Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy new b'ak'tun!

(or, I looked up stuff on Wikipedia to jazz up our "end of the world" conversations and party a bit)

I'm in Cleveland for the holidays and it is nice. My feeling mildly out of place here in Cleveland serves only as a counterpoint to how well I am settling into place in Pittsburgh. How well is everything firing on all cylinders? My job, fellow students, advisor, professors, house, roommates, new friends, old friends, and lady friend are all wonderful. It's been a whirlwind, but I don't think I could have hoped that it would all turn out this well.

And dang, it's gone so fast I am afraid I will forget it all. This semester, I (and I mean this in the spirit of reminiscence and not boasting):
- laser tagged like a champ
- looked at birds
- been told not to look at birds
- worn a garbage can
- danced much more frequently than previously
- DJed for expert crepe makers
- passed a test to DJ on the radio again
- went to Ubicomp in Pittsburgh, Quantified Self in Palo Alto, UIST in Boston
- struggled through helping make, then demonstrated to the founder of Adobe, a faceboard
- made a website
- made so much Indian food my roommates got sick of it
- made a bunch of Friendship Drinks
- threw furniture into a fire in our backyard
- got yellow carded for "verbally intimidating" soccer opponents

Whah! Among others. It's been a good end of the b'ak'tun. Here's hoping that you're settling in equally well, wherever you are; and if not, here's another bit of hope that if you've not yet found a good niche, you will eventually. Thank you for everything, I have no complaints whatsoever.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A lot of links that've caught my eye

I can't say it better myself: "Cities: Rather Than Patronizing Young People, Give Them What They Ask For." The city in question is Cleveland. Cleveland, I love you, and you're taking baby steps... but you're also taking backwards steps, and just not taking some steps. I love the part about "... the myth that Cleveland is a great place to live — better than other places even — and that our real problem is not one of the many obvious shortcomings frequently mentioned in the national press, but a woeful and incorrect 'image problem.'"

A few hits of Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The words you use, do what really makes you happy (it is similar to what you are an expert at!)
Recently I've felt like I've got school under control enough to start doing hobbies again. This is neat. I sometimes worry that "hobby" is a depressing word because I'll start to get boring and quietly tend a garden until I die. But I think the word just has a bad rap; I am starting to do things I like, besides riding bikes and drinking coffee. I've been drawing cartoons and I'll be a DJ at WRCT soon enough. Keep life busy and multifaceted. Never stop growing.

College Students Want Quiet Space, Can't Find It. Argh argh yes! First, it's hard to take a nap. Second, it's hard to find a goddamn quiet place to work! Third, it's hard to make phone calls. Fourth, it's hard to find a quiet place to work when your officemate is making phone calls. Etc. Another thing we were spoiled with at Google. And when I say "spoiled at Google", I usually mean "Google was doing it right and most other work environments are varying degrees of broken."

Similarly: CMU and "stress culture." It's better now than as an undergrad (I think) but still, my classmates (and sometimes I) work too much.
If someone says "I worked 60 hours last week", the unstated response should be "you're inefficient", not "you're a hard worker." If someone says "I don't think I can do it", the response should be "let me help you do it." If someone says "I'm stressed and it's affecting my health or my happiness", there should be at least adequate professionals, as well as peer support networks, that can help them handle that. It's hard to get out of our Industrial-Revolution Victorian Puritan Stiff-Upper-Lip mindset, but if we want to be alive, healthy, and happy/fulfilled/flourishing in the future, we've got to get better at it.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The fall-back plan develops

Apparently it's common among grad students that you have to have a fantasy fall-back plan when the whole PhD thing doesn't work out. You dream of the simplicity: "If I just started a restaurant, it'd be hard work, but it'd be simple. You make food, you bring it to people, they give you money." Never mind the fact that owning a restaurant probably involves more stress and work than a PhD; remember: this is a fantasy plan.

Anyway, I'm working on two. One is a dream cafe: you can go take a nap. Then depending on what kind of dream you'd like (peaceful, interesting, exciting, scary) we can pipe in certain music/smells/etc. We could even have all sorts of tricks to help you get lucid, if you're into that. Even better: we could study how well it works for people!

Whatever. Backup plan two is, of course, a coffee roastery and shop. I don't know many of the details, but it'd probably involve a lot of friggin' awesome coffees, as well as a lot of wood and metal, standing desks, long hours, great music, and public cuppings (coffee tastings). (A lot of Victrola and Commonplace influences here, for sure.)

But I've been wondering: I'd want it to be super coffee-geeky, but I don't want to be mean or exclusive. I know a lot of people who just want "a regular cup of coffee, dammit!" or even "a triple nonfat caramel latte blahblah". I disagree with them, particularly the latter, but there are two good reasons to offer both of those choices:
1. People come to expect both of those options from a coffeeshop, and they'd be pretty easy to provide. Especially in the age of Google Maps and "hmm, I just want some coffee, where does my smartphone say they have coffee around here", I'd hate people who didn't know the store to be disappointed or confused.
2. People come to coffeeshops with friends. If your friends are coffee geeks and you're not, I'd hate for you to feel snobbed. Furthermore, if your friends are not coffee geeks, I don't want them to veto meeting up at my shop because I don't serve a triple caramel blahblah.

But I still want to be coffee geeky! So, talking with another coffee geek last night, we came up with the perfect compromise. Based on the TSA, of all places, and skiing: green circle, blue square, and black diamond. Different lines and different menus. Green circle if you're expecting Starbucks, blue square if you're interested to learn a little more, and black diamond for coffee geeks. Green circle line and you want a triple caramel blahblah? Coming right up! Black diamond line and you want to try our finest new single origin espresso? Sure thing! Cream and sugar? If you're in the green circle line, no problem, but don't try that in the black diamond. You like coffee but are interested to know what makes our pour over Rwanda better than the office sludge? Blue square line, we'll tell you all about it, no attitude.

Someday. When I quit all this computery nonsense.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Agriculture Considered Harmful?

Disclaimer: I wouldn't say I wholesale believe this yet. I'd like to hear more on both sides.

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, by Jared Diamond. It's agriculture. Using evidence from current hunter-gathering tribes and studying skeletons, they found that after humans adopted agriculture, they started getting nutritional deficiencies, their average height decreased by six inches, diseases became epidemics, weather changes caused famines, and the ability to stockpile led to greed, class divisions, and gender inequalities. Why did agriculture spread, then? Because it could support more people, so they could push the hunter-gatherers out. See also: Ishmael. (it is an easy and interesting read. I recommend it.)

Interesting side note: The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History, by Benjamin Phelan. It's the ability to drink milk. Around agriculture-time, we also became able to drink milk without fermenting it first. Nobody seems sure why that was such a big evolutionary advantage.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I've been feeling less than great.

- I am useless when I get home. I just futz around on the internet. It's not even fun. I'm trying to practice drawing, but I can't even be arsed to throw together a couple of stick figures. I would also like to just convince myself to go to bed a little earlier. (I usually get to bed by 1. But instead of wasting an hour, why not just get to bed by 12?)
- I am getting increasingly useless at work. I've had lots of afternoons where I just haven't done anything. I track time spent on email, naps, coffee, and just general futzing there too, and it looks like it's increasing.

(y-axis is hours)
- I am getting increasingly useless talking to people. It's like there's a little fog there, like I can't really quite interact normally, like I'm interacting with everyone in a different language or over a phone with a half-second delay or something.
- I am getting less joy out of things: biking, good weather, good music, even time spent with friends (partially because of the above point)
- I am doing less fun things, and finding less energy to plan them.
- coffee isn't even kicking. Usually I get high after it; not much now.
- it has been really hard to wake up this week.

Unlikely causes:
- caffeine addiction. I still drink only 8oz of coffee a day. Occasionally I drink 12oz, or 8oz coffee plus one cup of tea.
- lack of sleep. Average over the last two weeks: 8:05 per night. The two weeks before that, 7:26, and before that I was averaging about 7:10.
- poor quality sleep. Zeo score over last two weeks: 91. Previously 86, then 82. My sleep has been getting better.
- lack of physical activity. Fitbit says I'm averaging in the 50k-70k steps range every week, except the week I was sick and stayed inside for 3 days. No noticeable trends up or down. Still biking.
- diet. Again, all been about the same: bread and peanut butter for breakfast, homemade indian food for lunch, and something good for dinner.
- work going poorly. It's going fine- indeed, I'm working on 4 projects that are all exciting to me.
- depression from life events. Everything is fine-to-great.
- seasonal affective something. I don't think I get this much, even in Seattle.

Possible or likely causes:
- too many hours in the office (hours of work the last few weeks have been 54, 28 (sick), 52, 52. Note that this is "butt in chair time" including the above useless time.)
- less social time. Kickball has finished, intramural sports are rare, and I'm not sure why but my social schedule has just really opened up.
- related: less mental time off. I've worked just about every day the last few weeks, except when I was sick. Only a couple hours on weekends, but it's still on my mind.
- fewer fun things I'm thinking about; I find myself going home and thinking about work.
- allergies, I guess? I have weird symptoms where I feel like hell sometimes, and people have suggested maybe it's some nebulous allergy thing. I took some claritin last couple days, no luck)

Discounting allergies, I'm thinking the best course of action is to cut back a bit. Especially use the weekends to recharge.

Further Discussion:
I am a little dubious, because terms like "recharge" are so unscientific and everything in this vein is subject to bias. (oh right! science says I should work less!) Also, I can't really argue that 50-some hour weeks are inhumane or even unusual around here; there's a culture of "working hard".

But science does say I should work less. Especially given that I'm thinking hard a lot, maybe I've only got 40 good hours in me per week. Or even less. So the rest of the time is just screwing around. My data so far points in that direction.

So actually I guess the thing to do is set hard deadlines and only work 40 hours, and see what happens. Not "work less", but futz around less. It may be that the burnout-cause here is not my work, but all the spinning wheels that I do in the meantime.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"I tell you, we are here to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different"

When you go looking for capital-T Truth, as far as I can tell, you probably throw out afterlives and reincarnations and universal "should"s and humanoid Gods and you end up with the cold hard fact that you are a critter on this planet controlled by a large pile of neurons. And then, doesn't it seem like life reduces to just trying to get through this existence in the least painful/most pleasurable way possible?

Everyone hates to say "life is meaningless" because that sounds bleak, so we try to shoehorn some meaning into it. But when it comes down to it, don't we talk about beauty and goodness and stuff because it would be more painful to deal with a life in which we didn't pretend that we were doing something other than trying to squeak through life with a minimal amount of pain?

(one could accuse this poster of vaguebooking. don't worry, I'm fine, just honestly curious.)

Friday, November 02, 2012

Really just Movember

First of all, it's Movember! I was a lot sick yesterday, so I'm a day behind, but I sure have not shaved this month. I'll be growing a moustache all month. It's always a little tenuous with fundraising how these things are connected, but: give some money to prostate cancer research I guess?

Second, it's election time. Your to-do list:
  1. Stop watching campaign ads and instead take the quiz at I Side With to see which candidate's policies you actually agree with. 
  2. If you find yourself most aligned with a third party candidate, then:
    1. if you're in a swing state, (sadly) still vote for Obama/Romney
    2. if you're not, probably go with the third party
  3. Read up at least a little about your local elections. You make more than one decision on election day.
  4. About big issues, be honest with yourself about your motives.
Third, well, I figured I'd have some deep thoughts but really the biggest question I've come up with over the past couple days was "how do they get ham in that shape? is there really a muscle that big on a pig?" (answer: yes) Fever hallucinations, what can I say. Back in top shape soon!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Relationships are 2/3 made, 1/3 found.

Think about your favorite songs. I'd venture to guess that the reason you like them is not really the content of the song so much (although that is part of it), but the associations you have with them. A friend's recommendation, the first time you heard it, the general life context around when you heard it. It's not that the specific notes resonate with some inherent thing inside you, but rather that you decide you're going to like the song for whatever reason, and then you do.

Now think about your friends. There is certainly an element that you want to find certain people, people with certain characteristics, but really the reason your closest friends are your closest friends is largely because of the experiences you've had together.

I don't know what the exact fraction is, but it's certainly more "made" than "found."

Which leads to the question (of course this had to get back to technology at some point): why do online dating sites treat dating as a search problem? And if you were starting a new one, how could you get around that?

Here's an idea: you sign up on a site, they require a $100 deposit, then they assign you to do a certain (hopefully-fun) thing at a certain place/time. (with someone else, or with N other people.) If you don't show up, they keep your $100. So you show up, with the other people, and you all have an excuse to be there, and then you've started doing a thing with other people, which starts building these relationships.

It's like "forcing you to go on good dates" whether or not you have enough time, knowledge, or imagination to create good dates. (side note: coffee or food is generally not a good date.)

(also related: I've been reading So Good They Can't Ignore You. Your work is more made than found too.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sometimes I'm not sure if I'll ever have a spare minute again

Things I've learned recently:

My mood depends (at least in part) on my productivity. If I feel like I'm getting things done, I feel like I'm kind of swimming at work, and I feel good. If not, I feel like I'm totally drowning. (This is new. On the upside, I'm never bored. On the downside, I feel like a heroin addict; addicts display increased rates of hyperbolic discounting, meaning they can't reason rationally about the future because they're so fixated on the next day or the next hour.)

My ability to work depends (at least in part) on my mood. Also, my mood is my mood; it is nice to be in a good one.
Therefore, it feels helpful to insert tasks that I can make progress on, to keep my mood up, between other tasks that are frustrating and difficult.
This is weird. It's like I've got a little homunculus in my head who controls whether my mind and body will be working right, and I've got to keep feeding him little productivity nuggets. Also, it's nice to do a little reality check if I feel drowney, realize that I won't always feel this way, and realize that maybe I just need a bit of sleep.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Curating a party playlist

For the last ... three hours? I've lost track of time. This is a blast. I get so jazzed from:
1. listening to music in general
2. reminiscing about whatever memories come up when I listen to music
3. selecting a bunch of tracks that will completely impress and delight my friends
I ought to get into DJing. Then I could learn how to make a list of songs that actually sound good together.

Of course you're interested, so the list is below. Comments welcome, especially "I am impressed and delighted!"

(I should also mention that if you're looking for more ways to admire my vast decade of musical knowledge you can also find me on This Is My Jam or my music lists blog.)

Artist, Name, Album
The Books, IDKT, The Way Out
The Books, I Didn't Know That, The Way Out
The Books, Free Translator, The Way Out
Beirut, Brandenburg, Gulag Orkestar
Beirut, Postcards From Italy, Gulag Orkestar
Beirut, Mount Wroclai (Idle Days), Gulag Orkestar
Alexis Gideon, Liophant, Flight of the Liophant
Shugo Tokumaru, Parachute, Exit
Röyksopp, Happy Up Here, Junior
Orbital, Otono, The Middle Of Nowhere
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Master's Hands, IRM
Maritime, Adios, Glass Floor
Bobby Birdman, Victory At Sea, New Moods
David Byrne and Brian Eno, Strange Overtones, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Jens Lekman, A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill, Oh You're So Silent Jens
Stars, This Charming Man, Nightsongs
Architecture In Helsinki, Maybe You Can Owe Me, In Case We Die
Architecture In Helsinki, Do The Whirlwind, In Case We Die
William Shatner, Common People, Has Been
The Rapture, Get Myself Into It, Pieces Of The People We Love
The Rapture, I Need Your Love, DJ Kicks: Erlend Øye
Uusi Fantasia, Lattialla Taas / Venus [Acapella], DJ Kicks: Erlend Øye
Justus Kohncke, 2 After 909 / Intergalactic Autobahn [Acapella], DJ Kicks: Erlend Øye
Erlend Øye, The Black Keys Work [Phonique Rmx], DJ Kicks: Erlend Øye
Holy Fuck, Red Lights, Latin
The Human League, Do Or Die, Dare
Jupiter, Saké, Juicy Lucy
Jupiter, Avalon, Juicy Lucy
Calvin Harris, Stars Come Out, Ready For The Weekend
Justice, Canon (Primo), "Audio, Video, Disco"
Justice, Canon, "Audio, Video, Disco"
Gui Boratto, Colors, Take My Breath Away
Air, Cherry Blossom Girl, Talkie Walkie
Junior Boys, In the Morning, So This Is Goodbye
Hot Chip, One Pure Thought, Made In The Dark
Talking Heads, Genius Of Love (Tom Tom Club), Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition)
Talking Heads, Girlfriend Is Better, Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition)
The Go! Team, Panther Dash, "Thunder, Lightning, Strike"
The Go! Team, Ladyflash, "Thunder, Lightning, Strike"
U.S.E, Look At The City, Loveworld
Junior Senior, Move Your Feet, D-D-Don't Don't Stop The Beat
TV On The Radio, Dancing Choose, Dear Science (Deluxe Edition)
Broken Social Scene, 7/4 (Shoreline), Broken Social Scene
Andrew Bird, Fake Palindromes, Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs
YACHT, Summer Song, See Mystery Lights
Cansei De Ser Sexy, Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above, Cansei De Ser Sexy
Grand Buffet, Things That Go Hump in the Night (Ultimate Remix), Five Years of Fireworks
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Bright Lit Blue Skies, Before Today
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Round and Round, Before Today
Air France, No Excuses, No Way Down
Metronomy, Everything Goes My Way, The English Riviera
Stars, Elevator Love Letter, Heart
Metric, Sick Muse, Fantasies
Metric, Satellite Mind, Fantasies
Hercules and Love Affair, Blind, Hercules and Love Affair
Mylo, Drop The Pressure, Destroy Rock & Roll
Mylo, In My Arms, Destroy Rock & Roll
Midnight Juggernauts, Road to Recovery, Dystopia
Blondie, Heart of Glass, Parallel Lines
Madness, Our House, Madness
Robyn, Dancing On My Own, Body Talk
Metronomy, Corinne, The English Riviera
Tarkan, Dilli Düdük, Turkish Hits Vol. 1
Blockhead, Grape Nuts and Chalk Sauce, Uncle Tony's Coloring Book
Janelle Monáe, Dance Or Die (Feat. Saul Williams), The ArchAndroid
Janelle Monáe, Faster, The ArchAndroid
Janelle Monáe, Locked Inside, The ArchAndroid
Yeasayer, ONE, Odd Blood
Balkan Beat Box, Sunday Arak (Featuring Dana Leong), Balkan Beat Box
Spoon, Don't You Evah, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Foster the People, Call It What You Want, Torches
My Dear Disco, Amsterdam, Dancethink LP
Dismemberment Plan, The Other Side, Change
Bat for Lashes, Pearl's Dream, Two Suns
Massive Attack, Man Next Door, Mezzanine
The Earlies, Burn The Liars, The Enemy Chorus
The Flaming Lips, The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat), At War With the Mystics
DJ Shadow, The Number Song, Endtroducing.....
Republica, Ready To Go (Album Mix), Ready To Go (Single)
Gnarls Barkley, Run (I'm a Natural Disaster), The Odd Couple
Gary Numan, Cars, The Pleasure Principle
Crystal Castles, Courtship Dating, Crystal Castles
The Prodigy, Girls, Their Law: The Singles 1990/2005
Friendly Fires, Skeleton Boy, Friendly Fires
Crystal Castles, Not In Love, Crystal Castles ( II )
Grand Buffet, Born In The USA, King Vision
The Police, Can't Stand Losing You, Outlandos d'Amour
Scissor Sisters, Comfortably Numb, Scissor Sisters
Ratatat, Falcon Jab, LP3
Barbara Morgenstern, Der Augenblick, Fjorden
Banco De Gaia, Farewell Ferengistan, Songs From The Silk Road
Beach House, Master Of None, Beach House
DJ Shadow, Changeling / Transmission 1, Endtroducing.....

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wealth equals richness minus worry

I am not sure if there is anything to this, but bear with me for a minute:

Wealth = richness - worry.

"Richness" is pretty self-explanatory. Traveling in a private jet is richer than traveling in a Greyhound bus.

Eating artisan chocolate is richer than eating Hershey's. Eating fine steak is richer than eating burgers. But eating asparagus can be richer than eating a steak (if you really like asparagus or dislike steak) and eating a Starburst could theoretically be richer than either.
Living in a fancy house is richer than living in a shack. But living in a small house in a city can be richer than living in a big house in the suburbs, and living in a closet in NYC can be richer still.
An hour with a close friend is (usually) richer than an hour with a stranger. An hour with a close friend is usually richer than an hour playing computer games. Playing World of Warcraft is richer than playing Angry Birds. Playing chess (assuming you're actually thinking about it and digging it) is richer than playing crazy eights.

Richness (here synonymous with meaning) happens when your life matches your values.

"Worry" is also self-explanatory, but a little subtler. Worry is anything that makes you think about anything that's not richness.

Money causes worry. This is obvious. When you have to think about money, you are not thinking about the richness in your life.
Transportation causes worry. The fact that you have to get from point A to point B. (there can be richness in your transportation, like if you're riding a bike and you like biking, but the fact that you must do it is a worry.)
Your bank sending you paper statements causes (a tiny bit of) worry, because you have to think about them. Grocery store reward cards cause worry. Policies like "20% off on Tuesdays" cause worry by introducing mental complexity into your model of shopping.

Worry happens when you're forced to expend attention on anything that's not your values.

Corollary: Technology (or indeed, anything) adds wealth to your life if it increases richness or decreases worry.

Cloud storage, for example, is a great technology, because I no longer have to think about which computer I left my files on, or if they're backed up. mp3s are great because music increases richness in my life. Fitbit adds some richness (I love looking at data) and a little worry (I might forget it); so far, it's a net positive.

Corollary #2: False abstractions are plentiful; beware of them, and don't underestimate the worry they cause!

ATMs are great. They work worldwide. However, while I was in Poland, due to my bank getting bought out and them shipping me a new card, I got stranded pretty hard. Not that we have much of a choice to avoid ATMs these days, and the balance is still positive, but a couple days of frustration and inconvenience is not nothing.

Corollary #3: Maybe instead of "wealth", I mean "flourishing" or "happiness" or "the good life?" Which makes this either more or less profound. In a sense, it feels like I've really unlocked something smart here, an evaluation for anything: does this increase richness and/or decrease worry? However, maybe this is a tautology; maybe I've just said "Goodness equals good things minus bad things."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Things That Are Good

Less interesting-things, more my-life-journaling. If you want interesting things, see what research I'm thinking about. Here are some things that are good in my life now:

1. The HCII. The people are amazing. The students, the faculty, and the staff. It's a community (especially the PhD students) that will hang out outside work, that all cares about each other, that just sort of accepts that everyone is friends and everyone supports everyone else. And everyone I've met (I'm doing a mental check right now but I think, yep, everyone) is very good at what they do.

2. Being in grad school in general. I love the freedom to do what you're excited about. I love feeling "in the club" and invested in something that I care about.

3. Having some easy tasks and some difficult tasks to do. We just finished an interactive projected directory in the HCII lobby; a difficult task (and one that took much more weekend time than we had) but we pulled it off, and how! We demoed it to the cofounder of Adobe, who happened to be around, so that was neat. Anyway, that task helped me feel somewhat competent, but I'm also busy at things I'm much less competent at, so that'll keep me busy.

4. My old CMU friends (who are more and more not-from-CMU), my new CMU friends, and my roommates' friends. Making interesting friends just happens here, I guess.

5. Bikes and no sugar. I feel physically great. The only downside is that sometimes I'm not sleeping enough because I'm just too wired.

6. Pour-over coffee. I've started making my own. It's not as good as at Commonplace Coffee yet, but I'm on the way.

7. Pittsburgh! Love this place.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

HCII week two: uh, equally manic?

Weird. I feel like a different person here. The kind of person who has all the energy to do all those things that I wish I could do if I had all that energy. The kind of person who can do all those things I wish I could do if I were good at doing things. I'm sure the honeymoon will wear off eventually. In the meantime, it's still a lot of fun.

In other news:
Hunter-gatherers don't expend a lot more calories than us; the reason obesity is widespread is that we eat more than they.
Becoming an expert: a lot of these tips (but not all of them) seem to be summarized by "beginner's mind." Stay humble and eager!
Here's one person's advice on managing work. I want to round up a dozen super effective people in my field and ask them how they work on a day-to-day basis. There's probably not a huge amount that they do similarly, but there may be some telling common threads.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

HCII week one: manic.

Man! I've been zipping this whole week! A few reasons:
- our intro project in the HCII has been an interactive projector to display a department directory. This is the kind of quick-results programming that gets me zipping.
- meeting a lot of new friends and professors. The atmosphere is great. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. (I've never visited a department where people wanted each other to fail, but I've seen places where people just kind of do their own thing and don't support each other so much.)
- hearing a lot of interesting research, and getting the chance to talk with lots of professors and decide what we want to work on.
- lots of stuff going on all the time!
I like this. It's exciting.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Inbox zero, enjoy it while it lasts...

Tomorrow I start grad school. Well.

I'm excited to meet my new classmates and professors, moderately worried that I don't have The Right Stuff, proud to be officially in the club of researchers, afraid that I won't sleep enough, psyched to have careerish purpose, refreshed by a couple weeks with good friends and family, and itching to start building something again. Here goes!

Regularly scheduled cool-or-humorous-research blast

Interesting: Open plan offices are bad. I thought this debate was still open. Maybe the issue is that totally-open (as in the picture here) offices are bad, but the Microsoft room-with-door and the Google half-walled desks are both reasonable choices.

Lol: Fast cars actually do turn women on. I mean, seriously? It can't be the "successful guy who brings home the bacon" circuit firing, because they were just playing clips of engine roar, not mentioning anything about the price.

Interesting: Oxytocin makes you better able to detect emotional states. I'd love to have a before-and-after test with some labeled faces to try it out. Also, could that lead to improved empathy- the ability to feel other people's emotional states? And wouldn't that be incredibly revolutionary?

Lol: wearing blurry glasses just in case you might accidentally catch a glimpse of an attractive woman. But why stop there? Why not just blind yourself? You'd have to deafen yourself too, and cut off your nose, because you wouldn't want to catch a whiff of perfume. Technology tie-in: in the future, no doubt there'll be a Google Glass app that will use computer vision to find the women and just blur them. (of course, you'd have to switch back to all-blurred non-electronic glasses on the Sabbath.) WEIRD.

Interesting: Working out a lot doesn't make you sleep better. Thinking you worked out a lot makes you sleep better. That's... um, surprising. Counter-arguments: one two three.

Cool: Runner's high is real. Opioids!

Lol: I want to try a few days in a world where punishments are doled out in physical pain on the spot. You say something dumb at work, your boss punches you in the arm. You learn your lesson and it doesn't embarrass you forever or haunt you. Interesting: I guess that's Singapore?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

No refined sugar

I don't* knowingly** eat refined or added sugar*** except on Saturdays.****

* I say "don't" instead of "can't" because it provides a different outlook. This is a lifestyle choice, not a restriction or ascetic self-denial. It's more effective that way.

** it's mostly easy to avoid sugars, but not entirely. After eating Chinese food, I realized that the sauce was probably half sugar. Same with baked beans. Luckily I can just laugh them off; it's not an allergy or anything.

*** basically I just want to quit refined sugar. But I don't mean I'm switching to honey or agave or something. Given a choice, I'd go with one of these over white sugar or HFCS, but generally, added sugars in all forms are out.

**** cheat days. Tim Ferriss's book is big on them, and I've talked to a couple people who have followed his diet who say that they really help. In my case, I didn't want to lose stuff like ice cream or biscotti for the rest of my life; this provides an easy outlet, while still cutting my sugar way down.

Why quit sugar? Because it's a clear win. I want a lot of years in my life, and I want a lot of health in those years. And sugar is (maybe after tobacco) probably the worst thing that modern Americans routinely put in our bodies.

Will it work? I think so. I've been doing this for a week and a half now. It's not really that hard. I've had to refuse a cookie once and ice cream twice.

Why now? Because I'm finally in a pretty stable form of life where I can relatively reliably control what food I eat. Because I'll be this way for 5-6 years, so any changes I make now will work over a pretty long timespan.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Whining is unattractive.

I went to an ATM. They wanted a $4 fee. I felt outraged! Four dollars just to get MY money?! But (and this is so simple but we forget it) it's a free market. PNC Bank is allowed to charge whatever they want for me to use the service that they provide (keeping my dollars safe and giving them to me anywhere I want). If I don't like it, I can go somewhere else.

I drove to Philadelphia on highway 76, paying about $35 in tolls on the way. Yow! Now, I can complain about the terribly unjust highway system, but they're the ones building the roads, and if our tax dollars aren't enough to cover the cost, well hey, it's an extra tax for the people who use the road. In a way, it's more fair than paying for roads with taxes.

At least under our current mostly-free market. You can argue that that should be changed; maybe you can argue that all banks should be forced to let any customer from any bank use their ATMs for free. Then you'd have to figure out how it's fair for us to force them to absorb this cost. You can argue that there are some fat cats in the system getting rich off the usurious tolls, but that requires more assumptions than "roads cost a lot to build" and so the burden of proof is on you.

If you're claiming moral indignation about something that's within the bounds of our market, and you don't have a better solution or a valid reason that it shouldn't be this way, you might just be whining.

(and if you go "what about media piracy?" I say read this; in short, downloading is the better solution.)

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Habits, in one blog post

There is a lot of information out there about habits. You can read it for days instead of starting a new habit. Your time is probably better spent actually working on your habits. So here's a guy who's been working with habits for a while, distilling all he's learned into one list. Seems at least largely in the right direction, and relatively concise and easy to read.

Making friends as an adult

This article talks about how people make fewer friends as they get older. It mostly sounds depressing: parents who make friends only when their kids do, busy people who deduct points from friends if they're late, retirees who find themselves totally friendless.

More interestingly, though:
"...the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other..."

Seems simple enough. Why not create that environment after college too?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I hope artisan food is a sign of things to come

I don't know what to think after reading this bit about Mast Brothers Chocolate. It's artisan chocolate, hand-made, perfectly controlled and sourced and decorated etc. And they're doing well. As the article argues, this is how large portions of the economy will go: the stuff that can get mass-produced and automated will, while the stuff that people will pay for because it's handmade will be handmade. McDonald's will be in a vending machine, and artisan chocolate will stil cost $8 a bar, and both will survive.

It sounds great, really: once McDonald's automates all its workers away, there'll be more workers available. Maybe they can work on artisan chocolate. Or maybe artisan furniture, if they prefer, or paintings or whatever. Then all we need people to do is buy artisan _____. This is the sticky part of the argument: how can you expect people to buy artisan _____ when they don't now? I don't know, but personal experience in suburban Cleveland shows me that if you open a small business selling high-quality gelato, bread, or olive oil (to name only the businesses within a couple blocks), people who have some money will buy it.

But then, this is based on experiences in suburban Cleveland and doesn't really give a view across classes. I wonder what our many people working for minimum wage think.

Which candidate do you actually agree with most?

I Side With: hopefully the only thing I'll post about this year's presidential election. Huh, I'm with Jill Stein. Too bad we don't have a good voting system, or I'd vote for her.

The one thing that's reassuring to know is that I actually agree with Barack a lot and disagree with Mitt a lot. This is reassuring if I am to talk politics ever (which I hope I don't); it reassures me that I'm actually voting for what I believe in, and not just going along with everyone in my demographic. Anyway, this site is great and everyone should be forced to take a quiz like this before voting. (kidding, but only a little bit.)

My probably temporary descent into Diablo 3

I don't get into most big-budget AAA computer games. Last game I really loved was probably Super Crate Box. I got into Braid too. But the last big game I really really liked was Diablo 2.

In Diablo 2, you kill monsters and gain levels and find magical items. When you gain levels you get better at killing bigger monsters and finding fancier items (which in turn make you better at killing monsters). It might be hard to explain to non-gamers why this is so fun. I guess it's challenges with clear parameters and units of progression as well as unpredictable rewards. I can't think of a real world example.

from the super weird but wonderful ebbits

Diablo 3 is just like Diablo 2 except that the parts that used to be crummy are now great. Trading used to be one-to-one, currencyless, and inefficient; now there's an auction house. When you played with friends, you used to have to fight to grab the loot dropped by a monster; now everyone gets his own. You used to have to chug potions, now you can only depend on one every 30 seconds. You used to have to choose all your skills once, now you can change them constantly. I could go on.

This is wonderful; I am glad to see them take this pretty-good game and refine it until it's super-good. I am glad to see anyone take anything and improve it relentlessly, for a decade or more, until it's the most user-friendly frictionless thing it can be.

This is also potentially terrible, because it's like refining a drug. (interesting side note: meth sends your dopamine levels 3-4x higher than cocaine or orgasms. can't imagine what the heck that feels like. am curious. won't try it, don't worry.) So of course I'm kind of addicted. But I know I've got about two weeks of down time in Cleveland before I move to Pittsburgh and start life over again, and I'm prepared to quit cold turkey when I move because that'll be much more exciting.

(also prepared to keep D3 as a sometimes hobby, because it really fires me up to play it. might be nice to have something I can do for an hour here or there to keep me in that active mindset. we'll see.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Drugs, getting old, and terrorists

What is the most harmful drug? Not cocaine or heroin, but alcohol. (when you take into account the damage to society as well as damage to the user.) This article was written based on a 1-day workshop held by a bunch of drug experts. In open discussions, they divided all drug harms into 16 types, weighted them, and rated each drug on each type of harm.
Interesting numbers (100 is the most harmful):
Alcohol: 72
Heroin: 55
Crack: 54
Crystal Meth: 33
Cocaine: 27
Tobacco: 26
Speed: 23
Cannabis: 20
Ecstasy: 9
LSD: 7
Mushrooms: 5

I'm surprised alcohol is as high as it is, of course. I wonder how much of that is because it's so widely used. That is, if it were as illegal and taboo as say cocaine, would its rating be in the 20's also? (I'm sure the authors addressed this, and I would love to know, but the article is paywalled.)
I'm surprised cocaine and speed are as low as they are. I thought speed was meth; shows what I know. I'm surprised cannabis is as high as it is; I thought it was virtually harmless. And check out where all the hallucinogens are! (Well, the Dutch could have told you that. Also, I wonder if they've taken into account the benefits of mushrooms.)

It should be noted for my dad's sake that the authors did not consider the conscription risks of mushrooms.

When do we stop being interested in new things? For new foods, 39. For new experiences, twenty-three. Aw hell. For new music, about 20. So 2004 might always be the best year in music. (I'm basing this solely off Blueberry Boat, the Moon and Antarctica, and Funeral. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

How many people do terrorists kill? In the UK, less than bathtub drownings, and as many as bee stings.  In the US, as many as are crushed to death by furniture. The moral of the story is, watch out for your furniture.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

I finally read this thing. It's about a gorilla and a guy who discuss how the world/environment got to be this way, and how we can save it.

In short: At the time of the agricultural revolution, people became able to decide which animals live and which die. And we developed external morality, which let us say "we *should* live and they *should* die." We're stuck in this pattern of living, running the planet into the ground, but that's our story and so we're going to stick to it. You can't just say "we're not going to do this", you have to replace it with something you ARE going to do.

Interesting. A couple questions I'm left with:
- is non-agricultural life really as nice as he says? You're really at nature's mercy. But I guess if that's woven into your culture, you're more okay with it, as opposed to us who fight death and disease tooth and claw.
- are you sure there's no actual goal that our civilization can achieve? For example, if there was some ultimate external good that came from Pogs, then the whole agricultural thing would be totally justified and great because it would be the best way for us to make a ton of Pogs. Less comically, maybe we post-agricultural "civilized" humans will achieve the Singularity, upload ourselves, and live a really utopian life. I'm not sure if we could get there without going through a few thousand years of miserable agricultural life first.
- he argues that we've taken ourselves out of evolution, and that really a lot of species are evolving towards self-consciousness if we'd just let them live. I hate when people say that we've taken ourselves out of evolution! Evolution just works differently now.

I kind of gave up on improving the whole world a few years ago, figuring I ought to improve myself first. Sometimes that (and my questions above) feel sort of like cop-outs.

At any rate, read this book! I quite enjoyed it. Quick read, too.

A couple thoughts from watching Dexter

(I'll only talk vaguely. I don't think reading this will make you enjoy the show less, but some might consider this post to contain mild spoilers. Consider yourself warned. I just finished Season 2. No spoilers from you either.)

It really feels like TV shows and movies have a contract with the audience. Especially in a morally-charged show like Dexter. (quick recap: our hero is a serial killer named Dexter. He's got these uncontrollable urges to kill, but he channels them into killing only murderers. He's also a cop.) Before any episode, I know that Dexter will not get killed, and I know that he will not get caught, and I know that he will not do anything ethically questionable (if you're okay with the premise in the first place).

I guess this comes from three places:
1. I know there are future episodes that I haven't seen yet, so the show can't end.
2. They go over the top to explain the "code" that Dexter follows. It seems like a pretty okay code ("only kill murderers") and he adheres to it ardently, so we're more comfortable accepting him as the hero.
3. ...?

I don't know what source 3 is, but I feel like there is something preventing the creators of the show from ever turning him into a villain, or even an ethically-questionable mostly-hero, or getting him caught by the FBI, or whatever. And I'd feel cheated if they did. Weird. I wonder if it's cultural, as we in America love a happy ending. And I wonder if anyone's consciously pandering to me. But I do like it.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Zen retreat thoughts

Mostly for posterity, so I can remember what I'm thinking at this point in my life.

1. I need to work on concentration first. (As opposed to insight/wisdom.) I read this from Daniel Ingram, got the same idea from S.N. Goenka (days 1-3 of the 10-day course are just concentration training), and now Niko at the Zen Center in Amsterdam agreed with what I was thinking there too.

I'm not sure how well I need to work on concentration, but I'm guessing that I should at least be able to follow my breath for an entire sit with not a huge effort.

There are two reasons I want to develop concentration: first, because I have to get good at that in order to work on insight; second, because I hear it's really pleasant once you get good at it; and third, because a couple of mental fireworks would convince me I'm not wasting my time.

I'm not sure what is the best way to develop concentration. Just trying again and again is about all I've got.

2. There are relative and ultimate benefits to meditation. Relative ones are the day-to-day things, like feeling less stressed. Ultimate benefits are things like "seeing reality as it truly is" and "becoming one with everything" that you can't really explain in words. I'm interested in both types of benefits. Lots of people are only interested in the relative ones. This is also fine.

However, I wish I could easily scan potential retreat/sitting groups by asking "are you interested in getting enlightened, or are you only interested in community and stress reduction and all the other relative benefits?" And I wish I could do this non-judgmentally. Hell, I'm now approaching 3 years of meditating daily or near-daily, with few mental fireworks to show for it, so I'm in no place to claim to be right about anything. It's possible that most people are slacking, but it's also possible that I'm a tad overenthusiastic and just following a bunch of nonsense anyway.

3. That said, I don't think I am. I think I've derived good relative benefits, and maybe I'll make more progress when life calms down a bit. When I hit some quantifiable benefits or mental fireworks, dear blog, I'll make sure to write them down.

4. Also with that said, props to the Zen Center in Amsterdam for letting me join them and making me feel welcome even though I don't do zen regularly.

5. Soto Zen does seem less strict than Rinzai Zen (like the Seattle Zen temple I went to a few times). Still a bit too much ceremony for my taste. But hell, ringing a bell is too much ceremony for my taste.

6. Sitting for 25 minutes, walking for 5 minutes, and repeating is easier than sitting for say an hour. I wonder if there are downsides. I was hoping to increase my daily practice to an hour, and maybe adding some walking would be a good way.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Selfs, improving life, and living longer

I guess this guy Bruce Hood wrote a book about how the "self" is an illusion, or rather, an emergent phenomenon. He explains it better than I can:
Short interview 1
Short interview 2
Throw this in with the likes of Daniel Dennett. I agree with this pretty hard. It seems hard for me to imagine how the "self" is anything other than an emergent phenomenon created by a lot of brain and body working together. I remember reading a good analogy, something like: a crab will build a shell around itself to keep itself safe, a human brain will build a self around itself to make it easier to process the world.

About living longer: 1. Work hard at a meaningful career. 2. Get married maybe- if you'll be good at it. 3. Connect with and help others. 4. Be extroverted, optimistic, and easygoing. #2 is probably the most interesting. I have few (maybe zero?) role models who are old, never-married, non-clergy, and reasonable people. This is puzzling. (course, I don't know that many old people in general.)

Daily and weekly habit recommendations for a better life. Some things I could work on daily: getting out in nature, exercising consistently, expressing gratitude, challenging myself systematically, laughing, and touching people (snicker, okay). To work on weekly: generally reflecting. Work-wise, personally, I ought to set aside time to reflect on the past week and plan for the next one. And maybe I ought to play music.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Google Reader sweep

  1. A couple of thoughts about how to live better. Mostly it's context. Design your world in advance to help you be as good as possible in the moment.
  2. One tip on how to live happier: every day write three good things that happened and why. I've been interested in adding something like this into a daily routine. Feels like a very low time investment for a lot of reward.
  3. Also, how to live longer (note particularly that feeling connected to others is super important.) (Another hint: fasting.) I'd like to live to 200. I'd settle for 100 if the world in 50 years is the same as today (but it'll be twice as good, hence my goal of 200). Really, I'd just like to live until we can upload ourselves. Food-wise, fasting and calorie restriction sound like the surest bets; otherwise, active social life seems like a big one. I'll think about this more when I'm back in a stable life.
  4. Compiling evidence that sitting is one of the things that is killing us the most: The AtlanticNY Times. To do: see how many studies these folks are all citing. The hypothesis is compelling: believable, actionable, and big payoffs.
  5. Why don't Americans walk more? I found this interesting for a number of reasons. Pondering why "walking" has become something you think about doing instead of something you just do, talking with pedestrian modelers, and only a little bit of preaching to the choir about walkability.
  6. How do you decide what things to memorize, and what things to outsource memorization? Here's one answer: will it help you survive the zombie apocalypse? I don't buy it; there are plenty of things that I want to memorize that don't pass this bar. For example, recipes: it is so much easier to cook something without looking at a paper every minute.
  7. Guy says he got back to 20/20 (and better) without glasses. I'm not super interested right now, because it becomes something he has to maintain, so it feels like a less perfect abstraction than just wearing contacts.
  8. How do you stay on top of the scientific literature? This is something I'll have to get good at.
  9. Carl Bielefeldt at Stanford explains how meditation only recently has gained traction among non-monks.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Steve Jobs

I read his biography. I am struck by a few things:

1. We really venerate him in nerd circles, but he was in many ways not a good person. I mean that he was not skillful at creating a good life. And the really striking thing is that a lot of his failings just seem so childish!

2. I'm sold on Apples again. (I mean, before reading the book.) My next computer will be a Mac. The thing that I keep getting convinced of is that, to build a good product in this world, you need one person to own it. Maybe there can be about two other people working on it too. The more people get added to a project (at least, the more people that make design decisions) the dumber it gets.

3. We both went to India. Times change. Back then you could visit "the guru of most of the hippie movement." I guess back then you also could more easily get dysentery. Places like Manali and Nainital were kinda unknown, not busy holiday spots. Also, back then you also didn't have an internet connection, and you couldn't be, say, blogging while you're on vacation.

That's the mildly worrying thing: I don't know if I'll ever find a place so remote, either physically or internet-ly. I wonder if I'm missing something.

4. "Sculley confided that on vacations he went to the Left Bank in Paris to draw in his sketchbook; if he hadn't become a businessman, he would be an artist. Jobs replied that if he weren't working with computers, he could see himself as a poet in Paris."
Come on! Dear world, get some new artistic ideals! There are other creative places besides Paris! And there are other creative people besides artists!

5. "I think the issue is empathy- the capacity for empathy is lacking." I wonder if he'd be diagnosed as a psychopath. (hmm... wikipedia says no psychiatric organization authorizes a diagnosis of psychopathy.)

6. Jobs to Rupert Murdoch: "You're blowing it with Fox News. The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you've cast your lot with the destructive people."
Right on! Not only about Fox News in particular, but about a constructive-destructive axis in the world. It's not always PC to point it out, but sometimes some people are genuinely working to build up and some are tearing down.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to live better next time

Almost four years ago I started a new career in a new town. Now I'm doing it again. The last one worked out pretty okay, but I can do better this time. Examples:

- In Seattle, I aspired to live minimalistically, in terms of stuff. I would avoid acquiring most things, mostly because I'd have to move them someday. This was usually smart, but led to me not getting some things I'd quite like and be able to use. (also because of white person eco-guilt, which I now realize I carried too far.)

- I looked at time like money. I was a time miser. There was a pretty high bar for me to spend my precious time on something. But time doesn't work like money. Time works like... music. Like a constant stream of music coming out of your mouth. It'll happen no matter what, it's just up to you whether you make it sound good or not.

- I didn't appreciate physical good feelings. I rode my bike because it's the best way to get around. I didn't play any sports or lift weights or anything because they're mentally boring, and because modern society has made the word "exercise" so goddamn depressing. But you know what? Endorphins feel great. If we had a drug that made you feel like you do after a good run or bike, it would be popular/illegal. I didn't appreciate the good side of physical activity; I just avoided it because sometimes it's a little unpleasant.
(interesting side note: what if we could market physical activity as if it were a drug? sure, it's got unpleasant side effects in that you have to work hard, but alcohol has unpleasant side effects in hangovers, and people drink all the time.)

- I tried to minimize my job. I took the Google job in part because of the "great work-life balance." Sure, I never had to work more than maybe a 45-hour week. But I'm not sure anymore that this is a good way to look at your work. Aggressively segregating your work from your life can make you think you don't like your work. Then it becomes a Dilbert job.

Do you see the pattern? In all these cases, I've been defining my life negatively, saying "I don't want to do that" and then cutting it out. Far better to decide what I want to do, and arrange my life so I can do it. And do more: try more stuff for longer and don't quit because of discomfort.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

I'm going to CMU again.

Yes! I wanted to come back to the states and try something new, get into a bigger pond, really get out and expand my life, throw off the shackles of the past, onwards and upwards, and my search has brought me to... Carnegie Mellon University. If you'd asked me a month ago, I would have said that CMU was maybe my #3 choice (out of 4), but after the visits, that's how my gut feeling went*. I feel good about this, meaning I don't think I've been unduly biased by any of the many biases I must have towards these places.

So as of this fall, until 2017 or 2018, I'll be a PhD student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU. Looking forward to this!

Now, though, time for me to hop a plane to Sofia, Bulgaria. More details on my travel blog. See you in the States again in July!

*and then here are the reasons that my cold rational brain has come up with to support my gut decision:

Research: is number one. Great profs, great students, lots of cool projects. They and UW seem like the top two places for HCI research, so it's good to be in this crew. Sure, maybe other cities might be bigger ponds in the "city" sense, but CMU is at the top of the game, research-wise. And (importantly) I've found a great potential advisor, as well as talking with other profs doing stuff I like.

The school itself: I want to study HCI, not CS. I like how my classes will be probably 4 CS, 4 HCI, one design, and one behavioral-science, instead of 10 CS. They feel like they've got a big family feel, all the profs care about the students and vice versa. Great atmosphere.

Students: very cool. Coming from CMU CS undergrad, I was not expecting this. They live reasonable lives, probably decorate their houses better than me, hang out a lot, have fun, work hard and play hard, etc.

City: Pittsburgh is smaller than Seattle. I'd wanted to move to a bigger city. So why Pittsburgh again?
- it's got history (which I didn't think mattered, but it means it's got a lot of flavor too, which is subtly important)
- it's still on the up and up. In 50 years I'll be able to say "Pittsburgh is cool now but I liked their earlier stuff better."
- some googling led me not to fear the Aikido problem (if I decide to try some new thing like say Aikido, will there be a studio nearby?)
- sounds like third wave coffeeshops have landed so y'know we're set there
- it's not super far from 90% of the people I know (I have some friends in Seattle and a few others on the West Coast and otherwise from Seattle I am flying 5+ hours to see anybody, which means I am not doing it.)
- it's cheap. never hurts.

Reasons I should have gone to UW instead:
- they have a bunch of cool, enthusiastic professors in the area I'm interested in
- I mean, their students are really cool too
- Microsoft Research is right next door
- skiing, mountains, air that smells nice, etc.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Links links

40 hour work weeks are actually better all around than longer ones.

Academics: going to publish a paper? Check if that journal supports you keeping an archive version yourself with SHERPA/RoMEO. (yes, it is terrifying that some journals don't let you do this. also, it is less useful for my field, because it's all conferences. still, I guess HCI folks write journal articles sometimes, so check on that!)

Sometimes when I lose my overwhelming unflinching optimism, I get down on the idea of "raising awareness." Great, I know about Joseph Kony now, but I will do nothing about it. Going viral on Facebook might or might not mean anything in the real world. I guess KONY 2012 did something; we're sending some troops in now? But that feels like a pithy response to appease voters, not a rational consideration of what needs to be done. Furthermore, it reinforces the belief that nothing happens unless we rich powerful Americans buy stuff and send in the army.

Here's an article about neat office projects that starts off with a pretty good recap of why sitting is bad for you. This stuff intrigues me because it feels like a plausible win-all-at-once thing: tweak your exercise routine to get 10% fitter, force yourself to exercise more to get 40% fitter, or just use a standing desk and get 100% fitter! (Numbers made up.) Plus, it's mentally easier; no need to force yourself to do something you don't like.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grad schools: and then there were two.

Done all the visits! They were all great. For each school, I'd rather do a PhD there than not do a PhD there. And for each city, I'd rather live there than not. But I've got to decide...

I think it's UW or CMU. (Which is weird, right. Ask me a month or six months ago and I'd say I want to try something new! I want an adventure! ... I feel a bit like Harrison, but also feel pretty confident that CMU or UW would be the best choice.)

Why not Georgia Tech or Toronto? Ask me in an email, I guess; anything I say to the internet in general could be misinterpreted negatively. They're both awesome schools.

UW CSE is organizationally more traditional: it's a Department of Computer Science and Engineering, within which there are a bunch of great HCI people. But the HCI faculty are mostly a bit younger, and really inspiring. Microsoft Research is right next door, and interning is super common (there and elsewhere). Their graduates win all sorts of awards. Their recent grads (since, say, 2007) are about 55% industry, 23% faculty, 20% postdoc.
Surprising good thing: I had more than one really inspiring conversation about grad school and research while I was there, both with students and faculty. Very idealistic, very pure scientific motives. This is, I think, a good sign in a grad school.

CMU HCII is organizationally more innovative: it's the Charles Xavier academy for HCI researchers. There are about 20 faculty and 40 students, all working on HCI primarily. So instead of learning all about computer science theory and systems and stuff, you learn some CS, some design, some behavioral science, some general HCI research methods. Something like half their graduates have gone straight to faculty jobs (which is unheard-of; faculty jobs are really hard to get). They steamroll through conferences: I think they have the most papers at each of CHI, Ubicomp, and UIST. (though UW is not far behind.) Their grads are 20% industry, 44% faculty, 26% postdoc.
Surprising good thing: it's like a big family! Everyone knows, and supports, everyone (faculty and students). They go to conferences together, have parties together, even buy houses together. And (surprisingly for CMU) I found them all wonderfully charming, with only an endearing touch of CMU weirdness. (we arrive at a party and I'm greeted with "hi! talk to me." "what?" "tell me something!" "uhh... er, what do you want to know?" "you're terrible at this!" Oh, CMU!)

But more important than any of this, I suppose, are the particular faculty and students. I've talked a few times with most likely advisors at each school, and I'd love to work with them both.

To do still: make lists of other profs at each school and their specialties, make lists of students to make sure I remember the atmospheres pretty equally, send some emails, sit quietly and think a lot, and sit quietly without thinking a lot.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Negotiating grad schools with my subconscious

I'm deciding where to go to grad school, right, and where to spend the next 5-6 years of my life. It's a tough choice with a lot of factors. Our slow sequential rational minds are not great at processing these huge multi-dimensional choices, but luckily we've got these built-in hacks called "emotions". They're capable of doing massive processing, but they're tricky! For example, the weather has a big impact on which school you attend. Also, I like feeling accepted by people I respect. So I've got to understand what my emotions are telling me and then decide which ones to listen to.

Here's what I'm thinking:

Georgia Tech

  • The wearable computing contextual computing lab (and neighboring BCI lab). When I heard about magic piano gloves, I was ready to sign on the dotted line right there.
  • The other students visiting along with me had mostly done something else before coming back to grad school. Of course I'm biased, but I think that's a good sign.
  • Atlanta's cooler than I expected.
  • The "Aikido problem": if I decide to try some new thing (say, Aikido), will there be a studio nearby? If it's driving distance, I won't stick with it. I want an atmosphere where growth is not only possible but actively enabled; does Atlanta have that?
  • I feel like family already.
  • They are so tight with Microsoft Research, Intel, Google, and y'know other companies too.
  • I met a lot of fervent supporters. People who, if you asked them to rate their time at UW on a 1-5, would say 5.
  • And I had a couple of think-really-big conversations. Students and profs interested in big important work, not just publishing papers. I think their heads are on straight.
  • I'm not really looking forward to going back to Seattle, oddly, and I'm not sure why. The rain or something? The homogeneous Stuff-White-People-Like-ness?
U of Toronto
  • The prof I'd work with seems very sharp, enthusiastic, flexible, and interested in growing his lab.
  • Toronto is an amazing city. I like it so much. And U of T is right downtown.
  • HCI is not such a focus there as it is at CMU, GA Tech, and UW. (doesn't mean there's not cool stuff going on. but CMU/GA Tech have whole schools for HCI, and UW has a big group.)
  • I met a couple of folks who might rate their time there as a 2.
  • There's a whole school dedicated to HCI; the class mix is different than I'd get elsewhere (for better or worse).
  • I have a few friends in Pittsburgh. Plus, Pittsburgh is cool and cheap.
  • I'd feel a little weird being back at CMU, too, and I'm not sure why.
To be continued!

Friday, March 09, 2012

More interesting things on the internet

Some studies, mostly from Richard Wiseman via Eric Barker, about people that I find maybe useful:
Smelling rosemary makes you smarter?
Owning a dog (not a cat) is apparently really really good for your stress levels. Bummer, because I don't want to own a dog. Maybe watching them on Youtube is just as good.
Selective attention seems like a good thing. Maybe I should buy a lab coat.
Swearing (at the beginning or end of a speech) is fucking magical.
Sleep more! It helps willpower. I've been recommended this book too, and I'm looking forward to it.
Put a mirror in your kitchen, put a plant in your office, and touch people on the arm.
We can do conversation betterHere are 27 specific ways.
Your name matters a lot. Helps to have a positive name, especially one that starts with A or B, and good initials. If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm going to wander into absurd territory now and wonder if my initials, DJT, have made me more likely to be a college DJ. My sister and mom are both CAT; seems appropriate!

Got too far into absurd territory? Remember, it's easy to manipulate stats! More importantly, it's hard not to manipulate stats. You want some effect to happen, so you'll subconsciously do all sorts of tricks to get a statistically significant result. Even worse, stats will be buried deep in any paper you read (or might not appear at all). The burden is on us, researchers, to not do this!

Back to the real world- nah, hold up, let's stay in somewhat speculative territory for a while. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) sounds like a silver bullet for quick easy flow. However, with any brain silver bullets, lots of caveats: might not be the same thing, might have side effects, might only work on some tasks, might completely fry your brain. It feels to me like trying to repair your car's engine wearing boxing gloves. But the greedy futurist in me is excited.

Okay, real world. What should you do? Something difficult. Something that you'd like on your tombstone. Something productive.

A new site urging publishers to open up their damn academic journals: Who Needs Access? You Need Access.

Introverts and extroverts: I like this, because I feel similar. But what makes someone an introvert, and not just shy or unconfident? I don't know, and until I get a straight answer to that, I'm going to be a little tentative when I talk about introverts. It feels a little like nerd-pride: "I like Star Wars and that makes me different and that's okay!" is better than "I like Star Wars and that makes me different and I'm ashamed!" but it's less good than not feeling the need to assert that you like Star Wars in the first place.

Learning that pain is not suffering by investigating the pain. This feels like connoisseurship. I think if I started talking about being a pain connoisseur, people would look at me funny, but that feels like a good way to learn how to deal with pain (both physical and psychological).

Sunday, March 04, 2012

How do you get over phobias?

I'm viscerally afraid of bugs and needles. Seeing a bug (a big one, a stingy one, or a cockroach inside) makes my blood run cold. Seeing a needle or needly blood (drops of blood, surgical cuts, large quantities, etc) makes me lightheaded and faint. This is a little bit limiting in everyday life: bugs go from nuisances to really bad events, and getting a shot becomes an ordeal. I'd like to be free of both phobias, particularly the needle one.

How can I do this? Should I jump in and just get a big dose of it, or should I wade into the water slowly? Is it impossible, and should I just avoid needles as much as possible? Or is there a fourth option? (hypnosis? meditation? ... iron deficiency?)

Due to my experience with needles, I think jumping in might not work. I tried to give blood twice and fainted or almost fainted each time. Last time I had blood drawn for a doctor's appointment, it had the same effect.

Due to my experience with bugs, I think wading in slowly might work. India helped, especially the retreat where our bathroom usually had one large spider in it. The spiders didn't move much and they never came into our bedroom, so I could see a spider every day and get to be more or less okay with it. Roaches still freak me out, but I now know that I can see one without a house being infested, so it's not the end of the world. So I'm thinking, little bits of exposure to bugs will help me overcome my fear of bugs. And my bug phobia is not so bad anyway.

So I'm thinking about wading in. Maybe by watching Dexter. But it's tough; a full episode makes me lightheaded. Do you, dear reader, have any tips?

Watchin' movies on planes that could have been better except for dumb folk wisdom

or, "Dan gets mad at pop culture twice."

Limitless. Well, this one was actually not bad. It's fun. Guy finds drug that makes him mental Superman.
First: "You know how we only use 10% of our brain? This drug lets us use 100%." Can we stop this? It's just silly.
Second: the guy was a burnt out loser, but after he takes the drug, he tells his girlfriend "It's okay now. I'm back." She says "Who's back?" "I am." "That's not you. That's the drug." Can we stop this too? It's voodoo, tribal folk myths, the idea that you have some magic "life force" or identity, and when you take a drug, that magic life force leaves you and the drug possesses you. Reminds me of D.A.R.E.

In Time. This movie was actually awful. But such a good premise: in the future, time is the currency. When you turn 25, you stop aging, and instead you get a clock with one year on it; when it expires, you die. You can buy/sell/trade time. So the rich people live for thousands of years, and the poor people just try to scrape together enough time-currency to survive another day.
The problem: "We're not meant to live forever." This is kind of the bias behind the whole film, and it's never defended or discussed, it's just accepted as a given.

On the other hand, one movie that gets it right: Moneyball. Statistics work. Just like in the real world. But they don't magically predict the future 100% of the time, just on average. Again, just like the real world.

A movie I didn't get: Scarface. But then, I didn't get The Godfather either.
A movie that was pretty good, and god bless them for trying something different and pulling it off: The Artist.
A movie that's hella cute: My Neighbor Totoro. Also, I have a new answer for "if you had to get a pet, what would you get?"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Link blasts

I don't know if anyone likes these posts, but at the very least, it's a good list of things I found interesting once and might want to find again.

A lot of people are up in arms about academic publishing recently, and for good reason. It's a huge scam. Publishers like Elsevier (the current scapegoat, the McDonalds of the academic publishing industry) create journals. Scientists send papers in to these journals (often at a cost to the scientist). The journal sends each article out to other scientists to peer-review. Then the reviewers decide which ones go in the journal, and then the journal charges people $20/article to read them, or sells subscriptions to university libraries for thousands of dollars. Notice that, in this whole description, the journal is doing nothing useful that the internet cannot do, but it's raking in obscene amounts of money from underfunded universities and poor students. Here's a bit more about it. Note to self: look into the state of this in 6 months or so, when I start actually researching.

Diversity is not about color anymore. Urban/rural is a bigger divide than white/brown/black. I have more in common with a Bangalore software engineer than a Western Washington farmer. Haves/Have-nots is an even bigger divide.

"Unplug your machines on Sunday" is a useful solution to the "information overload" problem, but it's not the whole answer. To me it feels like meditating for half an hour a day: a great start, but if you're not living mindfully the other 23.5 hours, it's only a start. Also, this article does a good job of laying out at least 5 of the main issues that we tend to unfairly lump together into "technology overload." Multitasking, Fear of Missing Out, Disconnection from the real world, Information Overload, and "The Shallows".

Connecting with people, one silly and pre-rehearsed sentence at a time. "That's a nice dog." Brings a surprisingly nice jolt! He attributes it to oxytocin; whether it is or not, it's a pretty nice feeling, and good on him for this effort.

Erasing memories. Don't say "Eternal Sunshine." I think that if this ever works on people, the effects will be so complicated. We imagine "okay, I'll just forget when that bully hit me last week", but that's like saying "I'll just have Google forget that 'person' and 'human' are synonyms."

Who is Sam Harris, and how have I just heard of him twice with a week?
First: Fireplaces are actually really bad for you. And we're not good at taking our folk beliefs and figuring out which are accurate and which are not.
Second: This makes Brazilian Jiu-jitsu sound really appealing to learn. Also, it is neat that the question "what is the best method of fighting?" has an answer: a mix of western boxing, Thai boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, depending on how far you are from your opponent.

Think I saw this a while ago but forgot about it: Toxoplasma gondii messes with us in lots of subtle ways. Same way that certain parasites make bugs climb grass so that birds can eat them more easily. Cool!

One man's experiences with various nootropics. (These are safe, legal drugs.)

UMD seminar about the future of Human-Computer Interaction. "The future of HCI" is a wide topic; looks like they break it down into crowdsourcing, input, personal informatics, and "cyborg". Interested to see what they pick to read, especially as those seem to me to be four of the most interesting parts of HCI.

"You don't want that thing; you want the experience of getting what you want"

This thought has been running through my head a lot recently. (Anyone know the actual quote?)

Think about the first time you had vodka. It probably tasted like hell because it was cheap, but then it made you feel nice afterwards. Pretty soon, that became a default: every weekend you could have some cheap vodka at a college party, so it lost some mystique. The experience of wanting something and getting it became lessened. Perhaps you then desired tastier vodka, so when you upgraded to Smirnoff it felt like a luxury again. Maybe you then got a job and started making money, so you could buy Smirnoff whenever you wanted. But then you didn't get the experience of wanting something and getting it; you just got the experience of getting something. Lost its appeal again. Maybe you moved up to fancier vodka. Maybe you buy Grey Goose, even though I bet you money you don't actually like the taste better!

Creating desires so you can fulfill them. Weird, right? Well, and not very productive either. I'm wondering what happens when you hit consumptive singularity, or whatever: when your whole life is just an exceedingly elaborate series of fulfilling desires. (and I'm not just talking stupid hedonism: these desires could include a loving family, career success, whatever.) Probably feels great. Hmm.

I think if I continued this post, I'd just hit Buddhism 101. Whoops. The original and useful point I'm trying to make is this: occasionally examine your life, and notice where you're just desiring the experience of wanting something and getting it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Albums where the last song is the best

1. Sgt. Pepper's (A Day in the Life)
2. The Bends (Street Spirit (fade out))
3. Speaking in Tongues (This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody))
4. John Henry by They Might Be Giants (The End of the Tour)
5. Z by My Morning Jacket (Dondante)
6. Bitter Tea by the Fiery Furnaces (Benton Harbor Blues, well, kind of)
EDIT: 7. Daisies of the Galaxy by Eels (Mr. E's Beautiful Blues)

What else?

ps. like how I didn't list who made Speaking in Tongues, because of course you already know it, just as well as you know Sgt. Pepper's and The Bends?

Friday, February 03, 2012

Scarcity makes people worse

I am thinking that almost all instances of people being awesome occur in situations of plenty, and almost all instances of people being crummy occur in situations of scarcity. Scarcity activates the circuit that says "I gotta get mine before it's all gone". Money, food, status, time; next time someone's getting testy or worse, look for what is scarce. See if you can alleviate it. Also, learn from that instance and see how you can avoid this being scarce in the future.

Monday, January 23, 2012

I am really inspired. This has happened before.

This is part of a work in progress; I have a lot of ideas floating around and I'd like to track their progression over time.

Tourism is boring me. You can read more about that on my travel blog if you like. The thing is, I'm just not inclined to go see more buildings or natural sites or, hell, wonders of the world. Nor even to find the best coffee or beer.

I feel like I've just been consuming. Consuming food and drinks, consuming experiences. Traveling around the world to find the best experiences to consume.

Now, let me be clear that I don't see any moral wrong in this; I just see it as unfulfilling. I don't think that being The Best at consuming (either as a gourmet or as No Impact Man) will lead me to a life that I am satisfied with. Consuming seems to be just one part of life.

I've felt like this before at least once: after coming back from Maastricht. My five months there were some of the most carefree and debaucherous (though, really, still not very debaucherous) of my life. I got so fed up with consuming and excited about coming back and getting things done. What happened? I immediately made a few really productive changes to my life. Before I left, in December 2006, I was living in a basement, grumbling about academic and extracurricular commitments, bored with work and eating too much GoLean Crunch and soy milk. After I returned and made these changes, in August 2007, I was enjoying classes, drawing cartoons, living in an awesome orange room in a house owned by one of my best friends, beginning a great new relationship, researching fervently in a new lab, committing myself selectively to extracurriculars, and listening to The Knife. It was one of the best half-years of my life.

Let's (royal we) do this again. Let's begin a new career in a new town. But let's do it even better this time. Now that I know a bit more about how life works, perhaps I can recreate my life with a bit more wisdom. What are the parts to a fulfilling life, and how can I make those easy to achieve? I'll start with a "wish list" of floaty ideas, and see if I can then boil them down into concrete things to do.

- career, sure. Think I've spent enough time on this one. Grad school will be a challenge, and hopefully also a joy, but either way it'll be unpredictable enough that I don't know how to optimize it yet.
- eating right: some ideas include only buying food that cannot be immediately eaten, committing to three square meals and no snacks, or cultivating the joy of hunger that I've been working on. A less likely but still neat idea is refined-sugar teetotaling.
- exercising right: first, I will ride bikes everywhere, as usual. Second, though, I think just biking is not enough. I think I would like to do something else, something to work on all the parts of the body besides cardiovascular health and leg strength. I would like to fight people, like wrestling, because fighting requires strength and balance, and is fun. Perhaps the closest real-world analogue to this is a martial art? If so, which one? Finally, some yoga might help too.
- mental and spiritual health. Keep on meditating. Go on retreat sometimes. Do not lose the urge to get enlightened, and mindfully monitor the rest of my life, changing stuff if necessary.
- healthy social group. I've always been working on this. One thing that will help is the new less-judgmental attitude I'm developing. Maybe I should entertain more? I like throwing parties and hosting small gatherings; maybe I should invite more people more often with a cause. Some ideas include an album listening deal (like a film club but you listen to an album instead) and this creative circle thing I've tossed about but never done.
- dating. I should dedicate some energy to this.
- creating. As posted a couple posts ago, I think this is healthy, and I don't do it much. Also this. My current whim is that I want to start making some designs. Probably digital. Maybe try something like a Wacom tablet to do some drawing? Also, code more. This is very floaty, but I do want to find some time for, y'know, "hey, what if I could write a script to run my refrigerator for me?"
- serendipity. Make 20% of my life surprises that I don't like, so I keep growing. This feels like a cross-cutting concern, a way to do things instead of something else to do, and I don't know how to do it.
- listening to new music. I still like doing this, and it doesn't seem to fit anywhere else.