2019-10-21 15:28

I bestirred myself to spend three hours yesterday digging up the flower bed in front of our house, separating lilies and daffodils, and mixing in compost. Jackie replanted the flowers that we’d thinned along with some Siberian squills and some irises. Now I can spend the winter dreaming of spring flowers.

Optimal Vitamin D Levels

Here’s a report on a study which measured vitamin D levels of Hadzabe and Maasai individuals living traditional hunter-gatherer or pastoral lifestyles, the data having been collected with an eye toward learning something about what would have been typical during our evolution as a species.

For the Hadzabe the mean was 109 nmol/l and for the Massai 119 nmol/l. These levels are not outside the reference range, but are way above the minimums.

[T]he mean vitamin D concentration of traditional Africans is indicative of the level that would have been typical throughout much of our evolution, and hence, the level that the human physiology would have grown accustomed to over millions of years. Hence, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that such a level may indeed represent optimality…

Source: The Vitamin D Levels of the Hadzabe and the Maasai: An Important Study That Flew Under the Radar

People not living traditional lifestyles can get enough sun to see similar levels, but probably not if they work in an office, and probably not at all in the winter (unless they live in the tropics).

I had my own vitamin D level measured once. It was 38.5 ng/mL (equivalent to 96 nmol/l) versus a reference range of

As I was observing just a few days ago, when exposed to sunlight, your skin does a lot more than just make vitamin D. I’m pretty sure that high vitamin D levels are just a marker for adequate sun exposure. Taking vitamin D supplements in sufficient quantity to raise your blood levels high enough to mimic those of people who get enough sun will produce no more benefit than gaming any metric does.

I’d be interested to know what my vitamin D levels are right now, after a long summer of getting plenty of sun. But not interested enough to go to the effort of convincing my doctor that it’s worth testing again, nor interested enough to pay for the test.

The world is so safe now

I used to make fun of our culture’s weird fixation on dangers from ordinary things, but now that I’ve seen it have its effect on Jackie’s mom (labeled a “fall risk” at the hospital and now confined to a wheelchair), it’s not so funny any more.

My theory is that this phenomenon has its roots in how safe daily life has gotten: Eliminate any particular danger and there’s always the next most dangerous thing.

I have been predicting for years—only partially tongue-in-cheek—that we’re dangerously close to feeling like it’s a “reasonable” precaution that everyone wear a helmet while taking a shower, because bathroom slip-and-fall injuries are probably the greatest non-motor-vehicle risk that ordinary people face.

Hospitals’ fear of elderly people falling is so great that they are preventing them from walking, reports The Washington Post. This is ostensibly for the patients’ own good — yet not getting up for even just a few days is crippling them…

Source: How We Are Treating Kids as Mirrored By How We Treat the Very Old: Crippling Them with Caution

Just as an aside: One thing about this that drives me crazy is that safety advocates have pushed for all sorts of changes to cars to make things safer for drivers and passengers, but I’ve seen almost no push to make cars safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. If you want to make things safer, there’s a place to start.

Fixin’ to update my blogroll

I’ve had a blogroll since I first started using blogging software instead of rolling my own site with hand-coded html and php. Even before that—almost 20 years ago, when I was getting set to go to Clarion—I was linking to the websites of writers I knew. Probably a dozen people in my class (or the Clarion West class of that same year), plus a few teachers, editors, and other writers that I had some connection to had blogs, and several others had websites. I made a point of linking to all of them.

I kept it up pretty well for a while, following people to their new sites and new links as they acquired domains and changed software. I figured one big benefit of getting to know a crop of fellow new writers was being able to link to one another’s websites, and then preserve those connections as (to varying degrees) we became famous. But various things—time, differential success, fashions in internet presence—have made blogs and blogrolls less of a thing. At the same time, my interests have expanded in other directions besides writing.

Sometime in the next week or so, I’m going to go through my blogroll and check what I’m linked to. I’ll delete dead links, and shift sites to the “website” category if the blog is there but no longer being updated. I’ll make similar changes to my list of websites. (Note: as part of my “Facebook is evil” thinking, I’m going to be dropping people whose only link is to a Facebook or Instagram page. Sorry, but: Evil.)

If you’re on my blogroll but your site is moved or idle, let me know what you want me to do—link to your new site, keep you on the blogroll (because you’re going to start blogging again one of these days), etc. If you’re not but want to be, let me know that too.

Attention, gratitude, compassion

Many years ago I read a pretty good book: How to Want What You Have by Timothy Miller. It teaches what is basically a stripped down, secularized Buddhism as a way to make yourself happier. I was reminded of it because I’ve just read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which covers similar material. I’d recommend either book for anyone who wants to be happier.

Reading a book about meditation made me realize that I’ve been meditating (in my own somewhat haphazard way) for a full ten years now. I don’t meditate every day, but for most of the year (while I’m teaching my taiji classes) I meditate at least five times a week.

Some people seem to find their meditation practice immediately reinforcing: the practice helps them deal with real world problems, which makes them more keen to meditate, which helps them even more, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

That hasn’t really been my experience.

I’ve long been inclined to blame that on initially not taking the meditation more seriously, and figure that if I’d just try a little harder to really meditate, rather than just go through the motions, I’d discover that it’s extremely useful to me just like other people find it useful for them.

That’s been true in a small way, but only a small way. And I think reading the Harris book has helped me spot one reason why not. His alternate title was The Voice in Your Head is an Asshole, and a good bit of his (and other people’s) experience of meditation is like that—their internal voices are belittling and denigrating, full of imposter syndrome and criticism. Meditation helps them by helping them understand that their internal voice is not them, and that they can easily go astray by paying too much attention to it.

My internal voice isn’t like that at all. My internal voice thinks I’m great. (I credit my mom for this. She thinks both of her sons are perfect in every way, and will countenance no disagreement.)

My internal voice isn’t without its flaws. It’s way too prone to remind me of things I did that were wrong or mean or unhelpful, as if it’s purpose were to make me embarrassed or unhappy. It’s also way too likely to get me started worrying about possible bad things that might happen in the future, sending me into a spiral of anxiety or depression. But it doesn’t think I’m bad. Just that bad things have happened in the past (that I should feel bad about) or that bad things might happen in the future (that I should worry about).

So I too can benefit from learning not to pay too much attention to my internal voice. But I don’t get the immediate payoff that comes to those whose internal voice is an asshole, rather than merely occasionally unhelpful.

Having been reminded of the Miller book, I was reminded of the other two legs of its recommended practice: gratitude and compassion.

I’ve made an occasional effort to practice gratitude. Click on the gratitude tag in the sidebar to see any number of instances where I documented a feeling of gratitude. I should do more of that, but I think I’ve gotten pretty good at gratitude, at least compared to when I was a child and had a lot of trouble feeling gratitude for the things I did have when there was so much that I wanted and didn’t have.

Which brings me to compassion. It turns out I have a tag for it too, although there was only one post under that tag before this one, where I wrote about how excited I was that Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes was coming out. One of McDougall’s main points is that compassion is a key attribute in a hero, every bit as important as bravery or strength.

The Miller book suggests a specific technique for practicing compassion, which is that whenever someone acts like an asshole, you imagine some reason why their behavior might be excusable, or at least understandable. The guy who cut you off in traffic? Maybe they’re rushing to the emergency room because a loved one was just in an accident. The dude who practically knocked you over because he was staring at his phone? Maybe his boss just fired him by text. The woman who overheard a casual comment in a private conversation and rudely took you to task for it somehow being offensive? Maybe your words reminded her of some past traumatic experience.

I have a friend who used to do this when we were officemates. Whenever I’d complain about somebody—typically for endangering my life with their careless or aggressive driving, but sometimes just for being rude or dismissive or inconveniencing me in some way—he would always have an excuse. Maybe the person was old or sick or injured or in pain or hadn’t slept well. He could always imagine some reason why that person should be excused for their behavior.

It was really annoying.

But I can now feel some compassion for his need to do that. Partially he was trying to help me—help me be less annoyed, help me learn how to feel compassion. But at least as much, I now understand, he was trying to remind himself to practice compassion for the people who made his life more difficult.

Dan Harris describes a specific Buddhist meditation technique for practicing compassion. Called metta meditation, it involves choosing a few compassionate phrases such as “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be filled with ease.” In your meditation direct them first at yourself, then at a series of others: a benefactor, a close friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and then “all beings.”

Time for me, I think, to step up my own gratitude and compassion practices. I think I’ll give metta meditation a try, and I’ll get back to gratitude journaling here on my blog.

Photo by Rosalie Lang

I find gratitude easy. I am, for example, grateful for the public art in our local parks. (If you’re an arachnophobe, you should be grateful that I didn’t go with my first impulse, which was to post a photo of the spider friend I saw in the house this morning, to which I’m grateful for its help with insect pests. Relatedly, I’m grateful to my mantis friend! And to a growing number of human friends, such as this human friend with Jackie!)

Compassion will take more practice, I fear. But I think it’s practice I’m ready for.

Turns out ALL the rays are actinic!

I observed years ago that the more sunlight I got the better I felt. Although “it’s the vitamin D” seemed like a reasonable hypothesis, I’ve been pretty careful not to just assume that—whenever I’ve written about this I’ve gone ahead and listed some of the other “active ingredients” that tend to come along with sun exposure—exercise, time in nature, etc. As I look into the matter more, I find there’s a growing body of evidence that sunlight itself does provide benefits, but it’s not just the UV light—the other frequencies of light are also actinic in all kinds of ways.

UV light

The UV light doesn’t just make vitamin D. It also has all sorts of other effects. In particular, it modulates your immune system in ways that reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis, and probably other autoimmune disorders and some cancers. It also reduces blood pressure. In mice it has been shown to limit diet-induced weight gain.

Blue light

We’ve long known that blue light (especially, but not exclusively, a specific frequency of blue-green light absorbed by a pigment in the eye called melanopsin) was critical for establishing and maintaining an appropriate circadian rhythm. Very recently we’ve discovered that adipose tissue expresses the genes that produce the same pigment and use it to vary how the cell acts. In particular, after exposure to an amount of blue-green light that might shine through skin exposed to full sun, fat cells reduce the amount of fat they store, and also produce less leptin (a hormone that affects feelings of satiety).

Red light

As I discussed a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of research on the effects of red and near-infrared light exposure. Here’s a page with links to a bunch of studies that suggest that red and near-infrared light boosts collagen synthesis, speeds healing of burns, incisions and broken bones, reduces inflammation, and generally reduces the effects of aging on your skin.

I guess that leaves us with orange and yellow light unaccounted for, but I don’t doubt that they’ll turn out to be actinic as well.

Recommended reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

At some level, I’ve always understood deep work—the sort of work where you sit down and focus on your task for 20 or 60 or 90 minutes, long enough finish a difficult task, or make real headway on a big project.

Even when I was quite young I’d use it to get large amounts done on some big project I’d made for myself. Deep work let me create codes and ciphers for securely communicating with Richard Molenaar. It let me create maps of the wooded areas in our neighborhood where we’d play, and then assign fantasy or science-fictional elements to them. Once it let me write quite a bit of scripture for an imaginary religion. Deep work let me create maps and keys for D&D adventures I was going to be DM-ing.

I’ve never quit using deep work on my own projects. At Clarion writing a short story every week entailed a great deal of deep work. Writing an article for Wise Bread was best accomplished with an hour or so of deep work.

For other people’s work—in school, in college, and as an employee—I more often used it to enable procrastination: On any small or medium-sized project I knew I could sit down a couple of days before a task was due and crank through the whole thing in one or a few long sessions of focused work.

Given that it was such a useful capability, I’ve long thought it was kind of odd that I never really honed my capability for deep work. But through the lens of this book, I think I’m coming to understand it now.

I used to think it was because I was lazy. It was only when I quit working a regular job and started writing for Wise Bread that I came to understand that I was never particularly lazy. Rather, I just didn’t want to do stuff I didn’t want to do. Lacking that understanding I did a poor job of arranging my (work) life so that there was a lot of work I wanted to do and only a little that I didn’t want to do. Once I had work that I wanted to do, I jumped right into using deep work to get it done.

Although I take my full share of the blame for not doing a better job of maximizing the work that I wanted to do, my various former employers also deserve plenty of blame. They routinely deprived me and (most of) my coworkers the opportunity to engage in deep work.

First, they tended not to assign people a single top-priority task, but rather a set of tasks of shifting priority. (I don’t think they did it in order to be able to blame the worker when they focused on the tasks that turned out in retrospect not to be the right tasks, although that was a common result. Rather, they were just abdicating their responsibility to do their jobs as managers.)

Second, they were (especially during the last few years I was working a regular job) constantly interrupting people to ask for status updates. (One randomly timed query along the lines of “Are you going to have that bug fixed by Thursday?” which from the manager’s point of view only interrupted me for 20 seconds could easily undo 60 or even 90 minutes of stack backtrace analysis.)

At some level it was clear that the managers understood this, because there were always a few privileged engineers whose time for deep work was protected. The rest of us resorted to generating our own time for deep work by coming in early or staying late or finding a place to hide or working off-site—all strategies that worked, but not as well as just being able to close the door of our office and focus.

It wasn’t all bad management though. There were times when there was no external obstacle to doing deep work, and yet I’d not be highly productive. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to understand what was going on here: When I suffer from seasonal depression I find it very hard to do deep work. As a coping mechanism—as a way to keep my job when I couldn’t do the deep work they’d hired me to do—I started seeking out shallow work that I could manage to be productive on.

It’s from that perspective that I found Deep Work even more interesting than the book that lead me to Cal Newport’s work, his more recent Digital Minimalism (that I talked about briefly in my recent post on social media).

The first part of the book is about what deep work is and makes the case that it’s valuable—things that, as I said, I understood. The rest of the book is largely devoted to teaching you how to arrange your life to maximize your opportunities for bringing deep work to bear on the work you want to get done. That part, in bits and pieces, helped me understand myself in a way that I really hadn’t before.

Deep work is the way to get a big or difficult task done, but everybody has some small or easy tasks that also need to get done, so there is plenty of opportunity to make effective use of shallow work as well. Newport lays out the distinction well and provides some clear guidelines as to when and how to use shallow work to do those things where it makes sense, and in a way that protects time for deep work. He also talks about the appeal of shallow work—it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s “productive” in the sense that a large number of micro-tasks can be quickly ticked off the list.

It’s been very good for me to be reminded of all these things, because it’s easy to fall out of the habit of using deep work to do big or difficult things. The sort of rapid-fire “productivity” of shallow work has its own seductive appeal, especially in the moment. It’s only after a week or a month of shallow work, when I look back and realize that I haven’t really gotten anything done, that I tend to remember the distinction—and then pointlessly feel bad that I haven’t made any progress on the big things I want to get done.

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great book for anyone who wants to do big or difficult things. (Also for people who manage such workers, although I don’t expect they’ll want to hear the message.)