Monday, November 28, 2005

Artificial Life

About 3 or 4 years ago I was tinkering with writing an artificial life simulation. The idea was to use genetic algorithms with some fairly simple heirarchy of rules for behavior, such as, if object x is a certain distance away, then do action y. The behaviors would be randomly generated, so you could get really strange behaviors like, if a a piece of food is 5 or less spaces away, then move toward the nearest hiding place. Plus, each creature would have a list of these rules to evaluate in order, and that order would also be randomly determined in each creature. The program would evaluate each rule in order until a mathcing condition and action was performed. If no rule matched, then the creature would just sit there.

The creatures would initially be randomly generated each with its own set of rules, however the creatures had the ability to reproduce with other creatures, in which case the offspring would get a mix of the rules from the parents. It might take 1/2 a rule from one part and half a rule from another parent, so if parent X had the rule, "If food is less than 5 spaces away, move towards the nearest hiding place" and parent Y had a rule, "If hiding place is less than 10 spaces away, move away from the sun", the offspring might end up with a rule that says, "if hiding place is less than ten spaces away, move towards the nearest hiding place." Then, the offspring would actually have a potentially useful rule that generated "hiding behavior".

To make things interesting, the creatures needed to eat, and if they didn't, after a certain amount of time they would die. Also, the creatures could attack each other, and the only source of food was the dead bodies of the creatures. It was hoped that over a long amount of time, there might be some sort of behavior that evolved that might produce a group of creatures that could live a long amount of time.

So, in a bit more detail, the random rules were basically made up of a specific structure:

If X is {less, greater} than Y, then Z.

Choices for X could be a hunger value, an object (such as food, another creature, the sun, a hiding place, the edge of the world, etc.).

The choice of "less than" or "greature than" was also randomly selected.

Y could be any numeric value from 0 to 100.

Action Z could be things like "attack nearest creature", "move away from", or "move towards", or "eat", etc.

I've over-simplified a bit of the rule format, but hopefullly that explains enough of the details. The goal was to have rules that could easily be randomly generated, and that had a fixed structure so they could be spliced together to form simple types of behavior.

Did it work? You can be the judge. You can download the program here. Unpack the zip file into a folder and run the program life.exe. One caveat - the program is a bit CPU intensive when it runs, especially if the creature populations start to grow. If you notice things slowing down, hit ESC to exit the program. NOTE: this is Windows program. It won't run on a Mac. Sorry. At some point, if I get some free time, I might make a Java version that can run in a web browser.

Here's a screen shot of what the program looks like when running. A static image looks kinda boring - it's definitely more interesting to see the real thing in action. The creatures move around quite quickly.

In the center of the world is a sun which has gravity. Orbiting the sun are some red spheres that act as cover or hiding places for creatures. All the little colored dots are the creatures. The tiny tiny dots (only visable if you click on the screen shot for a larger view) are dead bodies. Any creature in a red sphere can not be seen by any other creatures. If a creature touches the sun, it dies and is removed from the world. The idea of adding a sun with gravity in the center or the world was to provide an automatic "clean-up" mechanism to prevent the world from getting overpopulated with dead bodies or creatures that just sorta sat around reproducing and eating their offspring. With gravity, such creatures will eventually get sucked into the sun, unless they have a behavior that tries to avoid the sun.

Anyhow, feel free to play with it. I find it kinda relaxing to just watch the creatures run around for a bit. It's sorta like watching a fish tank. Here's an example of what happened when I let the thing run over-night. Eventually, some sort of successful life form developed and took over the world. I really ought to add a feature that would allow displaying the rules of the creatures that successfully developed.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Quabbin Reservoir

Today a friend and I made a visit to the Quabbin Reservoir. The original goal was to do some kayaking and possibly spot some bald eagles. The reservoir is a known area for spotting bald eagles, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, after a 2 hour drive to get there we discovered that due to some very strange policy, they don't allow canoes or kayaks on the reservoir. Now I could understand this policy if all boats were forbidden, since it is a reservior for drinking water, but that isn't the case. They allow gasoline power boats for fishing - they just don't allow environmentally friendly boats such as canoes, kayaks, or even sailboats. Quite odd.

Anyhow, regardless of that bit of disappointment, we still had a good time. The reservoir area is a beautiful place.

Since we couldn't go kayaking, we decided to instead do some hiking in hopes for seeing some eagles. We never did see any eagles, but we did manage to come upon a pair of white-tailed deer on a trail. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not having my camera out and ready (it was in my backpack) so I didn't get to take a picture before the deer ran away. That's one lesson I have now learned. Whenever I go hiking, I should have my camera ready. After the deer ran away, we spent a while stalking them through the somewhat snowy woods, trying to get a chance for a decent photo. After about a half hour of circling through the woods trying to flush the deer back towards my friend who was waiting with his camera, this photo was the best I could manage.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Lots of Protein

 This Thanksgiving, my sister and brother-in-law got to talking with me about protein. Since I am a vegetarian and they know I take a lot of karate classes they were wondering whether I was getting enough protein. As it turns out, my sister had just bought a 96 ounce bottle (that's six pounds!) of some sort of protein shake mix. Add a small scoop of this stuff to just 5 ounces of water and you get a chocolatey 22 grams of protein. Both my sister and brother-in-law claimed to not like chocolate (Weirdos! Who doesn't like chocolate??) and they said they bought the chocolate flavor by mistake, so they offered the big bottle to me. I was a bit skeptical about how good something could be that says "Tastes Great!" on the label - and also something that uses the term "Instantized". I mean, is that even a real word? But I hid my suspicions and accepted their generous gift.

And what do you know? The stuff really does taste great! I've heard lots of horror stories about protein drinks tasting chalky or just plain gross, but this stuff tastes very good. And who can argue with 22 grams of protein? And it's instantized! I still have no idea what that means, but it must contribute to the good taste in some way. And speaking of "way", this protein is whey protein, which comes from milk. So if you don't approve of drinking milk, then you might want to stick with soy-based protein. But, if it's just a lactose concern, from the description on the bottle, it appears they claim the lactose is removed by "ultrafiltration and diafiltration". Hmmm.... are these more made up words?

In any case, if you are looking for a high protein drink and don't mind goofy marketing words on the bottle, I give this a thumbs up! The only potential drawback is the huge size of the bottle (note the book in the picture above for a sense of scale). The bottle is slightly bigger than a basketball, albeit a slightly squished basketball. And there aren't many places in my kitchen where I can easily fit a slightly squished basketball.

My Friend Orion

Ever since I was a kid, the Orion constellation has been my favorite. It's probably because it's the one I can spot most easily. This time of year, it becomes my faithful companion in the eastern sky. Each night as I drive home I see it out the side window of my car. And when I turn out the lights at night to go to sleep, I can glance out the window and see it. There's something comforting about it - perhaps because in this world of impermanence, it's something I know will always be there. In the big picture nothing is permanent - the sun and moon and everything else will eventually go away - but at least on the small scale of my lifetime, I'm pretty sure I can count on Orion being there.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Very Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. There are no expectations for gifts or anything like that. It's the one major holiday that is just about getting together with family and being appreciative (i.e. thankful) for this thing called life. And yesterday was a very happy Thanksgiving day for me.

This year's Thanksgiving was at the home of one of my sisters - about 2 hours from where I live. Fortunately, I had company for the drive - I picked up my niece and nephew along the way and we listened to two new albums I had just purchased - one a "best of" by The Beautiful South and another was some Celtic music by Loreena McKennitt. Sadly, there was a bit of snow on the highway and on a couple occasions we did see a few cars that had spun out and were in the process of being rescued by tow trucks and state troopers. Hopefully for those folks their day turned out better than it started.

My sister lives in Topsfield, Massachusetts - a very old New England town. Before dinner, a few of us took a walk to a nearby historic house - the "Parson" Capen House, buit in 1683. In the house they had some people in period dress who were talking about what life was like back in the 1600s. They also served us cider and popcorn. The house had a huge fireplace and also an interesting looking oven.

In the town commons area, there was a stone monument to honor some local residents who had unfortuntely been victims of the witch-hunts of the 1600s. Sad stuff.

Back at my sister's house, some people were watching a dog show on TV. Oddly enough, even my sister's dog Lewis was interested in the show.

A group of us ended up playing a very fun board game before dinner. It's called Compatability. You split up into teams of two and each team member has an identical deck of cards with photos on them. A topic card is then randomly chosen which will have a word on it (such as "science fiction", or "failure", or "guide") and everyone will then select 5 cards that they think best match the theme word. You then compare the results with what your partner selected and get points for each match. There's lots of funny interaction as you try to figure out the reasoning behind some of your partner's picture choices.

Dinner was the usual Thanksgiving selection for my family - turkey, mashed potatos, stuffing, string beans, corn, broccolli casserole, rolls, and cranberry sauce. Even though I'm a vegetarian, I always feel I should at least try a small piece of turkey on Thanksgiving. I don't really like turkey, but for some reason I haven't quite thought out, I feel I should try it this one day a year.

After dinner, three of my young nieces put on a short show for the family. They had spent a lot of time in the morning preparing for it. They even set up a small "theater" with reserved seats for all the guests and a funky sequin carpeted aisle for people to walk down.

The theme of the show was Thanksgiving and consisted of little skits and poems. My nieces even gave out awards to people at the end of the show - such as one for thanking my sister for preparing the meal, another to one of my other sisters for appearing to be the most thankful for being invited to the show, etc. Heck. I even got two awards later in the afternoon. (If you can't read the small print, one award is for funniest singer and the other is for funniest dancer. I offer no explanation for why I got those. You'll have to use your imagination.)

After the kids show, some of us played a rousing game of Time's Up! It's a team game where each person tries to get their partner to guess a name on a card. The names range from celebrities, to famous people in history, to fictional characters. Since some of the names might be obscure for kids (and a couple of my younger nieces and nephews were playing) we decided to take a few minutes before the game and think of our own "kid friendly" names to write on index cards. The game is played in three rounds - the first one you can say as much as you want to get your partner to guess the name. The second round, you can only say one word (but can also use sound effects and pantomime). The third round you can't say anything - you can only use sound effects and pantomime. What makes this game fun is the unexpected word associations and actions people will perform trying to get their partner to guess the name in later rounds. I still get a chuckle out of the image of my mom (who is in her mid-sixties) falling on the floor acting out having a house fall on top of her. She was trying to get someone to guess "Wicked Witch of the West", but we all just thought she must be pretending to have some sort of seizure. (And yes, for the record it was really the Wicked Witch of the EAST who had a house fall on her...)

While a group of us was playing Time's Up!, another group was playing Bausack, a very fun block stacking game.

After the board game silliness ended, then my family's true strangeness started to show. An acoustic guitar happened to be out in the living room, so a few of my nephews decided to have an improptu blues session. One nephew played the typical blues beat on the guitar while my other nephews wailed about their troubles in life. Lots of hilarity ensued as people would occasioanlly interrupt lines like "I got an F on my paper" and explain that that's not really a sad enough topic for the blues. So then we had slightly better attempts with lines like "My pet pig Arnold left me...." As I said, my family is strange. And if a blues jam session wasn't enough to top off a Thanksgiving day feast, what followed definitely was. My brother-in-law broke out the sheet music for some Beatles amd Paul McCartney music and began to play some tunes while other family members sang along. The night ended with everyone dancing and singing to a crazy rendition of "Twist and Shout". Even my dad - at the age of sixty nine - was seen doing an air guitar. Here's a picture that captures the moment pretty well.

Even the drive home with my sister, niece, and nephew was fun. Key highlights were having a fairly lengthy karate discussion with my sister and later breaking out into a sing-along to "If I had $1000000" while listening to a greatest hits album by the Barenaked Ladies. (And for those out of the music loop, no - there are no ladies in the band, and no one is naked - it's just a silly band name.)

All-in-all, it was a very happy Thanksgiving. It made me realize how much I love my family, even if they are a bunch of crazy people. :-)

Thursday, November 24, 2005


 I never seem to get bored of seeing a nice sunrise. :-) I can't remember whether in the next few weeks the sun will be so far south on the horizon that from my window I won't get to see it rise anymore. I hope not. I guess I'll have to wait and see. In either case, at least the amount of daylight will start getting longer in about a month and the sun will start appearing further north again. 

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tastey Gem!

 Ever since I was a kid, I have loved eating pomegranate ftuit. It's a nice treat because it seems they are only available in the grocery store for a short time each year. It's hard to describe what it tastes like - it's sweet and sour and bitter all at the same time. If you haven't tried it before, get to the store soon - they are only available September to January. Just be aware it's a bit of work trying to eat them. The skin of the fruit is somewhat leathery, so it's hard to peel. Also, the edible part of the fruit are little juice sacs (called arils) which are easy to pop, getting red staining juice everywhere. Here's a good reference for how to get at the arils more easily. Enjoy! 

Note: the aril pictured above is much bigger than actual size. I got my camera really close to it when I took the picture.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Dalai Lama in Rare Rhode Island Visit

As his last stop while in the US, the Dalai Lama gave a speech at Salve Regina University yesterday. A story from the Providence Journal describing the event can be found here. Note, like many newspaper web sites, this link may require a free registration to view it. Sorry.

Here's a short excerpt from the article:

During his talk, he outlined the steps that can lead humanity to peace. It begins with each person being more compassionate.

"Once a more compassionate attitude develops," he said, "then it's very easy to communicate with others."

Once the "inner self"' becomes more sensitive and compassionate, then "inner peace" will follow. Inner peace will spread to families and then, he said, "the whole community becomes more passionate." As this attitude spreads, so, too, will peace.

"World peace will be achieved through inner peace," he said.

Surprisingly, the Projo also has an MP3 file of the complete speech available for free download. NOTE: this mp3 file is over 100 meg in size!!! The recording is approximately one hour and 15 minutes long. The first 2 minutes and 45 seconds is just background music and intermittent applause. The actual speech starts shortly after that.

What the hike?

I took half the day off from work today to get a few things done. I ended up with a bit of unexpected free time late in the afternoon. It was a very nice bright sunny cold fall day, so I decided to take a short hike near where I live. I walked out to Rome Point. I hadn't gone there in a while on foot (I usually paddle out there via kayak) and was pleasantly surprised to see the town has finally added a small parking lot at the entrance to the trail. No longer do people have to take the risk of parking on the side of a busy road. It used to be especially dangerous in the winter with snow banks leaving very little space to park.

Rome Point is a wooded area off of Route 1A in North Kingstown. There are quite a few trails that meander through the woods with some going by old foundations, stone walls, etc. - i.e. it's typical New England woods. But what is atypical about this place and what makes it somewhat popular is it borders the ocean and is adjacent to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. So, you can hike through the woods for a bit and then go for a walk on a rocky beach. And, the biggest draw is from November to May you have the chance to see harbor seals on the rocks off the point. (NOTE: you'll really need to bring binoculars to best see the seals.)

The actual hike to the beach is pretty short, although I managed to dilly-dally with my camera and binoculars making the round trip about and hour and a half. It's funny, I live within walking distance of this place and I haven't gone here for a hike in about 6 months. I had forgotten how nice and peaceful it is.

This is the view to the left when you first arrive at the beach. Off in the distance is Rome Point.

To the right you get a nice view of the Jamestown Bridge. In front of the bridge is also the Plum Beach Lighthouse, which I have paddled out to in my kayak in the past.

While walking the beach, I came across this weathered section of wood. It makes for a nice bench to just sit and enjoy the scenery.

Parts of this beach were covered with seashells. The piles where at least a foot deep in some places! I'm not really sure what type of creature used to live in this type of shell, but there sure were a lot of them around here.

Along the trail going out to the point, there are some signs warning about the seals. The signs seem to imply that the seals might be right on the beach, although I've never seen them there. They have always been on the rocks about 100 yards off the shore.

Here are the rocks off the shore and you can barely make out the seals on the rocks. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Here's is the best I could get with the zoom on my camera. Still it's hard to see the seals. That thing on the right that looks like a rock is actually a seal sitting on a rock that is just below the surface of the water.

While watching the seals at the point, I noticed this HUGE ship going up the bay. I have no idea what it was. I've never really seen anything like it before. Here's a close-up of what it looked like.

And here's a picture zoomed out to get a sense of how big it was. (You might need to click on this picture to get a slighter larger view.)

Whatever it was, it was being followed by a tug boat. Maybe to make sure it didn't get stuck anywhere.

After watching the seals and the mystery boat for a while, I noticed it was starting to get dark, so I headed back. In this picture, you can see the old mill building I live in off in the distance. It's close to a full moon and was low tide, so the water in the cove was mostly gone. Six hours from now and the water will be quite high.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

More Toys

 I just got some new weapons for kobudo - tonfa! Like most traditional Okinawan kobudo weapons, these were originally used for a more utilitarian purpose. In this particular case, the tonfa were originally designed as handles for turning a grinding wheel.

I'm now learning the kata "Matayoshi No Tonfa Ichi". I must admit, when I first started using the tonfa they felt incredibly awkward - probably the most awkward thing I've tried to do in karate so far. Someone even pointed out in the first class I started using the tonfa that I was sticking out my tongue while practicing - it took that much concentration for me. Thankfully, after a couple weeks it now feels a lot more comfortable. I'm pretty sure I'm no longer unconsciously sticking out my tongue. :-)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dalai Lama Op-Ed piece in NYT

Today has been a good day. I had no specific plans for the day and so I spent my time alternating between practicing karate and reading about Buddhism on various web sites. In someone's blog I came across this reference to an Opinion/Editoral piece from yesterday's New York Times. It's a very interesting article and it was written by the Dalai Lama. Sheesh! He's a busy guy! Writing an article for the the New York Times, meeting with the president, giving a speech at a neuroscience conference, all in the course of a few days. And he even finds time to meditate for two hours a day.

Ethics without God

I was brought up in a very religious Christian family. Since religion was the focal point of family life, from a very young age I had a very solid grounding in ethical behavior. It was the usual "Christian values" (the ten commandments, "be ye kind one to another", turn the other cheek, etc.), but rather than just giving lip-service to the ideas every Sunday, it was an actual daily way of life for my family. However, ever since I was a teenager, I was bothered by the apparent reward-based ethics of established religion. It wasn't enough to do good for the sake of doing good - instead, there was always a subtext of "do good and you'll find salvation". It just seemed so selfish to me. I always wondered, why can't people have ethics without the fear of a God meting out rewards and punishments based on behavior?

So, to the great disappointment of my parents (sorry Mom & Dad), I abandoned my family's religion when I turned 18. My goal was to continue to try to be what I thought was a good person, but without any religious basis for such behavior. I felt it should be possible to have a system of ethics based on compassion for others, not based on a future reward from God. That was twenty years ago. Since then, I haven't really given religion much thought. Or, it might be more accurate to say I haven't given any God-based religion much thought. According to Webster's Dictionary, any belief system built around a code of ethics is a religion. So, in effect, I have been following my own personal religion.

However, as I've started to learn more about Buddhism recently, I am finding it is very interesting. I had always seen pictures of the Buddha statues, and the monks in saffron robes, and mistakening thought that Buddhism was all about the worship of some guy named Buddha. But it's not - at least not what I've learned about it so far. As with any ancient religion, there are many different interpretations and off-shoots all bearing the same name. But from what I've encountered so far, the main precept of Buddhism is to provide an ethical way to live one's life. Period. No God dangling some future reward or punishment. Just ethical behavior because it is the right thing to do. In fact, you could follow the behavior outlined in the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and be a practicing Christian. There's no conflict of interest from the Buddhist side of things - it's just an outline for how live an ethical life.

Which brings me to what got me started writing this snippet about ethics in the first place. There is an article in today's Washington Post about how the Dalai Lama was giving a speech in Washington to the world's top neuroscientists. Because the Dalai Lama is a religious leader, some scientists felt having him as a speaker to a science group was inappropriate. And to that I say these scientists are missing the point. Ethics are important regardless of religion. As the Dalia Lama himself said, "By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call 'secular ethics' that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power -- principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and nonbelievers, and followers of this religion or that religion."

And if the scientists couldn't appreciate what the Dalai Lama said, maybe they might listen to Albert Einstein, who said, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Important Safety Tip

Here's an important safety tip. Don't practice karate on a hardwood floor while wearing socks. It's a really bad idea.

I'm learning a new tonfa kata in kobudo class and it has this spinning jump-thing that I'm trying to get the hang of. Well, this afternoon I decided since I have the day off from work due to the holiday, it would be a good time to practice this new kata. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my socks off and on one of my more agreessive attempts to get some good height and spin on the jump, I ended up having my feet go sliding out from under me when I landed on the smooth floor. Fortunately, I didn't have any tonfu in my hands while I was practicing this jump, so I was at least able to use my arms to break my fall rather than break my back. :-)

Lesson learned - no socks.

A Zen approach to life

A friend of mine had made a recommendation to try to take a positive outlook on life's challenging situations. Rather than thinking negative about how something might turn out, try to take a positive hopeful outlook. While I believe it is better to be an optimist than a pessimist, I think there is an inherent problem in either approach.

The Zen approach to such a situation is to not have either thought - positive or negative. You can't know what the situation really is until you encounter it, so there is no sense trying to imagine it one way or the other. Doing so just creates false expectations and with false expectations comes disappointment when things don't end up matching those expectations. Also, if you start acting on these false impressions or hopes, you aren't living in reality. You are instead letting yourself be controlled by these imagined feelings which may not even be based on the reality of the situation. So, instead it is better to just try to remove all filters and interpretations of what might be and try to get to the root of the present moment, whereever you might be, and experience "what is". Pay attention to your senses, notice things around you that you might not have been aware of before - experience reality. As Buddha said, "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly."

Of course, putting that into practice on a daily basis is a bit difficult at times, which I think is where the Zen meditation helps. Just sitting, trying to not cling to any thought, really helps condition me for applying the same principles to daily life. Unfortunately, it's something I've haven't been taking the time to do at home on my own. I really enjoy the Zen class at the dojo, but it is only two times a month, and the last class was several weeks ago. Today I have started trying to have a regular schedule of practicing Zen meditation at home, rather than just practicing karate. Hopefully I'll be able to make the time to stick with it every day.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Careless Shopping

I recently went shopping and bought a few packages of tortellini. I'm a vegetarian, so I grabbed a stack of some stuffed with cheese and garlic. Well, at least I thought I grabbed a stack of all the same thing. Tonight while eating my dinner I had an unpleasant discovery. The tortellini I was eating tasted a bit funny and not in a good way. I was thinking that maybe the cheese had gone bad or something. I went back to the trash and looked at the package. Bleck! It turns out I was eating chicken and prosciutto tortellini. Yuck! But, since I had already cooked it and mixed it with sauce and olives, I felt I couldn't waste it. I forced myself to eat it. It wasn't easy - I really dislike the taste of ham. Next time I need to pay better attention to what I am buying at the market.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Eightfold Path

As I mentioned a few days ago, I've been in a bit of an emotional funk lately. I'm feeling quite a bit better now, and revisiting some thoughts brought up a few weeks ago at a Zen meditation class was very helpful. Specifically, it deals with the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. To quote a web site, The Eightfold Path "is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things." Freeing the individual from attachments and delusions? That's exactly what I need.

The eight aspects of the path are:

I. Right View
II. Right Intention or Thought
III. Right Speech
IV. Right Behavior or Action
V. Right Livelihood
VI. Right Effort
VII. Right Mindfulness
VIII. Right Concentration

While I could comment on each of the above aspects, I would end up mostly just copying words that others had written, so instead, I will just point out this source for a more detailed description of the above. If you are at all interested, I'd highly recommend reading more about this.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mmmm...... Kefir

I just found a new really tasty drink. It's called Kefir and has supposedly been around for 2000 years. It has its origins in the Caucasus Mountains in Europe. It is basically a liquid yogurt - at least that's what it tastes like, but it's packed with protein - 14 grams in a single cup - almost twice as much as the equivalent amount of milk. The only creepy thing about it is the blueberry flavored one looks like Head-and-Shoulders shampoo. But, it tastes really really good. Try it!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Don't depend on others for your happiness

(OK, this is probably going to be the most personal post I have made so far. I'm not writing this for sympathy. It is more for self-exploration, and I figure if someone else can learn something useful in it, so much the better.)

About three and a half years ago, I had the most devastating emotional experience of my life. I was engaged to be married and it all suddenly came to an end. Obviously there are always two sides to every story, so I am not even going to attempt to lay the blame on someone else. The point is, the end of that relationship had a severe impact on me. It took me at least a year to get back to a somewhat normal emotional state. What I finally realized while I was coming to terms with this loss was I had been depending on someone else for my happiness rather than just being happy by myself. For the past 3 years or so since then, I've been trying to remember that lesson and just be happy on my own. I haven't even attempted to date anyone for the past 3 years. Instead, I have tried to just spend time with friends, enjoying their company.

Unfortunately, what I am beginning to realize is I am now having the same problem of depending on others for my happiness, but perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale. Even with my friends I tend to become too attached or needy and find on the days my friends are not available, I tend to get a bit melancholy. And then with my closest friends - those who mean the most to me - I tend to be totally insecure about their friendships. I am frequently thinking that I'll eventually do something annoying to drive these close friends away. So, I am always expecting the end of the friendship, reading into anything that might hint that I am wearing out my welcome. (It's a pretty stressful way to live, I must admit. And it makes me realize I am still depending on others for my happiness.)

Sometimes I wish I was the type of person that has so much confidence in themselves that I wouldn't care what other people think, that if it turns out a friend doesn't like me anymore and doesn't like something I've done, that's the friend's problem, not my own. But that's not really who I am. I am trying to always improve my character, and one of the ways I work on that is through feedback from the opinions of people I respect - i.e. my closest friends. It's not that I will do things that I don't philosophically agree with just for acceptance from my friends (I wouldn't choose them as friends in the first place if we didn't share the same values), but it's a more subtle thing. If it seems something I have done is bothering someone, I'll try to figure out what that might be and how I might avoid it in the future. But, it still seems to get back to the point that I am depending on others for my happiness. If I don't feel "accepted" by those who mean the most to me, then I end up an emotional wreck trying to figure out what I might have done wrong.

What I really need is a better way to measure my self-worth on my own rather than depending on others. At least, that's what I'm thinking right now. But, I can't live life in isolation. The interaction with people is what life is all about. I just wish I didn't get so attached to people. It reminds me of a Buddist quote: "He who loves 50 people has fifty woes. He who loves no one has no woes." But is the point of that that you shouldn't love anyone, or is it more that you should just expect to have some suffering since there will be people in your life who you will love?

Hmmmm.... I must think on this some more. In the meantime, I'll just have to get used to feeling like an emotional wreck at times. Gah!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Blackstone River: 2 Me:0

A little more than ten years ago a friend of mine planned a canoe day-trip down the Blackstone River. We started early in the morning and expected to finish around mid-day, so we didn't pack a lunch and just brought along a few snacks. As it turned out, due to the condition of the river (it was very low at spots and we ended up having to drag the canoe through the shallow water in many spots) we totally underestimated how long it would take to get from our starting location to our finish. As the day progressed and it became late afternoon, we realized we were still miles from our final destination. Fortunately, at one section of the river we ended up coming across some firefighters who were practicing with a boat. When they heard where we were headed and how much further we had to go, they offered to throw our canoe into a pickup truck and they drove us a lot closer to where we needed to be. Fortunately, we then ended up getting back to our car before nightfall and it all turned out ok.

Yesterday, some friends of mine decided to plan a trip down the Blackstone River - there were eight of us in total. Since it was an afternoon trip and we knew we only had a few hours of daylight, the person who knew the river well picked a short route. So, around 2:00 we set off down the river.

It turned out to be a very fun adventure, but it was not at all what we expected. Due to the recent heavy rainfall last month and the near flood conditions a few weeks ago, many sections of the river were obstructed with fallen trees. This made progress very slow as we had to either get out and drag the kayaks on land to go around, or carefully navigate through small openings in the river.

The first fallen tree we encountered was very easy to go under, but I decided it might be fun to hang onto the trunk as I passed under it. That was a very bad idea. By grabbing onto the trunk I made myself totally off-balance. While my upper body stopped moving, my kayak continued to be pushed by the river current and I quickly found myself in my kayak floating upside-down down the river. Gah! How embarasssing! Fortunately, it was a warm sunny day, the water wasn't too cold, and I was wearing clothes that were designed to dry quickly (i.e all synthetics, no cotton). So, after emptying my kayak of water, it wasn't at all uncomfortable being wet.

As we continued down the river, the conditions seemed to worsen and sections became more and more difficult to navigate. Two more people flipped their kayaks (a couple times each) while trying to get around obstacles in the river, and our progress was getting quite slow. Even though a few of us were now wet, and one person had lost their jacket, mobile phone, and pair of sneakers in the river, everyone was still having a lot of fun and spirits were high. (Plus, we had some dry clothes in reserve if someone needed them.) The main concern was how much further we had to go and how much daylight was left.

As it started to get dark we encountered another obstructed section of river and one more person flipped their kayak. Another person (who had already fallen in several times earlier) tried to help the first person but ended up flipping his kayak as well. To make matters worse, his paddle also snapped in half during the ordeal and we could only find half of it. At this point we decided it would not be wise to continue down the river in the dark. The section of river we were on is part of the Blackstown River Park and there is a hiking trail that runs along the river bank. We knew this trail would come out where we parked some of our cars, so we began the journey of hiking down the trail carrying a bunch of kayaks. Fortunately, some of us had headlamps and flashlights, so we could see while hiking down the trail. I had also brought my GPS, so we had an idea of how much further we had to hike.

This picture shows some of us taking a break after hiking up a hill with the kayaks. It's a pretty funny scene with some sea kayaks in the middle of the woods, in the dark, with no water anywhere in sight.

As it turned out, we had to hike a little more than a mile to get back to the cars.

So, after two trips down the Blackstone River, neither time have I actually completed it in the water. Blackstone River:2 Me:0

Lessons learned:

Pack extra food and water In my first trip down the river ten years ago, I made the mistake of not packing enough food. It was assumed the trip would last a set amount of time and we hadn't planned for the unexpected. This time I learned from that and packed some extra snacks and extra water. (Also some of the other people in the group did the same.) As we never even expected to be hiking through the woods for an hour or so, the extra snacks and water was good to have.

Bring extra paddles When I go kayaking solo in the ocean, I bring an extra paddle with me. You never know what might happen, and being in the ocean with no paddle is a bad thing. Going on a two-hour trip down a fairly tame river, I hadn't even thought of bringing an extra paddle. That was a big mistake on my part. Had we lost one of the paddles earlier on the trip, it would have made our progress even slower. I did bring a tow-rope, but I'm not sure how useful that would have been given the obstacle-strewn condition of the river.

Don't wear cotton This is a mantra for anyone who is serious about hiking or kayaking: "Cotton kills" While warm and comfortable when dry, cotton is awful when wet. It stays wet and saps warmth from the body. You should always wear either wool (stays warm when wet) or synthetics designed to wick the moisture away from your body. Fortunately, we had enough dry clothes for those who fell in, but just barely. Next time I'll definitely pack more backup clothes in the kayak rather than leaving them in the car.

Plan for the unexpected This is something a hiking friend of mine has always told me when going on hikes. Bring more than you expect to need. Plan for the worst case scenario. You can take this to an extreme and end up totally bogged down with too much gear, but it is good advice. And unlike with hiking, having extra gear in a kayak isn't that big of a deal. It's not like you'll be carrying the kayak down a hiking trail for a mile or so. Or will you?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Fine Example of Plagiarism?

I was reading a recenty published article today at work that came from a technical magazine, and it started with a quote from Socrates that I found very interesting. Here is the quote "The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external characters and not remember of themselves." I thought it was an interesting idea that learning to read and write might be considered a bad thing because you don't have to exercise your mind as much for trying to remember things. It sort of also reminded me of the advent of the calculator and how people say it is also a bad thing because people no longer do math in their head.

So, since I found the quote interesting, I was thinking of writing about it here in my blog. But, since the quote came from a technical computer article, I wanted to verify its authenticity. So, I did a quick Google search on the quote and came up with a very surprising result. Only one result was returned for the search and this led to an article written in 1998 for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. As I started to read this article, I made a very shocking discovery. The first half of the article from the technical magazine was word-for-word taken from this article from 1998! Check for yourself - here are the links to the two articles:

The original from 1998

The "copy" from 2005

NOTE: I contacted the editor of the magazine and author of the suspect article and did hear back from him. He claims it was an accident - he often saves links to articles he finds interesting and in this case he thinks he must have accidentally saved the text of the article a long time ago. Then, more recently he came across this saved text and thought it was something he had written. At least, that's his story. He said he will be
updating the article
to correct this mistake. (In fact, the article has now been corrected. For historical purposes, I saved a copy of the original "bad" article to demonstrate the similarity between the two pieces.) In any case, even if what the author states is true and it was an honest mistake (and I tend to try to always think the best of people), it was very very careless work. An author should be especialy sensitive to issues of plagiarism and should not carelessly copy-and-paste an article's text for future reference without saving the information about where it came from.