Tag Archives: geek

optimizing my brain

It has become fashionable, the past few years, to attempt to “hack” one’s brain.  This is an attempt to get one’s brain to run better, faster, smarter.  It is also a great way to sell something called “nootropics“, a futuristic, Orphan Black-esque term for a new wave of vitamins (mostly amino acids and vitamin B derivatives) that are supposed to aid with such “hacking”.

Image result for brain hacking

This is your brain…ON THE FUTURE

I believe, to an extent, that there is some brain “hacking” that can be done, although I do not love the term.  To me, it smacks of Silicon Valley bro-ness, the kind of toxic masculinity that has made the tech industry deeply awful for women.  I prefer to think of it as brain optimization, rather than hacking, as optimizing my brain is really about understanding the 2+ pounds of electricity and protein that lives inside my skull, that contains everything I am.  If I can better understand the mechanisms that govern the electrical impulses that make up my thoughts, then can I get a better grip on the efficiency of those thoughts?

I recently read Stealing Fire, a book on the use of substances or other methods of altering one’s brain for extraordinary results.  While it does focus extensively on the use of mind-altering drugs, it counts everyday substances in that category, everything from coffee to prescription medications. We may not all be using ketamine for out of body experiences, but most of us are using some form of chemical to alter our brains.  It was an interesting perspective, much more on the metaphysical plane, putting the quest for brain control and mind altering more into the realm of philosophy (“I think, therefore I am” sort of meta-ness), telling a universal human story rather than limiting the results to th emore prosaic productivity boost that “brain hacking” promises.  “Stealing Fire” was a more grandiose picture of mankind’s ongoing quest to lift up our mental and spiritual energy through physical substance (see also: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas), and it contextualized the “brain hacking” trend as really just being a small corner of that quest.

My own quest falls somewhere in between the metaphysical and the mundane, as it’s directly related to the mental and spiritual effects of having a chronic depressive condition.  For the decade plus that I took Wellbutrin, from 2005 until, well, six weeks ago, I grappled with its effects on my actual being.  Was being on this substance altering who I was, in any way?  My ultimate answer to that question was that not only did that particular non-SSRI antidepressant not change who I was, it actually allowed me to be the person I was meant to be.  It was a substance that unlocked my brain.  The Wellbutrin reduced the paralyzing depression that had previously impacted my ability to live my life on a consistent basis.   Problem solved, I thought, at the time, as I went on to build my life, meeting my husband, building my career, moving to Brooklyn, building the Scout organization, building my friend circle – my life is extensive, expansive, and has few limits on how much I can do in it.

Reducing the impact of the biological condition of depression actually brought forth who I am as a person, allowing me to explore my own mental and spiritual state without the intervening detriment of poor mental health.

The problem is that the substance I relied on to make me, well, me, wasn’t consistent.  My depression flare-ups became longer and increased in frequency over time.  When I changed my body’s response to food by switching to a Paleo food lifestyle in 2013 , the condition improved again.  And over time, rather than change my dosage, I began to try to identify more and more ways that weren’t the Wellbutrin that would net similar results to the antidepressant: cardio or HIIT exercise, being in sunlight, not drinking, avoiding grains and dairy, avoiding sugar, getting a good night’s sleep, meditation, journaling, etc.  Some of the tools made more difference than others, but overall, I began to understand what had an impact on my brain, and began to understand the links between the mental, the physical, and the spiritual.

All these physical, mental and spiritual factors are interconnected, and we cannot separate them if we wish to be whole and happy.

And then I finally faced reality.  The antidepressants I had been taking weren’t working.  They likely hadn’t worked for some time.  In fact, in November, my brain wouldn’t recognize the anti-depressants or the caffeine I added to them each day,   I thought I had Lyme disease, I was so exhausted, until I finally cut back on caffeine, added some nootropics, and felt better for a while.  I made it through the winter, and then as soon as we hit the March equinox, I went off the substance I had been using for thirteen years to alter my brain chemistry.

Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  The first few weeks, I could only stay awake until 2pm.  Twenty-five years of caffeine reliance plus thirteen years of using a stimulant as a basic part of my brain chemistry did not allow me to remain at one 8oz cup of coffee per day.  Instead, I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, drooping and looking for the system that had pulled me through my life.  I started eating for energy, as working from home gives me endless access to snacks, many of them of the higher carbohydrate variety from Ben’s snack assortment.  I could barely drag myself to the gym or through workouts, I was so tired, yet I couldn’t sleep at night. It was a textbook withdrawal.

Two weeks of this and I was almost in tears at the lack of productivity and the lost time.  A month in, and I sprained my ankle and had to weigh in at the doctor on my visit and realize, it wasn’t just that I’d lost time, I’d gained almost ten pounds of weight that would have to come back off if I was to fit in my client visit suit or my tick-proof camp pants ever again.  This isn’t just about vanity or societal pressure, but about not having to replace my utilitarian clothing in a larger size.

So now I have to not only hack my brain to run without antidepressants, but also have to “hack” my own EXTREMELY STUBBORN biology to lose the weight.  Which is a whole other entry as well.

Image result for plump as a partridge lose weight

Yep, this about sums it up.  Thanks @lacomtessejamie

And I have to recognize that despite all this “hacking” or “optimization”, or whatever I wish to call it, there are going to be days when I just…can’t.  Last night, I had a rough day “at” work, in that I made a major misunderstanding on one of my new accounts in how I interpreted an agenda topic as related to the client’s business.  I also failed to move outside the house, choosing instead to rest my ankle.  I was also tired by 4pm as a result, and I just felt hopeless.  How am I supposed to live my life, I thought, if I can’t stay awake until 4pm even with a good night’s sleep, if I have an ankle that will seemingly NEVER HEAL, if I can’t even understand the job I am supposed to be good at

There are always going to be days in which I feel like I can’t.  And it’s going to be hard to change that and say, I can, without having a stimulant to get me all hyped up and enthusiastic.

So now, what I have to work on, is getting up every day and saying, “I can,” and pushing myself through the work that will optimize my brain to replace the load of stimulants that I cranked through it since I was a twentysomething junior digital media buyer living in Venice Beach.  I am a different person now: I acquired several additional layers of person along the way, including a husband and son.  I built a life in which many people rely on me: my friends, my colleagues, my community.  I built that life using a brain I used a commercial antidepressant to optimize.  Now I have to achieve the same results without that medication.

Most of the time, I feel like this is a story where the moral is that the Wellbutrin didn’t actually work, and therefore was really only a “magic rock” kind of thing: I did this all by myself and the antidepressant was believing in myself all along!  And then I’m tired at 4pm or can’t sleep CLOWN’LL EAT ME and think, why did I give up the stimulants that gave me the energy to push through this, even if they weren’t actually fixing the problem I took them to fix?

The answer is, because those antidepressants, while they worked great to correct my perception of my condition, weren’t fixing the actual problem that causes my depression.  I have a genetic biological condition that alters my brain chemistry enough to impact my mental state.  The NRI was just pushing me through that condition by effectively overriding it.  The most recent research on depression suggests it is more akin to a flare up of a biological condition than just a matter of “being sad”.  Taking a stimulant every single day may have forced my brain to remain in an upbeat state by altering my brain chemistry and increasing the amount of norepinephrine floating around in it, but it doesn’t fix the underlying physical flare-up that caused that mental state to occur in the first place.

And that physical aspect of the condition – that I can optimize.  For that, I can take physical, real-space actions to reduce the impact on my mental health.  That’s where all this brain “hacking”, optimization, whatever one wants to call it – that’s where it comes in.  It’s a quest for the “true self” on a higher level, but on a day to day basis, it’s “what actions can I take to keep my brain in a healthy state where it will crank out client presentations and not sink into a state of despair?

And that – that is another entry, for another day.  Probably tomorrow.  Because one of the bright sides to being benched with the ankle this week, is that I have extra commute time to re-invest in writing blog posts – one of the other many things I’ve identified that makes my brain a little happier.  A few days of writing, a return to a solid meditation practice, it’ll all help optimize my brain.

cave day!

I first found out about Cave Day through Daybreaker.  It seems incongruous, a morning rave and a day of focus.  Still, I can see the overlap. There are bound to be people in those early morning sober rave dancers who have their own projects to focus on.  The idea of taking an entire day for mandated focus would therefore have a lot of appeal to anyone trying to translate a vision or an ambition into reality, and I’m pretty sure that anyone committed enough to get up at 6am for a sober rave is committed to some sort of hustle

Cave Day is literally just a day of being in a metaphorical cave.  That “cave” is a state of focus on a work flow.  Whatever one is working on, it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you’re in a cave and isolated from the outside stimulus that may distract and derail.  Cave Day is eight hours of work sprinting, of trying to stay “in the flow” of whatever project it is one wants to get done.  I checked out a review online, and it seemed to work: the combination of mantras, focus exercises and peer pressure definitely induced work.  Oh, and despite their email address of bats (at) caveday.org, they are not related whatsoever to Bats Day.

I signed up for this as part of the 2018 work I’m doing, where I’m trying to focus more, period – and especially on my own arts and projects.  I’ve been kicking around an idea for a non-fiction book tied into my Political Science minor in Comparative Federalism, an exposition on my theory of why Canada got Justin Trudeau and his “sunny ways”, and America got Trump and his safe space for white supremacy.  Therefore, I wanted space to work on that book idea, and figure out if it was a viable idea I could roll out into a book proposal – and ultimately, justification to take a sabbatical to write.  However, as great an idea as I thought this was, I was never finding time to write in my daily life, no matter how many times I blocked it off in my day planner.

Therefore, Cave Day not only guaranteed that I would spend at least half a day writing, but it also gave me a deadline to finish some preliminary research and exploration to ensure that was what I wanted to spend the time on.  It isn’t as if I have any shortage of writing projects to work on: I also took a novel writing class last year in the hopes of getting my own tribute to the steampunk genre out of my brain and onto paper, for my own entertainment.  If my non-fiction project wasn’t viable, maybe I’d just get re-started on my fiction project.  Or I could just crank out a month’s worth of blog entries.  Whatever.  Cave Day was going to make sure I wrote.

(I should add, one of my goals this quarter was to submit a blog piece to my employer’s Official Company Blog as part of Building my Personal Brand as a Senior Account Director and Media SME.  I could have sat down and banged out 5 blog entries, a mix of personal and professional and it would have still been a satisfying day)

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Cave Day, to be honest.  I assumed everyone there would be much younger than me, the sort of people who have “side hustles”.  I was partially correct on that: the founders and organizers, Jake and Molly, were definitely squarely in the millenial generation, as were many of the attendees.  There were a few people in my Xennial category though, including the guys at my table.  It was also a slightly male skewed event, with an estimated 65/35 male to female split, as if men feel a pressure to do more.  The 25 of us in the room were, however, diverse enough that I didn’t feel out of place.

In fact, I actually made new  friends.  After an hour sprint of researching  why Canadians have such a vested interest in the common good, I looked up to see a group of grad students writing on a whiteboard headed “Why Are Canadians So Happy?”  It was, for a moment, disorienting, like my imagination come to life.  I bounced into the room, in true Canadian Tigger-like fashion, and discovered it was a marketing project, developing a new campaign.  I cheerfully then volunteered my opinions on Canadian culture:

  • Bears in swimming pools are a thing in heat waves. So are cougars in suburbs, the predator, not the human female.
  • Don’t mention gangs, too soon after the last spate of violence in Vancouver and Toronto
  • Yes, Tim Hortons is HUGE in the East, but in the West, we’re all Starbucks
  • Nanaimo Bars are the only real Canadian food I can think of
  • We are very proud of our diversity and tolerance and of being SLIGHTLY LESS RACIST than America
  • Yes, we all agree, Justin Trudeau IS good looking.
  • We all secretly love the Queen.
  • The North is special to us.  We are, after all the True North, strong & free
  • We don’t vacation IN Canada.  We go to the USA
  • These views are limited to English Canada.  Don’t ask me about French Canada.  Pretty sure they HATE the Queen
  • Margaret Atwood is ALL OVER TV right now and we suspect Netflix’s $500M investment is just going to all be adaptations of her work

After expounding on the culture of my homeland though, I did actually get right back to work.  The day was structured in work sprints, 50 to 60 minutes apiece, three in the morning and four in the afternoon. In the morning, we also started with a one-line intro and commitment to our projects, which we re-emphasized at the end of the day by stating how much we felt we’d accomplished on that project.  We wrote down our plans for our day and each sprint in advance so we would have a clear end goal in sight.  And after each sprint, we stopped, stretched, took a five minute break, and re-set ourselves to work again.

Overall, I liked Caveday.  I loved the space in the Breather offices in midtown. I appreciated the little bit of drama when we entered and were able to symbolically burn whatever it was was wanted to leave outside the cave by imagining it implanted in a ittle piece of flash paper that was burned on arrival.  I appreciated having my phone taken away from me.  Even the scents of the candles (citrus) and the sound piped in (water) were selected to improve focus and flow.  I wrote over two thousand words, completed a much procrastinated review for a direct report, cleared out a bunch of Scout email and caught up on some of my belated Todoist items.  It was a well spent nine hours, in which I accomplished much more than I would have on my own.

Despite liking Caveday, I don’t know if I would go again.  Nine hours is a lot to commit – I sensed I was the only parent in the room.  It’s also time spent traveling into Manhattan, for a 10.5hr day on a Sunday.  That is  huge bite out of my time.  If I can replicate that kind of focus closer to home, then I’d rather stay in Brooklyn – even if it’s just doing work sprints at the library or a coffee shop, somewhere outside the home where I can’t be disturbed but also where I don’t have to go far from home or take an inflexible amount of time out of my day.   Caveday is a great value though: $50 to sit down and accomplish something priceless, with lunch, snacks and coffee thrown in.  If it was in Brooklyn, or if it was more flexible, I’d do it monthly.

So that was my experience in the Cave.  One last thing I did take away was a custom coaster, printed on one side with “I am IN the Cave” for when I’m in a state of focus/flow, and “I am OUT of the Cave” for when I’m not.  It reminded me of my Camp Nerd Fitness wristband, where the red side represented a desire not to socialize, and to be left in an introverted state.  Together, my CNF bracelet and my Cave Day coaster side make an impenetrable wall for focus and concentration and staying in my own brain for a bit.  Totally leveraging both the next time I need the mental space.

 

 

 

if this works, my tivo is now a slingbox

One of the things that mildly annoys me about going home is missing American TV. I don’t watch THAT much TV, but what I do, I’m very intent on seeing. Like, y’know, Weeds. Or, yes, I admit it, I will be disappointed if I have to wait a whole week to see the season premiere of My Name Is Earl.

Therefore, I Google’d transferring TIVO shows over the Interweb, and got this thread. It was VERY VERY HELPFUL. Now I can access my TiVO like a web server, and download shows that can be watched with the TiVO software. It’s a very considerate back door fix that allows even tech-competent folks to access their shows remotely (if it works), but doesn’t violate TiVO’s copyright and content access restrictions. TiVO does not sanction this method of watching TV. Very smart, TiVO.

If it works from outside my home network…my TiVO is basically a Slingbox, and I will be up to date on all the season premieres while on the go next week. Too cool.

and now…the tale of some extreme geeking out

I realized that I double-booked myself next Tuesday. Whereas I would like to go to the 80s video game inspired art opening, and even so much as suggested it as a quasi-date, I already have a BarCampLA geek dinner to go to.

Looks like someone forgot to update and check her SpongeCell calendar again. I use SpongeCell because it’s quick, easy, and has an RSS feed so my nerd friends can also access it.

Then I realized – maybe I could download the iCal file to my Outlook, and then sync to my devices. Unfortunately, I don’t have the hotfix for that. And I am too impatient to get the service pack for my Windows and order the hotfix from Microsoft.

So instead, I downloaded Mozilla Calendar, and installed that. Then I imported the .ics file from Spongecell. THEN I exported THAT to a .vcs file – which could be imported into Outlook.

And now I can sync my devices – my BlackBerry and my Creative Zen MP3 player – with my Outlook calendar.

An hour of work, a two minute import process, and a workaround so I don’t double book myself in future. Isn’t geeking out fun?

more barcamp

There is a guy demoing an app right now called Pubwalk. It starts with a mashup of Citysearch and Google maps, and allows you to create a pubwalk. Once it hits critical nmass, it will allow people to share what pubs they’re planning to go to, thereby telling everyone else what pubs will be hot that evening.

Half this place has laptops open on their laps, and I think the only reason it isn’t more is because it’s lunchtime, and it’s hard to eat AND nerd out at the same time (I’m managing)

live from barcamp :: day two (part one)

I’m writing this on my laptop, where I am happily plugged in at BarCamp. So far this morning, I have surfed through presentations on:

I think there’s a whole entry coming on Web 2.0 and how I see it, but it’s a new way of thinking that is very much in the same vein as Barcamp itself. It’s sort of a new way of collective information sharing. that breaks down more barriers between what separate individuals know. Wikipedia, for example – it’s articles written collectively from the knowledge of many people, instead of just the one person who would have edited an “old school” Encarta article.

So I’m off to go see what the kids are up to in art class upstairs. I’ll post more as the day progresses.

barcampla :: day one

Yesterday, I wandered into the Little Radio warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, and found a whole tribe of geeks.

I’m writing this up for blogging.la instead of my own blog, but here’s some related links:

  • I was interviewed for last night David Markland’s Vlog of BarCampLA There’s a lot of clips of other people, from Weblogs and Buzznet, but if you’re reading this, then you’re really only interested in me rambling into the camera, right?
  • Photos are being uploaded to Flickr constantly. In fact, some of them are being uploaded right off the cell phones they’re taken on.

    I’m heading back down there shortly, but check out BarCampLA! I’m presenting this afternoon on Viral Interactive Marketing with the guys behind Blogebrity (because I used to work with Jeremy down at the Giant Binoculars) Maybe this means I can at least get onto their C-list.