Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Disaster

One year when I was a child out trick-or-treating with my friends, I accidentally stepped in a big wet pile of fresh brown dog shit.

It smelled awful and my friends were pointing and laughing at me.  I couldn't wipe it off my sneaker onto the grass, and even using a stick I couldn't get it all out of the treads in the sole.  The smell kept making me gag while I tried and I thought that I might vomit all over my Halloween costume.  My friends kept pointing and laughing and I felt ashamed and had to go home and change my shoes before my friends would let me continue to trick-or-treat with them.

From that night on, my friends and I euphemistically called dog shit "Halloween disaster," and to this day, this is what I think about when I think about Halloween.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Realizing potential is not difficult - just avoid picking and choosing.
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make a hair's breadth distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
 - from Hsin Shin Ming (Trust In Mind) by Seng-ts'an

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

According to Jonathan Haidt, liberals tend to be much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called openness to experience.  People who are high in openness to experience crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, and travel. People who are low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe, that are dependable. Psychologist Robert McCrae observed, "Open individuals have an affinity for liberal, progressive, left-wing political views" (they like a society which is open and changing) "whereas closed individuals prefer conservative, traditional, right-wing views."

In an excellent TED talk, Haidt points out that when people all share values and morals, they become a team, and once you engage the psychology of teams, it shuts down open-minded thinking.  When liberals lose an election, they try to explain why half of America voted for the "wrong" team. They think the nation must be blinded by religion or by simple stupidity.  If conservatives lose an election, they suspect that those who voted the "wrong" way weren't voting with their intellect but were motivated by short-sighted selfishness ("free stuff").

However, if we think that half of America votes the wrong way because they are somehow blinded, then we're trapped in a particular moral matrix, we're lost in our own schema.  

Zen master Seng-ts'an said "If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind's worst disease."  Unfortunately, it's a disease that many of us have caught. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Writing in Dædalus (Fall 2004), Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph state that while political conservatives value the virtues of kindness, respect for authority, fairness, and spiritual purity, traits they interestingly share with American Muslims, liberals have a much keener ability to detect victimization and care more about suffering and compassion and the virtues of equality, equal rights, and fairness.  "For liberals, the conservative virtues of hierarchy and order" (respect for authority) "seem too closely related to oppression, and the conservative virtues of purity seem to have too often been used to exclude or morally taint whole groups (e.g., blacks, homosexuals, sexually active women)."

On divisive issues such as gay marriage, cloning, and stem-cell research, Haidt and Joseph observe that liberals focus on promoting individual welfare and individual rights. "Conservatives understand these arguments, but they have a more multivocal moral life, drawing on a wider set of moral intuitions.  They also have to integrate their deeply intuitive aversion to ‘playing God’ and their more finely honed and valued sense of disgust." 

Leon Kass, President Bush’s bioethics advisor, based his critique of human cloning in part on the fact that it offends and repulses many people. While granting that disgust is not by itself an argument, he suggests that there is a form of wisdom in repugnance. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” he wrote.

Based on this, I observe that both sides, conservative and liberal, appear to each other as "unintelligent" or "dumb" not due to differences in education or knowledge, but based on behaviors by the others that do not appear to conform with their own deeply based values, beliefs that each side may not even realize they hold. To liberals, it seems "dumb" to resist scientific research that might someday relieve the suffering of many, but conservatives object to the research not based on its possible outcome, but on their intuitive sense of repulsion.  To conservatives, it seems "dumb" to champion the cause of an underdog class at the possible expense of one's own status, but liberals don't value loyalty to one's own peer group as much as conservatives and may not perceive in justice a trade-off between two separate tribes.

They're not stupid and we're not smart - we're all just different and are looking at life through different colored glasses. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mural by Squishypuss
The question I keep coming back to, and which was discussed on and off all of last week, was how can otherwise intelligent persons still vote Republican?

Last week, I wrote that evolutionary psychology tells us that as a species, we tend to react to threats that are direct and personal, and conversely tend to ignore threats that the non-specific and impersonal.  We also tend to react to dangers that are proximal and imminent and to behaviors that we personally find disgusting.  

My observation is that conservatives tend to react even more viscerally to these kinds of threats than do liberals.  To be sure, liberals get themselves all worked up over some things, things that might make a conservative scratch their head and wonder, "With everything else going on, you're upset about that?"  But conservatives react to name-calling and insults, those direct and personal attacks by specific other persons, much more emotionally than do liberals, and reaction or over-reaction to demonstrators, both foreign and domestic, to name-callers, and to slanderers seems to drive a lot of their decision making.

NYU's Jonathan Haidt may have an explanation,  Comparing the values of conservatives to those of liberals, based on extensive interviews, polling, and profiling, Dr. Haidt notes that a core value of conservatives is loyalty to their own peer group.  This value, labeled loyalty/betrayal, is manifested by standing with one's own group, family, and nation.  Liberals share this value as well, but at a much lower level in their list of core values than do conservatives, who rank it near the top.

So when conservatives see a video clip of a group of demonstrators in the Middle East burning an American flag and chanting "Death to America!," it's a serious affront to their peer group.  They see specific people making specific threats at their specific peer group.  Loyalty demands a response, and while liberals might shrug off the imagery - or feel guilty about the accusations as conservatives accuse them of doing - conservatives post comments on web pages, call in to talk shows, and shout at Town Hall meetings that the demonstrators must be stopped or that the offending nation must be bombed. "They're a threat to everything we hold dear," they claim.  "They hate us for our freedoms!" 

Loyalty to one's peer group, while not a bad thing in and of itself, can appear as intolerance, racism, or xenophobia when taken to an extreme, and conservatives' value of loyalty to their own kind might appear as any of those three to others, depending on how the peer group is defined.  If it's defined based on their political beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their level of affluence, it might appear as intolerance to others.  If it's defined by their race, it might appear as racism.  If it's defined based on nationality, it might appear as xenophobia.

To the outsider, the conservative's sense of loyalty might appear as any of those traits, and when the outsiders call the conservatives intolerant bigots, or racists, or xenophobes, that in turn triggers the conservatives' reaction to defend their peer group and turn against the accuser, which triggers more accusations by the outsiders, and so on as the wheel of karma keeps spinning around and around. 

Of course, I could be completely wrong about all of this, but these are the things I think about when I think about these things.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Disgusting Things

Again, we are threatened by attacks that are direct and personal and by dangers that are proximal and imminent, and we tend not to react as much to threats that are indirect and impersonal, and to dangers that are distant and eventual.

Evolutionary psychologists also tell us we react to that which we personally find disgusting.  I thought is was odd at first to find moral or esthetic judgements included among our evolutionary imperatives, but then realized that natural selection would reward those who avoided and eliminated unhealthy and unhygienic behavior, while those that engaged in or tolerated unhealthy and unhygienic behavior wouldn't be around in large enough numbers to pass on their genes.    

My thinking is this: disgust is our visceral reaction to unhealthy and unhygienic behavior; our conscious mind then rationalizes our disgust as morality and esthetics.  "Don't touch that not because I personally find it disgusting - don't touch that because it's immoral to do so (morality)," or "Don't touch that because it looks bad if you do (esthetics)."

Obviously, not everybody finds the same things disgusting or repellent, and conflict begins when we impose our moral judgement on others who don't find the same things disgusting that we do,  This might be as good an explanation as any for many phobias, particularly homophobia and xenophobia. Some claim the former is based not on a personal reaction but on a moral imperative, and the latter on cultural instead of individual behaviors.

I also note that, like reaction to direct and personal threats, conservatives tend to react more to perceptions of disgust than do liberals, who generally (although not always) tend to be more tolerant. Based on natural selection, this might imply that conservatives will be more likely to survive and pass on their genes, but I doubt it.  I think it actually means that conservatives are less able to control their visceral reactions and to believe the rationalizations they tell themselves about morality and esthetics.
Liberals, on the other hand, appear more capable of examining their reactions, tempering their judgement, and evolving on the issues.       

Friday, October 23, 2015


As a species, we tend to react to threats that are direct and personal, and conversely tend to ignore threats that the non-specific and impersonal.  We also tend to react to dangers that are proximal and imminent (the tree falling in the forest), and to behaviors we personally find disgusting.  

I think it's interesting and says something about our species that two of the top three threats we've evolved to avoid are from other humans (direct and personal attacks and disgusting behaviors), and only one is from the natural world (proximal and imminent dangers - the disaster scenario).  We're obviously our own worse enemies.

We react to dangers that are proximal and imminent, but we're not responsive to threats that are distant and gradual.  This may be why people don't get as alarmed about climate change compared to the actual threat that it does pose - sure, it'll be catastrophic for us as a species, eventually, but not necessarily this year.  So we ignore it, or delegate action on it to such a low priority compared to perceived proximal and imminent threats that we do nothing about it.

In addition to climate change, we are threatened by the eventual Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, which has the potential to take out much of the northwest United States and southwest Canada, and the Yellowstone supervolcano, which could cover over half the U.S. in volcanic ash. But who knows when these disasters will happen, so we focus our attention on this week's weather forecast even while we continue to build new infrastructure over the geological failures of our continent.

I'm not saying we should live in a perpetual state of anxiety about these eventual disasters, but am merely pointing out the ways that our minds work.     

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Noticing Things In Real Time

While driving home from work today, this happened at 6:50 p.m. on Southbound I-85 just before the Druid Hills Road exit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

.Squirrels Vs. Cars

Evolutionary psychologists tells us that different animals have evolved to react to various specific threats in different ways, and these reactions have served to let them pass on their genes.  For instance, squirrels have evolved to react to fast-moving objects in the sky (hawks), but they tend to ignore fast-moving objects on the ground (like cars).  That's why, as fast and as agile as squirrels are, you often see them dead on the road, run over by automobiles.  When they see something as large as a car moving low on the ground, their brains don't immediately process what they're seeing as a danger. "Not a hawk," their minds reason (too low), "not a snake," they think (too big).  "Nothing to worry about."  As a result, they tend to ignore the car until it is almost right on top of them and then it's too late.  And worse, their instinctual reaction to a threat is to go vertical and scramble up a tree, but that option isn't available on the open road and they wind up getting killed.

Poor squirrels.  Millions of years of natural selection, finely tuned reflex systems for avoiding hawks and snakes, but totally vulnerable to the new threat of large, fast-moving cars.  And this brings up the question, what threats have we as humans evolved to avoid, and, corollarily, what threats do we ignore?    

Again, evolutionary psychologists tell us that our most fundamental perception of danger is from direct and personal threats, mainly, but not always, from other humans.  Someone points a finger and charges at us, and our adrenal glands go into hyperdrive and our fight-or-flee instinct kicks in.  

From what I've seen, no one likes direct and personal threats, but we don't react as intensely to equally deadly threats that aren't directly from another person or directed specifically and solely at us. For example, we react very strongly when faced with an invading army, or a violent gang, or a lone mugger, a specific person or persons intent of doing harm specifically to us.   But cigarettes kill more people than gangs, but we don't get as upset about cigarettes as we do about gang violence. We don't perceive that there's an individual person intending to do us harm with cigarettes, but we spend lots of money combating gang violence and we get very upset by images of rioters and looters. However, when it comes to the dangers of tobacco, or for that matter, deaths by  automobile accidents, we tend to shrug it off as collateral damages. "What can be done?" 

Take guns (please).  Everyone reacts when someone points a gun directly at them - the very epitome of a direct and personal threat - but one of the great tragedies of 21st Century America is that we're starting to accept the epidemic of gun-related fatalities as just another one of those collateral damages like cancer from tobacco or the percentage of fatal accidents per commuter mile driven. "Stuff happens."   Someone shooting a gun at us is perceived as a threat but the almost daily atrocities caused by guns on others is not perceived as a threat, until one of those others is us, and then we're like squirrels that just realized that the fast-moving cars will, in fact, kill us.

I also notice that conservatives seem to be more reactive to direct and personal threats than liberals. Conservatives get very upset over images from the Middle East of crowds chanting "Death to America!"  Those are specific people, the conservatives perceive, expressing a threat directly at me. One of the conservative criticisms I've heard of the recent Iranian nuclear treaty was that the U.S, didn't get a concession from Iran to stop the crowds from chanting "Death to America!," as if that were a threat on par with nuclear weapons.  To liberals, that crowds seem like more of a general, non-specific threat, nothing to worry too much about ("What can be done?"), and footage of flag-burning mobs don't get the same ratings on MSNBC as they do on Fox News.

Conservatives seem to get more upset by name calling than do liberals, and therefore, conservatives tend to engage in it more often, as they see it as a weapon of choice.  Look at the difference between the Republican and the Democrat debates to see what I mean.

On the other hand, we humans don't react as much to impersonal and diffuse threats, threats that aren't from one specific person toward another.  Just like with the dangers of cigarettes or automobile driving, there's no one person behind these impersonal and diffuse threats, so our instinctual reaction is less. Since liberals aren't as keyed in to perceived personal threats as conservatives, they have room left over in their psyches to be concerned about this larger category of threats, which includes global climate change, income inequality, the effects of GMOs, etc.  Conservatives are too concerned about that person over there calling them names to have any neurons left to worry about these "non-threatening" issues.

So I'm back to mental maps and models, to schema. again.  To understand the difference between conservatives and liberals, and to understand how otherwise intelligent people can hold some seemingly unintelligent views, we have to realize that some of it is just how our neural systems react to threats, and what we perceive as danger and what we don't.  

It might seem silly to one squirrel to see another freak out over a distant car, and the freaked-out squirrel might regard the other one as naive for ignoring the on-coming traffic.  But they, we, are just wired differently.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Inside Ben Carson

So imagine you've had neurological damage and your brain simply cannot recognize your own  left arm as a part of your body.  You're sitting in the doctor's office and you can sees the arm just fine, but the part of the brain that answers the question, "What is this?" is misfiring and it keeps coming back with the response "It's someone else's arm."  You can't consciously understand that the brain is misinterpreting your perceptions, and so you blindly accept that it is, in fact, someone else's arm - it doesn't seem any stranger or odder to you than seeing an arm attached to another person and understanding that as someone else's arm.  When challenged and presented with evidence that it might be you own arm,. you answer the hard question of whose arm is it, whose arm looks just like yours and is holding it out next to you, with the only available logical conclusion you can reach - that it must be your mother's.

It sounds crazy, but it's actually a logical resolution to the mis-wired signals you're getting from the brain.

Paul Waldman presents a similar example in The Week,
So imagine it's 1970 or so, and you're young Ben Carson, sitting in a biology class at Yale University. With your sharp mind and strong study habits, you don't have much problem understanding the material, grasping the copious evidence underlying the theory of evolution, all the fossils going back millions of years, how it all fits together in an endless process that affects everything from a towering redwood down to a microscopic virus. And yet, the whole thing sounds like an attack on the beliefs about the universe you were taught your whole life from your family and your church. How can you resolve this contradiction? 
The resolution came somewhere along the way for Carson: Satan. Evolution is Satan's doing.
Ben Carson famously said, "I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary," meaning El Diablo, the Devil, Satan.  While it's hard for most of us to understand how a brilliant and accomplished neurosurgeon can come to such a superstitious and pre-scientific conclusion, we need to realize that based on the wiring inside Carson's mind, it's a completely logical and apparent resolution.  If you firmly, deeply and unquestioningly believe that "God created everything," and that "Satan tries to turn man from God,"  then evidence that suggests that God didn't create everything (or at least didn't create everything in seven days and in the order suggested by the Bible), then it's only logical to conclude that Satan must be behind that evidence.

It's a different mental model of the world.  It's a different mental map, a different schema.  The Buddha called these maps and models samskara.

Ben Carson isn't stupid, nor is he smart about some things and stupid about others.  He just has a different schema than most other scientists, and to Carson, other scientists' schema must seem as illogical and unintelligible as his does to us.

One of the great conundrums I keep facing living in the Red State American South is how so many people I know can be so smart about some things and yet so dumb about politics.  Understanding samskara helps me see that they're not, in fact, dumb, nor am I being dumb as they accuse me, but we simply have acquired different frames of reference and different mental maps of the world, which leads us to different conclusions.  And each of our conclusions sounds to us as logical and thoughtful as the conclusions of others sound childish and uninformed. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Euro-style Socialism

The presidential candidate was on television yesterday morning talking about taking some of the positive aspects of socialism and implementing them within capitalism: 
One of the things that happens, for instance, in Europe, for medical school is that you don't have to pay for it.  And as a result, they don't have the skew that we have here.  A lot of people when they finish medical school, they're hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and instead of, you know, doing what they may have wanted to do, which was maybe be a private, a primary care doctor, they decide that "I better become, you know, one of the specialists that makes a lot more money so I can pay this money back."  That's not an issue in Europe and they don't have this kind of primary care deficit that we have.
Which candidate was that speaking?  Bernie Sanders?  Hillary Clinton?  No, not either one of them - it was Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaking on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  If you don't believe me, the interview is posted on YouTube and the lines above start at around the 6:45 mark. 

I point this out for two reasons, and endorsing or condemning Carson are not either of them. However, it is constructive to see how we make assumptions about the ideas when we first read the quote without realizing who it is speaking, and then how we revise our reaction when we learn who the speaker actually is.  

Your reactions probably depend upon which side of the political spectrum you're on, If your politics skew toward the left, it might be something like "Good points,  We can use a little more European-style socialism here in the USA," and then, upon learning that the speaker is Ben Carson, regarding the statements much more skeptically.  On the other hand, if you self identify as a conservative, you might first regard the quote as some progressive wishful thinking.  One of my colleagues at work first retorted "Nothing's free.  Somebody has to pay for the tuition," before I told him that it was Carson, and frankly, I don't think he believed me.   

That's how our schema works.  We hear or see or learn a little bit about something and our imaginations then fill in the back story, fleshing out the details based upon the impressions that we've developed over the course of our lives.  Didn't the voice you heard in your mind speaking the lines above change after learning who it actually was speaking?

The other point, the harder one to reconcile, is realizing how our minds shut down or open up based on our prior opinions.  When I heard Carson say the lines above yesterday morning, my mind was scanning everything he said critically, looking for a factual error or a bias in his thinking.  I initially and reflexively disagreed with what he said, but later realized that if I heard Bernie Sanders say the exact same thing, I would have been agreeing wholeheartedly.  I've seen and heard others shut their minds down in the exact same way when they heard something President Obama was saying, only to uncritically accept something from any of the dozen or so Republican candidates for the presidency.  

Our minds are open if we think the speaker is going to reinforce our world view, and they're closed if we anticipate that we're going to disagree, regardless of what's actually being said.

As I said before, my point here isn't to endorse Ben Carson and I'm not by a long shot coming around to feeling comfortable with Ben Carson as a potential Commander In Chief.  But I am interested in seeing how close minded I can be and how the mind, my mind, really works, even if it isn't a very flattering discovery.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Blueberry Muffins

Good old-fashioned blueberry muffins this week -- nothing too fancy like last week's blueberry cornbread muffins, which were good fresh out of the oven but started tasting like spoiled sour cream as the week progressed. 

But I have nothing more to say about muffins or baking practice today.  However, I've been thinking about an anecdote I once read by the late Oliver Sachs.  He once wrote about a patient, a woman, who had suffered some sort of neurological accident that left her brain incapable of recognizing a part of her own body, her left arm, as a part of "her."  She was otherwise mentally competent and healthy, but when she looked at her own left arm, the wiring in her brain couldn't connect it to her understanding of what constituted her own body, and instead she processed it as being something "other," just like we don't consider, say, a hat on our head or a chair we're sitting on as "us," even if we're in direct contact with that other thing.  Her response to this inability to process her own left arm as "her" led her to the bizarre conclusion that it was not her own left arm she was looking at but someone else's. 

As Sachs tells it, she was otherwise quite reasonable and sane, and when asked who's arm she thought it was that was next to her, she replied "I don't know."

Upon questioning, she agreed that the left arm did look very similar to her right arm - same general size, skin color, and so on - and from this the patient, her brain still not accepting that it was hers, logically concluded that it must be that of a close relative.

"It's my mother's arm," she said.

"Where's your mother now?" she was asked.  "I don't see her around."

The woman agreed that it was strange, and then said that her mother must be playing some sort of trick on her and was hiding somewhere.

Now, this sounds crazy, that an adult woman, instead of recognizing her own left arm as hers, would come to the bizarre conclusion that her mother was hiding somewhere behind her and holding out an arm to make it appear that the mother's arm was her daughter's. However, as pointed out before, the woman was quite sane and not at all crazy, but given that her brain, because of a tragic misfiring of neurons, wasn't capable of connecting the arm with her sense of self or with the rest of her body, when faced with the irrefutable evidence that it sure looked like her arm, found a "logical" explanation that she was somehow being tricked, even if she couldn't figure out how the trick was working.  She didn't first think there was some trick afoot and then conclude that the arm therefore wasn't hers, and she didn't accept that the arm was hers if she couldn't explain how the trick worked, any more than we believe that a magician really did make his lovely assistant disappear into thin air unless we can work out the mechanisms of the illusion.    

The point I take from this story is that our understanding of the universe, even while it sounds logical and reasonable to us, is not really as based on logic and reason as we would like to think, but is actually rooted in our schema, the mental maps we've developed over the course of our lives.  These maps work subconsciously in such a way that we're not even aware of their influence on our thinking -- we don't realize how reliant we are on our frame of reference as we encounter new phenomena around us.  A 21st Century, scientifically literate person believes that a magician's tricks are illusions, feats of misdirection and clever mechanisms, and does not conclude that the tricks are "real" even if the explanation can't be figured out.  On the other hand, persons from an earlier, pre-scientific century might first accept that the tricks are real, feats of demons or angels with the irrefutable evidence right before their eyes, unless the mechanics are explained to them.

I think that a lot of the polarized politics of our time are based, in large part, on a population with different mental maps explaining the world around them.  For example, some people, based on their previous experience (or perhaps lack of experience) look at an immigrant and see a threat - to some a threat to take away their jobs, to others a threat of crime.  Based on this presupposition, they listen to a certain news outlet that sensationalizes crimes and statistics to reinforce that view.  Other people looking at the same immigrant see something different, perhaps because they themselves were once immigrants or their parents or grandparents were, or because, listening to other news outlets and other stories and statistics, don't see the immigrant as a threat but those so opposed to immigration as the actual threat.  So, too, the other polarizing issues of our time - big government, abortion, religious expression, guns, etc.  It's all rooted in our schema.

The hard work here is not simply accepting that others may have different views and opinions not because they're "wrong" or "stupid" but because they have different mental maps and models, and therefore accepting and tolerating their different viewpoints.  The hard work is instead recognizing that each and every one of us, even ourselves, are dependant on our own subconscious mental maps and models to inform our experience.  Even though we do not consciously realize that we're relying on these maps and models and our opinions feel "logical" and "correct" to us, we should not assume that our views are any more "right" or "true" than anyone else's just because they conform better with our own schema. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Autumn Morning

Normally, I sleep in late on a Saturday, but this morning I had to get up early to meet a construction crew and do some environmental sampling at Fort McPherson in South Atlanta.

I'm not wild about getting up early (or working on Saturdays), but it was well worth it just to experience the cool, crisp autumn air, to see the first change of colors reflected in the water,  and even find a cascading stream I hadn't realized was on the Base until I stumbled across it this morning.

The longer I live on this planet, the more amazing I find the change of seasons, something I used to take for granted, but that now fills me with awe and wonder. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Grits at Tiffany's

Lovely, very early 20th Century (1903) stained glass window in an Atlanta church, hand signed by Louis Tiffany in New York.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


The days of October are so heart-breakingly rare and wonderful, I can get misty eyed as each lovely one begins.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Warmer temperatures also bring increases in vector-borne diseases — Lyme disease, mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and expanded seasons. What we see is that the Lyme disease areas are expanding and the number of cases is increasing. Among the states where Lyme disease is most common [New Hampshire, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts], on average, these five states now report 50 to 90 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

You can clearly see the geographic region expand. Also, West Nile Virus is expanding. Our climate assessment tracks geography and seasons getting longer, expanding. As temperatures get higher, the entire ecosystem changes. I was in Aspen, the winters are getting shorter."

- EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, interviewed by Rachel Zimmerman on WBUR, May 2015

Monday, October 12, 2015

Lyme Disease and Climate Change

The incidence of Lyme disease in the United States has approximately doubled since 1991, from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 people to 8.60 reported cases per 100,000 people in 2013. Among the states where Lyme disease is most common, New Hampshire and Vermont have experienced the largest increases in reported case rates since 1991, followed by Delaware, Maine, and Massachusetts. On average, these five states now report 50 to 100 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

Climate is just one of many important factors that influence the transmission, distribution, and incidence of Lyme disease. However, studies provide evidence that climate change has contributed to the expanded range of ticks, increasing the potential risk of Lyme disease, such as in areas of Canada where the ticks were previously unable to survive. 

The life cycle and prevalence of deer ticks are strongly influenced by temperature. For example, deer ticks are mostly active when temperatures are above 45˚F, and they thrive in areas with at least 85 percent humidity. Thus, warming temperatures associated with climate change could increase the range of suitable tick habitat, and are therefore one of multiple factors driving the observed spread of Lyme disease. Because tick activity depends on temperatures being above a certain minimum, shorter winters could also extend the period when ticks are active each year, increasing the time that humans could be exposed to Lyme disease. Unlike some other vector-borne diseases, tick-borne disease patterns are generally less influenced by short-term changes in weather (weeks to months) than by longer-term climate change.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"It is precisely the superficial differences between people who are otherwise alike that inform the hostilities between them." - LeBron James

I've apparently graduated from the quick-bread category of baking koans with its crumb cakes and variations on banana bread, and have now graduated to the next stage - biscuits.  Here are my first venture in this new group - blueberry cornbread muffins.  The only real trick was finding a place to buy blue cornmeal, and once again, Whole Foods came through for me.

I made a half dozen of these yesterday according to the recipe and quantities in the cookbook, and then made a full dozen more today by doubling up all the quantities and, surprisingly, the larger volume actually turned out better.

If I don't eat them all between now and Monday morning, I'll bring them in to work tomorrow for my co-workers. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Can We End the Meditation Madness?

An op-ed in yesterday's The New York Times asked Can We End the Meditation Madness?  The author opines that all of the so-called benefits of meditation can be achieved by other means.  "Every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities," he notes, and protests the single-minded advocacy of meditation proponents.

You might expect a Zen Buddhist, or a former Zen Buddhist, to take offense at the article.  Actually, however, I don't.

He brings up some good points, and for a while now I've been expecting a backlash against the recent commodification and commercialization of meditation practice, particularly mindfulness meditation as practiced by Silicon Valley technocrats.  By promoting the benefits of mindfulness, and meditation as the path to that mindfulness, some of the more zealous proponents sound at times like 19th Century snake-oil salesmen or 20th Century advertising executives (Mad Men).  Just like the other hucksters, they've identified a new malady, lack of mindfulness, and are selling a cure, meditation, to correct this deficiency.  Any time a spiritual practice is promoted for material gain, it's no longer a spiritual practice, as well explained back in 1973 by Chögyam Trungpa in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

Even Zen Master Dogen, who once wrote that "From the time you begin to practice meditation under a teacher, incense burning, bowing, chanting, as well as the practices of repentance or of reading the scriptures, are unnecessary," also wrote in Shobogenzo Butsudō that "dhyāna (meditation) is never the whole importance of the Buddha-Dharma." 

While I agree with the criticisms of materialist meditation practice in the Times editorial, the author made a fundamental distinction early on in his analysis.  By focusing right at the start on the benefits of meditation, he unknowingly moved away from the Zen practice of shikantaza, meditation without expectation of a reward, to the modern version of meditation practice as a panacea for whatever ails you.  Shikantaza is just you being yourself, right here, right now, and if you're just being yourself, nothing is gained.  To want to accumulate some reward or benefit one has not yet realized is to seek something beyond the self, and that is not the practice of shikantaza.  While I won't deny that benefits are realized by meditation practice, to seek after those benefits is spiritual materialism, not spiritual practice.

So, I agree with the op-ed that the benefits of materialist meditation practice can be realized by other means as well, but point out that doesn't mean that the benefits of even the materialist practice aren't being realized through meditation as well.  But I would take it a step further and even say that materialist meditation practice has its limitations, and that shikantaza, meditation without expectation of a reward, transcends those limitations.

Th criticisms of meditation in the Times op-ed are not aimed at the meditation that I and other Zen adherents practice, and to use the Buddha's example, if you practice shikantaza and are offended by an article that doesn't discuss your form of practice, it's like someone shot an arrow at you and missed, but you pick the arrow up anyway and start stabbing yourself with it. 

Friday, October 09, 2015

Life And Death

So basically, why should I fear death?

As long as I exist, my death will not exist.  And when my death does come to exist, then I won't be around to experience it.  We're mutually exclusive.

So where's the problem?

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Can Music Cure Lyme Disease?

Kyle Morton was bitten by a tick as a child, contracting a case of Lyme disease that went undiagnosed for years, even as it wreaked havoc on his body.  Morton nearly lost his life to the disease - he had multiple organ failures and had to have a kidney transplanted from his father. As an adult, Morton now feels like he is living on borrowed time and is past his expiration date. 

Perhaps that's why Morton has overachieved in a way, forming the folk-rock orchestra Typhoon, a Portland-based, dozen-or-so-member band that favors orchestral instruments and precise, complicated arrangements. 

In writing lyrics for Typhoon’s music, Morton thinks a lot about his own impermanence. The songs may have uplifting melodies, but underneath the melodies are much darker lyrics. It is through his music that one can find Morton’s sincere appreciation for the gift of life.

"It obliterated any sense of these monumental truths that I had as a kid," Morton told NPR.  "That I would grow up, that I would be strong and tall. That's something, on a personal level, I've been trying to come to terms with, this regret, or this feeling of loss, over a person I never became." Morton says, "So that's the only thing I find worthwhile to write about, because not only is it important to me, I think it's a feeling a lot of people can relate to — a sense of wanting to be something and not being able to achieve it."

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Is the Cure for Lyme Disease Also the Cure for Schizophrenia?

Lyme disease can cause a variety of psychiatric maladies. Published research has shown a higher incidence of Borrelia burgdorferi, the tick-borne bacteria that cause Lyme disease, in psychiatric patients than in healthy subjects.  There is also a geographic correlation of schizophrenia with ticks and Lyme outbreaks, and peer-reviewed literature showing an association of Lyme disease with schizophrenia.

Dr Brian Fallon has linked Lyme disease to paranoia, thought disorders, delusions, depression, panic attacks, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anorexia, violent outbursts, mania, personality changes, catatonia, dementia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and intermittent explosive disorders. 

Minocycline, as well as other tetracycline antibiotics, are well known treatments for Lyme disease, but a controlled clinical trial showed that minocycline is also effective in treating early-phase schizophrenia. While minocycline could be affecting the central nervous system, blocking neurotoxicity, or inhibiting inflammation in the brain, it is an antibiotic that may also be treating the Lyme disease that manifests as schizophrenia.  So is the antibiotic treating the symptom or the cause?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Does Meditation Cure Lyme's Disease?

This is now a blog about Lyme disease.

Dr. Brian Fallon is the director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center, director of the Center for Neuroinflammatory Disorders and Biobehavioral Medicine, and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.  Dr. Charles Alexander is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.  He is also co-founder of the Aquarian Path Holistic Health Center in Southport, Connecticut and a certified teacher of Kundalini Yoga.

According to an article in the Wilton (Connecticut) Bulletin (Connecticut is "ground zero" for Lyme's disease), the two doctors have developed a pilot study to see if Lyme patients following a daily course of meditation for eight to 12 weeks show any improvement.  Their studies have shown that meditation may reduce inflammation and that immune response may be improved by meditation.

The CDC estimates that 10-20% of patients with Lyme disease will go on to have chronic symptoms despite having had appropriate treatment, a condition known as “Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome” (PTLDS). While there is currently no known cure, various therapies have been investigated. One promising approach is the practice of meditation and yoga which have been shown to help pain and fatigue associated with other chronic illnesses as well as to improve overall physical, mental, and emotional health.

According to Dr. Alexander, the effect of meditation as a complementary treatment in chronic Lyme or post-treatment Lyme disease is primarily within the brain.  There are 100 billion cells in the brain, each making 10,000 connections to other nerve cells. The brain changes with age and although the brain cannot build new neurons, meditation has been shown to increase synapses within the brain. Meditation can also slow down the loss of neurons with age.

Dr. Alexander claims that meditation can also increase cortical thickness, a measure of the layers of the cerebral cortex. It roughly relates to the number of neurons.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Does Meditation Cure Lyme's Disease?

According to some random, semi-anonymous post on the internet (so it must be true), there is proof that meditation builds up the immune system, helps folks manage pain, improves mood and sleep, and can help the afflicted overcome Lyme's disease.  

Try to set aside 30 minutes a day to sit in a chair or on the floor and concentrate on just your breathing. Your mind will wonder. Thoughts like "My knees are hurting me right now!" and "How exactly does this help with Lyme's disease?" will cross your mind, but that is okay.  Don't try to suppress your thoughts but just let them go and then let go of them, and bring your attention back to your breathing.

Counting your breath helps. For example, count breath in 1, breath out 1. Breath in 2, breath out 2. Breath in 3, breath out 3, etc, until you get to 10.  Again, your mind will wonder and when it does don't get frustrated.  Just simply start the count over again. If you forget which breath you're on or if you blow past 10 and realize this is breath 23 or something, just start over again at one.  

But anyway, this is now a blog about Lyme's disease.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Another benefit of baking practice, in addition to the mindfulness necessary for the baking itself, is the deepening of charity and compassion from giving the baked goods away.

I can't eat all these banana breads and crumb cakes myself, so I've been bringing them into the office for my co-workers to eat, and have enjoyed seeing them enjoy the products.  As a matter of fact, the act of bringing treats into the office has made me feel closer and more affectionate for those I work with, and I find myself thinking how much they might enjoy the goods even as I'm baking.

Last week's chocolate-chocolate chip bread was so well received that I was asked to bake it again, and even though it was my preference to move on to the next koan in the cookbook, out of compassion I repeated the recipe and practiced kindness for others rather than work on my own mindfulness.

I'll spare you, gentle reader, another picture of another brown loaf this time around.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

SR 3/US 41/Northside Drive Between I-75 and Collier Road during Snowpocalypse 2011
ATLANTA – Motorists traveling on or near SR 3/ US 41/ Northside Drive are advised to seek alternate routes due to a non-construction related sinkhole on SR 3/US 41/ Northside Drive. The sinkhole is located between I-75 and Collier Road in the northbound lane.
Sure.  Right.  "Non-Construction related."  Just like the non-construction related leak from the sewer next to the work site that contaminated the creek across the road from my home, a sinkhole just happened to open up next to the road construction work because "stuff happens" (to quote Jeb! Bush). 

Ladies and gentlemen, the Georgia Department of Trasportation - putting the "gd" in GDOT. 

Friday, October 02, 2015


So can we all agree to use John Barth's term to refer to what Zen Master Dogen called impermanence, and call it The Destroyer of Delights and The Severer of Societies?  Can we at least agree on that much?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Severer Of Societies

American author John Barth often referred to the exterminating angel as "The Destroyer of Delights and the Severer of Societies."