Rewards Programs

I tend to avoid rewards programs. You know them, the kind that offer you points for spending money.

The reason is that rewards programs are designed to subtly change our behavior in ways that we don’t notice, and I am always trying to be more intentional in how I spend my money.

Rewards may seem worthwhile on the surface, providing cash back or points for things you’re already doing. Get some points for coming in and spending money, and once you have enough of them you can get something for free! It seems like a no-brainer if you’re already shopping there.

Yet these little incentives alter our decisions, making it just a little more likely that we’ll stop and spend some money when we don’t really want or need to. And of course, that’s their purpose: to get us to spend more.

It’s easy to think that we’re immune to this, but I think it’s difficult to not be affected.

This isn’t just rewards programs, though. Advertising emails from stores often make us think about buying things we otherwise wouldn’t, and probably don’t need. Triple points on our credit cards might make us spend a little bit more at the store. And so on.

That’s why I generally opt out of these programs. I think it’s a better thing when we can be more aware of our decision-making processes. And I don’t want to be any more influenced by these subtle forces than I already am.

New Year’s Resolutions

The prospect of a new calendar year prompts many of us to think about changes we want to make in our lives in the form of New Year’s resolutions. Or as is often the case, re-making resolutions from past years. New Year’s resolutions often get a bad reputation, mainly because many of us make them, but often we fail to follow through with them.

However, New Year’s resolutions, at their core, are no different from any other behavior change. Which is to say, it’s often quite difficult. However, this means that we can apply the same strategies to habit change throughout the year.

An important consideration when making a resolution is our why, our motivation for this change. If we’re making this change because of pressure from others, or because we feel badly about ourselves, our chances for success are lower than if we are making the change for ourselves. If we can come to the mindset that this resolution is because it’s something we truly want, and something that we’re doing for ourselves, our chances of success are much higher.

Of almost equal importance, however, are the environment and realities of the situation. Specific, measurable goals are much easier to track and feel progress toward than general goals. Getting in better shape (as a common example) is great to work toward, but perhaps better goals are reducing body fat percentage, or reducing overall weight.

Specific steps toward those goals are also necessary to think about. Taking our example of losing weight, this might mean sticking to a weekly calorie deficit or working out four times per week. And importantly, we must track our progress! But we also need to adjust our environment for these goals. Cutting calories is going to be all the more challenging if we keep unhealthy snacks around. And working out four times per week is going to be a drag if we don’t schedule the time for it.

All resolutions are going to come with setbacks, but these are part of the process. Instead of deciding that missing our goal one day or one week means that we’ve failed and that we are going to give up, we need to look at what caused that failure and make adjustments. Resolutions are a learning process, and we’ve got to allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes.

In sum, the best New Year’s resolutions are those we are making for ourselves, those we’ve thought about and planned for the concrete realities of, and those that we adjust and learn from as we go.

Further reading:


Soylent has been showing up in the news for the past year or so. This is largely because of its mission: to be able to replace your food. The Soylent website provocatively asks: “What if you never had to worry about food again?”


I found out about Soylent earlier this year, and was immediately intrigued. I’ve realized that I’m actually not that great at feeding myself. That’s a funny thing to say, but I fail to plan meals for a week. I often fall back on a few old recipes, and anything that doesn’t get prepared in the first few days after a grocery trip likely sits in my fridge until it spoils. And when I’m not sure what to make, I end up eating an unhealthy takeout or frozen meal. I know that it’s within my ability to improve at these things, but despite my awareness of this problem and the wasted money, I’ve failed to make any improvements. My current way of eating is a waste of time and food, so something that could end this cycle is appealing.

It seems a lot of people struggle with these issues. One solution to this problem is to teach people to purchase and cook healthy food. Another solution might be something like Soylent.

Soylent aims to be a meal replacement that is nutritionally complete. Soylent is still under active development, and will continue to be adjusted as people try it and provide more feedback. There is plenty of room for additional research on optimizing nutrition for individuals, and if Soylent plays any role in encouraging additional research and personal experimentation in diet, that would be a benefit overall.

Soylent became available for pre-order earlier this year, and I ordered a week’s supply for $85, which breaks down to about $4 per meal. If you subscribe to monthly shipments, the price is more like $3 per meal—cheaper than most takeout. I finally received my order of Soylent v1.1 a little over a week ago. The first order of Soylent comes with a right-sized pitcher and scoop. Soylent comes portioned by the day, so daily food prep involves pouring a packet of Soylent into the pitcher, pouring in the small oil bottle, and filling the pitcher up with water. Very simple steps for a day’s worth of food.

The flavor and texture of Soylent are largely unremarkable. The flavor is roughly that of a pastry without sugar, and provides a good base for adding other flavors if you wish. The texture is a bit on the gritty side, but doesn’t get clumpy like a lot of powders can. I don’t mind either of these things. However, I had a few of my friends try Soylent, and opinions varied from tolerable to unappealing.

For about four days last week, I consumed only Soylent and coffee. The most striking part about these four days was how unremarkable they were. I found Soylent very satisfying, and I wasn’t hungry in between meals. My energy was steadier throughout the days, especially during the normal post-lunch dip.

On Friday evening I ate Mexican, and the flavors really popped, likely a combination of some taste adaptation to Soylent, as well as more conscious attention to my meal. I continued to eat normally over the weekend, but I realized how much of the food I ate made me feel like crap. I found myself craving Soylent.

After this personal experiment, I don’t think that I see Soylent completely replacing food. However, Soylent is as easy to prepare as unhealthy convenience foods. And I see a ton of value in making the the easiest option healthier, and providing me the room to eat meals with friends and family when I choose. So while it is certainly not for everyone, I’ve gone ahead and subscribed to monthly deliveries.

Further Reading:

Feed Readers

Keeping up with the developments in any field can be a challenge, especially with so much information spread across so many sources. Frequently this information is accessible online, but it’s tedious to regularly visit each of these sites for new content. I’ve found this to be especially true with academic journals, where there are a whole series of publications relevant to me, each with their own website and own release schedule.

The best solution I’ve found to this problem is using a feed reader (also known as a news aggregator or RSS reader). This is an application or service that allows you to add the sites you want to keep up on, and read the updated content from those sites all in one spot. Each new item shows up something like a new message in your email inbox, extracting just the new content and displaying it as a new story. If this is a blog, you will see each new post; for a journal, it will usually be the abstract. Here’s an example:

Feedbin Screenshot

Adding sites to your reader is easy, with most services allowing you to just type or paste the URL to start following the site.

There are many choices for readers these days, including both standalone applications and online services, with both free and paid options. The two best options in my opinion are Feedly, which is free, and Feedbin, which is my personal choice and costs $3/month. Both of these services can be used from your computer, but are also compatible with a variety of mobile applications. My personal favorite is Reeder.

One of the unexpected benefits to using a feed reader for academic journals is that it actually makes reading journal abstracts enjoyable. At least for me, that’s something I didn’t often experience before.


The things that we give our attention to largely indicate what our lives are. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset concisely stated:

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.

This really resonates with me. What occupies our time and our thoughts, which is to say our attention, is often a clear sign of our priorities, even if we’re unaware of it. I think it stands to argue that this is reciprocal as well: the things that we direct our attention to can also become our priorities.

Whenever someone eludes to things being worse ‘these days’ than they were in the past, I’m skeptical. However, I think it’s probably true that today, we have more forces vying for our attention at any given moment, or at least more ways to be distracted. With television and computer screens in every room of our houses and another one in our pocket at any given time, it’s no wonder both drivers and pedestrians are getting into more accidents while staring at their smartphones. We are perhaps more distracted than ever, and not focusing our attention on what’s really happening in the present.

An interesting side-effect of focusing our attention on certain things is that other people notice, even children. Adam Siegel noticed this with his 8-month-old daughter:

The other day, I planted Margot on the floor with some toys and she happily began playing. In an almost unconscious habit whenever I have a short moment of free time in between tasks, I took the brief respite to pull out my phone and check my mail. 60 seconds later after reading a couple messages and deleting a few more, I looked up from the screen to see that Margot had stopped playing and was staring at me. “This is how it begins,” I thought. I’m showing her my screen deserves my attention at the moment more than she does.

This must be a heartwrenching observation for any parent, to realize these skewed priorities they’re communicating to their child. But the thing about it is that it’s not just children who notice these things, but everyone in our lives. Our attention communicates what’s important to us. And when we pick the smartphone instead of the person sitting across from us, they will notice.

So perhaps instead of checking our phones when there’s a moment of downtime, we can instead pay attention to what’s happening around us. Be mindful, if you will. And instead of making your phone (or Facebook, or Twitter, etc.) your life, make your life, your life.

Coffee and Mindfulness

I have enjoyed coffee for quite some time, but it’s not until recently that I think I’ve started to truly enjoy coffee, as opposed to all the things that go with it. I can’t really remember when I first started liking it, but I am pretty sure that the experience of going to get coffee with friends or stopping to pick something up before work played a big role.

Jerry Seinfeld addresses this well in an interview with NPR, commenting on why he thinks coffee is so central to our culture:

I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything — social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

I think all of these are likely true for me at various points in time, but I also find it really useful sometimes to step outside of some of my habits, and explore them as ends in themselves. Recently, I discovered that there were many ways to make coffee other than via drip machine or espresso machine.1 After doing some research, I found that the AeroPress was highly recommended, and I decided to purchase one, since it’s affordable, simple, and compact.

My morning coffee routine starts with beans I buy every week or two from Joe Bean here in Rochester, NY. My method is pretty similar to Stumptown’s, although I do less measuring or precise timing. I start boiling enough water for my mug. I grind two scoops of beans and add them to the AeroPress, add water, stir, add more water, wait a minute, and then flip it over and press it into my mug. I then top it off with hot water (or occasionally frothed milk).

While I make coffee this way almost every morning, I try to be mindful of the process (and it no doubt helps that it’s a bit more involved than my drip machine). I focus on each step as I go, paying attention to what it is that I’m actually doing.

Mindfulness is a term that has been around for a long time, and is characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present. Through mindful living, we are both better aware of and able to accurately see the events in our life, instead of being reactive to or pushed around by them. Bringing this heightened awareness to life in general has been linked to many positive outcomes, both mental and physical.2 We’ve all experienced lapses in mindfulness, when autopilot takes over and we end up rushing out the door without the things we need for our day, or so caught up in worrying about things in our lives that we don’t enjoy the people we are with, or places we are at. What a waste of life.

One of my goals is to be more mindful in my day-to-day life. With something as little as my morning coffee, I begin my day with just a little less mindless routine, and a little more awareness and enjoyment. I find it even helps with those little questions quoted above, like what to do next or how to start my day.

If you’re interested in reading more on mindfulness and savoring life, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, one of my favorite blogs, offers some excellent further reading on this. In the end, it’s not all that complicated. Just do whatever you are doing, and be wherever you are.

  1. See Brew Methods for an array of methods that might surprise you. 
  2. Brown & Ryan, 2003 and Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007 offer good overviews. 

Clean Slate

I decided to start from scratch with my website, because I wasn’t happy with where it had ended up. For a while, it has seemed like my site was a collection of old links and quips, but very little original writing. All of this old content created a lot of friction and baggage that was limiting my desire to continue writing. I want this site to be a place I can use to explore the burning questions and topics that are on my mind, as well as to share some observations, tips, and tricks that I have stumbled across in research and technology.

As this has been on my mind for a while, I also pondered whether or not I would stick with WordPress. I think WordPress is a great tool for creating websites, but it isn’t lightweight or simple. As a result, I kept an eye on other platforms that would suit my site, and various CMSes caught my attention. The ones that particularly caught my attention were those that don’t use a database (e.g., Octopress, Statamic, and Kirby), but I also considered some that are database-driven (e.g., Anchor and Koken).

With all of these alternate CMSes for my site, however, I discovered gotchas. Some didn’t have a theme I quite liked, so I’d have to spend time creating or tweaking those. Others didn’t allow for easy search or comments, or required me to compile and deploy from my computer each time I wanted to tweak the site or change a layout. I also happen to like the Jetpack plugin, which allows me to have visitor stats right in the WordPress dashboard, as well as share my content (and let my visitors share content on this site) very easily. In addition, I am familiar and comfortable with WordPress, reducing the time it would take me to learn and troubleshoot a new tool.

In the end, I decided to stick with WordPress. If you haven’t been here in a while, you might not notice the changes. However, this site is actually a completely fresh reinstall, with new CSS based on Twenty Twelve. In addition, I use Markdown on Save Improved, which allows me to write and edit my posts in Markdown1, but behind the scenes have WordPress-compatible HTML generated and displayed to visitors. In addition, I use Jetpack to allow for easy sharing of my content, as well as for analytics.

I am still undecided on comments. In the past, I’ve had mixed results. I find people mainly commenting on my content using Facebook, Twitter, or other external social media sites. For now they are enabled, but I may change that if they are unused.

I hope this spring cleaning of sorts will remove some of the friction I was having with my old site, allowing me to do more writing, and hopefully providing more value to those of you who read or stumble upon this site.

  1. I have been using Markdown for most of my writing these days. While you can easily Google for the benefits of writing in Markdown or another plain-text format, this is one topic I hope to cover in a future post.