparser populated and farmed, giving the army precious little access to local food or water. And as they approached Moscow, winter set in. The Russian winter was merciless, as always. In the end more soldiers succumbed to starvation, typhus, suicide, or desertion than were killed by the Russian army. The French army was wrecked and never really recovered.

    The Russians accepted the French in the classic taijiquan sense of the word. They sucked them, literally, into their hollow middle and when the time was right, spit them back out again. They let nature do the work.

    The pacifist will make the mistake of thinking that accepting means giving in, or appeasing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Accepting is a tactic. Accepting means that, like the Russian army contending with Napoleon, you lead the opponent to a place that seems safe, but is actually treacherous and under your control. You use that control to choose the timing and method of your opponent's defeat.
    Tai Chi
    Acquiring without Seeking

    20 Oct 2008
    I visited Galveston this weekend, where I was given another marvelous lesson by nature - but probably not the lesson you are thinking.

    True, I went primarily to witness the destruction for myself. While not a camera buff, I went camera in hand to take photos to send to friends and family. But while experiencing emptiness can be a profound experience, photographing emptiness -- where large communities of beach houses used to exist -- is not so easy.

    I found myself standing by the beach a few miles west of the seawall, where I could see the geotubes that were planted last year to help build dunes. Now they lay on the beach, waves splashing over them, and represent a dune line that likely will never exist again -- see the photos I post later today. The new beach is about 30 feet, maybe more, back from the old beach line.

    I began practicing a standing post meditation by the shore line. I had my camera around my neck because I feared sand damage if I set it down. Almost immediately I realized I was in the presence of a large flock of oversized pelicans. They were playing in the water, probably feeding on fish just beyond the tubes, over which water was constantly flowing.

    They would swoop by me, splash after some fish, then settle down and float on the rough water as easily as a duck swims on a placid pond. They would hang around for a while, then fly around in a circle, come back, and do it again.

    Seeing the pattern, I determined to get some closeup pictures of the pelicans. I turned on my camera and set it to the most power zoom setting - which made it hard to frame a photo as the birds flew quickly by. In fact, the more I tried to get the picture, the less they flew by. Even though I never moved from where I was standing, even though all I did was try to use my camera, it was as if they knew what I was doing and did not want to be photographed.

    I realized it was as if nature, or the Tao, was gently telling me not to "want" so much. I turned my camera off and put it down on a protected spot. I returned to the water's edge and practiced taijiquan for an hour. During that hour I was treated to a marvelous front-row seat of pelicans in action, often swooping only a few feet in front of me. They were showing off! The moment the camera went away, they returned.

    This experienced reminded me of an important lesson from the Tao: wanting is often counterproductive. Wanting too much can turn lovesick people into stalkers and gluttons into thieves. Wanting speaks to desire, which springs from ego. Learning only becomes possible when we open our minds and detach our egos, thereby removing preconceived notions that exist in service to our desires.

    Practicing taijiquan can be this way for beginners, especially those still learning the sequence of the form. We want that sequence so badly that we cannot hope to comprehend it beyond the rote of steps. Only after we give up our desire for "learning the form" can we truly learn it, but with this warning: our lack of desire must be coupled with continued, and renewed, intent. How to intend to do something without having an egotistic desire to do it -- that is a subject for another time. Meanwhile, think about it.
    Tai Chi
    How to Not Focus on Focusing

    7 Oct 2008
    "The best part is, I didn't think about anything else," the new student, J, said after the first class. A primary attraction for Tai Chi, especially among those not recovering from physical injuries, is the ability to completely de-stress. In today's fast-paced society, that is an ability to be cherished.

    Many think the de-stressing comes from simple relaxation, but as with most Tai Chi lessons we find the benefits occurring at deeper and deeper levels. J saw one of these immediately: we are so engrossed in learning the self-control that informs Tai Chi that we lose track of everything else. To be able to lose track of everything else is a remarkable blessing.

    Many see "multi-tasking" as an ability, and even an attitude, to be cultivated and even respected. Multi-tasking was originally a term coined in mainframe computers of the 1960s and 1970s, when they were created with multiple CPUs, central processing units, that could work simultaneously..

    But people only come with one CPU, and it is a high-maintenance device. We function most effectively working on one task at a time, completely devoted to it. It is a form of rest, and allows us to grow while we work. But if your life is all about multi-tasking, if your job or your lifestyle has got your psyche burning like a candle from both ends, Tai Chi is an excellent way to regain the lost art of focus.
    Tai Chi
    Elements Trump Class

    15 Sep 2008
    We intended to begin the new round of fall classes this week, but Hurricane Ike has forced us to put it off a little longer. Whether we can begin next week is not certain, since the Arboretum is closed until they can deal with the damage. I took a drive through Memorial Park on Sunday and was impressed with the extent of the tree damage - far worse than in the neighborhoods, though at least no roofs were damaged.

    Even for those of us who came through unscathed, we all know people who were injured by this storm in one way or another. I encourage you to spend the next week or two helping them get through their travails (unless it is your own travails at the forefront of concerns). We will restart classes soon enough, with a renewed sense of purpose. And since the weather is now quite pleasant outdoors, that will make it all the nicer. Until then, be safe and take care of loved ones.

    Tai Chi
    Fall Forward: Celebrate the Change of Seasons

    3 Sep 2008
    We are continuing our monthly Chi Kung celebrations this month with the change of seasons. The Harvest Moon occurs on Monday, Sept. 15, and the Autumunal Equinox is on Monday, Sept. 22.

    Harvest time is very special in agriculture-based communities. The time of harvest is when farmers are, hopefully, flush with the wealth of food recently or about to be harvested. It is the second half of the "end" of the year, as the days get even short, and colder. Much wildlife dies or withers during this time, while others fatten up to prepare for a long winter. It seems counter-intuitive, but autumn ends the old year and winter begins the new one, even as the weather gets colder.

    Our session goes for a happy medium between the two dates - Friday, Sept. 19, 5:45 pm at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. As usual we will congregate in front of the Nature Center, then walk to Emmotts Circle at 6 pm. If the ground is yucky, we will move instead to the Lyondell wooden deck near the driveway entrance. In short order I will post maps and photos that make it easy to find the place.

    Beginners and old-timers will feel equally at home with our Chi Kung exercises, as we will repeat some old ones, add new ones to reflect the changing of the season and the element.
    Tai Chi
    July Full Moon Observation

    8 Jul 2008
    This month we will have a continuation, a sequel if you will, of last month's Summer Solstice Celebration. We will continue and build upon the lessons from the previous session -- Heart Health Chi Kung, Six Healing Sounds, and Swimming Dragon Chi Kung. As we transition from summer toward the "second summer", as the Chinese refer to what many Americans call "Indian summer", we work on heart health issues, and look ahead to spleen health issues. Since the Spleen Meridian is central to the collection of chi from the earth, this is of critical interest to our practices.

    The gathering is Friday, July 18, at 5:45 pm at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. Be there by 5:55 at the latest: we will probably walk out to Emmott's Circle for the gathering. Emmott's Circle has an outdoors classroom that is perfect for us -- it has seating, but is immersed in a nature setting. The charge is $10.

    As I told the group last month, this is the beginning of a new Houston tradition. We are open to anyone - anyone who is interested. Some of our folks practice Tai Chi but have a different Tai Chi teacher; this is great, because our Chi Kung exercises share the essence of all Tai Chi systems. It allows us to gather and share our common interests in the energy of chi (qi) and the mysteries of our existence.

    Tai Chi
    Summer Solstice Celebration Friday

    19 Jun 2008
    Most of us feel a need from time to time to connect to nature, and to something larger than ourselves. The cycles of the seasons are closely related to birth, growth, death, and rebirth - cycles to which we all adhere.

    For this reason celebration of the Summer Solstice and other seasonal changes has long been a tradition within communities around the world.

    Houston will be among those communities as we come together to celebrate the solstice - the beginning of summer - and its related aspects. Join us as we practice authentic Taoist Chi Kung (qigong) exercises specifically designed for their association with summer and the other Five Element attributes. I will lead you through this special series of exercises.

    The Summer Solstice celebration will focus on Heart Health exercises that balance the emotions as well as nurture the heart, and on Swimming Dragon Chi Kung, to exercise the spine. This event will be held again in coming months, with seasonal changes, for each of the coming equinoxes and solstices.
    Tai Chi
    What is Tai Chi?

    12 Jun 2008
    Is Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) the only kind of Tai Chi (taiji)? Some would say so, and yet others teach what they call Tai Chi Kung (taijigong). I have heard it said that saying "Tai Chi" without the "Chuan" is like saying "hot" without the "dog". Since there is no source of absolute knowledge or authority where taijiquan is involved, there is a lot of room for debate.

    For my own part, I only practice taijiquan, which is commonly translated as Grand Ultimate Fist - where Chuan means Fist. So taijigong would be for health only, just as taijiquan is for martial arts.

    Many masters shake their heads at this dichotomy because the only externally verifiable source of validation for taiji is through martial application, and because taiji is healthy only as a consequence of its martial roots. Even the least of the exercises make the average person quite healthy, or at least healthier.

    I fall into the happy middle of this debate. I advocate taijiquan as a martial way, and it is my preferred approach. But I am happy beyond words to be able to pass along a version of it to those who want access to the many and varied health benefits of taiji. I find its benefits extend to all aspects of my life, far beyond the physical.

    So do not say you want it "only" for health. Good health is all we have, the only thing that can guarantee a high level quality of life. As such, we must nurture it by every method possible. Many masters from the last century have stories of being diagnosed with a mortal illness, only to begin learning taiji and recovering their health without medical assistance.

    But if you want to learn the martial way as well, that is always available.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi: The Next Generation

    12 May 2008
    With the passing of Master Wang Yen-nien comes a major dilemma for Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan (YMT), which is the variation of Yang Family Tai Chi that I teach. The dilemma is, who is in charge? Who will be the ultimate authority for the path we now follow?

    Master Wang deliberately left us with this puzzle. By deliberating choosing not to name a successor, he guaranteed that there will be no authorized master to usher in the next generation, and the generations after that. While there are many possible reasons for this decision, the reason is not as important as the fact.

    To many people, there is no dilemma at all; they adhere to the ideology that YMT is defined by the way Master Wang presented it in certain books and tapes in the 1980s and 1990s. They see it as a fixed museum piece, to be polished and cherished and unchanging for all eternity - like a an old black Model T, Henry Ford's first bestselling automobile.

    Such an attitude is certainly at odds with Taoism, the well from which Tai Chi Chuan sprung. Taoism accepts change as natural and inevitable. What we can control is the quality of the change. Master Wang understood this; he changed YMT perhaps more than any of the masters who preceded him. So to claim that his taiji is set in stone is the greatest irony.

    The reality of Tai Chi Chuan is that it has evolved a lot over the centuries, and no more so than in the two centuries since the time of Yang Lu-chan, the Yang Family founder. Two centuries ago, there was no Yang form; there was no stringing together of individual postures; there was no slow movement. Tai Chi Chuan was an incredibly difficult martial art to master, far more so than today. Now it is available to the less strong and the less healthy, as well as to the healthy, hale martial artist.

    As a 6th generation teacher, surveying the landscape behind and ahead of us, I marvel at the training opportunities available today. I think Tai Chi Chuan in the 21st century is destined not for stagnation as some believe, but for greatness that far exceeds its wide-ranging accomplishments to date.

    Yours in the Tao,
    Tai Chi

    30 Apr 2008
    Accepting is a principal fundamental to using Tai Chi for self-defense. The typical brute force method to self-defense is to meet an attack with an even stronger counter. Tai Chi takes the opposite approach: to accept the attack is a pre-condition for repulsing it.

    This subject is almost impossibly difficult to understand until you experience it personally, but once experienced, the lesson holds the key to understanding innumerable aspects of our lives.

    The key to accepting is opening your mind. To accept an attack requires an extraordinarily open mind -- some would call it faith -- in order accomplish the extraordinary.

    How can we envision this? If you punch a pillow, does it break? No. If it were covered in a plastic shell and you punched it hard enough, the plastic could fail to resist enough, and break. But the pillow, accepting without giving ground, never breaks. Does that mean the answer to Tai Chi for self-defense is to be like a pillow. No, that would not make much sense.

    Our pillow analogy only works for the accepting portion of self-defense. In order to repulse the attack we must have a strong, well-rooted foundation. So your first goal in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan should be to strengthen your legs and establish a solid foundation. Like many things, once you learn to apply this core principle to Tai Chi, you see the opportunities to apply it to other aspects of your life as well.

    Remember, new classes at the Houston Arboretum start Tuesday, May 6, at 5:45 pm. Call 713-366-0421 to pre-register. It is better to arrive early than late.
    Tai Chi
    First Steps in Tai Chi

    20 Apr 2008
    I often hear from prospective students whose greatest worry is that they are beginners with no experience. They have no idea how lucky they are! Having a beginner's mind, without preconceived notions or bad training, is an enviable position from which to start. From such a place come the best opportunities for learning.

    When I began with my last teacher, I was not so fortunate. I already had two decades of inadequate Tai Chi practice under my belt. A lot of it was flawed, or simply lacking. Into the empty spaces my previous teachers allowed me to pour my "pictures", my preconceived notions, the vast majority of which were wrong.

    Years of additional training were required to return me to my Beginner's Mind. Only from there was I able to learn to the depth I sought.

    So what is the first step in learning Tai Chi? Throw out any preconceived notions you might have about what is Tai Chi. The next and closely connected step is to slow down

    Tai Chi existed as a fast and furious martial art for centuries before it was slowed down, as an aid to teaching. Famous Tai Chi Chuan masters from the Yang Family were brought in to teach the royal family of China. Since this was in the ending years of the Qing Dynasty (mid to late 19th century), much of the royalty had become dissolute and stagnant. Teaching methods that work for dedicated martial artists do not work for such people.

    So the Yangs slowed it down, and the entire world benefitted. Slowing down the art made it accessible to practically anyone who had the patience to learn. The new method of teaching also revealed inner benefits from which we can all see physical, mental, and spiritual gains.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi and Yoga

    5 Dec 2007
    I began practicing yoga as a teenager, almost a decade before discovering Tai Chi. Although I still practice a bit of yoga almost daily, I would far and away recommend Tai Chi first for people looking for gentle (and sometimes vigorous) health improvement. Given the popularity of yoga today, it is worth comparing the benefits of the two.

    Tai Chi focuses on movement, while yoga focuses on static postures. True, Tai Chi has some "standing post" postures for chi cultivation and yoga has a small amount of movement, but they differ a lot in this regard.

    Yoga's asanas, or postures, frequently involve tight muscles and tendons that confound Tai Chi's goal of complete relaxation. The same tightness impedes chi flow. Yoga requires a mat or special area to practice, while Tai Chi is practiced standing and requires no special equipment or location. I have even practiced Tai Chi on a sand bar in the Gulf of Mexico, as the tide came in. When I was finished, the sand bar was underwater. Try doing yoga under those conditions!

    Perhaps most significantly for many, people looking for an exercise to overcome physical ailments or weakness involving the knees, hips, feet, legs, or back can hardly do better than Tai Chi, while yoga may be just about impossible for them. If not impossible, probably not very helpful in recovery. One student with nerve damage in her foot told me about how practicing Tai Chi has restored her balanced and reprogrammed her brain to walk normally again. Another finds it reduces her migraines, and often clears her eyesight as well. Golfers have used Tai Chi lessons to improve their swing and putting. Bowlers roll and pool players shoot with substantially greater control and precision.

    I have a personal suspicion that yoga is popular because it involves a lot of lying around, which is not hard to do. I like that aspect, too, but find it easy to forget to focus on breathing and other details as I just veg out. Tai Chi has a greater requirement of effort, which surprises most people but helps increase focus as well as muscular strength. Its calming influences are just as powerful as the physical benefits, and are a natural precursor to meditation. If you want to get healthier and lifting weights is not your thing, I recommend Tai Chi as a worthy exercise, validated by centuries of rigorous development.
    Tai Chi
    Avoiding Carpal Tunnel Problems

    16 Nov 2007
    Since so many people practice Tai Chi to improve their health, I get a lot of questions involving office-related injuries - not the falling off the ladder type of injury, but the carpal tunnel or bad back kind of injury. In many of these cases, Tai Chi can provide healthier, longer-lasting benefits than the average doctor will inadequately provide with drugs or surgery.

    For the moment we will focus on carpal-tunnel syndrome. Most of the problem is caused by bad ergonomics, but Tai Chi exercises can help as well. Even if you have never suffered from carpal tunnel, you may recognize some of the symptoms: while using the keyboard, the underside of your wrist bumps against edges, giving your tendons the feeling of an electric shock. It is interesting to experience once, but disturbing to experience repeatedly. For the more severe cases, it becomes impossible to work.

    The workplace answer is simple: you must adjust the height relationship between yourself, your chair, and the surface upon which your keyboard sits (typically a desktop that cannot be adjusted vertically). You should sit high enough in relation to the keyboard that your wrists float freely above all surfaces. The minute your wrist starts striking a hard edge, you start injuring your wrists and inviting carpal tunnel syndrome. You should never push the keyboard up six or eight inches or more from the edge of the desk.

    Here's a surprise for you: a lot of workplaces try to solve the problem by putting wrist pads at the bottom of the keyboard. Wrist pads may be worse than doing nothing at all. They are soft but they still interfere with wrist/tendon functioning. Every time your wrist hits or lies on a wrist pad, it contributes to the damage - perhaps a little slower than a sharp edge, but no better. If you use a wrist pad at your desk, I recommend you toss it out. It creates tension for your entire forearm subsystem.

    As for the Tai Chi side of it, we have many, many exercises that involve relaxing the fingers, wrists, and forearms. The movements often take the aspect of hands/arms floating up or down, with air gently passing between the fingers. These exercises are a fabulous form of self-massage and healing that anyone can learn to do in a single session.

    I have even more to say about back problems in the office. Next time!
    Tai Chi
    More Power of Intention

    18 Sep 2007
    An important subject that I keep coming back to is the power of intention (yi) in taiji. Intention is such as foundation principle that some people refer to the ultimate internal art as yichuan.

    Many people lead listless, unfocused lives because they have no intention to motivate their desires. Attaining a thing or a goal requires more than thinking about it, or wishing for it: you must actively work to achieve it through consciously guided effort.

    How does that apply specifically to taiji? The applicability should be obvious, at least at a gross level: you do not hit someone unless you move your fist, you do not kick someone unless you move your foot. You may move it only slightly, but at some level effort is required to accomplish the goal.

    But thinking internally, there is much more. Constant internal guidance is required. When I hear people speak of taiji as meditation in motion I worry that they are misunderstanding a core concept. Unless you are practicing spaghetti taiji that has no purpose other than to feel soooo goooood, you must constantly monitor your movement and make adjustments.

    Just as your taiji movement must be smooth and continuous, so must your internal monitoring be continuous. You observe your movement not just to be sure that you observe the sequence correctly, but also because you initiate your movements from your core muscles and radiate outward from there. You must constantly relax yourself and constantly accept your surroundings from all directions.
    Tai Chi
    Are you Continuous?

    22 Aug 2007
    One of the primary requirements of good taijiquan is to be smooth and continuous. Judging at two tournaments this year made me quite aware of how much emphasis the other judges put on these requirements. Many judges are asked to assign performance scores to taiji styles they have little or no familiarity with, except as judges. The result is that we are forced to fall back upon judging based on a familiar and fairly limited set of criteria.

    The familiarity of these requirements does not mean they are sufficient. In the last year I have seen an increasing number of competitors who performed their forms with a mesmerizing smoothness. Monks from the Wudang Monastery, a Taoist retreat many centuries old, perform with a similar smoothness. Is this dazzling display sufficient indication of taiji skill?

    Probably not. Watching a video of Grandmaster Wang Yen-nien, my teacher's teacher, brought home the halting nature of some movements. One Taoist monk in America recently explained in an interview that Wudang taiji is very smooth and continuous, but difficult to apply as a martial art. My teacher, Master George Hu, reiterates this point of view. Our system, Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, emphasizes the martial roots.

    So as you practice your form, keep the martial application in the forefront of your mind. Being smooth and continuous are important, but the ability to discharge fa-jing with each movement is equally important. In such cases you may be continuous but not smooth; if martial efficacy is there, that is good enough.

    I have a new feature blog in the Houston Chronicle's religion section, called Tao te Blog. I am publishing new blogs two or three times a week there. To take a look, go to commons.chron.com/daoistdale Put it on your link list and visit it reguarly! It is part of the Chronicle's Life/Religion section, and they asked me to provide a reader blog on Taoism.
    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi Tournaments

    30 Jul 2007
    They have Tai Chi tournaments? I always hear this when I first tell students about an upcoming tournament where I am judging. A Houston-area tournament is coming up this weekend, so the subject has been raised again.

    Ponder this: the best way to win at a Tai Chi tournament is to not try to win. Somehow you must contend by not contending. This is the Taoist way, and Tai Chi is replete with Taoist underpinnings.

    There are many good reasons to "compete" in a tournament, or at least watch one. You compete to learn: to perform outside the insulated circle of your Tai Chi class, teacher, and style. To be judged by someone other than your teacher, who constantly criticizes you in class but like any parent, wants the child to do well in public.

    There are two types of Tai Chi competition, with very different rules, goals, and lessons. There is "forms" competition, where you demonstrate a section of a form you have learned. Categories are divided by level of experience, so beginnners only compete with other beginners.

    The other kind is so-called pushing hands (tuishou), which is not fighting but is physical competition with another person. It may not be fighting, but injuries can and occasionally do occur. It is in tuishou where competitors typically try too hard to win, and in the process comport themselves poorly.

    But whether a beginner or advanced practitioner, there is much you can win by watching forms competition. You will be exposed to forms and styles you have never seen or heard of before. Of all the rules I have taught about correct form and structure, you will see many of them broken. Some are broken because of poor practice, while others are broken because there are many levels to the "rules", and I have not shown you all the levels. Indeed, the levels are virtually infinite, so it is never possible to learn all the levels. Sometimes you only learn a lesson by what you see unexpectedly.

    That's why I judge: to learn from what I see unexpectedly. As a student, you too can benefit in like manner. You learn to open your mind to the possibilities, but are challenged to not blindly accept just anything.

    This weekend the opportunity presents itself at the U.S. National Martial Arts Tournament in Stafford, a far southwest corner of the Houston area near Sugarland. I highly recommend you attend either, or both of two events: the Master's Demonstrations, and the forms competition. To be honest, the demonstrations will not always be high-level masters, but some will be, and the event is always entertaining as well as enlightening.

    Saturday the Master's Demo is at 10 am, and the forms competitions begin at Noon. Click here for a link to the schedule and location information.

    As a judge, I will not necessarily be available to chat during the competitions, but I will make time where possible. Drop by and I will be happy to point out some of the high points and low points to you. There is a small price of admission, but the price is as well spent as any class. Look for me. Hope to see you there! And no class Saturday.
    Tai Chi
    Healthy Tai Chi

    2 Jul 2007
    A little more than 100 years ago, major changes were made to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) -- already a centuries-old art -- that resulted in its spread throughout the globe. To that point it had been a relatively obscure, highly effective, internal martial art available mostly to residents of the Chen Village. In the mid-19th century a villager and student, Yang Lu-chan, struck out on his own.

    Yang started his own style, which within two generations would evolve into a set of slow, gentle exercises that were accessible to non-martial artists. One of his sons, Yang Cheng-fu, completed the changes and taught throughout China. Many people mistakenly think of taijiquan as a modern phenomenon, but even its widespread popularity is not recent.

    I was reminded of this not long ago when practicing outdoors. An old man came up to me and said, "I haven't seen that since Peking in 1945". He had been a young soldier in the United States Army, stationed there. 1945 was not only the year that the world wars ended, it was the year that America's 100-year military presence in China ended as well. This man was present at history in the making, but he had time to learn about the country he was in as well -- an old story among soldiers.

    Hard-core martial artists sometimes resent the practice of taiji purely for health. Their fear, already justified somewhat by history, is that health-only practice will water down the exercises so much that they completely lose their martial capability. Indeed, we probably all know someone who practices taiji without any awareness or ability in the martial realm. But is that so bad?

    Most teachers, myself included, have students who will tell you stories that makes it clear taiji practice provides excellent health benefits. One student with recurring migraine headaches reported, within a month after beginning taiji, that the frequency and duration had lessened noticeably. Her son, who suffered from sleeplessness, was able to start sleeping easily again after one simple lesson. Other students with nerve damage or leg injuries have been able to recover leg functionality much more quickly; seniors have learned to strengthen and keep their balance safely in order to avoid falls.

    The list goes on and on. This yin-yang story of martial versus health does not have to be one or the other. Practiced together, as one, each side can learn from the other.
    Tai Chi
    Continuity and Perseverance

    30 May 2007
    The Tai Chi Classics and masters throughout the ages have emphasized the importance of continuous motion in taiji. Yang Cheng-Fu, the 3rd generation master of the Yang Family's taiji, listed the importance of continuity as one of his "ten essentials of taijiquan":

    In the case of the "Outer School" (which emphasizes attack) of boxing, the strength one exerts is stiff and the movements are not continuous, but are sometimes made off and on, which leaves opening the opponent may take advantage of. In taijiquan, one focuses the attention on the mind instead of force, and the movements from beginning to end are continuous and in an endless circle, just "like a river which flows on and on without end" or "like reeling the silk thread off cocoons".

    In applications as well as forms practice, we must practice our techniques smoothly and continuously. Each time we stop, or hesitate, we create a "gap" in our movement which can be exploited by a skillful attacker. In a martial art like karate, those gaps are obvious; the challenge is to develop the timing skills needed to exploit those gaps. In taiji the gaps are less obvious, so we must develop finely tuned sensing skills that allow us to sense even the most hidden center.

    In our lives, continuity is closely related to perseverance. We may start an activity with a smooth, strong flow of activity, but the challenge is to sustain it. Even when we come to spots where we think nothing is lost by a gap, we are wrong: all gaps detract from the effort. Practice must be regular and continuous to develop the benefits and goals we seek.
    Tai Chi
    New Classes Added

    13 May 2007
    In today's hectic society with so many demands from so many directions, it is often difficult to attend a place at the same time and location on the same day each week. There is the additional problem that dedicated students want to have more training opportunities.

    The answer is to add new classes. We are happy to announced new weekly Saturday morning classes at 9 am in the Arboretum in Memorial Park. These classes are in conjunction with Meetup: the Houston Tai Chi Meetup Group, and the Houston Taoists Meetup Group -- but the class material is the same, so students can go back and forth between the two classes with no difficulty. Click here for pricing and registration .

    Additional classes are under consideration, including a possible class in Katy that would focus on conditioning and applications. If that interests you, drop me a line and let me know.
    Tai Chi
    Observe World Tai Chi Day at the Houston Taoism Meetup

    27 Apr 2007
    April 28 is World Tai Chi Day. This year Houston will host World Tai Chi Day for the first time - in not one, but two venues. One event is aimed at publicizing Tai Chi, which will be held in Hermann Park. As befits someone who teaches temple rather than public taiji, I am hosting a more private event at Memorial Park in conjunction with the Houston Taoism Meetup Group.

    At 10 a.m., in each time zone throughout the world, Tai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) practitioners will practice their taiji. The idea is to create a human wave of taiji, starting in New Zealand at 10 a.m. their time. As 10 a.m. rolls around in each succeeding time zone, practitioners will begin their taiji, creating a "rolling wave" of taiji.

    We will meet in the Arboretum, near the Nature Center, in Memorial Park. We will be at the wooden deck that is immediately on your right as you drive in through the gate. Park near the Nature Center and walk back to the wooden deck overlooking part of the park - one or more of us will probably already be there practicing.

    Taijiquan was created by Chang Sen Feng at the Wudang Monastery, a Taoist retreat that predates the Buddhist Shaolin Temple, approximately one thousand years ago. Although many of the early influences that lead to the development of taijiquan came from the Buddhist teachings of Bodhidharma, those influences were distant in time and intention.

    Of course taijiquan is learned, practiced and enjoyed by millions of people with not even a slight curiosity about the Taoist roots. To others, it may be of passing historical interest; and to yet others, such as myself, it is a subject of considerable interest and influence. Regardless of where you fit in, I will make everyone comfortable and our discussion lively.
    Tai Chi
    Falls and Tai Chi

    17 Apr 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut died last week at age 84, suffering from brain injuries caused by a fall a few weeks ago. Falls are a leading cause of injury to the elderly. They often result in crippling or mortal damage.

    Western scientific research has demonstrated that Tai Chi is an excellent mechanism for restoring leg strength and balance, thus reducing falls. Its slow, gentle approach to exercise is ideal for older people with muscle weakness, nerve damage, or balance problems. Tai Chi works just as well for younger people, but it often requires an injury or health problem for us to appreciate its value.

    This is a mistake. My first student ever was a 70-year-old woman who said, "I always intended to take Tai Chi, but I never needed it before." Argh! Anyone smart enough to know Tai Chi can be good for them should be smart enough to realize that prevention is a hundred times more valuable than a cure.

    Is there something in your life that needs doing - something you are smart enough to realize the value of, but not wise enough to act on? It is all a matter of intention, which I have written of before and will write of again.

    An increasing amount of scientific research is being directed toward the efficacy of Tai Chi (taiji) and Chi Kung (qigong). So far most of the research has been aimed at proving health value of the exercises, but it is just a matter of time until research is directed toward an understanding of the internals of taiji/qigong - because that is where the most valuable work takes place.

    Under the heading "Tai Chi in the News" I have begun listing links to news articles about Tai Chi -related research. In the future I will include links to strictly scientific studies as well. Visit the web site regularly to find new postings on the front page.
    Tai Chi
    The Important of Intention: Separating Fantasy from Reality

    12 Apr 2007

    Intention is the first step toward doing; what can we do without intending to do it? If you tell yourself "I intend to study Tai Chi" or "I intend to start practicing Tai Chi at home between classes", that is not true intention.

    True intention actually leads to doing: it is a commitment to yourself, not wishful thinking. The Chinese word for intention is yi, and it is such a central concept that the discipline of yi chuan has grown up around it.

    Test your intention for self-honesty. Create a list of things you "intend" to do. Which are daydreams, and which are real? Test each item for "realness" by asking yourself, am I ready to start doing this right now? Or if not now, can I identify the obstructions and when I can commit to beginning? You will discover that few if any of your items meet this "reality" requirement.

    Examining the list, you may have difficulty accepting the idea that you have no real intention of doing some of them. Fine. You can change the reality of this intention by acting on it. You make your intention real by doing it.

    Within the practice of Tai Chi, we can take the idea of intention even further. You can play at Tai Chi by waving your arms around and moving in ways generally similar to your teacher - that's playing without real intention. Or you can study the details of Tai Chi and break through to deeper and deeper levels of understanding and accomplishment, learning to understanding how our internal actions affects our external structure. Every movement is inspired by awareness and introspection, and hence the better application of Tai Chi principles. That is the exercise of true intention in Tai Chi.

    "I intend to be nicer to my spouse." Fine. Be nicer. "I intend to be more diligent in my job." Fine. Work harder. "I intend to retire to a South Pacific island at the age of 32." Fine, BUT: that sounds more like wishful thinking. If it is not, make a checklist of steps required to achieve this goal, and identify when and how you will start down that path. That is real intention. If you are honest with yourself as you separate your fantasies from your true intentions, you find it easier to be at peace with your life.

    "I intend to practice Tai Chi." Let's practice!
    For more ideas about the power of intention, go to http://www.elementaltaichi.com/art_TaijiLife1.cfm
    Tai Chi
    "New Session"

    2 Apr 2007

    For many students, their current six-week session ends this week. For others it does not. This is because "session" is a term we use only for class fees. Classes are $75 for six weeks of class -- starting from the day the student begins, regardless of when. This means you as a new student can start at any time, and do not have to wait until a "new session" -- because there is no such thing.

    Course material is ongoing, and we mix total beginners easily with more experienced individuals. How is this possible?

    Traditional Chinese teaching practices make it possible. Think of Tai Chi as a circle that you may enter at any point. Most Japanese and Korean martial arts are highly regimented and work from a highly structured curriculum. Ideally, Tai Chi is taught in a structured "scientific" way as well, but in today's modern society few people have time or wherewithal for the rigorous training that such an approach involves.

    Short of that, everyone enters at a different point and trains for different goals. Regardless of experience and goals, everyone needs to constantly review the basics. Extremely experienced students learn from helping coach others. Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to have special classes for more advanced material. It is likely that we will be forming such as class soon, as we are starting to bring in some new folks who are not new to Tai Chi. Such as class would focus on applications, more conditioning, and pushing hands exercises.

    The Thursday 7 pm class will continue to be a class for everyone. Join it at any time -- but the sooner the better for your health.

    Today is a new Full Moon. On Full Moon days, good practice times are 11 pm to 1 am, and 11 am to 1 pm.
    Tai Chi
    Coping with Grief and Sadness

    26 Mar 2007
    We all have to deal with grief or sadness in our lives, though hopefully not often. In my own life I was shocked this week by news that a friend from high school had killed himself and his wife, leaving in his wake the now-shattered life of their 16-year-old daughter.

    Emotionally healthy people reel with shock when confronted with such horror. On the surface there was nothing in Alan’s life to hint at such extremes, although he was professionally unsuccessful. Having never found a comfortable niche for his life, suicide might not have been completely shocking, but taking the life of his wife certainly was. By all accounts the marriage was working, including the accounts of his mother-in-law – who is usually among the first to know when a marriage is in trouble. And the man was not without friends. He was a volunteer in the Fort Worth Civic Orchestra, and was well known among his old band compadres from Paschal High School.

    Under such circumstances it is a mistake for a rational person to try to make sense of what happened. A person so caught up in his own self-misery to be so utterly unaware, or uncaring, of the impending misery of his loved ones – a misery it is entirely within his power to avoid – cannot be explained in sane or rational terms.

    At times this knowledge is insufficient for coping. In Five Element Theory, grief and sadness are associated with the metal element, and the lungs. Chi kung exercises aimed at replacing these negative emotions with courage and righteousness will have the concomitant benefit of improving your lung health as well. You can accomplish this by meditating and turning your attention to your lungs, or by breathing clean, white chi your lungs and breathing out cloudy, dirty chi. We practice suitable such exercises in the Six Healing Sounds class.
    Tai Chi
    Missing Classes

    24 Mar 2007
    For your own benefit you should attend every class you possibly can, but missing a class is not the end of the world. Some beginning students feel that if they miss a class, that is it. They think they have missed so much material they will never catch up. At the very least they are now psychologically primed to slack off in interest or enthusiasm.

    I encourage you to fight that tendency, for more than one reason. The first reason is that you are attacking your own psyche with an excuse designed to give you an out. The second reason is that classes are necessarily repetitive, because the material is so deep that it takes a while for it to sink in, and there is no limit to the levels of understanding you can achieve. The only barrier is your own mind. My goal as teacher is to help you unshackle your self-imposed bounds. A lesson is like a drill that goes a little deeper with each use. A drill with unlimited depth!
    Tai Chi
    Spring and the Five Elements

    20 Mar 2007

    Today is the first day of spring, a special day in traditional cultures throughout the world. It is the midpoint between the solstices: halfway between the longest day and the shortest day of the year. Renewal is evident throughout the cycle of life.

    In Five Element Theory spring is associated with the element wood, the color green, the liver, anger, and kindness. We are most vulnerable to these two emotional states, and our livers require more attention as well. By purging ourselves of anger and replacing it with kindness, we can increase our liver health, which directly feeds muscular strength - further evidence of the fact that external strength flows from within.

    Tai Chi
    Tai Chi: Easy or Tough?

    13 Mar 2007

    Jon Stewart of The Daily Show cracked a funny one-liner a while back at the expense of Tai Chi. "Chinese men have taken up golf," he observed. "Apparently Tai Chi wasn't easy enough for them."

    The joke was funny in spite of itself:  the humor was based on a serious misconception of Tai Chi, but it was the very misconception that turned the joke back on itself.

    Is Tai Chi too hard? Millions of people practice it worldwide. Many practice it with an unbelievable intensity, while many others treat it as a light, casual form of relaxed Exercise. It is what you make of it. In reality the cultivation of Tai Chi is self-cultivation, with infinite possibilities. The result is proportional to the effort.

    "The effort" must nonetheless be unattached, or you will be unable to obtain the relaxed, formless nature that is the final goal of the art. Once attained, the result is said to be so profound that one need never practice again to retain the ability.

    So students who find it difficult to retain class material must be patient and persevere. It is said that twenty minutes of Tai Chi a day is better than five hours on Saturday: the benefit is cumulative. Keep at it and the reward will come.
    Tai Chi
    My First Blog: A Message to Students After Their First Class

    6 Mar 2007

    Welcome to Tai Chi! After a first class I always have a couple of students thinking, "oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into"? How can I possibly relax and de-stress when I am stressing out over how to do these exercises?

    The key is to try without trying. That means you must have the intention to try, but you must not be attached to trying. Whenever we become attached to something, whether it is an object or an idea, we lose our balance. In taiji that means losing our balance, our match, perhaps more; in our emotional and spiritual lives, it means everything goes haywire. Whenever you feel things going haywire, that means you need to stop trying so hard even while you continue to pay attention. You will learn taiji, but not in any particular time frame, not by any particular schedule except what your body and mind allow.

    Now for a practical tip. After each class, you should practice immediately. The purpose is to polish and refine your memory of what you just learned. It is the best way to retain your new material. The next day, practice it again within less than 24 hours of the class - morning is ideal. Again, this quick followup practice will reinforce everything you have learned.

    I know your next question is, how can I remember all this stuff? The short answer is, you can't. Not all at once. So start with the opening exercises, then in each class pick one or two movements that you really like, and start with those. You will remember those the easiest. Later there will be time to work on the stuff that comes less naturally.

    That's all for now. See you in class!

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