Archive for the 'Happiness' Category

My First Nomad Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas


Lisbon, September 2017. I’ve spent a few pleasant weeks there. I think to myself, “Self — you’ve been living outside of the US for about 8 months now. And you’ve got a conference to go to in October. Shouldn’t you be thinking of ways of getting back to the US, like maybe eventually? Also, your country called, and it needs you.”

Fair point. But I was in no hurry to return, especially with Agent Orange in power and Greed as the national religion. How could I get back to the States, but slowly? Maybe on a boat. That moves slowly. And stops in a lot of places.

This could be the best idea I’ve ever had, or the worst. Anchors aweigh!

At a talk I attended the very day I had the boat idea, somebody mentioned in passing this thing called “The Nomad Cruise.” Excuse me, what is this? 14 days on the water, 4 ports of call, and a full program of talks and workshops covering everything from marketing, web design, photography, cryptocurrency, financial planning, and other topics of interest to location-independent entrepreneurs. Oh, and unlimited food and booze. The cruise would be leaving in seven days from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Price: eminently reasonable.

I’ve never been on a cruise. I don’t know anyone on this cruise. I have no idea what is going to happen. Where do I sign up?

I. Who are these Digital Nomads anyway?

Location-independent workers are a recent thing, but not that recent. Even a pioneering book like Tim Ferriss’s 2007 The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich — the closest thing to a Bible of Digital Nomadism — was merely describing a trend already well under way. What’s new is the acceleration of this demographic trend due to a few factors. Some of them are push factors, some of them pull:

  • Advent of the freelance economy. Long-term employment is diminishing.
  • Advent of location-independent jobs. If you’re a graphic designer, personal coach, writer, virtual assistant or online entrepreneur, you can work from any café with an internet connection.
  • Ubiquity of internet connections, even in remote areas.
  • High cost of city living without a commensurate quality of life.
  • Political unrest.

Of course, there are as many reasons for going nomad as there are nomads. Personally, I had wearied of San Francisco’s coupling of high cost of living with mediocre standard of living. I asked myself, what else could I get for $2500/month in rent besides deficient-to-absent public transport, impossible parking, rampant petty crime, exorbitant taxation, pointlessly expensive everything, needles and humanure everywhere on the streets, and an embarrassing homeless problem? After November 2016, for the sake of my sanity, I was also eager to put as much distance between myself and Agent Orange as possible. My fellow American refugees felt similarly.

Many of the nomads shared my reasons for hitting the road. For some, price arbitrage is a motivating factor. At $1000 a month, you would be living in penury in a place like Paris. In the US, you would be below the poverty line, qualifying for government assistance. On the other hand, you can live very well on that budget in a place like Bali, Guatemala, or Chiang Mai (as illustrated by Chris Dodd’s well-crafted video). And you get an ocean view!

Here are some of the circles I noticed in the big Venn diagram of nomads:

  • Young folks with limited income who dreamed of seeing the world, and finally did something about it.
  • Entrepreneurs with passive income and location-independent jobs who figured it would be fun to hit the road for a while.
  • Dedicated nomads perpetually on the move, with little intention to return to their home country.
  • Political semi-refugees from where the atmosphere can get oppressive: Hungary, US, Poland, England.
  • People at a transition point in life: divorce, breakup, career change, or major health-related event.
  • Watersports enthusiasts who just need to surf, kiteboard, scuba etc.
  • Cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
  • Entrepreneurs leveraging cost arbitrage to get their startups off the ground on minimal cash.
  • People from affluent countries whose robust social services afford its citizens the latitude to take extended trips, e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.

Following that last observation, most of the Nomad Cruisers were from Germany and the Netherlands, with sizable contingents from Hungary, North America, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

Minutes before leaving port, the Nomads scramble for the last threads of free internet connectivity

Even beyond national origin, a few questions distinguished the flavor of nomad: Are you doing this by choice or chance? Are you broke or thriving? Are you running away from something you don’t want or towards something you do want? Are you a consumer or creator? Are you an active contributor to the places you visit, or just using them like utilities?

I predict that the nomad trend will only continue accelerating in the years to come. Humans are the only animals that remain curious well past childhood. Given a chance to move around and experience new surroundings, many will.


II. What to do when stuck on a really big boat for two weeks

What’s a typical day like on a cruise? So many options to consider: Have a cocktail by the pool. Drink a cocktail in the pool. Drink a cocktail in the jacuzzi, on a deck chair on the ship’s prow, while reading a book, as tropical breezes caress your body. Go to the buffet for a meal. Go to a kitschy ABBA tribute show. Nap. Climb a wall. Go to the buffet for a snack. Play ping-pong, basketball, foosball, or an improvised drinking game. Repeat nap. Go to the buffet just because it’s there, it’s all-you-can-eat, and it’s always open. Have an inspired conversation. Cocktail nap. Or do jack diddly squat (known as “fuck-all” in England).

My days on the ship quickly developed a discernible structure vaguely resembling my terrestrial life. Emphasis on vaguely:

  • 7-8ish (actual time depending on what transpired the prior night): Get up. Meditate.
  • 8: Go to the gym and hop on the treadmill for about 5000m, or join the 1-hour bootcamp conducted by Eddie the Egyptian-Canadian.
  • 9.30: Get a quick breakfast at the buffet.
  • 10-1: Attend the morning talks. If poor delivery or not interested in topics, go back to room and read.
  • 1-2: Have lunch with a bunch of Nomads. Do my best to join a table of people I haven’t met yet.
  • 2-3.30: Attend afternoon workshop.
  • 3.30-5.30: Attend other impromptu workshops, or create one of my own (which I did 3 times). If neither is happening, nap or goof off by the pool.
  • 6pm: Acroyoga on the upper deck of the prow, conducted by Nikki, Stephanie and Patrick.
  • 7.30pm: sit-down dinner. Find a table that’s a mix of people you know already and like, and new people you’d like to meet. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find someone you can talk to about how you both used game theoretic explore-exploit algorithms and the 37% rule (that would be Marius).
  • 9pm: Back to the upper deck for the poolside bar, or to the Latin dance bar, or the coffee bar, or one of the other bars whose identity is fuzzy now for some reason.
  • 10ish: If imbibed enough drinks to dismiss all standards, attend cheeseball show at the theater. Elvis, Beatles, ABBA, whatever. For the ABBA show, think lots of glitter and implausible blonde wigs on olive-skinned Spaniards. Bring more drinks to make the kitsch go down easier.
  • 11.30: Drinks and dancing at Cyan Disco, or music jam on rooftop, then disco.
  • 1-3am: Crash.

Now, you don’t have to be serious about sleep science (I’m writing a book about it, yo) to realize that something here is not sustainable — namely, partying late and waking up early. There were mitigating circumstances allowing me to pull this off and still be battle-ready every day.

First, I drank sparingly — maybe 3 days out of the 13 (the night of the ABBA show was definitely one of them). On a party ship with an open bar and perpetually drinking partiers, this is a far more impressive feat than it seems, so allow me to congratulate myself here. No alcohol means better quality sleep. Second, I crashed way early on some of the nights. Third, I took naps. The lilting rhythm of the ship’s movement is good for rocking you to sleep.

The fourth trick is a bit of a deus ex machina. The Canary Islands and Panama are 5 time zones apart. So if you’re sailing westward from one to the other over 13 days, you get an extra hour on the clock every other day. So you can party your buns off, go to bed late, and miraculously wake up at 8 o’clock again the next day. By the end of the cruise, I was effectively getting up well past noon by Canary Islands time, but according to my new time zone, it was only 7.30am. Bonus!

Of course, this means that a cruise in the west-east direction would be very physiologically taxing, as one would be waking up an hour earlier every day. That’s pointlessly brutal, and if I ever think of doing something that dumb, please talk me out of it immediately.

III. Yeah, but will this cruise make you smarter?

The centerpiece of the cruise was the continuing education program of officially scheduled talks and workshops, supplemented by independently organized meetups and masterminds. There were three 40min lectures every morning between 10 and noon, then a 90min workshop in the afternoon. The days were themed: Digital Nomad day; media; passive income; lifestyle; business; finance; marketing; the future.

Overall quality of the presentations was uneven with some of the presenters being totally unprepared, while others were very good at what they did. Some of those:

A. Photography

The first was Oguzhan (pronounced osan) Altun, a Turkish photographer who runs the biggest photography school in Geneva. I had always been a skeptic when it came to seeing photography as art. What skill was there in pressing a button to capture what was already there for the eye to see? Oguzhan finally explained the art and skill of photography in a way that I understood.

For example, there’s a lot you can do besides twiddling with the variables of aperture, exposure, composition and perspective.

  • Use an item of foreground interest to show scale, or to distract from a warhorse tourist attraction (e.g. Eiffel Tower).
  • Catch your subject in the diffuse light of the golden hour, around dusk or dawn.
  • Select, select, select — only show 1% of your shots.
  • Wait until you can capture “the decisive moment” when something rare and interesting happens. Oghusan goes to great lengths to stake out timing, locations, and perspectives, and his meticulous work shows in his photos.

A second photographer, Michelle (Shelly) Kutzner, offered other useful tips. Get closer instead of zooming. Photograph into the light for a silhouette effect. Use water reflections. Get interesting foregrounds, or create them. Use a small aperture to turn light sources into starbursts. Use the frog’s eye view to make people look taller and jumps higher.

This is how the pros do it. Oguzhan Altun’s night time picture of Panama City.

B. Web programming

Another presentation that I got a lot out of was by designer and programmer Marius Schulz. Often the most difficult step in learning anything is the first one. For years, I’ve been meaning to learn web design, but always got snagged on how to get started. What program do I open? How do I test my code? In 1.5hrs, Marius demonstrated great patience in showing a roomful of rank beginners how to use the native text editor on a Mac and the Chrome browser as a rudimentary platform for web development. Now I know how a CSS (cascading style sheet) works! Marius had impressive programming chops and an agile mind, so I’m not at all surprised that he started a new job at the London offices of Facebook.

C. Personal finance basics

Pauline Paquin is a French digital nomad for 15+ years residing in Guatemala in a house she built herself. She gave a subtly empowering talk on “Freedom Through Financial Independence.” The cornerstone of her financial independence math was to save half your salary. To those who only make, say, $1000 a month and can’t afford to save, she had a piece of simple arithmetic advice: “Then just double your salary! Then you can save $1000 a month. There’s no upper limit to how much money you can make.” Indeed.

D. Search engine optimization (SEO)

One of the supremely competent individuals on the cruise was Rob Bertholf. A former college lecturer in computer science, he’s a deep thinker on search engine optimization (SEO), Google Adwords, online marketing and branding. And in case you had any doubts about his abilities, just Google “search engine optimization expert.” His name pops up first. Impressive.

Rob has a framework of thinking about things much broader than just SEO which he calls ideation through research. He talked about the hierarchy of keywords: branded, product, authority and lifestyle. A key question the successful marketer must ask himself: “If my offering is the answer, then what is the question?” Then target that question and make sure those who ask that question are led to your offering.

Rob was also remarkably giving. Every afternoon, he made himself available for hours to whoever had questions, and stayed until everyone was sated. He has dozens of hours of video teaching everything he knows, so if you want to learn more about his work, look him up.

E. App development

Mirko Kiefer of Blackbelt Labs gave a workshop demystifying the process of creating a smartphone app. You go from an idea, to validating the problem, to validating a solution, to creating a minimum viable product (MVP). Then you iterate on the cycle until the app works. Mirko took us through a series of questions and exercises to clarify the development process:

  • What is the problem? Is it a problem worth solving?
  • How could an app solve that problem?
  • Why would someone pay for that?
  • Where are your users? Actually interview them.
  • Define your ideal user — age, location, income, habits, hobbies, goals, desires.
  • Build your app audience. Aim for 100 people who really care about what you’re doing, and get to know them really well.
  • Prototyping and user testing. Use POP (prototyping on paper), Marvel, Framer, Sketch, or InVision to come up with the wireframes, the key screens, and the sequencing of the screens.
  • Test the minimum viable product. Continuous beta testing is crucial. Use Fabric, TestFlight, or HockeyApp.
  • Launch and repeat!

Mirko emphasized that the most neglected part of the process was product validation. Never assume you know what your customers want. Talk to them instead!

And just like that, you know a lot more about what goes into app development than you did a few minutes ago. Amazing!

There were other eye-opening talks that whose details were too technical for me to write up.

  • Lars Müller gave a talk on Amazon “whole-tailing”, which was not about eating lobsters in one gulp but rather a cross between retailing and wholesaling which I had never heard of.
  • In her talk on re-marketing, Pamela Wagner, a certified Google Adwords expert, showed how to make an ad follow a customer around the web wherever they go. That ad you see on Facebook that just happens to be the thing you searched on Amazon five minutes ago but didn’t buy? That’s re-marketing (or re-targeting). Remarketing aims to monetize the 97% of your traffic that bounces, thereby increasing your return on investment as much as tenfold. I knew of it, but had no idea how crafty and effective it can be. Pamela is a 7th dan black-belt at this. Look her up if you feel your company could use her services.

F. Environmental science in the Anthropocene

The most mind-expanding talk of the entire trip, however, came as a surprise. Adam, the environmental officer of the ship, had been quietly attending the lectures, and volunteered to give one at the very end. I was frankly looking forward to hearing the specifications of the ship and its environmental impact. How many horsepower does this baby have anyway?

That was not what his talk was about.

Instead, Adam made a deep, technical foray into environmental science in the anthropocene. What effects do we have on the environment when our value system prizes economic growth and acquisition of goods at any cost? In Adam’s words, “The problem with the current economy is that we value man-made things more than natural things.” If we’re serious about reducing human environmental impact and protecting the biosphere (and ultimately, ourselves), we need to flip that around.

I think of myself as a reasonably well-read person — hey, I’ve read both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. But this talk was an exhilarating barrage of statistics and paradigms I had never seen before.

• The maximum power principle or Lotka’s principle, or the fourth principle of energetics in open system thermodynamics: “In network design, the pattern that maximizes power will prevail.”

• Maximum amount of freshwater that can be consumed per year is 4000 cubic kilometers. Right now we’re at about 2600.

• Aragonite saturation ratio: Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate used by many organisms, including corals, to build their shells. The higher the acidity of the ocean surface, the lower this ratio gets. In pre-industrial times, the ratio was about 3.44:1, meaning that there was three times as much aragonite in the water as needed to prevent shells from dissolving. Now, it’s around 2.90. 2.75 is thought to the magic number. Below that, corals and other shells dissolve, and you get ecosystem collapse. To keep the ratio high, you need to drop CO2 levels below 430 parts per million, which is even lower than the 450ppm suggested as the upper limit to prevent global warming.

• Everyone knows that in an ecosystem, there are more predators than prey. In scientific terms, you have more primary producers (plants) than primary consumers (herbivores) than secondary consumers (antelopes) than tertiary consumers (carnivores and omnivores). So people immediately grasp that if you have a jungle with, say, 1,000,000 tigers, you’ve got a problem. Which means that right now, we have a problem, because the average human consumes 75 lb (34kg) of meat per year. Americans consume 271 lbs (123kg) of meat per person per year, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up. In their eating habits, humans are now behaving like apex predators, and Earth cannot support 7.3 billion apex predators. So we humans have a choice. We can either eat into extinction everything that moves, and drive ourselves into extinction in the process. Or we can change to a much more sustainable and perfectly palatable plant-based diet.

• Emergy, transformity, and solar emjoules per joule: That is not a typo. According to Wikipedia, “Emergy is a type of energy (exergy) that is consumed in direct and indirect transformations needed to make a product or service; it is a measure of quality differences between different forms of energy. It is measured in units of emjoules, a unit referring to the available energy consumed in transformations.”

Let me illustrate with an example from food. Let’s say you have a handful of wheat and a slice of bread that have the same amount of calories. It’s straightforward that the slice of bread took a lot more effort to produce. So the bread took more emergy, even thought it contains the same amount of energy.

What makes emergy a trippy concept is that it’s about the amount of energy that goes into creating different kinds of energy. Get it? So wood is less energy-intensive than coal, which is less energy-intensive than oil. Sunlight is the base measure; by definition it has a transformity (or transformation ratio) of 1.0 solar emjoules/joule (seJ/J). For wood, that ratio is 36,000:1; for coal, 67,000; oil, 148,000; electricity, 300,000.

Once you start thinking in terms of emergy and transformity, you realize that electricity and oil are highly refined forms of energy that should not be used frivolously. Burning oil for heat, or even for internal combustion engines, starts to seem mindlessly profligate — like feeding your dog caviar or something. Yet that’s what billions of vehicles do every day.

• “Electricity is not an energy source; it’s just a vector.” An obvious truth which had not occurred to me until Adam mentioned it.

• “The countries with the highest conflict are the ones with the highest reserves of oil and natural gas.” Think: Middle East, Russia, US. Another blindingly obvious truth, corroborated by my recent reading of Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard, a fantastic book that will reshape your understanding of global politics.

The Geobiosphere: Ecosystems and monetary value. This one slide summarizes a mind-boggling amount of information.


IV. Talks I presented

I also gave a few talks and workshops. The first was “SuperCharisma: How to be a compelling speaker”, a public speaking workshop I’ve conducted before in places like San Francisco, Bali, and Lisbon (VIDEO). The audience was receptive to that, so I also conducted “Self-Hypnosis for motivation, health and pleasure”, “Meditation for hustlers”, and “Cultivating authentic sexual power.”

These last three I made up on the fly. Briefly:

• In the self-hypnosis workshop, I taught people a simple countdown method to hypnotize themselves into a trance state and then give themselves suggestions. A technique I demonstrated helped an audience member reduce his subjective back pain by 80% in about 2 minutes. Another helped folks get rid of phobias. Over the next days, multiple people told me about breakthroughs they had achieved with the technique, from pain control to better sleep. People: hypnosis works.

In the meditation workshop, I taught five different techniques:

• Focus meditation: The ability to focus is the key skill enabling success. Also, your life is what you choose to pay attention to. Therefore, there is no skill more essential than the ability to concentrate and focus your attention.

• Open attention: This is about perceiving everything coming through your sensory channels instead of tuning it out: attending to vision, feeling, sound, smell, and taste. It’s the flip side of focus, and a big part of enjoying the stimuli the world is offering us.

• Loving-kindness (metta) meditation: here, you practice compassion by first focusing on someone you like effortlessly (e.g. niece, nephew, pet), then extending those warm, fuzzy feelings to the rest of the world. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.

• Walking meditation: walk slowly enough that you can actually feel and catalog everything that your body is experiencing. A favorite of Zen centers.

• Tonglen: from the Tibetan, “giving and receiving.” This is where you breathe in and feel the suffering of the world (receiving), then exhale pure white light and relief (giving). Intense and powerful.

The sexual power workshop was a bit more esoteric, but enough people were interested that I went ahead and did it. It was an introduction to basic energetics systems of Eastern wisdom, and how to cultivate it in the body.

• In the Taoist tradition, chi is the energy that we can learn to cultivate and circulate. The polarity between the receptive feminine (yin) and the projecting masculine (yang) initiates the flow. The microcosmic orbit is the path running up the back, to the top of the skull, down through the mouth and the front of the body, terminating in the perineum. By coupling breath to a visualization of the energy flow, you can get pretty high pretty fast. This visualization is also useful for delaying orgasm in men and intensifying it for both men and women.

• The Tantric tradition speaks of spanda, the vibration of the universe. All forms of energy involves vibration: molecules vibrating is heat; sound is vibrating air; radiation is photons vibrating. Even at absolute zero, the universe is still vibrating, as required by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. By plugging into the spanda for 5-10 seconds at a time throughout your day, you can access bliss. The works of Daniel Odier cover this stuff well.

• Strengthening the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle in men and woman can both enhance energy circulation and intensify orgasms. There are two main exercises: holds and flutters. Holds are intense contractions held for a few seconds to build strength. You’d want to do a set of 10 2-3x a day. Flutters are light, repetitive contractions that increase control. Do sets of 30 a couple of times a day. The Multiorgasmic Man by Mantak Chia and Doug Abrams is an indispensable reference for all men.

V. The Ocean

Staring at the ocean is one of the pleasures of a transatlantic cruise. The immensity of it: water in every direction as far as vision permits. I saw no land, no other ships, no birds, nothing for a whole week: just water.

Being amidst such aquatic immensity moves something deep and unnameable within me — some atavistic pull to jump into the big swimming pool where all life began. Perhaps this is why I’m not distressed to be on this life raft completely at the mercy of the elements. The worst that can happen is that I return to my birthplace from 2 billion years ago, rejoining the cycle of life by becoming fish food.

That said, our raft is a pretty nice one. The Pullmantur Monarch is totally self-sufficient for a maximum of 2730 passengers and 800 crew, with gigantic diesel engines to power 74,000 tons of steel, wine and disco to cross any ocean at a mildly hairdo-perturbing 19 knots (35 km/h).

All of this makes me wonder: how did the old explorers do it? There were no satellite maps, radar, sonar, depth charts, or GPS. Heck, they weren’t even sure that the world was round. It wasn’t until the 1740s that sailors could determine longitude accurately, so all of the sailing that happened before then was guesswork. Ships were rickety rat-infested wooden things that routinely ran aground. There was no refrigeration, so you had to develop a palate for salted pork — every day for 300 days — to survive. They didn’t know about vitamin C, so if starvation didn’t get you, scurvy did. And ship doctors were not just worthless but downright dangerous. So if you got sick, you were literally bled to death by a “surgeon” even before the cholera could get you.

If you were lucky enough to reach land, that was the beginning of your troubles. Malaria, dengue, yellow fever, poisonous plants, wild animals, hostile natives — no shortage of threats on your life.

So when a Vasco da Gama, Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan), Francis Drake or any other would-be conquistador set out on a mission to discover the western route to the spice islands or the “New World”, they were signing up for a suicide mission. The captains had no idea how far they had come, how far they had left to go, how deep the water was, and where the sea monsters were hiding. They could run out of food, freshwater, or their crew’s subordination.

It was a total act of faith. And completely, utterly nuts. I promise never to complain about slow on-board wi-fi again.

I’m sure most of the explorers got shipwrecked. Those stories you don’t hear about. But shockingly large numbers of them successfully made it to West Africa, India, Caribbean Islands, Central America, and North America, creating the modern world in the process.

Staring at the sea was awe-inspiring at the far scale and endlessly fascinating at the close scale. The surface of the water is a continuously variable skin, rising, falling, undulating, breaking up, re-forming, foaming, splashing. Its topography and motion is fractal: tiny waves look and move like big waves.

After staring at the water for some time, I started to see valleys, mountains, rivers, gullies, just like on solid land. Ocean is like land, only sped up. Here’s a watery mountain range, rising out of flat nothing! And now it’s gone. A time-lapse video of continental plates sped up a trillion times would look a lot like the ocean.

Or maybe land is just like the ocean, only slowed down. Caught in a crystalline lattice, rock molecules want to flow like water, but need more time. The movement of stars in galaxies is water slowed down even further. The center of the Milky Way looks like a giant whirlpool, sucking down stars into a supermassive black hole of 4.5 million solar masses. Even though the process is unfolding on a time scale of millions of years, you can recognize the pattern immediately: it looks just like the water draining out of your tub.

VI. Don’t do as they do: the via negativa of cruise health

There’s an old Persian saying about Loghman the Learned (Loghman-e Hakeem), a freedman who was renowned for his wisdom, gentility, and self-made wealth. Someone asked him, “How did you become such an exemplar of civility and politeness?” He responded, “I learned politeness from the impolite. I observed what they did, and studiously avoided doing it.”

Going on a tropical cruise is a crash course in learning the via negativa of wellness. Watch what the average cruise passenger does on a daily basis. Watch what their bodies look like (they’re all wearing swimsuits, so that’s easy). Now ask yourself, “Is that what I want to look like at 60?” Then, proceed to not do whatever they are doing.

How do people behave with unlimited access to food, alcohol, and leisure activities? Most people in affluent Western societies have all of that on a daily basis, so a cruise isn’t dramatically different from their everyday lives. It’s not like they go on the Stuttgart savanna with a sharp stick to dig up tubers. The main things you’re adding on a tropical cruise is free time and sunlight.

The problem is that we are 3 million-year old brains and bodies thrown into the year 2017 C.E. Then, there were no supermarkets. No bakeries. No TV. No cars. No handheld attention-sucking gizmos. People hunted and gathered their own food, walked many miles a day, rose and slept with the sun, and conversed for entertainment. Sugary and fatty foods were scarce and therefore prized.

If you lived in a nordic region, you had fair skin (low melanin) so you absorbed as much sunlight as possible to manufacture vitamin D. If you lived in the tropics, you had dark skin (high melanin) to shield your body against harmful ultraviolet rays.

Now, herds of pale people have traveled beyond their overcast ancestral homes into places with unlimited sunlight. Their ancient DNA says, “Look! Sun! Get out as much as possible! Make more vitamin D!” So they lay out in the sun for hours on end, while radiation emanating from a big fusion reactor in the sky bakes their skins, cracking it into ravines, gullies, and canyons, mutating their DNA into cancerous form.

Incidentally, do you know which country has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world? It’s Australia — English palefaces getting too much sun.

So the passengers lie down in the sun for hours, eat to excess, smoke, drink too much, exercise rarely. They eat kilos of beef and sausage. They load their plates with 5 kinds of dessert because it’s there. They drink nutritionally void, diabetes-inducing sugar-laden sodas. This probably does not come as a surprise to anyone. What continues to surprise me is that everyone knows that this stuff is bad for you, and continues doing it.

Why do so many people consider health such a disposable commodity? Our bodies are the ultimate non-replaceable good. There’s a word for that: sacred. There’s not a whole lot that’s sacred in Western societies. Except for maybe cars, and expensive possessions in general. People generally don’t graffiti their cars, ram them into walls for fun, or pour beer in the gas tank just to see what happens. If anything should be sacred, it’s your body. If people treated their bodies with the same degree of reverence as their cars, they’d be far healthier.

Watching these cruise passengers evoked a spectrum of emotions. Compassion, because damn, it must be difficult being creaky and out of shape. Terror, because that’s what I’ll become some day, if I’m lucky to get that old. Bewilderment, because surely they know better than to keep mistreating their bodies. Anger, because what the hell is wrong with them?!? Despair, because there’s not much I can do about it.

In the end, as if going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, I arrived at acceptance. Like the Tao Te Ching says, the world is perfect as it is. I continued to do my thing: eat a mostly plant-based diet; exercise every day; avoid alcohol; sleep well. And by being able to just look at situations instead of getting all worked up about them, I can be much more effective as a public health educator.

VII. Ports of Call

One of the features of a cruise is that it stops places. So after, oh, ten days of seeing nothing but water, we made our first stop in St Kitts. It’s a little Caribbean island — half of St Kitts & Nevis — with friendly people and nice beaches. I walked around the downtown area of Basseterre a little bit, camped out in a café to slake my 10-day old thirst for a decent internet connection, then hopped a cab to go to the beach where our group congregated. Our cabbie talked nonstop: about his 3 kids, 4 names, and 5 different jobs. Most important: a native of the island is a Kittitian, which sounds like a cross between a small cat and a petition.

That is the stuff Blue Curaçao is made of.

Apparently the scuba diving in St Kitts is outstanding, and a large contingent from our group dove, spotting some manta rays and sharks. So I made a mental note of getting PADI certified for the next such outing.

Curaçao was substantially similar to St Kitts, except with a persistent Dutch influence. We hopped buses and went straight to the beach and stayed there all day, so I have nothing cultural to report other than it being super nice and insanely hot, with white sand beaches and pellucid blue water.

Aruba was the final stop before Panama City. The beach was walking distance, so that’s where I walked. From the high food prices and proliferation of luxury stores along the main drag, I gathered it’s a high-end destination. So I went for a high-end swim, swigged down some high-end beer, and took a selfie of myself with on the beach with said beer to out-selfie all selfies for all time. I’m in Aruba, peasants. For a solid 6 hours.

Panama City was the final destination, which afforded me the opportunity to catch up with my old friend Luis. He knew that I would want to check out the Canal, so we went straight there as soon I arrived in town.

“I’m sorry, can’t hear you — I have a fake phone in my ear.” Teasing dummies at the Panama Canal Museum

The Panama Canal Museum is excellent. Now you’ve all heard of the Panama Canal, but nothing will prepare you for the superhuman magnitude of this engineering marvel. The exhibit did a good job of conveying the sheer hubris and pigheadedness that went into the building of the Canal. “Yeah, there’s like swamps and jungle and stuff, for like, oh, 80km (50mi), but we’ll just plow through the whole thing and excavate 800 million tons of mud. Oh, also malaria and yellow fever.”

The first people to attempt the project were the French. After dumping today’s equivalent of billions of dollars, they just gave up. Then the Americans came, and with the help of the legendary Dr William Gorgas, they managed to reduce the threat of malaria and yellow fever so not all the workers dropped dead.

A man, a plan, a canal. Palindrome ruined.*

On an even grander scale, Panama recently added another lane of traffic in 2016, doubling its overall capacity. The receipts from the Canal afford Panamanians a decent standard of living, with free education and no income tax.


VIII. Farewell

The night of our arrival in Panama City, our crew gathered one last time at a rooftop bar for drinks, revelry and goodbyes. Many of the cruisers would continue their nomadic ways at Bocas del Toro, an archipelago 10hrs by bus up the isthmus. Others returned home or went to neighboring countries like Colombia and Costa Rica. The next morning I hopped a plane back to Los Angeles. Huge thanks to Johannes Voelkner, the creator of the Nomad Cruise, for taking the initiative to create this adventure in friendship and learning, and to Bori Vigh, for organizing the learning program.

Preparing for the group photo. We were arranged according to height, so this part of the photo is mostly guys. The cruise was 60% male, 40% female.

* The original palindrome was “A man, a plan, a canal. Panama.”

Dispatch from Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Terrorism, and the Fabric of Trust


If you were to create a river flowing with humans instead of water, it would look a lot like Las Ramblas (La Rambla to the locals). Night and day, at all hours, people walk up and down the middle of the famed boulevard. It’s wide enough to accommodate twenty bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, plus a sidewalk restaurant on each side, plus a lane of traffic in each way, plus conventional sidewalks and stores at the far edge.

And yet, a few days ago, the flow of humanity was so dense and turbulent that I could not walk in a straight line more than 10 meters at a time. The mix is variegated, multilingual, multigenerational. In one five-minute stretch I heard English, German, Danish, Swedish, French, Arabic, occasionally Spanish and even Catalan! Families amble and feud, college kids frolic and gawk, stag parties stagger, and seated white-haired vacationers sip on sangria, watching the river flow by.

The particular threat to straight-line walking is the smartphone-addled amblers – a global phenomenon hardly specific to Las Ramblas, but rendered particularly treacherous here through sheer numbers. People looking at on-screen representations of the world instead of the real thing are liable to plow right into you unless you’re looking sharp and wearing your dancing shoes.

Yet, underlying the seeming chaos, there is an order. People don’t run into each other. The wind-up microcopter salesmen launch their wares skywards but catch them before they land on unsuspecting heads. Nobody trips. And I’ve never seen a fight. All of this can only arise from implicit rules harbored so deeply as to not need to be spoken: We coexist peacefully. We look out for each other. This is a safe place.

Yesterday, at 5.14pm, I got a text from a local friend asking if I was okay. She spoke of a van plowing into the Las Ramblas crowd. The unspoken contract had been violated.

At night, a miasma of pain and bewilderment permeated the air of Barcelona. The Festa de Gracia, the mad weeklong fount of creativity and zest that envelops the Gracia district with miles of offbeat recycled decorations and music, had been put on hold. And, unimaginably, Las Ramblas was shut down. Around 2am, I decided to walk the 1.5km from my neighborhood of Poble Sec to Las Ramblas to see the dried up river from up close. On the way, I walked through several neighborhoods normally bustling at this hour – Raval and Ciutat Vella. No one was there except for homeless folks who had nowhere else to go. And Las Ramblas was cordoned off for the night.

Earlier that evening, I had paid a visit to my favorite local pintxo bar, L’Atelier de Blai. Lisa, the young woman sitting next to me at the bar, worked a block away from where the accident happened. She had heard the screams of the crowd and run out to see the injured folks on the street – bodies with limbs contorted at unnatural angles, some dying, some already lifeless. She ran back into the store and pulled down the metal shutters until the police told them two hours later it was okay to come. She went to a hotel and asked if they could be kind enough to call her a cab: “Yes, after we get one for the other 200 people waiting ahead of you.” She had certainly earned her glass of white wine for the day.

There is an invisible but ubiquitous fabric interconnecting all humanity – indeed, all life on Earth. Whether we realize it or not, we are one giant superorganism, intricately dependent upon one another. It’s easy to see that relationship between, say, a bee and a flower. But it may not be as immediately obvious how my life connects with that rowdy English tourist, or the Catalan grandmother wheeling her groceries home. But it does, and it’s the only way things can ever work.

What the terrorists did was to punch a hole through that fabric of trust and deep interdependence, thereby declaring themselves outside of it. Outside of the fabric there is only death and exile – a fate to which Muslim extremists like the ones who drove the truck routinely consign themselves.

The good news is that the fabric heals itself. And people have the power to accelerate the healing – by choosing to trust, to live, to keep rambling on Las Ramblas. I am happy to report that today, Las Ramblas is open again.

The criminal justice system removes from society those who have willfully damaged the fabric, lest they do more harm.

But state institutions of justice have less latitude to act against those who intend to damage the fabric, even when they declar it publicly – say, through a white supremacist rally. So we must take it upon ourselves to protect it actively.

When someone marches in Charlottesville or anywhere else under a Nazi banner, they are declaring unequivocal intention to do harm. Believe them. Look up from your mere representations of the world and realize that the real world is not as safe as it used to be.

These people want to hurt you if you don’t agree with them, and kill you if you don’t look like them. So you need to let them know that it’s really not okay.

Often they will be too caught up in their own hurt to reason with them. And if you punch them in the face first, you become more like them, defeating our own purpose.

But you can help accelerate their declared intention to exile themselves from society.

The first step is to examine your attachment to aspects of your own identity which you did not get to choose – your nationality, your hometown, your religion, your sexual orientation, name, and even your gender. If you’re doing this because you’re a New Yorker, Jewish, black, Muslim, white, a woman, gay, an immigrant, whatever – it’s already the wrong reason. All those things were just the roll of the dice. Let them go.

Your circle of self either embraces the whole of the world, or you’re just doing this for selfish, tribal reasons that can just as easily turn you into one of the bad guys.

Once you realize that you’re defending all sentient beings, you’re on much better footing. And yes, National Parks contain sentient beings, and you’d better believe they’re under threat, too.

Next, you must seek out and uproot the sources of anger and hatred in yourself. Anger clouds your judgment and makes you less effective, and we need your mind to be sharp here. As William Blake said in Auguries of Innocence, “To be in a passion you good may do/ But not if a passion is in you.” Instead of letting the anger consume you, feel just enough of the anger to let it to propel you.

Hatred is an even bigger problem, as it tends to redound on itself, making you miserable and less effective – and once again, more like your enemy.

The solution? If your circle of compassion embraces the entire world, this has to include your enemies, too. Having compassion for them precludes hating them.

This is probably easier said than done. The central story from the Bhagavad Gita is instructive: Arjuna’s relatives have unfairly usurped the monarchy from him and his brothers. So now his army is arrayed against that of his uncles and cousins. But how can he fight and kill his own relatives?

His charioteer happens to be a pretty wise person – Lord Krishna in disguise, who just happens to be the creator of the universe. And he tells Arjuna that he will do this because it’s his dharma – a mixture of duty and fate: “Put your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord, and plunge into the heat of battle.”

If you are a decent person, then your duty and fate is to protect all sentient beings from forces of harm. You are the guardian of the web of life. Luckily, in America, this dharma thing is a familiar concept. We call it doing your job.

And yeah, it’s your job now. And mine. There isn’t anyone else. So get organized. Protest. Publicly identify white supremacists, Nazis and Trump supporters. Make it difficult for them to have jobs, relationships, permits. Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and any other number of effective organizations that right-wingers want shut down.

And through all of it, above all, maintain your humor. If there’s one overarching thing that Fascists, Nazis, right-wingers and totalitarians have in common, it’s this: they’re utterly humorless. They’re just not funny. How many pictures of laughing dictators have you seen? Exactly. And they can’t stand being made fun of (see: Trump’s reaction to Saturday Night Live sketches). Srdja Popovic’s brilliant Blueprint for Revolution depicts humor as the central tool for nonviolent resistance.

So take a deep breath, and take stock of your own prejudices, and embrace the whole world with your heart. Like a Zen master, detect then uproot the sources of hate. Get clever by reading Blueprint for Revolution, get creative, get motivated, get organized. And see if, instead of getting livid, you can chuckle a little at the absurdity of it all. You’ll be even smarter and more effective that way.

Then go ahead and do your job. The whole river of life is propelling you forward.

Impresssions: Bali


There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to wear helmets, but compliance is lax and enforcement even more so. The sensible ones wear long sleeves, pants, and real shoes, but most people drive around in minimalist tropical gear: shorts, tank top, and flip-flops.

If you think this is a public health disaster waiting to happen, you’d only be half right: it’s already happening every day. Especially with the inexperienced Westerners, who think they can jump into this roiling fray without pre-existing mad scooter skills and full-body Kevlar and somehow remain unscathed.

Every day of my stay, a consistent percentage of my friends got bruised and bandaged from some kind of motorbike accident. Hell, I have a full motorcycle license and I took two weeks to practice and understand the traffic patterns before jumping in. Of course, if you’re only in town for a week, you don’t have the luxury of time. So, in the interest of keeping your body free of rips, scrapes, bruises and breaks, here are some inviolable rules of scooter transport:

  1. Always, always, always wear a helmet. Especially when riding with someone else.
  2. Always, always, always wear closed-toe shoes. Especially when riding with someone else. If you just wear flip-flops while riding behind someone, you are a fool, because your feet are sticking out of the scooter, unlike the driver, whose feet are inside, and somewhat protected by the platform and footwell. All it takes is a stray branch or rock to trash your feet and render you a hobbling invalid. Not how you want to spend your vacation.
  3. If you’re a beginning driver, start out slow and be patient. Remember that you’re on vacation, which means that you don’t need to hurry, ever.

Appeasing the spirit gods
One of the first things I noticed in Ubud were the curious little square flat baskets on the ground and on various statues. The baskets were made of interwoven coconut leaves, and contained flowers; rice (dry or cooked); pieces of fruit; sometimes a small candy, cracker or cookie; and always incense. What the heck is going on here?

Banten! Photo by Jamie Marvin

Banten! Photo by Jamie Marvin

Then I saw a young woman dressed in a formal sarong and colorful ceremonial shirt place one of these at the foot of a statue and reverently sprinkle it with water. Is this some kind of sacred ceremonial gesture? Why yes it is. The offerings are called banten, and they are a consuming preoccupation of the Balinese.

Although Indonesia is mostly Muslim (87%), most Balinese are Hindu. It’s a special flavor of Hinduism, mixed in with Buddhism and Balinese animism. So the banten are not just offerings to the legions of Hindu gods, but also to the Balinese demons pre-dating Hinduism — in particular, the good demon Barong, and the evil demon Rangda.

The Balinese are deeply invested in this contrast between dark and light, evil and good, impure and pure. So much so that they leave as many banten at the Rangda altars as they do at the Barong ones. There must be balance! So good and evil get equal time. Kind of like the US Congress.

Speaking of altars, apparently every Balinese house has three of them: a high one for the major deities, a middle one for the family, and a low one for the demons, with each altar statue wrapped in a formal sarong. Ganesha the elephant-god and Hanuman the monkey-god are popular subjects, and Shiva is ubiquitous. Altars with just the symbol of the swastika are also common, which here only carries its original meaning of a lucky or auspicious object.

Initially, I thought these reverential gestures touching, especially when seeing a formally-clad lady laying down flowers and holy water on a lowly scooter. But after a while, I couldn’t help but notice two things. First, these banten — 1-3 times a day, with items of dubious biodegradability — generate a stupendous amount of waste. Second, are they laying down these offerings out of love or fear? Turns out it’s a bit of both, but mostly fear. Balinese culture is profoundly superstitious. Its ceremony culminates in the new year celebrations.

Nyepi and Ogoh-ogoh
Nyepi (March 28) is the Balinese new year. In the run-up to it, there is a ton of preparation for the new year’s eve Ngrupuk parades. All over the island, craftsmen build giant demons (ogoh-ogoh), musicians practice till late in their gamelan bands, and designers build costumes and headdresses. This means that in the weeks before the new year, you’ll walk by some terrifying half-finished giant papier-mâché baby’s head and wonder what the hell is going on.

One of the magical experiences for me was stumbling upon a midnight gamelan rehearsal. The men are dressed formally, most of them playing a xylophone-like instrument. But gamelan music is tuned to a pentatonic scale. So if you have an ear trained by Western music, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and it’s utterly captivating. My brain was trying to figure out every note: why the hell it was off by just a little bit?

Apparently I wasn’t the only Western music enthusiast entranced by gamelan music. Claude Debussy was famously influenced, and I will now hear the shimmering sounds of Estampes and Suite Bergamasque with new ears. Erik Satie emulated the gamelan sound in his Gnossienne piano suite. More recently, Lou Harrison went so far as to construct his own gamelan instruments to compose original pieces. Some of these pieces and instruments were showcased by Michael Tilson Thomas in the San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox 100th birthday tribute to Lou Harrison in December 2016.

But, back to the ogoh-ogoh. The finished specimens weigh hundreds of kilos and can be a good 6m (20ft) high. They sit on bamboo platforms, and dozens of young men carry, hoist and twist these beasts through the streets of Bali in parades and make-believe battles with other demons. After much storytelling, shadow plays, faux street fights, and insanely loud percussion music, the celebrating Balinese folks burn these exquisitely crafted demons to the ground. At midnight, the town goes into silence.


Ogoh-ogoh. Photo by Daphne Tse


Ogoh-ogoh of the goddess Kali. I would not mess with her. Photo by Daphne Tse

One thing you have to understand about Balinese people is that they are unfailingly polite. To you, the visitor, they will always smile and never say “no.” I asked a taxi driver, “Do you speak English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said, “Yes, yes.” So I asked, “How good is your English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said “Yes, yes.”

However, on one and only one day, they will get in your face. That day is Nyepi, which is Balinese for “shut up and stay home.” Because on Nyepi, the bad demons come flying over the neighborhood. If there’s nobody on the street, then the demons just kind of look at each other, shrug, and go, “Nope, nuffin’ to see here,” and move on. A relatively demon-free year can then ensue. But woe betide the neighborhood if somebody’s outside the house doing stuff. Because that gives the bad demons a landing spot, with predictably dire consequences. Did I mention the part about superstition?

So on Nyepi, the day of silence, everyone stays home, fasts and meditates. The entire island of Bali shuts down, even the airport. Some cities go so far as to shut down electricity. I spent the day meditating, reading two books (both by social psychologist Timothy Wilson, in case you were wondering) and doing a 36-hr fast, conveniently obviating the need for food in a restaurant-less city. At the end of one of my walking meditations, I ventured to the edge of the hotel to see who was on the street. Nobody, except for a sole fella with an enforcer t-shirt. I resisted the smartass impulse to ask him what he was doing on the street, and returned poolside to savor the quiet of the day.

Yoga Barn
The ostensible purpose of my stay in Bali was to work on my next book. It’s safe to say that I got no writing done the first two weeks I was here. Okay, maybe three. Or four. If the point of leaving San Francisco was to avoid distractions in the form of talks, concerts, classes and people, Ubud scores a giant fail for that. There may be no SF Symphony or City Arts & Letters here. But there is Yoga Barn, and that is enough to keep your day full. The whole day, every day.

See, if you are into yoga, healing, or meditation, then Yoga Barn has something for you, from 7am to 9pm. They have yoga classes with excellent teachers all day. They have offbeat classes like Thai Yoga Massage, Sound Healing, and Shamanic Breathing. And they have the Garden Kafé serving vegetarian and vegan food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And smoothies. And desserts. Oh, and a spa, with all kinds of massages and facials. Basically, it’s heaven for the Affluent Western Woman (AWW).

So what happens is that you’re sitting at lunch, chatting away with your newfound friends from Australia, or Norway, or Germany, or Colorado. And then someone says, “Hey, why don’t you come to Yin and Meditation class? Emily’s great.” And you think, well, why don’t I? I can always postpone the meeting with Angela Merkel till later. And that’s how I experienced a whole panoply of classes I would have otherwise neglected:

Sound healing: This amazing musician named Punnu Wasu who can do Sanskrit kirtan and Urdu qawwali and the harmonium, and his band of musicians assembled most likely that very day, play a bunch of devotional music while you lie down, head-first. What ensues is the most pleasant musically-accompanied nap you can imagine, and much cheaper than Wagner’s Ring cycle. He also does a kirtan session, which is phenomenal if you’re into that whole devotional-call-and-response-to-pagan-deities-in-languages-you-don’t-understand thing.

Thai yoga massage: You use your body to stretch and knead another body. Taught by the outstanding, multitalented, dreadlocked Carlos Romero (aka the Venezuelan Lenny Kravitz), who also teaches vinyasa flow, Acroyoga, and capoeira. I have yet to meet a woman (or man) here who doesn’t have a teacher crush on him (to be clear, I just want to be him).

Shamanic breathing: For 90 minutes, you hyperventilate your heart out with open-mouth breathing. This disrupts your blood chemistry in a way that induces whole-body tingling, some cramping, and potential hallucinations. See, I knew you’d love it. An inexplicable crowd favorite.

Bali Spirit Festival
Through sheer happenstance, the annual Bali Spirit Festival, a 7-day feast of yoga, music and dancing now in its tenth year, was happening during my stay. Through the generosity of an old friend from Boston, I came into a pass for the festival (thanks a million, Maria!) and decided to attend. As a result, I experienced some more classes that I can now report on:

Afro Flow Yoga: The delightfully energetic Leslie Jones leads you through a combination of African dance, chants, and yoga poses, all accompanied by her percussionist husband Jeff.

Contact improvisation dance: I always thought of this as the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of dance, but the way Baptiste taught it made a lot of sense and was much strenuous sweaty fun. Basically, roll into, lean on, crawl under and carry your partner till it gets old, then switch partners and do it all over again.

ZenThai Yoga Massage: Like Thai yoga massage, but with more zen! Taught by an Australian surf god named Gwyn, with emphasis on acupressure points.

Laughter yoga: After the uproarious sounds of this class made paying attention impossible in my quieter class next door, I decamped to see what the hell was up. Teacher Kay-Wararuk Sunonethong was utterly charming with exercises that seem goofy at first glance (“Very good, very good, hahaha!”) but are quite effective in changing mood. Psychologists call this embodied cognition: emotions follow the body’s actions. Her winning motto: “Please keep being silly.”

The Healer Hustle
Of course, for every great teacher and healer in Ubud, there are scores who are mediocre, unqualified, or downright dodgy. To be fair, most of these self-styled healers sincerely believe in what they are doing. However, no amount of belief is ever going to turn an ineffective healing technique (e.g. bloodletting, which hastened the demise of George Washington and Lord Byron) into an effective one (e.g. penicillin).

Said healers also hang out at Garden Kafé, because that’s where the open-minded AWWs are talking about their latest cleanse, juice fast, 7-day silent retreat, yoga teacher training, colonic treatment, or chakra clearing. If so, they’re already 9/10 of the way towards booking a session with someone who convincingly presents a solution to their real or imagined problems.

For example, this is what this one guy who calls himself Nadao Medium (name modified to prevent free publicity) did to a friend of mine. Stacy is sitting there having dinner, minding her own business, when Nadao comes over and says in all earnestness, “Sorry to interrupt you, but I just got a transmission about you and had to share it.” Like gearboxes and differentials? No, a transmission from beyond, silly. Next thing, he’s telling her about how she had a big shift in her life at age 8 — omigod, how could he know?! — and how she’s a true seeker and he has some answers for her, if she’s interested. Would she like to book a session?

Stacy did end up booking the session, for $100 and 2.5 irretrievable hours of her life. For a sense of scale, $100 is a lot of money in Ubud — we’re talking ten one-hour massages. I should probably mention that Stacy is young and pretty, and during the session Nadao kept pointing out that her relationship with her boyfriend was not going to last, oh and by the way, her sexuality was shut down. He also made a bunch of completely misplaced pronouncements about her life that left her perturbed the next day when I spoke to her.

Dear friends: one of the most reliable ways of inflicting misery upon yourself is to believe in magical thinking. That is, to think that someone else has the solution to your problem, and that solution is of a supernatural nature. Look, it’s cool if you still want to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But if you’re over 6, people will start looking at you funny. Belief in healers with magical powers is pretty much the same thing.

But you know what? You don’t have to believe me. In 2005, my personal hero Derren Brown came to the US to film Messiah, a TV special in which he impersonated 5 different practitioners of the spiritual and supernatural arts: a medium, an alien abduction specialist, a psychic, a dream interpreter, and an evangelical Christian preacher. His goal was to have prominent professionals from each of those fields endorse him as the genuine article. 4.5 of the 5 did. You have to watch the whole riveting show to see what happened. Expect your brains to be rearranged.

What people like Nadao the Medium are doing is cold reading. It’s an art and a science, and if you get good at it, you can fool pretty much anyone. Palm reading is a form of cold reading, because there is no proven correlation between the lines in your hand and life events. So are all forms of astrology and tarot. I do pretty good palm readings. Afterwards, even when I tell people that I totally made everything up, they still want to believe it was all true. It was not. It was bullshit. Manufactured it personally, so I should know.

In fact, as you’re sitting there right now, reading this page, I’m getting a transmission about you. Ah yes — you are a very self-assured person. Outwardly, everyone sees you as confident and competent. And yet, you have areas of self-doubt that you’ve gotten very good at hiding. In fact, you may even think that you’re a fraud at the very thing that everyone else thinks you’re really good at.

Here’s another intuition about you: as you were growing up, you had a turbulent relationship with your opposite-sex parent, particularly starting around age 11 or 12. And I have a feeling you have a scar on your left knee.

How did I do? If those things sounded eminently plausible to you, it’s because they’re plausible to everyone. We all have insecurities; everybody was a teenager at some point; and all kids fall a lot. However, as I’m cold-reading you and creating this warm and oh-so-special personal cocoon between us, your mind is only paying attention to the hits, not the misses. And you’re completely ignoring the base rate — the degree to which my oracular pronouncements are true of the general population. Oh, and you have an obsession with underwear — in fact, you’re wearing some right now!

Now I’m not saying that these treatments bear no benefit whatsoever. Hell, there are studies that show even chiropractors sometimes get good results. This is because meaningful contact with another human being can itself be curative. Someone sits down, listens to you, and pays attention for a full hour — something neither doctors nor spouses seem able or willing to do these days.

The other problem with these treatments is that they’re nonspecific. I’ve gotten some significantly tingly feelings when someone did Reiki on me, but what did it accomplish? Did it solve the problem or merely treat it temporarily? How do you measure the before and after? How big a dose did I get? Are there side effects? Real drugs undergo rigorous testing to answer all of these questions, and even they don’t work all the time. If all you want is an experience of healing, hey, knock yourself out and stimulate the local economy in the process. But if you have appendicitis, may I suggest a scalpel.

I’m nowhere as good as Derren, but here’s my challenge to Medium Anao specifically, and healers in general: if I do a session with your client, and they declare that it was as good as yours, then you’re a fraud. Taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities is totally uncool, so if that’s your business model, I’m coming for ya.

So, in the interest of reader safety and getting this rant out of my system, here’s a list of healing modalities you’re better off avoiding. Keep in mind that I’m trained not just as a doctor but also a clinical hypnotherapist, so I’ve been moving in these circles for a while, and my experience with the woo is usually firsthand:

Past-life regression: Daydreams that you pay a lot for. It’s fun to make up stories; the whole business of books and movies is based on it. But there is no scientific evidence that this stuff actually works. And under hypnosis, it’s trivially easy to implant memories and prompt all kinds of weird tales. In my live stage hypnosis shows, I routinely get people to pretend they’re aliens, speak in an alien tongue, and have someone else interpret it. This does not make Planet Xorkon real. You already have a real life with enough problems that you don’t need past ones to pile on top of it. Let’s stick with that.

Intuitive healers: Some of these people have a talent, but it’s just really hard to quantify what they’re doing. Mostly they make you feel good about yourself. If that’s worth money to you — hey, you look great today! Really, you do. And you’ve got so much kindness and generosity in your heart. That’ll be $150, thank you.

Colonic hydrotherapy: Nature created one-way streets for a reason — arteries, veins, bile ducts, digestive tracts. Do not try to reverse that flow. Colonics are totally unproven, with risk of colon perforation. Surely one can find more wholesome entertainment than this.

Psychics and mediums: This is straight-up cold reading. Incredibly manipulative, and dangerous even as entertainment.

Astrology: Let’s say you have a problem in your life. Is it more likely to be caused by some random person 10,000km away, or the person occupying your seat right now? Well, the average planet is 100 million km away, and stars 100 billion km. So quit blaming Mercury in “retrograde” instead of the reprobate in your seat who’s good at making bad decisions. This is magical thinking at its worst. I’ve noticed an astonishing number of perfectly smart, educated women who believe in this nonsense. Superstition is the opposite of power, and makes you incredibly easy to manipulate. And no, putting “Vedic” in front of anything does not make it less bogus.

Cleanses: Cleanses seem like the custom-made antidote to Judeo-Christian feelings of guilt, sin and impurity — some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card after abusing your body for too long. Friends don’t let friends do cleanses. But they do encourage them to lay off the sugar, processed food, alcohol and crystal meth.

The good news is that your body is exquisitely good at clearing waste out of your body. If your lungs, kidneys and liver weren’t working at it around the clock, you’d be dead in minutes. There is no central repository of toxic gunk hiding somewhere in your body that can somehow be released through ingesting fruit juice, water, clay, maple syrup, lemon juice, motor oil or any other voodoo concoction.

If you have a parasite, take a pill. If you have a heavy metal problem, do chelation therapy under medical supervision, or listen to less Metallica. Otherwise, consider all cleanses to be snake oil. The Master Cleanse, developed in the 1920s by a felon jailed for damaging people by practicing medicine without a license, is a particularly popular culprit.

Also, know that fruit juice is bad for you. Yup, you heard it right. It’s basically sugar water, and it spikes your blood glucose to the stratosphere. Buying “cold-pressed” fruit juice just broadcasts “I’m credulous enough to drop $8 on a glass of juice and too lazy to chew.” Fruit was meant to be eaten whole, with the fiber and everything. May want to peel that pineapple, though.

Veganism: A plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health and that of the planet. Veganism, however, is more like an ideology than a diet. No stable community anywhere on earth follows a vegan diet, except for affluent Westerners who have the time and money to afford this kind of indulgence. It’s nutritionally deficient, pointlessly expensive, and just plain weird. I mean, tofurkey? Really? And do you appreciate how much environmental havoc soybeans farming wreaks? Vegans also make for difficult dinner companions and tend to be judgey. I know this because during my two-month vegan stint, I was insufferable. Cheese, I promise we’ll never be separated for that long again.

In the end, I’ve learned that the business model of preying on people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities remains robust. Since predators are going to keep preying, it’s incumbent on us to educate ourselves and remain vigilant against the never-abating tide of nonsense, sophistry and bullshit.

Besides Yoga Barn, Hubud (“Hub in Ubud”) was the other place that everyone told me about. This is the first co-working space in Asia. Starting at $30 a month, you get a shared workspace and access to fast internet. Hubud prides itself on hosting tons of events — talks, workshops, skill shares, startup weekends, hackathons, and Fuckup Nights (really). They foster an atmosphere of collegiality, and everyone is super-friendly and helpful. If you’re able to work remotely, Hubud allows you to gaze at a rice field and monkey forest while you pad around barefoot (no shoes inside!) and create a great startup or novel.

Outpost, a newer co-working space, is Hubud’s crosstown rival which I have only heard good things about. Co-working spaces like these are ideal harbors for the digital nomad. I appreciate a space where people have their heads down and get stuff done; otherwise this book ain’t ever gonna write itself.

But really — why Bali?
Every decision has a push and a pull to it. Bali sounded like a great place to camp out to do some thinking and writing. But I’d also gotten a bit tired of San Francisco, its incessant talk of “crushing it” and unicorns (both the billion-dollar valuation kind and the rainbow-farting kind), bullshit startup culture (“I know! Let’s deliver pre-digested food directly into people’s stomachs!” — that was Soylent, a real company), casual squalor, stupidly expensive housing, rampant materialism, egocentrism and preciousness. My six close friends who were the impetus for moving to San Francisco had all left town, so I was also starting to feel lonely. I probably ate 90% of my meals alone.

It was also getting harder and harder to get people to show up to anything — to receive an advance commitment of any kind. It seemed like people were more interested in company as a fungible commodity, like something you could order via an app — Uber for friendship, y’know? — versus my company specifically. But it was also impossible to get anyone to do anything spontaneous, because omigod I’ve got a board meeting at noon on Sunday, conference call 6am Tuesday, and some other utterly forgettable crap 9pm every day that ends in Y. In the pursuit of success, all these fabulously talented, hardworking people hadn’t noticed that they had lost control of their own time — which is my definition of enslavement. A golden cage is still a cage.

On top of all this, stuff happened in November 2016 that made me realize that the religion of the United States is one thing above all: greed. That is not my religion. More on that in the book I’m working on, Happiness Engineering: Redefining Success in an Age of Anxiety and Greed. If you’re one of those fabulously talented, overachieving people who’s starting to think that maybe your priorities are misplaced, drop me a line if you’d like to be featured as a case study for the whole world to read about.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m quite happy here. The environs are pleasant, everything I need is walking distance, work is good, and there is much novelty and wonder at hand. Do visit if you have a week or two to trade concrete for green.

“When Breath Becomes Air”: A call to life before death


“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

whenbreathbecomesairI picked up When Breath Becomes Air (hardback; ebook; audiobook) at about 10pm on the first day of spring by a recommendation from the inimitable Jesse Kornbluth. From his and other reviews, I roughly knew what the book was about: death. What better time to meditate on death than on the very cusp of Earth’s re-awakening?

In one sitting, it was read. It’s a tonic against the unreality that assaults us in the world today — politics, entertainment, advertising, broken promises, missed meetings — because it’s the most real book I’ve read in recent memory. Paul Kalanithi is 36 years old, and chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Medical School. Every day, he opens up people’s skulls with a drill and saw, dissecting through the dura and meninges to get to a tiny tumor in the cerebellum. One false move of his scalpel by 2mm, and instead of a productive career and fatherhood, his patient is fully paralyzed for life. This is not about shifting around some spreadsheet numbers or holding meetings with middle management about shareholder value, folks. Kalanithi’s work is at the interface between thriving and withering, life and death, every day.

And then, Kalanithi’s life takes a turn for the even more real: he himself is diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, he has to decide whether he will be spending the remainder of his time on Earth dying or living — a span of 1 to 10 years, depending on disease progression. He chooses to live: to rehabilitate himself and go back to full-time surgical practice in spite of his exhausting chemotherapy regimen; to repair his marriage; to have a child; and to write this book. I am very glad he made that decision.

It turns out that Kalanithi’s time on earth was much closer to the lower end of the predicted range, which makes his story even more poignant and the creation of this book even more heroic. Between 100hr weeks at the hospital, mind-fogging chemotherapy, and a newborn, when did he write?

This is a book that stays with you. It’s a lucid exposition from a consummate insider on the practice of medicine and work of healing. When can doctors heal? What do they tell patients when they can’t? How do they react when a patient dies? How do they convey that news to the family? Is life always worth living?

Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew the number was small. But so are ours. If you’re 25, that number is 18,000 to 20,000. If you’re 45, it’s closer to 13,000. If your light plane crashes, or you have a mountaineering accident, or have a freak untreated food poisoning, that number could be much smaller, like it was for my three friends who died in the past year, all under the age of 35.

So the bad news is that we’re all going to die, folks. Especially you. The good news is that every moment that you live is a gift. You can have that fact impressed upon you by a terminal diagnosis. Or you can read When Breath Becomes Air. Let that inform your days, and you just may infuse every moment of your existence with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.


On pain and how to handle it


On the morning of Saturday, March 15, I woke up to shooting and stabbing pain down the right side of my neck, upper back and right arm. The pain encircled my ribs and was literally breathtaking.

I figured I must have slept with my neck in a funny position and a little massage would relieve it. But there was no part of my neck and back that my visiting friend could touch without eliciting a howl from yours truly. So I called my acupuncturist and bodywork specialist Steve, who was kind enough to accommodate me on short notice. Although the session gave me some relief, I realized that this was a different beast than a simple stiff neck.

Eventually, I found an experienced physical therapist/bodyworker based in San Rafael named Al Chan, whose deep knowledge of anatomy combined with his iron paws (I call his technique “Ow now, wow later”) helped put me on the mend.

This article is not about the clinical course of my ailment, though. This is aboutpain – where it

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Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013


One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to

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Taoism in Three Easy Pieces


It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:

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Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?


I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of

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Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics


I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama. He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius. For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things. Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things. I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive. He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person. In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction. The conversation started civilly enough. Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism:

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Why you should not go to medical school — a gleefully biased rant


In the few years since I’ve graduated from medical school, there has been enough time to go back to medical practice in some form, but I haven’t and don’t intend to, so quit yer askin’ already.  But of course, people keep on asking.  Their comments range from the curious — “Why don’t you practice?” — to the idealistic — “But medicine is such a wonderful profession!” — to the almost hostile — “Don’t you like helping people, you heartless ogre you?”

Since it’s certain that folks will continue to pose me this question for the rest of my natural existence, I figured that instead of launching into my 15-minute polemic on the State of Medicine each time and interrupting the flow of my Hefeweizen on a fine Friday eve, I could just write it up and give them the URL.  So that’s what I did.

Now, unfettered by my prior obligations as an unbiased pre-med advisor, here are the myriad reasons why you should not enter the medical profession and the one (count ’em — one) reason you should.  I have assiduously gone through these arguments and expunged any hint of evenhandedness, saving time for all of you who are hunting for balance.  And here are the reasons:

1) You will lose all the friends you had before medicine.
You think I’m kidding here.  No, I’m not: I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I had a friend in UCLA Med School who lived 12min away, and I saw her once — in three years (UPDATE: twice in 4 years). I saw her more often when she lived in Boston and I was in LA, no foolin’.

Here’s the deal: you’ll be so caught up with taking classes, studying for exams, doing ward rotations, taking care of

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