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.