Cookie adventures

Jun 4, 2016

One day, I looked up some recipes for sugar cookies. I saw that all the recipes included four basic ingredients: butter, sugar, flour, and egg. There were also a few other ingredients that seemed optional since some recipes included them and others didn't. They were baking soda, salt, and vanilla. I started off making cookies with just the butter, sugar, flour and egg. Most recipes cooked them at 375 degrees F for about 8 minutes. What would the cookies taste like if I cooked them for 9 minutes? Would they be crispier if I cooked them for 10? Would they burn? I tested out those longer cooking times, and then I wondered what would happen if I increased the heat and reduced the cooking time, say 400 degrees for 6 or 7 minutes?  Most recipes had about a 1.5 parts sugar to 1 part butter. What if I used a 1 to 1 ratio, or if I used more butter than sugar? 1.25 butter to sugar made great buttery cookies. Recipes using baking soda usually used 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour. That made the cookies fluffy. Nice. I changed the proportions of various ingredients, tried different oven heats and times, always varying just 1 thing relative to my last cookie experiment. And I would write comments next to each recipe about my opinion of the cookie.

“Too sweet" I wrote for one recipe, "delicious, crispy, buttery" for another, and so on. Although this scientific approach was fun, I was getting fat with each experiment. The cookies were best right out of the oven. I'd make about 50 of them and as soon as they'd cooled enough not to burn my mouth, I'd start eating them. Within about 3 weeks, I'd gained enough weight that my flour-filled belly started peeking out from under my t-shirt. I didn't notice though. A person with anorexia becomes skin and bones, but looks in the mirror and sees a fat person. I was the opposite. I was so used to being the skinny guy that I didn’t notice when my t-shirts no longer covered my stomach until one day I visited my brother, he looked at my exposed belly, and asked "Jon, do you think that's cute?" That's when I decided to end my cookie adventures.

Anyhow, I recommend the systematic approach to learning things. It’s fun. Would you be better off adding ingredients intuitively instead of learning systematically? Maybe. But if you start off systematically, there's nothing stopping you from later using your gut (whoops), that is, your intuitions, which may have improved as a result of your trial and error explorations.

Two brains can be better than one

May 8, 2016

I bought one of those dry-erase whiteboards and mounted it on a wall in my office. It's 3 or 4 feet wide, and on the top of it I wrote "New ideas." The only thing standing between me and exciting research projects was a white board where I'd post ideas, think about them, discuss them with colleagues, and so on. And now I had one.
Over the next few months I forgot all about it. One day a researcher friend of mine was in my office talking with me and a grad student about designing an experiment on dopamine and learning.   He pointed to my still-blank white board and said 'Hey, Jon, you put that up months ago, didn't you? Still no new ideas?"

New research ideas really aren't my problem so much as maintaining the energy and focus to bring them to fruition. Some people easily come up with ideas, whether for preparing Turkish coffee in a way they haven't tried before, or coming up with experimental hypotheses about the brain.  But those who easily give birth to new ideas are not always good at bringing a project to completion.  The skills needed to procreate aren't necessarily those that help bring the newborn to adulthood.  Follow through on a project usually involves overcoming inevitable snags that arise, spending the time and energy to work through them even when it would be more fun to do something else, like think of new ideas. 
People who have different kinds of strengths can sometimes work well on projects together. 
And it's not just a matter of bringing together the creative and the disciplined. Different brains approach problem solving in different ways, there are different kinds of creativity. 

Anyhow, I think I am going to put something on that whiteboard today.  I paid for it.  I might as well use it.

The Idea List

Apr 1, 2016

I used to write blog posts using an idea list.

On the list I'd write down things that popped into my mind when I was walking down the street,

waiting for the subway,

or wherever else I happened to be. When I sat down to think of topics, nothing much came to mind. Since I couldn't force them, I had to catch them when they appeared.

When I caught an idea, I'd write it down on my list. Just a few sentences that caught the gist of the idea.  And the list started to grow, and grow and grow.

(My idea list. Okay, maybe it didn't look exactly like this).

It was fun, and it made me feel good that I had plenty to write about. When it was time to write a post, all I needed to do was look at the list. I'd write about the idea at the top, because it had been there the longest. Bit by bit I'd work my way down to the more recent ideas.

But the list of ideas grew faster than I could write the blog posts. Eventually, the idea at the top of the list had been there for a month, six months, a year. The oldest ideas had passed a kind of expiration date, and lost their potency. What was it that had so interested me about the idea?