Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Leaving fewer tracks on the internet

Browsers get do not track tools

BBC News - ‎30 minutes ago‎
Anyone keen to avoid being tracked by ad firms as they use the web are getting more help from browser makers. Mozilla and Google have unveiled different ways for people to dodge efforts to monitor what they do online and tailor ads to their likes.

More and more faster and faster

One of basic principles of Buddhism is that everything changes.  Usually, we take that to mean that everything falls apart, deteriorates, goes down hill.  With the right time span, I think that idea can be supported in nearly any field.  That principle is one of basics of physics, too: entropy [disorder, aging] always increases, the 2nd law of thermodynamics - things always cool. They never get warmer all by themselves.

However, when it comes to humans, things may run a little differently.  Especially in the short run of, say, a decade or a half-century.  Because we live in a age of research, deliberate tinkering and product development, competition for buyers, fans and voters, there are steady efforts to change things, especially in a way that can be sold as "improvement".  So, at one time, the very idea of typing on a screen and making changes to spelling errors or modifying organization quickly and cleanly, without any white-out fluid, was lovely, revolutionary, wonderful.  Over time, spell checkers, grammar checkers, thesaurus and word count tools, and such tools were developed.  Then, we became accustomed to them and considered them normal and every-day.  

Then, email and nearly instant transmission of text and pictures and charts came along and that got to be old-hat, too.  As more business got to be transacted online, bank cards and Pay-pal and similar tools were used to make more-or-less secure and honest transactions online.  Still, it is difficult to be sure that the other person is really who he says he is and is doing business as he says he is.  Of course, doubtful business and front organizations are not new but doing shopping more quickly, more anonymously and over great distances increases the risk of intrusion, theft or fakery.  So, in the opposite direction from decline and dying, additional tools and practices get introduced and added on.

The modern machines are very fast so they can be fixed to check bank accounts, nationalities, credit records right during a transaction.  They are fast but they are not instantaneous.  As more and more grammatical, financial, legal, medical and other aspects of business are added to the list of partial processes to be completed for business transactions and even communications, even fast machines may take longer to complete all the desired checks and balances and verifications requested.  So, the next time your computer takes forever to update its virus protection, its operating system while accessing your bank, which is also updating its resources, you can use the slowdown to meditate and to appreciate all the extras that are being performed for you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Electronic clouds

The defense department invented dispersion of computer documents as a tool for national defense in case of a nuclear attack or other large disaster.  If copies of important files were in many places, it would closer to impossible to destroy them all.  That arrangement and Sir Berners-Lee's invention of computer communication between scientists and computers in multiple places helped create the modern world-wide web.  The first computers available to the average buyer grew up separately from the internet and the www.  The coupling of a tv-type monitor with a keyboard allowed typed documents to be created and corrected until they were deemed satisfactory before committing them to paper and ink.  Shortly after, some smart accounting students saw the possibility of using a similar arrangement to create financial and mathematical statements that used the memory of the computer for math processes and the ease of modification and correction of the monitor-keyboard, leading to the spreadsheet of today.

Because of the way our minds work, we tend to extend what we know and do regularly more easily than we get into some rather new sort of method.  Thus, many people are more comfortable with a pen and pad of paper than using [after learning to use] a computer and related devices.  But, it is dawning on many through use and thought, that information stored in computer files can do valuable things that marks on paper can do.  Throw in the mobility of modern people and you get a situation where one desires all the file cabinets and picture albums to be at hand but faces the impossibility and trouble of hauling things all over the place.  Thus, computing today takes a form where I create a file through the wires and the atmosphere at some location and can then tap into that file to edit or calculate or copy or modify from multiple places.  In fact, I can do it any place that my computer can connect to the internet or my smartphone can.   Easy access from multiple places is being called "cloud computing" to give it short descriptive name.  My email and that of my correspondents, my blog and web pages, my Picasa albums and YouTube videos are housed in the clouds somewhere.  They can be used from all over the planet.  Cool!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Knowledge today

I listened to all 36 lectures on the history of modern philosophy from Decartes to Derrida by Prof. Cahoone.  He stressed that from Wittengenstein on, several thinkers pronounced much of the work of earlier philosophers "meaningless".  By the time the modern scientists and postmodern philosophers had their say, it did indeed seem that the combined dream of the ancients, a understandable and comprehensive philosophy, coupled with those of the 17th and 18th centuries who tried to find a solid, indisputable basis for all knowledge, was indeed hopeless.

From what I heard, it was clear that people today, taken together, know a great deal.  However, all knowledge is open to clarification and falsification and much of our expression of knowledge is inevitably entwined with cultural and linguistic conventions and habits.  The search for an indisputable basis included a dream of a SINGLE foundation on which all else is built. But today's specialization shows that there is too much to know for all human knowledge to be based on one foundation. Further, the emerging idea of "emergence", where littler bits combine to make bigger bits that actually have properties, abilities, relations and characteristics that only stem from themselves as they are and are not part of the lower realm of simpler parts that make up a given level.  Rather like two nations could be at total war while a citizen from each is in love with and happily marries a citizen from the other.  The properties, the nature of some aggregates or combination EMERGE but are not part of the components.  

So, the best we can do today seems to be careful investigation and thought in many separate fields that will not be combined into one lovely set of facts and principles.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What is the fool doing?

From Everyday Zen by Charlotte Beck:

Suppose we are out on a lake and it's a bit foggy—not too foggy, but a bit foggy—and we're rowing along in our little boat having a good time. And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there's this other rowboat and it's heading right at us. And…crash! Well, for a second we're really angry—what is that fool doing? I just painted my boat! And here he comes—crash!—right into it. And then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty. What happens to our anger? Well, the anger collapses…I'll just have to paint my boat again, that's all. But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person in it, how would we react? You know what would happen! Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events, are like being bumped by an empty rowboat. But we don't experience life that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we're really getting clobbered by them. What am I talking about when I say that all of life is an encounter, a collision with an empty rowboat? What's that all about? Well, it's always an empty rowboat. Again, the point is, the longer we practice [meditation], the less likely that is to come up. Not because we say, "I won't be angry"—the reaction just isn't there. We feel differently and we may not even know why.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What did I used to believe?

Now, what was it that I used to believe?
From Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz:

When it comes to observing imperceptibly slow natural processes—flowers blooming, weather systems forming, stars moving across the sky—we rely on time-lapse photography. If we wanted to isolate the wrongness implicit in our own gradual changes, we would need a kind of internal equivalent to that—which, as it happens, we have. Unfortunately, it is called memory, and as we have seen, it is notoriously unreliable. Moreover, it is most unreliable precisely with respect to accurately recalling past beliefs. This effect is widely documented. For instance, in 1973, the psychologist Greg Markus asked over 3,000 people to rate their stances (along one of those seven-point "strongly disagree / strongly agree" scales) on a range of social issues, including affirmative action, the legalization of marijuana, and equal rights for women. A decade later, he asked these same people to assess their positions again—and also to recall how they had felt about the issues a decade earlier. Across the board, these "what I used to think" ratings far more closely reflected the subjects' current beliefs than those they had actually held in 1973. Here, it wasn't just the wrongness that disappeared from the process of belief change. It was the change itself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stands out

I believe in using first impressions.  They aren't always reliable but they often work well for me.  I saw a friend the other day.  He often opens my eyes to valuable ideas and books.  I thought that he might turn around and say,"What can you tell me this time?"  I thought through recent books I had read, asking which one really stood out.  The first one to come to mind was "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schultz.  It continues to be one of those books that grips me every 2 paragraphs or so.  Here is a except from today:

Recently, for example, while spending some time in Oregon, my home away from home, I took a break from work to go for a bike ride. My destination was a certain alpine lake, and, along the way, I chatted briefly with a somewhat crotchety older man who had been fly-fishing in a nearby river. He asked where I was headed, and when I answered, he told me that I was on the wrong road. I thanked him pleasantly and continued on my way.

I figured he thought I should be on the main thoroughfare, which would have gotten me to my destination faster, while I was opting for a more scenic and roundabout route. I also suspected him of trying to steer me, a young female cyclist, toward an easier option, since the road I had chosen was steep and challenging. Eight miles later, when I rounded a corner and dead-ended into barbed wire and private property, I realized the guy had simply told me the facts. I had taken a wrong turn, and the road I was on wasn't going to get me anywhere near a lake.

I could have saved myself sixteen miles of fairly arduous alpine cycling if I had bothered to have a longer conversation with him, or to take him a bit more seriously. And quite possibly I would have done so—if, say, he had been a little friendlier, or a fellow cyclist, or someone I recognized from town, or a woman. Whatever might have made me pay more attention to this man, in other words, had nothing at all to do with how right he was. This is, unfortunately, a universal truth.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Human hair

My wife and I were the leaders of a group of college students spending a semester in Britain.  More than half of the group were women.  They found that they could have a haircut in the Vidal Sassoon school .  I was impressed when I saw groups of two or three of them sitting together discussing in what was great detail whether they should get a cut, what sort of cut it should be, how they would look after, etc. etc. The emotional tones and the length of the conferences made it clear to me that this subject was an important one.  Way beyond any importance I had ever experienced concerning my hair or a hairdo.

I had been getting haircuts all my life but they didn't seem very important.  My father used to call getting a haircut "getting his ears lowered" after the visual effect.  The only serious difference between one haircut and another in my life was whether the cut was a crewcut or not.  The first time I ever got my hair cut very short, the style was called a "wiffle" by those I knew.  In wrestling and many other sports, having very short hair usually means it is not a bother to take care of and is easily kept in place and clean.

But I understand that getting one's hair cut off can be a very big marker in one's life.  

From "Hand Wash Cold"

Earlier, I'd told my daughter about my decision and she did not react. It would take the actual experience, the real event, to trigger a response from her. I told myself she could handle it. My husband recoiled at my news, clamped shut in his private loss. On the stretch of rug between our closeted wardrobes, beside the double vanity, below the range of our reflections in the mirrored wall, I spoke into the darkening hours about how relieved I was to finally be free. His shoulders lurched and the sobs came in heaves. He was losing the wife he thought he had — the look, the picture, the package — and I knew his pain as my own. I fell silent, the words incomplete, and reached for him across the space in between, where at long last I found love.

This was not the end of a marriage. This was the beginning of a buzz cut. When I first began my Zen practice, I was finicky about my hair. I had it cut and styled expensively highlighted religiously and I blow-dried it into brittle submission before I bade the world hello. Every day I scrutinized my tenderized pate for shine, bounce, and fullness, and nearly always found it lacking. I was still knotted in my topmost obsession when I began hanging out with shaven-headed monks at rustic mountain retreats. While they were contemplating nonattachment, I was wondering where the devil to plug in my 1,750-watt Conair. Deep below the scalp, I must have known where my head was headed. One night in a dream, I lifted up a silky tress and exposed what was hidden below: a bald knob as barren as a bowling ball. The vision haunted me, and I switched to a volumizing shampoo. When we first married, my husband was finicky about my practice. He worried about what went on under the blanket of meditative silence for days and nights on end when like-minded devotees conjoined in bliss. He told me his nightmare: that I'd saunter off on one too many retreats and disappear for good. Every bit of it came true, just not in the way you might think. Zen was the end of me, in one sense, and the beginning of everyone and everything else. When I committed myself to the priesthood, I didn't lose my family or my home life. I'm still here. I lost only my carefully constructed self-image, which was falling apart.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What do you trust?

I take a card from my wallet and hand it to the guard.  The card is old and scratched from many years of use.  The photo on it is small and not all that clear.  My face is much clearer - and larger, too - than the image of a younger me on the card.  Yet, the guard looks at the card and says, "OK, you are cleared to enter."  Reminds me of Nasrudin, that wise fool, identifying himself for a bank.  Nasrudin entered the bank to do some transactions.  The teller said," Please identify yourself."  Nasrudin stepped back and looked at himself in the lobby mirror.  "Yep, that's me all right."

The guard trusts the card.  The teller didn't trust Nasrudin's self-made confirmation of the mirror image was that of his own face as adequate identitication for business purposes.  These odd ceremonies are increasingly important these days as more enemies try to use identity miscues instead of guns and truncheons to get their way.

Inspector Clouseau enters the hotel lobby and a well-dressed man says to him," May I take your hat and coat?"  Clouseau is a man of the world and smooth.  He wouldn't interfere with the atmosphere of the place by wearing outside gear in a place where that isn't done.  He hands the valet-type man his overcoat and hat.  The man walks calmly outside and away, donning the garments on the way.

Today, we transact much of our activities online, invisible to those we are dealing with.  Kings, generals and governments have done business-at-a-distance for millennia but not with modern tools, not at modern speeds, and not in modern numbers of participants.  There is a lower physical risk to trickery than with the use of guns and clubs.  Some sorts of deception can be applied to hundreds or millions of accounts simultaneously with a potential to reap way more money than a robber can carry in a bag.

So, what do you trust?  My logon and password?  My state driver's license with a photo of the younger me?  A picture of the veins in my eye?  My fingerprint? My voiceprint?  Quick analysis of my blood?  How recent does the information have to be? What if I have fallen under the spell of an evil manipulator who has persuaded me, the previously non-criminal me, to change my behavior?  Must I supply you with a mind print or a morals print?  Maybe you have higher safety standards and need to keep me under observation for a minute or a month to get a better idea of who and what I am currently before trusting me?  What do you trust?
P.S. Here is a new page on my web site listing some of the books recently mentioned in the blog

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Enjoying the commute

Sisyphus was condemned by the gods for his misbehavior to stay at the task of pushing a large boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down from the top to the bottom again.  We are condemned or blessed with breathing in and breathing out, cooking and eating, washing clothes, having annual checkups, paying taxes, watching tv, reading books, sharing time with family and friends.  Karen Maezen Miller makes clear the possibility of enjoying that round-and-round in both her books, especially "Hand Wash Cold" and her blog Cheerio Road.

I always liked the laments in the poem "The Pessimist" that there is "nothing to breathe but air" and "nothing to eat but food".  It just tickles me that we don't normally get depressed about breathing the same old mixture of atmosphere while the much rarer displays of reality tv don't appeal to me.  That poem ends with the poet's recommendation, from the middle of the 1800's, to use "common sense", an interesting catchall category that my mother and others think they hold in common.  Some things seem to be blocked from getting labeled "boring", often things that are necessities and are going to be part of my life as long as it continues.

The more attractive and lively possibility of actively appreciating breathing, of being happy to cook, eat and think didn't emerge for me until I practiced focusing on the present moment. Purposely putting my attention on what I have right now deepens my satisfaction with the whole business of living.  Miller puts it like this:

"It always goes, you see, this life of ours. It goes the way it goes, moment after moment. The point is, do we see it without blinding ourselves with our preconceptions and biases? Without rejecting the unexpected or pursuing the ideal? The search for greater meaning robs our life of meaning. The pursuit of higher purpose leaves us purposeless. The world doesn't need another wanderlusting soul seeker.  It needs a home maker - me- to make my home within it."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Give it a look

I like the New Yorker.  I very rarely read the Broadway play or movie reviews or the scoop on the art shows and concerts.  I read the cartoons seriously, the last paragraph of James Surowiecki's's The Financial Page, and every now and then, one of its long articles that makes a difference in my thinking or knowledge of the world.  David Brooks has an article in the Jan. 17 issue called "Social Animal" which is smoothly written, fun to read and worthwhile.  Take a look here http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/01/17/110117fa_fact_brooks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Just seeing

Dr. Epstein makes it clear that much of the trouble his patients get into results from attempts to shield themselves from a predicted disappointment or hurt.  Attempting to avert their attention from some idea or question they fear will lead to pain of one kind or another, they guard themselves by trying to pay no attention to what they fear.

"What was getting in the way of my ability to be open, of my ability to communicate, of my presence in the here-and-now? What was stopping me from being myself? Usually, it would turn out to be some notion of how I should be, some image of perfection, some protective sense of embarrassment or shame that caused me to react against the way things actually were. These feelings had led me to develop coping strategies that had taken on a life of their own. It was like assuming a posture that becomes so habitual that it is no longer noticed. I had developed ways of dealing with my anxiety that now ran on without me." - Mark Epstein in "Going On Being"

Sometimes, the wall is put up because the person can sense that a given thought or idea is the opening wedge of a whole series of cascading thoughts that, taken together, seem to result in unpleasantness.  

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,"Similarly, we can guard against the elaborate cascade of often vexing or enthralling thoughts and emotions commonly triggered by even one bare sense impression. We can do so by bringing our attention to the point of contact, in the moment of contact with the sense impression. In this way, when there is seeing, the eyes are momentarily in contact with the bare actuality of what is seen. In the next moment, all sorts of thoughts and feelings pour in . . . "I know what that is." "Isn't it lovely." "I don't like it as much as I liked that other one." "I wish it would stay this way." "I wish it would go away." "Why is it here to annoy, thwart, frustrate me in this moment?" And on and on and on. The object or situation is just what it is. Can we see it with open bare attention in the very moment of seeing, and then bring our awareness to see the triggering of the cascade of thoughts and feelings, liking and disliking, judging, wishing, remembering, hoping, fearing and panicking that follow from the original contact like night follows day? If we are able, even for one moment, to simply rest in the seeing of what is here to be seen, and vigilantly apply mindfulness to the moment of contact, we can become alerted through mindfulness to the cascade as it begins as a result of the experience in that moment being either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—and choose not to be caught up in it, whatever its characteristics, but instead, to allow it to just unfold as it is, without pursuit if it is pleasant or rejection if it is unpleasant. In that very moment, the vexations actually can be seen to dissolve because they are simply recognized as mental phenomena arising in the mind. Applying mindfulness in the moment of contact, at the point of contact, we can rest in the openness of pure seeing, without getting so caught up in our highly conditioned, reactive, and habitual thinking or in a stream of disturbance in the feeling realm..."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

trying for semi-lasting truth

The highest standard in many types of research on humans is the double-blind randomized experiment or 'trial'.  In it, the people in all the treatment groups do not know whether they are receiving the hypothesized great, new medicine or procedure or are in the control group getting something else.  Neither do interviewers or other persons in contact with those in the experiment.  Only the data analysts get all the information.  Typically, those analysts apply some calculations to the data to see if any difference between the groups' results has a high probability of occurring just by chance.  The words "double-blind" refer to keeping the nature of the treatments secret to try to avoid psychological or other boosts just from knowing you are getting the possible new miracle drug or whatever.

The 'randomized' part of the name refers to assigning people to treatment groups randomly, using a table of random numbers or some other reliable impartial mechanical method of deciding which people get into which of the groups.  Most basic statistical theory is based on the idea of sampling from a population but in real life, the nature of the entire set of people matters very much.  It is not possible, actually, feasibly and within a reasonable time and budget, to get a random sample of all people there are.  So the population always consists of a limited and in some ways, select group, such as Americans or college students willing and able to participate in the experiment.

I read a while back that some physicians like to prescribe the latest drug that seems to have had good results because all drugs and all inventions tend toward less power and effect over time.  An article in a recent New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer called "The Truth Wears Off" explores research on humans that first seems quite striking but over repeated tries of the same setup shows a decline in power and effect.  The latest issue has several letters to the editor from researchers and professors of research methods emphasizing that such a trend is to be expected.  As more replications of the research take place, more variation in the type of person in the experiment occurs.  

This reminds me of the comment by C.S. Lewis about the result of his visiting groups of people all over Britain to explain and defend Christianity.  He says that when he discussed ideas with other Cambridge dons, much like himself, he had one sort of experience.  Then, out in public, he found a much wider array of opinion, reception, and discussion mode than he was used to.  There are places where humanists offer the opinion that between individual and cultural variations and psychological effects and powers there really can be no such thing as totally scientific research involving people.  I don't go that far but we are tricky critters living in a complex surprising world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oddly coincident events

Of course you know the difference between what we call 'real life' and fiction.  Fiction has a human mind, sometimes more than one, behind it.  That human mind has a history, awareness and taste.  I don't say 'good taste'.  I mean it has intuition about what will make the story serve the purpose of the author(s).  Often, that purpose has to do with money, with making sales, maybe selling the rights to the fiction as a screenplay or a tv series.  The author might have different or multiple purposes, though, including simple direct fun or artistic originality or an interest in depicting something in what seems a new way.

We often hear that truth is stranger than fiction.  In many ways, that seems to be true, often we hear of some rather strange event or rare or improbable occurrence.  Such words indicate the connection between probability and believability.  If something is too improbable, we have difficulty believing that it happened or even could happen.  We understand that strange events do happen by themselves, often in the area of co-incidents.  When I happen to pick up the phone to call you after no contact for a while and you are thinking at the very same moment that I owe you a call, that is a coincidence that gets our attention.  Last week, I wrote about the movie "Harold and Maude" in discussing attitudes toward life and toward death.  It turned out that relatives 1000 miles away had chosen that very movie to watch at that very time.  Wow, what a coincidence!

In some medieval and old plays, the climax includes a revelation that the delicious young hero is actually the long-lost heir to the throne and a prince of the realm, giving him even more shine and worth as a prize for the delicious young heroine.  Modern audiences often break out into laughter, exclaiming,"Yeah, right.  Like that could happen." Yet some very arresting coincidents do occur in life.  Sometimes, mere chance really does bring together elements that matter to us in ways that are very rare.  But generally, the mere simultaneous events are all that happens, not things that affect us all that much.  In the vocabulary of some time management people, there is a distinction between "urgent" [needs immediate action] and "important" [matters, has weighty consequences.  Similarly, we could say that most of the co-incidents in life are striking but not all that important.  In fiction, the co-incidents have a big effect on events.  In "Three Fugitives", Nick Nolte has just minutes ago been released from prison for bank robbery and is now in the bank to get some money when a novice bank robber, Martin Short, tries to rob the bank and takes the dangerous, wily and tired Nolte hostage.  What a coincidence! 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lynn’s prayer

Dr. Lynn Kirby is a widely varied person.  She is not easy to label, not only because she has a wonderful husband but more importantly, because she is accomplished in many fields.  Sometimes, we use five basic pseudo-dimensions of a human being to try to look at the whole person: physical, cognitive, emotional, physical and moral.  Lynn has impressive credentials in each.
I love her writing, which tends to be simple, direct and memorable.  Here is her recently published essay, "Leaving It Up to God, Now"  for the Quaker newsletter "What Canst Thou Say?".  Following the article is a poem of hers, "Peace Prayer: A Bowl".

Leaving it up to God, now

My mother taught me to say grace at mealtimes and bedtime prayers and blessings ("God bless Mommy and Daddy and Dennis.") at each day's end. I went to a religious school where memory classes taught more rote prayers. And in church, each week the pastor would pray, on behalf of all members of the congregation, the prayer specified in his liturgical calendar.

We were also taught that we could pray for what we wanted, such as, "Please, God, make my parents give me a kitten," or, "Please make the sun shine on Saturday so we can go to the beach."

I found these types of prayer satisfying for a long time. My bedtime prayers brought a sense of completion to the day, and saying grace at meals just seemed right. Hallelujahs and prayers of praise filled me with joy and reverence.

But as I grew older, awareness grew in me that the pastor's prayers very rarely had to do with current world or local issues or with my own personal life. Instead, a very strong emphasis was put on how sinful we are and how we can never be good enough to deserve God's love. Most of our prayer was based on fear, consisting of asking for forgiveness, begging for God's mercy.

Gradually, I stopped seeing God as an old man in the sky, granting wishes or meting punishments at whim. I gave up trying to understand God's nature because I don't believe I will ever have the capacity to understand the magnitude, the complexity, of the God force.

The nature of my prayers changed when I began to realize that I had neither God's breadth of understanding nor any faultless solutions for life's problems. I have come to see prayers of praise as uplifting for me, but not something that God needs. My petitionary prayer is for strength, wisdom, understanding, or compassion. I pray that God will show me how to live in love and with trust, and I try to remain open to God's will.

If someone is in need, I don't ask for a particular outcome, but for the best solution, as seen from an eternal point of view. I try to join in God's love for that person. In silence, I send good thoughts and love to that individual. Sometimes I perform tonglin, the Buddhist practice of breathing in their pain, breathing out lovingkindness and compassion.

Meditation, practicing gratitude and acceptance have made me feel more at peace with God, life, and my small role in the whole scheme of things. I am not afraid (except when I'm near a cliff's edge). I don't need to have the answers and I don't need to tell God how to operate. Isn't that lucky?
Peace Prayer: A Bowl

May I live as an open bowl:

When empty, to receive gratefully

whatever I'm given.

When full, to hold gently;

to offer all I have

knowing I will be filled again.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mind-set power

Prof. Langer looked over the government standards for adequate exercise.  They stated that adults need 30 minutes of good exercise most, if not all, days of the week.  They also stated that Blacks and Hispanics generally needed more exercise than Whites.  Since she knew that many minority job-holders work hard physically at their jobs and since there seemed to be no mention of or consideration of exercise done as part of one's job, she started to wonder.   She and some of her students found 7 hotels that would allow them to talk with and do some research with their staffs.  Langer was especially interested in the room cleaning staff.  She knew they normally cleaned 15 rooms a day and that such work was rather active.  

The investigators quizzed the workers about their health and practices.  Nearly all reported that they didn't exercise, just as Langer suspected they would.  They tended to have a mind set that equated good exercise with visiting a gym or doing other explicitly 'exercise' activities outside of work.  The staff was informed that the investigators were interested in their health and ways to improve it.  They allowed their vital signs to be measured: weight, blood pressure, etc.

Half of the participants in the study were told during a traning session that the work they did daily met the standards for exercise  and that the cleaners had been engaging in sufficient exercise as part of their daily work to obtain strong health benefits.  Evidence was gathered that showed none of the workers added to their outside-of-work exercise routines.  Prof. Langer reports:

After only four weeks of knowing that their work is good exercise, the participants in the informed group lost an average of two pounds. In addition to the weight loss, the room attendants also showed a significant reduction in body fat percentage. Further, the fact that the participants in the informed condition showed an increase in body water percentage indicates, first, that they did not simply lose water weight and, second, that they may have gained some muscle mass (muscle mass has a higher water content than fatty tissue), making the 2.7 percent loss even more significant (since muscle weighs more than fat). Finally, the fact that these were significant differences between the informed group and the control group, who were actually gaining weight and body fat, makes these findings even more powerful. With respect to blood pressure, the informed group showed a drop of 10 points systolic and 5 points diastolic in their blood pressure—a significant change. While there may be numerous reasons why the women in the study may have been unhealthy, including genetics and diet, our study focused on exercise. These women did not initially view their work as exercise. At the onset of the experiment, two-thirds of the participants reported not exercising regularly, and around one-third reported not getting any exercise at all.

All from a change in mind set!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Langer's mindfulness

I read Ellen Langer's "Mindfulness" 10 or more years ago.  She is a professor of psychology at Harvard and is the only writer I have ever seen that discusses mindfulness without mentioning meditation.  I think most writers I have read mean by mindfulness, in Deepak Chopra's phrase, something like "being aware of one's own [mental] software."  That is, noticing when I am thinking and noticing what I am thinking about, with fewer occasions of getting occupied by thoughts of a particular kind or topic without meaning to let that happen or noticing it.  But Langer means something a bit different.  She means noticing, and maybe questioning, just about everything that is important to me, especially issues that bother or limit me.

My reason for practicing 10 minutes a day of vigilance over my thoughts is that I have found, like 3 millennia of practitioners before me, that the practice increases my awareness of my mental states.  I become a little more able to notice persistent thoughts as persistent and any change from one group of thoughts to another.  Langer seems to have a very imaginative and flexible mind.  Much of the research she reports completing is discussed in broad, non-academic, readable terms and seems unusually creative to me.

Her most recent book, "Counterclockwise", concerns being mindful and questioning aspects of our health and interactions with medical ideas, diagnoses and personnel.  The book's title refers to a study she did decades ago to see if elderly men would fare better in surroundings that were reminiscent of the times and fashions of their youth.  They did fare better.  

Langer's version of noticing and questioning is similar to what some people call "critical thinking".  That sort of thinking does not just mean criticizing in the sense of fault-finding, although that is included.  It means asking "Why?" and "What evidence supports my diagnosis?".  It means noticing variability in one's symptoms from hour to hour and day to day.  It means noticing when one is having a good day and trying to figure out what made it good.

Whether we are watching our thoughts or our health, we can't notice everything.  We can't question everything because we don't know enough and neither do the experts.  However, no one is closer to us than we are to ourselves and keeping track of our fears, what brings us joy and fun, and how we feel about this life and its events can open new vistas and possibilities each day.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Three news topics

I have run into some new subjects and topics that I think are interesting.
The Atlantic Monthly magazine usually has a cover story that opens new lines of thought.   

Recently, it was about coal as a fuel and how the activities we like and are used to not only require energy but require sufficient power, too.  We can't accomplish current goals without a rich source of energy that can deliver large quantities quickly.  Coal can.  This month's just arrived in my Kindle and the cover story is about the super-rich worldwide today.  They are

    • richer than people have ever been
    • more engaged in current work and projects and not just rich because of inheritance
    • moving to wanting to have recognized and respected think tanks of their own, charitable foundations of their own and an annual conference of thinkers and presenters that matter
    • I read a while back that today's "philantrocapitalist" is quite savvy about evaluating projects, proposals and ideas for effectiveness and working for improvements and innovations in ongoing projects
On a different topic, I have read that some new technology can allow a device to read my credit card number while the card is still in the wallet and the wallet still in my pocket.  This link goes to a Dec. 11 post and implies that this effect can only be achieved with credit cards that have RFID chips embedded in them.  "Radio frequency id-entification" is an emerging technology to avoid having to sweep barcodes.  The article and another I saw say that wrapping the card in aluminum foil will prevent identification.

New topic: possible health benefits from the inspiration of Paleolithic diets.  Most of the titles I have seen include the word Paleolithic or Paleo in the title.  I haven't looked at any of them but I have read Gary Taubes' books "Good Calories, Bad Calories" and "Why We Get Fat and What We Can Do About It".  In both, the main bad guy is sugar.  Personally, I like sugar and sweets.  I guess nearly all of us do.  However, Taubes, a science writer at big pains to track down the science, chemistry and history of overweight, convinced me that sugar and related carbohydrates reach the brain's pleasure center in a way most foods don't.  I guess the Paleo-diet guys also have it in for dairy since the early humans had none. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hope to accomplish

I was surprised by the statement, I think in "The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age" by Ronald Blythe, that those who are near the end of life have no future.  What?  I have no future !?!  But I guess it is simply a mathematical fact: the end ends.  I realize that it may not be imminent.  I don't think it is and it doesn't  feel that way.  Still, I do see that the view ahead is very different from the typical view of a person at age 30 or 50.  I still have needs but they are under control and more and more, I don't especially need to plan.

But that means that there is less and less I hope to do, less and less I am working on or toward.  So, I have fewer and fewer goals.  I agree with the Buddha that having few desires leaves me open to few sources of suffering.  But I also agree with the zookeepers that an animal is healthier if it is engaged and not bored to death.  If I had a stronger mind or maybe a less American hyper-constitution, I might be able to simply sit and enjoy existing.  I can do that for a while each day but I do better with a blog, some projects, and some hopes to accomplish by this evening.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Big trips and lesser ones

Ready to die?  Ready!  

All packed?  

We all know that death comes whenever, usually against our will and that we can't take our stuff with us.  Yet, when we go away for a week, we save money and trouble if we take some of our clothes, our toothbrush and our pajamas from home with us.  So do we need stuff or not?  Depends on the trip, the amount of time we have to prepare and what we estimate would be helpful.  We know that the packed suitcase will be untouched by the person after death.  Unlike some of the ancients, we don't drop a packed suitcase into the grave beside the coffin.  

As usual,  it is a question of balance.  We guess what we might be glad we packed and often we are right.  We may later regret not having our favorite mug with us.  But we can afford a substitute from the local store.

Ever see "Harold and Maude"?  If you haven't, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the movie.  It is not new but the local public library has a copy, I bet.  Maude is old but full of life, ready for everything.  Harold is young and confused, not sure what to do with life and the hours and energy he still has, not ready for anything. The album photo of the two of them says lots about our lives.  It is the first picture that comes up in this link.  

Many folks want to move from his state to hers.  Coaches and thinkers often advise that the shortest path from his mode to hers is acceptance of where he is, awareness of what he now is and what he now sees and feels.  Accept that things can get confusing and scary but that they change into wonderful and orderly.  Her gift to him is being who and what she is, packed for anything and ready.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Silence, please

In high school, I had a long ride to and home from school.  I often read on the streetcar rides and one of the books that made the most impact on me was The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase (1938).  I was reading it about 20 years later but it opened my eyes for the rest of my life to the tangles we sometimes get into with words.  That book led me to "Language in Thought and Action" and other books by the man of many talents, S.I. Hayakawa.   Both books left with me with an interest in words and tricks they can play.  I remember Hayakawa's advice that a person who says,"Flat tire?" when you are hot and sweaty and in the midst of a irritating tire change is often simply opening a conversation and does not deserve to be attacked.

These memories come back to me as I listen to the statements about Heidegger and Wittgenstein concluding that Western philosophy has sometimes blundered into making mountains out of molehills, inventing problems where there aren't any.  I had a minor in graduate school in philosophy and spent many hours reading to and listening to questions and discussions of truth, logic, existence and meaning.  Most of that time, I felt the issues were of little value.  I had been teaching the 5th grade for 4 years before that and I was very clear that the issues and problems of teaching well had nothing to do with the reading and listening.

As I learned about Eastern philosophy and the practice of silence and stillness, I thought,"Yes!  Just as Psalm 46 says, 'Be still...' "  Shutting up, turning off the stream of voice and thought can solve many things.  Doing so puts much in perspective, illuminates corners, brings peace in ways that the use of words cannot.

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