all you need is dopamine

WordPress seems to have done some UI redesign. I think I like it. My favorite part? The big “preview this post” button sitting to the right of my text box. Preview button, you are my friend. Thank you for coming out of hiding.

However, that is not why I came out of hiding today. I came to talk about love.

Maybe that is a little personal for a usability blog, but man, this is not a usability blog, this is my blog. It just happens to be a convenient place for me to geek out about usability/HCI issues, since I’m sure my friends are tired of listening to me rant about perfectly circular mice (are you kidding me? did not a single person employed by Apple sit down and actually try to use the damn thing? obviously not…and I know, mighty mouse, but that has its own stupid problems, and at least a year or two ago a couple of school computer labs still had those awful circular mice, so I still had to use them sometimes) or how excited I am to have discovered that the best firefox add-on in existence, Tab Mix Plus, has an option to make tab width fit the tab title (you can adjust the min and max width). That’s one advantage of reinstalling your OS, I suppose. It is an opportunity to go poking around and find out if new things have shown up since the last time I configured all my gadgets.

But I digress.

So. Love.

I am not a particularly romantic person, in either of the common senses of the word. Studying psychology has only made that more true. I reflect on my experience through the lens of physiological processes and abstract theories of how human mental activity is organized. I won’t hesitate to cite psychological experiments if there are some that have helped me gain perspective on a particular phenomenon. Most of my friends seem to find it an entertaining quirk, if it comes up at all. But it can be frustrating for those who want to be close to me romantically (in the amorous sense).

There I go, dancing around “love” again. The problem is, romantic love has confused me for a long time. Everyone has an opinion on it, but everyone seems to say something different. From pop culture to great poets to people who have declared their love for me, I can’t seem to find a consistent thread. What are you trying to tell me when you say you love me? What is it you believe I am telling you when I say I love you?

As you can maybe guess, these are not questions people like to hear in response to “I love you.” And I can’t blame them. I would certainly be unhappy if I were in that position; to have just opened myself so deeply, communicated one of the most important things in my life, and to be told “I don’t understand.” I don’t want to hurt anyone I care about that way.

And yet, it’s true. I know I love my family, I know I love my closest friends, but I can’t relate what I see and hear of being romantically in love to my own feelings, and I don’t trust all the great and powerful aspects people ascribe to it. And I can’t really trust what you’ve said before I know what you ascribe to it. There are plenty of things I do understand and know that I feel: intimacy, commitment, pleasure in your presence. But love is always somehow something more than the sum of those parts, and not saying it means there is something missing. Which is precisely why I can’t say it. If no one can explain to me what’s missing, how in the world am I supposed to know when I’m in love, and when…when the closeness I feel is just not enough?

So, leave it to a neuroscience study to clear things up for me. We read Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated with Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love (which you probably can’t read for free if you don’t have some kind of institutional access…) for my psychology senior seminar. The essence of the conclusion the authors make is that romantic love is not a distinct state of emotion like happiness or fear, but a process of motivation. You feel “in love” because you get a nice juicy neurochemical reward for being with your loved one, one that is different than sexual arousal. The authors then speculate that this is an adaptation to facilitate courtship rituals. Like all evo-psych explanations for behavior, it’s just a story that makes sense to the people telling it, but at least this one is pretty clearly connected to reproductive success. I mean, if you’re highly motivated to spend lots of time with a potential mate, you are probably more likely to actually mate than someone who more passively waits for matters to move along.

Sounds so much less exciting than an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempest and is never shaken, but maybe a touch more realistic? Certainly this is something I can understand. What I was missing of love is essentially desire. Which, from what I understand of myself, and of the physiological basis of motivation and reward, makes perfect sense to me.

So much of human experience comes down to the way our brains work, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of that working from the inside. I don’t buy many of the stories, but I can work with them if I know what they hinge upon. Of course, I’ll still push people to explain what they believe about love (preferably starting before any declarations to me), but I have a frame for what they’re feeling and why, and the beginnings of an answer to what it means for me to be in love.

Maybe that seems cold. Maybe you didn’t want to know that love is “nothing but” dopamine release and the activation of particular parts of the ventral-tegmental area. Seems like quite a buzzkill, right? But as far as I can tell, that’s all we ever really have. And look what we’ve managed to do anyway. I am very much with Eliezer. The glimpses I get of the universe as it is continually amaze me, no romance required.

This is just to say

I’m sorry it’s been so long, blog! I have been busy with this whole graduating from college nonsense. And I got accepted to the other three grad schools I applied to, so I’ll be off in a bit to visit a couple of those and try not to be too terrified of the future.

I’ve spent the last week working on finding an internship for the summer and also bumming around Seattle, WA, visiting a friend. I like it a lot here. I’m not sure how I’d handle the gray and rainy winters, but the occasional vacation is fun, and I hear the summers are pretty nice The pacific northwest is beautiful, and two of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, clearly both love(d) their respective parts of it. So it comes highly recommended.

Because I feel like I ought to have some content related to my “topic,” I thought I’d talk about some programs I’ve been enjoying lately.

There are a couple of little websites I’m more or less responsible for, and I’ve been working on those with bluefish. I cannot say enough good things about bluefish. I’ve done most of my HTML/CSS work in straight-up notepad, until I discovered notepad++ has some nice syntax highlighting. Gedit would do me for Linux, but after I did all this reading for my research last summer on the importance of usable IDEs I thought maybe I should find out what is available.

Perhaps because of my years of notepad, perhaps because I tend towards perfectionist control freak when it comes creating things, I like to stay close to my code. I’ve yet to find a WYSIWYG editor that I didn’t end up fighting at every turn. After reading this long list of features for bluefish, I was worried it would try to do my thinking for me. But it doesn’t, at all. If I want to ignore every feature other than syntax highlighting, that is a-ok. But I would be an idiot to do so, because bluefish does some incredibly useful things. For example, I’m not good at things like memorizing a list of tag names or CSS properties (instead I remember high-level things about what is possible with those tools), so I spend a notable amount of time looking up such info. Bluefish already knows about all those things, and makes the lookup much faster. My latest discovery is that bluefish has a color picker if you tell it you’re about to set a CSS color property. And this discovery came literally minutes after I was wishing for a color picker in bluefish so I didn’t have to wait for the GIMP to load up and then sit around wasting resources. And right now I’m just creating static pages. I suspect there is a whole lot more it can do for complex web programming. It’s really too bad it’s not available for Windows.

The other program I’m using and liking is DrPython. I’ve been learning GTK+, and I found that pyGTK is much easier for me to work with. “Normal” GTK is C-based, and C and my brain are not the best of friends. Higher-level languages fit much better with how I approach programming. Anyhow, so, python is pretty great, and again, after all those research papers, I figured I should at least look for an alternative to a command-line interpreter. So I googled…I don’t even remember what I googled, but DrPython turned up and the fact that the name is a tribute to DrScheme, (the aforementioned research involved digging around in DrScheme’s guts), caught my eye. So I’ve been writing pyGTK in DrPython, and while it is not the most immediately transparent interface–I think it could stand to take a few more hints from DrScheme–it seems to be stable and does what I want, and what more you could want for the price?


I was admitted to the University of Michigan’s School of Information! Provided I graduate, which, given the way my programming languages class is going, might be in more doubt than I’d like. But hey, they like me! I can feel good about myself.

I am really never going to have an incentive to learn time management. This was the application I procrastinated the most on, and I ended up staying up most of the night before it was due to finish it.

I’ve been asked several times whether Michigan is one of my “top choices.” I am not sure how to answer this question. Given that I applied, yes. I didn’t see any point to applying to programs I wouldn’t be pretty excited to get into, since the whole point is to learn the HCI stuff I want to do, and if I am not doing that I might as well just get some more generic programming/software engineering job. On the other hand, I know what the askers mean is “is this the one you were really hoping to get into?” Carnegie Mellon was really the only standout of the four schools I applied to, and the more I think about and look at the other programs, the more excited I get about them. I don’t know how I am going to choose.

But really, what a wonderful problem to have.

wildebeest cash

The days when I have to deal with the Real World are fast approaching (though I do hope I’ll get into graduate school), so it seems like maybe time to start getting myself a little more together. This mostly means learning to manage my absent-mindedness so my life doesn’t dissolve into chaos. I like to remind myself that I have been taking baby steps for some time now–like discovering that I get a lot of benefit out of using a planner. So for most of college I’ve used a simple paper planner to keep track of my schedule and deadlines and such. But every so often I’ll lose my planner, and it doesn’t help me see where I’ve scheduled conflicts (an ever-present danger), so I’ve also started using google calendar too. Aside from some bugs and odd little quirks, I quite like it. Presumably those will be ironed out by the time it’s no longer beta, but then gmail is still listed as “beta” after 4 years, so maybe that will be a long time coming.

Another step towards being independent is that I’ve been making a list of things I’ll need to have to care for myself when I’m not living in a dorm, as they occur to me. Currently the list includes quality knives, a dustpan, and “cute tableware.” I’m thinking of collecting vintage pyrex and corelle in this pattern. I just ordered a set of teacups, after cracking my last mug. Probably I should also start a list of things it won’t be worth it to keep once I’m not living in a dorm, though I right now I can’t think of anything other than the little shelving unit I found on the side of the road and some cheap Wal-Mart rag rugs (what can I say? I have a glamorous lifestyle). Well, and I’m hoping this will be my last Midwest winter for a long time, so maybe I could get rid of some of these gigantic coats and sweaters. And my sheets! If there’s anything I won’t need again, it’s twin XL bedding. Hey, I’ll go add these to the list! Thanks blog!

Anyway, today I started using GnuCash. My dad recommended it to me because it uses a double entry system, where all transactions are coming from one place and going to another. I’ve been resisting setting up anything to track my finances for some time now, since I am kind of terrified of growing up. But I’ve also been wary of GnuCash because, well, accounting software + open-source Linux application kinda sounds like a usability nightmare to me. I love using ubuntu, but let’s face it, your average app is not a paragon of good interface design.

But overall, I found it simple. The hardest part was figuring out what different accounts I would need to create, and there was a “druid” (cute, linux) to get some common ones set up and then as I entered transactions I realized I wanted to track some more subcategories of things. The only real interface problem I encountered was trying to add opening balances. The druid gave me instructions, but they didn’t seem to work the first time. Hard to know if it was a design problem or an outright bug. But once I got it straightened out, entering my transactions for January went smoothly. And it’s actually sort of exciting to be able to immediately see how much money I have, and how much I’ve spent in the last month on various things. Since my tuition payment was in January, nearly all of that was “college expenses,” of course. Real world, here I come!

Hello Internet

Hello, new blog. I’ve never been adept at introductions or first impressions, but here I am, so here I go.

At the moment, I expect this blog to be, more than anything else, a chronicle of my experiences in and thoughts about human-computer interaction and  software design. But then, I haven’t been accepted to any graduate schools yet, or even successfully completed my undergrad degree, so who knows. Anyway I’ve never been much good at keeping my various interests strictly separated, so expect a mix.