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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4 reasons why email is still a killer app

atSign The internet’s original killer app, email has outlasted operating systems, online services, and local area networks. But why has email lasted, when modern communication modes so obviously seem superior? Especially given the scourge of spam?

Here are four reasons why email remains a killer app.

 1. Email is standard. It’s easy to use and supported ubiquitously. Phone, laptop, desktop or tablet — all have email apps that transparently send and receive messages from other apps. Furthermore, precisely because email has been around so long, the interface itself has become standard.

2. Email is a foolproof way to send files. Email is by far the easiest way to share a file or two. Sure you can send files to a cloud service like Dropbox, but often that’s overkill. Plus, cloud services have finicky and proprietary notification methods. Why use a middle step when you can send most files as attachments?

3. Email reaches groups.  To convey one message to many people, email is the simplest, most direct method. Pack the Send field with email addresses — often public and readily discoverable — and you’re set.  The venerable email list still enables effective mass communications, for marketing, for news, or for special purposes like emergency alerts.

4. The inbox is an archive. Unlike social media communications, email isn’t a stream of messages. It’s a pool. (Okay, so sometimes it’s a deep pool!) Nevertheless, it’s a cache of messages we’ve sent and received that we can save, organize, and search.

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Another view of Alec Baldwin: a cautionary tale — with a twist

I whine about tabloid journalism, but I often end up reading the stuff anyway. Ah well! And yet I recently discovered how easily I am manipulated by the sensational stories and headlines I consume.

Until recently, I admired the actor Alec Baldwin. Everything I knew about him I learned from the film, Glengarry Glen Ross. In it, he plays a small but terrifically nasty role as the slick tough guy from “Mitch and Murray” coming to knock some salemen’s heads. He gives a motivational speech with lines like:

“As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

He finishes the scene by brandishing a pair of brass balls and swinging them below his belt.

“You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes BRASS BALLS to sell real estate. Go and do likewise gents.”

Yah! It’s a classic scene. Check it!

So, a few weeks ago when I read a linkbait headline screaming Alec Baldwin was quitting New York City (whoa! he’s in NYC not LA?), of course I clicked. I skim-read the whole New York Magazine piece, which was basically a very long, very specific rant, spoken or written (hard to tell) by Alec Baldwin detailing ways he gets no respect. Like Rodney! Except Baldwin was totally serious. He itemized all the ways he tries to be a caring public figure but is, for various unfair reasons, by various unfair people, shat upon and accused of evil — and false! — ill-liberal behavior.

Yah! It was embarrassing . (You will have to Google it. I’m not linking.)

The next thing I knew, I had a completely different view of Alec Baldwin. Oh, I believed he was vilified unfairly; anyway, I was too lazy to check the facts. Heck, I didn’t even know he HAD a television show. Even so, after reading his rage against vicious public perception, I immediately stopped thinking of Alec Baldwin as an actor. Suddenly he’d become a goofy celebrity with a gift for terrible PR.

Okay, so what’s the point? From actor to moron in 15 minutes: public media has a sadly insidious effect. Who cares, you ask? Here’s the kicker: Real life trumps “the media.”

Soon after reading Baldwin’s ridiculous rant, I was listening to public radio, as I am wont to do on weekday evenings. My boys and I tuned in, once again, to an hour with the New York Philharmonic, hosted by Alec Baldwin. I had heard the host’s very smooth,  deliberate, intelligent-sounding voice many times, and I assumed it was some-classical-music-DJ Alec Baldwin, not THE Alec Baldwin. And as they’ve asked before, the boys wanted to know: “Is that Alec Baldwin the actor?” This time, I Googled it.


Alec Baldwin in the WFMT studio. Photo: Todd Heisler, New York Times, 2009.

Well! Sure enough, Baldwin’s been the voice for the New York “Phil” since 2008, a serious personal commitment. Plus, he recently donated $1M to the orchestra.

Immediately, my view of the man flipped — again. Now that I know he’s an individual who spends his time and money where he sees true value, I view him as a bonafide public figure, not merely an actor, and certainly not merely a tabloid clown.

The tasks for me remain: resist the tabloid linkbait. Think more kindly of strangers. Keep listening to Alec Baldwin and the New York Phil. . .

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