Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More interesting things

Email doesn't ruin real-world relationships. Facebook increases your social support a lot. The internet is good for you. This is good news.

Some stress is good for you. A lot of stress is bad, trauma is bad, but living in a perfect bubble world is bad too.

This post about tips to enjoy your vacation more is awesome. Science says: take a vacation of 3-6 days. Make the peak and the end awesome. Hang out with your family, particularly eating ice cream.
(am I becoming just a filter for Barking Up the Wrong Tree and Wired Frontal Cortex? ... maybe.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Thought scraps

"Things are as they are": this seems about the fourth thing you say after you live in a place for a while. First, "place X is great"; second, "place X is bad and here's why"; third, some subtler things about place X, that it's friendlier or colder or sleepier or grander or whatever; and fourth, "well, okay. Place X is place X." You stop generalizing. I feel like this is when intelligent conversation can start. (either that, or what I'm saying is "stop writing about places." Hmm, that doesn't seem right.)
Thoughts of an expat in Bishkek
A counterexample: an article about Bhutan that generalizes, and is annoying as a result.

So traveling is great, right, and especially after that post about world-curating, one might think I'm advocating a lot of traveling and a lot of randomness injected into your life. Why do I say only 20%? Because I think conventional wisdom is mostly correct: society progresses by abstracting and automating details like how to get water for the day. I couldn't do a lick of work here. Even, I think, if I lived here. But furthermore, if I lived here, I think my life would be poorer in a lot of ways. You can't get as good variety of music or movies, activities to do, organizations to join. Western life offers a nice lot of complexity, and I mean that in the positive, Csikszentmihalyi sense of "differentiated parts working together as one."

I like cricket. Time will tell if this is like stroopwafels, which I pretend to like while I'm there, or herring, which is actually great.

There's a different take on interruption here. In the US, you get stuff like "Never ask a busy person to lunch." Here, people I've met seem pretty much more okay with being interrupted.

Someone else who's figured out food. Orexin, I guess: sugar kills it, protein helps it, and it in turn helps us to be alert and have energy and so on. This drives me nuts. How does this fit in with everything else that the body does?
Also by Lehrer, but more convincing: I guess I should be chewing gum.

Living by yourself is pretty nice for us control-freaky types. I resonated pretty well with this article about an Indian lady being less stressed after losing her maid. It's hard to live in a place with someone else; you just feel like you're being watched, and that every move has to be right in some way. But perhaps this is just an extreme example of me curating my world!

Inspirations from a Creed music video

Well, a live version of "My Sacrifice", to be exact. So Creed. They look kind of like meatheads. They have rather shaved heads that are smaller than their necks. They look like those guys you went to high school with.

Wait a minute. Why are they "those guys you went to high school with", and not "those guys you talk to every day"? Was high school the last time you interacted with a jock? Why is that, and is it a bad thing?

Why is that: it's because you curate your own world around yourself. You don't want to hang out with jocks, so you surround yourself with non-jocks. (This happens pretty easily: get a tech job and move to a hip neighborhood. If you run into a jock, just ignore him and hang out with your friends again.)

Is curating your own world a bad thing: Well... world-curating has some nice effects. You like the people around you, you don't get shoved into lockers, you can just start talking about Wizard People Dear Reader or Python or Sufjan Stevens whenever. I suppose the problem then is that we get worse at dealing with stuff that's not in our bubbles. You might have to deal with a jock someday, but your jock-skills will have atrophied.

Is curating your own world inevitable: maybe, yes. Almost by definition, we'll keep going for more of what we like and less of what we don't. The world will continue to supply us with the same, in higher quantities, for less money, and in more places. If I decide I'm tired of Delhi, I can flip on the A/C, find some Chinese or Italian or whatever food, tune in to my computer/phone/Kindle, and I'm in a climate-controlled, food-controlled, information-controlled bubble all of my choosing.

What's the answer? Maybe just not curating too much. If you refuse to curate your world, you'll just get random everything all the time. (It's like traveling in India: exciting, wearying, and impossible as a long-term lifestyle.) If you go for, say, 80% curated and 20% random, you'll get to mostly-enjoy a mostly-smooth life, while still inoculating yourself against all the tough stuff.

How can we inject 20% randomness into our carefully-curated lives? If you know the answer to that one, let me know.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Like a reverse Grinch, my heart just shrank three sizes

I went out to get some change. I had only 500-rupee notes, and I owed a guy 44 for laundry. It's late at night, most things are closed, but there's a little ice cream shop across the way selling gourmet deluxe ice cream for 39 rupees. (it's only so expensive because it's on Park St. in Kolkata, which is sort of like Park Ave. in New York.) Well, it would get me some change, and it sounded kind of nice; I mean, I like ice cream.

And a beggar guy came up saying how he's trying to get food to feed his children, and I can go buy him the food, he doesn't want money, etc. His name is Sunil. Of course he's lying, but there's that little bluebird of doubt: maybe he's not. I'm in India; who knows. I can go buy him the food. I can see him get some food. I can hand over only enough money for the food. And it would also get me some change. This bird's voice was quite amplified by the fact that I was going to buy a scoop of gourmet ice cream. Suddenly that seemed rather trivial.

We pass some kids sleeping on the sidewalk, who Sunil says are his. And we walk to the place, it's a little run down 3-square-foot hovel where too many kids and adults are wolfing down dal and a couple dudes are cooking chapati over charcoal. And this is the point I don't know exactly how to manage, and therefore this is the point when I get screwed. There's a flurry of Hindi (Bengali?), and somehow Sunil has a bag of chapatis and says it's 150 rupees ($3). I balk, because 150 rupees could buy about five street meals. Of course, I want him to have about five street meals, or at least three, given that he has two kids. If he said one meal was 30 rupees, I'd give him 180 and say "get your kids breakfast tomorrow too." But it's just some chapati! So Sunil says "Oh, I forgot, the chicken" and soon he has also two clay containers that I assume contain chicken. This is still not even close to 150 rupees, but we're getting within my margin of error. I hand over 150 rupees.

Immediately I regret it. There is no way this cost 150 rupees; I'd say 50, tops. Therefore, I am conned somehow. At best, Sunil and his kids ate, and Sunil and the restaurant split the 100 extra rupees. At worst, Sunil just handed the chapatis and chicken back after I walked away, Sunil and the restaurant split 150 rupees, Sunil spent his half on cheap hash, and his kids still didn't eat.

Okay, of course I'm angry, and of course there's nothing I can do about it. Luckily it's only $3, but I feel used.

How can I prevent this in the future? The solution I'd like to adopt is, when approached by a beggar, to categorically yell angrily and move as if to hit him; perhaps this would convince some of them that not all white people are money bags, and that there might be some negative consequence to trying to run their scams. However, this solution is rather uncouth, as well as disastrous if someone is actually honest. I guess the best solution is to just categorically refuse beggars.

It's like an essay I was reading about people who are angry about new changes in video games. Instead of posting on forums about how awful the new change is, they should just stop playing. It doesn't get you any of the "satisfaction" of venting, but to vent and continue playing only signals that you don't really mind the new change. And nobody listens when you vent, and venting does nothing to you besides make your anger worse. Similarly, anything I do besides simply refusing beggars will only make things worse.

Okay okay, so it took me 25 years to learn that I shouldn't give money to beggars, okay, no kidding. Well, I've finally learned it! Sigh.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Another step towards eating ideal food

Long article, kind of tough to read, and he's proposing a new understanding of how our bodies work, and if I had a nickel for every time someone "figured it all out"...

But it ties together a lot of things that don't make sense with existing theories of how people eat, by dividing "fat" into "subcutaneous fat" (folds around your body) and "intra-abdominal fat" (beer belly). And they're largely caused by failures of insulin or leptin or both. (either not enough, or too much resistance.) And either way, cut out bad sugars and bad fats.

This is more appealing than mainstream diet notions (i.e. low fat), which are insane, and I don't trust corporations or the government to give me honest nutrition advice. This is also more appealing than the low-carb or paleo people, because it explains how most of the world eats mostly grains and doesn't die.

Downsides: he's mostly talking about obesity, while I'm looking for "how to eat best." Also he doesn't explain how fructose (fruit sugar) got to be "bad" for us. But it's an interesting batch of ideas that seem mostly sensible.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Google Reader Sweep

I don't like to post a big list of "here are interesting things"; I'd rather formulate them into useful and easily-digested stories to make a coherent point. However, I haven't had time. So here are interesting things.

Whew! Man, I could talk about these for ages. Okay, off the computer now.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Movember; this is a great idea.

Guess I'm late to this party (sorry, I'm in Nepal!), but ... it's at least a moderately important cause to me. (and the folks running this are genius.) If you'd care to give a few bucks, all the dudes in my family and I thank you.

Note that I have to look respectable to a border guard on the 19th. Luckily, my moustache still won't be visible then, so no big deal.

(also, sorry if I'm repeating myself on all the social networks! I wonder if there is a smarter way to do this.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Progress is a steady stream of generating more wealth and sharing it more equally?

From Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods":

"Many landowners also discovered that they sat on great seams of coal just at a time when coal was suddenly needed for industry. This ... did translate into gratifying heaps of lucre. ... All of this was in an age in which there was no income tax, no capital gains tax, no tax on dividends or interest- almost nothing to disturb the steady flow of money being banked."

Combine that with this: Americans are happier when the wealth is more evenly distributed. Not to mention, the poorest (/least "developed") countries are often the ones with the most inequality.

So why are our taxes on the rich not really high? Maybe because we fall under the last bit of that Wired article: we don't like a more even society, if we competed to earn our wealth. So our national ethical system values "fairness" too much? I guess the 53% guy (who is responding to the 99% people; btw I love this bunch of the 1%) makes this pretty clear. But as Max Udargo makes clear in his excellent response, you can say "those lazy bums don't deserve my money", but what do you gain? You just get a worse society than if you distribute the wealth more evenly. Everyone loses, because we insist on valuing fairness over harm-reduction.

I guess that's my argument for taxing the rich more. Throw it in with all the rest.

Well, besides my other argument, which is: I want to live in a world where kids don't yell "Give me money!" when I ride past.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English

I just read this book, Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English. I got it because I had read Mindfulness in Plain English and it was very good. Also, Daniel Ingram recommended the author, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, as someone who writes well about jhanas. (again, jhanas are states of high concentration, and concentration is one of the three practices to get you to enlightenment. The others are morality and insight.)

Some things I learned:

- I was pretty naive about how big a deal achieving even the first jhana is. Ingram made it sound easy. Gunaratana recommends at least an hour meditating skillfully, ideally longer sessions in a retreat setting, and notes that "most meditators practice in access concentration (a prerequisite to any jhana) for a good while before attaining jhana." So maybe I'm further away than I thought.

- However, I am pretty sure that I've achieved access concentration! The descriptions he gives sound a lot like what I felt in those two half-hour sessions towards the end of this past retreat: a strengthening of concentration, maybe slightly odd visions, maybe a feeling of lightness.

- However, I think I was "doing it wrong", in that I was trying to force it. I really wanted that concentrated state, and I just kinda tossed insight aside. Gunaratana makes it clear that you have to practice concentration mindfully or else you might develop "wrong concentration"- absorption without mindfulness. Wrong concentration is dangerous, because you might actually achieve some blissful states and get really wrapped up in them, and then you won't be able to develop insight because you're so attached to absorption.

- Thus, the kind of concentration I'm looking for is not "just concentrating a lot" or "becoming one with ____" where ____ is your breath or a candle or a clay disc or whatever.

- Given all this, I think I'm more at peace with the slow boat to enlightenment. Reading Ingram, I wanted to get enlightened in 5 years. Reading someone more mainstream like Gunaratana, I'm reminded how you can't really rush it; or, you can rush it, but by putting in the work, not by just wanting it to go faster. I could get enlightened in 5 years, but I'd have to spend a lot more time in retreats and daily practice. And I'm not a monk, nor do I currently want to be one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Positive mental time travel

Buddhism aside (whew! I do worry about this blog getting religious.), I read a thing about how people had the best moods when either their minds were on what they were doing, or they were engaged in "positive mental time travel": looking forward to good things in the future, or remembering nice things in the past.

I've been doing that a lot recently. It helped get through that retreat. It may not be what I should have been doing, but still. It also helps, say, when I'm cold, simultaneously lonely and sick of talking to people, and fighting spiders. In mental fantasy land, I've never fought with anyone, you're all radiant angels of goodness, and my life's future holds 8 months of joyful and fulfilling vacation followed by an equally marvelous career and life back at home.

I'm not going to debate whether this is a good strategy or not. (see? no Buddhism for now.) Let me just say one thing, though: thanks to you all for helping me to create such nice memories and things to look forward to!

Been killing spiders

A bunch of them, recently. Sometimes I wonder if that's okay to do. I wonder this more whenever I read or think a lot about Buddhism, which is a lot recently. It is particularly awkward when there are spiders in my bathroom at a Buddhist retreat center.

See, in Buddhism, all life is sacred. They say don't kill any living beings, including bugs. They often have stories, too, about so-and-so monk who would catch flies and release them, unharmed, outdoors and how he accumulated such great karma or merit or whatever.

Well, it's a consistent enough teaching, anyway. At some point, you have to decide what's sacred. You have to draw a line and say "you can kill anything below this line, and nothing above this line." Modern secular Westerners draw that line right below humans. Buddhists draw that line below bugs (and above plants, I guess, even though those are alive also; maybe by "living", Buddhists mean "animate" or something). Vegetarians might draw the line below the animal kingdom but above bugs. Or below bugs. Whatever. And then there's also the debate about unborn babies/fetuses/lumps of cells: are they above the line? How can we answer this?

I like Ken Wilber's philosophy on this, based on a book of his that I read and half understood a while ago. The part I remembered is: "Honor complexity." Humans are above the line because we're so complex, particularly our brains. Bugs are just a few nerves and an exoskeleton: below the line. This solves a lot of dilemmas: you don't have to discuss consciousness, you don't have to worry about souls, you can neatly handle any new edge case. (new bacteria from Neptune? well, how complex is it?)

Side note: the part that will likely cheese a lot of people off is that it doesn't line up with old-fashioned definitions of "life". For example, anyone will agree that an ant is alive. But what about one of these supercomputer weather simulators, say. That's probably more complex than the ant; is it alive? is it sacred? (I personally take a bit of perverse pleasure in gleefully saying yes, it is more morally okay to kill an ant than a supercomputer.)

But anyway, if you're still with me, then we've got a philosophical metric of sacredness with no real-world way to measure it. I mean, we could measure computer vs. computer in a few ways (and even that is difficult), but how could we possibly compare the complexity of a supercomputer with, say, a rat's brain?

I don't know. All I know is, for right now I'm using that argument to rationalize going against all the Buddhist wisdom and killing spiders.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life choices, if life weren't handed on a platter to us rich white Americans?

I've kind of taken it for granted my entire life that working for money isn't a good idea, that things aren't worth worrying about, and that money won't buy happiness.

This all assumes that I'll always have enough money. What if I didn't? Suddenly, working for money becomes a viable and smart career option. Until you get to that diminishing returns point ($40k/yr? $60k?), one dollar equals one util!

Other luxuries include control over my time. I take flexible hours and vacation time for granted. At home I could pretty much choose to do whatever I want whenever I want. Traveling now, not quite as much (sometimes more than others). If I were working, and had a more restrictive job, even less.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maybe I'll get enlightened instead of having kids.

One question with undertaking a quest like "get enlightened" is: how do I plan to do this? I'm not prepared to give up my career. A healthy social life is, well, healthy, and I'm not prepared to give that up either. I'd like to get married someday. How will I find time to do all the things that everyone else does, and also get enlightened?

Here's an idea: not have kids.

Kids don't make you happier, for any definition of happier. I particularly don't think kids would make me happier. And one more enlightened being in the world is probably more beneficial in a grand sense than 2 or 3 more confused small people. I don't see much of a downside here.

(I want to put some disclaimer here that I know enlightenment is not a panacea, and then go on to describe all the ways that people who have achieved enlightenment are not automatically perfect radiant superman buddhas, but I said I'd stop blogging, so I'll have to save that for another time.)

Making the Best Life

As I'm taking a year of life that is different than most life, I get a good chance to reflect on ways I want my next settled life (that is, my grad student life) to be. The difficult thing is that everything is different now, so I can't run experiments on diet, sleep, caffeine, etc, because of all the confounding factors. The nice thing is that I have a lot of time to figure out ideas and a lot of diverse experiences.

Some thoughts, and I'm open to everything from the profound to the mundane

- make sure there's a farmers' market near my house and at least one good coffeeshop. This has been nice in Seattle.
- keep biking. This is also good.
- meditation will probably still be in the morning. An hour would be a nice number. After sitting for an hour or more many times these past two weeks, I've jumped up to 45 minutes in the morning, which feels totally doable now. I'll work up from there.
- make a bunch of Indian food. Dishes/appliances I would like include a food processor and a big wok, or maybe a cast-iron skillet. (That's the best thing for a skillet, right? I'm cool with maintenance.)
- here's a thought: keep nothing immediately edible in my house. I've enjoyed staying a bit hungry, and if food always required me to work, I'd probably get back to 3 standard meals/day and feel pretty good.
- somehow limit, but not eliminate, drinking. Like Gerrit's "only drink in houses, not bars" idea.
- make sure my home desk setup works nicely. Big monitor, comfortable chair. Or standing desk?
- figure out something about sleep. Sleeping naturally always is nice, but it'd be good if it didn't take so long.

And one more thought, which probably deserves its own post (and then I'll quit blogging for tonight, promise).

My mental state and current meditation plan

I'd say "plan of attack", but that doesn't sound right.

Two weeks ago, I was starting a 10-day meditation course, for over 90 hours of meditation. My previous total meditation experience is probably (1 year * average maybe 10 minutes/day) + (1 year * 20 min/day) + (1 month * 30 min/day) + (2 retreats = 20 hrs) = ~180 hours. So this retreat is half as much meditation as I've done ever. (now I've got 270 hours, so I'm 2.7% of an expert, if you ask Malcolm Gladwell!)

Given that, I figured I could make some real progress. I've just been amped up on descriptions of jhanas and stages of insight from Daniel Ingram, and he suggests attaining the first (samatha) jhana first. Two reasons: it's very blissful, which will make you want to meditate more, and once you're in this state, you can examine it for the characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self, and go on to insight practice from there.

Sounded good to me. I'm not really sure how to get there, but I think you just concentrate hard. A point along the path to the first jhana is "access concentration", where you get the ability to concentrate on whatever you want for as long as you want. The ability to, say, concentrate on your breath for an hour and never let your mind wander.

What happened: Over the 10 days, I didn't experience anything that I'd consider a jhana. I had a couple times I concentrated on my breath for a good half hour without losing focus, and then had some mildly dreamy thoughts/visions, but I think that attaching special significance to those is is wishful thinking. On the other hand, I had a couple times I concentrated on my breath for a good half hour without losing focus, so that's a start. Both times occurred in the evening, 6-7pm, after a very light dinner and some tea.

So what now? I think keep on track with the concentration. Once I hit the first jhana (or maybe second; it sounds nice and easier to maintain) and can regularly get there, then I'll start back to insight/Vipassana practice. It feels weird to learn Goenka-style Vipassana and immediately drop it (and Mahasi Sayadaw-style Vipassana) and go for concentration, but it seems good for the two reasons above, and also so I can post "I hit something repeatable and definitely qualitatively different from my regular mind, therefore I'm not just wasting time sitting on pillows."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Goenka-style Vipassana meditation, and my reactions

I spent 10 days at a Buddhist Vipassana meditation course led by S.N. Goenka. I've explained more about the course itself on my travel blog. Here I'll explain in more depth the teaching:
  • Proper living (/enlightenment) has 3 parts: Sila (morality), Samadhi (concentration), Panna ("pan-ya", with tildes on the n's. wisdom.) Sounds familiar.
  • Morality is just living your ordinary life well. Five precepts, etc. It's simple enough- we've been learning this our whole lives. Not to say it's easy, but it's more or less simple.
  • Concentration can be developed by a lot of meditative practices, including "Anapana" meditation, where you just focus on the feeling of your breath in the nose. Just focus on it. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back, non-judgmentally.
  • Wisdom can be developed by Vipassana meditation. In Goenka's teaching, Vipassana goes as follows: feel the sensations in your body, both the gross sensations (like pain in your knees) and the subtle ones (like just focus on your hands, right now, and after a few seconds you'll probably feel a little tingling, or maybe heartbeat-like pulsing.) Notice them, develop your awareness, and also develop your equanimity- don't react to them with clinging or aversion.
  • How does Vipassana meditation develop wisdom? You start to realize that you have no permanent independent "self"; you are constantly changing. Every sensation is something changing on a small level. Eventually you realize that everything is impermanent ("anitcha") and that will bring you to enlightenment.
  • Also, any attachment or aversion you develop is like a line you draw in a rock, or a "sankara", that lies deep within you. When you just notice all your sensations with equanimity, you stop generating new sankaras, and your old ones bubble up to the surface and get evaporated. When you evaporate all your sankaras, you'll be enlightened.

I mostly like his teachings. Here are things about the teachings that I like:

  • it's mostly in line with things I know about Buddhism.
  • the body-scanning technique is kind of like the Mahasi Sayadaw-style mind-scanning technique I'd been doing, but for the body instead of the mind. This is sort of easier, because you can go in a direction. Start at the top of the head and go down, start at the feet and go up. You can't really scan the whole mind.

But I have a few beefs. Here are some things I don't like, ordered from least crazy to most crazy:

  • solving your mind's problems through the body seems like the wrong way to do it. Like debugging software by examining the entire contents of memory. It might work sometimes, but usually it's just inefficient. But then, I am willing to concede that I might be wrong here.
  • plus, it's kinda boring. After I scan a couple times, I get bored.
  • he teaches his style of Vipassana as if it is the only way to do Vipassana. Obviously this is frustrating.
  • he keeps arguing against straw-man organized religions. "Vipassana is a technique, not an organized religion where you do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death." I think very few people would agree that their own religion is "do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death."
  • at some point he started talking about "kalapas", which are the tiniest particles, smaller than quarks, that make up matter. Apparently each kalapa has the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. I'll stop here because you can probably sense my scowl.
  • he also liked to talk about the "law of nature", which I think had something to do with karma, in the sense of "if you do something bad, that will come back to bite you." Guys, this is false. Or he'd start off a story with "there's this guy who had a fortunate life due to some past karma..." Hey, sounds like "do this good deed and you get rewarded after death." (admittedly, he talked about karma sometimes in a non-wacky sense, like how if you generate anger towards someone, it hurts you too.)
  • that bit about the sankaras! That makes no sense! He offers no explanation as to how this happens, beyond some hand-wavey thing where I guess, e.g., you might develop anger towards someone, and then you'll get a sankara, and later it'll manifest itself as a pain in your foot. I don't know.
  • and then, after all this, he says "Buddhism is scientific!" ... Goenka-ji, it can be, but you're doing it wrong.
So you might get the idea that I thought the whole thing was crazy. Not so. Most of it actually made a lot of sense, and it was only about 10% talking, 90% meditating anyway. You don't go to this retreat to philosophize, you go to meditate. And now that I think about it, if you just skipped all the dharma talks after maybe day 4, you could have a really great retreat. (however, this is very frowned upon.)
And as Goenka said, if you are eating delicious kheer, and you find a cardamom seed that you don't like, then just leave it aside and eat the rest of the kheer. Eventually you may realize that you like cardamom too, and then you eat that bit. Or maybe not, also fine.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Buddhism has a 4th grader's understanding of alcohol

Okay okay, 10 days without talking, and I love to talk. I have a lot of things to say. I am very limited by my internet connectivity, and the fact that I want to sleep. This is mildly frustrating. So I'll lead off with this thought because it's quick.

The Five Precepts in Buddhism are: don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, don't have sexual misconduct, and don't take intoxicants (including alcohol). Monks take these (along with a host of others). During retreats, non-monks take these too. Non-monks are further encouraged to take these precepts during normal times too. The first four are of course fine; who could disagree with those? But the fifth one seems a bit severe in our society. I've heard two reasons, and I can think of a third:

1. "When you drink, you become more likely to do all the other bad things." Or sometimes "a drunk person is like a madman" which is kind of like D.A.R.E.'s outlook on booze: you're either sober or drunk. I could see a precept against getting drunk, but against all drinking seems extreme. You can still control yourself.

2. "Continuity of mindfulness is important, so even getting mindless for a couple hours can really hurt your practice." Okay, this argument is more legit. Still, really? No breaks? What about when you're sleeping? And it's not like I'm mindful anywhere near 24/7 anyway...

3. Cultural factors. In Europe, say, everyone drinks sometimes. In India, it's rarer, and maybe back around Buddha's time, the only people who drank were the town drunks. So in this case, this precept seems out of place. (imagine if Buddhism started in Europe, and there was a precept against drinking tea!)

At any rate, could we replace it with "don't use intoxicants irresponsibly"? (or perhaps this is impossible and I just want to have my enlightenment and eat drink it too.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Well, more grad apps submitted

CMU HCII, MIT Media Lab, and the NSF and NDSEG fellowships. CMU and MIT were mostly done already, but the fellowships required me to write a bunch more essays. This was frustrating and a bit depressing, although I had two days I didn't know what else to do with anyway. I feel like the NSF app is all about diversity, and the NDSEG app at least hopes that maybe some part of your work might be defense-related, but it's worth applying anyway, I suppose. Getting one of these is the "golden ticket" that lets you study anywhere (because nobody has to worry about paying you, so, why not?), but not getting either is fine too.

Here's hoping! I'm not all too worried; something will turn out.

In other news, here's a snarky quote: I've been listening to the Dalai Lama talk about Buddhist stuff in the day, and I'm reading H.P. Lovecraft stories about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Mi-Go, and the Great Old Ones at night. Learning about both worlds seems pretty similar.

What I mean by that: you can talk about Buddhism for ages without saying anything practical. Okay okay yes, we have emptiness, causality, suffering, and the four noble truths. Beyond that, we have Nagarjuna, Avalokiteshvara, Milarepa, Maitreya, the Eightfold Path, the Nine Understandings or something, Dharmadutta, Dharmakaya, Theravada, reincarnation, Karma, ... which are all either nice concepts or cultural baggage, but what do you do? I guess I just want to stop talking until I gain some wisdom and have something to talk about. (which doesn't explain why I went to hear some teachings. Oh well, check off HH on the celebrity sighting checklist.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

I just finished a book about Buddhism that's been much more accessible and useful than any other book about Buddhism that I've read. It's called "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha" and it is by a guy named Daniel Ingram. He starts off by saying he is an arahat. Then he talks about the fundamentals of Buddhism a bit. Then he bashes pop-Buddhism pretty hard, saying it's often fluff and everyone is just there to "talk about feelings or whatever, dude" instead of actually get enlightened. Then (and this is the good part) he lays out maps of the path from here to enlightenment. I have learned so much. For example:

- there are 3 main things you should practice: morality (being good at the real world), concentration, and insight (aka mindfulness, aka non-duality, emptiness, or seeing things as they really are). These are all distinct practices. So if you want to get better at concentration, practice concentration. etc.

- there are about 8 levels you can achieve in concentration, called the jhanas. they are temporary states, and mostly blissful, although they all have their own distinct characteristics.

- there are about 16 levels you can be in in insight, called the nanas. they are not temporary; they are basically things you learn. the first 3 are somewhat ordinary but still useful realizations, the 4th ("arising and passing away") is super intense, 5-10 are the "dark night" (depressing/difficult), 11 is peaceful again, 12-15 involve actually getting a taste of nirvana. (16 is a bit of a review) When you hit 15 ("fruition"), you are a "stream enterer." Then you repeat this path a bunch of times, eventually becoming enlightened. (aka an arahat)

This is all probably more detail than you care to know, but it is super super interesting to me, because it means that:
- you or I can actually get enlightened, probably in a matter of years, not decades or lifetimes
- there is a map. it's not just sit, sit, sit, sit, bang enlightened. there are intermediate steps, and you'll know when you hit them.

It's encouraging to actually think "I could go for enlightenment." I may do just that. If I do, I'll try to blog my progress whenever I think I make concrete progress, as much as possible. If at any point it seems like I've gone off the deep end, please let me know, but I'll try to keep reading, talking, cross-referencing, and making sure not to get caught up in any nonsense.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I guess I just made a "best albums" list again.

Here in India, everyone's car has a stereo, and they all have a little USB stick full of Indian mp3's plugged in. As I have a USB stick with me, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to create my own little stick in case I'm ever in a situation to show off some American music.

How to do so? I could ponder the perfect 200-song playlist forever, but to make life easier, I decided to just pick 10 albums that I like a lot and that would be good representatives for y'know American slightly-off-mainstream pop music, or whatever it is that I like. So it's not a "best of all time" list, but it's the closest I've come to doing that in a while. Here's what I came up with:

- Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat
- Daft Punk, Discovery
- Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours
- Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
- Bloc Party, Silent Alarm
- The Knife, Silent Shout
- Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense
- Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
- LCD Soundsystem, The Sound of Silver
- Of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins

- Hissing Fauna is maybe better but I'd like to not scare anyone
- (that doesn't explain why Blueberry Boat and Silent Shout are on there, but those are two that would be there for sure if I WERE making a best-ever list)
- Stop Making Sense is not even close to the best Talking Heads album, but it might be the best Talking Heads album if you've never heard Talking Heads and were unlikely to again
- Janelle Monae's the only one to make the list since college. Maybe Talking Heads, I wasn't such a fanboy then. Still, it's a little past-heavy. (but not distant-past-heavy; no Weezer or Modest Mouse. I might have heard them too much.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What if the universe were very small?

Say, the size of our solar system. What would life be like then?
- almost no chance of ever finding life on other planets
- we'd have to take better care of the earth I guess; even if we colonize the moon and Mars, that's only another 0.35 earths worth of surface area. We'd run out of rocks to live on, and soon.
- things wouldn't seem so boundless. You wouldn't get to look into the night sky and pretend you're going to visit all those stars, like Han Solo.
- speaking of which: would we still have sci-fi with many different star systems? or would that idea just be inconceivable, or hard to visualize, kind of like sci-fi over many different universes is now?

What if the Earth were the only planet? We'd be done: all the space on the planet would be all the space there is! There would be no more anything! How would that affect the way we think?

Don't worry, I'm not trying to make a point here. Just try thinking as if that were true for a minute; it feels weirder than I would have thought.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meditator's log, stardate 8/22/11

Assuming I'm going to vanish into blissful nirvana in about 50 years, it'd be a good idea to leave behind some documentation. I guess I checked in for the first time about a year ago, so it's not a bad time to try again.

So I'm two years into daily practice now, starting at Burning Man 2009 with the BuddhaCamp, a group of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhists, who I chanted with for a few months. After that I kinda did my own meditation thing for a year, inspired by the bits of zen and vipassana I'd picked up. For about January to July this year I've been guided by Ven. Dhammadinna, who runs Bodhiheart Sangha in Seattle along with Tenzin Jesse. Did my first retreat with them for three days in July. In August, I've just been keeping up the practice.

Some things I've noticed:
- I can sit quietly for 20-25 minutes, no problem, it is an easy thing, if I just let my mind wander.
- Meditating for 20-25 minutes, however, is still not easy. I'm talking about something along the lines of vipassana or insight or mindfulness meditation: focus on your breath, and note and know anything that comes up.
- Getting myself to sit down and meditate for 20-25 minutes is still not easy either.
- Sitting cross-legged like that for more than about a half hour in a day, as in a retreat setting, hurts my knees.
- I notice fairly regularly in real life when I am being not so mindful, or causing myself extra suffering. I can't do much about it usually, and I don't try to. Just note it and understand the feeling. And I don't get caught up in mental loops so much, like "argh I shouldn't feel this" or "why do I feel this" or whatever.
- Sometimes I'll be creating all these thoughts like "this is good" or "this is bad" and then there's a nagging doubt in my mind like "hey there's something else you should be thinking about here" but I lazily push it away.
- I feel pretty peaceful about the whole deal. I'm no longer looking too hard for external signals that I'm on the right track, because I realize that they will usually come too gradually to notice, and I trust that this is a good way to a better life.
- Similarly, I've disengaged it from my work a little bit. There's no sense trying to write software to help us be ... somehow mentally better ... before I actually have a better sense of what that means. So, when I'm working, it's less mysticism, more trying to focus on somewhat more concrete research tasks. Like designing for better focus/concentration/attention control.

Friday, August 19, 2011

This week's been a time warp.

Here I am again, in my parents' house, riding bikes around Westlake, and filling out apps for colleges. What is this, 2003?

Here's a bit more time warp:
I grew up here.

I used to play baseball here. Sometimes I'd get lucky and it'd get rained out.

I was so psyched when this Rite Aid showed up down the street, because it was a place I could get to on my bike (back when my range was about a quarter mile), and I could buy a candy bar or something. Oh childhood.

For a bit of the present, here's the Westlake coffeeshop report:
- The Copper Cup in Bay Village is great closed.
- The Java Cafe is not only great but also right near my house closed.
- The Arabica in North Ridgeville is the only remaining semi-independent shop around. It's also crummy: bland coffee, wireless that doesn't work, no people, and a depressing rural-strip-mall setting.
- Starbucks at Crocker Park has no seating anymore. (They still have free wifi. ... for while you're waiting in line?)
- Starbucks in North Olmsted is actually pretty good. The only downside is that you have to take Lorain Road ("a little slice of hell" - my dad, I think) to get there.
- Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble is actually not a Starbucks, but a Barnes & Noble Cafe Serving Starbucks Coffee with Starbucks Logos (and not accepting Starbucks gift cards).
- Liquid Planet actually serves decent iced coffee for cheap, but it feels like a fast food place. And 90% of their smoothies are full of apple juice. (<-- check it out, not only coffee snobbery but sugar snobbery as well)
- Caribou! Now here's a winner. A warmish atmosphere, standing desks (!), and Eels on the stereo. Well, it was. Music's gone downhill in the past half hour.
Just in case you were wondering.

And as for the future, I will be glad to be at a university and able to concentrate on research, instead of trying to concentrate both on research and on getting into grad school. I've had a few great people helping me, so I'm confident.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Consuming Well

It almost feels like a life stage: during the last three years, I learned to Consume Well. By "Consuming Well" I mean either consuming something that gives the most satisfaction or causes the least suffering. I learned the best local snacks (bluebird), uppers (victrola), and downers (stumbling monk). I started shopping maybe 75% at farmers' markets, and when I did eat meat, I ate sustainably fished or humanely-treated animals. I bought used furniture and smart brands of clothing and Seventh Generation toilet paper. I got to be a pretty good consumer. If I'd stayed on this path, I probably would have gotten good at wine.

But man, that is about steps one and two on the game of life! That's like learning how to be an artist by sharpening pencils really well! Consuming Well is like knowing the best brands of baseball bats: useful, sure, but only under certain circumstances, and it won't do the work for you.

I'm glad I've gotten better at Consuming Well. It's fun, and it helps bring people together. But I've been asking myself in many areas: can I create, or maintain, or improve here, instead of just consuming? And you too: can you move beyond Consuming Well?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The economy: super hosed, or just kind of hosed?

On the super-hosed side, there's the fact that we have so much debt. What, we're going to cut 2 trillion dollars... over the next N years... leaving us still with 13 trillion dollars? Or is that optimistic even? And won't interest on these loans end up putting us back to 15 trillion? or worse?

On the just-kinda-hosed side, maybe if we ever get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, don't invade anywhere else, and fix the incentives in our medical system, that'd cut a large part of our budget. Maybe we could even spend some money on schools or something.

What got me thinking about this? Big systems. Seems like everyone should have to study software, economics, neuroscience, or something where there's a big goddamn system with a million billion interconnecting parts. Have you ever looked at a website and said "man, they just need to change this one thing; how hard can that be?!" The answer is sometimes "very hard." Most engineers understand this. The medical, financial, military-industrial, educational, political, etc. worlds, similarly, are big friggin' systems!

Not that an understanding of some big web app grants me magical knowledge of how to fix our medical system. Rather, an understanding of how hard it is to do stuff in a web app gives me at least an appreciation of why these are very hard problems.

(also was spurred on by this; I like his definition of "usury".)

The Definitive Seattle Guide to everything Seattlean that is in Seattle

No better time to write the post than now. Here's a guide from a 3-year local who lived in Capitol Hill. Really, we all want lists, right?

Tourist things to do:
- Pike Place Market
- go hiking at Mt. Rainier! Or Olympic or Cascades NP as second and third choices. (requires car)
- well, explore some neighborhoods I guess
- get a copy of The Stranger and find things to do

- the Wing Luke Asian-American museum is neat
- the rest are kinda hit and miss

- Kerry Park, sure
- the Bridge of Good Views (where I think Belmont becomes Lakeview, over I-5)
- University Bridge, looking West
- under Aurora Bridge, on the Burke-Gilman, looking East

Neighborhoods that are neat:
- Capitol Hill
- Fremont
- Ballard
- Georgetown
- the International District

- pour over coffee from Victrola
- espresso from Vivace
- acceptable substitute for either: Zoka or Stumptown
- only a slight step down: Herkimer or Seattle Coffee Works

- beer from the Stumbling Monk or Brouwer's
- locally brewed beer from Hale's or the Elysian
- classic cocktails, or interesting inventions from the bartender, at Needle and Thread (above Tavern Law), Knee High, or Zig Zag; all will be crowded, the first two require reservations
- less-crowded drinks for $8 instead of $12, particularly with citrus, at Sun Liquor

- vegetarian or take the parents to Cafe Flora
- Bibimbap at Kimchi Bistro
- Indian at Travelers'
- Ethiopian at Habesha
- Japanese at Tsukushinbo or nearby in the ID
- for fancy eats: go to Poppy, Quinn's, or ask someone else, because I stopped exploring this quite a while ago

Ice Cream:
- Bluebird in a regular cone or a cup; try half stout, half coffee
- Molly Moon's for a waffle cone

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Quit Facebook and join Google+ already.

A month and a half ago, I looked at Facebook vs Google+ pros/cons. What's changed since then?
- this chrome extension hides the red notification square.
- I've come around on the reshare thing; if you post a photo of yourself smoking pot on facebook you're as good as fired anyway.
- Huddles is frustratingly tricky, because I can't huddle you to make plans tonight, because I don't know if you get it. I'll still give it time to catch on.
- Instant Upload is surprisingly wonderful for sharing photos from your phone; still a little buggy though.

So updated comparison:

Google Plus:
- circles are great
- Huddle and Instant Upload could both be amazing
- you can export your data
- Google doesn't own any rights to your photos
- it's not Facebook

- avoids slight Picasa public->more public weirdness
- it's not Google

... meaning I'm not going to beat around the bush with "there are ups and downs to each" stuff any longer. G+ is a lot better. So (warning: psychological trick ahead) get on that, or get left behind.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tunnel vision

Lately I've felt very goal-oriented. I have a hard deadline to move out, so all the moving has to happen before then. So, too, does my work at UW, and the grad school apps are a little less timely but should still happen before I go to India. Plus, I'm leaving, so I'm not super inclined to expand my life in Seattle.

It's the opposite of the anything-is-fine exploratory expanding feeling. Pleasantly, I've had a bit of that (going-away party last night, and general Seattle summer tends to instill it), but otherwise I've been pretty laser-focused.

It's kind of neat in its own way. I feel productive often. I'm looking forward to expanding again too.

Friday, July 15, 2011


(I am posting this right after two more posts; if you're not RSS/Google Buzzing this, scroll down to read something a little less esoteric, and a little less me-standing-on-a-rock-and-repeating-myself)

I understand that Emptiness (with a capital E) is a big deal for Buddhists. If you get Emptiness right, if you fully understand it all down to your core instincts, then I think you have got pretty much everything under control. You might even get a badge for being "enlightened." If you are like me and just sort of maybe cognitively cold-brain understand it, then you have got a lot of work to do, so you are like 99.999% of the world.

Here is how I understand Emptiness: everything is just atoms.

Do you know Conway's Game of Life? Read up about it, or try it yourself. It's just a grid with a few simple rules. On every turn, every square with >3 black neighbors or <2 black neighbors turns white; every black square with 2 or 3 black neighbors stays black, and every white square with 3 black neighbors turns black. Draw some patterns, see what happens. (granted, it goes fast, so it can be hard to see.)

But draw this pattern:
and click start, and it'll start flying across the screen! You've created a glider!

But the thing is, we call it a glider, but it's really not much of anything. There is no glider there; there are just black and white dots following the rules of the universe. "The glider" is empty of gliderness. It doesn't even make sense to talk about "the glider".

Everything is like that. Ultimately there is no "chairness" in the chair that I'm sitting on, there is no "Seattleness" in this city all around me, and there is no "me-ness" in me. We're all very big, very complicated gliders.

This is where some of my family members jump in and say "You've just argued away God. Any God, all gods, any divine anything, you're killing them. Isn't that depressing?" Ah, no! Sorry. I didn't mean to kill God! God is still there in all the wondrous emergent behavior that makes an imperial stout taste so satisfying, makes a friend care about you, makes a summer Seattle day feel like the best thing in the world. But to talk about these is like talking about gliders: they are just big collections of particles behaving according to the rules of the universe. The only thing we're arguing away is the illusion that there is "A ROSE" separate from the atoms that make up that rose.
(if you're interested, family, we could continue this offline.)

Anyway, this is all very satisfying really, because it means that any problems you have do not actually exist! You see this all the time: you're worried about some failure or something, but the thing you are so worried about is just a construct of your imagination. You can stop dealing with your problems by confronting them or suppressing them, and just let them dissolve at the root because they are not real.

(side notes: I have this book Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett, which I haven't read, but from what I hear about Dennett, I am pretty sure that anything I've said here, he will exactly say the same in that book, and better. (but then, it is a long book.) And while we're at it, Daniel Lemire posts this topical thing that pretty much says the same thing about brains: "sentience" is empty. Throw this in the "I agree a lot" camp, along with Wilber and Csikszentmihalyi.)

Instinct hacking

I used to like soda. Then at some point I started to get this rather visceral feeling of sugary fuzz on my teeth after drinking it. Also, I get canker sores sometimes, and I started to feel like soda is this acid eating away at the hole in my mouth.

I've co-opted natural feelings of disgust to adapt a healthy behavior (not drinking soda). I don't think I even did this on purpose, but it has a nice effect, so might as well not change it.

Also, after reading something like this, I started feeling similarly icky about sitting. "As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your leg muscles shuts off. Calorie burning drops to 1 per minute. Enzymes that help break down fat drop 90%." etc. Something about the image of my body shutting down vs. chugging along as usual made me want to stand more. And since then I've been standing while I work maybe 50/50.

So this all makes me wonder:
1. what else could we instinct-hack, and how?
2. is there a more widely-used term for this that I don't know?
3. how can we be sure not to hack the wrong instincts? (e.g. what if you start to associate eating with gluttony? instant anorexia.)

(why am I thinking about it now? Buddhists are cool with instinct-hacking. For example, when you're constructing a habit, you can stick with it by associating certain feelings along with it: "I don't want to leave myself blameful for violating this". It brought it to the front of my mind.)

Three days at a retreat house and what I learned there

Last weekend: first silent Buddhist retreat ever. Man man man I have like 3 posts worth about this. First, some very basic human thoughts:

1. my mind was waaaay on my regular life; it was very hard to disengage. (I wasn't even sure I wanted to.)
2. napping on a warm deck is really very good!
3. my knees hurt a lot when I meditate for more than about an hour a day (we sat about 3x30-40 min; not even that long, all retreats considered, but long enough that I was really not looking forward to it)
4. Buddhism would be great if it didn't have all that Buddhism in it. Particularly, I tend to tune out when a few things are mentioned:
a. reincarnation (although I might be sorta more understanding about this now, but that deserves another post)
b. HHDL (he's an awesome dude, who I'm excited to see teach in McLeod Ganj in October, but I am very wary whenever people start focusing on any particular humans. don't worry, he's still head and shoulders more awesome than the last guy-who-was-followed-by-a-group-I-was-affiliated-with)
c. Medicine Buddhas, recitations, pure lands, or indeed, anything "magical"; this also deserves to be in that post about reincarnation
5. you might be part of a community, even when you don't think you're part of a community; this is nice.
6. sleeping in a tent, I do not sleep as well as I do in a bed. (surprise!)
7. really, I spent a lot of the time wishing it were over and thinking I was missing the point (see: #1, #3, #4, and #6), but I've felt a lot better about the whole mindfulness-and-Buddhism thing since I've been back.

Some higher-level thoughts that are relatively self-contained:
- Buddhist ethics are consequentialist (whether an action is good or bad depends on its effects) in theory but more like virtue ethics (whether an action is good or bad depends on the character of whoever's doing it) in practice. Particularly, whether an action is good or bad depends on the effects on the mental states of all involved. This jives pretty well with me.
- Furthermore, we really don't know all the outcomes of our actions at all. But we think we do, and we catastrophize; we worry about worst case scenarios all the time. So... don't worry so much?
- If you just check in before you do anything and set your motivation, that is very powerful. (could we make software based on that perhaps?)

More to come, and soon!

Monday, July 04, 2011


I love this app. Turn it on, put it in your shirt pocket, forget about it. It takes one photo every 30 seconds. On later iphones it can make a video on its own; on mine (an old 3G), it can just save the photos, and I can stitch them together using ffmpeg (specifically, ffmpeg -r 5 -f image2 -i IMG_%04d.JPG -r 20 new-vid.mpg; "-r 5" makes 5 frames/sec).

I did it the other day. The sorta cool thing is, you can see a video of my day. The really cool thing is, I can figure out everything I did that day, and how long it took! Here are estimates of my day, frame by frame:
0001-0010: computing
0011-0012: bathroom
0013-0155: computing
0156-0157: bathroom
0158-0304: computing
0305-0307: walking around apartment
0308-0310: bathroom
0311-0326: walking around apartment, maybe snacking, getting ready to leave
0327-0398: went for a walk, did some juggling, met another juggler
0399-0410: computing
0411-0420: bathroom
0421-0455: computing
0456-0457: walking around apartment
0458-0459: brushing teeth
0460-0522: nap
0523-0531: walking around apartment
0532-0542: computing
0543-0579: standing and computing
0580-0581: bathroom
0582-0614: biking
0615-0619: ordering coffee
0620-0852: computing at Stumptown
0853-0860: leaving Stumptown
0861-0868: biking to park
0869-0880: a little more juggling
0881-0888: biking home
0889-0921: cooking
0922-0961: eating, I think
0962-1012: standing and computing, I think
1013-1024: washing dishes, I think
1025-1197: standing and computing
1198-1223: biking to a bar
1224-1295: waiting outside because I misunderstood the arrival time they suggested
1296-1454: talking with friends or dancing, it gets hard to tell at this point

So in total:
computing: 11+143+147+12+35 = 348 = 174 min
standing and computing: 37+51+173 = 261 = 130.5 min
computing at Stumptown: 233 = 116.5 min
coffeeshop logistics: 5+8 = 13 = 6.5 min
bathroom: 2+2+3+10+2+2 = 21 = 10.5 min
biking: 33+8+8+26 = 75 = 37.5 min
walking and juggling and being outside: 72+12 = 84 = 42 min
walking around apartment/cooking/dishwashing: 3+16+2+9+33+12 = 75 = 37.5 min
nap: 63 = 31.5 min
eating dinner: 40 = 20 min
waiting outside bar: 72 = 36 min
in bar: 159 (until the camera cut off at 11:59) = 79.5 min

Total time I spent staring at a computer (it was a real get-things-done day): 421 min = 7 hours. Wow.
Total time I spent walking around and doing in-between things indoors: 44 min, not bad but not great
Biking and being outdoors: 115.5 min = almost 2 hours

... Not sure what to do with this data yet, but dang, that's cool!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

I'm taking up juggling again.

In high school, I juggled a fair bit with the St. Ignatius Circus Company. It was sort of fun. Like everything I did those days, I did it for pretty external reasons: extracurricular resume, social status, sweet summer job, third place world championship, etc. After high school, I juggled in the freshman talent show at college, and then not much for the next 7 years.

I've been starting again. Eight reasons:
1. gets me outside on these beautiful beautiful summer days (seriously guys, Seattle is the best place in the universe for half the year)
2. allows me to test habit formation
3. helps me build coordination (maybe?)
4. flow
5. deliberate practice
6. quantified selfing
7. meeting folks
8. to quote C. Thomas Durante, "it's something to do."

Let me first explain how I'm juggling, then I'll talk about a couple of those in a little more depth. I can juggle 3 balls in my sleep. I'd say I'm at the "eggs" level- I could go to the grocery store and juggle 3 eggs, no fear. I'm pretty good with 4- maybe the "oranges" level. A drop is likely enough that I wouldn't juggle 4 eggs, but I'd do oranges. With 5, I'm not at any grocery store level. I can usually get about 20 catches and then I drop or my pattern falls apart and I have to stop. So I'm working on 5 balls, only 5 balls.

Okay, #2, habit formation. I've slowly built up daily habits, slowly slowly, and (stop me if you've heard this before) the key is to do things slowly. I started meditating by sitting down for 5 minutes. I'm learning Hindi at the rate of three words a day. For juggling, I decided to start out with 10 minutes/day. It's easy, but that's the point. 5-10 minutes doing anything is generally enough to get me into the "hey this is kinda neat" stage, and I quit before I'm bored, so I kinda want to do it again tomorrow.

4. It's a test bed for flow. The canonical examples are chess and tennis players, right? They're so totally in the zone that time slows down, they're working hard but completely engaged, they're tossing out these beautiful chess moves or tennis shots, etc. Given that, I'm a little skeptical that something like our daily life can be flowy. If my job involves emailing a dude then reading some papers then writing some code etc... where's the "challenge matched to my ability", or the "instant feedback", or any of this flow-enabling stuff? I mean, I feel like our jobs involve 12 separate tasks, any one of which you could get good at, but all put together they form this sort of generally difficult mess.

5. I guess deliberate practice is in the same vein. Besides external goals, mastery makes things more fun. (and helps you get into flow.) So how do you master something? A lot of deliberate practice. What makes practice deliberate? (and is my juggling deliberate practice?)
- designed to improve performance (sort of. I'm kinda just juggling. If I had a coach or something, I suppose he'd point out particular things to work on and I'd improve faster. Oh well.)
- repeated a lot (daily!)
- continuous feedback (does dropping count?)
- it's demanding mentally (I concentrate pretty hard)
- it's hard (borderline. sometimes I'm just having fun.)
- it requires good goals (is "5 eggs" good? I'm in it for the fun, so I think that counts.)

6. God, I talk a lot! Okay, #6, quantification. Nice test bed for this too: every day I track two things: the number of catches on my first and my last run of the session. (I don't average or anything; I want to get consistently good. Really, maybe I should be measuring the number of catches on my worst run of the day or something, but just counting twice is easier.) I hope I'll have some sort of graph that goes up and to the right. That'll be encouraging.

7. Meeting folks-- perhaps in Asia. Juggling seems like it could cross even linguistic boundaries and provide reasons to start a halting conversation. (and heck, I don't play guitar.)

8. No, seriously, "it's something to do." I have cocktail party trouble sometimes: "what do you do for fun?" "uhh, I do research, and I plan a trip?" Juggling is at least a nice stupid human trick.

I guess all these reasons are pretty well encompassed by Matt Cutts's 4-minute Ted talk. 30-day trials sound like good ways to change your life slowly.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Search Engines are the Vacuum Cleaners of the 2000's

Imagine you're a housewife. In 1900, you'd wait until your house got very dirty, you'd sweep for an hour, and then your house would be kinda clean. In 1980, you'd wait until your house got kinda dirty, you'd vacuum for an hour, and then your house would be very clean. Either way, you'd spend an hour vacuuming; the only difference is the standard of cleanliness that you're used to.

Now imagine you want to answer a question about, say, which malaria medication is best for you. In 1980, you'd have no idea, and you'd spend an hour looking (where? in health magazines at the library? I have no idea; most likely you'd offload this to your doctor, who would spend an hour looking) and you'd come up with kinda weak information ("my doctor heard of this one study where they said Doxycycline was pretty good"). In 2011, you'd spend an hour looking, and you'd come up with something like this. (reasonably good info, if I do say so myself)

In both cases, the time spent has not decreased, but the quality that you get has improved. The sneaky downside is that the quality you expect has also improved! We (at least I) can't deal with "kinda okay information" anymore- we always want something thorough and cross-referenced with reliable sources.

I think this is good. Certainly, for critical tasks, you want awesome information, just like you want an operating room to be absolutely spotless. But in our everyday lives, just as we should learn to deal with clean-but-not-sparkling houses so we don't spend our lives vacuuming, we should learn to deal with good-but-not-awesome information.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Googlebook vs Facebook

Googlebook (ahem, "Google Plus") is out. I like it. It might actually let me quit Facebook. But it's not a toaster; I can't just choose one or the other based on how I'm feeling that day. If I were going to hardcore switch, I'd need to convince a bunch of people, and if I'm going to convince a bunch of people without fanboyism, I need to be honest about the pros and cons.

Googlebook pros/Facebook cons:
- Circles are really nice. It is intuitive how to share one thing with my CMU friends, one thing with my Seattle friends, and one thing with my family. Facebook has groups but they're not as much first class citizens.
- I could see Huddles (on the mobile app) being very useful. I've group-texted before and it's always been dumb.
- open data open data. I can get anything out of my Googlebook profile easily. I cannot get things out of my Facebook profile easily (if at all).
- wasn't there something about Facebook owning some weird rights to your photos or wall posts or something?
- I trust Google more than Facebook. Feel free to debate this; my opening volleys are the above two points. Furthermore, (warning: rhetorical trick ahead) nobody trusts Facebook more than Google.

Facebook pros/Googlebook cons:
- there's no bar above me on all Google properties reminding me of how many Facebook notifications I have. That's an attention splitter right there.
- your Picasa photos are in Googlebook. Particularly, those photos you posted a while ago on Picasa, which nobody ever looks at, are now right on your Google Profile, which is now as big as your Facebook Profile. Your public photos are "more public." That's going to go fine for most people, while some will have huge my-boss-saw-me-smoking-pot mistakes and complain about privacy. I think it's not a terrible change, but be careful!
- on Googlebook, if you share a picture of you smoking pot with your friend, your friend can reshare it with the world, unless you disable resharing. Again, not a killer, but it is a thing to learn.

Okay, that's what I can think off the top of my head. What am I forgetting?

EDIT: here's another thing: Some people are uncomfortable with Google owning all your information. As someone I spoke to recently said, "they already have my email, my calendar, etc, and now they have my social network too? Who knows if they start reading all my data and knowing where I'll be and when, etc etc" I guess in this case, an upside of Facebook is that it's not Google. And I can dig that: it's theoretically a lot easier to end up in "creepy integration" territory if you don't have to cross corporate lines. The best counter I have to this is that Facebook is trying to build the all-your-data empire too (e.g. fb messaging), and I'd much rather have Google do it than Facebook.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Caffeine fast complete!

I had always figured that, since I pretty reliably drink about 150mg caffeine/day (5 cups of tea, 1.5 cups of coffee, or some combination, and yes numbers vary a lot depending on who you ask), I was probably building up some sort of tolerance. I'm not sure how this tolerance manifests, but at least a part of it is that you get more adenosine receptors.

(layman's attempted explanation: when adenosine binds to receptors, you get sleepier. caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to receptors by binding to those receptors itself. but if you drink caffeine every day, the body compensates by making more adenosine receptors, so drinking the same amount of caffeine just returns you to your original non-caffeine baseline.)

I read this blog post and was intrigued to hear that it only takes 5 days of complete caffeine abstention to return to adenosine normality*. He didn't cite sources there, but Wikipedia corroborates. ("withdrawal symptoms... usually last from one to five days, representing the time required for the number of adenosine receptors in the brain to revert to "normal" levels") So I tried it.
*Arvind later clarified: tolerance may not be gone, but after 5 days you can function normally, at least. Not entirely sure what he means, or when tolerance does completely go away.

The results: On day 2, I felt kind of can't-concentrate-crummy. Day 3 was a little slow, days 4-5 were pretty normal. This could just be the result of other work issues, and the fact that days 4-5 were a weekend. And now I'm drinking coffee again for the first time, and I feel wonderful as usual. So, no big results, except that now I guess I have normal levels of adenosine receptors again. Not for long!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Live life as if it were a game you chose to play.

Normative Heuristic Microethic #3.

I'll try not to say much here, because Sebastian Deterding says it better. Flip through the entire presentation; the first bit just sounds like gamification research (and does a pretty good job of explaining the whole "field"), but the payoff to your life and mine comes at the end.

When I was a kid, I had to mow the lawn every week. Not a game: not fun. Once I was feeling creative so I mowed everything but a happy face, leaving the design in the yard. I wouldn't have admitted it, but it was kind of fun. Sometimes when I go back to my parents' house, I decide to mow the lawn, maybe to do something nice for them or get some fresh air. I decide it's a game: it's fun again.

What if I had a flexible enough mind that, whenever someone said "you must do X", I would immediately transform that into "I'm going to play this game"? I'm not sure how this fits in with my other rules of life, but whenever I decide something's a game, it usually turns out better.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Particularly seek fucking awesome experiences.

or, Normative Heuristic Microethic #2. And dear family: I'm allowed to swear on the internet if I'm just copying someone else's phrase. (that's Ben Rubin, founder of Zeo.)

Penelope Trunk writes about how some people seek happiness while others seek interestingness. (I'd substitute the word "contentment" for "happiness.") Sounds the same as Barry Schwartz citing Herb Simon about how people are maximizers or satisficers.

I always thought I was a maximizer. Then I tried satisficing for a few years, trying to build a comfortable life in Seattle. (I can only tell that I was doing this in retrospect; I never set out to say "I'm going to satisfice now!") Now I'm pretty sure I'm a maximizer through and through, mostly because I've felt more happy and alive with my current plans (travel around Asia and grad school, both of which are pretty maximizey) than I have in a while.

Tim Ferriss writes about how it's easier to pursue an incredible goal (win a worldwide weightlifting competition) than a realistic goal (complete a marathon). Maybe that's for everyone, maybe it's only for maximizers, but either way I think it's for me.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Avoid cravings. Seek opportunities.

Or, "normative heuristic microethics, part 1." You can skip the next paragraph if you want.

I'm searching for something. I think that doing good things will improve my life, and doing bad things will make it worse.
Ethics is the philosophy of right and wrong.
Normative ethics is about how to decide what's right and what's wrong.
But I don't really care about Right and Wrong. I'm not often confronted with the chance to bump a guy onto a train track to divert a trolley car to save 5 lives, or the chance to go to war or not. So let's just cut it down to things about my individual life, and call it Normative Microethics.
And even then, my ideal ethical philosophy would likely involve making some huge calculation at every turn: what are the odds that this will turn out like X or like Y, what are the payoffs if it does so, etc. This calculation is usually incredibly impossible to do in real life; I don't care about how to calculate it, because I'll never be able to. I'd like to know some heuristics. Hence, Normative Heuristic Microethics.

Basically, I'd like to develop a set of good rules to live by. (I think of them more as "tastes"; whatever.)

Buddhism has been helpful in this; I feel like (at least some) Buddhists have the right idea about a lot of things. WWBD? I think he'd say something about reducing cravings.

Now, before we go any farther, let me just say one thing: Buddhism is not about renouncing all desires. Say it with me: Buddhism is not about renouncing all desires. Buddhism is about renouncing the desires that hurt you if you don't get them: the cravings. Addicted to drugs? Pining over that girl or guy who doesn't care about you? Love your new car so much that it would kill you if anything happened to it? These are cravings. But if you kind of like cake and don't overeat it, or you get excited about X-Men movies (but it doesn't cause you pain when a new one is cancelled), or you love and appreciate your family, these are fine desires.

That's kind of a half definition, though. "Avoid cravings" tells you what not to do. And especially when we're talking real-world decisions here, I want to know what TO do too. Here's my hypothesis: seek opportunities, where by "opportunities" I mean "those fine desires." Seek out things that make you happy if they turn out well, and don't bother you when they don't. At work, I hear about so many exciting ideas that I want someone to research them all. If one doesn't turn out, there's always another. Traveling, I generally want to get from point A to point B, but if I don't, the detour is generally all the better. This seems a promising attitude to have about life in general.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I don't like feeling helpless.

And I don't like UPS.

If you send me a package via UPS, here is what will happen: I won't be here, because I don't stay in my house all day. They'll leave a door tag with a checkmark in box B, "The sender required a signature at the time of delivery."

(I'm not sure why it's always box B. I can't imagine all senders always pay for signature delivery. If they could have checked box A, "Your written authorization is required to leave package(s)", that would be fine; I'd sign the tag and they could leave it tomorrow. It might always be B because I'm in an urban area and we're all thieves here.)

I have a few options, most of which are not really options:
1. Stay home all day tomorrow. I've tried this before, and it results in me feeling like a prisoner in my house. It's terrible. Once I ducked out for literally an hour, right around the corner, for a cup of coffee, and put a note on the door asking UPS politely to leave the package or call me. I came back to find "Can't leave package. No phone." scrawled on the note.
2. Ask a neighbor to stay home. I don't know my neighbors beyond their names and saying hi; I'm not going to ask THEM to be prisoners in THEIR houses.
3. Ship it to my office. I don't have an office.
4. Ask them to hold it at the UPS main dropoff location, pick it up on my bike. This is about 5 miles south of downtown; at least a half hour bike ride in the opposite direction of everywhere else I ever go, through industrial wasteland, and that's if it's a small enough package that I can take it on my bike. Net cost: 1 hour.
5. Ask them to hold it at the main dropoff location, take a bus. Net cost: 2 hours and $4.50.
6. Just let it get returned to sender, ask them to resend it via USPS. I've tried this twice; once the company put up a big fuss and eventually agreed (but I discovered option 7 first so didn't end up following through), and once the company re-sent it two months later, again via UPS. Also, this is dumb. Also, it's not handled by websites or phone tree forms, so I have to talk to a human, so net cost: about 15 aggravating minutes, and my package gets delivered two months late.
7. Ask them to deliver it to the local UPS store. This is the same in their eyes as if I had asked them to deliver it to another arbitrary location; it's as if UPS and The UPS Store were separate companies. UPS charges me $4 for an address change, and The UPS Store charges me $5. Net cost: $9.

Nowadays I just do #7, paying $9 extra in shipping on stuff costing as little as $50. It's bad. But it's not the end of the world, though, which is why I'm intrigued by how angry this whole thing makes me feel. It's like yell-curses-around-my-(empty-)house angry, which is pretty much worse than anything else. Is it just that I really have no other stressors in my life of Riley? (could be.) Or is it that powerlessness angers me much more than most other stressors, and UPS is almost the only place I feel powerless?

Finally, is there a solution to this? I try to calm down and think rationally, but all I can think of is $9 (or worse: an hour of my life) going away for a totally avoidable reason.

Friday, June 10, 2011

No-meat experiment results: wow.

So I did the no-grains experiment a couple times, and I generally found that eating no grains made my stomach feel a little better. After taking out all the possible extraneous factors, it was a small positive effect, but not quite statistically significant.

I wondered, am I just feeling better because I'm thinking about my food a little more? So I went for another experiment: vegetarianism. This was not as difficult, as I've been used to eating not much meat, but eating no meat altogether made me think a bit. So I went almost a month, eating meat only once. (couldn't resist the opportunity to try a pig's foot at a Taiwanese place with my friends Will and Jing. FWIW, it was really good.)

Here are the results. Again, these values are arbitrary 1-5 ratings of how good my stomach felt, recorded whenever I remembered to do so.

Average stomach values when I was vegetarian:
['2.33', '3.00', '3.43', '2.00', '3.20', '2.71', '2.32', '2.50', '2.50', '3.00', '3.17', '3.14', '3.00', '2.33', '2.33', '3.00', '3.40', '3.14', '3.33', '3.33', '2.67', '3.17', '2.50', '3.33', '3.17', '3.00', '2.67']
Mean: 2.87710940708

Average stomach values when I was not vegetarian:
['2.88', '3.14', '2.37', '3.21', '2.70', '1.64', '3.14', '2.95', '2.53', '3.43', '3.00', '2.62', '4.00', '3.33', '3.11', '3.00', '3.43', '3.00', '2.68', '2.68', '3.42', '3.29', '3.33', '3.12', '3.50', '2.56', '2.83', '3.70', '2.80', '2.88', '3.00', '3.35', '3.36', '3.00', '2.80', '3.00', '3.36', '3.80', '3.56', '3.00', '2.83', '3.52', '2.66', '2.22', '2.78', '2.78', '4.00', '2.25', '2.50', '3.11', '3.80', '3.25', '2.62', '3.55', '3.20', '3.60', '3.81', '2.83', '3.60', '3.30', '3.51', '2.80', '3.22', '2.92', '3.51', '3.38', '2.83', '3.64', '3.71', '3.74', '3.00', '3.43', '2.70', '3.19', '3.08', '2.69', '3.68', '3.43', '2.86', '3.00', '3.37', '2.44', '2.29', '3.24', '2.29', '3.44', '3.00', '3.12', '3.14', '2.70', '3.00', '3.12', '3.77', '2.25', '2.20', '3.40', '3.27','2.89', '2.00', '3.34', '2.77', '2.93', '2.83', '2.90', '2.47', '3.67', '3.85', '2.60', '3.71', '3.00', '3.33', '3.22', '3.00', '2.99', '3.12', '2.70', '3.71', '2.92', '2.84', '2.65', '3.00', '3.38', '2.60', '3.14', '3.29', '3.16', '3.81', '2.36', '3.27', '3.30', '3.40', '2.62', '2.88']
Mean: 3.07318849872
t = -2.13426416275, p = 0.0343639577132

Huh! So being vegetarian makes my stomach feel a little worse!

Skippable side note: I did travel during some of the vegetarian time. Rerunning the data omitting those values, it comes out the same.
Average stomach value when I was vegetarian: 2.84902728756
Average stomach value when I was not vegetarian: 3.07318849872
t = -2.18353942908, p = 0.0305296553454

Side note that might be relevant: I've been recording fewer data points than I used to.
Number of ratings per day when I was vegetarian: 5.22222222222
Number of ratings per day when I was not vegetarian: 7.92481203008
t = -4.99546061942, p = 0.00000154006168467

Side note that also may be relevant: my mood ratings (which I've been tracking similarly) are almost significantly different as well. This could strengthen the "eat meat" conclusion, or it could be that I've been a little bit down the last couple weeks.
Average mood value when I was vegetarian: 3.33179694171
Average mood value when I was not vegetarian: 3.49920969731
t = -1.95361169902, p = 0.052513305171

Combined conclusions: if I combine my stomach ratings from the two no-grains experiments, my average rating is 3.26375. So by eating meat and not grains, I could ostensibly go from 2.87 to 3.26, an increase of 0.39. How significant is 0.39?
Well, I've been collecting data for 160 days. One day had an average value below 2, two days were above 4. The standard deviation is 0.43. So 0.39 is a pretty good jump; I could go from an average day to a day that is better than 2/3 of days. Hmm. I think I'll start eating (non-factory-farmed) meat again, and stop eating grains when it's convenient.

Attention and coffee (unrelated)

(although a well-researched post about the effects of coffee on attention would be really interesting. Someone go write that.)

How much is your attention worth? Furthermore, how much is your friends' attention worth?

I just heard about the Indie Games Summer Six-pack, which is $10, or $5 if you share on Facebook. So they're proposing that a shout out on Facebook is worth $5. I'm guessing this is roughly equivalent to a tweet, so let's talk about tweets because they're easier to think about than the 27897489 ways you can "share" or "like" or comment or whatever on Facebook. And let's talk about pretty benign things like indie games; we're not talking about paying someone to tweet racial slurs or political stuff or whatever. Is a benign advertising tweet worth $5?

I mean, clearly there is a price on tweets, even for folks like me who hate this attention-frittering spam. If you paid me $1000, I would tweet your benign advertisement. Probably for $100. Probably not for $5. I don't know where this thought goes, but it's kind of exciting, or maybe terrible, to know that celebrity endorsements are here on a micro-scale, and we are all micro-celebrities.

Topic switch, and now I'm on to copying down bits of my life to remember later, and in particular coffee. I spend a lot of time now in coffeeshops. Mostly the Victrola on Pike. Somehow it's better than working at home. Big and airy, full of people, and I can't really do much besides work. (oh, and fritter away time on the internet. whoops.)

I drink pour-over coffee (it's like a machine makes, but they pour hot water over the grounds while you wait, and the temperature and weight of grounds are precisely controlled). For the first time, I could taste the difference between different coffees. I'm developing a bit of a taste for coffee here. It's cheaper than wine, and you can drink it by yourself. I think I like rich chocolatey South American coffee best, but African fruity winey coffees are nice too.

I pay $3 for the coffee and leave a $1 tip. And maybe I go there 3x/week. That's about $50/month, or $600/year. But I'm getting an office, a morale boost, a caffeine boost, and an education for my taste buds.