Physical cues

We know that physical cues facilitate habit formation. We know that postures can be a physical cue. In my recent post Rules, I describe hand positions I was experimenting with to remind myself to think about standards and run experiments. In the same post I talk about a turn from using PDCA terminology to use the terminology of experimentation. A question for a few months had a minor fruition for me driving from Tulsa to OKC yesterday. The two sets of finger motions (fourth to first, first to fourth) are unnecessary. What is necessary is that we reflect on what standards may apply, given our objective, and experimentation. Experimentation, fundamentally, has three phases: before, during, and after. 

  1. Plan an experiment (think about the future)
  2. Run the experiment (think about the present, or the immediate future, the very next instant, which for our purposes is defined as the present)
  3. Reflect on the results (think about the past, and the artifacts it created, including data we collected during the experiment)

Additional phases break those three out: phases of preparation before the experiment, phases during experimentation, aspects of experimentation (including the test itself, and collecting data during the test), and all of the ways we can analyze and evaluate data after the test, propose adjustments, propose new standards based on the results, and so on.

So that leaves us with

  1. Thumb to index finger: think about standards
  2. Thumb to second finger: think about the future
  3. Thumb to third finger: think about the present
  4. Thumb to the fourth finger: think about the past.

Near the end of this lecture, Rabbi Michael Skobac talks about the use of posture in spiritual practice. “Nothing can’t be raised up into a meaningful spiritual experience.”

Airport Chapel

In his introduction to his own translation of Meditations, Gregory Hays observes about philosophy in the time of Marcus Aurelius,

Ancient philosophy certainly had its academic side. Athens and other large cities had publicly financed chairs of philosophy, and professional philosophers taught, argued, and wrote, as they do today. But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a ‘design for living’—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for.

Is this true? Did the myths that Edith Hamilton describes in Mythology do so little to inform the daily habits of individuals? It does seem as if individuals had less say in how they spent their time. Maybe there was less need for instruction?

I’ve always wondered whether its monotheism was the innovation that made Judaism so fertile in the West. In light of Hays’s observation, was Judaism’s unique trick to intertwine the myths and rituals of religion with a set of detailed instructions, and a clever set of reasons to follow them? 

I was away from work for two weeks. One week of kata training, and one with the family. I had four objectives:

x Spend a lot of time with my mom.
x See my friend Val twice.
x See my grandfather twice.
x Do rituals every morning and evening.

It’s the last one I’m interested in here. I kept it easily enough in the hotel, and while staying with my mom. Meditate for ten minutes, read some Epictetus, do The Founder, write a few sentences. Before going to bed, review any notes I had written on scraps of paper and put in my pockets, and picture getting up  the next morning.

Driving to the Philadelphia airport was tricky. Sudden and heavy snow. Flights delayed. I got out of Philly a few hours late, not in time to make the connecting flight in St. Louis to Tulsa. But there was a flight the next morning at 06:55. The flight landed in St. Louis around 11:00, so I wasn’t going to leave the terminal and go to a hotel. 

I wandered around the terminal. Sat on a rocking chair, listened to the warning that the moving walkway was coming to an end.  Read part of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons and texted Brit to tell her that there was an article about Estonia. Read an article on my phone about how to sleep in an airport terminal, and one about Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the “Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport from 26 August 1988 until July 2006….”

When I got up the next morning, I wondered what I should do. I thought of my rituals, and it seemed that I wouldn’t do that. But then I recalled that, wandering around the night before, I had passed an airport chapel. Of course I hesitated. Then I thought about Epictetus. Was he wrong? Should we maintain only a casual attitude toward our rituals? Are consistent, deliberately chosen habits conducive to mental health? Is BJ Fogg‘s research on Tiny Habits wrong? Do we not abandon ourselves, and make the world seem a little less reliable, each time we fail to follow through on our own intentions?

I didn’t know how to perform my rituals in the airport chapel, so I asked myself how I should walk there. I figured that out. Then I figured out how to open the door, etc. 


The Epictetus quote that I have recited the past several mornings is,

“Whatever rules you have adopted, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is none of your concern.”

What does it mean? First, it implies that you should adopt rules for yourself, and that you should do so very carefully. You wouldn’t pass laws that you didn’t think that you could follow. You wouldn’t enter into a religion the gods of which set impossible standards. So think your rules through.

It implies, also, that you should have a process for adopting rules. Use a process of experimentation on any  rule before adopting it. You should also have a process for eliminating a rule that, because of changing circumstances, is no longer serving its intended purpose. Only remove a rule from your list when you are calm, and not at the precise time that you are supposed to be following it. You never want to set yourself up for failure by having the option of abolishing the rule on the spot.

What does it imply that you should do when you transgress a rule? Should you flagellate yourself, or put yourself behind bars? No, but you should think hard and make serious plans to ensure that you don’t transgress it again. Ask yourself what you should do. Transgression should be a prompt for reflection. What was your intention when you adopted the rule? What outcome does it assist you in achieving or avoiding? Why did you transgress it? What, mentally, was going on at the time? What externally? What, done differently leading up to the event, would have prevented it? What about precisely when it occurred? Were there negative practical repercussions? What did you do about those? What should you have done? 

I use the mental technique of going back and visualizing myself not transgressing the rule. I play the scene leading up to it just as I remember it, but when it comes to the critical moment, I make the right decision. If I transgressed any rules that led to this one, then I correct those in the memory, too.

If there are behaviors that I engaged in that made me more likely to transgress the rule, I run another visualization in which I engage in safer behaviors. 

How do I know when a rule applies? As always, practice. When I lie down at night, and when I hear the alarm in the morning, I perform a simple exercise. I have a rule for going to bed and for getting up, and its primary purpose is to remind me to identify situations in which a standard applies, and to apply it:

  1. I put my thumb to my first finger, and ask questions like: what’s the standard (rule) for this behavior? (Or, when I’m trying to achieve such and result, what’s the process? Or, when such and such occurs, how do I respond? What’s the output standard? Are there input standards?)
  2. thumb to second: do it.
  3. thumb to third: what was the result? Did my performance (process) match the standard? Did my product (output) match the standard? Did the inputs meet their standards? If they didn’t, what did I do about it?
  4. thumb to fourth: do the standards need updated, or are they still correct?

This takes less than 10 seconds. By practicing it before going to bed, and right when I wake up, I ingrain it.

When I’m performing an action for which I can’t think of a standard, but suspect that I should develop one, I perform the hand mnemonic in reverse:

  1. thumb to fourth (finger): what am I trying to achieve? What don’t I understand? What question is most relevant? What experiment can I perform? What is my mental model of this situation? Can I make a prediction based on it? What do I predict will happen if I perform such and such?
  2. thumb to third: do it.
  3. thumb to second: what did I see? What is the data? What did I predict would happen? What actually happened. (Obviously, this is an adaptation of Mike Rother’s language.)
  4. thumb to the first: what can I extrapolate from this? Can I create a standard (a rule) from what I learned? Do I need to do additional experiments? What else do I need to learn? 

These are the SDCA and the PDCA.

As an aside, in his new book Mike Rother observes that PDCA remains jargon, and we’re probably better off using common terms like prediction→ test → data → evaluation. Think about it. Shewhart developed the PDCA as a specific industrial application of the scientific approach. Over the years, we’ve expanded its use to include all kinds of empirical modalities. So why not just go back to the plain language of science and empiricism? 

Also, when I break a rule, my primary technique for addressing it is asking myself questions about the situation. I’m not particularly hard on myself, because I know that if I make the process too unpleasant, I could lapse. Sustainability is the priority. I favor honest assessment over strict adherence. I seem to answer honestly when I ask questions about my adherence to my rules. And assertions are more impactful when they are framed by a question. 42.

The larger world


How did Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters come about? In other words: how could it be possible even? That’s what I wonder, even though these kinds of inquiries are not my habit. This is maybe the only movie that seems too close to be true. He admires the bar for its rectangularity. Other than wandering with OKC with Brit, I’ve never heard someone express such a familiar appreciation for the way a building occupies space. He engages in long-distance swimming. Tim Ferriss observes that over 80% of his high-achieving interviewees engage in some kind of meditative practice daily. 

Less than one minute in, he tells us: “The whole process of making art
is an act of faith, in a way.  This idea that you’re gonna will something
into existence that means something to the larger world.”

David Foster Wallace and Gregory Crewdson were both inspired by
David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. Wallace called Blue Velvet an epiphanic experience.  In Blue Velvet, Sandy Williams’s room is “Right above [her] father’s office.” In Brief Encounters, Crewdson describes listening, his “ear to the wall.” 

When Jeffrey Beaumont lays out his plan, what kind of friends are he and Sandy? They are sitting at the diner. Is their friendship one of Pleasure?
Utility? Or the Good? Jeffrey makes a somewhat philosophical argument:

There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge
and experience. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a risk.

Why isn’t he too scared? Is it courage? Is he a bad person?
No, he’s desperate to understand something.
About the world? 
No, about the world of his childhood. Just like Crewdson.

In 1997, Isabella Rossellini played Pallas Athena in a mini-series aired on NBC, May 18th. Of course Jeffrey is a very straightforward hero. He excavates and slays the beast.

What does one call those colonial houses, with the siding? Two stories, lining the streets of Dover. Back from some family trip, usually to visit family, my family back inside, in the kitchen and elsewhere, I sat in the car and listened to the engine cool, watched the signs of the fall. Pictured my family inside. My mom in the orange  incandescent light. The scene at thirty-one minutes makes my stomach ache.


Edith Hamilton wrote Mythology, explaining that the Greeks put the gods in human form, drew humans in detail for the first time, and called them gods.


Next month, December, I will fly into Logan Airport for business
at Cambridge, then drive down to Delaware, to see my mom and family.  I’ve watched this documentary three times and I am, each time,
astonished. Jeffrey says,

I’m seeing something that was always hidden.

Edith Hamilton calls Ovid out for impiety. He’s too playful. If Lynch is Virgil, is Tarantino Ovid? When Ben sings In Dreams at Pussy Heaven, Lynch is not Ovid, but Homer, singing hymns. It’s not ironic. It’s ceremony, ritual. Ben is donning Hercules’ Nemean lion pelt and playing the role. I asked a friend about her conscience, and she said that it’s a voice created by authority figures throughout her life. How strange. 

Inquiry, reasoning, and experimentation, each, are exploratory behaviors

What are these days where I can only stomach questions?  In other words, what causes them? I find myself asking these questions in a level pitch, without the elevation that marks inquiry. What effect does that have? Question after question in the melody of an incantation, what am I wandering off towards, what distant terrain?

Inquiry, reasoning, and experimentation—each, are exploratory behaviors.

I was talking with a friend. We were close together, my hand on her waist.  What is that wonderful feeling? How can skin feel that way? I asked her how. She told me, “I dry-brush.”

Alone again, miles away. I imagine some experiment.

If I work for one half-hour, this anxiety will wane.

I don’t know, but now it’s mixed with something else. Some grim pride and affinity for the world.

It’s better to work through it?

Yes. Scale of one to five. 
Five being terrified, envisioning myself being stabbed or beaten, lacerated; one being tranquility. 

In the chase over shadowy mountains and wind-swept peaks she delights,

And what was the effect of placing that there? And what was my intention? Why do I have to go through so many iterations? I don’t mind the first question being wrong, but the eleventh is worse. But we learn. We inquire further.

I mean, five. Obviously. If you use that scale.


Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Epistolary literature. Are we in Corinth? Camus wrote to us.

Heck, track 2


This track is about whale song. It opens and begins with them. The guitar is so rich. A spare but driving bass drum. Keyboards walking amiably along with chosen lyrics. Electric guitar recalling, for me, Lyle Lovett. From the first track, spare and elemental, this track is symphonic. 


Always lonesome—
I have heard your lonesome song.

Round the fire, come throw your hands up;
dance with us till we can stand no more.

Though the rain crash down 
around us,

and the gale blow out the sun,
sister, when you’re feeling lonesome,

call my name—
I’ll sing along.

So the road you travel’s wanderin’,
So your worries win you nothin’,

Tell me ’bout your troubles, darlin’,
hold a mirror to the setting sun.

Though these days of joy and sorrow
wear us out—

summer dress!—
brother, when you’re feelin’ lonesome,

call my name,
I’ve got a shoulder

where you can rest.

Lonesome, lonesome—
Sister, when you’re feeling lonesome—

Call my name!
I heard your song.

Call my name:
I will sing along.

The opening electric guitar makes me think of the 90’s.

There is a delightful and mournful xylophone(?) during “though these days of joy and sorrow…”

After the second invitation to a shoulder, the guitar gets so close and strong. With headphones on, it is almost overwhelming. There is actually a rising throughout , then a drop…followed by two final, lonesome whale songs. 


Heck, track 1

I pause my Meshuggah playlist to listen again to track 1. I’m not a music writer, but I like this album, the musician, and writing, so it seems like a good use of my time to think about all three at once. 

I don’t know how to write about music, but I do know that writing down descriptions and facts is something people do. And maybe they should. I know that I should.

Finding multiple references to a person increases our reason for  positing that they existed, or were a popular mythic figure. 

So I’ll write about the tracks of the album Heck, by my friend Michael Huff.

No News

Clean strumming guitar. Bass and treble distinct. I recall the advice of Ted Kooser, or the gist, anyway: Don’t qualify a noun with an adjective when the picture that will most likely come to the reader’s mind is right without it. Only use adjectives to tell the reader to imagine something else.

Michael’s treble notes sparkle like icicles. The bass notes are dulcet. 

(It starts off jangly and rumbly. The vocals sweet and matter of fact, as if he were reading a personals ad. “Looking for you” rises and tapers for an instant.)

“someone worth imitating
looking for you”

(Then the notes descend, then level.)

I’ve got no news.
I got new shoes.

(As if prompted by the recollection of his new footwear, he begins walking. Bursts of staccato. Pause after each word. Each word played with a single note of the guitar.)

When I have something to to say,
It’s said,
And then I listen back.

(Return the rolling notes of the guitar.)

Someone worth not imitating,
Looking for you.

(Recall that Elmo also waxed poetic about his new shoes. This time, after “I’ve got no news”, the guitar hits a high, sad, quizzical note. And “I got new shoes” is more resigned.)

I’ve got no news.
I got new shoes.

(Here there’s a repetition of the mode used first the time, but this time it, is it more resolute?)

When I have something to say,
It’s said,
And then I listen back. 

I like this song partly because it’s procedural. I like the way “I’ve got no news” qualifies “I got new shoes.” I like the way “I got new shoes” uses the doing verb “got” rather than be verb phrase “have got.” I imagine the act. The procedure of trying them on. But, still, he hasn’t any news.

Is this absence of news in regard to what he’s looking for? (Someone to imitate, to not imitate.)

Is he walking more? With whom is he talking?

The subtle diminution of agency in “It’s said.” He is not forbearing such that he walks through it step by step. Know a thing is to be said. Deciding to say it. It’s not that cumbersome. As he knows something is there to be said, so it comes out.

And then he listens back. Listens back. To hear what is produced.