Fasting – A Way to Recalibrate Your Center

[Note: This post was originally submitted to a minimalist oriented web site but apparently didn’t make the cut. So I’m posting it here.]

“The most important aspect of fasting is that you feel deep, undirected gratitude when you break the fast.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A life in motion is a life less likely to collect things that imped that motion. This motion can be expressed in many ways – physical activity, a career in the military, an active social life, or a penchant for travel. A rolling stone gathers no moss, is the wisdom from the ages.

The sedentary life is more likely to gain weight without a conscious effort to counteract the effect of bodies at rest. That weight can take many forms – our physical person, gadgets, memories (good and bad), outdated routines, and less than helpful habits. Without any apparent effort, it seems the inanimate stuff of life gathers around us, collectively adding the the gravitational pull for more stuff.

My life has been more a reflection of the latter than the former, often not by choice. A wheelchair bound father, college, and my wife’s ten year battle with cancer required the skills of hunker-down-and-endure and few opportunities for exploring what’s over the horizon. This has left a trail of lessons about living light.

An early and powerful lesson happened while spending time in a Zen monastery. The structured day and simple rules were familiar. The practice of fasting, however, was new. The idea of deliberately abstaining from food was counter to my starving college student mindset. As hungry as I was, fasting revealed just how much junk I was actually eating. As meager as my income was, I vowed then to always find the healthiest food I could afford. That vow has remained unbroken for close to 40 years.

Soon after the time spent in and out of the Zen monastery I began to explore other ways to fast. Over the years several of these have become routine in my life. Some more frequent than others. At the root of each of these fasts is mindfulness and an exploration of intention.

Food

There are many fasting programs that involve food and drink and I won’t recommend any of them here. It is important to exercise care with fasts that involve your physical health. Find a qualified and trusted nutritionist or consult with your physician for what makes sense for you. Then begin small experiments that improve your awareness about your diet and physical health.

Spending

In my early twenties, I had amassed a significant credit card debt, at least in light of my paltry income at the time. I emerged from this debt by undergoing a series of spending fasts. The challenge was how long could I go without spending a single penny. This needed some simple rules. Recurrent living expenses like rent and electricity were excluded. Transportation to and from work was also allowed, but no special trips. It required careful planning so that I would have in stock what I needed for the duration of the fast. These would often last for an entire month with the longest stretch being 72 days. Spending fasts helped me understand the distinction between need and want and the insights gained from them have kept me debt free ever since.

Sound

The way I practice a sound fast isn’t to remove all sound, rather to remove the sounds born from the industrial and information revolutions. If you’ve ever had the experience of an area power outage it becomes apparent how much buzzing, beeping, and chirping fills the background of our lives. This is not without consequence as these signals were intentionally designed to snag our attention. So in addition to “unplugging,” find ways to power down. Then extend your sound fast by performing some task as silently as you can. Unloading the dishwasher is a particularly good challenge.

People

Deliberate seclusion offers an opportunity to evaluate relationships in your life. Have any of your friendships become what psychologists call “rusted?” Are the people at work adding more stress than the value you derive from working there? Does your neighborhood reflect the kind of person you wish to be? Is anyone in your life taking advantage of your time? Who is missing?

Information

Often referred to as “unplugging,” there is more to an information fast than avoiding the e-gadgets in our life. To be sure, turning off the flow of electronic sewage that is often peddled as “news and entertainment” is important and a key element of an information fast. But it gets really interesting when you deliberately move outside your own bubble of what is known. That is, abstain from relying on your own tried and true informational foundation. A good way to start is to list the things that make you fearful or angry. Then ask yourself “What do I need to know and understand so that I am no longer afraid or angry?” In my own life, being a clinically shy introvert and acutely afraid of the world, I began studying the martial art of Aikido. It appealed to my Zen background and it’s focus on defense was a big help. Even so, stepping onto the dojo mat for the first time required that I leave behind all the outdated information about my fears, who I was, and what I’m capable of achieving. I’m a third degree black belt and still learning, but no longer afraid to move about the world.

None of these fasting ideas were my own. I learned about them from others. And I’d like to learn from you. What other ways have you learned the lessons of “more is less” by deliberately taking the path of less?

Two giant planets may cruise unseen beyond Pluto

Well, this is going to play havoc with centuries of astrology. Turns out, the astrology houses have a trailer park section.

Just months after astronomers announced hints of a giant “Planet X” lurking beyond Pluto, a team in Spain says there may actually be two supersized planets hiding in the outer reaches of our solar system.

Luxury Handbags and Higher Education

How a Louis Vuitton bag can explain the higher education bubble

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Following this line of thinking casts higher education as a status accessory. These days, that seems about right as the quest for higher education degrees seems to be following the same trajectory as the Dutch tulip craze.

Back to Important Things

Now that the government is open again for business, HealthCare.gov is performing as expected, and the NSA has managed to reduce the Bacon Number from six to two, we can once again focus our attention on the important things in life. I speak, of course, of fluffy bunnies.

The most fluffy bunny in the world.

The most fluffy bunny in the world.

More at The Most Fluffy Bunny in the World web site.

Experts in a Time of Unreason – Update

In a previous post, Experts in a Time of Unreason, I made reference to a case involving six scientists and a government official convicted of manslaughter for the failure to predict the 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people and leveled the city of L’Aquila. A year later, one of the convicted scientists, Enzo Boschi, former president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, is speaking out.

Perhaps more troubling, the prosecution also misrepresented a 1995 study by Boschi and others in which they noted that a handful of powerful earthquakes recorded in Abruzzo in the 17th and 18th centuries did not prove that the risk of future temblors in that area was high. Boschi argues that the prosecutor “completely distorted” that study’s purpose and conclusions. “The public prosecutor’s superficial interpretation of scientific results to bolster his argument sets a grave precedent for not only seismology but many other disciplines as well.” The 1995 study was not meant to be the final word on Abruzzo’s vulnerability to strong earthquakes but rather a present a point for further scientific discourse.

Bureaucrats, unaccountable prosecutors, and petty people with delusions of standing; they will likely be the death of us.

The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges and Programs

Barry Schwartz offers his view on why liberal arts colleges are important.

“In my view, higher education should be equipping students to answer these four questions:

  • What is worth knowing?
  • What is worth doing?
  • What makes for a good human life?
  • What are my responsibilities to other people?”

If this were happening, than the value to a liberal arts education would be undisputed. What is actually happening on liberal arts campuses is far more directive than inquisitive.

  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth knowing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth doing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what makes for a good human life.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here are your responsibilities to other people.

Of course, the delivery isn’t quite so blunt. The selective presentation of information, leading lectures, grades, and in some cases outright bullying serve to shape the narrative. What Schwartz is lamenting in his column, with an awkwardly applied analogy from the 1960’s, is the approaching demise of a “broader” knowledge foundation about things not STEM.

“It was an axiom of the upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s that ‘you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s tools.’ What this means to me in the context of higher education is that you can’t discover the deep limitations of economics by only studying economics. You can’t uncover the deep limitations of genetics or evolutionary biology by only studying genetics and evolutionary biology.”

Not surprisingly, we’re to take what the analogy means to Schwartz, not what it actually means. So, setting aside the destructive reference, it’s far more likely today’s students have better intel on what various college programs are offering. In the case of liberal arts colleges and programs, not only are they no longer offering any useful tools for thinking, those that are offered have vanishingly little applicability toward furthering personal or professional success. Graduates that do think such an education has somehow endowed them with special status as “important thinker” end up – surprise! – with Ph.D’s doing research that has Schwartz asking “why would anyone care about this?” Everyone else has been roughed up sufficiently by the post-academic world to realize they’ve been mostly unprepared for an unforgiving and uncaring world of adult expectations, a world not particularly interested in providing what the new graduates were taught was their “right” or “entitlement.”

The challenge for Schwartz is to look inward and notice how the very system in which he actively participates produces individuals bent on “running around in circles, and swallowing their own tails.”

The demise to liberal arts programs as Schwartz knows them may be due more to the increased awareness among young people that the product offers a false truth. At least with STEM and similar programs, two plus two equal four. A person can build a great deal of confidence and success – personal and professional – on a foundation like that.

Unconscious Unethical

The Johari window is well known in teaching and learning circles and can be a useful way to illustrate various cognitive limitations in thinking. Most frequently, it is used to show what attributes you and other may know about you (see Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Figure 1

An individual interested in personal growth would presumably work to shrink the size of their blind spot and the degree to which they are driven by unconscious behavior detrimental to their person – mental and physical. Over time, such an individual’s Johari window might look something like that shown in Figure 2.

Johari Window 2

Figure 2

So, what might one infer about one Mr. Brenden Buhl who sent me (and many others, it turns out) the email shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 (Click for larger image)

Figure 3 (Click for larger image)

Mr. Buhl’s communication demonstrates a profound, even frightening, level of unconsciousness in a number of key ways.

By way of background, I contacted Mr. Buhl’s previous employer regarding this message as it was clear that Mr. Buhl had, against his previous employer’s policy, procured a personal copy of company data in the form of email addresses and names. I know this because I use a unique personal email address for virtually every vendor with whom I do business. (One of the many advantages of operating my own email server.) For example, if my domain were “myemaildomain.com”, I can set up an email account for “yourbusinessname@myemaildoamin.com” and route all our communication through that account. Stupid simple. Using this method allows me to quickly identify when something is amiss, like when a company has sold their email list (as was the case with the now nonexistent Aloha Airlines) or someone has stolen, hacked, or otherwise compromised the company’s data.

This would be the case with Mr. Buhl. His previous employer assures me that the only thing he had access to was email addresses and first names. I have no option but to trust this less than consoling claim. They also claim to have since sent a cease and desist order to Mr. Buhl and his current employer. Given the size of his previous employer, I’m confident this claim is true.

So, just how ethically unconscious does one have to be to…

  1. Boost the client email list of a major company before leaving.
  2. Use the now previous employer’s client list at the new employer.
  3. Acknowledge that you have done this in an email announcing your new career.
  4. Offer a confidential insurance review after having demonstrated a clear disregard for confidential information!

I’m imaging a Johari window something like that in Figure 4.

 

Figure 4

Figure 4

Is this the level of ethics the future holds? Was Mr. Buhl driven by a sense of entitlement? How many Brendan Buhl’s are out there poised to “manage” our soon-to-be government controlled heath records? It is difficult to remain optimistic about the future when a surveillance-addicted society is raft with ethically and morally cadaverous people like this. Is social or cultural implosion the only way to reset this?

Time To Build An Arc

We had monsoon-like rain yesterday. According to the weather experts, 1.6 inches of rain fell in 30 minutes. That may not sound like much to many parts of the country, but it’s a lot for the desert mid-west. Checking the weather on my tablet this morning, I saw the following alert for Monday:

AccuWeather Report

[Click image to enlarge.]

Looks like Monday may be not only a good day to work from home, but a good day to work from the roof-top.

Repeal the Wheel!

Writes Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post,

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar.

The trouble, it could be argued, began long before plumbers fit the first pipes together for the Intertubes. If it weren’t for the wheel, all those plumbers couldn’t roll about, fitting more and more Intertubes together. If it weren’t for the wheel, delivery trucks couldn’t deliver the digital weapons used by cyber-crackers to wage cyber-war. If it weren’t for the wheel, aircraft couldn’t roll down runways only to be weaponized by evil doers who got to the airport via the wheels on taxi cabs and rental cars. If it weren’t for the wheel, misuse of the very underpinnings of industry could be rolled back! Pushed back, that is, if we’d just REPEAL THE WHEEL!

Crikey. Rants like Samuelson’s are an insult to Luddites everywhere.

He lists a number of very real threats in the form of cyber-war targets, such as “power grids, pipelines, communication and financial systems, business record-keeping and supply-chain operations, railroads and airlines, databases of all types (from hospitals to government agencies).” But many of these would remain extremely vulnerable if the Internet were to magically evaporate tomorrow. Instead of imagining a world without the internet and the connectivity it provides, imagine a government that focuses more on hardening these infrastructure elements rather than criminalizing every aspect of behavior performed by it’s citizenry down to the level of an individual’s salt and soda intake.

Law Abiding Citizens Have Nothing to Fear

So says William Hague, England’s Foreign Secretary. “Only terrorists, criminals and spies should fear secret activities of the British and US intelligence agencies.”

I appreciate the challenge of collecting accurate intelligence and connecting the dots. It’s the 21st century and the bad guys no longer hang out in shadowed doorways and use dumpsters as drop boxes. Yet the laws and promises to prevent misuse are weak at best. With vast surveillance on citizens – including supposedly privileged communications between attorneys/clients and doctors/patients – having come to light, as well as the politically based targeting by the IRS, we now know that the stage has moved significantly closer toward being set in a way that will allow for a much larger threat to arise.

I can’t speak to how things are with our friends across the pond, but here in the States, it is impossible to get through the day without unwittingly going afoul of some law. Since there are no law abiding citizens – just those who haven’t been caught or are not yet “persons of interest” – we are all criminals. All of us have everything to fear.

Updates

2013.06.10.1 – Ah, and then there is this little gem added to the stage from the SCOTUS: The Court upheld Maryland’s DNA Collection Act.

2013.06.10.2 – John Cook has the statistical perspective: A statistical problem with “nothing to hide”

One problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it assumes innocent people will be exonerated certainly and effortlessly. That is, it assumes that there are no errors, or if there are, they are resolved quickly and easily.

The argument also assumes that the falsely accused individual is made whole again. If this happens at all, it takes a very long time. The consequences of having one’s identity stolen, for example, are not washed away with a couple of phone calls. Imagine this when the stakes involve national security. The damage would likely be irreparable.

2013.06.10.3 – Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere – Interesting article that illustrates how this issue is less about the data and the analysis and more about the real potential for it’s misuse and abuse.

2013.06.11.1 – A clear example of the selective application of law: The IRS Can’t Plead Incompetence

For the next 14 months they heard nothing about an investigation. By August 2012, the NOM was filing Freedom of Information Act requests trying to find out if there was one. The IRS stonewalled. Their “latest nonresponse response,” said Mr. Eastman, claimed that the law prohibiting the disclosure of confidential tax returns also prevents disclosure of information about who disclosed them.

2013.06.11.2 – ‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy (H/T Instapundit)

In this short essay, written for a symposium in the San Diego Law Review, Professor Daniel Solove examines the nothing to hide argument. When asked about government surveillance and data mining, many people respond by declaring: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” According to the nothing to hide argument, there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private. The nothing to hide argument and its variants are quite prevalent, and thus are worth addressing. In this essay, Solove critiques the nothing to hide argument and exposes its faulty underpinnings.