Tuesday, December 30, 2008

King of Kong, King of Science



I just got done watching the excellent documentary "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," about competitive Donkey Kong players (Donkey Kong is an '80s arcade game).  Even my blase-to-video-games fiancee was riveted. The people depicted are obsessed with getting the world high score on Donkey Kong. 

I have a similar obsession with getting publications and making it in the scientific community. Day to day, I'm trying to publish, go to conferences, get my name known, etc. It's like a game to me, day to day.

Upon reflection I know that science is good for the world. I can see a path from getting a publication to the world getting better, but I don't think about it every day. Even though I might not be able to see exactly how my latest publication is going to help the world, I know that overall more science is good.  So even if it's a game over the days, it's the meaning of life over the years. 

But I think the same psychological processes govern the day-by-day obsessions of me and the Donkey Kong players. It's just that I don't see how they can, upon reflection, be satisfied that they're doing any good for this world. A high score on Donkey Kong? I mean, who gives a shit?

I would encourage everyone who's got a competitive or ambitious streak to focus it on something like science, charity, politics, or art, something where success in the day-to-day game translates to making the world a better place in the long run.

Pictured: "I Thought I Came To Plumb" by Jose Emroca Flores. I adore this painting, but on the blog you can't see the whole thing-- click to see the full image. You can buy his prints. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Internet at Home. Or Not Internet at Home


For about four years I didn't have an internet connection at home. Particularly among the kind of people I tend to roll with, this is getting more and more uncommon.

I did it because the internet sucks me in. I end up on the internet, answering email, surfing websites, reading blogs, etc. Time flies, and I feel drained and I've gotten nothing done.

When I told a friend that I didn't have internet (or cable) at home, he asked incredulously "what do you do?" Well, I read, talked on the phone, and most importantly, wrote.

Writing is such a hard thing to do. I have read books on how to write, paint, do improv, and other arts, but only the writing books spend a significant amount of time describing strategies for actually getting your butt in the seat and doing it. And since most people write on the computer, the internet is a constant temptation to not write.

Sure, not having internet at home is a pain. You miss out on some last-minute social things, and it's nice to be able to look things up in the middle of a conversation.

Now I have internet. I got a housemate who really wanted it and now I don't want to give it up.

However, getting yourself offline is a great way to force productivity. I know several people who had difficult things to write (master's theses, books, etc.) and only got real progress done when they went to a coffee shop which didn't have internet. But it's getting harder and harder to find this information solitude. If you aspire to write and have trouble doing it, I recommend going somewhere where all you can do is write. Stay for two hours. You'll be surprised at how much you get done.

Eventually all of our devices, if not our brains themselves, will be internet connected. We'll have to devise strategies for productivity for dealing with it. The temptation to be entertained will be constant and difficult for some to resist.