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3 Reasons Why Dating is Especially Hard in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013 - by Becky Graebner


At a recent convening of the “female minds” during a birthday party celebration, I was reminded of the challenges posed by the D.C. dating scene. A fellow friend at this birthday dinner was regaling the group with her predicament: she had to leave the birthday party early for a date.

Normally, this topic is the launching pad for well-wishes, compliments, and giggles. In this case, the poor girl was dreading her impending date. Subsequent conversations with the male in question after agreeing to the date had made her a little wary.  He was cocky and pushy–which made her question if he was interested in anything more than a quick hook-up.  However, she didn’t want to back out of the date 40 minutes before they were supposed to meet up.

We tried to psyche her up. It’s great to meet new people! A night on the town will be fun!

No go. She was all frowns and pessimism as she slid off her stool and collected her coat and purse.

“Why is dating in D.C. so hard?” she asked as she turned for the door.

We all knew from personal experience what she meant, but none of us had an answer…

Washington D.C. is always a nominee for those lists with titles like “worst city for singles” or “worst city for dating.” It’s not surprising, really. Washington, D.C. is not a normal city. Although the representatives of the nation live and work here, The Capital is in a fantasy land of its own, shielded from the real-world by a thick bubble. It makes sense that this removal from reality in the workplace would also translate to the playground. I do know good people who have met, dated, and married people that they met while living in D.C. However, these people seem to be either part of the lucky minority or are D.C.-dating-warriors who persevered after several harrowing attempts.

Here are three reasons why dating in D.C. is particularly difficult:

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13 Weeks: The Hard Boiled Egg Theory

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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Time for Speculation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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The Math-iest Math Joke

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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In Australia, Gold Really Does Grow on Trees!

Friday, October 25th, 2013 - by Sarah Hoyt
of course, no tree looks like this!

of course, no tree looks like this!

According to the New York Post:

You won’t believe it when you read this – scientists have found gold growing on gum trees near Wudinnaon the Eyre Peninsula in Australia.

A team of CSIRO scientists discovered eucalyptus trees near the country town draw up tiny gold “nuggets” from the earth via their root system and then deposit the valuable metal on their leaves, bark and branches.

While scientists have found gold on trees before, it was never actually known how it got there.

CSIRO geochemist Dr. Mel Lintern, lead author of the multi-million dollar project, said the discovery could save mining and gold exploration companies “a lot of money”.

“If they’re able to sample the trees (for gold) in place of drilling, then they’re going to save some money,” he said.

“The other aspect about that of course is sampling the vegetation is more environmentally benign that digging big holes or drilling.”

While the latter comment is undoubtedly true, one can’t help but hope that the powers that be don’t become so fixated on this “environmentally sound” way of mining, that they stop doing the old, hard way altogether.  Gold is needed for many applications, and we have the example of the energy industry seeking after the mirage of “green energy” at the cost of industry and human comfort (and lives of the elderly.)

But the idea of gold on trees is, of course, fascinating. When I was a kid in Portugal, the rumor was one could go to Brazil, sit under the “gold tree” and wait for the gold to fall in one’s lap. (I think this was metaphorical, but as a kid I saw it literally.)

Apparently they were wrong.  For the real gold, you’d have to go to Australia.


Photo courtesy Shutterstock, © diez artwork

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Depression, Suffering, and Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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A Year of 13 Weeks

Saturday, October 19th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

Now, a year later:

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

What did I do?

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

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

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Infinity: Big and Bigger

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We call N the natural numbers.

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

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

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Clown Car Web Design

Thursday, October 10th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


A Programming Sutra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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13 Weeks: Bugs and More Bugs

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

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

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

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

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

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Cocktail Napkin Website Planning and Obamacare

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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


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

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

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

Now, lemme ‘splain.

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

Yes, class, that’s right, “history.”

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

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

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13 Weeks: I Got Bugs!

Saturday, September 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Are Science and Politics So Hard?

Thursday, September 26th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

Here’s how Kaplan summarizes it:

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

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

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

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

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Buddha in the Laboratory

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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13 Weeks: I Am a Diabetic

Saturday, September 21st, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sky Is Falling… Eventually!

Saturday, September 21st, 2013 - by Chris Queen

End of the world

We see warnings of the apocalypse everywhere. Maybe it’s an old man wearing a sandwich board that reads, “THE END IS NEAR.” Or perhaps we hear the yearly news report about some asteroid that just might come too close to earth for comfort. Or possibly we’ve received another message from Harold Camping warning us of Christ’s return. Either way, somebody somewhere wagers a guess as to when the world will end just about every day.

Well, now we need no longer fear, because scientists have now determined the date for the end of the world – and it’s a long way off.

The end of the world is no longer just some far-off notion; the event now has a date. New research shows how much time it will take for the Earth to basically dry up and no longer be able to support human life.

And as long as whatever is on your bucket list won’t take longer than 1.75 billion years, there’s not really anything for this generation or the next couple million generations to worry about.

That’s about how long researchers at the University of East Anglia predict will take the Earth to end up outside of the habitable zone. “These zones are defined by water. In the habitable zone, a planet is just the right distance from its star to have liquid water. Closer to the sun, in the ‘hot zone,’ the Earth’s oceans would evaporate.”

Yes, you read that right. It’s from the University of East Anglia, and those folks got it right about the whole global warming thing, didn’t they? Not only do they have a timeline figured out, they know how it’s going to happen.

The Earth won’t move, but it’s actually the sun we have to keep an eye on (not literally). As it gets older, the star is continuously growing hotter, brighter and bigger at about a 10th of an astronomical unit every billion years.

But if it helps you feel any better, all won’t be lost like that. It will actually be a very slow process as the Earth dries up and completely runs out of water reserves.

But according to the researchers, there’s still the chance our planet won’t make it that far — you know, with all the other likely doomsday scenarios, like a meteor strike, nuclear war, crazed robots, superinfections, aliens, black holes and, of course, zombies.

I can’t help but wonder what the preppers will do with this information. As for me, I’ll just stick with Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36 that “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s better not to know than to worry for the next billion years or so.

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Drugs and the Shooter

Friday, September 20th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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I Want to Fly Like An Eagle

Thursday, September 19th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

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

Seriously, what could be better?

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The Greatest Genius No One Has Heard Of

Friday, September 13th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

His Master’s thesis.

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Still No Radioactive Fukushima Emergency

Thursday, September 5th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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Stupid Science Tricks

Thursday, August 29th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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A Real-Life Reminder that Outer Space Is Dangerous

Saturday, August 24th, 2013 - by Chris Queen

Luca Parmitano is all smiles on his first spacewalk. His near drowning occurred on his second spacewalk.

In one scene in my all-time favorite movie, Apollo 13, astronaut Jim Lovell’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) and kids arrive at Mission Control to watch the astronauts’ live broadcast from the Apollo spacecraft. Once the broadcast begins, Marilyn realizes that none of the networks are carrying what she calls “Jim’s show.” She asks press man Henry Hurt (Xander Berkeley) why, and he tells her that space travel has become routine. “We’ve made going to the moon about as interesting as a trip to Pittsburgh.” Of course the fateful explosion aboard Apollo 13′s Service Module reminded the public that space travel is a dangerous thing.

We received another reminder earlier this month when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in his spacesuit during a seemingly routine spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Parmitano and American astronaut Chris Cassidy were working to repair cables outside the ISS when Parmitano began to feel condensation in the back of his helmet. He wrote about his experience on his blog — in present tense, adding a true urgency to the story.

The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me — and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.

The seven-hour EVA (spacewalk) did end early at NASA’s behest as Parmitano tried to maneuver his way back to the airlock. He describes the harrowing next moments:

As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.

Thankfully, Parmitano made his way back and ended his spacewalk safely. His frightening experience reminds us that no matter how routine space travel may seem, outer space is still a dangerous place. I’m sure Luca Parmitano will never forget that fact.

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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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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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