Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Buddha on the Brain

This month's Wired Magazine has an interesting article about meditation, neuroscience, and the Dalai Lama. It can be found here. A lot of it is similar material that was covered in the Washington Post article that I mentioned back in November, but there are some other interesting details. I did have a couple of problems with the articlee, however. The article seems to imply mixing Buddhism and science is a bad thing, but I think it misses (or glosses over) one of the points which the Dalai Lama and (Buddhism in general) makes - if something doesn't agree with observations, then it shouldn't be believed. You shouldn't believe something just because the Dalai Lama (or someone else important) said it. As for the professor (at the end of the article) making a point that being on stage with the Dalai Lama was one of the most wonderful moments of his life, I wouldn't agree with the author's apparant implication that this means the professor willl have a biased view towards his scientific inqueries. Would someone have made as big a deal if the professor had made the comment about sharing the stage with a renowned scientist such as Albert Einstein (were he alive)? I could easily see someone having a similar feeling of respect or admiration for such a figure and making a similar comment, yet the media wouldn't then use it to highlight how someone will be biased in their scientific studies because of it.

Weeding the Garden of Life

I really like analogies. I often find them very helpful in keeping in mind important lessons or points. Today, the Sensei at the dojo where I take karate classes made what I thought was a very good analogy. We were discussing working on details in karate practice, and he said it's like weeding a garden - you have to keep at. You can't just assume that once you correctly perform a technique it will stay that way. If you don't remain mindful of the details you will stop making progress and can actually get worse over time.

This got me to thinking about how this analogy can also apply to life in general. You can choose to just live life not being mindful and it is easy for your life to become full of weeds - negative aspects that will add up and detract from what could be a much more positive life. Or, you can choose to actively work at identifying the weeds in your life and try to continuously improve. One just has to try to put in the extra effort.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kayaking in the Surf

It was another unusually warm day today (in the high 50s!), so why not go in the ocean? The water temperature is still quite cold - about 42F - but that didn't seem to bother a friend of mine (pictured above). He just wore a cotton shirt, shorts, and the obligatory life jacket (apparantly he's not that crazy - thankfully he wears the life jacket). I don't know how he can stand the cold water. I completely bundled up in a cold-water wet suit, thick rubber boots, gloves, a waterproof jacket, etc.

The surf was pretty good - we had lots of fun riding the waves and getting dumped in the water. It's very tiring though. We only stayed on the water for about an hour and a half. By that point our arms were exhausted. The tiring part is mostly the paddle out. To get out far enough to ride a wave back in, you have to paddle head-on into a series of waves that crash over you.

All in all, a very fun time. The one nagging thing is it just seems so wrong for it to be so warm this time of year. It felt more like May than January. I miss the winter weather.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Chinese language pronunciation

While reading about Classical Chinese, I came across a reference to the problem of homophony, which is when different words sound the same. Since Chinese is such an old language, there are many words that are homonyms for each other. (For example, "ma" can mean "mother" or "horse" depending on the tone used.) There's a famous essay called "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" that when read aloud will have no meaning to a listener since every word is pronounced as "shi". Here's the text in phonetic Chinese (Hanyu Pinyin):

« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Hmmm... not much to understand...

Now here's the text in Chinese characters. Notice the text is in distinct characters, so someone reading it can easily understand it.


石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。
十時, 適十獅適市。
是時, 適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅, 恃矢勢, 使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍, 適石室。
石室濕, 氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭, 氏始試食是十獅。
食時, 始識是十獅, 實十石獅屍。

And here's the meaning in English:

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o'clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

Fun stuff this language! Too bad I don't have enough time to really study this. I feel like I need a few more life times to pursue all the different things that interest me. Either that or find a way to get along without sleeping. That would give me an extra 8 hours a day! Then I'd have time to practice karate, work, learn Chinese and Japanese, and maybe even eat and do laundry. :-)

More on the Kanji Banner

I found out some more information about 守真志満.

I showed a picture of the banner to a friend of mine at work
who is from China and she immediately recognized it as a well known ancient saying. She said it's part of a set of sayings everyone in China has to learn in school when learning to write. She called it wényánwén (文言文) which is "writing in classical Chinese". She said a thousand years ago a lot more meaning was put into the written words or characters, so there is a lot of deap meaning packed into those 4 symbols.

There's a pretty detailed article in the Wikipedia about it here. Here's a small quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese based on the grammar and vocabulary of very old forms of Chinese, making it very different from any modern spoken form of Chinese. Classical Chinese was once used for almost all formal correspondence before the 20th century, not only in China but also in Korea, Vietnam and Japan."

If you've never poked around on the Wikipedia, it's definitely worth a look. It's a free online encyclopedia maintained by the general public. Anyone can edit or contribute to articles. There has been a recent study comparing the Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britanica - specifically comparing the accuracy of the Wikipedia's articles vs. Britanica - and supposedly they are both equally good.

Kanji Banner

A friend just returned from Okinawa and she brought back a very nice banner written in kanji caligraphy by Master Toma (one of the teachers of Master Odo, who was my sensei's teacher). I've got a rough translation of it based on the meaning of the individual characters. The characters are ("protect or defend"), ("truth"), ("will or intention"), and ("full or complete"). I realize the characters can have different meanings when grouped together, but at least this character-by-character translation gives me a rough idea of what it means.

Anyone know any Japanese? If so, got any idea what the whole thing in context means? Doing a Google search for "守真志満" gives a handful of results. From these results, it appears this text of part of something called 1000 character sentences. The 1000 character sentences is a poem that is basically 250 sentences made up of 4 unique characters each, designed to help people practice writing character caligraphy. From what I could figure out from the rough translation of these web pages, this 1000 characters sentences thing has been around for 1500 years (originally from China).

It's kind of funny - it took about 5 minutes to look up the first three characters in my Japanese kanji dictionary, but the last character took me about 2 hours to finally locate. (I got thrown off by the caligraphy version with the single line on the left representing three strokes.) The things I do with my time.... and for some reason people think I'm obsessive.

The three small characters on the left-hand edge are Master Toma's name: Seiki Toma (Sei Ki Toma) (Well, I'm actually guessing the last squiggly one says "Toma" as the first two definitely are Seiki and that is the first half of Master Toma's name.)

Monday, January 16, 2006


I'd be really surprised if anyone can successfully guess what this is. For some reason I find it a very calming picture even though it is of nothing identifiable. Maybe that's why I like it - there's no preconceived notion of what it should be, so it causes me to look at a lot of different details.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Icey Cold

In less than twenty-four hours the temperature has dropped over 40 degrees! And here I was feeling all disappointed this past week that we were having an unusally warm winter. (57 degrees in the middle of January?? What's up with that?!?!) At least now we have more expected temperatures in the mid-teens.

The above picture is of frost on my bedroom window backlit by the light of the full moon. No flash was used- it was a 13 second exposure. I was surprised I was able to actually get it (mostly) in focus.

One Year of Karate

As of today, it has been exactly one year since I started taking karate classes. To be a bit more precise, and to be accurate whenever anyone might read this, the following should display the exact amount of time that has passed since I started karate classes:

(Note: if nothing appears above, then you probably don't have Java support enabled in your web browser. The above is a simple Java applet I wrote many years ago.)

The year sure has gone by quickly! Let's hope my health and free time will let me enjoy another full year at the dojo!

Camera Tinkering

These images are some somewhat more serious attempts at testing my new camera (as opposed to my previously posted completely not-serious image). Both of these images were taken using the built-in flash, 1/60sec shutter, at f5.6. What I was surprised with was how well the flash seems to work with close-up items. With my Sony F707 camera, pictures at close range would get very washed-out if I tried to use the flash.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

New Camera

Well, I finally succumbed to my desire for a digital SLR camera. I just bought a new Nikon D50. The camera I was previously using is a Sony DSC-F707. It has worked very well for the past 3 and a half years, and I like the quality of the pictures, but having only a single fixed lens did limit the types of pictures I was able to take. When I first bought the Sony camera, I had been interested in a digital SLR, but back then one would have cost a couple thousand dollars. I enjoy taking pictures, but not enough to justify a several thousand dollar expense. Now the prices have come down quite a bit and the cameras themselves have also improved. In fact, the Nikon D50 cost less than what I paid for the Sony camera back in 2002.

And if there's any doubt about the quality of the pictures I can take with my new Nikon, check out this fine example. (Hmmmm.... where's the button for "take a good picture"?)


Ok, so maybe this is old news to most people, but Skype is really cool! What is Skype? It's a free computer program (for both Windows and Mac) that lets you make free voice calls to anyone else on the Internet (assuming they also use Skype). I had played around with programs similar to this years ago, but the quality wasn't so good and they were kind of awkward to use - you usually needed special hardware, which limited who you could talk to since the call recipient also need the same hardware. So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I tried out Skype today. I tested it by talking to a couple of friends of mine who live in London. The voice quality was amazing - it was actually better than what I had been getting on my regular telephone! And it's absolutely free. The wonders of modern technology...

There were only a few minor annoyances. One was specific to the laptop I was using. I was using the built-in microphone of my laptop, and this laptop has a variable speed cooling fan that turns on intermittently. Whenever the fan turned on, my friends on the listening end thought I had turned on a vaccuum cleaner. I imagine this really confused them given the fact that they know me fairly well and know I'm not one to do much vaccuuming (especially while talking on the phone). The other annoyance was with a friend's Mac laptop (also using a built-in mic). For some reason her microphone would echo back the sound from her speakers, causing a nice echo effect whenever I talked. It was very useful for allowing me to do imitations of those monster truck commercials, but other than that is was pretty darn annoying. Fortunately, after a quick Google search I was able to find the solution - there's an option in the Mac version of Skype (under Preferences) that lets you alter the audio settings. There you will find a check-box for enabling echo cancellation. After my friend checked that option, the echo went away.

If you have friends in far away places and they have Internet access and you are interested in talking to them for free, I'd highly recommend you check out Skype (www.skype.com).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Disturbing Scene

I was in Dunkin' Donuts tonight picking up some coffee milk on the way home after karate class and I got a glimpse of an incredibly disturbing scene on the news on TV. A surveillance video showed two teenagers with bats beating a homeless man in Florida. If that weren't shocking enough, two similar beating incidents occured at other nearby locations in Florida on the same night - one of which resulted in the death of a homeless person. It just leaves me totally dumbfounded - what would lead to such brutal behavior? What were the attackers thinking? How can people have such a total lack of conscience or compassion for others that they would do such a thing? And how many times a day around the world do awful events like this happen that I'm just not aware of? Just doing a quick search on Google to find a reference to this news story brought up all sorts of stories about other beatings and murders that happened this week.

This morning I was listening to a song (by Norah Jones) that included the lyrics "Peace is for everyone". I was thinking how it's an easy thing to say, yet for many people it's an extremely difficult challenge to reach. Most people here in the US have a very easy life. On average we work just 8 hours a day and generally get to live away from any real hardships. But unfortunately, for a large percentage of the world population, life is a real daily struggle for survival. It's easy to sing about peace for everyone, yet making that a reality... how do we do that?

I suppose at the physical level we never will be able to. That's one of the four noble truths of Buddhism - "Life is Suffering". The world isn't perfect, and it never will be. No matter how advanced society is (or becomes), there will always be unfortunate circumstances - random disasters, disease, sickness, accidents, etc. Even if we established perfect food distribution networks to feed everyone in the world and cured all disease, every single person will still eventually die. It's unavoidable due to the nature of impermanence.

So what does that mean? Is life just hopeless? Certainly not. The other noble truths of Buddhism go on to explain the cause of suffering and how the cessation of suffering can be achieved. A really quick summary would be this - the cause of suffering is attachment (or craving and clinging) and to end suffering you need to follow the path of self-improvement (i.e the Eightfold Path) which is a middle path between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

And that all addresses an individual's personal coping with life and improving themselves, but how does it deal with the awful news story that prompted this writing? What is the answer for brutal bat wielding teens? They obviously aren't interested in Buddism or self-improvement.

Sometimes I just don't understand the world...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Great Thermos

A friend of mine whom I have been hiking a lot with lately made me aware of a really great thermos. It's a stainless steel model from Thermos. I had memories of thermos from my childhood - they worked ok, but were only good for keeping something hot or cold for a few hours, plus they had a glass interior which could be easily broken if you dropped the thermos. Either my memory was flawed or they have improved the technology substantially in the past 30 years. This new thermos is all stainless steal and according to the marketing material, it will keep hot water hot for 24 hours!!

I admit I was skeptical until I experienced it first-hand. On a hike up a mountain in 30 degree weather, I was able to have piping hot hot chocolate 6 hours after the water had been put in the thermos. It was so hot I had to leave my cup in the snow for a few minutes to cool it off enough so I could drink it. And now, about 15 hours after the water was put in the thermos and the thermos spent most of the day in 30 degree weather on a mountain, I just made myself another cup of hot chocolate and it is still extremely hot - hot enough that I have to sip it to drink it comfortably. Granted, I haven't tested it for a full 24 hours, but I'm very impressed with what I've seen so far. If you are looking for a good thermos, this is the one to get!

Plenty of Exercise this Weekend

This was a fairly active weekend. I had two karate classes Saturday morning, then went to Scarborough Beach to meet a friend from karate for some kayaking in the surf. My friend is crazy - he didn't wear a wet suit - just swimming shorts and a life jacket. And he claims he wasn't cold. I opted for a cold-water winter wet suit with boots and gloves. Wearing that I was quite warm and comfortable, although I must admit the first time paddling out into the oncoming waves I was terrified. I have been kayak surfing in the summer and know it's inevitable that I'll roll my kayak in the surf - especially trying to ride waves in a 17' sea kayak. So I knew I was going to go under water and I didn't know what to expect for the feeling of being dunked into 42 degree water. As it turns out, the wet suit did its job and kept me very warm, but the first run out I chose to not wear my wet suit hood, so when I flipped and went under water, I instantly got one of those "ice cream" head aches. Ow ow ow! From then on I wore the wet suit hood to keep my head warm. All-in-all, it was a very fun time riding the waves and having the beach completely to ourselves. The beach is quite nice in the winter. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera, so I don't have any pictures of the kayaking.

Today a different friend from karate and I went back to hike Mount Mondanock. The weather had been a bit warm and rainy a couple of weeks ago and a lot of the earlier snow that was on the mountain has washed away. Things have improved a little bit this week and there is a bit more snow on the ground again. When we arrrive at the mountain it was snowing, and it didn't look like there would be much visibility (you couldn't even see any of the mountain from the base), so I chose to leave my camera behind. As we neared the summit, there was an occasional break in the clouds, which is when I snapped this picture using my mobile phone. (Sorry it's pretty poor quality - its supposed to be a picture of a bunch of snow covered trees.) Next time I'll put up with the extra weight and bring the real camera along.
The summit itself was pretty much in the clouds when we reached it, so much so that we walked right past the high point at first since we didn't recognize it in the poor visibility. At times you could only see about 50 feet or so in front of you.

We had started out a bit earlier on this hike (compared to the two previous Monadnock climbs) and decided to explore and take a new trail down from the summit. We were hoping for a chance to use our snow shoes, and it wasn't practicial on the main trails since the snow is already packed down from all the traffic, so we tried to pick a trail that hadn't gotten much use - the Spellman Trail. As it turns out, this turned out to be a very interesting trail. The trail is normally marked by paint spots on rocks, and all the rocks were covered with snow, so we mainly relied on following the footprints of some previous hikers. At one point, we met up with a group of three hikers who were coming up the trail. They were cursing among themselves - one claiming this wasn't the real trail, another disagreeing using all sorts of colorful language. From what we had seen so far coming down the mountain, the trail seemed fine, but the group of three seemed to think there was something seriously wrong with the trail they had just climbed and warned us not to continue in that direction unless we had ice axes and crampons. They then continued on their way up the trail arguing and swearing at each other all the way. After that encounter, Rob and I were curious about how bad the trail down below could be. We both had crampons in our packs, but no ice axes, but really didn't think the trail would warrant the use of ice axes. Besides, we did have trecking poles which are quite useful in walking down steep inclines. After a hundred feet or so down the trail, we saw what we thought caused the hub bub with the other hikers. We came to a very steep point in the trail. It didn't look extremely difficult, but it was steeper than anything else we had seen so far. Rob started down it and at one point slipped and tumbled a bit down the slope. I was off to the side still higher up on the trail, and I had a really nice view of a ledge he was rolling towards. All I could do was yell "Who! Whoa! Whoa!" - I was too far away to do anything else more useful. Fortunately, he managed to stop just before the ledge. As it turns out, falling off the ledge would have led to a 20 foot drop or so onto some large pointy snow cover rocks. Ouch!

This ledge was the part of the trail the other hikers must have been referrring to about needing crampons and ice axes. You basically had to climb down the face of a rock for about 20 or 30 feet. Cool! That's the kind of stuff you hope to find while climnbing a mountain in the snow, isn't it? While it did look like fun, we did have to agree this probably is not the normal route of the Spellman Trail. I don't think the normal trails usually have people scaling rock faces. Since it was so steep, it wasn't really safe to try to climb down while wearing our heavy backbacks. Rob had come prepared and had a length of rope which we used to lower our packs. Then we both carefully scaled down the steep slope using our crampons.

After that, the rest of the trail was pretty uneventful.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Weird Math

I stumbled across a test online and one of the math questions stumped me. Here it is:

In a race from point X to point Y and back, Jack averages 30 miles per hour to point Y and 10 miles per hour back to point X. Sandy averages 20 miles per hour in both directions. If Jack and Sandy begin the race at the same time, who will finish first?

My gut instinct answer was Jack and Sandy would tie, since it appeared to me that for both of them their average speed was 20 miles per hour for the whole race. (Jack's speed of 30mph and 10mph over the same distance gives an average of 20mph, which is the same average as Sandy's speed, right?) But, the correct answer is Sandy finishes first. Doing some basic math it's easy to see why. Assume the race is 20 miles from X to Y. In this case, Sandy completes the race in exactly 2 hours (one hour each way). But for Jack, just the second leg of the the race will take 2 hours (20 miles at 10mph), so he is obviously losing since after 2 hours Sandy is already finished.

So, I obviously calculated Jack's total average speed wrong. What I didn't take into account is MPH is computed over time, not distance, so you can't just take the two average speeds for Jack and add them together and divide by two, even though they are for the same distance. Instead, to compute his total average speed, you have to divide the total distance (40) by the total time the trip will take. In this case, it's 2 hours for the second leg and .667 hours for the first leg. So, his total time was 2.667 hours. 40 divided by 2.667 gives an average speed of 15 mph. So, in reality, his total average speed is a bit less than Sandy's average of 20 mph. Weird, huh?

Maybe I just shouldn't be thinking about such things at 1:00am.

And to think one of my majors in college was mathematics...

Monday, January 02, 2006

News Years Day Deer Hunting

 A friend and I went for a short hike in the snow on New Years Day at F. Gilbert Hills State Forest. We accidentally spooked a deer that was laying down about 20 feet off the trail - we never would have even seen it had it not jumped up and ran away. After that, we decided to track it through the snow to try to get some photos. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge the battery on my camera, so I only got this one blurry picture of the deer before the battery ran out of power. I also didn't notice until afterward that I had accidentally put the camera in manual focus. Considering that, I'm surprised the deer is even recognizable in the photo. For a much better photo of the same deer, check out Rob's site here.
It was a very fun time trying to creep along quietly in the snow, following tracks through brush and small pines. There were a few times we were able to get fairly close to the deer before it spotted us and ran further away. Eventually we had to call it quits as it was getting dark.