Monday, December 23, 2013

Fear, anger, anxiety, and depression

I have written earlier about my struggle with anxiety which led me to meditation.  Even with regular meditation the anxiety has been been a constant battle, but at least I have the tools to recognize that the sensations in the body are those of anxiety and that they will pass.  It is not always easy to do this and there are times when it gets a bit overwhelming, but over time, I have been fortunate to see a reduction in those overwhelming moments.  I should say that even the ability to have a regular meditation practice is a blessing by itself because health does not always cooperate in this regard.

What prompted me to write about this topic is that these emotions appear to be all very interrelated.  I don't claim this as some sort of original thought.  It is just a documentation of my experience with it.  I am not qualified to give advice in this area and all of what I am writing may be incorrect.  Do your own research!

Lets start with fear.  Fear is built into us.  In fact, at a subconscious level we are aware that life will not last forever and we therefore try to cling on to "feel good" experiences.  This point was articulated in the first chapter of the book Mindfulness in Plain English.
Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
But because we don't understand the "root fear," instead we project that fear on to various situations in our lives (e.g. fear of being disliked or fear of future or certain phobias such as such fear of heights and so on).  Most books about anxiety talk about the fight or flight response which comes from a very primitive part of the brain, one that reacts much faster than the cognitive parts which process information.  Fear prepares the body for flight.

Which brings us to anger.  Anger is a close relative of fear.  It prepares us to fight.  Dig deep below the anger and there is almost certainly some type of fear (and as mentioned earlier, dig deeper into the fear and one finds that it is the fear of death that is really bothering us).  It triggers various biochemical reactions in the body to prepare us to fight.  We may act on our anger, which typically won't yield good results because reactive mind is at play and we are unable to think clearly in that situation.  Or we may suppress our anger, sometimes for years on end.  An interesting observation I have found to be true in my case is that when anger arises, I project it on to whatever is going through my mind at that time which may or may not be what is happening in that instant -- may be the traffic, may be a family member, could be a coworker, a store clerk or even the weather!  I am very adept at suppressing the anger (I have decades of practice), but that is not the correct way to deal with it.  Unbridled expression also does not appear to be the correct solution in this case as it only leads to escalating anger and confrontation that is not likely to result in anything productive.

Which brings us to anxiety.  Suppressing fear and anger over a long period of time creates excessive stress hormones in the body which are not given appropriate release, e.g. a punching bag or vigorous exercise might provide a reasonable outlet at a physical level.  Really these need to be addressed at an emotional level so we understand what is causing these emotions.  In my case, these unresolved emotions have been buried for decades.  But in the absence of that, eventually these will cause symptoms of anxiety and physical ailments associated with anxiety.  It throws the adrenals in overdrive and causes us to always be in a hurry.  This in turn causes a loss in energy levels.  It's like having a caffeine high which eventually leads to a crash.  Occasional anxiety is probably normal.  Anxiety that lasts weeks or months or years is a problem.  Physical discomfort and ailments only serve to make this worse.

Which brings us to depression.  The body can maintain the heightened energy levels in the anxious state only for so long.  Anxiety attacks that happen often enough lead to depression.  One might think that depression is the body's way of shutting down and trying to repair the damage done by the anxiety.  Unfortunately, when the energy levels recover, we go back to anxiety and we cycle back and forth between these states.  And thus we remain stuck in this vicious cycle.

What is the solution?

I haven't experienced it fully yet.  Vipassana meditation teaches us that we should never react to sensations, but just observe them.  I have found that useful, and I'm able to invoke it more and more with regular sustained practice, but yet have overwhelming moments.  Bhakti yoga instructs us to chant mantras if we notice we are in such a state.  Chanting immediately calms the mind.  I use this practice as well when I remember to do so and find it especially useful when the sensations are too overwhelming to simply observe.  A couple of other practices I have found useful are gratitude (life could always be worse) and forgiveness (both for others and for the self).

In all of these states (and actually several other states, but that is a topic for a different time), Vipassana teaches us that the breath will be altered.  Usually the breath will speed up but is very shallow or even stall when in these states.  Which is why remembering to take deep breaths is often cited as a remedy to deal with the mind that is stuck in one of these states.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sattvic food on the go

(Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on this subject so use this information at your own risk.  Also, if you have any information to add, please let me know.  My email address is available in my profile.)

This is going to be a very long post, and I expect to update it over time.  It contains some general guidelines that I follow when traveling or eating out.

When traveling there is very little control over the type of food we have access to.  There are actually ways to cook even while on the go by carrying a portable rice cooker or hot plate, but for the purpose of this article I'll ignore the cooking option; if I ever figure out how to do that efficiently, I may write another article about that.

I have written about the subject of sattvic food in an earlier post.  I try to eat sattvic food as best as I can, but this means very limited eating out, because sattvic food must be fresh and needs to be prepared a certain way.  Since this post is about finding sattvic food on the go, it's mainly about where to find near-sattvic food based on the ingredients alone when eating out.  There's also the issue of chemicals in the food used as taste enhancers or preservatives but I'll ignore those as well.  FoodBabe is an excellent blog dedicated to investigating some of the weird ingredients in the processed foods found in restaurants and on store shelves.

So for the purpose of this article, we define sattvic food as lacto-vegetarian without onions, garlic, mushrooms, or vinegar.  I admit this is quite a warped definition, but we need to start somewhere!

Often, no one knows what's in the food

Unfortunately, because of the "industrialization of food," the people serving the food are seldom aware of the ingredients.  In many cases they will have to go to the kitchen to ask the chef.  In many cases, the chef uses pre-prepared ingredients devised by an executive chef so unless there's information provided by the corporate office, even the chef may not know.  Most servers will claim that their food is "prepared from scratch and they can leave out any problem ingredients" but after checking with the kitchen they will come back and apologize.

Most restaurants do not understand the term lacto-vegetarian.   In the US, restaurants usually understand vegetarian as being lacto-ovo and assume cheese would be OK (even though it may contain animal rennet) as would sour cream (which sometimes contains gelatin).  However, they do understand the term vegan in which case they would avoid all animal products, so unless I have had the chance to thoroughly check the ingredients of the dishes, I usually ask for food that is vegan and without onions, garlic, mushrooms, or vinegar.

I'll start out with the different cuisines and what I watch out for.  I ask a lot of questions and I'm a pain when I eat out.  Often, I try and call ahead to find out what is possible, since many places cannot accommodate these requirements.  This is why I have only a preferred handful of places that I frequent.

A side-effect of skipping onions and garlic is that I can actually taste the underlying ingredients a lot better.  In many cases,  I find the ingredients like vegetables are stale.  Earlier there were times when I'd still just eat it.  Then I stopped eating it, but I'd still pay the bill and leave hungry.  Nowadays I usually complain to the server and if they still want me to pay, I will, but I leave hungry.  I would rather not mess up my already sensitive digestion.  Of course, a bad experience often means I will strike a restaurant off my list of places to visit.

Some places will accept the special request, but will serve food with onions and/or garlic anyway and hope that I won't be able to tell.  Unfortunately, my palate is now too sensitive, so I either send it back and have them redo it, or leave hungry with/without paying (depending on the options that they give me).

American/Sandwich

Most restaurants tend to have eggs in their bread.  They would not know that but for egg allergies being fairly common.  They usually don't know about rennet in cheese.  They often use frozen ingredients (e.g. fries) and may or may not know what goes into them and their seasoning.  Most veggie burgers will contain onions and/or garlic in the patties as do many of the side vegetables.  In general I try to avoid these places unless they can clarify with some certainty that the food is vegan with no onions, garlic, or mushrooms.   Sometimes all they have to offer is a salad, but I usually have to skip the dressing because of the eggs, onions, garlic that are often used in those.  Even vegan restaurants are often a challenge because their seasonings almost always contain onions and garlic.

Chinese/Thai

Most sauces are either pre-made or use starter pastes or powders that already contain onions and/or garlic and/or mushrooms.  Really, the only thing that is safe at both Chinese and Thai restaurants is a bland stir fry of vegetables in oil, possibly with fresh tofu.  If the tofu is "spiced," typically the hard type, it will often have onions and/or garlic.  Many Thai restaurants use fish sauce even in vegetarian dishes unless there is an explicit request to exclude it.  Many of the noodles are made with eggs.  If the tofu is sour, I assume it's gone stale.  I eat only the vegetables that taste fresh and leave the rest.  Fortunately, portions are usually oversized so I don't end up hungry.  Fortune cookies are almost always made with eggs.  

Many strict Buddhists avoid onions and garlic, so many places will understand this requirement.

Indian

Indian restaurants tend to be safer on average because usually they will have heard of the requirement for no onions and no garlic because of the Jain community.  However, I have found several surprising things.  In upwards of 50% of the restaurants in the US and Europe, they use eggs to make naan bread.  A safer option for bread is the tandoori roti which is made with whole wheat flour.  The sauces are usually pre-made or use pre-made powders and so the menu for items with no onions and no garlic is very limited.  Desserts such as kulfi may contain eggs; in some cases they source their desserts from some place else and they don't even know what ingredients they contain.  Usually, at Indian restaurants they tend to have the butter tomato sauce (makhani) which can be made without onions and garlic, or else it's pretty much sauteed vegetables such as cauliflower or okra.  Sometimes the okra is frozen; I found that out from a friendly server at one of the restaurants I frequent.

Italian 

Pizza crust is often made with eggs.  The sauces will usually contain onions or garlic.  Many times the olive oil they use is infused with garlic.  The breads they serve sometimes contains eggs.  Fresh pasta and stuffed pasta (e.g. ravioli) is usually made with eggs.  And the cheeses often contain animal rennet.  Among the seemingly lacto-vegetarian desserts, I try to watch for eggs in icecream and gelatin in things like panna cotta.

Usually, they can make a dried pasta tossed with a few vegetables in olive oil and salt.  If the pizza crust is made without eggs, they can usually skip the sauce and in some cases even the cheese (if unsure about animal rennet) and just top the pizza with some vegetables.

Foodbabe has a nice investigation on what's in your pizza.

Mexican

This is a really tough one.  Salsas usually have onions and/or garlic.  The cheese may contain animal rennet.  Most of their sauces have onions and/or garlic as do the beans.  Rice may be made with chicken stock or cooked with onions.  Flavored tortillas (such as spinach or tomato) will usually have onions and/or garlic.  About the only thing that may work at a Mexican restaurant is a quesadilla, but if I have to leave out the cheese, there may be little else to put it in.

Temples

Many temples such as the Hare Krishna temples offer food that is truly sattvic.  When traveling to other cities, I often try and look for these.  Even if they don't advertise meals as open to the public, they will often accommodate a visitor.  And some of the temples like the ones in Dallas and Vancouver have a restaurant attached to the temple.  Here is what looks like a fairly comprehensive directory of ISKCON restaurants.  Unfortunately, because is ISKCON is now quite fragmented, I haven't been able to find a reliable directory of temples, but I can usually rely on Google when looking for a temple in any given city.

Some cities have Buddhist temples that offer food without onions and garlic but they usually do use mushrooms.

Airlines

Most flights in the west tend to only offer vegan food and usually contains onions and garlic.  Some airlines offer Jain meals which work out really well.  Jain food does not contain onions or garlic but is even more strict by excluding certain vegetables such as potatoes.  Many airlines offer the Jain meal option only on flights to/from the Indian subcontinent.

Looking for vegetarian-friendly restaurants

happycow.net provides a worldwide directory and user reviews of vegetarian friendly restaurants.  Yelp is also helpful in this regard.

In a subsequent post, I will cover what I have found about the ingredients at popular chain restaurants, usually from communicating with their corporate office via their website.

Chain restaurants

Below are some options for sattvic food at chain restaurants.  Again, this is really using the term loosely as defined earlier in this post.  Most of these findings are based on private communication with their corporate offices via their website.  This information is accurate as of this writing, but things can change, so it never hurts to double-check at the time of ordering.
  • California Pizza Kitchen: CPK has a great resource on their website for vegetarians and vegans, which has a separate section for lacto-vegetarians, but then you have have to figure out how to exclude onions, garlic, mushrooms, vinegar, etc.  But a simple pizza would typically work OK.  They have several cheeses without animal rennet and their crust is made without eggs.  I have not been able to confirm whether their pizza sauce is made without onions and garlic.
  • Chipotle: The cilantro-lime rice is fine as is the cheese quesadilla (cheese does not use animal rennet).  The beans, tofu, salsas all contain onions and/or garlic.  They actually publish all their ingredients.  Wouldn't it be nice if all restaurants did this?
  • In-n-Out Burger: French fries are about the only thing.  Their cheese is made with animal rennet.
  • P F Changs: All of their sauces are either non-vegetarian or contains onions and garlic.  About the only thing you can get at PF Chang's is the steamed Buddha's feast (asking for no onions) and replacing the spiced tofu with silken tofu (the spiced tofu has either onions or garlic).
  • PizzaRev: Only the blue cheese contains animal rennet, other cheeses use vegetarian enzymes. The tomato sauce contains garlic powder.
  • Subway: They source their cheese from several suppliers so they can't guarantee that it will be without animal rennet.  Most of their breads are OK.  About the only thing you can get is a veggie sub with some fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil and salt/pepper.  Most of their dressings contain one or more of eggs/onions/garlic/vinegar.  For me, Subway is a last-resort type place because the quality of their food isn't all that great.
  • Wolfgang Puck: This is for the location at Denver airport.  Pizza dough is made without eggs and mozzarella and gorgonzola cheeses are without animal rennet.
  • ZPizza: Their mozzarella cheese does not contain animal rennet.  The crust is made without eggs.  The tomato sauce (different from their marinara sauce) does not contain onions or garlic.
Cheese brands
  • Bravo Farms: All cheese is made with vegetable rennet.
  • Emmi USA: Despite the labels on almost all of their cheese just listing "enzymes", from private communication, I found that only 2 of their cheeses from Switzerland are made with vegetarian rennet--the Switzerland Swiss and Don Olive.  The others are all made with animal rennet.  They also offer cheeses made in the US and most of those are made with microbial rennet.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Karnamrita Dasi

This Thanksgiving weekend at the Yoga Farm, we were lucky to have Karnamrita Dasi for kirtan on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.  She played the harmonium and was accompanied by a tabla player (a different one on Thursday and Friday/Saturday) and someone who alternated between playing the guitar and mandolin.

I knew this was going to be a treat.  I had seen Karnamrita several years ago (before I started writing this blog) at a performance at the Yoga Farm.  It was a great experience back then, so much that I bought her CD, Prayers by Women, and have listened to it regularly over the years.  I went hunting around for more music by her, but while there are lots of random recordings from festivals and such on youtube, the only other recorded piece I was able to find was her piece titled Om Purnam on the Sri Isopanishad in an album by Bada Haridas.

She brings an amazing energy with her sharing various stories from her and life and educating the audience about the lyrics and encouraging participation.  She grew up in an ashram community in the US, but spent several years in India learning music.  I really cannot adequately describe her voice or even the experience of being at the concert.  Her CD might give a slight glimpse into her voice, but there is so much more that is not captured by recordings.

On Friday evening, she told us to remember the name of an album she wanted to recommend --  the Radha Krsna Temple album which was produced by George Harrison (free version at archive.orgCD versioniTunes) .  Some photos from the recording of the Radha Krsna Temple album are available here.

On Saturday morning I found it on iTunes and it instantly sent me back to my college years when my dad would play this music at home in the mornings.  I cannot seem to tire from listening to Govinda, which contains verses from the Brahma Samhita, specifically verses 5.30 and 5.32, reproduced below.
veṇuṁ kvaṇantam aravinda-dalāyatākṣam-
barhāvataṁsam asitāmbuda-sundarāṅgam
kandarpa-koṭi-kamanīya-viśeṣa-śobhaṁ
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi 
aṅgāni yasya sakalendriya-vṛtti-manti
paśyanti pānti kalayanti ciraṁ jaganti
ānanda-cinmaya-sad-ujjvala-vigrahasya
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi
This was the first time I actually understood how to pronounce the words as Karnamrita had walked us through it on Friday night.

Listening to it over and over brought tears to my eyes as my mind was flooded with (mostly unhappy) memories of my teenage years and I started to realize how incomprehensible the meaning of life is with so much sadness and suffering as we go from birth to youth to old age and finally to death.

She said that she only sings in sanskrit (with a few exceptions), and also mentioned that memorizing the sanskrit texts such as the Brahma Samhita would keep ones memory sharp, such is the nature of the sanskrit language.

This was really a beautiful weekend as I spent three evenings in row at the Yoga Farm enjoying wonderful food cooked by Shambu and some of the most enchanting kirtan.

Albums featuring Karnamrita Dasi

Since first writing this article, I have come across some other pieces featuring her singing.  She doesn't do a good job of advertising her music but the following is a listing of the pieces that I've been able to find where she has either sung solo or as part of a group.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why is it hard to trust our instincts?

This is something I've been wanting to write about for a long time.  It is something that I found in the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The movie itself was an interesting, gripping watch, not to mention very violent as well, but this is about one specific scene in the movie.

This is towards the end of the movie in the scene in the basement with Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) suspended in chains and Martin Vanger (played by Stellan Skarsgard) about to kill him.  Martin says to him (via moviequotesandmore.com):
Let me ask you something. Why don't people trust their instincts? They sense something is wrong, someone is walking too close behind them. You knew something was wrong, but you came back into the house. Did I force you? Did I drag you in? No. All I had to do was offer you a drink. It's hard to believe that fear of a offending me is stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what? It is. And they always come willingly, and they sit there, they know its all over, just like you do.
These lines seemed very powerful and stuck with me.  Why?  I realize I often ignore my instincts and act in ways that might make me appear more socially acceptable.  In fact, I'm so used to burying my natural instincts that it is hard for me to even pinpoint what it is trying to tell me.  This is the kind of thing that leads to analysis-paralysis during decision making because the external parameters are often inadequate when capturing the effect of unknowns.

This quote from the movie did two things.  It articulated something which I felt has been true for me and also made me aware that it is probably not that uncommon.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A thin wallet

A few years ago, I looked for ways to thin my bulging bifold wallet. I had several bank cards (credit & ATM cards), airline cards, insurance cards, membership cards, etc. filling up all of the pockets in the wallet.  I used to carry the wallet in my back pocket.  I used to buy these wallets at Creative Leather Concepts, and had ordered so many from them over the years that they automatically discounted my purchases.

For some reason I decided one day that I wanted to simplify things.

Reducing the number of cards

So the first step in getting to a thinner wallet was to reduce the number of cards.  I separated my cards into piles -- cards that I'm likely to need daily or in an emergency, and cards that can be kept away.  In the first pile were my license, bank cards, insurance cards, and membership cards.  I decided all of the loyalty cards could stay out of the wallet and instead put them in a separate card case.  Next I reduced the number of bank cards by canceling all but 2 ATM and 2 credit cards.

The switch to the front pocket

That still left me with about 10-12 cards and so I continued using the same wallet and continued to carry it in my back pocket, until one day when I decided to try moving it to my front pocket.  This was the first time in around 35 years of carrying wallets that I decided to change the habit.  It immediately felt more comfortable and secure.  That's when I decided to try and find a slimmer wallet better to suited to carrying in the front pocket.

Incidentally, I later found that sitting on a fat wallet can cause sciatica.  I'm glad I decided to switch before I had any problems.

The alternatives

Searching around on the 'net I found a bunch of alternatives:
  • The Slimmy: This is one of the first ones that I came across.  But it would not have fit all the cards I needed and it required a complete change to the way I carried currency.  There were complaints from reviewers about stuff falling out of the wallet and all over the place.
  • Tyvek:  The next one was the Tyvek wallet.  These are more of a traditional design and super slim, but it just felt weird to be carrying around something that's a piece of paper, plus it looked like stuff would slide out too easily (especially the cards).  NICO is a slightly more sophisticated take on the Tyvek wallet.
  • All-ETT: I don't see the original All-ETT wallet listed here, but you can get an idea of what it looked like by looking at the sample in the link and thinking of a design that had 4 card slots, 2 on each side, organized one on top of the other.  This made the wallet too big to carry in a front pocket comfortably, but it seemed like an interesting design for a back pocket wallet.
  • Big Skinny:  Back then, they had only one product, which they no longer make!  The closest one they have now is the sport wallet.  That one was slightly larger (the size of the multi-pocket bifold) but it had one less compartment than even the sport wallet.  And the material was a microfiber similar to those in Prada bags.  They seemed to be able to accommodate 10-15 cards quite easily and had solved the problem of stuff falling out of the wallet by using a rubberized coating.  It was also non-leather, super thin, and at $20 was quite reasonably priced.
  • Money clips: This just didn't seem like a good idea with no real protection for the currency and the chance for cards to fall all over the place.
My choice

I ended up deciding on the Big Skinny because it seemed like the most practical of the lot and I wouldn't have to make any further adjustments to what I was carrying in my wallet.  I went through several of their original design.  And, since it has been discontinued, I have switched to the multi-pocket bifold.  I don't like the change in material, which now feels more like regular cloth, but I guess I can live with it.

One of the problems I've had with the Big Skinny is when traveling to Europe the currency is often too large and sticks out at the edges.  I usually end up having to fold it in interesting ways to get it to fit, and since these are very short trips, I don't bother to try to address it in a better way.  They do make a world wallet, but that takes away from the compactness.  Being an engineer, I've been trained to optimize for the common case.

Other interesting wallets

Here are some other wallets that I've come across later that I think look interesting, but I don't see a reason to change from the Big Skinny.
  • Unifold wallet: Made from a single piece of leather.
  • Bellroy: Website claims they're made from leather from end-of-life cows (i.e. cows that weren't slaughtered).  I saw these at Nordstrom and wasn't impressed with the thinness or the quality.
  • Waterfield: Hard to get stuff into and out of the card pockets.
  • RAGGEDedge: The material is too stiff and not conducive to holding many cards.
  • Mitchell: A slim money clip design.
  • minimum squared: Made from a single piece of very thin goat leather.
  • DUN wallet: Claims to be the world's thinnest leather billfold.  Holds up to 8 cards and 10 bills.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Free online education

Here are some reputable sites that offer free online courses.
Update 6/17/14 - Macroeconomics @ Coursera

I signed up for a macroeconomics course at Coursera.  The course lasted 11 weeks and required a 2-4 hour time commitment.  I actually completed the course taking all of the quizzes and the timed final exam at the end.  I also signed up for the Signature Track program which, for $49, gave me a verified certificate from Coursera and University of California, Irvine.

Having taken this course, I must say that 2-4 hours is the comfortable amount of time that I'm willing to spend on something like this.  Even with intense load at work during some of the weeks,  it's still easy to put in the necessary time to keep up.  So I plan to look for such courses.

One big negative is that the material is only provided via video and text files of the audio transcript.  What would be really useful is for the instructor to make available a pdf of the slides.  Several students asked for this in the course forums.  A student from an earlier course had taken screen shots from the videos and made them available for the first six or seven lessons.  One of the students in our class made his "notes" available which was a collection of selected screen shots and the text of the audio transcript (the audio transcripts corresponding to each video are provided as .txt files).

Overall it was an interesting experience and I plan to sign up for the companion microeconomics course at a future date.

Much of the material from the course is available at naturalmoney.org.

Update 9/16/14 - Microeconomics @ Coursera

Based on the fun I had with the microeconomics course, I decided to enroll in the companion microeconomics course.   I signed up for the Signature Track program for this course as well.

Here, once again, I was lucky to get slides from someone who had taken the course at a prior date.  I actually got access to those materials during the macroeconomics course and ended up sharing it with the rest of the class.

Much of the material from the course is available at naturalmoney.org.

Update 11/9/14 - Ivory Tower

I recently watched the movie Ivory Tower which is a documentary about the escalating cost of college education.  The movie paints MOOCs in a negative light -- it creates a class structure among students where those who can afford it go to a real college while those who cannot are stuck with the cheaper online option; that MOOCs don't offer the learning help and people interaction that are offered in a traditional college setting; that in experimental studies, the graduation rates with MOOCs are quite low.

It also mentioned two other sites offering MOOCs -- Udacity and edX -- which I have now added to the list above.

Other notable mentions in the movie were -- Deep Springs College, a college in California's Death Valley offering free tuition, room, and board for an associates degree in liberal arts;  and Cooper Union which transitioned from offering free education to charging tuition fees.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Using Ayurveda as a guide for diet

(Disclamer: I'm not trained in Ayurveda so this post is just based on what I've learned through my own reading, through consultations with Ayurvedic practitioners, and listening to educational talks from people with training in this field.)

According to Ayurveda, we are all born with a certain constitution called prakruti which is measured in terms of the three doshas - vata, pitta, and kapha.  Vikruti, on the other hand, is the current state of imbalances of the doshas in the body.  The doshas get out of balance due to unfavorable diet and lifestyle choices.  Long term imbalances in the dosha will cause the manifestation of various diseases in the body.  You can read a little more about prakruti and vikruti here.

Find out your prakruti and vikruti

The best way to find out your constitution according to Ayurveda would probably be to get a consultation from a practitioner.  They can usually assess the prakruti and vikruti by reading the pulse.  If you don't already know these, you can get a rough idea by taking one of more of the online quizes -- just google "dosha quiz" and several pop up.  You can try the interactive one at the Chopra Center or the printed ones at the Ayurvedic Institute (prakruti and vikruti).  

As stated in the instructions by the Ayurvedic Institute, it helps to take the quiz twice, once based on long-term tendencies for the prakruti, and once based on how one is feeling more recently for the vikruti which is why they have two forms.  The Chopra Center says the quiz is only for vikruti, but I guess if you filled it out based on long-term tendencies rather than what's been happening in the recent past, then it can be used to get an idea of the prakruti as well.

Finding balancing foods

Once you know your vikruti, you can consult an Ayurvedic food chart to learn about which foods would be best for balancing the doshas.  For example, if one finds that one is primarily pitta dosha, then one should try and eat pitta pacifying foods more often than not.  Some of the foods are pacifying/favored by all doshas.  Such foods are sometimes referred to as tridoshic foods.

Summary

I've found these guidelines to be somewhat helpful for bringing my body back into balance.   It takes a long time to heal the body just through diet changes and often the help of herbs may be needed.  However, by eating foods that agree with us, we immediately start to experience better digestion. 

My constitution is vata-pitta, so I try to eat foods that are favorable for both vata and pitta doshas.  In other words, I try and find foods that are in the columns of the food chart showing they are favorable for both vata and pitta.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blogger template designer not working?

For several months now, I've had trouble with getting my blogger template working.  I finally came across this article which provides a detailed step-by-step guide for fixing the problem.

By reinitializing the template, even though Google Analytics reported in its status that it was "Receiving Data," it really wasn't.  When I went back and checked the template, I found that the javascript for Google Analytics was gone.  I had to reinsert that to get things working again.  A couple of useful references for this:

A brief introduction to Hinduism

When I was a student at Duke University, one of our professors in the electrical & computer engineering department, Dr. Kishor Trivedi, distributed a small booklet titled "An introduction to Hinduism."  I read it back then, but I wasn't really in a position to appreciate it.  Now, almost 15 years since I graduated, I picked up the booklet and reread it and it made a lot more sense, probably because of the time I have been spending at the Yoga Farm on Saturday evenings listening to their teachings.

I was able to find a pdf of the booklet online.  I really like the way it categorizes the ancient Hindu texts, philosophies, and beliefs.  Well worth a read if you have an interest in this subject.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Miserable and magical

Last year, I wrote about a graduation speech by Nipun Mehta on the subject of Learning to Walk.  Today, I learned via the Service Space mailing list that he had delivered another speech, this time to graduating high school students titled Miserable & Magical.

The theme of the talk is generosity.
The first key is to give
The second key is to receive
The third key is to dance
He has several inspiring anecdotes to exemplify each of those points.  Well worth a read.

This is very much in tune with the theme of the movie I Am, which I saw a while ago.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Holistic medicine going mainstream?

I recently came across an article in Duke Magazine titled "The cure for the common medical practice."  The article discusses some of the services being offered by the Duke Integrative Medicine.  It is encouraging to see holistic medicine being adopted at an institution renowned for its academic programs and hospitals in the field of western medicine.

Update 11/30/2014

Closer to home in Sacramento, I recently came across the website for Sutter Center for Integrative Holistic Health.  I have no idea how good it is as I have not yet tried it.  I also came across the following articles in Sacramento Magazine:
Update 06/04/2016

Came across this release from the NIH.  Many interesting stats:
  • Nearly 18 million adults and 927,000 children practiced meditation.
  • Children whose parents use a complementary health approach are more likely to use one as well.
Related reading

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What happened to the links for astrology forecasts?

For many years now, since around 1994/1995, I maintained a page with links for astrology forecasts using my account at Duke University where I was a graduate student at the time.  I continued to have access to the account even after I graduated.  A few months ago, I lost the ability to login to my account there.  Then a couple of weeks or so ago the page went offline.  As a result, I didn't have a way to notify users of the page about the new location.

I'm currently hosting the page at anoop.bitballoon.com.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Finding a good credit card

This is a post to summarize some features I look for in a credit card and resources for where to research them.  It has been a long time since I applied for one, though.

Must haves
  • No annual fee.  Since there are many options without fees, why pay a fee?  Some cards offer interesting concierge and travel benefits but their fees can be as high as $400-$500 a year.  Since I don't have a lifestyle to take advantage of those, I don't bother with them.
  • Cash back.  There are many cards which offer cash back varying from < 1% to 5%.  Some have rotating categories of spending (e.g. for one month you get 2% on groceries, otherwise it falls back to the standard rate of 0.5%), some are tiered (e.g. 1% for the first $5000 spent per year, 2% thereafter, etc.).  I don't think it's that critical to try and optimize this return.  Just getting something is good enough.
  • Annual summary statement.  This is a great benefit at least for me.  At the beginning of each year, I can toss out all of the statements and just hang on to the annual summary statement.
  • Auto rental insurance.  Having this allows one to decline the various insurance add-ons that rental car companies tend to offer.  The catch is that the rental must be paid for with that credit card.
  • Extended warranty.  Many cards offer an extended warranty for products purchased with the card, doubling the manufacturer's warranty, up to 2 years.
  • Good customer service.  This one is hard to figure out without actually getting the card.  At a minimum, there should be 24-7 customer service, and it shouldn't be something that is only automated after hours.
Nice to have
  • No foreign exchange transaction fee.  This is a fee that credit cards usually tack on to purchases made in a foreign currency, even though it might be a web purchase.  The typical fee is about 3% but some cards charge a lower fee, like 1%.  This is getting harder to avoid.  There are cards which offered no foreign transaction fees in the past but now charge 1%.
Don't care for
  • Loyalty programs.  I don't care for cards that offer frequent flyer miles or other loyalty programs such as hotel or shopping points.  This means that I am stuck with whatever they offer and I find that restricts my options when it comes time to plan for travel or shopping.
  • Low interest rate or balance transfer fees.  I usually pay my card in full each billing cycle.
How many cards?

Can't have zero because we need credit cards for such basic things as renting a car and reserving a hotel room.  One card can be limiting.  Sometimes, there are situations where a card is lost, forgotten at a merchant, or compromised by fraud and thus deactivated.  In those situations, it helps to have a second card handy.  Finally, having just one card may mean that it is not accepted everywhere.  For example, many places in Europe do not accept American Express.  Also, while VISA and Mastercard are almost universally accepted in the US, there are merchants in Europe that will accept only one or the other.  So it's generally a good idea to have at least 2, or maybe even 3 cards.

I would avoid getting too many cards or even getting a card for its introductory freebies and then canceling it.  Your personal details will be in too many places and despite all of the security, there can be loss or theft of that personal information and identity theft is on the rise.

Credit cards and credit history

Each time we apply for a credit card, our credit score gets dinged; not by much, but it does get dinged.  So that is something to keep in mind.  Getting lots of cards and canceling them also dings the credit score.  Having lots of high-balance credit cards, even if they are not used, negatively impacts the credit score because the person is viewed being at risk of being able to run up large balances.  Finally, even after we close a credit card account, it typically remains in the credit report for up to 7 years.

Places to research credit cards
Additional reading
(Disclaimer:  I am not an expert in this area.  This is just a quick summary of what I've learned over the years.  If you happen to find an inaccuracies, I'd appreciate hearing about them so I can correct them.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Hasu Patel

This past Saturday there was a sitar concert by Hasu Patel at the Yoga Farm.

I have seen her play several times over the years -- she usually makes it to the Yoga Farm at least once a year.  She's a music teacher so she usually explains the differences between Indian and Western classical music.  I don't know much about music myself so I'm unable to appreciate those lessons.  However, it is always a treat to listen to her play.  I find her music both uplifting and meditative.

You can listen to samples of her music here.  She mentioned that she had composed the concertos during a stay at the Yoga Farm.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Presentation at the Yoga Farm on prana

Last weekend there was an interesting slide presentation on the topic of prana.  It was a fairly long presentation and there's no way I'm going to be able to remember everything that was said, but here are a few of my takeaways from the presentation.

What is prana?

Prana is the life force within us.  It is what makes us "feel good" and allows us to think clearly.  From a scientific standpoint, one can think of it as energy.  For example, when we are tired, we have trouble thinking clearly and are usually more irritable.

Where do we get prana?

We get prana from the way our sense organs interact with the environment.  Here are some of the examples.
  • Eating good food with high-prana.  Foods that are fresh and that digest easily, e.g. fresh fruits, light organic vegetarian foods, etc. increase prana.  On the other hand, consuming foods that are heavily processed or stale drains the energy.  Consuming stimulants (coffee, sugar, alcohol, tobacco) also depletes energy.
  • Aromatherapy.
  • Pranayama -- breathing exercises.
  • Thoughts -- positive thinking.
  • From being in nature -- the sun, the ocean or river, the earth.  Being in high-rises and concrete jungles drains prana.
  • Getting rest and sleep.
Regulating prana

Once we get prana, it's important to regulate it.  A child has lots of prana but wastes it by running around without cause.  One has to learn how to store prana and use it consciously.

Beware of times when you have low prana

When prana is low, we are most susceptible to riding it even lower.  For example, when we are low on energy and not feeling good, we become susceptible to the temptation of stimulants (coffee, sugar, alcohol, tobacco) and while succumbing to them may make us feel a little better in the short term, it further depletes the prana eventually making us even worse off.  Instead, we should follow some of the suggestions above for increasing prana.

Prana and meditation

It takes prana to meditate and meditation increases prana.  So it's hard to meditate if one has low prana.  This makes sense to me because if I try to meditate when I'm tired, there is strong tendency to drift into sleep.  That's why it's usually easiest to meditate in the mornings after a night of good rest.  A catnap is more effective when I'm exhausted.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Uma Reed & Friends

Yesterday, at the Yoga Farm, there was a concert by a kirtan group Uma Reed & Friends.  The kirtan program was enjoyable, but what I found more noteworthy were the stories by one of the members of the group, Shivaya.

Shivaya had spent a number of years as a wandering sadhu in India.  He had spent time with Neem Karoli Baba in Rishikesh in the foothills of the himalayas.  Neem Karoli Baba didn't have a very high opinion of many of the practicing gurus at that time, but he did have a high regard for Swami Sivananda (the Yoga Farm was started by a disciple of Swami Sivananda).  He told us a couple of interesting stories of Neem Karoli Baba.

The first story was about a time when Swami Chidanana, a disciple of Swami Sivanada, who succeeded Swami Sivananda as the head of the ashram in Rishikesh, came to meet Neem Karoli Baba.  He brought with him a bag containing six oranges.  That day, as visitors came to the ashram, he'd pick an orange out of the bag and give it to them.  After more than twenty people had visited and they were about the leave for the day, Neem Karoli Baba handed the bag back to Swami Chidananda who was surprised that there were still six oranges in the bag.

The second story about about several occasions when Neem Karoli baba visited the Sivananda ashram in Rishikesh; the chowkidaar (security guard) at the front gate never noticed him entering or leaving.

I was intrigued by Shivaya's background (from living as a sadhu to returning to the material world), so I went up to speak to him after the program.  I asked him why he left the life of a sadhu to return to the material world.  He said it was thrown to him as a challenge by someone and somehow he was able to carry the peace with him.  He also told of his miraculous healing from gangrene while he was a sadhu.  I asked him if he had ever met yogis that were very old. (I had heard about such yogis from a person that visits holy places in the himalayas regularly.)  He mentioned he had met one that was 138 years old and another that he knows to still be alive at 163.

When I got back home, I googled around for information about Neem Karoli Baba.  I found it interesting that Julia Roberts was inspired to practice Hinduism because she saw of a picture of his.

I wrote this post to share a couple of stories I heard that my scientific mind finds hard to believe.  I don't know that I have resolved for myself whether material life only, spiritual life only, or both are important.  For now, I'm trying to live a little of both.

Update 11/5/2013

Shivaya passed away on 11/02/2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

Life of Pi

I watched Life of Pi a few months ago.  It was an interesting film and special effects were quite nicely done.  The reason for this post is not because I want to write a detailed review of the film.  It's more because it left me kind of disturbed.

The two key takeaways that I left the film with were:
  • The meaning of life is whatever you choose to give it.  In the movie, the main character tells 2 versions of the same story and ask people which one they prefer.  Since there is no way to verify what actually happened, they are free to pick the version that appeals more to them.  In some sense, that is the case with life as well.  Two people, presented with the same circumstances, will interpret things completely differently based on their value system.
  • At a basic level humans are not very different from animals.  Throw out civilization, and the need to survive can turn us into cannibals.  Through civilization, we have learnt how live with one another, created laws and rules for socially acceptable living, and, in many societies, by providing access to basic needs, have eliminated the need for a bare, ruthless existence where we kill and consume one another.  Yet, where it is socially acceptable, like for example in the world of business and politics, we see this kind of behavior (in a figurative sense) all the time.
Anyway, that was just my interpretation of the film.  I've talked about it with several friends and colleagues and many of them say based on what they've heard to be the message of the film, they'd rather not see it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A new host for my web page

I attended graduate school in the Electrical and Computer Engineering departments at Duke University where I built my first home page. I just had a bunch of HTML files all in a folder public_html folder. My account and web pages there have been active all along. I started looking for alternatives for a similar service ever since I graduated (which was a long time ago).
These were my requirements:
  • Free (or nearly free). 
  • Allows me to provide my own HTML and CSS files. 
  • Strongly prefer no advertisements. 
Many years ago, Geocities provided such a service. Geocities was subsequently acquired by Yahoo, and Yahoo later discontinued the service. So I had to look for yet another alternative.

Most places that advertise that they offer free websites don't really offer the control of hosting your own HTML files (or even if they did, I wasn't able to find it). Among several options that I explored were Google Sites, Weebly, and Wordpress. All of these require one to pick a pre-defined template and then edit content within the confines of that template. I never quite liked any of the templates. In fact, I'm not particularly crazy about the template of this blog, but it works. I kind of like things plain.

Dropbox

I was pleasantly surprised when I accidentally stumbled across someone that was hosting his HTML files on Dropbox. After confirming with him that that is indeed what he was doing, I created an account and moved my files over to Dropbox to be my new home on the web. It met all the 3 requirements that I stated above. Dropbox is actually a file sharing/file synchronization service. However, they have a public folder and anything that is put there can be shared with anyone. So one can have both HTML and non-HTML files and they would all be publicly accessible.

But all that ended in 2016...

Bitballoon

On 8/31/2016, I received the following email from Dropbox:
Hi Anoop, 
We’re writing to let you know that we’ll be discontinuing the ability to render HTML content in-browser via shared links or Public Folder. If you're using Dropbox shared links to host HTML files for a website, the content will no longer display in-browser. 
Please note that this change will take effect for your account on October 3, 2016, and only impacts how shared files are displayed on the web. Your files will remain safe in Dropbox. 
Thanks for being a loyal Dropbox user. 
- The Dropbox Team
As a result I started looking for another low-maintenance website.  I found a couple of blogs about this topic and quickly signed up for bitballoon.  My new site is at http://anoop.bitballoon.com.

If you would like to keep working with Dropbox

I later found out that there are at least a couple of ways to continue using Dropbox.  They are:
Both essentially allow you to render html files stored in a Dropbox Apps folder.  The main difference between them is that htmldrop will actually sync the files and thus provides better download times.

Other alternatives

Non-Dropbox alternatives that I explored


  • https://pages.github.com/ -- seems similar to bitballoon in terms of management complexity.

  • Here area a couple of blogs that discuss static web hosting alternatives.  Both are somewhat dated.

    Friday, February 1, 2013

    Memorable books from my school days

    As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I don't do much reading beyond required reading.  But here are some memorable books that were part of my school curriculum (secondary school and high school) in India.
    • The Arabian Nights (multiple short stories)
    • Jungle Pictures by Norah Burke
    • Tales from Far and Near (multiple short stories)
    • Panorama (a collection of poems)
    • The Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond
    • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
    I wish I could get copies of all these.

    Thursday, January 31, 2013

    What is profit?

    Every once in a while, a story that I read a long time ago bubbles through the depths of my memory into my present attention.  This post is about one such story.  I don't read very much, other than required reading, and this story is one that was part of our English curriculum while attending high school in India.

    At first, I could vaguely remember only some of the details of the story.  It attempted to explain what  profit was.  The gist of the story was that it is possible to make a profit without taking from the work of someone else.  It used a primitive community as its example where the members of the community spent all day doing mundane tasks for bare existence.  It then discussed how the community evolved and everybody in the community benefited from ideas of one of the members of the community.  That member noticed they could improve the way they did things in such a way that everyone benefited, and in exchange, asked for slices of time saved by the other members of the community.

    Thanks to Google, I was able to locate the story on the 'net.  The story is titled "Letter to His Grandson" by Fred I. Kent.  Here's how it starts out:
    Mr. Kent’s grandson, then a schoolboy, was disturbed by the current fashion of disparaging the profit system. He had asked his grandfather to explain just how there can be a profit which is not taken from the work of someone else. 
    April 1942 
    My dear grandson: 
    I will answer your question as simply as I can. Profit is the result of enterprise which builds for others as well as for the enterpriser. 
    You can read the rest at the website of the Free Market Foundation.

    (I stole the title of this post from a friend who incorrectly remembered the title of the essay as being "What is Profit?" And I was disappointed that most of my high school peers didn't even remember that we had such a story as part of our curriculum!)

    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    Resources for buying a car

    This post is a collection of resources that I've found to be useful for buying new cars.  Because I tend to research things endlessly, I figure I might as well put all of my findings in one place.  One significant issue that I have no experience with is leasing, so that is not addressed.

    Let's begin with the first question.

    How much car can I afford?

    A question that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a car purchase is "how much can I afford?"  Some people think it's as simple as having sufficient savings to pay cash for the car, while others look at it as the ability to afford the monthly payment of financing the car.  Yet others will say "If you have to ask, then you can't afford it."  I see this as a personal decision because people do their financial planning differently (some prefer to be more conservative than others), but here are a couple of resources that I have found useful.

    Bankrate.com has an article titled "How much car can you afford?", which states:
    How much should you spend on a new car? Not more than 20 percent of monthly income, say experts. "This includes payments on all the cars you may own, whether you have one vehicle or six," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief at Edmunds.com. "And we're talking about your take-home pay, not your gross income."
    They do have some exceptions to the rule which are stated in the article.  But it also leaves some open questions:
    • Does this rule assume that the car is being financed?  Or leased?
    • Does it include maintenance costs and the cost of insurance?
    Another respected name in the financial planning world, Dave Ramsey, in response to a similar question, says:
    The total value of all of your vehicles—things with a motor in them—should not be more than half of your annual income.
    Again, there are some open questions:
    • Is he talking about pre-tax or post-tax income?
    Which leads us to the second question.

    What is the cost of owning and operating the car?

    While purchase price is one factor, cars that are more expensive to purchase are often more expensive to maintain as well.  For this, we can get some guidance from Edmunds.com's True Cost to Own (TCO) calculator.
    And now there is a new tool that reveals the hidden costs -- all the costs -- associated with buying, owning and operating a car over a five-year-period.
    There are some issues with the calculator.
    • It assumes you're looking for ownership over 5 years.  If you own for less, it will probably cost more per year than the 5 year number.  Conversely, if you own for longer than 5 years, it will cost you less per year than the 5 year number.
    • It assumes that the car will be driven 15,000 miles a year.  Most will drive more or less than that number, and some, significantly so.
    • It assumes that the car is being financed, but there is no mention of the interest rate.  If purchasing with cash, one can get rid of the finance charge.  (But there is still some loss of income since the money would have been earning interest in a savings account.)
    Yet, it is useful for getting a ballpark figure for what it would cost to own the car.  Even though some manufacturers offer free maintenance, they don't cover the cost of tires.  And tires on high-performance cars wear out pretty quickly and are more expensive to replace than tires for regular cars.

    The tool also has the capability to price the car with options.

    So let's take an example.  Running the calculator for a 2012 Honda Civic DX sedan with an automatic transmission, we find that the purchase price of the car is $16,924, but the total cost of ownership over a 5 year period, 15,000 miles a year is $37,113.














    This gives an average annual ownership cost of $7,422.60.

    Putting it all together

    Now that we have the annual true cost of ownership of the car, we can decide what percentage of income we're willing to spend on the car (which in turn would depend on several factors such as the number of cars in the household, other debt/obligations, etc.) and decide whether or not we can afford it.

    The purchase process

    There are a couple of websites that will allow you to build the car and price it with options.  These sites also provide the "true market value" (TMV) which is the average price people in a certain area have paid for that car.  This can be useful for knowing what would be a reasonable price to pay for the car.
    • Edmunds: This site provides the ability to get quotes for the car and contact dealers that are willing to offer it at that price on your behalf.  From the homepage, click New Cars, scroll down and select a make, then select the year and the model, and that will take you to the page where you can price the car with options.  It provides the invoice price, MSRP, and TMV.
    • KBB: Offers a pricing tool that is similar to Edmunds.
    • Truecar: A number of banks, credit unions, and credit card companies, offer a car buying program where they provide one with a quote and contact participating dealers on one's behalf.  For example, the American Express program is available here.
    • AAA: Members can take advantage of AAA's car buying service.
    The quotes and dealer contact are offered with no obligation, so it's always OK to walk away if a dealer doesn't honor the price that was quoted by the website.

    Extended warranties

    Most cars come with a bumper-to-bumper warranty for some period of time -- usually 3 yrs/36000 miles, while luxury cars come with a longer warranty of 4 yrs/50,0000 miles.  Whether or not an extended warranty makes sense depends on the reliability history of the brand/car.  I've always purchased extended warranties on my car.  Here are a few things that I have found helpful:
    • Wait until close to the expiration of original warranty.  It may be wasted money if one decides, for whatever reason, to get rid of the car while it's under the original warranty.
    • Buy only the extended warranty that is offered by the manufacturer of the vehicle.  Normally, the dealer tries to push other third-party extended warranties, but I stay away from those.
    • Pay attention to any exclusions.  The last warranty that I bought specifically excluded the radio/CD player and navigation.  My car didn't have navigation so the latter wasn't an issue, and fortunately I didn't have any issues with radio/CD player.
    • Shop around by calling several dealers.  Often, it is possible to buy these remotely by just sending in recently used key (many car keys contain information about the mileage of the vehicle), so there is no need to limit yourself to dealers that are close by.  Prices can vary quite significantly.  Usually, you'll be dealing with someone in the finance department at the dealership rather than a regular car salesperson.
    Prepaid service plans

    Some manufactures offer service plans for the car.  Sometimes the service plan is already included in the cost of the vehicle; e.g. as of this writing, all BMW come with prepaid service for 4 yrs/50,000 miles.  Other manufacturers may offer pre-paid service for an extra charge.  Some things to check on about these plans are:

    • Do they cover all wear and tear items (e.g. brakes and wiper blades) or do they just cover scheduled maintenance items.
    • How long is the plan valid for?
    • If the car comes with a prepaid service plan, can an extended service plan be purchased?
    • If the car comes with a prepaid service plan, wait until close to the expiration of original plan.  Otherwise, it may be wasted money if one decides, for whatever reason, to get rid of the car while it's under the original plan.
    • Shop around by calling several dealers.  Often, it is possible to buy these remotely by just sending in recently used key (many car keys contain information about the mileage of the vehicle), so there is no need to limit yourself to dealers that are close by.  Prices can vary quite significantly.  Usually, you'll be dealing with someone in the finance department at the dealership rather than a regular car salesperson.
    Wheel and tire insurance

    Some car manufacturers offer wheel and tire insurance plans.  Depending on the type of car, these could make sense.  Car with low profile tires, run flat tires, and large rims (18" or 19") are especially prone to being damaged by hitting potholes or curbs.  And they are usually very expensive to replace.

    Other add ons

    Many dealers try to sell other add ons such as paint protection or fabric protection.  Personally, I don't think these are worth it, especially if it's not something that is coming from the vehicle manufacturer.

    A few more inputs for the decision process
    Driving reviews from magazines are useful because they provide insights into some quirks that one might not otherwise notice during a test drive.

    Related reading

    Wednesday, January 16, 2013

    Going green, living healthy: Food

    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.

    From my standpoint, "going green" with food means being more in touch with raw ingredients that go into making food and minimizing consumption of processed and packaged foods.  It takes quite a lot of effort to do that given the time constraints imposed by modern living.  Let's look at some of the things that I have found matter to me by look at the following 4 questions:
    • How is the food grown?
    • How does the food get to you?
    • How is the food processed or prepared?
    • How is the food packaged?
    How is the food grown?

    The most important thing here is to look for food that is grown without pesticides, without chemical fertilizers, and non-genetically modified.  There are local farmers that I've encountered that claim they don't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they can't afford the cost of organic certification.  At the same time, we have big businesses that will try to game the organic certification process by getting regulators to relax the requirements.  Obviously, the only way to know for sure what you're getting is to grow the food yourself or buy locally from a grower that you trust.  It's kind of hard to do that exclusively, but some ways to get going in that direction are shopping at farmer's markets, and looking at options for community supported agriculture (CSA).

    There are several other types of farming that I've recently become aware of, but I'm not an expert on these to really know what they are all about and be able to compare them.

    • Veganic refers to food that is grown without any animal byproduct such as bone meal and blood meal that are permitted for use as fertilizers when growing organic produce.
    • Biodynamic farming seems to be about farming in a way that heals the earth.
    • Permaculture seems to be about sustainability and while it includes how food is grown, it goes beyond that aspect covering issues such as home building and landscaping.
    How does the food get to you?

    A closely related question would be "where is the food grown?"  Naturally there is a difference in the resources it takes to ship food a few miles versus shipping it thousands of miles across the globe.  Food that is local is likely to be fresher and I've heard from proponents of Ayurveda that it is healthier to eat seasonal, locally grown foods.  To be shipped half way across the globe, all sorts of extreme measures would be required including picking the produce before it ripens and possibly freezing it.

    How is the food processed or prepared?

    Unfortunately the nutrition labels on packaged and processed foods simply don't do justice because they typically only tell you what is required by law and no more.  Let's say for example we buy potato chips cooked in olive oil.  We know that olive oil heated beyond the smoke point becomes toxic.  While this is a simple example and is probably not a cause for concern, in general, the more the ingredients, the more one has to be careful about how it was prepared because combining certain ingredients and heating or cooling them a certain way could cause them to become toxic, or at the very least, something that is hard for the body to process.  Nutrition labels, for example, won't tell how the salt that is used in the product was processed and a variety of chemicals can be used in the processing of commonly available table salt.

    In general, I try to buy foods that have the least amount of processing, but it's not always possible.  Got to satisfy those cravings for processed foods every once in a while.

    How is the food packaged?

    In general, less packaging is better because it's easier on the environment and we don't have to worry about the safety of the packaging materials.  Many canned foods, for example, have been found to contain traces of BPA.

    A word about restaurants

    Restaurants, at least in the US, depend a lot on processed and pre-prepared ingredients for their menus.  Even though the food that arrives at the table appears fresh, they are often made with sauces or other ingredients that are processed food.  This is the reason why they can maintain consistency of taste even across geographies and regardless of the chef preparing the food.

    Additional resources

    These here some organizations that bring us information on what is happening with our food supply.