Monday, February 27, 2006

culturally specific advertising

There's a cereal here in the UK that's advertised as being "ludicrously tasty". Two things occur to me every time I see it in the supermarket: they would NEVER get away with that as a tag line in the States; and I can't help but mentally pronounce it "ludricious" even yet.

double structured procrastination

So a while ago I read an article about "structured procrastination"--a technique that helps self-identified procrastinators become hugely productive. See, what you do is, you get some task that's large and daunting and amorphous and indefinitely postponable, and you're so turned off by it that you'll do pretty much anything else in order to avoid it. Your guilt makes you choose productive activities instead of surfing the internet, and so while you're avoiding the task you "should" be doing, you're actually getting a lot of useful stuff done. The down side is that eventually you may have to actually do the "motivator" task, in which case it won't be hanging over your head anymore--but there's always another task to fill its place.
A shorter-term technique that I've accidentally found is to tell myself that first thing in the morning I'm going to go to the bank/gym/whatever, but first I'll just do this one little thing. What inevitably happens is that I get so interested in what I'm doing that I end up working in a quite focussed and productive manner for hours, all the while saying to myself, "just five minutes more and I'll leave."
Right now I'm doing both of these things. I'm supposed to be working on data analysis for an experiment we did last summer, but there's a couple of interesting simulation problems that need my attention too, so I'm working on those instead, AND I meant to leave to go to the bank an hour and a half ago but I just can't tear myself away. There has to be a name for this, and it has to be less awkward-sounding than "double structured procrastination". Any thoughts?

Monday, February 20, 2006

walking meditation soundtrack

... k.d. lang singing about faith, persistence, and contentment, in Bruce Cockburn's beautiful song "One day I walk":

One day I walk in flowers
One day I walk on stones
Today I walk for hours
One day I shall be home.


For my birthday last autumn, my lovely brother gave me a set of pencil-toppers shaped like fat happy Buddhas. I've got them on all my pens now (particularly the ones I use for marking students' papers, to keep me in a compassionate frame of mind). Just now I caught myself chewing on one absent-mindedly, and that made me wonder: What is the karmic consequence of chewing on a Buddha's head? I hope it isn't that I get reborn in a hell realm where demons chew on my head.

Then again, I was doing the chewing without really meaning to, so the consequences probably won't be too severe. The question I really should be asking is: what is the karmic consequence of shoving a pen up the Buddha's butt?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

EEG experiment and aftermath


I've changed my mind again, and now I think I will actually post some of my experiences from the autumn retreat at IMS. Let's start at the beginning...
Before the retreat I got an e-mail asking if I'd participate in an experiment designed to measure the physical and mental effects of intensive meditation practice. I do like being a guinea pig--so much more relaxing than analysing the experiments oneself--so of course I said yes.
The experiment is actually a bunch of parts: saliva tests to measure stress levels before, during, and after the retreat--see the physical effect of the practice, and how long it persists in "everyday life"; blood tests before and at 3 and 9 months after, to measure telomere shortening, a measure of aging: since stress hormones increase the rate of telomere shortening, thereby hastening cell death, meditation might decrease the rate and extend the body's lifespan (might--there's no evidence yet, as far as I know, but it does seem reasonable); and EEG experiments to measure the brain's ability to concentrate for long periods of time on boring, repetitive, and even annoying tasks. The EEG part was done at the beginning and end of the retreat; the picture is from the first session, with me looking pale and stressed-out. (I think it's really neat that EEG equipment is compact enough now that it's possible to pack it up in a briefcase and set up an experiment wherever.)
The blood tests ended up being quite entertaining: apparently my veins are small and floppy or easily torn (or something like that) and it's hard to get a needle in securely to get blood out; and when they were taking the needles out the blood level in them would actually go down: my veins were sucking the blood back into my body. "No! My blood! You can't have it!" Greedy veins. They clearly haven't listened to the teachings on generosity, or on non-self for that matter.
The EEG tests were fascinating. One of the tasks involved listening to tones (mostly 500 and 1000 Hz, with the occasional "different" one: 475 or 1050 Hz) and pressing a button whenever one of the "different" ones came along. At the beginning of the retreat, this task was extremely frustrating for me, because 475 and 1050 Hz are almost but not quite semitones away from 500 and 1000 Hz, and also the tones came at almost but not quite rhythmic intervals. By the end of an hour and a half of this my brain was having a temper tantrum. "Don't these people know that's NOT RIGHT?" I came out of the experiment madder than a wet hen. Doing the exact same thing at the end of the retreat was downright enjoyable. I'd just spent 3 months listening to sounds as sounds, and getting into intensely pleasurable altered states of consciousness listening to the rattle of the radiator, so I was able to hear the tones as tones, instead of as musical sounds that weren't correctly musical. Plus, the mind likes to concentrate, and here was a concentration exercise, oh joy! So instead of the test being a boring, taxing, ordeal, it was quite a pleasant interlude.
The experiments are overseen by Dr. Richard "Richie" Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin. He has been meditating himself since the 70s, and when he was just starting out in psychology research wanted to find a way to measure the effects of meditation on the brain; but at that point the tools available were just too primitive. Since the advent of fMRI, however, a lot more has become possible. Several years ago, he received a personal invitation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to Dharamsala to start doing research on Tibetan monks who were experienced meditators. The first trip was only partially successful. They brought over all their equipment, but although all the monks were very gracious about talking about their practice, none of them would consent to participate in experiments. It became clear that this refusal was just because the monks didn't know anything about science. When His Holiness heard about this, his response was to start a program called Science for Monks-- a yearly seminar for Tibetan monks, taught by Western scientists. Richie told us about this program during the talk he gave on one of the last nights of the retreat. When I first heard about it, I started hyperventilating. I had just that day been wondering how to combine my training in physics with something that is of actual benefit to humanity, and presto! here it is. I've sent out some e-mails asking for more information and am still waiting to hear back, but who knows? Maybe in December I'll be in India teaching monks how to do physics.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Prisoner #1: Isn't it awful being stuck here in this dank, dark prison?
Prisoner #2: Yeah. I wish there were some way to escape.
Prisoner #1: Well, that's a stupid thing to wish for. We're chained to the wall hand and foot, there are bars on the window--there's no escape.
Prisoner #2: Yeah, there are bars on the window, alright--but hey, check it out: there's sunshine coming through the window...and a breeze too! There must be another opening somewhere. (looks around) Would you look at that! Not only is the door not locked--there IS no door. There just HAS to be a way out of here.
Prisoner #1: You're living in a fool's paradise. Look at these chains!
Prisoner #2: Yeah, they're pretty heavy...I wish I could be rid of them. (looks down) Wow! The shackles on our ankles--those chains don't lead anywhere: the other ends are just hanging loose.
Prisoner #1: Fat lot of good that does us if our hands are still chained to the wall.
Prisoner #2: ...but they're not, really. The chains wrapped around our wrists? We're holding them there. We can just let them go, see? (drops his chains, stretches his stiff fingers)
Prisoner #1: You're never going to get anywhere with this kind of thinking.
Prisoner #2: (isn't listening, but instead is walking towards the doorway, trailing the chains of his supposed captivity behind him)
Prisoner #1: ESCAPIST!