Dopamine and How our Brains Look for Patterns

This past weekend I listened to a really fascinating episode of the Radiolab podcast about stochasticity (which is a fancy word for randomness) and finding patterns.  One part of the episode explored the story of Ann Klinestiver, a teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and later become a gambling addict.  Evidently, it’s very common for people with Parkinson’s to develop a gambling addiction.

When I first heard this, it sounded preposterous.  Why would Parkinson’s disease have anything to do with gambling addiction?

Before this makes any sense, first we need to think about how dopamine works.

My understanding of the brain is pretty primitive – but according to the podcast, dopamine plays two key roles in the brain:

  • Role 1) “Pleasure” or reward indicator. Your brain releases dopamine when you’re doing something that feels good or is enjoyable.
  • Role 2) Movement and motor skills. Your brain uses dopamine as a key component of making your body move.

Parkinson’s is a disease where the part of your brain that uses dopamine to move (Role 2 above) starts to die.  That’s why Parkinson’s patients tend to have trouble with movement.

To treat Parkinson’s, patients take synthetic dopamine drugs to help with their movement (that’s where the shaking comes from – too much dopamine makes it hard to stop moving).

So – what does all this have to do with gambling addiction?

That’s where dopamine “Role 1” comes in.


On Being a Draftsperson

I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and in college I took classes in jewelry and metals.  I was taught by a Professor named David Peterson who is an extremely talented (albeit tough) teacher.  After studying with David for two or three semesters, I realized that I had never seen anything that he himself created, so one day a few students and I convinced him to bring some of his work to class.  He brought in one piece – it was a salt and pepper shaker (I found a picture here in David’s now-online portfolio).  I still remember when I saw it for the first time, it was one of the most creative, interesting, and impressive works of art I’ve ever seen.

After he showed us the piece, he took out a very large piece of blueprint paper and showed us his draft drawings.  Holy moly – his drawings were so detailed and intricate that they themselves were a work of art.  He had completed detailed scale drawings of every single component of the piece in immaculate detail.

When I saw the drawings, I couldn’t help but thinking how much time the drawings must have taken.  Hours, days probably.  At the naïve age of 20, looking at those drawings, I remember having only one thought:

“What a waste of time!”

In college, when I worked in jewelry, I never spent a long time planning.  I would get a general idea, maybe do a quick sketch in a small sketch book, then just sit down at the bench and start sawing and soldering until I got results that I was happy with.

“Dive right in”

It was the method that I used for a lot of projects in a lot of areas.

Looking back – I now understand why David spent so much time drawing out his creations.  But the lesson took me a very long time to learn.  Here’s why: I often got good results by just diving in!


Follow up on Taxes and Distrust for the Government

It’s been about a month since the article about my family appeared in the New York Times and a lot of folks have been reaching out to ask if we ended up pre-paying our taxes.  The answer is yes!  But, it’s a pretty disappointing “yes”.

Let me explain.

After Governor Cuomo signed the emergency order on December 22nd that would allow New York residents to pre-pay 2018 property taxes in 2017, (and after the article about my family was published in the Times) the IRS made their own announcement (on December 27th) stating that pre-paid property taxes could only be counted as a 2017 income deduction if the taxes were assessed in 2017.

The IRS announcement really blew me away.

Thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people had already pre-paid their 2018 property taxes in full between the time Cuomo made his announcement on the 22nd and the IRS’ announcement on the 27th.  Those poor folks ponied up big bucks thinking they were going to save some money, then the IRS changed the rules on them with only three days left in the year – truly crazy.

Luckily, we did not pre-pay our 2018 taxes prior to the IRS announcement – we were planning to, just were unable to submit the payment due to holiday travel.  What isn’t so lucky is that the vast majority of the $21,000 we pay in property taxes goes to the local school district, and the school budget isn’t finalized until Q2 2018.  The amount of our total 2018 tax bill that we were eligible to pre-pay was actually quite small – just $260.00 out of our overall $21,000 bill (just over 1%).  As it turns out, in Westchester it’s very hard to assess taxes on short notice, it usually takes a few months.  The only people who were able to scramble together and assess taxes in the last week of December were the local town firefighters – who were the recipients of our $260 pre-payment.

Our expected total tax savings from our pre-payment?  Probably around $50.


My Picture in the New York Times and My First Significant Encounter with the Government

Yesterday (Saturday December 23rd), a picture of my family appeared in the New York Times.

For those of you who still have a print copy laying around, turn to page A19.  Alternatively check out this link.

It all started 12 days ago when I emailed our local tax collector in Westchester to ask about pre-paying our 2018 property taxes.  Like many residents of New York, the recent GOP tax bill will effectively raise our taxes because the bill eliminates the ability to deduct state and local taxes from our federal taxable income.  As the world now knows (since it was published in the article), my family pays $21k per year in property tax – so losing the ability to deduct that from our federal taxes is pretty significant (on the order of $5k-$6k per year).  If we can pre-pay our 2018 property taxes in 2017 under current law (and deduct that payment from our 2017 federal taxes) – it would save us some money.

Sending the email to our local tax collector was really one of my first personal interactions with the government.  That is, of course, outside of the normal stuff like getting a passport or driver’s license.  Up until now, I haven’t really had any reason to contact the government.  I suppose I’ve lived a very fortunate life – this recent tax bill is really the first piece of legislation that has impacted me and my family on a direct and personal basis.

I did a quick internet search for who the tax collector for my town was and sent an email to Edye McCarthy (Assessor for the town of Greenburgh – which is technically where the Village of Tarrytown is located – where I live).  The email was short, just two lines.  I listed my address and asked very courtly if we could pre-pay our 2018 taxes now.

When I sent the email, I wasn’t really expecting much of a response.  To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if the email was going to go to Edye directly or if it was going to be redirected to some sort of government customer service center where I might get an automated response or have a to wait a few days to hear back.  In my head, I was expecting an experience similar to contacting Verizon or AT&T customer service.

To my surprise, I got an immediate response directly from Edye, who put me in touch with someone named Paul Feiner, the supervisor for the Town of Greenburgh.  For those of you, like me, who are really fascinated by New York local government structures – you can read this very informative Wikipedia page – for everyone else: Town Supervisor is like the CEO of our town.


A Roaring Economy, Easy Money, and a Bunch of Restaurants that are Going to Go Out of Business.

In the morning before work I go to the gym on the corner of 38th street and Broadway.  Here’s the intersection (above) – courtesy of Google Street View (at the very left of the picture above, on the second floor, are the windows to the gym).

This image is from just over one year ago (October 2016) – you can see directly ahead (on the northwest corner of the intersection) the large green plywood boards covering a construction site.

In place of those boards today exist five new quick service restaurants.

And finally, occupying the 1000+ square foot prime corner lot:

If you actually go to the Wichcraft website – you will see a picture of this new restaurant as the first image in their carousel.

(Look carefully and you’ll see the gym equipment across the street on the second floor.)

If five new restaurants weren’t already enough, if you turn around and look the other direction, you’ll see six more places to get lunch at this same intersection.  Pret a Manger, Hale and Hearty, Chipotle, Maison Kayser, Mr Broadway (Kosher), and Sweet Greens.

Eight out of the eleven restaurants on this corner have opened in the last five months.  And note – I’ve only highlighted the restaurants at this one intersection.  Look closely at the map above and you’ll see ANOTHER chipotle just one block west as well as Moe’s Southwest Grill (effectively the same thing as Chipotle) one block east.

Holy moly.

Ok – let’s do some napkin math here.


Lessons from the First Year of Being a Parent – and Almost Electrocuting Myself

Earlier today I was rushing to finish a small home project: re-locating the basement refrigerator.  We were expecting company in the afternoon and I had to finish moving the fridge so I could watch our son Jack while my wife cleaned up the house.  In my haste, I drove a nail directly through the extension cord I was using to power the fridge in the new location.  In an instant, a lightning bolt appeared in front of me.  The charge leapt from the head of the nail through the hammer and over into a (grounded) metal-cased electric line.


Fortunately, the handle of the hammer was fiberglass and the charge found its way to ground without going through me, but it was definitely a little bit of a wakeup call.

As I sat down this evening to write my post, having thankfully not been electrocuted earlier today, I thought I would take some time to reflect on the first year of being a parent – and the lessons I’ve taken away.

  • Lesson 1: Don’t try to squeeze things in.


Facebook, Twitter, and Google – Media Outlets or Just the Newsstand?

Pulling out of my driveway to head to the train station last week, I was surprised to hear a somewhat familiar voice came on the radio – hey wait a minute – that’s Randall Rothenberg’s voice.  I know that guy!

Randall was calling into NPR to talk about the testimony of Google, Facebook and Twitter before congress as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.  I personally find this topic to be incredibly interesting and the facts are just remarkable.

Russian backed social media accounts spread false negative information about Hillary Clinton, false positive information about Donald Trump – and even went so far as to encourage Clinton voters to say home on election day (to avoid the line) and “cast their vote” on social media- which of course wouldn’t be counted in the actual election.  You can see some examples of the fake content here.

(via –

One of the reasons why this is so interesting is because the digital ad industry has been working for the last 10 years to prevent fraudsters from taking people’s money online.  To the credit of the industry these money-based fraud schemes are much less prevalent than they were in the late 00’s– but even as some progress has been made protecting people’s wallets, the industry is still poorly prepared to protect people’s minds. (more…)

The Power of Google: My Story of Being Blacklisted

On or around April 22nd 2017, this blog ( was removed from the Google search index.

The impact was devastating.

(Daily sessions driven by Google Search to between October ’16 and October ’17)

As you can see, some days I was getting upwards of 50 sessions per day from Google (organic search).  When my site was delisted, that dropped to practically zero.

This is what a search for the term “andrew eifler” should look like:

(Screenshot of Bing search for “andrew eifler” taken 10-16-17)

Notice the deep linking, images – the whole nine yards.  This is almost exactly what Google looked like before I was blacklisted.

This is what a Google Search for “andrew eifler” returned after my site had been removed from the Google index:

(Screenshot of Google search for “andrew eifler” taken 8-12-17; this is what this search result looked like from mid-April to mid-August)

Neither Bing nor Yahoo (which is powered by Bing) removed me from their index at any time – yet still, just getting removed by Google was crushing.

You can see the overall impact on my monthly traffic below.

(Total sessions on between October ’16 and October ’17)

I first noticed that something was wrong in mid-June ‘17, about two months after this site had been removed from Google.  I’m a casual blogger, so I don’t often look at site analytics, but when I did, I saw that overall traffic had been decimated.  After poking around, I realized traffic from Google had dropped to near zero.

At the time, I had no idea why Google had delisted me, although my mind immediately jumped to the very critical article I had written about Google just a few months prior.


Whistling Vivaldi and Stereotype Threat

I’ve recently started reading Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele, a book about how stereotypes impact our identities and our lives.

The story is told from the perspective of Steele, a university professor and social psychologist studying (among other things) the underperformance of minority students at the university level.  At the core of his research are a series of studies on what he calls “stereotype threat” – that is – how the risk of confirming a stereotype affects our performance.

His findings can be roughly summarized as follows:

If you’re being given a test and:

1) The test is meant to be an evaluation of your skills in a specific area
2) The area in which you’re being tested is an area where your group (gender, ethnicity, etc.) stereotypically underperforms
3) You really care about being good at the area where you’re being tested (it’s meaningful to you)

You will probably perform below the level of your true ability.

Said differently – the threat of confirming a pre-existing stereotype by performing poorly will be sufficiently distracting to lower your performance on the test.

This was seen in his tests in a number of areas including:

  • Women taking advanced math tests
  • Racial minorities taking college admission tests

He even called out this same effect on white male students when being tested in the area of athletics (where white male students stereotypically perform worse than their African American peers).

I find these studies extremely interesting, especially because they somewhat confirm my hypotheses here:  It’s also very disturbing to think that stereotype-threat-induced-underperformance is probably most often viewed as stereotype confirming behavior – which is truly a tragedy.

I was thinking more about Steele’s work last week and how to describe stereotype threat in an accessible way.  Here’s what I came up with: