February 2012


Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

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I used a Palm Tungsten E2 for several years before moving to an iPod touch a year and a half ago. The Palm was my external brain in GTD style. They work great except that the screen goes out every two years. My solution to that was buying Staples’ $60 extended warrantee, where they would replace the unit one time, “no questions asked.” When the screen got fritzy, I would take it in, get a new one, and buy another extended warrantee. After the initial purchase price I was just renting it from Staples for $30 a year. Not bad.

This arrangement ended when the saleswoman at Staples (Eugene, OR) led me to believe that the warrantee she was selling extended the manufacturer’s one year warrantee for two more years–three years total. I naively took her word for it. When the screen died in 2 1/2 years, my warrantee had been dead for six months. Instead of re-upping I started using a hand-me-down 8GB iPod Touch from Reanna.

There are ways, of course, that an iPod is more useful than a PDA. You can watch videos, check email, and surf the net, for example. I hadn’t been missing those features, though, so what I most noticed when I made the change was that the iPod was way slower, less stable, and badly set up to be my GTD external brain, compared to my PDA. The neat-o factor was strong, though, and free fit my grad-school budget perfectly, so I spent several months slowly figuring out how to get it to do what I needed. Here’s what I came to:

For the Palm’s calendar function, I use the iPod calendar synced with iCal on my Mac desktop. This setup works adequately, though the iPod calendar is very slow to load and iCal occasionally freaks out and starts replicating “all-day” events every few minutes, which is a serious pain to fix. On the upside, both the iPod and iCal calendars are super cool to look at and you can color-code your calendars in any shade of any color. I love that.

For the address book, I use the iPod’s contacts app synced to Address Book on my desktop. Apart from being a little slow, this works just as well as the Palm.

For the Palm’s Tasks, I use Todo on the iPod synced with the desktop version of Todo. The desktop version cost me $15 extra and it was totally worth it. Toodledo online was terrible and I tried using iCal’s to-dos for several weeks first and that system sucked worst of all. Todo has its problems–it’s slow on the iPod and occasionally forgets how to sync and I have to relearn how to set the sync back up–but it’s a slightly more powerful system than the Palm’s. (By the way, I use Todo’s Lists as GTD contexts, not Todo’s contexts. Lists sort items way better. The downside is that Lists in Todo are basically iCal calendars, which can make your Lists list very long. I just put an @ at the beginning of each context-List so that they show up at the top of the list of Lists. (Leave me a comment if that explanation was both important to you and impossible to understand. I’ll try it again.))

For Palm’s Memos, I use Simplenote on the iPod synced to Notational Velocity on my desktop. Aside from Simplenote being infuriatingly slow, this system works great. It’s better than Memos. I tried out Evernote, which looked awesome–actually bought it–but it crashed my iPod every time I tried to use it.

For Palm’s Expenses, I use a project in Todo. This is not a great system, but I’m limping along with it.

Palm’s Notepad was cool and I used it a lot, but I don’t seem to miss it much now. There is probably a good drawing app for the iPod, but I quickly became conservative about adding new apps. About half of the ones I tried (Skype and Evernote, off the top of my head) crashed the iPod. For one thing, I need a stable system way more than I need a cool drawing app, and for another, I hate having to buy something to find out if it crashes the iPod.

I never used my Palm’s Media function, so I can’t really compare it to the iPod, but I’m sure the iPod would easily win in that category. I don’t use my iPod to store photos or videos, but I do love being able to store music and podcasts on it. And I do enjoy being able to stream videos on it. I also really like that I can plug a mic in and record–I keep an audio journal and this means that I don’t have to carry around an extra gizmo. (Though it sucks that Voice Memo is so unreliable. I lose about 15% of the longer recordings I make which, as a recording engineer, gives me a small heart attack every time. And I haven’t seen a recording app that seems better yet. Any suggenstions?)

And I really do love the interface. So neat! So pretty! I was fairly obsessed with it for a while. My friend Debra named my iPod “Petunia” and asked if Reanna was jealous, I was spending so much time with it.

Reanna is from the Pacific northwest and I grew up in Joshua Tree, CA, where we are currently living. We have an ongoing conversation about humidity here because having grown up in a wet climate, she is vigilant for the ways that moisture in the air decomposes things. “If we don’t keep it warm in here, won’t condensation damage the books?” No, it won’t, and probably wouldn’t even if we had a constantly boiling pot of water. The only place I’ve ever seen mildew in Joshua Tree is in one of our bathrooms which, until very recently, had no windows and no fan. This was not aggressive mildew either, just noticeable every once in a while. “If the roof of the trailer has leaks, won’t there be tons of mold in the walls?” No, not likely, because even if rain was pouring right through the trailer, it would be completely dry again within hours.

I have never tracked humidity levels before, so while I knew that Joshua Tree was dry, I didn’t know what level of humidity qualified as dry. I also didn’t fully understand the different measurements of humidity that are floating around out there. The short version of that story is that there are three units of humidity: absolute, specific, and relative humidity. Absolute humidity is grams of water per kilogram of moist air and specific humidity is kilograms of dry air. Relative humidity is more complicated. If I understand correctly (if incompletely) it is the ratio between 1) the pressure that the water vapor in a given amount of air would exert on the insides of a container, should it somehow be trapped there without its accompanying dry air, and 2) the pressure below which water would start condensing out of the air. Relative humidity is the measure of humidity that you usually see in weather reports, partly because it takes into account temperature–at lower temperatures, air holds less water.

Here are some cities with different levels of relative humidity, to give a sense of where we are in Joshua Tree. I’ll also include precipitation. (Data is from Weather Underground unless otherwise noted.)

Seattle, WA, 2011: High 99%, Low 34%, Average 82%, Precipitation 12.92 inches

Honolulu, HI, 2011: High 96%, Low 18%, Average, 65.6% Precipitation 23.82 inches

Joshua Tree humidity, 2011: High = 83%, Low = 10%, Average = 30.7%, Precipitation 1.53 inches

Las Vegas, NV, 2011 (the driest city in the US): High 98%, Low 2%, Average 28.7%, Precipitation about 2.5 inches (precipitation according to climatestations.com)

Kolkata, India one of the most humid cities in the world, on July 15, 2011: High 94%, Low 64%, Average 84%, Precipitation 0.0 inches

And Kartoum, Sudan (Sahara desert), on January 4, 2011: High 43 %, Low 10%, Average 24%, Precipitation .51 inches

Nathen, Reanna, Quilt, Desert

I’ve been listening to a lot of Ted Talks while working on my trailer the last couple of weeks. I’ve been enjoying them, mostly, but I’ve also become annoyed at the presenters saying, “The reality is…” before making assertions. It’s a powerful-feeling thing to say, and I think for lot of people it may be a powerful-feeling thing to hear. It may even help these presenters change peoples’ minds. When I hear that phrase, though, I go off on a mental tangent something like this: “Wow, sounds like you think you have direct contact with reality the way the Pope thinks he has direct contact with God. That’s either pretty arrogant or pretty careless of you to say. I wonder if you are that careless or arrogant when analyzing the data that you are summarizing right now. Or maybe you have a handle on how much direct contact you have with reality and you’ve just said that because you think I will be swayed by you talking that way. Are your ideas not strong enough to stand on their own? Oh, and what was it you were saying for the last 30 seconds?”

Reanna and I are in the process of officially combining our finances. I’d been a little nervous about it, but so far it’s going great. One of the tools we’re trying out is Mint.com, a free, online program for tracking money. Maya pitched us pretty hard on You Need a Budget instead of Mint, and my early impression is that YNAB is in a lot of ways simpler and more useful. We’re trying Mint first mostly because we can access it from our own computers. (How about some way to sync one account between two computers YNAB?) I’ll post a review after I know Mint better. So far, it seems adequate and is mostly pretty fun and intuitive for me, coming from Quicken.

Here are the tags we’ve agreed upon so far:

One day in my psycholinguistics class in 2009, I had two ideas that my prof, Dare Baldwin, announced would make good doctoral dissertations. I wrote them down, thinking maybe I would use them. The way my mind works is that I seriously consider doing a Ph.D in every subject I study. A few months later I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do more research in psycholinguistics, so I wrote myself a note: “Look through notes from Dare’s class and post dissertation ideas for aspiring psycholinguists.”

Well I’m sorry to say that I’ve just looked through those notes and I can’t find the dissertation ideas, and one of them I have completely forgotten. The other I remember the basics of and if you are an aspiring psycholinguist you are welcome to it. Remember, this was in 2009, so check around to see if this research hasn’t been done already.

In Dare’s lecture, she explained that it is something of a mystery how exactly we hear voiced and non-voiced consonants as distinct from each other. If you pay close attention while you say the words “poor” and “bore,” for example, you might be able to notice that the only difference (at least with my accent) is how soon the vowel sound starts after the lips make the consonant. A slight gap between consonant and vowel creates a “p” and a smaller gap makes a “b.”

Using a computer to manipulate that gap, you can test what size of gap produces each consonant, and it turns out it’s a very specific and arbitrary-seeming size. We all hear the transition the same. And to make it even more mysterious, some other animals hear the distinction just like we do. How can this be an important distinction for animals to be able to make?

I believe that this is all due to a psychoacoustic phenomenon called temporal fusion. Any recording engineer knows that if you take two copies of a sound and space them at more than about 30 ms, you will hear both copies, distinct from one another. The second copy will sound like an echo of the first. If you space them at less than about 30 ms, what you instead hear is one, longer, thicker sound.

I bet you that 30 ms is also about the length of gap that starts to distinguish voiced from non-voiced consonants. That is, the length of gap is not arbitrary, but based on human hearing acuity. I will also bet you that other animals that can distinguish between Ps and Bs have temporal fusion that kicks in around 30 ms as well.

There you go. It should be easy and relatively cheap to test. If no one else has thought of it since 2009, it’s yours. If I remember the second idea, I’ll post it too.

I am aware that Tony Blankley worked for Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, but for me, Tony Blankley was the conservative voice on KCRW’s political show “Left, Right, and Center.” I discovered the show in the late 90s and have listened religiously for the last several years. After he died recently, they did a show in his memory and I was surprised at how emotional I became. I tended to agree more with the liberal and center voices on the show, but in retrospect, I really appreciate how Blankley approached their ongoing conversation. It wasn’t just that he was extremely intelligent and likeable. It was that he engaged the liberal and centrist positions with seriousness and respect, every week for years and years.

It’s a rare opportunity to get to listen in on that kind of conversation. It’s easy to find professional idealogs (and amateurs too, of course) mocking their enemies from a safe distance. On all sides it’s a straw-man game: shoot down a caricature of your opponent. I hope I am not an idealog, but I find myself doing the same thing. Listening to Blankley over the years has helped. In most cases, I can now see conservative positions not as differences in accuracy or integrity, but differences in values. He just had some different ideas about what was important than I do. And that is OK. We each get to say what is important to us.

A good lesson to learn. Thank you, Tony Blankley.

The cast of Left, Right & Center: Matt Miller, Arianna Huffington, Tony Blankley, Robert Scheer (photo by Marc Goldstein)

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