Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving at the Yoga Farm

I have written several posts about the Yoga Farm, including how I found it and how I became a regular visitor every Saturday.  For the last several years, I have been going there to spend Thanksgiving evening.  They have a sumptuous dinner comprising 8 - 10 different dishes including a couple of different pies that conforms to the yogic diet.  What makes this event particularly fun, is that it often has a very large attendance (50-100 people), many of whom have had past association with the ashram as visitors, students, or staff, and as a result there's a lot of running into old faces.

Following the dinner is an evening satsang -- meditation followed by chanting and a concert or a guest speaker.  This year, the speaker was Dr. Edwin Bryant, who is currently a professor of Religions of India at Rutgers University.  He taught several classes during the day, but since I visited only for the evening, I was able to listen only to his evening talks both on Thursday and Friday.  He talked about a variety of subjects including the origins of Hinduism, the various texts such as the vedas and the puranas, the epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the origins of asana practice in yoga, and many other topics.  It was truly a treat to hear an accomplished scholar with in-depth and precise knowledge of these subjects who was able to put all of these ancient texts in perspective (e.g. how they're related).  At the end of each talk, he took a number of questions from the audience giving patient, in-depth responses to each.

One of things that I learnt from this is that documented asana practice is fairly recent.  Most of the older texts (vedas and puranas) don't say much about this subject.  Another interesting takeaway was the concept of yogamaya and mahamaya.  Up until now, I was only aware of maya, the term used to describe the illusory material world that we live in.  Yogamaya and mahamaya are terms to used to describe illusion that, for example, Lord Krishna creates so that people can have a relationship with him (such as a that of a parent or lover), and illusions such as the one created when Lord Krishna's mother looks into his open mouth and sees the whole universe.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Opting out of interest-based ads in iOS 6

I came across this in message boards on macrumors.com.

Apple decided to enable tracking by default in iOS 6.  To opt out, go to Settings -> General -> About -> Advertising and turn ON the Limit Ad Tracking option (OFF by default).

There's more information on what this is all about on Apple's website.  The tracking information is used to tailor advertising from the iAd network.  By disabling this, you'd still get advertisements, but they will be random rather than tailored based on information in an application or other non-personal information on the phone.

If you ever restore the phone, the setting will default back to OFF and must be enabled again.

Opting out of AT&T's ads and information sharing

You can opt out of receiving interest-based ads from AT&T by updating your preferences here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ways to own gold

This is not a post advocating that the reader buy gold.  This is simply a summary of my research on the different ways to own gold.  There was a period of time around the financial crisis in 2007-2008 when there were a number of people talking about why it's a good reason to own gold.  That got me into doing some research.  So here's what I came up with when I researched this subject back then.

There are several ways to own gold.
  • Gold bullion
  • Gold-backed exchange traded funds
  • Leveraged exchange traded funds
  • Online gold accounts
  • Gold-linked CDs
Each of these has its pros and cons.  Let's take a look.

Gold bullion

In this case one would buy actual physical gold (coins, bars, etc.) from a reputable dealer and find a place to store it.  Most proponents of gold bullion fall into two categories.
  • People who believe in an "economic armageddon" scenario.  They prefer to store it outside the banking system.  Of course, at that point, the safety of anything, anywhere is going to be questionable, so one would have to come up with creative and diverse ways of storing one's holdings.
  • People who don't trust the "paper gold" varieties.  They prefer to be able to see and touch their physical gold.  For such people storing gold in a bank locker is probably acceptable.
The issues around theft of gold bullion from one's home is complicated; I haven't really looked into things like whether or not insurance would cover it.

So, in summary, one should be aware of several expenses -- there is a commission when buying (usually resulting in a premium over the spot price of gold), there may be storage-related costs (e.g. locker rent at a bank), there may be insurance costs, and finally, there would be a commission involved when selling it (usually resulting a getting a price slightly lower than the spot value).

Unfortunately, even with gold bullion there can be fraud.

Gold-backed exchanged traded funds

In this case, one would hold shares of an exchange traded fund.  There are several such funds.  The most popular and largest of these is GLD, but there's also SGOL, PHYS, and IAU.  These funds are reportedly backed by physical gold bars at vaults in places like London, New York, or Zurich.

The pros of using this approach are clear.  It's easy to get in and out of the fund.  There's no premium when buying or selling (other than the fee by the brokerage for the stock trade).  However, there is a management fee for owning these funds (as there is for all types of funds) so there is an ongoing expense, although it's typically taken out by adjusting the net asset value of the fund.

The cons here are that even though the funds claim that their shares are backed by gold, there are some cynics that say there could be fraud involved and, in a doomsday scenario, the fund would simply report that bars of gold just aren't there, or that some number of them are missing.  The funds do state that the bullion is insured and audited -- would be one of the things to check in the prospectus.

Leveraged exchanged traded funds

These include funds such as UGL which use leverage to move at twice the percentage change in the price of gold.  As a personal opinion, I think this is getting into gambling territory, so I wouldn't touch something like this for investment purposes.

Online gold accounts

These include sites such as GoldMoney, BullionVault, and the Perth Mint Depository.  These often offer allocated and unallocated accounts, and in some scenarios will allow the account holder to take delivery in physical form, for a fee, if they should so choose.

The cons with these are similar to that of ETFs.  One has to place trust that they are being run in an ethical and well-managed fashion.

Of these, the Perth Mint Depository is interesting because it is the only one that is backed by a government -- the Government of Western Australia -- which would be the equivalent of something being backed by a state government in the US (as opposed to the federal government).

Gold-linked CDs

Some banks have either offered in the past, or currently offer, what is referred to as gold-linked CDs.  In other words, the returns of the CD are tied to the price of gold.  Often, the principal will be FDIC insured, and there is some, usually complex, formula that determines how the returns of the CD will be calculated based on the movement in the price of gold.

Here's a word of warning from the FDIC on market-linked CDs in general, so make sure that the terms of the CD are well understood before investing in them.

Is owning gold a good idea?

Even as of this writing, some of the blogs that I read such as ZeroHedge, Mish's Global Economic Analysis, and iTulip, talk about gold being an essential part of one's portfolio.  However, there are others such as Warren Buffett who don't think very much of the idea of owning gold.  More recently, there was this article by PIMCO which discusses a viewpoint on gold.

Just as with every investment, it seems like you'll find people on either extreme ("it's the only investment worth owning", or "stay away"), to those that have more moderate views ("it makes sense to have a percentage of one's portfolio in gold").

Personally, I'm much more comfortable with the approach detailed in my post on worry-free investing, sticking with instruments such as TIPS and I-Bonds.  They might not be ideal, but at least I wouldn't have to worry about all the fraud-related risks related to buying and storing of gold.  Of course, as with everything else I write about, this is subject to change.

A word about taxes

It is probably worth noting that any gains for gold holdings are taxed as a collectible rather than as long/short-term capital gains from a regular security.

Disclaimer:  I am not a financial advisor and it is possible that what I have written may contain errors so please do your own research and form your own opinions and/or action plan about this subject.  This post is just my way of documenting and sharing what I have learned.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Yoga Farm: Lineage

In an earlier post, I had written about how I found the Yoga Farm and how I started spending all of my Saturday evenings there.  This evening, being Swami Sivananda's birthday, instead of the usual chanting and discourse following the evening meditation, they showed a couple of short films -- one was on the life of Swami Sivananda, and the other one was about Swami Vishnudevananda.  Swami Vishnudevananda  is the founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, of which the Yoga Farm is a part.  He was a disciple of Swami Sivananda.

The screening of those movies inspired me to write a brief post about the lineage of the teachings at this ashram.  Since I have been going there for many years, I have seen both of the movies several times.  For the purpose of this post, I tried locating them on YouTube.  I couldn't find the one on Swami Sivananda, but this clip on YouTube contains some representative material.  The movie on Swami Vishnudevananda was called In the Name of Peace, and the entire movie is available on YouTube.

Incidentally, I came across this chart depicting A Brief and Incomplete History of Yoga.  I'm no scholar on Yoga and its origins, so I have absolutely no idea how good this chart is.  But, in this chart, Swami Sivanada is shown to be a disciple of Vishwananda Saraswati.

Swami Sivananda founded The Divine Life Society in Rishikesh in the Himalayas in India.  They have made available for free many of the books written by Swami Sivananda.

Here are some ashrams in this lineage:

Going green, living healthy: Clothing

This is part of a series of posts on Going green, living healthy. The first post is here. I'm not an expert on this subject, so if you find errors please let me know. I have tried to provide pointers to my sources where possible.

My first awareness into the materials used for clothing came about when I was using a number wrinkle-free and wrinkle-resistant products.  Many of these were labeled at being 100% cotton, so why is it that everything that's made of cotton is wrinkle free or at least wrinkle resistant.  A bit of research on the Internet showed that these clothes are made using fabrics treated with toxic chemicals,  For example, this article in the The New York Times states:
Though it is not obvious from the label, the antiwrinkle finish comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde, the chemical that is usually associated with embalming fluids in dissected frogs in biology class.
For me, there were two takeaways from this:
  • Clothing labels can be misleading because they don't require a full disclosure of chemicals used in the processing.
  • Simply buying organic cotton clothing does not mean that such chemicals were not used.
This has meant that while I try and stick with organic cotton clothing, I am not paranoid about it.  Instead, I try to look for manufacturers that care about the environment and focus on using simple fabrics that are not heavily treated with chemicals.  I've noticed organic cotton tends to be a lot softer.

I haven't found many mainstream brands that offer such clothing, but fortunately there are a few.  Patagonia is one that seems to use organic cotton exclusively (i.e. they don't use cotton that is not organic), but they tend to blend it with synthetic fabrics such as polyester.  But they do offer a few pieces that are 100% organic cotton.  Timberland also offers some organic cotton clothing under their Earthkeepers line, but for some reason their selection is very limited in the USA and they are often blends of organic and regular cotton, or organic cotton and polyester.  On the other hand, in Europe and Asia, almost everything that they offer is 100% organic cotton, but they also tend to be more expensive.  Why is it that the US has such a limited selection?  In an email exchange with them, they cited "market demand and other factors."

Greenroom Voice lists a bunch of brands and apparel that meet its standards for eco-friendliness.  Most are European.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The backdoor Roth IRA

If one's income exceeds the limits for contributing to a Roth IRA, there's still a backdoor approach for making a contribution.  The method, outlined in this article by Fidelity, shows that one can contribute to a non-deductible IRA (which has no income limit), and immediately convert that to a Roth IRA (which also does not have any income limits).

That catch here is that one must not have any other IRA -- Traditional or Rollover.  Otherwise, that will complicate tax matters since the tax liability is calculated as a percentage of all funds that are eligible for rollover.  If one has a Rollover IRA, usually from rolling over funds from 401(k) plans at previous employers, then to get the most benefit out of this, one would have to roll over the funds from the Rollover IRA into the current employer's 401(k) plan.  Most 401(k) plans allow that.  The down side to such a roll over is that, unlike an IRA at a traditional brokerage which typically has nearly limitless investment options, one would be restricted to the investment choices offered by the current 401(k) plan.

Useful reading
Disclaimer: I am neither an investment advisor nor a tax preparer.  If you think this applies to you, please do your own homework to decide whether it works for your situation.  Otherwise, it can land you in a tax mess.  At the very least, it is a bit more paperwork since it requires filing IRS form 8606 which will show the contribution to the non-deductible IRA, the conversion to the Roth, and report that there are no other IRA funds.  Here is an article warning about some of gotchas to watch out for.

Update 3/21/2016

I recently came across an article which throws another wrench in the works--the Step Transaction Doctrine.  Read the article for details.  This article is the subject of a heated discussion over at Bogleheads.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Going green, living healthy -- Household cleaners and personal care

This is part of a series of posts on Going green, living healthy. The first post is here. I'm not an expert on this subject, so if you find errors please let me know. I have tried to provide pointers to my sources where possible.

I first stumbled in the area of non-conventional personal care items when I became aware that most traditional soaps contain animal byproducts such as animal fat.  Since then I have switched a lot of household cleaners and personal care items to brands that seem to care about the environment and what goes into the product.  Some of the considerations are:
  • Getting away from harsh chemicals;
  • No animal byproducts in the ingredients;
  • Environmental responsibility.
The problem with harsh chemicals is that while it may be OK to have a little exposure to them, if everything around us contains these kinds of chemicals, eventually the body will break down and develop sensitivities to them, usually creating hard-to--diagnose conditions.  At least that's my belief.  I have no way to verify it.  The skin is the largest organ in the body and anything we apply to the skin is quickly absorbed by it.  Likewise, exposure to volatile chemical compounds found in cleaners will quickly find their way into our lungs.

Household cleaners

Using regular cleaners would cause my eyes to get red and itchy by the time I was done cleaning.  That's what made me look for something different. I tried Ecover and Seventh Generation.  Both work pretty well, but I like Seventh Generation better.

There are people that make their own household cleaners, but it doesn't seem worth the time and effort for me since I don't use very much of them.

Laundry supplies

I switched from using conventional laundry supplies because I became aware of their use of animal byproducts and I was concerned that a chronic rash I had developed was due to exposure to synthetic chemicals.  I was very surprised to find out that conventional dryer sheets contained animal tallow.

Finding a good detergent was a challenge.  Over the years, I have tried several brands including Ecover, ECOs, Planet, and Seventh Generation.  I finally gave in to the fact that none of these "green" cleaners was going to be able to match the performance of conventional cleaners -- the clothes just don't seem as bright and with a couple of these brands, the clothes sometimes felt like they came out dirtier than when they went in.  I eventually settled on using Seventh Generation Free & Clear as my regular detergent which seems to work reasonably well and also has good ratings with Consumer Reports magazine.

Dryer sheets was another challenge.  When I first started looking for alternatives, I tried Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Dryer Sheets, but I found the scent in those too overpowering.  I then tried moist dryer sheets from Method which were OK for a while, but I didn't care for the moistness.  Eventually, Seventh Generation introduced dryer sheets and I find that these work pretty well.

Update 2/8/2017: I have since started using a Miele condensation dryer which actually prohibits the use of dryer sheets!

Personal care

Just as with other cleaners, I made changes to my personal care items - bath soap, shampoo, shaving soap, etc.  Here, one of things I look for is absence of parabens from the list of ingredients.  Most mainstream brands seem to contain them, but many are slowly excluding them from new formulas.  However, regardless of whether I've used a brand before, I always check the ingredients when I buy it.  Companies are constantly changing their formulations whether to cut costs or "improve" their product and I have had more than one occasion where I noticed a change in the ingredients.  A notable one was the Art of Shaving, which got acquired by Procter & Gamble and subsequently changed the formulation of their shaving cream to include parabens.  The other thing that I generally prefer to see is products that have a short list of ingredients that I can understand.

Garbage bags

I tried using Seventh Generation's garbage bags because they claim to be more environmentally friendly since they use recycled plastic.  However, on many occasions I noticed punctures in the bag when pulling it out of the trash container for disposal.  I contacted Seventh Generation about this and they said their bags are thinner and not as strong because of the use of recycled plastic.  As a result, I ended up switching to conventional bags.

Labels cannot always be trusted

This is where things get really tricky.  A number of products that claim, for example, to be organic are not. Because this is a niche market that is not well-regulated, there are manufacturers that sometimes claim their products to be organic when they may not be.  A number of such manufactures have been under the fire from, for example, the Organic Consumer's Association for making claims about their products that are not true.

Update 10/01/2012

I recently received an email from Seventh Generation about a discussion titled The Importance of Removing Toxins from Our Lives with Deepak Chopra.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

New car smell

On a similar lines to an earlier post in which I discussed "new home smell", new cars tend to go through off-gassing as well because of the materials used in their construction. The July/August 2012 issue of VIA magazine from AAA discusses this topic in an article titled What is "new car smell"?
We all know it when we smell it, but what exactly is it? Turns out it’s a chemical cocktail produced by new materials—such as vinyl, adhesives, sealers, and paints—that give off fumes for six months to a year.
A recent study by scientists at Japan’s Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health identified 275 chemicals in car interiors. While some, such as benzene, are known carcinogens, the levels of these compounds found in car interiors have not been conclusively linked to serious illnesses.
All the same, to minimize any potential ill effects, experts recommend ventilating a new car by opening doors and windows five minutes before entering, and keeping the car out of the sun, since heat intensifies that new car smell.
Even among car manufacturers, awareness of this aspect is growing and they are gradually moving towards more environmentally friendly materials that are also recyclable.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Going green, living healthy -- Home construction and furnishings

This is part of a series of posts on Going green, living healthy. The first post is here. I'm not an expert on this subject, so if you find errors please let me know. I have tried to provide pointers to my sources where possible.

My first awareness of "green" home construction was around 2006-2007 when I looked at new homes by The Good Project in West Sacramento by a company called LJ Urban. Unfortunately, the company closed down and the project was taken over by S360 Development, probably because of the challenging market for real-estate at that time.

Even though the homes were not in a location that was of interest to me, I went there for a tour. Instead of the usual sales office, they had informal dinners that people could sign up for to get a tour of the homes. I'm glad I did because it completely altered the way I look home construction and home furnishings. In the model home, they had boards explaining the different features. There was a PDF brochure that described all of these features, but I'm unable to find that now. But I'll try and summarize some of the things that I learned from that visit.

What makes a "green" home different from a regular home? Here's a partial ist of things.
  • Use of sustainable building materials: Usually using reclaimed wood from buildings that were torn-down, or using wood from renewable forests.
  • Environmental conservation at the time of building: For example, preserving trees on the land where the home is built.
  • Use of sustainable furnishings: Keeps environmental impact in mind during production (e.g. fewer toxic bi-products), non-toxic finishes such as water-based finishes (as opposed to petroleum-based).
  • Water conservation: Typically low-flow plumbing fixtures.
  • Energy conservation: Typically includes insulation, lighting fixtures, etc. (I'm not big on the use of CFLs because of their light quality and the fact that they contain toxic materials and require care during disposal.)
"New home" smell

The first thing that struck me as a entered the home was that there was no "new home" smell. Turns out that new home smell is actually an off-gassing of a bunch of chemicals from the new furnishings (cabinets, carpets, paint, etc.), most of which are known to be toxic, but the levels of which are considered "safe".

Here's what Build it Green says about this on Page 10 in their Green Building Guidelines:
On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, yet the air in new homes can be ten times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to air pollution. A report in the New England journal of Medicine states that 40% of children will develop respiratory disease, in part due to the chemicals in their homes.
A common source of indoor air pollution is the offgassing of chemicals found in many building materials. Kitchen cabinets, countertops, shelving and furniture may be made from particleboard or medium density fiberboard. Some of these pressed-wood products are made with adhesives that release urea formaldehyde—a known carcinogen—into the home for years after installation. Also, many paints, floor finishes, adhesives and sealants emit unhealthy volatile organic compounds (VOCs). That “new house smell” is a telltale sign that there are harmful chemicals in the indoor environment.
The homes at The Good Project were different. They used formaldehyde-free cabinets, a different type of sectional carpet that allowed replacement and recycling of small sections (FLOR), and had zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Even the kitchen counter-tops were made of a different material, but I can't remember what it was. It turns out that most most of these are easier on the environment during production (because there are less chemicals involved and as a result less toxic waste as bi-products), so what's good for the environment is also good for us. The only catch is that perhaps these cost more to produce and may not be as durable. (I'm speculating here and don't know this for a fact.)

Conventional home builders

During the post-housing bubble years, I found that a lot of companies switched to using low-VOC paint and water-conserving plumbing. They introduced solar panels on the roofs (something I don't particularly care about), but they continued to use regular furnishings such as cabinets, carpets, and paint. As awareness increases, it looks like many of them are trying to move in the direction of using sustainable and more safe materials, albeit very slowly.

Furniture

When shopping for furniture, I always ask about whether the furniture is formaldehyde free. I am yet to find a mainstream retailer whose entre line of furniture is eco-friendly. Over the years, I've found some of the mainstream furniture retailers, such as Crate & Barrel, now carry a few pieces that are eco-friendly and are certified as low-VOC, but you have to look really hard for them. They may be made from reclaimed wood or FSC-certified wood, which typically comes from renewable forests.

With respect to office and home-office furniture, one of the companies that seems to be very environmentally conscious is Steelcase. Many of their products have LEED certification and there's a focus on recyclability.

While I'm not certain, similar principles would probably apply to things like curtains and other home furnishings.

Improving indoor air quality

If we have to live with conventionally built home, it might be worth investing in an air purifier. IQAir, for example, claims that their GC MultiGas air purifier will "strip VOCs from the air." Of course, leaving the windows open a lot would also be helpful, but may not be an option in extreme weather.

Organizations certifying buildings and furniture
Related news and articles

Monday, May 28, 2012

Going green, living healthy

Disclaimer:  I'm no expert on this subject, and for all you know, I may have it all wrong.  Nevertheless, I will write about what I have learned over the years.  If you come across this post and find that I'm totally off, I'd appreciate any insights you may have.

"Going green", eco-conscious living, sustainable living, etc. are terms that are used somewhat interchangeably to express living in harmony with nature.  To some it means the 3 R's (reduce, reuse, recycle), to others it may mean using products made of sustainable materials (for example, things that don't require destruction of ancient forests), some may think of this in terms of "fair trade" and the ethics of the organizations that create the product, and there are some who think of this in terms of being "all natural" and chemical-free living perhaps for health reasons.  Most of the time, living in a way that is kind to nature is also beneficial to ourselves. 

My personal view is that it encompasses all of the above.  We should try and get educated about where everything that we consume comes from and where it ends up after we are done with it (cradle-to-the-grave).   For example, when thinking about this in the context of food I often wonder how many hands a grain of rice has passed through before it ends up in my mouth.  And I have my own set of loose "rules" for all other products.  Sometimes it gets frustrating trying to follow these rules, and sometimes I just have to compromise and get on with life.  But at least I feel that I'm making baby steps in the right direction.  And I try to reason with myself that as I make changes at the micro level, things at the macro level will take care of themselves.

No Impact Man

As I thought about writing this post, a movie that I saw a long time ago -- No Impact Man -- came to mind.  The movie is a documentary about about a man (along with his family) who decides to take sustainable living to the extreme while living in New York City.  While I can't say that I endorse everything they did (many of the things they did would be too difficult for me, or almost anyone living a "regular" life), I did find it very educational and it's definitely worth watching.

Future posts

I'll cover what I've learned over the years in multiple posts.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Learning to walk

In a previous post, A story about ego, I retold a story I had heard from a guest speaker at a Wednesday evening meditation session in Santa Clara hosted by Charity Focus (now ServiceSpace) founder Nipun Mehta.  Even though I don't spend much time in the Bay Area anymore, I have remained on their mailing list and receive a weekly note of inspiration.  That note of inspiration is typically the topic of discussion following the meditation session.

Today, I received an email providing an update on some of things happening at ServiceSpace.  Buried in that email was a little piece about Nipun's speech at UPenn's recent graduation.  I was intrigued -- someone I had personally met was the Baccalaureate speaker at the University of Pennsylvania.  I had to check it out.

Here's how the editors of DailyGood prefaced the transcript of his talk:
To address their newly-minted graduates, aspiring to dazzling careers, they picked a man who has never in his adult life, applied for a job. A man who hasn't worked for pay in nearly a decade, and whose self-stated mission is simply "to bring smiles to the world and stillness to my heart".
The talk describes some of the lessons learned from a pilgrimage of walking over a 1000 kilometers through villages in India, sharing in the lives of strangers and depending on their kindness.  Here are some excerpts.
Soon after we ended the pilgrimage, my uncle casually popped the million dollar question at the dinner table: "So, Nipun, what did you learn from this walk?" I didn't know where to begin. But quite spontaneously, an acronym --W-A-L-K -- came to mind...
The W in WALK stands for Witness. 
The A in WALK stands for Accept. 
The L in WALK stands for Love. 
And lastly, the K in WALK stands for Know Thyself.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dance Performance at the Yoga Farm: Anuradha Prabhashankar

This past Saturday at the Yoga Farm, following the evening meditation and daily chants, there was a Bharatnatyam dance performance by Anuradha Prabhashankar.  I've seen her performances many times since she performs at the Yoga Farm several times a year.

A Bharatnatyam dance typically tells a story of devotion to God, often a conversation or a complaint, and is considered a form of Bhakti Yoga.  I find her performances very educational because, before each dance, she explains the story that will be told by that dance along with an explanation of each of the gestures (of arms, hands, face, etc.) that will be used during the dance.

Because one of the dances was about a story that involved the mention of child marriage, she shared an interesting bit of trivia about the origins of child marriage in India -- During medieval times, Hindu families started marrying their daughters off as soon as possible after birth to protect them from abuse by foreign invaders.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Adjusting the mirrors in your car for optimum visibility

Many years ago, I came across a posting in one of the automobile newsgroups that I found very useful.  I have since always used this to adjust the mirrors in a car when I first get into it.  It's somewhat counter to what one would be inclined to do, since it requires adjusting the side view mirrors to see just beyond the sides of the vehicle.  I don't recall the original source or I would have credited it.  Here's the piece.
It's all done with mirrors. An important part of safe driving is knowing what is around you at all times. However, if your side-view mirrors are not set correctly, you might experience blind spots. Here are three suggestions for a clear view: 
Step 1: Adjust your inside rear-view mirror to reflect the entire rear window. At night, if you don't have an auto-dimming mirror, use the mirror angle switch to eliminate headlight glare. 
Step 2: While resting your head on the left window, adjust the left side-view mirror so you can see just beyond the car's left side. 
Step 3: Align your head under the rear-view mirror, then adjust the right side-view mirror so you can see just beyond your car's right side. 
Follow these simple instructions to see your way clear in all types of traffic, night and day!
Once the mirrors have been set in this way, a car approaching from behind will first appear in the rear-view mirror, and before it disappears from the rear-view mirror it will appear in the side-view mirror, and before it disappears from the side-view mirror it will be in the driver's peripheral vision.

Here is a video explaining this procedure and demonstrating how it works.  And here is a picture from Car and Driver showing how it works.

Aspherical mirrors

I have tried adjusting the driver's side mirror in several Mercedes Benz cars and have found that it is impossible to adjust the driver's side mirror according to these instructions.  One possible solution to that would be buy and install aspherical mirrors.  As of this writing, aspherical mirrors are not available in the US, but they can be purchased from European dealers.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Days of the week and colors

Many months ago, may be even more than a year ago, the Yoga Farm had hosted Komilla Sutton for one of their astrology courses.  So that evening, following the meditation and daily chants, she had talked to us in the context of Vedic astrology about several things pertaining to the days of the week including the ruling planet, favorable colors, and auspicious activities for the day.  Somehow that lecture has surfaced in mind, so I thought I'd document the part about the ruling planet and the colors.  So here goes.
  • Sunday - Sun - Pink/Maroon.
  • Monday - Moon - White.
  • Tuesday - Mars - Red.
  • Wednesday - Mercury - Green.
  • Thursday - Jupiter - Yellow/Beige.
  • Friday - Venus - Light Blue/White.
  • Saturday - Saturn - Black/Purple.
I wish I could say that I remembered all of this, but I didn't.  I had to google around and found this article which contains all of this and some more.

Planets and days of the week

The western calendar also follows the planets in a similar way.  I found this tidbit lying around in one of my folders from my days in graduate school, about 20 years ago.  I don't know who the author is.
It's Tuesday. But WHY is it Tuesday? Because many moons ago, there was a warlike Norse god called Tiw. His equivalent in Greek mythology was Ares who, in turn, was known as Mars by the Romans. Each of our days of the week have a strong link to the seven traditional "planets."  Monday is a corruption of "Moon-day". Wednesday is Odin's (or Wodin)'s-day.   Odin links up, symbolically with Mercury. Thursday is Thor's day - and Thor equates to Jupiter. Friday is Freia's day. Freia was, to the ancient Norse-folk what Venus is to us today. Saturday is Saturn's day and Sunday... is self-explanatory.
This matches up perfectly with the days of the week in Hindi (Sunday through Saturday) -- Ravivar (Sun), Somwar (Moon), Mangalwar (Mars), Budhwar (Mercury), Guruvar (Jupiter), Shukrawar (Venus), Shanivar (Saturn).

Wikipedia contains a lot of information on this.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie at the Yoga Farm: Dirt

Today at the Yoga Farm, following the meditation and daily chants, instead of the usual discourse, in honor of Earth Day there was a screening of the movie Dirt.  It was a documentary about soil and its place in the ecosystem, the ills of modern farming methods such as monoculture, and some inspiring stories of urban gardens and community supported agriculture.  Following the movie, there was a brief discussion led by Mike and Susan Kluk, the teachers of the Earth Day Celebration course.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Favorite iPhone Apps

Here's my list of iPhone apps that I think are very useful. I'll keep updating this list as I find new ones.

Camera Awesome: This free app by the folks at SmugMug makes a huge difference to the quality of photos taken by the iPhone. It allows the user to select a certain area of a photo to focus on, has tools that allow better framing of a shot, and includes tons of tools for post-processing of the photo once it's taken. My only gripes are that it is a little slow when saving the image, and it only allows the user to export one photo at a time to the iPhone album.

Genius Scan: I don't own a scanner or copier, but I do have a printer.  I stay away from multifunction devices because they seem to have "too much" making them less dependable.  Genius Scan allows me get  the functionality of a scanner or copier using my iPhone.  I take a picture, the scanning software enhances it, and I can then email the image to myself and print it if I need a copy.  I've used it for several months now.

Google Maps: With the advent of iOS 6 featuring Apple's mapping program, we lost the ability to get directions using public transportation.  Google Maps can be added as a separate app that allows the user to get back that functionality, but additionally also offers turn-by-turn spoken directions even on older devices (unlike the built in iOS maps program which requires at least an iPhone 4S in order to provide turn-by-turn spoken directions).


Tips and tricks (iOS6)

The 25 (more) awesome iPhone tips and tricks article on yahoo is certainly worth a read.  I found many useful things there including the ability to lock my screen and a quick way to generate a period while typing an email or text message.

Streaming directions from Apple Maps to your car's speakers

This requires the car to have bluetooth and the phone to be paired with the car.  Then follow the directions in this article to enable HFP prompts.

Testing RF performance

From the iPhone keypad, dial *3001#12345#* and hit “Call”

This will bring up the true signal meter to replace the bars. You can use that to determine just how badly the signal is fluctuating. If you are standing outdoors with the phone on a level surface and not moving, the meter shouldn't change more than 10 db.

iPhone camera specs

This article provides a nice comparison of the cameras in iPhone 4 through iPhone 5s.

Manuals
  • Manuals for various versions of iOS are available here.
  • User guides for the iPhones currently on sale are available here.
The most versatile device?

Aside from being an extension to my computer for things like email and web browsing, my iPhone has essentially replaced the function of all of the following devices
  • Watch
  • Calendar/planner
  • Music player
  • GPS
  • Compass
  • Alarm clock
  • Scanner
  • Flashlight
  • Calculator
I don't consider at the point yet where is can replace my computer, though, mainly because it's very hard to connect to certain websites and get them to deliver their native pages; many websites only offer a pared-down mobile version once they detect they are connecting to an iOS device.

iPhone camera controls

I took a free 1-hour class at the Apple store on 12/27/15.  I learned a few things about the camera.  Here's what they covered:
  • Regular picture, square picture.
  • Focus, focus/AE lock (tap and hold), exposure adjust (by sliding finger up and down).
  • Changing perspective by rotating the camera because the lens sits differently in each of the 4 positions.
  • Burst mode (vary the number of shots by holding the click button), timer mode (displays a count down and the number of shots), live photo mode (captures 1.3 seconds on either side of the shot within the jpg file, use a long touch to view the photo with motion).
  • Panorama mode.  
    • Can be set to create a panorama shot moving left-to-right or right-to-left.
    • Phone must be upright for side-to-side shots.
    • Phone must be tilted 90 degrees for top-to-bottom shots.
  • Flash settings -- auto, on, off.
  • HDR - high dynamic range.  This is useful when taking pictures with a combination of bright and shadows, e.g. during sunset.  HDR and flash are mutually exclusive.
  • Video, slow-motion video (120 or 240 fps depending on size 1080 v 720), time-lapse video (compression of long duration events at 1 fps).
    • Focus/AE lock works but you cannot change the exposure.
  • Digital zoom for photo and video.
  • Viewing, editing the album.
Many of these features are covered in this video.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The 40-hour work week

In this day and age where businesses are under pressure to operate at maximum efficiency, managers often think they've done their job if they're successful at keeping their employees working longer and longer hours (for the same pay, of course). I came across an interesting article titled "Bring back the 40-hour work week" that challenges this common wisdom. Here are a couple of excerpts that are relevant to my line of work.
"Robinson writes that he’s seen overworked software teams descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix." 
"In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight."
My primary critique of the article would be that it does not acknowledge that people have varied capacities for work. Some people can indeed work very long hours and still be productive, but it is far from the norm, and they are probably not as effective when those extra hours are forced by authority, rather than being self-motivated.

(The same article is available at AlterNet.)

A few months after writing this article, I received an email letting me know about an infographic, unrelated to this article with the same title as the article. It had some interesting statistics, so I thought it would be worthwhile to include it.

Update 9/9/15

I received a link to an article from an IEEE JobSite eNewsletter about how working longer hours increases the risk of stroke.

Update 11/25/15

I came across this article in Business Insider.  I can attest to this having seen several cases first hand in Silicon Valley.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Experiences with Ayurveda

Ayurveda is the holistic medicine from India. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I have used it with mixed results to address some of my health issues. It has been particularly helpful with aiding my problems with digestion (acidity, heart-burn, bloating, abdominal cramps) and has taught me a whole new way of looking at food. As a result, I decided to write a short article on this subject and provide references that I have found useful.

Introduction

The term Ayurveda is derived from the sanskrit words "Ayus" meaning life, and "veda" meaning knowledge. Thus, Ayurveda literally means "knowledge of life". It is supposedly thousands of years old and was communicated by Rishis who discovered it through meditation. The subject is very deep and I'm not going to attempt to delve into the details, but at a high level, it attempts to treat disease not just looking at physiology, but also at psychology and even spirituality. Diagnosis is typically done by reading the pulse, and by examination of some other body parts such as the tongue, eyes, nails, hair, and skin. There is strong emphasis on using food as medicine, but herbs are often used as well.

For a more detailed introduction to Ayurveda, there are several good books and resources, but to start with I would recommend the introductory articles by the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico.

How did I found out about Ayurveda?

Growing up in India, I was almost exclusively treated using allopathy, the modern western medicine. I was exposed to the existence of Ayurveda, but because treatment with Ayurveda takes a lot of patience as it is slow, I never actually used it.

Then, in 2003, as I was getting my wisdom teeth extracted, my dentist told me about Ayurveda and referred me to an Ayurvedic practitioner. This was mainly to try and address some of the issues I had been facing with digestion. One of the simple things suggested by the practitioner was to take a tablespoon of sesame oil each morning on an empty stomach. Something as simple as that helped my digestion a bit, but the effect was limited in the sense that it didn't seem to get rid of things like acidity and bloating which were still bothering me. I actually used that for several years, but don't need it anymore.

In 2006, as I started visiting the Yoga Farm, I learnt a lot more about Ayurveda. They conduct many courses during the year and so I got to hear about Ayurveda on my Saturday evening visits. I learned about how spices such as turmeric powder, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, cardamom, etc. help with digestion and assimilation of food. I learned that looking at a conventional nutrition label is meaningless because if the body is not able to digest and absorb the nutrients, then the body isn't going to get the benefit of those nutrients. I learned that certain foods are better for certain body types; e.g. even though conventional wisdom talks about salads being "good for you", there are certain body types that are unable to effectively digest them because the digestive heat is not sufficient; undigested food actually creates toxins in the body and over the long term lead to disease.

Since that time, I have visited several Ayurvedic centers and spas for various treatments and have also consulted several practitioners. Because Ayurveda is not regulated in the US, it can be hard to find genuine practitioners.

Ayurveda in India vs Ayurveda in the US

Ayurveda is gaining in popularity in India, but it is practiced quite differently in India vs in the west. In India, Ayurveda is recognized by the government as a legitimate form of medicine and it is possible to obtain a degree in Ayurveda and to be called a "doctor". And it is possible to visit an Ayurvedic doctor to get treated for a specific physical symptom.

In the US however, Ayurveda is not recognized as a legitimate form of medicine and thus the emphasis is more on lifestyle and disease prevention. Also, many of the Ayurvedic herbs in India contain heavy metals, and as a result they are banned in the US. This is probably not a bad thing since, being an unregulated field, it would be hard to do any kind of quality enforcement, and many of the herbs that contain heavy metals must be prepared a certain way for them to be effective.

Ayurveda centers and spas

The following are some centers that offer Ayurvedic treatments. I have been to the ones marked with an asterisk. The others on the list are ones that I have either done some research on, or personally know people that have visited there.
I'll update this list as I find out about or visit any new places.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How corrupt is a country?

(This post was updated on 06/30/2014.)

There's a relatively easy way to find out. Transparency International is an organization that ranks countries using a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Pre 2012, the index was a number from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (very clean).  From 2012 onwards, the score goes from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
  • For 2011, New Zealand topped the list with a CPI of 9.5.
  • For 2012, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand tied for first with a CPI of 90.
  • For 2013, Denmark and New Zealand tied for first with a CPI of 91.
Just for kicks, I decided to graph the historical data for the US since the index was first launched in 1995.  Note that from 2012, the score from 0 to 100 had to be normalized to go from 0 to 10 to match the older scale.

Here's how the CPI of the US has varied over the years.














And here's how the US has ranked over the years.













Kind of depressing since the country has gotten more corrupt since the inception of the index but, on the bright side, it's still within a fairly narrow band, and 2012 shows some improvement.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Finding a "safe" bank

With all the news about the economy headed downhill, a natural question that comes up is whether or not one is banking with an institution that is sound (i.e. unlikely to fail). Here are some sites that allow us to check on the health of financial institutions -- banks, thrifts, and credit unions.
Of course, the ratings themselves are moving targets and a bank that appears on the list today may no longer be on the list a year from now.

The first two links are especially troublesome because they categorize many of the banks that were bailed out, and that are still not quite out of the water according to several credible financial blogs, as 3 or 4 stars. So from my standpoint, I have more faith in the next two (and they both use the same source). For an institution to make that list, it probably wasn't reckless during the subprime years, and it probably didn't receive a bailout.

The Move Your Money project (previously moveyourmoneyproject.org) offered by TBS Bank Monitor can be used for finding a local bank or credit union. They list only banks rated a 'C' or better.

At least we can take heart that the FDIC (NCUA in the case of credit unions) insures deposits at each of the member institutions up to $250,000 per account holder (all accounts in the name of an account holder count towards that amount for that account holder), which makes finding a safe institution a bit less critical.

Finally, here is an unofficial list of banks that refused to accept TARP funds in 2009.

Ethical banking

Ethical banking is a whole different ballgame. Other than an informal wikipedia article that lists only one, now defunct, bank in the US -- Shore Bank -- there isn't much that turns up when doing a search. So ethical doesn't equate to being safe and vice versa.

Update 11/7/2014

The original article mentioned IRABankRatings.com.  The same tool is now available at TBS Bank Monitor.   The Move Your Money project (previously moveyourmoneyproject.org) has also moved there.