I think one of the essential keys to understanding what the Buddha taught is understanding the term karma. Now, I know this has come up before, but let’s look a little more closely at it, because karma is one of the terms that has been adopted into English in a horribly distorted, badly translated sort of accumulation of half-understood concepts combined with Victorian Orientalist New Age whoo whoo.
To put it gently.
The whoo whoo explanation of karma — which, to be fair, is at least similar to the understanding in more theistic kinds of Hinduism too — is that it’s some kind of Scale of Cosmic Justice that arranges, through reincarnation, to see to it that you are punished through horrible life experiences in one life for bad things you’ve done in some previous life, and that you’re rewarded for good things you’ve done. So anything, good or bad, that happens to you is the result of some thing you did in some previous life that you now have no control over. “It’s just karma, man!”
The word karma, though, has a much simpler and more straight-forward meaning: it’s “action”. It’s paired with another word, vipaka, which just means “consequences of an action”.
This was a week of lapses. It happened by accident. Monday was a carb day, because there were plans to go out as a group. Tuesday was not meant to be a carb day, but I went to an Indian buffet and the rice just called my name. One of my favorite dishes in the world is rice with dal (lentils) and raita (yogurt with cucumers and spices), and not only does the rice add something to the flavor, it’s damn near impossible to eat dal and raita without rice to hold it.
Wednesday was just flat out cravings. I Wanted French Fries. I Wanted Chocolate.
So I ate them. Sue me.
By Thursday I was over it, and feeling a little puffy, so I’m back on the low-and-slow plan, eating not many grams of carbs and making those all slow carbs. (White rice, really any grain, is not a slow carb.) I had the usual 5 lb swing from the carbs, but now the swings are starting from lows of 267 or so. And today I’m really over it, as I’ve got some kind of stomach flu; I haven’t eaten anything permanently (so to speak) since yesterday, so I’m kinda sticking to tea and, well, tea. Nothing else is of much interest.
I was talking with a good friend about my columns, though. She had looked at the meal pictures I’d run and commented that I didn’t seem to get much variety. This sort of surprised me, as I don’t think of it that way. Oh, I eat a very stereotypical breakfast, but doesn’t everyone? And I eat things that I can easily stick in the George Foreman Grill, because that’s easy and I like broiled or grilled meat. At lunch, I go to any one of a dozen restaurants, although I tend to get the same things every time at each restaurant — tandoori chicken at the Indian restaurant, buffalo wings and salad at Chili’s, big salads with tuna at Mad Greens.
When I agreed to write a weekly science column, I have to admit that it was intimidating at first — the thought of having to find a topic every week.
I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly. The supply of people saying dumb stuff about science, and the opportunities to explain why the things they’re saying are dumb, is just endless.
It’s kind of sad when it’s NASA though.
Yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is a video from NASA’s Goddard institute of Space Science (GISS) in New York City. GISS is directly upstairs from Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway, famous in song and TV.
None of which is particularly important in this story.
So, if you watch the video (embedded below), it’s an animation of the computed distribution of surface temperatures changing from 1891 to 2011. The video itself is an excellent example of press-release science. Let’s just list some of the issues:
- The scale on the temperature variation, which is colorized to run from deep blue to fiery red, is a mere ±2°C. Sure looks impressive to go from ooooh-cold blue to OMG red though.
- The use of a Mercator projection means that the visible area of the map is completely dominated by the Northern Hemisphere above about 40°N (which happens to be right where I’m sitting now) and in particular by northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. This will be important, because
- As the video runs, those vast areas of the northern and southern extremes turn that fiery OMG red giving the impression of a world wide conflagration.
This is why it’s “press release science”: they’re reporting real results — although questionable for various reasons — but doing so in a TV-movie dramatization.
The APOD blurb is interesting too.
Explanation: How has the surface temperature of Earth been changing? To help find out, Earth scientists collected temperature records from over 1000 weather stations around the globe since 1880, and combined them with modern satellite data. The above movie dramatizes the result showing 130 years of planet-wide temperature changes relative to the local average temperatures in the mid-1900s. In the above global maps, red means warmer and blue means colder. On average, the display demonstrates that thetemperature on Earth has increased by nearly one degree Celsius over the past 130 years, and many of the warmest years on record have occurred only recently. Global climate change is of more than passing interest — it is linked to global weather severity and coastal sea water levels.
Let’s look at it piece by piece.
Yes, I’m serious. Buddhists have no souls. Or permanent ones at least. That’s really what Buddha taught.
Okay, end of column.
Let’s talk about souls first. What is this “soul” thing we’re talking about? The ever-convenient Mac built-in dictionary says the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”
The common conception of the soul in the West is the immortal part of us, the thing that goes to Heaven — or doesn’t — when we die. There’s a whole lot of Western Christian philosophy about the soul that I’m not going to try to go into in depth, but certainly that’s the basic idea: an eternal, undying part that just “wears” the body, like clothes that it takes off and leaves behind. There’s a living, breathing entity there that’s “alive,” and then the breath stops and something is gone.
In fact, the Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese words that correspond to “soul” all have roots in “breath.” (I just looked up the etymology of “soul,” which is of Germanic origin, and it turns out to be pretty much perfectly obscure; it appears that early missionaries into Northern Europe picked it up to translate the Greek word psyche.)
In any case, the Sanskrit word is atman, and one of the Buddha’s basic teachings was the doctrine of an-atman (an- being a negative), or in other words, the doctrine of the non-existence of a permanent soul.
This was a radical revision of the Hindu idea that appears in, for example, the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (That’s from Prabhupada’s translation, the one the Hare Krishnas used to sell in airports. Another thing we lost after 9/11.)
Basically, what Buddha was pointing out was that anything that was “us,” was our “identity”, was inherently changing from day to day, instant to instant, and so necessarily couldn’t be “eternal.” So there is no permanent Self, no soul, no spirit that exists forever.
This is probably the thing that is least understood in Buddhism, and this time I don’t mean in the West; I mean everyone. That illusion of Self is persistent and very very stubborn, because it’s a necessary illusion in day-to-day life — if there’s no Self and no others, then who’s going to write the columns? Who’s going to cash the checks?
It’s actually getting close to nine months since I had that first epiphany — that I wasn’t that much younger, really, than my parents had been when they died, and that I didn’t want to die young. Hell, I don’t want to die at all, and as the old joke goes, I’ll either be immortal or die trying.
Of course, if you’ve been following this column and my 13 Weeks Facebook page, you already know that what I’ve done has been to structure things in 13 week experiments; over time, I’ve begun to see it as:
- Observe something that I want to change, like weight or blood sugar.
- Propose a treatment — diet, exercise, drugs, or whatever — to change that thing, and define how I’ll measure my progress.
- Perform the treatment for a fixed length of time. For a variety of reasons, I settled on 13 weeks.
- At the end of that time, evaluate the results, and either pivot to a new treatment, or persevere in the old one.
Low-carb diet worked for a while; now I’m on a slightly higher-carb “slow-carb” diet that has turned out to be reasonably effective, in that I’ve resumed losing about a pound a week. It’s also done a lot toward controlling my blood sugar and type-2 diabetes, and I’ve now lost something close to 40 lbs since October, as well as improving my already-good cholesterol.
All in all, it hasn’t been spectacular — I’m not going to get an informercial out of it — but it’s been pretty good.
I’ve also been writing essentially a diary on the Facebook page and in these columns, looking back, I’ve learned something from them.
Dieting is hard.
Seeing the Earth from above. It has fascinated people for thousands of years. We would look at the mountains…
Along with all my other rants about the way Buddhism is misunderstood, one bunch of misunderstandings and misconceptions that I can’t blame on the Victorian translations are the ones that come bundled with the word “religion”. Because all the dominant religions in the West are “Abrahamic” and derived from Judaism, we have a very deeply ingrained belief that all religion uniformly believes in a single God or chief god. In fact, a dictionary definition gives:
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion.
a particular system of faith and worship: the world’s great religions.
Then along comes Buddhism. Not only does Buddhism not prescribe a belief in a particular god, when questioned about it, old Siddhartha got very cagey about talking about it at all. Various sutras talk about various believers in other things coming to debate the Buddha, and traditionally there are ten (or fourteen if you’re in a Mahayana tradition like me) things that Buddha repeatedly refused to get into. These became known as the Fourteen Unanswerable Questions, (Sanskrit: Avyakrta) and so as not to keep you in suspense, these are:
- Is the world eternal? Is it not? is it both? Is it neither?
- Is the world finite? Is it infinite? Is it both? Is it neither?
- Is the self identical to the body? Is it different or separate from the body?
- Does an enlightened being continue to exist after death? Or not? Both? Neither?
Theravada Buddhists leave off the both or neither questions on the first two, which is why they only have only ten unanswerable questions. Clearly, Mahayana is superior.
Yes, that was a joke.
I’m halfway through this experiment, so I thought it was time to write more about what I’m experiencing this time. As you may recall, my hypothesis this time was that Tim Ferris’ “slow carb” style of dieting would be more effective than the really low-carb diet I’d been following. I had a really good reason for thinking I needed to back away from the really low-carb diet: some periods of low blood sugar that ended up with me fainting at a really inconvenient time, ie, while driving home.
So what has come of it?
First off, I haven’t had trouble with the hypoglycemic episodes; that’s good, as there’s no convenient way for me to avoid driving.
Weight and glucose overall have been, well, interesting.
The chart on the next page is my weight and glucose over the course of the experiment. Just as a reminder, the protocol I follow is to take both weight and glucose first thing in the morning, weighing nude, taking the glucose within half an hour of getting up and usually about 10 minutes after, since that’s how long it takes to feed the cats and start a pot of coffee.
Since science is all about making things predictable, it is sort of a surprise that many of the advances in science in the last hundred years have been made using mathematics about things which are inherently and intrinsically unpredictable: the mathematics of probability, and its applied-math stepchild, statistics.
The usual example of something that’s inherently unpredictable is flipping a fair coin. Take a quarter from your purse, flip it, and it comes up either heads or tails.
Now, because I know my readers, I can tell someone is getting set to write me a comment about how there’s no such thing as a perfectly fair coin, or that it can also land on an edge, or explaining how they learned to flip a coin so it made exactly one turn and so they could always predict how it would land, so let me just say: this is mathematics, it’s a perfectly fair coin, and we’re going to be catching it in the air so it never lands on edge. So just stop.
As I said, when you flip this perfectly fair coin, it either comes up heads or tails. The next time you flip it, it also comes up either heads or tails, and which comes up doesn’t depend on the previous flip at all. Technically, we’d say it “has no memory”, it’s memory-less. Random things with this memory-less property are going to be important, so remember the word.
The gambler’s fallacy is imagining that something like a fair coin actually has memory — in other words, if you’ve had a run of heads, you’re “due for” tails to come up. The truth is that every time you flip a coin, what comes up is independent of all the previous flips. What makes you think you’re “due for” a tails is that over many coin flips, the likelihood of getting a run of many heads or tails gets smaller, and it gets smaller quickly.
Let’s start with the simplest case. If you flip a coin exactly once, the chances of getting all heads are exactly 50-50. It’s either heads or tails, which we’re going to represent as 0 for heads and 1 for tails. Flip the coin twice, and the chance of getting all heads drops to 1 in 4: 00, 01, 10, 11. Three times, and it’s 1 in 8: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, 111. I won’t carry out the examples any further, but it’s easily shown that this pattern carries on forever, and the chance of getting a run of heads of length n is exactly 1/2n. Now think about flipping a fair coin many many times: for every run of 10 coin flips, we won’t get a run of 10 heads 1023 out of 1024 times. So you’re right that you learned to expect that you won’t get ten heads in a row; the fallacy is that if you have gotten nine heads in a row, you’re still going to get that tenth heads exactly half the time.
I have a pair of Birkenstocks — you just knew I wear Birkenstocks, didn’t you? — anyway, I have a pair of Birkenstocks that I bought on my honeymoon, thirty years ago this September. Now, Birkenstocks are pretty tough, but they do wear out; I’ve had the Vibram soles replaced three times, the uppers eventually broke a strap so I had them replaced, and while I was doing that they rebuilt the cork part where it had worn away.
You see the joke here, of course: at this point, I’ve replaced all the parts, but I think they’re “the same shoes”. It’s like the story about the farmer who bragged he had a pickaxe that was a hundred years old, handed down from his great-grandfather. Oh, he’d replaced the handle six or seven times, and he once broke the pick end trying to pull a stump so he’d had to replace the head, but the tool was a hundred years old.
This is actually a central point of Buddhism. In fact, the Heart Sutra says that Buddha became Enlightened by realizing, wholly and completely, that everything in the universe that we see and interact with, everything that is related to everything else by cause and effect, is just like my Birkenstocks: a collection of atoms that happen to be in one relationship at a particular time, but that came together from parts of other things in the past and will come apart and become something else in the future. When buddha really saw that, he saw through and recovered from the addiction of thinking there could be something permanent, and so ended the clinging to a fantasy of permanence that causes suffering.
Which is all well and good, but until we manage to Realize the Heart of Perfect Wisdom ourselves, what can we do?
That’s the Fourth Great Truth: that there are upaya — “skillful means” or “expedient means” or even “clever tricks” — through which one can reduce one’s own suffering now, and reduce the likelihood of suffering in the future. Siddhartha laid out some of these clever tricks in a program of eight steps that’s usually called, in English, the Holy Eightfold Path.
I’m going to take an aside here for one of my periodic rants about the Victorian Theosophist translations Buddhism is burdened with in English. The “Holy Eightfold Path” in Sanskrit is arya-ashtanga-marga; wherever you see “Holy” or “Noble” in something in Buddhism, you can bet the original word was “arya”. The problem is that arya doesn’t really mean holy, and only sort of means “noble” — it really means “valuable” or “precious”. The translation to “noble” happens because the term is often used for “noblemen” or aristocrats. Chinese is more straightforward — it’s 八正道, ba1 zheng4 dao4, or “road of eight valuable things”. What are these eight valuable things? They break down into three groups: wisdom, ethical behavior, and meditation.
I’ve always been one of those people for whom the potatoes in french fries are a condiment added to a serving of salt.
Pretty much any of the usual suspects in nutrition would tell me that I was being an idiot, that it would give me high blood pressure or a heart attack or something. And the fact that even at my heaviest I never had blood pressure over what’s considered normal — 120/80 — and my recent blood pressures are running like 110/60 never seems to deter them.
So it was interesting to come across a recent, extensive, study on what the actual health outcomes are for low-salt diets. (You can go to the link and buy the whole book for $43.20 or you can download the PDF for free. Guess which I did.)
Remember a few weeks ago when we looked at a controversy over what an actual healthy weight is? It turned out that especially as we get older, being a little bit heavy was good: there was a greater risk of dying at a “normal” weight than there was for someone who was “overweight” according to body-mass index.
According to this study — which was a “meta-study”, it evaluated many different primary studies to try to decipher what the evidence was suggesting — it appears that something similar happens with salt intake. Here’s Finding 2 of the study:
The committee found that data among prehypertensive participants from two related studies provided some evidence suggesting a continued benefit of lowering sodium intake in these patients down to 2,300 mg per day (and lower, although based on small numbers in the lower range). In contrast, the committee found no evidence for benefit and some evidence suggesting risk of adverse health outcomes associated with sodium intake levels in ranges approximating 1,500 to 2,300 mg per day in other disease-specific population subgroups, specifically those with diabetes, [chronic kidney disease], or pre-existing [cardiovascular disease]. …
Emphasis mine, and I expanded the abbreviations.
What to make of this?
Well, first of all, I’m not your doctor, and in fact I’m not anybody’s doctor or even a doctor at all. If you’re on a low-salt diet because your doctor recommended it, don’t change it because of this article; talk anything over with your doctor first. But if you’re avoiding salt just because you’ve been told you should, and your blood pressure is normal and your kidneys are working well, it may be that worrying about your salt intake is more harmful than having some salt.
One more thing: some of the studies suggest that low salt diets may in fact increase insulin resistance and thus exacerbate type-2 diabetes.
This is the end of the sixth week of my current 13 week experiment: so far, my weight is down about 8 pounds (broke the plateau? Maybe so.) and my glucose is hovering around 115 on average. You can follow the conversation daily at the 13 Weeks Facebook page, and you can follow my fitful exercise endeavors by signing up for a free membership in Fitocracy.
At last word, Ed Snowden is still in the Moscow Airport, possibly getting a little stinky after two weeks of sponge baths in airport washrooms, probably dyspeptic after two weeks of airport meals, and probably reflecting on the watchword of international politics: countries don’t have friends, only interests.
Here’s a little speculation on how he got into this pickle.
It’s clear that he’d developed a political interest in electronic intelligence collection at some point, and he’s said that he moved over to Booz-Allen Hamilton specifically to get access to more and different information. As I’ve said elsewhere I suspect that he got into a system administrator position where he eventually got “system high” access — probably a UNIX system and he was a root user. This means that you have access to any file on a system, all powers are granted you — that’s why a root account is called the “superuser”. In secure systems it’s more complicated, but the fact is that maintaining a really secure system has a lot of annoyances and eventually someone ends up with really high privileges.
But what have we seen of that information? He’s told a bunch of stories to Glenn Greenwald, and he’s leaked the PRISM slides. But there wasn’t a lot of information on those PRISM slides that hadn’t been known before except for particular code names on particular programs; and in fact the slides, while marked TOP SECRET, have been redacted (look for unlabeled black blobs.)
Now, with the friends and interests point in mind, think about places Snowden might go for asylum. The big ones, Russia and China, and little ones like Ecuador (which has its own problems with Julian Assange cluttering up its guest rooms). I’m sure it is a big surprise to note that these places aren’t going to grant asylum out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re looking for a straight trade, a quid pro quo. Oh, Evo Morales in Ecuador might go for it just to poke the USA, but Russia and China know that there will be a string of annoyances following granting Snowden asylum and they have to balance those against what they get out of it.
This is where Snowden stepped on himself.
Everyone is at least faintly familiar with the normal terms of classification: UNCLASSIFIED, CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET. They’re defined by executive order, the most recent one being from 2009, but the standards have been more or less the same for many years:
- TOP SECRET information is information that, if released, would cause “exceptionally grave” damage to national security;
- SECRET information would cause “grave damage” to national security;
- CONFIDENTIAL information would merely “damage” national security; and,
- UNCLASSIFIED information, you guessed it, wouldn’t damage national security if released. (Strictly, UNCLASSIFIED isn’t a classification, it’s not defined in the executive order. But something that isn’t classified is marked
(U)so it’s a very pedantic distinction.)
But these classifications are so not the whole story. Understanding what really happened with Snowden and the NSA data requires looking a bit deeper.
There is a nicely elegant way to measure how critical a piece of information really is, in dollars. We simply define the risk of some bad things happening as the cost associated with that bad thing, technically called the hazard, and the probability of it happening.
Risk = Probability × Hazard
All the sensitivity categories and all the rules are based on trying to reduce the risk. When what you’re trying to evaluate is classified under this U.S. government system, though, those risk numbers can get pretty astronomical. “Extremely grave” damage? The 9/11 attack cost the U.S. economy something like a trillion dollars. Let’s work some examples:
- If there’s one chance in a thousand of the bad thing happening, then the risk is a billion dollars.
- If there’s one chance in a million, then the risk is still a million dollars.
- If there’s one chance in a billion, the risk is still a thousand dollars.
And 9/11, as traumatic as it was, is relatively small compared to what might happen in the case of “extremely grave” damage. When you quantify the risk, it’s easy to see why these secrets are worth all the effort.
This week’s column is about Buddhism, honest. You’re going to have to sit through the story of my week first, though.
My day job had a furlough this week, a little “innovation” by a lot of high-tech companies to get some unpaid vacation off the books and make some financials look better, as well as theoretically saving on utilities, coffee service, and so on. The truth is that I usually hate vacations — basically, the things I like best are writing and messing about with computers, and unless I actually go to Club Med or something I spend my vacation time primarily messing with computers and writing. Which is fine, as it’s what I like to do, but it just screws up the flow of the week.
I had some errands that needed to be done, however, so I figured I’d get things done and write and take it generally easy for a few days. One of the things that had to be done is that my “new” car had to be taken in for the EPA-mandated emissions testing. You can’t sell a used car in Colorado if it doesn’t pass the emissions test, so the dealership, Sprinkler Used Cars in Longmont CO, gave me a voucher that had to be used within three days. And yes, I’m naming the dealership on purpose; Sprinkler Used Cars sucks.
I drove up to Denver to have lunch with a Facebook acquaintance, and stopped at the emissions test place on the way home. While I was in line to get the test, the car blew up.
The truth is that it’s been, in general, kind of a sucky week.
I’ll talk about it more in the Buddhism column tomorrow, since it coincidentally — or was it? he says, as the spooky music rises — fits really well with talking about the Second and Third Noble Truths, but I’ve been off work all week on vacation, and had all sorts of aspirations for the week, many of which went unrealized. I really haven’t managed a fast day, and I’ve been back very close to my old low-carb diet, and I’ve had a certain amount of drama around my “new” car, and I haven’t written as much as I hoped to.
And I’ve lost at least eight of the “ten freaking pounds” I gained last week.
Sometimes I think it’s all just an illusion of control.
There are some technical topics of interest still in the NSA/Snowden/PRISM fuss. As we know, there have been (at least) two NSA programs that have been publicized recently: one program in which they collect the customer billing records from every phone call of most, if not all, cell phone service providers, and the second a program with the overall name PRISM, where Internet traffic is collected at various large providers like Google and Facebook.
This is becoming a really fertile place for finding people in politics and journalism who really don’t have the beginning of a clue about the issues, technical or social, that go with what they’re attempting to discuss. So, once more into the breach, dear friends, as we try to make sense of what PRISM is really about.
The various releases about PRISM in particular give a picture of an interesting system in which various aspects of data collected, like the famous customer billing records from Verizon, along with data from Google and Facebook and a raft of others are sent through several layers of systems to organize and understand them. If you recall my first NSA article, these are the tools of the expert jigsaw-puzzlers, trying to make a whole bearer bond out of the scraps of bank paper that were extracted from the vacuum bags of the collectors.
Once upon a time, there was a young man named Siddhartha in a place called Kapilavastu. Siddhartha was a good kid, but an astrologer named Asita had told his father Śuddhodana that Siddhartha was destined to be either a world conqueror, or a great holy man.
His father was the king — actually, it appears he was elected to the position, but I’m telling this the traditional way for now — and he really didn’t like this whole holy man thing at all. So he saw to it that Siddhartha was raised with everything, from palaces to gardens to hot and cold running dancing girls, and he protected Siddhartha from any knowledge of unpleasantness.
If you think of Siddhartha as the child of wealthy Hollywood types, raised in Beverly Hills, you won’t be far wrong.
Siddhartha was so protected, in fact, that he was an adult before he actually saw a lot of the unpleasantness in the world. Then he saw, first, an old man, then a sick man, and then a corpse.
And Siddhartha said, “This sucks!”
Then he found out that he would also eventually get old, and sick, and then die, and he said, “Wow, this really sucks!”
I’m starting the column late, and it’s going to be a little disorganized, because it’s been one of those weeks. I’ve got my two new columns running (science on Thursdays and Buddhism on Sundays, both here on PJ Lifestyle) and had another article up as well, all on a week where I had big demos and deliverables at my day job. And I finally bought a car to replace the one I broke in April.
Other than that, nothing much happened except that I gained ten freaking pounds in five freaking days!
On 23 June I, weighed 268.6, a new low. On 28 June, I weighed 278.
Hmph. Words fail me.
Now, rationally I know this isn’t something that could possibly be a “real” weight gain. I mean, c’mon, 7000 kcal extra a day for five days? Plus, I hadn’t actually eaten anything unusual, except that 24 June was a splurge day. I was craving Oreo cookies, my secret vice that I hadn’t indulged since, probably, before my mother’s heart attack, she having been my Oreo cookie enabler. So I bought an 8oz bag of those little tiny Oreos, and over the course of the day ate it all.
Wheat, sugar, I tell you, it had it everything.
And it tasted wonderful for the first few cookies. By the end of the bag, I was a little tired of the things, honestly, but I wanted to finish the bag because I knew if I didn’t, when I got back on the wagon they’d be sitting there in the cupboard or the freezer, taunting me.
Editor’s Note: If you have not yet made Charlie Martin one of your regular, Read-Everything-They-Write authors, then I submit this article from him for your consideration. Over the past 6 months Charlie has emerged as one of PJ Lifestyle’s most engaging, intelligent contributors. His 13 Weeks Self-Improvement Experiment is giving birth to a movement. What began as Charlie trying various methods to improve his health so he could live longer has now set the theme for each Saturday with Sarah Hoyt, me, and, beginning this Saturday, Rhonda Robinson also following his lead. So I’ve asked Charlie to start writing more on other subjects too. In addition to his 13 Weeks reports on Saturdays, also tune in each Sunday for his Buddhism reflections and Thursdays for his science geek articles. This is the first in his science series and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
- David Swindle
So, there’s this NSA thing. Since the stories about the NSA, Edward Snowden, PRISM, and so on have broken, there has been more misinformation, disinformation, bad information, speculation, ignorant commentary and flat out nonsense going around than any topic in recent memory. And to tell you the truth, I’ve been working on this article for two weeks and never finishing because there is always one more howler. Let’s see if we can clear some of this up.
One of the things I’m going to complain about, by the way, is the number of authoritative opinions being offered by people who clearly don’t actually know much more about it than what they’ve read from other people’s poorly informed speculation. Someone might reasonably then ask why they should believe me? Especially since recently I seem to have been mainly a diet and health blogger. So let’s just summarize.
I started working on defense systems in the late 70s, when I got a polygraph clearance — an “EBI,” or “extended background check” clearance — and went to work on some very sensitive stuff and no I can’t tell you what even today. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time overseas, “covert” under the law that Valerie Plame certainly wasn’t covert under, and I’ve worked directly with both the CIA and the NSA on many occasions.
Then when I went to graduate school, I got involved in DARPA-funded security research, where I came up with the original architecture for a highly secure version of the X windowing system, and helped write the Navy’s handbook for evaluating secure and trusted systems under the old DoD TCSEC — the “Orange Book.” I’ve been a security subject matter expert on projects for Sun Microsystems, StorageTek, the Navy, and a half-dozen major banks and Wall Street firms, and I’ve got about a dozen patents either issued or in process, many of them having to do with security “in the cloud,” cryptography, and Big Data.
Basically, secure systems, cryptography, and Big Data have been my day job for most of the time since about 1979.
We know, with great certainty, that the overall average temperature of the Earth has warmed by several degreees in the last 400 years, since the end of the Little Ice Age. Before that was a period called the Medieval Warm Period; before that was another cold period; and back at the time of the Romans there was a long period that was significantly warmer — Southern Britain was a wine-growing region. What we’re a lot less certain about is “why?”
Of course, the “why?” here has been, shall we say, pretty controversial. It’s worth wondering about the controversy and about the social mechanisms through which science is done — I wrote about them during the Climategate controversy as the “social contract of science” — but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, let’s talk about how a scientist thinks about these sorts of questions and arrives at new answers. Back in grad school we called that “doing science,” and it was something everyone liked doing and wished they could be doing instead of whatever they actually were doing, like faculty meetings and refereeing papers.
The process of “doing science” is something you usually learn more or less by osmosis, but there are some good hints around. One of the best is a paper from the 16 October 1964 issue of Science, “Strong Inference” by John R Platt. Let’s say we have some phenomenon of interest, like global warming, or high blood sugar, or that damned yellow patch in my lawn. We want to know why it happens. Platt’s strong inference describes the process we should use when “doing science” as:
- We generate a number of alternate explanations, hypotheses, that might explain the phenomenon.
- For each hypothesis, we come up with an experiment which will prove the hypothesis wrong. That is, not one that “proves the hypothesis,” but one which, if successful, would disprove or falsify the hypothesis. (Sir Karl Popper argued in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery that this falsification was the core of scientific knowledge.)
- We do the experiments. If an experiment falsifies a hypothesis, we discard it ruthlessly. Then we go back to (1) and try again.
A lot of times, the rub — and the really creative thinking — comes in from finding the right experiment. Richard Feynmann was known for an ability to see right through a problem to a simple and elegant experiment that would disprove a hypothesis. He demonstrated this during the review following the Challenger disaster. You may remember that the launch happened on a very cold morning in January; less than two minutes after launch the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all seven astronauts.
The question, as always, was “why?”
Honestly, Buddhism puzzles the hell out of most people in the West. (Actually, it puzzles the hell out of people everywhere, but we’ll stick with the West for today.) When Shakyamuni Buddha (which is to say this guy Siddhartha that people talk so much about) was asked about any of the big questions religion is supposed to answer, his reply was “don’t bother your pretty little head about such things, sugar.”
Well, strictly, it was a little more formal than that, but that was the basic answer. There was an old ascetic, Vacchagotta, who came to the Buddha one day and started asking the big questions about the world, about life after death, whether the Universe was limited or infinite, and so on. Vacchagotta was from a different group, and he was trying to get Shakyamuni to engage in debate, and Shakyamuni wouldn’t do it. Vacchagotta would ask, and Buddha would just stay silent.
Finally, Vacchagotta asked Buddha “why won’t you answer?” and that question Shakamuni would answer. He told Vacchagotta that if he were to answer any of those questions one way or the other, then he would be siding with one side or the other in various big theological debates. From these debates, he said, arises disputes and arguments and contention and suffering. So he wasn’t going to answer at all.
Buddha was pretty cagey that way: when people tried to nail him down on big philosophical questions, he always came around to ask “is this helpful in ending suffering?” So there’s really no concept of sin in Buddhism, because there’s no concept of pure good and evil. Instead of Commandments, we’ve got the Precepts, which are just guidelines: do this, and you will tend to reduce suffering.
A petabyte. That’s a thousand terabytes. From The Conversation:
In Nature Communications today, we [Min Gu et al] along with Richard Evans from CSIRO, show how we developed a new technique to enable the data capacity of a single DVD to increase from 4.7 gigabytes up to one petabyte (1,000 terabytes). This is equivalent of 10.6 years of compressed high-definition video or 50,000 full high-definition movies.
The technique is basically two concentric beams of light — one writes the tiny dot that represents a single bit, and the other interferes with the first one, which effectively narrows the beam. Thus you can get more dots in the same amount of space.
Obviously products are some years in the future still.
13 Weeks: Experiment 3, week 4
Well, the AMA now thinks so. On June 18, the AMA voted to classify obesity as a disease, where in the past they’d called obesity an “urgent chronic condition,” a “major health concern,” and a “complex disorder.” But not a “disease.”
The motivation, like a whole lot of things in medicine right now, really came down to insurance. If obesity is a disease, then doctors are obliged to treat it and insurance plans are obliged to cover it.
But is obesity really a disease? Let’s look at that a little bit more. Here’s the definition of disease from the Apple dictionary:
a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, esp. one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury: bacterial meningitis is a rare disease | a possible cause of heart disease.
Long-time readers of this column may remember that back at the end of my first 13 week experiment, I wrote a little science-fiction piece from the point of view of 100 years in the future, when the underlying causes of obesity had been discovered and it had been redefined as a particular variety of lipodystrophy, that is, a metabolic condition in which fat distribution in the body becomes abnormal.
It does kind of sound like obesity, doesn’t it? And lipodystrophy is certainly considered a disease. But lipodystrophy is normally defined in terms of an abnormal loss of fatty tissue. If we look at the various kinds of lipodystrophy, though, many of them are actually characterised by loss of body fat in some areas and abnormal deposits of body fat in other areas. Now think back to “syndrome X,” “metabolic syndrome,” that is, the collection of characteristics that appears to indicate someone is heading for type-2 diabetes. These include high triglycerides, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and a particular distribution of excess body fat around the abdomen — the so called “apple body” — but not around the legs or arms.
Looked at that way, honestly, it seems a no-brainer to at least characterize “metabolic syndrome” as a disease, and in particular a variety of lipodystrophy.