Sunday, January 22, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 288: Biomythography - Note 40, When Encryption Was Illegal

Biomythography 40

Encryption Was Illegal, Punk

In the summer when I was sixteen, I made a friend lifeguarding at Williamsburg Square. His name was Adam. 

On the first day, we discovered we had a similar love for punk and new wave music. But we came from different backgrounds and knew different stuff about it. I had only mix tapes from the radio, where I had found WHFS playing songs by Bad Brains, Root Boy Slim, The Ramones, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and The Nighthawks. My recording quality was terrible. Adam had a paid-for collection, No Wave, with two songs I'd heard from Joe Jackson and the Stranglers but mostly it had tunes by bands I'd never heard before like The Police, Klark Kent, and U.K. Squeeze. We listened to Roxanne and Take Me I'm Yours until the other lifeguards screamed at us to stop.

We listened to those after the screaming, too. 

Adam revealed that he attended Gaithersburg High School. He had lots of stories about it. Coincidently, later that summer I discovered I was going to return to public school, probably at Seneca Valley. That meant we were going to attend rival schools. We laughed about it. 

Between the music and the high school stories, we shared job advice. Even though we both had our pool operators licenses and I had been a pool manager, it was illegal for us to be in those types of positions. You had to be eighteen to manage a pool in our county. That’s why we were working as regular lifeguards. We were waiting for the college kids to leave so we could take their jobs.

It was also against the county rules to have food on the deck of our pool, which is why I got nervous when Adam persuaded me to go halves on an extra large pizza. Our manager had taken off. Adam got me to say yes on the basis that we wouldn't get many chances when our managers were gone. So we ordered. The delivery man came. We ate. Against all odds, the county inspector arrived ten minutes later in a county inspection vehicle. Of course, we had no manager. 

We could see the car swing into the lot while we were eating pizza on the deck. Adam started wolfing his half down. I knew I couldn't finish. Nevertheless, Adam went to delay the inspector while I skulked to the back of the pool office and called the pool management company. Their phone rang.

“What should I do with the pizza box?” I asked while the line kept ringing.

“The trashcan.”

“There isn’t one.” There was no food allowed, so there wasn’t a need for one normally. 

“I don’t know," he hissed through a half-closed door. "Stuff it into a skimmer.”

The company didn't answer their office phone. Then I ran out, did a crap job with the box, and dashed back. When the inspector stepped into the guardhouse, I moved forward to talk with him. He demanded our certificates. Adam made his escape, however temporary, and he saw the edge of the pizza box I'd left poking out of the skimmer lid. He applied extra force to solve the problem.

After I delayed as long as I believably could with our paperwork and the chlorine test kit, the inspector pushed by us, clipboard in hand, and berated us for not having a legal pool operator on duty. Then he inspected the pool, testing the pH of the water and opening up the skimmers. 

He opened the first skimmer top easily. He opened the next. Then he stepped up to the one I'd crammed a pizza box into and pulled. The lid wouldn't come up. He grunted. He strained. He put down his test kit and used both hands. He popped the plastic lid off.

"Huh." He peered in. He put in his fingers and swished them around. "Not too bad."

Before he closed it, I strolled closer and peered in. No pizza box. Adam had moved it.

"Well, that's enough of that," said the inspector.

He switched to testing water in different places because we'd passed his first two attempts to find a violation. He never found the skimmer that was full of wet cardboard and crusts. We heaved a sigh of relief, agreed with the inspector that our pool manager was scum, and so was our management company, and so were we, and we agreed to shut down the pool. We waited a while after he left, opened back up, and returned to running everything in the illegal manner that earned us paychecks.

On the topic of job advice, mine to Adam was that being a pool operator was easier than being a lifeguard. Adam's advice was that the company had no damn choice but to make us managers when the college students were gone. And he was right. By the middle of August I was making more money than I ever had, twenty cents above minimum wage.

Even in the early fall, I kept in touch with Adam. I visited his house with my parents' rusty Ranch Wagon and I got acquainted with cereal in bright green, blue, or red boxes, almost all made from candied sugar that stayed crunchy even in milk. I saw bits of weird, new technology around his house. For one thing, Adam had a VCR next to the television. I'd read about them. I'd never seen one before. They weren’t popular enough to be in the news. Nevertheless, Adam’s parents owned a huge, top-loading steel model.

Then there was the TV service itself. Adam didn’t just have VHF and UHF reception and a VCR. His father had put a metallic dish on the roof of their house. He was able to pick up extra channels with it.

"He's just proving a point," Adam said. 

That seemed to be the case. The pictures on the screen were wonky, sometimes weirdly tilted, although I knew Adam could see all sorts of movies I couldn't, so I was impressed anyway. While I was there, I squinted into the occasionally slanted images and watched part of a Clint Eastwood film that had yet to be released to television. Adam got impatient. 

"Let's go," he said. We turned off the set and headed out. I didn't see satellite television again for months.

When I did notice it at Adam's house during one of my late fall visits, the service had changed. The signal from the satellite had been scrambled more effectively. I could see on the screen how the movies had gotten lost in snow. The receiver picked up no sound. I fiddled with the controls for a few minutes. Someone had changed the descrambler box, I thought. I traced the cables from it but I was afraid to move anything. I'd learned that satellites broadcast television signals to subscribers like hotels because the hotels can't get good reception in all rooms without a special carrier like a cable or satellite business. There were lots more subscribers than hotels but for all of them, they needed de-scrambling boxes from the carrier company. The boxes were essential.

“That’s illegal,” Adam’s father commented when he saw me looking at it. I turned. He was a big man with broad shoulders and a belly like a bowling ball. He had a head like one, too. But he was scowling at the equipment, I thought, not at me.

“Getting satellite service for free?” I asked.

“No, that’s goddamn legal." His voice often seemed angry and insistent. This time, though, his index finger got involved as he jabbed the air for emphasis. "They broadcast it everywhere. Anyone is allowed to pick up a signal if they can. That is the way the law works. It's the way radio signals work, too.”

“What's the illegal part then?”

“They're using encryption to scramble the signal. You have to be a subscriber and use the decryption box they give you to get the shows.”

“Scrambling the signal is illegal?” I was pretty sure it had been scrambled during the summer but Adam's family had descrambled it using the electronic hobbyist gear I didn't understand.

“No.” Adam's father got as exact as a physicist, which was appropriate since that was his job. “Every other kind of signal scrambling is legal except for the one they’re using. They're using encryption. And there is a law in the books that says only the military is allowed to do that.”

At the time, I had to take his word for it. Later, though, as personal computers got popular, I was able to research the history of encryption on FidoNet. There, other computer hobbyists verified the claims made by Adam’s father. They cited national laws. They debated the rules on encryption. The arguments raged on. 

Satellite businesses said the U.S. law about encryption exports didn't apply to them. They weren't sending the means of encryption or decryption out of the country. Everyone else pointed out that the satellite companies sold services to Canada and Mexico. Plus they were broadcasting their encrypted signals over the border. According to those folks, the satellite executives should go to jail. Even those people who thought satellite televisions broke the law, though, didn't necessarily think the law was right.

In an era when hardly anyone had access to a computer, amending the U.S. export regulations to treat encryption-capable devices like war technology made some sense. During the 1950s and 1960s, the rules must have seemed unremarkable. Then in the 1970s computers got smaller. Universities and colleges could afford more of them. Programmers got better at encryption. Keeping secrets got cheaper and better. Companies started to use cryptography to guard communications. 

In contrast, non-technical judges issued rulings that seemed to prohibit talking about cryptography. The courts treated encryption more and more like nuclear codes, which is something they understood. Lawyers took positions against thinking, essentially, or at least against doing certain kinds of very simple math. A lot of people outside the courts - like mathematicians - didn't like the way the rules were headed. The fight wasn't cooling down. It was getting hotter. Anti-encryption laws were coming up against the microcomputer revolution with all of its changes that made cryptography better. 

In the midst of all this, the satellite and cable television companies appeared to ignore the laws. At the very least, their actions pointed out how rules for large corporations and rules for individuals were proving to be enforced very differently. 

In 1989, the United States softened its stance against using cryptography for access controls and message authentication. Legislators kept encryption exports illegal but made cryptography acceptable. Finally, in 1992, the federal government added an exception in the export rules for use of cryptography and satellite television descramblers. 

Encryption had become legal. The lobbying efforts of the satellite and cable television companies paid off. They'd been breaking the law and claiming they weren't for fifteen years. Finally, they had gotten the law on their side. 


As far as I can tell:

In the late 1970s, satellites and cable television companies scrambled their signals with filters. They wanted to keep the customers' neighbors from watching shows on unscrambled signals. But their filter systems started breaking down pretty fast. Hobbyist magazines printed blueprints of the de-filtering boxes. Since determined television viewers could build their own, they didn't need to subscribe to the satellite or cable service to watch cool stuff.

The companies tried other techniques like inverting the signals or adding interfering signals to the video or audio. Hobbyist magazines caught on to those, too. Anything the businesses could make to de-scramble a signal for their customers, tinkerers could duplicate with time, patience, and a friend at Radio Shack.

In 1981, satellite television broadcasters brought out VideoCipher II, which had DES (Data Encryption Standard, a scheme designed to be broken by the NSA) at the heart of it. They encrypted the video to scramble it. This implies they used VideoCipher I even earlier, too. Adam's father was right. The businesses made their move to encryption a decade in advance of any changes to the law.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 287: Biomythography - Note 39, Accused of Not Making It Up

Biomythography 39

Accused of Not Making It Up

When I was seven years old, I spent a day with my friend Richard. He was seven, like me, but with darker hair and glasses, and my visit was like a lot of others before and after. We played in his house for a while. His parents told us to play outside. We occupied ourselves, although not for long enough, and Richard's mother Mary revealed that we had plans. She drove us to the planned event.

I don’t remember the event and don't recall much from earlier in the day, either. The memorable moment, which was one of confusion and revelation, came during the ride back to Richard‘s home.

His family had a station wagon, the color of the trim fairly light. We were sitting in the back of it, maybe in seats that let us face each other. Or maybe we were lounging around and finding positions to talk. The sunlight was bright outside. After a while of looking through the contents of the seats and floor, we discovered we hadn’t brought enough to do on the ride. I decided to make up a story and tell it.

I’m not sure why. I'd been warned against it. However, I had recently written poems that appeared in a children’s magazine, so I might have felt encouraged to speak up. Also, something we had done or a remark from Richard, maybe both together, had given me a story idea. I thought I could tell it like my mother was reading to me from a storybook.

As I sat there with Richard and spun out the Aesop-like tale, I improvised events based on Richard's responses. He liked dinosaurs. So there was a dinosaur. There was a good boy. There was a mischievous boy to cause trouble. In a few minutes, I came to what seemed to me to be a funny and scary surprise ending. Telling it made me happy because it was like one of the kids' books I read. Those were toned-down versions of The Monkey's Paw or of Aladdin and the Lamp. With every victory, there had to be a catch, and I introduced one for the final outcome.

Before this, no one seemed to like the stories and poems I invented. This time, I got a unique response.

“Tell it again,” Richard said.

I stammered for a moment as I was trying to think why the request felt impossible. Then I decided to give it a try because he was my best friend. Right away, Richard called me out on an inconsistency in my retelling. I'd veered off to a different path of events. I remember realizing his objection was correct. If I kept on going, there would be no way to reach the same ending.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was making it up. I don’t think I can make it up the same way again.”

“You were not,” called Richard’s mother from the front seat. Mary's reaction was my realization that she had been listening to us. “You didn’t make up the whole story, did you?”

I had been accused of making things up many times. Often enough, if I were being pressed to give testimony against myself, it was true. I'd make up anything to escape consequences.

“Don’t make up stories,” my father warned me as he caught me in it every time.

“I think you are making up stories,” my grandmother would say in a similar situation, sometimes unfairly. 

This was the first time I could recall being accused of not making up a story. I'd even admitted beforehand that I was making it up. I didn’t know what to say. Mary could tell I'd fallen silent but her eyes were on the road. She started firing off questions. I tried to answer.

Her first thought to ask was about where I had read the story. But I hadn’t. Maybe, I ventured, it was like a kids' movie or something I'd seen on television. From the images in my head, the possibility sort of made sense to me. So Mary questioned me about TV programs. She included her son in the questions, too. Then she added more suggestions but we reached dead ends. The story hadn't come from kids' shows, cartoons, movies, or comic books. The only strong similarity was to the stories in an Aesop collection but my story hadn't been any of those. Mary's inquiries got gentler and gentler the longer her investigation continued.

“So." At a stoplight, she paused to take a different angle on the problem. She hit the gas pedal. "Do you remember the beginning of the story?”

After a bit of consideration, I told her what I thought was the beginning. She and Richard both remembered the actual starting phrase, though, and reminded me. I had to agree. They were right.

After a while, more quietly, Mary said, “I think you did make it up.” 

"Sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."

“No, no, you did a good job." Her voice grew higher and louder for a moment. Then she took a deep breath. "I didn’t mean to discourage you.”

Of course, lots of people did mean to discourage me, often in understandable circumstances. Apparently, at least one person was willing to allow me to make up stories, though.

"Does Ann know?" she asked. "I mean, does your mother know you make up stories?"

"Uh huh." She had been the one to send my poems to the kids' magazine, Kaleidoscope.

"Then she likes the stories. You're doing fine."

My clearest memory of the incident is almost precisely this moment. The horrible confusion beforehand, which you would think sticks out, doesn't. By itself, the panic would not have formed a lasting impression. After all, I spent a significant part of my childhood confused and upset. Another possibility, the paradox of being accused of not making up a story, didn't turn out to be unique, either. Little puzzles with little 'aha' moments are sort of frequent, anyway. When our lives turn on them, maybe they become important to us, but we have to realize their importance, too, or else we take a different direction in our lives without remembering why. We often don't remember, I think.

No, the lasting emotion was my sense of relief and of wonder as I witnessed an adult change her mind. And say so. That was the revelation, one of the ordinary but essential 'ahas' of my life.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 286: Biomythography - Note 38, Driving the Morris Oxford

Morris Oxford Farina via Wikipedia

Biomythology Note 38

Driving the Morris Oxford

I was five years old, hot, and enjoying a cool breeze that circulated above me in the car.  My mother pulled into the Esso gas station on the north side of Greenbelt Road.  The avenue ran east to west, so it was an easy turn  off on her right.  She wasn't in her usual Ford Fairlane; she was driving my father's car, a Morris Oxford.

There were attendants in each Esso service lane. One of them jogged over to meet her as she got out of the car.  The young, curly-haired fellow wore a blue-gray jumper, his station uniform.  It zipped up the middle like an astronaut suit.  There was a dark, oval patch on the left side of his chest, which read 'Earl.'

“What can I do for you folks?” he asked.  He smiled at my mother and spared a glance for me in the car.

“Fill her up,” my mother replied automatically.

I had started out in the back seat but I unstrapped myself as soon as the car stopped.  While the grown-ups talked, I climbed between the bucket seats and tumbled into the driver side.

“Can I play?” I asked through the crack of the window before my mother could leave. By that I meant, could I rock the steering wheel back and forth and pretend to drive?  It's what I always did when she left.  Previously, we had a long talk about not honking the horn in parking lots because it wasn't polite.  I'd shown her I understood by exercising a couple weeks of tortuously difficult self-restraint, so she'd told me I was permitted to play again. 

“Sure,” she said.  She turned from me to remind the attendant to check the windshield wiper fluid because it was low. She asked him about redeeming her green stamps.

After a minute, she left to do adult things, maybe with the stamps, although I never quite understood what she did.  I remained standing on the seat as I played with the steering wheel. I twisted it left and right.  After a while, I grabbed the stick shift and moved it around until I pulled the car out of gear. Then the stick fell loose into neutral and I could pretend better.  I could steer, then shift, then steer.

My mother seemed to be gone longer than usual. The attendant finished whatever he was doing and he left me alone to attend to other cars. I bounced up and down in the seat.  I sat and pretended to be a jet pilot. When I did, I couldn’t see out the window, so I gave up on the idea and stood.  In a few seconds, I was bouncing on my toes.

I turned to the parking brake and tried to push it up and down. For a while, nothing happened. Then I remembered to press the button at the front of the brake lever the way my parents did. I pressed hard, and suddenly the parking brake went all the way down.

I discovered, as I jumped up and down on the seat with all my might and rocked the wheel back and forth, that now I could make the car move.  The Morris Oxford started rolling.  As it rolled, I bounced up and down harder and harder, more and more excited to actually be driving.

For the first few feet, the going was slow. The wheel became hard to turn because I was actually trying to turn it for real. The gas station was on a slight incline, fortunately, and I was facing the correct way.  After a few seconds, the Morris Oxford really started to move.

Around that time, I heard a yelp. It came from the attendant.

"Hey!" he sounded distant because the windows, except for the crack on the driver's side, were rolled all the way up. 

I barely glanced in his direction.  I wanted to face front because I was finally going somewhere.

“Hey!  Stop!"  Suddenly, Earl appeared by my side.  He spoke to me through the gap in the driver side window.  "Kid, stop!” 

He was a grown-up.  I knew I had to listen.  And the driving was starting to feel a little too fast.

“How?” I asked.

“Press on the brakes!  You know the brake?  Press the brakes.”

Of course I knew where the brakes were.  I was five, not three.  But I was standing on the seat. I sat down and immediately I couldn’t see anything out the window, which I didn't like. To show the attendant, I pushed my foot toward the brakes.  I grunted theatrically.  I flexed my feet.  My toes didn't even come close.

“I can’t reach the pedal!” I explained.  He didn't seem to get it.

“How ...” Young Earl looked totally befuddled. “Can you ... jeez kid ... steer!  Steer!”

Apparently we were going to hit something. I hopped up to my feet, so I could see.

“Turn left! Turn left!”

I didn't understand what we were going to hit, maybe another car, maybe a bike or the big, gray trash can, but I knew which way left was.  I pulled hard on the steering wheel.  It spun a little easier than it had a few seconds before, which meant by using all my weight I was able to budge it a few inches.

"Yeah!" He sounded relieved for a moment. But then apparently he realized we were headed for more trouble.

“Unroll the window!  Unroll it!  Unroll it!”  He repeated himself for a long time, looping around to the same request again and again, or so it seemed to me.  He really wanted the window down. 

That was something I knew how to do.  I hopped down and tried to swing the crank.  This time, I was grunting for real.  I got partway.  The crank stuck.

"Almost!"  The attendant tried to be encouraging.  "Keep going!  Unroll it!  Keep going!"

Above me, I could hear the attendant's footfalls pick up speed.  He was starting to jog.  I wanted to climb up onto the seat and see what I was missing.  I must have hesitated, then, because his voice picked up speed, too.

"Unroll it!  Kid!  Please!"

I backed the window up a half-inch, which caused Earl to groan in frustration.  He sounded almost cross.  But I knew what I was doing.  I had seen my parents use this trick.  When the driver side window crank got stuck, they backed up counter-clockwise for a turn and then started another clockwise run at rolling the window down.

"Yes!"  The attendant's feet skipped a step as he shouted.  This time, I got through the tough part.  Above me, a hand shot through the top part of the window and started to take control of the wheel. 

"Hey!" I protested.  He was getting grabby with my toys.  I started to clamber back up.

When I tried to brush his hand aside, the attendant didn't let go. After a second, the car changed direction sharply enough to knock me over, so that I sat down hard between the seat and the door handle. 

"Hold on, kid."  He sounded calmer for a second.  "Uh oh."


"Oh, come on!"  He shoved the wheel hard to the other side.  My body flopped across the front seat.  "Damn, I mean shoot.  You didn't hear me say that, kid."

"Shoot?"  For a moment, I was able to stand up.  The view looked different.  The windshield faced the sun.  While I was working on the window crank, we had rolled past the garage and turned around to face upslope.  The car was drifting in a half-circle and slowing down.  But another car was turning toward us. 

"For Pete's sake!" yelled Earl. He turned the wheel pretty hard.  It knocked me down to the spot between the seat and the door handle again. It made me mad.  This guy kept playing with the car and there seemed to be a lot happening.  I wasn't going to let it happen without me.

"I want to steer!" I wailed.  I shot back up under his arm.


"I want to steer!"  I planted both feet and grabbed the wheel.

"We need brakes kid."

I looked at him.  His curly hair flopped over his eyebrows.  His stubbly jaw needed a shave.  His blue eyes bore into me with a look of calm but definite intent.

"We're going to have to go downhill," he said.  "You've got to get down there and hit the brakes, kid."

I didn't know what he meant but I understood he was an adult and my mother would have told me to listen.  Reluctantly, I got down to the floor.  It happened more suddenly than I wanted because I slipped.  When I righted myself, though, I hit the brakes.

"Good.  Uh, shoot."

I felt the car turn.

"Hit the brakes harder.  Both feet!"

For a second or two, I was able to do it.  But my feet slipped.  My body, fully extended, was inadequate to hold the pedal while keeping the same position. The problem was the way the car lurched and drifted. 

"I want to get up," I announced.  

"Unroll the window more."  Earl sounded very, very sure of himself.  "Then I can pull the parking brake."

"But I want to steer."  His voice sounded urgent so I unrolled and complained at the same time. 

"Sure, sure," Earl replied absent-mindedly.

At the sound of his agreement, I popped up into the driver's seat.  I put my hand on the underside of the steering wheel, ready to take over.  At the same time, Earl reached across me.

"Sorry, kid."  His arm trapped me in the seat for a moment.  He pulled on the emergency brake.  The car rocked back and forth.  

"Now, please?"

"Uh, yeah."  He turned his head away from me as he let out a soft chuckle.  "Okay, it's your turn, kid. You're steering."

Slowly, I rose to my feet.  I noticed that Earl hadn't let go of the steering wheel.

"Can I help a little, kid?" he asked me with his most charming smile.


"Just a little."  He never let go of his grip.

"Okay."  While I was on my tiptoes, I gazed  around.  I didn't see the gas station anywhere.  "Where are we?"

It looked like we were on the highway.  Sure enough, this was Greenbelt Road.  I recognized it.  For a few seconds, I stared.  The car had stopped on the shoulder, next to a twenty foot drop down a grassy embankment. 

"Don't get out," he told me.  "Wait for your mother."

His words gave me the cue to turn myself around almost all the way.  I wasn't about to take my hand from the steering wheel but I wanted to see my mother.  There she was.  It took me a moment to recognize her.  She was forty or fifty feet behind us as she marched down the shoulder of the highway.  


That's where the story ends but it isn't quite where my memories end.  I remember the attendant and my mother politely but firmly arguing about the emergency brake.  The attendant carefully mentioned that she must not have left the car in gear or engaged the brake.  My mother said, maybe the car wasn't in gear, that could happen, but she always set the brake.  Always.  As I remember it, she always did.

I kept trying to find a way to tell them about the brake but they never seemed to want to hear me.  After a few minutes, I gave up.


Here's a note about power-assisted brakes and steering: someone has since told me the car might not have had them.  I haven't been able to find information on whether the Morris Oxford (specifically the Farina model) came with manual brakes or manual steering.  In any case, if my father's car was manual for either - if power-assist was an option he'd declined to pay for - it might explain why I had so much trouble.

Being five years old would have something to do with it, too, yes.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 285: A Response to Addiction in Buddhism

Wikimedia Commons,
A Response to Addiction in Buddhism

In Thailand in the fall of 2022, the police arrested monks from a Buddhist temple. In fact, they closed the monastery. Buddhist authorities defrocked the monks, dismissed them, and sent them into a drug rehabilitation program. Every one of the monks had tested positive for methamphetamine.

Imagine their saffron robes thrown into a fire. That sort of thing has happened many times over because this incident was not an isolated case of monks behaving badly. Monks not only in Thailand but everywhere and over the span of history, have been convicted of corruption, murder, drug trafficking, and essentially all other crimes possible. Their arrests and convictions seem inevitable because there have been enough clergy and more than enough history for all those things to happen. The clergy, after all, are human. 

What strikes practicing Buddhists as the oddest aspect of drug addiction among monks, though, is the disparity between the actions of the clergy and the core tenets of Buddhism.

In a discussion, imi loa wrote: 

a core tenet of buddhism is minimizing attachment, with drug addiction being an intense form of attachment...

For me, reading with a sense of history makes these incidents more understandable. It's true that the difference between practicing non-attachment and acquiring a drug addiction is stark. However, not all official Buddhists follow what in the west would be called Buddhism or (by traditionalists) Western Buddhism. Instead, it might be more appropriate to say they practice their local traditions.

The history of Buddhism makes it different from many other major religions, as there was no event that corresponded to the Council of Nicaea that unified official Christian teachings. Instead, followers of the Buddha spread out; Buddhism received different sorts of emphasis in different countries; even today there's serious debate about whether Zen Buddhism is proper Buddhism.  As a philosophy, the teachings remain stable and coherent.  As a collection of temples, though, the organization of Buddhism allows a tremendous amount of diversity and differences in emphasis on the precepts. The differences include some temples conscripting young men from villages or temples recruiting children. It encompasses ceremonies left over from pantheistic religions of ages past. 

From NPR:

“The ultimate goal of Buddhism is for the people to get enlightened,” said Somboon Chungprampree, a social activist and executive secretary of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. “But most of the society is learning that not all those who are wearing saffron can be a holy or respectable person.”

In all religions, there is a tendency for a subset of lay practitioners to be the real followers of the faith, while the professionals and religious authorities should be regarded as suspect. This is for good reasons, as noted above and, in fact, as seen throughout the course of human history. 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 284: A Response on Hobbies in Buddhism

 “No Wood Chopping,” via Wikimedia Commons 
A Response on Hobbies in Buddhism

In a Buddhism discussion forum, one of the questioners addressed the subject of desire. Specifically, the concern expressed was about hobbies. They could be seen as distractions from mindfulness or as attachments to the substance of samsara. 

Some Buddhist monks disdain hobbies because they are vehicles for attachment. Other monks allow themselves helpful pastimes despite how this seems spiritually dangerous.

The central question about attachment seems to be: can you detach yourself immediately and easily? It is important to practice this sort of detachment. It's not only central to Buddhism but to Stoicism and other vital philosophies. Everyone needs to walk away from their hobbies from time to time. It's a practical measure. It tests your spirit and therefore gives you better awareness of yourself. If you participate with intent in the world, you need to keep your spiritual muscles in good shape. To do otherwise, especially with regard to attachments, is to fail in one of the core tenets of Buddhism. 

The questioner had another issue of concern, one of mindfulness. This isn't as serious as the problem of non-attachment, as many pastimes are practiced to promote mindfulness. The current emphasis on mindfulness is unfortunate in a practical sense anyway. Currently, more people need to practice non-attachment.

My Attachments

The problem of my hobbies is one to which I devote fairly constant attention. 

When I deliberately re-attached to aspects of life many years ago, I knew there would be consequences. I didn't foresee everything but I knew the initial danger was - and still is - my friendships. They are my greatest lure into samsara. I took the hook of them willingly. I was and still am caught by love. Nearly everyone is.

Yet all activities are part of engagement with the world, including acts of kindness. Conscious of my attachment to friends, I have been willing to let go of them when appropriate. I do my best to remain mindful of their many needs but also of the need everyone has to let go and move on.

Denis Wallez commented: If you get 'lost' in your hobby, then it's unwholesome. If you get irritated whenever someone interrupts you during your hobby, then it's unwholesome. If it can create envy, anger, habituate the mind to violence, then it's unwholesome.

It's easier with hobbies. However, in some cases hobbies are intertwined with friendships. The key for all of us is our intentions in taking up these activities. Personally, I write as a hobby to help people laugh, smile, cry, or have insights. I sing for the same reasons. These small deeds and others like them are aimed at having beneficial effects for people around me - the world, large and small.  

I've trained myself to be interrupted during these activities. Mostly, that goes well.

Attachment to everything is a constant issue. It always will be. But I don’t think the purpose of Stoicism or Buddhism is to completely remove oneself from society. That would be selfish. Monks and nuns who don't risk engagement for the sake of helping others are committing this over-selfishness. If an interpretation of Buddhism doesn’t result in kind actions, I would say something is generally wrong that interpretation.

As others pointed out, though, people can get lost in their hobbies, their books, and their games. Even momentary attachment can be a slippery slope. I'm willing to stand on the slope. In fact, I don't think there's any other way. You are on the slope now. It requires attention.

Note: the central question above was posted by Khristopher Morgan. I responded not only to the original question but to some points raised by Denis Wallez in the discussion forum. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 283: Tucker Mythology - How Not to Plan a Rafting Trip

Tucker Mythology
How Not to Plan a Rafting Trip

When I was twenty, a man of experience with adult tasks according to my peers, I invited a bunch of friends to go rafting.

I'd organized rafting trips on the Youghiogheny river five times before. We always took at least two cars, one to park at the launch site and another to park where we would leave the river. We rolled out of my driveway at about seven in the morning because it was a four hour drive from Darnestown to Ohiopyle, where we could rent the rafting equipment and launch. When our caravan drivers were fast enough, we could cut the trip to three and a half hours. Once, I'd gotten onto the river as early as 10:15.

In June 1983, though, not enough of my friends would commit to making the trip. In particular, we had no one as the second driver. We absolutely had to have two cars at a minimum. In a way, it was a relief. I knew this year was supposed to be different.

On my last trip during the summer before, the Ohiopyle Outfitter company told me that I could no longer drive up and get on the river without calling ahead. In fact, I was already supposed to have done it.

"You have to reserve a spot on the river?" I said to the young man at the register of the sales kiosk. That seemed preposterous. It was a public river, after all.

"It's a state park service rule."

"The river is run by the park service?" I put my left hand on my head as I tried to understand.

"It's always been in their control, man." The young man shifted his feet. He nodded, which made his blonde, curly hair bounce. His body was the thin but strong type. He pointed to one of the river maps. Sure enough, at the top it said Ohiopyle State Park. I'd been looking at it for years without really reading it. "I'm gonna let you go on the river this time. But you gotta know. The river banks are part of the park. Ten years ago, the park service started charging everyone. Before that, we all just went."

"Yeah, I paid their fee before." I'd hardly noticed it. When he reminded me, though, the park population controls made some sense. There had always been a charge for entering the river at Ohiopyle. I had always paid it separately from the rafting equipment rentals. And in a literal sense, there had to be a limit to the number of people who could use the park at the same time. I would have liked to double the traffic for my own selfish reasons but the park service disagreed.

"Well, now they say you have to make a reservation. We've been putting too many people on the river. They're cutting us back."

"Shit. What if you reserve your time and it turns out to be during a thunderstorm?"

"Yeah." He raised an eyebrow as if he hadn't thought of that situation. "It's going to be a problem."

That's where I'd left it the summer before. This time, even though I couldn't get enough people to go with me, I gave Ohiopyle a call to see if I could make a reservation and cancel. That would let me hop on at the last minute if things changed.

"You can't," said the woman at the other end of the line, a park employee.

"You mean I can't get my money back? I have to pay up front?"

"No," she explained. "You can't make a reservation. The river is full up."

"How about the next Saturday?"

"Saturdays are the worst," she said. "You can't get on the river on a Saturday until ... hmm, the middle of August."

"But it's barely June!"

"Like I said, going on a Saturday is the worst."

"At least all my friends are cancelling."

"Do you want to make a reservation for August?"

"Yeah." It wouldn't do me any good. "I guess?"

Despite my misgivings, I let her sign me up for eight paddlers. I had to pay per individual but I knew I wouldn't have to follow through. The park service only charged for getting onto the river, so I wasn't committing any money, just saving a few spots I wouldn't use. Once we reached the second half of August, it would be too difficult to get friends to come along. Plus the river would be too low. It always was at that time of year. And we would come up against late summer thunderstorms.
A couple weeks went by without me doing any more trip planning. I was taking it easy, working day to day, and hanging out with an old girlfriend. Sometimes, a group of us would hit an arcade. Adam or Tucker or someone else in our circle of friends would want to play minigolf, see a movie, or hang out in a bar.

"Hey, Eric," Tucker said when he got me on the phone after work. "Are we still going rafting?"

"Can't see how. We never got enough people."

"Well, Liz wants to go rafting."

"She does?"

"You've got to put that trip together on the weekend after next." 

"Hah." I knew there was no chance.

"That's the date you told me, man."

I had said it. Now, with Adam, Tucker, and a couple more friends saying yes a bit too late, we had nearly enough to go. But we had no reservation with the park service.

Later that evening as I avoided thinking about apologizing to everyone, I got another call. An old lifeguarding friend, Beth, launched into a description of her rafting trip needs and wants, including how she wanted to bring her sister Jennifer on the trip.

"You're saying yes to the rafting trip," I said, sitting up. With a thrill of anxiety, I realized I had never phoned Beth to cancel. A few others, yes, but not her.

"So yeah," she continued. "My sister and my boyfriend, too."

"We don't have a second car," I announced with a feeling of relief. That meant we couldn't do it and I could close this all down with a bare minimum of grace. At this point, it was looking like Chevy-Chase-falling-down-the-stairs grace but okay, I'd still be fine.

"Oh, I'll drive," Beth said.

"Oh." Shit.

"You'll have to take another passenger," I told her. "Maybe two."

"I thought we were only bringing eight."

"Jeez." I did the math. "Now it's ten."

"Eh." She gave me a cheery laugh. "We'll squeeze in. We're friendly. Now, do I have to tell you not to make passes at my sister?"

"No, ma'am." I was thrown by the change of subject.

"And don't drive as fast as last time."

"All right, sure."

She told me the rest of her expectations and conditions. Then she hung up. As I stood by the phone, I realized that with friends like Adam, my brother Dylan, and our new additions to the guest list, we had a trip. What's more, we had a date and a promise. What we didn't have was a corresponding set of reservations on the river according to the state park.

There was no way to get that. I doodled notes to myself. I'd created a rafting trip that shouldn't exist. After a while, I picked up the phone again. I called to make equipment reservations. Those wouldn't get us on the river but we needed them if we got on. They committed our money, for sure.

How many reservations did visitors cancel each day? Could I count on the park service or someone else letting us onto the river without designated spots? They sounded a lot tougher on the phone than they'd been the year before.

I looked at my guest list some more. I wasn't going to tell everyone this was impossible. Instead, I started to form a plan.

It was a simple plan.
The park logs would show I'd made a trip and canceled. The staff would guess there had been some mistake. We would have driven a couple hundred miles. They would feel obligated to let us on the river, wouldn't they? Someone else who had made plans for that day would have canceled to leave an open spot. Or not. We had to lay some guilt on the staff. I couldn't do it myself because I was the guilty one and I knew it. I'd never manage it. Someone else had to talk them into letting us launch.

"We're ready," Tucker announced on the morning of the trip day.

"Why don't you take shotgun?" I said. That was part of the plan.

I put my best friend up front with me for a reason. Over the course of a few hours with a cup of coffee usually in hand, we talked about everything under the sun, as usual, and I made sure we agreed on the plan once we got to Ohiopyle.

At a pit stop for gas, I made sure Beth understood, too.

"At this rate, we'll get there just in time," I said. Beth and her boyfriend had strolled over while they made her sister pump their gas. "Everyone needs to get everything out of the cars pretty fast. Then I need Beth to follow me. I've got the bigger car. I'll drive it down to the take-out point. That means we'll cram in like crazy for the drive back. But it's only two miles."

"Or we can make a couple trips."

"Or that," I agreed, knowing it never happened that way.

"Meanwhile ..." I gestured to Tucker.

"While you do that," Tucker said, "I grab all the tickets and equipment rentals."

"So we have to give Tucker the cash." I pointed everyone in Tucker's direction. He held out open hands. I'd already had my money out and ready for him, so I put it in his palm to show everyone a good example. 

"Wait," Beth laughed. She turned on Tucker. "We're going to give you our money? Really?"

"Well, I won't lose it between here and the park office." He sounded slightly aggrieved.


This was an important part of the plan. Tucker had agreed to take his girlfriend, Liz, with him to the state park desk. I knew she was the right person to make the guilt trip work on the staff there. Meanwhile, I thought Beth was too sharp and, mostly, too honest. If she were there, she'd rightly blame me. I needed to have her trail me to the pick-up site. That put the right personalities in the right places. 

The only last-second change came when Beth asked her boyfriend to ride along with her. I hadn't figured him for helping with the park staff anyway, so his absence would have no effect. 

As I left, the remaining people in our party were handing over their money to Tucker and Liz. We were all young and poor and some of our rafters felt reluctant to part with their twenty bucks. It took a while. 

"Make sure he takes care of the details," I told Liz as I got into my car.

"Oh, I will," she replied.

With a suppressed flash of guilt, I moved the stickshift into gear. I hadn't known Liz for long. Nevertheless, I'd seen her cry half a dozen times. She was someone who got teary-eyed whenever she saw a sad puppy. Now I was using that aspect of her personality. Her emotional, empathetic traits were going to combine with Tucker's rational, talkative, persuasive qualities to get us onto the river. 

The drive to the take-out point was a long one flanked by young birch trees and raggedy-looking spruce. Although it was only a few miles, the speed limit was fifteen and, unlike on most roads, the limit was sort of an ideal that you couldn't achieve for long without spinning from the gravel into a tree. At times when I thought of gunning it on a straightaway I glanced back to Beth and her boyfriend. Leaving them behind was something I couldn't do unless I wanted to walk back. 

On the return drive, Beth and her boyfriend talked about rafting, camping, hot tubs, and more. Their devotion to the topics drove away my worries. I started looking forward to hot-tubbing. When we reappeared in the main parking lot, I was as surprised as anyone about how quickly Tucker and the others approached.

"Dude, they canceled your reservation." Tucker said. He fumbled through a small stack of papers. He found what he was looking for. He handed me a set of tickets. "It was really a pain in the ass."

"But we're getting on the river, right?" One of my tickets said Ohiopyle State Park. We were in.

"Yeah. They couldn't find you in their database at all. Well, not at first. Then they did, sort of. But it was all messed up. They said we couldn't go. We drove four hours and everything."

"You told them that?"

"When I did, geez, Liz broke down and cried." He glanced to his girlfriend, who was describing her ordeal to Beth. "I mean, she was really bawling. So they let us on."

"Wow." I shrugged, feeling sort of guilty, sort of impressed.

"I kind of think they did it just to get her out of the office."

"Well done," I replied. Tucker gave me side-eye for a second. I hadn't sounded very surprised. 


There will never be enough time to talk about all the sketchy things I did but a lot of them were like this one. Even as a teen, I could see the patterns in people's lives and often how things converged. Little flashes of insight would come in and I'd see the moving forms, sometimes near, sometimes distant, as if they were parts in a changing puzzle, a work of art morphing into another work of art. Life was and is a landscape of relative motion, changes cascading into other changes. In those patterns as a teen, I saw room for my plans. I took advantage of the general directions of things. 

Sometimes I could walk over to where good stuff was going to happen and let it happen to me. Sometimes I could grab a friend by the elbow and march us away from where the police would be in a moment. Sometimes I moved a girlfriend aside from a fight before it started. Several times I stepped into a fight so I would get hit on the first swing and have an excuse to take a few swings for my side. 

Everybody does this sort of thing to some extent, I know. When these sorts of insights were new to me, starting sometime just after puberty, I was maybe a little too ruthless about them. I couldn't settle down to a "best ends for everyone" rule until I'd messed about for a few years trying to figure out what the best ends really meant. There's a little of that still going on, of course. Always will be.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling: Barcelona, 2022

Barcelona, 2022

Barcelona 1, On Bikes  - You may get closer to pedestrians and other vehicles than you like. Still recommended.

Barcelona 2, On Segways, On Food, and On Our Own  - Segways are fantastic. So is Disfrutar. 

Barcelona 3, On Gaudi and Can Sole  - Fun problems. The walking tour needs adjustment. The eating at Can Sole is great but unlike other places you'll need your Spanish ready.

Barcelona 4, On a Mountain  - You should take the hike. You should resist the cheese.

Barcelona X, On Supermercats in Barcelona  - Okay, not a brilliant observation.

Barcelona 5, On Archaeology, On Travel  - An unexpected find, wonderful if you like getting down into history at a personal level.

Barcelona Z, On Systems Analysis and People  - Systems can be complicated and wonderful. People are better. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 24: On Systems Analysis and People

You Have Been Pulled Aside

Here's the aside: I studied systems analysis in grad school and I loved it. It brings powerful set of tools to teamwork jobs. Making and fixing systems can do great things. But compared to the value of good people, it's still nothing. 

People make systems work. My run through Heathrow airport in Great Britain was an example. At the airport, it was the staff, not the system designed by high level functionaries and consultants, who handed us off from team to team, from place to place. Those staff realized from the start that my group had forty minutes to catch our connecting flight and we weren't going to make it.

That is, we couldn't make it unless the staff adjusted the system to ensure we got on. 

“These four,” said a medium-height black woman in a smart blue Heathrow uniform as we exited the plane. 

She used the walkie-talkie in her hand to point from us to the next person with an airport uniform. I concentrated on keeping up with the group. Meanwhile, without me thinking about much more than following directions, the next staff member moved us to the front of a line. I obeyed.

The next woman sent us through an exit queue. We dashed from there to what seemed to be our gate. We waited in line there. Someone in an airport uniform marched up. He seemed to recognize us. He pulled aside a guard rope.

"This way," he said as he moved us off to one side. 

We passed through a documents check, walked more, and passed into a security queue. Jenn and Diane, since they were alert, adapted themselves to the new security procedure.

"You can't have liquids in that bag. They have to be in this," said one of the inspectors.

Jenn and Diane moved things in and out of bags in the way prescribed by our host country. The bags passed the checks. The security crew pulled Norm and I aside for extra checking. Their equipment broke down on me. The staff seemed to expect it end switched to hand scanning. They were fast. We re-gathered ourselves and headed for customs.

At customs, we waited in another queue. A staff member walked up. He identified us and created a new customs queue for us. We moved almost to the front of that line. After getting our passports stamped, we ran to another line. 

This time, I noticed an airport staff member walking part of the way with us. That person disappeared. Another greeted us at the next checkpoint, the British Airways flight desk. The flight had closed. The staff rushed us through regardless so we could catch up to the back of the line of boarding passengers.

"You've still got time," the woman at the desk said.

That is precisely when the system pulled me aside specifically, of course. It had flagged my name. Even then, the staff kept an eye on the flight departure time. They had to check my papers because the system mandated it. They went through their standard procedures. But they had no intention of making me miss the flight.

"Don't worry," one man said as he looked through my documentation. "We'll get you through this."

All along the steps of a terrible system, the Heathrow staff took extra care to make their system work. They really did speed us through. That could lead someone at the top of their airport infrastructure to think that it was reasonably well designed process instead of incompetent one. But the good airport staff make the originally-bad system work just well enough.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 23: Barcelona 5, On Archaeology, On Travel

Barcelona, 2022

The Archaeology Tour at Born CCM

On our first tour in Barcelona, we came across an outdoor mall excavated to reveal seventeenth century ruins beneath. In last tour in the city, we scheduled a walk through those ruins.

Right away, I could see why the Europeans of the time considered Americans to be unsophisticated bumpkins. These were ordinary city houses we were strolling through. They'd been carelessly, almost randomly buried and excavated. But they had plumbing, bridges, wood-fired stoves, stables, workbenches, and more all built in, all in stone. In contrast, Americans were just discovering log cabins and mostly still used dried mud as mortar.

During the war of Spanish succession, the families of Barcelona were tied by trade to the English and Dutch. Nevertheless, they supported the more local candidate, Philip of Anjou. The forces of Archduke Charles, backed by the English and Dutch, sailed into the harbor and bombed Barcelona into submission. The locals switched their support to Charles, as required.

For eight years, Barcelona survived in that arrangement as the most significant city in semi-independent Catalonia. The French-Spanish forces led by Philip weren't strong enough to recapture it. In the end, though, Philip's army and navy surrounded the city and bombed it until it surrendered. The defeat was the end of Catalonian independence.

When Barcelona lost for good, about a fifth of the city was flattened. It didn't happen in the fighting but as part of the conditions of peace. Philip wanted to make sure Barcelona couldn't rebel again. He had a fort built over the demolished neighborhoods. 

A hundred fifty years later, locals knocked down the fort and replaced it with a park. A century later, they paved over the park to create an open-air market. Finally, the market went out of business. The city decided to build a library on the same spot. A library building is heavy. It needs supports in the ground underneath. So the construction crew started digging. They found a section of the old city that was once assumed to be destroyed. However, the old city ground had been so low and so near Philip's proposed fort that the engineers building the fort had filled in the area with dirt. 

That's how the foundations of the old Barcelona neighborhood escaped. Everywhere else in the demolished fifth of the city, each house owner had been required to take apart their house stone by stone and transport it to the site of the fort to be used in its construction. Here in the low-lying area, the bottom floors had been allowed to remain.
Although the ruins come from the 17th century, many of the underlying stones date back to the 13th century. That's the way it is with old structures. We walked among the houses, along the ancient streets, and put our hands on the masonry. In the narrow avenues lay ballast rocks, former window-frame stones, and even mill stones. Every type of medieval stone that could get thoroughly used and discarded became part of the pavement.

That afternoon, we took our last dinner in Barcelona. By Spanish standards, we were early enough for a late lunch. But we had a plane to catch the next day and the departure time determined our schedule. For our meal, we had mostly vermut and sangria. Well, we also stopped at two different places for tapas. We had lots of calamari, shrimp, tripe, beef, and vegetables. 

Delay in Barcelona

We rose the next morning at four and made it to the airport with plenty of time before our flight. Once we boarded, however, the pilot announced a water valve wasn't working.

Planes aren't allowed to fly without water. So we had to wait until the valve got fixed. But it didn't get fixed. We waited some more until British Airways bought the legal amount of containerized water necessary for the trip to London. The delay meant we would have only forty minutes to get to our connecting flight.

Delay in London

We had plenty of time between flights. It wasn't enough. 

The staff in Heathrow noticed we weren't going to make it. They pushed us through the process of re-demonstrating our security and checking bags through customs. The systems still weren't fast enough. Jenn received a notice on her phone that our flight had closed. 

Heathrow staff kept pushing us through. We got to the flight counter at our gate and they continued to expedite us. The closed flight was still boarding. We could see the line. We hopped on at the end.

Then the airport staff pulled me out of line. My ticket had been flagged.

While I watched everyone else board, I passed through a physical inspection. This used to happen to me a lot because my name is the same as someone who was at the table during the peace talks between the British government and the IRA. It does sort of make sense that my name would get flagged in Britain. The Heathrow staff seemed to understand, too. They watched my wife ease herself out of the boarding line to wait for me. They assured me I was going to make it. 

They wanted to look at me extra and they did but I have to say, they were efficient. They delayed me until I was the last person on board but they got me in my seat. 

Rainbow Connection 

As our flight ascended, I glanced down at the clouds between the plane and the ground. There, I noticed the shadow of the plane surrounded by the perfect circle of a rainbow. The artistic arrangement was all moving together at hundreds of miles an hour, of course, and in unison. I'd never seen anything quite like it. As a spectacle, the shadow in the center of the rainbow was sensible. I'm sure others have witnessed the same phenomenon. The luck of witnessing the natural perfection made me grateful anyway. I watched the rainbow circle wink out as we passed over blanks in the cloud cover, then reappear with the clouds. 

For a minute, the phenomenon kept reappearing every time there were wisps of clouds below us to provide a canvas for the plane shadow and its surrounding rainbow circle.

"Oh," I said, as I leaned back down. "I should have taken a picture."

"What?" Diane asked. 

"Nothing." I'd been so entranced, I hadn't mentioned it. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 22: On Supermercats in Barcelona

Barcelona 2022

For No Good Reason

While in the city, we kept seeing these places:

They are convenience stores advertised, perhaps a little oddly to Americans, as if they are related to the supermarkets devised in the United States to offer something of everything and perhaps a bit too much of most things. At low costs and low values. But these places are just using the Spanish generic term for convenience store as far as I could tell.

I didn't think of supermarkets or package stores whenever I saw one, really. Although I mostly shut up, I kept making this joke in my head: 

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking very likely only makes sense to people who speak some English, speak some Spanish, watch nature shows, read biology texts, read comic books, and drink a lot of sangria. 

So it seems like a very small crossover audience. I made this little illustration for you anyway.