Tag Archives: psychology


A brief guide to going to the library to revivify your mind

(This is a distillation of my long personal experience with the technique; take from it what makes sense to you.)

This is a way to till up your mind-soil and get little thoughts into solution to crystallize them into seeds of tranquility, or something. I mash my metaphors purposefully, because this technique works by mixing up your thought-patterns to get you out of those boring little loops.


Set aside a two to three hour span of uninterrupted time. It’s best that you be unhurried and unpressured, but this technique can also help you get to that state, so no worries if you’re worried.

Walk to the library. Or use some other human-powered locomotion. Getting your body energy into the act helps get things flowing. On your walk, let your mind drift. If you’re troubled by something, just go ahead and ponder that, but expose your worries to a layer of honest analysis, too. If you’re untroubled, just think about kitty-cats and flowers and such. This is the tilling part. You’re preparing your mind by loosening it up.

Upon passing through the threshold of the library, put aside any worry-type thoughts. In the library, you’re going to run a simple little exercise, two to four times. This is the solution/crystallization phase.

Identify a section of the stacks. If you have a tendency to visit one place in the library a lot, you can start heading there. Or if you have a topic that’s been on your mind a lot lately, type a few keywords into the catalog and choose a book at semi-random from the list and go toward it. Or if you just see a space that seems to be relatively free of other people, drift there. The idea is not to find a specific book or a specific topic, but just to get near things that you’ll probably like.

While moving casually toward your target area, keep your eyes open for any interesting oddities in the stacks. Books that attract you with their nice colors or hot keywords or cool titles or I’ve-always-been-curious topics or whatever. If anything looks good, you’ve found your place. Otherwise, keep going to your original target.

Grab a book. Don’t give any thought to whether you understand the topic well enough to read the book, or whether it’s something worthy of discussion at the watercooler, or whether you’d normally be seen reading such a thing. Just grab something good. Open it to a random page about a third of the way through. You could use the table of contents, or something, too, but probably just go with randomness. Start reading. Don’t stop because they’re referring to some term defined previously in the book, or there’s an equation that you don’t like. You’re not trying to win an award for Awesomeness In Reading Stuff You Already Understand, you’re just activating parts of your brain and getting excited about some ideas and how they connect.

Read for five to fifteen minutes. Maybe break that time up in between two or three books in the vicinity that grab your attention, or just stick with the first one. If you spend too little time, you won’t really get things activating. If you spend too much time, you won’t really get things stirred up.

Repeat the exercise a few more times. I know I already said, that, but it bears repeating. Two times (total) will at least start cross-pollination of ideas, four times is probably best if you have the inclination.

While you’re working on your second or third go-round, you’ll find that things are starting to connect. Ideas expressed in a book about machine learning algorithms will be echoed eerily in a book about sketches by famous designers. This is the crystallization, and it pretty much always happens if you’ve run the exercise according to the basic outline above. It’s pretty awesome.

After a sufficient period of crystallization, you’ll be all revivified and feel better. You can head home, and as you do, just keep going on the various connecting threads. Also, look at trees and sidewalks and telephone poles. Sit in a park for a few minutes. That kind of stuff.



Neurons abuzz

Hmmm, it’s pretty interesting to me how my brain works sometimes.

Tonight as I was walking home from the grocery store, not particularly thinking about work, it popped into my mind: infinite loop! If a certain event happens tonight, there’ll be an infinite loop that will fill up the disk, which sucks a bunch on a remote machine because you might not be able to log in at that point to clean it up, and I’d have to have tech support clean it up and reboot it, and the pilot starts tomorrow.

Fixed that before the event happened, but only thanks to the fact that somewhere in my brain, there was a simulation running of two servlets on two machines reacting to a nightly automatic event…



Hmmm, interesting psycho-physiological phenomenon… If I have a song running in my head, and it has lyrics, I hear it being sung in the voice of the original singer (Jim Morrison singing “Maggie M’Gill” is the particular example today). If I then take a drink of water or something, the voice is muffled a little. I wouldn’t predict that if I hadn’t experienced it…


Little decisions

One thing that’s nice about writing software for a living is that it helps remind you often that little decisions are important ones.


Psychology of info-space navigation

I’m also fascinated by the psychology of getting around in unfamiliar info-spaces. In order to find a workaround for my problem outlined in Geek TV: open source rocks, I had to:

  • find anchor points
  • learn terminology
  • learn systemic interactions
  • build an environment for experimentation
  • build models of a system with dozens of components
  • perform experiments
  • twiddle code

and finally, reason about interactions between things I don’t understand, within a system I don’t understand, driven by a practical problem that I wanted to solve. And this all took place in a period of days, in a total of a couple dozen hours, on and off, with the final effort between getting annoyed with the problem and having a workaround occurring in a couple hours.

I’d really like to know more about how all that happens. I know that lots of academics have spent lots of effort on learning about that, and I have spent some time delving into their research, but still, I don’t feel like I have much of a feel for the most important parts of the whole process. It’s fun, in any case.


DVD mystique

It’s interesting to me that when I buy a DVD of episodes of a TV show, they’re quite a bit better than they were on TV. There are a number of possible explanations for this, and no doubt they add up, but I think the biggest difference is that there are no commercial interruptions. Not only does this let the content flow properly, but I’m also more likely to allow myself to invest my attention when I know that nobody is going to try to hijack it to hawk garbage.


“Make Your Own Fun/Rules”

These are some pretty great suggestions about modifying gameplay by conventions to get some more life out of your video games:

game girl advance: Make Your Own Fun/Rules.

I try this sort of thing on occasion, but I haven’t yet reached the heights of creativity demonstrated here. Part of it is that I mostly play games by myself, so I don’t really have the social component that is key to those rule sets, nor do I have other people checking me on whether I’m sticking to the rules.

This reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately with regard to video games (well, it’s true of all games), which is that the structure of a game, its rules, scoring, criteria for winning, etc., imply a certain value system. To play the game ‘by the rules’ is to agree to enter or pretend to enter into that value system for a while. That can be fun and that can be annoying/frustrating/disgusting. I forsee video games getting more and more direct support for regular gamers (i.e. not modders or programmers) to modify the rules of the game to tailor it to their own value choices.

For example, in Need for Speed Underground 2, I like to play drift races, but I don’t quite like how the game scores them (wagging your ass all over the place willy-nilly gets you lots of points, for example). If I had some nice little control panel where I could modify the scoring algorithm, then I could have more fun with the game and still have the computer track my ‘performance’ for me. Of course, I can always just ignore the scores, but why not have a nice middle ground?


The best or consistent?

Here’s a business question that I think about, and I wonder if people offering services to the world often have any explicit philosophy about it: is it better to always give a little extra when you can, or to be consistent?

For example, suppose you’re a chef, and during a slow period you could arrange the cilantro garnish in a pretty pattern, but when you’re rushed, you would only have time to scatter it around semi-randomly. (More dramatic examples are possible, but that at least gives the flavor of what I’m talking about. Flavor, ha.) Would you consider it better to always scatter it, so that customers get consistency, or to arrange it when possible, so that some customers sometimes get something a little extra?

My personal philosophy is to tend toward giving a little extra when I can. To me, the benefits (to the customer) of those little surprises, and (to me) of the attention to the little details, outweigh the advantages of consistency. However, I bet a lot of business environments do explicitly quash their people’s desire to do a little bit extra, on the theory that it will confuse the customer about expectations or that it will waste time.

This is probably similar to the division between commodity services and more differentiated ones. Certain businesses keep themselves in the commodity space to save money, and certain ones try to stay differentiated to increase customer satisfaction. It’s good, I think, that there is a mix of those two paths in an economy, or even within a business, but my personal tendency is toward the differentiated path.


Social isolation

I notice that some people present a statement similar to “technology x is socially isolating” as if that was a self-contained argument that technology x is ‘bad’. Putting aside for a moment the fact that any technology which can be used in a socially isolating manner can also be used in a socially inclusive manner, I think it’s quite a good thing that there are technologies available to do things in a manner which reduces social interaction.

Looking at my personal psychology, and I don’t think I’m at all alone in this, I have limits in the amount and types of social interaction I have in a day. If those limits are exceeded, further interaction of the wrong types can be disproportionately annoying. Even if I acknowledge at that moment that I’m ‘overreacting’, I remain annoyed. If I was pushed way beyond those limits, I suppose I could end up alienating people or, ya know, mauling them.

I think many people labelled ‘jerks’ and many of the ‘random’ violent acts we hear about could be explained mainly by social overload. This world has a whole lotta people, packed in insane densities in some places, so the availablility of ways to modulate and balance one’s social interactions becomes an essential skill to reduce one’s stress and hostility.