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Procrastination and Human Emotions

Procrastination and Human Emotions

procrastination

Procrastination gets a bad rap: as a demon outside of ourselves, sitting on our extremities, preventing us from picking up a pen, or a broom, or a copy of TurboTax, like we know we’re supposed to. It’s that little imp that has had me up making a total of three separate cups of tea while I attempt to compose the very sentence you are currently reading.

But, as I’ve written in this space before, procrastination is actually linked to deeply set survival mechanisms in the human brain. Previous research has pointed to a battle between your limbic system (“fight or flight”) and prefrontal cortex (the slower, more rational future-planner) as the crux of procrastination. But just because procrastination is a natural response to perceived danger doesn’t mean it’s appropriate all the time. (Like when you spend a week trying to pick up the phone to book a dental cleaning.)

The New York Times has a fascinating deep dive into procrastination-as-self-harm, and how, as such, it’s actually more of an emotional regulation issue rather than a productivity issue. Researchers say it prioritizes a quick repair of bad feelings sourced in self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, etc., over the long-term happiness of successfully completing a task.

“But, of course, this only compounds the negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame. […]

But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — ‘you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,’ [professor of psychology Dr. Fuchsia] Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.”

So how do we shake off the demon? Forget Getting Things Done or Pomodoro or any number of productivity-focused techniques — counter-intuitively, they won’t help procrastination.

We have to address the very unpleasant feelings procrastination is trying to help us avoid. According to the researchers in the NYT profile, that means finding a “Bigger, Better Reward” for our brains than putting things off. This can involve dividing a big task up so we get more frequent “hits” of reward. Or forgiving ourselves for the times we do procrastinate, so we’re not compounding our bad feelings by beating ourselves up. In short, recognizing that we’re human — and that it’s not a bad thing — can help us overcome our most human of protective mechanisms.

Computing without Computers

When we first started out, DFC was primarily in the hardware/software business. Since then, we have moved to include networks, security, and bespoke business solutions. I see DFC’s trajectory as a metaphor for the development of computing at large. Time was, you got the unit first (whether out-of-the-box or DIY) and then futzed around figuring things out and building muscle memory. In short, in the chicken or egg metaphor, the egg of hardware came first, before the chicken of skills.
 
In today’s modern and connected world, having computing skills are taken for granted — but what happens if you’ve never even seen a computer? Ghanaian information and communications technology teacher Richard Appiah Akoto is subverting the binary: successfully teaching his students how to use a computer, without a single computer to practice on.
 
The mother of Mr Akoto’s invention is the fact that public schools in Ghana lack the significant resources of private schools. His enthusiastic Facebook posts about his work went viral last month, and the BBC has produced a video of his teaching in action. In it, he replicates the standard working screen of Microsoft Word with chalk and a ruler on a blackboard, then guides his students step-by-step through its processes by pointing at each function. He also explains how to use a mouse, and a keyboard, by drawing them too. Watch the video here.
 
Mr Akoto is dedicated to making sure his students pass the national ICT exam and compete with students in the future workforce from larger cities, and whose schools have computers. His students, like those in a computer-filled lab, still need some wrangling — but mostly due to lack of context for what they’re learning.
 
“It’s sometimes challenging. You will draw, and expect the student to do the same thing, but you go around to inspect it in their books, and they will be doing a different thing,because they are not familiar with the features.” Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9rtFiZ7unw
 
“Definitely those in Accra [Ghana’s capital] will pass the exam because you cannot compare someone who is in front of a computer, who knows what he is doing with the mouse to someone who has not had a feel of a computer mouse before.”
Link: https://qz.com/africa/1217879/a-ghana-teacher-shows-microsoft-windows-on-a-blackboard-is-a-viral-sensation/

Upon hearing Mr Akoto’s story, Microsoft pledged to send his class one computer, gratis. Several other donors have since stepped up to fill the need for as many desktops as possible. While the donated computers will take his students far, I think Mr. Akoto’s ingenuity is the greater gift — showing kids that limits can be dissolved by outside the box thinking.

Artisan vs. American: Cheese and the Business Context

processed cheese slices

Out in DFC country, we are definitely spoiled when it comes to quality food — especially dairy. In particular, some of our province’s best (in my opinion) cheeses can be found a stone’s throw 
 
This cheesy reality got me thinking about how responsiveness to context is deeply necessary for business success. Artisan cheesemaking makes a lot of sense in a marketplace that values that kind of handmade attention — like in our area, where The Frontenac Arch is literally a UNESCO-designated protected environment, and sustainability is a community concern. But in a world where you could have a gorgeous salty squeaky perfect cheese curd, or a slice of blue so delicately aged you’ll want to put it in a museum, why would you “waste” your time with a floppy square of American cheese or hunk of Velveeta?
 
I didn’t pick the much-maligned Kraft Single or its melty cousin for effect: one of my favourite newsletters outlines the history of processed-cheese, and, friend — It’s all about context. American cheese was actually invented by a Canadian, James R. Kraft. It being 1916, the American military was in search of a cheese-like product that would remain edible after shipping to troops then engaged on the battlefields of World War 1. When the soldiers’ context changed after the end of hostilities, their taste for the orange squares did not, and American cheese entered the civilian palate.
 
The invention of Velveeta was economy-conscious as well:
 
“Emil Frey, the Swiss-born inventor of Velveeta, honed in on another problem that processed cheese could solve — waste. While working for the Monroe Cheese Factory in New York state, he developed a way to melt and combine scraps from imperfect wheels into a new cheese using whey as an emulsifying agent. Et voila, Velveeta. Kraft quickly purchased the brand. As the American appetite for uniform, pre-packaged food grew, the company rolled out innovation after innovation: Pre-sliced cheese in 1950 was followed by individually wrapped Kraft Singles in 1965 and Velveeta Shells and Cheese in 1978.”
 
So the presence of processed-cheese on our shelves is not necessarily a sign of cultural stagnation but of cultural — and business! — adaptation. As an American by birth, I can respect the opinion that a Kraft Single might make the best grilled cheese, or Velveeta the most nostalgic mid-century cheeseball. But as a Canadian by choice… A gooey slice of some local Madawaska wins every time!

Best Laid Plans: Security and Cryptocurrency

cryptocurrency illustrated

Even though it’s comparatively old news I still remain utterly fascinated by cryptocurrency. Thinking about the concept and its mechanics never fails to be a mind-expanding exercise. But recent events have shown that, no matter how pie-in-the-sky the new economy and its currency gets, it can still be brought down by something quotidian: security.
 
In this case, too much of it. Quadriga, a cryptocurrency trading platform based in Vancouver, collapsed in late January, due to the company’s inability to access its investors’ funds. To summarize how that works, very loosely: In order to reduce the prospective damage from being hacked or otherwise compromised, cryptocurrency exchanges frequently keep the majority of their investors’ funds in “cold storage” — a heavily protected, offline, virtual holding pen. When trades are scheduled, the funds are moved into a “hot” (i.e. internet-connected) “wallet”; once the trade is complete, the new total is moved back into cold storage. 
 
As part of Quadriga’s security measures, only one employee knew the password to unlock cold storage: founder Gerald Cotten. This worked well enough for the company until the 30-year-old director died unexpectedly while on holiday in India on Dec. 9. Quadriga held back the news for a month while they tried to extract $190 million CAD of its increasingly impatient investors’ money from the clutches of their own security measures. Cotten’s widow ransacked his devices for anything that might look like a password. An RCMP I.T. specialist was put on the case. And then, it gets complicated.
 
“A report released late Friday by court-appointed monitor Ernst and Young […] indicated six so-called cold wallets used to store digital assets offline have been found, but all of them are empty. […]
The monitor also found 14 user accounts on the QuadrigaCX platform that were “created outside the normal process,” using a number of aliases.

More important, the accounts were created internally “without a corresponding customer and used to trade on the Quadriga platform,” the monitor reported. […]

Transaction data indicates there was a significant volume of activity associated with these accounts, including withdrawals of cryptocurrency to wallet addresses not associated with Quadriga, the report says.

The monitor said it remains unclear how the accounts were used and whether the recipients of the withdrawals can be identified.”
 
Nova Scotia (the case’s jurisdiction) has gotten the Supreme Court involved, and between that body and Ernst & Young, have managed to trace and extract around $30 million so far from a handful of other exchanges that have been found to be holding transactions on behalf of Quadriga. But an untold amount of investors’ money may just be gone.
It’s hard to tell how much of this is actually hinky, versus the standard murkiness of trying to deal with crypto. As time passes, things do seem to be getting clearer: I’m glad the unpleasant rumour that Cotten faked his death to escape creditors has now been disproven. The unprecedented nature of not only the company itself but its current troubles means that it’ll likely be slow, careful going for a while. A lesson we regular-type investors can draw from this? A (block) chain is as strong as its weakest link. If that link is impenetrable… the blockchain is out of luck.

Bias and Animal Behaviour, Or: Your Cat May Not Be a Psycho

bias towards cat behaviour

I found myself the in the GTA a couple of weeks ago, talking up our David & Sons barbecue sauce at local heroes Seed to Sausage’s new location. After a long day’s work meeting, greeting, and (facilitating) eating, I decided against the long drive back to the DFC ranch. Instead, I stayed overnight at my middle son, Ben’s, apartment. He and my daughter-in-law are cat people, and they have a beautiful, friendly calico kitty named Margaret — or so they insist. I couldn’t tell because she manifested to me as a white, black, and orange streak that went under the bed at warp speed. We figured she smelled Samson and Jill on me or otherwise knew I was a friend of canines and traitor to cat-dom.
 
I was struck by how little I know about cats in relation to dogs, simply because I live day-in-day-out with the latter. Indeed, I might even have been tempted to call Margaret a psychopath due to her behaviour. Erroneously, it turns out: Sarah Zhang over at The Atlantic has an interesting take on why that might be the case. And it has a lot to do with our human priorities.
 
“There’s always an implicit comparison when we talk about cats as aloof little jerks, says Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the University of California at Davis. And that comparison is with dogs, which humans have spent thousands of more years domesticating and molding in our image.

‘We like things that remind us of us,’ Delgado told me. ‘We like smiling. We like dogs doing what we tell them. We like that they attend to us very quickly. They make a lot of eye contact.’

Cats, she pointed out, simply don’t have the facial muscles to make the variety of expressions a dog (or human) can. So when we look at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot feel or show emotion. But that’s just its face. Cats communicate not with facial expressions but through the positions of their ears and tails. Their emotional lives can seem inscrutable — and even nonexistent — until you spend a lot of time getting to know one.”
 
Additionally, some have argued that, where dogs are attached to people, cats are attached to places. What we humans see as another check mark in the They-Secretly-Hate-Me-And-Want-Me-Dead category, is simply a result of how cats socialize — and really just serves to uncover our bias as pack animals (like dogs!).
 
Though I have a newfound empathy for cats, having spent the night as the target of Margaret’s Eye Beams of Discomfort, I’m still resolutely Camp Dog. Though, in the long run, it may come back to, um, bite me. Where do your loyalties lie, dear readers? Dog, cat, or fabulously Other?

HP and the Ink-based Shenanigans

ink and ink based drawing

Here’s some fun, dystopic-sounding news from the realm of the Internet of Things. HP, a printer manufacturer that DFC frequently encounters in the offices we service, has been sliding alarmingly towards 1984-type control over inkjet printers and components used by its consumers. (For example, in March of 2016, HP pushed a seemingly harmless security update to users of their OfficeJet and OfficeJet Pro printers. Hidden within that update was a timed code that went off six months later, that caused printers with the security update to stop recognizing non-HP ink cartridges. And then, after being found out, they did it again!)
 
This time, HP has hidden sneaky-sneaky DRM in its Instant Ink subscription packages. Instant Ink involves “renting” ink cartridges to a user for less than what it would cost to buy — unless (here’s the catch) the user goes over a monthly page limit, which is when they get hit with substantial fees.
 
Josh Hendrikson wrote about his experience with his Instant Ink subscription over at How To Geek, and underscored how weird and predatory the whole thing feels.
 
“According to the math, I’m the type of person who can benefit the most from HP’s Instant Ink program. I’m getting more ink for less money than if I had gone a traditional route […] But there’s a secondary cost. I’m left afraid to use my printer for the one reason I have it — printing. It’s a strange proposition that every time I go to print, I now feel the need first to check if I have enough pages left in my plan. It’s like asking HP for permission to use my printer. And if I don’t ask nicely enough, I’ll pay extra or, worse, they’ll take my ink away. And it’s not actually my ink: HP’s instant ink recycling page spell this out clearly […]

I can’t think of anything else in my house that works this way. My couches don’t have an allotment for sitting time, and I don’t need to continually pay the furniture store a fee for the right to use their cushions. I don’t fear that if I fail to pay my cushion subscription the store will take them away, leaving me with a cushionless couch.”
 
While I recognize the need for a company to preserve the way that it actually makes its money, I don’t like these underhanded tactics. As Hendrikson writes, there’s a very specific consumer this program should work for: a person who, a) when they print hard copies period, b) does so to an inkjet printer. (I myself print rarely, and it’s been years since we had an inkjet on the premises.) To me, this smacks of a company realizing their product is rapidly becoming obsolete, and grasping at anything that will keep the relationship monetized — no matter if it hurts the consumer in the long run. We at DFC strive to avoid that kind of relationship with our partners, the clients. It makes far more sense to look to the future with our clients’ needs!

Pasta Patents: Technology on your Plate

patents for pasta

Theoretically, spring is supposed to arrive this month, but in DFC’s snowy neck of the woods, winter continues to close its icy grip. I’ve been fighting back with the most powerful weapon we cold-climate-dwellers have: comfort food!
 
Chilis and soups are high on my list, but in this nastiest of months,  nothing beats the world’s most perfect starch: pasta.
 
As an enthusiast of both pasta and technology, I was fascinated by a recent collaborator article on Smithsonian.com (via the always amazing BoingBoing). The profile, by Elizabeth Chu and D. Lawrence Tarazano of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, outlines the impressive history of machine-made pasta shapes.
 
Traditional Italian culture has developed more than 1,300 (!) different shapes of pasta. A similarly staggering number of patents have been required to replicate — and surpass — some of the most popular shapes. And it’s been a complicated process.
 
Pastas formed by hand have been the most difficult to replicate by machine because of the complexity of the actions done by hand. Cavatelli, gnocchi and orecchiette, for example, are made by rolling pasta dough by hand into a long snake shape, cutting it into equal sized dough pieces, and dragging the dough to form a cup-like shape. […]

Italian inventors Franco Annicchiarico and Adima Pilari, who received U.S. patent no. 4,822,271 on April 18,1989 for ‘an improved machine for manufacturing short cut varieties of Italian pasta (orecchiette, etc.),’ developed a machine for making these cupped pastas. Comprised of three units, this patented invention allows users to feed the machine with pasta mix that later extrudes into sticks of pasta. Those sticks are then ‘cut into cylindrical pellets,’ and finally, three rollers flatten, curl, rotate and form the pasta into a cup shape.”
 
Other noodles (like those for lasagna or ravioli), are subjects of patents for rolling and folding machines, and still others (like spaghetti or macaroni), for extruding machines.
 
It’s staggering to think of such a simple, handmade food being taken into the future on the wings of the most technical of documents. (Indeed, the far future: pasta company Barilla has a roster of 3D printed pastas of which they’ve staked intellectual ownership!) But however many heights they scale, all fanciful kinds of pasta will end up the same: inside the human stomach, converted to human energy. My favourite comfort food remains humble, even on the cutting edge of tech!

Driverless Cars and the Future of Parking

driverless car

DFC is located in a pretty rural part of Ontario, so, with all the snow this winter, we’ve been seeing many vehicles that are rare birds for city dwellers. ATVs, snowmobiles, and any number of hulking trucks with huge plow blades have all muscled through the drifts and past our offices. With our humble SUVs, we’ve been glad to see them blazing a trail!
 
What we haven’t encountered in our neck of the woods, and won’t for a while, are some of the most contentious vehicles in development: autonomous cars. Besides the nasty winter conditions, I just don’t think these cars are equipped for the kinds of decisions that are made out here — can you imagine an itty bitty driverless Google Smart car taking on a moose??

But while the powers that be work the kinks out tooling around Northern California, thinkers are casting forward to when driverless cars will be publicly available in urban centres. One big question is, will urban centres be ready for them — particularly in the area of parking?
 
Parking spots are premium real estate in a lot of cities. If you’re a driver, you need to leave your car someplace once you’ve arrived at your destination, because, naturally, you’re no longer driving it. Driverless cars break this whole logic chain down. Professor Adam Millard-Ball of the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz has written a paper on exactly this problem.
 
“‘Parking prices are what get people out of their cars and on to public transit, but autonomous vehicles have no need to park at all. They can get around paying for parking by cruising,’ [Millard-Ball] said. ‘They will have every incentive to create havoc.’ […]

Under the best-case scenario, the presence of as few as 2,000 self-driving cars in downtown San Francisco will slow traffic to less than 2 miles per hour, according to Millard-Ball, who uses game theory and a traffic micro-simulation model to generate his predictions. […]
 
‘Even when you factor in electricity, depreciation, wear and tear, and maintenance, cruising costs about 50 cents an hour – that’s cheaper than parking even in a small town,’ says Millard-Ball. ‘Unless it’s free or cheaper than cruising, why would anyone use a remote lot?’”
 
The post-apocalyptic-movie vibe of driverless cars circling a downtown with no one to pick up is a frightening one to contemplate. Besides the inevitable I-for-one-welcome-our-new-robot-overlords aspect — how are we regular folks (defiantly not wealthy enough to jump on the driverless car bandwagon) going to get downtown? I refuse to be made a second-class citizen to a metal box with wheels! Like any good post-apocalyptic movie, I sense a revolt of the underclass brewing. When driverless cars come to my neighbourhood, the moose and I will hold the line!

A Reissue of a Classic: Small Business and the Importance of Community

classic record

DFC the company supports small businesses all over with our array of business solutions. And DFC the humans try to do the same in our own community, through frequenting the many fairs, inns, and shops of our fellow Frontenac-dwellers. Sometimes we even go as far as Kingston! And it is in that bustling burg that I’ve found a heartwarming story about how important local support is to the small businesses in the area — and how important those small businesses are to the people around them.
 
Back in August, Brian’s Record Option, a legendary used record and music paraphernalia shop in downtown Kingston, suffered a catastrophic basement flood when a city water main broke. Brian Lipsin, owner of the shop for 38 years, believed the destruction of so many classic posters, records, and CD’s — never mind the damage to the building itself — spelled the end of the Princess St. landmark. That is until a GoFundMe set up for his store’s recovery netted four-fifths of its $10,000 goal in a single day. And the donations kept pouring in! Brian’s patrons responded to his plight by affirming (financially) how important his shop’s music, and identity as a hub for artists, is. And their generous donations have meant that Brian’s Record Option will open its doors again.
 
“Renovations in the store are in their final phases now. The floor has been replaced, new lighting has been installed, and storage bins and shelves are in the process of being built.

Lipsin said 13 bins for records have been built by the carpenters and more are coming. ‘They’re bringing in more, in a few days, another twenty I think.’ […]

‘People were just putting cash and cheques in my pocket as I was roaming around, I mean, it was wonderful.’

Donated money has been used to replace posters he lost in the flood along with adding new lighting and exit signs.”
 
According to the Record Option’s Facebook page, Brian is aiming for an early March grand re-opening. Until then, the whole community (at least those of us who like music!) is waiting excitedly to beat a path to his (new!) door.
 
This story makes me proud to be not only a Kingston-area community member but a human being. The dreams inspired by music are universal, and stores like Brian’s Record Option have become part of those dreams for everyone who’s ever enjoyed a genius, classic recording. Plus, it’s an object lesson in how small, personal, businesses are part of the fabric of community life — and the relationship goes both ways.

Squaring Up Theories on Wombat Poop

wombat

My entire life, I have been squirreling away facts in my brain that will come in handy when I inevitably get on Jeopardy. One of my favourites is a classic tidbit about one of Australia’s less-violent marsupials, the wombat. Specifically, that fact that its scat is cube-shaped!
 
While theories have abounded as to why wombats poop cubes (They stack them to mark their territory! There’s so little water to drink that they compress it all out in their guts!), no one has tried to find out the how. At least until Patricia Yang, a post-doctoral fellow in Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, got interested in the subject after hearing about it at a conference. Yang, who specializes in the movement of fluids in the bodies of animals, dissected the intestines of two roadkilled wombats that took months to acquire. (As a control, she and her team used a pig intestine.)

“As food is digested it moves through the gut, and pressure from the intestine helps sculpt the feces – meaning that the shape of the intestine will affect the shape of a dropping. So Yang and the team expanded both wombat and pig intestines with a balloon to measure and compare their elasticities (or stretchiness).

The pig intestine had a relatively uniform elasticity, which would explain the animal’s rounder poo. The wombat intestines, however, had a much more irregular shape. Yang observed two distinct ravine-like grooves, where the intestine is stretchier, which she believes helps shape wombat feces into cubic scat.”
 
Yang’s experiment goes a long way toward explaining why wombats’ waste materials conform to a shape that, barring crystals,  is actually pretty rare in nature. That’s a lofty result for a problem most often found in the gutter!
 
(Speaking of exotic animals and their bathroom habits: did you know that the three-toed sloth only poops once a week? They do so in response to their incredibly slow-moving metabolisms, as well as to minimize time on the ground that could attract predators. Now that’s efficiency…)