Monday, February 28, 2011

Alley by Alley with DJ Gaddafi

How do people respond to what is happening across the Muslim world? On the radio this morning I heard how Noy Alooshe responded.  He created this "Zenga Zenga hip-hop remix" of one of Gaddafi's speeches which has gone viral.

I've said it before, online videos have changed our world. Now to check out some traditional guzheng music...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mantra benefits?

Like Darren Naish, a dedicated biologist who infrequently publishes entries on cryptozoology, I like dabbling in the fringes of scientific knowledge.  So when I heard that Barb Bancroft visited the local hospital to give a seminar to health care professionals, and she alluded to a study identifying the effects of mantra meditation on hippocampal growth, I wanted to learn more.  Barb emphasized that it doesn't matter what one says, it is simply the act of  saying it.  Now I don't know if this was the study she was talking about, but I found online Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Hippocampal Activation During Silent Mantra Meditation.  It is interesting, but hardly seems conclusive.  I know folks who have chanted the Daimoku.  Barb joked that repeating “haagen dazs” provided her with the most inspiration.  Being of a more philosophical bias myself, I have been predisposed to ignore mantras, and gave more weight to Chan Buddhist shinkantaza meditation (which Kabat-Zinn has adapted to his MBSR program).  Years ago, recording my observations of its effects provided the inspiration for content on my first blog. 

If one is to use a mantra, how does one choose?  I decided that the simple “Om” would be a good choice to try.  After I got off work yesterday I looked up a few videos to get a feel for how to perform this mantra and while driving home I tried it.  Surprisingly, I felt much more relaxed and focused.  I think this is because when I hold the "om" sound for as long as I can before taking in the next breath, and repeating this over and over, I am essentially taking long slow deep breaths, which helps a person relax.  From listening and trying this mantra, I have made a few interesting observations and analogies.  Om is not a word in the sense that it has a correct spelling or meaning, it is simply a sound, and among words it is essentially onomatopoeia.  The low pitch of human vocal chords reverberates in one's body and has the side effect of loosening phlegm (I am sick right now actually).  In some ways it reminds me of the groan of a person in pain.  But moreover it reminds me of the sound of a dijeridoo, a singing bowl, an aeolian harp, liturgical chanting (one of my favorite parts of the traditional Lutheran service), Tuvan throat singing, or a purring cat.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My favorite things and goal progress

Have a look at the beautiful structure and consistency that can be found each day in my life:
  • Sleep and personal hygiene (includes sauna use)
  • Recitation of Japanese vocabulary; study and reflection (promotes discovery and learning)
  • Exercise outdoors (walking, running, biking)
  • Meal preparation, dishes, and chores (organizational skills)
  • Home maintenance and data communications improvement.  
  • Take care of animals and plants (greenhouse too)
  • Record of daily events and anniversaries.  
Every day, I try to accomplish something in each of these areas.  Don't be fooled, these are very broad categories.  (I use the same logic by which some people categorize ketchup as a vegetable.)  The most inclusive category there is denoted by “study and reflection”.  I mean every mental event, especially reading!  And “home maintenance” and “chores” admittedly overlap – they could even include automotive repairs and mortgage payments.   Chores are more regular and periodic, whereas home maintenance tends to involve irregular or rare activities (but as a category it includes many things).  So why did I make this list?  These are the things that I enjoy and look forward to doing, they provide a sense of peace and accomplishment.  And these are also some of the values and structure I want to impart upon my children.  The truth is that I'm not there yet.  Several of these things cannot be done.  But it is a vision, and I have a plan.  As with any good vision, it has limitless potential for growth built in.

But routine can also be seen as running to stay in place, which raises the question: How do you measure progress cumulatively? I am fascinated by form, energy, movement, and time. The inexorable progress of things on a geologic timescale. But people need to see progress daily. One measurable, physical manifestation of progress that many people take pride in is the number of pages read in any subject (fiction, math, psychology, science, etc.) each day. This is a quantitative measure of information absorbed and assimilated.  The sense of efficacy created by that can provide motivation for less desirable and more difficult tasks by means of a positive feedback loop.

Here is a simple image of how I see my goal progress.  It is pretty self explanatory I think and reflects the categories above.  The y-axis is time, the x-axis basically shows that I can focus on at least three major projects at once (I hope!) that give way to other projects as they are completed.  As regards the "new job" I have a few thoughts:  E.O. Wilson has said that if he could start his life over he would work in microbial ecology.  At my age, I could still do that:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


A virtual cult classic, Mikkel Aaland's 1978 book Sweat is a good read.  He has a neglected website, which is excusable for the fact that he is also a pioneer in digital photography, has just this year released a new book on sauna construction, How to Build Your Own Sauna and Sweat, and is working on a new PBS documentary based on his original book.  Perhaps the stained and well-worn library copy I read was an early edition, but I noticed that the text had several paragraphs out of sequence and several pages seemed to be completely missing (despite following numerical order).  The information that is there is very good however, and it is evident that Aaland is dedicated to his subject material having done a lot of original research in the field.

Several of the descriptions of the sounds and sensations one has in a sauna were very good.  He quoted Seven Brothers, by Aleksis Kivi: “Timo threw water on the heated oven until the blackened stones heaped over it cracked with a noise like rifle fire”.  Yes, that is what it sounds like, and the resulting loyly feels like heaven on your skin.  After reading the book, I wanted to get my own vihta and take a sauna!  Until you have taken several different saunas, it is hard to appreciate the different qualities that they can have.  A sauna is much more than a hot room.  The quality of heat, if one can speak of it in this way, can be excellent or unbearably harsh.  Maybe there is something to the idea of negative ions (that I come across frequently in descriptions, but remain skeptical of).  There are more books awaiting my review, but my attention must be averted to other matters for the mean time.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Vik over at The Lazy Randonneur occasionally posts "bike porn" - salacious pictures of beautiful bikes for people who have a real affection for such things.  Here I will post some "greenhouse porn". 

Doug Leen lives in Petersburg, Alaska.  His greenhouse (pictured above) is simple and beautiful.  Essentially it looks like a modern trestle frame or truss frame design.  I'd like to build one very similar. One thing I might add is eye bolts and cables for diagonal bracing along the walls, but rigid polycarbonate panels serve the same function.  

Rosie Creek Farm has a beautiful collection of greenhouses used to grow their organic produce.  One might say this is simply a larger version of Doug's truss frame greenhouse (though it was built earlier, another view).  The larger roof span benefits from a more triangulated truss design.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Blind to signals, blind to minds

How does signal selection work?  Any ability we have to determine the actual capabilities of others will be used for that end.  And any means we have for manipulating the behavior of others will tend to be used for that end, if possible.  In humans, our sensory abilities limit the kinds of information we can collect about other humans and animals, and therefore our ability to learn about them and predict their behavior is limited to what our senses tell us.  However, many other animals are not so restricted in what they can learn about other organisms; they have other avenues for reading each other's minds as well as manipulating each other's behavior.  I thought about these other sensory abilities after watching “The Cove” the other day. 

Dogs live in a world filled with scents.  Their noses are so sensitive that they can smell the change in body odor associated with the growth of cancer cells.  Of course, dogs do use chemical signals to manipulate the behavior of other dogs and determine their intentions, we just don't yet know the extent of their use of this signalling ability.  Another interesting example is that of dolphins.  Their sonar abilities are more advanced than anything man has yet created.  They are capable of seeing through a person and revealing details of internal structures such as the heart and skeletal system.  Could it be that dolphins use this information to learn about animals and other dolphins too?  And if they can use the information, could certain features of it be subject to signal selection?  I say yes.  I know of no features in the natural living world that are beyond the reach of signal selection.  Perhaps female dolphins can determine which males have strong healthy hearts or other organs and preferentially mate with these males over others.  Or perhaps status in pods of whales is partially determined by skeletal features.  We just don't know.  Of course, it would be easier for dolphins to determine another's health through more obvious behavioral means.  But I hope the point I am making is clear.  Whereas chemical signalling in dogs and other animals is better studied, the use of sonar information and signalling is poorly understood.  When we understand what kind of signals animals can sense in the world around them, and how they send and receive these signals, our view into the minds of other animals like dogs and dolphins will be clearer, assuming we have not degraded the environment to such a point that the minds of cetaceans would no longer be available to study.  In the event this happens, our children, biological or artificial, will condemn us for consuming our evolutionary cousins.  Hopefully we will be spared the same treatment.