My Regular TODO List

I am, by upbringing, a planner. Recently, I have become a more self-aware planner, and a need to rebel has pushed me to be more spontaneous. The result is that I have rapidly gone through phases of more and less planning depending on what I’m reacting against.

Currently, I’m in a planning mindset, which has led me to my scheduled TODO list. A few months ago, I would set a daily TODO list at the beginning of each week and cross off items everyday. My personal life was amazingly efficient, but it also really started to look like work. I backed off from that, but over the past few months of limited computer use, I have found myself not doing very much. Evenings would just disappear after finishing dishes.

During that time, I have maintained a “floating” section to my TODO list, which are intended to be done anytime during the week, but I haven’t used it consistently. One problem is that it muddles the urgency and timing of many different things, so it takes some thought to determine what is important to address. When I start going through it, I mentally skip items I can’t immediately do, and the ones I can are lost in the mix. Also, there are many things I would like to do very regularly but aren’t part of a daily routine. As such, I have developed a new system.

My new system is to set TODO items as daily, weekly, or monthly. On those schedules, I check and uncheck items in evernote. It grants me the right amount of flexibility to not feel too regimented in completing things that I have handcuffed myself to do. A lot of them are also vague to encourage exploration.

Here’s what it looks like:

Daily

  • Exercise – even if I don’t make arrangements to run or play a sport, I can at least do a quick workout at home or stretch out my arms
  • Learning a 2nd language – it’s a New Year’s Hope, and language has to be used. I was doing German, but after talking to Julie, I don’t think that will be very useful. Instead, I’m going to pick up more Cantonese. Maybe it’s not globally very important, but I have missed out on enough family interactions by not speaking it, and with my sister’s wedding coming up, I’ll see all of them
  • Read – It’s been amazing to get back into reading. Just putting it on my TODO list is enough to get me to open my current book, and then I’m sucked in
  • Listen to iTunes U – still getting through classes. This one is a lower priority, but it’s a reminder to keep it up. It somewhat goes against my last post,  but I need to keep moving, or else I’ll lose context for not keeping up with a class
  • Relax with Julie – most evenings, we do dinner and catch up, but on some nights (like StarCraft night), we might barely say hi before heading off into different things. It’s worth the time to sit down and enjoy being together
  • Read the news – I get the New York Times and Politico in my email inbox daily. I have let it pile up for 2 weeks, and it just isn’t as valuable when just catching up.

Weekly

  • Play StarCraft – join us on Tuesday nights!
  • Play other video games – I have a video game backlog, too. It’s probably too much to do on weekdays when I’m on my computer all day, but it’s nice to play on weekends when I can
  • Blog – I am become much less consistent over the past few months. My blog is where I do a lot of thinking
  • Write in my journal – Maybe my life isn’t that interesting nowadays, or maybe it just doesn’t fit, but I haven’t written daily in a few years. I have since gone for months without writing. Weekly is a good balance since I can usually write Sunday nights and look back on the biggest thing that happened that week
  • Watch TV – Agents of Shield, Cosmos, and whatever other show Julie and I are currently working through
  • Work on my side projects – This is somewhere between daily and weekly. Currently, I’m mostly focused on Spawning Tool, so we’ll see how that goes
  • Watch a movie – I also have a huge movie backlog. I have wanted to but been unable to successfully do movie night, but I know I have time to do it at some point during the week
  • Cook something new – Julie and I cook a lot, but it’s pretty easy to fall back on the standards. At least once a week we should try a new recipe amongst our cookbooks and foodmarks
  • Bake – I do enjoy baking, too, and it’s something I can do to brighten other people’s days
  • Basic cleanup – Typically, we do a big cleanup right before some major event when people are coming over, but it would be less daunting to do one of the tasks once a week and keep things running

Monthly

  • Eat out somewhere new – I mostly prefer home-cooked meals, but there’s just so much good food out there, especially up in San Francisco, that i haven’t explored. If I do go out to eat, it’s usually with a friend, and I like to pick nearby staples. It should be easy, but I definitely need to make an effort to eat out
  • Keep in touch with an old friend – Every time I catch up with someone, we both lament how poorly we keep up with people. Put it on a schedule
  • Get out to do something – Go to a community event, join a meetup, see a performance, get outdoors, take a day trip somewhere. Find something new to do
  • Run my RPGs – I have a Tekumel and a Forgotten Realms play group. We’re not that intense, but it’s easy to fall off track, so I’m shooting to play monthly with them
  • Volunteer – Recently, I have felt a push to become more involved in my community. Volunteering is one of the positive ways to do it, but I haven’t really done any in Mountain View yet
  • Play board games – My collection grew quite quickly, and it’s another fun way to hang out
  • Do a more extensive clean – If anything hasn’t been touched in a month of weekly cleans, it should probably be cleaned
  • Book club meeting – There’s enough structure around this that I don’t have to monitor it, but it’s just a reminder for myself

That may be the best high level look at my life. Let me know if you have any suggested changes in it!

The Sounds and Sights of Cheap Dim Sum

(Author’s note:I wrote this Sunday night)

Good dim sum should come in large, cheap portions. In my mind, you need real, Chinese people making the food, and if they can stay in business with low prices, it means that that the food itself is really good and that they aren’t wasting money on decor and American standards of cleanliness.

New Hwong Kok in Milpitas fits this description. My friend Brain referred it to me, and with the $6 dim sum lunch special equivalent to 3 or 4 items at sit-down dim sum, I thin it’s great. You get the food in a takeout container, there are only 2 tables, and the service is neither good nor bad: it’s simply a necessity in executing a financial transaction involving delicious food.

When I stepped outside this morning to grab dim sum, I stopped to consider whether I wanted to bring my water bottle or not. I might want it in the car, but the main benefit would be to eat there. It was unlikely I would get a table, but if I did, my food would be 20 minutes warmer. I wouldn’t eat dim sum from the comfort of my own kitchen table, but that seemed acceptable.

It ended up being the right call. When I finished paying and turned to leave, I saw that the old Chinese lady at one of the tables had left, so I swooped down and sat in the dinky shop. To my left, a row of fridge cases cooled ingredients and bulk packaged buns, which I suspect were repackaged leftovers from the previous day. In front of me, a mother (or grandmother: don’t tell me you can tell the difference with non-ancient Asian women) was trying to get her rambunctious son, sitting across her at the table, to finish his meal. To my right, a steady line of 5 or 6 people in 2 or 3 parties inched towards being served. Beside them were the display cases of buns and stacks of metal steamers of dumplings.

I ate my food and watched and listened to the people passing through. I heard clutches of Mandarin in orders, and I heard even more Cantonese that I could only occasionally understand. My Cantonese comprehension is at an awkwardly smug level: I can legitimately say that I can’t speak at all and can only understand some of what my grandparents say, so I am justifiably humble. I know enough random food words, however, to randomly bust out translations to show off. I rarely encounter concentrated Chinese groups these days, yet I strangely feel at ease despite not understanding most of the situation.

As I ate, I realized that the familiarity wasn’t strange: how rarely I encounter these situations was strange. The Bay Area has a solid Chinese population, but I don’t interact with it much. Had I pulled out my phone to browse reddit while eating, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to the Chinese boy running around the shop with a lightsaber tucked in the back of his shirt. Had I not brought my water bottle, I would have gone home to eat and missed a 3 year old Chinese girl clearly apprehensive of an old Chinese lady introduced as an “aunt” by her mom. And had I decided just to stay home and have eggs and toast for breakfast, I couldn’t listen in to an apparently impossible explanation of how the customer wants not 1, but orders of the egg noodles.

I have so many ways to avoid interacting with or even just noticing my environment, my neighbors, and generally the world around me. When I’m washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or doing other mindless tasks, I feel compelled to play a podcast to absorb my higher-level thoughts. When I do get outside, I often look down at the sidewalk or road before me and daydream. I miss out on the unique houses on my commute or the soccer game in the park. And perhaps the greatest struggle is even getting outside by convincing myself that the stimulation of the outside world is more valuable than working on a side project at home or catching up on TV.

So I have recently tried hard to be zen-like and empty my mind. On my drive to New Hwong Kok this morning, I turned off the radio and just enjoyed the beautiful day (and watched the traffic, of course). I brought my journal to the dinner table to write while eating dinner, then decided to open the window and just listen to the birds chirping and children playing in the park.

Maybe I can squeeze my daily Duolingo into dinner and attack my TODO list more efficiently. Maybe sitting at New Hwong Kok could have been an utterly boring and soul-sucking experience. But for now, I need the chance to not absorb my attention, not to focus on a virtual world, not to turn inwards on my thoughts. Instead, I need to just take in the world around one, one thing at a time.

The Effect of a Placebo-based Policy

(Disclaimer: I don’t actually know that much about medical ethics or public policy, so I welcome all comments to educate me on the issues here. Also, I will miss citing things because I’m a lazy blogger, so I recommend that if you’re interested, you do your own research)

The Placebo Effect is a well-known phenomenon where a patient actually improves even when given a non-effective treatment that  he or she believes is effective. The perception of efficacy alone not only makes the patient feel better, but actually makes them better.

This effect manifests in other, similar manners, where the perception overrides the actual sensation. For example, it turns out that people will enjoy (and report as enjoying) wine more if it is marked as being more expensive, independent of the actual wine itself. Though maybe if you’re a hipster cheapskate like me, you might perceive cheaper as being better, like a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

In both of these cases, the subject is being tricked into something, but the effect on them is real. Given that, the big question I have is: do you think it’s ethical for doctors, marketers, and other professionals to use the Placebo effect?

Big Yak Mountain, the book club I am in, just read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke, and in this book, he describes several quirks about human decision-making that show how irrational we are. He discusses how uncertain we are in valuing things, to the point where we don’t even know whether we should pay or be paid for some experience. He talks about the gulf between free versus really cheap. He explains why I would happily help you move a couch out of the goodness of my heart but would be unwilling to do it if you offered me $5. Overall, he covers roughly 15 different topics, one per chapter, in an accessible manner. Although I think that Thinking, Fast and Slow is still better, I can understand why you might want to save yourself a few hundred pages and explanation of experimental methods.

When I was putting together notes for the discussion, the question I kept coming back to was, “Is it okay that we’re so irrational, or shoulwe be more rational, more economically logical, in reasoning?” From our discussion, we roughly agreed that these phenomenon are fascinating and good to know, but we were also completely satisfied to experience our blissful irrationality as it is. The bigger question, however, is how this should impact policy, and this is where I am going to do the very bad thing of generalizing narrow experimental results into my worldview.

I asked one policy question above, and I have a few more for you along the same lines. Here’s an easy one: should the use of “free” in advertising campaigns be regulated? I think most of us would say no, despite the fact that we’re totally irrational about free and will go way out of our way to get a free bagel to a degree far beyond that of a 1 cent bagel, even if the free bagel is just a way to lure us into a store to make a large purchase.

Here’s a more contentious one. Ariely spends a chapter on how irrational we are when aroused. If you’re unfamiliar with the study, I’ll save the joy of the experimental methods for when you read the book, but the result is that we act less rationally when emotionally aroused. Since people can be emotionally aroused by anger, one policy is a “cooling off” period between the purchase and acquisition of a gun to prevent people from doing something rash. What do you think of cooling off periods?

The last one is quite broad, but a big issue today is government surveillance. It appears that the NSA has been spying on just about everyone to a much greater degree than we thought. I’m a trusting guy and believe that this was done for our own good and not because someone is reading my phone meta-data to hurt me. If we momentarily ignore the ethics of the surveillance itself, we have been deceived about the activity itself. This deception sounds a lot like the Placebo effect, where an authority gave the perception of something to make us feel better and improve our situation, though they were technically lying at the time. Given my biased framing, how do you feel about the government deceiving us about surveillance for our benefit?

I haven’t quite worked through the details and nuances of this, and specific issues deserve more thought, but I personally am pretty liberal (socially and economically), and I think my belief in human irrationality (and by inclusion, the placebo effect) plays a big role in that. Simply, I, like most other people in this country, am just one person who can’t adequately grasp what is ultimately good for me, and to some degree, I need someone (and not just market forces) to be watching my back.

I need financial regulations because I have no idea what the banks are doing. I need environmental regulations because I don’t know what every supplier is doing. And even if I could, I couldn’t resist buying the cheaper detergent to make optimal purchases. I believe in universal health care because choice is good, but it’s a lot ask every individual to know how best to keep themselves healthy. And assuming that Congress is well-informed (which apparently has not been true so far), I’m generally pretty okay with government surveillance because there are things that I’m better off not knowing, and I trust an entity with the goal of protecting me more than businesses with the goal of being profitable.

So my wildly extrapolated beliefs based in science suggest that a stronger hand in policy is good for us. Of course, there’s always the looming threat of totalitarianism, but a healthy debate and oversight from our legislature should keep it in check. At least in contrast to current trends in libertarianism and small government, I would like to see government stay involved. Some people believe that they deserve complete transparency, that markets are self-correcting, that government should be limited, and that individuals should have tremendous personal freedom. I definitely believe in personal freedom on social issues where it’s more obvious (to me) how freedom affect one’s happiness. On the other issues, my understanding of human cognition is that given complete information and choice, people can still be quite bad at ultimately making themselves happy. And I think that public policy has that mandate as well.

“The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

These days, most of my gaming is spent looking down and controlling large armies of space marines in epic, strategic battles. My favorite genre of games, however, typically involves playing a single hero (and maybe a few companions) embarking on an epic quest in some fantasy world where my character grows stronger and find magical equipment and loot. Among these games, known as western (as opposed to eastern or Japanese) role-playing games (RPGs), there are several well-known franchises, such as Baldur’s GateDiablo, and Mass Effect. One important franchise that I came late to is The Elder Scrolls,. Most recently, I have been playing the 5th installement, Skyrim, but thanks to the generosity of my friend Tom, I had the chance to play in the open beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) this past weekend. Continue reading

Surprises and Plans in San Francisco

This past weekend, Julie and I went up to San Francisco to fulfill my birthday present for her. I said I would get her a messenger bag, but it was important that we find the right bag that would work for her and hopefully last a lifetime. SF is home to Chrome Industries, Timbuk2, and Mission Workshop, so we made a walking day trip out of the store visits around the city. We planned out our route, major stops, and meals, but a big part of these day trips are the unexpected parts, like seeing the Dalai Lama.

On our walk from Uniqlo in the Union Square area to Timbuk2 in Hayes Valley, we passed by the Symphony Hall on the other side of the street where we saw people standing around with signs. As we approached, the letters cleared up to a most surprising protest target: the Dalai Lama. I asked a guy standing on our side what was going on.

“The Dalai Lama is coming out of that door,” he replied.

“Soon?” He nodded in response.

I looked over at Julie, and we agreed that we could wait to see the Dalai Lama. There were a few false alarms when other suited security members walked in and out of the musician’s entrance door. We were amused by an enthusiastic passer-by who happened to carry dog treats in her purse and dog owners who were more permissive of random food than the dog itself.

Several minutes after the police has blocked off the street and the 3 black Suburbans had started their engines, we saw a figure robed in orange emerge from the door. The protesters immediately began their not-so-religious chanting: a call-and-response from a guy on a speakerphone. The first monk went into the first Suburban, but then another monk appeared and went into the second Suburban.

I had seen the Dalai Lama once in real life, and though I couldn’t remember it that well, I was pretty sure that neither of the monks were him. Then, the giant rolling garage door opened, and we saw the feet of more security guys. Behind it, we saw 2 more black cars, which pulled out as soon as possible. They drove off with the rest of the convoy, and I only got to maybe see the Dalai Lama through a tinted car window.

As Julie and I continued our walk, we joked about the “decoy monk” strategy by security. Obviously nothing went wrong with security, but had something happened, it was a pretty clever strategy. Were it, say, George Clooney, it’s somewhat difficult to fake a George Clooney. With the Dalai Lama, however, it’s probably not unlikely that there were more people like me who just know that he’s an old Tibetan guy.

When we planned our trip to the city, we did plan to have a delicious brunch in SoMa somewhere. We didn’t plan to see the Dalai Lama, or to almost see the Dalai Lama, or to see the Dalai Lama impersonators who actually look nothing like the Dalai Lama. We did plan to pick up socks from a shop in the Mission. We didn’t plan to get into a discussion with a Spanish storekeeper about the ethics of eating meat.

In fact, we weren’t even planning to go as of dinnertime the evening before. When Julie told me that her weekend was comparatively light, I off-handedly asked if she wanted to do this day trip to the city, and she agreed. I myself wasn’t actually so resolved to go up, so I hesitated in that moment: I had sketched out the day, but I didn’t have a route or specific stops in mind. Of course, it was only a matter of looking at a map and train schedules, so we figured out the details there.

Had we not decided to go then, however, I’m not sure when we would have gotten around to the trip. I have drifted back and forth on the best way to figure out the best things to do. When I was gung-ho about planning, we ended up waking up early on weekends and rushing to hit train schedules to maximize our time. When I relaxed, we ended up sitting around at home and not getting out there.

Like with many things, it seems the best methods are somewhere in-between and dependent on the situation. In this case, it took the right amount of planning to assemble an exciting itinerary and spontaneity to get out and do it. And the trip itself worked out with both the intended stops and unexpected encounters. I’ll have to stay both intentional and open-minded in the future.

The Consequence of a Canker Sore

(Author’s Note: I wrote this in my journal a few weeks ago)

A few days ago, I cut myself while chopping vegetables. As I was shifting my knife over to cut again, I just nicked my finger, and though I quickly got a bandaid on and kept cooking, I was still angry at myself for letting it happen. I pride myself on good, safe, efficient knife work, and every time I have cut myself, I know exactly what I did wrong to let it happen.

Fortunately, the cut was on the backside of my finger just below my nail, so it hasn’t really affected my ability to do anything. Sometimes, the smallest injuries can cause tremendous irritation, like having the blister on the ball of your foot or getting a paper cut on a butt wiping finger. Suddenly, an otherwise irrelevant part of your body is the most sensitive and noticed spot. It makes me appreciate those strange, forgotten parts.

The appreciation goes beyond simple awareness of the body part and into appreciation of the activity itself. My ongoing forearm problems have made me realize how I have centered everything I do upon the computer. Obviously I work on my computer, and I play games on my computer. I also write on my computer because of my blog. I do a lot of reading online. I watch TV almost exclusively through internet streaming. Oddly, those last few items shouldn’t even require the computer, but they have ended up converging on this device.

My latest malady of tremendous annoyance but not deserving of real sympathy is a canker sore on the underside of my tongue. Having never had a canker sore as far as I can remember, I’m going to pretend that this one was particularly bad. When my tongue is in a neutral position, it is hardly noticeable, but it is located such that both speaking and chewing are quite painful.

Maybe those who interact with me regularly won’t be surprised, but I have found it really hard to resist talking. When people ask me what I enjoy doing or what my hobbies are, I usually have to think about it. I might mention playing video games or cooking, but those are particular activities that I do at discrete times and not as often as I would like. I do, however, talk a lot, and I guess I like cooking because I enjoy eating so much. I never realized how important talking and eating are to me except when it was an effortful process to make it happen.

I have figured out workarounds. I have tried to talk without moving my tongue, which makes my fast speech even more difficult to understand. I compensate by gesturing a lot, though that gets silly quickly. I also have tried to avoid solid food, but that let to me to finding calories in drinking orange juice, which doesn’t interact well with canker sores. I guess I’ll just shut up and eat my food. And I’ll try to enjoy it, too.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” Review (prefaced with ranting)

I have had a painful move out of psychology. Since I did research while I was still in school, I considered myself reasonably critical of experiments, basically fluent in psychological phenomenon, and quite up-to-date on recent findings. After I left school, I tried to keep in touch primarily through science writing, which I have actually found quite disappointing.

I’m generally disappointed by science reporting, and it’s entirely my own fault. Writers do report on recent findings, but I am rarely satisfied reading their accounts. I wonder how accurate their reporting is and whether they truly understood the paper. Even if they understood it and report it honestly, I wonder whether they have delivered a complete report of the paper. And even if they got all of that right, I wonder whether it’s properly contextualized in the body of knowledge and what else I’m missing. Of course, none of this is the fault of the journalist: they write for a wider audience, and they might actually have done everything correctly. It’s my problem that I don’t trust 3rd party reports. I would only feel comfortable having read the original paper and done the background myself, and I’m clearly unwilling to do that, or else I would still be in academia.

The other popular psychology writing comes in longer books or pieces from writers like Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer and programs like Radio Lab. For awhile, I let these carry me, but the revelation that Lehrer self-plagiarized and fabricated quotes (see wikipedia’s references) made me re-evaluate this entire process, and I ended up being turned off by all of that as well. All of my above concerns are actually amplified here. The difference is that these pieces typically tell a “story” about what’s going on. A book or radio piece needs a compelling theme, and to do that, the writers pick and choose their science to fit their narrative, which can be quite misleading. Examples off the top of my head are Lehrer reporting on only 1 result from a paper and Radio Lab reporting on unfinished work.

So what’s left is science writing by actual scientists, and thankfully, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a Nobel Award-winning psychologist whose work in heuristics and biases is taught in  Psychology 101 classes. In this book, he shares key findings in his research areas over his career. He starts out by describing the 2 systems of thinking, the “fast” (automatic) and “slow” (deliberate) from the title. From there, he continues into how our automatic processing compels us towards statistically incorrect and inconsistent decision-making.

Beyond his credentials, Kahneman presents the material in what I believe is a compelling, accessible, and most importantly, honest manner. The 2 systems of thinking are the theme to this book, but he uses them out of necessity and accessibility, not artificial unity, which he is careful to point out. He presents studies individually and offers some of the alternative explanations for the phenomenon. Although other writers may take broad themes from these results, he understands and limits his conclusions and lessons to the scope of the study.

Even better, Kahneman raises meaningful and thoughtful questions. Instead of leaving the reader with a sense of awe for the science and some vague speculation, Kahneman finds the actual limits of the science and discusses the impact of it on daily life to public policy.

The catch of the book is that it is quite long at almost 500 pages, and it can get quite dense. Despite that, Kahneman avoids the pedantic writing of true academia and mixes in real life lessons for the reader and uses anecdotes to enliven (but not prove) his points. If his Nobel Prize didn’t do it, his writing this book should convince you of how seriously and deeply he has thought about his research and its broad consequences for the rest of us. If you’re human, it’s worth the read.

My Top 10 Christmas Songs

Thanksgiving has passed, and the holiday season is well underway. As is now American tradition, there’s outcry about how commercialized Christmas and other December holidays have become, but there are also the more heartwarming parts. There’s the tree decorating that I don’t do because I just go home a few days before Christmas. There’s the gift shopping that I don’t do because my family is too pragmatic to leave purchase suitability is to chance. There’s even the family time that my family can’t quite make because we’re all using our vacation time differently.

I personally only have two holiday traditions. First, I start wearing my Santa hat 2 or 3 weeks before Christmas. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s rare enough that strangers may be incorrectly convinced of my holiday spirit. It also happens to be a great way to keep my head warm since my haircut is not optimized for winter. Continue reading

I Wrote a Novel!

Link to read it

Almost 2 months ago, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I started writing at midnight on the 1st fueled by Halloween candy, and this afternoon around 3:33 PM, I completed my novel, which weighs in at 51,877 words. I’m so glad to be done. In fact, I’m so glad that I don’t have to write any more for it that I’m writing more for it indirectly.

First, if you would like to read it, the first draft is available online at GitHub (disclaimer: it’s bad). Here’s the pitch:

A group of high school students play their ongoing game of Dungeons & Dragons. As they complete quests and approach the end of the game, they find their insight into problems in their real lives as well. Continue reading