2017 in review (a quantified life)

I have always found it useful to take advantage of the New Year and reflect on what I have done over the past year. The day itself is a useful bookmark in life, inevitably trapped between leaving town for Christmas and coming back to town after the New Year begins. Because of the enforced downtime, what I happen to read has a strong influence on me – last year, I hopped on the Marie Kondo craze and really did manage to do a better job of keeping clean (kind of) but more importantly organizing my clothes by rolling and folding them until the fit so perfectly in my drawers. So that was useful, I guess.

The last year has been okay. Not great, not terrible. Kind of middle-of-the-road as my life goes. There have been some big wins (organizing a fantastic workshop at Cosyne on neurobehavioral analysis and being awarded a Simons Foundation fellowship that lets me join a fantastic group of scientists) and some frustrations (mostly scientific work that goes slowly slowly slowly).

One thing that sticks out for me over this past year – over these past two years, actually – is how little time I have spent on this blog. Or rather, how little of what I have done has been published on this blog. It’s not for a lack of time! I have actually done a fair bit of writing but am constantly stuck after a paragraph or two, my motivation waning until it disappears completely. This largely due to how I responded to some structural features in my life, mostly a long commute and a lot of things that I want to accomplish.

Last year I had the “clever” idea of creating a strict regimen of hour by hour and daily goals both for work and for my life. Do this analysis from 3pm – 4pm. Debug that code from 4pm – 5pm. Play the piano from 8pm – 9pm. Things like that. Maybe this works for other people? But I end up overambitious, constantly adding things that I need to do today so much that I rapidly switch from project to project, each slot mangled into nonsense by the little new things that will always spring up on any given day. Micromanaging yourself is the worst kind of managing, especially when you don’t realize you are doing it.

This is where what I read over winter break made me think. One of the three articles that influenced me was about the nature of work:

For unlike someone devoted to the life of contemplation, a total worker takes herself to be primordially an agent standing before the world, which is construed as an endless set of tasks extending into the indeterminate future. Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.

Yup, that pretty much sums up how I was trying to organize my life. In the hope of accomplishing more I ended up doing less. This year I am trying a less-is-more approach; have fewer, more achievable goals each day/month/time unit; have more unstructured time; read more widely; and so on. Instead of saying I need to learn piano and I need to make art and I need to play with arduinos and I need to memorize more poetry and finding more and more things that I need to do, just list some things I’m interested in doing. Look at that list every so often to remind myself and then allow myself to flow into the things I am most interested in rather than forcing it.

I was lucky enough in graduate school to join a lunch with Eve Marder. There are two types of scientists, she said. Starters and finishers. Some people start a lot of projects, some people finish a few. This has always stuck with me. This past year I have been trying to maximize how many things I can work on – and it turns out that is a lot of different things – I want to spend this year doing a couple things at a time and finish themDo them well.

I have this memory of Wittgenstein declaring in the Tractatus that “the purpose of the Philosopher is to clarify.” I must have confabulated that quote because I could never find it again. Still, it’s my favorite thing that Wittgenstein ever said. For a scientist, the aphorism should be that “the purpose of the Scientist is to simplify.”

There was an article in the New York Times recently from an 88-year-old man looking back on the 18 years he has lived in the millennium:

I’m trying to break other habits in far more conventional ways. As in many long marriages, my wife and I enjoy spending time with the same friends, watch the same television programs, favor the same restaurants, schedule vacations to many of the same places, avoid activities that venture too far from the familiar.

We decided to become more adventurous, shedding some of those habits. European friends of ours always seem to find the time for an afternoon coffee or glass of wine, something we never did. Now, spontaneously, one of us will suggest going to a coffee shop or cafe just to talk, and we do. It’s hardly a lifestyle revolution, but it does encourage us to examine everything we do automatically, and brings some freshness to a marriage that started when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president.

The best memories can come from unexpected experiences. The best thoughts can come from exposure to unexpected ideas. Attempting to radically organize my life has left me without those little moments where my mind wanders from topic to topic. Efficiency. I have cut back on my reading for pleasure, most of which now comes on audiobook during my commute and somehow seems to prevent deep thinking. But the reason I am interested in science in the first place is because of the questions about who we are and how we behave that come out of thinking about the things I read! The solution, again, is to remove some of the structure I am imposing on my life, simplify and force myself to let go of the need to always be doing something quantifiable and useful.

Looping back, this is where the importance of sitting down and writing, and finishing writing, is one of my big goals for the year. Because I find writing fun! And I find it the best way to really think rigorously, to explore new thoughts and new ideas. There is much less of a need to do so much, to try so many projects when I can read and think about something, writing about it to make something useful and enjoyable instead of making a huge product out of it.

I am not a Stoic but find Stoic thinking useful. Something I read over the holidays:

Let me then introduce you to three fundamental ideas of Stoicism – one theoretical, the other two practical – to explain why I’ve become what I call a secular Stoic. To begin with, the Stoics – a school of philosophers who flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds for several hundred years from the third century BCE – thought that, in order to figure out how to live our lives (what they called ethics), we need to study two other topics: physics and logic. “Physics” meant an understanding of the world, as best as human beings can grasp it, which is done by way of all the natural sciences as well as by metaphysics.

The reason that physics is considered so important is that attempting to live while adopting grossly incorrect notions about how the world works is a recipe for disaster. “Logic” meant not only formal reasoning, but also what we would today call cognitive science: if we don’t know how to use our mind correctly, including an awareness of its pitfalls, then we are not going to be in a position to live a good life.

Beyond reading and self-reflection, the best way to understand your life is to quantify it. Quantification is the best way to peer into the past and really cut through hazy memories that are full of holes. What did I really do? What did I really think? This isn’t an attempt at stricture or rigidity: it’s an attempt at radical self-knowledge. I’m a fairly active at journaling, which is the first step, but I also keep track of what I eat and how I exercise using MyFitnessPal, books I read on Goodreads, movies I watch on letterboxd, where I have been using my phone to track me, and science articles I read using Evernote (I used to be very active on yelp but somehow lost track of that). Using these tools to look back on the past year is a great experience: “Oh yeah, I loved that movie!” or “Ugh I can’t believe I read that whole book.” or just reminding myself of pleasant memories from a short trip to LA.

I’d like to expand that this year to include some other relevant data – ‘skills’ I work on like playing piano to see whether I’m actually improving, TV I watch (because maybe I watch too much, or not enough!), what music I’m listening to, where I spend my money (I already avidly keep track of the fluctuations in how much I have month-to-month), and what important experiences I have (vacations; hikes; seeing exciting new art). There don’t seem to be any good apps for these things outside of Mint, so I have assembled a giant Google Sheet for all of these categories to make it easier to access and analyze the data, with a main Sheet that I can use every month to look back and make some qualitative observations. Oh, and I’m also building a bunch of arduinos that can sense temperature, humidity, light, and sound intensity to put in different rooms of my house to log those things (mostly because my house is always either too hot or too cold and the thermostat is meaningless and I want to figure out why, and partly because I want to make sweet visualizations of the activity in my house throughout the year).

So my lists!

These are the movies I watched in 2017 and to which I gave 5 stars (no particular order):

Embrace of the Serpent
American Honey
Victoria
Gentleman’s Agreement
T2: Trainspotting
Logan
Moana
While We’re Young
Moonlight

With honorable mentions to My Life As A Zucchini, Blade Runner 2049, and Singles.

These are the books I read in 2017 and liked the most:

The Invisibility Cloak (Ge Fei)
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Murakami)
Ficciones (Borges)
The Stars Are Legion (Hurley)
Redshirts (Scalzi)
Red Mars (Robinson)
We Are Legion (Taylor)
Permutation City (Egan)
Neuromancer (Gibson)

I see a lot more scifi than I normally read, and many books that I have read previously.

Where was I (generated using this)?

There was an article a few years ago on the predictability of human movement. It turns out that people are pretty predictable! If you know where they are at one moment, you can guess where they will be the next. That’s not too surprising, though, is it? You’re mostly at work or at home. If you go to a bar, there is a higher than random probability that you’ll go home afterward.

The data that you can ask your Android phone to collect on you is unfortunately a bit impoverished. It doesn’t log everything you do but is biased toward times when you check your phone (lunch, when you’re the passenger in a long car ride home, etc). Still, it captures the broad features of the day.

I’ve been keeping track of the data for two years now so I downloaded the data and did a quick analysis about the entropy of my own life. How predictable is my location? If you bin the data into 1 sq. mile bins, entropy is a measure of how much uncertainty there is in where I was. 1 bit of entropy would mean you could guess where I was down to the mile with only one yes or no question; 2 bits of entropy would mean you could guess with two questions; and so on.

On any given day of the week, there are roughly 3 bits of entropy in my location (much less on weekends). But as you can see, it varies a lot by month depending on whether I am traveling or not.

In 2016 (the weird first month is because that’s when I started collecting data and only got a few days):

In 2017:

I will leave you with an image from the last thing I was reading in 2017, and which was consistently the weirdest thing I read: Battle Angel Alita.

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Neuroscience podcasts

I have a long drive to work each day so I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have been enjoying the new Unsupervised Thinking podcast from some computational neuroscience graduate students at Columbia. So far they have discussed: Blue Brain, Brain-Computer Interfaces, and Neuromorphic Computing. Where else would you find that?

I also found out that I got a shout-out on the Data Skeptic podcast (episode: Neuroscience from a Data Scientist’s perspective).

Update: I should also mention that I quite like the Neurotalk podcast. The grad students (?) interview neuroscientists who come to give talks at Stanford. Serious stuff. Raw Data was also recommended to me as up-my-alley but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it. YMMV.

Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle, 1918-2015

Vernon MountcastleMonday night brought the sad news that Vernon Mountcastle has passed away.

He got his career started, strangely enough, by studying motion sickness in dogs. His most famous discovery, though (motion sick dogs notwithstanding) is the columnar organization of cortex. Obviously he did much more. Here is a chapter on The History of Neuroscience devoted to Mountcastle which is well worth reading. You can also watch the video (embedded below). He evidently was also the first president of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), a position he ran for on a lark.

Here is an interesting bit about the discovery of the columnar organization of cortex, and its reception:

Many friends have inquired why the description of this general principle is contained in the paper authored by me alone. The answer is: by request! My two colleagues were so apprehensive over my proposal of such a radical hypothesis that they sought to disavow themselves from it! Indeed, it is not possible to exaggerate the calumny I was subjected to over this proposition, and with the most vigor by my colleague Jerzy Rose. He and most other anatomists had been trained in the schools of Nissl cytoarchitecture, Rose by the Vogts themselves, and the idea of layered cytoarchitecture dominated the scene; some even designated different layers for different functions! All this was before the revival of Cajal-type studies of the cortex. One critic said that the idea was just the “musings of an old man,” and I was only 39! Columnar organization was confirmed in a few years for the visual cortex by Hubel and Wiesel, and then by many others for the homotypical cortex as well, and it is now part of the cortical zeitgeist.

His most-cited papers are:

Modality and topographic properties of single neurons of cat’s somatic sensory cortex J. Neurophysiology 1957

Posterior parietal association cortex of the monkey: command functions for operations within extrapersonal space Am. Physio. Soc. 1975

Parietal lobe mechanisms for directed visual attention J. Neurophysiology 1977

Cortical neuronal mechanisms in flutter-vibration studied in unanesthetized monkeys. Neuronal periodicity and frequency discrimination. J. Neurophysiology 1969

 Some aspects of the functional organization of the cortex of the postcentral gyrus of the monkey. Am. Physio. Soc. 1959

Sorry, Nature/Science/Cell.

Yet another programming note

I’m in the midst of some intense experiments and don’t really have time for writing or thinking for the next week or two, which is why things have slowed down…

I’ll try to post snippets of articles I find interesting – not that I have much time for reading – or very brief thoughts on relevant articles that I scan. Expect the blog to be even more glib than usual! I’ll try to keep it semi-active, though.

Greetings from Portland, OR

I’m currently visiting the Greatest City on Earth which is interfering with my science blogging. But here is some personal photoblogging.

(to be updated, if anyone cares)

waterfall number 4 multnomah falls line to the bridge how to buy a fish

sun above the waterfall the gorge mystery pipe froggy friend

Become an SfN official blogger! #sfn14

The annual Neuroscience meeting (SfN) is coming up soon and SfN has announced that they are once again seeking official bloggers:

Social media allows for the widespread sharing of scientific information and increased interaction with colleagues. Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs allow up-to-the-minute scientific exchanges and experiences to be shared virtually.
The call for applications is now open and ends September 5, 2014.

I don’t have a particular reason to go to SfN this year, so I was wondering if SfN was willing to fund the travel – at least, the SfN Membership and conference fee. If anyone else was wondering the same thing, here is the response I got from SfN:

Thank you for contacting the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). SfN accepts blogger applications with the understanding that applicants have secured membership, and are registered to attend the annual. SfN offers bloggers the prestige of being an official blogger for the annual meeting, and an opportunity to increase their blog’s audience. Bloggers do not receive compensation for expenses associated with attending the annual meeting (ie. housing, travel, registration, etc).

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Membership costs $65 for grad students, $140 for postdocs, and $185 for ‘regular members’. Registration is another $100+…so they’re asking you to pay hundreds of dollars to be an ‘official blogger’ (in addition to housing and food, if you feel like eating or sleeping.)

Sure, you could probably relate this to the broader problems in academia such as the emphasis on cheap labor and expectation of overwork for the sake of ambition. But what do I know?

Visions of the Salk Institute

I have been working at the Salk Institute for the past six years or so. Beyond its science, the Salk has both breathtaking architecture and a stunning natural environment. It is absurdly common to see tour groups wander around, peering into the laboratories like us scientists are wild animals. As I am about to leave for the East Coast, I thought I would share some of the photographs I’ve taken over my time here; they range from DSLR to instagram to black and white film. The black and white was made intentionally dark; most pictures of Salk are intensely bright, highlighting the white color of the buildings. I thought it would be appropriate to show the bleakness that those of us forced to crawl through the floors-between-floors and work late nights experience.

All photos are under the Creative Commons license: feel free to use them just please give credit to Adam J Calhoun.

Salk Institute Salk Parking Lot Sunset sultry salk salk has a snail problem salk BEEEES in the salk lab from the salk parking lot setting up the salk Salk Hallway At Night Salk Parking Lot At Night Symphony at the Salk Salk Gate

Monday open question: What have you read that inspired you in science?

In a twitter discussion of inspirational scientists, I realized that a more interesting question was whether other scientists had particular papers or books that had profoundly inspired them.

For very young me, the answer would clearly have been Jurassic Park. This made me want to do science to the extent that several friends and I found a microscope and had one of us (not me) pick their nose until it bled so that we could look at the DNA in the blood, with grand visions of cloning near at hand. Needless to say, this did not work – it turns out that you can’t see DNA under a 40x microscope.

More near at hand, the text that continues to fascinate and inspire me is a book by Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies. This presents a simulation of behaving agents in a land called the Sugarscape. Epstein and Axtell then try to show what happens as these agents live and die in this brutal land. The idea that one could simulate the rules of life and use it to understand how living creatures create societies was breathtaking to me – much more so than something so abstract as Conway’s Game of Life. To this day, that is why I want to understand the clockwork neuroscience that drives organisms as they interact with each other and the ecological environment.

A suggestion by someone else was David Marr‘s Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. Marr died of leukemia tragically young, but his sketch of how to attack the problem vision is still considered fundamental. Here are some selections from the book and reading it one is left 35 years later marveling at the intellect behind it.

So what readings have influenced you? I want to read them!

Neuroecology programming note

Posting will likely be lighter than normal over the next month or two. I am writing my dissertation, working on multiple manuscripts, visiting family in India and moving to Philadelphia. Busy! And all this writing leaves me feeling drained and uncreative; it is hard to come up with the energy or ideas required for the blog to keep up its regular output.

Incidentally, if anyone who is reading this is a professor at UPenn or Princeton (or somewhere within driving distance of Philly), please send me an email, I am hunting for postdocs 😉