Viewing entries posted in 2007
I attended a presentation by Michael Uschold of Boeing corporation Phantom Works. He talked about ontologies and semantic applications and the pressing need for them in today's software industry. I thought it was a great presentation. The following is a summary of his ideas from what I gathered while listening:
Dr. Uschold explained that when one is talking to someone about semantics one needs to sell its value. One should provide answers to the following questions: how will semantics help? Why is it better? What is the cost / benefits? Where will it fit in the architecture?
For example: there was a task at Boeing that required someone to write a report every three months. Writing the report involved the guy formulating a bunch of database queries, loading the results into Excel, messing around with the data a bit to shape it into the required form, and then writing the report. Altogether this was a 20-hour task. Doing the same task with ontology would be much quicker and produce a more accurate and more complete result. This is because ontologies uses the same schema (or language) for everything in the workflow. There is no need to convert between different data representations.
So, the value of ontologies for IT systems is that they allow systems to be more tightly coupled. In a traditional system the semantics are implicit. That is, they are hard wired into the system. You can't see them, you can't change them and you can't maintain them. So, more often than not, the system's requirements are out of sync with the applications'. For example: suppose someone creates a model (in UML) and write the code according to that model (in Java), then the requirements changes and the code is updated to match the new requirements, but no one ever updates the model. Over time the model and the code grow further and further apart until the model is all but useless. With an ontology the model is directly used to drive the system. Any change to the requirements requires a change to the ontology model and that, in turn, results in a change to the system. The result: everything is up-to-date all the time. This is the holy grail of semantic systems: a model driven architecture (remember that buzz word!).
The benefit of semantics is that they allow common access to information. Ontologies have unambiguous formal semantics. So, for example: in a semantic data warehouse, the ontology can provide a common schema for querying multiple databases; when doing system integration, the ontology allows for enterprise wide interoperability; and when capturing organizational knowledge, the ontology allows this knowledge to be stored, queried and accessed throughout the organization.
Speaking of querying: semantics enable better search. Semantic search goes a step beyond basic keyword-based search. It allows for detailed and very specific question answering and document retrieval.
Semantics offer many benefits in knowledge management. They allow organization to retain knowledge (e.g. when people retire), share knowledge and enable communities of practice (by e.g. informing people throughout the organization about who knows what). Semantics enable secure knowledge authoring and storage, since a rich ontology- or rule-based specification can accurately and reliably control everything that anyone is allowed to see and/or change. Semantic knowledge management would be especially useful for compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxly business process act (which all large organization are severely struggling to comply with, because it is so ridiculously complicated).
Semantic technology allows for lean and agile application development. With a database you are stuck with a given schema that was designed according to a specific problem scenario. Want to ask a different question? Then you would better get ready to spend at least two days rewriting all your SQL, or watch your performance go down the drain like nobody's business. The ontology allows for improved reliability, consistency and reusability. People still don't know how to reuse code. An ontology, however, is built for re-use.
So, in short, the benefits of semantic technology are: flexibility, flexibility, flexibility!
Ontologies do have some limitations, however. They can't do everything.
For one, scaling is a big issue. Reasoners currently have difficulty providing efficient a-box reasoning (answering questions about a large number of individuals/instances), as well as dealing with very large ontologies. Then there also is not much in the way of commercial application support for ontologies. The triple stores on the market are, for the most part, really, really dumb. They just store triples. If you want any reasoning support at all, you need to do it yourself.
Then there is workflow control. There needs to be more support for collaborative ontology development and change management. Large groups need to be able to concurrently build ontologies.
Another major issue that is limiting the adoption of semantic technology is that it is pretty much impossible for a normal person to understand. Take OWL restrictions, for example (please!). To describe a "big red ball", one needs to write: "class: ball, that has an anonymous superclass of which some values from are restricted over the property "hasSize" with the filler of the class of "Big" and some values from are restricted over the property of "hasColor" with the filler of the class of "Red". How bizarre is that?! The non-logician/non-geek just wanted to describe a ball, not get into the details of hopelessly complicated formal logic (and that was an easy example!). The complicated stuff really needs to happen behind the scenes.
Finally: we still need code. Ontology models can't yet drive the whole system. They are just a small part of a very big picture.
Questions that need answering
There are a few common questions that people in industry need to have answered before they will adopt semantic technologies. These include: how do I use my ontology in my architecture? How do I integrate this into my Eclipse framework? How does it link into my middleware? Which API(s) should i use? Will I have to roll-my-own all the time, or can I use some kind of IDE for ontologies?
So, what we really need is a book that covers: semantic middleware and semantic programming (i.e. telling the reading: "this is Jena and this is what it does", "this is Jess and this is what is does", etc.). That, coupled with an ontology programming interface that abstracts some of the APIs and programming tasks needed for ontology development, would go a long way towards enabling the adoption of semantic technologies in real-world applications.
Yippee! Today I submitted my PhD thesis. All 256 pages of it are now in the graduate office being processed. Copies will eventually be sent to my examiners. So, now the only thing left to do is wait for my final viva.
I gave a presentation at the K-CAP 2007 conference. It, along with all my other papers, can be found in the publications section of this website.
You can view the research paper, the slides of my presentation, and an animated movie of my presentation (slides + audio). To view the movie click the image below to download (quicktime h.264):
The research gives techniques and a methodology for multi-user editing of ontologies. It suggests a technique for locking segments of description logics ontologies for multi-user editing. This technique fits into a methodology for ontology editing in which multiple ontology engineers concurrently lock, extract modify, error-check and re-merge individual segments of a large ontology. The technique aims to provide a pragmatic compromise between a very restrictive approach that might offer complete error protection, but make useful multi-user interactions impossible and a wide-open, anything-goes editing paradigm, which offers little to no protection.
The research gives an overview of ten different ontology engineering projects??(TM) infrastructures, architectures and workflows. It especially focuses on issues regarding collaborative ontology modeling. The survey leads on to a discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of asynchronous and synchronous modalities of multi-user editing. This discussion highlights issues, trends and problems in the field of multi-user ontology development.
Interactive Knowledge Externalization and Combination for SECI model
Yoshinori Hijikata from Osaka University in Japan talked about capturing both tacit and explicit knowledge from two people while they are engage in a conversation. Stages of the conversation are: socialization, externalization, internalization and combination. The GRAPE interface was used to allow the users to collaboratively build a classification tree as they speak. Four general discussion models were observed: (1) both users understand and agree with each other based upon their individual experiences, (2) one user doesn't have knowledge of the topic being discussed, but understands the other user's explanation, (3) one user doesn't understands the other user's explanation completely, but nevertheless modifies his own understand, because he trusts the other user's expertise, (4) both users disagree with each other, but one user reluctantly gives into the other user.
A Luis von Ahn talked about the CAPTCHA test he developed. The test is designed to protect a website from being misused by automated computer programs. A computer has trouble passing the test, but a human can pass it with ease. This has led to a whole new industry of "captcha sweat shops" where spam companies employ people in developing countries to solve captcha tests all day long, so they can sign up for free email accounts and use these to send out spam. In total about 200 million captchas are solves every day. Solving a captcha takes an average human 10 seconds. So, this amounts to a great deal of wasted distributed human processing power.
This led to the development of reCAPTCHA, a game that has all the advantages of a regular captcha, but also helps the OCR process of digitizing all the world's books. A scanned word from a book that a computer could not recognize accurately is offered up as a captcha for the human to interpret.
Luis von Ahn also developed the ESP game, where people have to assign keywords to an image with a partner with whom they can't communicate. If both people guess the same keyword, they win and the keyword gets assigned to that image. The keywording helps services like Google's image search to return more accurate search results.
The scary thing is how much information can be found out about a person just by monitoring them playing the game. After just 15 minutes of game-play, the researchers could predict a person's 5-year age bucket with 85% accuracy and gender with 95% accuracy (only a male would, for example, attempt to label a picture of Britney Spears as "hot"). This is just from a short time anonymously playing an online game, so, you imagine just how much information Google knows about you based upon what search for?
Some other new games being developed in Luis von Ahn's lab are: Squigl, a game where two players trace out an image; Verbosity, a game where people are asked to describe a secret word via a template of questions; Tag-A-Tune, a game to label sounds. All these games and more will soon be coming to the Games With A Purpose (GWAP) website.
Maintaining Constraint-based Applications
Tomas Eric Nordlander talked about a brilliant constraints programming system for hospital inventory control. He defined Knowledge Acquisition as: "the transfer and transformation of problem-solving expertise from some knowledge source into a program. The process includes knowledge representation, refining, verification and testing". He goes on to define Knowledge Maintenance as: "including adding, updating, verifying, and validating the content; discarding outdated and redundant knowledge and detecting knowledge gaps that need to be filled. The process involves simulating the effect that any maintenance action might have". Knowledge Maintenance is extremely important, but frequently under-appreciated.
The author designed a system named proCAM for Cork University Hospital. This system replaced the hospital's previous manual logistics system. It had to answer three basic questions: what products to store? When should the inventory be replenished? How much should be ordered? To answer these questions, proCAM considered: historic demand, service level (risk of being out of stock), space constrains, time constraints, holding cost, ordering cost, current stock level, periodic review time, and more. These can be generalized into physical constraints, policy constraints, guidelines and suggestions (nice to order and store two products together that get used together).
proCAM used a combination of operational research algorithms and constraint programming (CSP) to do its magic. It is very easy to use. The users of proCAM only see two values on the display: the order level (the stock level at which a new order should be placed) and the order number (the amount of the product that should be ordered). Behind the scenes, the system takes all constraints and past history into account to calculate the ideal order amounts. It can even detect seasonal variations in stock usage patterns and adjust order amounts accordingly. If someone tries to order a product that violates one of the system's constraints, this violation is highlighted the user is given the option of: overriding the constraint and placing the order anyway, adjusting the constraint, or canceling the attempted order. Constraints can be maintained on-the-fly by hospital staff with this easy-to-use interface. proCAM also supports different sets of constraints between e.g. the day-shift and the night-shift staff of the hospital.
One could imagine the same system being adapted to almost any inventory control scenario.
Strategies for Lifelong Knowledge Extraction from the Web
Michele Banko (a student of Oren Etzioni's) taked about "Alice" system. Similar to TextRunner, Alice goes from a text corpus to extract facts, but also attempts to create logical theories (e.g citrus fruit = orange, kiwi). Alice adds generalized statements and embellishes class hierarchies. It allows lifelong learning. It does bottom-up, incremental acquisition of information. So, it will extract facts, discover the new concepts, generalize these facts and concepts and repeat this process indefinitely. The output is an updated domain theory.
Alice, when answering a query, does not use exhaustive search, because its data is never assumed to be perfect. Instead, it uses best-first search and search-by-analogy (association search) to navigate its knowledge tree.
Evaluation consisted of assessing the returned knowledge as: true, off-topic (true, but not interesting), vacuous, incomplete, erroneous. The system was 78% accurate. Problems occurred when the best-first search got distracted by going deep down a specific search branch.
She talked about the need to index ontologies for easier and faster search retrieval. Ontologies are different from text documents, so traditional text indexing can't be blindly applied. Ontologies are suppose to be conceptualizations of a domain, so the emphasis of this work was to take advantage of this aspect when indexing ontologies. Existing ontology indexing approaches use flat keyword indexes, human authored manual indexes or page-rank-like indexing techniques.
The author's semantic enhanced keyword approach works by unfolding all axioms in an ontology until all primitive concepts are extracted. These concept names are then weighed according to whether they are e.g. negated or not. Finally, because ontologies are conceptualizations of a domain, then it should be possible to take advantage of other people's conceptualizations of the same knowledge. So, the approach harvests wikipedia articles (and other articles link to from these articles) relevant to the ontology, and then uses latent semantic analysis to further tune the ontology keyword indexes.
Papers and presentation that I found interesting from day 1 of the K-CAP 2007 conference:
Oren Etzioni talked about his TextRunner knowledge extracting search engine. TextRunner gathers large amounts of knowledge from the web. It does this by focusing on semantically tractable sentences, finding the "illuminating phrases" and learning these in a self-supervised manner. It leverages the redundancy of the web, so, if something is said multiple times, it is more likely to be true.
This is all loaded into an SQL server and can be queried by anyone. If you type a query into the search engine it will return all the structured knowledge it knows about that query. For example: "Oren Etzioni is a professor" and "Oren Etzioni has an arm".
Capturing Knowledge About Philosophy
Michele Pasin talks about his PhiloSURFical project to build an ontology of the history of philosophy for the purpose of improving the browsing and searching experience for philosophy students and teachers. His view is that ontology should not be about true or beauty, but instead should focus on enabling reuse and sharing. Requirements for this tool were that it should support: uncertainty (e.g. of dates), information objects, interpretation of events, contradictory information and different viewpoints. The ontology itself is based upon CIDOC CRM. It captures events such when one philosopher interprets another's work, teaches a student, and/or debate with another scholar. The knowledge base contains 440 classes, 15000 instances, 7000 individual people, 7000 events and 500 axioms related to the philosopher Wittgenstein.
Searching Ontologies based on Content: Experiements in the Biomedical Domain
Harith Alani talked about the need for a good system to find existing ontologies on the web. Users need to find ontologies that they can reuse and/or bootstrap their own efforts. Existing content-based searching tools don't work, because, for example the Foundation Model of Anatomy (FMA) doesn't have an actual class called "anatomy" anywhere in it. So, a search for "anatomy" would not result in this ontology being returned.
The research involved interviewing a number of experts to established a gold standard. The experts were asked to list the good ontologies on certain topics (anatomy, physiological processes, pathology, histology). However, even the experts only agreed on 24% of answers.
The researchers new ontology search tools uses the wikipedia to expand the queried concepts (future work involves also using UMLS and WordNet to expand the query). The result was that Swoogle achieved an accuracy f-measure of 27% and the expanded term search's f-measure was 58%. The conclusion is that more ontology meta-data is necessary.
Capuring and Answering Questions Posed to a Knowledge-based Systems
Peter Clark from Vulcan, Inc. talks about their Halo project. The project aims to build a knowledge system (using the AURA knowledge authoring toolset) that can pass high-school level exams in physics, biology and chemistry. The system should be able to answer a free-text question such as: "a boulder is dropped off a cliff on a planet with 7 G gravity and takes 23 seconds until it hits the bottom. Disregarding air resistance, how high was the cliff?"
The system enforces a restricted simplified version of English that humans express the questions in (based upon Boeings Simplified English for aircraft manuals, modified for the specific domains). The language is both human usable and machine understandable.
Common sense assumptions need to be made explicit for the system. So, for example, in the above example it must be specific that the drop is straight downwards and not arced. So, the humans who were asking question to the system had to go through the following cycle: read original question text, re-write in controlled English, check with the system and take note of any re-writing tips, allow the system to turn the text into logic, check the paraphrase of the system's understanding, press the answer button and evaluate the system's attempted answer to the question, retry as necessary.
38% of biology questions were answered correctly with 1.5 re-tries per question (1-5 range).
37.5% of chemistry questions were answered correctly with 6.6 re-tries per question (1-19 range).
19% of physics question were answered correctly with 6.3 re-tries per question (1-18 range).
The researchers considered this to be a huge achievement! The system uses the sweet spot between logic and language to do something no other system before it could come close to. There was no single weak point that caused the system to give the wrong answer. Bad interpretation, bad query formation and missing knowledge all equally caused incorrect answers.
Amory Lovins (from the Rocky Mountain Institute) is a visiting professor for energy and the environment at Stanford University. He gave a series of talks about using clever design to improve energy efficiency in a variety of industries. I found the talks about improving the efficiency in buildings to be particularly interesting. It's amazing what one can do if one uses a few simple (or not so simple) technologies and designs in buildings.
Dr. Lovins gives examples of buildings in almost all the world's climates that can be built without costly energy wasting air conditioning or central heating systems. Using modern building materials can make a house very comfortable at a fraction of the cost. Better insulation turns out to be cheaper than the alternative of investing in artificial climate control. Better airflow design can make a house more healthy and comfortable.
Anyone that is living or working in a house that is too hot/cold in the summer/winter should listen to these lectures. Anyone that is building a new house should also definitely listen to these fascinating lectures.
I attended the recent Knowledge Capture (K-CAP 2007) conference in Whistler, Canada. I will write more on the interesting papers and presentation from the conference in future blog post. However, for now, some pictures from the conference and surroundings.
(yes, that is a real bear on the path)
(I've switched the Coppermine Gallery from a multi-page view to a single-page view for each album. The idea is to open pictures in a new tab (by ctrl/command-clicking on them), if you want a closer look at them. Tell me how you like the new layout.)
After almost four years of living in Manchester I took the opportunity of a friend visiting to explore the city. Here are some pictures of this mighty city in the North of England.
Pictures are from the Trafford Centre, my flat, Imperial War Museum, and City Centre.
I've heard a number of people express their intuitive belief in some kind of universal mind, great mysterious force, universal super-consciousness, or great white light. This mysterious energy guides us all and can facilitate the fulfillment of our desires, as well as provide great artistic inspiration.
This perception is, in fact, an amazingly deep intuitive understanding of the true nature of the universe. However, while intuition is well and good, intuition coupled with a scientific intellectual understanding of the "great mystery" is even better.
Maybe you think that it simply cannot be understood, or maybe you think it is different for everybody? However, judging by everything I've learnt, I believe that the science of Krishna consciousness can and does perfectly explain the "great mystery" and it does so in a completely logical left-brain way. At the same time, Krishna consciousness can also reinforce one's intuitive relationship with the "force". The end result is a complete realization of the nature of reality.
Many people these days are somewhat cynical of organized religions that demand faith in some kind of deity. They therefore prefer to believe in this somewhat undefined impersonal mystery. That is safe: the mystery doesn't make dogmatic demands, force you to surrender, etc. But have no fear: Krishna consciousness is different from "religion" as traditionally known. There is no blind following: everything has a good reason and purpose. In fact, all other spiritual traditions of the world make perfect sense when viewed under the Krishna conscious framework.
Different faiths exist for different purposes, mentalities, times, places and circumstances. However, Krishna consciousness deals with the eternal underlying reality. It is about engaging in a process of continuously deepening one's relationship with the "great mystery", becoming more aligned with its desires, intellectually understanding what it is and how it functions, feeling what it wants, etc. There is no blind faith, because one can experience the direct and indirect effects of this relationship on so many levels as one progresses in one's practice. One gets abundant sensory, mental and intellectual experience of the "mystery".
In order to get this experience, one needs to be willing to do the experiment and engage in Krishna conscious activities. Sadly, many people are afraid of doing so: "What if it turns out to be true? Will I have to change my behavior? Will I have to give everything up? What will become of my own personal wants and desires?"
(by the way, the answers to those question are (in order): You become happier than you've ever been. Only that which is causing you suffering. No. They remain eternally.)
So, the "great mystery" has a name: Krishna! And the relationship with Krishna is called Krishna consciousness. Krishna is described in great detail in the Vedic literature. He has many aspects. One such aspect is the great all-expansive impersonal force that pervades everything (it is called the "Brahman" effulgence). Another is a unified personal form that exists distributed inside of every living being, constantly guiding, facilitating and protecting us all, if we are only willing to listen (it is called "Paramatma" in Sanskrit - roughly translated as "super-consciousness"). The third and final aspect of Krishna is a supreme individual personal form known as "Bhagavan". This aspect is the person whom most religions refer to as "God". Brahman and Paramatma aspects both emanate from the original Bhagavan personality.
Re-connecting with Krishna is the literal meaning behind the word "yoga". It is much more than the physical exercise for which the word is commonly known. The Vedas teach that all living beings are made up of a physical bodily machine, a subtle (but nevertheless material) mind and a spiritual consciousness. Any physical techniques only affect the body and mind. Real holistic yoga deals with all three and particularly focuses on the consciousness.
Our consciousness has been dulled because of being covered over by varying degrees of material contamination. Just like a mirror covered by a thick layer of dust, our covered consciousness limits our ability to "see" ourselves. If the covering of the body and mind is removed, i.e. if we become more and more aware of the consciousness as a separate entity from the body and mind, then we see with equal vision. We can see everything and everyone in their true position as a unique individual living entity of pure consciousness that is part of Krishna. In this way we are all the same, regardless of different physical bodies (male/female, young/old, black/white, rich/poor, christian/muslim, chinese/american, etc) and mental states and abilities (artistic ability, creativity, intelligence, anxiety, depression, etc). We are one. However, at the same time we also retain our unique individuality.
The benefit of engaging in the various yoga practices of Krishna consciousness are many: by removing the material covering and uncovering the underlying consciousness we develop "full-brain" insight into "everything" (i.e. both matter and spirit). We also gain a deep sense of personal fulfillment and happiness that is independent of external conditions. No more: "I'm happy because I won an award and got a raise at work". Instead: "I'm always happy, regardless of the circumstances, because my motivation is completely in-line with Krishna's desires". Normally, doing the same activity over and over again eventually becomes dry. However, if one's motivation is connected with Krishna, i.e. if one is "Krishna conscious", all activities are ever fresh.
The Vedic literature, in my experience, provides the deepest, most scientific, most complete and most authoritative knowledge of spirituality in all the world. Nothing else even comes close. Here is a quote from the literature that explains the "super-consciousness":
"It is stated in Bhagavad-gita that a person who is always absorbed in Krishna consciousness is the topmost yogi. What is Krishna consciousness? As the individual soul is present by his consciousness throughout his entire body, so the Supersoul, or Paramatma, is present throughout the whole creation by superconsciousness. This superconscious energy is imitated by the individual soul, who has limited consciousness. I can understand what is going on within my limited body, but I cannot feel what is going on in another's body. I am present throughout my body by my consciousness, but my consciousness is not present in another's body. The Supersoul, or Paramatma, however, being present everywhere and within everyone, is also conscious of everyone's existence. The theory that the soul and the Supersoul are one is not acceptable because it is not confirmed by authoritative Vedic literature. The individual soul's consciousness cannot act in superconsciousness. This superconsciousness can be achieved, however, by dovetailing individual consciousness with the consciousness of the Supreme. This dovetailing process is called surrender, or Krishna consciousness. From the teachings of Bhagavad-gita we learn very clearly that Arjuna, in the beginning, did not want to fight with his brothers and relatives, but after understanding Bhagavad-gita he dovetailed his consciousness with the superconsciousness of Krishna . He was then in Krishna consciousness." [Srimad Bhagavatam 3.15.45 (purport)]
Dr. Philip Weeks told me about the B12 crisis on my last visit to him. He had noticed that almost every devotee (practitioner of Krishna consciousness) who came to see him had a low level of the vitamin. An abrupt change in diet is probably to blame. Krishna consciousness automatically leads one to become vegetarian (as a pleasant positive side effect of the practice, not as an end in itself). However, if someone has been eating copious amounts of meat for generations and then suddenly stops their self-degrading practice, the body's B12 supply may run dry.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that B12 is stored in the body for a long time. So, a person may be fine for 2-years of not getting enough of the vitamin and then they suddenly start getting really sick for seemingly no reason. Symptoms of B12 deficiency are listed on the following websites:
The most common initial symptom is fatigue and depression (which indeed seems to be a common issues affecting many, many devotees).
So, what to do? First of all it is a good idea to go to a western doctor and have one's blood tested (though watch out for the B12 analogues which might confuse a blood test - read about those here and here too). That will reveal if indeed there is a lack of B12 in the body. If this is the case the vitamin has to be replenished. However, taking supplements won't really work, because B12 is very difficult to absorb into the body. It would take a long time of taking pills to replenish the body's vitamin supplies. The only two options seem to be getting a B12 injection from a doctor, or using the following ingenious B12 patches:
Then, once the B12-levels are up again, they can be kept up by taking Engevita Nutritional Yeast (one of the few reliable vegan sources of B12).
One might ask how vegan cultures got their supply of B12 for thousands of years before B12 injections were invented. Well, for one, the people in those cultures are probably genetically predisposed to surviving with a less supply of B12 than us westerners. Then there is also dirt. That's right: dirt! Surprisingly, dirt often contains some B12. Cow dung, for example, is very rich in the vitamin. Agricultural field used to be fertilized with cow dung, so a little bit of it would inevitably end up on people's plates. Nowadays, however, with chemical fertilizers being the order of the day and food being super-clean and sterile, dirt can only rarely find its way into our digestion system. So, no B12 for us.
I recorded my conversation with Dr Phil on the topic. Please listen to it here (5 minutes):
I just had a paper accepted for publication at the Second International Workshop on Modular Ontologies (WoMo 2007) co-located with the Knowledge Capture conference (K-CAP 2007). My paper is "The State of Multi-User Ontology Engineering".
An upcoming film about a Buddhist cook. This begs the question: why didn't they make a film like this with the Hare Krishna's instead? What's the "kitchen religion" Buddhism or Vaishnavaism (Krishna consciousness)?
There is obviously a market for and interest in this sort of movie. It seems like a great way to present our philosophy. Kurma prabhu are you listening?
I hosted another Saturday Feast at my flat today. The last time I hosted a feast I was a bit late cooking. I guess my multi-person cooking skills were a bit rusty, since it had been a while since I had done something like this. However, I seem to have gotten the hang of it again. Today I was a lot quicker. I got the lunch finished right on time, on the dot. 2.5 hours from start to finish to prepare the meal.
Unfortunately, no one was there to eat it. At first I thought I had made the classic mistake of establishing a precedent of actually starting 30-minutes later than I advertise (Sitapati talks about this common practice and its ill effects in his "preaching on purpose" eBook). However, it turned out that everyone was genuinely delayed for a variety of reasons. I had 5 guests in total.
On the menu for lunch:
Fennel Basmati White Rice
Seychellian Carri Coco Curry
South China Stir-Fry
Baked Potato Wedges
Banana Vanilla Soya Milk Drink
Pictures of the meal (click on the pictures for a full-size version):
One guest always asks me in amazement if I make the chutney myself or rather, buy them in a shop. They are really not at all difficult to make. So, if you're reading this, the recipe for tomato chutney is on page 80 in the "Great Vegetarian Dishes" cookbook by Kurma dasa (order from BLservices in Europe, Krishna.com in the USA, Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.uk).
After lunch we chanted one round (108 mantras) of the Hare Krishna mantra on beads in unison. Usually we have a kirtan, but today almost everyone brought their own japa beads, so I thought we might as well use them.
We then discussed the four seed verses of the Srimad Bhagavatam (2.9.33, 2.9.34, 2.9.35, 2.9.36). These verses are the first instructions that Krishna gave to Brahma, the first created living entity in our universe. From these instructions Brahma could expand the purport of all the Vedic literature. This discussion culminated in the need to gain this knowledge by disciplic succession. It is impossible to speculate and attain knowledge of the true personal form of God (the highest one can come with speculation is to the point of realizing that everything is "one"). Knowledge about Krishna must come down from Krishna himself, there is simply no other way to attain it. Just like an ant can't gain knowledge of the Large Hadron Collider by its own capacity.
On the advice of Dr. Weeks I've started using the local swimming pool's sauna to improve my health. Sauna vary in heat and humidity. The one in the Manchester Aquatic Center consists of a room heated to 80 C with relatively low humidity. They also have a steam room with 100% humidity. Some crazy suicidal people use really, really hot saunas.
From what I've read it seems that dry saunas are good for digestive disorders (dry up all the mucus in the body), while wet saunas/steam rooms are good for healing respiratory illnesses. In practice, I found that I much prefer the dry sauna to the wet ones.
Some people like to use the sauna after exercising, but, from what I've read, this is not a good idea. This is because the heat of the sauna increases greatly increases one's heart rate. The body needs lots of oxygen to sweat and cool itself down. After vigorous exercise one's body is already hot and sweaty, so if one jumps straight into the sauna in such a state, there is a magnified risk of heart attack. A 20-minute wait is therefore recommended between exercise and sauna use.
At first I couldn't stay in the sauna for more than 5-minutes. I could hardly breath and felt quite light headed. Finally stumbling out of the hot room I needed to lie down on one of the benches for 15-minutes to recover.
Now, however, after just 5 visits spread over the last 5 weeks, my body has gotten more used to the heat. I now initially stay in for 10-minutes, go out to cool off, in for another 8-minutes, cool off, in for another 6-minutes, cool-off, in for another 4-minutes, cool off, in for another 2-minutes, out cool-off and lie down for a good 20-minutes to recover. After that I do some swimming. I take it easy the first few laps of the pool, since I'm still a bit shaky after the heat-therapy.
The increase in time I can spend in the heat seems to be directly released to how much my body can sweat. Previous to using the sauna I would hardly sweat on any occasion. However, I think the intense heat has "encouraged" my body to open its sweat pores. It's like holding a gun up to the body and saying: "sweat or die!" The benefit is of this is not only that it allows me to spend more time in hot places. Sweating also removes toxins from the body. They literally ooze out the skin (eww, yuck).
My digestion improves more and more after each visit. At the moment the beneficial effect wears off four days after each visit. Let's hope the time period of well-being increases over time.
Corporations in the United States are increasingly hiring chaplains for the workplace. These clergymen come into the offices maybe once a week and employees can talk to them if and when they wish. The chaplains give confidential advice on all life's problems to those people that choose to take advantage of their guidance. They don't force themselves onto anyone who doesn't want their help.
A great benefit of the corporate chaplain is that in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world the chaplain is not some good-for-nothing boss, nor a double-crossing so-called mentor who really just has his own best interest in mind. Instead, he is there for just one reason: to care. And a little care and attention is really just all everyone wants, right?
The trend in the predominantly christian USA is to hire christian chaplains, but I see no reason why there couldn't be successful vaisnava chaplains, too. This is especially so in countries were the traditional churches are mistrusted or frowned upon. However, even in the USA the demand for corporate chaplains far exceeds the supply. There are just not enough spiritually educated people around who are will and able to genuinely care for others. It's a huge growth industry.
This makes me think of Ameyatma's article on implementing Varnashra Universities. But why establish external educational institutions that people need to make an effort to visit? Instead here is the possibility of meeting and helping people directly in their workplaces and getting paid for it too.
I think members of the Krishna consciousness network are ideally suited for this kind of non-sectarian, educational, care-given work. Indeed, employees who are getting guidance from Vaisnava chaplains are more likely to be able to lead a mode of goodness lifestyle, free from so many self-degrading activities. They can be happier, more productive and make spiritual progress, all at the same time. It's a win-win situation.
Someone should try this!
More information in the following articles:
Last Saturday I hosted a meeting at my flat. It had been a long time since I had done such a thing.
Just 3 guests came. Two regular friends and one friend of a friend: a German exchange student from Berlin who was new to Krishna consciousness.
We started off by having lunch and general chatting. On the menu:
- Sweet potatoes in cayenne, ginger and groundnut sauce
- Baked vegetables with rosemary (which I over-salted)
- Apple chutney
- Cashew basmati brown rice
- Chinese almond cookies
- Mango and orange nectar drink
After lunch we had a kirtan.
Then we discussed the second verse of the Bhagavatam (for 2 hours!). Actually, we only made through the first half of this verse. There is so much stuff packed into each Bhagavatam verse. One can talk about each verse for months!
The verse is:
"Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all. Such truth uproots the threefold miseries. This beautiful Bhagavatam, compiled by the great sage Vyasadeva [in his maturity], is sufficient in itself for God realization. What is the need of any other scripture? As soon as one attentively and submissively hears the message of Bhagavatam, by this culture of knowledge the Supreme Lord is established within his heart." (SB1.1.2)
All in all, every really enjoyed the afternoon of hearing, chanting and feasting. I must do this more often.
In this visit of mine to Dr. Philip Weeks' clinic I was surprised by the number of people in the waiting room. A whole bunch of other doctors and health-care practitioners have moved into the practice with Philip. Their skills very much complement each other. They are now treating many, many patients.
First some good news: the lump that had been developing under my chest has greatly reduced. Dr. Phil's remedy worked.
Philip bought a new Vega testing machine. This new one is more automated than the last. So, after a brief initial discussion, Phil hooked me up and let the machine electrocute me for a few minutes (I believe it tests the state of bodily organs by running specific frequencies of low power electricity through the body).
The result: bad. Practically all my organs were blocked. My body had reasonably high vitality, for some strange reason, but otherwise almost every organ had extremely low energy.
So, the solution was some intense acupuncture to revitalize the damp and musky husk that was in the body. Phil stuck needles in the center of my chest, ankles, knees and wrists. He also did some moxibustion near my knees. That is: he burnt a Chinese herb on my skin, which increases the body's heat.
The herb smells a lot like cannabis (although it isn't). So, many people mistakenly assume Phil is a smoker. Phil explained how weed is really bad for people. Some people with strong constitutions can get away with smoking it, but most people's vitality is just drained away to nothing by the drug. Devotees are especially affected: former practitioners of Krishna consciousness are very quickly inhabited by ghosts, if they start smoking marijuana.
After a long acupuncture session, throughout which Phil racked his brain, trying to figure out how to bend my body's energies back to flow the way they were supposed to flow, he finally got my chi somewhat flowing again. He loaded me up with some vitamin B-complex and some Horopito leaf (pseudowintera colorata) to take, whatever that is (the stuff, ironically, is from New Zealand) and sent me on my way.
Update: here another tidbit of information from the doctor. He commented on some new glasses of mine. I had gotten a pair of new frame-less glasses. These, he said, were better than the ones with a full metal frame around the lenses. Such metal loops can interfere with the electricity flowing through nerve cells in the brain, causing mental disorders. Some autistic children, for example, can be cured simply by swapping their glasses.
"The division of gross time is calculated as follows: two atoms make one double atom, and three double atoms make one hexatom. This hexatom is visible in the sunshine which enters through the holes of a window screen. One can clearly see that the hexatom goes up towards the sky." (SB3.11.05)
Scientists currently believe that the photon (also known as light) is the transmitter particle (gauge boson) for electromagnetic force. Photons supposedly have no mass and no electric charge. It is said that Einstein was the first person to theorize that these particles should exist (except he wasn't the first - not by a long shot!).
Photon (obviously) travel at the speed of light. They can be redirected by gravity (not because gravity attracts the photon like e.g. a magnet attracts iron, but because gravity bends the very space through which the photon flies).
Photons are strange because they behave both as waves and as particles at the same time (as demonstrated in the famous double-slit experiment).
Besides photons, which we "see" every day, there are supposedly a few other gauge bosons, or carrier particles for fundamental forces of nature. Specifically, there supposed to exist W and Z bosons (which supposedly cause the weak atomic interaction), gluons (which supposedly cause the strong atomic interaction) and the (totally speculative) gravitons (which supposedly cause gravity - although no one has ever detected a graviton).
Physicists are hard at work trying to figure out how these particles fit together in a grand unification theory. They believe that if they figure this out they will understand everything there is to know about the elegant universe with no need for primitive gods, deities and other "unscientific" stuff like that.
And here we have the Srimad Bhagavatam stating quite plainly and clearly, thousands of years before the advert of modern physics (or more precisely: the sage Maitreya speaking to Vidura sometime around the year 3102 B.C.), that the photon is actually made up of 6 (specifically 3 groups of 2) atomic particles. These Vedic Atoms (parama-anuh) are the true fundamental particles of nature. In different combinations these particles presumably also make up the other gauga bosons.
So, there we have the much vaunted unification theory.
Why do theoretical physicists not take notice?
Update: (disclaimer) My statements above are called into question by some good counter arguments in the comments to this post. This is not to say that the article is incorrect, but I nevertheless advise anyone reading this to read the comments and make up their own mind based upon what they think are the most reasonable assumptions.
I just had a paper accepted for publication at this year's Knowledge Capture conference (K-CAP 2007). My paper is "A Methodology for Asynchronous Multi-User Editing of Semantic Web Ontologies". It will serve as the basis of my upcoming PhD thesis.
So, see you in Whistler, Canada in October.
This video site has a number of how to and self-help videos. For example, the hilarious: how to give a great man-to-man hug video. The videos are informative and often really funny. I could see this site becoming quite popular in the future. They have a niche beyond the usual youtube clone.
So, how about videos on: "how to offer obeisances", "how to ask a question to a senior devotee", "how to enter the temple room", "how to wear a dhoti", "how to eat prasadam", etc.
Such videos would be more accessible than a book and potentially even quicker to produce. All it would take is a video camera, some aspiring devotee actors and a computer with good video editing software (such as iMovie on the Mac).
(see also my previous post on video blogging)
60 minutes has a report (A Pill to Forget?) (videos here) on a drug that can erase memories. Propranolol is a drug that (among other things) seems to erase link between an intense emotional event and the memory.
Psychiatrist hope to treat patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (i.e. victims of war, rape, or accidents). Usually if someone has experienced a traumatic event and then, years later, sees or hears something that reminds them of that experience, then the emotions from the trauma come back in full force. However, the drug shows promise that it can remove these painful memories.
It does its magic by blocking adrenaline from nerve cells. Adrenaline causes memories to really take root. We can see for ourselves: most long-lived memories are associated with some event that caused our body to produced lots of adrenaline. So, if the drug is taken shortly after a traumatic event, or even many years after the event, provided the victim is made to remember the thoughts and emotions of that time, then it breaks the link between the thoughts and the emotions. The memory fades away.
Opponents of the drug believe that our memories make us who we are. Erasing painful memories would rob us of the chance to become better people. They also fear the drug will be used recreationally, to erase minor unpleasant or embarrassing moments from our memory.
This strikes me as interesting and reminds me of a realization that a devotee recently shared with me:
The devotee is interested in remembering Krishna at the time of death. Everyone else is interested in remember as little as possible at the time of death.
This devotee doctor was telling me that death is super painful. Like 1000 scorpions biting you all at once. A dying person usually is given vast quantities of morphine to dull their brain so they feel and remember as little as possible. However, there comes a stage at the end of life where even morphine is no longer effective and the full pain takes effect.
However, the jaws of death are just like the jaws of a cat carrying her kitten to the devotee. The rat lives in terror of the fearsome cat jaw, but the kitten purrs contently as its mother carries it in the very same jaw.
The memory pill opponents do not know that we are not this body and mind. Our memories most certainly do not make us who we are. After all, we forget almost everything at the time of death. However, the subtle impressions remain. So, someone who has endured a life of a pig will subconsciously learn that maybe they should not engage in a gluttonous lifestyle when they become a human again.
Can this pill erase these subtle imprints? - I don't know.
One frightening thing however is that while the drug can erase bad memories it can also probably erase good ones. The Vedic culture makes use of so-called samskaras. Rituals at important life events that serve as imprints in people's memories. If the samskaras are Krishna conscious, then the person recalling these memories at the time of death can attain liberation (and avoid repeated birth in the animal kingdom) (BG 8.6 + BG 14.15).
Another perspective is that living with painful memories, day-after-day, is suffering we were destined to receive by our previous actions (bad karma). If we try to escape the suffering by taking a pill, it will just come back at us in some other way. No one can escape their karma (unless, of course, they practice devotional service and Krishna personally intervenes to give them a special personalized reduced package of karmic reaction that is best suited to bringing them back to Godhead).
So, this is yet another example of today's culture of ignorance and forgetfulness. Materialists want to forget as much as possible, while devotees want constant remembrance (smartavyah satatam vishnu).
Do it three times!
The news media is more than willing to publish a story, any story. If something is moderately well written and seems to be interesting, a local newspaper will publish it. If something is of interest to a broader spectrum of people, then a national newspaper will publish it. The trick is to publish the same news three times. Observe the stories from day-to-day and see this in effect. Heres a fictional example:
"Russia commits to donate $1 million to help world hunger."
(2 weeks later...)
"Russia starts the process of supplying one million dollars to feed the hungry all over the world."
(2 weeks later...)
"Russia has successfully completed the process of giving $1 million to charitable food distribution."
This makes it sound like Russia had given $3 million. People don't notice that it is the same story, worded slightly differently, repeated over and over again. They get three separate positive impressions on three separate occasions. One event gives triple the benefit.
Two weeks after my maha-long flight my body started malfunctioning. Digestion went down the drain, stomach wound itself up in pain and PhD work showed no gain. This if fairly normal for me. Two weeks after some damage to the body I get the delayed reaction. However, Phil thought his preemptive treatment should have prevented this from happening this time.
So, I emailed Dr Phil and asked for advice. His advice: fast for a day or two to give the digestion system a break, take loads of the clay and slippery elm powder to coat and heal the colon and drink loads of Aloe Vera juice to soothe the digestion and add some more healing power to the mix.
Just back from my trip to New Zealand I saw Dr Phil again. He did a brief calculation of my astrology. The result: it seems just around the time I'm due to finish my PhD my planetary influence moves from "study" to "work". My health should get a bit better too at that point. Oh and I'll have influential children...
The irregularity of travel had thrown my body a bit out of whack. I was feeling quite hot (where I'm usually too cold) and was needing only 6 hours sleep (not because I was healthy, but because my body was so confused it didn't quite know what to do and when).
Philip used acupuncture to sort those things out by unblocking a few meridians. He stuck needles in various exotic places like my arm pits, the upper side of my chest, my feet and the sides of my legs (the last two are fairly common).
I had some acupuncture done while in New Zealand and I asked Philip about this. The person I saw in NZ was trained to use as thick needles as possible and stuck them in as deep as possible.
"The bigger and deeper the needle, the more the effect." - he said
While this is true in one sense, Philip prefers a more subtle approach. Chinese bodies' constitutions are, in general, strong as oxen. They don't get sick like we westerns do. Traditional Chinese treatment is therefore too heavy handed for the average frail western body. So, it doesn't work. Systems of medicine have to be adapted to the changing conditions of the patient group. Even 20 years ago people were completely different and required a different alternative medical approach in order to heal them. The treatments of yesterday no longer work today. The doctor needs to keep learning and adapting.
A lump had been developing under the skin of my chest. It was very unlikely to be cancer around to western doctors, however they didn't have a cure. If it got too big they offered surgery as the only solution. "That's no solution" said Philip, "it has to be caused by something".
The acupuncture should help it. He also gave me a herbal mix to reduce growths and cancers, as well as increase my testosterone level slightly. He also gave me some zinc and probiotics to help my body in general.
After my stay in Wellington I went onwards to Auckland for a brief two day visit. I went to the Loft for one evening. It is very similar to Gaura Yoga in mood, style and popularity, although maybe a little more industrial looking. It is a very nice place that attracts many, many people to Krishna consciousness.
I went to visit the brahmacari monks living in "peaceful" South Auckland in a wonderful ashram environment. They live a very regulated life of distributing books (50000 Srimad Bhagavatam 1st Cantos in the warehouse, waiting to be distributed), studying books (2 hours each day), distributing prasadam (at the many Auckland universities) and chanting the Maha-Mantra (at least 16 round each day). Such wonderful character-building service to all of humanity! The brahmacaris also have a vegetable patch in their back garden. Such a moderately sized garden is enough to supply food for most of the year. So much so that they often have to give some away to the loft, because they can't eat it all. If it is so easy to feed 8 hungry men, then what is this non-sense about world hunger due to overpopulation (although granted, the population of New Zealand isn't exactly large)?
I also gave a talk about Krishna consciousness to students at Massey University in North Auckland. This was part of a series of activities the devotees had organized as part of a "spirituality week" that was going on there. Krishna consciousness was a welcome break from the legions of christians that jumped on top of every unsuspecting student that entered the main concourse the day before (I was told).
Just a few hours after that I was off on a 32 hour flight back to the UK.
Pictures from Auckland are viewable here.