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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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VIDEO: I Guess I’ll Stop Complaining About Colorado Snowstorms

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
YouTube Preview Image

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‘Attend to Your Own Salvation.’

Monday, December 23rd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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The tradition says that when Buddha was about 80, he told his followers he would die soon. He was visiting the town of Kusinara, just south of modern-day Nepal, and frankly the middle of freaking nowhere at the time, and for that matter today. He ate a food offering and became violently ill, and died. Depending on the tradition you follow, there were either poison mushrooms or spoiled pork in that last meal, but the Buddha himself insisted it wasn’t the food and told Ananda, his chief of staff and personal servant, to reassure the person who’d given him the food that it wasn’t his fault.

While he was dying, he asked his students to ask him any final questions. His last words were: “Remember, everything that is an aggregate is perishable. Attend to your own salvation.”

The whole story, along with a long summary of the Buddha’s teachings, is in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta — we Mahayana Buddhists have a very different, and way more exciting, version in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in which the Buddha is attended by 80 billion monks, speaks in a great voice that covers the whole world, and generally would make a lovely manga comic, but never mind that for the moment.

The thing is, this is one of the core Buddhist teachings: you get yourself into this trap, and you have to get yourself out. We live with duhkha, that pain of everything slipping away from us, because we’re ignorant of the reality that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to; we escape from duhkha and enter nirvana, peace of mind and the end of the pain of duhkha, when we really understand that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to. And like personal salvation in evangelical Christianity or recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to do it yourself. No one can recover for you.

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13 Weeks: A New Year

Saturday, December 21st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Yeah, I sort of went missing for a while there. As some of you may recall, I had been looking for a new day job, and went out to San Francisco to audition with a startup. The company is Sumazi and it’s in the social media world, but still somewhat in stealth mode, so I can’t talk about it too much yet. In any case, I’ve joined Sumazi; as befits an Internet company, I’m working out of my home in Colorado and not moving to San Francisco.

The interruption of traveling to San Francisco and all did interfere with my previous 13 Weeks experiment; as I said before, sometimes it’s just a learning experience. But in two weeks it’ll be past the Time of Diet Horror and Family Drama and it will be time to start a new experiment, so I’m getting my head around what I want to try next.

In the year-plus I’ve been doing that, I’ve come to see these 13-week experiments don’t have to all be about what I’m eating; several other people have used the 13-week framework to do other things, from reading plans to personal finance. I think now what is important is that by establishing a change to try, and a limited period in which to try it, what we’re really doing is establishing a structure for experiments in living life.

So this last six weeks have given me some other ideas; there are other things I want to change.

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On the Run

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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In case you wonder why I haven’t been around much recently, here’s the reason. I’m on the run from the North Korean secret service.

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Click on the image for your own denunciation.

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The End of Poverty in America

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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President Obama, on Wednesday, made a big speech about “economic inequality” and vowed to spend his last three years in office working to increase the federal minimum wage, as well as a lot of other things.

Just as an aside, every time I hear talk about increasing the minimum wage — there’s a strike on today at some fast food places to raise their wage to $15 an hour as well — I have a conversation something like this.

“I think increasing the minimum wage is a wonderful idea. In fact, let’s raise it to $100 an hour.”

“Oh, you’re being silly.”

“No, imagine. Raise minimum wage to $100 an hour. That way, everyone will be making $200,000 a year. We’ll all be rich!

“Racist.”

Okay, I’ll grant that it usually takes two or three more exchanges before someone calls me racist, or a tea-bagger, or even an economic royalist if they’re of a classical turn of mind. The one thing I’ve never had anyone do is explain to me why if a $15 an hour minimum wage is a good idea, a $100 an hour minimum wage is a bad idea.

I suspect it’s because they realize that if they do, the jig is up: if they raise the minimum wage that high, companies won’t be able to pay the wage, and either there will be massive unemployment or massive inflation, as companies try to make up the difference. Mostly unemployment and shutdowns, because the money supply can’t grow that fast without a Weimar meltdown. But the trade-off is basically a linear function — raising the minimum wage by a lesser amount just means fewer people lose their jobs or go out of business. In the case of fast food workers, what would happen is that hamburger-making machines would become cheaper than burger-flippers. (In fact, that break-even is already past, the burger-flippers just don’t know it yet.)

In any case, though, this seems to be a solution in search of a problem, because there is no poverty in America, and I can prove it. According to a Cato Institute study published last year, the combined expenditures for federal and state governments directed to means-tested public assistance — “welfare” — is approximately $1 trillion (yes, with a “T”) a year.

There are approximately 48 million people in the U.S. with incomes at the poverty level or below.

The application of advanced mathematics — long division, and I did it in my head thank you very much — tells us that’s about $21,000 per person per year. Obviously, that’s $84,000 for a family of four.

That’s got a problem, though. According to the 2013 Federal Poverty Guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is $23,950. The total of $84,000 is roughly 380 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Obviously, there’s no poverty left in America.

Unless, of course, that money isn’t actually being spent on the poor people at all. I wonder where it goes?

More: 

Striking Wendy’s Worker: Hike the Minimum Wage, and I Can Work Fewer Days

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13 Weeks: Frobbing the Knobs

Sunday, December 1st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

king-korg-knobs

Okay, look, the first thing is I owe you folks an apology: with the new day job and holidays and a half-dozen other ordinary-life crises, I’ve just not gotten columns done. I’m sorry.

The most important thing I think I’ve learned in the last year has been just how complicated the whole issue of body weight and glucose regulation can be. Here’s just a selection of diets that have had reports of dramatic weight loss and health effects:

  • Low Carbohydrate Diets
    • High Fat
      • Atkins
      • South Beach
    • Low Fat
      • Stillman’s Quick Weight Loss Diet
  • Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load diets
  • Low Fat, High Carb diets
    • Ornish Eat More, Weigh Less
    • The Okinawa Diet
  • Balanced, Calorie Restricted diets
    • Diabetic “Exchange” Diets
    • Weight Watchers
  • Radical Calorie Restriction
    • Scarsdale Diet
    • Duke Rice Diet
    • Protein-Sparing Fasts
  • Intermittent Fasting
    • Fasting 2 days a week
    • Sixteen hour fasts every day.
  • Eating more often
    • Body For Life
    • “Grazing”
  • Dietary Restrictions
    • Eliminating wheat or grain
    • Paleo
    • Vegetarian
      • Ovo-Lacto
      • “Pescatarian”
      • Macrobiotic
      • “Never Eat Anything With a Face”
    • Vegan
    • “Fruitarian”

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Buddhist Saving Rolls

Sunday, November 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
buddist-saving-throw

An icosahedral die with the Chinese/Japanese character mu 無 — meaning “negation”, “emptiness”.

A friend of mine wrote me the other day with a story I thought was informative. It’a a touch long, but I think it’s worth it; it’s lightly edited to make it fit.

A few weeks back my eldest daughter was having a bad day. It revolved around the typical teenage issues, which she generally doesn’t have problems with. However, I tried to comfort her by saying it was perfectly normal to feel the way she did because everyone wants to be liked and feels bad when they aren’t liked.

Well, that’s when my son chimed in (unhelpfully but innocently) “I don’t”

Now while this wasn’t exactly helpful while I was trying to console my daughter it is true. My son is amazingly centered. I’ve seen him been insulted directly and refuse to be baited and just shrug it off and be fine. So after I had resolved what I could with the daughter, I sought out my son and explained that what he said, while true, and admirable, was perhaps not helpful at that moment. But then I thought to compliment him on his evenness. That’s when I said he was practically Buddhist.

That sparked the question. “What’s Buddhist?” So I tried to explain how the Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire, and that a lot of frustration is caused by our desires and expectations, and that if we surrender our expectations we actually are happier, less harried. I told him that even though we weren’t Buddhists we could learn a lot from this premise.

So to set up what happens next I have to tell you that recently my son has discovered Dungeons and Dragons, after he was introduced to it by his uncle. He has bought his own dice and is pouring over the manuals. All the conversation lately has been about critical hits, armor checks and saving rolls.

Well tonight we had a minor church event we had to go to. My son went early because he had some responsibility with our young men’s organization which was setting up. When I came later and met up with him his usual calm resolve was disturbed. He had said something to the other young men that had embarrassed him, and he was upset about it and upset that it had upset him. I said nothing. We had to sit as the program was about to start, and he usually works these things out. After a moment of silence he said. “Buddhist Saving Roll” and made a gesture like he was throwing dice. I burst out laughing. Right in the middle of church. He laughed too. People stared, and we quickly composed ourselves, but we smiled at each other and he was fine, and no longer upset.

After the event was over we joked about it. What die do you use in a “Buddhist Saving Roll?” Perhaps a twenty sided die where every face is a symbol of Mu?

At any rate, I was pleased that he had internalized the lesson and made it into a joke with his hobbies and D&D. I will never think of D&D the same way. I hope it becomes an inside joke between us.

And every time I’m frustrated with something, I hope I think “Buddhist Saving Roll” and just move on.

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13 Weeks: Weekend Update

Sunday, November 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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The last two 13 Weeks columns could have been confused with science columns, which is good because I’ve actually missed the science columns, but bad because I haven’t talked about my progress or lack thereof at all. Well, the last couple of weeks have been confusing to me too, if it’s any consolation — I spent a week in San Francisco in an extended interview/audition for a new web startup called Sumazi. I’m now doing consulting for them, but they’re still operating under the radar so I can’t talk a lot about it, except to say they’re doing exciting things with social media data. But the result is that I’ve been busier than a — oh, hell, pick your own cliché. I’ve been really busy.

As a result, the whole diet-and-exercise thing has gotten away from me — hell, I haven’t left the house since last Sunday and last night I resorted to eating frozen burritos I didn’t even know I had because gleanings were getting pretty slim.

Yes, frozen burritos have wheat.

The results are interesting; my weight has crept back up to 269 — that same old stuck point. Glucose is doing fine, and with the exception of the burritos I have been quite good about eating few carbs — what carbs I’m getting are mostly in the yoghurt I’ve continued eating.

Of course we’re heading for the Season of Diet Horror — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

So here’s my plan. I’m declaring this 13 week season a Learning Experience. As my old therapist Joe Talley called it, an AFOG (“Another F-ing Opportunity for Growth.”) This season would be over on 1 December anyway, so I’m gonna roll with it, and just maintain blood sugar and weight until 1 January — or rather until 4 January, which is the convenient Saturday after New Year’s Day. That will give me a chance to consolidate my other life changes.

In the mean time, the plan is to make this first year of 13 Week Experiments into a book, so I want to use the column to consolidate some of my thoughts about this, and to think more about what I can do to help other people start making their own experiments.

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts about the process and the results.

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A Veterans Day Bleg

Monday, November 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Threads Promo from CoHo Productions on Vimeo.

A very close friend of mine, Tonya Jone Miller, has a wonderful personal show about how her mother, a girl from Indiana, found herself teaching in Viet Nam, and about her mother’s (and Tonya’s!) last minute escape from Viet Nam out of Tan Son Nhat Airbase. She has a Veteran’s Day request:

I am looking for a veteran who served in the Vietnam war, and I need your help. Please share this post, especially if you have any kind of military or veteran connections.

If you’ve seen my show “Threads” you know that my American mother got out of Vietnam mere days before the fall of Saigon. She was there trying to get my Vietnamese father’s family out of the country, and she was 8 1/2 months pregnant with me.

Many random people helped her escape, but I am looking for one in particular. My mother was shoved into the belly of a plane full of to-be-adopted orphans as it was taking off, and if not for the soldier who did that, I would likely not exist.

I have no idea if that man survived the war. I am hoping that if he did, he told the wild story of the crazy lady in labor he pushed into a plane as it was taxi-ing on the runway. Here is a link to a video of this part of the show http://vimeo.com/67752938. Maybe someone will recognize themselves, or their father, or their friend in these details…

Tan Son Nhat airbase, Saigon, sometime between April 10-20, 1975. Mom thinks the soldier was a Marine or an MP officer of some kind. The plane was carrying orphans for adoption and was bound for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

I’d like to find that soldier and thank him. I’d like to tell him how his decision to help my mother probably saved my life and hers. Even if the man is no longer with us, I’d like to have a name to honor in my heart. I know the chances are slim, but maybe a social media miracle will happen.

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13 Weeks: trans-gressions

Saturday, November 9th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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Lard. Maybe it’s better for you than margarine.

This week’s big diet and nutrition news has been the news that the FDA has proposed removing the “generally recognized as safe” label from trans-fats. Now, if you’re like me, the first question you might want to ask is “what’s a trans-fat?”

A fat is composed of long carbon-hydrogen chains called fatty acids. A saturated fat has one hydrogen for every possible bond to a carbon; an unsaturated fat has some places where the possible hydrogen bond is replaced by a double-bond between carbon atoms. The terms trans- and its opposite cis- mean “on opposite sides” and “on the same side” respectively, and a trans-fat includes fatty acids that have those carbon-carbon bonds on opposite sides. The effect is that you can have two fats with the same chemical formula, but different geometric structures, like in these pictures cribbed from Wikipedia.

Eleadic acid, a trans-fatty acid.

Eleadic acid, a trans-fatty acid.

Oleic acid, a cis-fatty acid.

Oleic acid, a cis-fatty acid.

In general, the more hydrogenated, or saturated, a fat is, the higher its melting point. Butter, lard, and beef tallow all have lots of saturated fats, so they’re more waxy and solid at room temperatures; most vegetable oils are much less saturated, and so are liquid at room temperature. But around 1900, the French chemist Paul Sabatier discovered that hydrogen could be combined with carbon dioxide through the use of a nickel catalyst, producing methane or methanol; a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann applied the same process to hydrogenate fatty acids to make fats with higher melting points from vegetable oils. This process is the basis for making both margarine and old-fashioned vegetable shortening like Crisco.

It happens that most — although not all — of the less saturated fats from natural sources are in the cis-configuration, but artificially hydrogenated fats have a much higher concentration of the trans-configuration. So, products like margarine have relatively high amounts of trans-fats compared to natural fats.

Okay, so wake up, the chemistry lesson is over. Those of you who are old enough — most of my readers, I think — still get a little bit of a chill at the phrase “saturated fat”. For most of my lifetime, saturated fats were considered to be unhealthy; advertisements for margarine made a big point about how they were “lower in cholesterol” and therefore more “heart healthy”. In the 80′s, the conventional wisdom, pushed by groups like Ralph Nader’s Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPIRGs), was that fats were bad and saturated fats were really really bad.

So manufacturers reacted by replacing more saturated fats with hydrogenated fats that had lots of trans-fats.

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13 Weeks: The Hard Boiled Egg Theory

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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People, including a lot of nutritionists and diet doctors, tend to treat people as if they were more or less homogenous all the way through, like a hard boiled egg: some fat on the outside and a metabolism on the inside. So, when they talk about diets and losing weight, they assume that it’s just all stuff going in versus stuff going out of a sort of blob in the middle. This results in the naive picture of weight regulation where the number of kilocalories you eat (measured by burning the food to ash in a calorimeter) goes in, and it’s either burned up or deposited in the egg white as new fat.

Real organisms aren’t that way, of course. When you eat something, there are long chains of complicated processes going on to transform the chicken meat and carrots and noodles in your chicken soup into amino acids, and fatty acids, and various ions in solutions in the bloodstream; a whole bunch (a whole bunch) of free riders are eating the food too, converting it to other forms that they use to breed their own descendants; some of the result of that turns into nutrients in our blood stream, some of it turns into bacteria, and a whole lot of that eventually turns into something I’m far too delicate to mention.

Once it’s in the bloodstream, there are lots of other complicated processes going on. I talked about them a little bit two weeks ago, but it’s worth remembering that sugars cause the body to release insulin, insulin causes adipocytes (fat cells) to store triglycerides, plump adipocytes release leptin, leptin reduces appetite, which means less food and less sugar, which makes the adipocytes release triglycerides, and so on. There is a complicated feedback going on there, and in a lot of people this feedback results in essentially perfect control of body fat and weight.

We tend to forget this, as talk about the “epidemic of obesity” gets around, but the fact that roughly one-third of adults are obese means that roughly two-thirds of adults are not obese. Most of those not-obese people eat the same general diet, live similar lifestyles, go to the same movies, watch TV and drink sugary sodas, and yet they stay more or less skinny.

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Linking Las Vegas

Friday, November 1st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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At the end of August this year, I was contacted by a new startup called Gild.com that had an interesting business: they use various public online sources to score computer people as developers. Some of these are things like LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, and personal GitHub pages, plus recommendations and frankly I don’t know what else, but it comes up with a number between 0 and 100 for your quality as a software developer. I’d scored 99.3.

Being me, I worried about how I’d lost that 0.7 points, but they assured me it was actually a very good score. In fact, they were calling because they wanted to make contact with those of us at the far-right of the distribution (I don’t think they were looking at my PJM posts for that, no matter how it sounds) and see what our experience with recruiters had been. It happens my mother was a recruiter for umpteen years, so it was inherently interesting, as well as complimentary. They construct a sort of “scored résumé” from those public sources, and make it available to their clients, who are usually recruiters for large firms. Mine is here (click to download the whole thing as PDF):

Screenshot 2013-10-31 12.52.40

(Speaking of which, I’m still looking for a day job: you can find me on LinkedIn.)

The idea is a new direction for several startups, like one run by my friend Sumaya Kazisumazi.com — called “social data intelligence”. The idea is that you can, using Big Data techniques and social network theory, learn about potential customers, or potential markets, or find people who can do a job for you.

I guess I must have sounded reasonable on the phone (hah, fooled them!) because they called me a couple of weeks ago with another question.

“Would you like to come to Las Vegas at our expense to attend a dinner during LinkedIn’s Talent Connect conference?”

“Well, duh!”

Gild turned out to be an interesting group. I had lots of sort of second-hand connections to them anyway, and it was interesting talking to them. They’ve been covered in a couple of major media sources, the New York Times and PBS.

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Time for Speculation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Salvador-Dali-Soft-Construction-with-Boiled-Beans-Premonition-of-Civil-War-1936

Time travel is a favorite trope of science fiction going back to at least A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Time Machine. It took until the mid-40s for someone to come up with the grandfather paradox, which has been pretty well beaten to death in the years since. (How many times has Star Trek alone used it?)

So I started thinking about time and time travel, primarily to see if I could find a theory that would result in new ideas for a time-travel story. While story ideas were not forthcoming, I did come up with a reasonably interesting idea.

Since Einstein and Minkowski, we’ve become used to thinking of time as the fourth dimension. In normal life, we think about locations basically in terms of three numbers: x, y, z, latitude, longitude, and elevation, Fifth and Broadway on the 14th floor, whatever. But if we want to meet someone at Fifth and broadway on the 14th floor, we have to also tell them what time we’re going to meet, say 1:00 PM. Einstein’s general relativity showed that we have to think about time in general as a fourth dimension for everything, not just dates with the brunette you met on the subway, so we always need x,y,z,t.

Now, imagine we could step back from the universe and look at the whole thing, all at once. Then what we think of as our history becomes a path through the whole four-dimensional universe: Fourth and Broadway on the street at 12:54 PM, Fifth and Broadway on the street at 12:56, in the elevator at 12:58, at the new friends office at 1:00 PM. Physicists call this a world line.

Now, you can also imagine that small changes lead to slightly different world lines: the elevator makes a few extra stops and you’re a minute late, or you took a taxi and you’re a few minutes early but you took a different path. Since we’ve stepped back, with Godlike omniscience we see not only everything that is actually on your world line, but every possible world line — so both of those along with all possible other choices are part of the whole picture, along with every other possible arrangement of the pieces: you took the subway, you walked, a taxi brought you down Broadway from uptown (to the sound of honking and shouting, I think Broadway is one way the other direction). In fact, our omniscient view even includes arrangements that aren’t possible, like the one where you simply levitated, or just disappeared one instant and re-appeared the next, teleporting where you wanted to go.

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The Math-iest Math Joke

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Mandelbrot_set

Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?
A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

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Run a PC In Your Browser

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Okay, this is geeky but cool …

Screenshot 2013-10-28 15.56.51

Click on the screenshot, and it will take you to an IBM PC emulator running DOS.

In your browser.

If this thing just ran Word for DOS 6.0 I’d be in Heaven.

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How Siddhartha Broke Into the Buddha Business

Monday, October 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Mahabodhitemple

So this is the way I heard it. More or less.

After his Enlightenment, Siddhartha was walking along a path in a forest. He didn’t have a goal and he wasn’t concerned with the weather: if it was hot, he sweated, if it rained, he got wet. He was untroubled, calm, serene.

In fact, he was so untroubled that it was obvious to anyone around him. He met a man traveling the opposite direction.

“Excuse me,” the man said, “are you a sadhu, a saint?”

“No,” Siddhartha said, “I’m not. Being a saint doesn’t really lead to peace of mind anyway.”

“But you’re … are you a God?”

“Hardly. I’m just a man. I don’t know if there are any gods, but I’m certainly not one.”

“Well… but you seem so different. What makes you so different?”

Buddha thought about it. It couldn’t really be explained, of course, but still the man deserved an answer.

“I am… awake.”


About 2500 years ago there was a city-state called Kapilavastu in what is now called Nepal. According to tradition, a man named Sudhodana was its king, although archeology and history suggest that it was an elected post in something much like a republic. Sudhodana had a wife, who we know as Mayadevi, which means something like “Enchanting Angel.” She was pregnant, and as the traditions of that time and place required, she was traveling to her home to have their child, when she went into labor and was taken to the shade of a tree in a place called Lumbini. Her child was born there, a son, who was named “Siddhartha”, “the one who achieves his aim”. Mayadevi died shortly afterward.

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13 Weeks: One Week at a Time

Sunday, October 27th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

naughty-penguin

This is the actual “blogiversary” for the 13 Weeks column; I’ve been doing this for a full year (or will have been on the 28th, but I don’t do a 13 Weeks column on the 28th.) I’ve been going back through the year’s columns as I prepare to collect them as an e-book and it’s natural to think back over what I’ve learned.

Here it is:

  • Change is hard.
  • Change takes time.
  • Change is possible.
  • Change doesn’t happen in a straight line.
  • Change is easier with some structure to it.

This week has been weird, for no obvious reason. I’d claim it was Mercury going retrograde on the 23rd, but I don’t actually believe in that stuff so that can’t be it. Whatever it has been, I haven’t felt terrifically productive this week — I’m way past deadline on several articles, including this one, and Wednesday and Thursday I spent just an amazing amount of time looking at blank screens or blank pads and whining. I have had a number of interviews for new day jobs (and I’m still on the market, by the way; if you know anyone looking for a senior geek, I can be found on LinkedIn) that went reasonably well, but (see above) haven’t turned into a new day job yet.

As far as the continuing saga, my weight is still down — it’s bounced a little bit from 264, but I’m still down. My glucose is looking good, and I’ve gotten off omeprazole but I’m not having much GERD discomfort. I’ve also dropped the melatonin as well as cutting back on the Prozac, both because there’s some reason to think they’re associated with difficulty losing weight, but actually, as I sit and write this I’m beginning to wonder if that was wise — I do feel a little foggy and unfocused, and a little irritable — although the irritability might be just the side effect of watching the parade of idiots on C-SPAN this week. So maybe I’ll add one of those back and see what happens.

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Depression, Suffering, and Mindfulness

Sunday, October 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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One of the cool things about writing these columns is that I’m always learning something new. Sometimes it’s reading new things — I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhist yogacara recently — sometimes it’s that I find new ideas as a result of trying to explain something in a column, and sometimes, like today, it’s that I’ve run into something I’d never seen before.

Regular readers know that I’ve suffered for most of my life from depression. In fact, “double depression”, chronic dysthymia with occasional acute episodes of depression. Chronic dysthymia is basically chronic low-level depression, what Shirley Maclaine is talking about in Steel Magnolias when she says “I”m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!”

One of the characteristics of depression is obsessive thoughts: you find yourself obsessively thinking that there’s no hope, that you have failed and will always fail, that you’re unworthy of happiness, worthless, and a burden to yourself, your friends, and your family. For me, one of the striking things about antidepressants, especially Prozac, fluoxetine, the one that has worked best for me, is that my thinking about these things became clearer. I was more able to recognize when I was really unhappy above something, and when it was just depression “thinking me” that way.

So, as I’ve written about suffering and the end of suffering in the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that there’s a sort of obsessiveness there too. Sitting zazen, meditating, gives you a look at your mental processes. You get yourself settled, you start watching your breath or counting or repeating a mantra, and you find yourself dragged away by other thoughts. You catch yourself dwelling on those thoughts, anticipating or remembering pleasures, worrying about things to come or remembering with embarrassment things that have happened, fantasizing about what you should have said, or what you are going to say.

Those are all examples of the roots of suffering: trishna, “thirst” or “desire”, for pleasant things, desire to avoid unpleasant things, desire to make or control things or simply be something else. I, for example, want to be a dragon.

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A Year of 13 Weeks

Saturday, October 19th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Today is 19 October. Yeah, I know, you can see it at the top of the article, but that’s an important date, because it’s now exactly a year since I determined I had to take some actions about my weight and glucose. (I came out about it in my first 13 Weeks post, “A Fat Nerd Does Diet,” on 28 October last year.)

The results overall have been good. I had several different issues when I started.

  • I weighed 301.5 on the 19th.
  • My A1c was 7.5. Although I struggled with admitting it, that’s real no-kidding diabetes mellitus. For me it appears to be type 2, (T2DM) characterized by lowered sensitivity to insulin. That was on a pretty much maximum dose of metformin, 2500 mg/day; if I were depending on drug treatment alone, I was heading for insulin.
  • I had a long-term problem with gastric reflux (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); I was on omeprazole every day and had been since a severe esophageal spasm and put me into the ER with chest pain two years before.
  • My total lipids were reasonable on 20mg/day of simvastatin but my high-density lipoproteins (HDL) were low, and my low-density (LDL) were high.
  • I also had a long-term problem with depression, although I hadn’t had a really acute episode in some years.

Now, a year later:

  • I’m down nearly 40 pounds; my recent low was 264.
  • My A1c is been between 5.9 and 6.4. The T2DM appears to be under control. I’m down to 1000 mg/day of metformin, and did a long stretch at 500 mg/day.
  • My lipids are enough better that I’m off statins, at least for this 13 week period.
  • The IBS no longer troubles me — I can’t say it’s completely resolved because, frankly, how would I know? But I haven’t had a painful episode in certainly almost a year. The GERD is also considerably better, and I’m slowly weaning myself off the omeprazole.
  • I think I can say the depression is significantly better. I haven’t had an acute episode this year, but then I hadn’t had a really acute episode in some years. But I had also been chronically dysthymic, which in combination with acute depression is called “double depression.” I really feel like that’s significantly better. I plan to write more about depression in the coming months; there are interesting suggestions that there may be some physiology that connects depression, obesity, and T2DM.

What did I do?

  • I’ve adopted a consistently low-carb, high-fat diet. I’ve played around with variants, and right now I’m around 50g carbs a day, with most of the carbs coming from fruits and yoghurt.
  • I’ve nearly completely eliminated wheat. Occasionally eating wheat seems to result in immediate exacerbation of the GERD and possibly of the IBS.
  • I’ve experimented with high-intensity interval training and high-intensity strength training, although I’ve had trouble making that a consistent practice.
  • I recently tried a broad-spectrum probiotic, which seems to have had very good effects.
  • I’ve largely structured these changes into a series of 13 week long experiments, which appears to be a sufficiently powerful model that a number of other people have adopted it for their own changes.

What have I learned in this year? It’s complicated.

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Infinity: Big and Bigger

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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On the Internet, you can never go wrong by quoting the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Now, it’s kind of a cheat, because i’m not going to talk about that kind of space, I’m going to talk about spaces in a mathematical sense. But I’m offering something in exchange, because I’m going to talk about spaces that are much bigger than mere physical space.

The point of this is really to talk about (echo effect) infinity. And beyond.

Mathematically, space is much simpler than the thing in which your coffee cup is located just out of reach and that keeps your cat from being exactly where you’re sitting, no matter how much he tries. In mathematics, a space is simply a set of some sort with some kind of additional structure. (A set is just some collection of things with no duplicates, like {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}. By convention, we put sets into braces like that example.)

So far, that’s not a space — we haven’t said anything further about it than there is a bag full of things. But — since I’ve chosen a set we conveniently already know a lot about — we know that the set is ordered because we agree that 5 is bigger than 4. And we have a space.

Okay, it’s a pretty boring space, but it’s a space.

There are some other rules we think we know, like addition — 1+2=3. But in our little space, we immediately run into trouble, because 3+4 equals what? Oh, 7, but 7 isn’t in the set. To take care of 3+4, we need to expand the set to be at least {1,2,3,4,5,6,7} and then we’re immediately going to have the problem of 4+5, or for that matter, 7+1.

Now, with nothing more than the idea of addition (we talked about ordering, but we can define an order in terms of addition) we’ve run into our first experience with infinity. There is a set N that we can define like this:

  • 0 is part of N
  • For anything that is part of N, which we’ll call n, n+1 is also in N.

We call N the natural numbers.

Now, N is pretty big. After all, no matter what n we pick, there’s always something bigger. This is what we call infinite. And all is well, until we think about subtraction: we know 3-1=2, and we know 2-1=1, and we know 1-1=0, but 0-1 isn’t in our set. So we define a new set called the integers which has new elements -1, -2, -3, and so on. We can throw in multiplication now, and all is good, but when we put in division we’re in trouble again: 2÷3 and 1÷2 aren’t in there. So we define another set called the rational numbers, Q.

Now, we’ve pretty much defined all the numbers anyone had any use for until the Greeks and Egyptians screwed it all up by trying to measure fields and distances.

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What to Do When ‘Just Sitting’ Isn’t Enough?

Sunday, October 13th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Last week we talked about suffering and the end of suffering, and about looking for that space in between the times when you dwell on the roots of suffering — desire for pleasure, desire to avoid pain, the desire to make everything perfect. Ultimately, I think the best practice for this is shikentaza, “just sitting”, but that’s hard to do as a beginner.

In fact, sometimes that’s hard to do when you’ve been practicing for years. Sometimes you sit down and your mind is capering like a drunken organ-grinder’s monkey, shaking his tambourine and stealing people’s hats, and generally just making an obnoxious spectacle of itself. What then?

Something I’ve found helpful is mantra meditation. Now, this is practically heretical in Zen, the tradition I started in and largely follow today, but — here’s a Buddhist saying for you — it is what it is. Sometimes you need to interrupt the little sonuvabitch and get him settled down, and sometimes shikentaza doesn’t do it.

So here’s how you do meditation with a mantra.

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13 Weeks: A Dull Column

Saturday, October 12th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Seriously, it’s a little weird to be writing my 13 Weeks column and not have much of anything to complain about.

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I just got back from taking a friend out for her birthday. We ate at Jax’s new seafood restaurant in Glendale (Colorado, “Godless Glendale”, the little enclave inside Denver with slightly more liberal rules for bars and restaurants. And stripper joints but we didn’t go to a stripper joint.) I had a frutte de mare salad, octopus and squid and clams and mussels in a vinaigrette, then an iceberg wedge salad with bacon and blue cheese, and a piece of monkfish sautéd with duck fat on a bed of a little bit of risotto with wild mushrooms and sautéd spinach and some nice chicharrones as a garnish.

Tasted great, and dinner only cost as much as a week’s groceries. But you’ve got to splurge every so often, and as a high-fat low-carb meal it was pretty much exemplary. I seriously do recommend the restaurant, although they seem to have a little bit of organizational trouble due to the weather getting cold enough they had to close their outdoor seating. But it is mid-October in Colorado, you have to figure it would get a little chilly. (In fact the first ski resorts are about to open.)

I took my blood sugar just now, about an hour after dinner, and it’s 91. Morning blood sugar has been good too. My weight has bounced up a little this week, but “bounced up” from 264 means it’s more like my lows from a couple weeks ago.

And I feel good. That last 5 pounds seems to have made as much, or more, difference as the preceding 30. I feel somehow skinny. I’ve had people — like a barber I hadn’t seen in a while — comment on how much weight I’d lost.

My mood is better. People who have depression will tell you, it’s not just a bad mood or feeling sad — it’s more like all that and a mild case of flu, body aches and all, along with a foggy, thick-headed feeling. And, well, I’m not feeling that.

Of course, the question is “why?” And if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that one or two or three weeks is too little to judge. But there are some things I’ve been doing.

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Clown Car Web Design

Thursday, October 10th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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A Programming Sutra

This is the way I heard it. (That’s the way all sutras start.) Long long ago — about 1997 and I’m not naming names to protect the innocent and because I figure the statute of limitations is up for the guilty, and the company I’m going to talk about has been through bankruptcy and several acquisitions so it’s not the same company anyway — a major toy retailer ToysForKids (TFK) with stores in malls all over America heard about this nifty new thing called “the web.” As I heard the story, two programmers in IT had the idea that TFK should be selling toys on the internet. They got permission to do a sort of side project, semi-bootleg, to build a demonstration e-commerce web site, ToysForKids.com. (By the way, that domain name is now owned by a domain-squatter in Hong Kong called “iGenesis Limited”, but then ToysForKids never existed anyway.)

They built the web site on a desktop server using a scripting language called tcl, and demonstrated it. It looked so good they got permission to take it live, and they happily started making dozens of sales a day with it. It really was a lovely site, too, won lots of awards.

The CIO was so pleased that he arranged a demo for the CEO. The CEO was so pleased that he arranged a big advertising buy for Thanksgiving Day during the football game — as I recall, $50 million — so that everyone would know about the new ToysForKids.com.

Everyone did. And everyone’s mom, wife, and girlfriend that had a computer went and tried to start their Christmas Shopping sometime in the first quarter.

Now, remember this is 15 years ago. The desktop server they were using wouldn’t make a good iPad now, and the Internet connection, while good for the time, had less capacity than Comcast promises me.

And everyone who was bored with football and had computer access was trying to use it. The site pretty much melted down; it wasn’t long before the programmers had found different jobs, the CIO wanted to spend more time with his family, and the CEO, um, retired.

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Suffering, and the End of Suffering

Sunday, October 6th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

So, of course I write this Buddhism column because I’m an Enlightened Being and have no personal problems, having ended all suffering and being Liberated from the Wh…

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Okay, stop laughing, especially all you people who know me personally. I’m trying to make a point.

Which is, nobody, not even the Buddha, stops having personal problems. His Dad, Suddhodana, took a long time to reconcile with his son after Siddhartha gave up the career Dad wanted for him — world-conqueror — and took up saving all sentient beings from suffering.

His cousin Ananda, who we talked about last time, was apparently sometimes a bit officious and no doubt tried to boss the Buddha around and make sure he moved on to his next interview on time. After all, he may have been the World-Honored One but he was also Ananda’s cousin Siddhartha who everyone gossiped about at home. And I’d bet a lahk that his wife Yasodhara sometimes nagged him about their son Rahula when Rahula was a teenager. And I’m sure Buddha swore when he stubbed his toe and scratched mosquito bites when they itched.

What was different is that he didn’t suffer. He didn’t have that thing with the Sanskrit name we keep talking about, duhkha. He also said that we could all stop suffering if we practiced three things:

  • we had to decide we wanted to stop suffering;
  • we had to order our affairs ethically so that we minimize the drama and angst that lead to suffering;
  • and we needed to pay attention so that we didn’t fall into suffering.

This all comes to mind because, well, I had my own opportunities to fall into suffering fairly often in the last month or so: laid off my day job, some disappointments in relationships, and all the day to day tsooris that everyone goes through. I’ve also got a young friend who is having his own troubles and has been talking to me about them. So, the topic of suffering has been on my mind.

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