BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Living Your Yoga by Judith Hanson Lasater

Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday LifeLiving Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life by Judith Hanson Lasater

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

If you’re the average joe, you probably think of yoga as a series of stretchy postures–many or most of which seem physically impossible for a run-of-the-mill human. If you’re a little more sophisticated on the subject–perhaps you’ve even done a few yoga classes–you realize that breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) are also an essential part of the practice. However, if you’re hardcore, you realize that there is an entire moral, ethical, spiritual, and philosophical approach to life embodied in yoga.

Lasater’s book is aimed at the latter group or people who plan to one day be in that group. You will not find out how to do a single posture (asana), and you won’t learn how to do breathing exercises or meditation. So, the book might sound like one of those navel-gazing, pie-in-the-sky, philosophical tomes. But it’s not. On the contrary, the chapters are short and readable, and each one ends with exercises to put that chapter’s lesson into practice. Now, it probably sounds more like a how-to workbook. It is, but the exercises can only be carried out in everyday life.

Admittedly, I don’t know that much about yoga, but I suspect such a book is much-needed. I do know that in the martial arts there is also a rich and well-defined moral, philosophical, and–for lack of a better term–spiritual component, and that it gets lost much of the time by a large percentage of students as soon as they step out the door of the dōjō. I suspect this is true of yoga practitioners as well. I imagine that as yoga has spread globally many of the less visible and tangible aspects of the system get left behind. I know this happens in the realm of martial arts–sometimes these elements even get lost in the homeland. It’s a natural side-effect of busy lives; people take on what they can grasp and don’t go looking for the rest.

Living Your Yoga is divided into three parts of seven chapters each (21 chapters in total.) The social circle widens as one goes through the parts. Part I deals with the yoga practitioner as an individual. Part II considers the practitioner’s relationships with others in their immediate domain–family, friends, co-workers, etc. The final part looks at the practitioner in the global context.

Each chapter focuses on a particular virtue or vice and how to cultivate it or mitigate against it, respectively. All of the chapters begin with a quote, most from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita, then there is the body of the chapter, followed by a practice on that particular theme, supplementary practices, and a few mantras.

The chapters in the first part are: spiritual seeking, discipline, letting go, self-judgment, faith, perspective, and courage. The second part deals with compassion, control, fear, patience, attachment / aversion, suffering, and impermanence. And the final part considers greed, service, connection, truth, success, nonviolence, and love.

While I suggested this book is for the hardcore yogi/yogini, it has value for a more general readership than that. It’s really for anybody interested in working on self-improvement on a daily basis, as opposed to those who restrict their development pursuits to inside the yoga studio (or dōjō or ashram.) The advice is sound, regardless of whether one ever practices an asana or not.

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