Monthly Archives: December 2011


There’re times I wish I had a camera with me; today was one of those times.

I went to see a mechanic here in Mexico, to get my oil and filter changed. His name is Abel and he has a bustling business that is actually under a large shade tree. Abel’s shop does fairly sophisticated mechanical work, from brakes and tune-ups to rebuilding engines. He even has my car’s correct type of synthetic oil called for by Toyota.

Just a car length away in the shop, from where my oil was being changed, was another stall where a mechanic was building an engine back up, you could still see the exposed crankshaft. The Ranchero music from that area could be heard near my car.

When I went over to see the engine being reassembled I realized the music was coming from the mechanics cell phone laying flat on the ground using the top half of a 2 liter pop bottle as a megaphone. The mechanic had hacked the bottom half off the bottle and turned the top half upside down with the mouth of the bottle balanced on the cell phone’s tiny speaker.

The mechanic stepped away and I took the opportunity to take the bottle megaphone off, and without the repurposed megaphone the volume was much lower. I put the bottle back on the cell phone and the music continued on, loud again.

In Mexico I see people listening to music on their cellphone’s tiny speaker all the time, a sort of new age transistor radio. That’s kind of a private use. But when you want to share your music sometimes all you need is an empty pop bottle cut in half. Pretty clever.

five happiness

Here’re some ideas for the new year or just anytime, five easy things to do to learn how to be happier.

Researchers in positive psychology are finding that happiness is a skill that can be acquired and worked on. If you look into it, there’re a few things that seem to keep popping up. Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychology lecturer at Harvard, has five observations from his studies about how to embark on learning to be happier. It turns out that happiness is a skill that can be developed through practice, and ultimately stems from inside you, rather than from the external world.

Tal’s recommendations are:

Try to acknowledge and accept painful emotions, they’re a normal part of living. Being able to accept painful emotions opens the door to being able to accept happy emotions too.

Spend quality time, giving your full attention, with people you love and want to be with. “Time affluence” is having enough unscheduled time to freely spend with friends and family, who you like and want to be with.

Regularly exercising three times a week for 45 minutes can be as effective as some of the mood altering medications being prescribed these days. Throughout our history, human daily life involved lots of  movement. Apparently not moving much, as has recently become more common, has negative consequences.

Expressing gratitude helps develop a positive outlook. An easy way to do this is, every other day,  jot down three to five things you’re grateful for. Whatever strikes you is ok, from grand things to some small thing; you’re the only one that’ll read this journal, it’s not for sharing.

Try to simplify your life. Over-scheduling isn’t conducive to happiness and is probably not ultimately very effective. Some of the electronic time savers often become a shorter leash. Start simplifying by turning your phone off and not checking your email for three hours when you get home.

Try them at the start of a new year or anytime.

Hard To Tell Sometimes

I have a friend who’s in town for a few weeks.

He mentioned that he’s taking a boat trip to a local surf spot with some friends from town. When I asked who was going with him, he named a few friends and one of them is a young Mexican who owns the surf shop in town. Next, I asked if the shop owner was going as a friend or as a guide. My friend from out-of-town assumed the shop owner will be sporting the friend hat, not the guide hat.

Social norms and market norms are both agreements between people that shouldn’t be mixed up. For example, if you go to your neighbor’s house for Christmas dinner you wouldn’t consider tossing a fifty on the table “to cover things” after the big meal. You’d be violating a social norm for a shared meal in a home. Maybe, in the near future, you’ll invite your hosts over to your house for dinner. That is the implicit social norm.

On the other hand, say you had dinner at a nice restaurant, you wouldn’t consider negotiating the price of the meal on the way out. The market norm is that you pay a certain, agreed upon price that’s presented in the menu for your food.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether something is governed by a social norm or a market norm. And it gets more complicated because norms in different countries aren’t necessarily all the same. I told my friend to make sure soon that everyone’s on the same page to avoid any awkwardness, “You might assume the surf shop owner is a more of a friend who owns a surf shop, while he’s thinking he’s more of a surf shop owner who’s sort of your friend.”

Personal Science

Sometimes it’s a plastic spoon that you need. And sometimes just washing a spoon can be the best solution.

A couple of weeks ago I said some people taking vitamin D noticed that if they took it later in the day it disturbed their sleep. Because vitamin D mimics sun exposure (which triggers vitamin D production), taking it soon after waking up returned their sleep to a more normal pattern. Possibly, that’s the time of day our bodies evolved to receive sunlight and so sunlight or its substitute, vitamin D, acts as a trigger for our bodies’ clocks.

Personal science tries to make discoveries by tracking results of simple experiments using yourself  as a guinea pig (as a sample group of one). Tracking how dose/timing affect sleep when taking vitamin D is a good fit for personal science.

Big science is done by big labs or companies that generally won’t bother doing research on things that are simple to do or have inexpensive fixes. The more money professional researchers spend the more important and attention grabbing it seems. So for example, looking at how your sleep is affected by when you take vitamin D, is something more suited to personal science because it’d be tough getting funding for research into an inexpensive solution, such as changing the time you take it.

Personal science is not strict science in the sense that there aren’t control groups or disinterested clinical observers, but the results of good personal science can help the experimenter personally and maybe spur others, with the same issues, to replicate the results. For example, Seth Roberts, a university professor, has been doing personal science for some time and picked up on the vitamin D thread and then added his personal findings to the discussion.

And of course, the ideas and results of personal science can always be picked up and pursued by big science practitioners, a trickle up model.

Besides picking a problem you’re interested in and trying to cut down on the number of variables all you need to do personal science is a pen and a notebook to track your daily observations. You may be able to sort out some of your health questions (or not) and maybe have fun too.

Hitch is Dead

Christopher Hitchens is Dead. He died yesterday at age 62 from complications due to  cancer. I’m saddened by the news.

If you know who he is you’re either a fan or think he was a thorn in the side of small-minded and religious folk. Maybe both.

If you don’t know who he is and want to learn more about him; there’s a lot out there written by him and also a lot written about him. I don’t think there’s much more I can add  in the 300ish words I usually write.

Besides his writing, Hitchens was a well known and enthusiastic debater and he seemed especially fond of taking on religious speakers. Most videos of his debates or panel discussions are at the least entertaining.

As far as I know, he held on to atheism throughout his fight with cancer and to the end as well. Good for him. I’ll miss him.


Teaching English can sometimes highlight odd assumptions we have and don’t usually think about.

One day I was chatting in class with Mati, a woman I’ve been teaching for a couple of years. She’s a sweet middle-aged woman who grew up in our little town and we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well.

I’ve found that teachers can be like lawyers in the sense that a teacher should know the answer to every question that’s asked of the students. I knew Mati is a mom and I even know one of her kids. In the course of our conversation I asked her how many children she has.

After I asked if she has children she calmly gazed back at me and stated that she didn’t have any children. I thought maybe she was a poker player and making a joke with a straight face.

But it turned out not to be a joke. In Spanish, children only refers to kids who’re prepubescent and younger. In English, children refers to a son or daughter of any age, right?

Mati’s kids are all young adults. So in Mati’s mind, she didn’t have any children. She would have responded better to “Do you have any sons?” At the intermediate level English, it took a while to sort out who was talking about what. But we eventually figured out the cultural and linguistic confusions. She was surprised to learn that in English she’s the child of her parents and they’re the children of… and so on.

This situation turned out to be a fun serendipitous learning moment for both of us. Cross cultural assumptions sometimes lead to misunderstandings. And it’s compounded especially when you don’t know – what you don’t know.

Personalized Medications Soon?

In the not too distant future will medications and supplements be tailored for your particular situation? Should a 105 pound woman and a 205 pound man both be taking the same two tablet dose of aspirin for example?

I don’t take any supplements or medications yet, but I still think it’s interesting. I started thinking about this after hearing about people taking vitamin D at different times during the day with different impacts on their sleep.

Our bodies produce vitamin D after being exposed to sunlight, but since many people don’t get adequate sun exposure they’ll take a vitamin D supplement. Some people found their sleep disturbed by taking it later in the day or at night. Basically taking vitamin D soon after you wake seems to be the best time; mimicking the time you’d traditionally be getting sunlight. So taking it later in the day confuses your body’s clock. When the folks with sleep disruptions who were taking vitamin D switched to taking it soon after waking their sleep issues went away.

That example is only about timing, what about all of your particular information the parameters that make you… you. Maybe soon, companies and doctors will begin to customize medications and supplements to your size, age, and sex. Maybe even a few other easily measured parameters will be factored in to make the model even better like race, sleep patterns, or how many drinks you have at night.

Genetics, testing, and medicine are only getting more sophisticated and computing power is increasing and getting cheaper so maybe personalized medicines aren’t far away.

Is an iMed app for your iPhone on the near horizon? It could easily transfer your particulars to the pharmacy’s data base to help create medications to suit you. It might even keep you honest about your weight if you knew it was going to be a factor in getting your medicine right.

The Secret Lives of Doctors

What is it that doctors actually do medically in personal situations at the end of their lives? How do they treat themselves? In a terminal situation what do they do for themselves that’s different from what they do for other people in the same situation?

I read a doctor’s account about how his friend, a fellow doctor, responded to being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His insider knowledge and experience mix together for a course of action that might surprise the lay public.

After his diagnosis, the doctor eschewed chemo, radiation, and surgery. Instead he spent his last several months at home trying to enjoy the rest of his life with his friends and family.

The doctor with cancer knew what was going to happen and what his options were. And he didn’t have to worry about exercising the simplest option, doing as little as necessary. He couldn’t get into trouble, as he might have if dealing with a patient, for not using extraordinary efforts – for likely minimal gains in extra time in a probably lower quality life. The expense in terms of pain and money, along with the time spent in a hospital, don’t generally pay off.

The take away from this doctor’s story is that his story is not unique amongst doctors. They’ve seen enough people at the end of life and know what can be done to prolong lives. And of course, they have access to those treatments. But it seems their secret is that they prefer to go peacefully and gently, on their own terms.



Surfing as Metaphor

People get upset or happy about stuff that happens to them or around them. And then their level of distress or pleasure drops or goes away. Most people return to their emotional set point after oscillating up or down.

Say your dog dies after nine years together. It’s sad and you feel really bad. But you do get over it and move on, the memories of your time together is still there to reflect on; but your pet is still gone.

What are the two things that are different after you’ve gotten over your pet’s death? I think they are your outlook and the passing of time. And which one can you change? The only one you can influence is your outlook. Time going by helps too, but what’s happening as the time goes by? Your outlook morphs into acceptance. Even though your outlook changes, your pet is still gone; the upsetting stimulus hasn’t changed at all.

The only thing that changed and the only thing that you can change is your outlook on what happens as life happens around you.

It the same thing with pleasure. If you buy a new car you’re usually really excited when you drive it off the dealer’s lot. Three months later though, you’re “just driving a car to work.” The car is still basically new and your friends even keep referring to it as “your new car.” Your outlook has changed, and you’re now regarding it as just “your car.”

There are lots of ways to change your outlook – from the ideas of cognitive therapy to calming your mind through meditation techniques, and  their various offshoots. But, it’s better to have some practice with these things before something upsetting or thrilling happens. You’ll be able to deal with life’s ups and downs if you’re prepared.

To put it another way, you can’t stop the waves; but you can learn to surf.