Saturday, December 24, 2005

Best Christmas Present Ever

Since my family is somewhat large (I am the youngest of 5 siblings and I have 13 nieces and nephews), we alternate each year spending Christmas day with the family or "the in-laws." This year it is Christmas day with the in-laws, so my family got together on Christmas-Eve to exchange gifts. With 20+ people getting together, we minimized the gift buying by having each person randomly assigned to get just one person a gift. I find it makes the holidays much more relaxing - just one gift to think about - and you can instead concentrate on more important matters such as spending time with family enjoying their company.

This year, I received two presents from my sister - the second one being a bonus gift. I have to say that this bonus gift is my favorite Christmas gift to date. And, it's not some whiz-bang electronics gadget, or a game, or anything like that. It's just a calendar with various family snapshots for the pictures for each month. But these are not just any family snap-shots - these are mostly rather silly ones, as can be seen by the sample for January, which was taken a couple years ago at Christmas:


Or this one for July featuring my dad playing the maracas while in the background my youngest nephew and I are playing a quiet game of chess. (Incidentally, I got my butt kicked - my nephew easily won.)

Not all of the pictures are silly. I also really like this one for February which shows one of my nieces (Hi bethd!) enjoying some Lego. (I'm not sure if those are some of the Lego I recently gave to her...)

I'm not sure why I was so touched by this gift, maybe because it reminds me of so many very happy times. In any case, it is greatly appreciated. And to think the only reason I got this bonus calendar was my sister got a special "buy two, get a third free" deal when she was putting together some calendars for our mom and her mother-in-law. It's interesting how small actions can have much larger effects than one might anticipate.

Christmas Eve Sunset

Had a family get-together at my parents' house for Christmas Eve. The water on the bay was amazingly calm - no waves at all. The sky had an interesting cloud pattern while the sun was setting. I wish I had remembered to take a series of pictures to make a panorama. I must try to get in the habit of remembering that.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Universe in a Single Atom

I'm currently reading the Dalai Lama's latest book, "The Universe in a Single Atom" and found the following piece interesting:

'...if one examines the history of Buddhist philosophical thinking, there is an understanding that animals are closer to humans (in that both are sentient beings) than they are to plants. This understanding is based on the notion that, insofar as their sentience is concerned, there is no different between humans and animals. Just as we humans wish to escape suffering and to seek happiness, so do animals. Similarly, just as we humans have the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, so do animals. Philosophically speaking, from the Buddhist point of view, both human beings and animals possess what in Tibetan is called shepa, which can be roughly translated as "consciousness," albeit to different degrees of complexity. In Buddhism, there is no recognition of the presence of something like the "soul" that is unique to humans. From the perspective of consciousness, the difference between humans and animals is a matter of degree and not of kind.'

I found this quote was a very good explanation for something I've felt for a long time, but have never really been able to explain as well as was done above. The idea that animals have a consciousness and will try to avoid suffering and seek happiness can have far-reaching consequences if you truly believe it. I sometimes find it strange that people will have a strong attachment and almost reverence for something abstract, such as a sports team or a TV show, or a fictional character, yet they'll think nothing of mistreating a fellow living "conscious" being, whether it be a person or animal.

This quote also reminds me of why I became a vegetarian. Often, when someone discovers I am a vegetarian, I am asked why. For me, there was a specific event in my life that brought about my decision. About six years ago, I was driving home late one night on a dark winding country road. A truck passed me coming from the other direction, and about 30 seconds later, my car's headlights revealed a disturbing scene. A racoon was writhing around in the road in pain - obviously having just been hit by the passing truck. It was a very surreal image - the poor animal flopping around in agony, illuminated by the only light from the headlights and the rest of the area in total darkness. At that moment, I wished I owned a gun so I could get out of my car and put the animal out of its misery. Part of me thought it would be a good idea to try to run the racoon over to kill it, but I was having nagging doubt that maybe it was just stunned and would recover or maybe I wouldn't succeed in killing it and would just hurt it some more. In the end, my weakness got the best of me and I made the decision to just drive around the animal, with the unrealistic hope that the racoon would recover on its own. But, from that moment on, I made a vow that if I could avoid causing the suffering in animals, then I would, and I have been a vegetarian ever since. The haunting image of the racoon is still a vivid reminder for me.

A friend of mine labels me a freegetarian, rather than a true vegetarian. If I am at someone else's home and they have already prepared a meal with meat, I will sometimes eat it. My philosphy in this case is the meat wasn't specifically prepared for me, and it's better to make use of it. An animal's life was already lost, so it is best to not have it go to waste. (The term freegetarian is a combination of "free" and "vegetarian", with the implied meaning that meat will be eaten if it is free. There's also the term vegequarian - vegetarian who also eats seafood, and a freegevegequarian - someone who also eats seafood and free meat. :-)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Weird optical illusion

 Maybe it's just me, but I find if I stare at the sun in the center of this picture, it seems like the sun starts to get bigger and brighter. Try it out. You can click on the image for a larger view, which might give a better optical effect.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mount Monadnock II

This past Sunday a group of us from the dojo made a trip to Mount Monadnock - the world's first or second most climbed mountain in the world (depending on who you ask). Mount Fuji used to be the undisputed "most climbed mountain" in the world but since they added an auto-road to the top, some now claim fewer people actually "climb" the mountain rather than just drive to the top in a car. In any case, Mount Monadnock gets climbed quite a bit - over 125,000 people a year or some rather large number like that. Seems like an awful lot of people. But at least in the winter it's pretty empty.

The weather on Sunday was great - nice and sunny with temperatures ranging from the mid thirties at the base to the mid twenties near the summit. There had been an ice storm on Friday, so everything had a nice ice glazing. Hiking below the tree line was fine since there was at least a foot of snow under the ice, but once we got above the tree line it was basically rock with a layer of ice. Not everyone in the group had crampons, so we decided to not try for the summit. No sense risking injury just to say we made it to the peak.

I took a large number of pictures - most of which can be seen here. (Note, there are 70 pcitures there) That link also contains some panorama images and their base source images before being stitched together, so if you are interested in seeing what the panorama pictures look like before they are built, take a look.

Here's a really wide example of one of the panoramas. It's made up of about 4 or 5 pictures stitched together. You can click on it for a large view, although you might then have to scroll left and right to see the whole thing.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mountain Panorama

This is just a quick experiment trying to use the panorama "stitching" feature of Adobe Photoshop Elements. This is actually 3 images merged together. 

A Mountain Climbing Preview

 A group of friends are planning on hiking Mount Monadnock next Sunday (It's the world's second most climbed mountain!). Since this group is made up of many of the same people who went on the crazy kayak adventure last month, I thought it might be a good idea to scout out the trip in advance to get a better idea what was in store for us with the winter-like weather on the mountain.

So, two of us did the trip today - trying two different trails to get an idea what might be the best route for the full group. We took the most direct (i.e. steepest) route up - the White Dot trail - and even with slipping and sliding in the snow and ice, it took a wee bit under two hours to get to the summit. It was definitely made easier because one of us had trecking poles and the other was wearing crampons - without that extra gear you'd really have to climb on your hands and knees at many parts. For the trip down we took the Red Dot trail, which meanders a bit more along the ridge of the mountain. It was a less used trail, which made for a lot more fresh unpacked snow and a lot less ice. It was also a lot less steep, which made for easier walking. The main drawback is the trail is in the woods for a much longer time, so you only get the nice panoramic views close to the summit. Plus, since it is a longer meandering route, going down took us about 2 hours (same as it took going up on the direct route). Had we taken the White Dot trail down, it would have taken about an hour, although it would have been a lot more demanding with the ice covered rocks and probably a lot more stressful on the knees.

The weather on the mountain was near perfect - not too cold, around 32 degrees F at the base and about 18 degrees F on the summit, with lots of sun. Hopefully the weather will be just as good next week. 

In this picture of the summit, for a sense of scale, you can see a person on the left making their way to the summit (look for the small black dot just above the tree line). Also, you can click on the image for a larger view.
Ok, if you still can't make out the person, how about this?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Winter Guests

Just a quick snap of some early morning visitors outside my window.
(As is the case with most of the photos here, you can click on it for a larger view.)

Based on a comment from my niece, I add this further explanation. Even though it's not quite winter yet, I call these birds "winter guests" since they tend to be around for most of the winter and leave once the weather gets warmer. 

Friday, December 02, 2005

Punk ducks

When I looked out the window this morning, there were about a dozen of these cute little ducks with spikey haircuts. I'm pretty sure they are called hooded mergansers. The males look even funkier, with sharply contrasting black and white coloring on their heads.

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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bionic Ear

Here's an article I found very interesting: It's about a guy who lost his hearing completely, but is now able to hear things via a computer implant in his head. The article is mostly about his quest to hear music well enough to enjoy it again. I found it a very fascinating article. It also makes me think I should be doing something a bit more useful for an occupation other than writing software for portable barcode printers. I always start thinking this way after reading articles about people in the science or engineering fields that are doing very interesting things that actually help make people's lives better. I feel like I never went in the right direction for my work.

It all started back in 1989 with my first two competing job offers out of college - I could work for an environmental firm that made computer models for predicting the affects of oil spills in the ocean or work for a newspaper doing business related computer programming. The newspaper job offer was more than $10,000 higher than the job for the environmental firm. For a young adult just out of college, the difference between $23,000 and $33,000 was more than I could resist. I rationalized the decision in a bunch of different ways, telling myself I could just do the newspaper job for a little while to save up some money and then switch to a job that matched my ideals later. But deep down, I felt like I sold out. And in the end, I suppose I did sell out. I ended up staying at the newspaper for over 10 years. Sure, the work was interesting. I got to do cutting edge Internet-related stuff long before most people even heard of the Internet and the company paid for me to go to school at Brown to get my masters degree, but in the end, it was all very self-indulgent.

Whatever happened to the ideas of trying to get a job that will make the world a better place? I'm not sure. There's no simple answer. At the time I decided to leave the newspaper back in 2000, I was engaged to be married and I was thinking I needed to find a stable family-friendly position in the Rhode Island area (i.e. a job that paid well, that had work I would find interesting, and that had reasonable hours). So, working for a non-profit organization trying to change the world wasn't high on my list. And that is how I ended up where I am now - writing embedded software for portable printers. The work is very interesting and challenging, it pays well, and the hours are very "family friendly" (I basically work 8:00am to 4:30pm Monday through Friday). The only catch thing is, I never did get married, and I don't have a family, so why am I still working where I am? Why not now pursue that ideal of a "worth while" occupation that actually provides some sort of benefit to the world?

Why indeed. That is a very difficult question and I don't think most people will understand my answer. At the risk of people thinking I'm way too obsessive (yeah, like you don't already know that about me...) the main reason is karate. Right now my job has pretty much perfect hours in order for me to take karate classes. And why would karate be so important that I would not even consider changing jobs or moving out of state? Because, as I have mentioned in the past, karate (real karate) is about more than just physical fitness. It's also about self-improvement, character development, and becoming a better person. And since I have found a place that actually teaches these ideals on a day-to-day basis, I don't think I could ever bear to move away from such a positive place. There are many ways to benefit the world, and while I might have a better aptitude at the high-tech sort of work, I really think what I am learning now at the dojo can be of great benefit to the world. Hopefully I will someday be able to help teach this to others.

Hmmmm.... that was a bit of a tangent from talking about an article about bionic ears....

Friday, October 21, 2005


This might come as a surprise to those who know me well and know my interest in gadgets. Today I decided to simplify my life even more - I ditched my fancy-pants PDA mobile phone and switched to a run-of-the-mill flip phone. This was probably the most difficult thing for me so far in my goal towards a simplified life-style. (The TV was easy to ditch - I seldom watched it anyhow.) I'm still not really quite sure why I chose to get rid of the PDA phone - maybe just to see if I could. You see, I've been carrying around a Palm-based PDA for about the past 10 years or so - ever since Palm came out with the first Palm Pilot. Then, about two years ago when I saw the Handspring Treo 600 PDA+phone cominbation, I immediately bought one and have enjoyed the tight integration of wireless Internet access with my PDA. Now that it's gone, no longer will I be able to read the BBC news when dining alone in a restaurant, or snap a picture and type a blog message and immediately post it no matter where I am, or check the weather forecast, or read my email. No more settling disagreements among friends by immediately doing a Google search from my phone to find an answer.

Since it was something I used all the time, I have a definite feeling of loss. But, I think it might be good for me to be a bit more disconnected from the electronic world. I'm in front of a computer 8 hours a day as part of my job and I also have Internet access at home. How connected do I really need to be? Was it really necessary for me to be able to read the news whereever I was? Or check my email? Or post messages like this while paddling out in the bay in my kayak? Sure it was handy, but definitely not necessary. I could be doing other things with my time. Maybe I can spend a bit more time being aware of what's actually around me rather than what's on a little LCD screen in front of me.

And on the practical economics side, I did end up saving over $150 by returning the fancy Treo 650 phone in exchange for a more simple mobile phone. Plus I'll be saving another $40 a month by no longer having an Internet plan with my mobile phone. So, that money saved can go towards something else more worth while.

I suppose I'll have to wait and see if I still think this was a good idea once some more time passes.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Pizza Preferences

I've been in a training class at work this week and lunch has been provided. A couple of the days we have ordered out for pizza. There are about a dozen people taking the class and I am the only vegetarian in the group, so we have been ordering 3 "meat" pizzas and 1 veggie pizza. The funny thing is, when the food arrives and people are actually choosing which pizza to eat, the veggie pizza ends up being the most popular. In fact, today when I went to get a second slice, the veggie pizza was already gone.

It's interesting that if you ask people what they want on a pizza they'll usually include some form of meat, but when presented with a choice of pizzas right in front of them, it seems people will frequently opt for a veggie slice.

Of course, this is just a small sample of people, but it is something I've observed in the past with other groups pizza eating habits as well.

Monday, October 17, 2005


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm trying to work on some things for personal improvement. One of them is "patience". An online dictionary site defines patience as "good-natured tolerance of delay or incompetence". I find that is something I really need to work on. It's easy to be good-natured when things are going well, but it's another story when one is under stress.

So, I've been trying to be aware of when I might lose my patience and get frustrated with delays or with things I might perceive as "incompetence". Surprising, I found that just being aware of when I started reacting that way actually helped me reduce having such a negative reaction. Rather than having the impulse to get frustrated, I found trying to keep a positive attitude about the situation actually improved my mood. After a while, it starts to become a habit to keep a positive outlook in a situation. If you are the type of person who gets easily frustrated or aggravated when things go wrong, I'd highly recommend trying to be aware of when you find yourself reacting that way. Try to think of something positive about the situation. For example, if you are stuck in traffic, don't think of it as a loss of time or worry about all the cars in front of you. You can't make them go away. Maybe instead you can use the extra time to plan your day, or admire the scenery, or listen to the news on the radio. I know it sounds simple, but it really does help. It might be easier than you think to keep those negative feelings from happening. I think in the past I just got in the habit of having a negative reaction and accepted that that was how I am. Instead, I found it is possible to change. It takes some effort, but it is doable.

Earlier last week I realized I was making progress when I was trying to reassemble a desk that I had moved up a flight of stairs. I was a bit tired and was lying on the floor on my back trying to put in a screw and it kept falling out and I'd have to search around for it and try again. Normally after 3 or 4 times of this happening I'd be very aggravated with my own incompetence and would have let out a loud "GRRRRRRRR" or "ARGGGGG" and maybe I would have given the desk a wack for good measure. But instead, I just found myself laughing at the situation. Instead of thinking it was a frustrating situation, I was thinking how silly I must have looked if someone had seen me trying in vain to put that screw in place. So I remained good natured. And isn't that what patience is all about? (At least that's what that dictionary web site said.) Another option is I could just be insane now. :-) But at least I'm in a good mood.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

How I spent my holiday weekend

A friend of mine whom I regulary chat with via email sent me a message today asking if I was ok. He said he hadn't heard from me in over a week, which was a bit unusual since I am usually "online" fairly often. I then realized I also hadn't posted anything here on my blog in quite a while either. The reason for my lack of computer communication was I had the priviege of hosting an interesting guest at my condo this past holiday weekend. A teacher, Sensei Tetsuo Takamiyagi, was visiting from Okinawa, Japan. He is a teacher of a rare form of martial arts and was visiting the dojo where I take classes to give a two day seminar. You can see a bit of his background here: It is interesting to note that his visit to several schools in the US this month was the first time this form of martial arts (Motobu Udun-di) has ever been taught in the US.

So, I was pretty excited about this visitor. Since he was staying with me, I needed to make my condo presentable. All of my free time last week involved a lot of cleaning (hence the pile of Lego being given away, as mentioned in my last post). I owe a great deal of thanks to a friend of mine who volunteered to help me with the difficult task of sorting through years of accumulated stuff. I definitely wouldn't have been able to keep up the motivation to sort through it all on my own. Thanks to her, my condo now looks the best it ever has. I'll definitely strive to keep it that way.

(As a side note, since I was giving away a large number of items to help simplify my lifestyle, one of my friends at work asked me last week if I thought I was dying or something. He was concerned since it seemed each day I brought in something new that was looking for a home. In case anyone is wondering the same thing - no, I'm not dying. I'm quite healthy, thank you. I'm just trying to get rid of many of the things in life I just don't need.)

As for the actual visit of the martial arts teacher, I think it went very well. Those of you who know me know I'm not usually very talkative when around people I don't know well, so I thought this was going to be a challenge. But I also thought it would be a good experience to help me. As it turns out, the lack of talking on my part wasn't a problem. For his "day job" Takamiyagi-san is a motivational speaker, and his English is quite good, so there was never a conversational problem. Also, another student from the dojo joined me with the tour guide duties, so the morning trips to Boston and Newport on Saturday and Sunday were a lot less stressful than they could have been. The main thing I was surprised by was how mentally tiring the experience was. I think it was due to trying to constantly be alert to the needs of a guest, always trying to actively listen, and make sure my manners were always proper. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally offend a visitor from another country.

The 2 day seminar was a worthwhile experience, too. I'm glad I was able to have the opportunity to take part in it. We learned many interesting and effective "soft" techniques, such as joint manipulations, and even had time to learn a Motobu Udun-di bo kata. It was also worthwhile to experience first-hand the teaching style of a teacher from Okinawa. Some day I hope to visit Okinawa (perhaps when I'm a more advanced karate student so I can appreciate it more), but in case I never do get the chance, this was the next best thing.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A tad excessive

I'm trying to simplify my life. One of my weaknesses in the past has been if I see something in the store that interests me and I can afford it, I'll buy it. Several years ago I became a bit obsessed with acquiring Lego. As can be seen in this picture (which shows about 1/2 of my collection), I've accumulated quite a bit of it. I don't have a family to support, and have no debt other than my mortgage, so I didn't have any sort of inhibitors to get me to stop and think whether I really should be buying this stuff. In the back of my mind I think I might have been using an excuse that someday I might have a family and the kids would enjoy playing with the Lego, but this is even way to much stuff for a few kids, never mind one single adult.

Looking at it all piled in one place is pretty embarassing. Talk about being out of control! So, it's all going away. The stuff that is in unopened boxes will hopefully go to Toys for Tots or some other worthwhile cause like that, some will go to my nieces and nephews if my sisters give their approval and the kids are interested in it. Some will go to other friends of mine with kids. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the Lego Mindstorms robotics and technic stuff. That's probably the hardest for me to part with since I actually tinkered with it quite a bit at one point in time. (If you do a search on Google for "lego" and "sensors", the web site with my lego tinkering is the second search result returned - and I haven't updated that site in years.)

So, anyway, the point of all this isn't really to talk about Lego but is instead to remind me to control my spending habits a bit and not just buy something because I want it at the time. I should concentrate on the things I really need... like that newest XBox 360 game system. (Ha ha... just kidding about that last bit, really.) Seriously, though, there are more worthwhile things I could be doing with my money rather than being so self-indulgent. It's sometimes hard to avoid the constant barrage of advertisements, but I think a much simpler lifestyle would be better for me. It's strange how the mind works though. I'll be perfectly content and then receive a catalog in the mail and suddenly I find myself thinking a want to buy some new item which before I saw it, I didn't even know it existed and hence didn't want it. Why is it a human impulse to want to acquire stuff? Even when you do get what you want, you then soon after find you want something else. It reminds me of a saying an economics professor (Dr. Yngve Ramstead) freshman year of college at URI concluded the class with at the end of the semester. I think he attributed it to Buddha and it was something along the lines of "True happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have." There was a recent pop song that also included a similar line, but my economics class was back around 1986, so the professor definitely wasn't quoting Sheryl Crow. Although I don't know if it really is a Buddhist quote, that saying is what initially piqued my interest in Buddhist philosophy. Not that I've been actively studying Buddhism for the past 20 years - it was just one of those things that got me thinking that I really ought to learn more about Buddhism some day since it seems to have some very good points of view for living life. 20 years later and now I'm finally starting to learn a bit more about it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Personal Improvement

For karate class, we are encouraged to keep a notebook to write down things we learn or should be working on for improving our techniques in karate. I find it very helpful for remembering details that I need to practice. I can refer back to things I wrote down months earlier to see if I've actually improved in that area and if not, it's a nice reminder to still work at it. This past week at the Zen meditation class, Sensei brought up on interesting idea - he suggested maintaining a notebook for improving one's personal life or character outside of karate. Many people are familiar with the idea of trying to work on improving skills. That's basically what you do all through school and college, but you are seldom really encouraged or taught to try to improve your character or try to constantly be a better person.

Most people are content with who they are. For example, I might consider myself a "good" person, but why not try to constantly work at being an even better person? It's definitely not an easy thing to do - it's easy to just be complacent. So, I really like this idea of trying to maintain a notebook of things to work on at a personal level for improving one's character - it's not something I would have normally thought of trying to do. Nobody is perfect, so we all have plenty of things we could work on improving. And a good way to start is make a list of what we'd like to improve.

Prevailing winds

There's a bit of a breeze in my office due to the position of the building's ventilation system, so I made a pinwheel to monitor the wind speed. It gets spinning pretty fast at times.

Maybe I'll hook up an electric generator to it during my lunch break. ;-)