Monday, August 30, 2010

More thoughts on being "time-poor"

Continuing on the theme of having too little time, being "time-poor" is actually a pretty vicious trap. People who don't have enough time start, understandably, by trying to free up time. A common method for this is for people to outsource things they don't like to do anyway: housework (to maid services), yardwork (to lawncare services), even food preparation (to restaurants or takeout).

Unfortunately, one thing they often don't consider trimming back could be the biggest gain: their job.

Think about it—eight hours a day away from home. Every day. Honestly, if you need some more time to yourself—major time—switching from a full-time to a part-time work schedule would save you way more time (twenty hours a week!) than avoiding most any amount of housework. Many modern workplaces offer programs affording this kind of an hour cut. Of course, this will also severely impact the amount of money coming into your household. This requires having money from somewhere else—or maybe a lot less need for money.

And this is where the first instinct can be harmful: spending money to outsource work to others means you need more money. This means that trimming back your working hours—and making big gains for time—becomes less and less of an option.

So if you're short on time, instead of outsourcing unpleasant tasks, you might try reacting in a different way: hone some skills to become more self-sufficient, with an eye toward cutting back working hours and gaining more time that way.

p.s. Alternatively, you could remove the reason you have unpleasant tasks in the first place: get a smaller house (less cleaning), move to a condo (no yardwork), or... stop eating? Maybe not so much.

Monday, August 23, 2010

On buying your way out of being "time-poor"

Living in a neighborhood that could be described as "old professional", with plenty of aging white-collar wage-earners in the peak of their earning years, we get an interesting bunch of targeted advertising around our house. One that particularly stuck out to me was a recent maid service's flyer, pitching the slogan, "Life's too short to clean your own house."

Life is short; I'll grant that. Is it too short to clean your own house?

The assumption underlying this kind of slogan (popular in pitching to affluent professionals) is that trading money for time is a good way to get more time. After all, professionals often lament having so little time, and they've got plenty of money; wouldn't it be nice if they could just exchange one for the other?

Looking at the problem superficially, it certainly seems like a real possibility. A high-powered wage earner might earn well in excess of $50/hour, and paying the maid service $75/week may save our professional four whole hours of cleaning. And trading $50 for four hours is paying out under $15/hour, which is a net of $35/hour!

Unfortunately, things aren't that simple.

As a professional starts to look deeper into the issue, a question surfaces: "What am I saving time for?" (Or, for a more prepositionally strict professional, "For what am I saving time?")

Perhaps at the office! However, note that a professional's income is pretty well fixed. He puts in his time at work and gets a certain amount per month in return—spending a couple extra hours at the office yields no additional income (in the short term, at least). So choosing to go to the office with his new found time will actually pan out to something like a $15/hr loss (again, in the short term).

Most professionals, though, are not too keen on spending additional time in the office. Instead, they're looking for extra time to spend with their family. And what better way to find time to spend with the family than by not having to clean the house? Except that the extra time "bought" that way tends to fizzle away just as quickly as the old time did, especially when it's squandered vegging out in front of the television (a pastime that grows to fit the space available). Who wants to pay $15/hr for that?

Bearing in mind my current circumstance as a member of a childless couple, I still think cleaning your house yourself is always the way to go. My reason? Cleaning your own house, or doing other things for yourself, often conjoins nicely with spending "quality time" with your family. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of working together as a family, though at the time I was less than enthusiastic about it. (Sorry, Mom.) Combining your family time with work to be done is a great way to get extra mileage out of your time, and save some money to boot.

Life's too short to pay someone else to clean your house.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hyperlinks Before the Digital Age

One of the ways I find new books to take on is to look for references in other books I enjoy. This gives me good leads, especially in the "related books" vein. However, this does contain some inherant biases.

An example: I recently tackled Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which is a fun, episodic romp following a young boy's journey through the land of the undead. Most notably, it's modeled somewhat on Rudyard Kiplings The Jungle Book, a debt which the author freely acknowledges in the back.

Anyway, the point is that although Gaiman recommends Kipling, Kipling couldn't very well recommend the not-born-at-the-time Gaiman. In fact, all references (or hyperlinks, in 'net lingo) go backwards in time, for the simple reason that one cannot reference something that hasn't yet been written. (Of course, someone adding a preface to a future publication of Kipling's book could add a Gaiman reference, but that's neither here nor there.)

Following hyperlinks is a great way to find material, but it always points a reader back in time. This does preclude finding the "latest and greatest" books, but it also provides a great way to delve into older books. After all, recent bestsellers are always easy to find—it seems everyone is talking about them. But finding the gems of the past is more difficult, especially if they don't make the latest "100 best books of all time" lists.

References can be a great weapon in your arsenal of book-recommending strategies, especially on the older side.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brief Book Review: Life, Inc.

The subtitle of the book is How Life Became a Corporation, and How to Take it Back, a fairly loaded title but a pretty accurate one. The books presents the history of the corporation, tracing all the way back to the Renaissance. Along the way, author Douglas Rushkoff develops ideas about the system and proposes alternatives.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that corporations are not a natural part of the world, but a human creation, with certain biases that, after a while, we have all started to take for granted. Even our centralized system of money is not the only way to do things.

A most interesting idea is made in discussing using two concurrent currency systems, one centralized and one local. He explains that such a system was in place during the Middle Ages, and he points out some reasons why it might not be such a bad idea now.

The other main thrust is that in the age of corporations, we've all started to behave more like them, expending effort to adjust our "bottom line", whether that's measured in net worth or in material consumption. This is even at the expense of relationships or other societal goods that really make us human.

It's an interesting read if you're inclined to read about economics, or about societal issues, but especially if you like to learn about both.

Friday, June 4, 2010

How Do You Choose What To Read?

As I've started looking for more to read, I've become more conscious of the decision process I use to choose among the options. There are too many books out there for me (or anyone) to read, so I rely on some heuristics in an attempt to filter out the good ones without having read them. Here are some of the things I've realized about how I choose reading material:

I consider more seriously anything referenced positively by a work I enjoy. This might be as simple as a book's mention on a blog I frequent, or a recommendation in a book by an author whose work I respect.

I also will likely read anything recommended to me by someone with similar book tastes to mine. even in the course of a dinner party, I might get to know that a new friend is a reader, and we might swap books. I take care to jot down any suggestions, and usually follow up on those later.

I have a few lists that I consult every once in a while. The list at the end of "How to Read a Book" is one such list---it's full of works that were deemed (by the author) to have intrinsic merit, and to be books that are readable multiple times. It is an interesting way to get suggestions from an informed source.

I will shy away from books that have titles similar to books I have really disliked. A title like "How to Get Rich" really turns me off from reading it, despite recommendations to the contrary.

I tend to switch topics after a while of reading in one vein. After going through a good number of books on personal finance, I have largely decided that I will read other things instead. At the moment, I am leaning toward social commentary and fun reading.

All of these simple rules obviously don't filter out every crummy book written, and I also probably pass on reading books that are in actuality excellent. Nevertheless, they help filter out the sheer volume of books there are to read.

What kinds of tests do you all use to determine which books are worth your while?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thinking of...

I believe one of the marks of a good book is that one thinks about it often in the weeks, even months, after reading it. This evidences the sticking power of a good idea—or a good writing style.

For me, a recurrent books is Strunk and White's Elements of Style. This combines both of the above-mentioned attributes, being a good idea about good writing style.javascript:void(0)

For the past few weeks, I haven't been able to get through so much as a chapter of anything without thinking of Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach. Maybe it's that the ideas presented are so fundamental to the world in which we live, or maybe his astounding use of language just tickles my fancy, but either way, it keeps coming back to me.

But not all "sticky" books hail from so lofty a class. A Void has stuck in my mind, too, but only owing to its putting my brain into such a condition that on thinking a thought, I find my subconscious dutifully figuring out if this thought contains any of a particular symbol (the fifth in our ABC's, if you must know).

Give me a sticky book any day!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Goal of the month: NetWorker

At work, I use the Internet. All the time. Above the local network stuff (HR, internal memos, and the like), I am constantly doing research about various items in my work life.

However, the Internet is also quite the distraction. Yes, I can get sucked into Slashdot and lose an hour. But also in more insidious ways. For example, checking my e-mail. It's great to stay on top of things, but nervously checking it every five minutes is not helpful to my work flow. (Yes, I have been known to do this, mostly when expecting confirmation or a reply.)

Anyway, this month my goal is to get more productivity out of my Internet time (or around my Internet time). Specifically, my resolutions come in two forms: a prohibition and several limits.

Prohibition: No idle browsing

That means no clicking onto Slashdot because I'm bored. If I'm bored, there's probably a reason, and the reason is probably that I am avoiding doing something.

This also includes Slickdeals and other deal sites, which can be real time-sinks for me as I peruse the deals and think about them. To help with this tendency, I've created a custom RSS feed (using Yahoo's Pipes) to go through all the deal sites I could find and filter out the mess, to return just the things I'm looking for. It's worked well so far (I've found one or two pertinent things and ignored countless "deals" that wouldn't be deals to me.)

Daily limits

My feed reader: 1x. I use RSS to catch up with my favorite websites, and to put reading material on my Palm for later perusal. However, checking my feed reader more than once a day is wasteful. Indeed, an RSS reader functions as an aggregator, so I don't have to check multiple places for information. What I'm planning now is a similar aggregation, only across time: checking just once a day will still get me all the information.

E-mail: 5x. I will check both my personal and business mail only five times daily, maximum. Tentatively, these five times will be allotted as follows:
* once in the morning, after I arrive to my office
* once just after lunch
* once before leaving work
* two discretionary times
This should free me up to do more work with fewer interruptions.

What to do instead

With all the time freed up by not browsing idly and aggregating tasks across time, what should I do? My focus is going to be on my to-do list. That is, not things that pop into my head on their own, but things that have "made the cut" and are already on my list. This should help me filter out spurious "urgencies" and make room for important things that I might otherwise neglect.

That should leave me room to get my workday (and life) in better shape.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Other Y

Okay, on a whim, I was looking up basic information on Yale (mostly to find out its physical location) and found, to my surprise, that their seal contains Hebrew!

As a secondary surprise, this (apparently) says "Urim and Thummim"—how interesting! Note that on the banner below, they've translated it to Latin as "Light and Truth".

Curiouser and curiouser...


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shiny "new" gadget

My pocket gadget of choice is a Palm Tungsten T3. It is a model that was introduced in late 2003, but though it's coming up on its seventh birthday, mine still works great. (I haven't had it for all of those seven years—in fact, I bought it in 2008.)

Anyway, Palm T3 owners share one chronic complaint: Palm manufactured the device with some screws in the bottom that tend to worm their way out of their sockets. Though my Palm arrived with all screws in place, they had fallen out after a year or two. The device still functioned properly, but... well, nobody likes a loose bottom.

I found online that several opportunistic entrepreneurs offer replacement screws, and I even found some advice on how to keep them from falling out once they'd been replaced. Unfortunately, these suppliers charged eight to ten dollars for their services, which was a bit more than I was willing to pay for four tiny screws.

Fortunately, we found the local hobby store. When I asked them about finding these tiny screws, they found them right away. And with that, I tightened up my Palm's bottom (a much more pleasant way for a bottom to be). It feels like a new gadget, so I'm treating it like one!

The only difference is that the new screws are a lovely shade of gold:

Hmm, looks rustic!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Random Musical Tidbit

Happened today across a video of Lisa Bassenge's rendition of a song "Overload". (I really dig the break at 2:23.) She's been affiliated with Jazzanova's Sonar Kollektiv label through her group Micatone, and produced some excellent music then and since. I think this whole subculture of Berlin is taking an exciting tack on contemporary music.

It is of particular note that jazz, an American invention, is being moved along by other countries. Of course, this kind of globalization goes all ways, but it is refreshing to see a different take on the style. Kind of a beneficial cross-pollination, in the musical landscape.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Minor Infraction

(Mom asks cops to handcuff 5-year-old)

Your son's a budding firestarter.
Is a cop the best rebuff?
Though patient helping might be harder,
Parenting's best off the cuff!

My vocab is not rewarded at work

So, I work in a "diverse" working environment. That is, lots of people from different ethnic groups. Which is fantastic. The perspectives that people bring to the table from their varied work experience are a real asset to the team. However, this also means that there are varying degrees of lingual proficiency (at least in English).

Honestly, despite having worked here for coming up on two years, I just realized this yesterday. It probably has something to do with my reading of a book with such a phenomenal vocabulary, which I have been enjoying. New words all the time—what a wonderful experience!

So yesterday, I was present in a meeting when someone used the term "purview". About a third of the room was thrown into confusion by this. Admittedly, it's not a technical word, so it wouldn't be something I would expect a foreigner to know. And it's certainly nobody's fault they don't know every word in what is essentially, to them, a second language.

Nonetheless, I was saddened by the realization that expanding my vocabulary is not likely to bolster rapport with my co-workers, nor is it likely to be the fun cooperative game in which I have participated throughout my life, from my family to my four-two-love friends.

Anybody have any tips on building word power in such an environment?

For now, I guess I'll stick to Scrabble on weekends.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Double Up on Calories!

Many people have died
'Cause of food that's been fried,
But of all the fast foods with a curse,
This corrupt "Double Down"
May be wearing the crown---
A creation for butter or worse.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Importance of Good Neighbors

One of the key decisions of choosing where we would buy a house was the neighborhood. But what concerned us most wasn't the state of the lawns, or the siding, or even the sidewalks. No, our biggest concern was the quality of people we'd be living next to.

The first criteria for neighbors is that they be not crazy. The last thing you want is to be spending the next twenty years next to folks who are unreasonable (whatever your definition of "unreasonable" is). But beyond that, it's worthwhile to find good neighbors.

Good neighbors are an asset in a number of ways. They can be relied on to help out in an emergency, (say, if your basement floods while you're on vacation). They might even have lawn tools they'd be willing to lend. (This last has been a big cash-saver for us.)

The difference made by good neighbors is huge. I would gladly take a sloppy neighborhood with great, genuine people over a perfectly manicured community filled with catty, comparative characters.

How do you find out beforehand whether the crowd you'll be joining is one you like? Just ask! The day after we reached mutual acceptance on the house, we headed out to the neighborhood and knocked every door on the street until we found someone at home. The guy who answered was cordial and cheerfully gave us the lowdown on the dynamic of the neighborhood, and the words he used to describe it were encouraging (to us)—"quiet," "nice," and "friendly." (He also gave us some good information on the house, like the fact that its roof was replaced eight years ago.)

If you're already living somewhere, you might be able to create good neighbors. Simple goodwill goes a long way in this regard, whether that means extending an invitation to your kid's graduation, or giving a simple holiday gift. We've discovered that a homemade loaf of bread can open many doors.

Maybe the best way to have good neighbors is to be one yourself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Shandy, the Bone, and You

In Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, he briefly outlines an allegory. To paraphrase:

Shandy is a dog, and her master has just thrown her favorite bone to her. Unfortunately, the master's aim is a bit off, so it lands just the other side of a chain-link fence. Down the fence some thirty feet is an open gate. There's that tasty bone, sitting right next to the dog's nose, except for that troublesome fence. What does the dog do?

Some dogs will sniff at the bone, eye it hungrily, and never move away from it. After all, if the goal is to get closer to the bone, going farther away from it is ludicrous.

Or is it?

Smarter dogs will view the problem in a different light. Namely, that the first goal is to get around the fence, and then getting to the bone is possible. Hence, going through the gate gets the dog closer to the goal, even though it is moving physically farther from the bone.

In our human minds, we wouldn't have much trouble getting to the other side of the fence. But we run into similar problems all the time. In particular, the goal of material comfort.

On the surface, getting a lot of comfort seems easy: just buy a bunch of luxury items that will make your life better! Of course, if you don't have the available resources, then you can just charge it on credit. After all, the goal is to be comfortable, so make it as comfortable as you can!

Unfortunately, this breaks down eventually, usually when someone is saddled with more debt than they can carry.

Paradoxically, the real solution to having material comfort often involves going without for some time (at least to some degree), so one can get a firm financial footing. Who would have thought that buying less things would enable one to have more (and more lasting) material comforts?

Next time you're faced with a problem (particularly one where you're repeatedly stuck in the same spot), consider Shandy and the bone—try looking for a gate!

You are what you eat...

...but also what you breathe.

Did you know that plants are largely built off the carbon they pull out of the carbon dioxide in the air? People also get a large part of their intake from the air around them, which is fortunate since there's so much of it.

Similarly, your mind isn't based just on what you intentionally consume ("eat")—it's largely influenced by the environment around it (what you "breathe"). If you find that your mind isn't growing like it should, evaluate what you're putting in it, but also think about where it lives. Forget polluted places, whether they're polluted with noise, clutter, or even attitude. Get more encouraging friends, a positive workplace, or a quiet place, and give your mind what it needs to flourish.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Different Tools for Different Problems

When I have a task to accomplish around the house, I reach for my trusty toolbox. In it are tools for all sorts of things. In fact, an important part of any home improvement job is figuring out which tools to use. A wrench and a hammer each have their uses, but they are not interchangeable.

In my college computer projects, a similar problem existed: choosing a computer language to suit the task at hand proved to be a difficult but important prerequisite to completing the work. C++ and Haskell are different tools that require and even enforce differing solutions.

In changing the way your life is going, there are different tools, too: setting goals, introspecting, analyzing patterns, and social support structures are just a few of them. Again, all useful, but hardly interchangeable.

It's usually worthwhile to give some consideration as to which tools best fit a job. Note that you don't always go with the best tool—you might instead choose a tool you already have, or even better, one in which you're already proficient.

Just be mindful that your choice of tool will change how you solve the problem, and how well.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Long Read, Short Read

Okay, I've finally finished my recent read of Godel, Escher, Bach. To break from the wordy, dense style of that work, I took on a less ambitious project, and a more pleasant one: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming. Instead of a month, this book took me just a day (a refreshing fact).

If you're in the market for a fun read, you might try it. But don't expect it to be too much like the Disney movie...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Digital Difference

Some time ago, I bought an Nikon's D40 (now out of production, but still available refurbished). It has enough features to allow me all the expressive power of which I am currently capable. That is, I don't know for sure why I would want a "better" (more expensive) one.

A few months after my purchase, I was discussing a couple of photographs with another amateur photographer. In the midst of the discussion, he asked me nonchalantly, "So, how many megapixels does your camera have?"

I couldn't tell him.

It's not that I don't have a head for numbers. And it's not that I didn't do any research. No, the matter of megapixel count simply was not something that entered into the question of which camera to buy. Mostly because, even at large 8 1/2"x11" prints (like the kind I have hanging on my wall right now), it is nigh impossible to make out any graininess, even with pictures taken on my old Canon PowerShot (rocking a hefty 2.0 megapixels).

Another reason that megapixel counts are misleading is that the higher numbers don't (usually) mean bigger sensors. For example, "doubling" the megapixel count will actually do nothing more than shrink the size of each pixel, all other things being equal. And shrinking those pixels lessens their sensitivity to light, and therefore increases noise.

So if you're looking for a camera with expressive power, there are more important things than megapixels. Two of the biggies are ease of use and lens selection (if you're getting an SLR).

Funnily enough, megapixel counts seem to be a big part of how camera manufacturers differentiate between their models. Maybe that's because it's a number, and an easy one to increase between revisions. One thing's for sure: in the digital world, what's marketed isn't necessarily what's important.

Maybe that's true in other areas as well.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Saving with No Regrets

Retirement saving is a big theme that I hear among older people. Mostly, they seem to lament not having saved more in their earlier years of wage-earning. Presumably, that darn past self of theirs should have given up the fun toys and frivolities of youth so that their present self could reap the benefits!

Since I'm under thirty years old, the typical retirement age of sixty-five is the second most distant life event I can think of, next to being dead (hopefully). With longer left until retirement than all the time I have experienced thus far in my life, how am I supposed to plan for it?

Despite my doubts as to how much is "enough" to save, we have settled on a strategy for now: we try to be frugal in our buying decisions, and any extra money we have goes to savings. We spend enough to have everything we need, with some comforts to boot. And we even put some of our budget toward "frivolous" things that are important to us, like travel. But we have agreed that those extras will improve our quality of life here and now, as well as in the future when we have those memories on which to reflect.

And that's something I won't regret in forty years.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Big Book Blues

April was a long month, but in terms of book's I read, I have precious little to show for it. I haven't been spending much less time reading; the problem (if I may call it so) is that I am tackling a much larger book than usual: Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. Weighing in at 742 pages, my edition is a hefty one. I've been doing my best to cart it around with me, but lugging it on the bus is a challenge, and it's been rainy enough lately that I haven't dared take it outside much.

Oddly, this book has inclined me toward buying a Kindle (or similar gadget). I know that for most every book I've read up to now, I haven't entertained thoughts of instead having a slim electronic gadget. And it seems silly to drop several hundred dollars just so that I won't have to hold this one heavy book. Nevertheless, the idea has now entered my mind.

Maybe Amazon's target audience was people who read dictionary-sized books for fun.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Catching Up after Falling Behind

With the beginning of "the lusty month of May", my new habit is to stick to a daily exercise routine. This is not a new goal—I had the exact same goal last year, when I was initially trying to get into doing some regular exercise. Why the repeat?

In March, some personal health issues prevented me from sticking with my routine, and I didn't recover at all during the month of April. May is here, and it is time to get on board again, but my habit is broken. (I tried getting started yesterday to verify this—it was tough!)

So with May starting up, I have a decision to make on which monthly goal I would like to pursue. While I would love to tackle something bigger and better this month, I realize that I have taken a few steps back, and I should work back up to where I left off.

When you get out of a habit, don't be afraid to take some time to get back into it—it sets a foundation for further progress..

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In favor of pets

Since yesterday's thoughts on pets might have rubbed some people's fur the wrong way, let me clarify my position.

To be fair, pets probably have their uses. I know that in several households, pets are the only contact their owners have with another living being.

Some of our friends have had all their kids move out recently, and it seems that having a dog around to care for makes life easier or more comfortable. This I do not entirely understand, but I've seen it more than enough times to notice it.

Also, lots of folks are of the opinion that their kids need a pet, and who am I to refute them? I don't have kids, and having had no pets as a kid myself, I don't think I can say confidently that this is not true.

So, let me say for the record that even though I don't plan on having any pets around our house any time soon, I don't begrudge people with pets. Unless their pets are outside barking (or mooing, for that matter) at ungodly hours.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Conspicuous consumption" doesn't stop with buying physical products. The idea applies to pets, as well. Take, for example, chihuahuas. Why do Hollywood stars own them? Why not, say, a golden retriever? Because while a golden retriever might serve a useful purpose, a chihuahua exudes extravagance—it's pretty much unable to do a thing for itself, so the one owning it must be able to provide for it, without getting a thing in return!

Now, we live in an area where people regard dogs as part of the family. A local park even features a section for dogs to go off-leash and wander around, exploring and playing with other dogs. And there is certainly a real bond that people feel toward their pets. (Maybe this closeness with a pet is brought on by consistently picking up its defecation—a true labor of love.)

But viewed from a purely economic standpoint, this relationship makes little sense—you pay for the pet, its food, its vet appointments, and lavish it with attention, and in return, all it does is act happy when you're around? (For cats, maybe not even that.)

I can get behind a "pet" cow, or chickens—they provide some benefit to the household besides the ill-defined "companionship".

As for our family, well, I was raised in a pet-free household, and we are still free of them, with plans to stay that way for the foreseeable future. (Could you tell?)

As my wise grandfather once said, "Don't buy nothin' that eats."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Conspicuous Consumption

In a recent read of mine (Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class), the author takes on describing the wealthy of the world. Though he spends most of the book working up a theory on which to base this, here's the argument:

Society is full of people who like to have power. People used to possess power by being physically strong. However, people now equate power with money. Unfortunately, merely having money isn't enough to show other people, due to invisibility of assets and various cultural taboos. So instead, people show that they are rich by buying things. Things that they don't need, and probably that nobody needs. (I'm looking at you, Maserati.) Veblen terms this "conspicuous consumption".

Quick case study: a $10,000 purse. The value of a purse is quite understandable, but models costing ten grand? Why do they exist? Because people want to show how much power they wield. A $10,000 purse isn't just a purse—it's a declaration. ("I have so much money that I can drop $10,000 on a purse.") This defines much of the "luxury market".

When purchasing something, if I think about how it will "make a statement" to someone (even me!), a red flag pops up in my mind. There are more important things than making statements.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Knowing When You're Buying a Commodity

When aspirin first hit the market, it was exclusively produced by Bayer. Nowadays, it's available from a hundred different sources. And it's the same, no matter where you buy it. This transition from a "differentiated product" to a "commodity" happens in many arenas. Telling the difference is important.

Commodities are, by definition, the same no matter who supplies them, so the lowest price wins. Take, for example, baking soda. Arm and Hammer might be the most recognizable brand of baking soda, but what difference is there between A&H and a store brand? They're both the same chemical formula, so the only real difference is the box.

Oh, and the price.

On the other hand, there are lots of products that successfully differentiate themselves—if you're buying a new car, for example, choosing the cheapest one available might not be the best move. Careful evaluation of the benefits offered by each model is time well spent.

A lot of markets fall somewhere in between these two classifications. For example, garbage bags might look all the same, but while they all may serve the basic purpose of holding trash, thinner plastic might result in rips, tears (in the bag, not from you), and frustrating spills.

Soda pop is another iffy one. I don't drink soda, and I'm not very discriminating in my soda taste. So to me, if I needed a cola for some reason, I would be just as likely to pick a store brand (Shasta?) as name-brand Coke. Which would you pick? To me, a cola is a commodity, so the lowest price wins. If you perceive a difference in the value (taste) provided by different colas, you might decide differently.

But if you're buying baking soda, consider the possibility that paying more for a name brand is just that: paying for the brand.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Book Club

For years, my mother has been part of a regularly-meeting book club. She and a dedicated group of other women get together every couple of months to discuss a recent read.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing I would love to find for myself. I love to read, and I like branching out enough that I would be thrilled to read and discuss books picked by others.

Is it something I'm willing to work on? I think so. I have interest in growing the kinds of deep relationships that are fostered by discussion of important ideas. Here are some thoughts I've had reagarding this goal:

Finding a group of people with whom to read is difficult. First, there's the matter of finding other people interested in reading. (I've found a few of them, but they aren't exactly coming out of the woodwork.) Then there's the matter of personality jibing—can I find poeple that would make a good book group together?

A book group would blend well with a regular dinner night—having people over for dinner as part of the book club discussion would be a good combination. We love to entertain, so it wouldn't be too much of a hassle, even.

Demographics are somewhat against me in this regard. Most of the book groups I have encountered are directed toward middle-aged women. While this is not an insurmountable hurdle, it does incline me toward starting my own group rather than relying on finding an existing one.

Do you have any thoughts on finding or organizing a book group? I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Brain Troubles

As a recent fun read, I selected Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of brief stories about a neurologist's patients and the interesting things about them. I had read some of his other work previously, and found him to be a delightfully descriptive story-teller. So I embarked on this new book with high hopes.

First, let me point out that reading a book on neurological problems is not for the faint of heart, or the faint of confidence. After learning of all the woes faced by people with oddly-damaged brains, I found myself overanalyzing my thoughts, worrying about my own mental health—when I didn't clearly hear my wife, was that in fact a symptom of a mild aphasia?

Beyond the impact on my meta-thoughts, I did learn that the brain is awesome. It's stunning how much our brains do, and often it goes unrecognized until it is lost. Like prosopagnosia—the inability to recognize faces. Until reading Oliver Sacks's book, I had no idea what ramifications such a condition would entail. After reading it, I am grateful that my brain functions "normally"—mostly, anyway.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spare Time in the Family

Everyone in a family has needs. Some of these needs are time-specific. Whether it's kids that need to talk about what happened at school, or a spouse that needs help with a stressful parental moment, our family members sometimes have needs that can go unmet if we aren't available.

So how do we get available?

Note that while we need to be available for family at any time, we don't need to be available all the time. The key is flexibility. And the way to achieve that is, again, through keeping some spare time in the daily schedule.

That way, when junior needs to chat about the latest goings-on in his circle of friends, or when the wife needs to vent about the latest neighborhood gossip, you can easily make the time---just move your current task to some of your spare time.

Setting aside some spare time is good for developing good relationships with neighbors. But it's also part of forming solid family connections.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tail Recursion and Good Sentence Structure

As a guy who writes both prose and computer code, sometimes the similarities between the two media seem too great to ignore. They are surely different, and require largely different skill sets—nevertheless, there are patterns that bridge the gap. Here, I'll attempt to explain one such parallel:

Tail recursion is a sort of esoteric computer science concept, but let's give it a go. Let's assume we have a simple, recursive function describing a factorial:
f(x) = f(x - 1) * x
f(0) = 1
Let's evaluate this for x = 3:
f(3) = f(3 - 1) * 3 = f(2) * 2
f(2) = f(1) * 2
f(1) = f(0) * 1
f(0) = 1
f(1) = 1 * 1 = 1
f(2) = 1 * 2 = 2
f(3) = 2 * 3 = 6
Note that we had to go back through all the equations we had used earlier, substituting in our results back into each earlier step.

Now let's try a different method:
f2'(x, a) = f2'(x - 1, a * x)
f2'(0, a) = a
f2(x) = f2'(x, 1)
And, evaluating for x = 3:
f2(3) = f2'(3, 1)
f2'(3,1) = f2'(3 - 1, 1 * 3) = f2'(2, 3)
f2'(2,3) = f2'(1,6)
f2'(1,6) = f2'(0,6)
f2'(0,6) = 6
Interesting—it took an extra step because of the helper function, but once we had the answer to our final function, we were done! (Really, this sort of thing does make computer programmers happy.) *

Okay, we're done with the math, but hang with me for a second. This idea has a similarity in the written word. Let's talk about sentence structure. Specifically, about the use of modifying and qualifying clauses.

I don't know of a standard notation for this sort of thing, but let's mark up our sentences with parentheses to explicitly show a clause. Here's a sample sentence:

While Windows will let you switch keyboard layouts in software, my current work environment, (which involves dozens of different computers, including virtual machines), makes this a little difficult.

The parenthetical aside is all well and good, but try contrasting it with this rework of the sentence:

While Windows will let you switch keyboard layouts in software, this is a little difficult to manage in my current work environment, (which involves dozens of different computers, including virtual machines).

Moving a clause like this to the end of the sentence can make it easier to understand on anyone reading it.

* For a fuller explanation of tail recusion, here's an article with further information.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Holding On to Spare Time

As I mentioned, I think that an important part of putting together a community and making it stronger is generously offering what we have to friends and neighbors (who, with a little work, will likely be the same people).

I think an important part of this is the need to keep in one's life a bit of extra time and energy. Why not schedule ourselves to the hilt in worthy causes, like helping each other and serving in the Rotary club?

While those pursuits are indeed admirable, spare time gives us something that none of those things do: flexibility. Having a little time free of any obligation gives us the ability to repurpose that time for anything that calls our attention in the moment.

This flexibility is an asset that is irreplaceable. If a neighbor needs someone to watch their kids while they tend to an emergency, what they need is not someone with a lot of involvement in groups in the community. They don't need someone that is well-connected. They need someone with spare time.

In our neighborhood interactions, we have more than once been called upon to do something simple, like let a neighbor's dog out while they're away. That's the sort of thing that requires no special skills or training, but it nevertheless is valuable to a neighbor, because it is a service they cannot provide themselves (since they're out of town).

On the other hand, if you have filled your time with board meetings, soccer practice, and tae kwon leep, you can't help. if you have no spare time in your schedule, you're not in a position to take advantage of such opportunities.

Keep a little spare time around, and you might be able to put it to good uses in your community.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Building a Community

As we become more established in our neighborhood, I am finding more and more interactions that operate like those between me and my differently-talented friends. Time and time again, people help each other out. As a result, they both feel grateful and, to some degree, indebted to each other. As repeated acts of kindness cement relationships across the neighborhood, a great community evolves, where everyone has positive experiences helping and being helped.

Obviously, there are some people who mooch and never give back. There are probably also some people who always give and never need anyone else's help. But by an large, the happy community is one where people offer each other the valuable services they can provide.

I'm not just talking about expertise, either. Sometimes just being there is enough to make a valuable contribution. We have one neighbor who is diligent in keeping watch over our little part of the neighborhood. All the other neighbors I've talked with have been impressed by her watchfulness, and by being watchful when she is around, she makes a valuable contribution to everyone's quality of life.

Sometimes free time is a valuable commodity. When a neighbor is tending to a sick family member, or in the middle of a tough divorce, a friend can save the day with just enough spare time to make an extra serving of dinner (which isn't all that much time, really).

Generously offering your neighbors and friends whatever you have is a fabulous way to build strong relationships, on both a personal and a neighborhood-wide scale.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More Skill Bartering

After sharing my experience of swapping skills with a friend, I just had another such moment. Stephanie was stranded out on the road with a worrying car noise, and as I was getting to her (on the bus, of course), who should stop and offer to help but a friend of ours, and one who is proficient in cars, to boot. He was very gracious and told her that the worrying noise was not, in fact, car-threatening, and he even offered to fix it for her if she'd just leave the car out in front of her house.

His gift to us was not just one of expertise (his fantastic appraisal of the situation), but also of timing—he was there in the moment when we needed him, and it certainly made me breathe much easier knowing that my wife was safe and that the car was okay. The peace of mind that gave me was worth more to me than about anything else at the moment.

So, now the question is, how can I respond appropriately to this?

On some level, I can't repay my friend directly—I don't know that he will ever be in the same position in which I found myself

My current thoughts are along two lines: first, I can repay indirectly by showing that kind of kindness to another person, which would help the world run just .a bit more smoothly.

Second, I can offer what I can to him in return. (Specifically, my gratitude and maybe some homemade bread—yum!)

How would you repay someone who had been so serviceable to you?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Service Bartering

We recently had visitors from California stop by, one of whom is a talented seamstress. She can whip up garments from scratch and is very comfortable tackling all sorts of projects and alterations on existing clothes, too.

While they were visiting, she asked if we had any clothes that needed attention. Well, I did have a pair of pants with a hole-ridden pocket, along with a couple of shirts that needed sleeve shortening. She whipped through them in no time, and just like that, my clothes served me better. I thought, "What a talent!" I tried to think of a good way to repay her, but she would have none of it—she was just doing what she likes to do!

The next day, she said that she was experiencing a lot of frustration installing some Adobe software on her laptop. She asked tentatively if I could take a look at it. I quickly found what was causing the problem and went through the installation myself, and it successfully completed on the first go. She was somewhat in awe of the ease with which I was able to do this, and I admit that it is somewhat amazing.

What I learned from this exchange was that swapping talents with someone is an easy way to add value for both people, and to generate goodwill. It is surprising how bartering our services made me appreciate her talents much more, and made her appreciate mine as well.

Look out for opportunities to serve others in a way that is easy for you, but could be hard for them. You might find something there you weren't expecting.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Incremental "Fix-it"ing

I recently wrote about my adventures in fixing our front deadbolt with WD-40. When thinking about a problem, it is tempting to throw money at the problem. (If you have any extra money, anyway.) But instead of doing that, it can be useful to start small, then try progressively more drastic solutions to make it work. In tackling a problem, I try to make a mental list something like the following:

What could fix it? I list items that I might be able to use to fix the problem, starting with the simplest idea that might possibly work, and moving on to more complicated fixes. This might be tools, equipment, or products like WD-40. It could even be that I would need more know-how to fix it, and maybe a book would help.

How long would it take me to fix it? I'm no expert at handy work, so this is usually a haphazard estimation, but it is nonetheless helpful to think about—I don't have all the time in the world, after all.

How much would it cost for someone else to fix it? There are lots of tradesmen who are experienced in just about anything, from roof maintenance to plumbing. I might estimate a price, or maybe even call around for estimates.

What's the cost of replacing it? Figuring out the cost of a replacement (in terms of money and labor) is an important part of deciding whether fixing is worth it. Looking at Amazon for replacements is a simple way to evaluate this.

With these items in mind, I decide on a course of action. Most of the time I start out trying the simplest (cheapest) fix I can think of, then evaluate the other items on the list later.

For example, in recently looking at why our car wouldn't start reliably, I thought that simply disassembling the starter motor seemed a possible course of action, and it was free (though it did take an hour or two). So I acted on the "take it apart and put it back together" approach.

While this did provide me with some enlightenment about starter motors, it unfortunately didn't fix the issue. So I moved along the list.

Having the car looked at by a mechanic is always a pricey proposition, so I passed on that for the time being.

There was the remote possibility of it being related to the battery, and the battery was old, probably in excess of ten years. (We had actually been advised in the past that the battery needed to be replaced, but it seemed to start just fine! Most of the time, anyway.) We decided that since it could use a battery anyway, we would spend the eighty dollars for a replacement. I spent about an hour replacing the old battery with its new counterpart.

And it worked!

Instead of impulsively throwing money at a problem to "make it go away", try an incremental approach. It could save you a buck and teach you about how to solve future problems.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dead as a... Deadbolt?

Our new house has several niggling annoyances that really don't detract from the house much, but one notices the tiniest things in one's own house. One that I tackled just today was the front deadbolt. The key has been sticking for some time, and this was worsened after an attempt to polish up the brass with... yogurt. (It worked pretty well, actually. At least, as far as the polishing went. The lock mechanism wasn't as happy.) We had thought a little about getting new door hardware, since it doesn't quite match our planned decor (for "someday"). This new stickiness compounded the original problem and actually made it impossible for me to get in the door one day. It seemed that something would have to go.

But I figured that maybe it could be fixed. Since I had some time and some energy today, I decided to give it a whack. I headed out there with the first-level attack—my trusty can of WD-40. I gave it a quick spray, wiped off the excess, then let it sit for a moment.

While it was sitting, I thought of the next step. What would I do to fix this thing? If I couldn't pull it off, we really would have to get a new deadbolt, or at least get this one serviced. It wasn't all too serious a matter, but I couldn't think of anything obvious that I would do at this point.

Oh well, I thought. I guess I should at least make sure that it's still broken. I attempted to insert my key into the lock.

It slid in like butter skittering across a hot frying pan.

I gave it an experimental turn.

The deadbolt flew shut in tandem with my impulse. It was unpleasantly like being a cyborg—here was this deadbolt hooked up to my body, and it obeyed my mental commands!

Okay, I'm hamming it up a little, but that's how exciting it was.

We now have a working deadbolt. We also have the same amount of money in our checking account as before the fixing.

WD-40 rocks.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Challenging What You Think You Know

One of the books I read a while ago, but that has remained on my mind rather tenaciously, is Craig Bohren's Clouds in a Glass of Beer: Simple Experiments in Atmospheric Physics (link). If you are interested in reading it, you will get a good view into lots of reasons that the world works the way it does. I find this book's ideas in my head whenever I see "steam" rising off cooking food, or when looking at the color of the sky. And some of the ideas that I previously held were smashed to bits.

Shouldn't all books be that way? What if you consistently read books that challenged the way you look at the world? Such mind-altering experiences are a good antidote for a mind stuck in a rut. After all, getting set in your ways and clinging to your opinion (even if it's a pretty good opinion) can block access to better facts and greater wisdom.

Try reading something new, something different, something challenging—you might be surprised at what you learn.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Duality, or How I can Justify Treating Myself Like an Idiot

I am a big fan of "systems"—that is, behaviors that help me be who I want to be. For example, writing all tasks in my Palm for later retrieval is a simple way to improve my memory—instead of having to remember all the actions I must complete, I must remember only to write down everything I need to do when I learn about it. Simple!

Automatic savings plans are similar. The idea is that if you automatically have part of your paycheck moved to savings before you even see it, you won't have to make that decision again and again.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I have heard complaints about such systems, stating that a system is fundamentally flawed because it treats a person like two different people: the planner (who is really smart) and the doer (who is really dumb). That is, the planner lays down the law, which the doer is expected to follow. The argument states, But it's the same person!

I think an example from computer interface design is illustrative here. One of the handy rules of thumb for designing software is to make it easy enough that an idiot could use it. Do software designers think that all their users are idiots? Of course not. But good designers know one fact: when you're using software, you're using it for something else. That is, when you're using Photoshop, you're not just using Photoshop—you're designing website graphics, or you're repairing old photographs. Good design ("so easy an idiot could use it") lets the product get out of the way, so everyone (even smart people) can get along with whatever task they really want to get done.

This is the way systems are to me. Yes, I am smart enough to save a little money each month. Yes, I can troll through my memory and recall every task I have pending. But I'm trying to live my life. I'm trying to solve problems. And frankly, I don't want to spare the energy necessary for the menial tasks I can take care of with a simple system.

So when I need to remember to take some forms to work in the morning, you bet I am going to put it right in front of the door. Tomorrow, I will be just as smart, but I know right now that I will be in a hurry and not thinking about it.

Admitting that makes both me and my future self smarter.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To-do Lists as a Motivational Tool

Since I subscribe (at least in part) to the Getting Things Done methodology, I find to-do lists extremely useful. They are my method for remembering active tasks that have not yet been completed, and they allow me to prioritize and otherwise order the mess of obligations that I have.

However, to-do lists have another important function for me—motivation. I don't know why, but the act of physically checking a box seems a mark of victory, and I will do silly things just o have that pleasure.

Utilizing this knowledge means that I often make one-time lists for what I want to do during a "sprint" of work. Today, I had a sprint (on the bus) where I wanted to write a couple of blog posts, catch up on my journal writing, and read in my most recent book. Writing down these entries in a one-time list gives me a built-in progress indicator, since it's easy to see how many boxes are checked and how many remain unmarked.

I often add larger tasks to my list, but to make them seem more manageable, I put down a number of check boxes next to the item, each representing fifteen minutes of work. Three check boxes next to the sizable task of "fix test automation" is an acknowledgement that while I may not finish the task during my "sprint", I can do good work on it for forty-five minutes and consider myself to have done a good job. That's liberating, and often, after spending that time, I continue working on it. What a nifty side benefit!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tracking, Franklin-style (as in Ben, not Covey)

In recent reading, I ran across an interesting tidbit about Ben Franklin. As a young man, he drew up a plan for being better (or even perfect) in thirteen areas. To take himself to task on it, he made a big grid, with a row for each attribute (temperance, kindness, etc.), and a column for each day. At the end of each day, he checked off the attributes he had exemplified that day. From his autobiography:
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
(I track this sort of information using Reinhard Engel's excellent online tracking tool, HabitCal.)

Tracking, however you do it, serves two purposes:

First, recording successes and failures raises the stakes of the whole endeavor. If records are going to be kept, then your actions matter more, whether you followed through or not. This matters in the moment—feeling accountable makes you more likely to do what it takes to succeed at your endeavor.

Second, the record allows for later analysis. I keep tabs on how I'm doing with respect to past resolutions, as well, and it's interesting to note that when I fail in one tends to coincide with failure in the others. They are connected somehow, and the patterns formed by them are informative. (For example, when I don't exercise in the morning, I am more likely to also fail at staying on task at work.)

Keeping a record of your successes and failures is an integral part of effecting real change.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Taxes as Incentives

Okay, it's still tax season. And the tax code is still just as long as it was last time I wrote on this. Here are some more thoughts I've had. (Lots of tax paperwork this year.)

I think one of the reasons we have such a large number of "loopholes" in the tax code is because the government uses taxation as an incentive. After all, you can make a convincing argument that an eight thousand-dollar rebate on taxes is useful for propping up the falling house market. And offering a tax break to anyone living in the wake of hurricane Katrina, while providing a measure of "relief" to those that survived it, might even push people to more seriously consider moving back there, repopulating the area.

Taxes are also used as an incentive in the "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco—tacking on taxes raises their prices and makes these substances consumed less, at least in theory. Some view gasoline taxes the same way.

Basically, if you have a large number of people that something is wrong, you can tax it without complaint—after all, people who pay extra for alcohol shouldn't be buying it anyway, so if they complain about the taxes, they don't have a leg to stand on, right?

What about the income tax? Are we trying to curb people from working? And capital gains tax—it seems that we're trying to make investing less palatable by taxing it. But don't we want people to be more productive? Don't we want money to be invested for further economic growth?

What's going on here is that a large number of people are convinced that being wealthy is not a virtue. (At least, being more wealthy than they themselves are.) Since all those wealthy (wealthier) people have too much money anyway, who's going to complain if they have a little less due to taxation?

The problem with this kind of thinking is that, in some measure, it prevents the resources of the rich (which are a lot of resources) from being used for productive (but taxable) purposes. As tax brackets get higher, people are less inclined to invest a million dollars, only to see the return eaten away by taxes—buying a new yacht starts to look pretty good.

Anyway, I'm all in favor of using taxation as an incentive, but why not put it on the other end? Taxing based on how much we spend seems a great way to bring our consumer spending under control. It makes saving and investing much more attractive options than consuming. Taxing spending and not earning might make the whole country more wealthy (at an individual level), instead of penalizing those in the top brackets.

Then again, maybe I just think consuming needs a "sin tax" of its own.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Priorities First, Then Goals

To get anywhere, we need motivation. Being motivated requires goals—purposes towards which we can work. But how do we know that we have the right goals?

To help us in setting goals, it is useful to first find your priorities. Then you can evaluate your goals to make sure that (a) each of your priorities is adequately represented by one or more goals (you're not forgetting anything), and (b) each of your goals is in line with one or more priorities (you're not adding extra fluff). Here's a brief exercise in this:

* Make a list of things that are important to you. These could be simple words ("family", "travel") or more complex ideas ("providing an inheritance for my children", "making my marriage great"). Don't worry that you might forget something—this isn't cast in stone, and we'll even come back to it later.

* Make a list of goals. Go through each priority on your list and make one or more goals that will lead you to your desired outcome in that area. For example: for a "travel" priority, a possible goal might be "save three thousand dollars for a vacation to Europe."

* Write down any additional goals you have. Writing down goals for your priorities may raise additional goals you'd like to accomplish, and this is the time to add them.

* Check against your priorities list. Run through your goals list and verify that each goal is attached to a priority. If you find any goals that don't match up with at least one priority, evaluate whether it's a worthwhile goal. You might wind up adding something to your priority list, or you might strike this goal.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Are You Selling?

Related to an earlier discussion of knife salesmen (or other door-to-door sellers of wares), what type of approach do you take? Do you look for people's needs and try to fill them? Or do you create a service and find people who can be convinced that they need it?

You might not sell knives door-to-door, but if you have a desire to sell anything, you might want to ascertain what products would sell briskly in your local market, then tailor your production to that. (I think this is what is meant by "market research", but I'm not sure about that.)

Even if you're just hunting for a job, you can view this as selling your time and talents to a company in exchange for money. In fact, you might find this a useful tactic: instead of finding companies and pitching your talents to them, try finding a company you'd like to work for, then finding out what they need. If you can fill that need, even if it's not your primary skill, that might be a better tack to take to get your foot in the door. If you can't meet that need, do you have the means of making yourself better able to meet it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thoughts on Taxes

Well, it's that time of year again—we're filling out our tax forms and getting things ready for the big send-off to the IRS.

Tax season is an interesting time of year, for many reasons. One of the things that I find most interesting about it is the chance to reflect on the tax code. We do our taxes by ourselves (mostly because I am a nerd and get some pleasure out of it), and running through all the documentation, one can't help but learn more about our nation's tax laws. If you've done your own taxes this year, too, you might have some observations. Here are some of the things I've noticed this year:

The tax code has an incredible number of loopholes. All the one-off rules (get more money back if you live in X location, deduct if you invest in Y but not if you invest in Z) mask the real issue (it's an income tax).

The tax code's complexity takes its toll on our citizenry. Filling out your own taxes is a good way to measure the tax-effectiveness of your habits, but the will to do this wanes in proportion to the difficulty of tax preparation. Reading through a bazillion rules (over fifty pages of instruction for the 1040, for example) can be difficult for some, and just about everyone finds it tedious. This results in a lower understanding of the tax system, which is a detriment for the following reason:

The one-off rules allow a degree of tax evasion. It's a legal amount, but deciding to buy into an investment because its returns are tax-free is making a decision to pay less taxes. Should we have that option? Some would say it's part of the game—a sort of price discrimination, if you will. After all, supermarkets give discounts to people willing to clip coupons. (That is, they charge more for the same product if you're not willing to clip coupons, so they don't have to give the low price to everyone.) Is this a larger-scale equivalent?

This "game" distracts from more productive things. If you're willing to do the legwork and figure out what is tax-advantaged, then you dodge the tax (or at least some part of it). It provides a reward for delving into the tax code for obscure exceptions. If we had a simple, easy, and universal tax, all this energy might go toward a better use.

For my part, I would rather do just about anything than muck about in the world of taxes.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Something Fresh, Something New

Ever get the feeling that everything in your life is just old hat? That you're just going through the same motions each day, and not getting anywhere? I know I've felt that before, and it's certainly not pleasant.

Why do I sometimes feel that way? I believe the brain craves variety. I know that my brain certainly demands lots of novelty—I'm always looking for some new thing to interest me.

What can I do about it? I guess that I could certainly go out and buy something I haven't owned before. This seems to be the tack that most advertisers would like me to take, with their messages of "product X will make your life more exciting!" But this costs lots of money, money that I need for other things (like retiring someday). It is also a quick fix. There are steps I can take that are much cheaper and more effective.

I find a little variety very helpful. Even something simple can provide a shade of novelty, such as reading a book I wouldn't ordinarily pick up. I might even go to the library and check out a CD that is a little off my beaten path.

But you don't even have to do something different to feel fresh about your life. I've managed to rejuvenate my interest in my life by just being conscious of my life as it passes by. For me, going outside and taking a walk in the cool air (especially if it's sunny) gives my mind a lot to take in. Appreciating the moment makes me somehow more aware that my moments are limited, and this helps me get a little more interested in repurposing my time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Starter Motor

When I woke up this morning, my eyes seemed glued shut. The thing I wanted least in the world was to hop out of bed and get going. But it happened anyway.

In a way, starting off a new day is like starting a car. There's work to be done, and you start with very little power. (Note: I'm not terribly familiar with these systems, but I do have a passing acquaintance with them.) As I understand it, in a car, there is a battery that powers the starter motor, which cranks the engine manually until it starts firing.

When I am starting up my day, I use my habits as the battery.

My daily routine is the starter motor. Really, this is because my early-morning willpower isn't yet strong enough to always wake me up with energy and pizazz. It is, however, sufficient to get me outside my bedroom and doing some early-morning exercises.

My morning routine serves as a lifeline, getting me out of bed promptly each morning. Without it, I would be... asleep still, probably.

As soon as you wake up and turn off your alarm clock, where does your mind go? If it goes towards the routine you do every morning, congratulations—you are harnessing the power of habit for your own ends. If your morning includes a daily discussion of whether getting up is worth it today, try setting a routine.

My personal secret weapon is exercise. Even if I feel sluggish and sleepy when I rise, if I can start my exercise routine, I am up for good—once my body starts pumping blood to my working muscles, my body really wakes up, including my eyes (always the stickiest part of me).

Long ago, I read one particularly provocative idea related to setting morning habits—rehearsals. First, set the stage—turn off all the lights, close the curtains, and hop into bed. (In your pajamas, preferably.) Then, set your alarm to go off in a minute or two. Lie awake, and as soon as the alarm sounds, hop right out of bed and turn it off. (Presumably, one can append any additional morning routine here.) Go through a few "rehearsals" during the day to get the idea ingrained.

I haven't tried this, and I admit I would feel a bit silly practicing getting up, but it might be a useful tool if you're looking for a way to get things started.

Maybe you can find a different source of power to start the day right. You might try self-advertising, or telling your spouse about your plan, or just plain willpower. After a few weeks of a supporting method, you should be able to use habit as the sole source of kick to get your day started.

And that makes mornings a lot more fun.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Making Time for Reading

I recently read a statistic that over forty percent of college graduates never read another book after commencement. Whether or not this is true, I know from personal experience that it can be difficult to find time to read in a busy life.

Some people don't want to read more, but everyone has some activity he would like to do more of, from playing with the kids to writing a novel, or just feeling in control of life.

There are two ways to proceed here: finding time and taking time.

Finders Keepers

Try reclaiming some of the time in your life that is already free. You might recognize a moment that is already free by the frustration you feel at wasting time. For me, this kind of time includes:

* Bus riding
* Waiting for a meeting to start
* Standing in line at the store

These moments can be prime times to work on whatever you want to do. The drawback is, you often must be in a certain place or have access to only certain resources during such a time. Driving to work is not typically a time for playing with the kids, and waiting in a doctor's office might not be the most opportune moment to exercise more. What you want to do might not fit into any of these times, and that's okay, but be flexible in thinking about it—I can't encourage reading while driving, but I have friends who have managed to learn an awful lot by listening to audiobooks on their daily commute.

Taking It Back

Your other option is to take time from some other activity. This can be painful, as the activities your already doing are habit, if nothing else. But it can give you a lot more time for reading (or anything else you want to do). I haven't figured out the nuances of how to do this yet, but this is definitely a path to take if you don't have any "down time" during your day. (I seem to have plenty of wasted time lying around as it is.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Entertaining Yourself

We have several friends with young children, and some of them have the rule that their kids may not own battery-operated toys. At some level, this makes sense to me. It seems that most battery-operated toys are noisy, aggravating affairs that drive parents crazy.

However, I don't think this rule of thumb is absolutely right.

One of my favorite toys as a kid included batteries. It was a modular robotics set called Capsela, and I would fully consider getting something similar for a kid.

To me, the "no battery-operated toys" rule is an easier-to-enforce version of a deeper rule: "no passive entertainment".

Often, battery-operated toys are to little kids what television is to adults. They entrance with blinking lights and direct the kids through some pre-defined experience. This passive entertainment is easy. It expects nothing from the viewer (other than the viewing). Of course, it doesn't give a whole lot back in return, but that's to be expected. And what more pleasant way to idle away the hours than to let others entertain us?

In contrast, active enterttainment gives the "viewer" a higher position: the role of "participant". In the domain of toys, wooden blocks inspire the creative juices of kids all the time. Paint sets allow kids to create works of art they couldn't otherwise do. And robotics sets (in my opinion) allow kids to develop mechanical and spatial abilities, something that will come in handy in any endeavor.

Generalizing away from the toys debate, there are lots of activities I pursue that fall somewhere along this spectrum. Here is a (somwhat) sorted list of activities, based on how I perceive them, active to passive.

* Writing (I contribute all of it, and I get clarity of thought in return)
* Reading books (I contribute my imagination and my experience, and I get fulfillment and enlightenment)
* Reading insightful blogs (I contribute my experiences and get newly synthesized ideas in return)
* Television (I contribute empathy for characters and get occasional catharsis)
* Inane time-waster Internet sites like Failblog (I contribute nothing and get only some cheap laughs)

In trying to be happier and more fulfilled, I'm trying to reduce the number of my life's "battery-operated toys".

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Job Well Done

Just last month, Stephanie and I finally took the initiative to make our house more our own by painting the walls. Since we were working in a limited (weekend) time frame, we haven't done all the walls we plan to do, but the main living area is looking better.

We did the painting ourselves. After all, to get things looking right, we had to pick the precise colors we wanted. The supplies were cheap—a couple of rollers, some paintbrushes we already had on hand, and a roll of painter's tape.

But in the process of painting our own walls, we gained more than just the savings of painter's fees.

First off, we felt pride in our accomplishment. Neither of us had painted a room before, and when it was done, it looked pretty good! We were both pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

We also got some satisfaction out of working with our hands. Painting is a very manual task, and therefore something that a lot of knowledge workers wouldn't think about doing. I suspect that manual labor is good for the psyche, and it gave us a chance to use our hands for detailed and constructive work. I certainly felt more alive and energized after the task was completed.

We also got the memories. Whenever we look at those walls, we can fondly reflect on the time we spent painting them just the right color. Since we hadn't painted together before, it was a bonding experience, and we learned a lot about each other as we strove to work together.

All in all, it looks about the same as I suspect it would have had we asked painters to come in and do the work for us. However, to us it appears far better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Saving Time? For What?

Daylight Saving Time fast approaches. The days are getting longer, especially up in the Northwest.

Of course, Daylight Saving Time doesn't actually create any new daylight, or even save existing daylight. Instead, it moves our schedules so that we get maximum use out of the daylight we have anyway.

DST makes a few assumptions: For example, it assumes that most people don't wake up in time to enjoy a four- or five-o'clock sunrise. (In my experience, this is true.) Second, it assumes that people will stay awake late enough to reap the benefits of the sunlight's extending into the evening hours.

Daylight Saving Time is a neat trick, but it's not magic. I attempt something similar in my own life whenever I try and "save time" on some project. Whether it's hurrying to get through my morning routine, or doing my work in a more efficient way, "saving time" is something I habitually do.

Just like the official "time-saving" plan, I'm not really creating more time in the process. I might better term it "redistributing time". After all, when saving time, I have to be saving it for something else—if I saved time for no purpose, that time would likely go to waste.

But in some sense, I am literally saving time—socking away some of it now so that I can enjoy it later.

As an exercise, try making an "undesirable" list—include everything you'd like to "save time" doing. Basically, things that you would rather spend less time on. For me, this includes:
  • Paying bills
  • Taking out the kitchen garbage
  • Wading through lots of e-mail
Once you've isolated some things on which you want to save some time, plan how you will spend less time on them. Some options:
  • Automate the task (online bill-pay, for example)
  • Consolidation (taking out all the garbage at once whenever one trash bin is full, to reduce garbage-removal trips)
  • Dropping the activity entirely (if the consequences wouldn't be harsh)
These and other tactics can help you save time on the less desirable portions of your life—your imagination's the limit!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Are They Selling?

Have you ever had a visit from one of those pesky knife salesmen? If they're anything like the ones I've seen, they always seem to have overpriced, inferior merchandise and a hard sell to go with it.

When one of these folks arrives, it is unlikely that he will be received well. Every once in a while, he will happen upon someone with a genuine need for new knives, but this is rare. After all, anyone who has been thinking about how much they would like a new set of knives is either buying it on their own, or doesn't have the money to purchase yet. The goal of a knife salesman is not to find people who need new knives—it is to find ordinary people, then convince them that they need new knives. It's no wonder they're so unpopular—they're trying to create a need so they can make the sale.

On a slightly less obnoxious level, advertisements also peddle desires instead of products. After all, the ultimate goal of advertising is to implant us with needs that we wouldn't otherwise have. In recent years, advertising has taken an almost Freudian turn and focused in on our ids, to the exclusion of reason and logic. With the goal of invoking skewed perceptions of reality, from "my family's safety depends on having this SUV" to "people will finally be friends with me if I drink X brand beer", advertisers do their best to aim low and hit below the belt.

The most pernicious form of this is advertising to young children, who cannot perceive the difference between fact and fiction. Here, the target of the advertising (the kid) doesn't have much money, so the goal is to create in the child a need strong enough that he persistently nags, wheedles or cajoles his parents into buying the latest whatsit. How low can you go?

Modern advertisements, like knife salesmen, are selling the need, not the product. Are you buying?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

February Book Roundup

February reading went well—here are the five books I managed to complete in this short month.

The happiness project by Gretchen Rubin

A fascinating tale of a year-long plan to become happier. I particularly enjoyed hearing the personal moments that she shares, especially when she is open enough to describe moments in which she failed at her goals. An inspiring read.

Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science by Charles J. Wheelan

On the recommendation of a friend, I put this at the front of my "to read" list. It proved worth the effort—Wheelan is a great storyteller and shares what economics has to teach us about the world around us. He carefully describes the delicate problems we face in balancing harsh capitalism and market-destroying protectionism. In my reading, one question kept popping up: should we help the size of a pie (like our global economy) increase at all costs, or try to guarantee that everyone gets some piece of that pie?

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough

A brilliantly conceived book whose time has come. Written by a couple of designers, the narrative centers around what can be done to avoid the incessant debate between accommodating growing human needs and preserving nature's own delicate balance. They propose making things in ways that are actually positive to the environment they inhabit, and they exhibit several case studies, some of actual projects they have done.

Phrases That Sell by Edward W. Werz

As part of my self-improvement quest, I've been investigating the web site of Take Back Your Brain, a site founded around the idea of using the tool of advertising to your own ends, and on your own brain. What a great idea! This book is a reference book that was actually pretty helpful in coming up with some new ideas.

Clouds in a Glass of Beer by Craig F. Bohren

This is the awesomest book I've ever read on atmospheric physics. Though it's on a seemingly arcane topic, he poses and then answers all sorts of interesting questions, from "Why is wet sand darker than dry sand?" to "Why is cars' exhaust so much more visible when they first start than after they've been going for a while?" These are things worth thinking about, and this book really has changed the way I see the world. (Caution: your spouse might not be thrilled when s/he finds you deep in analysis of the steam coming off of cooking food.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bucking tradition for efficiency's sake

As a freshman in college, I was introduced through friends to a new keyboard layout, named Dvorak. Its layout resembles the traditional "Qwerty" keyboard, but the positions of the letters are modified to optimize for how people type. (Legend has it that the Qwerty layout was designed to make sure that people typed slowly, so as not to beat up the typewriters' innards with extreme speed.)

I was intrigued, and the idea absorbed me for weeks. The elegance of optimizing the keyboard's layout to suit me seemed genius. And I wondered: should I do it?

This was essentially a tradeoff of time. As for the long term, I knew that I would spend a good portion of the next forty years at a computer. At the same time, I was at college, so I had papers to write and programs to code, both requiring a lot of keyboarding. Learning a new keyboard layout could slow me down a lot in the short term, making it more difficult and time-consuming to finish my coursework.

Life is full of these kinds of compromises. Should you work on the proposal due tomorrow, or spend some strategic time planning a more streamlined business process? Plan a lesson for teaching a course, or devise a better process for planning lessons?

In the end, I decided to stick with my trusty Qwerty skills for a while, though later, when I was keyboarding a lot less (only writing letters home once a week, as a missionary), I made the switch—the short-term cost had gone down enough to make the long-term benefit more appealing. And to this day, I still do most all my typing in the Dvorak layout.

The guiding question should be: is it worth more to you to have your current performance in the short term, or increased performance in the long term?

Monday, March 1, 2010

What You Don't See

I have been frustrated lately at the difference between visible and invisible facets of our lives. For example, having a new Mercedes out front is visible to all your friends and neighbors. A four-hundred dollar monthly payment? Not so visible.

Buying a new house looks the same from the outside whether you're putting three percent down, twenty percent down, or paying in cash—first you don't own a house, then you do. There are important differences between each scenario, but this is not something that is immediately visible to those around you.

Most of the rewards of provident living are of the invisible variety. The great thing about having no debt, for example, is the security and peace of not owing anything to anyone. However, this intangible benefit goes unnoticed by others.

And it seems in vain to try and make the invisible rewards of provident living as visible as their visible brethren—such efforts are likely to be regarded as bad taste and met with bitterness. For example, if you pay off your house and have a "burn the mortgage" party, how many people are going to be thrilled about coming? Can you place in the windshield of your car a sign bearing the words, "Paid for"? (Disclaimer: I have not attempted this, but I suspect it would engender some contempt. If you give this a try, let me know how it goes.)

So all of our material possessions are on display, and bear in mind that choosing the immaterial benefits of living within your means will not get you further in the visible spectrum. So give up on the Joneses.

Would it change our behavior if, when we noticed that a neighbor has a fancy Land Rover, we also saw immediately the monthly payments they're making? If we knew how much maintenance was required by the neighbor's boat? I think it might make us more frugal around the board.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Everything in its Place

Home organization starts with laying the groundwork---finding a place for everything. But once you've found a spot for every single thing, even if it's a great spot, how do you keep it there? How do you make sure everything is in its place?

Constant vigilance!

It takes a little effort every day. I take five minutes to clean up before I go to bed. Usually, this involves hunting down my shoes (they always seem to end up near the dinner table), putting away my laptop, and maybe folding up a blanket or two if it's been a cold day in the living room. It doesn't take long, and it leaves the house clean for when you wake up in the morning. How refreshing!

More importantly, a little night cleaning keeps things from piling up. Letting clutter pile up is a sure-fire way to avoid cleaning it, but doing something every day can help clear out your rooms even if you don't do it all at once. This small effort fulfills the old saying that "a stitch in time saves nine".

Keeping everything in its place is a challenge for me, but it is one that I welcome.


As of today, the last weekday in February, my monthly resolution is complete! I've written three hundred words each day! I've had a lot of fun putting up my writings here.

As for the future of this blogging effort, I'll keep it going for now. However, since I'm setting a new monthly resolution next month, I may be forced to cut down on the frequency of my posts. We'll see how my time ends up being used.

Thanks for the comments! They've been fun and encouraging. Nothing can spur thought and discussion so well as a timely remark.

On to the next month...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Internet is the New Television

In my reading, I see a lot of advice to turn off the television. After all, if you want to get better at something, you need time in which to do it. For most of us, finding more time is like wringing water from a rock—it's just not there. Never fear, says everyone—just take time out of your television watching! After all, nobody needs to watch 4 hours of television each day. (Yes, that's what Nielson says is the national average.)

Problem is, I don't watch that much television. I do indulge in an episode or two of shows we check out from the library, but that doesn't feel excessive to me. (Of course, maybe 4 hours each day doesn't feel excessive to the average American. It's always easier to find more wasted time in others' lives than in your own.)

Anyway, after ruminating on this, I arrived at the conclusion that for me personally, the Internet is the new television. Sure, the Internet is a useful resource and a great entertainer, but aren't there things I would rather be doing instead? I have so many projects I could accomplish if I weren't so wrapped up in checking Slashdot every single day.

I'm trying to find a good way to incorporate this into my next monthly resolution, which has not been easy. After all, how does one structure a resolution to help with this quandary? Especially when I need to use the Internet for work, and for valid personal interactions. The trick is going to be finding some way to restrict some usage of the Internet, and not others.

One idea I'm considering: anti-bookmarks. That is, make a list of websites that are draining to your productivity, then post a notice that you're not allowed to visit them. When you are done focusing on whatever task you're working on, you can take down the notice and peruse to your heart's content. (More info at Everyday Systems.)

Are there any ways you've used to modify your Internet browsing habits?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Are Smartphones a Smart Decision?

With Microsoft's recent announcement of Windows Phone 7 Series, I've been thinking about why I would want a smartphone. There appears to be a lot of buzz about it, specifically around the social media features. After all, it's pretty hip to have Facebook on your phone—how hip it must be to instantly have updates show up, wherever you are!

Whether or not the WinPhone does well, it is a good run by Microsoft to realize dreams of ubiquitous computing. Between the iPhone and Palm's Pre, web-centric phones are making quite a splash.

I myself feel ambivalent toward the advent of the web-centric phone. It does seem like a fantastic innovation—having the Internet's wealth of knowledge available all the time must be a fantastic boon.

Nevertheless, I have a few complaints.

Web-centric phones are expensive. Their purchase prices alone run into the hundreds of dollars, and that price is dwarfed by the prospect of paying for the "unlimited data plan" that they require. At our house, we pay twenty dollars per month for Internet service already—stacking an extra data plan on top of that seems redundant and foolish.

Web-centric phones are so tightly integrated that they blur lines that I like to have in place. For example, work and personal e-mail. I absolutely love using a different account for my personal mail, because it helps assure me that I will not be interrupted at work by personal matters, nor interrupted at home by work issues.

But I think my biggest reason for being wary of web-centric phones is not related to the phone at all—it's myself. I think that I already spend too much time on the Internet with just a laptop at home. I would much prefer to live "in the moment" more, and for me, that means "unplugging" from the Internet and not being distracted by it.

Web-centric phones might be perfect for you, but my impression is that they are not for me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No 'lympics!

About a month ago, we planned to go to the Olympics. After all, we live only a couple hours from Vancouver. And why shouldn't we go? We wanted to be part of this big Olympics thing. So we proceeded to buy tickets to a hockey game, and bus tickets to get there. We blocked out time on our schedules so that everyone would know we were leaving. We planned and scheduled and developed contigencies and budgeted.

And then we didn't go.

It's not that the Olympics aren't cool. We are both convinced that having a bunch of countries of the world come together in a group competition is a healthy and sane way for countries to interact, and my history-loving wife is keenly aware of the important role the Olympics have played in international relations over the past centure or so.

And no, we're not totally convinced that the Olympics are a bastion of corporate money-grubbing. Although you've got to admit that the official web site is less than encouraging. The "Coca-Cola Pavilion"? "Official Vancouver 2010 licensed merchandise"—avaliable at the "Aboriginal" pavilion? Please.

But no, the reason we chose not to go to the Olympics is somewhat less idealistic than either of those.

In the day before we were to head to Vancouver, we got several negative reports about the Games. People with first-hand experience from earlier in the week told us tales of unruly revelers, lengthy lines, and security slower and more stringent than the TSA. Not to mention the media coverage of glitch after glitch.

We also had been planning on skipping the exorbitant rates of lodging, instead staying out on the streets all night long, hopefully in the company of other Olympic goers. But every single event we could find on the schedule was over by midnight, leaving us several early-morning hours of absolutely nothing to do (temporary homelessness, really) until our return bus left at six that morning. Unless, of course, we were willing to fork over the Olympic-sized premium for a hotel.

Instead, we decided we would rather stay local with our adventures. Sorry, Olympics!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Preparing for Monthly Resolutions

If you're looking to improve yourself, and if you think (as I do) that setting monthly resolutions will provide a framework to help you in that effort, here are a few tips that might make things a little easier in starting up the habit.

Spend some time thinking about how exactly you want to improve. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? What are your ultimate goals? These big-picture ideas should point you in a certain direction.

Using your goals, find a manageable issue to start with. While your goals could (and should) be hugely different from your life right now, find something that you can do now to change in that direction. A jumping-off point is just the thing for a monthly resolution, especially your first resolution in an area.

Keep a list of other ideas. As you ponder your life and how you would like it to improve, ready yourself for epiphanies by having a list handy. I find that I get ideas about ways to improve all the time, from church services to riding the bus. And the time invested in making and keeping a list of ideas is easily recouped through less headache in the next step.

Every month, pick a new resolution. I usually give myself a reminder a week in advance of the new month. This gives me a chance to isolate the most important resolution for the month. Here, a list of ideas proves invaluable—I feel much more comfortable picking one resolution when I can see at a glance all the alternatives that I'm not choosing.

In the week before a new month, write up a plan document. This can range from a bullet list of accountabilities to detailed prose on the methods you will use. I include a paragraph explaining why I think it's an important resolution—this is useful in keeping my mind focused on the goal, and also can provide inspiration if the going gets tough later on.

With your plan document in hand, you are ready for a new month!