Thursday, December 26, 2013

Donating money: a brain dump for 2013

Why donate anything?
We who earn USD can make a lot of difference for people abroad
We in tech (and non-tech folks too) sometimes have more money than we need
It seems like the best cost-benefit tradeoff to make the world a better place

Your possible objections:
I can't be sure I'm doing any good.
That's definitely valid; here I mostly hand it over to GiveWell, who vets their organizations pretty thoroughly. In the end, it is all a bet, but giving to a well-researched organization seems a good enough bet for me.
I don't have time to research anywhere to donate.
Here again I point to GiveWell, who seems thoughtful enough for me, and I usually just donate to their organizations. They're interested in doing the most total good for your dollar; it's sort of utilitarian. If you're into that sort of thing, I like them; if you're not, I'd argue that maybe you should be. (related: how personal should your giving be?)
I don't have money yet, but I will someday. (this likely applies to many of my HCI student friends.)
That's fair. Especially if you're a student. Anything you donate now will be dwarfed by your future donations. (with corporate matching, maybe.) In that case, view your current donations primarily as a way to build a habit. Donate some percentage of your annual income. (or, donate some percentage of your income minus some basic level of living expenses. keep that level constant as your income grows.) If you start donating 1% now, that is a not-insignificant chunk, which will become a huge chunk in the future.
I don't have money yet, and never will.
That's fine too. Don't donate, then. There's no imperative here. For you, it may not be the easiest way to make the world a better place.
I didn't plan for it in this year's budget.
That's fine. Start next year. Pick your target amount, parcel it out week by week. If you make $25k, and you want to donate 1%, that's $250, which is just $5/week. Put cash in an envelope. (seriously!) Or use whatever money management system works for you; I'm not getting into how you should organize your life.
I don't think it's a good way to help the world.
Fine argument. Perhaps you believe that we'd be better off with a free-market utopia or something. I disagree with you, but let's take that offline. The point is, if you donate money to a well-researched organization, even if you haven't done The Best, you have still probably done some good, given the state of the world right now.
It doesn't fit with my current schema of how I manage my money or my life.
This is actually a great point, because it's really probably the biggest reason not to donate. To which I say, it's a pretty arbitrary decision; you can make it a part of your life whenever you want. Why not start now?

Where I'm donating this year:
20% to Kiva to help their operating costs. This is because I've been lending money through Kiva for years, and don't usually donate to help them. Kiva (and all microfinance) might not actually help alleviate poverty. Might even promote unhealthy capitalism in the long run, in that Kiva's organizations are making money off of their clients, and their clients in turn are setting up businesses. Not sure the world needs to be more based on setting up businesses.
On the other hand, microloans do help people smooth out money issues and repayment rates are high, which implies they're not just setting up a huge cycle of debt.
So I'm kind of ambivalent about this, but like I said, I've been lending money through them for years, so my consistency bias in addition to the pluses outweigh the minuses.
80% to GiveDirectly, GiveWell's top rated charity this year, which is also being matched by Good Ventures.

Side notes:
I was thinking about setting up a "gift matching" thing myself, where I'd match y'all's gifts up to $x, but it struck me as dishonest for a couple reasons:
1. I was prepared to donate $x anyway, so I'm either lying about the matching, or I'm withholding money that I would otherwise donate
2. We both kind of get too much credit. I get to say "I helped raise $2x", and you do too, but we each only raised $x.
More on gift matching.

What are your other questions or objections?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Best albums I heard in 2013, and my #1's not Yeezus

It's only a tinge of iconoclasm, and mostly that I just don't really want to listen to it a lot. Anyway, I'd sooner put MBDTF on my 2013 top 10 list, because that album is good enough to time travel; Yeezus is great but not my favorite.

Overall, I was a little disappointed by 2013 music. A lot of my favorites seemed like evolutions, perfections of an existing thing, rather than a new thing. Still, some favorites:
CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe - like this, this is a really good attempt at making a perfect pop album. I was debating whether this was one of The Greats. I don't quite think so, but it's close.
James Blake - Overgrown - I played Retrograde on the radio and was entranced. Think I looped it pretty continuously for about a week. Someone on the internet wrote "Put Thom Yorke in 2099 and you have James Blake." Not a terrible description.
Mrs. Paintbrush - Duke 2 - This is Jackson from Grand Buffet. You haven't heard it yet? You must be wearing glasses made of bullshit! (also, buy it.)
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City - a million websites will tell you why this is good better than I. It's not light and airy like their debut, but it's pretty deep in that I still want to hear it. A lot of feelings. Standouts include Step and Everlasting Arms.
Grimes - Visions - okay this is 2012 but deserves to be on another Best Of list. Might be one of The Greats.

What was very good but not quite my favorite:
Haim - Days Are Gone - feels like it's from the 80's. Starting off the record with Falling is pretty electric; I was convinced I was going to hear another one of The Greats. The rest of the record didn't quite live up to it, though Forever and the title track came close. And then can we talk about "My Song 5"? More of that please.
Lorde - Pure Heroine - Put this a half step below CHVRCHES as my favorite atmospheric female-fronted pop album with standout singles. It feels like a pop album produced by The xx.
Alt-J - An Awesome Wave - Thanks to these guys for doing something a little different in a pop album! Maybe it's just that the main guy's voice is a little weird.
The Knife - Shaking the Habitual - Look, Kanye followed up his epic genre-defining masterpiece with something abrasive and weird, and everyone loved it! Why has everyone snubbed this one? Whatever, it's got its high points (most of the actual songs) and the rest of it is, well, too weird, but I'd rather have too weird than not weird enough.
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories - Okay you love this too, and Get Lucky is the best all around mainstream pop song since Crazy (or maybe Hey Ya!), let's move on, but play Contact one more time first. Yes!
Julia Holter - Loud City Song - Atmospheric concept album that I ought to listen to again.
Janelle Monae - the Electric Lady - not quite up to her first record, but a pretty fun concept album with some great dancy bits. Especially QUEEN and Dance Apocalyptic. I even liked the interludes, and that's rare. I did not like, well, the slow songs.
Jai Paul - self titled bootlegged/unofficially released album - I take back what I said about 2013 being boring; this is great. It might even go in the "favorites" above, but I haven't had enough time. "Listening to a Jai Paul song sounds like a tuning into a pirate radio station being broadcast directly from someone’s brain." Avalanches meets Yeasayer?

What was apparently way older than 2013 but I liked a lot:
Elsiane - Hybrid - RIYL Bjork
Tune-Yards - WhoKill - exuberant weird vocals. Bizness is so joyful. And the line "So sorry but you only stood half a chance/ now it's over and they're walking all over you" from My Country (at 1:23) is so perfect.
David Bowie - Station to Station - and give Low another listen, while you're at it.
Talking Heads - Naked - maligned last album, actually pretty solid, especially Blind.
Kitsune Maison compilation 14 - dance pop, low on depth but quite sugary. Maybe I should get some of the others. Friends's I'm His Girl (Jake Bullitt Remix) stands out.
Uakti and Philip Glass - Aguas de Amazonia - this year I started tackling my to-listen queue from both directions. A long time ago, my uncle Jim recommended this to me, and I just tracked it down. Nice atmospheric.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bad memes

Networking. All-nighter. If you're saying these words, you're probably doing something wrong.

People have been meeting each other for ages, making friends, and getting jobs from people they know. But when we start talking about "networking", this common practice becomes something that instills fear. (which in turn makes it harder.)

Similarly, you shouldn't "pull an all-nighter" for pretty much any reason. But it's become a thing among students (and maybe others in high-pressure jobs), so people do it, and talk about doing it. Even the fact that the word exists legitimizes it. If you talk about how you didn't "pull an all-nighter", maybe you're saying "well, I slept 4 hours", which, due to the anchoring effect of "all nighter", feels legitimate even though it's terrible. And you're still contributing to the existence of the concept "all-nighter". It's like "don't think of an elephant" - for better or worse, you start thinking of elephants.

For a harmless example, look at "planking." It's kind of funny. But now that some people started "planking", it's a thing, and for better or worse you might find yourself planking sometime.

But imagine if instead of "planking", we talked about "pebbling", where "pebbling" means "throwing pebbles at someone you don't like." This is going to have mildly negative consequences. Some kids will pebble some people. Adults will overreact and ban pebbling or something. It'll be a whole flap just because a word exists.

So, I guess, all this garbage about what goofy words the OED is adding actually matters. Be careful what words you use? Stop talking about all-nighters? (Linguists, I bet you've known this for ages. Maybe I'm just rediscovering the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the idea that memes are powerful?)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A mild case of Holiday YOLO

From The Scotsman newspaper today: "This emerging group of middle-aged thrill-seekers is increasingly driven by the phenomenon of "holiday YOLO" (you only live once)..."

So I spent three days with my wonderful friends Daniel and Killian tromping around these hills and castles. I mean, exactly what I had hoped. I'd heard that the Highlands are great and saw some nice pictures of this town called Ullapool, so we stayed there. So good!

We drove in one direction (har) and found a thing to climb. Then we found some castles and islands. In the other direction, we found this gorge. We also found Sigur Ros landscapes and haunted hotels. We drank a lot of tea and looked at sheep. We even found a weasel.

they are getting married in a few months and this photo better show up somewhere there

weasel right in the center there

Here is a tip: if you listen to new music while driving through someplace particularly stirring, you'll make great associations. Even if it's Katy Perry. (for the record, I blame Killian.)

Then I went to a conference called UIST in St. Andrews. Also great! Beautiful old ruined town, great place for a conference, stayed at a cool little B&B, saw a lot of cool technology, talked to great people, got some ideas. I will write more about that in my research focused blog.

bagpipers right in the center there

I quite like this place! Wouldn't mind living there for a spell. Everyone we met was so friendly, the scones and whiskey are good, and just like I hoped, there are hills and wind and ruined castles everywhere. More realistically, wouldn't mind biking around it, with or without a motor.

more photos, if you are so inclined

Thursday, October 03, 2013

If meaning in life is self-created,

if there's no "meaning of life" except what we create for ourselves,
could you just decide "the meaning of life is to be really good at Super Mario Bros", dedicate yourself fully to it, and be satisfied?

(I pose this argument as a straw man; it feels like there's something wrong with it. do help me figure out what it is.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


In fall 2006, I was having a tough time. Junior year, taking the hardest classes I had yet, and not really knocking them out of the park. I was living with some good friends, too, but it was a 4-person 2-bedroom apartment, which is still kind of stressful.

I used to take multivitamins. I noticed, at one point during fall 2006, that I had just about enough vitamins to last until the end of the semester. After that semester, in the spring, I would study abroad in the Netherlands, and I guess I figured that senior year would be good and I'd go find a great job or something, and pretty much everything would be fine if I just got through that one semester. Every day as I took my vitamin, I'd sort of muse about it being a little suffering pill. After I got through those, it'd all be golden.

The weird part of this story is that I was pretty much right. I studied in the Netherlands, it was pretty fun, I got a cool research gig and had one of my best summers, enjoyed senior year, rolled on to Google, got into grad school, bummed around the world, and it's all been fine. Until this year: work has been tough.

For kind of dumb reasons, I happen to have another bottle of multivitamins. I figured, might as well take them, as long as I've got them. And then I started forming the same story, about having a little bottle of suffering pills.

But you know what? Could be that vitamins are bad for you. So I'm throwing them out.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Things contracting a bit

Sometimes life expands, and you start a thousand new projects and buy some stuff and make new friends. Sometimes it contracts, and you tie up loose ends, get rid of things, clean house. Now is the latter for me.

At work, I'm getting into a worn groove. Not quite a rut, but a path that a lot of people have stomped down before me and that I'm learning how to walk in. Depth is nice; learning to become a class-A grunt in any line of work is useful. You get blinders, though, too. Everything you and your friends/coworkers do becomes just the standard way to do things. (I'm a little convinced that there are things we grad students are doing poorly, particularly the worrying.)

Otherwise, things are fine, I feel healthy physically, I even have a bit of leisure time to do nothing. I'm done with my bike and my radio show (for now), got fun social things to do but am avoiding adding work for the time being.

I've been dreaming a lot less, since I started here a year ago. My brain feels fuller. I'm not worried about not growing. I am sometimes worried that I'm not doing what's important. (Working on changing that.) I'm still not sure how anyone can be content, ever, pretty much period. I still feel like an eager, angry, and excited kid.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The bike lives!

Well, that was quick.

I spent a couple hours at Kraynick's today, and it's good to go! The last few parts (bottom bracket, cranks, chain, brake) all came together really easily.

Here are the parts (and this is as much for my future benefit as yours)
Eighth Inch Scrambler frame set: $150, includes frame, fork, seatpost/clamp, headset.
Frame: 59cm chromoly steel, horizontal dropouts
Fork: 1 1/8" chromoly
Headset: threadless
Seatpost/clamp: whatever, it works
Seat: Velo Plush something, I already had it around
Stem: $20, XLC adjustable A-head, it says: ΓΈ: 25.4mm, and 90mm 
Handlebars: $3 bargain-bin, plus some old grips I had lying around
Brake: $25 Shimano Sora BR-3400 (like this) dual-pivot side-pull brake, recessed mount. 
Brake lever: $3 bargain-bin mountain-bike-style
Brake cable and housing: $5
Bottom bracket: $26, Shimano UN55 68x107mm Square Taper
Crank set (includes sprocket): $34, 170 mm, 46 teeth, 1/8" steel chain ring
Another crank arm (non-drive-side) because the first one got rounded off after I didn't tighten it enough: $3
Pedals: $5, bargain-bin
Chain: 1/2x1/8" KMC Z410 BMX-style for internal gear hub/single speed, maybe $10
Wheels: $110, includes tubes and tires, 700c x 18mm freewheel/fixed (riding fixed now)
Lights: a couple little blinky things I had lying around
Lock bracket: $2 (to hold the lock on)

Total: $396, which is maybe about $96 more than I was planning to spend, but not terrible. Time invested is in the low tens of hours- maybe 20 or 30 if you count all the looking things up online.

Riding a fixed gear bike: a little weird! I'm nervous to go anywhere near as fast as I usually do. I have no idea if I'll be able to go on hills ever. For that matter, the following things are also weird: only one brake, skinny hard tires, no gears.

But the following things I love: no quick releases, pretty lightweight, the look of the thing (isn't it pretty?), almost no logos, and I know everything that went into it and how to fix a lot of it.

All it needs is a name! Taking suggestions.
EDIT: I think the best name, as suggested by someone on my kickball team (Tim, I think?), is Brian Eno. Because: A. it's minimalist and great, and B. what gets you more cred than a hand-made fixed gear bike named Brian Eno?
EDIT EDIT: Thanks also to my dad for the bike stand!
wanted to catalog some important things I learned:
- to get the headset into the frame, use a headset press, without the bearings in it (which is obvious if you think about it, but you can smash the bearings if you don't think about it)
- when installing the bottom bracket, be careful when starting it so you don't cross-thread, and put anti-seize compound (which is like grease plus molybdenum bits) on it
- install the bottom bracket on the drive side first, and don't ride it if it starts to come loose!
- when installing the cranks, really crank them the heck in there (and then re-tighten it after every ride for the first couple hundred miles).
- you want the chain to be tight. Tighten the left axle nut (not sure what that's called), then pull the wheel into place while tightening the right one.
- don't take the tip off your crank puller and then try to use it :-/

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Building a bicycle

This is far enough along that I'm confident that I'll end up a Guy Who Built A Bike and not a Guy Who Blogged About Building A Bike And Then Never Did It.

I'm building a bike! It is both easier and more complicated than I thought. Slightly more expensive than I thought, but not wildly. It is definitely more expensive than buying a bike.

I'm roughly following this guide. It'll be a fixed gear, 10% for cred and 90% because that seemed easiest. (although I got a cool wheel that has a fixed cog on one side and a freewheel on the other, so I could switch it if I wanted. the difference is that you can't coast on a fixed gear, and if you push the pedals backwards, it brakes; if you have a freewheel, it's just like any bike that you're used to, but only one speed.)

I've been getting a bunch of help from the guys at Kraynick's (Jerry Kraynick himself, and other folks who just happen to be in there fixing up bikes at the same time). Couldn't do it without them; like I said, it's kind of complicated. It's exciting, though! I'll post more when it's done.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eat salads for breakfast

1. They are usually about the healthiest thing you can eat, so making a habit of eating a big one every day means that, over time, you'll get a ton more good healthy things into your body and less unhealthy things.
2. They are easy: buy a huge tub of greens for $5 and pile them with whatever you want on top in a giant bowl.
3. Relatedly, they help you use up whatever's in your fridge or pantry. Cheese, nuts, fruit, avocado, fish, whatever, pile it all on.
3. They're messy, with dressing flicking all over the place. All the more reason to eat them at home.
4. At home, too, it's easy to make your own dressing: 2 or 3 parts olive oil, 1 part vinegar, mix.
5. If you don't like salads, and you're half awake in the morning and rushing to get to work, you don't want to rush through something that's really tasty- just stuff some greens down. Then eat something more tasty and less healthy when you've got time to enjoy it.
6. If you do like salads, then hey, you get to eat a salad!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Falling asleep is really cool.

If you pay attention, you can watch your brain shut down. (or, better metaphor, "suspend", or more appropriately "do a bunch of things differently than it does when you're awake.") How neat is that?

You're having a train of thought and then you realize you can't remember what you were thinking about literally seconds ago. Not a clue. And then you're on to the next topic.

Also, the next topic is often really goofy. Leaps that you wouldn't ever think of when you're awake. Yeah, every so often someone discovers the benzene ring, but more often you just come up with a pretty entertaining nonsense story, and that's cool too.

You can see all this happening! (Until, all of a sudden, you can't anymore.) I think that's cool.

Monday, July 08, 2013

My Soylent experiments, or, don't try this at home.

You might have heard about Soylent, this drink made by a bunch of Y Combinator softwaremen who wanted to have an alternative to eating food. Supposedly it has all the nutrients you need to be healthy. Now, given my extended joking about Food Cube, I was naturally intrigued.

Plus, they made it sound pretty easy. Make a list of all the nutrients you need. Buy vitamins and stuff until you have all those nutrients. Blend them together.

So I gave it a try. A run to the local GNC, a couple of things off the internet, and a big spreadsheet, and I had Homemade Soylent Version 1. It included whey protein, maltodextrin, olive oil, salt, a multivitamin, potassium chloride, monosodium phosphate, iron, fiber, calcium plus magnesium, and potassium gluconate. I'd tell you the proportions, but I don't recommend trying it.

It was awful. I made a 2500-calorie batch of it, drank 1/3 of it for breakfast, and felt sick all morning. I couldn't even think. It felt like I'd eaten a rock. After about half a day (and a couple trips to the bathroom) I could live like a normal human again. Whoops.

So I tried again. (naturally.) Same ingredients, different proportions: more fiber (25g), less calcium magnesium (think I had a little too much before), less maltodextrin and protein powder (for less overall drink), less iron (18mg is just the RDA for women. for men, it's 8mg).

I've almost made it through 1/3 of a day's supply now, and I don't quite feel sick. I don't feel particularly well, though, either. Plus, the thing is quite noxious. I am having a hard time drinking it, and I'm a guy who likes almost any food. I am guessing that a bunch of people who try this are going to find that, like me, they care about taste and texture more than they thought.

Still, though, good luck to them! Since I bought the ingredients, both the canonical example recipe (as made by the folks who are manufacturing Soylent) and the multitude of other recipes (as found on their forums) have evolved quite a bit, so it's likely that I'm just doing it wrong. But because every bad recipe means a day of drinking gross nonsense, I'm not inclined to experiment further.

(I did preorder a weeks' supply of the "official" stuff, though! I'll let you know how that turns out.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Makin' T-shirts

... is surprisingly easy.
1. print your design.
2. tape it to a non-corrugated cardboard. Tape a sheet of acetate (or "Dura-lar" - another plastic sheet thing) on top of it. Cut it out with an exacto knife.
3. tape the plastic sheet to a shirt. Paint on it with fabric paint.

Things to watch for:
- you might need some sticky-tack to stick the plastic to the shirt so it doesn't lift up.
- dab with the paintbrush, don't brush. Spongey brushes work pretty well.
- make sure your design works as a stencil. You might have to add some "bridges". Also, try to stay away from anything super-intricate
- if you cut some letters freehand, they'll look super jagged and sort of violent. This may or may not be what you're going for.

Without further ado, shirts 1 and 2:
(there is no punchline to this one.)

(this one is only punchline.)

Everything is broken and can never be fixed?

I got to talking with a friend about, uh, the state of the world, and she asked at one point, what's my take? At this point, it's something like pessimism. Here's why (and I'll constrain this mostly to the US here, just to make the conversation manageable, but of course many of these are worldwide).

We have a lot of huge problems. Environmental problems: global warming, water shortage, deforestation, extinction, smog, fracking, Pacific trash islands. Economic problems: shrinking middle class, unaffordability of school, constant unemployment, whatever. Health problems: obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer. Political insanity, the war on drugs, the current US war-of-the-week against some country where the people are a different color and maybe have oil or communism, widespread creationism, same old crime, racism, misogyny, bee colony collapse. Oh, and now PRISM!

We don't have tools to deal with them. How do we deal with big problems?
- Technology. The smallpox vaccine stopped smallpox.
- Economics. Let the markets solve it! We've made things more efficient; affluent US people can now buy food and ipods.
- Laws. Now there are no laws against black people voting; there will hopefully soon be no laws against gay people marrying.
- Social action. MLK or Gandhi.

None of these work against threats that are complicated, slow, and devastating. Let's narrow the conversation even further to global warming (not because it's our only problem, but just so I'm not ranting for days). I guess renewable energy cheaper than coal would be a partial technological cure, but we're not there yet and I don't know if we will be before the temperatures rise catastrophically. Economic cures lead to nonsense like carbon offsets; does anyone trust "the invisible hand" to magically stop global warming too? Our laws are toothless (Kyoto etc) and there's no crucial moment that we'll all band together, no enemy to fight against, no one leader who will persuade us to do anything until it's too late.

The recommendations that we get fall ridiculously short. Apparently, if everyone lived my lifestyle, it'd take 4.81 earths to support us. If I recycle all my tin cans, carpool whenever possible, and buy organic food, maybe it'd get down to 4.7. People! This is not going to cut it! It's going to take technology, economics, laws, AND social action if we want to get down to 1 earth, and I don't see us using any of them.

I don't mean to just rant, but rather to ask: how do we live our lives and deal with this? The best answer I've come to is to do the little fixes, recycle my tin cans and carpool, and otherwise ignore it all. Enjoy the results of the life lottery that made me an upper middle class white male. Is there an answer that's less asinine or grim?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Home distilling

I like rakia/schnapps/slivovitz/fruit brandy. I thought it'd be fun to make some.

However, turns out it's illegal. Which means that you can't really have an above-the-board operation, which means dependable information is harder to find.

However, you can buy a still kit, which is not a still, so it's not illegal.

However, that requires some heavy soldering or a plumber's torch.

(This guy seems to have useful info too.)

Making fruit wine (or even just beer) would probably be fun too, but the end product is not as exciting, so maybe I won't for now. Still (NPI), maybe these links would be useful to other would-be home distillers. Or, more likely, to me in the future.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

SF inequality, time overestimation, Soylent, sending money

"In California, there isn't a conflict between being a capitalist and a liberal." "The companies here are more than just playgrounds, they’re enclaves." I more or less agree with this.

How people spend their time. This is so interesting because we never get this data. The only data we get is data about how we feel like we're spending our time. "how we think we spend our time has little to do with reality. We wildly overestimate time devoted to housework. We underestimate time devoted to sleep."
"people who claimed their “usual” workweeks were longer than 75 hours were off, on average, by about 25 hours. You can guess in which direction. Those who claimed that a “usual” workweek was 65-74 hours were off by close to 20 hours. Those claiming a 55-64 hour workweek were still about 10 hours north of the truth. Subtracting these errors, you can see that most people top out at fewer than 60 work hours per week."
So, ignore the workaholics, reject stress culture, work 40 hours. 50 if you must.

Soylent discussions remain fun. (quick recap: guy makes smoothie full of vitamins, eats nothing else for 3 months, says it's awesome.) At first glance it sounds terrible, but hear him out; I think he reasons pretty well about all the weirdness involved. I tried to make it once, felt like I'd eaten a rock all morning, haven't tried again yet. But you can order some official Soylent from these folks on their kickstarter. Of course I did.

Send money with Gmail. Is Google finally bringing payments into the future? Where I can send you some money for free? I think so. (Also try Venmo, which works too.) If you want to get in on the gmail-send-money beta, let me know, I'll send you a penny.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ireland reminds me of New Zealand

It's beautiful and humble. I spent a couple days at a Buddhist center, thinking I'd get some sort of concentration or mental clarity; can't say for sure that I came away with either of those, but I had a relaxing couple of days. Nice folks.

Then I spent a little over a day in Dublin. Like Wellington, NZ, it's compact and walkable, doesn't have a ton of huge attractions, but has a lot of great places to drink liquid drugs. (infrequent readers of this blog: I mean coffee and beer.) It feels like it's really trying to redevelop itself as both a friendly place to visit and a new techy city. I mean this in a good way; to my eyes, as a humble visitor, it's working.

A real live panopticon!

Howth cliffs, nearby.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Small town and big city England

I've been in Oxford with my friends Daniel and Killian for the past week. It's been pretty low key. Yesterday, for example, I read a book in a coffeeshop and then we went to a pub for dinner. Earlier, I took a final exam for one of my classes on my laptop sitting in Radcliffe Camera. If you're looking for great adventures, perhaps you should look up past Dan. (or future Dan.) Present Dan is happy to take a bit of relaxation time with good friends.

We've had some small adventures. Oxford punting:

London bridging:

(Can I just point out that I'm still jealous of Londoners for getting to live in London? We got to hang out in Hoxton/Shoreditch a little bit, which was relatively rad, and hit up all the bookstores/comic shops/spots I've enjoyed before, which was also rad; a taste of cool neighborhoods that we immediately have to turn around and leave! Argh! I'd move there for the bikes/coffee/bikes and coffee culture alone.)

Pointing at potholes:

Hanging out in shady places:

Next week I'm staying at this retreat center in Ireland. I'll be out of contact Saturday night until Wednesday. (as if I need to head to rural Ireland to go a few days without internet!)

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Went to Paris.

I was there for the past week. Mostly for a conference (CHI 2013, which I will likely post about soon on my research blog), but also some sightseeing. Here are some thoughts.

Everything is six stories tall.

View from our AirBnB

This is nice. It gives you the density of a world capital, without imposing skyscraper districts where everything is lobbies.

The bakeries are generally all they're cracked up to be. I'm not sure on the over/under of what percent of food I ate was pastries. 50%?

I hadn't scoffed at this thing yet. Good thing I got a chance.

Found some good coffee. Coutume is a favorite. Black Market's also solid.

Exactly what it sounds like

Uh, it actually is a good place to go with an SO? Things are generally rather pretty, the restaurants we went to had good atmospheres, dudes played accordions in the subways, etc. We saw people making out in public more than in most places.

Okay, I'm in Oxford, England now, will be there a week, and then go somewhere else. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Empathy and stress

My friend Ram writes a great bit about the weird paradox where three Americans dying is a catastrophe, but dozens of (innocent) Afghanis dying due to drone strikes is business as usual. Is it weird that this is my first reaction, not only to Boston but also to Newtown? (that, and that we should stop reading the news at all.) Ram points at a need to increase our sense of empathy somehow. It's like the old proverb about someone throwing babies in the stream to drown, and how we're downstream fishing babies out instead of stopping the thrower. Except we're not even fishing them out, we're just kind of seeing dead babies and gnashing our teeth over and over.

"It's very, very difficult to be a dick to someone when you understand that you are dealing with a thinking, feeling being with little wishes and big miseries much like yours."

On the other hand, it's been unfortunately easy for me to be a dick to everyone recently, and I blame it on stress. I realize that's a little like saying the air is polluted because it's full of pollutants. That's how it feels; I'm under a little haze and can't really be myself because I'm trying to breathe a lot.

What stresses us? Especially, what stresses us that I might be able to do a damn thing about? (and here I'm drawing on a lot of recent posts from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang; his blog has resonated a lot recently)
Words With Friends - interesting post from Amy Bruckman
Texting - I guess increased stress as well as antisocialness
Imperfect abstractions - yes indeed
And what can we do about it? Mildly intrigued by continuing reports of using heart rate variability to detect (and thereby provide feedback and lower) stress.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Expansive and narrow time

I've noticed two very distinct feelings. One is the "expansive" feeling: "the world is out before me, I can do anything I want, the day is mine, and I'm relaxed." One is the "narrow" feeling: "there's a deadline coming up, I'm head down, chugging through whatever I'm doing." This is not a post about how expansive time is good and narrow time is bad. They're both kind of fun, in different ways. Narrow time has the benefit of feeling more focused and more adrenaline-driven. I often feel "flow"y in narrow time.

But it seems like they should be more balanced! Some time to feel crunched and making progress, some time to feel relaxed and thinking of ideas. Seems like it'd make me both a better researcher, and a better and happier human being. My April challenge (only check email twice a day) is pointed in this direction. And meditation helps a little, I think.

I wonder how else we can create more expansive time in our lives. Any ideas?

April plan: just check email twice a day

I sort of missed March in terms of monthly goals. As a look back, here's how they're going now:
Oct/Nov: don't snap at people. 100% integrated into my life. I feel pretty good about this.
Dec: draw something every day. Drew 24/31 days in December. I have not drawn something since December. Fun exercise, not a new habit.
Jan: Meditate: I meditated 29/31 days in January. Has it become a habit? Well, I'm still trying at it. I'm about 50% these days. It is really hard to convince myself that I should spend 20 minutes doing that. My life feels too full again. How can we get back those Seattle weekends where I had nothing planned, or taking off work and forgetting about it?
Feb/Mar: Paleo eating: Successfully completed this one for 28 days, plus a week, and then figured it wasn't worth it (see recent blog posts). It was probably a beneficial change overall; paleo is not totally wrong, just not totally right either. Some things have stuck with me. "Breakfast salads" is one, and I think I eat less grains overall now, which is good.
Also, unrelated to paleo, somewhere in here I got in the habit of eating no added sugar except Saturday. Still doing well with that one. Okay, let's call that "February" and say paleo is March. Whatever. Either way, it's a pretty good one.

For April I was thinking something about the "checking" habit. I feel like I'm always just "getting things done", always sprinting, always rushing toward another deadline. This is silly; my deadlines are not that many. I need to do something to calm this impulse and let me feel more expansive.
Also, from RescueTime, I know that my weekly time spent on email has ranged between 8-11 hours per week over the last few weeks. That's a bit nuts.
So I'm thinking the plan for April is: just check email twice a day. It's concrete and measurable, it's simple, and it would probably be helpful. (so if you want to reach me with a quick turnaround, call or text me.)

(if this post seems annoyingly self-congratulatory, sorry about that. hey, this is the internet, where we constantly curate our image by presenting the best versions of ourselves, right?)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Paleo Stats

I computed some stats. To be fair, I did a bunch of statistical hooey that went like this: I recorded a 1-5 value whenever I felt like it for my stomach, energy, and mood. Then I basically averaged them together to get an average value for the day, then I averaged all the days together. (comparing a month of eating paleo to a month of eating whatever.) ZQ values are Zeo-computed "sleep efficiency" or some such (more hooey); at least "minutes sleep" is a real value.

p-values are for independent samples t-tests (statistical hooey x3); non-reported ones are unremarkable.

stomach with paleo: mean = 3.26
stomach non-paleo: mean = 3.08
p = 0.07

energy with paleo: mean = 2.90
energy non-paleo: mean = 2.90

mood with paleo: mean = 3.04
mood non-paleo: mean = 3.29
p = 0.08

ZQ with paleo: mean = 82.32
ZQ non-paleo: mean = 86.46

minutes sleep with paleo: mean = 455.45
minutes sleep non-paleo: mean = 445.23

Another big non-result! Add to my just-thinking-about-it non-results. Also add a few awkward questions that I still have with paleo folks:
- I mean, if we evolved the "digesting milk" gene, for example, how is it fair to say that we're "not evolved" to drink milk?
- a paleo diet would include carrots and kale and rutabagas and coconuts and chicken and buffalo and salmon and seal fat. There is no caveman who ever ate all of that.
- the guy who wrote Wheat Belly is nuts.
- how do you know it's not just that paleo causes people to snack less, or eat less, or eat fewer carbs, or eat less sugar, or eat less processed food?

So there seems to be no good reason to continue to mess around with eating paleo. Except that it does cause a lot of good long-term health shifts: less processed food, less sugar, less white flour, even less (I am sorry to say this word) carbs. I'll probably keep some variation of it in my diet (like my ongoing "no added sugar except Saturdays") but drop the nitty gritty particulars of Paleo and the story behind it.

Thursday, March 07, 2013


Done with that! Spent four solid weeks paleo eating, and here's what I can say just from the ever-unreliable introspection:
- it didn't make my life wayyyy better
- it didn't make my life wayyyy worse
- I had to cook a lot more, and particularly I had to cook a lot more meat. This was difficult for me, but a fun learning experience. I discovered things like short ribs, lamb shanks, chicken thighs, flank steak, pork shoulder; braising, casserole roasting, broiling; interesting stuff!
- I did feel a little healthier after eating a meal without grains, mostly because everything is real nutritious food. It's all some vegetable or meat, no filler. So I ate as much as I want (which is a lot) and didn't really feel overstuffed like I do sometimes with grains.
- eating out was not really that hard; most places have something that you can make paleo. Sometimes you have to be a little creative and order two appetizers instead of a dinner, say.
- special occasions were hard. I couldn't really invite friends out for a beer, or an ice cream, or a waffle, or really any celebratory consumable. I started drinking the occasional liquor (under the flimsy argument that "I mean, the grain's all fermented away anyway") for social situations when I couldn't really opt for a wine.
- uh, I was kind of depressed a month ago and am not now. But I don't think that's because of the food.

Stats to follow! Sometime. Going to Cleveland and Miami in the next couple days. I am not trying to avoid grains or dairy or beans or anything there.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

February: let's try Paleo.

As wonderful as most of the recent months have been, I've got to say, I could trade in this past January. I don't know if it's the weather or what, but it was a bit blah. Well, it's over. And the January challenge was to meditate daily, and I meditated 20 minutes every day except two. Nice.

For February, I'm finally getting around to a real paleo-diet experiment. Reading Ishmael, hanging out with Bay Area Quantified-Selfers, reading Josh Whiton, talking with a good friend's cousin who's an archaeologist and knows things about hunter-gatherers, picking up the Four-Hour Chef... these things have all combined to make me want to start eating like people before agriculture.

This involves cutting out grains, beans, dairy, and processed food. (This seems pretty close to what I am and am not eating.) The reasons for cutting out processed food are kind of obvious; nobody's going to argue about that.

Why not eat grains and dairy?
- Last time I tried it, it worked pretty well.
- It's good to eat more leaves and fewer seeds; fix your omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio. (Michael Pollan essay; the omega-3 stuff is toward the bottom, but it's all worth a read)
- Carbs are not particularly good for us. I railed against the low-carb "fad" for most of the 2000's, figuring it was just the next fad after the low-fat 90's, but it looks like the low-carb thing might be right. (or, put another way, the 1950-2000 high-carb thing was a bad fad.) On my reading list: Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. When you eat carbs, blood sugar rises, insulin rises, and while this is all fine short term, long term it leads to insulin resistance and diabetes.
- Wheat and gluten might or might not be particularly bad. Trying to process all these competing arguments makes my head hurt. One thing that seems true: some small but significant percentage of the population (5-10%) has some kind of mild undiagnosed wheat sensitivity. (beyond the less than 1% that has celiac disease.)
- Fat is good for us. Even saturated fat. And cholesterol. Here's a long talk about it by Peter Attia.
- Even if grains aren't harmful, they're filler at best. Nobody (besides the US Grains Council or the FDA) says "eat more grains."

Tracking the changes: I've still got nothing besides my little handmade phone app where I rate 1-5 scales of mood, energy, and how my stomach feels, whenever I remember it. This is not a great scale, but it's still all I've got. (plus, I've got a lot of baseline data to compare against.) I do welcome other ideas to track this.

Side benefit: I'm cooking a lot of meat (from DJ's Butcher Block, highly recommended) and a lot of Korean food. I feel my skills growing. This is exciting.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Exponential displays of information

We spend a lot of time processing information, yes? It strikes me that I often want exponentially-increasing levels of information, at approximately powers of 3 or 4.

Example 1: academic papers. There's the title, which is about one sentence. Then there's the abstract, a one-paragraph summary. Then you can read the intro and conclusion, which is about a page or two total. Then you can read the whole paper. It's not explicitly set up for this (beyond the abstract) but it feels like that's what they're getting at.

Example 2: music. I think the best possible recommendation you can give me is: a band name, one song, 3-4 songs, one album (9-16 songs), and 3-4 albums. (or if one of these levels doesn't apply, say so, and say why. examples: "one-hit wonder, just listen to this one song" or "it's a concept album, you have to listen to the whole thing.") That way, I can keep digging as long as I'm interested, but know that I'm not super missing out if I stop.

Example 3: ... good question! Trailers for movies maybe, but there's no level between 2 minutes and 2 hours.

I guess I'm saying I want this in all domains. It'd be so good to say "I want to learn... statistics!" and then have the one-paragraph, one-page, 3 pages, chapter, short book, long book, etc. versions of stats. I'd love to get news in tweet, paragraph, web-news-article, and in-depth-article forms.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

When I say "happiness isn't good enough", is "meaning" the other half?

I've written about happiness at least a few times. I often get frustrated because "happiness" becomes a catch-all term for anything good. The Atlantic awakens this old itch. They toss out "meaning" as the foil to "happiness": "happiness" is what feels good, "meaning" is this other amorphous blob of stuff you need to have a good life.

I guess Martin Seligman would agree; "meaning" is one of the 5 things he suggested to have a flourishing life. (The others are positive emotion (aka happiness), engagement/flow, relationships, and accomplishment.) Indeed, that feels like a more complete picture than just hammering on about meaning and slagging on happiness. But whether it's 1/2 or 1/5 of a good life, meaning is worth pursuing. But how do you find it?

The Atlantic article notes that many people find meaning through their kids. But that just feels like punting! Like deciding we don't really know what to do on this planet, so let's lovingly create a new generation and let them figure it out. (meanwhile contributing to overcrowding and pretty much every problem.) (again, *sigh*, hi Mom and Dad, yes, I'm still mostly glad you had kids. your generation did punt a lot of junk to us, though.)

The other examples of meaning they give are mostly the typical Mother-Theresa stuff: helping others, giving not taking, resigning yourself to life in a concentration camp so you can help your parents. I guess. The problem with finding goodness in suffering is that there's a lot of suffering that is just bad, and if you go on seeking suffering, or just being neutral about suffering, you'll probably stumble into a lot of meaningless suffering that is just bad.

Can you search for meaning and happiness at the same time? Or search for meaning without forsaking happiness? After all, happiness at least helps productivity.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is my drinking water unsafe?

Or, "should I get a Brita?"

I found the 2011 Pittsburgh Water Report. Looks like our water is better than the EPA standards in all categories.

I'd like all categories to beat the MCLG (minimum contaminant level goal; the value below which it is totally safe), not just the MCL (EPA guideline.) I guess the MCLG is 0 in Lead, Uranium, Radium, and Beta Photon Emitters. (there are also 5 categories where MCLG is unavailable.)
In particular, lead was on my mind for some reason, and Pittsburgh water 90th percentile is 10ppb. So 90% of the water in Pittsburgh is under 10ppb. And this site says rivers have 3-30ppb (parts per billion) lead. So unless the other 10% is crazy high, I'm still in the "as safe as rivers" zone.
For uranium, well, looks like the WHO is stricter, but their MCL is 15 micrograms/liter (EPA is 30), and Pittsburgh's level is 1.77. Also, looks like anion exchange and reverse osmosis are the only ways to remove it. This is more than a Brita, which means more maintenance than I really want to deal with. So I'm okay on the uranium too.
Can't find good info quickly on radium or beta photon emitters, and this is an hour more than I meant to spend already!

So, in conclusion: no. Should you get a Brita? Beats me, check your local water report, but if you're in Pittsburgh you should be okay without one. Or, at least, if you're arguing pro-Brita for health reasons, the burden of proof is on you.

EDIT: It was pointed out to me that the EWG gives a more complete picture of stuff in our water. Based on that, haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes seem to be mildly problematic (in both we're between the one-in-a-million lifetime cancer risk and the one-in-ten-thousand; well below all non-cancer risk rates). Let's average it and say that by drinking these I'm adding about a 1-in-100,000 risk of getting cancer. Not great; however, given the additional complexity and cost I'd introduce by adding a pitcher or tap filter to my life, replacing the filters, etc, I'll take the 1-in-100,000 risk instead. (Also, I don't know if a Brita even removes those things from our water!) So I still say don't get a Brita, but for slightly different reasons.