Leaning into absent-mindedness

From time to time, I notice a spike in the number of small mistakes I make due to inattention. It’s a good sign to slow things down, rejig systems and habits, and figure out how to make things better. For example, noticing that I often lost track of small things I was carrying around, I switched to a belt bag in summer and a vest in winter.

There are still quite a few slips I haven’t figured out how to work around, like the occasional times I put the oven mitts on the opposite side of the stove from where they usually are (I must have absentmindedly thought “Aha! An empty hook!”), or the time I tucked the sesame oil into the fridge. (“I’m holding a bottle; many bottles go into the shelves on the fridge door; this probably goes into the shelves on the fridge door.”)

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness -- index card #research #fuzzy

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness – index card #research #fuzzy

It turns out that there are lots of forms of absent-mindedness. Cheyne, Carierre, and Smilek (2005) defined a scale for attention-related cognitive errors (ARCES) that goes like this:

  1. I have absent-mindedly placed things in unintended locations (e.g., putting milk in the pantry or sugar in the fridge).
  2. When reading I find that I have read several paragraphs without being able to recall what I read.
  3. I have misplaced frequently used objects, such as keys, pens, glasses, etc.
  4. I have found myself wearing mismatched socks or other apparel.
  5. I have gone into a room to get something, got distracted, and left without what I went there for.
  6. I fail to see what I am looking for even though I am looking right at it.
  7. I begin one task and get distracted into doing something else.
  8. I have absent-mindedly mixed up targets of my action (e.g. pouring or putting something into the wrong container).
  9. I make mistakes because I am doing one thing and thinking about another.
  10. I have gone to the fridge to get one thing (e.g., milk) and taken something else (e.g., juice).
  11. I have to go back to check whether I have done something or not (e.g., turning out lights, locking doors).
  12. I go into a room to do one thing (e.g., brush my teeth) and end up doing something else (e.g., brush my hair).

I find that I tend to be okay at broad strokes (intentions), but sometimes I miss finer details. I’ve walked out of the house in inside-out or back-to-front clothing before (technical shirts feel the same either way!), although usually W- helps me catch those situations.

It’s not that bad, though. Although I sometimes don’t remember what I walked into a room for (especially if I get distracted by a conversation part way), I can almost always recall what I intended to do, and what was before that (if I hadn’t finished that yet). It also helps to have the habit of writing down quick notes and consulting my agenda for tasks to work on, but mental rehearsal is usually enough for me to “pop the stack”.

Fortunately, all this appears to be normal human experience. I might be a smidge more absent-minded than some folks, but it doesn’t get in the way of life, and even W- forgets a mug of hot water in the microwave occasionally. Besides, I enjoy working around the limitations of my brain by taking notes and tweaking the way I live.

This is probably why I enjoy reading research into the brain. It turns out that there are many possible explanations for absent-mindedness. There are different ways to measure it, and even a few ways to play around with it.

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy #research

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy #research

When I read through the research, I feel oddly optimistic. Even though I know I’m likely to get more absent-minded as I grow older, I also know that experience, mindfulness, more deliberate responses, and good habits using external-memory systems can help a lot.

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness – index card #fuzzy

I notice that I respond to the fuzziness in my brain with curiosity instead of frustration. I like this attitude, and I hope to keep it as I go through life. Instead of getting frustrated with myself, I get a good laugh out of the little mishaps (oh hey, I’ve put the plates where the saucers usually go; I can see how that happened!), and I explore it to learn more. So a bit of both, I guess: accept the fuzziness and hack around it.

Besides, the incidents aren’t that frequent. They’re just more prominent in my memory because I pay attention to them. =)

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life – index card #fuzzy

Actually, it works out really nicely that I’m thinking about this at this time. I know people around me also experience absent-mindedness, so I don’t have to have a hypochrondiac’s worry about early-onset diseases. (Although if we get to the point where this does actually get in the way of an awesome life, I’ll be sure to ask for help.) Instead, since I keep my life relatively smooth (low stress, plenty of sleep), I have a baseline of feeling good. That lets me notice changes more clearly, instead of the changes getting obscured in the noise of perpetual sleep deprivation or constant background stress. It also means that I can think of fuzzy-brain moments as temporary, local, and impersonal, and I can use my non-fuzzy times to figure out how to make the fuzzy times even better.

What are some things that could make absent-minded moments better?

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy

I might need to wait for better technology for some of these ideas, but most of the ideas are ready to go. Putting things in the wrong places is a minor inconvenience, and safety hasn’t been a big issue for me yet. I’ll probably focus on fuzzy memory and observation, looking for ways to take notes on or automate the things I do. For example, I’ve added notes on how to find and deploy code to the TODO lists for my personal projects, since I might go a few months without thinking about them. Notes also help with checking and monitoring. As I gain more experience and develop those systems and habits, that will help with brain fog as well. I trust my lists to help me with task disruption, and I keep lots of buffers in my life to soften the impact of forgetting. It’s a fascinating balance between taking things slowly and keeping things interesting enough so that my brain doesn’t go into too much of an automatic mode.

It’s odd how taking this kind of perspective changes how I experience forgetfulness. Instead of thinking to myself, “Where did I put those keys? I suck!”, I find myself thinking, “Oh look! I wonder what I’ll learn from this one…” We’ll see!

Various cooking-related notes

Posting them since I want to be able to find them again someday, and because it’s good to bring scattered ideas together once in a while.

2015-03-08c Getting better at cooking -- index card #cooking

2015-03-08c Getting better at cooking – index card #cooking

In terms of organization: we now have an index-cards-and-magnets kanban on the fridge door, tracking three states: “Get groceries for”, “Cook”, and “Eat”. Seems okay so far, but time will tell if we stick with it. =) Still have to work through more of the raw ingredients in the freezer. Lots of new recipes and food types, though!

2015-05-27c Getting better at cooking -- index card #kaizen #cooking #learning

2015-05-27c Getting better at cooking – index card #kaizen #cooking #learning

It’s fun to break skills down into smaller aspects I can work on. I’m working on knowing what kinds of tastes I like, which involves both trying out new recipes and tweaking the ones that we have.

2015-05-05d Flexible cooking -- index card #cooking

2015-05-05d Flexible cooking – index card #cooking

Speaking of waste reduction and flexibility, it’s nice to slowly accumulate a stock of recipes that can accommodate odds and ends. =)

2015-05-04d Chicken chicken chicken -- index card #cooking

2015-05-04d Chicken chicken chicken – index card #cooking

Our rotisserie is getting lots of use. Yum!

2015-04-28d Japanese curry combination -- index card #variety #meal-planning #cooking #japanese

2015-04-28d Japanese curry combination – index card #variety #meal-planning #cooking #japanese

I sometimes plan using the five-colours, five-ways method from Japanese cooking. Curry is surprisingly colourful (brown beef, green peas, yellow potatoes, red carrots, white rice). Omu-rice is colourful too. Nice to have these dishes!

2015-01-26 Shepherd's pie -- index card #cooking

2015-01-26 Shepherd’s pie – index card #cooking

Also nice and colourful.

2015-02-05 Biscotti -- index card #cooking #baking

2015-02-05 Biscotti – index card #cooking #baking

I’m pretty comfortable making biscotti now. Eventually I’ll work my way through the supermarket snacks aisle. ;)

2015-05-25b Japanese cheesecake -- index card #cooking

2015-05-25b Japanese cheesecake – index card #cooking

Yummy! So nice and fluffy. Uses much less cream cheese compared to the classic Philadelphia cheesecake recipe on the box of cream cheese. I like both types.

2015-03-16e Decision - Slow cooker -- index card #decision #cooking

2015-03-16e Decision – Slow cooker – index card #decision #cooking

Still no slow cooker, since simmering things on the stove works out fine for us and we don’t need its timing capabilities.

It’s starting to feel like summer, so it’s a good time to eat fruits, leafy vegetables, and salads. Looking forward to exploring more tastes and recipes!

Building tools for myself: grocery receipt tracking

Today was another good day for writing code. I finally built that quick-feedback receipt item tracker I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’d built a simpler version into Quantified Awesome (not linked from the main interface, since it was very rough), but I found the browser roundtrip too disruptive. Today’s implementation uses Angular for faster responses. For good measure, I’ve got a NodeJS server proxying the requests to either my local development copy of Quantified Awesome or to my production version.

Here’s a screenshot:

2015-05-26 22_21_38-sachachua.com_8080_receipt

On the left side, I have a scanned receipt in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (or a paper receipt on the side). On the right, my autocompleting tracking interface. It’s not pretty, but it fits what I have in my head. I like the way that typing in the first few characters of the receipt line item is often enough to uniquely identify the receipt item type and retrieve the price history. This means that as I track, I also get a sense of the price trends and what a good sale is.

Aside from keeping track of the prices, I’m also looking forward to analyzing our consumption by category on a more regular basis. I did a few analyses along those lines before (here’s a year of data), but it might be neat to have that kind of feedback on a daily basis. Entering my receipt archive was easy. I ended up typing in the receipts from here to January because it was fun. =)

Next up: fast categorization, some graphing… I’m also looking forward to making a quick price book interface. Hmm, if I dust off that grocery list tool I had started building into Quantified Aweome and I integrate the price book, that might be handy.

Thinking about adaptive menus for tracking

I’ve been thinking about building more tools for myself. Some of the ideas I’ve been playing around with are around simplifying activity tracking further, possibly getting it to the point where it suggests things for me to do when my brain is fuzzy.

My current tracking system has two tiers. For my most-common activities, I use a custom menu that I can open from my phone’s home screen. I created the menu using Tasker. It’s easy to configure menu items to update my Quantified Awesome activity records as well as run other logic on my phone. For example:

  • “Eat dinner” creates an activity record for “Dinner”, then starts MyFitnessPal so that I can log the meal
  • “Walk home” creates an activity record for “Walk – Other”, then starts step-by-step navigation of the walk back to my house
  • “Sleep” creates an activity record, then launches Sleep as Android
  • “Ni No Kuni” creates an activity record, prompts me for what I want to do after an hour of playing, opens a page with tips for the game, and then reminds me of my plans after that hour passes

One advantage of using something on my phone is that I don’t have to wait for the initial web page from Quantified Awesome to load. My keyboard occasionally takes a while to come up, too, so the menu-based interface gets around that as well. Also, as I get the hang of using Tasker, I can set up more intelligent processes. The menu has a link to open the web version, so if I want to track something less frequent, I can always use the web interface.

In the web interface, I usually type a substring to identify the category I want to track. For example, “kitch” results in an activity record for “Clean the kitchen”. I use this interface if I need to backdate entries (ex: -5m), too.

In addition to the two interfaces above, I’ve been thinking about taking advantage of the predictability of my schedule.

Research into adaptive menus turns up quite a few design ideas and considerations. Since I’m building this for myself, I can get around many of the challenges of adaptive interfaces, such as privacy and predictability. I’m curious about the following options:

  • Text-based input with minimal cues, as part of a more powerful command line
  • Context-sensitive menu with a handful of items (3-4, with a link to more): I can probably suggest candidate activities based on the past two activity records. That might mean a little bit of latency as I check, though. It also means that the menu will keep shifting, so I’ll need to read it and find the item I want to click on.
    • For everyday use?
    • For really fuzzy moments?
  • Static menu of frequent items, but adaptive highlighting (ex: green or bold, or fading out other things slightly)
    • Abrupt onset, others fading in over 500ms
    • Colour?
    • Weight?
  • Split menu: frequent items on top, everything else below
    • Static
    • Adaptive
  • Hierarchy of menus: speedy, but lots of tapping
  • Cut off menu: show only the activities that come after the one I’ve just tracked

Hmm… It might be interesting to play around with different menu options. It would be good to experiment with NFC as well, especially early in the morning. =)

Related:

Weekly review: Week ending May 22, 2015

Almost 26 hours of playing video games this week – Ni No Kuni is such an engaging option for my fuzzy brain. Some thoughts and conversations, though, so I didn’t vegetate the entire time. =)

Planning to take it easy over the next couple of weeks: games, drawing, writing, some code…

2015-05-25a Week ending 2015-05-22 -- index card #journal #weekly

output

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (20.1h – 11%)
    • Earn (7.8h – 38% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (10.0h – 49% of Business)
      • Drawing (8.9h)
      • Paperwork (1.1h)
        • Calculate deductions
        • Transfer money for salary
        • Write and deposit cheque
        • Remit deductions
        • File payroll in Quickbooks
    • Connect (2.3h – 11% of Business)
      • Chat with Michael Crogan about Emacs
      • Chat with Ab Velasco about Quantified Self talk
  • Relationships (10.7h – 6%)
    • Work on personal project
  • Discretionary – Productive (9.9h – 5%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Make a list of all my TFSA contributions
    • Verify Jen’s public key by calling
    • Review Createspace
    • Add to my TFSA
    • Writing (2.9h)
  • Discretionary – Play (25.7h – 15%)
  • Personal routines (22.5h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (21.4h – 12%)
  • Sleep (57.6h – 34% – average of 8.2 per day)

Building tools for my future self

I was thinking about steps towards personal digital assistants. In a separate thread, I was also thinking about the psychology of aging. In a third thread, I was thinking about projects I might want to build to help me learn more. It makes sense to bring all these threads together: thinking of systems I can build to improve the quality of life I’ll enjoy in the future.

I think this might be a better fit for my experimental learning than either a hypothetical market or specific people. After all, I’ll always have a future self who could benefit. (And if I don’t, I’ll be past caring!) If the things I build along the way turn out to be useful for others, all the better.

Anyway, I was thinking about the kind of simple, deterministic, idiosyncratic assistant I could build to make life a teensy bit better in the medium term and the long term.

I could start with a text box interface on a webpage, then move to alternative inputs like dictation or neuro-integration(!) when that becomes reliable. It would be great to have some kind of offline buffering, too.

In terms of logic, I could start with stateless well-defined responses, add synonyms, support conversational interfaces, use weighted factors, add feedback mechanisms, and then eventually reach proactive notification and action. Inferences would be awesome, but I don’t have to wait for them to be sorted out. Ditto for program generation and adaptation.

In terms of sensing and acting, I can start with existing APIs and tools, write specific adapters for other sites, push into the physical world with sensors and actuators, use context and probability to simplify, and then take advantage of improvements in fields like computer vision or biometric analysis as other people build and commoditize cool tech.

But first, it starts with building a simple tool. Hmm, maybe a little thing that suggests what to do next (and coincidentally makes it easy to track)…