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.