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Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle
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Five Times Twelve — Reflections on My 60th Birthday

Monday, August 24th, 2015 - by Charlie Martin


In the West, we tend to give birthdays divisible by 10 – 40, 50, 60 – extra significance. The East, at least anywhere that’s been influenced by China in the last 2000 years, tends to pay attention to the twelve years of the Shengxiao 十二生肖, the “Chinese Zodiac” of Rat, Ox, Tiger, and so on; then they add the five Elements of Gold, Wood, Fire, Water, and Earth. This year is the Year of the Wood Goat 木羊年; the last year of the Wood Goat was 1955. The year I was born. Yes, on 24 August 2015, I will officially be 60 years old.

I can’t help but think about that – especially when the managing editor says, “What do you think about that?”

I’ll say, first of all, that having a 60th birthday is much better than not having one – there are a lot of people I knew in years past who didn’t.

That’s not to say that I don’t have some qualms about it. The last month or so, it’s struck me especially as I watch Anthony Bourdain’s shows. He goes to Tunis – yeah, always wanted to go to Tunis. He visits Shanghai – I’ve wanted to visit China as long as I can remember. Tokyo, and I remember I not only want to visit Japan again, but that I’ve never visited Shingu, the town in which my Dad lived. And that reminds me that Dad died when he was 69.

That subtraction doesn’t please me a bit. But that’s also all duhkha, “suffering” that arises from thinking I actually have much of anything to do with it – I could live to 100 or I could be hit by a meteorite before this is published. When I remind myself of the Four Noble Truths I feel better about it.

In the meantime, an awful lot has happened in those 60 years. When I was born, “satellite” was just used in astronomy. You could directly dial a local call, most places, but you had to talk to an operator to make a long distance call. (I want to poll a class of college freshmen and see how many of them know what a “long distance call” even is.) Lots of people, in the San Luis valley at least, didn’t have indoor plumbing yet. Regular color TV was years away.

But that’s enough. I’ve beaten this to death in two articles in PJM in the past. Things are better now.

Things are better now.

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Star Spangled Banner Fantasy

Friday, July 4th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

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The Meaning of Eich

Monday, April 7th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


Back in 1971-72, I was Cadet Commander of a Civil Air Patrol Squadron in Pueblo, Colorado. I don’t know that I was a great cadet commander, but God knows I was trying to be. But then the squadron got a Chaplain, and the Chaplain wanted to have private talks with all the cadets. I didn’t think anything of it — I talked with Baptist preachers fairly regularly, my family was largely Baptist even though I’d been a Buddhist for 6 or 7 years.

So I had my little chat, told the guy I was a Buddhist and why I had stopped being a Christian, and that was the end of it.

Literally. I arrived at the Squadron for our next meeting and found, stapled to the board, an order from the Squadron Commander saying that I had been removed as Cadet Commander, and someone else was appointed in my place. The kid who was appointed was a Good Christian.

When I went to college, as an undergraduate at University of Colorado, there was a lot of talk about Dalton Trumbo, a Coloradan who’d been a student at CU and then became famous as a screenwriter, then as a blacklisted screenwriter, and then was rehabilitated. Trumbo, of course, was one of the famous Hollywood Ten. Eventually, the fountain outside the CU Student Center was renamed the Dalton Trumbo Fountain in his honor.

Of course, we all know that last week Brendan Eich, the inventor of Javascript and one of the founders of the Mozilla project that eventually inherited and extended the old Netscape browser, was forced to resign from Mozilla for having donated $1000 to an anti-Proposition 8 campaign in California.

Last year, I was identified by Gild.com as one of the top developers in the country, with a Gild score of 99.7 out of 100. Gild flew me to Las Vegas last October to meet about 50 senior recruiters, including the senior recruiter from Mozilla, who gave me an extended sales pitch on the wonders of working for Mozilla. It sounded very interesting; I applied, exchanged a couple of emails, and never heard from them again. Not even an email reply.

Of course, I’m pretty much out of the closet about being “conservative” in the peculiar American meaning of the word, where a radical egalitarian, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-free speech, pro-porn, mind your own damn business, yes we need to pay attention to what happens in the Middle East and Ukraine because we’d rather fight there than here anti-fascist Buddhist is “conservative” while an aristocratic elite dedicated to centralized control by a chosen few is “liberal.”

Now, I’ve got to wonder: was I dropped from consideration by Mozilla for my politics?

Here’s the point. I feel this issue particularly because I’d run into it many times before myself. I’ve seen the desire to blacklist applied to friends in the recent past — Orson Scott Card, and other SF writers. Not to mention some writers who I generally think are obnoxious and unlikeable dolts (cough Vox Day cough).

None the less, I object to anyone being blacklisted. As long as anyone is being blacklisted for holding an unpopular opinion — or in Eich’s case, a popular opinion — then none of us are free to speak.

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Adventures in Low Carb: Bullet-Resistant Coffee

Monday, April 7th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


So this is the latest goofy food fad: hot buttered toffee coffee. Basically, here’s the idea: you add unsalted butter, plus a little coconut oil, to coffee and whip it up in a blender, and drink that for breakfast.  Nothing else.  The theory is that this provides a good start for the day, leading to faster fat metabolism, increased mental alertness, weight loss, cures yaws, gives you greater strength, and conceals any foolish political contributions you may have made when young and foolish.

Or something.  It’s officially called Bulletproof Coffee, and according to the recipe you have to make it with special low-toxin coffee beans that the inventor sells for $26 a pound.

Well, maybe. Hot buttered drinks aren’t that unusual; Tibetans drink tea with butter. But the recipe sounds like a pain in the ass — coffee, boiling water, blender, and so on.  But let’s apply a little thought here.  Butter, reasonably enough, is basically 100 percent butterfat, and about 100 kcals a tablespoon. What you’re doing when you run it through a blender with liquid is returning the butterfat to an emulsion — you’re “re-creaming” it. Heavy cream, like whipping cream, is about half butterfat by volume (and 50 kcal per tablespoon).  So it stands to reason that adding heavy cream to coffee would be effectively the same.

So I tried it.  The recipe suggests between 2 and 6 Tsp of butter, so that’s 4 to 12 Tsp of cream — so make it 1/4 to 3/4 cup of cream.  For the last couple of days, I’ve started the day by adding about a quarter cup of cream to a big cup of coffee, adding some Stevia because I’m not thrilled by coffee with cream and no sugar — I usually prefer black — and drinking that first thing.

Okay, I’ve got to say, it’s pretty satisfying; I don’t have any particular hunger until noonish. And from the pure caloric standpoint, it’s got no carbs at all, and only about 200 kcal. As to any other effects, well, it’s only been two days.

When I lived in Europe, I used to go to Paris every so often, and stayed in a little hotel in the 15th arrondissement. Regular French businessman’s hotel, nothing special.  As with most European hotels they served “breakfast”; as with most French hotels, that consisted of a half a baguette, cafe au lait, a big lump of butter, and some jam. (And last night’s baguette at that, so it was a little hard.) You butter a chunk of the bread and dunk it, then eat it and drink the coffee. Now, I would have preferred eggs over easy and bacon, but honestly it was pretty good.

But it occurs to me that this isn’t far away from what we’re talking about: several hundred kcals of butterfat, coffee, and of course some carbs.  Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea.

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Adventures in Low Carb: Collard Greens

Saturday, April 5th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


So I’ve been trying to ramp up the veggies and I like collard greens but it’s a pain to cook them in a big batch. So, I thought, how about the Microwave? The package suggested cooking them for 13 minutes, but I was only cooking half a package, so I tried 6 minutes. They were a little rare.

Then I added a little butter and tried 4 more minutes. You see the results above.

For future reference, collard greens that catch fire aren’t a good choice.

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Adventures in Low Carb: Corned Beef with Cabbage and Turnip Greens

Friday, April 4th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


I really like my slow cooker, and I really like the week after St Patrick’s Day, when corned beef is suddenly cheap. And I like corned beef and cabbage and don’t even miss the potatoes — which are usually overcooked and watery anyway.

So here was a little bit different approach. Cooked a corned beef round in the slow cooker. Took it out and refrigerated it, as well as the broth. (I also cooked a brisket and sliced that hot. Different meal.)

The next day, I took the fat off the top of the broth, poured a good bit into a wok and rewarmed the corned beef (which I’d sliced after it was cold). Then I added a half head of cabbage and about 4 cups of turnip greens, which I’d sliced into roughly similar sized pieces. I simmered them for about ten minutes. There’s the result.

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Adventures in Low Carb: Burgers and Greens

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


This time I had some leftover greens. Burgers into the George Foreman with about a tablespoon of chopped onions between them. Cook thoroughly.

Look, I like my meat crunchy. Deal with it.

Rewarmed the greens, burgers on top of the greens, grated quesadilla cheese on top.

I’m beginning to like this veggies thing.

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Adventures in Low Carb

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


Continuing the effort to eat more vegetables, I got up this morning and felt ambitious, so I took out a bag of spinach and baby kale. I sauteed the greens with butter and olive oil and two sliced cloves of garlic, added some chopped onions and four beaten eggs, and about 2 Tablespoons of quesadilla cheese, and scrambled them.

This one worked good, but I think turnip greens and eggs are better.

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A Little Typographical Rant

Sunday, March 30th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

I’ve got cataracts, and thanks to a combination of bureaucratic CF at the doctor, at my new insurance company, and sure enough thanks to Obamacare, I still haven’t been able to get them fixed. (May. Maybe.)

For those of you who’ve never had them, the effect is more or less like having really dirty glasses all the time. Small print is hard. (Small print in Chinese is really hard, I have to resort of a magnifying glass.) You lose contrast, and glare washes out everything.

Now, here I am, reading web pages. I’m not going to mention who I’m using as an example, because it’s not Pejman Yousefzadeh’s fault, it’s some damn hipster web designer, who probably wears plaid pajamas and drinks hot chocolate while talking to his mommy and daddy about healthcare. But here’s a fragment of text:

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 17.50.10

Notice anything about it? Like it’s a little washed out looking?

So I apply my mad web skillz, and discover the background is, yes, white, but the text color is (102,102,102), or in hex #666.

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 17.50.48

This is called, technically “40 percent gray.” In other words, it’s 60 percent white. The text color is more white than not.


This is 40 percent gray. Does this look black to you?

I mean, WTF? Are we supposed to read this?

It seems to be a trend too. A little googling and I find that #666 is a very popular text color. It’s supposed to be “easier on the eyes.”

Dear web designers: Go buy a book. You know, those paper things? I realize they’re old fashioned, but buy one. Or borrow one for crying out loud.

Open the book. What color is the text? That’s right, it’s black. Or damn near black. A 90 percent gray maybe. If it’s a recent book, and a textbook, it might even be some color like a dark Williamsburg blue. It’s not 40 percent gray.

Oh, and using like 10 point font is silly too, but that’s a rant for another time.

For those of you who find this nonsense hard to read, there’s actually a handy web site called readability.com.  What they do is take a web page, strip it of the hipster cutenesses, and present it in a reasonably-large font, using black text. (Or nearly black — it’s actually a slightly yellow-green close to 90 percent gray.  But it’s close to black.)  Then it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 18.21.20

Now, isn’t that better?


As if it were actually meant to be read.

And now get the hell offa my lawn.

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OMG We’re All Gonna Die, Part 4632

Saturday, March 29th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

Despair is a sin. It’s bhavatrishna. But sometimes …

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Here a story that’s being pushed as a Facebook thing now. It apparently started as a story in Edmonton, Alberta. Here’s the money quote:

“Some of the kelp that I found was higher than what the International Atomic Energy Agency sets as radioactive contamination, which is 1,450 counts over a 10-minute period,” she said. “Some of my samples came up as 1,700 or 1,800.”

Can’t blame the poor little girl, who is probably having glow-in-the-dark nightmares now. But one would hope someone, like say her science teacher, would do a little research. (If you want to do a little research, you can do worse than my piece “Understanding Radation” about 3 years ago. But here’s the tl;dr version.)

So, 1700 counts in 10 minutes. Here is the part in which we divide. 1700 counts in 10 minutes is about 170 counts a minute, which is a little less than 3 counts a second.

The Potassium-40 in a 150g banana? Around 20 counts a second.

Good thing this kid didn’t go to the produce section.

More from PJ Lifestyle: 7 Ways Noah Turns the Bible Upside Down

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Song of the Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

They had a little controlled burn out at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal last week.

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As someone on the video says, this could have gotten really interesting.

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4 Weight Loss Myths Exposed

Saturday, March 8th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

unicorn-croppedEditor’s Note: This article was first published in June of 2013. It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months…

The hypothesis: a slow carb diet with intermittent fasting, along with continuing to work for greater integration of exercise into my daily life, will help me lose weight and improve my still-too-high blood sugar. This is the third experiment of a 13 weeks duration, in an ongoing series. Follow my daily updates at Facebook and join me on Fitocracy to follow my progress there, of which there will be some. Honest.

13 Weeks: Season 3, Week 3

I’ve been personally interested in weight loss and associated things pretty much my entire life. Long-time readers will remember me mentioning being insulted about my weight — told I was repulsive, in fact — when I was seven or eight. I first started actively dieting, hoping to lose weight and not be repulsive, when I was about 12, and immediately ran into trouble with it. After a certain length of time, even strictly following a 1200 kcal a day diet, I’d stop losing weight.

Since this was well-known to be impossible, it must have been that I was cheating on the diet. I knew I wasn’t, but who’s going to believe a 12 year old?

Fast forward to when I was working on my PhD at Duke Medical School. By this time I was considerably more sophisticated — well, except emotionally, I still felt basically that I was repulsive — and I had started reading seriously about weight regulation. I discovered that a whole lot of things I’d been told were absolutely certain, weren’t. Many of those things are still generally believed, and I think they keep people from doing what is useful, get them to do a lot of things that aren’t particularly useful, and frankly cause many people to despair.

Myth #1: The “Ideal” Weight Is Healthiest.

This one has made recent news. Our idea of what is an ideal weight comes originally from studies done by life insurance companies. The insurance company actuaries spend their time trying to decide how much to charge for an insurance policy, which is essentially a bet: you are betting the insurance company that you will die young, and the insurance company bets you will live to a ripe old age. (I’ve explained the basic math of insurance on PJM before.) So insurance companies, primarily MetLife, did studies in the ’50s and computed ideal weights from them.

These studies were very empirical, and they really were aimed entirely at determining how much to charge middle-aged white people for insurance. They did a good job of that, but they didn’t account for any number of confounding factors. However, once they had published the tables, these tables went from being essentially descriptive — “middle aged people seem to live longest in these height/weight ratios” — to be taken as prescriptive — “everyone’s ideal weight is given by these tables of height/weight ratio.” Now we define these “ideal weights” in terms of body-mass index, BMI, which sounds much more precise and scientific, but turns out to be simply a height/weight ratio.

Pretty much anyone can see that BMI is questionable — for example, a champion bodybuilder with a competition body fat of 3 percent may well have a “very obese” BMI. (On the other hand, it’s unclear that very low body fat is necessarily healthy either — in fact, we know it’s certainly not healthy for women.)

The problem is that epidemiology, the study of health and disease across large populations, keeps finding results that don’t quite fit this idea of ideal weight. Most recently, a study by Katherine Flegel and others published in January of this year showed that the notion of ideal weight was massively oversimplified. The study found two things: first, that for younger people, BMI doesn’t have any strong effects, and as you get older, the BMI associated with the least likelihood of dying increases.

In other words, if you don’t want to die the data suggests you actually want a slightly higher BMI as you get older.

What’s more, other studies say that BMI isn’t as good a predictor as simply the length of your belt — the larger your waistline, the more likely you were to have a whole lot of different health problems like type-2 diabetes. (This one does fit the bodybuilder example, too — bodybuilders do generally have small waists.)

Now, this can be taken too far — there’s no doubt that real obesity has bad effects on your health. (My knees would tell you that, if asked. And if knees could talk.) But the truth is that being a little overweight is either not harmful or may actually be helpful.

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13 Weeks: The Problem of Exercise

Monday, February 17th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

It’s going to be a sort of multi-theme column today: I’ve accumulated several things I want to write about while I’ve been suffering keyboard constipation the last couple of weeks. I’ve got some new things to talk about on the exercise front (and the workmonster front as well.)


First the general (and uninteresting) stats: weight is still right there on the same old plateau between 265 and 270, glucose is doing the thing of being high first thing in the morning and low to unpleasantly low in the afternoons. Except for one day when I ate apple pieces and cheese at bedtime, instead of just protein, and got up with my glucose around 100 instead of the 120s. I’m going to the grocery store shortly, and will get more apples to see if that can be repeated.

I also got a new Fitbit Force, which is more or less wristwatch-like. (Immediately afterward, I found the Fitbit Uno that went missing when I’d just started this column. Figures.)

It’s a combination pedometer and recorder; you wear it all the time — except it’s not waterproof, so you can’t wear it into the shower, which strikes me as a little bit dumb. The most interesting thing I’m getting is that it does record various things while you’re asleep, and can thus track the quality of your sleep. From this I’ve learned that I am doing much better along those lines, that I can’t really get by on five and a half hours, and that it’s pretty repeatable that Kaleo gets lonely and wants affection around 5AM.

Which brings us to the actual point. The thing is a pedometer, and if anything I’m surprised that I do get some exercise even working at home and all. Most of it comes from running up and down the stairs, which is helped by the fact that I’m apparently constitutionally unable to actually remember everything I went up or down the stairs for by the time I get to the other end.

As I have repeatedly complained, however, it’s not enough and I’m sure it’s not enough, but it’s hard to both be a workaholic and make time for exercise.

At one point as I was complaining, my sometime writing partner Sarah Hoyt gave me an idea. An idea she said she’d gotten from Ginnie Heinlein, who said it was something Robert Heinlein used to to, and for a couple of Heinlein fanboys/girls like us that has to be good, right?

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Writing Down Your Mind

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

I came to Buddhism, like a lot of people in the 60s, through Zen.

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I’ll warn you that the video is about 12 minutes long, but that’s a really good talk by Alan Watts, whose books were among my first teachers of Buddhism. There are probably a dozen columns in it, so it’s a real time saver.

Zen, as Alan explains, is widely imagined in the West to be anti-intellectual, but it really isn’t — it’s, instead, non-intellectual. It says that underneath the intellectual uinderstanding of Buddhism, there is a place where you are already the Buddha; Zen is, as Alan says, a way of directly pointing to that underlying reality that simply can’t be achieved intellectually.

So, of course, I’m going to write today about reading and writing and how my academic studies have affected my understanding.

I didn’t really start reading the sutras until … well, I guess it’s been quite a long time now, ten years or more, but seeing as I’ve been a Buddhist for something getting close to 50 years, it really came rather late in life. I started with the maha-prajña-paramita-sutra, the “Great Sutra at the Heart of Wisdom”. Fairly short, pithy, and very obscure on first reading. There are all these words for which the translations aren’t very satisfactory. So I started reading more widely, into the Pali Canon, the Tripitaka, and reading various people’s commentaries, and paying more attention to studying Sanskrit and Chinese.

This isn’t really foreign to Zen; there are lots of writings used in teaching Zen, and lots to be learned from them. I was thinking about listing some, but I think I’ll save that for another column. In the year I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve really found pretty much everything can be taken back to the Dharmachakra Sutra, the first teaching Buddha offered, directly after his Liberation. That’s where he first explains the Eightfold Path and the Four Great Truths.

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13 Weeks: Misunderstanding Obesity

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


I was thinking about my old cat Radar this morning. I was having my usual low-carb breakfast of hardboiled eggs with mayonnaise, salt and pepper — sort of Philip Glass egg salad — and bacon, and remembering how much Radar loved bacon. Now, my other two cats don’t have much interest in people food — oh, Ali’i will deign to accept some scraps of roast pork or turkey skin, but most of the time if I offer them something they’ll investigate it politely, maybe take a taste and then look at me clearly saying “are you nuts?” Radar really liked bacon and chicken.

Radar was something like 13 years old when he died, which is pretty old for an Abyssinian — they tend to have limited shelf lives, which is too bad as they’re incredible cats otherwise — and, unusually for an Aby, he was … plump. And a bit of a chow-hound. Ali’i and Kaleo, the current players in the role of masters of the house, are not at all plump; neither was Vashti, my first cat, nor was Yeshimbra, Radar’s predecessor in the goofy Aby role.

They all have lived on effectively the same diet — some good dry cat food freely fed, and a can of Friskies wet food split among them every day, half in the morning half at night. Oh, sometimes I try different kinds of wet food, but honestly they always seem to like Friskies the best and I can buy it at Costco in 48-can megapacks.

So, okay, you might think the difference is the human food, but Shimbra was even more gluttonous than Radar — his opinion was that if I was eating it it must be good, and that you should never eat anything much bigger than your head unless it’s a chicken — and Vashti was quite willing to accept part of any meal of mine, and was an absolute nut for pudding, especially tapioca.

And yet, four out of five cats had no weight problem at all, and Radar was … plump.

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Taking Yogi Berra’s Advice

Friday, January 24th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


Let’s take a road trip. We’re going to visit all the capitals of all the 48 contiguous states, starting from Denver.

Now, since we’re taking vacation days to do this, we don’t want to visit any capital more than once, and we want to do this in the least time, or in the shortest distance traveled, which is pretty much the same thing.

Starting from Denver, if we only want to visit one other state capital, planning the trip is easy. Denver to Cheyenne. Boom. Two capitals is easy — you can either go Denver to Cheyenne to Topeka, or Denver to Topeka to Cheyenne. Add in Santa Fe, well, there are several routes. Ignoring, for the sake of keeping my readers awake, some details, basically as we expand the number of cities, we have to explore every possible ordering of the cities. So if we stay in Denver, visiting exactly one capital, we have exactly one route. Visit one other city, we have two choices of trip plan — Denver Cheyenne Denver, or Cheyenne Denver Cheyenne. Visit two other cities — so three cities total — and there are six choices. (Remember this includes trips where someone wants to start and end in Santa Fe or, Gods forbid, Topeka.) So, no other cities, you have 1 choice. One other city, you still only have 2 choices. Two other cities, you have six route choices.

Three other cities? Well, you can use all the routes for two other cities, and go to the new city from each of them. So you multiply the number of routes you’ve already got by the total number of cities. In other words, if we have n cities, we want n × n-1×n-2 … 1.

Many of you already recognize this as n! — “n factorial” — which is an important idea in a lot of different areas of math.

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Undocumented Buddha

Sunday, January 19th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

Guess who?

Sometime in the 6th century (see “About Dates” below) not far south of the Himalayan mountains on the Indian subcontinent, a man laid out a simple idea: people are unhappy, lack peace of mind, because they cling to their illusions and fantasies about the world instead of seeing things as they are.

Traditional accounts agree his personal name was Siddhartha, “the successful one” or “the one who achieves”, which was a popular name then and is popular today. His gotra family name was Gautama, and he was born into a clan called the Shakya, of the Kshatriya or “warrior” class. His father was named Suddhodana, and his mother was named Mayadevi. Suddhodana is usually called a “king” but he was an elected ruler, and the Shakya’s government was something more or less like a republic.

The traditions say he was born prematurely, and unexpectedly, under a tree in a place called Lumbini, and recent archeological discoveries show that there was indeed a tree-shrine at the location the tradition identifies. Mayadevi died shortly after Siddhartha’s birth.

Siddhartha was raised as a rich princeling, but he left this life of wealth to become a renunciate, and eventually became known as a teacher called “the one who woke up” — the Buddha.

The first written records we have, however, are from at least a century after his death, and most of the written texts describing his life and teaching were first written down more than 500 years after he died. Many of these stories are fantastic, magical — and, as they say, they probably grew in the telling.

Can we look into these stories, the sutras, and see more clearly what this man’s original teachings were? What he taught before the sutras were written down?

What can we learn from the Undocumented Buddha?

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13 Weeks: Diets and Workouts and Lives, Oh My!

Saturday, January 18th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

What, it’s Saturday already? And my deadline is Friday? Oh, hell.


So here’s the update, first of all, on the whole diet thing. Basically, not good, not bad: my glucose is holding steady with morning fasting around 120 and mid-day down to the low 100s and below. My weight, according to the new round to the nearest 5 pounds once a week rule, is about 270 — which means by the scale I’ve gone from 267 to 269, or in other words, same old same old plateau.

Which is actually good, because my compliance with the diet and exercise plan this week has sucked. I haven’t left the house since I went grocery shopping last Sunday and I haven’t done any exercise besides jumping to conclusions and chasing deadlines. And I haven’t caught any of them.

Oddly, however, I’m very happy. Which is the topic of this column.

My friend Donna is often after me about exercise — she skis and walks and Gods know what all else — and she said something that I think was more insightful than she realized.

“The problem is that you don’t like exercising.”

Frankly, that’s a good bit of the problem. I’ve done extended exercise things. IBM had me in Rochester Minnesota for one whole winter, and while I was there, I went to the amazing health club in Rochester pretty much every weeknight on the way home from work. There were several reasons for it, but the biggest one was that honestly there’s nothing to do in Rochester except eat and work out. And that was right when I’d gone vegetarian, and eating wasn’t all that interesting either.

Some things about it were good — I was race walking more than 20 miles a week at up to 6-7 miles an hour, which is extremely taxing cardiovascularly, much more than running 6-7 miles an hour. When I was called upon to run through the Detroit airport, I was pretty much astounded that I wasn’t even breathing very hard.

But then I was also in an extended fairly severe depression — this was before I finally gave in and tried drug therapy. I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t doing much of anything, and the job was such that I couldn’t actually work into the evening. So what the hell.

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Who Are We Mad At?

Sunday, January 12th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

Galagoda Atte Gnanasara

So this is how I heard it. On the night before Siddhartha Awakened, as he contemplated the problem of suffering that had caused him to leave home, he became aware of his innumerable past lives. He saw himself as predator, and as prey; he saw himself as deer hunter, and as the hunted deer; he saw himself as the rape victim and the rapist; as the adulterer and as the cuckold; as eater and as the one being eaten. He saw that in every case, actions and their consequences had led to each event, and that consequences had inevitably followed. He saw the suffering in everything, and he felt pity and compassion for every being because he saw in himself the potential for every failing he had seen in others.

In Sanskrit, this is called karuna; you can translate it as empathy, or compassion, or even tenderness.

I’ve got Buddhist friends in many traditions. Some of them were discussing a recent story about Bodu Bala Sema — “Buddhist Power Force”, which really sounds like it ought to be a live-action Saturday morning kid’s show — rallying the Buddhists of Sri Lanka against the Muslim Tamils. This follows the Sri Lankan civil war, which followed the collapse of a cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, which followed an insurgency of 20-odd years, which followed anti-Tamil discrimination, which followed … and followed … and followed … on into the past.

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13 Weeks: Diets and Black Swans

Saturday, January 11th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan introduced an old term and then, annoyingly, redefined it. For Sir Karl Popper, the black swan was an observation about logical quantification: if you assert “all swans are white” then the observation of a single black swan falsifies the assertion.

Taleb’s observation is different, although related: he’s observing that really unexpected events are unexpected: we have a model of the world that says “The US mainland is secure from attack” that seems perfectly plausible on 10 September 2001; we believe “Islamist terrorism is on the run” and then a bomb blows up in Boston.

(There’s a more sophisticated way to deal with all of these called Bayesian inference. We’ll leave the details for a science column, but in a few words, a Bayesian starts with an assumed a priori estimate of the probability of an event. After observation, they have a new a postieriori estimate that incorporates new experience.)

But there’s yet a third way to think about these that shows us how mathematics and probability can show us surprising things.

(Yes, this is a diet and exercise column, just a little further down.)

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Is Phone Sex a Sign of Conscious Thought?

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

The new movie Her is just one of many in which a mechanical or electronic construct becomes a character in a human’s story. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Commander Data, HARLIE, the robots of Lost in Space and Forbidden Planet, Asimov’s robots, and a hundred less-memorable movies and TV shows.

Okay, maybe Julie Newmar was memorable, but for other reasons.

Her carries it on a little further, when the main character falls in love with the personality that serves as the front end for a new operating system. They eventually consummate their love in what is supposed to be a rather steamy, and apparently mutually satisfying, episode of what’s a whole new meaning of “phone sex.” (I say “supposed to be” because I haven’t seen the movie yet; in any case, this isn’t a review of the movie.)

So here’s a question for you: when Samantha, the operating system’s personality, has an orgasm, is it real or is she faking it?

Expressed a little more generally, Alan Turing started asking the same questions in 1950 in his famous paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which begins with:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

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5 Surprises Coming in 2014 That Shouldn’t Be

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


The problem with asking what the biggest surprise will be, of course, is that it’s self-defeating: if I tell you what the biggest surprise will be, and I’m write, you won’t be surprised after all. So the short answer is “the biggest surprise will be something completely unexpected.”

I can tell you some things that will be surprises and shouldn’t be:

Anthropogenic Climate Change

We will continue to hear about how global climate change is happening, is important, is a crisis, and must be handled by massive government intervention, transferring money from rich countries to poor countries through the UN. We will also discover that many of these solutions will involve transforming low-margin commodities into high-margin high-tech products from companies owned by the politically connected.

Health Care

There will be no case whatsoever in which we will see a clear positive effect from the Affordable Care Act, but we will see an increasing number of explanations for why it’s not the fault of the law that none of the effects were good. This ought to be a surprise, because you’d think just by random chance something in a 2700 page bill would have to be useful.


New exciting things will be discovered, in medicine, in physics, and in nanotechnology. For each one, there will be a learned op-ed explaining why this advance will lead to economic crisis, the collapse of civilization, the end of the world, or the destruction of the universe.

The New York Times…

…will authoritatively report that in fact Hillary Clinton has been retired for the last five years, and was never associated with the Obama Administration in any way.


Every pundit will write at least one article explaining how everything would be better everywhere if the pundit were King of Everything. This includes me.


illustration courtesy shutterstock / AlenD

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Living Skillfully with the Four Agreements

Sunday, January 5th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin
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Because it’s the beginning of a new year, and because I’ve been slack for several weeks on the Buddhism column, and because after all Gautama himself said that he was teaching basically just one simple thing that he found himself just explaining in many different ways, and because finally it’s my column and I can do what I want, I’m going to start this time by repeating again the core of the Buddha’s teaching, suitably rephrased so as to seem creative and original and avoid copyright problems with the people I’m stealing it from. So here they are, the Four Noble Truths, with only as much Sanskrit as necessary.

  1. Our ordinary lives are full of duhkha, badly translated as “suffering” and better translated as unpleasantness, agitation, discomfort. (The root word is actually connected to the idea of a cart wheel that’s got a bad axle: it isn’t rolling smoothly and the bump bump bump is making us cart-sick.)
  2. Dukhka arises because of our efforts to re-order the universe to our liking. We thirst for pleasant experiences; we try to make things be just how we’d like them to be; and we try to un-make things that aren’t the way we want them to be. All of these things come down to a kind of ignorance of the way that we and everything around us can’t be made to hold still; everything changes.
  3. This special discomfort ceases when we stop trying to force things.
  4. We can learn to stop trying to force things by practicing what the Buddha called “skillful means”, upaya.

Which is all well and good, but how?

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13 Weeks: New Year, New Season, New Experiments

Saturday, January 4th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin


Someone once said that a good epic starts in the middle. (Actually it was Horace, it was in his Ars Poetica around 13BC, and he made the distinction between something that started ab ovo, “from the egg”, or in medias res, “in the middle of things”, but then inserting a lengthy side bar with references to Classical Latin in a diet column might seem erudite but really would be sort of pretentious and silly, don’t you think?)

In any case, we’re starting in the middle of this story. Tomorrow, 5 January 2014, I’m starting the fifth (and sixth, more on this later) of my 13 week experiments in changing and improving my health and my life. The first one started in November 2012, more than a year ago, motivated by the most reasonable of things: I don’t want to die. I most especially don’t want to die young, and I felt like both of my parents had.

I have reasons to be concerned. I’ve had problems with my weight since I was six, and at the time I started this I was around 300 lbs, I was well along into type II diabetes, and I had severe sleep apnea that was manifesting in something close to narcolepsy. I live in a two-story house and I was finding that I was pre-planning trips up and down the stairs because they wore me out.

Now, a year later, I’ve made some significant changes. I’m around 265 lbs, my blood sugar is much improved, and I run up and down the stairs with wild abandon and cups of hot coffee. But I’m not done yet. I want to lose more weight, and I’ve got some new challenges in my life, with a new job and a certain feeling that I have more to do.

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