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:
- First reports are always wrong.
- 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
- Emotional distance
- 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.
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.
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?”
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).
- 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today’s my birthday, 58th birthday, and I’m not exactly thrilled with it, although it’s certainly a necessary thing in my ambition to get really really old. It’s sure hard not to find myself thinking not about what I have done, but what I hoped to do but haven’t done.
So this may be a bit of an unsatisfying column today. I think I’m writing it for myself.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Jack Kerouac
I’ve always been a misfit. Too smart, too fat, too creative, too many interests, too many ideas, too many questions.
The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times. — Paolo Coelho
This is an old Japanese proverb — Coelho is an aikido student and it’s used in aikido a lot — “nana korobi ya oki”.
When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny. — Paolo Coelho
But change is hard. Making a change is hard. Making a change that has an effect is hard. Making a change that affects others is even harder.
Maybe we really can only change ourselves.
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real… it is possible… it’s yours.” — Ayn Rand
I re-read this quote a lot. It’s one of my favorites in Atlas Shrugged.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. — T.S Eliot
I don’t know if you’ll understand what I’m saying here.
I hope I do.
370年11月2日 (2339 AD November 2 Old Style) Earth — Tourists are gathering from all the Twenty Planets today to see a natural phenomenon unique to the Earth: a total solar eclipse. The Earth and its major natural satellite, Luna, align periodically so that the system’s primary Sol is exactly blocked from view in a small region of the Earth’s surface, producing an effect known as a “diamond ring” for its similarity to a traditional ornament among the indigenous sophonts, before precisely blocking the star from view and revealing the extended stellar corona to the naked eye.
While satellite transits of a stellar primary are common to all inhabited worlds, and most known planets, the coincidence of size and orbital distance that produces the spectacular visual effect is so unusual that some religious groups on Earth point to it as evidence that the God or Gods have taken a special interest in the Earth.
A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Earth and Sun, blocking the Sun from view. Normally, this would simply be called a “transit”, and having one body transit the Sun from another is not really all that uncommon. But solar eclipses as we see them on Earth depend on a coincidence so unlikely that it’s entirely possible the Earth and Moon are the only pair of a planet and satellite in the entire Milky Way galaxy for which it happens.
It happens that the Moon’s diameter and distance are such that at least in certain parts of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, the Moon as seen from Earth is exactly the same size as the Sun. For the part of the Earth’s surface that is on the direct line from the Sun through the Moon, the Sun is perfectly obscured, so that it’s only visible through mountain valleys around the edge of the Moon, producing an effect known as “Bailey’s Beads”.
There is a story in the Jatakas about the time a mad elephant, released by the Buddha’s enemies, charged down the street toward the Buddha. People are screaming and running, the elephant is tearing up shopkeepers’ displays and smashing things, and Buddha’s disciple Ananda tried to drag him out of the way. Buddha said “Relax, Ananda, I got this,” and stood in the elephant’s path. The elephant was used to people screaming and running, and here’s this guy in an orange bath sheet just smiling at him. Uncertain, confused, the elephant — his name is Nalagiri, by the way — Nalagiri hesitated, and the Buddha walked closer, confidently, like the king of mahouts. He gestured, and Nalagiri knelt, his madness gone, and presented his head to be scratched.
You might as well remember Nalagiri, he’s one of my favorite characters and I’m sure he’ll be back again.
One of the first things that attracted me to Buddhism was that it treats animals as first-class citizens. I’m one of those people who never met an animal he didn’t like (although I’m a little jittery about spiders) and I never really got why the pastor said my dog didn’t have a soul but the obnoxious kid sitting behind me in Sunday School did. I had also learned, even at eleven, that someone who treated animals badly usually didn’t treat people very well either. But it wasn’t until much later — really, it wasn’t until the months after 9/11 — that I understood how important that feeling toward animals is.
I been contemplatin’.
That’s a fiction character talking — I don’t know much about him, frankly he just popped into my head right now, but he’s an older man, unschooled but wise, from the South, wearing faded denim overalls that weren’t faded when he bought them. I can’t really see his face yet.
He popped up when I thought of what to write today on my continuing efforts with diet and exercise. Which turned out to be as much about my mind as my middle. Like him, I been contemplatin’ — where I am and what I’m doing and in particular what to say today about diets and such.
After a couple of promising weeks, it’s clear that either I’m still on my plateau or, if you like, that my plateau broke and I immediately hit another one, about 3-5 pounds down. This is frustrating. I haven’t done the hard-core slow-carb diet, and the wimpy version I’ve been doing hasn’t led to a lot of weight loss. Nor has doing the tabata etc.
Still, my blood sugar is stable, if a touch too high, but I’m not having the hypoglycemic episodes, and that’s good. Some combination of things — Pomodoro Technique, a new boss at the day job who actually listens to me instead of telling me to sit down and shut up, the new columns — has got me writing more than I really ever had, and every day of that I learn more about how to write through little blocks and struggles. And I have lost a good solid 30 pounds and I’m clearly keeping it off.
And you know, a year ago I was contemplatin’ too. My mother had died the previous January, just a couple days before her 77th birthday, and she was 20 when I was born. I was looking at my 57th birthday and realizing she’d died at 77 and my father had died not long after his 69th birthday and I didn’t like the way that subtraction worked out. And I’d lost a lot of time to my long struggle with depression, that kept taking me out of the fight to do what I really wanted, and had reduced me to doing what I needed to do to get by, to survive.
Nerdy kids like me looked at that and dreamed of having our own rocket pack, flying over the neighborhood, escaping from the bad guys. The real Bell Rocket Belt would have been a bit of a disappointment — total flight time less than 30 seconds, and you really don’t want to run out of gas. Still, I’d have gone for it, and I’m disappointed to discover that while a few of them still exist, pilots are limited to 175 pounds.
Maybe things are (heh, heh) looking up. A New Zealander named Glenn Martin — no relation to me, and as far as I know, no relation to the other aviation pioneer named Glenn Martin — has been working for years on his own version of the jet pack. His version solves some of the problems.
First of all, instead of using real rockets, this uses two ducted fans driven by a gasoline engine. This is not as inherently cool as a rocket, but it means that you can get pretty reasonable flight time.
It really is all tomatoes all the time this week in the Martin household, so I thought I’d make it a trifecta.
No, I don’t think Siddhartha used a tomato timer, but I’ve begun to see a similarity among several of the things I do as practices: Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, the Pomodoro Technique as I use it, and zazen (“zah-zen”), the basic Buddhist meditation. But to explain that, I need to explain meditation, a column I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
Meditation is one of the basics, maybe the basic, components of Buddhist practice. It was the primary sort of meditation that Buddha taught his followers. In Japanese traditions, it’s called shikantaza (只管打坐, Chinese “Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò”) — which simply means “nothing but sitting.”
Okay, so it’s “just sitting”. Pretty easy, eh?
But wait, there’s more!
The trick is, it’s just sitting and nothing else. If you sit down someplace comfortable, turn off the radio and the TV, relax and let your eyes become unfocused, and just sit, pretty quickly one of two things will happen: either you’ll find your mind consumed with thoughts, or you’ll fall asleep. Maybe both. Your mind becomes consumed with one thought, and then another — sexual fantasies, imagined arguments with whomever you might be arguing with, blog posts or comments or what you would have said if you’d have just thought of it then. You find yourself dwelling on thoughts, and so you’re no longer just sitting.
One of my running themes in these 13 Weeks columns has been that I knew I wanted to be more fit, and knew exercise would help me with my blood sugar as well, but that I found it hard to fit it into my schedule. It’s not that I don’t like the exercise, but the recommendations I hear for five or six hours of exercise a week just don’t seem workable. Add in time to get ready and time to shower and all, and it’s an investment of 10 hours a week or more. That’s 20 tomatoes a week, and if I had another 20 tomatoes a week I’d write more.
Yes, it’s all tomatoes all the time in the Martin household.
(For those of you who came in late, I wrote on Wednesday about my use of the Pomodoro Technique, and how it has helped me as a writer, and I mentioned that I’d found it also helpful integrating exercise into my time. If you want to go read that article, go ahead, we’ll wait for you.)
There is a growing body of research, though, that shows lengthy exercise sessions aren’t actually necessary to get the health benefits of exercise. In a paper entitled “Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease” Dr Martin Gibala and others at McMaster University studied the effects of short intense bursts of exercise compared to longer aerobic exercise and found that a program of 4 intense 30 second bursts of exercise 3 times a week was about as effective as lower intensity training taking several hours a week. Regular 13 Weeks readers may remember me talking about the Tabata protocol, in which training sessions of 20 seconds of all-out effort are interspersed with 10 second breaks; this is very similar.
So, I had this idea: when I’m writing, and my 25 minute Pomodoro time runs out, I take my 5 minute break by doing a Tabata session, usually with my exercise bike but sometimes with kettle bells. (In fact, the tomato just rang. Back in 5 minutes.)
Okay, I’m back. I’ve bought a collection of timed music for Tabata sessions. This video shows an example of several people doing Tabata sessions to music from tabatasongs.com, one of my favorite sources.
I start one of these songs playing on my Roku box from my Amazon cloud player and get on the exercise bike. I go like hell for 20 seconds, then pedal slowly for ten, and repeat seven more times.
When I get off the bike, I can barely stand — I’m peddling much faster than I could on a real bike, I’d fall over. It takes a minute or two to recover, so I imagine my five minute breaks are more like six or seven minutes. But I’m trying to write for three tomatoes every morning, so I’m getting either two or three sessions every morning as well.
I’ve been doing this for a couple of week only, so it’s hard to say how much real effect it’s having as far as fitness goes, and impossible to say how much effect it’s having on the diabetes yet, but5 there is one effect I can already see: my mood on a morning when I’ve actually done my three tomatoes and two tabatas is much better; I fee awake and I feel like I’ve done something. I can take a shower and go to the office. On the weekends I try to do 5 tomatoes and four tabatas.
Obviously, like all good research, the conclusion is that more study is needed, but I’ve got to say, this actually seems to work well.
On April 22, 1970, I — along with a teeming multitude of junior high school and high school kids, college students, hippies and New Leftists — participated in the first Earth Day, a “teach-in” organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to make the world aware of the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world — starvation from Malthusian collapse, the coming Ice Age, industrial pollution combined. In Pueblo, Colorado, we had a list of “demands” — the one I remember best was closing the City Park to car traffic so people wouldn’t be exposed to all that automobile exhaust.
It wasn’t a complete loss, as I met a couple of girls who I’d have an unrequited crush on for years after, but it didn’t have a whole lot of other effect locally — anti-pollution laws had already cut the emissions from the CF&I steel mill significantly, and the City Park remained open to cars, even on weekends. The enabling legislation that led to the Environmental Protection Agency had been signed the preceding January; and at least for me, my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when my father pointed out to me that a lot of the people who drove into City Park on summer weekends were poor people who lived in poorer parts of town. The country club members who lived near us would be fine — it was my friends Manuel and Vern, who worked with me on the loading dock, who wouldn’t be able to visit the park.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which predicted the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world — starvation from Malthusian collapse, the exhaustion of oil and “nonrenewable” resources, industrial pollution combined. The charts looked impressive, the model looked impressive — this was long before I really became involved in modeling myself, and learned how much of a model’s results depend on the assumptions of the modelers — and I really thought this was the real thing. My friends and I started planning a sort of neo-Mission style adobe fort in order to survive the collapse.
That didn’t happen either, the brunette with the waist-length hair who was going to be the new Eve to my Adam never did actually sleep with me, I went off to college, the world didn’t end again. By then, I was starting to get more skeptical.
When the imminent environment crisis of global warming faced the world, I read about it fairly widely. The model of CO2-forced warming seemed plausible, but too many of the predictions depended on models that I knew were more complicated than I would trust — and by then I’d lived through the predictions of imminent nuclear war, and nuclear winter, and nuclear winter’s baby cousin the global cooling that would be caused if the U.S. were foolish enough to try to take back Kuwait, forcing Saddam Hussein to set fire to the oil fields, and a half dozen other imminent crises — and I had become a confirmed skeptic of imminent crises in general.
Like a lot of writers, I really like having written, and I suspect like a lot of writers, I love the feeling of writing when it’s going well. But I hate trying to write, or starting to write.
Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. — Gene Fowler
So, I’ll tell you one of the keys to writing: you have to give yourself permission to write badly. Then go ahead and write, because you simply can’t write something you like until you have at least written something.
- You decide you need to do something.
- You get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes.
- For that 25 minutes, you do the task you started, and refuse to do anything else. (There will be inevitable distractions and I’ll talk about those momentarily.)
- At the end of 25 minutes, if you’re not done, you take a five minute break.
In a sense, this is the same pattern as a 13 Weeks Experiment, although much quicker: pick something you want to do, pick how to do it, do it for a short interval, then stop and re-evaluate (“pivot or persevere”).
It’s called the Pomodoro technique — Italian for “tomato” — because Francesco Cirillo, the inventor of the method, happened to have a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, and is Italian.
So, here’s how it works. I’m working on my first pomodoro on this article, which I figure will, as usual, take me about 2 pomodori. I set a timer, and start it ticking. Now I look at the blank page.
This is a “drops of blood on the forehead stage” and it’s by far the hardest thing for me. I’ve learned, however, that I can always write something badly, and with only 25 minutes, I can start and if I still hate it at the end of 25 minutes, I can toss it, or mine it for anything I do like. The ticking noise keeps me aware that I’m working on a time limit, and when I get distracted, I just say “I can do that in a few minutes.” After 25 minutes, I’ve accumulated some number of words — I type at about 60 words a minute, so with luck I’ve got 1500 words. A lot of times, though, by that time I’m feeling like I’m rolling, and will keep going until I feel a lagging in my energy; I often will set the timer back to 25 minutes again at that point, basically skipping the break. I never skip two breaks though.
At the break, I get up and do something — get more coffee, go to the bathroom, walk around a little — and go back to work for another 25 minute tomato. Or, more recently, I get up and do a 4 minute Tabata workout, something I’ve talked about in my 13 Weeks column before. I now have a collection of Tabata timing songs on my digital music, so I’ll play one song and do some kind of workout. At the end of the song, I’ve had a break and gotten away a little bit; I come back able to go to work again.