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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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13 Weeks: Bugs and More Bugs

Saturday, October 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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As I wrote last week, I started using probiotics, along with fruit juice, whole fruit, and yogurt, on a vague intuition based on some reports that probiotics might improve my blood sugar, and somewhat better intuition that it might improve some other, er, passing problems.

So I’m just finishing my second jar of the 5-day probiotics (which lasts me about 7 days) and the results are that:

  • I’m down to 264, which is now a couple of standard deviations below where I was stuck for so long (and getting close to 40 pounds off my starting weight);
  • my morning fasting blood sugar has ranged from 95 to 117 with the average about 105, which is also a couple standard deviations down from what it had been.

Several people have also emailed me at ask.charlie.martin@gmail.com or commented on that last piece to tell me their experiences, and they’ve seen similar (or greater) improvements in blood sugar and comparable weight loss.

So, with n equal to about 5, there’s some success to report, and lots more questions to ask.

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Cocktail Napkin Website Planning and Obamacare

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Just for variety, today’s science column is about something I actually have some professional qualifications to write about.

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No, that really hasn’t ever slowed me down, I just wanted to note it.

In fact, my master’s thesis, “A Software Performance Engineering Environment,” was about tools to allow software engineers to develop performance models of software alongside the software. I spent some years in IBM and Sun’s consulting practices, usually dealing in one way or another with web-based businesses. I had a very popular talk, “Capacity Planning on a Cocktail Napkin,” which I later wrote as an article for SmartBear Software.

There really is only one explanation for the meltdown of the Obamacare exchanges since 1 October, and that’s utter incompetence.

Now, lemme ‘splain.

Back in the old days, at the Very Beginning Of The Web, all a web server could do was deliver a static piece of text. It was a brilliant hack by Tim Berners-Lee, who realized that he could build a little editor for a simple markup language and add one little change — a special tag that could address another page of text in the same markup language. To make it work, he needed a program that could return those files and a simple way the editor could ask for the files it wanted. The markup language was a subset of a commonly available commercial standard, SGML, called the Hyper Text Markup Language, HTML, the server program using a very simple text-based protocol called the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, HTTP, and the rest, as they say was ….

Yes, class, that’s right, “history.”

From this simple hack the whole World Wide Web was made.

Now, with the same foresight that led me to buy Borland stock over Microsoft when they both went public, I thought at the time that it was a mildly amusing notion, but I didn’t see much future in it. I was head-down in category theory working on my dissertation.

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What People Say the Buddha Said

Monday, September 30th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

So I guess I really am basically nuts. I really don’t need another project.

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As I was writing my morning pages this week, I was pondering the Kalama Sutra we looked at last week, and it occurred to me that there was a need for “readable” versions of the sutras, at least some of them. Not that the various translations aren’t good, or aren’t readable — they’re far better than some of the Victorian atrocities I’ve railed at before — but what if the sutras were redone more as they might be written down today? So today’s column is a little experiment.

As best anyone can tell, the historical buddha lived in the 5th-to-4th century, in the plains around the Indus and Ganges Rivers, mainly in what we now call northern India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Roughly 100 years later, Asoka the Great conquered nearly all of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other random small countries. He then had a “moment of clarity” looking at piles of dead people; he became a student of, and then a convert to, the teachings of the Buddha. Asoka adopted or adapted those teachings, becoming for his time a very “liberal” and enlightened king.

As interesting a fellow as Asoka is, though, he comes into this story mainly because he erected a series of monuments memorializing events in the historical Buddha’s life, and a series of 50 foot stone pillars with the Edicts of Asoka, the rules he established for running his kingdom. Those rules speak of the Dharma, and they’re pretty much the first written record of the Buddha or his teachings.

But we get the sutras by another route. Shortly after the Buddha’s death, there was a Great Council convened where the Buddha’s followers decided to agree on how they could remember and retain the Buddha’s teachings. His cousin Ananda, who had been the Buddha’s attendant and sort of his “chief of staff” who was with the Buddha every day, either had a perfect memory (as tradition says) or was one hell of a storyteller. In any case, he recited the stories of the Buddha’s life that became the foundation of Buddhism.

When they were written down 500 years later, between Ananda’s time and when the sutras were first written down, they were transmitted word of mouth. And they show it — they are full of poetry, repetition, all the things that make epic poetry easy to remember.

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13 Weeks: I Got Bugs!

Saturday, September 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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(Follow my 13 Week experiments in diet and health here at PJ Lifestyle, or at the 13 Weeks Facebook Group. Send any questions to ask.charlie.martin AT gmail.com.)

One of the interesting research areas recently has been a number of reports that obesity, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious problems like various kinds of inflammatory bowel disease all seem to associate with differences in the population of the bugs in your gut.

Long-time readers of this column may notice that list is not unlike what I’ve been troubled with since I started it a year ago.

While I’m not quite ready to look for a skinny donor for a fecal transplant (eewwwww), I’d still been rather frustrated with the continuing weight plateau and difficulty lowering my blood sugar, even after raising the metformin dose.

I was also suffering from what I’d have to say was the worst constipation I’d ever had. (I know, TMI, but this is significant.) Let’s just say that for the first time since I swallowed a big wad of chewing gum when I was 4, I learned to appreciate “Fleet” as a brand name.

So I was walking through one of the local sprouthead stores. (Alfalfa’s, which through a complicated series of maneuvers was taken over by Wild Oats, which was acquired by Whole Foods, which had to spin off some stores, which were then re-acquired by the original owners of Alfalfas and renamed Alfalfa’s. Boulder is the Peyton Place of hipster grocery stores.)

My doc had already talked to me about probiotics for my digestion issues, and on her recommendation I’d gotten Arbonne Essentials Digestion Plus, but hadn’t started with it yet.

So there I was in Alfalfa’s, and I decided to look at the probiotics there.

There are a lot of probiotics there. Hell, there’s a whole refrigerator case full of probiotics. They have more varieties of probiotics than most grocery stores have kinds of yogurt. It’s a little intimidating, plus (damned cataracts) I can’t really read the fine print, so I find something by the heuristic of “if it has more kinds of bugs, it must be better,” and buy it. It’s called Garden of Life Raw Probiotics 5-Day Max Care and it says it has 400 Billion something and 34 live strains. It says something about taking it with juice, so I buy some 400ml mixed orange and mango juice bottles, plus a cranberry juice and an apple juice. It also says take it with yogurt, so I buy some greek yogurt, full-fat (which is harder to find than you might imagine) and live cultures, and I buy some apples.

Yeah, I know, where’s the low glycemic load thing? Bear with me.

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4 Rules to Make Star Wars Great Again

Friday, September 27th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Star Wars Episodes IV, V, VI were brilliant, especially before Lucas decided to pretty things up. Here’s some guidance for Disney:

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Why Are Science and Politics So Hard?

Thursday, September 26th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Climate change, the effects of the Affordable Care Act, environmental hazards of fracking, the effects of widespread gun ownership on crime — all of these are questions that should be answerable by science or mathematics. Somehow, though, they never seem to be.

Of course, the political left has had an explanation for this: conservatives are not grounded in reality like liberals are. Chris Mooney has made rather an industry out of this, with his books The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality, and of course the political left has tried for a long time to label themselves as “the reality-based community.” Recently, Salon reprinted an article by Marty Kaplan, originally published in Alternet, that is in turn based on an article by Chris Mooney in Grist, which was in turn based on a paper “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” posted on SSRN by Dan M. Kahan and others.

Here’s how Kaplan summarizes it:

[S]ay goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

Kaplan then goes on to summarize two papers by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. I’m just going to quote a couple of his summary paragraphs.

  • People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

Now, here’s the interesting thing about these: in both cases, the “right” answer can be confirmed to be factually incorrect.

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Buddha in the Laboratory

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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If you want some admittedly esoteric fun, there’s probably no better way than to get a bunch of Buddhists talking about one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha. It’s usually stated as:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Now, this one gets a whole post on the blog Fake Buddha Quotes run by a monk named Bodhipaksa. I’m certainly not one to shy away from a little pedantic quibbling about translations, and I certainly don’t want to spoil the fun of trying to effectively translate Pali into English and arguing over the details, but in this case I think that while it might be an imperfect translation, it is a “skillful” translation.

It helps to refer again to the basics of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. So, for convenience and because it’s my column by golly, let’s hit them once more.

  1. Our lives are filled with unsatisfactory unpleasant annoying and generally uncomfortable feelings — “suffering” (Duhkha).
  2. Those feelings arise from clinging: first, clinging to pleasant experiences; second, the desire to make things what they are not; and third clinging to the attempt to push away unpleasant experiences. (Samudaya)
  3. Those unpleasant feelings can be overcome by learning not to do the things that lead to unpleasant feelings. (Nirodha)
  4. You can learn not to cling by following the suggestions of the Noble Eightfold Path.(Aryastangamarga).

Things that lead you to not cling, and thereby to reduce suffering, are called “skillful”, so the whole collection is called “skillful means”. Oh, and skillful means aren’t limited to the Eightfold Path; anything that leads to reducing clinging and thereby reducing suffering is skillful.

So what’s the fuss about? The “fake Buddha quote” is usually linked to the Kalama Sutra (that link is to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, which is brilliant, but that isn’t going to stop me from paraphrasing it).

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13 Weeks: I Am a Diabetic

Saturday, September 21st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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A good friend of mine had a heart attack the other day. She did everything right — went to the ER right away when she had the first mild angina, she’d been taking care of herself with exercise and controlling her weight. In other words, pretty much the opposite of what my mother did two years ago.

It turned out to be mild, and she was given a stent and is rehabbing now. There were, however, two things that very possibly contributed: her blood sugar was elevated into “pre-diabetic” ranges and had been for years, and her blood lipids, cholesterol and the like, were pretty elevated.

So, now as well as doing the cardiac rehab routine of mild exercise, she’s starting to manage her blood sugar, and she’s on a statin drug for the lipids.

So we were talking about it this morning and she said something that struck a chord.

I bet you will identify with how much I cringe at the word diabetic. It is so associated with not taking care of yourself because of the media.

That really struck me, because I have noticed the same thing: I’ve found it very difficult to come out and say “I am a diabetic.”

Movies and fiction about people who recover from alcoholism pr drugs usually have this dramatic, climactic scene where, after hitting bottom in some dramatic and more or less disgusting way, the main character has the “moment of clarity” and stands up in a meeting and says “I am an alcoholic.” (Two great examples, by the way, are an under-appreciated Michael Keaton film Clean and Sober, and the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block.) It’s an important moment in recovery because it marks the point at which you are — at the risk of sounding like I live in Boulder — taking ownership of the problem. Your wife isn’t driving you to drink, if it’s genetic it’s still your problem, and however you got there, that’s where you are now and you have to deal with it.

It’s also really hard to say because of the social stigma: socially, we see drunks as morally flawed. Same thing with obesity, with depression, and with drug addiction. Theodore Dalrymple has an instructive, if in my opinion mistaken, piece on this in PJM, where he questions whether we’d think of having “Arthritics Anonymous” where someone stands up and says “I am arthritic.”

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Drugs and the Shooter

Friday, September 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Whenever something awful happens, there’s an impulse to look for something that might have caused it, something we could have done, some way to control things so it wouldn’t have happened. There’s a technical Buddhist term for this, bhavatrishna, and I’ll probably write more about it in my Buddhism column on Sunday, but what’s important now is that it happens regularly.

Many times, this shows up in the form of conspiracy theories: rather than feeling essentially helpless, people develop complicated stories of conspiracies to explain things; whether it’s the Mafia, the CIA, NSA, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the Federal Reserve, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Jews, the Moslems, the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, or shape-changing reptile people. At least if there’s a conspiracy, then someone has control.

So this time, we’ve got the Navy Yard gunman — you’ll forgive me if I don’t bother to name him — and, of course, people are looking for easy explanations. From the left, we’ve got the usual one of blaming it on the AR-15 he used (which was never there); from the right, in particular Infowars and that consummate ass Alex Jones, we’ve got the assertion that it was psychiatric medications — which it appears were also never there. According to several stories, yesterday and today, the gunman complained of insomnia and was given a sleeping pill that happens to be an ineffective antidepressant.

So, just like the Navy, guns, or Buddhism, it wasn’t psychiatric drugs. In fact, according to the reports:

Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency rooms of two Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past month, but he told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others, federal officials said Wednesday.

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I Want to Fly Like An Eagle

Thursday, September 19th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

A GoPro camera on the back of an eagle flying a canyon in France.

Seriously, what could be better?

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The Buddhist Shooter

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin
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Fudo Myou (不 動 明 王 “The Immovable”)

After being burned a few, make that several, times, I’ve learned two rules that always apply to the news about something like the recent shootings at the Naval Research Labs:

  1. First reports are always wrong.
  2. In case of doubt, refer to Rule 1.

So, let’s review the things we know aren’t true that were reported:

  • It was a single shooter, not three.
  • He didn’t have an AR-15 or any sort of “assault weapon.”
  • He didn’t steal an ID, he had a valid ID.
  • He didn’t get a general discharge, and his military discipline problems weren’t major. They also happened mostly in the last couple of years.

There are some things that are being pretty reliably reported now, too:

  • He took refuges (read “converted”) and attended a Thai Buddhist temple in Fort Worth.
  • He had a history of oddly random instances of anger.
  • He was apparently very intelligent (he learned Thai from hanging around with Thai people watching Thai TV. This is not easy.)
  • He was being treated by the VA for emotional problems, including “hearing voices.”

Now, here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia:

Signs and symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia may include:

  • Auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices
  • Delusions, such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Emotional distance
  • Violence
  • Argumentativeness
  • Self-important or condescending manner
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior

With paranoid schizophrenia, you’re less likely to be affected by mood problems or problems with thinking, concentration and attention.

Key symptoms

Delusions and hallucinations are the symptoms that make paranoid schizophrenia most distinct from other types of schizophrenia.

  • Delusions. In paranoid schizophrenia, a common delusion is that you’re being singled out for harm. For instance, you may believe that the government is monitoring every move you make or that a co-worker is poisoning your lunch. You may also have delusions of grandeur — the belief that you can fly, that you’re famous or that you have a relationship with a famous person, for example. You hold on to these false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Delusions can result in aggression or violence if you believe you must act in self-defense against those who want to harm you.
  • Auditory hallucinations. An auditory hallucination is the perception of sound — usually voices — that no one else hears. The sounds may be a single voice or many voices. These voices may talk either to you or to each other. The voices are usually unpleasant. They may make ongoing criticisms of what you’re thinking or doing, or make cruel comments about your real or imagined faults. Voices may also command you to do things that can be harmful to yourself or to others. When you have paranoid schizophrenia, these voices seem real. You may talk to or shout at the voices.

Look, it looks pretty classic. As far as the Buddhist thing goes, the priest at the local temple says now he thinks the guy was just looking for a Thai girlfriend. But anyone who has practiced in any Buddhist group is also aware that a fair number of birds with broken wings come in, hoping meditation will help them.

Sometimes it does.

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Training Wheels Buddhism

Sunday, September 15th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Last week in the comments, Zopa asked me to explain the terms nirvana and samsara. It’s an interesting question, and the more I thought about it the more interesting it got.

There is a whole Buddhist cosmology that we’ll go into another time, with six Dharma realms from the realm of gods living in intense rapture to the level of intense suffering, a sort of Buddhist version of Hell. If you visit the Tiger Balm Garden in Singapore, you can see brightly painted versions of the six Dharma realms, along with lots of other Chinese mythical figures and scenes.

The problem is, since Buddha was pretty definite about the doctrine of anatman, the doctrine that there’s no such thing as a permanent identity or soul, what is there to reincarnate?

Then it occured to me that Buddha, as a teacher, was known for crafting his message to communicate with the person in front of him at the moment. The stories of his previous incarnations, the Jatakas, are teaching stories, parables; a lot of them are basically children’s stories, with bunnies and tigers and mysterious silent princes. Maybe these are basically Buddhism with training wheels, intended for people who do believe in reincarnation and rebirth. So, okay, let’s start with training wheels Buddhism to explain samsara and nirvana.

Basically, in the training wheels tradition, a person has a part that survives death and is reborn. Krishna explains this to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter:

The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11) There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist, nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12) Just as the living entity (Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during this life; similarly, it acquires another body after death. ….

Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones; similarly, the living entity (Spirit, Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies. (2.22) Weapons do not cut this Spirit (Atma), fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the wind does not make it dry. Atma cannot be cut, burned, wet, or dried. It is eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval. (2.23-24) The Spirit (Atma, Self) is said to be unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unchanging.

Notice that this translator, Dr Prasad, has included a hint there that Spirit in this context is Atman.

Hindu tradition would be that this Spirit acquires credits for good deeds and debits for bad deeds, and so when a body died, the Spirit is reborn into a life that is well suited to it. An incarnation is like going to school, and rebirth is kind of a Cosmic Sorting Hat that puts you in Griffendore or Slytherin as you deserve.

Buddha saw that this thing, this spirit, had to be something that changes and so was subject to cause and effect; it changes, so it is essentially impermanent. It can’t be the unchanging permanent thing it’s supposed to be.

So here’s one view of samsara and nirvana: samsara is that cycle of rebirth, returning again and again. Nirvana is graduation, leaving that cycle. For what? That’s one of the Unanswerable Questions: it’s literally unspeakable.

To which a whole bunch of profound students of Buddhism, in the -4th to -2nd centuries, said “what?”

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13 Weeks: Flooding the Zone

Saturday, September 14th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but I felt like you should know.

I put beans in a pot of chili yesterday.

Here’s my chili recipe, which is the one and only true authentic chili recipe (just like everyone else’s).

Chili Colorado

  • 2 lbs meat (stew beef, ground beef, beef, elk, moose, elk, venison, bear, elk, jackrabbit, or even God help us lamb or mutton. Jackalope is excellent, but be careful, those things are vicious. Save pork, javelina, and your obnoxious neighbor kid for green chili.)
  • 2 chopped onions. Big ones, why mess with a medium onion?
  • How much garlic you got? Throw it in, smashed or chopped. 6-7 cloves at least.
  • 1 Tsp lard

Now, there’s a place where I go slightly astray because I can’t find good lard. Real lard is quite soft; most store lard is somewhat hydrogenated, which makes it more solid and stable, but hydrogenated fats include a lot of trans-fats, which seem to be associated with health problems. I’m not ambitious enough to buy and render pork scraps, and I don’t know of anywhere to get leaf lard, so I use olive oil or canola oil.

Soften the onions and garlic in the lard in a heavy pot or a dutch oven. Add the meat, and let it brown a bit. If you let the onions brown, it adds some interesting flavors but it gets too sweet for my taste. Now add:

  • One package Fernandez Brothers Prepared Chili Powder.

Yes, I could make my own, but why? Fernandez Brothers’, from my home town of Alamosa Colorado, is the Platonic Ideal of all chili powders. They’ll mail order. (719) 589-6043. They’ve got pretty much anything else you need to cook Mexican food too.

  • 1 Tsp (heavy) Mexican Oregano

Stir them up, coating everything with the Red Food Of The Gods. Add:

  • 1 6 oz can tomato paste

and lots of water. Doesn’t hurt to put a bottle of beer in the chili as well. Or in the cook.

Stir until reasonably smooth and well-blended, and then simmer low until everything is nicely combined and the meat is tender — anything from a half hour for ground beef to 3 days for the jackalope. Stir it fairly often if on the stove, as it gets thick and can tend to stick. Or put it in the oven at 225°F for a couple hours.

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The Greatest Genius No One Has Heard Of

Friday, September 13th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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In the 1930s, “computer” was a job description: someone, usually a woman of mathematical bent, with an adding machine and a big sheet of columnar paper who performed a rigorous routine of hand calculations, using paper and pencil, slide rules and tables of logarithms. Stone knives and bearskins weren’t involved, but to modern eyes they might as well have been.

Large research organizations and the Department of War had a few special purpose mechanical computers intended to integrate differential equations. Vannevar Bush (who deserves his own article someday) brought a young grad student to MIT to work on the differential analyzer, a relatively advanced version of these. This video shows a version of the differential analyzer being applied to a problem for which it was utterly unsuited in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers:

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This young man, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, was named Claude Shannon, Jr. Shannon, while working on the differential analyzer, had the insight that these same computations could be done using combinations of a few simple circuits that performed basic logical operations on true and false values. He described how this could be done, and invented the whole concept of digital circuits, which derive from from Shannon’s thesis on what he called switching theory.

His Master’s thesis.

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On War

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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I’ve been writing a long piece (or a series) on the War on Terror, and it has me reading Carl von Clausewitz’ vom Kreige (“On War”) in detail, really for the first time. Clausewitz, along with Sunzi’s Art of War (孙子兵法, “Sunzi’s Military Rules”), really are the best places to go, I think, for a clear-eyed philosophical understanding of what war is and what it’s about.

In the first book, first chapter, Clausewitz offers this definition:

Der Krieg ist also ein Akt der Gewalt, um den Gegner zur Erfüllung unseres Willens zu zwingen.

“War is thus an act of violence to bend the opponent to do our will.” On the anniversary of 9/11, it’s important to keep this in mind: it was an act of violence intended to bring the United States to heel. It was not a crime, it was not a terrorist incident or a human-caused disaster, it was an act of war.

It was a war then. It is still a war now.

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The Lesson of 9/11

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Does Buddhism Require You To Be a Liberal?

Sunday, September 8th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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It’s a central tenet of hipster Buddhism that being a Buddhist is just like being a college-town liberal, but with Oriental art and maybe some yoga classes.

I don’t think it’s necessarily so. In fact, I think Buddhism, real Buddhism, is inherently more in tune with libertarian “conservative” politics. (This isn’t the place for this particular rant, but I scare-quote “conservative” because I think it’s a bad term. As I was telling someone last night, I’m not a “conservative,” I’m an 18th-century Enlightenment radical.)

As I usually do, I see this in terms of first principles, the Four Noble Truths, and yes, I am going to recite them again:

  • Our daily understanding of life, the universe, and everything is full of frustration, annoyance, discomfort, disease, anticipation, avarice, mindless acquisitiveness, dread, anxiety, stress — all the things that are included in the Sanskrit word duhkha, which is usually translated as “suffering.”
  • This suffering arises from clinging to our desire to make life, the universe, and everything be the way we want: we want pleasurable experiences, we want to avoid unpleasant experiences, and we want to control the world to make all these things happen. This is called duhkha samodhaya, the truth of the root of suffering.
  • This suffering ends when we absorb and reconcile ourselves with the fact that life, the universe, and everything stubbornly persist in doing what they’re doing and that clinging is pointless and leads to suffering. This is called nirodha, the snuffing out of duhkha.
  • And we can make that reconciliation by practicing ethical conduct (sila), by developing wisdom (prajña), and by engaging in practices that quiet the endless internal chatter (samadhi), which tends to be all about how much we like the good feelings, dislike the bad feelings, and want to make things go the way we want. Buddha gave advice on how to do this, first in the Noble Eightfold Path (aryastangamarga in Sanskrit, 八正道 in Chinese, or “I can never remember all eight at the same time” in English) and then later in more specific guidance in the Precepts.

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13 Weeks: Sweet Release

Saturday, September 7th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Week 1 of my fourth 13 week season: a low glycemic load diet, tracking my weight and blood glucose. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.

Diabetes mellitus, especially the type-2 variety that used to be called “adult onset”, is a serious problem that’s been growing along with people’s waistlines. The name comes from “diabetes” (διαβήτης in Greek, and more or less adopted whole into Latin) meaning “to pass through”, and “mellitus” from Latin, meaning “sweetened with honey.” So the name means “pees sweet.” In fact, the test for diabetes was originally to taste the patient’s urine; if it was sweet, that meant diabetes.

This is why doctors are glad they no longer do their own lab work.

Type 1 diabetes is caused when the pancreas stops secreting insulin, for reasons that aren’t completely clear; type 2 happens when the body stops responding to insulin normally. No one is quite clear why that happens either, although an interesting new line of research is suggesting that people with type-2 diabetes have abnormal populations of bacteria in the gut. (I’ll be writing more about this soon, I’ve got a stack of papers full of long Greek-root words to read.)

Whatever the cause, the effect is that your blood sugar goes too high. This has a lot of bad effects, including a greater risk of heart disease and strokes, pain and numbness in the limbs, and not to put too fine a point on it, peripheral body parts becoming gangrenous and falling off, leading to slow creeping painful death.

This explains why, when I was diagnosed as actually being type-2 diabetic (familiarly called T2DM in medical conversations) I took it somewhat seriously, leading me to the first of these 13 Week experiments last year. I’ve experimented with several different diets and exercise plans, and lost a little over 30 pounds — followed by a near plateau of very slow weight loss. I was rather more successful with controlling my blood glucose — a little too successful back in April, in fact.

So, at the end of this most recent experiment, I had an HbA1c test, which measures your average blood glucose level over the lifetime of red blood cells. (I explained that in more detail last January.)

For the previous 13 weeks, I changed the diet, adding more carbs and reducing my metformin dose to 500 mg/d to see if I could avoid the hypoglycemic episodes. I was successful; haven’t had another fainting spell. Last Friday I had another HbA1c, though, and it’s up to 6.4 percent, which still counts as good control of the T2DM, but lower would be better. So, after talking with my doc this week, I’ve made some changes in my meds: back up to 1000 mg/d of metformin, back down to 20 mg/d of Prozac, and I’ve cut out the simvastatin completely because my cholesterol is actually low. All this for this 13 weeks; I’ll have another set of blood tests at the end of this 13 week experiment, in December.

Aside: Just making it one thing after another, my current doc, who I really like, just told me that the effects of the Affordable Care Act, and the required changes in paperwork and all, have taken so much time away from doctoring, which she likes, and put so much of her time into doing clerical work, which she hates, that she’s hanging it up in February. I’m starting to look for a concierge doc in this area.

As well as changing the medications, I’ve changed the diet somewhat. I found it very difficult to maintain the “slow carb” diet. I just didn’t feel as good as I had (mostly) on the low carb diet, but I didn’t want to go back to that and have more hypoglycemic episodes. So this 13 weeks, I’m trying a low glycemic load diet.

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Still No Radioactive Fukushima Emergency

Thursday, September 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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Oh my, oh my, we’re all gonna die.

Or maybe it’s only people who live on the West Coast. Or people who eat Pacific Ocean fish. Or something.

Here’s the story, from a website called Natural News, and while I’d normally not link this sort of thing, in this case, hell, it’s pretty funny. Right up there with Infowars.

Here’s the key paragraphs:

(NaturalNews) Japan’s nuclear watchdog has now declared the leak of radioactive water from Fukushima a “state of emergency.” Each day, 300 tons of radioactive water seeps into the ocean, and it’s now clear that TEPCO has engage [sic] in a two-and-a-half-year cover-up of immense magnitude.

….

Just how out of control is the situation at Fukushima? It’s so out of control that TEPCO recently had to admit 10 of its workers were somehow — yeah, see if you can figure this out — sprayed with highly radioactive water while waiting for a bus.

Hold on, we’re coming to the punchline.

“The workers’ exposure above the neck was found to be as much as 10 becquerels per square centimeter,” reports Bloomberg.com

How exactly did highly radioactive water manage to find its way to a bus stop in the first place? [My emphasis]

Long-time PJM readers will remember I did a series of articles on Fukushima at the time of the tsunami and accident in March 2011. The gist of the articles was that you should worry about the tsunami, not the reactor accident, and in fact two years later it was being reported that sure enough the radioactivity released at Fukushima wasn’t as bad as people had feared. Just as I’d predicted at the time of the accident.

Oh, it wasn’t widely reported, but it was reported.

Press reporting on radiation, however, hasn’t improved since I wrote “The only thing to fear is the sensationalist reporting that has the world panicked.” So, let’s look at the latest “emergency” and see what really happened.

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There Is No God, and He Is Always With You

Sunday, September 1st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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I remember the first time it happened.

I’m not sure how old I was. Probably no older that 15; the movie in my head shows me the bedroom I shared with my father and a bright warm day outside. I was putting on a sock.

Very suddenly, the entire Universe changed. Very suddenly, I knew the Universe made sense. Oh, I didn’t understand it, I just knew it made sense. It was like when your grandfather shows you his special pocket watch, the one with a hinged back so that instead of seeing the face and the hands that apparently move by magic, you see the gears and springs and see that the hands are moving because of a complicated mechanism inside.

Here’s how Brad Warner, my favorite living Zen writer, described it in his blog not long ago:

In fact, this personal and private something was, I now saw, the personality of the entire universe from the beginningless beginning of time right on through eternity. I saw that this thing I thought was located so deeply inside of me that no one could ever even think of touching it was actually spread throughout all the universe. It wasn’t just inside me. It was inside Tau Ceti and Alpha Centuri and the Great Megallenic Cloud. It was there when the Big Bang happened. It was the Big Bang.

I saw that it was the very same intimate, personal, private something – the “me” aspect – of every person that ever lived, will live or could live – including you, dear reader. It was the personal private something of the sky and the sun and the moon and every ant or rock or piece of bird poop anywhere at any time throughout space. Nothing had ever happened or could ever happen without it knowing every intimate detail, bad or good, happy or sad, painful or pleasant.

If that’s not God, then I don’t know what is.

And perhaps I don’t.

Because it didn’t change me into a better person. It did not grant me moral perfection or freedom from the effects of my bad deeds. It didn’t give me magic powers. It didn’t give me extrasensory perception or vast insight into all things. It didn’t even let me know what color brontosauruses were. And that’s something I’d really like to know.

It didn’t leave me with anything to prove to others that it had visited me, like, y’know, when a guy in a sci-fi movie isn’t sure he really traveled back in time until he reaches into his pocket and discovers he still has the autograph he had Abraham Lincoln sign or whatever. Nope. I got nothing but a funny story I can tell. And not even a cool enough story to get me on one of those shows Oprah Winfrey produces!

(I know how he feels. Putting on a sock? At least Brad was walking across a bridge in Japan.)

I also told my friend it was a little like going through life with a paper grocery bag over your head. Then one day somebody lifts the grocery bag for a couple seconds and you see there’s whole world out there.

Well, Brad’s written a whole book about it now.

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Thirteen Weeks: Times Three

Saturday, August 31st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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How time flies when you’re having fun.

I’d actually expected to be at WorldCon in San Antonio this weekend, neatly bracketing this thirteen week experiment — you may recall I was in San Antonio at a wedding on the first of June — but the universe apparently was having other plans. I was laid off my day job on Tuesday, and it really didn’t seem practical to go for various reasons, including having several companies wanting to talk to me on Thursday and Friday. (I haven’t got a new day job yet, so if any of my readers are looking for senior geeks, you can find me on LinkedIn.)

It wasn’t a terrific surprise, as I’d been fighting with the management above me for a good while; in fact, it was a bit of a relief. It’s an interesting coincidence that it comes in the last week of 13, though, because — as you probably deduced if you read my last couple of weeks’ columns — I’ve been unsatisfied with this experiment. So, now we’re at the end of the experiment, and the question is: pivot or persevere?

My answer? Both.

Changing the diet and cutting the metformin in June has improved the low end of my blood sugar; unfortunately, it has done so by moving the band up. I don’t have a new A1c value yet, but my morning fasting blood sugar has averaged 121, up a bit fron the last experiment.

The “slow carb with vacation days” diet has probably contributed to that; what’s more, for me, it was harder to maintain that diet than the low-carb diet. Something that undoubtedly contributed to that was that I stopped keeping a detailed meal diary.

I did discover a way of fitting exercise into life that continues to work pretty well — slipping Tabata intervals into my Pomodoro routine.

So, part one of the pivot: I’m changing the diet again. I continue to think that carbs along with whatever physiological differences go with metabolic syndrome to type-2 diabetes are a major contributor to weight gains and higher blood sugar. At the same time, the really low carb diet stopped working for me for weight loss, and was associated with the episodes of really low blood sugar.

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Stupid Science Tricks

Thursday, August 29th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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I’ll warn you right now, this is likely to be a series, because there are a lot of stupid science tricks to talk about.

What, you may ask, is a stupid science trick? It’s when someone is using the façade of Science to pass off something that is, well, less than science. Of course, that means we need to talk about what “science” really is, and that can be a little bit tricky, because there’s no one who can finally define it. It’s not a thing, it’s a system of beliefs, and as with other belief systems, it can be a little hard to define. (Consider, for example, the arguments over what constitutes a good Christian.)

Still, there are some common characteristics we can identify. Science is an attempt to understand and explain the world based on some assumptions: that there is a real world outside of ourselves; that this real world can be understood and explained; and that those explanations are true for everyone, so they can be tested and confirmed, or fail the test and be discarded.

We’ve built up a bunch of social processes around these assumptions, something I’ve called the “social contract of science”, that establish some basic rules: when you are doing science, you publish your results so that others can see them and criticize them, and you make this easier by including in the publication full details of your methods, and by keeping your data and making it available to others.

Like other social processes, real-world science isn’t being done by saints, and the social processes can be messy, but over time science has proven to be self-correcting. Sometimes, especially as people get grants and build up reputations in the scientific world, that self-correction can be a little slow. Add in politics, and the self-correction can be even slower, the stakes for refutation higher, and the discussions can get just a little bit ugly.

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Compassion and Idiot Compassion

Sunday, August 25th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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About eight years ago, I had to take my 18 year old Siamese, Vashti, to the vet for what I knew was her last time. She had lymphoma, and I’d been taking care of her as she failed slowly, until finally I was feeding her baby food with an irrigation syringe. Still, she’d always seemed grateful; she purred, however faintly, when I petted her, and she woulld sleep for hours on her special sheepskin rug, which I kept in my lap. But one morning I looked at her, and I heard her say, as clearly as if she’d spoken in words, that she was ready. So we went to the vet, and I held her, and as the vet was putting the needle into her vein, she died peacefully, before the vet even gave the injection.

Afterward, there were people who scolded me for waiting so long; and there were people, New Age hipsters, who said that as a Buddhist I should not have taken her to the vet, shouldn’t have participated in killing another sentient being. And I wondered myself if I’d waited too long, out of selfishness — but Vashti wasn’t just my cat, she was like my familiar, and you could make a good case that she’d been the only really successful relationship with a female of any species I’d ever had.

In any case, I was no longer uncertain after she’d died, because I was sure that I’d done as Vashti had wanted.

So last week we talked about metta, “good will” or “lovingkindness”, one of the virtues exhibited by the Buddha that we try to learn to recognize in ourselves through metta practice. If you’ll remember, in metta practice, you try to invoke that feeling of metta in yourself, and then direct it toward yourself and toward others, even people toward whom you feel hatred and anger.

Metta has another virtue, karuna or “compassion”, with which it is paired. Metta is wishing good to others; karuna is understanding the suffering of others. Buddha, when he was Enlightened, could have chosen simply to reside in nirvana, but because of his feelings of metta and karuna chose to teach the Way of Liberation instead. The two things together are really the basis of Buddhist notions of morals: your good will to others goes along with your recognition that the other person is really, at heart, another person like yourself, and so you try to avoid causing suffering and try to help them also avoid suffering.

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