Camping in the dunes, my kids and I read and sat and talked outside, ate by a fire, lazed in the sun, dove into waves, slept on the ground. We agreed on the important things: food, shoes, paths to hike, the distance from the site to pee. I watched my children, all at different points on the trail to adulthood. They sang and screamed and fought like kids, but like adults they collected wood, made fires, tied ropes, brewed coffee, hiked solo, read DH Lawrence, played Soduko.

Back home in real life, somewhat sated, I was surprised to feel a new and incredibly strong aversion to the electronically connected life, the life we all lead. My dislike was a deep and serious. Neurotic. Practically pathological. Easily I avoided the computer for days — which I’d never done before. At the mere thought of logging on I became anxious. I shed tears. I fantasized I could divide my life on the job (soon to restart) from my real, internal life. I dreaded the screen, commitments to people, the onerous attention required. I would not email friends, I would phone. I would not post “farewell” messages; perhaps online friends might even miss me. But I didn’t give a damn. It felt good.

Have you ever felt this way?

For 4 days I happily puttered along in my delusion, cleaning and cooking and generally taking care. But, as they say, life happens. I woke up Thursday knowing I could no longer indulge an offline dream. I was acting like a baby. Only the completely independent individual can afford the luxury of withdrawing from the electronic universe.

So I put on the coffee water, steeled myself, and waded into Gmail — where important messages were awaiting.

Obviously, I’m back. But I’m different now.


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Words for Murat Morrison

The green, green world’s what killed the man.
Jamming hard, he pressed down the pedal,
he felt the sweet sweet curve, the road
that pulls, extends, gravity’s pitch that sends
him into the main line, the interstate
south, home for the mundane, the seedy,
their passengers. Not him. He was passing through.

This summer, he planned perfect pictures,
pink and blue and glowing, with friends finally,
and after so much, another love, different and real,
mysterious but his. He was hers. He was.

Oh friend, ours is a green and deadly world,
a place we sadly pass if we don’t stop, at least don’t
slow down to touch asphalt, skin, paint, keys, grit.
And yet at a pause, green matter sucks us in, tears us
up, blinds us with leaves, walls, a shallow horizon.

So there he was, alone like the rest
of us, zipping like a planet through space, sure
as hell where he was going, a mix of colors, lights,
oh so fine, until, like an infinitesimal particle raised up
into the natural world, he smashed into the green
wall that sucked him under, back to the beginning.

Requiescat in pace, Murat.


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Multi-tasking is task-switching

16 bit parallel processing nano brain made by 17 Duroquinone molecule. The dotted lines represent hydrogen bonds. By Matengelec (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

16 bit parallel processing nano brain made by 17 Duroquinone molecule. The dotted lines represent hydrogen bonds. By Matengelec (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, rocking through the daily to-do list, I felt like was multitasking like a maniac, getting things done. Despite the happy flow, I had to remind myself that when it comes to attention, true multitasking is impossible.

Yes, it’s true. Neuroscientists have known for years that the executive function controlling the brain’s attention functions like a switchboard, not a parallel processor.

So when I’m talking on the phone, checking email, wiping down my keyboard, outlining an essay, and peeking at the construction out the window, I’m toggling between tasks really, really swiftly.

Don’t believe me? Try this simple test from Psychology Today.

Even if humans eventually build a molecular nano brain, which theoretically functions according to the laws of quantum mechanics, it’s likely that the resulting nano bots will ultimately perform like people — achieving complex tasks one step at a time.

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6 flicks to make Barb smile

I recently realized my friend Barbara has been watching too much Serious Cinema. To remedy this, I’ve compiled a short list of comedies for her, each one a script for the best medicine: laughter.

    • Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen (1987)
      This blue-collar love story is a family fable, complete with a menacing, mystical character: the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. The rambunctious score by Carter Burwell uses Beethoven and banjos to give the story an epic, yet homey American feel. The premise is this: ex-con H.I. McDonough (Nick Cage) and his cop-wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) want kids but can’t adopt — on account of HI’s record of robbing convenience stores. So when they see the Arizona quints on TV, HI and Ed decide to liberate a baby and raise him as their own. (Ed: “Go back and get me a toddler!“) We get madcap scrapes (“Son, you have a panty on your head.“) and bizarre characters like jailbirds Gale and Evelle Snoats, who, in one epic scene, rise from the mud like a pair of devils. In a voiceover, HI explains his predicament: “I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he’s a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.”
      –> Raising Arizona, original trailer
    • The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese (1982)
      In this deadpan tale of star-struck obsession, the creepy Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) and his neurotic nemesis Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) conspire to kidnap their idol Jerry Langford, a crabby comedian exquisitely played by Jerry Lewis. Rupert and Masha are nuts, each in their own special way. Rupert, who still lives in his mother’s basement, is conspicuously devoid of talent, charm, and wit. But he’s persistent all the same. Rupert: “I’m gonna work 50 times harder, and I’m gonna be 50 times more famous than you.” Jerry: “Then you’re gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life!” The unexpected ending gives the film an unsettling twist.
      –> King of Comedy trailer
    • The Producers, Mel Brooks (1968)
      Sleezy Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) convinces his nervous accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) that they can get rich by purposely producing a theatrical flop. Set-piece gags ensue as Max and Leo assemble the goofy personalities needed for their play, “Springtime for Hitler.” (The theme song is fab!) We meet Dick Shawn as the hippie Hitler and Christopher Hewitt as a their flamboyantly gay director Roger DeBris. Initially, Max has to bully Leo into the shady deal. So the corpulent Max jumps up and down over the prostrate, squirming Leo, shouting, “won’t jump on you! I won’t jump on you! Not like Nero did to Popeia!” God it’s ridiculous!
      –> The Producers (1968) trailer
    • Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis (1993)
      Bill Murray is genius at playing a meanie, and he’s at his snotty best in this morality tale with an unusual premise: Phil Connor (Murray) is an arrogant weatherman who finds himself in a hellish time-loop. He is doomed to repeat a tedious Groundhog Day remote — over and over and over again. (Wonders Phil: “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”) Attempting to break the spell, Phil does increasingly obnoxious and crazy things. Of course, in order to succeed and get the girl (Andie McDowell) Phil must adapt his mind to his weird new reality – and and learn to be a Nice Guy. Murray’s snarky and wacky antics –  and the movie’s interesting take on philosophical determinism – make Groundhog Day worth watching again. And again.
      –> Groundhog Day trailer
    • Office Space, Mike Judge (1999)
      Set in a Silicon Valley office park, Office Space lambastes the modern-day workplace. Disgruntled programmers Peter, Michael, and Sameer hate their dead-end jobs at Initech. (Get it?) They devise a plan wreak revenge; unfortunately, their code doesn’t quite run as planned. And a visit to a hypnotherapist renders Peter a little, well, strange. The film earns cult status with its incisive takes on office mainstays: the chipper receptionist, the mandatory office birthday party, the slimy boss, the unreliable network printer, the hatchet-men consultants, and the slovenly guy who talks to himself. Jennifer Aniston plays the glum waitress at a trendy restaurant that requires staff to wear plenty of flair. (I don’t really like talking about my flair, she winces.) Lots of cursing, but all ends well. If you missed the email on the TPS cover sheet, this flick is a must-see.
      –> Office Space trailer
    • Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick (1964)
      In this Cold War classic, we get the story of FUBAR at Burpleson Air Force Base and an impending nuclear apocalypse. Insane General Jack D. Ripper (Stewart Hayden), convinced the Soviets are contaminating America’s “precious bodily fluids” with fluoride in the water supply, orders out the B-52s. In the Pentagon War Room U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his staff attempt to reverse the orders. (“Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.“) General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and science advisor (and former Nazi) Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers) do their best to avert impending disaster. Slim Pickens plays it straight as bomber pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong on the mission of his life: “Well, boys, I reckon this is it – nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies.” It’s an hysterical take on Cold War hysteria.
      –> Dr. Strangelove trailer
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Testing a free tool for improving headlines

Scientific? Spiritual? Not even a little bit.

The headline for this post registers relatively high — 57.14% — on the Emotional Marketing Value scale, a measure calculated by the Advanced Marketing Institute. (Most copywriter headlines register between 30% and 40%, says the AMI.)

Intriguingly, the AMI promises that its algorithm parses headlines using years of research to predict which words appeal to specific audiences. At least, that’s what it says on the website — last updated in 2008.

According to the EMV calculator, the post headline appeals to a reader’s spiritual side. Does that mean people feel religious about improvement? Or that free stuff gets people closer to a higher being?

I am skeptical, but I do get a thrill from free stuff, especially nifty little online calculators.

Give it a try here:



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Papa’s advice to writers

HemingwayMatador-300“Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.”

— Ernest Hemingway, from “By Line” in Hemingway on Writing. More tidbits from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.

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Gaming my goals

Marti's avatar on HabitRPG

Marti in her kelp-wrapped hat and blue mouse ears. With her pet bear cub!

For me, one of the most satisfying things about completing a task is checking it off my list. (“Ha! Another!”) I’ve tried a handful of productivity apps — merely so I could experience the pleasure of creating lists and checking off the items, which somehow quantifies my efficiency and all around amazingness.

Sadly, I tended to get bogged down in list-writing. I’d have subtasks. And then I’d have to order and re-order list items. Even if I checked off an item, I’d still want to edit and refine it. Or maybe the completed item would disappear, as if it had never existed! I eventually got bored and gave up on Outlook and Evernote. I didn’t need something to manage my workload; I wanted something to make the workload enjoyable.

About 6 months ago I happened upon the perfect list-making application for me. It is called HabitRPG. Although the gamey interface put me off at first, I soon became a devoted user of this free online tool.

Here’s why I think HabitRPG is brilliant: it separates tasks into three incredibly intuitive categorizes:

  • Habits — the things you’re training yourself to accomplish regularly, like writing a blog post, memorizing a poem, or calling your Mom.
  • Dailies — tasks you must complete every day, like exercising, checking job boards, and taking vitamins.
  • To-dos — your running task list, the assignments you must complete, like finishing a report, taking clothes to the dry cleaner, running the anti-virus software.

For completing tasks, naturally you get points. It is a game after all! But more useful and charming than game points is Habit’s way of quantifying, on one screen, all the things I should be doing to improve myself — my writing, my health, my job performance. I score myself, and I don’t cheat.

In another post I’ll detail the interesting ways HabitRPG motivates users to improve their lives. It’s more than kelp-wrapped hats!

In the meantime, here’s a fun fact: HabitRPG was fully funded by Kickstarter in February 2013.

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