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1 February 2008   

Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign.

Sir Edward Coke, born this day in 1552, was a Minister of Parliament and later Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas.  It was Coke’s who first ruled that the rights which had been established in the Magna Carta (four centuries earlier!) might be available not just nobles but to commoners as well.  He originated the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and prosecuted Sir Walter Raleigh for corruption.

King James I would not take such outrages sitting down, and threw him in prison.

Part of the reason for Coke’s effectiveness was his temperament, his severity and strict personal discipline.  But he was also meticulous about citing precedent and legal authority.  His practice changed the law from the capricious rulings of jurists to a predictable body of common law.

2 February 2008   

Buddhist meditation, domesticated


Look at what is behind the curtain of discursive thoughts. Try to find a waking presence there, free of mental fabrications, transparent, luminous, untroubled by thoughts of the past, the present and the future. Try to linger in the present moment, free of concepts. Watch the nature of the gap between thoughts, which is free from mental constructs. Gradually extend the interval between the disappearance of one thought and the emergence of the next.

Remain in a state of simplicity that is free of mental constructs, yet perfectly aware; beyond effort, yet alert and mindful.

— from Happiness by Matthieu Ricard

3 February 2008   

Superiority and inferiority are equally illusion

I am wary of worthy practices and actions that I may be pursuing from unworthy motives.  An act of kindness may be undertaken with generosity, from an open heart; or it may be a way of establishing a superiority of my station over yours. Does my generosity seek a response of deference (however tacitly)?

I ask myself: What parts of my life exist for the purpose of supporting feelings of comfortable superiority over others? (Am I any better off for keeping such feelings to myself, private and unexpressed?)

As an innocent babe, I sought only for loving connection with others. As I suffered exclusion and humiliation, I learned to navigate social mazes and to climb ladders, all in the quest for connection. At last, I learned to pursue social station as an end in itself, and have continued to do so even when it actually impedes loving connection.

Can I even imagine what it might be like to shed all comparisons and judgments, to be unapologetically who I am, and to relate to others in the absence of hierarchy? (I mean to imply more than ‘equality’; there is not even a scale on which two beings might be judged equal or unequal.)

It seems worthwhile to ask this question, if only as a koan.

— Josh Mitteldorf

4 February 2008   

Short bursts of all-out exercise

Physical activity is an important ingredient in any self-care program.  It keeps your weight down, lowers rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, adds to your life expectancy.  It’s the most effective antidepressant with the greatest staying power and the least side-effects.

It’s been a matter of general agreement that cardiovascular endurance exercise was the most important and effective.  But in the last few years, there are some intriguing experiments that suggest the value of short bursts of all-out effort as a supplement or even a substitute for longer, less intense sessions.

Two modes have been described and studied: interval sprints of 30-60 sec, with several minutes of recovery in between, and 4-minute workouts at a slightly less intense pace.

Jane Brody had a column in the NYTimes Health section last week about the value of all-out training for healthy aging.  “The world record marathon time for men 70 or older (2:54:05) was set by a 74-year-old.  That is more than four minutes faster than the winning marathon time at the first modern Olympics, the 1896 Games in Athens.” (by 23-year-old Spiros Louis)

The theory is that the peak rate at which you can pump oxygen through your arteries is a measure of cardiovascular fitness, and that you push the envelope when you are panting hard and your heart is pounding.

The advantage is that much less of your time is spent exercising.  The disadvantage is that it fosters procrastination and avoidance.  It feels so hard that few of us can muster the discipline to go all-out without the encouragement of a trainer or partner.

Because endurance exercise has been linked to so many benefits, lots of questions remain about how the sprint approach compares for each of these.  In time, we’ll see more long-term studies.

Review by Edward Coyle in Journal of Applied Physiology (2005)
Comparison of short-term effects of endurance vs. interval training (2-week study, 2007)
R.O.M. sells a $15,000 machine based on this principle.   Here is some of the medical evidence they cite.  (I do a 4-minute sprint on   an elliptical machine each day).

5 February 2008   

Elusive self-confidence

Do you feel it was dumb luck that allowed you to rise to your current station in life?  Do you wonder what makes people come to you for advice, or trust your expertise?

Well there’s a name for what you have, and a literature about it.  Impostor syndrome is when you feel like you’re faking it in your social or professional network. 

It isn’t so bad — it permits us to see ourselves critically and to catch our mistakes before they can hurt us too badly.  Mark Leary says that pretending to be humble is a useful ruse, especially when you are able to exceed your audience’s lowered expectations.

But there are cases where imposture can be just a posture.

“...the researchers concluded, many self-styled impostors are phony phonies: they adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy, consciously or not, and are secretly more confident than they let on.”

The whole idea kind of shakes up my self-confidence, if you know what I mean.  I had always thought that my tendency to pretend to feel more insecure than I really feel was a sign of my insecurity, but apparently not.

“...feeling like a fraud...reflects a respect for the limits of one’s own abilities,” and a respect for the standards in one’s chosen field.  If you don’t feel like a fraud sometimes, then perhaps you’re not really stretching yourself.

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
 — Robert Browning

Article in today’s Science Times

6 February 2008   

In case you’re wondering why you work so hard...

“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere.”


7 February 2008   

Illusory pleasures of the Red Dust

When the goddess Nügua undertook to repair the Dome of Heaven, she fashioned at the Great Mythical Mountain under the Nonesuch Bluff 36,501 pieces of stone, each 120 feet high and 240 feet around.  Of these, she used only 36,500 and left the remaining piece in the shadow of the Green Meadows Peak.  However, the divine hands of Nügua had touched off a spark of life in the Stone and endowed it with supernatural powers.  It was able to come and go as it pleased and change its size and form at will.  But it was not happy because it alone had been rejected by the Goddess, and it was given to sighing over its ill fortune.

As it was thus bemoaning its fate one day, it saw coming toward it a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest, both of uncommon appearance.   They were talking and laughing and, when they reached the shadow of the Peak, they sat down by the side of the Stone and continued their conversation.  At first, they talked about cloud-wrapped mountains and mist-covered seas and the mysteries of immortal life, but presently they changed the topic of their conversation and spoke of the wealth and luxury and the good things of life in the Red Dust [*the mortal world]. This stirred the earthly strain in the Stone and aroused in it a desire to experience for itself the pleasures of mortal life.   Therefore, it addressed the monk and the priest thus:

“Venerable sirs, forgive me for intruding.  I could not help overhearing your conversation and I should like very much to have a taste of the pleasures of the Red Dust of which you spoke.  Though I am crude in substance, I am not without some degree of understanding or a sense of gratitude.  If you, venerable sirs, would be kind enough to take me for a turn in the Red Dust and let me enjoy for a few years its pleasures and luxuries, I shall be grateful to you for æons to come.”

“It is true that the Red Dust has its joys,” the two immortals answered with an indulgent smile, “but they are evanescent and illusory.  Moreover, there every happiness is spoiled by a certain lack, and all good things are poisoned by the envy and covetousness of other men, so that in the end you will find the pleasure outweighed by sorrow and sadness.  We do not advise such a venture.”

But the fire of earthly desires, once kindled, could not easily be extinguished.  The Stone ignored the warning of the immortals and continued to importune them, until the Buddhist monk said to his companion with a sigh, “We have here another instance of Quiescence giving way to Activity and Non-existence yielding to Existence.”  Then, turning to the Stone, he said, “We shall take you for a turn in the Red Dust if you insist, but don’t blame us if you do not find it to your liking.”

“Of course not, of course not,” the Stone assured them eagerly.

—opening of The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Tsao Hsueh-chin, tr. Wang Chi-chen

8 February 2008   

The book to end all books

“Truth is the shattered mirror strewn in myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own”

~Robert Burton, born this day in 1577, lifted himself from depression with self-analysis and intellectual exploration, writing in the process The Anatomy of Melancholy

9 February 2008   

21st Century Abolition

“The enterprise lying within the tradition of consent and law that, by meeting the needs of the hour in their full sweep and urgency, must take the place of the misconceived project of American empire can be only one thing...the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

~Jonathan Schell, writing in Harper’s Magazine last month.


“We must love one another or die.”
~ W. H. Auden

10 February 2008   

Diversity and personal growth

When I was an adolescent, I believed that all people at all times were motivated exclusively from an interest in their own future happiness.  If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you that I discovered this myself, that it was my independent thinking on the subject.

Later, I came to think of this viewpoint as naïve, and much later, I realized that it was hardly independent thinking on my part, but rather a principle which I had extracted and refined from the culture round about me.

Seeing myself clearly and understanding myself deeply are presently among my most closely-held values.  I have learned how difficult it is to know my essence and to separate it from my environment and unconscious social influences.

The best way to learn who I really am is through close friendships and working relationships with people of widely different cultures and backgrounds.  They challenge me with questions that I never would ask on my own.

~Josh Mitteldorf

11 February 2008   

Choose something like a star

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

~Robert Frost (1947)

Listen to choral setting by
   Randall Thompson, from Frostiana

12 February 2008   

‘Now imagine something unimaginable’

Write enough papers about the Standard Model of particle physics and you earn the right to be taken seriously when you speculate about non-standard models. Howard Georgi, a venerable Harvard particle physicist is writing about how strange the world could be, and we would still not know about it — at least we wouldn’t until the Large Hadron Collider comes on line this spring. He describes the “un-particle”, allowed by quantum mechanics, having an indefinite mass, or any mass that you want to assign it. Energy for free.

“If all of the stuff that is scale-invariant couples to all the stuff that isn’t in a way that gets weaker and weaker as the energy gets lower, then it could be that, at the energies we can probe today, we just don’t see the unparticle stuff at all,” Georgi explained. “There could be a scale-invariant world separate from our own that is hidden from us at low energies because its interactions with us are so weak.”

Georgi’s prediction is that our first hint of un-particles will be the participation of unseen, fractional ghost particles in LHC collision events. We will notice that the energy and momentum of the incoming particles and the outgoing particles don’t mach, and that the difference can be accounted for as an unseen fractional particle.

Phys-org news article
Story from the Why Files

13 February 2008   

Liquid sky

Happiness is a solid, and joy a liquid.

~ J. D. Salinger

from Ladybug’s Leaf photoblog

14 February 2008   

Jabir’s Proof

That out of a blind, senseless universe
Did arise
Billions of eyes
Like yours and mine—
Could it be any plainer than that?

That a thousand human tongues
And billions of non-human languages
Did emerge
From an utterly meaningless universe—
What could be more convincing?

That from a heartless, dog-eat-dog universe
Did come to me
So full of love as You—
Could anything be more persuasive?

We hold these truths to be self-evident—
This here-now, non-symbolic experience of the senses
Your lovely Presence here beside me
This surrounding-us-everywhere
Enormous Cosmos
Clothed in unspeakable beauty.

~ Nick Herbert

15 February 2008   


Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore must we be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore must we be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore are we saved by love and the final favor of love, which is forgiveness.

~ Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971

16 February 2008   

Seek to become this

“Magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it.  And, what is more, they find it everywhere.”

~ Van Wyck Brooks, born this day in 1886

17 February 2008   

Life mirrors delusion

The perception that disparate events in my environment are subtly and surreptitiously organized so as to create harm to my person is called ‘paranoia’.

The perception that disparate events in my environment are subtly and surreptitiously organized for my benefit is called ‘faith’.

Just because I’m paranoid doesn't mean that the neocon conspiracy to take over the print and broadcast media, plunder a multi-trillion dollar economy and remove democratic safeguards from our political system has not been devastatingly effective.

Just because religious faith has been exploited to subjugate and manipulate populations since the dawn of civilization doesn’t mean there isn’t a larger benevolence guiding our sojourn in this world, and shaping the universe as home for expanding consciousness.

— Josh Mitteldorf

18 February 2008   

A better way to fund medical research

In a capitalist economy, we rely on pharmaceutical companies to discover new drugs.  The way they are rewarded is that they then have a patent on the drug, and can charge a premium for it for 17 years.

The problem: Many drugs are priced out of reach of the uninsured, and insurance rates are inflated by drug prices.

...and what is worse, pharmaceutical companies have no motivation to take big risks and go after big cures — it is more rational for them to take small risks, looking for variations on drugs that are already cash cows, seeking to extend their patent protection through another cycle

The solution: The Federal government should reward researchers directly for new drugs in lieu of patent protection. Then any company can make the drug, and sell it at a simple markup to manufacturing cost.

Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced the Medical Innovation Prize Act which establishes a committee to evaluate the worth of a new drug to the U.S. population, in terms of saved lives, saved productivity and avoided suffering.  An $80 billion dollar fund will be split among innovators, growing each year with the GDP.

“rather than rely[ing] on high drug prices as the incentive for R&D, the bill would directly reward developers of medicines, on the basis of the incremental therapeutic benefit to consumers, through a new Medical Innovation Prize Fund.  Prices for prescription drugs to consumers would be at low generic prices immediately upon entry to the market.  By breaking the link between drug prices and R&D, it would provide more equitable access to medicine, end rationing and restrictive formularies, and manage overall R&D incentives through a separate mechanism that can be increased or decreased, depending on society’s willingness to pay for medical R&D.” says Sanders.

 Science Magazine article

19 February 2008   

Reflections in a golden eye

“The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.”

Carson McCullers, born this day in 1917

20 February 2008   

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice – 
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Jelaluddin Rumi, tr Coleman Barks
21 February 2008   

Mining a quarry of medical wisdom

Traditional Chinese medicine is a 2,000-year-old discipline, very much alive today and still practiced in most of China.  There are 10,000 herbs and roots that are prescribed in various combinations, and diagnostic techniques that are sophisticated and specific. Some of these preparations work and some of them don’t, but very few have been analyzed, or their constituents subjected to controlled scientific testing.

An ambitious program by the Dalien Institute of Chemical Physics will use automated analysis techniques to search for active ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines, and these will be catalogued and subjected to Western-style tests of efficacy and safety.

Hui Yongzheng of Shanghai says that modernization is necessary “to reconcile the knowledge-oriented, deductive process of Western medicine with the experience-oriented, inductive process of traditional Chinese medicine.”

Article in Science Magazine

22 February 2008   

The Constant Gardener

Beware the rose, who at the peak of her perfection
Unfolds her glorious crimson petals to the sun!
The wanderer’s eye, spellbound in fascination,
Might dwell the night: at sunrise she will be undone.

No love is born full-grown; but like the tender sapling,
Patiently nurtured and tended will uncoil.
The roots grow strong, the emerald leaves unfurling
When constant gardeners plant in fertile soil.

No gift however precious keeps its luster,
Nor sparkling treasures granted us at birth.
The process, not the product, one should foster:
The pain and toil that give each thing its worth.

The mother loves her child, the poet his poem,
’Tis our own share we love in our creation.
Our labors, tears and sweat may craft a home:
The only place where love might find duration.

~ Roxanne Lalande, born this day in 1950

23 February 2008   

Sadhana: the Realization of Life

When we look at the world through the veil of our desires we make it small and narrow, and fail to perceive its full truth.  Of course it is obvious that the world serves us and fulfills our needs, but our relation to it does not end there.  We are bound to it with a deeper and truer bond than that of necessity.  Our soul is drawn to it; our love of life is really our wish to continue our relation with this great world...we are attached to it with numberless threads, which extend from this earth to the stars.

Man foolishly tries to prove his superiority by imagining his radical separateness from what he calls his physical world....No, we are not burdened with some monstrous superiority, unmeaning in its singular abruptness.  It would be utterly degrading for us to live in a world immeasurably less than ourselves in the quality of soul, just as it would be repulsive and degrading to be surrounded and served by a host of slaves, day and night, from birth to the moment of death. 

On the contrary, this world is our compeer, nay, we are one with it.

Rabindranath Tagore

Read in New Scientist about the musical creations of various animals, and their responses to human music.

24 February 2008   

Peace, when we demand it

It shall come to pass in our lifetimes that the great national arsenals are surrendered to international control, and thus the machinery of state-sponsored warfare is neutralized.

Global peace is politically possible for perhaps the first time in history.  The opportunity derives from the fact that the US is the world’s sole remaining superpower, and it has now become tragically clear that empire is a delusion.

We must demand that all weapons in the world be placed under international control, perhaps by the United Nations.  No national armies.  No national arsenals.

The U.S. must take the lead.  We must be the first to surrender our firepower, because the U.S. owns more weapons than all other countries of the world combined.  The U.S. has more weapon-manufacturing capacity than all other countries of the world combined.

If this is a dream, it is a feasible dream.  Less probable things happen every day.  This shall come to pass not through political leadership, but in spite of it.  Peace will be given to us when we rise up and demand it.

— Josh Mitteldorf

25 February 2008   

There’s no time like the future

“The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual.  That is why the revolutionary spiritual movements that declare all former things worthless are in the right, for nothing has yet happened.”

Franz Kafka

26 February 2008   

Is testosterone the only thing separating you from nirvana?

People who have been there tell us that enlightenment is a state of cultured equanimity.  Beneath the hustle and bustle of transient human passions lies a more solid, if subtle realization that the whole show, its comedy and its tragedy, is a wonder to be cherished.

This week on the NPR program, This American Life, Ira Glass interviews an (anonymous) man whose testosterone levels were suppressed by a medical procedure.  He reports having no personality and no desires during this time — a state which is not without its charm.  He describes an utter lack of motivation, but he makes it clear that there is no boredom or suffering in his passivity.  Everything is fine just the way it is — more than fine, in fact.  Walking down the street, he responds to everything he sees, “This is beautiful.”  The crumbled pattern in the brick buildings, as well as the people, the weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk: “This is beautiful.”

No envy, no judgment.  “I approached people with a humility that I had never displayed before.”

I don’t believe it.  Personality is complex and multi-dimensional.  What gives our lives value and meaning is social as much as it is psychological.  Suppressing a single hormone may be an interesting experiment, but it has little to do with lasting satisfaction and fulfillment.  The enlightenment I seek is not a leveling of emotion or suppression of passion; rather, it is an overarching perspective that allows me to experience life’s emotional wallop  without being consumed in it.

Listen to the episode

27 February 2008   

Wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn

“Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.”

John Steinbeck, born this day in 1902, was a part of that generation of American novelists who saw nobility in the human individual, and sought to influence our social institutions by describing human suffering in a context that was ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  He championed the forgotten and disenfranchised while affirming the strength of the human spirit.

“Literature...grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love.”

28 February 2008   

A car that runs on compressed air

It turns out that you can store more usable energy in a high-pressure tank of air than in a gasoline tank of equivalent size.  Losses in energy conversion are lower than a hi-tech battery.  An engine that runs on compressed air is much simpler than an internal combustion engine.  There is less heat and corrosion and, of course, no pollution from the car itself.

The tank should be made of ultra-strong carbon fibers to maximize the pressure and minimize the safety hazard should it be ruptured.  Other parts of the car are simpler, lighter, cheaper and more efficient than an equivalent gasoline-powered vehicle. 

Tata Moters will sell the car in India in 2008.  A consumer model manufactured in France will be imported and sold in the US in two years.  It comes with an electric pump for refilling the tank overnight, at home.  Energy cost is about 10c / mile, about the same as a Prius, but the initial price of the car should be much less than a Prius, and its simplicity should translate into high dependability and low maintence.

Video BBC news report
Popular Mechanics article

29 February 2008   

Great music as great fun

Congratulations to Gioacchino Antonio Rossini on the 52d quadrennial of his birth (in 1792).  Rossini wrote operas that were fun in 1720, and they’re fun today.  He has a reputation for laziness and procrastination.  The opera overtures that we cherish today were composed the night before their premiers.  “Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity.”

Listen to Overture to Semiramide performed by New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein


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