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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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Compassion and Idiot Compassion

Sunday, August 25th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Sally LPF 110908

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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13 Weeks: Remember to Drain the Swamp

Saturday, August 24th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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.

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A Most Peculiar Coincidence

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

A total solar eclipse happens when the Moon transits the Sun at exactly the right distance to block the whole Sun, but not the Sun’s corona.

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”.

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Buddha and the Elephant

Sunday, August 18th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

TRI-10595053 - © - Jan Roberts

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.

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13 Weeks: What Do We Make of Times of Little Change?

Saturday, August 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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.

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Where’s My Jetpack?

Friday, August 16th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

James Bond flew one in Thunderball; Professor John Robinson flew one in Lost in Space, with some great Bernard Herrmann background music:

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.

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Tomato Buddha

Sunday, August 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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.

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13 Weeks: A Writer's Workout

Saturday, August 10th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

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Climate Change: What Are the Real Questions?

Thursday, August 8th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

My favorite part of Earth Day.

Ancient history

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.

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The Tomato on My Desk Is Ticking

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

Well, as Sarah has told you, I’ve become a fan of the Pomodoro technique. It’s really quite simple.

  1. You decide you need to do something.
  2. You get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

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Free Science Fiction Stories from Tor.Com

Monday, August 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


Tor Books has a promotion offering a free e-book collection of 150 stories. There are some good stories in the bunch, and you certainly can’t beat the price.

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Nothing for Nothing

Sunday, August 4th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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”.

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A Boring Week of Excitement

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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Climate Change and the Problem of ‘Press Release Science’

Thursday, August 1st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

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Buddhists Have No Souls

Sunday, July 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Yes, I’m serious. Buddhists have no souls. Or permanent ones at least. That’s really what Buddha taught.

Okay, end of column.


Well, no.

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?

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A Meditation on Diet

Saturday, July 27th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

I’m convinced the inventor of the “food pill” bit in SF was a middle-aged single man who was hungry, but didn’t know what to eat.

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:

  1. Observe something that I want to change, like weight or blood sugar.
  2. Propose a treatment — diet, exercise, drugs, or whatever — to change that thing, and define how I’ll measure my progress.
  3. Perform the treatment for a fixed length of time. For a variety of reasons, I settled on 13 weeks.
  4. 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.

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The Earth From a Great Height

Thursday, July 25th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Seeing the Earth from above. It has fascinated people for thousands of years. We would look at the mountains…


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What the Buddha Wouldn’t Say

Sunday, July 21st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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13 Weeks Experiment Midcourse Report

Saturday, July 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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Flipping Coins and Cancer Cases

Thursday, July 18th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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Heaps of Buddha

Sunday, July 14th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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Do Americans Get Enough Salt In Their Diets?

Saturday, July 13th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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.

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Emmet Kelly, Harold Lloyd, and Edward Snowden

Friday, July 12th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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L'affaire Snowden and (Computer) Security

Thursday, July 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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.

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