Elephant Yin Yang

Pensive Pensées Pensieve for 2011

In this Age of Distraction who cares what anyone thinks? We are a long way from Michel de Montaigne, the first and greatest blogger. Why bother with yet another web-log? Good question!


Beer, on serving : Blogging Change Debt Empathy : Environment : eReaders for readers : Exercise Gardening, square-foot Health, doing what works Inception, an inaugural post Knowledge, general Relationships : Riotous Behavior : Ritual Shank’s Pony : Stress Worth, intrinsic

In 2011

2011-08-29: Debt

Debt is a pernicious cause of suffering. Debt is vicious, locking the debtor into servitude; a worrisome slavery. In taking on debt you yoke yourself to the strife and worry of feeding the beast.

Do what you can to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate your debt. Some debt is necessary such as for buying a house or a vehicle. As a rule, keep debt to a minimum such that the payments needed to service your debt are a small percentage of your total income. Living with a high level of debt means that you a unable to support any increase in the cost of living or unforseen expenses.

A family’s single largest debt is the mortage required to own a house. Paying off the mortage on your house as soon as you can delivers a huge psychological boost, bestowing a comforting sense of security.

Freedom from debt is a true freedom wherein you are beholden to none. Strive for low to no debt, promoting equanimity of mind and good health.


2011-08-27: Change

Change is inevitable. It is one of the biggest causes of suffering that arises due to our wishing things to be different. Our suffering is mitigated, even removed, by management and acceptance of change. We manage change by adapting to new circumstances. We survive and adapt through our ability to estimate future probabilities based on present events and the probable outcomes of different courses of action. We survive and adapt through the use of appropriate skills from a large repertoire coupled with selection of the right tool for the job. Change is easier when faced with a can-do attitude and intention for the new circumstances to be a positive experience, manageable when you can adapt yourself to prevailing conditions, and interesting as a challenge to be overcome and survived.

Meditation is an act of change. It is recognition that one’s internal state can be improved through change in our perspective. It is a gateway to self-knowledge and the universe. It is a means to understanding that reality is what we make it.

Embrace change and work with it for a positive outcome. Create a reality for yourself in which you can be content. Chinese people have had the wisdom to understand that life is constant change. They discovered that circumstances of now are cyclical, enabling them to take a stoic attitude to the vicissitudes of life in the knowledge that a change in prevailing circumstances is inevitable.

Book of Changes

Chinese sage, Fu Xi, developed the I Ching or Book of Changes, as a means of divination, based on the sinusoidal movement of change. It was used to determine the most propitious time for action and as a general purpose oracle. Stephen Karcher, author of How to Use the I Ching, says that The I Ching acts primarily as a guide to making decisions. It can reformulate your awareness of your situation, open up new connections and free your imagination. The idea is that through the consultation process we interact with the hidden forces creating our situation and discover how to respond most effectively.

Master Huang, author of The Complete I Ching, says that The I Ching we use today is… not a book used merely for telling fortunes. It gives advice as to what one should do and what one should not do. All through the ages, the Chinese have never consulted the I Ching lightly. People have always been instructed to adopt a correct attitude in divination. The purpose of divination is to resolve doubt and confusion. When one already knows what one should do according to common sense and moral principles, then one should not consult the I Ching. Divine only for important questions and events, never for mean purposes or with selfish motivations. He says too that: In every divination, ask only one question. The question should be simple and clear. Avoid vague and optional questions. It is better for a beginner not to ask for a prediction; the best inquiry is for advice.

To my mind, the I Ching is a process for elucidating doubts in one’s mind. It provides new ways of looking at one’s situation. It acts like the therapist who asks open-ended questions such as: How do you feel about this? Even Confucius says that one should think thrice before acting on recommendations of the I Ching. Ultimately, each individual is responsible for any action taken. You are your own authority.

I think that The Complete I Ching by Master Alfred Huang is the better book to use and that the term definitive in the title means what it says. As far as we Occidentals are concerned, there is no better book for us to use; it is the best available.

Consulting the I Ching

The Complete I Ching by Huang is worth reading from to cover to cover in small sections, a chapter at a time. In doing so, the reader becomes familiar with the I Ching’s voice and with Master Huang’s interpretation. I summarized the consultation process by extracting the relevant information from Karcher’s How to Use the I Ching, his book is worth reading too, and compiled the Yi Jing Consultation Guide, available for download via the link. There are a few things to remember when consulting the I Ching:

  1. Consultation is done by question phrased in the active voice, simple and direct.
  2. Only ask questions to which you want to know the answer, good or bad.
  3. Some questions should remain unasked.
  4. Be careful what you ask.
  5. Don’t badger the I Ching by repeatedly asking the same question in the hope of getting a different answer.
  6. Don’t blindly follow the I Ching, use it intelligently to help you reach a decision about what it is you are undecided. The idea is to use the I Ching as a way of generating new points of view that have the potential to open a way forward; to use the worn out construction common today, it helps you to think outside the box.
  7. Re-read the Master Huang’s version of the I Ching at regular intervals. You will get new insights with each pass through the book.

Change is inevitable. Your objective should be to actively engage with change to your best advantage, given your circumstances. Embracing change is the positive, proactive thing to do.


2011-08-23: General Knowledge

General knowledge facilitates equanimity. Ignorance and fear are bedfellows. Ignorance makes us susceptible to the blandishments of scaremongers, confidence tricksters, political demagoguery, and advertising that plays upon our fears. Fear arises through ignorance. A good general knowledge and education makes us resistant to being stampeded by the wily mountebanks that infest our world.

Gaining and sustaining a general knowledge is a life-long daily process. Education doesn’t stop with the end of formal schooling, it is ongoing, fun, and as easy as a little daily reading that can be combined with quiet time and a cup of tea or other favorite beverage, done either on- or off-line with reliable sources.

What’s reliable is the problem. Try these good places to start on-line: Arts & Letters Daily at http://www.aldaily.com/ or Scientific American at http://www.scientificamerican.com/ or Science Daily at http://www.sciencedaily.com/. Printed media are still useful and don’t require electricity to read, any source of light will do; try the Wilson Quarterly (http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/) or Lapham’s Quarterly (http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/) both are excellent general contemporary and historical sources of news and ideas. It is easy to be overwhelmed by information, so limit yourself to a few good sources and don’t feel as though you have to read everything; browse for a set period of time each day and read what catches your interest.


2011-08-20: Intrinsic Worth

Among the followers of the economist Ludwig von Mises there is much consternation about the U.S. national debt, budget deficit, and the fact that the U.S. Government abandoned the Gold Standard, transforming the dollar from a currency backed by the physical gold stored at Fort Knox to one that is a promise to pay, making the dollar a fiat currency. What concerns the Austrians, as these economists are known, is that fiat currency has no intrinsic worth thereby leaving the financial operation of the country open to manipulative abuse by unscrupulous politicians, bankers, and deluded fools. Fact is that the Austrians have good cause to be concerned as should anyone doing business with the United States, which has a national debt that is currently in the region of fifteen trillion dollars and growing, well in excess of the gross national product. But I wonder that gold is intrinsically worthless too.

Gold is a fungible medium of exchange, as is silver or copper or other precious metal. It is a convenient replacement for barter, acting as currency. In theory, currency could be anything universally agreed upon, such as crown corks or cornpones; somewhat impractical in that crown corks are ruinous to the pocket yet advantageous in that corn-pones can be eaten, but neither is fungible due the variations in quality. Precious metals aren’t necessarily fungible either since coinage is subject to debasement by debased governments. Any form of money needs a means of checking its intrinsic worth; hence the existence of Assay Offices and the historic Trial of the Pyx, which is a formal test of the metallurgical content of coins issued by the Royal Mint.

Money is convenient and a convenient measure of one’s wealth. In these times, individual wealth is often nothing more than an entry in an electronic ledger. Even vending machines are equipped with credit card readers. We materialize our wealth by exchanging electronic cash for products and services, transferring a debit on our account to a credit on the merchant’s account. We sell our services to an employer and receive an electronic credit in exchange. In essence, money is more often electrons circulating in a computer database.

Nearly all business people, economists, and financiers measure the health of an economy or business by growth; they envision endless growth, which is completely fallacious as there is no such thing. Everything has its limits. Eventually, a market will become saturated with widgets causing a corresponding decline in widget sales. To overcome this limitation, manufacturers design products to wear out or become obsolete; classic examples are the crown cork, Gillette’s disposable razor blade, or the automobile. Another method of generating sales is to generate desire for a product, hence advertising; a classic example of this is the Beanie Baby craze in which punters were deluded into thinking that toy dolls were collectible and worth more than the few dollars manufacturing cost—many gullible persons were left holding a worthless collection of dolls in different dress. Advertising is a way of simultaneously creating dissatisfaction and feelings of inferiority in potential customers while offering a product that will fill this artificially created gap. A third method is to create new models of the same product with newer features then advertise their desirability, encouraging customers to replace their old fashioned items; today’s electronic goods are a prime example of a product that grows tired very quickly. A consumer society is the result of an economy based on endless growth. Especially with electronic goods, rare earths used in electronic components are becoming rarer yet due to diminishing supplies. Oil is another extractive product that is becoming harder to find and extract and thus may be running out.

Consumer societies are limited by availability of raw materials. Wealth is created by converting natural resources into salable goods. Usually, no cost is associated with extraction of natural resources beyond the costs of mining or harvesting. Attitude of the extractive industries is much the same as the hogs rooting around an oak tree for acorns who, on being told that they will kill the tree, retort: Who cares about the tree as long as there are acorns. A common phrase in the 20th Century was There are plenty more fish in the sea; our seas are depleted and much less diverse than they were before the age of industrial-scale fishing fleets. Cod that used to be abundant are now hard to find; it is the same story for many other species of fish.

Gold is extracted from gold bearing ground; in the ground, gold isn’t worth anything. Mining doesn’t account for the damage it causes to the landscape, especially when the cyanide process of extraction is used that pollutes the landscape. Much the same can be said of other mining operations. Fine gold accrues the value intrinsic to the skills and techniques associated with the refining process; it has value in engineering of various kinds, in medicine and dentistry, in art, and in jewelery. So, it seems that fine gold does have intrinsic value. But so does electronic money in that it is backed by the commodities for which it can be redeemed. Problems arise when the Gross National Debt (GND) exceeds the Gross National Product (GNP). such that if all outstanding debt was called in, there would unrequited debt equal to the difference between the GND and GNP.

To my mind the Austrians don’t go far enough. Wealth of nations is intrinsic to the available natural resources and to the intellectual vigour and manual skills of the population. Natural resources are finite; total recycling of existing product is essentially limitless as long as there is sufficient energy available for processing operations. Intellectual and manual skills are fostered by a society that encourages learning, scientific enquiry, artistic development, and research and philosophical enquiry for its own sake. Successful societies are those that are open wherein there is a free exchange of ideas and tolerance for unpopular views.

My ability to survive is predicated on my natural parts, my personality, education, and skills. Through the care of my parents, through training, and through experience, and through my continuing efforts at self-improvement, I become and remain a salable commodity; it becomes possible for me to exchange my abilities for money. If I manage my household economy such that I remain free of debt within my budget, any surplus I create I can save as a credit balance at the bank. The bank lends its surplus to persons of an entrepreneurial spirit who need capital to start or maintain new industries that employ other persons who offer their skills in return for money generated by the sale of production. At this point we have an untrammeled natural, sustainable economy, crackling with intellectual energy that is in accord with the Austrian view of the world; of course, problems arise with the supposed free-market that we will examine in another essay.

If this argument is valid then it would seem that the United States of America is insolvent, unable to meet its financial obligations. Perhaps this is simplistic; simplistic it may be, but it is compelling, especially when one is having serious doubts about the trustworthiness of the persons charged with management of the political economy, in which much of its manufacturing expertise has been relocated to other countries, its intellectual coin has been debased by a culture of ignorance, and large swaths of the population are living way beyond their means.


2011-08-12: eReaders for Readers

Electronic readers, known as eReaders, are dedicated handheld devices designed to organize and display books in electronic text format. Most of these devices support the display of images. I resisted buying an eReader, having owned an early Rocket eBook, but M kept drawing my reluctant attention to them.

For technically averse persons who just want a compact eReader that works, choose between the current models of either Kindle or Nook.


The Kindle was persuasive with the eInk display technology that consumes very little power and runs for a long time on a single charge, but I think that the wireless connection and easy purchase of books encourages impulse buying. A big negative of the Kindle, and others, is that it employs a restrictive data format. I have read technical comparisons of all the eReaders available in the marketplace. To my mind size and weight are important considerations. Successive iterations of the Kindle just got bigger. I don’t care about additional functionality, I just want a reading device that works as intended; in fact a big problem with any device is feature-creep, the creeping addition of features that eventually bog down the device and cause problems—the Adobe Acrobat Reader software and standard is a glaring example of this; PDF used to be a display standard that has been subverted by feature-creep to the point that it is now a computer security risk; it isn’t a risk on Linux, though.

People talk about the desirability of color displays, which is true if one wants to read comics, magazines, text books, and technical publications, in which case the iPad or latest Nook are good choices. The problem with color is that it requires the use of an LCD screen with back-light, consuming lots of power thus shortening the life of the battery. Also, LCD screens are generally difficult to read in sun or bright daylight. People complain about being unable to read eInk in the dark; well, you can’t read a paper book in the dark either. eInk provides reading that is comparable to the printed page and doesn’t strain the eyes like a back-lit display does. People complain about the slow page-change of eInk; it isn’t a problem; page-change occurs within half a second. It doesn’t matter how good a product is, I think people complain for the sake of complaining.

Of all the readers, I was attracted to the Sony product line because these devices support several formats, mainly the free and open epub format. I was poised to buy a PRS-300 Pocket Reader, but in the end didn’t. Recently, Sony upgraded its eReader product line with touch technology and screens with better contrast ratios. Finally, I bought a Sony PRS-350 Pocket Reader, along with a leather slip case. Recently, I heard that the developers of the eInk technology have produced a color version, albeit washed out; I expect that, within a couple of years, low-power color eInk technology with good contrast and color saturation will be readily available.

Another compelling reason for buying the Sony device is that there is free ebook library management software available for Linux. See the Calibre web-site. I downloaded and installed the latest version, although an earlier version is available in the Ubuntu software repository. Calibre recognizes the Sony device as soon as it is connected. The reason I downloaded the latest version is that it supports news services—you can download free and subscription services such as USA Today, WSJ, NYT, AP, etc. to the reader—not that I’ve bothered with this beyond testing it.

Tools for eReaders

In addition to being a library management system, Calibre has a comprehensive conversion utility that will convert from various formats to epub, including Open Office, PDF, etc.

Sigil is another free application that allows you to create and edit ebooks. The best way to do this is to use Open or Libre Office to create the book and then use the Calibre conversion utility to convert to epub and finally use Sigil to organize and clean the final epub version.

Content for eReaders

Project Gutenberg has thousands of ebooks available for download and installation on the reader, albeit with expired copyright published prior to 1921. Manybooks is another source, as is epubbooks.


2011-08-11: Riotous Behavior

JD sought my opinion on the recent riots in Britain, what triggers and sustains such behavior?, and the possibility of the United States of America being on the cusp of just such a thing, a possibility that while crazy is still possible. To be honest, I don’t know the answer to any of this, particularly as I haven’t lived in Britain for over thirty years. Being ignorant never stopped me from having an opinion. If I don’t know then I’ll make it up as I go along, which has always worked for me reasonably well.

Historically, British hooligans enjoy a fight. Ages ago, I once asked a football fan why he attended matches in person when he could get a better view via television. He replied that he went for the punch-up. Riots come and go and there are plenty of examples throughout the past when the British have risen up on a destructive rampage.

Brief History

Riots don’t just happen, they are fomented by worsening social conditions, real or perceived as real, until a spark ignites the mob to violence. In London recently, it was the peaceful demonstration against the police shooting death of a person that turned violent. In America, it was the police beating of Rodney King that fomented indignation among the black population of Los Angeles; the acquittal of the police officers accused of violating King’s civil rights was the spark that ignited the riots in LA.

We can look at two examples from the past in Britain, the Luddites and the Swing Riots that were the result of worsening social conditions. I know about these events, but used Wikipedia to get a few details to support the direction in which my discourse is moving. Wikipedia though suspect is still a more reliable source of information than me. I only know what I’m told and find out for myself. Even so, I can offer a synthesis of sorts.

British textile workers were feeling the worsening effects of the harsh economic climate produced by the Napoleonic Wars and the difficult working conditions in the new textile mills. The Luddites feared that their skilled work was being displaced by the new mechanical looms that only needed unskilled, low-paid machine minders to produce product of equal or superior quality and quantity. Luddites smashed weaving frames and battled with the army. Rioting quickly spread throughout England in 1811 and 1812 until suppressed by the British Government.

In the summer of 1830, rural workers began destroying labor-displacing threshing machines and moved on to workhouses, tithe barns, rick burning, and cattle maiming. Wikipedia says that: The Swing Riots had many immediate causes, but were overwhelmingly the result of the progressive impoverishment and dispossession of the English agricultural workforce over the previous fifty years, leading up to 1830. In parliament Lord Carnarvon had said that the English labourer had been reduced to a plight more abject than that of any race in Europe; with their employers no longer able to feed and employ them. At about the same time, the Inclosure Acts were depriving people of their right to graze their animals, cut small timber and turf, fish, and cultivation of once common lands thereby causing ever greater hardship by preventing people from drawing sustenance from the land.

These are just two examples of how the general population was being impoverished and oppressed by larger business and land owning interests. It was also a time of industrialization and change when people were forced to find work in unhealthy cities and towns. Naturally, there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that eventually comes to a point as violence against the institutions and things that appear to be the agents of change and the worsening social conditions.

Britain Today

There has always been a social underclass, a class of people who are unemployed and often unemployable. During the last thirty years, Britain appears to have grown courser with many more mostly young people unemployed and unable to find a job. When visiting Britain, I have noticed the speed with which money flows away from me and the high cost of living. I have often wondered how young people who are just starting in life manage to live at all in such an expensive environment. I’ve also noticed that where young people gather there is often more meat on the hoof than at a Kansas cattle drive, so at least they’re not starving; people appear fatter than I remember. I get the impression that there is discontent with society and disillusionment with the government, though I doubt they were illusioned with government in the first place. There seems to be an angry undercurrent that doesn’t need much to bring it to the surface.

With the loss of manufacturing jobs that went overseas to places where there are no environmental controls and no labour unions, anyone who is unskilled is going to have a lot of time on their hands. An indicator of the extent of the British fear, uncertainty, and doubt is the 1998 appearance on the statute books of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order or ASBO. An ASBO can be made against a person who has been shown, on the balance of evidence, to have engaged in anti-social behaviour. such as swearing, drinking or belligerence towards others. As usual, an ASBO is government treatment of a symptom instead of the root cause. Society is destabilized through higher rates of divorce, decreasing levels of education, lack of employment and consequent loss of self esteem; it is a problem caused by a combination of factors.

At this point I suppose I should offer a prescription for a better society, but I don’t have one to offer. Somehow people have to obtain a sense of purpose, dignity, and self-reliance. I only know how to do that one person at a time over a long period of time. There is no quick fix to something that has been long in the making. Even thirty years ago, when I left Britain for America, I estimated that my standard of living improved three fold as soon as I stepped off the aeroplane.

America Today

Is America on the cusp of riotous outbreaks? Yes and no. Young Brits like a fight and don’t give a damn about surveillance cameras or the authorities. Americans are a bit timorous when it comes to widespread civil unrest. Yet the social conditions are ripe for unrest. American people fear for the uncertain future and their ability to provide for their families. Yet Americans seem more willing to pull together; it’s noticeable when there is a natural disaster. Also, Americans are more charitable in their giving and are more involved as volunteers. But there are large numbers of unemployed and indigent people; I see a few of them sleeping on park benches or walking aimlessly or picking aluminum cans from trash receptacles, every early morning I am out riding my bike.

A telling example of desperation was the news item I heard about an eighty-year old man who robbed a bank and appeared to wait around to be arrested. My guess is that he needed health care and a place to live out his remaining days. Jail, by his calculus, was perhaps a better alternative to what he was facing alone.

Any widespread riots and unrest in this country will be brutally suppressed by government forces. America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. America is also going bankrupt fighting wars and garrisoning the planet; it can’t last. Eventually, the soldiers will return home damaged spiritually and mentally only to find that they can’t get a job. My guess is that things will worsen with the corresponding negative effect on American society.

Even though we’re doomed, I’m not too worried about it all. I’ll do what I can to turn things around. There is always hope for better future. In any event, no matter how bad things are now things will change; nothing stays the same for very long.


2011-08-10: On Relationships

A life partnership is just that, a mutual relationship between two persons. A person who says negative things about another or who finds fault at every opportunity, sometimes veiled in jest, is as abusive as if that person inflicted a physical blow. It is a corrosive state of mind.

I have learned much by watching others. Any relationship requires continual maintenance work by both sides—and I mean continual as in every moment of every day. I vowed to myself that I would only look for the positive in another person—especially my partner—not keep score, not argue or bicker. My objective has been to live up to the very public promise I made when I made formal vows binding me in marriage. My primary objective has been to nurture my partner, to remove obstacles thereby enabling her to be fulfilled. Once said, harsh words cannot be revoked, instead they linger like cancerous cells waiting to flair up and eat away at the living body of the relationship. It is best to practice avoiding the negative as you would avoid the plague, so that saying anything nasty becomes an ingrained impossibility.


2011-08-09: Exercise

Exercise is the best prophylactic for general health. Any exercise you can do is better than doing nothing. Most effective is aerobic exercise that raises your heart rate. Before starting an exercise regime, consult with your doctor and get a physical examination to make sure that you have no underlying conditions that must be considered before beginning a program of aerobic exercise.

Exercise is counterintuitive. Despite burning energy, exercise makes you feel more energetic and alive. As with anything, start small and work up to bigger effort. A small start is as easy as parking on the other side of the parking lot and walking to your destination; in the few minutes it takes, breath deeply, look around, listen, smell, and feel, observing the world with all your senses.

There are many ways in which to get exercise. Here is a very small sampling: Yoga, Tai Chi, walking, stretching, calisthenics, or swimming. Tai Chi is very good for older persons and, like Yoga, improves balance. Swimming puts the least stress on joints and water buoys the body. Walking is enjoyable in neighborhoods and local or state parks; take a picnic to a state park or eat in the lodge restaurant. Choose an exercise that works for you. Exercise promotes good health and equanimity of mind.


2011-08-08: Ritual

Ritual supports equanimity. Though the word ritual implies sacred religious rites, in this context it applies to the development of habit and order in our daily lives. A disorganized life promotes a disturbing feeling of being adrift in a welter of forces beyond our control.

Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell

An easy ritual to start in your life is to inaugurate a formal meal on one day of the week, like breakfast. If you are alone, you can choose to have breakfast with a friend or friends at a nearby restaurant where you can sit together, talk and eat. At home with a family, you can lay the table with place settings, prepare and serve the meal with the help of members of the family, turn off the TV and radio, sit down, eat and converse with one another. Norman Rockwell captured this ideal with his painting Freedom From Want that shows a family sitting at table getting ready to eat a turkey dinner.

Take time out of your day for a coffee- or tea-break mid-morning and -afternoon; stop what you are doing. Take your break at the same time every day. As Jack Buchanan or Long John Baldry would sing: Everything Stops for Tea.

Be mediative in what you do. Develop other routines and rituals that promote relaxation and calmness in support of your equanimity.


2011-08-07: Shank’s Pony

During three years of daily cycling, I have had two punctures. One about a year after I started when a shard of glass pierced my rear tyre, the morning after a celebration, the broken glass from drunken festivity still fresh; it happened when I was at my farthest point from home. My second puncture happened when I was passing under a bridge two minutes after setting out, again in my rear tyre.

I don’t bother carrying a puncture repair kit, since I am within an hour’s walk, at most, away from home. On the first occasion, I was wearing plimsolls; by the time I arrived home, I had blistered feet. From then on I wear hiking boots and socks whatever the weather. Last week I hit a thick board lying across the path in shadow cast by the pier of a bridge, invisible to me; I got about another quarter mile down the road before I felt the vibration characteristic of low tyre-pressure. I walked home knowing that I had a spare puncture resistant inner tube that I had intended to use on my front wheel with a thorn resistant liner.

It being the early part of the week, I decided to wait until the weekend before making my flat round. In the meantime, I rode shank’s pony in the morning; it made a nice change in pace walking for an hour in my cycling togs with an electric torch dangling from my wrist to warn any early morning motorists of my presence on the road. Walking is something I like doing, more so when there is pleasant country through which to travel; we are fortunate that our neighbourhood provides an enjoyable stroll. But walking isn’t enough to give me the aerobic exercise I need.

Saturday morning, while M went to teach a yoga class, I got my bike down into the basement where it is cooler and up onto the maintenance stand. I removed the rear wheel and replaced the inner tube in a about an hour or so; the most fiddly bit was reattaching the gearshift cable to the gear hub. Now I need a puncture repair kit to make the old inner tube serviceable again.

Sunday morning I was spinning around my ten-mile circuit once again, returning home dripping in sweat from head to foot. It felt good.


2011-08-06: Square-foot Garden

In April, I built a square-foot garden, thinking that I would make a trial of growing things to eat. I planted marigolds, lettuce, carrots, radishes, nasturtiums, and spinach. My garden didn’t do well at all. All the seeds germinated, but everything remained under developed. I wasn’t always at home to look after it and our weather was unsettled blowing hot and cold from one week to the next.

I moved the garden to a place where it wouldn’t get quite as much exposure to the sun and changed the soil from the pre-packaged variety I bought from a local nursery to some that I mixed myself that I had stored in a rotary composter to which we had added kitchen waste. I replanted radishes, lettuce, and spinach.

Square-foot Garden

The radishes germinated and grew, though not very well. We ate a couple of the better developed radishes and found them much spicier than those available from the grocery.

The lettuce and spinach did nothing, but then the cats had used the garden as a latrine, disturbing the planting. I put fencing around the garden and hoped for the best. Now we have what looks like cantaloupe volunteers growing from seeds that remained viable after composting, which tells me my composting isn’t working properly either. Oh well! I will grow whatever chooses to brave the heat. The cantaloupe are blooming, so if there is enough time left in the growing season, We will see if fruit is in our future.

We have volunteer tomatoes growing too. I don’t expect the seedlings to do much, but we’ll see what develops in the remaining months of warm weather.

Gardening by the square-foot has a big advantage in that it can be indulged almost anywhere. It is most useful to city dwellers and others who have limited space. You can establish a square-foot garden on a roof-top, on a balcony or anywhere convenient to you; use your imagination. See the Wikipedia entry for more information.


2011-08-05: Health, Doing What Works

One of the advantages of growing older is that I don’t need as much sleep each day as I once did. I have always enjoyed the quiet morning hours, but wasn’t always able to rise in time to relish the experience. Now is about the third anniversary of starting to ride my bicycle for ten miles every morning it isn’t too cold, icy, snowy, or stormy; in this neck of the woods that means between two hundred and fifty to three hundred days each year. What started as a darkly clouded internal struggle, turned into discovery of a silver lining, bringing emergence from a mountainously straitened rocky path onto a sunlit upland plateau of open woodland and green meadowland beneath a blue sky filled with fair-weather cumulus clouds.

It was a combination of events happening within a short space of time that produced an uncharacteristically depressed state of mind. Precise nature of the events is of little importance; they happened and were numerous enough to lay me low. Fortunately, I am sufficiently introspective to recognize that what felt like a permanent change for the worse could be ameliorated and perhaps corrected.

My first half-century was easy when I didn’t need to do much to keep healthy whereas the second half will be more challenging. First indication that I wasn’t as fit I thought I was appeared when I assisted a young researcher with field work and found myself quite out of breath, huffing and puffing as I waded through tall grass and low brush while carrying equipment. I had also noticed that the florid pallor of my complexion didn’t look due to solar exposure. When my mind started to feel like an engine racing and I was unaccountably anxious and unable to sleep, I knew that I needed to take immediate action, especially when I was horrified by some fleeting thoughts that suicide might be an efficacious cure.

I told M how I was feeling; not to scare her, but instead to be sure she knew, so that if I started acting abnormally, she would be forewarned and thus forearmed. I scheduled a routine medical examination, which revealed hypertension; my doctor prescribed a blood-pressure medication, the drug information sheet of which alarmed me. I decided that I had six months before the next medical inspection to get my blood-pressure under control by alternative means.

Brisk walking daily had a positive effect though not dramatic. M gave me a book on hypertension. Aerobic exercise seems to be the best prophylactic for general health. Feeling the need to increase the pace, I started riding my bike early in the morning. Some change had taken place within, causing me to wake after about six hours sleep, enabling me to start my ten miles bike ride at 4:30 a.m., when there is almost no other traffic on the road.

A consequence of being an engineering type is that I started monitoring my blood pressure, weight, and other statistics. Most dramatic was the precipitous drop in blood-pressure once I began bicycling and taking a course of vitamins.

Another approach to the problem involved joining a church community in order to redirect my attention outward away from myself. Through the church, I found a meditation group, which made me receptive to New Scientist article and book reviews on meditation and contemplative practice.

After a about three months, I suddenly realized that I was back on an even keel, feeling normal again. I never did take the blood-pressure medication. At my next medical inspection, all vital signs were normal or below normal. At subsequent annual medicals my vital signs remain normal or below normal.

Though the Life that imbues us is without warranty, it is possible to help it along and, at times, reverse a declining trend. Aerobic exercise is the best prophylactic for general health; how you go about getting it is up to you. When it comes to aerobic exercise, do what works for you and stop doing what doesn’t. Take time to pay attention to yourself and listen to what is going on inside. Interestingly, the gateway to the universe is within. And it isn’t the end that is important, it is the journey that each of us makes in life. The past is beyond reach. The future doesn’t exist. Only this instant of Now is important and the actions we take from moment to moment.


2011-08-04: Environment

Environment, the places where you exist, is another aspect of equanimity and an important one. Away from home, you can control where you go to a certain extent, but even so our modern technological world is an hyperactive, restless place to be. You have much more control over your home environment.

Make your home a refuge where you can go to relax and recuperate at the end of the day. Make it into a place of peace and tranquility where you can shut the door on the world. Let plenty of natural light into your living space. Choose restful decor. Try to keep your space neat and tidy. Cultivate a few potted plants; for example, Violets are easy to grow and come in vibrant shades of purple. If you can do so, live in a quiet neighborhood where there are trees and gardens; if you can’t then try to bring aspects of the natural world into your home.

If you have a family, set aside some time in the day where members can be engaged in quiet activity or have somewhere to be alone. Try creating a thirty-minute period of unstructured time where everyone sits or lies reading, stares into space, or naps; use a kitchen timer as a nap timer. Do what works for you, stop doing what doesn’t. Go out of your way to foster equanimity.


2011-08-03: Stress

Stress is a form of suffering and usually psychological, for example: debt, high-pressure work environments, being in an abusive relationship, noise, and stridently reported news. Talk-radio is an especially pernicious incitement to discontented frustration in general and to acts of violence by weak minded individuals in particular.

Meditate about what it is that makes you feel stressed. Once you have identified your sources of stress, start thinking about what you can do to reduce them to manageable levels. Do the easy things first: turn off the talk-radio or listen to soothing music instead, shun broadcast and cable TV news.

You can’t make an obnoxious boss pleasant, but you can start looking for alternative employment; just looking and imagining alternative work will reduce stress and get you moving in a positive direction. Start working on strategies to reduce your debt, holding it to more manageable lower levels; it is possible to have fun being a cheapskate especially when you caucus with other cheapskates on ways to do things with less money. For the more difficult stressful situations in which you find yourself, seek appropriate professional help.

Try to make your home an oasis of calm, a sanctuary, a retreat from the fast-paced world where you can recuperate and be contented. Rid your life of stress and develop greater equanimity.


2011-08-02: Empathy

The Buddha made the profound observation that every living creature desires to avoid suffering in any form. Knowing this helps us to feel empathy for others, both human and non-human. Even the most obnoxious persons take action to reduce their suffering to a minimum. Sadly, such persons are often deluded into taking actions at the expense of other sentient beings.

Best way to begin changing the world is to begin changing ourselves. We can reduce our suffering by looking inward to develop greater equanimity. Equanimity isn’t achieved by one approach, it is multifaceted, there are aspects of equanimity. This post is the first of several developed for use by a group meditation that I facilitated for several months in the first half of 2011.

Equanimity is evenness of mind; that calm temper or firmness of mind which is not easily elated or depressed; patience; calmness; composure; as, to bear misfortunes with equanimity. To attain equanimity requires an holistic approach that nurtures the body in support of the mind and spirit. Look after your body by giving it good nutrition and moderate exercise.

Start by getting into the habit of walking as much as possible. Dress properly and walk in all weathers. If you have a dog then walking it is a good way to get out and be in touch with the natural world—it’s good for the dog too. Don’t wear headphones, instead listen to what is going on around you. If you are unsteady on your feet, try swimming or riding a stationary bike. Get help to build an exercise regime that works for you.

If you don’t know what good nutrition is then consult with a licensed nutritionist or your doctor. Eat right to live right. Avoid artificial sweeteners. Soda pops and sweet drinks upset the alimentary tract and cause bowel problems like diverticulitis. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid highly processed manufactured foods. Wholesome food is immensely satisfying, giving strong support to equanimity of mind.


2011-08-01: Blogging, Tide Pools & Seasonal Streams

Using one of the large corporate blogging services ensures that your words of wisdom are perennially available as long as you continue to pay your subscription, allow advertising, or submit to the company’s privacy policy and mining of your data.

Self-hosting your blog is subject to seasonal variations, as I knew it would when Talking to Myself. Like tide pools and seasonal streams a self-hosted blog will come and go depending on the availability of electricity, whether the cat is napping on the keyboard, or whether there is a working Internet connection. Still, when M reported being unable to connect with my prose I was somewhat perturbed by how soon the electrons dried up, within two days of exposing myself to the world, making me wonder if I had done something to corrupt my computational incantations or been detected running a web-server by my Internet Service Provider and thus become a victim of countermeasures preventing any access to the Internet.

At one moment everything was working normally then at the next none of my computers could connect to the Internet, which meant that the dynamic domain name client running on the box serving the blog would be unable to report the changing state of the numerical Internet Protocol address to the service tracking and associating the changes with the more easily understood http://cloistral.homelinux.net domain name. In turn, passersby visiting the cloistral domain would receive a Server not found message.

It all started Sunday morning, just before we went for lunch with friends at a Dim Sum restaurant. Don’t worry, I will spare you the computer nerd play-by-play and cut to the chase, as they say in the movie industry—nowadays they start with the chase then cut to the more pedestrian bits, particularly in the James Bond films.

In the preprandial hour, I concluded the problem had adverse effect on many people as a call to the AT&T automated testing service was preceded by a recording that said: Due to the popularity of AT&T high speed Internet service, we are experiencing high call volume that may delay customer service. Or something to that effect. I went to lunch thinking it would be solved by the time we returned home.

Dim Sum is best enjoyed as a contubernium, eight people drawn up at a round table. We invited seven to join the lunch party at Guang Zhou. It was beastly hot outside with the temperature above 100°F. Only two stalwarts braved the heat. Two would have had a long drive from the lake, which wouldn’t be worth doing for lunch. Alberto had been to a pool party the day before and got overdone in the sun, to the point that he wasn’t feeling well. Noel Coward said that it’s: Only mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun…. It’s not true. Alberto is Italian. We missed him for his gioia di vivere. Noel Coward would have liked him too. Despite the reduced numbers, we had a good lunch, though I will avoid the chicken feet next time; they are too gelatinous for my taste; give me chilled jellyfish instead.

Two hours for lunch didn’t solve the problem with the Internet. Eventually, I prevailed by isolating the fault after switching some stuff into manual override. Electrons flowed. Addresses were resolved. And I was able to Talk to Myself once again, surely a clear sign of madness. But the moral of this post is that when you receive Server not found, do not adjust your set and do try again later.


2011-07-30: On Serving Beer

Yesterday we had occasion to go for late lunch at a downtown tavern. M had a sandwich, which was a lot more than you would think, and a couple of glasses of rose. I had what passes for fish and chips. I asked for a draught glass of Hennepin Farmhouse Ale and was given a large wineglass full of beer—a bit of a shocker, having anticipated a healthy wet.

When one orders beer one expects to be given a tankard that one hoists to one’s mouth to blow off the foam then quaff and relish as it rolls across the palate in a frothy wave of malted barley and hoppy bitterness, sluicing down the gullet and spreading out in the stomach where it mingles in conversation with the other comestibles, making rude noises as it goes.

America is much better now in the matter of beer than it was when I first arrived; there are numerous boutique breweries that have come into existence in the last thirty years, all producing good beer. Unfortunately, Americans can take the notion of boutique, to pretentious extremes. You never quite know what you’re going to get, but, usually, if it’s bottled beer you want, you must specify it delivered with a glass, otherwise you are expected to swig from the bottle like a pirate, denied the opportunity to admire the brew master’s craft, savour the aroma and enjoy the lace-work patterns left on the sides of the glass by the ebb tide of ale. If it is draught beer, you must specify pint or fluid-ounce quantities. Anyway, I tossed off the wineglass of beer while the waitress gave me some verbal nonsense about the strength of the beer and the fact that the wineglass was not much less than a pint quantity. I told her to bring me a pint of Guinness—while in Israel, I was able to drink draught Guinness by the litre. When she returned with the brew, I said: That’s more like it. We enjoyed our leisurely lunch, returned home, took a nap, and then revivified ourselves in the late afternoon by drinking a pot of tea while reading with our feet up.


2011-07-29: An Inaugural Post

In circumstances like this it is traditional to exclaim: Hello World! Linux and Open Source software return the fun to computing. Establishing a simple web-log on one of my Ubuntu machines was easy, a matter of installing the Apache server software and the BlazeBlogger web-log application.

I created a special blogging account that has very restricted limits on what computing services can be used. In the home directory, I created the blog using the BlazeBlogger commands and replaced the /var/www/ directory with a symbolic link to the /home/blog/ directory. In this configuration I can connect to the blog from anywhere to make amendments via secure shell, by issuing simple commands at the command line.