DIY: Pimp My Shelf

There is still room for improvement in our apartment. Since before I moved in, there was this living room shelf with two glass door cabinets and space for a TV. Meanwhile, we threw away the TV and I had built a shelf for books and board games within that space. Yet, I wasn’t happy with the optical design of the top part. That beautiful dragon panel looked lost, the middle board always looked messy, and it felt like something is missing (I like shelfs and cabinets that almost reach the ceiling).


See the background, not just the pretty girl!

Moreover, there are further considerations that play a role for my idea of changing the shelf into something more useful and pretty:

  • Soon, we will be a family of four, and what is now our “study room” will then be the baby room. I need to find another place where I can work (on my computer) while that room is occupied. We need to make use of the little space we have as efficiently as possible!
  • The design should also be interesting, funny and appealing for Kids.
  • You (Tsolmo) like fancy lighting a lot. There should be some lamps somewhere in the shelf.
  • The right cabinet hosts my wife’s Buddhist shrine for her daily chanting and bowing rituals. This won’t be changed.
  • The window of the door in the middle bottom also broke and had to be replaced. Since children like to draw everywhere in the apartment (except on paper while sitting at a table), I decided to turn it into a drawing board.

That last point was the easiest: I cut a thin wood board and attached it in the door frame. Paper sheets (A3 format) can be taped onto it. Your scribbles fill a sheet within a week, then it is replaced by a new blank sheet.

Since the two cabinets look, somehow, like towers, I thought that “roofs” might look good. The left cabinet got a simple gabled roof. For the right one, with the shrine underneath, I imagined a temple-like roof that can display the dragon board. I designed a ridge with two dragon heads and what I thought of as “asian style decoration”. The roof in the typical Asian temple roof shape rests on four wooden corner pillars. The back and one side is covered with red paper. Inside the roof, almost invisible from the outside, is a socket for a light bulb. With a red light bulb, the lighting looks very “temple-ish”, I think.


The middle part is covered with a flatter but wider gabled roof. This one, too, has a light bulb socket in it. With a yellow light bulb, the decorative items on this shelf board are nicely illuminated. A small compartment on the right side with a door can be used for storing some “ugly” things that I don’t want to “stand around” openly. The coloured LED strip that I attached along the concrete beam behind a shielding board on the ceiling provides additional pretty light effects.

2017-12-02 18.20.31

For the space in the center of the shelf, I had the idea to construct a desk. I modified the earlier version of a book shelf so that I can place a PC screen and a small hifi system in it. At the right height, I attached a table leaf with hinges so that it can be folded upwards. The two legs of the table are also attached with hinges so that they can be folded inwards with the whole table then being completely flat (see the photos if my description is confusing). Now I can set up my laptop (connect to the additional screen, the hifi device and the network router (faster than wifi)) within a minute, and remove it easily whenever the kids need the space for playing. The material for this desk (table leaf, legs) and new parts of the shelf (boards, wood bars) are from a bed that a neighbour wanted to throw away (expenses: 0NT$). The whole thing cost me 400NT$ (~11€) for hinges, screws and paint.



Happy 2nd Birthday

Dear Tsolmo!

Today is your 2nd birthday! For two years you breathe this planet’s air now, and you never stopped giving us maximum amounts of joy and amazement, triggering our unconditional love and endless happiness! Our angel! We celebrate you every day, but today is an opportunity to share the joy with everyone who wants to join in! Happy birthday, Tsolmo!


It is also an opportunity to reflect on the past two years. Three things amaze me the most: your eating habits, your sleeping habits, and your health. They are so remarkable because I expected these to be the most difficult aspects of fatherhood, but they go astonishingly well!

I am in charge of your food, at least your regular meals. You eat everything I prepare for you! All the vegetables, fish and seafood, beans and grains, all the spices (Italian herbs, curry), Goji berries, etc. You love to eat fruits (especially bananas, guava, tangerines, apples, papaya, cherries, and even buddha heads!), and often prefer them over cookies or other snacks. We almost never have to throw away half-eaten meals, and you often don’t need any snacks between meals (except fruits). We seldom have “drama” at the dining table, and if so then because you want to play with toys or read books while eating which we sometimes don’t allow (for practical reasons). I am sure you get all the important nutrition in sufficient amounts so that we don’t need to give you any food additives. At the same time, you don’t eat too much fat or carbohydrates (sugar, starch, flour). You are physically very well developed and strong, also very active. Currently, your 92cm height and 13.4kg weight are at the upper range of 2-year-olds worldwide (according to a WHO table).

Besides the unproblematic eating behaviour, you also sleep extraordinarily well! We often put you to bed at 8pm or a bit later. Usually, you sleep latest at 9pm. You seldom wake up during the night. I mean, REALLY SELDOM! I can count the events with two hands, and all those happened during an illness. We can always sleep until 7am, at least, often even longer. Additionally, you have a nap of 90-120 minutes after lunch. I believe, this good sleep has several positive consequences, like a very stable temper, high mobility, activity and energy during the awake time, good attention and curiosity, good mood and playfulness!

Both, eating and sleeping, definitely have a positive impact on the third astonishing fact about your life so far: You have never been really sick. A few (maybe 5?) light illnesses (colds) with elevated temperature (which hardly count as ‘fever’) and runny nose. Teething hasn’t been any problem, you never (NEVER!) had any digestion problem like stomach ache (as far as we can tell) or diarrhea, you never vomited, you didn’t even have rashes on your butt! The worst problem you have to deal with is mosquito bites that we can’t prevent 100%.

Probably, all three aspects are connected and related. Good sleep means good activity. Good activity means good appetite. Good appetite means enough nutrition. Everything together means good health. Good health (physical and mental) means good sleep. And so on. I hope we (your parents) and you in cooperation can keep this cycle running for as long as possible!


My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!


When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!


Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

My Heroes – Ancient Philosophy: Nagarjuna

I guess it has become very obvious in all my previous letters that I am much closer to ancient Asian philosophies than to European philosophical traditions. I find the classical Indian and Chinese exegeses on holistic and non-separative ontology, constructivist and naturalistic epistemology, and especially the pragmatic and psychologistic (in contrast to many Western meta-ethicists, for me that is something positive) ethics conceptualisations  much more plausible and convincing than the premature and naïve Western realism, dualism, substance metaphysics and transcendentalism. The most famous figures in ancient Asian philosophy are certainly Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Laozi (even though it is not certain that this was one real person) and Kongzi (Confucius). They are regarded as the founders of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively. However, in each schools of thought, there are other thinkers that achieved much greater insights than their predecessors: Zhuangzi put the Daoist philosophy on more solid grounds, Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi sophisticated Kongzi’s ideas substantially, and Nagarjuna is without any doubt the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher before it became a modern academic discipline! His enormous merits in advancing the insights on Sunyata (emptiness), Satyadvaya (Two Truths), Madhyamāpratipad (the Middle Way) and Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) make him my personal hero in the category Ancient Philosophy!


Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Chinese: 龍樹) lived in South India around 150-250CE (widely shared scholarly view). According to the legend, he received the Prajñāpāramitā sutras from mystical creatures called “Naga” (a mix of snake and dragon) who kept in on behalf of the historical Buddha at the bottom of a lake. His name means “white snake”, and he is often depicted with snakes (an Indian symbol for wisdom) around his head. The historical record of his works is incomplete and still vividly debated among contemporary scholars. Some of the text attributed to him might be from other philosophers. It is widely acknowledged that his major contribution is the Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, a treatise of 27 chapters on The Middle Way.

After the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his followers split, basically, into two groups: The worshippers who focused on the practices taught by Buddha, and the scholars who wanted the Dharma (transferred in the sutras of the Pali canon) to be understood as philosophical wisdom. The former can be regarded as the religious interpretation of Buddhism, the latter as the philosophical school. For around 400 years, it seemed that the worshippers were the predominant group. The theoretical schools divided further and further and disputed with one another about who represents the true Dharma and who understands Buddha’s teachings in the best and most appropriate way. By the time of Nagarjuna, the original philosophy conveyed in Buddha’s doctrines were at the risk of being lost. Nagarjuna’s analysis of the concepts mentioned above formed a new firm connection between our philosophical understanding with Buddha’s original accounts. He is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.


As pointed out earlier, I regard the 12 links of interdependent co-arising as the core of Buddhist teachings, even more fundamental than the Four Noble Truths or the Eight-fold Path (which are rather easy-to-understand doctrines of folk Buddhism, in my humble opinion). Once familiar with this model, it is easy to understand the difficult notions of sunyata (emptiness) and the practical implications of a Middle Way philosophy (which is the center of Nagarjuna’s teachings). Thanks to Nagarjuna we have today a better and philosophically more grounded idea of these important elements of Buddhist worldview. I can see how it applies to many daily life situations and how I can make use of it to increase my life quality. For a philosophical Buddhist (but probably also for religious ones), Nagarjuna’s writings are essential reads, but there is also a lot of good and insightful secondary literature about him and his teachings (see a list in this article by Jan Westerhoff in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you want to gain deeper insights into Buddhist thinking, there is no way around Nagarjuna, but it is definitely a way that is worth the time and effort!

My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.


However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

My Heroes – Special: Ren Li

These days I write about “my heroes”. Some of them are already (or long time) dead, some I never met in person. But there is one personal hero that I value more than anyone else: my extraordinarily beloved friend Ren Li.


In 2010, I visited China for the first time. One of my former housemates in Germany, a Chinese engineering student, welcomed me in Hangzhou. Since she was pregnant at that time and had no physical power to guide me on long tours through the city, she asked her old high school friend to show me around. He brought his girlfriend (which is Ren Li). We met at my friend’s house. The moment she entered the house, with a sunny smile on her face, I fell in love. We spent two wonderful days together, enjoying the beautiful scenery around the West Lake of Hangzhou, and at several other sites around the city. Her boyfriend drove us around in his car, but often just dropped us off, watching movies or playing video games in the car while we strolled around. Lucky me! Thanks to Li’s warm and gentle character I felt close to her immediately. We talked about music, life, future visions, and it felt like we are soulmates! It happened that I had a thought, and in the next moment Li said exactly that! Besides this mental connection, there was also an electrifying physical attraction between us, not primitively sexual, but rather out of a desire for nearness that came from deep within the soul. For some time, we walked hand in hand. In a famous pagoda, we hugged tightly for a moment, a magic that I will never ever forget.

After that, we kept in touch, often videochatted, wrote emails and letters, and visited each other several times. She went to Japan to get a master and PhD degree in architecture from Tokyo University. In 2013 I met her there. During that visit she made it very clear to me (indirectly, though) that I would never have a chance to be her boyfriend (or even more). That was the time that I gave up on my dream (but it WAS my dream, that is not a secret). We met again in Taiwan twice, and certainly will meet more often in the future. I made her your (Tsolmo’s) godmother, because for some time I hoped that she would be the mother of my children… I need to make clear, however, that I was (and am) not just interested in her as a girlfriend. I always felt like my love for her is very special in a sense that I never felt like that for anybody else. I can love my girlfriend or wife, and at the same time love Ren Li with all my heart, because it is different from sexual or partner love. I don’t love her in a way that I wish she was mine, but in a way that all what matters is that she is happy and joyful in all her life. I would go so far to say that only because of Li I even know what true love really is.

Li is a very special girl in many respects. She is one of the most creative people I ever met, with an extraordinary sense for aesthetics, beauty and composition. I know her as an introverted person with a huge inner world (which I like much more than outgoing extroverted but superficial people). To use a phrase from a Ben Harper song, she is “tattooed on the inside”, as I like to say. In a letter she once wrote to me, I was impressed by this sentence: “酒后面大多是可以说的故事. 在茶后面可以不言语.” (“When people drink alcohol, many stories are told. When people drink tea, stories are moved inside.”). We are both tea drinkers, and I think that connects us. Unfortunately, Chinese cultural traditions and the Japanese lifestyle (especially for a PhD student) confronted her with the limits of physical and mental resilience. I have strong confidence, however, in her ability to cope with all the difficulties in life. Her beautiful mind will guide her way! She deserves a good life more than anybody else!

Happy birthday, Li! We love you!