Monday, December 22, 2014

Hooray for the analemma!

The winter solstice is today.  Today is the day that officially begins the winter season but more optimistically, today is the day when days cease their shortening and allow nights to shorten instead.  The path that the sun makes with its directly overhead position is the "analemma".  The path is a kind of figure 8 and its usual graphic representation appears on many globes of the earth, usually out in the Pacific ocean.


The winter solstice can be a big deal if you worry that the lowering sun might sink below the horizon permanently.  Then, where would we be?  No sunlight, no plants, no food and plenty of cold and colder.  It is true that the deeper cold has yet to show up and it probably will.  But just as robins, daffodils and leaves on the trees are signs of coming warmth, the winter solstice tells us that  the process of lengthening darkness has ended and longer days with shorter nights will now begin.


All the details are worked out and they can be rather complex.  Here is the Wikipedia on the "analemma":

None of these points is exactly at one of the ends of the analemma, where the Sun is at a solstice. As seen from north-mid-temperate latitudes, as the diagram shows, the earliest sunset occurs some time before the December solstice - typically a week or two before it - and the latest sunrise happens a week or two after the solstice. Thus, the darkest evening occurs in early to mid-December, but the mornings keep getting darker until about the New Year.


To me, the main point is that things are on the upswing.  If you want to, you can start to mourn a type of downturn starting at the summer solstice, when the days begin shortening again.



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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A word

I first heard something like "May I have a word?" in British shows, I think.  That utterance clearly meant to convey about the same thing as "I would like a private word" and "Could we talk some place in private?"  When a person in authority says that to me, I might prepare to hear bad news or a negative comment about my behavior or next year's budget. I am intrigued to think how many different sorts of change may be produced by a quick comment.


The famous Solomon Asch experiments had several people each say aloud which of several lines is shortest.  All of them are part of the experimental setup except one who is a genuine subject.  There was a tendency for the subject to agree with the others, despite the fact that the others were calling out the wrong answer.  I always wanted to try to have a word with the experimental subject just before the experiment.  I thought if I whispered something like "Don't fall for it", this supposedly deep-seated human tendency to conform would be overridden.


Whether it is the single word "Duck!" or a command like "Don't drink that potion!", a single utterance can drastically change a person's behavior.  When I was growing up, no one told me to pay no attention except my mother.  When she told me to pay no attention to someone or something, I think I did a pretty good job immediately at having the person or event cease to exist.  If you had watched a tape, you would have been able to deduce I was consciously avoiding attending but I practiced giving no clear sign of studiously avoiding paying attention.


A single utterance (Want to have dinner together?  Will you lend me $10  Don't look now.) can very powerfully change a situation and fast.  I realize birds can all fly off in a moment and deer can be warned with a snort so we are not alone.  But I bet we are the champs at using a single word to change things.


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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Watching the show

It is true that you can find dozens of ways to quiet your mind.  Knitting, reading, and prayer all work.  Progressive relaxation where you focus on your toes and feet, your lower legs and right up to the top of your head works and is interesting.  Putting your attention on each part of your body is good for your body and your mind, too.  However, those activities can all be done in a way that is good for all of you but does not train your awareness of your attention.


Training for awareness of your attention is a sort of meta-training, since your attention is itself the focus of your thinking.  Where you put your attention matters.  Dr. Michael Merzenich showed that doing something attentively and not attentively differ and that attention matters.  You have an extra tool, an overview of yourself if you can learn to note what you are attending to.  We have both conscious attention, as when we ponder the next move in a chess game and attention from an external stimulus, as when we look up to see who just came in the cafe.


Our mind itself is always re-focusing on something new.  Think about your ankle.  You may not want to.  See? You jumped from whatever your first reaction to "think about your ankle" was to thinking you didn't want to think about your ankle.  Maybe you remembered injuring your ankle or being aware of the beauty of your ankles.  Our minds are association machines and we can associate one thing with others all day.  But with training, we can become more aware of our focus.  We become more able to see the tricks, omissions and commissions we commit with our minds.


The first step is concentration.  We concentrate on a spot or on our breath.  Why?  So we have a chance to catch our minds with they go off in a story about how cute the neighbor's dog is or whatever.  Concentrating on a spot or on our breath can be a challenge.  We quickly decide it is soooooooo boring.  We try to concentrate for 5 minutes and it feels like 5 hours.  But over time, the quiet, the relaxation and the comfort of our own honest, full company with ourselves becomes a pleasant place to be.  We try to do 5-10 minutes every day for 6 months.  We do enough that we begin to notice our minds when we are not practicing.


At some point, we may get to where we drop the focus of a spot to look at or our breath and just sit letting the mind display its wants and themes.  We might get to the point where we watch our mind play its programs as a tv plays.  We might get so that we see how multiple, how nutty, how colorful, how primitive, how fleeting, how colorful our thoughts are.


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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Friday, December 19, 2014

Elvis-Ish

Our local children's book store is run by an energetic woman and her husband.  She is truly an expert in children's books, which can be remarkable pieces of writing and art.  She gave us a presentation a couple of weeks ago and went through quite a few books that might be good gifts for children.  She gives a short synopsis of each book.


Two of them caught my attention.  The more meaningful one is "Ish" by Peter H. Reynolds.  Ramon loves to draw but is downhearted about the lack of realism in his art until his little sister says that his flower vase drawing looks "vase-ish".  The book will only download to an iPad or Kindle Fire.


The other book is very well written.  It is Elvis and the Underdogs by Jenny Lee and Kelly Light.  It is a fun read and I have given it to a couple of adults.  A 4th grade boy with medical problems gets a guard dog by mistake that was in training for 2 years to be the President's dog.  The dog is a 150 lb. Newfoundland and is smarter than you and me.  





Inspired by both books, I present my attempt to use the app "Skitch" to make an Elvis-ish drawing of the famous singer:






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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Act now!

"Act now!" is not the same call of warning that you hear in the workplace.  That one is "Act busy!" The theory is that if the boss comes around, one is safer looking busy, engaged, as if one is making an important contribution to the enterprise.


No, "Act now!" is screamed from advertisements, especially from stores trying desperately to sell 3 times as much during this holiday season as they sold last year.


When I get told to "Act now!", I don't fool around.  I act immediately.  I have gotten so many injunctions, commands, demands, offers and orders to ACT NOW that I am exhausted.  I cannot act at all for a while.  Please wait until my glycogen reserves replenish and my muscles stop aching.  I need to relax my blood vessels, gain some body warmth, consume some calories and take a nap.  Call me later with the next thrilling offer at unbelieveable prices that will only be in effect for the short time I have in which I must ACT NOW!


Schools from kindergarten to graduate school are often admonished to teach critical thinking.  The basis of critical thinking is doubt.  One needs to ponder.  And for goodness sake, think twice.  Since there is a lot of baloney in the world, maybe an extra amount in the USA, it makes sense to try and prepare students to ask about the evidence behind assertions.  The old parental approach "Because I said so and I am the parent!" asks for recognition of authority and power.  You know the bit: "As long as you eat in our kitchen, you will abide by our rules!"


A while back, we saw science occasionally turn on itself, change its mind, reverse an opinion.  But as the business and manufacturing worlds picked up more players, it became clearer that competitors would tend to find ways to copy or surpass products very quickly.  So, innovation and change became more and more typical as efforts surged to hold on to commercial leads and rankings.  Maybe I am urged to Act Now! because by tomorrow, it will be clear that the hot deal of today is already obsolete.  Tomorrow, I may find that the model selling today at a low, low price is out of date, is being unloaded in an attempt to get at least some money out of that inventory.


I am beginning to suspect that if I Act Now!, I will regret doing so soon after.  I think when I recover my energy, I will make a concentrated effort to act later, and only then if I still find an action that seems worthwhile.



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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Painful but ordinary

Dictionaries and definitions can be so calming.  They assist with what "The Trauma of Everyday Life" is about: seeing that many things that annoy or frighten us are normal parts of life.  When you read definitions of what is bugging you, you realize the source of annoyance or fear exists but it isn't all that rare and its visit to you is not personal, just business as usual.


Dr. Mark Epstein writes in his The Trauma of Everyday Life:

This attitude toward trauma is at the heart of the Buddha's teaching, although it is often overlooked in the rush to embrace the inner peace that his teachings also promised. But inner peace is actually predicated upon a realistic approach to the uncertainties and fears that pervade our lives. Western psychology often teaches that if we understand the cause of a given trauma we can move past it, returning to the steady state we imagine is normal. Many who are drawn to Eastern practices hope that they can achieve their own steady state. They use religious techniques to quiet their minds in the hope of rising above the intolerable feelings that life evokes. Both strategies, at their core , seek to escape from trauma, once and for all. But trauma is all pervasive. It does not go away. It continues to reassert itself as life unfolds. The Buddha taught that a realistic view makes all the difference. If one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one's way. Meditation makes profound use of this philosophy, but its utility is not limited to meditation. As my patient realized when grappling with his diagnosis, the traumas of everyday life, if they do not destroy us, become bearable, even illuminating, when we learn to relate to them differently.


When I first came upon the Buddha's teachings, I was young and not really thinking about illness or death. No one I knew had died, and I was struggling with my own issues of adolescence and young adulthood. Trauma, in the sense of confronting an actual or threatened death or serious injury (as the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines "trauma"), was not something I had to face directly. But there was another kind of trauma, developmental trauma, percolating under the surface of my experience . Developmental trauma occurs when "emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held." 1 In retrospect , I can see that this was the case for me. In my first encounters with Buddhism, I was trying to escape from emotional pain I did not really understand. But in order to practice the Buddha's teachings, I needed a realistic view. This meant accepting there was no escape. The most important spiritual experiences of my early exploration of Buddhism gave me such a view, although I have had to be reminded of it time and again as circumstances have evolved.


Epstein, Mark (2013-08-15). The Trauma of Everyday Life (pp. 3-4). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.



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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wishy-washing my opinion

This seems to be a time, especially in my country, where it is the fashion to hold opinions tightly.  But now that I think of it, it may be a time when it is easy to see or hear opinions being expressed strongly while the basic reasonableness of people hasn't changed.  Two different issues have been getting more wishy-washy in my mind.  I have read there is a tendency for humans to like certainty and to prefer to avoid uncertainty.  That is true for me: I like to feel that I know what I am doing and have already weighed the sides to a question.  


So, the recent article by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel called "Why I Hope to Die at 75" clicked when I read it.  It meshed with the book by Atul Gawande called "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End".  It clicked with statistics about the cost to society of the last six months of life.  When I learned that Dr. Emanuel is 57 years old now, I did the typical sneer and said to myself that I would wait until he is 74 or 75 and see what he says then.  But a key fact was that I hadn't read his article.  Now I have and I am way more wishy-washy.  I can actually feel myself firming up in favor of the man's position, which is subtle, well-thought-out and well put.


That sort of mental movement has not occurred with my reading about the movement against the type font called "Comic Sans".  I see there are web sites called "You Are a Comic Sans Criminal" and "There Is Help Available for People Like You Who Use Comic Sans".  I wrote this blog post four years ago explaining that a friend who has had difficulty reading at times in her life told me that she found the font I use for this blog to be especially readable.  


I don't doubt that some people are sensitive to the font.  I have not read "Just My Type", one of several books on font design and typography.  I don't think it would take me long to get used to nearly any type face. I did have one idea for a font design.  My notion is that if the lettters are tall and skinny enough, they will be difficult to read.  Why would anyone want such a font when there are 622 in the basic version of Microsoft Word?  Not my problem.From Skitch(2).png



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Bill
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety


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