Thursday, May 26, 2011

A quarter century!

I'm 25. That means I've lived 25 years. Hah! I've still got my piece on the game board of life, and it's doing pretty all right.

If life were a day, I'd be in late-stage sleep, probably heavy on the REM and dreaming wildly. If life were Star Wars, I'd be half done with Gungans, although only a quarter done with Hayden Christensen. If life were the career of the Talking Heads, I would be just about to release "More Songs About Buildings and Food".

I'm leaving Seattle in just over two months, and the US in just over three. In the next year, I will hopefully experience the following:
- visiting all you wonderful family and friends before I go
- the world's tallest mountains and a lot of Buddhism
- submitting papers to top-tier academic conferences
- plants that eat bugs
- one of the world's biggest tennis tournaments
- underground cities and stuff
- at least one country that y'all think is super dangerous
- admission into at least one grad school that I'm excited about
- a crater that is continually on fire

After that, I'll get paid a scholar's stipend to write some programs that I want to write, to find out things that I want to find out, and occasionally hang out at big ol' intellectual fandangoes with other like-minded sorts.

""Well," said Pooh, "what I like best -- " and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called." That's the moment I'm living in right now: the moment of excitement, and boy it is great.

But it's not the whole thing. Over the next quarter of my life, I hope that I can balance that excitement with more focus, mindfulness, and compassion. I think these are the most important skills to develop, and I still feel like a fool! But that's fine; after two years of regular learning-stuff school, I was a second grader.

Anyway, it's tempting to say "well, look at my life about to start; the best is yet to come!" but that reduces life to a set of achievements, sets myself up for potential failure, and discounts the truth that the best is right now. As they say: Thank you for everything, I have no complaints whatsoever.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

We all know everything.

Thanks to the Internet, we all know all the facts. When you learn something, you're just decreasing the lookup time.

Sometimes this is useless. I don't think it'll ever be important for me to know Abraham Lincoln's birthday. If I did need to know it, I could spend 30 seconds looking it up.

Sometimes this is moderately useful. I could look up a recipe for lasagna every time I want to make it, or I could just memorize it. It'd be a little easier to make.

Sometimes this is very useful: knowing a programming language inside and out will save you so much time. If you have to look up documentation for every line of code, it'll take you hours instead of minutes.

Sometimes it's crucial. Being able to speak a language is qualitatively different from having to look up every word, conjugation, and grammatical rule. Even more so with physical tasks: knowing how to swing a baseball bat vs. knowing all the things you should do when you swing a bat. But either way, you're not making something out of nothing, you're just decreasing the lookup time of existing facts.

I'm thinking we should just stop teaching the first two cases, and optimize for learning the "very useful" and "crucial" cases. Interestingly, I'm also thinking that learning the "very useful" and "crucial" things is more fun.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Seligman: talk about PERMA, not "happiness"

Martin Seligman is partially responsible for everyone talking about "happiness" today. But he's also sick of people just hand-waving about it. From the article:

"He has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment."

This feels more meaningful. Did he forget anything? It's worthwhile to note that there's nothing that explicitly says "meditation", which might be a problem if you're, say, interested in meditating. I think the meditator's response is that meditation increases all of these. Mindfulness can increase positive emotion, concentration leads to engagement, meditators are good with people, maybe they find some big ultimate meaning, and maybe less of accomplishment but purifying your mind is good for something.

At any rate, I like this article.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is motorcycling dumb?

I just passed my motorcycle test. I wish I had asked about statistics on motorcycle safety during the class. I found this and this and this, all of which make it seem like motorcycling is indeed much more dangerous than car driving. Perhaps an order of magnitude more dangerous!

But drawing facts relevant to me out of this is hard! Here are at least four good reasons (and I may repeat some of them) that make it seem not totally absurd for me to ride motorcycles:
1. I am not into sport bikes
1. I am not into dirt bikes
1. I am not into really any kind of fast bikes
1. I pretty much want to ride a moped at like 40 mph tops on country roads
2. actually I just want to ride a moped in Asia
    a. maybe that makes things dangerous, because Asia (particularly India) is insane
    b. however, maybe that makes things safer, as they are much much more used to motorcycles there than here, and the biggest danger here is cars not seeing you (citation needed)
    c. I am not ruling out ever motorcycling in the States, but if I did that I would have to consider more safety statistics more
3. okay okay I don't drink and drive obv (this is apparently even a bigger contributor to motorcycle accidents than car accidents)
4. I just took a motorcycler safety course
1. but really, I am just not interested in fast bikes. I am encouraged by this:
"Not all powered two wheelers have the same level of risk. The relative risk of being killed per hundred million vehicle kilometres overall in 1988 when comparing motorbikes to cars was 8.4, and for bikes and pedal cycles, 2.9. However, the relative risk for mopeds which may be used by a different user group at lower speeds was 2.3 when compared to cars, and 0.9 when compared to pedal cycles, making them favourable by comparison."
And I already ride bicycles, so I'm not increasing my risk. (which leads to: is bicycling dangerous? well, this is per mile, so my 2 mile bike commute is much safer than a driver's 10 mile commute.)

- mopedding/motorcycling slowly as an occasional hobby (say, in Asia) is not absurd
- mopedding as a daily commute is reasonably dangerous (like bicycling), so I will take care and get all the gear and wrap myself in day-glo if that situation enters my future
- riding a real motorcycle on highways and stuff occasionally may not be absurd (again, I am not interested in this, don't worry, Mom and Dad)
- riding a real motorcycle fast as a daily commute, or riding anything faster/fancier, is probably Actually Dangerous (unless you are a real pro)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Well, I've found a career.

Just got back from Vancouver and CHI, the biggest human-computer interaction conference. My research blog has a list of some papers I found cool. But more importantly for this blog, I loved the experience.

About 8 of us drove up from the UW Ubicomp Lab in a van. We stayed for 4 days, and each day involved 4 90-minute 4-talk sessions. Super cool stuff. I don't think a single session passed where I was bored by the talks. "Human-computer interaction" apparently does mean what I hoped it meant, which is "Anything where a person uses a computer, come on guys, let's make this all better." It's a bit generalist: it seems like people study "Computers + X" and learn a lot about X. Which is wonderful! Sure, you could study databases or something and squeeze out 4% more efficiency from some algorithm... or you could apply a computer to something that didn't previously have any computers and gain 100% more efficiency! Or solve problems that nobody else knew existed, or they knew they existed and had no idea how to solve them!

Between and after the sessions, of course, was massive standing eating drinking talking, which I understand is referred to as "networking". And here's the other thing: I like the people. I could see myself working with a lot of them in the future. So that's great.

Finally, I felt like I could hack it! There are hard problems, but I wouldn't mind tackling them, which means I could solve them. I feel like I can really make it in the academic world.

Okay, enough talk; time to go actually make it in the academic world. Cancel that; time to sleep so I can go learn how to motorcycle tomorrow. Woo!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

No-grains experiment 2

Well, I wanted to try it again, so I went for the last week and a half, almost 2 weeks, without eating grains. Got a bit more data. Plus I've been tracking this stuff non stop since the beginning of the year. So here's what I came up with, comparing every day I've eaten grains with every day that I haven't:

stomach with grains: ['3.10', '2.92', '2.78', '2.83', '2.36', '3.10', '2.75', '3.29', '3.12', '3.34', '2.87', '3.50', '3.60', '3.71', '3.00', '3.67', '3.25', '2.53', '3.00', '4.00', '3.44', '3.28', '2.33', '3.22', '3.81', '2.82', '2.71', '3.46', '2.40', '2.82', '2.84', '2.94', '3.09', '2.83', '3.60', '3.60', '2.91', '3.55', '3.00', '3.12', '2.75', '2.77', '2.81', '2.33', '3.22', '3.22', '2.75', '2.86', '3.14', '3.29', '3.00', '3.12', '3.14', '3.20', '3.00', '3.36', '3.33', '3.40', '3.71', '3.34', '3.40', '2.82', '2.71', '3.00', '3.29', '3.21', '3.17', '2.67', '3.50', '2.40', '2.80', '3.81', '3.08', '3.42', '3.56', '2.88', '3.50', '2.86', '2.84', '3.38', '3.24', '2.88', '2.29', '2.89', '2.84', '3.12', '2.00', '2.20', '2.75', '1.91', '2.33', '2.67', '2.43']
mean = 3.03
stomach without grains: ['3.33', '3.67', '2.89', '3.37', '3.31', '3.60', '3.00', '2.87', '2.59', '2.80', '2.92', '3.11', '3.22', '3.63', '3.47', '3.29', '2.89', '2.67', '3.30', '2.88', '3.87', '3.80', '3.85', '4.00', '3.57', '3.22', '2.70', '3.30', '3.59', '3.18']
mean = 3.26
t-test on stomach before and after grains:
t = -2.67446580787, p = 0.00851982121181

So there we go! Going grain-free very probably helps my stomach feel better! If going grain-free didn't help my stomach, there is only a 0.8% chance that the means would be this different.

However, there are complicating factors:
- travel days. On travel days stomachs are weirder.
- Google days. I used to be getting gourmet meals 3x/day, and now I have to fend for myself.

So let's ignore the travel days:
t-test on stomach before and after grains:
t = -2.23123617479, p = 0.0277911206015
stomach with grains: mean = 3.09
stomach without grains: mean = 3.26
Still significant.

How about only comparing days after I left Google?
t-test on stomach before and after grains:
t = -1.06189037683, p = 0.294500544066
stomach with grains: (daily averages omitted)
mean = 3.13
stomach without grains: (daily averages omitted)
mean = 3.26
No significant effect.

Did Google just make my stomach worse? Let's compare all the days while I was still at Google to all the days after I left.
t-test on stomach before and after Google:
t = 1.00310288377, p = 0.317813018172
stomach while I was still at Google: (daily averages omitted)
mean = 3.11
stomach post-Google: (daily averages omitted)
mean = 3.03
Nah, looks like the gourmet meals were nice after all. (or at least, probably no real effect either way.)

So I'm guessing that, all other things being equal, grain-free makes my stomach feel slightly better. It appears to have an effect, but it's a small one. And I don't have enough data from post-Google no-travel life to show statistical significance yet.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Indeed, what WILL we do without our vanities?

I thought that bit was just the best few sentences I'd heard in a long while. But it's stuck with me, digging up an old question I still haven't answered:

What would you do if you didn't do what you do? or, more concretely,
Should I bring a computer on my travels?

In the one corner, we have most of the world, Csikszentmihalyi, and Wilber: get more complex. Do the things you do, do them well, integrate them with your being. In the other corner, we have ascetics. (well, they're wrong, anyway.)

Here's an answer I kind of like: keep spinning all those plates that you're spinning, but take periodic breaks from your vanities, check in, regroup, make sure you want to be spinning them all.

From "A Journey in Ladakh" by Andrew Harvey

"You must write and I must be a guide. It is our svaha, our nature. Perhaps next time we will be luckier, less condemned to our different vanities. I will talk less and you will carry no big black notebooks, full of illegible writing."
"What will we do without our vanities?"
"We will drink. We will see visions. We will heal the sick and bring love and calm to the mad and evil. We will play cards all night and not need to sleep. We will walk on water in front of a hundred thousand cameras, to refute all materialists for ever."


I'm two days away from heading to CHI 2011 in Vancouver. This will be a thing.

I've been measuring time I work, defined as actual time concentrating and creating (not answering emails or blogging or whatever). It's much less than I'd think: 4 hours on a good day.

Today, for example, 5pm and I've done zero hours so far. Yesterday I did zero hours. You know what takes up a lot of mental energy? Trying to impress people. It's important to remember not to spend time doing that.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

I am having remarkably high quality experience today.

It's not that the things I'm doing are special, but the experience of doing them just feels relatively wonderful.

I slept like an incredible rock last night. 9:48, and a Wakemate score of 100. Perfect 100! My previous high over the past 4 months was something like 87.

As I was just walking across a bridge, listening to Kanye West's "Lost in the World" (I was surprised to find I really like this album), feeling the sunny warmth and marveling at all the cars going underneath! I rather had a moment. I must have confused people walking the opposite direction, because for some reason I was smiling really a lot. I tried to tone it down so it wouldn't be creepy. It felt different than regular life, like I was on a drug or something. Kind of like a couple times biking in Pittsburgh, and I'm sure some other times that I haven't remembered.