Jan 3, 2021

The Price of Distraction

Personal post (There will be a lot of these in 2021)
Notes on "The Price of Distraction", a Sam Harris podcast with Adam Gazzaley


Classic example of multi-tasking: Being on the phone with someone while also checking email.

The term multi-tasking is confusing and ill-defined. We all do it and we think we're pretty good at it. And we feel pleasure while doing it versus single-tasking. It feels natural and that we can get better at it.

From a behavioral point of view we multi-task all the time. We sometimes use the term to mean parallel processing. Studies of brain activity show that we can't really parallel process. The processes are always intertwined and steal cycles from the other as necessary.

If you CAN OFFLOAD the need for attention (aka it becomes reflexive) then you can multi-task effectively. An example would be talking to someone and driving. The minute that changes is the moment that the conflict arrives. If something is in the middle of the road then your attention is required and you lose the other task. You stop hearing what the person who is talking to you is saying.

2 jargon phrases in cognitive sciences. "Bottom-up" and "Top-down". Bottom up attention is when you have limited mental resources being activated by the external stimuli (e.g., someone calls your name or a lion roars behind you). Top down attention is the goal directed attention where you make a decision about where to direct attention (e.g., you chose to listen to a podcast).

We are always paying attention to something and that direction moves around without a clear directive from you. This is part of what meditation is trying to correct by making us aware of this lack of direction and trying to get us to engage in direction setting. We often experience this degradation to sustain attention for the task at hand ("I need a break" or "I want to check Instagram"). We seek this 'dopamine' hit by switching attention to something else. We are unaware of the switching costs. What do we know about this switching process?

Our top-down attention can be interfered with on many levels. External stimulation is an obvious one (phone rings or notification alert). Another is internal distractions like an aching joints. Another is that you for some reason decide (could be subconscious) to move away from your current goal (I'll write an email while listening to this podcast and think about what I'm having for dinner tonight). Let's call these 1) external, 2) internal physical, and 3) internal mental attention modifiers.


There is one cost that you have to remind yourself of what you were just doing ("now where was I?"). You have another cost related to the switching costs to get back into the task you were conducting before distraction ("how was I processing this information in Excel?"). Is there another cost that is emotional and almost paradoxical? Multitasking is born from time poverty. A sense of urgency that comes from not having enough time to do what we want to do. It seems brilliant to multitask. So there may be a reward and anxiety component to attention switching.

Internal states like boredom, anxiety, stress drive our internal mental choices driving us to distraction. Technology is now designed to game us into distraction thus capturing our attention. Increasing this technology is 'weaponized'.

Theory: We are foraging for information like we used to forage for food. There is a predictive tool that forecasts how long a squirrel will forage in a given patch. It's a function of when was the last time the squirrel found food in this patch and how far away is the next patch of potential food. The squirrel will use these inputs to determine if it should move to the new patch. 

If applied to humans, it may explain how we forage for information:
  1. How much value is gained from continuing to forage for information in the current patch? (should I read the whole article or stop at 75% or 25% or even just read the headline?)
  2. How much value is gained from moving to a new information patch? (Should I read a new article?)
In most cases finding a new information patch has become very easy and has zero cost. Every information patch is almost entirely at our fingertips now so we switch often and easily.

But it's worse than this. We have internal forces that are making the evaluation of point 1 different from 30 years ago
  1. We are intolerant of boredom. It almost hurts. 
  2. We feel anxiety that we are missing out on something else (FOMO).
  3. We feel anxiety that we aren't being maximally productive.
Those 3 feelings accumulate over time and drive us out of the current patch. There is no resistance to switching so we're always doing light foraging

In some sense boredom has been driven to extinction. Contrast with how long we spent in Blockbuster finding a perfect movie and how prone to failure it was. There was no guarantee that we'd come out of a video store with something to watch. Now we have access to everything and it's so frictionless. And yet our reward response to stimuli seems to be diminishing (see binge watching, binge reading, binge scrolling). We are more exposed to boredom killing things and yet we are being tuned to be less resilient to boredom than we have ever been.

A little bit hunger isn't a bad thing. Perhaps a little bit of boredom is good for us too. Does it help us appreciate the non-boredom moments more?

What is the recommendation?
  1. Make foraging areas harder to get to. Put your phone away. Close multiple tabs. Turn off notifications. Seclude yourself. Being outside of civilization without a phone is probably a perfect setting to avoid distraction.
  2. Practice the art of single-tasking. Embrace boredom, and heightened productivity. "For an hour I'm going to do this one activity" Start with small periods of time and feel what happens. Work through it and stick with it. Avoid sink holes when you do take a break (meditate or take a walk don't open Instagram). And then get back into the focus and extend the period over time. Train to be a "long distance runner)
  3. Meditation is a great way to develop single-tasking capabilities. 
  4. Digital medicine. Using technology that is designed to help us focus. This is highly specific and not very available right now. But for example video games could be designed to help us single task.
Sam Harris quotes: 
  • "The Sam Harris of 20 years ago would not have been able to imagine finding reading a book for an hour at all difficult. [...]. It's like forecasting that at some point you're going to find it hard to eat ice cream."
  • "What you don't take for responsibility here is going to happen to you based on other people's business models"

Aug 20, 2020


Should I blog again? I'm not sure. Contemplating because of quarantine. Anyway. Here's a trip last year to Yosemite with friend and nephews.

Mar 31, 2018

Zero Carb - Month 3

I don't have much to add at this point. I'm not sure I see any new changes. I still feel good. I have another month to go at this point.

Feb 28, 2018

Zero Carb - Month 2

So I am at the end of month 2 of Zero Carb. My diet hasn't change much. I continue to be very strict about my intake. My only transgressions are coffee (plant-based), the infrequent Diet Coke (?-based), and some olive oil (plant-based) in the sardines I eat. I still mainly eat steaks and ground beef but I try to pepper my diet weekly with liver, oysters, sardines and other odd things. I didn't mention last time that I also supplement with a few things. Electrolytes (magnesium, calcium, potassium & sodium via salt) as well as cod liver oil (omega 3 source), Vitamins D3 and K2, as well as a multi-vitamin concoction I make consisting of thiamine, folic acid, L-arginine, L-carnitine, L-citrulline, co-enzyme Q10, vitamin C. And I use a collagen powder as well. This is, I am sure borderline overkill, but whatever. It's cheap and easy and you can't OD on this stuff.

So what happened this month?
  • I didn't lose much more weight. I hover around 178 compared to my high school goal of 172. I notice on low-carb diets, weight loss tends to stagnate at times. I'm not worried or interested in it to be honest. It's not a primary goal for me.
  • I got my hair cut and my barber said my hair had grown significantly and that it was thicker. I personally don't notice this, because I don't really pay much attention to my hair. But I thought it was interesting she noted it. I'm curious if my grays will disappear as others have seen, but that doesn't seem to have changed. I don't really care about grays, but it would be an interesting thing to happen.
  • My dandruff is entirely gone. Possibly the most interesting result of this experiment. I've had dandruff since my hair started thinning. Maybe starting around age 22 or so (so almost 30 years). It had gotten progressively worse over the years from being an annoyance to something I needed to actively deal with. Remedies included boar brushes and yogurt scalps rubs which kept it in check. But now the dandruff is just gone. Period. I don't see any way to explain this other than the elimination of plant foods.
  • Energy levels remain stable and high. I'm solid all day.
  • I think I'm sleeping better. I tend to get 7-8 hours more frequently now, and I don't feel tired when waking up. Jury is out on this one, but it feels different.
  • I started working out and I feel significantly stronger, recover faster post-workout, and feel less debilitated by workouts. First, I just feel strong. Really strong. Something is different, but it's hard to quantify or describe. Second, I'm ready to work out the next day. I don't actually do this. I feel breaks are important. But I feel I could. Normally I need a 2-3 day break to really feel back to normal. Third, I have very little soreness the next day. Normally after a new muscle is worked out it gets very sore for me. Almost to the point of pain. I worked out hard my first workout and the soreness the next day was maybe 25%-50% of what I'd normally expect. It was gone by day 2 which is normally when it peaks.
  • My GI system has settled down. I don't have any issues anymore except if I eat yogurt. Yogurt causes trauma-inducing constipation. It never did before. It's awful. I have to completely avoid that stuff.
  • Cravings are still minimal EXCEPT a daily craving for steak. I crave a grilled steak like my life depends on it. I consume them now. Everything I can chew. Only the bone and tough gristle go in the garbage. Sugar doesn't cross my mind. Bread doesn't cross my mind. I haven't thought of pasta in a month. I can look at them and agree they would taste wonderful, but I have to mentally focus on them to think that. That thought doesn't pop up on it's own anymore.
  • I tend to run warmer now. My wife is constantly cold whereas I never feel it except when I wake up. 
  • My skin is less dry and less oily. Depending on the time of day I can have both. My skin just seems more stable and normal.
  • Headaches seem nonexistent. I'm not sure how much I can state this. I don't get a lot of headaches and they aren't intense. But I do get them. And I suspect they may be related to nut intake. Anyway not 1 small headache since eliminating plant food.
  • I still get stiff joints in the morning. I was hoping this would disappear completely. It's now and again. It does seem less but it hasn't vanished. 
I still believe I'll probably stick with this diet after the 4 month mark. I imagine I'll cheat here and there (Xmas) but overall I find this actually easier than Keto/LCHF/Paleo. Why a more restrictive diet would be easier is not obvious, but it really relates to the lack of cravings. I'm fine eating meat 24x7. I would like to incorporate more variety. Especially liver/pate. I enjoy it and maybe should make my own. I'd also like to start grinding meats because then I can incorporate liver and other things very easily.

Jan 31, 2018

Zero Carb - Month 1

I haven't blogged in a while. Life seems to get busier the older I get. But I do have a new topic I'd like to record.

Zero Carb.

It's a shitty name for a relatively poorly marketed idea. The idea is pretty simple. To optimize health we should only eat from the animal kingdom. Anything goes. Beef, lamb, fish, pork. But also organ meats, skin, insects, etc. I would say there are two types of practitioners of ZC. The first tends to just eat traditional muscle meats. The second tends to incorporate lots of non-muscle meat with a focus on liver.

Both camps tend to view plant foods as potentially problematic from both an inflammatory perspective and from a low nutrition perspective. I would say almost everyone I've read used to be a vegetarian or vegan. And many of these people had chronic health problems. ZC was their attempt at finding a solution.

There are two intriguing things about this diet.
  1. Everyone seems to find the ZC diet fixes their issues.
  2. No one I know that does ZC goes back to a more normal diet. 
This is all the more amazing because the diet is seemingly very restrictive. The ailments I'm seeing vary from depression to skin diseases/issues to chronic and worrying GI tract issues. In some cases these ailments have had significant and deep impacts on their lives. And ZC was tried almost out of exasperation in many cases. But it's telling that it has worked for these people. And others have gone on to suggest it gets rid of their grey hair and their skin improves and so forth. It's intriguing right?

So what does the science say? It says nothing. This is such a wacky diet that no one really bothers to do research on it. And in some cases it does seem that some people need to be exceptionally strict for the positive results to show themselves. Any amount of vegetable matter throws them back into the recurring ailment loop.

So what are the reasons this might work? There are a few that I've heard.
  1. Caveman Grok did not idly find broccoli and wheat and cabbage and carrots around and was unlikely to have eaten them in bulk. Some anthropologists also contend that we weren't good hunters and probably we tended to feast on picked over carcasses which means we used our brains to open up skulls and bones instead of eating muscle meat. As humans we are likely omnivores but our energy expensive brains require more than foraging. We need fat. Cows eat all day for a reason. Grass has low energy value but they don't have big hungry brains so it works. Supporting a large brain likely moved us up the food chain to denser energy packs (e.g., animals). We also have quite a different GI tract than our nearest ancestors the simians. Like cows, apes have anatomical structures (go read about cecum) to facilitate bacterial consumption of plant life. These bacteria generally convert plant life into fats that these animals' bodies absorb. We don't really have that infrastructure anymore. We don't seem designed to be purely vegetarian or even mildly vegetarian.
  2. If you were starting from scratch and you had to build a human in a laboratory would you gather up plants or other mammals. In other words why do we think humans would benefit from human phytochemicals and chlorophyll and other things in plants? The raw materials for building mammals is the same.  The bioavailability of those chemicals in animals is enormous compared to plants. The energy density is much higher. In fact it's clear from a micronutrient perspective animal foods are much better for us.
  3. All of the research suggesting meat is bad for you is wrong. I truly believe this. It is all epidemiological and plain wrong. 
  4. Most of the plants in the world are poisonous to us. We can't eat most tomatoes or potatoes or mushrooms. They will kill us. They employ alkaloids, cyanogenic glycosides, terpenoids, phenolics. You wouldn't go outside and start eating most plants. In fact 99% of the plants in the vicinity of where you leave would kill you or make you sick. Plants don't want to be eaten but they have no mobility so they generally create toxicity and poisons as a way of stopping things from eating them. Animals also don't want to be eaten but they use other methods such as mobility, intelligence, and breeding to maintain their gene pool. Why do we think plants are good? We believe they are natural and clean and healthy. But we don't really have any good fundamental research to prove it. Again people are using epidemiological studies to show they are healthy. I would argue these experiments are all confounded. There is one study that was done attempting to show vegetables and green tea reduced oxidative stress but actually proved the opposite. Removal of fruits and vegetables REDUCED oxidative stress. This makes complete sense to me because you are removing a chemically inflammatory food.
  5. Fiber probably isn't necessary or even good for us. Fiber is ironically clearly tied to inflammatory bowel diseases. Isn't fiber necessary for your gut bacteria? Possibly if you are eating fiber but if you don't eat fiber there's actually no need for it. In fact mice with bacteria free guts live longer and have healthier metabolisms.
  6. Many cultures were effectively ZC including Inuits, Plains Indians, Masai, Mongolians, and South American gauchos.
So now what? Well I think like all things in health we just don't know. There's only one way to find something out, and that is to do self-experiments and to be honest and objective about the results.

To that end I started a ZC diet on 1/1/2018. It's been almost exactly one month. I mainly eat ribeyes and ground beef. I tend to salt and pepper and butter it. I do eat pate for the liver component. I drink coffee (plant based) and Diet Coke and water. I also eat eggs, cheese, and sardines (which contains olive oil). So not perfectly ZC but close. What have I noticed?
  1. I don't notice much of a change health wise. I don't notice changes in skin or joints or hair or anything at this point. I'll keep monitoring it but so far nothing.
  2. I have lost some weight as you'd expect. But I get that eating plants too as long as I'm low-carb.
  3. I have better energy levels as you'd expect. Again low-carb does this.
  4. My GI system went haywire for literally 1 month. It has only just settled down. You might think this is related to no fiber and it probably is in a weird way. I'm guessing a lot of my gut biome died. Given today's headline that might be considered bad but I'm not so sure. I think it may be tautological that since we have fiber gut bacteria we need to keep feeding them.
  5. I believe, although it's hard to tell, that my body odor has decreased significantly. If I don't shower for 2 days for example I don't notice an intense gaminess that used to be present in that time frame.
  6. Life is easier on ZC. That may be surprising but it's easier to shop, cook, and I eat a lot less. And perhaps most surprisingly I think it's actually cheaper. I tend to waste zero food. I eat a lot of muscle meat and I don't trim and I eat all the fat. Nothing really goes in the garbage. If I buy too much then I tend to eat it all and not eat much the next day. All told, and with a good eye for deals nowadays, I spend about $10 per day on food.
  7. I don't crave anything anymore. I don't even think about bread items or sugar. Not at all. If you surrounded me in carbs I wouldn't be tempted in the least.
My plans are to keep trying this for 4 months. Some people claim you need to do it for 6 months to see real changes but I think 4 should be plenty.  Tomorrow I'm going to remove dairy and start an exercise regime. I think in March I'll quit coffee which by definition is plant based. I'll make another post at the end of February.

More information? I like Amber O'Hearn because she's measured and reasonably fact-based. A lot of people in the ZC community are not surprisingly over-the-top and frankly don't understand science. They just know it works but that doesn't help me get educated.

Oct 13, 2017

Bladerunner 2049

The original Bladerunner came out in 1982. I was 14 years old at the time. It was a world where Star Wars had blown away expectations for box office receipts a few years back. Alien had been a big success. And E.T. was the current darling.

And then Bladerunner was released. I was too young to get into the R-rated movie. My mom bought tickets for me and a friend. Maplewood Mall Cinemas. It doesn't exist anymore. I don't recall having any preconceptions about what the movie was about. I knew Harrison Ford was in it and it was science fiction. Good enough for a 14-year old nerdy kid.

I can recall sitting down to watch the film. It opened with some text to describe replicants and bladerunners and 'retirement'. And then that iconic opening happened and for the first time in my life I was really somewhere else. I was no longer in that movie theater. I was in Los Angeles in 2019. What unfolded before me was an utter spectacle. The movie closed with the cheesy alternate ending (Deckard and Rachel driving through a forest which was footage filmed by Kubrick for The Shining).  And I was sold. This was the most remarkable film I'd ever seen. An amazing combination of music, special effects, story, philosophy, camera work, editing, special effects, acting, casting, costume design, set design, set location, etc. It all worked towards a cohesive whole.

I had my mom buy tickets the next weekend for just myself. And the following week as well. She looked at me oddly the third time. "You sure you don't want to invite a friend?" I didn't. I didn't want to be interrupted.

What was most surprising about this time though was the overall reaction to the movie. I watched Siskel and Ebert utterly rip the movie apart. Another review described it as Blade Crawler due to its slow pace. People complained about too many special effects. And most remarkably one critic complained about it's lack of story development in 'human terms'. I read an article where Bono criticized the music for being to electronic. I saw an Academy Awards ceremony hand the best special effects to E.T.


Did I not see the same movie that anyone else saw? The movie shut down after a few weeks. I was bewildered by the lack of appreciation for the film. And at that time there was no internet. There was no way to find others who like the film. To my knowledge I was the only person who liked this movie. It wasn't until the early 90s in grade school that through Usenet I as able to find a small but dedicated group of people who had a deep pervasive fascination for the movie.

35 years later....

Bladerunner 2049 hits theaters. October 3, 2017 with a broader release October 6, 2017

I had steeled myself for this release. First of all why the fuck were they making a sequel. There was no need for it. It was going to sully the original as all sequels do.

And then I heard Ryan Gosling would star. Harrison Ford would star. Okay. Denis Villeneuve would direct. Okay. Fancher would be back to write it. Hmm. Okay that's good. Johan Johannsen would do the music (ultimately Zimmer and Wallfisch did the score). Okay. Okay I can work with that. Roger Deakins would run the cameras.

Okay. There isn't much more you could do to make this movie a success. Frankly. I mean this is the line up you want.

Still. I did not watch the 3 shorts that served as backstory. I did not watch a single trailer. I didn't want to have thoughts about what this movie was before going in.

I had one desire.

And that was that the movie would do the same thing that Bladerunner did. Transport me away and put a hook into my brain that I couldn't get out.

And so this last Sunday I finally saw it.

After it was over and I walked out I had a different feeling compared to the first one. And a similar feeling.

The different feeling is that Bladerunner 2049 is a harsh movie. It's the equivalent of brutalist architecture. It is an exhausting movie. Emotionally exhausting. Perplexing. Dizzying. Confusing. Disorienting. You don't feel good after BR2049. It's not the feel good hit of the summer. You feel lonely and cold and beaten down.

But there is also a similar feeling. A feeling of 'what on earth did I just see'. It's new and unique and unlike anything I've seen before. It doesn't really even have much of the original movie in it. Characters and themes and history. But this really is its own unique entity. And again it has unified all the aspects of the movie into a cohesive whole. And like the original it bears multiple viewings and it has deep deep secrets that only someone willing to dig will find. Just the name of the lead protagonist has upwards of 6 theories about what his name means. All of which could be true.

And just like 35 years ago. The movie is falling flat. It's done okay at the box office but it has disappointed many. And some vehemently dislike the movie.

But I can assure you this movie will be talked about 35 year from now just like the original.

Sep 8, 2016

phone home

One of the best ways to learn something about someone is to look at their bookshelf. This doesn't work as often anymore. People have moved from real books to digital books. And a lot of interaction with people is done digitally.

I'd argue the new bookshelf is the phone home screen. This is my partners screen below. You can actually tell a lot about someone from this I realize because I know him well.

It also seems somewhat nosy to look at someone's home screen. I feel a little bit like that's something you don't stare at and should ask permission to see. And so with that thought let's look at his, lol.

  • Leaning towards technical illiteracy - The Yahoo! Mail is a dead giveaway here. He redeems himself with the use of Gmail. But even that is telling because while gmail is the de facto email service, most technically literate people would use Mail or use a hipper email client like Spark
  • News junkie with a conservative / Republican bent - Wall Street Journal and the New York Post are so fitting. Both couldn't be more conservative and the Post is such a gossipy rag and he is definitely gossipy.
  • Old-school Wall Streeter - HP-12C is the dead giveaway. This is the app that replicates the old Hewlett-Packard 12C financial calculator. To me it means nothing. Since I was in science the 15C is my baby. He has been on Wall Street since Day 1.
  • NYer - To have Uber that prominent in his list tells you he is in a major city.
  • Music lover - 3 apps and all prominently high on his list.
  • Book lover - 3 apps and all prominently high on his list.
  • Single - 3 food delivery apps and all prominently high on his list
  • Option-Open - I'm not sure what you call this type of person. My wife is like him. 93 email messages unread. 61 text messages unread. 101 slack messages unread. My wife takes this to new limits. I believe one of her email clients has over 1,000 unread emails. There's definitely a personality type that operates in this way and I believe it has to do with leaving things open as to provide additional options. But I'm not sure.
Conversely here is mine:

  • Doesn't like to mess around with things - I'm not a customizer. For the most part I tend to leave the home screen as is. Most of my apps are on the second page in folders for music, books, work, travel, finance, entertainment, etc.
  • News junkie - New Yorker, Apple News, Twitter, Breaking News, NY Times are all grouped under newsstand. Even my social bucket is largely a news feed with the Reddit app
  • Los Angelean - Waze installed prominently in my list of apps
  • Electronic pay lover - Wallet is high up and I use it. Apple Pay, rewards cards, Starbucks, etc. I use it every chance I can over cards and cash
  • Organized - Calendar, contacts the most prominent. I use these a lot
  • Media consumed electronically - The App Store and iTunes Store are pretty prominent and I use them. I also have the AppleTV app upfront. And Music is prominent in my lower tray. I buy everything electronic when I can and I consume it on a device

Jul 20, 2016

i'm pucked

Puck Fair, one of the few places outside of England that could serve a proper English breakfast, closed. Technically it was an Irish breakfast. God damn it. This used to be a quiet spot for me to enjoy rashers and black and white pudding and I have fond memories of the place. I'd also meet close friends there for drinks or breakfast. An 80,000 square foot retail / office building is going up. Good thing too. There aren't enough of those in Soho.