Everything Changes

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Ben Casnocha recommends Sam Harris’s hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses.

[...]

For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within.

Easter Bunny

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Why does the Easter Bunny bring eggs again? Bunnies and eggs are symbols of springtime and fertility, but there’s more to it than that:

In addition, Orthodox churches have a custom of abstaining from eggs during the fast of Lent. The only way to keep them from being wasted was to boil or roast them, and begin eating them to break the fast. As a special dish, they would probably have been decorated as part of the celebrations. Later, German Protestants retained the custom of eating colored eggs for Easter, though they did not continue the tradition of fasting.[11] Eggs boiled with some flowers change their color, bringing the spring into the homes, and some over time added the custom of decorating the eggs.[12] Many Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red,[13] the color of blood, in recognition of the blood of the sacrificed Christ (and, of the renewal of life in springtime). Some also use the color green, in honor of the new foliage emerging after the long dead time of winter. The Ukrainian art of decorating eggs for Easter, known as pysanky, dates to ancient, pre-Christian times. Similar variants of this form of artwork are seen amongst other eastern European cultures.[14]

The idea of an egg-giving hare came to the U.S. in the 18th century. Protestant German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children about the “Osterhase” (sometimes spelled “Oschter Haws”[15]).[16] Hase means “hare”, not rabbit, and in Northwest European folklore the “Easter Bunny” indeed is a hare. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter.[17]

Easter, by the way, is the name of the old Germanic spirit of spring.

Mot and Baal

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Passover was likely an agricultural holiday pre-dating Judaism:

Nearly all ancient Canaanites — Hebrews included — were farmers, and Passover takes place just at the most critical time of the year, at the end of the growing season, just before the harvest.

This was a time of great anxiety, since the rains that made their grains grow during the winter were no longer welcome. One particularly nasty storm could decimate wheat and barley fields, knocking down the ripe plants and rotting the grains, and the people would starve.

Somehow the ancients had to stop the rains, and this could be the original function of Passover.

The question is, how could eating a roast ruminant stop the rain? For that we have to learn something about the Canaanite religion, which the Hebrews practiced before a proto-Judaism took form.

The Canaanite rain god was Baal. He is mentioned in the Bible time and again, but no details are given about the myths associated with him. To learn about these, we must consult the library found in Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite city on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Syria.

There we find, written in a language very close to Hebrew, detailed accounts of the mythology and religion of Canaan. Among them is a story which explains why the rain stops each spring and returns every fall: the Canaanite god of death Mot kills Baal, each year anew. Baal spends his summers in the netherworld, Sheol, until being resurrected again in the fall.

“I it was who confronted mightiest Baal, I who made him a lamb like a kid in the breach of my windpipe,” Mot tells Baal’s sister Anath in the poem describing this myth.

Mot’s likening Baal’s killing to eating livestock may be key to understanding the original symbolism of Passover. Perhaps by eating a kid or lamb, the Canaanites were symbolically recreating Mot’s consumption of Baal, hoping that this would stop the rain on time.

This could explain the dictum that the bones of the Passover sacrifice must be kept intact, which the Bible does not explain. Maybe the ancient Hebrews thought that if the bones of the symbolic representation of the Baal were broken, this would adversely affect the resurrection of Baal in the fall, when rains are once again needed.

Distraction and Teen Crashes

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Most serious accidents with teen drivers are caused by distractions, like phones:

Researchers analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash in nearly 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. The results showed that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes studied, including 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes. NHTSA previously has estimated that distraction is a factor in only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

Researchers found that drivers manipulating their cell phone (includes calling, texting or other uses), had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds leading up to a crash. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning they crashed without braking or steering.

Learning from Improv

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Scott Berkun took an improv class on a dare a decade ago and learned a lot. He also forgot a lot of what he learned, so he went back and took another class recently. First he disabuses us of some assumptions:

  • It’s not about being funny.
  • You don’t have to be a natural performer.
  • It’s not hard to learn.

Then he shares his lessons learned:

  • I’d forgotten how to play.
  • Life is less stressful.
  • Questions and No’s are deadly.
  • Improvisation is everywhere.
  • Metaphors for Life.
  • Doing trumps reading.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

The longtime editor of the American Alpine Club’s annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering report is stepping down:

Collectively, the stories in Accidents illuminate patterns and trends. “People will often say, ‘The majority of these accidents happen to inexperienced climbers,’ but that’s not the case. The majority of accidents happen to experienced climbers,” Williamson says.

After 40 years of reviewing accidents, Williamson knows the most common mistakes climbers make. He points to several mental traps, factors that might distract a climber from looking at a situation from a safety-first perspective.

Immediate Cause of Climbing Accidents in US (1951-2013)

One is trying to please people. Another is feeling tied to a self-imposed schedule. Both of these points might apply to a guided party that included several Iraq veterans on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The group continued despite being warned by a ranger of the risk, and three of the climbers were swept away by an avalanche (they were later rescued).

The most climbing fatalities ever occurred in 1976 — the year of the U.S. bicentennial, when many inexperienced teams attempted ascents of Mounts Denali and Rainier in honor of the occasion.

Reported Climbing Accidents in US (1951-2013)

“A lot of accidents happen to experienced climbers simply because they are rushing to try to make it to the restaurant on time,” Williamson says. He’s considering writing a book that would condense his knowledge into easily digestible lessons.

As for the publication he has done so much for, Williamson hopes it won’t change too much. “I hope that the continuing focus is on case studies, and I hope it doesn’t fall in the trap many magazines have fallen into. Some publications have so much distraction going on each page,” Williamson says.

“There’s a curious similarity to climbing, because one of the causes of accidents that has increased is distractions,” he continues. “One of my favorite recent accidents was a kid who was texting while belaying. He thought his partner asked for tension, but really he called for slack—and he pulled his partner off!”

Popular Posts of All Time

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

When I compiled my list of Popular Posts of 2014, our Slovenian guest suggested I do the same “for the blog over-all” — so I compiled a list of the top posts from November, 2005, when I first installed Google Analytics, until now:

  1. Icelandic skipper kills shark with bare hands (2003)
  2. A One-Way Ticket to Mars (2009)
  3. Stalin’s half-man, half-ape super-warriors (2005)
  4. Rich, Black, Flunking (2009)
  5. The ‘Israelification’ of airports (2010)
  6. Foux Da Fa Fa (2007)
  7. Archetypal Stories (2004)
  8. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics (2008)
  9. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees? (2010)
  10. Myostatin, Belgian Blue, and Flex Wheeler (2004)

A few years didn’t make the top 10 — the recent ones, mostly:

Popular Posts of 2014

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2014. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, four of which are new, six of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. Longbow vs. Armor
  3. He-Man Opening Monologue
  4. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?
  5. Richard Feynman’s Low IQ
  6. How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year (new)
  7. Power to the People (new)
  8. Observations from Actual Shootings
  9. A-10 Pilot’s Coloring Book (new)
  10. How to Train Your Voice to be More Charismatic (new)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2014 and not from an earlier year:

  1. How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year
  2. Power to the People
  3. A-10 Pilot’s Coloring Book
  4. How to Train Your Voice to be More Charismatic
  5. Racist Remarks
  6. The Inadequacy of Intellect
  7. When Confidence Trumps Competence
  8. Alternative Scientific History
  9. Myths of European Gun Laws
  10. Bullying Followed by Laughter

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Joyeux Noël

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

I’ve discussed Noël a number of times over the years:

Micro-Bullets vs. Graphene

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Researchers at Rice have shot micro-bullets at graphene and measured the cone of deformation, and the results suggest that it would make excellent armor:

Contagions of Hysteria

Monday, October 27th, 2014

We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction, David Brooks argues:

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death.

Be Careful What You Let Through the Trapdoor

Friday, October 10th, 2014

You need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor, Jules Evans warns:

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives — for money, sex and power. That’s very risky — it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power. That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie — perhaps the oldest lie of all.

(Hat tip to Neovictorian 23.)

Basketball on Turf

Monday, September 8th, 2014

A handful of elite NFL quarterbacks began to use the once-rare back-shoulder throw, and now teams like the Seahawks have changed the NFL by countering with a different kind of cornerback:

Rather than fielding the usual bunch of regular-sized speedsters in the defensive backfield to keep up with opposing receivers, Seattle decided to go big. By starting the tallest, largest cornerbacks possible — the 6-foot-3 Sherman or the 6-foot-1 Byron Maxwell, for instance — they tried to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage to throw off the timing that is crucial to the back-shoulder ballet.

But it wasn’t just the height of Seattle’s cornerbacks — they also had long arms. That is a trait more appreciated in linemen than defensive backs.

According to Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, the numbers say long arms are crucial: Reid said that having long arms is the equivalent of having an extra tenth-of-a-second advantage on a 40-yard dash. It was the equivalent of one full step, which can mean everything at the speed of the NFL. For Seattle, it worked like a charm. If one of those pinpoint passes did get through, one of their long-armed cornerbacks would simply poke it away.

[...]

The result of all this is that the NFL is becoming basketball on turf.

Football has become so fast, and the athletes so good, that coaches use basketball terminology all the time, said Rams general manager Les Snead. He sees tall cornerbacks now as the “power forwards” of football. “When you have to shoot over a taller guy, that’s hard,” he said. As with power forwards, football teams now are willing to give up some athleticism for height.

In The Sports Gene, David Epstein makes the point that basketball players aren’t simply tall; they have even wider wingspans than their height would suggest. (He mentions this on EconTalk, too.)

Nostalgia for the Mud

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Tom Wolfe explains how nostalgie de la boue brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society:

Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own — even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence — nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.

Writhing Time

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

During the first 32 games of the World Cup, Geoff Foster records, there were 302 players who could be seen at some point rolling around in pain, crumpling into a fetal position or lying lifeless on the pitch as the referee stopped the match:

These theatrical episodes ate up a total of 132 minutes of clock, a metric we have decided to call “writhing time.”

To be fair, it is actually possible to get hurt playing soccer. You can clang heads. You can snap a hamstring. You can get spiked in the soft tissue. There were nine injuries in total that forced players to be substituted from the game and to miss, or potentially miss, a match. These were discarded. That left 293 cases of potential embellishment that collectively took up 118 minutes, 21 seconds.

Another trick: how to calculate writhing time. The criteria used here is the moment the whistle is blown (because of a potential injury) to the moment that player stands up. If the TV camera cut to a replay, the stand-up moment was estimated. If he was helped off the field, the “writhing” clock stopped when he crossed the sidelines.

The study showed one thing emphatically: The amount of histrionics your players display during a match correlates strongly to what the scoreboard says. Players on teams that were losing their games accounted for 40 “injuries” and nearly 12.5 minutes of writhing time. But players on teams that were winning — the ones who have the most incentive to run out the clock — accounted for 103 “injuries” and almost four times as much writhing.

Writhing Time