Morning people vs. night people

(As I post this after midnight)

Being a morning person or a night owl doesn’t just determine when you start or end your workday; your internal clock may help define your psychology as well. A Spanish researcher found that our preference for engaging in activities earlier or later in the day shapes both our perceptions and our interactions. The author gave personality tests to 360 university students, whom he describes as a “proper sample,” noting that the circadian rhythms of students “are not much under the influence of time schedules and social patterns.” (Despite the occasional all-nighter, students presumably can follow their preferred sleep schedules more easily than working adults can.) His results offer new evidence that morning and evening types think differently. Early risers prefer to gather knowledge from concrete information. They reach conclusions through logic and analysis. Night owls are more imaginative and open to unconventional ideas, preferring the unknown and favoring intuitive leaps on their way to reaching conclusions. Social behavior diverges as well: Morning people are more likely to be self-controlled and exhibit “upstanding” conduct; they respect authority, are more formal, and take greater pains to make a good impression. (Earlier research also suggests that they are less likely to hold radical political opinions.) Evening people, by contrast, are “independent” and “nonconforming,” and more reluctant to listen to authority—which suggests that teachers may have several reasons to prefer those students who wake up in time for class.

—“Morning and Evening Types: Exploring Their Personality Styles,” Juan Francisco Díaz-Morales, Personality and Individual Differences

From Atlantic Monthly via Steve Sailer.

Book Notes: A Perfect Mess

As I related in the previous entry, I spent some time at the library reading. Most notably: A Perfect Mess. The basic premise of the book is that a certain amount of disorganization is actually adaptive, efficient and beneficial. And, organizing may actually be counter-productive in terms of the energy required to stay organized. What a relief this is for disorganized people. I have noticed that it takes a lot of energy to keep things neat when it would actually be better to just accept a nominal amount of disorder so you can focus on more important things.

I took a few notes you might find interesting:

  1. “Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience.”
  2. On the questionable value of Jack Welch-ian strategic planning: “Managers import a raft of poor assumptions into the planning process…” Which results in useless or unfounded ‘planning’.
  3. On comfort noise: Telephone engineers actually add a certain amount of background noise to telephone and especially cellphone conversations because people find total silence in conversation unnatural and confusing. Users hate the complete absence of background noise. “Adding background noise to telephone calls signifies presence.” Read more about ITU recommendation G.711.II.
  4. On randomness and noise as a fundamental concept of existence. Example Brownian motion.
  5. “Disorder creates connections.” Mess-driven invention.
  6. Rather than focus on terrorist leaders, FBI / CIA focus on the productive nodes: “In a disorganized network the nodes in the middle carry the greatest workload.”
  7. The cost of neatness: “Being neat requires constant expenditure of resources.”
  8. Robustness of disorder: “Messy systems are more resistant.” Loosely woven.
  9. The popular Noguchi file system is simply a pile shifted on its side. More frequently used items work their way to the front, just as in a pile. In other words, piles are intuitive expressions of higher order.
  10. Messy environments provide useful cues.

It’s not how much you burn

This article on weight and exercise in New York Magazine presents the argument that conventional science has it wrong on diet and exercise. How many models do we have for how things work that are just plain false?

To be sure, this is the same logic that leads to other unconventional ideas. As it turns out, it’s carbohydrates—particularly easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars—that primarily stimulate insulin secretion. “Carbohydrates is driving insulin is driving fat,” as George Cahill Jr., a retired Harvard professor of medicine and expert on insulin, recently phrased it for me. So maybe if we eat fewer carbohydrates—in particular the easily digestible simple carbohydrates and sugars—we might lose considerable fat or at least not gain any more, whether we exercise or not. This would explain the slew of recent clinical trials demonstrating that dieters who restrict carbohydrates but not calories invariably lose more weight than dieters who restrict calories but not necessarily carbohydrates. Put simply, it’s quite possible that the foods—potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, pastries, sweets, soda, and beer—that our parents always thought were fattening (back when the medical specialists treating obesity believed that exercise made us hungry) really are fattening. And so if we avoid these foods specifically, we may find our weights more in line with our desires.

The prescription seems to be: dump the sugar and junk carbs. Eat high quality, less processed food.

MySpace is for dating. Period.

myspace.jpgI’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get so-called social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, etc. I don’t use them to find music, hang out, send messages, or whatever it is people do. I don’t use them period. I have signed up to try them out and to see if I could stalk find people from high school, etc., but after that what else do you do? Just leave notes on people’s pages? Why not just send an email, instant message, or make a call? Whenever I go to the library it seems like all the people on the library computers are using MySpace. I don’t understand it. Is it basically asynchronous, public instant messaging?

My working theory is that social networking sites are the successors to online dating websites. In effect, MySpace reintegrates online dating into some semblance of a normal, social life, albeit one that is semi-virtual and online rather than physical and actual.

Rather than cruise for connections with strangers (the normal online dating paradigm), social networking sites facilitate lively echosystems where people can potentially pair off. In fact, I believe this is the whole point of MySpace-type sites. According to this theory, I would expect the people who are most active in MySpace/Facebook to be single and looking. Or cynically, in a relationship and looking. In simple terms, dating sites are the online equivalent of a singles’ bar, whereas MySpace is a party. Even though the goal in both often comes down to romance/sexual gratification, they both go about it in very different ways.

Social networking sites will eventually replace dating sites because they perform one very important function: they erase the stigma of meeting people online.

This is just an idea because I am clueless about it. I’d be curious to know what the appeal is. If you participate in social networking, how do you use it? What purpose does it serve for you?

Are you human?

birds_in_tree.jpgRight now juvenile birds all over the northern hemisphere are fledging, growing their flight feathers and learning to fly. You may have noticed some birds looking particularly clumsy, patchy, loud, and awkward. These are likely fledglings, the bird equivalent of a human teenager. Just like teenagers, they are testing their wings, preparing to leave their parents for the world beyond. Also like teenagers, they are obnoxiously dependent, ungainly, and even ugly in a half-baked sort of way.

You will often see fledglings chasing their parents around begging for food. Most young birds make distinct “feed me” calls their parents find impossible to ignore. In a study involving the cagey wild turkey (I can’t remember where I read about this), scientists created a decoy polecat with a tape recorder inside that would play the cheep-cheep call of the wild turkey chicks. As the polecat is one of the turkey’s mortal enemies, the turkey would predictably attack the polecat decoy on sight unless the decoy played the cheep-cheep call. In this case the turkey would hover protectively over the polecat as if it were part of its brood rather than a potential predator. The fact that this behavior is automatic and triggered solely by the cheep-cheep call shows how nature uses instinct as an effective mental shortcut to produce good parenting behavior. From the parent bird’s perspective, they probably don’t realize that their need to feed their offspring is triggered by a particular sound and behavior. In their tiny bird brain, they are probably thinking something like, “Gotta find food now and give it to the baby.” Repeat.

It makes you wonder how much of our own behavior and thoughts are dictated by instincts undetectable to our conscious minds. Why do we really feel and think the things that we do? Do we overestimate the power and control of our own consciousness? What behaviors and feelings do we indulge because of some hidden, instinctual motive? I think about this on the highway where it seems like everyone is talking on a cellphone as they return to their homes. Many people feel this strong desire to stay in constant contact. There has to be some reason we feel the need to socialize in this way.

Maybe depression and anxiety are caused, in large part, by behaving against instinct. Maybe happiness itself is the emotional payoff from acting in accord with Nature. If that is the case, are there any cases where nature/happiness is suspect? In other words, are there times when we should act against Nature to achieve a better long-term dividend of happiness? I think this conflict between what we want and what we think we want is ever present and is responsible for many problems like crime, poverty, violence, and addiction.

It is possible that to achieve larger ends we must act against instinct even to the point of suffering.

From a scene in Frank Hebert’s Dune:

“What’s in the box?”
He felt increased tingling in his hand, pressed his lips tightly together.
How could this be a test? he wondered. The tingling became an itch.
The old woman said; “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a
trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure
the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to
his kind.”
The itch became the faintest burning. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”

Weight Loss Tips That Work

gluttony.jpgI have never had problems with my weight. In my mind I will always be that skinny kid of 12 years old. Like a lot of guys, I never worried about how much or what I ate. Food was just this thing my body demanded. Likewise, I gave little attention to my physical shell, simply because it took care of itself. Youth bestows an effortless beauty and vigor, which most people appreciate only in retrospect. As Schopenhauer wrote, “Youth without beauty always has attraction; beauty without youth has none.”

As I approached my mid-twenties, my metabolism slowed down and my eating habits caught up with me. I woke up one day about a year ago and realized that I was overweight. I had tried to ignore the problem, but it was there in photos and in my ever expanding waistband. At my heaviest I weighed about 210 pounds. While this is not considered obese in a man over six feet tall, it was the heaviest I had ever been and it did not look good on me. I decided that I needed to do something because ignoring the problem wasn’t working. I tried several approaches but focused mainly on reducing input (calories consumed) and increasing output (energy expended). Eventually, I worked down to my current weight of just over 185 pounds for a difference of roughly 25 pounds. I’m working toward a goal weight of 170 pounds.

It was easy to lose the weight. The problem is deceptively simple. Weight gain is the result of consuming more than your body can expend. Our bodies are amazingly efficient and adaptive systems. If extra food is available, your body will store it as fat rather than waste it. This is how it should be. Add the relative physical ease of modern life with the high availability of nutritious food and you understand why obesity is such a problem. Fatty food is a quick phone call away.

During the course of my weight loss experience, I did not have to diet and everything was painless. As with most things, it just took some attention and time and is easier than most would have you believe. I will share what worked for me in case it can help you. I hope it does.

Measure it, Track it

I don’t advocate calorie counting because this is more work than anyone can be expected to do for the rest of their life, which is exactly how long you will need to maintain your ideal weight. However, until you measure something you cannot manage it.

I measure two things, the moving average of my daily weight (taken first thing in the morning) and everything I eat. I do not even know how to calculate a moving average. I just use the Google Fifteen Widget for the iGoogle homepage. It tracks and calculates everything for me and outputs a nice graph to show my progress. If the moving average trends down, I know I’m losing weight. If the trend moves up, I know I’m gaining weight. Some people will tell you that it is demotivating to weigh daily, however this helped me tremendously as I was able to adjust on the fly. As long as you recognize that your daily weight may fluctuate wildly and that the moving average is the key measurement, you will be fine.

I do not write down what I eat or keep a diet journal, but every time I sit down to eat I pause and consider what I’ve eaten that day. All I need to remember is what I’ve eaten that day. If I’ve had a couple slices of pizza or something similarly unhealthy, I will decide to eat a smaller portion or something with fewer calories.

Change the Way You Eat, Not What You Eat

Diets are stupid, conceptually. The idea is to motivate people by making them eat food they don’t like and banning foods they do like? This will not work. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided will not stand.” When you’re on a diet, you are at war with your sensual side. Your body doesn’t understand why it can’t have what it wants, it just wants it and knows when it’s not getting it. For example, I will never be a person who loves salad. That’s just not something I like. The solution is to trick your body into going along with the weight loss plan. There are a couple ways to do this.

Keep Eating Crappy Food, Just Eat Less of It

Many people will tell you fast food is bad for you. I imagine it’s no less healthy and probably more healthy than what you get at some of the places people like to eat. There’s no way Olive Garden, Chili’s, or Red Lobster is more healthy than McDonald’s. Most of the food in these places is larded up with fat and salt so you’re tempted to order Appletini’s or multiple glasses of overpriced ‘house’ wine because you’re artificially thirsty from all the added salt. Likewise, a tub of salad slathered in ranch dressing is NOT healthy. In general, any food you buy prepared sucks.

If you want a cheeseburger, knock yourself out. Just forgo the French fries and large carbonated beverage. You’ll spend less and eat less crap. Make compromises. Split a dinner portion and take half home for later. Always drink water with your meals. Never buy appetizers or eat all the chips and salsa on the table. At a fast food restaurant, the right portion size is available on the 99 cent menu. Get one small, cheap hamburger or whatever and call it a day. As someone once said, “The best exercise you can do is pushing yourself away from the table.’

Eat at Home, Eat Earlier

When’s the last time you made yourself an appetizer before dinner? When’s the last time you ate chips and salsa or a dessert with your meal at home? Seldom to never.

When you eat at home, you’re almost guaranteed to eat better and less, especially if you have a large family or live with a bunch of freeloading roommates who make you fight for that last taco.

In general, I like to eat around 6:30 or 7 at night. By the time I finish dinner, I know I’ll have 2-3 hours before I go to bed and then 8 or more hours on top of that until I eat again. This gives me over ten hours to burn the energy I just ate. Also, try to eat a modest dinner as it is the last meal of the day. Another easy-to-remember platitude: “Eat like a king for breakfast, a prince for supper, and a pauper for dinner.”

Get a Gym Membership and Have Fun With It

I used to be against gym memberships because I’m a cheapskate. I had all sorts of reasons: it’s expensive, there’s a workout room in my apartment complex or at my office, I hate membership contracts, etc. The fact is, it is worth it to have a gym membership and it doesn’t have to suck. I work out at Lifetime Fitness where they at least don’t have contracts. It’s not bad at all.

The decision to get a gym membership was made easier when I admitted a few things to myself. Number one, I need to invest in my health and that investment (spending money every month) motivates me to get value out of it. Number two, free workout facilities suck. There is never enough equipment and I don’t want to work out with people I’ll see around the office or at the apartment complex.

I try to have fun when I go work out. When I first started going, I went every day, which was impossible to keep up. But, I did it for a reason. I wanted to create the habit of going until it was just part of my life. Now I keep a bag in my car and go every other day, at least three times a week. When I first started I would do 30-60 minutes on the elliptical or bike in addition to weights, then I discovered that this is not fun. Cardio is extremely boring and enjoyed by only the most dull or masochistic of people. I’m convinced that people stop working out because it’s not fun, even with an iPod.

How do you have fun at the gym? Instead of grinding out the cardio, I warm up by shooting hoops then I just lift weights until I’ve done my set for the day. If I’m taking my time, I’ll sit in the hot tub or wet sauna for 10-15 minutes when I’m done. If I go work out on my normally alternating days, I’ll do 30 minutes of cardio since I need to let my muscles repair from lifting weights. When you lift weight, make sure it is not too easy and not so difficult that you can’t do a set. To improve your muscles, you should lift to the point that the targeted muscles are exhausted. I’m convinced that lifting weights does more to burn fat than anything else. Unless you’re trying out for a marathon, why would you want to do cardio every time you work out?

Television by Appointment Only

It’s been a while since I’ve had cable, but Jody has it at her house and I’ve been amazed at how easy it is to get sucked in for hours at a time (I like Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild, and Cops). There is something going on in our brains when it comes to movement on a screen because television has the ability to maintain your attention like nothing else. In the past I have advocated against television, however since falling in love with Entourage on HBO, I am now advocating that you simply plan what you watch. Instead of plopping down and zoning out for several hours, look at what’s on and plan what you would like to see that week. Keep your total viewing to 2-3 hours a week. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the general improvement in your life. I read more, work more, go to sleep earlier, and get more done when I’m not tied to the TV.

Closing Thoughts

Being overweight does not make you a bad person or unlikable. It’s just a problem of physical laws: too much input and not enough output. Personalizing a physical problem will not help you address it. Some of being overweight is genetic and part of who you are. If your parents are on the round side, you are likely to be on the round side. However, a distinction should be made between being thick muscled and being flabby. If you are barrel-chested or thick-shouldered, you will never be waif thin and that’s okay. However, if you’re muscled normally and covered with flab, this is a situation you can do something about. As important as it is to shed extra pounds, it’s equally important to shed negativity and try to help yourself. You can afford to be a little vain, as long as it helps you.

I’m curious what other experiences people have had. What has worked for you? What have you had trouble with?

Coffee vultures

No one likes to make coffee in our office and I think I know why. Today I set the coffee maker to brew enough for ten cups. I go back ten minutes later to get a cup and there’s one cup left. If there are 6-7 people who regularly drink coffee and each of them knows that someone will eventually blink and make coffee, the ideal strategy is to wait. In most situations in life, the person who acts first benefits first, but not so in the world of office coffee. The person who starts the coffee is guaranteed nothing. So, if you’re a coffee drinker and you’re running your life in the most efficient way possible, you will get your coffee at the optimal time, later in the morning, when it is most likely that someone will have given in.

Thoughts on Virginia Tech and tragedy in general

The Virginia Tech massacre is upsetting on many levels.

One, it is troubling to think that there are people so deranged and miserable that their preferred solution to life’s suffering is to perpetuate mortal violence on others who have done them no actual harm. Insanity can be the only rationale behind such stupidity. Insanity is stupidity, in a sense, ie. being out of touch with Reality / Truth.

Two, we have no adequate solutions for the insane / dangerously stupid. We only do something about it after something bad happens. Virginia Tech should be a wake up call that we need to get more involved in detecting these people before they kill. On the other hand, there is no real way to prevent this sort of thing. The mass murderers of the world act by violating the most basic principles of Society. There is no way to legislate against someone who is willing to violate the very concept of morality, you can only make it more difficult to do so.

Three, I am glad to see the flags at half-mast for the victims of Virginia Tech. It is a heartening symbol of respect. However, it must be difficult for the families of the victims, not only for their terrible loss, but also because the world eventually moves on and forgets, leaving them to their grief, which can never be forgotten.

Alien abductions, sleep paralysis, and the sensory homunculous

I was thinking about alien abductions the other day while I was driving around. It has always puzzled me that abductees seem to report similar accounts, especially when it comes to physical descriptions of the aliens themselves. Basically, these nocturnal, body-snatchers are always strangely humanoid in appearance: laterally symmetrical, bipedal, possessing large craniums, large stereoscopic eyes, and slender limbs with articulated hands and fingers. This has always seemed strange. After all, why would a being from another world possess a similar appearance to our own? It could easily look like a giant crab or something. It seems unlikely. Yet, this common description also suggests that there is some shared dimension to each individual abduction story. Either the abductees are making up or remembering similar experiences, or, the aliens, if they exist in any fashion manufactured or otherwise, are humanoid in appearance. There are two basic possibilities: abductees are wrong (for whatever reason) or these abductions occurred in some sense.

If we break it down further, these abductions, if based on memories, could be explained in order of increasing strangeness or practical likelihood by different theories. The reasonability of each theory is determined by your particular world view. For example, assuming the abduction memory is based on an actual experience you could posit multiple scenarios:

Scientific explanations:

  • Psychological explanation: Repressed and recovered memory An alien abduction experience could be the outgrowth of a repressed memory of an actual physical molestation by a human being, either in sleep or during childhood. The abductee could be ‘remembering’ the repressed memory of the experience in a more psychologically comprehensible way. These memories could also be faulty as is the case in many instances of recovered memory. “An experiment conducted by Harvard psychologists suggests that people who believe they have been abducted by extraterrestrials, when they try to recall a word list, make the same kinds of errors as people with recovered memories of childhood sexual molestation. The psychologists conclude that these two experiences have common roots.”
  • Psychological explanation #3: Sleep paralysis One of the most prevalent and compelling theories for abduction narratives is the possibility that alien abductions are dream-like hallucinations induced by episodes of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is awakened from a REM state into essentially a normal fully awake state, but the bodily paralysis is still occurring:

    In a typical sleep-paralysis episode, a person wakes up paralyzed, senses a presence in the room, feels fear or even terror, and may hear buzzing and humming noises or see strange lights. A visible or invisible entity may even sit on their chest, shaking, strangling, or prodding them. Attempts to fight the paralysis are usually unsuccessful. It is reputedly more effective to relax or try to move just the eyes or a single finger or toe.

    Spanos et al. (1993) have pointed out the similarities between abductions and sleep paralysis. The majority of the abduction experiences they studied occurred at night, and almost 60 percent of the “intense” reports were sleep related. Of the intense experiences, nearly a quarter involved symptoms similar to sleep paralysis.

    I found this especially interesting because I did experience an episode of sleep paralysis about ten years ago. The details here are very similar to my own experience. I did awake with fear into a semi-conscious dream state and did sense the presence of someone else, although in my case I thought someone was jiggling the handle of my front door and found myself unable to rise out of bed to investigate or fight them off. I struggled to move, but could only barely move my lips and a finger on my right hand. This inability to move while you think someone is breaking into your apartment is very disconcerting.

    Since I’m reading Moby Dick, here’s an episode of sleep paralysis depicted in the book:

    At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it – half steeped in dreams – I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, s%emed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.

    Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me. But at length all the past night’s events soberly recurred, one by one, in fixed reality, and then I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm – unlock his bridegroom clasp – yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain.

Unscientific explanations:

  • Science-fiction explanation: Real aliens Although prudence dictates otherwise, it is possible that aliens exist and, for reasons unknown, delight in kidnapping earthlings for a few hours of licentious and/or scientific probing. Never long enough for anyone else to notice.

    From a “Kids in the Hall” skit: Alien: “We’ve been abducting and anally probing these humans for decades now, and the only thing we’ve learned is that one out of ten enjoys it.”

  • Science-fiction explanation #2: Hypersapiens My personal favorite (I swear I came up with this before The Tick episode: “Tick vs. Prehistory, The: (Episode 35 [34])). Alien abductions are being performed by evolved descendants of humanity who need something from modern humans. In The Tick, the hypersapiens need waiters for their restaurants, but if aliens are evolved humans maybe they seek ancestral DNA or something else they can only get by traveling to the past. This would explain why the aliens look humanoid. If we evolved along with our development and use of advanced technology we could become large-headed, skinny dudes due to the lack of intense physical exertion and interaction with the environment.
  • Conspiracy theory: Secret authoritarian plots. Conspiratorially-minded people sometimes attribute UFO sightings and abductions to secretive government programs. This seems more plausible for UFO sighting since these could be explained by secret test flights of new military technology.

One last thing, how do you reconcile the common alien descriptions with the sleep paralysis / recovered memory theories? One way is to attribute the common physical descriptions of the aliens to depictions in popular culture of alien lifeforms that may influence memory and recall in the group who report alien abduction memories. This is very plausible. However, what if another factor affecting these descriptions is related to how our own minds process the senses, especially vision. We know that our minds are attuned to faces and hands more so than other parts of the body like knees, etc. What if when we have to make up a person in our mind, we use a descriptive, visual shorthand: eyes, face, hands, and the rest that connects it all together?

What if when our minds are storing/creating these memories they focus mainly on information related to the face and hands? Human aspects that our brains are attuned to (see sensory homunculous). I don’t think most of us are internally creative enough to completely create a new type of creature completely foreign from experience. We use what’s nearby, our shared cultural / media experiences, and our normal shorthand for remembering people.

Smart people are immature?

Interesting surface discussion about “psychological neoteny“:

“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people,” he said.

“People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”