December 17, 2011

Showing Up

A month ago I traveled to Chicago for a variety of minor reasons. Wanted to see a friend, catch a concert, and perhaps meet up with an acquaintance I made in La Guardia airport the prior month. We struck up a short conversation while I waited for my flight back south. Turns out she lived in Chicago, which is where I went to college, blah blah blah, we end up exchanging emails. The conversation continues, I let her know I'll be up in her city and we make plans to meet. Then she flaked out on me. Pretty disappointing.

I'll admit, I've flaked out on a variety of plans. Usually it's just an issue of laziness, which is unfortunate because once I actually get out the door to keep an appointment, it's easy to follow through. It's that getting started part that trips me up. I've also blown something off because I didn't think it'd be worth it. Now that's a huge mistake. Too many times what I thought would suck turned out to be awesome, and what I anticipated to rule ended up drooling.

Case in point: went to a birthday party last weekend. Did not expect anything too dramatic, and really that's how most of the party went. But there were some very interesting people in the place, in particular a cute, not socially awkward, single, female grad student. For those not in grad school, that's the equivalent of a unicorn. Do a little number exchange, and invite her to a year-end department party last night. She comes out, we have a great time, everything goes better than expected.

Here's the rub. A few hours into the evening she tells me she was typing out a text to back out of coming when she got message letting her know to come over. If I replied fifteen seconds later, the night would've been very different. Life would go on, maybe we'd see each other again, but we'd have lost an opportunity to make a personal connection.

I can understand backing out of meeting a guy you met in an airport, but canceling on someone you have an interest in? That would be pretty disappointing. Fortunately it didn't go that way, and life is taking an unexpected turn. So don't flake out this holiday season. Go to the parties, go to the reunions. Humans are social creatures, and the most interesting things can happen when we're put together. Enjoy!

On a somewhat related note, it has been and will continue to be a busier-than-normal period for me. Advanced apologies if I flake on a post or two over the next few weeks. As always, I appreciate the dialogue in the comments, and will be catching up on a number of your own posts this weekend. Happy holidays!

December 13, 2011

Creating and Consuming

I started maintaining this blog as a vehicle for practicing my writing and creating content on demand. It's actually a really convenient format for such pursuits, and I will recommend the idea to junior grad students that ask for some advice. I expected to struggle with finding a writing voice (an ongoing process) and coming up with ideas to consistently turn into posts. Naturally, I didn't foresee everything. One unexpected result, so far, is the effect having a more clearly defined "creating time" outside of normal working hours has had on my daily routine.

I'm starting to see my activities as either creative or consumptive. That is, at any given moment, I'm either creating original content of some form, or I'm consuming content created by someone else. For example, as a grad student I may set up an experiment, analyze data, draw a figure or prepare a presentation. Those are all creative tasks. On the other hand, I also read the literature and listen to presentations from colleagues. Those are consumptive tasks. Note that I'm not using the word creative to mean "clever," but simply something that produces new content, which may be total crap or pure gold.

Outside of work, a similar distinction can be made. Writing this post is creation; reading your posts is consumption. Commenting on your posts is creation; reading your comments is creation. Watching kittens on YouTube is consumption; filming your cats for YouTube is creation. I never really looked at my actions this way until I started writing here. I'm not sure why, but finding myself attempting to create regularly in a space I previously only consumed certainly played a role.

Some acts of creation more illicit than others

Here's the great conclusion I've come to so far: creating original content is hard. Count me among the billions who have said "Ah, I could do that if I only tried" to something that I might be able to do, but severely underestimated the amount of effort and time that went into the creative process. Furthermore, it's very easy to burn out on creation. I originally thought it'd be great to put up daily posts, but that would come only at the compromise of quality, and I'd eventually stop. At some point, I need to consume some other people's content for both a break and inspiration.

That brings me to my final point: a schedule is creation's friend. I admit I'm pretty terrible at keeping a regimented schedule. Between procrastination and anti-authoritarian impulses, I'll find a way to do anything other than what I scheduled. But I'm trying, I'm really trying, by using very loosely defined "creating blocks" and "consuming blocks" without getting too specific with what needs to get done in that time period. Hopefully this solves a lifelong issue for me: without a set time for creation and a set time for consumption, I burn out after a short period of time. Then I find myself believing I could do anything, if I only tried.

December 5, 2011

Sex: Where Survival Becomes Pleasure

So I got to thinking about sex today. That's not exactly news worthy, as any post-pubescent male will attest. However, all this thinking about motivation and survival and pleasure cast the typical carnal thoughts in a different light. It seems obvious--too obvious--to say sexual desires are fueled solely by desire.

I know this flies in the face of thousands of years of stereotypes and jokes. I'm sure any woman who reads that opening paragraph thinks I'm not thinking with any head. But I'm being as serious as I risk being here. Physical attraction is a complex experience for at least this guy, and I think it's because more than just pleasure is at stake. Sex is a game of survival as well.

Life before the internet
Consider the following. What's the physiological point of getting it on? Making babies. And where do babies get their genetic make up? Their parents. So what are babies to parents? A way to pass on their genes to a future generation. A way to survive beyond their current body's own mortality.

But there's the rub. We don't nub and divide like yeast. We're sexual, not asexual. We need someone else to contribute the other half of our future, and that person has their own life, their own personality, their own way of dealing with this world. That's when it starts to get complex. I'll be damned if the source for that other half is someone I would despise having to deal with the rest of my life. I don't care how gorgeous someone looks rolling out of bed; if they're a royal pain in the ass, I will continue to pass on the pleasure.

So from my thinking, physical attraction is a filter for whether the other half of our offspring will be capable of getting them a chance at reproduction. That in turn is a way to preserve our own genes, at the cost of dilution (tanstaafl). At the same time, personality and character compatibility are a filter to prevent us from committing a murder, and that preserves my genes in the present.

From a stranger conversation this weekend: "Having kids doesn't mean the end. But you gotta find the right mom."

I'm Curious if There's More to It

In a previous post, I arrived at the conclusion that we're ultimately motivated by survival or pleasure (S&P). Whatever we do can be traced back to those two things. Some Punk threw a chopstick at me in disagreement, though, and made the point that alternative motivations probably existed, citing "curiosity" as an example. I let this idea simmer for a few days, attempting to follow a reasonable path from that motivation back to one of the two I cited. Let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes.

Simmer until desired consistency has been reached
First things first: definitions. I had to choose a common starting point for curiosity, and I choose the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So if you disagree with their definition, take it up with them, but only after pointing it out in the comments.

Curiosity: a desire to know things; inquisitive interest.

As a practicing scientist, I can appreciate this suggestion. My group actually does basic science (as opposed to applied), which really starts by asking the question "Why does this happen?" (as opposed to "How can we use this?"). The reasons we want to answer these kinds of questions are numerous, and include: 1) we want to share the answer with others, 2) we want to apply this new knowledge to solve a problem, 3) we just like doing the work and finding the answer. We do (1) because we either enjoy teaching or want the accolades that come with being the first to express an idea. We do (2) to make the world a better place and/or earn a profit for the solution. We do (3) because we just hate not knowing.

And why do we do any of those? Because, in aggregate, it's ultimately more pleasurable to do them than to not.

Now, different people will find different degrees of pleasure in each of those "submotivations". If you hate public speaking or writing, you won't enjoy sharing your results. But you likely enjoy the contribution those results make to the field or you took pleasure in doing the work that led to the results. That is, when all of the reasons you do something are added together, no matter how far into the future those reasons exist, if the balance is pleasurable, you should take action.

In the extreme case that our hypothetically curious subject disliked learning, sharing and applying the results, then our subject is certainly doing these activities for compensation, based on the premise this compensation will bring outsized pleasure in the future relative to the discomfort suffered in the present. Or our friend is just making ends meet to survive.

Curiosity extends well outside of a lab, and so does the final conclusion. Going to try a new restaurant out tonight? My guess is you're hoping to enjoy your meal. Traveling to a foreign land to learn something about the world? I'll wager you really get a kick out of new experiences and different cultures. Curious about starting a blog and publishing your thoughts to the world? Better pick something pleasurable to write about, otherwise we won't get to read your writing for too long.

I can think of a few possibilities that seem distinct from S&P, but they're all malicious in some way. Addiction and compulsion come to mind. What motivates people to stay in abusive relationships? I have fortunately very little experience in any of these, and won't disgrace their subtle nature by commenting on them. Survival (whether real or perceived) may play a role, but I doubt anyone aware of being in those situations would suggest pleasure as a motivation.

So, I believe curiosity is itself driven by the pleasure of finding, sharing and acting on new knowledge. You might say that's simply semantics, and that I've just broadened the definition and reasoning behind some alternative motivation until I can call it pleasure. Perhaps, but I find that a powerfully uniting idea. No matter where you came from, what you look like, how you say "mom", or what you aim to achieve in life, we're all coming from the same place: sticking around and having a good time.

Any other suggestions? What's motivating you today? I'd be happy to consider them and will respond in the comments. Whatever you suggest, I think we'll discover at its source survival or pleasure.

December 1, 2011

You Don't Know What You Want, and That's Okay

In our modern world, we have freed up significant amounts of time to work on tasks outside of finding something to eat. We have filled that vacuum with various activities that fall into two categories: work and hobbies. Hobbies are by definition something we do for pleasure in our free time, outside of work. Work, on the other hand, is something we do in order to earn currency to trade for the things we need to survive. Some people find their jobs enjoyable, but I'm guessing most do not. Yet they do it anyway. WHY?!

It's easy to lean back in my chair and tell the internet to find a job it enjoys. Obviously that's much more difficult to implement. First, there are the people with families to support. I'm not even going to pretend to understand the complexity of survival and pleasure in that situation, and I admit freely anything that follows probably does not apply to them. Second, even in a good job market, the job someone thinks they will enjoy may not be available. That brings us to the third difficulty, and the one I think is most often overlooked, but causes the most problems: we don't know what job would make us happy.

Maybe not lasting happiness, but it would be fun to pull a donut in
This point extends well beyond jobs (kids toys and dating come to mind), but considering how much time we spend working it seems the most important thing to enjoy. I think it'd be great to be able to write all day and get paid for it. Would I really enjoy it, though?

What happens when a hobby becomes a job? What happens when our motivation moves from pleasure to survival? Certainly some jobs suck so much anything is an improvement, but if given the opportunity to write your perfect job description, can you honestly guarantee you would love everything about it?

The sooner we stop worrying about what we're missing that will make us happy, and just start taking pleasure in those things already around us, the sooner we'll all  be happier. Sure, it's enjoyable to work towards a goal, but it's equally important to realize that perhaps the goal itself is not where the pleasure lies.

To What End?

While toiling in my nerdery the past few days, my thoughts drifted from the concrete actions I took in front of me, to a more meta level where I asked "Why am I doing this?" Initially I really only asked the question with regard to what I was doing with my hands at that moment, but then I got to wondering why anyone does anything. Why did you get out of bed this morning? Why do you go to school/work/whatever? Why do you talk to strangers/friends/anyone?

I arrived at two reasons: survival and pleasure. The first one should be pretty obvious, although I'm suspicious and undecided of the real reason we fear our non-existence. I'll save that for another time, though. Let's talk about pleasure.

If all we must do is eat and sleep to survive, then everything else beyond that is motivated by pleasure. Even eating and sleeping are influenced by this motivation. Do you add spices to your meals? Pleasure. Have a Coke and a smile, instead of just water? Pleasure. Sleep on a mattress when the floor will do? Pleasure.

Pleasure is a complex experience. There's a time component to pleasure (immediate versus delayed gratification), and expectations play a huge role in our perception of a pleasurable experience. Marketing over hypes a movie and we're left dissatisfied. Catch a good band you've never heard of and you come away satisfied. Ah, the complexity.

This was an unexpected, pleasurable concert.
I'm going to dwell on these concepts in coming articles in an effort to understand my own motivation, and why I sometimes do what I consider best for me, and many times choose to do an inferior task.

Do you think there's more to life than survival and pleasure? Do you always do "what's best" (the answer is no, but why?).

November 25, 2011

Playing the Credit Card Rewards Game

As a US-ian, I rarely use cash and even more rarely coins. For several years I exclusively used a debit card, as opposed to a credit card. Not sure about international terminology, but a debit card is linked directly to a checking account, and can only spend money that exists in that account. If you have less money than you're trying to spend on a given purchase, it will be denied (or your bank will cover you and slap on a ridiculous fee). Some might also call it a check card.

Money can't buy the thrill of the steal
Recently, I entered the world of credit cards. I long avoided them due to the stigma they've earned over the past decade and a fear of finding myself in debt. I've always lived within my means, and usually below them, but a family history of fighting credit card debt has left me wary. Couple that with inertia to move on from my debit card, and you end up with several years of debit cards.

Then I started planning a long term trip. I knew I'd fly some long distances, and concluded airfare would be the largest single expense. That's when I started looking into points programs, and it was a quick hop to credit card rewards programs.

Just so we're all on the same page, these rewards program typically give you points for spending money on the associated credit card. The number of points per dollar spent depends on what and where you're buying. These points can then be redeemed for cash (1 point = $0.01) or spent on rewards, such as gift cards and electronics. For some credit cards, though, you're able to transfer those points directly to a frequent flyer airline program and redeem award tickets.

The reason you would opt for the transfer (and not just cash) is that points can end up being worth more than $0.01 upon redemption, particularly if you book international premium tickets. So while not necessary, I would definitely not turn down a first class flight across an ocean.

So how does the game work? I simply make all purchases through a specific credit card and earn points. There are also additional services, such as dining programs, that can earn additional points. Plus, the first time sign up bonuses can easily fund an entire ticket, but these require planning. I'll go into the strategy I've planned to earn my future airfare in a future post. For now, I'll finish with the most important rule of this game:

Pay off your balance every month!

Talking to Strangers

Here in the States, we just celebrated Thanksgiving, a national holiday which centers around an enormous meal meant to share with friends and family. The meal is supposed to remind us that we have much for which we should be thankful, and serves as a chance to see some people once a year. After all that family and friend interaction, let's take a moment to be thankful for the opposite: talking to strangers.

No way - you met Sponge Bob?!
Any self-respecting parent will ingrain the maxim "don't talk to strangers" into their children. For good reason; children are naive and easily tricked, which presents a problem if the stranger has malicious motives. With age and experience comes maturity and the ability to read character. At this point, I would encourage every one to start conversations with the people next to you.

Sure, some people will clearly not be in a chatting mood, and some days neither am I. Often enough, though, a surprisingly good exchange will result. You'd be surprised at what people know about and want to tell you. A few recent examples from my life: how to buy a sailboat, the finer points of bocce ball strategy, profit margins on buying fake electronics in China and selling them in Miami.

This works in foreign countries and is a great way to practice a new language. I had a very nice chat (50-50 English and Korean) with a South Korean (SK) cab driver about North Korea (NK). Like many of the older generation in SK, he believed everyone is Korean (no North or South designation) and for that reason force should not be used to deal with NK. He asked me to tell Obama to leave NK alone; I'm still working on getting some face time for him.

Sometimes things get a little heavier, and people will open up about past relationships, dealing with depression, addictions and other things that you would normally never tell anyone. I call this the "stranger effect": unloading a personal burden by telling someone you'll never see again your problems. It's like a modern day confessional booth.

After several years of chatting people up, I can say the key to a good conversation is listening. If you pay attention, you can ask insightful questions, and that shows you care. The resulting rapport is the bridge over which strangers will send their information, and with that information comes a better understanding of that person (assuming no lying). That empathizing leads, in its own small way, to a better understanding of the world in which we live--something we could all stand to do better.

November 24, 2011

Holidays Are a Great Time to Work

If you have a tedious day job, that title probably makes you shiver. If you work in a lab or workshop with shared resources, you'll at least understand the logic. If you just like doing the opposite of what's expected, you'll agree that official holidays offer a great chance to catch up from all the unofficial holidays you observed during normal work weeks.

I can lay claim to those last two conditions. It's wonderful to have full access to equipment and not need to coordinate schedules with someone. If I also feel like I'm sacrificing something to be doing the work, then I feel empowered. So for those reasons, I went into work this morning, along with a handful of Chinese nationals.

I couldn't stay too long since I needed to clean my apartment. So, in the spirit of the holiday, I want to say I'm thankful that my mom decided to fly in this afternoon so I could tidy up the place.

Also, thank you whoever made this cookie jar

November 20, 2011

A Book Review: Factotum

Charles Bukowski's Factotum (Kindle) is the story of a low-income, alcoholic transient whose companions are whores and jobs are menial. Sure, there's more to it: rejected from the WWII draft, aspiring writer, even a possible murder. Nonetheless, the series of events that transpire, which are loosely connected at best, ultimately rely on the elements in the first sentence.

Bonus points if you name the country.
Factotum was my first Bukowski novel. I caught a documentary on his life a few years back, so I had an idea of what to expect as far as subject matter, and understood the main character, Henry Chinaski, served as a semi-autobiographical character. Therein lies the key to this story's success. The matter of fact nature with which the most absurd events are described rings true only because of the intimate knowledge the author has of the subject matter. Even if I had the writing skills of a master, my version of this story would sound hollow and feel weightless.

Despite the seedy nature of Chinaski's life, his choices bring up an interesting point. He doesn't take work that would interfere with his writing, even though his drinking probably handicaps him more than anything. Despite the perpetual poverty in which he continues to live, he ultimately chooses to do so for the sake of following his chosen profession. In a society where people trudge through life with jobs they hate, I have to give credit to Chinaski for rejecting society's norm. He does so at many expenses, and is not necessarily happy (how do we define that adjective anyway?), but he's living his life.

Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this story, I'm left wondering if my path through life would make an interesting novel. The cliche answer suggests everyone has a story. Is it the one you want to tell, though?

I have to at least mention how I came to read this book. The recommendation came at 5:30 am in the house of a woman I had met twelve hours prior who owned an unexpectedly good book collection. We were drunk. Seems appropriate.

Purchase the paperback, Nook or Kindle version, or just go to your library.

November 19, 2011

The Problem With Solutions

Let's consider a problem addressed in a design class from several years ago. An enormous multinational corporation (you use or know their products) makes a water-purifying sachet. It works quite well as far as I know, but the difficult part--and the focus of the project--is how best to move these sachets from the area they're manufactured to the area that they're needed.

Now this is a solution I support
Economies of scale will lead to the cheapest manufacturing costs when the items are manufactured in an automated factory. Only relatively developed countries can offer the services necessary to operate such a facility (i.e. electricity, skilled labor). While this route results in the cheapest manufacturing costs, those savings quickly evaporate when tasked with delivering the product to the end-user. First, there's the issue of moving the product from the factory to the country that needs it. This cost is typically not a deal breaker, but these sachets do not generate significant revenue since pricing must match means of the users. Second, recipients reside exclusively in third world countries, which lack the basic infrastructure required to efficiently move anything. Furthermore, those residents that really need them tend to exist in the most remote areas, where it can truly be impossible to deliver these items on a regular basis. Clearly, this approach does not qualify as sustainable.

So the other exterme option is to manufacture the sachets in the larger cities of the countries that need them. This route takes great steps toward solving the transportation issue, but the decentralization of manufacturing eliminates savings due to econmies of scale. Automated factories will not operate efficiently due to a lack of consistent electricity and skilled labor, requiring manual production of the sachets. In order to produce an appropriate quantity, a large amount of individuals must be employed.  Once again, a non-sustainable solution in terms of revenue generation.

One could conceive of a hybrid approach, doing a certain amount of manufacturing in a factory and letting the final manufacture occur in the end-use country. Depending on the costs of manufacturing individual components, this approach could be optimized and may produce the least expensive route. Nonetheless, as of today, the company continues to produce these sachets on non-profit basis and sell them at cost (which is pennies). I applaud their decision to do so--it's a wonderful example of corporate social responsibility.

The real issue in terms of creating a self-sustaining solution is the attempt at developing a panacea. The sachets require materials not locally available, which leads to the manufacturing and transportation problems described above. Furthermore, it would still require the company to exist, operate profitably and to choose to allocate resources to producing the necessary materials and providing appropriate training. Now imagine a product that requires only materials local to the affected area, can be produced by the native population with little to no specialized knowledge, and is cheap enough that the locals can actually afford it without subsidy. Whether or not you believe this solution can exist or not (I'm optimistic), one thing is certain: it's form will vary depending on the geographical location. Sub-Saharan Africa will use different materials in a different process than southeast Asia.

Have Clipboard, Will Obey

Let's reflect on a little tendency of human nature. If you act like you know what you're doing, people will follow your lead. I'm certainly not the first one to observe this facet of humanity, but I recently had a pretty nice night because of it. I found myself in DC at a random house party in Georgetown. I knew one person there, who knew one person there, who knew maybe three people there, which amounts to me knowing no one. Clearly under dressed, disheveled from a long car ride and in no way part of the scene going around me, I would've left if not for a decent bar set up in the middle of the dining room. Whoever lived there had purchased a small, portable Ikea-esque bar and simply stacked some cups, big bottles of middle quality liquors, a few mixers and some chopped up limes on it. A large cooler of ice sat behind the bar, along with a shaker and some cups. As a former bartender, it took 45 minutes before I gave in to the urge to get behind  there and ask the first person who approached, "What're you having?"

This bar is a dramatic reenactment of the one in this story
During the hour and a half I spent tending my new bar, my buddy and I managed to meet some pretty cool people, take a few shots and enjoy myself considerably. At some point, one of the guys who lived in this house came up, introduced himself and asked if I needed anything restocked--a pretty poignant moment regarding the topic of this post. Not nearly as much as the fact I walked away with $20 of tips at an open bar in a random house party, though. All of that simply because I decided to stand behind the bar and prompt people for an order. Take the lead, and people will follow.

I consider this series of events an example of the roles people are conditioned to play. Here in the States, we have bars with bartenders who make drinks we order. Then we pay them and give them a tip. Even in the absence of paying for the drink, the idea of tipping someone with cash is ingrained from youth in this country. It's a polite thing to do, and I found myself on the receiving end of it after stepping into the role of bartender. In countries and regions where the Western style bar does not exist, this situation wouldn't exist. People falling into prescribed roles will definitely still occur, though, perhaps even more so in a country with a stronger, more homogeneous cultural heritage. We're expected to play a certain role and behave a certain way, and it's much easier to go along with it than fight it. At my current age of 26, it's easy to see this happening every time I get on Facebook and see another high school classmate engaged, married or raising a kid.

What role are you playing?

Let's Get Angsty

There's always the gutter
Two-thirds of the way through an engineering PhD, figuring a little more than a year till defending. Add on a couple months for an approved sabbatical, but more on that later. The contents of my thesis will come from working in a wet chemistry lab. The results can be exciting, the analysis entertaining, but the work I find boring. Experiments are quite tedious. In reality, it does not take that much time to setup and execute the experiments I do. It's just remarkably boring to me. The ennui of doing this type of research makes it very difficult for me to get motivated to start. In physical chemistry terms, I have a high activation energy. Perhaps the closest thing to a catalyst is the possibility of having everything work and getting to author a scientific publication with the results. The currency of basic research consists of articles and citations, and publishing is very much the payday. It's actually a pretty nice incentive. Given the strong ties between employee happiness and recognition of contributions, being listed as an author on a publication is hard to top.

The issue I run into concerns the impact this work has on society. I consider basic research very important (certainly I'm bias, but there's an unbias argument for it), but I have difficulty motivating my myself to action when I feel the questions I'm asking and answering have grown increasingly confined to a narrow slice of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, I have increasingly wondered about the relative importance of uncovering new knowledge to solve problems, versus applying existing knowledge. For researchers purely in basic science, the point is to find something new and understand what's not currently understood. I've discovered knowledge for the sake of knowledge quickly grows unsatisfying. Without the context of having it somehow assist society, as altruistic as that sounds, I'm left to wonder what's the point? Attempting to apply this knowledge to make money strikes me as an even less interesting pursuit, although succeeding in this regard certainly has its fringe benefits.

So that's where I am, walking a path I have difficulty finding internal motivation to continue down, with the typical career trajectories of academia or industry not providing external motivation. Not exactly the most hopeful of situations, but not entirely bleak. For starters,  I am highly educated (some would say overly so) and that education has largely focused on problem solving. Sure, the topics actually had names like Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Heat Transfer, but the concepts apply to essentially any situation: indentify and isolate the problem, consider the resources and information available, determine the best approach based on the desired criteria. Furthermore, I have proven capable of working with a variety of people and teams, leading groups (still learning!) and independently generating ideas. Thus it would appear that the key to my future is finding the right thing on which to focus my efforts and stop holding myself back.