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I've been on a pretty decent roll the past couple of days. I got to compile a lot of resources on visualization, and also experienced a bit of a realization about how to and how not to learn things. Today, I began to revert to old patterns (not habits; they're larger in scale than habits) because of two main things:

  1. I went to sleep pretty late, and needed to take Marlon in the morning
  2. I took a rest during the day

The weird thing about this was that I wasn't even planning on doing any visualization/data science learning today. I was supposed to focus on house renovations that have been dragging on.

Being sleep deprived always makes sticking to the plan sort of worrisome. When I got home, before taking my nap, I started reading the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs! I've been meaning to start learning for a while (and actually created a Trello board to keep my place in the lessons) but started reading because I was thinking about functional programming in R.

While I think this is a pretty worthwhile study, I don't think going through SICP or learning Lisp should be my focus. SICP confers a lot of cred for programmers, but at the same time the hardcore stop-and-think nature of the material threatens to stop me in my tracks on any particular day that I don't have a ton of energy. I was actually having a good time reading it on my phone, but when I started trying stuff out in the REPL, I began to see that the tiredness was affecting my lack of focus.

Then, I decided to go ahead and take a rest, to recover my focus and energy. Was that the right move? Should I have switched to doing the bathroom (a task that doesn't require a ton of concentration) instead? I'm still not sure, so let's think this out: ideally, I'd like to make sure I'm getting to sleep on time, which didn't happen. What do I do on days where I'm lacking sleep?

I think that, in the future, a shorter nap and some tea would have sufficed. The habit I'd like to set is revisiting what I had planned for the day. If I'd remembered that I'd planned on doing renovations before getting so caught up in SICP, I think it would have been easier for me to negotiate a strategy earlier on.

Switching to renovations is a pretty difficult calling. I'm pretty eager to learn as much as possible as soon as possible with data visualization. Doing house renovations doesn't bring me any closer to getting a job or contributing to finances. At the same time, the time spent on the work is certainly commutative--the bathroom needs to be done whether I do it now or later. And the effect of having the bathroom done would probably be better than having it hanging while I try to get into learning.

So, there we go. As it stands, it's usually better for me to stick to the regular housework days.

I have to keep telling myself that things will be okay, one way or another. The choices I can make can lead to better or worse outcomes, certainly, but things will be okay in some way even if I make the best choices I can but things don't turn out all that great. It might not be all that great, but it will be okay.

A lot of my "push" style motivation comes from the desire for things not to be a certain way within a certain amount of time. I don't want to be living with my parents several years from now, for instance. Ideally, I don't want to be living here come 2016, as much as I like being close to Marlon and Bryce when he comes home. I'd like to have work prospects before my 31st birthday.

Still, I had a good many similar sentiments last year, and the year before. Although I'd learned as early as 2009 that, "What pushes you forward holds you back" (PJ Eby), the natural way to formulate my aspirations is something along the lines of, "I want to leave this stuff behind". And sometimes that translates into a particular timeframe: "By this time next year, I promise that I will have left these crappy things behind". It sounds pretty good. Saying things that way is specific. It's measurable. It's very time-bound. But is it achievable? Is it realistic?

I even feel that's a bit of a distraction. I don't really like the SMART framework for setting goals anymore--it doesn't result in very good defaults. Instead, goals that I set based on my AJATT experience, or experience derailing on Beeminder are much better. What does that look like? It means looking at what you can do now in the context of the bigger picture.

Here's a nice quote from Mike Bostock, in reply to a Reddit AMA question:

I recommend patience. To become proficient, you will need to master multiple skills: data collection and cleaning, quantitative analysis, visualization design, programming, web development, etc. It’s tempting to want to learn all of these things and do something amazing in a very short time frame—like, say, during a hackathon—but really the best approach is to be diligent and methodical. Keep practicing, keep tinkering with smaller problems, and you will gradually improve. [...] the best thing you can do is to think of small coding problems that you are comfortable solving, and then increasingly ramp up to larger problems as you go. The satisfaction you derive from solving the smaller problems will motivate you to keep going.

In other words, you can have a larger-context goal, like learning to make useful and insightful graphics in D3--and getting a job doing that. But the basis of that is the really specific success spiral.

I think there's probably something like an increasing nonlinear complexity to nailing down specifics of a large solo project where you have to learn along the way. Setting down some specifics can certainly get you moving, and inspire you. If things suck for you now, setting down some specifics to your goal in the future can make you feel like you have more hope, and more control over the future. But when thinking about it, you can really fool yourself about the amount and loci of control. How much control do you have about how long a certain learning process takes?

I think setting goals is actually quite a bit like the data analysis process--there's a requirement for exploration and iteration as you refine your course.

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe if NASA sat down and crafted a data science/visualization study regime for me to follow, there would be very little uncertainty. And I guess if I gave myself six years, I could make it more certain that I'd learn this stuff--say, if I were in a PhD program, instead of a once dropped-out student trying to pick this up on his own so someone will pay him for it.

Mike Bostock's quote relates to what Josh Kaufman reminded me about. Here's a bit from his article, "Status Malfunction":

Here’s a different way of thinking about skill: independent of status, picking up a new skill is always a win from a capability standpoint, since the skill opens up new options and opportunities. Some skill in an area is always better than no skill.

From a status perspective, being average is terrible, since it doesn’t differentiate you from others, and doesn’t improve how other people think about you in a meaningful way - if anything, being perceived as average decreases your status in the eyes of some people. From a capability perspective, being average is fantastic, since it lets you accomplish things you otherwise couldn’t do without that average level of skill.

That’s the thing: you can accomplish millions of valuable and meaningful things with skills that are mediocre in every way.

On the way to getting better, you are going to be worse than everyone at some point. Even after a lot of practice, you might still be pretty average. But many times, that doesn't matter as much as you'd like to think. You can still do useful things--and maybe some very useful things, with a combination of skills that might only be useful at best. And from there, you can always improve. Anyway, there's no getting to the expert level without being pretty mediocre.

So, while it may be more exciting to aim for something really impressive during a hackathon, Bostock is right--that has to come from the small things. Persistent practice, with fast feedback, is really the best for skill development. This fits with the framework Kaufman discusses in The First 20 Hours.

I've had to keep repeating these lessons from the past few days. When I go out looking for a job, I don't want to appear like a complete beginner, or just another one of semi-frauds calling themselves "data scientists". The concern that I'll get laughed at, or have nothing to show tends to grab at my attention as I look forward. If left unchecked, it'll affect what I learn and practice. Will I frustrate myself trying to pile on the most hardcore-sounding textbooks and programming frameworks in order to (eventually) show people I actually know what I'm doing? Or will I learn useful things bit by bit?

I also have to remind myself the biggest reason for doing this self study: this is work I can be passionate about. Whatever the hell the experts say, being excited about what I'm doing is the best strategy I have. I think the strings of stops and starts and shown that. Maybe excited is not a strong enough word--unless I can become obsessed about my line of work, there's a huge chance of falling off, of failing once again. Obsession can come from fear or fascination. I have great respect for people go work through dire situations. Yet I'd really prefer a good life--I choose fascination if I have the chance.

So, I've got to regard any kind of self study I'm doing for reassurance--which boils down to signaling--with suspicion. Do I need this? Or am I doing this for some vague sense of street cred?

I think the status malfunction deal also ties into the cultural overvaluing of virtuosity. It's rife in American culture, but probably also within some disciplines. I sympathize with the idea that some people deserve respect because of challenges they ran into during their process--all that up the hill in the snow, both ways sort of stuff.

But why undertake hardship that doesn't contribute significantly to your training, your experience, or the results of your work? If you're going to learn more doing things the hard way, that can be valuable. But if the difficulty of putting in that practice jeopardizes your enthusiasm for the whole project--and your consistent output--you have to make it easier. Take the easy way when you can!

My motto these days is, "Reject virtue! Be pragmatic!"

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I am happy
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This is probably going to be a bit jargony, but I hope to clarify and build on it later.

Over the years, I've had a lot of trouble getting some kinds of work done. My main failure point: I don't get started soon enough or often enough, until things are pretty dire or it feels impossible to catch up.

Here are some preliminary mental practices I'd like to experiment with. There's a step, I hope, towards avoiding my major points of failure. They integrate ideas from GTD, Mental Contrasting, Tiny Habits, and AJATT.

Process A - incremental, probabilistic outcomes

1. What is the desired outcome? What does its completion look like?
2. What are intermediate outcomes that raise the chances of achieving the desired outcome?
3. [Recurse]

Process B - next action

1. What is the smallest, most trivial step I can take that will increase the chances of this particular outcome?
2. When and where and how can I perform this next step?

Process C - mental contrasting
(make sure to run processes A&B first)

1. What does the desired outcome look like? Does it seem feasible? (If not, go back to Process A.)
2. What are the obstacles (in the present or near future) to taking action on achieving the desired outcome, and what is the context for these obstacles?
3. What will I do (what is my plan) for when such an obstacle appears?

Process A is a top level thing that can get applied recursively to the branching intermediate outcomes. It can be helpful to run it again to reassess the outcome graph.

Process B gets run on outcomes, starting with the smallest (the "leaves") first.

Process C gets run as next actions from Process B become apparent. But it's especially useful for working towards medium-level outcomes. Process C is essentially the Mental Contrasting technique developed by Oettingen et. al. The literature on mental contrasting says that it works well if the outcomes seem feasible, but that mental contrasting actually reduces motivation if the outcomes seem way too hard, or unfeasible. So it's important to break things down and to make things clear and specific.
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I've been following the posts of someone getting treatment for mental illness after a long period of denial. He's doing well, but he still has larger life questions to address. He's felt apathetic towards a lot of things for a while, and has never been isolated socially. He's only close to people outside his immediate family. He's only had one or two interests in his life and is still trying to figure out his ongoing sense of lack of big purpose.

I happened to reflect on myself while reading that: I have my own challenges. My daily life is always thick with anxieties that just don't make sense to other people, even on the good days. I feel weak and small and shamefully misshapen, being aware of that. But in a lot of ways I have a lot of things to live for. Many of my worries are just unpleasant side effects of seeing so many possibilities--things to chase after, things to search for, fight for, train for, ponder over, and dream about. The conflict comes from worrying over too many choices.

I'm very grateful for that good part: I don't think I could ever run out of things to live for. Between 1. promise then disappointment or 2. no possibility--I'll risk the disappointment.

Dum vivimus, vivamus!
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A broken water heater. Eight in the evening. No repair van yet. Eleven o'clock at night. Nope, not a chance. When did it start? Been busted since Tuesday? No, it was Thursday. That is bad enough.

Well, here we go. Time for a shower. A cold, cold shower. First I will shave. With just cold water. Put on a video. Five minutes have passed. Ten minutes have passed. Still planning to go? Turn on some music. Turn on the tap. Now, close the curtain. Still not quite ready. I am already here. So no turning back. Okay, pull the knob. Second pause of hissing. The frozen stream hits.

Thinking of a river. Diving in the night. From a car crash. Falling from the bridge. Hit with a thud. Into the cold waters. Can I make it?

Hands crossed to shoulders. Spin like a pansy. Frantically toss the hair. A few fast exhales. Okay, that is good. Turn off the cold. Wow, I made it.

But wait a minute. It is not over. Time for the shampoo.
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Instead of dedicating your life to actualize a concept of what you should be like, ACTUALIZE YOURSELF. The process of maturing does not mean to become a captive of conceptualization. It is to come to the realization of what lies in our innermost selves.

— Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do

The hard lesson I've learned the past few years: most impressive things in the world are not all that clean or rigorous underneath. I hear this a lot in inspirational quotes: the moral is supposed to be how far you can get with grit and never giving up on your dreams. This is pretty true. I think it contains a far more important lesson that tinkering and experimentation ends up becoming more important than design and best practices in many cases.

At the same time, how much of feeling like a winner depends on what you choose to undertake? I think that's been another hard lesson. If you're doing stuff that's pretty different, where you don't get positive feedback from society--in the form of rewards, prestige, or acceptance--it could be tough going.

I'm not very good at this. I follow my own set of peculiar interests and methods, but at the same time I've never been able to just not care about what other people think. I have trouble feeling content following along with the community. A lot of my anxieties pop up along these lines. I want to be able to have something to show when they ask why I didn't follow the same pattern that everyone else followed.

Often, my reaction contains a different kind of narrow mindset. I want to assert my own self-image against the criticism of others.

I still need to parse this lesson: you can't win this kind of argument. If you become a teacher, they will ask why you didn't study to become a scientist instead. If you become a scientist, they will ask you why you didn't become a doctor or go into software. If you live in apartment, they'll ask why you aren't putting that money into a house. If you own a house, they'll ask why you haven't quit your day job to play poker and travel SE Asia. If they ask you what you actually want to do, what you actually value, they're usually not really listening. But it's not just other people. We do this to ourselves, too.

I've thought of two things that seem to help with this:

One appreciating the stories of others. Appreciate, and understand, first without the desire to "fix" or "vindicate".

Two is harder for some of us: it's being able to talk about what we actually value. It's something I've struggled with for a long time. It's something I'm working on. In the coming weeks, I hope to become more honest about what matters to me.
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I looked out from the window at about four in the afternoon. Already orange, the sunlight struck the lone remain tree across the way at a particular angle. I tried not to ponder if I would remember this sight, or if I would regret stepping outside instead of going about my day. Far away in time in space, would I wish for this moment or other moments again?--I put these thoughts out of my mind, took a deep breath, and looked out for another few moments. Then, I turned away slowly from this ancestor of a future passing dream.

6th Dec

Dec. 8th, 2014 12:36 am
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To have happiness, I only need 1. erstwhile freedom from anxiety 2. some time with just one or two people I like. Add more rain, add more cold, but just leave out the worries and we still get a whole different world.

I feel worn out today, hectic the unanchored, unfinished, unfulfilled concerns. But I said I wouldn't forget. I'll make good on that and make it good enough for now.
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From last night's workout:

Squat:    305 lbs x 5 reps x 3 sets
Press:     95 lbs x 5 reps x 3 sets
Deadlift: 305 lbs x 5 reps

Squat = Barbell Back Squat, Low Bar
Press = Overhead Barbell Shoulder Press ("Olympic" style with hip flex)
Deadlift = conventional Deadlift

My bodyweight is down from a spike to 207 lbs about three weeks ago. I weighed in at 203.6 yesterday morning, and 201.0 today. 10-day weighted moving average seems to be around 205, which is good enough. I'm trying to prevent excessive gain. Excessive weight loss will probably also be bad for strength, since it indicates my nutrition is inadequate to continue to drive performance.

My goals, with the deadline of 12-06, two Saturdays from now, for the lifts look like this:
Squat:    320 lbs x 5 x 3
Press:    110 lbs x 5 x 3
Deadlift: 345 lbs x 5
Power Snatch: 20kg x 3

In the best case I have five workouts to make progress.

I haven't trained the Power Snatch very much, so I'm a bit concerned about that one. I'm a little behind on the Press, so I've decided to forgo training Bench Press until after my goal deadline (on Starting Strength, you usually alternate between Press and Bench Press.)

The Deadlift is quite behind schedule, so I may need to increase my calories in order to train it more frequently. I usually train the Deadlift only every other workout, since it takes a lot of energy for recovery.

I'll say more in the new year, but here is the most compelling reason that most people should do strength training.

Effective strength training protects against age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), increases bone density, reduces the risk of accident-based trauma, increases insulin sensitivity, and promotes production of human growth hormone. No other intervention does all these things.

Here is an graphic relating strength training to general physical fitness:

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I had a few thoughts yesterday and today.

You and they are your own

When I anticipate disapproval or ridicule, I have the impulse to think, "I am bad," or "I am crap at this," or to get into an anxious spiral about why the disapproval or ridicule is unfair or wrong. Maybe you are like me sometimes.

Here is something obvious I verbalized last night: when I actually insult myself because feel shame about who I am, I am also insulting people like me.

It is important to note that feeling shame, or insulting yourself does not mean you are now double bad. It is not about being here. It is just something you should not do, and that is important. The whole badness or goodness has faulty premises, and the tendency to feel shame is not your fault, and it's not mine. Let try to do something about it, though.

Anyway, when you say you are bad, that it is reasonable that you should be despised, you are saying that people like you, good people like you should also be despised.

Here is a distinction.

"It is reasonable that people would despise me for failing at this." This is an empirical statement. You expect people to despise you when you exhibit this behavior.

"It is reasonable that people should despise me..." --that's different. No. They should not despise you, no matter how much they despise the behavior. Maybe not expect more, but at least be open to better from your fellow humans. And be open to more from yourself.

Then, think of the other people who are like you. You may not think there are other people who are like you. You can always filter the several billion population of the world down to one person with a few overzealous criteria. But there will still be groups of people with strong common experiences and struggles. Otherwise art, for example, just wouldn't work.

There is someone out there who in some weird way is dealing with stuff just like you are dealing with your stuff. There are people in the past and future facing the same challenges that you are. Some of these past or future people will be you, on a different day, in an ever so slightly set of circumstances. Other people may not be in a position to have understanding and compassion towards these people. You might be. At least be open to that. Maybe you might be the only one.

Then: you might be that one who says, "I know what you're dealing with. I know you might be suffering, that you might be feeling shame. It's natural to feel shame, even though there is no need. You are trying to live and find your way."

Be open to being that one.

What you know and what you learned can help someone, somewhere

So you're going through a lot of crap. You're trying a lot of different things, or maybe just trying your best to get that one thing to work consistently. And maybe it doesn't feel like you're contributing very much to the world--you just happen to be one of those people who cares about things like that.

You can help people!

The solutions you tried that helped you might help other people.

Even if they don't apply to other people, the solutions you tried but didn't work might be good information for others.

And even if neither really applies to a lot of others, your process of finding solutions and understanding your situation might be of use.

And even if your process of understanding is too weird or inapplicable, the failures in your process of understanding your challenges and the world can be of great use to people.

This all assumes you have some grasp on reality. If you are doing your best to a decent grasp on reality you can probably help people by describing what you went through, what you tried, what didn't work, what helped you understand things, what set back your understanding.

But even if you don't really have that good a grasp on reality, if you are honest about what you experienced while going through these things, at least someone might be able to glean some insight.

You can get better at all of these things--and by following the process you've developed to solve your challenges, you are already doing so in some sense. By getting a better grasp on reality, a grasp that makes sense to you without internal conflict, you get a better understanding of what is helping or hindering your understanding, what is working and not working. You can improve those in turn. This is the best practical case for what my friends like to call "rationality".

There are some potential blind spots and problems. They mostly have to do with becoming narrowly attached to a certain way of viewing things. It may be simple confirmation bias--you take in information that says you or things you like are right, and throw out information that says you are wrong. It may be overgeneralization--the pattern you see in this place is so appealing you begin to think it applies everywhere. That's why you should practice being skeptical of your own conclusions, and why you should read and learn a very wide variety of things.

(Or so I say. The reason I read a wide variety of things is because I happen to find a wide variety of things interesting, and I'm easily distracted!)

In the end, through your process of trying to understand and overcome your challenges, you can probably generate something people can learn from. And likely there is someone out there who can learn a lot from what you've lived and tried to understand. And if you get better at all this, there is the greater possibility you can really help someone who was stuck like you. Or stuck in their own way, but enough--analogously--like you.

If you want to. I don't think anyone is under the obligation to do so. I look around at people who have dealt with complex challenges that required understanding to overcome (admittedly I'm only talking about a handful of people in the several hundred people I know). And I find that they may have had to develop an understanding at some point, but then they outgrew the need to have the understanding be an explicit thing. It's like the skill progression thing: unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. So, if they did not preserve their lessons and the intermediate frameworks they used, it might be hard for them to teach. I think of myself as someone who likes to extract useful insights and methods for other people to use, but I also just forget things. It's likely I've forgotten a bunch of stuff whose intermediate forms I no longer really use.

But still: the possibility of helping other through living and taking the risks of discovery remains something that inspires me. At least it does when I can remember to see things in that frame of reference.
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I've started reading The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I'm only a few pages into Chapter 2. It's a light book containing simple explanations about neuroscience, some research, some anecdotes, and exercises and suggestions. It's meant for a broad audience. I'll be able to give a fairer review when I'm much further, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head. (I'll be typing all this from the top of my head without referring back to the book, so there are facts in there I may not remember.

So far, most of the information is not that new to me--the prefrontal cortex's role in self control. Phineas Gage is in there, as well as another case--hopefully I'm getting this right--who had damage to the amygdala that messed up her ability to feel disgust. I did learn that different hemispheres of the PFC inhibit different types of processes. In the author's characterization, one inhibits "I want to" impulses, while the other inhibits "I don't want to" impulses. That particular brain fact is probably of less practical consequence to me than the author likes to think. But the distinction between the two types of impulses is helpful, though obvious-seeming after the fact.

McGonigal thinks meditation is good training for self-control, that it is quintessentially a willpower/impulse inhibition exercise. The five minute willpower exercise she has in the book is of the samatha type: sit still and focus on the breath for a certain length of time. I'd need to double-check again, but I think she rightfully omitted the word "mindfulness" from her description of the meditation. A lot of people touting the benefits of meditation apply the terms "mindfulness" to any kind of Buddhist-secular inspired type of meditation, when it really only apply to vipassana.

In any case, McGonigal mentions research that showed meditation yielding noticible benefits in a short time. She figures she gives are behavioral improvement after only three cumulative hours. After eleven, the changes were visible in the brain. (I don't remember now if she said this was the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex, or either in particular.)

What have I learned so far, and what do I think I'm going to try?

McGonigal suggests tracking decisions for the behavior you're trying to improve or change for one whole day. She touts it as a window into unconscious default behaviors. That sounds pretty interesting, but I'm not sure how manageable recording every decision (with even just a few words) would be. A past participant who thought he was only making 14 decisions about food a day counted 273 when he actually counted it. But I think making a tick mark or the like, or writing down the most interesting observations. McGonigal says to trying catch the impulse earlier and earlier into order to zero in on the triggering thoughts, sensations, and circumstances. It all makes enough sense, so I figure I'll give it a shot in some form tomorrow--maybe an index card that I write stuff on, or posting to one of my alternate Twitter accounts every once in a while.

Going back to meditation also sounds all right. I have a lot lot lot of trouble getting "access concentration" over the years. The best guided program I've found so far is the Headspace App--I made through their ten-day program (eventually) and part way through their fifteen day program until my subscription expired. (A friend gave me his account, which he wasn't using.) In the old version of the app, you used to be able to set a custom meditation timer in options. A recording of the guide prompting you at the beginning, some chimes (or custom sounds you could choose) rang at intervals, and then the guide prompted you to open your eyes at the end. Sadly, the new version of the app doesn't have this anymore. I don't know if no one except me used it, or if they realized it was undermining their business model of guided meditation recordings. (Now that I think of it, it might actually be in the app, but only visible to logged in subscribers.)

Without a subscription, Headspace only has their ten day, 10-minute guided program available. I don't mind going through that again. It has been updated since I completed it last time. But if I'm going to continue afterwards, it looks like I'll be mostly on my own.

In my mind, the focus of this first chapter of the book also points to challenges I have with meta-regulation. Once I have a timer going, I can usually focus pretty decently--I used the Pomodoro method to read the book and also to type up this post. The much harder part is getting started. Sometimes prioritizing and scheduling activities for the day gets overwhelming. I'm better at it now, and poor plans that I need to constantly revise have shown themselves to be maybe better than no plans at all. I have tools that I'm still figuring out, but seem to be helping so far (if you have iOS, check out the Timeful app--Dan Ariely is one of the cofounders.)

I am not good at assessing the costs of commitments. I'm drastically overoptimistic about the amount I can handle; part of it is the pressure I put on myself to make progress in improving my situation. I have set the sights pretty high and emotionally I can't really come to terms with less.

Besides this, it's also beginning to seem like I just have more possibilities swirling around in my mind than other people. Insofar as ADHD is a manifestation of problems in the PFC, it makes sense to think of trouble focusing as trouble suppressing the less important possibilities.

The major suggestions of The Willpower Instinct so far have to do with becoming aware, and making things explicit to uncover problems with default behaviors. This links it to Kahneman's talk of System 1 and System 2 in Thinking Fast and Slow. (I have read precious little of that book, but he talks about it a lot in his lectures. I have probably watched 20 hours of him talking, because he's such a pleasant, clear, and insightful speaker.) My intuitions about time and organization are part of the problem, so the solution will lie in doing the explicit calculations until my intuitions improve (or I can form a system so I don't have to do things off the top of my head.)

Thinking is another thing I'm sometimes convinced doesn't really take a lot of time--until I see I'm three hours late. Right now I'm coming to terms with spending a lot more time on explicit planning--maybe sometimes more than I think I can afford at the moment, when I'm already running late.
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I just got back from lunch with my friend Angela. We ate at Shanghai Bun, which we've eaten at a bunch of times, and provides pretty decent and authentic Shanghainese fare. Angela is Chinese but is really enthusiastic about stuff that falls under the American stereotype of Chinese food. She likes General Tso's and fried rice in particular.

"I'm apparently a bad Chinese person," she said once, referring to the time her parents visited her in D.C. They went out to a Chinese place that she thought was pretty good. "They were just clearly disappointed. It was just not up to their standards."

Angela's birthday just passed this Thursday, and her Dad's birthday on Monday, so she came all the way down from Boston last night to celebrate with her parents and also take a few things from their house in West Windsor back up to Boston.

It was pretty refreshing to hang out. Angela was one of only really two friends I have around these parts--friends who are not also friends with my brothers. Zarrar got his approval to return to Yale a few months ago, and had been living in NYC, anyway, closer to his work. Angela left for her MFA program at Emerson as August was coming to the close. It was the middle of my trip to Minnesota.

The stack, bundle, or heap of unentered receipts still in my wallet attests that I haven't really recovered from drive out to Minnesota. It's not as though I've really recovered from 2013, 2012, or even 1998. The receipts form only the newest layer of the newest stratum of personal backlogs.

Minnesota--I like Minnesota a lot, and I'm glad Bryce is out there. It's not as diverse as the East Coast (and there's little way it could be as diverse as the school district that Zarrar, Angela, and I grew up with) but it's more diverse than I expected. And it's not a complete, made up generalization that people there are friendlier and a lot more laid back. They're focused more on living, and less on superficial achievement--was Bryce's characterization, which I think works all right.

It makes sense why my mom's family settled just fine in tiny Brownsdale, Minnesota, coming straight from the Philippines. The climate and the typical hair color (more blonde people in one place than I have seen in my life) were different. But the openness, friendliness, and expectations of politeness work just fine. And the folksiness! Filipinos can be folksy to the max, and that worked just fine in that tiny, tiny town. I'm the eldest grandchild on my mom's side, and before my cousins were born I grew up with the coming to America stories. My Uncles and Aunts racing snowmobiles, the kids being in the July 4th parade, getting snowed during the heavy winters and having to climb out the second floor window to get to school (Neil Armstrong high school--best name.)

I'll have to write about our actual Minnesota trip (and my crazy solo voyage back) some other time. There's too much to say.

I do wonder what it'd be like if I uprooted and went there for a while. The Twin Cities is a pleasant, affordable place to live, especially around Dinkytown--and of course I'm saying this as a person with by crazy preferences.

But my trajectory is probably taking me elsewhere. In a couple months, back to NYC--a city with less of a reputation for friendliness, folksiness, or affordability. If I don't end up staying, it's probably off to a different hub of happening things, a different gathering place for misfits of the world.

Angela just celebrated her 30th, and just about everyone else in my graduating year is due for the three decade stamp if they haven't gotten it already. I'm up in--what? Nine weeks? Eight weeks? It doesn't register a bit. Most of my social world--my brothers, my cousins, our mutual friends--are all much younger, still going through college.

My friend Jerome ([livejournal.com profile] meanfreepath) gets to wait for next year, but he's getting married three weekends from now. I'm really excited, except for two things. One: I'm showing up for the special event still obese, and I hope the nice-fitting tux I've ordered will smooth things out. Two: dinner table small talk with some people. But I'm only just a little unexcited. I get along with Jerome's crowd just fine; I used to visit him every once in a while during his days at Swarthmore.

It's really just: time is going by so quickly. What did I do with it? Will I think the same thing come December? Will I have finances and logistics lined up to move back to the city?

The main thing I've got to figure out is income. I'll need a new job, or some other way of getting a paycheck once I move. The app I've been working on the past year and a half is going to be in the App Store soon, but I think of it a really basic, not so impressive thing. It only dragged on this long because I struggled so much with organizing and directing my attention. I want to be able to present some other portfolio pieces.

And do I actually know this stuff? My boss tells me that I must be an expert by now, in some areas. I wouldn't call myself an expert at all. iOS 8 came out, and there are still some developments from iOS 7 that I haven't really internalized. The scope of my preparation is overwhelming.

Thus comes the urgent quest to establish a system to help me compensate for my attentional challenges and train me to focus. Thanks to my friends, I've been exposed to what seem to be the best-in-breed when it comes to productivity techniques. They are great tools that work miracles--when you get them running. Your state of the art appliance work wonders, if you can get it plugged into a reliable electrical outlet, and can ensure that the vermin don't chew through the damn power cord.

It might not help that I've had the itch to be able to write lately. That's different from having the itch to write; the latter would imply that you enjoy the actual process. I don't assume that much.

Hearing Angela talk about what she's doing in her program was encouraging. I've been trying to write for fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour when I'm generous. Junk usually comes out. Angela has to spend large chunks of her days doing prewriting so she can get ideas for her poems. Then a few more days reworking the poem so she can present it to the workshop.

That kind of longer term working and reworking has become pretty alien to me at this point. The last ten years, aside from a few school papers, my model of writing was typing for a while, and agonizing, typing a bit more, setting the permissions, then hitting POST because it's 3AM and if I ain't gonna put it up now, I ain't never gonna.

I used to think that even that dose of pacing and hand-wringing was too much. I've yet to acknowledge, across the board, that things don't only just time, they take whole days, whole months, whole years, whole decades sometimes. I don't suppose I'll have accepted this once my thirtieth rolls around, either. I just hope I'll be too distracted to worry.
olimay: (Default)
I got reminded today that I'm not taking things seriously enough. Why? I keep pretending that if I just do as the other smart, successful people do, that if I go to sleep every night promising to myself that I will live tomorrow more earnestly than today, that things will sort things out.

I don't like pressing anything resembling the "desperate measures" button because it's like acknowledging I should be left out. Everyone can go out to play, everyone can chase their dreams, and I just have to be content with working out my problems. And I like to hide, even to myself, how much a mess things are.

The denial is a reflection of my anxieties about being open about this to people. People, who, as I've discuss in detail, will have waste my time with bad theories full of useless folk psychology concepts about motivation, willpower.

And it just sucks knowing people look at you with pity. And that's usually a better case. Most of the time I feel that if I were completely candid I'd lose most of my credibility.

"You're not trying. You don't want this bad enough."

Because, sure, "Everyone is a little ADHD, right? Everyone faces these kind of problems."

Here's the reality: I am not everyone. still lack the skills that working society expects an independent adult to have. I am weak in skills that have to do with organization, attention, setting priorities, and estimating things like time and money.

I genuinely believe, with my tendency to make bad decisions, I would have been homeless or worse if you subtracted even one or two parts of my support network. Things have worked when they've worked and have fallen apart when they haven't.

So I have cause to make things more complex, if that means improving these fundamental lack of skills. I have cause to be different and rely on weird methods while I build up missing habits and intuitions. I have cause to spend an inordinate amount of my day on planning and logistics. I want the months and years to follow to be filled with more seeds of regret and frustration.

For now, not much is stopping me except for my own worries of looking terrible.
olimay: (Default)
We went to an all you can eat Korean BBQ today. It was my favorite all-you-can eat place I can remember. I ate a lot, like everyone else, and that took its toll when I pushed forward with going to the gym. A lot of food in the gut is not a good combination with exercises where increasing abdominal pressure is necessary.

How I ended up going: I was originally just dropping off Marlon at the train station. We were late in leaving, so I drove him 25 minutes to Edison. Along the way, we started talking about PUZZLE, our shared tabletop RPG campaign setting. We stopped at a Rite Aid so he could get cash. He kept asking if I wanted to join and I kept saying no. When we finally arrived, we were still talking. I walked him to the front door and finally gave in.

I felt rather unpresentable the whole time, wearing my sleeping sweatpants. I didn't even have my hat, and my hair was a mess. The place and all the workers were all so proper and nice looking. So were the mostly-Korean families who made up the other clientele. No one in our rowdy college student party-of-ten really cared.

When I got home I had to take a a nap. I woke up with about 90 minutes before the gym closing. Once we got to the gym, we had less than 45 minutes. I made it through squats: 260lbs for the work sets. I'm 5lbs below my all-time personal record of 265lbs for 5 reps. That'll be next Tuesday. The gym was closing, so I'll have to go back to the gym tomorrow to do the overhead presses and deadlifts.

On the way home, Marlon was talking about a friend of his who is on crutches from a running injury. Runners get injured a lot. A lot. Barely anyone gets injured in weightlifting, in comparison, even looking at relative frequencies. It makes sense that people engaged in intimidating activities--such as poking each other with swords or lifting massive amounts of steel and iron with their bare hands--would spend a lot of time making sure it was really safe.

The benefits of strength training are enormous compared to running, too—especially for geriatric populations. Bone density, mobility, strength through normal range of motion, muscle mass to stave off ataxia, and increased output of human growth hormone.

Strength training is something everyone should do. Men and women, young and elderly. It seems to improve the quality of life of most sedentary, non-athletic people more than anything else. Instead, everyone looks to running or dancing for exercise to improve their health. I suppose yoga is pretty good too. But yoga isn't going to as good a job protecting you against osteoperosis.

Here are some videos of elderly people doing deadlifts.

Strength is valuable for these people. They use strength every day--to lift groceries, objects around the house, maybe their grandchildren. Strength lets them get up out of chairs and up stairs without significant strain. They have a better shot of not getting critically injuries when they fall down--and with more strength, they'll fall down less. I think it's a hell of a lot more useful for most folk than being able to run 6.21 miles really slowly.

This 92 year old can deadlift more than I can right now. I'm inspired.

My goal isn't to break records. It's to be that strong when I'm that age. At least that much—secretly I'm hoping for a 300+ deadlift (and with conventional not sumo!)
olimay: (Default)
I am pretty ignorant about poetry. I went through the usual English classes in High School, and well, I don't remember all that much. I remember more from Latin class—scansion, meter, and such. After all these years, it's something I really haven't delved into on my own.

There are a few people here who know quite a bit about poetry, though. So I thought I'd pose a question:

What does "style" mean in poetry? Seems to mean something different from style in prose, e.g. and author's "writing style" in a short story vs "epic style poem".

Here's the context:

Friend: I'm currently working on figuring out parts of my writing style. Specifically, my form and how it falls between structured (like sonnets or quatrains in aabb or something) and free verse. I'd like to know how people define form and what they think structured is/what free verse is.

Me: There is much more written about this than I can tell you. What I do know is style doesn't mean form--poets intentionally choose a form. Check out Jorge Luis Borges essays/interviews about poetry

Friend: How you describe style?

Me: In poetry, style means things like Lyric, Descriptive, Narrative. "Style of poem" means "type of poem". There is also the general "style of the author", which is similar to what style means in prose. Some variations of poetic style have a conventional structure or form. A sonnet is a poetic style that has a certain structure. So, I think for type/form/intent, you can say "poetic style". And then for diction, metaphor, imagery, tone, etc. we can say "writing style".

Then I looked around on the web for a bit, and felt that my characterization wasn't quite right. How would you clarify this--and how do you usually see "style" used in the context of poetry?
olimay: (Default)
Since I turn red, experience tachycardia and often nausea when I consume ethanol, I might be at a higher risk of esophageal cancer, says this one paper. The symptoms mean I am either ALDH2 deficient or ALDH2 low activity, so I metabolize a highly toxic byproduct of ethanol, acetaldehyde, much slower than other people. It accumulates and gives me annoying symptoms that people bug me about in social gatherings.

Acetaldehyde is responsible for the facial flushing and other unpleasant effects that ALDH2-deficient individuals experience when they drink alcohol. Importantly, there is now direct evidence that ALDH2-deficient individuals experience higher levels of acetaldehyde-related DNA and chromosomal damage than individuals with fully active ALDH2 when they consume equivalent amounts of alcohol, providing a likely mechanism for the increased cancer risk.

This is from: "The Alcohol Flushing Response: An Unrecognized Risk Factor for Esophageal Cancer from Alcohol Consumption"

I read about this the first time in 2009, but I didn't change anything because I read it completely wrong. It explains there are two types of people who experience flushing--people who don't have ALDH2 activity, and people who have some but very low ALDH2 activity. I mistakenly read it to mean that some people get the flush, but don't increase their risk of cancer. And somehow I dropped myself into that category. (I probably saw what I wanted to see. Somewhere, I probably didn't want to be grouped with those pitiful people who can't drink.)

Here's what it actually says. The first group:

ALDH2 Lys/Lys homozygotes are unable to consume significant amounts of alcohol. As a result, they are protected against the increased risk of esophageal cancer from alcohol consumption. This observation also provided evidence for a causative role for ethanol in esophageal cancer, and a key role for acetaldehyde in mediating this effect.

And the second group:

ALDH2 Lys/Glu heterozygotes experience a less severe manifestation of the flushing response due to residual but low ALDH2 enzyme activity in their cells. As a result, some are able to develop tolerance to acetaldehyde and the flushing response and become habitual heavy drinkers, due in part to the influence of societal and cultural factors (see below). Therefore, paradoxically, it is the more common low-activity ALDH2 heterozygous genotype that is associated with greatest risk of esophageal cancer from drinking alcohol.

So the first group gets so sick they can't really even drink. That means something completely different from what I thought. Good lesson to read the damn thing.

The first case sounds like my dad. He drinks some wine, and within half an hour is very sick. That's why I grew up with neither of my parents drinking. Even when I saw members of my extended family drinking, it seemed weird and vaguely bad.

I'm not a regular drinker, but I've drank a fair amount during college and living in NYC. I feel sick fairly quickly, but it often seems I "sober up" quicker than other people consuming the same amounts. No one in my mothers' family has the flushing response. So I'm probably in the second group.

I can't really evaluate how good this research is. One commenter remarked that if low ALDH2 activity increases cancer risk, then other cancers should . It does seem compelling enough to take precautions.

It's not that hard to quit, since I don't really have drinking habits to begin with. I have a fair intellectual and cultural interest in alcoholic beverages for a while. But I don't remember the side-effects of drinking ever being pleasant. I always thought of it as something I had to put up with to be social, or to be true to the cultural phenomenon. I have wished for some way to (often imagined) peer pressure and social shame on many occasions.

If I stand by this decision to quit, I'll need to confront the social stigma. More than any actual pushback from others, it's the stigma I've internalized that is most daunting. Some folks may joke around, but the people I care to associate with are all very respectful of personal decisions, especially when they have to do with health. On the other hand, my internalized worry about being thought of as lame or weak was powerful enough to cause me to misread this thing in the first place.

I'm glad I checked back on this. Aside from the important opportunity to avoid cancer, it's also given me the opportunity to ponder my own choices and motivations. Even if my symptoms were innocuous, would it be the right decision to drink alcohol when I don't like the side effects the substance has on me? When I know I'll be feeling physically sick while everyone else is having fun?

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," seems like obvious advice, but in practice it can be very hard on both ends. Sometimes what you want is a confusion of conflicting principles and preferences.
olimay: (Default)
I was unable to sleep tonight. Twice. On the first try, I got up from the futon and read Mythology. On the second try, I began to read The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, thinking it could bore me to sleep. Then I remembered something: the vague suggestion that most non-fiction causes one to think about the future. Fiction, especially imaginative fiction, helps to keep the attention in the present, and best helps sleep. So they say, probably from hearsay about one study that no one cared to replicate or disconfirm. Probably from some personal development success-flailing narcissist

I picked up Soul Mountain, given to me around three and a half years ago by some friends moving out of their New York apartment. I remembered trying to read the thing the first few months after I'd gotten it, and finding myself nearly dozing off. It seemed like I could put it to good use now.

But I found it surprisingly easy to read. Gao Xingjian's descriptions are minimal, but immersive, like stepping outside the back door on a breezy summer night. The host of crickets. The moon high overhead. Soft swishing of the trees, barely visible. The scene is mostly darkness, but there's more there in front of you than in the party inside. Sooner or later someone will ask you what's wrong and what you you could be looking at, everyone misses you, come inside. They won't understand and that's just how things are. To them no, but to you the immensity is worth pondering.

As I read I found myself wondering if I've lost my way. The thought came and I wasn't sure what it meant. I don't know right now, either. As worded, it implies that I had a way to follow to begin with. I keep thinking there is one, and I think that is my second biggest mistake.

Still, there is a yearning. As I read about the still-nameless main characters trying to find their way, scene by scene, in the mountains of China, I remember the times I walked by myself a few years back. I used to reminisce about them frequently. I still can't convey what 3AM on the empty streets below 65th street meant to me. Dozens of times, sometimes alone, sometimes with my dear friend, talking about the past, and the present and imaginary things. There are things you really can't do in the daytime with people and anxieties around. They are always tugging on your sleeve to come back inside.

I've been inside for a long while. I've become an indoor person; any other way seems to compromise all my careful designs. When there's really nowhere to go, you stop walking anywhere. You sit and your hamstrings shorten, and soon enough you can't touch your toes. On the other side, I am proud of what I am able to pull together at times. Things are lively and fun. I highlight the times I'm upset, anxious, or ashamed, but many times I'm just happy. Fat and sloppy and lazy, but just happy.

But in my dreams, when I remember them, I'm always walking places. I walk down the street, talk to people in an unknown town just coming out of a church service. I stop the car and get on foot to cross ruins. I've been given a job in a new town, and my first job is to deliver something to a shed deep in the forest. I do all of these things--that's me in the dreams. Sometimes that's more me than the person I see in the mirror these days.

These two people seem far apart, somehow. For many years the only way to merge them was an unattainable ideal, something of a mythical version of myself. Geometrically infeasible. I wonder if there is a compromise, though, buried somewhere in the swaying boughs in the shadow of moon.
olimay: (Default)
Setting aside time to read real books, no apologies, heals more than 1000 self-help articles.
olimay: (Default)
I understand the irony of this title.

A few weeks ago, I began to really give credence to the idea that anxiety has been a big factor in how I've gone through my life. How many decisions have I made because I worried or tense or wanted to avoid something? A lot, probably.

Anxiety has two parts, as far as I can tell.
  • Tension

  • Thoughts

The thoughts part: Some days I have a lot of thoughts. Other days, not as many (but still a lot). When I get upset, the number of thoughts I have tends to multiply. By quite a bit. When I have a lot of thoughts, I often want to sort them out by writing. So I usually write about things that fascinate or bother me. I think I make better decisions about things after I write about them, so if I'm having a lot of thoughts, maybe it could be a good practice to write about them first.

This reminds me of something. I used to get stuck on timed writing assignments in school. Even now, writing takes me a long time. A post can take hours. It's hard to keep typing and typing like they tell you do--more than I want to admit, I forget how the rest of sentence is supposed to go in the middle of the sentence. I'll have a great thought or sentence planned out, then I'll space out for just a moment, and when I return I'll have lost the momentum of the thought.

Momentum of the thought? Do other people's thoughts have momentum? A lot of the time it feels like I have to keep a thought moving, or it'll fall to the side. It'll run out of gas. And we'll just never get there.

The second part, the tension part: most of cognitive-based psychotherapy focuses on the thoughts or beliefs you have. Sometimes I refute the beliefs or thoughts (verbal thoughts) but there are still these worries or bad sensations there. They don't abate. Then the thoughts--or cognitive distortions--will slowly, slowly creep back, like water spilling into the rowboat or clutter in the room. Why am I up to my ankles again?

I worry about a lot of things. I worry that I am just rambling about myself in a way that doesn't help other people. So no one's going to read this. I worry I'm going in circles and haven't really derived many insights. I worry I'll basically look and feel the same way for a very long time.

"Buy better beer, don't try to be a better person," Killer Mike said, amidst a bunch of otherwise sensible advice. I worry about that being true for me.

What's so bad if that all ends up being true? Sometimes it feels like I can only stand where I am because of where I've promised to be in the future. Time feels like a loan, and so far I'm just getting further and further into debt. I look at the systematically bad choices I've made over the years and see problems no one really has answers for; I have to figure it out for myself. What if I'm just not qualified to figure it out? What if the game really is being a goopy, sloppy mess and being okay with that? If I acknowledge that, do I have to cur myself off from all the friends who are cheering for me to come out of a lifetime funk? (They think it's just 5 years, but haven't read my LJ.) Where am I standing, statistically? Am I standing ankle deep in some kind of denial?

I look ahead sometimes when most of my writing has less to do with sifting through my own problematic refuse. What joys could I bring to people? What stories could I tell? What inquiries could I make? Another worry is that if things ever clear up, I really won't have much to talk about, write about. That my lifetime of writing was one huge anxiety attack.

The worries just kind of happen until I can really steer my attention in a different direction. That also just kind of happens.

I have a lot of thoughts. They're more like things that happen than things that I do, but when I'm having a lot of thoughts I can also have thoughts about a lot of different things. Maybe it's a kind of weather. It's raining thoughts? Time to get the urns and tarps and pots and pans; we'll distill it have plenty to drink and grow with for a while.
olimay: (Default)
I reread Duff's article about How to Deal Effectively With Peer Pressure and the JADE heuristic, and it's a great tool for avoiding needless conflict when others are trying to use peer pressure on you.

JADE is for what you're trying to avoid:
  1. Justifying

  2. Arguing

  3. Defending

  4. Explaining

It is a good heuristic. There are other times and places it might be worth having a deeper conversation, especially if this is going to be a long-term, recurring thing. There are some cases where it might be better to justify, defend, or explain--e.g. in a situation with legal consequences. (Talk to your attorney.)

Duff gives some caveats about these principles being used to defend harmful behaviors. A lot of stuff can be twisted around.

How should you respond to peer pressure? When someone tries to get you to do something you don't want to do:

  • Have a handy catch phrase that affirms your position (Duff uses the example, "I choose what goes in my body")

  • Say NO kindly and politely the first 3 times

  • The 4th time, make it clear that you would like them to respect your decision.

  • Practice saying NO before it happens

The strategy is from Andrew T. Austin.

This also applies to when you've done something wrong. When you've done something wrong:

  • Genuinely empathize and apologize for harm

  • Only if you are absolutely sure you will follow through state you will do differently; don't deepen the problem through broken promises (otherwise this procedure will become recursive)

  • Until you are sure you can keep your word, make the changes in secret

All of this is pretty helpful for me. I've had trouble dealing with peer pressure in the past; my usual response is to feel ashamed for saying no. I'm embarrassed at coming across as stubborn when people just want me to have fun. So I avoid situations where there might be peer pressure. That is a lot of situations. When I do myself into social situations I have in the past expressed this embarrassment and frustration as anger.

The concrete technique of saying no kindly and politely three times before asking people to respect other people's decisions is very helpful.

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