March 2015

Back to sewing!

March 1, 2015 - Categories: sewing

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes lately. This was partly motivated by a dress-up extended family dinner. W- dusted off the suit that he hadn’t worn in years. I realized I wasn’t happy with any of my cold-weather dress options, so we checked out the shops. Dealing with the overwhelming array of choices, none of which I liked, I realized five things:

  • Because it’s difficult for me to find simply-styled, good-fitting clothes in small sizes, I should buy them when I find them, even if they’re at full retail price because the season has just started
  • Likewise, it’s probably worth increasing my clothes budget, considering things even if they’re more than a hundred dollars a piece
  • If I shopped more frequently instead of waiting until I needed something, it might be less stressful
  • Medium-term, I should learn what alterations can do and how much they would add to the price of an item
  • Long-term, I’m probably best served by learning how to sew. Then I can make the basics of my wardrobe in whatever styles and colours I want.

2015-02-10e Shop or sew -- index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-10e Shop or sew – index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing -- index card #sewing #clothing -- ref 2015-02-10

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing – index card #sewing #clothing – ref 2015-02-10

I ended up wearing my office clothes (a blazer, blouse, and black slacks) to the family event, and that worked out just fine. But I didn’t want to end up in this situation again, so I decided to work on desensitizing myself when it comes to this shopping thing. After all, I remember going from “Waah, this is overwhelming!” to “Actually, this is pretty interesting” in terms of shopping at Home Depot, so maybe I could do that with clothes as well.

While organizing my wardrobe, I realized that I had donated many of the T-shirts that I used to pair with skirts. I had a lot of technical tops, but they didn’t go with slacks or skirts. For example, I didn’t have anything to pair with the purple skirt I’d stored with my other summer things. I added T-shirts to my shopping list. When I saw a nice relaxed-fit pink V-neck shirt at Mark’s Work Warehouse, I figured it would go with the purple skirt, my brown skirts, and my jeans. I also picked up an aqua shirt, a light blue shirt, and some khakis. Still couldn’t find any other items I liked, though.

Although there are quite a few beginner and intermediate sewing classes in Toronto, I decided to see how far I could get by learning on my own. After all, I’d already made a couple of skirts and dresses I was passably happy with. If I got stuck, I could always check Youtube for tutorials or reach out to friends.

I remembered struggling with sewing before. Sometimes I’d do something incorrectly out of impatience or ignorance, and then I got frustrated trying to fix things. It was hard to pay enough attention to details. But I’d noticed myself mellowing out over time. I felt more patient now; I acted more deliberately and spoke more slowly than I used to. Maybe it’s growing older, maybe it’s because of the abundance of time in this 5-year experiment, maybe it’s because I stopped drinking tea… Whatever the reason, maybe sewing might work better for me this time around.

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve -- index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve – index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

I knew I’d enjoy things more if I could start with a small success, so I looked for a simple pattern: cotton, no buttons, no zippers, nothing finicky. None of my stashed sewing patterns met those criteria. I thumbed through the patterns at the Workroom (a small sewing studio near Hacklab), but they were more complex than I wanted to start with.

Eventually I found the free Sorbetto pattern from Colette, which also served as my introduction to downloadable patterns. I printed it, cut out my size, and doubled the pattern with newspaper so that I didn’t have to mess about with folds. I’d previously decluttered my fabric collection, but one of the remnants I’d kept was large enough for the pattern.

I deliberately slowed down while making it. Instead of cutting around the pinned pattern, I chalked the outline of the pattern first, and then I cut that. Instead of cutting on the basement floor (where cats would definitely interfere), I cut on the large square coffee table in the living room. Instead of trying to use the sewing machine’s guidelines for my seams, I chalked all my seam lines. Instead of eyeballing the darts, I chalked the dart lines and the centre lines. I cut and picked out the mistakes I made in staystitching or basting. I neatened the thread tails as I sewed. Instead of using store-bought bias tape, I made bias tape from the same fabric. I zigzagged the other edges instead of using my serger.

2015-02-23 13.48.13It took me a while, but it was a pleasant while, and now I have a top that I’m happy with wearing either on its own or over a blouse. More than that, I have a pattern for as many tops as I want, and the knowledge that that’s one less thing I have to worry about buying when the stores have the right style, the right size, and the right colour.

I think I’ll make this in:

  • black (to pair with a black skirt, if I need to be more formal),
  • white (to pair with everything),
  • red (because that’s fun),
  • and maybe some geeky pattern that’s in line with my interests, to wear to Hacklab and events as a conversation piece? Even better if I could wear it to the office and still blend in as I’m walking through the corridor. Maybe a subtle print? Spoonflower has lots of geeky patterns, but none of them particularly appealed to me because they signal geekiness without actually being my flavour of geekiness.
    • Not really me: chemistry, circuit boards, moustaches, hornrims, calculators, video games
    • More like me: Emacs, tracking, cats, cooking, doodling, blogging, Greek/Roman philosophy

So maybe I’ll stick with solids for now. =)

I turned some scraps into a hair clip, since that felt like a more restrained way to match things than to have a scarf of the same print. Matching things tickles my brain – my mom can tell stories about how I wanted dresses with matching bags when I was a kid. Even now, I like it when people echo colours in their accessories. I’m looking forward to playing around with that through sewing, although maybe with more solids rather than prints.


Related sketches:

Weekly review: Week ending February 27, 2015

March 1, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

This week was about sewing. I made three tops, wow! I might go to the fabric store on Tuesday to see if there are other fabrics that I’d like to turn into tops using the same pattern.

Also, I made lemon meringue for the first time in ages. I tried another biscotti recipe, too.

My Samsung Galaxy S3 started power-cycling, so I replaced it with a Moto G. The Moto G is working surprisingly well. I thought I’d have problems with the small, non-expandable storage, but it works just fine. =)

2015-03-01a Week ending 2015-02-27 -- index card #weekly


Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (26.5h – 15%)
    • Earn (10.7h – 40% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
      • Prepare invoice
    • Build (3.5h – 13% of Business)
      • Drawing (1.4h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.8h)
        • File payroll return
      • Figure out why library isn’t renewing
      • Fix color detection
    • Connect (12.3h – 46% of Business)
  • Relationships (12.5h – 7%)
    • Help Sean with Emacs
    • Print tickets
    • Hang out with Linda and watch Gabriel perform
  • Discretionary – Productive (24.1h – 14%)
    • Emacs (1.6h – 0% of all)
      • Help Sean with Ruby environment
      • Choose additional fabrics for Sorbetto top
      • Get 1.5 yards of cotton shirting
    • Sewing
      • Print out Colette pattern
    • Phone
      • Figure out what’s going on with my phone
      • Set up new phone
      • Buy Moto G from Staples
      • Upgrade to Lollipop
    • Attend Sketchnote Hangout
    • Read synopsis for Die Walkure
    • Read chapter 4 of Intermediate Japanese
    • Review Createspace
    • Investigate Powershell
    • Writing (2.1h)
  • Discretionary – Play (9.0h – 5%)
  • Personal routines (21.6h – 12%)
  • Unpaid work (16.3h – 9%)
  • Sleep (58.1h – 34% – average of 8.3 per day)

Sketched Book: Write Faster, Write Better – David A. Fryxell

March 2, 2015 - Categories: visual-book-notes, writing

David A. Fryxell’s Write Faster, Write Better (2004) is a journalist’s collection of tips that might help you write faster. Fryxell focuses on eliminating waste: wasted research, wasted interviews, wasted notes, wasted words, wasted drafts. You can do this by organizing, planning ahead, keeping your focus in mind, and writing a good-enough draft the first time around (instead of revising loose drafts that run too long or circling around a never-finished perfectionist draft).

I’ve sketched the key points of the book to make them easier to remember and share. Click on the image to get a high resolution version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-14 Sketched Book - Write Faster Write Better - David A Fryxell

One of the things that I struggle with is that I often don’t have a clear idea of what I want to write when I start writing it. I don’t have a focused high-concept phrase that explains my angle and the surprise twist. I don’t have a clear outline that tells me what kind of research I need to do, who I should talk to, and how everything fits together. I don’t have an editor who’ll force me to come up with a clear concept.

Maybe I’ll get there with experience. It might be okay to do this kind of exploratory writing – a little like journaling in public – and then apply Fryxell’s techniques to extract and polish a chunk that would be useful to other people.

Curious about the book? You can get it from Amazon or other places if you like. (Affiliate link)

Like the sketch? Find more at They’re under the Creative Commons Attribution License (like the rest of my blog), so feel free to share it with people who might find this useful. Enjoy!

Shrinking my learn-do-share-review cycle

March 3, 2015 - Categories: learning, sharing

Sometimes I read too much without doing anything about what I learn. By the time I get around to applying ideas, my memory is fuzzy and I have to dig up my notes anyway. Sometimes I never get around to applying what I’ve learned.

Sometimes the tasks on my TODO list are too big to fit into a single session of thinking-about or doing, so I end up procrastinating them. Or sometimes I do them, but I feel like I’m wandering around.

Sometimes I let myself focus too much on learning and doing, moving onward. By the time I want to share what I’ve learned, I feel like there’s just so much background I need to cover before people can get to the point of being able to do things. Or I’ve forgotten what those first crucial steps were.

Sometimes I get so caught up in learning, doing, or sharing, that I forget to spend time thinking about how I’m doing things. I’ve been keeping a journal, but the entries are often very short – just keywords that describe what I did, without notes on how I might do it better.

Have you felt like that too? Tell me I’m not the only one who has to think about the balance. =)

I’ve been working on reducing waste by shortening this learn-do-share cycle. Instead of spending a week reading five books about a topic, I might spend a couple of hours reading one book, extracting the key points from it, and identifying one or two actions I can try. Instead of doing an exhaustive search to find the best tool for what I want to do, I’ll do a quick search, pick one, try it out, and then use that experience to help me learn. Instead of waiting until I feel confident about a topic (or even until I’ve worked out all the bugs), I’ll share while I learn. Instead of trying to fill in all the gaps between where a beginner might start and where my post ends up, I write just the part that’s fresh in my memory, and then I might fill in other gaps when people ask.

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle -- index card #sharing #learning

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle – index card #sharing #learning

In fact, I’ve been moving towards posting more of my rough notes using index cards. That way, I don’t even have to wait until I’ve summarized the cards into a more coherent blog post. They’re out there already, easy to link to or share in conversations. I still suspect it’s a bit of a firehose of incoherence, but I’m pleasantly surprised that some people actually find them interesting. =)

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards -- index card #sharing #drawing

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards – index card #sharing #drawing

A fast learn-do-share cycle results in a new challenge: What do you do with all these little pieces? This matters for both organizing your own notes and making it easier for other people to learn.

I’ve been refining my workflows for organizing my index cards, snippets, and posts into outlines. Picking descriptive titles definitely helps. Fortunately, other people have given this challenge of personal knowledge management much thought. Zettelkasten looks like an interesting keyword to research, and I’m looking forward to picking up ideas from other people’s techniques.

When it comes to organizing notes for other people, I’m still rather haphazard, but I’m planning to braindump a large outline of questions and use that to create maps for people.

As for the actual division of time, the pomodoro technique isn’t part of my habitual workflow yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. Maybe I’ll experiment with a pomodoro-based schedule: one for learning, one for doing, and one for sharing. But my learning cycle’s actually a lot more intertwined. At its best, I’m learning as I’m doing (flipping between windows as needed), and the notes that I take while I’m learning and doing (thanks to Org Mode and literate programming!) can easily be shared as a blog post. So maybe each chunk of time represents a topic instead, and I can track whether I’m successfully getting things all the way through to the sharing stage.

Sure, some topics require deeper reflection and integration. For instance, you can’t expect instant results from philosophy. But it might be interesting to shorten the distance from learning to action and from action to sharing.

I like the tips in Christian Tietze’s “Use a Short Knowledge Cycle to Keep Your Cool” on how to figure out a good “size” for your research tasks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by them. It’s a good reminder to iterate: you don’t have to research everything before you start trying things out, you don’t have to know everything before you start writing, and you don’t have to have a perfect process – you can keep improving it.

So we’ll see how this works out. For example, this post took me half an hour to research/think about, and another half-hour to write. It could be more interesting if I researched some more (found similar techniques, contrasting opinions, etc.), and it could be richer with more experiments and experiences, but here it is. I can always add to it in the future, or write another post and link to the previous one.

Getting Helm and org-refile to clock in or create tasks

March 4, 2015 - Categories: emacs, org

I’ve been thinking about how to improve the way that I navigate to, clock in, and create tasks in Org Mode. If the task is one of the ones I’ve planned for today, I use my Org agenda. If I know that the task exists, I use C-u C-c C-w (org-refile) to jump to it, and then ! (one of my org-speed-commands-user options) to clock in and track it on Quantified Awesome. If I want to resume an interrupted task, I use C-u C-c j (my shortcut for org-clock-goto). For new tasks, I go to the appropriate project entry and create it, although I really should be using org-capture instead.

2015-01-30 Org Mode jumping to tasks -- index card #emacs #org

2015-01-30 Org Mode jumping to tasks – index card #emacs #org

I thought about how I can reduce some of these distinctions. For example, what if it didn’t matter whether or not a task already exists? I can modify the org-refile interface to make it easier for me to create tasks if my description doesn’t match anything. To make things simpler, I’ll just reuse one of my org-capture-templates, and I’ll pre-fill it with the candidate from Helm.

(ert-deftest sacha/org-capture-prefill-template ()
   ;; It should fill things in one field at a time
     "* TODO %^{Task}\nSCHEDULED: %^t\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: %^{effort|1:00|0:05|0:15|0:30|2:00|4:00}\n:END:\n%?\n"
     "Hello World")
    "* TODO Hello World\nSCHEDULED: %^t\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: %^{effort|1:00|0:05|0:15|0:30|2:00|4:00}\n:END:\n%?\n"
     "* TODO %^{Task}\nSCHEDULED: %^t\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: %^{effort|1:00|0:05|0:15|0:30|2:00|4:00}\n:END:\n%?\n"
     "Hello World" "<2015-01-01>")
    "* TODO Hello World\nSCHEDULED: <2015-01-01>\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: %^{effort|1:00|0:05|0:15|0:30|2:00|4:00}\n:END:\n%?\n"))
     "* TODO %^{Task}\nSCHEDULED: %^t\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: %^{effort|1:00|0:05|0:15|0:30|2:00|4:00}\n:END:\n%?\n"
     "Hello World" "<2015-01-01>" "0:05")
    "* TODO Hello World\nSCHEDULED: <2015-01-01>\n:PROPERTIES:\n:Effort: 0:05\n:END:\n%?\n")))

(defun sacha/org-capture-prefill-template (template &rest values)
  "Pre-fill TEMPLATE with VALUES."
  (setq template (or template (org-capture-get :template)))
    (insert template)
    (goto-char (point-min))
    (while (re-search-forward
            (concat "%\\("
                    "\\)") nil t)
      (if (car values)
          (replace-match (car values) nil t))
      (setq values (cdr values)))

(defun sacha/helm-org-create-task (candidate)
  (let ((entry (org-capture-select-template "T")))
    (org-capture-set-plist entry)
    (condition-case error
            (sacha/org-capture-prefill-template (org-capture-get :template)
           (equal (car (org-capture-get :target)) 'function)))
      ((error quit)
       (if (get-buffer "*Capture*") (kill-buffer "*Capture*"))
       (error "Capture abort: %s" error)))) t)

Next, I want to add this to the way that Helm prompts me to refile. That means that my creation task should return something ready for org-refile. Actually, maybe I don’t have to do that if I know I’m always going to call it when I want to jump to something. I might as well add that bit of code that sets up clocking in, too.

(defvar sacha/helm-org-refile-locations nil)

(defun sacha/helm-org-clock-in-and-track-from-refile (candidate)
  (let ((location (org-refile--get-location candidate sacha/helm-org-refile-locations)))
      (org-refile 4 nil location)

(defun sacha/helm-org-refile-read-location (tbl)
  (setq sacha/helm-org-refile-locations tbl)
    (helm-build-sync-source "Refile targets"
      :candidates (mapcar 'car tbl)
      :action '(("Select" . identity)
                ("Clock in and track" . sacha/helm-org-clock-in-and-track-from-refile))
      :history 'org-refile-history)
    (helm-build-dummy-source "Create task"
      :action (helm-make-actions
               "Create task"

(defun sacha/org-refile-get-location (&optional prompt default-buffer new-nodes no-exclude)
  "Prompt the user for a refile location, using PROMPT.
PROMPT should not be suffixed with a colon and a space, because
this function appends the default value from
`org-refile-history' automatically, if that is not empty.
When NO-EXCLUDE is set, do not exclude headlines in the current subtree,
this is used for the GOTO interface."
  (let ((org-refile-targets org-refile-targets)
        (org-refile-use-outline-path org-refile-use-outline-path)
    (when (and (derived-mode-p 'org-mode)
               (not org-refile-use-cache)
               (not no-exclude))
         (setq excluded-entries
               (append excluded-entries (list (org-get-heading t t)))))))
    (setq org-refile-target-table
          (org-refile-get-targets default-buffer excluded-entries)))
  (unless org-refile-target-table
    (user-error "No refile targets"))
  (let* ((cbuf (current-buffer))
         (partial-completion-mode nil)
         (cfn (buffer-file-name (buffer-base-buffer cbuf)))
         (cfunc (if (and org-refile-use-outline-path
         (extra (if org-refile-use-outline-path "/" ""))
         (cbnex (concat (buffer-name) extra))
         (filename (and cfn (expand-file-name cfn)))
         (tbl (mapcar
               (lambda (x)
                 (if (and (not (member org-refile-use-outline-path
                                       '(file full-file-path)))
                          (not (equal filename (nth 1 x))))
                     (cons (concat (car x) extra " ("
                                   (file-name-nondirectory (nth 1 x)) ")")
                           (cdr x))
                   (cons (concat (car x) extra) (cdr x))))
         (completion-ignore-case t)
         (prompt (concat prompt
                         (or (and (car org-refile-history)
                                  (concat " (default " (car org-refile-history) ")"))
                             (and (assoc cbnex tbl) (setq cdef cbnex)
                                  (concat " (default " cbnex ")"))) ": "))
         pa answ parent-target child parent old-hist)
    (setq old-hist org-refile-history)
    ;; Use Helm's sources instead
    (setq answ (sacha/helm-org-refile-read-location tbl))
    (if (and (stringp answ)
             (setq pa (org-refile--get-location answ tbl)))
          (org-refile-check-position pa)
          (when (or (not org-refile-history)
                    (not (eq old-hist org-refile-history))
                    (not (equal (car pa) (car org-refile-history))))
            (setq org-refile-history
                  (cons (car pa) (if (assoc (car org-refile-history) tbl)
                                   (cdr org-refile-history))))
            (if (equal (car org-refile-history) (nth 1 org-refile-history))
                (pop org-refile-history)))
      (if (and (stringp answ) (string-match "\\`\\(.*\\)/\\([^/]+\\)\\'" answ))
            (setq parent (match-string 1 answ)
                  child (match-string 2 answ))
            (setq parent-target (org-refile--get-location parent tbl))
            (when (and parent-target
                       (or (eq new-nodes t)
                           (and (eq new-nodes 'confirm)
                                (y-or-n-p (format "Create new node \"%s\"? "
              (org-refile-new-child parent-target child)))
        (if (not (equal answ t)) (user-error "Invalid target location"))))))

(fset 'org-refile-get-location 'sacha/org-refile-get-location)

Hooray! Now C-u C-c C-w (org-refile) also lets me use TAB or F2 to select the alternative action of quickly clocking in on a task. Mwahaha.

You can check out this code in my config to see if anything has been updated. Want to learn more about modifying Helm? Check out these posts by John Kitchin and Rubikitch.

I think I’m getting the hang of tweaking Helm.  Yay!

Cultivate memories deliberately

March 5, 2015 - Categories: life

How much can we influence the memories that come upon us unexpectedly or the ones that we bring up when we reflect?

Sometimes, in the middle of washing the dishes, I remember standing on a footstool in my mother’s kitchen and washing the dishes there; she’d taught the three of us sisters to handle different stages of the dish-washing assembly line. I can see what prompted that memory. The connection is easy to understand. Other times, I’m not sure what drew me back to a time or place I’d forgotten. Some memories make me smile. Others remind me where I could’ve done better.

I’ve been thinking about long-term happiness, experiences, and memory. I imagine that at eighty or ninety years old, you’d want to have plenty of good memories. What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth creating experiences for? How can you smooth the edges of rough memories and intensify good ones?

Here are some of my thoughts about the memories I want to cultivate through attention and understanding.

2015-01-31 What's worth remembering -- index card #memory

2015-01-31 What’s worth remembering – index card #memory

I’d like to remember, clearly and distinctly, the things that contribute to happiness: connection, mastery, triumph, little moments of joy. How can we get better at things like that? Paying close attention, and creating the situations where these memories can arise.

I’d like to remember the storms – not to dwell on them, not to feel a victim, but to remember that they’re temporary and that we’ve weathered them in the past. (No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me!) I don’t write as much about these (in public, or even in my journals), but that doesn’t mean I don’t think of them from time to time. By not writing about them, though, I miss out on the opportunity to make sense of them, to fit them into a coherent narrative that helps me move forward.

I’d like to remember the things that will help me make better decisions: ideas, assumptions, consequences, lessons learned. Since it can be hard to remember details and one’s mind is often tempted to rewrite things more favourably, writing about these things is a good way to extend my understanding over time.

I have a lot of mental clutter. The time in school I wanted to experiment with fixing a memory with intense clarity, choosing (of all things!) the speckled ceiling to focus on. Many embarrassing moments, like the time a friend teased me for having mispronounced “adolescent” in a moment of inattention. Every moment contains a lesson, but I’m not sure that these lessons are worth the attention my mind gives them. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but they skitter across my brain from time to time. It would be good to be able to acknowledge them and their underlying thoughts, and then put them on a mental shelf. Then, when they escape, I can say, “Oh, hello again! Do you have anything to add? No? Back you go.”

2015-01-18 Narratives -- index card #storytelling #perspective

2015-01-18 Narratives – index card #storytelling #perspective

By thinking about memories on my own terms, I can make sense of them my way. The narratives we tell ourselves have such power. If your story is “Everyone’s against me!”, it’s easy to find memories that fit that pattern, and you’ll feel worse and worse. If your story is “Actually, things are pretty awesome,” it will likewise be easy to find memories that fit. By thinking about the general types of memories that come up and connecting them to a positive story, it’ll be easier to respond to them positively when they come up at other times.

In addition to cultivating your existing memories, it’s also good to deliberately create good ones. The impression I get from how other people do this is that people plan Big Memories. The awesome vacation. The ascetic pilgrimage. The conquered marathon.

My life tends to be about small memories. The in-joke picked up from the movie W- and I watched a few years ago, blended with the pun of the moment. The amusing situations our cats get themselves into. Cooking with friends. There are big memories mixed in there too (family trips, graduations, weddings), but the small ones… How can I explain this? The small ones seem as richly flavoured as the big ones are. Big memories are easier to tell other people about, but the small ones are more plentiful.

(Unless you’re like my dad, generating big memories by the bucket-load because you’re always on interesting adventures.)

What would it be like to be a big-memory-full person, a bucket-list-crosser-outer, a grand adventurer? Maybe I’d go refresh my memory of a night sky so clear you feel the dimensions of space. Maybe I’d splurge on eating interesting food at wonderful restaurants. Maybe I’d go to more parties (some of my friends throw themed ones, even). Maybe I’d bike around more in the city, or take the train and try biking near Niagara. Maybe I’d get back into the habit of having birthday parties.

In “Memories Make Your Life Meaningful – Here’s How to Have More of Them, Ben Casnocha writes:

  • Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories.
  • Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs.
  • Do things with people. And use people as a key variable.
  • Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine.
  • Review and re-live memories soon after the fact.
  • If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks.

More novelty, more randomness, more challenges, more people, more review, more attention. This slows life down, makes it denser with memories, and expands joy.

Cultivate memories more deliberately: make sense of your existing memories, and consciously build new ones. What would you like to remember in twenty years?

Alternatives to sitting meditation: How I clear my mind

March 6, 2015 - Categories: reflection

The Lifehacker article “Try a Writing Meditation If Sitting Still Isn’t Working For You” reminded me of how I’ve never quite resonated with the popular advice to clear your mind, meditate, and be mindful. When people ask me if I meditate, the word makes me think of doing yoga or sitting zazen or taking deep breaths – none of which I do. Maybe I’ll come around to those ways eventually, but in the meantime, let me share a few of the ways that work for me just in case they might help you too. =)

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don't meditate -- index card #reason #meditation

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don’t meditate – index card #reason #meditation

I generally keep my life low-stress. Frugality gives me a buffer from most of life’s financial stressors. Low expectations and personal responsibility make happiness easier. Stoicism helps me focus on what I can control.

I do like relaxing and being more appreciative. Everyday activities like doing the dishes, cuddling cats, spending time with W-, and following my curiosity give me that sense of abundance and fortune. They also help me slow down my thoughts and bump into interesting ideas. This reminds me of the relaxing side of meditation.

As for becoming aware of and addressing my self-talk or my thoughts, writing and drawing do a great job of bringing those thoughts out there so that I can acknowledge them or do something with them. I think this is like the self-awareness side of meditation.

Still, sometimes something perturbs my calm more than I’d like. When I’m miffed at something, that’s really more about me than about something else. It’s a good opportunity to take a look at my thoughts to see where I was lax or mistaken. This is like the clarifying side of meditation.

So I guess I do meditate, but I don’t do it in the stock-photography-meditation sort of way. Here are some other tools I use to shift my mental state:

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state -- index card #emotions

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state – index card #emotions

Activities that move my body or my mind make it easy for me to move my thoughts, too. For example, walking gets me breathing fresh air and looking around. Cooking immerses me in tastes and lets me enjoy doing something tangibly productive. Reading takes me inside someone else’s experiences. Helping someone shifts my focus from myself to someone else.

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park -- index card #relax

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park – index card #relax

(In particular, walking to a nearby park will almost certainly result in seeing lots of really happy dogs. There’s something about seeing a dog with a big grin and an even bigger stick.)

What is it that I’m really doing when I choose these activities? I think I’m quieting my brain enough so that I can think with less distraction. Then I can pay attention to the thoughts that I find odd or that I’d like to address, to see if I can resolve them.

In addition to responding to life as it comes, I sometimes think ahead about the way I’d like to respond to life. This is because my life has so far been pretty awesome. I don’t want to take it for granted, and I also don’t want to be blindsided by challenges. From time to time, I think about more difficult situations that I could find myself in so that I can try out different responses. This is the contemplative side of meditation, I think.

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair -- index card #stoicism

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair – index card #stoicism

So that’s how I “meditate,” I guess. No relaxing music, no super-deep thoughts. Mostly just everyday activities and the occasional bit of reflection. Seems to be working for me so far. =)

If you don’t meditate with a capital M, what do you enjoy doing instead? =)

Weekly review: Week ending March 6, 2015

March 7, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

I decided to take it easy this week, since my energy levels were pretty low. I still managed to squeeze in going to a couple of social events, baking lots of things, levelling up in terms of personal finance, and reflecting on freedom, yay!

2015-03-07a Week ending 2015-03-06 -- index card #weekly #review output

Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (26.1h – 15%)
    • Earn (8.1h – 31% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (8.0h – 30% of Business)
      • Drawing (4.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (4.0h)
    • Connect (9.9h – 38% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Co-host Quantified Self Toronto meetup
    • Go to house party
    • Work on project F
  • Discretionary – Productive (5.8h – 3%)
    • Emacs (1.0h – 0% of all)
    • Attempt to sort out 2008 again
    • Do paperwork for mom
    • Buy ETFs in SDRSP account
    • Writing (2.5h)
  • Discretionary – Play (3.4h – 2%)
  • Personal routines (39.9h – 23%)
  • Unpaid work (21.0h – 12%)
  • Sleep (66.9h – 39% – average of 9.6 per day)

Monthly review: February 2015

March 8, 2015 - Categories: monthly, review

Last month, I wrote that in February, I was looking forward to:

  • Preparing for some projects: Done!
  • Hosting another Emacs Hangout: Done!
  • Learning more about Helm (in Emacs): Customized!

What a month for cooking, drawing, writing, sewing, and tweaking Emacs. Somehow I managed to make more progress on personal projects and do lots of consulting.

2015-03-08a Monthly review - February 2015 -- index card #monthly output


Category Last month (%) This month (%) Avg h per week Delta
Business – Earn 4.1 7.8 13 3.7
Unpaid work 8.5 9.9 17 1.4
Discretionary – Productive 11.9 12.6 21 0.7
Discretionary – Social 0.5 1.2 2 0.7
Discretionary – Family 4.4 5.1 9 0.7
Sleep 35.3 35.3 59 0.0
Personal 15.1 14.7 25 -0.4
Discretionary – Play 3.8 2.8 5 -1.0
Business – Connect 5.4 2.8 5 -2.6
Business – Build 11.1 7.8 13 -3.3

As an experiment, I tried treating consulting as a “dessert” task to encourage me to work on my personal projects. I also stayed late at the office when I happened to have evening get-togethers scheduled downtown. I made decent progress on my other projects, I got more consulting in, and my clients were happy for the help. Still, my personal projects and interests are starting to be more motivating for me, so I think I might be able to rely on their intrinsic motivation soon. =)

This month, I spent some time thinking about clothes, shopping, sewing, and how I can make this experience better. It was a little stressful trying to find clothes for a family event (I ended up going in my office clothes), so I’ve resolved to try:

  • shopping more frequently
  • giving myself permission to spend more money
  • investing in learning how to sew

So far, so good. I’ve found a simple pattern for tops and am working on filling my wardrobe with them. Some people like variety. I think I get a kick out of consistency.

I’ve been cooking a lot too, yay!

I expect next month to focus even more on personal projects. I’d like to:

  • finish a few more tops in this season’s colours
  • bake a few pies for Pi Day
  • work on a few personal projects

Blog posts


Sketched Book – The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right – Atul Gawande

March 9, 2015 - Categories: kaizen, visual-book-notes

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009) emphasizes the power of checklists for improving reliability. Errors creep in when we forget things entirely or skip over things we should have done. In medicine, these errors can be fatal.

Gawande draws on his experience as a surgeon, the research he conducted with the World Health Organization, and insights from construction, finance, and other industries that take advantage of checklists to improve processes.

The book discusses ways to address the cultural resistance you might encounter when introducing a checklist. It recommends making sure that checklists are precise, efficient, short, easy to use, and practical. You need to develop a culture of teamwork where people feel that they can speak up as part of a team. You may even need to modify supporting systems to make the checklist doable.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-31 Sketched Book - The Checklist Manifesto - How to Get Things Right - Atul Gawande

I like the reminders that you should design your checklists around logical “pause points,” keep checklists focused on the essentials, and treat people as smart instead of making the checklist too rigid.

The book distinguishes between “Do-Confirm” checklists, which allow experienced people to work quickly and flexibly with a confirmation step that catches errors, and “Read-Do” checklists, which walk people step-by-step through what they need to do. I’m looking forward to applying the book’s tips towards systematizing my sharing. For example, I’m working on a YASnippets in Emacs that will not only display a “Read-Do” checklist for doing these sketched notes, but will also assemble the links and code to do the steps easily. Sure, no one will die if I miss a step, but I think discipline and thoroughness might yield dividends. I also want to develop a good “Do-Confirm” process for writing and committing code; that could probably save me from quite a few embarrassing mistakes.

I’m interested in the diffusion of ideas, so I was fascinated by the book’s coverage of the eight-hospital checklist experiment the WHO conducted. The book discussed the challenges of getting other people to adopt checklists, and adapting the checklists to local conditions. Here’s an excerpt:

… By the end, 80 percent reported that the checklist was easy to use, did not take a long time to complete, and had improved the safety of care. And 78 percent actually observed the checklist to have prevented an error in the operating room.

Nonetheless, some skepticism persisted. After all, 20 percent did not find it easy to use, thought it took too long, and felt it had not improved the safety of care.

Then we asked the staff one more qusetion. “If you were having an operation,” we asked, “would you want the checklist to be used?”

A full 93 percent said yes.

There’s a comparison to be made between the reluctance of doctors to accept checklists and the committed use of checklists by pilots and builders. I came across a quote from Lewis Schiff’s Business Brilliant in this comment by Rich Wellman:

The following quote sums up the essential difference between a checklist for a doctor and a checklist for a pilot.

“How can I put this delicately? Pilots are seated in the same planes as their passengers. Surgeons are not under the same knives as their patients. To paraphrase an old joke, surgeons may be interested in safety, but pilots are committed.”

So checklists are a good idea when you’re dealing with people’s lives, but what about the rest of us? Checklists are good for catching errors and building skills. They’re also great for reducing stress and distraction, because you know that the checklist is there to help you think. That’s why packing lists are useful when you travel.

Already a fan of checklists? Tell me what you have checklists for

Want the book? You can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link).

Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog. Enjoy!

Somewhat related:

Getting better at writing other-directed posts

March 10, 2015 - Categories: writing

Would you like to help me get better at helping you through blogging? I’d love to hear your feedback. =)

I’m working on writing more posts that people might find useful instead of filling every week with my ruminations. One of my challenges is that posts make sense to me (of course), but I’m sure there are many people for whom the posts don’t make sense. Sometimes there are unanswered questions, or extraneous material that I could move to a separate post. Maybe the flow doesn’t make sense to other people.

How can I learn how to step outside myself and read my writing with a stranger’s eyes? One way is to ask for help: if you can share your thoughts (both content and style) on my posts through comments or e-mail, that would be great. (Consider it an open invitation!) Another way is to pay for help, especially if I can be clear about the kind of feedback I want. (More logic than typos, please!) A third way is to develop a list of questions that I can use to evaluate my own work.

Since this list of questions is useful for both paying for assistance and editing things myself, I worked on drafting this list:

  • Title
    1. Does the post title start with a verb? Can you think of a more vivid verb to start it with?
      • Bad: Do stuff
    2. Does the post title help people decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: specific problem or tip
      • Bad: generic or mysterious post title; title not clearly related to content
  • Body
    1. Is the first paragraph focused on “you” (the reader)?
    2. Does the first paragraph or two help the reader quickly decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: Can tell right away whether this will be too introductory, too advanced, or covering something they already know
    3. Do I share my background (context, etc.) in a way that helps the reader understand what I’ve learned or how I can identify with them?
    4. Do I share a useful tip that I have researched or personally experienced?
    5. Is the next step clear for the reader?
  • How it’s said
    1. In your own words, what is the key point of this post?
    2. Does each paragraph have a key point? Do the paragraphs flow logically?
    3. Does each sentence flow logically to the one following it?
    4. Is the key point sufficiently supported by the post? What’s missing?
    5. Is there anything here that does not support the key point and that can be removed?
    6. After reading this, what questions will the reader likely have? What will they want to know next?
  • Bonus
    1. Do I include research or links to other sources (not my blog)?
    2. Are there related links, and do they look interesting or useful?
    3. What else would you suggest to improve this post?

This particular post does not count as an other-directed post. It’s me trying to figure things out. =) The other-directed version of this might be called something like “Use checklists to get better at writing posts that other people will find useful” or “Pay for perspective by hiring editors for your blog”. My other-directed posts start with a verb, and I usually schedule them for Thursdays. But if you’ve got some ideas on how I can write better, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!

Related sketches:

2015-01-13 Evaluating posts written for others -- index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015.01.13 Evaluating posts written for others – index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015-01-11 What makes a good other-focused post -- index card #writing

2015.01.11 What makes a good other-focused post – index card #writing


Emacs Org Mode and the power of plain text

March 11, 2015 - Categories: emacs, org

When I build a tool for other people to use and I want to store data, I usually have to think in terms of relational databases: tables, fields, and queries. There are other kinds of databases out there, like ones with flexible documents or ones that are optimized for graphs, but I haven’t gotten the hang of them yet.

When I build a tool for myself and I want to store data, I usually use plain text. (Or maybe a spreadsheet, but now that I’m getting the hang of Org Mode tables, I’m leaning more and more towards text.)

2015-02-02 Plain text -- index card #data #organization #pkm #org

2015-02-02 Plain text – index card #data #organization #pkm #org

I like the flexibility of plain text. Sometimes I want to organize my thoughts in an outline or an index. Sometimes I want to make a graph, like the way I wanted to visualize how my goals are related to each other. Sometimes I change my mind about what I want. (All the time, actually. =) ) Plain text lets me add structure the way I want to. It’s all in my text editor, so I can move things around or reorganize things using the tools in Emacs.

Sure, sometimes I mess up because of formatting mistakes or the lack of validation. For example, typos in my personal ledger show up when the numbers don’t match my bank balances or there’s a new category with a misspelled name. But these are easy enough to catch and fix, and I can’t completely guard against them with a database anyway. And it’s nice to know that version control can let me visually step through the changes or recover from mistakes.

What about speed? Databases can be much faster than plain text for large quantities of data, for sure. I tend to work with pretty small quantities of data. For example, my blog index has 3257 lines, and the file that I’m drafting this in is under a megabyte. Even with whatever Emacs Lisp I’ve written to extract or cross-reference data, I’m still mostly bottlenecked by my brain instead of my computer. Sure, it took me a little longer to figure out how to do table calculations using Org Mode, but now that I have some notes on that, I should be able to come up with future calculations more easily. Besides, if I need to analyze things quickly, I can export and then crunch the numbers using a different tool.

Speaking of tools, staying with lightly-structured plain text lets me build a toolkit of text manipulation techniques. When I’m editing things in Emacs, scripting with Emacs Lisp, searching with grep, or writing Javascript/Ruby/Perl code to work with text, I’m developing skills that I can use in a wide range of situations.

If you’re interested in keeping your data in plain text with Org Mode, here are some tips that can help you learn how to work with your information.

Start with tables

  1. Learn how to use keyboard shortcuts to create, move, or delete rows and columns.
  2. Learn how to sort tables.
  3. Learn how to use the column with specifier (ex: <10>) to limit the displayed size of your column while still being able to add more information.
  4. Use Org Mode’s support for calculations to do math or perform other operations on your table.

Consider using properties

Org tables don’t do well with paragraphs or more complex information, so you might want to use Org subtrees with properties.

You can use Org columns to display property values, or use Org dynamic blocks to put a summary of the values into your Org Mode file. See org-collector.el for a propview report.

If you want more control, you can work with the information using Emacs Lisp. You can use org-entry-get, org-entry-get-multivalued-property, or org-entry-get-with-inheritance to get the value of the property. If you want to go through all the subtrees (or a subset of them), use org-map-entries to call your own function at each of the matching headlines in the scope. org-heading-components will give you the information from the current heading, and you can use org-end-of-subtree to give you the boundary of the subtree if you want to process it further.

You can parse Org Mode lists with org-list-struct. I haven’t dug into this deeply yet, but it looks interesting.

Parse free-form text

In addition to working with tables and properties, you can write functions that use regular expressions or other techniques to extract data from text. re-builder can be useful for visual feedback while you’re figuring out the right regular expression to build. Remember, you’re in Emacs, so you don’t have to come up with the perfect regular expression that extracts all the data in one go. You can search for a regular expression, use a command like forward-line, save something to a variable, and so forth. Try thinking about how you would do something by hand, and then using repeat-complex-command to see what functions Emacs called when you did that.

save-restriction, narrow-to-region, and save-excursion are very useful when it comes to limiting the scope of your processing or saving your position, so check them out in the Emacs Lisp manual.

I find plain text to be really useful when I’m figuring things out (so, all the time), since I don’t have to build a complex interface for working with it. As I learn more about Org Mode’s features, I find myself using it for more and more of my data. Org’s slogan is “Organize your life in plain text!” – and I think it just might be serious about that!

Enjoy the prep work

March 12, 2015 - Categories: productivity

In sewing, the actual sewing–the stitching of layers of fabric together–seems to be such a small part of it.

There’s choosing a sewing pattern, or making one up.

There’s choosing the fabric, thinking of how it feels, drapes, stretches, handles, and washes.

There’s tracing, marking, and adjusting the pattern.

There’s cutting the fabric. Accuracy in this step makes everything else easier.

There’s marking and pinning. How you pin it together depends on how you want the finished piece to feel like.

Sometimes there’s lining, sometimes there’s interfacing. I haven’t learned how to really work with these yet.

And then – sewing! But just a little at a time, because…

There’s pressing, which is a little like ironing except with more time and pressure. This is what creates those creases and curves. It’s important to do this. If you skip it, your seams might pucker or puff. Things just don’t hang right without it.

Sometimes you trim things with scissors, or carefully rip threads and resew if needed.

And then more pinning, more sewing, more pressing, more cutting… So much of sewing is outside that narrow definition of “sewing.”

Cooking is like that too: choosing tastes, recipes, ingredients; preparing the ingredients; cooking!; adjusting the taste; serving.

What are the writing equivalents? Researching, outlining, writing, revising, packaging.

Coding? Planning, coding, testing… Maybe testing is like pressing – it helps make different pieces of code fit together neatly.

It’s like these activities have a part where you can say “This is it! I’m sewing/cooking/writing/coding!” But all the other parts might be even more important than that one bit. Hmm.

The trick, perhaps, is to enjoy those other parts as well, even if you don’t feel you’re making good progress, even if it’s not the part with the pay-off or the glamour. Doing the prep work well makes the main work more effective and enjoyable.

I wonder if life works the same way too…

Future pull and the power of imagination

March 13, 2015 - Categories: planning

I know you’re supposed to live in the present, but I get a lot of value from thinking about futures and what I can learn from the possibilities. Imagining different futures helps me see what I can do, choose to do some things instead of others, and keep track of how I’m doing along the way.

In the problem-solving model that Tim Hurson shares in Think Better (2008), you come up with potential Target Futures and prioritize a few based on three factors:

  • Influence: Is it something you have influence over?
  • Importance: Is it important enough to you that you’ll put in the work to get there?
  • Imagination: Can you solve it with an off-the-shelf solution, or do you have to come up with something new?

A good future pulls you toward it. You want it, and so you act on it.

periodically think about what the target futures for my interests look and feel like. Last year, I wrote about how I don’t need to get to “awesome” in everything. Sometimes it still helps to think about what that “awesome” might look like, though. I realized that I don’t have to use the same definition of “awesome” that other people use. Figuring out what “awesome” means to me can help me identify the differences between my current state and my future state, and that shows me what I can do or what I can learn to get there. I want to pick differences that are mostly under my control, that are important enough to call me to action, and that may even create something new in the world.


2015-01-15 Imagining coding amazingly -- index card #wildsuccess #coding

2015-01-15 Imagining coding amazingly – index card #wildsuccess #coding

I figured out a little more about what tickles my programming brain. I’m not the kind of person who builds massively popular projects with elegant architecture. Someday I might do a good job at building bridges for other people so that they can do even better. What makes me really happy right now, though, is writing small, idiosyncratic pieces of code that are tailored to my particular needs (or that make things a little better for people I feel good about). On the surface, this doesn’t have widespread impact. but I guess it also creates a future-pull – showing other people that this sort of play and customization is possible. So, if I follow that vein, amazingness looks like:

  • Seeing clear, simple ways to address challenges or take advantage of opportunities
  • Pulling the pieces together (APIs, etc.)
  • Making reasonable interfaces
  • Writing decent code
  • Being proficient with tools
  • Getting good at that delivery and feedback cycle, whether it’s for other people or for myself

I’m getting a lot more practice in working with the APIs for services I frequently use. I’ve scripted quite a few small tools that interact with Flickr, and I’m looking forward to more experiments with Org Mode and Evernote. I’m also working on learning more about the tools I can use: debuggers, frameworks, even coding conventions.

Working out loud

2015-01-15 Imagining working out loud amazingly -- #wildsuccess #sharing #writing

2015-01-15 Imagining working out loud amazingly – #wildsuccess #sharing #writing

What about working out loud? What would that look like if I could do it really, really well?

I’d keep detailed notes – probably in Org Mode, since that lets me mix everything together: snippets, links, research, TODOs, etc. My notes would help me get back on track after interruptions or delays. Whenever I finish a small chunk, I publish a post, since that’s easier to work with than waiting until I’ve finished everything. I’ll know if it’s working if I:

  • don’t get as frustrated with dead ends, because I can just backtrack up the trail
  • can look up my reasons for things I’ve forgotten
  • can help other people find out about things they can do, take advantage of example code, or probe my understanding
  • get the occasional suggestion from people on how to improve what I do

I’m focusing on getting more of my thinking out the door. One of the things I’m currently figuring out is how to balance logical order and chronological order when writing up what I’ve learned. On one hand, I want to save people time by pointing them straight to stuff that worked. On the other hand, it can be useful to see the thinking process. I’m experimenting with using signposts (like the “later in this post” part of one of my write-ups). I’m also experimenting with harvesting tips and putting them into occasional other-directed posts.


2015-01-15 Imagining writing amazingly -- index card #writing #wildsuccess

2015-01-15 Imagining writing amazingly – index card #writing #wildsuccess

I don’t need to get to Pulitzer-prize-winning awesomeness. I want to get better at figuring things out and sharing them. I think this involves being able to:

  • wrestle with vagueness and beat it into specificity
  • share practical tips
  • extract ideas from research, other people’s thoughts, and my own experiences so that I can help people save time
  • and back up everything reliably!

If I can get better at seeing things, that’s a really useful bonus. Since the easiest way of doing that seems to be sheer accumulation of experience, I’m focusing instead on other things that I can get better at first. Research is one of those skills I want to build up again, as there can be lot of value in a good literature review.

2015-01-14 Setting constraints for my writing chunks -- index card #writing #constraints

2015-01-14 Setting constraints for my writing chunks – index card #writing #constraints

I’m also working on building up and linking to different chunks so that people can read at the level of detail they want. By setting constraints on chunk size and getting better at managing an archive of linkable things, I hope to be able to organize thoughts more flexibly.


2015-01-15 Imagining packaging amazingly -- index card #packaging #wildsuccess

2015-01-15 Imagining packaging amazingly – index card #packaging #wildsuccess

I imagine that as I get a sense of questions (other people’s and my own) and good sequences to answer those questions in, I’ll get better at putting together guides that lead people through those sequences. This helps because sometimes it takes a lot of knowledge to figure out what the next good question is or how to formulate it. For me, that’s what packaging is about: making sense of things, and then sharing that in a way that helps other people make sense of things too.

I’m still far from getting really good at this, but as I build up chunks and figure out what order to put them in, I’ll get better.

Your turn

When it comes to the things that you’re learning, what are different ways “awesome” could look and feel like? Are those futures powerful enough to pull you toward them? What do you need to do to get a little closer to those futures?

Weekly review: Week ending March 13, 2015

March 15, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

Lots of sewing (14.5 hours!). Taking it easy, in general. Social stuff, too: catching up with friends, going to parties…

2015-03-15a Week ending 2015-03-13 -- index card #weekly


Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (26.7h – 15%)
    • Earn (11.5h – 42% of Business)
      • Send comm slide
      • Attend comm session
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (12.4h – 46% of Business)
      • Drawing (11.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (1.3h)
    • Connect (2.9h – 10% of Business)
  • Relationships (9.1h – 5%)
    • Do paperwork for mom
    • Check on project F4
  • Discretionary – Productive (18.4h – 10%)
    • Emacs (1.0h – 0% of all)
      • 2015-03-18 Emacs Hangout
      • Help Sean with Emacs
    • Buy ETFs in SDRSP account
    • Writing (2.8h)
  • Discretionary – Play (6.8h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (40.0h – 23%)
  • Unpaid work (18.9h – 11%)
  • Sleep (71.0h – 42% – average of 10.1 per day)

How can I make better use of my index card drawing process?

March 16, 2015 - Categories: drawing, learning

I really like this practice of working with index cards, especially now that I’ve sorted out a sweet digital workflow for them.

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow -- index card #drawing #workflow

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow – index card #drawing #workflow

I started with a straightforward workflow:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Draw it on a paper index card.
  3. After I complete 5+ index cards, scan the cards.
  4. Convert and process the cards (colouring, etc.).
  5. Rename the cards.
  6. Upload the cards.
  7. Add them to my Flickr set (and to blog posts and so on).

I replaced my Flickr uploading process with a script. Then I replaced the paper index cards with digital index cards. I wrote another script to make renaming files easier. Then I built an outline of questions and used that to create index card templates. So now my workflow looks like this:

  1. I use Org Mode in Emacs to collect and organize questions. I use TODO states to track ones that need further research, ones that are ready to be drawn, and ones that are ready to be blogged.
  2. When I switch to tablet mode, I can select questions to draw using a custom pen-friendly Emacs interface that sets up the template for me.
  3. I upload the images using another script and add the links to my outline.

After I draft the blog post, I use another bit of code to move the relevant images out of my “To blog” directory and into another directory so that I can easily upload them (since I still haven’t tweaked the all-Emacs way of doing things the way I want them).

An index card is a good size for a chunk. It’s smaller than a blog post, so I can accelerate my learn-do-share-review cycle. If I invest more time into creating, organizing, and sharing them, I think they’ll pay off well. Other people report that their Zettelkasten (index card organization systems) become almost like conversational partners and collaborators. I already feel that way about my blog archive, and it will probably be even more

Hmm… Should I add a unique identifier to sketches so that I can refer to them more concisely than giving the full link? This mostly matters for referring to sketches in the drawing itself, since I can use links in text or metadata. For example, I can assign codes to each chunk, possibly differentiating between sketches (letters?) and blog posts (numbers?). So, maybe “2015-01-01a” for the first sketch on January 1, and “2015-01-01-1” for the first blog post? I could omit the dashes, but then searching requires that mental translation, so we’ll keep the dashes in there. The downside is that there’ll be a little additional clutter, but it might be interesting to experiment with – adding a reference line, and maybe even adding the info to the filename. It gives some linking capability that can survive the disparate systems I publish sketches to (my blog, Evernote, Flickr), even for sketches that don’t get turned into blog posts.

What about my 5-cards-a-day target?

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target -- index card #drawing #reflection

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target – index card #drawing #reflection

Sometimes making five cards feels like a stretch, since I have to Think Interesting Thoughts. Using templates can help – I could make four cards and a journal entry, for example. I expect the awkwardness will subside as I build up my question store and do more research/experimentation.

Colour slows me down if I think about it too much or worry about becoming too repetitive. It might be fine to just quickly highlight things most of the time and save the development of colour sense for sessions of deliberate practice.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process -- index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process – index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

In terms of thinking, spending the extra few minutes to think about and capture the next questions or actions for a card can make a big difference in my focus. I can also relax my chunking guidelines so that a single sketch can be fleshed out into a quick blog post instead of waiting until I accumulate several sketches related to the topic – taking my own advice to schedule Minimum Viable Posts. If I phrase my outline in terms of questions instead of keywords, I’ll probably find that more motivating and easier to scope.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop -- index card #tech

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop – index card #tech

That will probably also help me with some of the bottlenecks I identified while contemplating how I can make better use of my laptop. I’m doing okay at generating questions and drawing index cards, but I can do better at translating those ideas into research, experiments, and blog posts. So, I can clear out more of my backlog of index cards that I want to share (probably ending up with two months of scheduled blog posts, or maybe even more!). Then I can research and try out more ideas, so I’m not just drawing questions that I can answer with what’s currently in my head. =)


A reflection on otium

March 17, 2015 - Categories: philosophy

Still working on working on my own things.

Otio qui nescit uti . . .
plus negoti habet quam cum est negotium in negotio ;
nam cui quod agat institutumst non ullo negotio
id agit, id studet, ibi mentem atque animum delectat suum:
otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit
Hoc idem est ; em neque domi nunc nos nee militiae sumus;
imus hue, hinc illuc; cum illuc ventum est, ire illinc Iubet.
Incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.

He who does not know how to use leisure . . .
has more of work than when there is work in work.
For to whom a task has been set, he does the work,
desires it, and delights his own mind and intellect:
in leisure, a mind does not know what it wants.
The same is true (of us); we are neither at home or in the battlefield;
we go here and there, and wherever there is a movement, we are there too.
The mind wanders unsure, except in that life is lived.

Ennius’ Iphigenia (~190BC), quoted in Wikipedia

I feel embarrassed to write about this because it’s such a privileged situation. “Oh, gee, whatever shall you do with your spare time? Gosh, I wish I had that problem! Now stop rubbing it in.” And I can imagine all sorts of quick answers I’d be happy with. I’m at least 80% happy with the solution of using my time to learn, code, draw, write, and share.

But there’s a question somewhere in here, and I want to explore it from time to time. I’m not sure what the question is, but maybe I can think around it so that I can sneak up on it.

What would answering this question look like? I don’t think I’ll get to the point where I’ll say to myself: “Aha, I have Answered This Question, and now I know how I should spend my leisure time for the rest of my life.” Hmm. No, I think I’m mostly looking for the feeling that I’m not making a huge mistake, that I’m not wasting my life, that there are people I look up to who have made similar choices.

Huh. That sounds promising. I think I feel more settled if I had more-developed mental counselors who’ve explored this type of lifestyle – something different from ambition and careerism, but also something different from private life or dissipation. The Wikipedia article on otium suggests people to learn more about, such as Seneca, Petrarch, Theophrastus, Aristotle, and Epicurus.

There’s also something interesting there about the idea of activities that justify leisure, lifting it up above idleness. Cognitio and contemplatio, studio and quies… (ref) And maybe both “contemplation and practical action” (ibid.).

So maybe there are three questions here:

  • Who are the role models and companions who can guide me as I try to do this better?
  • How can I improve how I use my leisure time?
  • How should I feel about how I use my leisure time? Satisfaction reduces energy lost to frustration and opens up a relaxed way of thinking, but can also lead to wasted opportunities.

This reminds me of my post on Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant. Activities have differently-valued results. Playing video games sometimes leads to shared jokes and personal delight at the designers’ cleverness, but pales in comparison to other things I can do, so my LEGO Marvel Super Heroes languishes at 57.8%. Cooking results in temporary personal and familial value, but doesn’t benefit the wider world. Writing and Emacs geekery benefit a tiny niche, although sometimes I suspect that most of the benefit is personal rather than public.

Hence the temptation of consulting: clear benefit to myself (increased skills), my household (increased safety), and the team (increased capabilities), and possible benefit for tens of thousands of people.

And it’s also tempting to procrastinate the questions, focusing on easy answers like consulting and writing and geeking out about Emacs. They might be the sort of questions that resolve themselves, as my responsibilities and interests evolve. They might be the sort of questions that are easier to answer with more experience and skill. I’ve been reading about how the reasonable economic principle of ignoring sunk costs and focusing on marginal costs can bias established companies towards sticking with what they know, and it occurs to me that people are quite similar in this regard; the smooth groove of habit or expertise can be a rut that’s hard to get out of.

Hmm. I notice that some of the oddness comes from looking at leisure as work, as something to improve – to do more efficiently or more effectively. (This reminds me of this Yiddish saying: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows.”) If I want to, I can accept this attitude, managing myself with projects and timelines. But I’m curious about leisure as leisure, the thoughts you can think when you are unhurried. At the same time, there is this fear of being a slacker – the indolence of a couch potato or the isolation of an ivory tower.

So, something about people who set aside space for leisure, didn’t treat it like work, and yet accomplished useful things. This forces me to confront my definition of “useful.” What do I mean? An effect that lives beyond them. One could argue that spending time with friends or family can have diffuse results that outlive you, but I think I want something else in addition to that. Maybe to add to what we know.

And here something philosophical in me points out: “Why desire to be remembered? When you are dust, it won’t matter. Millions of people have lived and died without their names being remembered past a few generations.”

To which I say, “Okay, maybe it doesn’t matter that I am remembered, but it would be nice to know that something useful has been added.”

Then this inner philosopher says, “Were you waiting for a certificate? Here it is. You have done something that at least one other person has found useful. Whatever you leave undone, someone else will do, or it wasn’t needed anyway. How big of an impact do you need for your ego to be satisfied?”

And then I say, “Now that you put it that way, it doesn’t make that much sense. It’s one more thing to let go.” Slowly making progress. (The doubt pipes up again: “But should I let go? What if letting go is the wasteful thing to do here?” Tenacious, that thing.)

As for role models – I am not a special snowflake. There are countless people who live or have lived aspects of the life I’m figuring out. It doesn’t even have to be a majority-leisure life; I can learn from people who meditatively use the pockets of time they have each day. I can learn through habit and observation: instead of trying to think my way to the answers up front, I can try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I can reflect on the results.

It’s difficult to relax, but I’m learning.

Thinking about when I enjoy helping people

March 18, 2015 - Categories: teaching

Sometimes I love helping people, and sometimes I feel hints of stress. I’m a good fit for some questions or approaches, and I’m not for others. What’s the difference, and how can I tilt it towards positive experiences more than negative ones? Let’s look at the negative side first, since that often gives strong clues.

2015-01-30 How can I get better at being clever on demand -- index card #emacs

2015-01-30 How can I get better at being clever on demand – index card #emacs

I tend to feel a little bit of an impostor syndrome around coaching, because I doubt my ability to be clever on demand. In terms of Emacs, I’m not a good substitute for Stack Overflow, mailing lists, or newsgroups. I’m not going to teach the One True Way of doing things. In terms of drawing, I’m not a visual thesaurus.

But I shouldn’t let this get in my way, since people don’t expect me to be those things. (And if they do, that’s under their control, not mine.) Instead, I can focus on the fact that people are often looking for a discussion of workflow options with some ideas, and that they’re going to translate those thoughts into something applicable to their situation anyway.

2015-02-09 Why do I respond differently to variants of the same question, and what can I learn from that -- index card #coaching #preference

2015-02-09 Why do I respond differently to variants of the same question, and what can I learn from that – index card #coaching #preference

I also feel a bit of friction when we start from a negative position (“This sucks”, “I’m frustrated”, etc.) instead of a positive one (“I’ve figured some stuff out”, “I’m looking forward to learning this”, etc.). I can filter it out when I pay attention, but it feels easier to build up something positive than to shore up something that’s sloping downwards.

I think part of it is the difficulty of distinguishing these situations:

  • someone who isn’t ready to change, but who wants to vent
  • someone who wants to change, but who’s frustrated at being stuck
  • someone who’s uncomfortable with being a beginner (still attached to the feeling of competence?)

Actually, the first situation can be identified by focusing on action. The third situation is a matter of mindset and patience. For the second situation, how can you tell the difference between something that will eventually become a good fit after practice and learning, and something that just doesn’t jive with what someone wants? Hmm. I think this is why I like focusing on building a tiny beachhead of happy competence first, because it’s frustrating to deal with the feeling of constantly running into walls.

On my side, it’s not fun to only see the parts where someone bumping into walls. I feel much better when people share their triumphs and excitement, too, instead of just presenting me with the next thing that annoys them. It’s like the criticism sandwich. I want to hear about stuff people like, not just stuff that needs to be fixed. In fact, I prefer it even more if people use something similar to my “How can we make this even better?” mindset: talk about what works and how we can improve.

Hmm. Since I do this voluntarily and I benefit a lot from focusing on people who energize me, perhaps I should just redirect people whose learning styles, stages, or mindsets aren’t a good fit for my own. A number of people offer paid-for services for the kinds of things people often ask me about, so I can refer work to them. Someone who isn’t ready to change won’t bother investing. Someone who’s frustrated at being stuck can more easily value help in moving forward. Someone who’s uncomfortable with being a beginner can benefit from the attention. But there’s no obligation for me to do that kind of emotional work for free, and I don’t need to earn money that way either.

So if I reduce the kind of help I don’t like to give, what kind of help would I like to focus on?

2015-02-06 What kind of coaching do I like to give -- index card #coaching #teaching

2015-02-06 What kind of coaching do I like to give – index card #coaching #teaching

I love it when people write about what they’re learning in blog posts or other ways to share with the community. I think the reflection time is important, and it helps me build on their understanding. I like reading blogs as a way to keep in touch. Best yet, blogging brings them closer to the community, so they (and I!) can learn from other people’s comments.

Few people blog. Sometimes people are intimidated by the thought of posting mistakes or not explaining things well enough. I think that’s actually one of the best reasons to write, since then you can learn more. Maybe requiring them to write blog posts (even rough notes) will demystify the process. It’s also a good way to see who takes action.

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward -- #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward – #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

Sometimes I take questions and turn them into blog posts myself. While this is useful, I don’t want to rely on it. If I do most of the writing, I benefit from the additional thought and connection, but I’m limited to what I can write about. I’d rather build up more voices in the community.

Hmm. There’s an abundance of questions to explore or topics to write about, so questions from other people are nice to have but not essential. On the other hand, questions from other people are helpful at identifying gaps so that I can fill them. So I’m a little divided on this, although I’m leaning towards requiring blog posts as a way for me to focus on people who create lots of value. These don’t have to be amazing, eloquent, insightful posts either. Rough notes with questions, ideas, or code is fine. The important thing is that the knowledge doesn’t get stuck in e-mail or in conversation.

2015-02-09 What characterizes people I like helping -- index card #coaching #preference

2015-02-09 What characterizes people I like helping – index card #coaching #preference

There’s an interesting idea there. Let’s say that there are a few people for whom my preferred way of teaching/learning is an excellent natural fit. If I focus my resources on those people, we might be able to accelerate each other’s learning tremendously. There might be more people who are somewhat compatible with my preferred way of teaching/learning. Maybe all they need is the nudge to try out blogging, for example. I can create resources to help them bridge the gap, or give quick tips here and there. There are also lots of people whose preferred ways of learning don’t mesh well with mine. It’s okay if they find other sources of help for now. As I grow, I’ll get better at handling a diversity of learning approaches, so I might intersect with them someday too.

2015-01-08 Imagining coaching or guiding others -- index card

2015.01.08 Imagining coaching or guiding others – index card

So maybe wild success looks like this: someone describes what they want to do and where they’re getting stuck or what they’re curious about. I suggest a couple of approaches, and maybe we explore them together. These experiences get turned into blog posts, and the blog posts generate more ideas and conversations. (They might even get compiled into books and courses.) The nature of the conversation is such that we’re both excited about learning, we both learn interesting things, and we both contribute to the greater community.

I like that. I think that’s worth investing time in. It feels selfish to say, “I’ll help here, but not there,” or to tell someone, “The way I work right now might not be a good fit for the way you work.” But if I take a step back and think of the other things that I could direct my time and energy to, it makes sense to try to allocate them where they would produce the most value. Hmm…

Emacs Hangout 2015-03-18 show notes

March 19, 2015 - Categories: emacs

We chatted about Org coolness and workflows; learning Emacs and deliberate practice; speech recognition; alternate layouts.

Event page:

What’s this Emacs Hangout thing about? This is an informal way for Emacs geeks to get together and swap tips/notes/questions. You can find the previous Hangouts or sign up for the mailing list at . The next Emacs Hangout will be on April 15, 2015, at 8 PM Toronto time (12 midnight GMT): Want to get notified about upcoming hangouts? You can sign up for notifications at .

Experimenting with org-timer. Times are approximate, despite the seeming precision. =)

  • 0:00:12 Intros
  • 0:04:22 Howard – Prettify Your Quotation Marks
  • 0:06:37 Org Mode Spreadsheets
  • 0:12:44 org-aggregate
  • 0:12:50 summing up tables
  • 0:15:38 Hiding things from export with :PRIVATE: .. :END:
  • 0:16:30 Navigation
  • 0:17:10 Relative line numbers
  • 0:19:32 Org prettiness: org-bullets
  • 0:20:51 EMagicians Starter Kit
  • 0:26:23 More table stuff
  • 0:27:32 Org Mode workflows, reasons to use Org
  • 0:28:16 Org to replace Markdown, executable code samples, etc. Literate programming. Attachments.
  • 0:29:34 Org tables
  • 0:30:11 Literate programming, technical notes
  • 0:30:49 Links
  • 0:31:54 Keeping all your notes, reference information, and so forth
  • 0:32:25 As a simple database
  • 0:34:59 Leo’s demo: Org task management, scheduling, linking, refiling, org-pomodoro (with sound and tweaks) and time reporting
  • 0:44:47 clock reports, clocktable
  • 0:46:09 C-u org-refile
  • 0:47:53 tagging strategies (prefixes, @ for contexts, etc.), search
  • 0:49:45 using org-drill
  • 0:51:19 scheduling vs using agendas
  • 0:51:34 org-habits for visualizing consistency
  • 0:54:34 erc and other IRC clients
  • 0:55:20 devices
  • 0:56:47 Other apps like Wunderlist – tasks to synchronize; work/home separation
  • 0:59:44 org-trello – close, but no cigar
  • 1:00:26 orgzly
  • 1:01:44 MobileOrg =( hasn’t been updated in a long time, etc.
  • 1:03:15 org-timer, meeting notes, colouring neato
  • 1:05:37 spacemacs as a way for Vi converts to try Emacs out
  • 1:06:47 keybindings – rebind lots, or not? a few frequently used ones? ErgoEmacs?
  • 1:10:23 hydra, key-chord, prefixes, see Sacha’s config for making key-chord more specific
  • 1:12:52 pair-programming? tmux and different modes?
  • 1:13:09 httpd, impatient-mode, multi-tty?
  • 1:18:04 deliberate practice and learning new things
  • 1:18:41 putting new things in a temporary section (1 month)
  • 1:19:02 reading blog posts (ex:, reading configs,
  • 1:21:29 cheat sheet
  • 1:22:14 another vote for a staging area (experimental.el)
  • 1:24:35 blogging is awesome, org2blog, etc.
  • 1:28:59 edebug is a great way to explore how things work
  • 1:31:39 watching over people’s shoulders when it comes to Emacs; Hangouts, virtual conference? Moderators are helpful. Handing a virtual microphone out – moderator names someone who can then check in, ask the question, etc. monitoring comments. (Could use help reaching out to speakers, organizing schedule, etc.)
  • 1:34:55 Speech interface: less navigation, just commands. Better speech integration – requires C, or can be done with Emacs Lisp? What you’re operating on is different. Intent (what has to happen) vs action (what to do), audio wizards with contextual grammar. Pretty far out still. Translating dictation-friendly names to code-friendly names and vice versa.
  • 1:42:02 Quick wins: accelerators, focusing on intent
  • 1:44:19 Context
  • 1:46:03 LaTeX for math notes? Export to LaTeX or HTML with images, inline images. LyX if you need WYSIWYG? Snippets can help you work at a higher level (instead of memorizing a lot)
  • 1:48:52 Alternative keyboard layouts and keybindings; also, typing less (abbreviations, expansions, thinking, etc.), Kinesis
  • 1:53:57 Speech recognition. Saying things again instead of editing.
  • 1:58:06 Suggestions – more Org workflows, chatting leading up to the next Hangout, asking for help

Text chat:

Philip Stark 8:04 PM This one?
Cameron Desautels 8:04 PM yup
Howard Abrams 8:04 PM Yes!
Cameron Desautels 8:04 PM If you guys haven’t seen this, we should all try to contribute and help out:
me 8:08 PM (Dan: I muted you because of background noise, but you can always unmute yourself when you’re ready to ask a question )
Jonathan Hill 8:10 PM does anybody know how to full screen the hang out? I guess I could just full-screen chrome on the mac..
me 8:10 PM If you reduce your font size a lot, the main screen gets bigger, but let me just ask Howard to increase his text scale
Leo Ufimtsev 8:11 PM Btw, I came across an aggregator module: allows sql-like aggregation for tables
Jonathan Hill 8:14 PM Howard, I’ve got a sidebar question about how you’re jumping around with the cursor seemingly arbitrarily when you can find a convenient spot to answer.
me 8:15 PM He might not see the chat while screensharing, so maybe you can ask out loud when there’s a gap
Cameron Desautels 8:15 PM Could be the mouse Though it took me a minute to realize that.
me 8:16 PM By the way, the nifty bullets on the headings are probably because of org-bullets.el, if you like that effect
Jonathan Hill 8:16 PM his modeline is gorgeous
Cameron Desautels 8:16 PM That’s likely powerline. (Busted!)
me 8:17 PM &lt;laugh&gt; Ooh, relative line numbers
Cameron Desautels 8:19 PM I think I have some bad lag. Sorry about that. My ISP is terrible.
jason Peak 8:22 PM hi everyone, sorry I’m late
Leo Ufimtsev 8:23 PM I don’t think I’ll have time to prepare org-aggregator in this hangout. I can show a org-dot-emacs setup thou. Or some stuff on time-reporting
me 8:23 PM No worries!
jason Peak 8:24 PM yep
Philip Stark 8:26 PM how do you increase the font quickly?
Cameron Desautels 8:26 PM C-x C-=
Philip Stark 8:26 PM and decrease would be C-x C–?
Cameron Desautels 8:27 PM (text-scale-adjust) yep!
Philip Stark 8:27 PM great, thanks.
Will Monroe 8:28 PM I spend most of my time in emacs in org-mode FWIW
Leo Ufimtsev 8:30 PM I’m on twice. My hangouts crashed on my phone, (black screen). @Sacha would you be able to kick out my 2nd instance? (the one with black screen, not the one with picture)
Leo Ufimtsev 8:31 PM thanks
jason Peak 8:31 PM Complete beginner – I like the idea of using org as an organically developing a database of My stuff
Cameron Desautels 8:32 PM Will: that’s interesting. Do you want to speak about your uses? You might have a unique perspective.
Jonathan Hill 8:32 PM WOW That’s absurdly powerful, S
Will Monroe 8:33 PM Cameron: I’d be glad to. Very much a beginner though! ; )
Cameron Desautels 8:33 PM There are other beginners here—it’s probably exactly what they’d need!
Philip Stark 8:34 PM yeah
Leo Ufimtsev 8:35 PM I could show some things if folks are interested.
Howard Abrams 8:40 PM Can’t believe that Chrome crashed and I lost the chat history… I’ll try to catch up.
Philip Stark 8:41 PM chat history so far.
Will Monroe 8:45 PM Is that ticking?
Howard Abrams 8:46 PM The problem with demonstrating org-mode is not revealing too much about ourselves. Good thing we’re among friends, eh?
Cameron Desautels 8:46 PM haha, indeed
Philip Stark 8:46 PM indeed. and on youtube :S
Cameron Desautels 8:46 PM Just don’t read the comments. :p
Will Monroe 8:46 PM Ha!
jason Peak 8:47 PM how many tags is too much ?
me 8:47 PM Heh. Should I redact this text chat segment from the show notes?
jason Peak 8:47 PM how many tags are too many ?
Will Monroe 8:48 PM That’s a great question.
jason Peak 8:48 PM loaded question; just curious about others no mic, Sacha thanks, Will!
Jonathan Hill 8:49 PM someone has a lot of static on their mic
me 8:50 PM That’s Leo’s background noise, oh well.
Philip Stark 8:50 PM That’s Leo, I think. he’s probably on a phone.
me 8:50 PM &lt;laugh!&gt;
jason Peak 8:51 PM I’ve wondered about namespacing tags; org does not support namespaces as part of its tag data structure, though? Maybe I need to make it ?!!
me 8:51 PM I recognize that technique
jason Peak 8:51 PM thank you! yes
me 8:51 PM jason: You can probably combine a tag with other search filters, like the category (file)
Cameron Desautels 8:52 PM org-habit
jason Peak 8:53 PM sacha: thank you, I will exploreit
me 8:53 PM
Cameron Desautels 8:54 PM His setup minds me of mine from a couple years back…these days I use org-mode less because I want my tasks and calendar notifications on all of my devices. *reminds me
Will Monroe 8:54 PM I would love to hear about simple setups for erc
Philip Stark 8:55 PM What is erc?
Will Monroe 8:55 PM or any other emacs irc client
Howard Abrams 8:56 PM I like circe.
Jonathan Hill 8:58 PM Cameron, what about a cloud-based sort or read-only solution like syncing your stuff on dropbox or google drive or something? s/sort or/sort of/
Cameron Desautels 8:59 PM Yeah, I’ve actually tried that sort of thing, exporting an HTML version of my list into Dropbox so I could read it on any of my devices.
Howard Abrams 8:59 PM
Cameron Desautels 8:59 PM But I’d really like r/w access on multiple platforms.
Cameron Desautels 9:00 PM And more ability to filter on the go.
Leo Ufimtsev 9:01 PM Sorry about vacum cleaning noise &gt;_&lt;
jason Peak 9:01 PM trello is great! not sure about the integration
Cameron Desautels 9:02 PM
Jonathan Hill 9:02 PM There’s MobileOrg in the App Store for IOS
Leo Ufimtsev 9:04 PM I was wondering about that. Nifty.
jason Peak 9:04 PM very nice!
Jonathan Hill 9:04 PM does org-calendar interface with Exchange calendar with a tolerable level of setup pain?
Will Monroe 9:05 PM Jonathan: someone recently released an interface for Exchange.
Cameron Desautels 9:05 PM
Will Monroe 9:06 PM It was announced on the listserv…can’t recall the name. But it was within the last few weeks.
Leo Ufimtsev 9:09 PM I use a different keyboard layout “Colemak” (like modern Dvorak). I found emacs was more friendly for non-standard keyboard layouts like colemak.
jason Peak 9:09 PM I’m back, but only to say goodbye for now; Sacha, everyone, thanks for all you’ve shared; I look forward to being back here soon…
Leo Ufimtsev 9:09 PM take care
Will Monroe 9:09 PM bye jason!
Will Monroe 9:14 PM Leo: thanks for mentioning that. I’ve wondered about other keyboard layouts being more /less appropriate for emacs too.
Howard Abrams 9:17 PM I need to run, but I wanted to point out this gist that I wrote today …
me 9:19 PM (I use Dvorak, and haven’t remapped extensively – I mostly keep things the same, although my key-chords are Dvorak-friendly)
Leo Ufimtsev 9:20 PM &lt;&lt;&lt; very good place for asking for help &lt;&lt; organise your .emacs in orgmode
Cameron Desautels 9:26 PM ^ That’s how I add my experiments. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. If you use org-mode you could use capture targets for something similar.
Will Monroe 9:29 PM Thanks, Cameron! That’s a great idea. I like the idea of keeping new and potentially unstable functions in a separate file…and the idea of commenting on them could lead to a nice diary of sorts.
Cameron Desautels 9:30 PM Exactly. Plus I don’t commit this so I don’t have to be embarrassed about pushing gross code to my public config.
me 9:30 PM Cameron: Hah! That’s a great idea. Although maybe I’ll keep the weird area in my config, just because
Cameron Desautels 9:31 PM Oh, and I load it like this so someone can pull down my config and have it still work whether or not the file exists: (load camdez/experiments-file ‘no-error)
Will Monroe 9:34 PM Thanks!
Jonathan Hill 9:35 PM @cameron I didn’t know about ‘no-error. neat trick
Leo Ufimtsev 9:35 PM Use trello lol
Cameron Desautels 9:39 PM Jonathan: really that argument can be anything non-nil, I just use that symbol name so it’s self-explanatory.
Jonathan Hill 9:39 PM Thinking Miserable? was that the phrase?
Cameron Desautels 9:40 PM ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m not entirely sure how we got here.
me 9:41 PM It’s a thread from near the beginning of the Hangout in a Q&amp;A question (Eric said he might have something to demo), so it’s not quite connected to the conference conversation
Leo Ufimtsev 9:41 PM Is the voice recognition business cross-platform or specific to windows/mac/linux?
me 9:41 PM (Although we can continue that in the backchannel if people have ideas/suggestions)
Cameron Desautels 9:42 PM Ah! Ok. I must have missed the thread.
Eric S. Johansson 9:42 PM
Leo Ufimtsev 9:46 PM Btw, does anyone use Emacs with Latex.&gt;? for math notes..?
Will Monroe 9:50 PM Sacha (or anyone): this is a much earlier comment you made, but I’d be interested in hearing about your experience using the “standard” Emacs keybindings with Dvorak some time. Maybe during the next Emacs Meetup!
Jonathan Hill 9:54 PM /me E I gather that’s likely not what you actually said. I seem to have gotten stuck on it, though
Will Monroe 9:56 PM Thanks for the advice, everyone. This was the first time I’ve been able to interact with so many Emacs users. Hope to return next month and perhaps again at the possible conference. All the best!
Cameron Desautels 9:57 PM Take care, Will. Nice to meet you.
me 9:57 PM See you!
Leo Ufimtsev 9:57 PM See you next time :-=
Will Monroe 9:57 PM You too! Mabye next time I’ll have something to share.
Jonathan Hill 9:58 PM /me C let me get your info before we go if you don’t mind oops

The imperfect fungibility of time: thinking about how to use money to accelerate learning

March 20, 2015 - Categories: learning

2015-01-30 Leaving money on the table -- index card #consulting #experiment #balance

2015-01-30 Leaving money on the table – index card #consulting #experiment #balance

Any time I want to, I could spend more time consulting. This would make my clients happy. It would help me create much more value, and they would get more value from me than from other ways they could spend their budget. I would improve my skills along the way, especially with people’s requests and feedback. And to top it all off, I would earn more money that I could add to my savings, exchange for other people’s time or talents, or use to improve our quality of life.

How hard is it to resist the temptation to work on other people’s things? It’s like trying to focus on cooking lentils when there’s a pan of fudge brownies right there, just waiting to for a bite. It’s like wandering through the woods in hope of coming across something interesting when you know you can go back to the road and the road will take you to an enormous library. It’s like trying to build something out of sand when there’s a nifty LEGO Technic kit you can build instead. It’s probably like Odysseus sailing past Sirens, if the Sirens sang, “We need you! You can help us! Plus you can totally kit out your ship and your crew with the treasures we’ll give you and the experience you’ll gain!”

Maybe I can use this temptation’s strength against it.

2015-02-02 What if I use the lure of work to help me grow -- index card #consulting #experiment

2015-02-02 What if I use the lure of work to help me grow – index card #consulting #experiment

Maybe I can treat client work (with its attendant rewards and recognition) as a carrot that I can have if I make good progress on my personal projects. If I hit the ground running in the morning, then I can work on client stuff in the afternoon. A two-hour span is probably a good-sized chunk of time for programming or reporting. It’s not as efficient as a four-hour chunk, but it’ll force me to keep good notes, and I know I can get a fair bit done in that time anyway.

The other part of this is making sure that I don’t give myself too-low targets so that I can get to client work. It’ll be tempting to pick a small task, do it, and say, “There, I’m done. Moving on!” But I have to sit with uncertainty and figure things out. I expect that learning to work on my own things will mean encountering and dealing with inner Resistance. I expect that my anxious side will whisper its self-doubt. So I lash myself to the mast and sail past the Sirens, heading towards (if I’m lucky!) years of wandering.

Part of this is the realization that even after my experiments with delegation, I’m still not good at converting money back into time, learning, ability, or enjoyment. Time is not really fungible, or at least I haven’t figured out how to convert it efficiently. I can convert time to money through work, but I find it difficult to convert money back to time (through delegation) or use it to accelerate learning.

2015-01-07 What am I happy to pay for in money or time -- index card

2015-01-07 What am I happy to pay for in money or time – index card

Extra money tends to go into projects, tools or cooking experiments. Gardening is one of my luxuries: a few bags of dirt, some seeds and starters, and an excuse to be outside regularly. Paying someone to do the first draft of a transcript gets around my impatience with listening to my own voice. Aside from these regular decisions, I tend to think carefully about what I spend on. Often a low-cost way of doing something also helps me learn a lot – sometimes much more than throwing money at the problem would.

2015-01-27 Financial goals -- index card #finance

2015-01-27 Financial goals – index card #finance

But there are things that money can buy, and it’s good for me to learn how to make better decisions about that. For example, a big savings goal might be “buying” more of W-‘s time, saving up in case he wants to experiment with a more self-directed life as well. House maintenance projects need tools, materials, and sometimes skilled help. Cooking benefits from experimentation, better ingredients, and maybe even instruction.

2015-02-01 Accelerating my learning -- index card #learning #accelerating

2015-02-01 Accelerating my learning – index card #learning #accelerating

What about accelerating my learning so that I can share even more useful stuff? Working with other people can help me:

  • take advantage of external perspectives (great for editing)
  • organize my learning path into a more effective sequence
  • learn about adjacent possibilities and low-hanging fruit
  • bridge gaps
  • improve through feedback
  • create scaffolds/structures and feed motivation
  • set up and observe deliberate practice
  • direct my awareness to what’s important

In order to make the most of this, I need to get better at:

  • identifying what I want to learn
  • identifying who I can learn from
  • approaching them and setting up a relationship
  • experimenting
  • following up

How have I invested money into learning, and what have the results been like?

Tools? Yup, totally worth it, even for the tools I didn’t end up using much of (ex: ArtRage). Do more of this. How can I get better at:

  • keeping an eye out for potentially useful tools:
    • Emacs packages
    • AutoHotkey scripts/ideas
    • Windows/Linux tools related to writing, drawing, coding
  • evaluating whether a tool can fit my workflow
  • supporting people who make good tools
    • expressing appreciation
    • contributing code
    • writing about tools
    • sending money

Books? Some books have been very useful. On the other hand, the library has tons of books, so I have an infinite backlog of free resources. Buying and sketchnoting new books (or going to author events) is good for connecting with authors and readers about the book du jour, but on the other hand, I also get a lot of value from focusing on classics that I want to remember.

Conferences? Mostly interesting for meeting people and bumping into them online through the years. Best if I go as a speaker (makes conversations much easier and reduces costs) and/or as a sketchnoter (long-term value creation). It would be even awesomer if I could combine this with in-person intensive learning, like a hackathon or a good workshop…

Courses? Meh. Not really impressed by the online courses I’ve taken so far, but then again, I don’t think I’m approaching them with the right mindset either.

Things I will carve out opportunity-fund space for so that I can try more of them:

Pairing/coaching/tutoring? Tempting, especially in terms of Emacs, Node/Javascript, Rails, or Japanese. For example, some goals might be:

  • Learn how to improve Emacs Lisp performance and reliability: profiling, code patterns, tests, etc.
  • Define and adopt better Emacs habits
    • Writing
    • Organization
    • Planning
    • Programming
  • Write more elegant and testable Javascript
  • Set up best-practices Javascript/CSS/HTML/Rails environment in Emacs
  • Learn how to take advantage of new features in WordPress
  • Write more other-directed posts
  • Get better at defining what I want to learn and reaching out to people

Actually, in general, how does one accelerate learning?

  • General learning techniques: spaced repetition, skill breakdowns, deliberate practice…
  • Structure and motivation: personal trainers, courses
  • Instruction and perspective: expert, peer, or external
  • Higher-quality resources: original research, well-written/organized resources, richer media, good level of detail, experience/authority
  • Better tools: things are often much easier and more fun
  • Experimentation: learning from experience, possibly coming up with new observations
  • Feedback, analysis: experience, thoroughness
  • Immersion: languages, retreats
  • Outsourcing: research, summaries, scale, skills, effort
  • Relationships: serendipity, connection, conversation, mentoring, sponsorship
  • Community: premium courses or membership sites often offer this as a benefit
  • Freedom: safety net that permits experimentation, time to focus on it instead of worrying about bills, etc.

Hmm. I have some experience in investing in better tools, higher-quality resources, experimentation, feedback/analysis, delegation, and freedom. I’d like to get better at that and at investing in relationships and outsourcing. Come to think of it, that might be more useful than focusing on learning from coaching/instruction, at least for now.

Let me imagine what using money to accelerate learning would be like:

  • Relationships
    • Get to know individuals faster and deeper
      • Free: Build org-contacts profiles of people who are part of my tribe (people who comment/link/interact); think about them on a regular basis
      • Free: Proactively reach out and explore shared interests/curiosities
      • $: Figure out digital equivalent of treating people to lunch or coffee: conversation + maybe investing time into creating a good resource for them and other people + sending cash, donating to charity, or (best) cultivating reciprocal learning
      • $: Sign up for a CRM that understands Gmail, Twitter, and maybe even Disqus
    • Identify things to learn about and reach out to people who are good role models for those skills
      • Free: Be specific about things I want to learn
      • Free: Find people who know how to do those things (maybe delegate research)
      • $: Possibly buy their resources, apply their advice
      • $: Reach out with results and questions, maybe an offer to donate to their favourite charity
    • Help the community (like Emacs evil plans; rising tide lifts all boats)
      • $: Invest time and money into creating good resources
      • Be approachable
      • $: Bring the community together. Invest in platforms/organization. For example, I can use whatever I would have spent on airfare to create a decent virtual conference experience, or figure out the etiquette of having an assistant set up and manage Emacs Hangouts/Chats.
  • Outsourcing
    • Identify things that I want to do, regardless of skills
    • $: Experiment with outsourcing parts that I don’t know how to do yet (or even the ones I can do but want external perspectives on)
    • Use the results to determine what I actually want and what to learn more about; iterate as needed

Huh, that’s interesting. When I start thinking about investing in learning, I tend to fixate on finding a coach because I feel a big gap around directly asking people for help. But I can invest in other ways that might be easier or more effective to start with. Hmm… Thoughts?

Weekly review: Week ending March 20, 2015

March 22, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

This was a good week, rich in people: lots of family things, and wonderful conversations. I’m getting better at seeing and responding to things the way I choose to, and it makes life’s surprises better.

Next week: I’d like to build a yoga habit, and I’d like to get even better at reaching out.

2015-03-22f Week ending 2015-03-20 -- index card #journal #weekly


Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (25.2h – 14%)
    • Earn (16.1h – 63% of Business)
      • Attend comm session
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (2.5h – 9% of Business)
      • Drawing (2.5h)
    • Connect (6.6h – 26% of Business)
  • Relationships (19.3h – 11%)
    • Check on project F4
    • Hang out with Ewan and Eric on Friday
    • Drop gift off at Michael and Jen’s
  • Discretionary – Productive (20.4h – 12%)
    • Emacs (4.2h – 2% of all)
      • 2015-02-18 Emacs Hangout
      • Help Sean with Emacs
      • Hang out with Emacs geeks
    • Research yoga places
    • Writing (2.8h)
  • Discretionary – Play (5.4h – 3%)
  • Personal routines (22.0h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (15.6h – 9%)
  • Sleep (60.2h – 35% – average of 8.6 per day)

Sketched Book – The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph – Ryan Holiday

March 23, 2015 - Categories: philosophy, visual-book-notes

The book that got me into Stoic thinking was William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009). Stoicism resonated with me: the reminder that my perception of things is separate from what those things are; the acceptance that I can control only how I respond to life, not what happens; the awareness of mortality that belies the insignificance of our drama and sharpens the appreciation of our short lives.

When I went through popular translations of the source books like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus’ Discourses and the Enchiridion, I found them easy to read, with a wealth of ideas to apply to my life. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for more applications of Stoicism to everyday life. Naturally, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) crossed my radar.

The book expands on the idea that you can view obstacles as opportunities, taking advantage of them in order to grow. Almost all of the thirty-two chapters (covering aspects of perception, action, and will) are illustrated with an anecdote or two, followed by some questions and advice.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2015-01-05 Sketched Book - The Obstacle Is The Way - The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph - Ryan Holiday

Let me think about how I feel about this book so that I can get past the initial “Yay, another book about Stoicism!”

I came across a number of anecdotes I hadn’t read before, and I liked reading stories of more modern figures instead of just the usual old chestnuts. I didn’t find any new ideas that made me stop and think; if you’re familiar with the key works in Stoic philosophy, you probably won’t get as much out of this book as someone who is completely new.

It feels oddly like the book is about this relentless drive towards a goal, but that doesn’t quite fit with what I understand about Stoic philosophy or what makes sense to me. Maybe I’m misreading the book. To me, the freedom described by Stoicism isn’t about achieving great victories after much perseverance and resourcefulness. It’s about realizing that things are what they are, you can choose how to respond to them, and thus you always have opportunities to become a better person as you learn to work with nature instead of against it–even if the path you end up taking doesn’t look like what you imagined.

It’s hard to explain the feeling I get from the drumbeat of anecdotes all throughout the book, but let me pick a passage that evokes this difference for me. The introduction (page xiv.) has this:

To act with “a reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go.

I could be wrong, but I think this refers to the reserve clause suggested by Seneca:

The wise man never changes his plans while the conditions under which he formed them remain the same; therefore, he never feels regret, because at the time nothing better than what he did could have been done, nor could any better decision have been arrived at than that which was made; yet he begins everything with the saving clause, “If nothing shall occur to the contrary.” … Without committing himself, he awaits the doubtful and capricious issue of events, and weighs certainty of purpose against uncertainty of result.

Seneca, On Benefits – translated by Aubrey Sewart

I understand this to mean that Stoics make well-considered decisions that anticipate opposition, but also remember that achieving goals is beyond their control. It isn’t about getting to where you need to go. It’s about being a tranquil person throughout the journey, free from being too attached to the wrong things – including fortune or misfortune.

Maybe this isn’t a book grounded in Stoic philosophy as much as it’s a motivational book that springboards from a few Stoic quotes and concepts. This is okay too. It helps me understand what I agree with and disagree with in the book, like the way I agree with and disagree with parts of Stoic philosophy.

In terms of presentation, the book’s density of stories appeals to some people and not to others. I’ve become less fond of books packed with short anecdotes. An overdose of the modern approach of aesops every other page, the shallowness and patness of the tales? In a book about obstacles, it would have been nice to see deeper struggles, maybe even with normal folks instead of famous ones; stories of frustration and suspense and everyday things that people can relate to.

I’ve long internalized the mental shift suggested by this book–of transforming obstacles and frustrations into things that can help you–but if I hadn’t, would this book help me flip that mindset? Would reading it help someone who’s struggling with perspective – would it add much more value compared to giving them a brief summary of the book? I’m not sure. If reading about other people who had it worse than you and who still achieved greater things is the sort of information you need to pick yourself up and get going, this might be a good book for you.

But I doubt that’s the case for many people who feel stuck. We’ve heard the story that the Chinese word for crisis contains the characters for danger and for opportunity (wrong, apparently). Corporate language guidelines might suggest replacing “problem” with “challenge.” Coaches exhort people to reframe their difficulties positively, listing aspects to be grateful about.

When I run into my own challenges, it’s not because I’m waiting for the perfect story or maxim to break me out. I get stuck when I don’t take a step back and really see what’s going on instead of what I think is going on. I get stuck when I don’t have a handle on the problem, when I can’t grasp it, when I can’t break it down. I get stuck when I accept the current framing instead of coming up with creative solutions. I get stuck when I’m stubborn and not listening to what the world tells me. These are all points somewhat addressed by the book, but it seemed to lack something. Perhaps I need to read it more slowly, dipping in and out of it for reflections. Although if I’m going to do that, maybe I should sit with the classics instead.

Still, there are people for whom this book is a good fit, so don’t let this talk you out of liking it. If you’ve been curious about but intimidated by Stoicism, you might try picking this up. If you’re doing okay with challenges but you want to get even better at transforming them into stepping-stones, flip through this book and meditate on its points. (Although if you’re dealing with depression, it seems remarkably insensitive to tell you to just think of your problems as good things!)

Anyway, if you’re curious about the book, you can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link) or get it from your favourite book sources.

Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

Learning to live slowly

March 24, 2015 - Categories: experiment

Sometimes I feel a little duller around the edges, not quite as alert. It’s a little harder to think, to reason. I feel slightly out of focus. I talk more slowly, move more slowly.

And yet, living more slowly, I feel like I live more gracefully as well. None of the sharp jitters when my mind works at its fastest, none of the zigzags and interruptions, none of the words tumbling over themselves in their haste. More meditative.

I know why this is so and I don’t seek to avoid it. The real question is: How can I embrace this state? How can I make the most of it? It is natural, and will only become more so over time.

Coding currently feels better with a sharp mind, but there are still a myriad tasks to do and things to learn even when I don’t feel at my peak. Over time, I’ll learn to code in a reflective state instead of the intense one I carried over from competitions and quick prototyping. I think this will be good for my growth as a developer. After all, speed is not as useful as insight and care.

Reflective writing feels better than rapid writing. I don’t feel brilliant, but I feel methodical: following threads slowly, watching my own thoughts.

Cooking has become something that gives me pleasure. It’s one of those activities that I can indulge in, knowing that I can reliably create value where sometimes writing or coding does not. There are no blocks when it comes to cooking, only the steady slicing of ingredients and the textures and tastes of alchemy.

This slowness is perfect for listening, for talking. When I was younger, I felt an almost physical itch to be elsewhere, to be away, to be within the world of a book or a computer instead of in conversation.

Tidying benefits from deliberate thought. I organized my closet and my drawers by colour, and suddenly the patterns are visible. It takes just as much effort to maintain this order as it would to mess it up, and so I keep it.

Most days, I get very little done. But somehow, looking back over the week, I find that I’ve covered more ground than I thought.

I have the perfect foundation for learning how to live slowly. Few commitments, few expectations. I’ve lived this first part at a speed that other people have found remarkable but also, perhaps, uncomfortable: speaking, reading, coding, enthusiasm. It might be interesting to experiment with the flip side of that: the kind of stillness that the nuns in my grade school carried with them, the calm of late-night relaxed conversations, the serenity of quiet. I think I can translate the things I’ve loved about my faster life. Enthusiasm and delight don’t need to be breathless. The world is frantic enough. Let me learn how to be contagiously restful. =)

Dipping my toes into the ETF waters

March 25, 2015 - Categories: finance

There’s something about taking a look at processes that intimidate you and seeing if you can break them down into smaller steps that are more manageable. I’ve been thinking about shifting some of my investments from TD e-series index funds to exchange traded funds (ETFs), since that seems to be the next step in my personal finance journey. I’ve held back from making that decision, though. On one hand, it only makes sense if you commit a large amount. On the other hand, it’s a little scary to experiment with an amount large enough to make a difference.

My investing story has been all about baby steps. I started with TD e-series funds soon after receiving my first paycheque in 2007. I chose those index funds because of their low management expense ratios (MERs). I invested as much as I could, ignoring the doom-and-gloom of 2008. If I’d carved out more of my budget, I could have taken more advantage of the recovery. But in retrospect, I probably would have made the same decisions; most of my savings went into building an emergency fund and an opportunity fund, and that was important for making me feel safer and encouraging me to take small risks. As I built a good safety net, I invested more.

This has been going well so far. I’ve settled into a rhythm of rebalancing by way of annual contributions. I think I’ve reached the point at which it makes sense to switch to ETFs, since those have even lower MERs. Most forum posts I’ve read about ETFs focus on discount brokers like Questrade because of their free or low-cost trades, but I’m hesitant about switching to Questrade because of the customer service complaints I’ve read. I know that’s slightly irrational, biased by salience; the horror stories stick in my head, even though I know lots of people are happy with it and I have the persistence to deal with technical issues.

Maybe I can dip my toes into the ETF waters by converting the Canadian index fund investments I have in my RRSP into something like VCN, but within TD Waterhouse instead of creating an account with Questrade. This means that I’ll need to spend $10 each time I buy shares instead of buying them for free, but since I’m planning to hold these for a very long time and I rebalance yearly, the difference in transaction costs is likely to be worth it if it gets me to act.

It looks like putting in a limit order is the best way to do this, so I’ll take care of that once the money from the sale of my e-series fund arrives in my investment account.

The difference between the MERs for the TD Canadian Index e-series fund (0.33%) and VCN (0.10%) isn’t much for the amount I’m looking at experimenting with, but it’s more about getting over the intimidation factor of trying out ETFs. If I try it and it works out, I might try converting some of my non-registered investments when the capital gains make sense (either a low-income year or one of the inevitable slumps in the market). Alternatively, I might try the popular approach of accumulating investments in an e-series fund (maybe the TFSA, especially if they increase the contribution room) and then periodically converting that into ETFs.

I’m cautiously optimistic about how the stock market will perform over the next few decades. Its recent gains don’t quite seem connected with the struggles of jobseekers and small business owners around me, and there’s some kerfluffle over oil prices that I don’t quite understand. But I’m less concerned now than I used to be about demographic-related stock market crashes (someone pointed out that many people don’t have that much invested in the stock market anyway), and sufficient savings can help me ride out a 2008-style downturn. We don’t seem to be headed towards decades-long malaise. Even if we do end up with market difficulties, chances are I’ll be right in the same bucket with everyone else, so it’s no big loss.

I’m still nowhere near ready to pick individual stocks, much less day-trade. Neither my self-confidence or my ambitions are strong enough to tempt me to that path.

More than that, investing in frugal choices and skills gives me more independence. The more I can cook healthy, yummy meals with low-cost ingredients, the less I depend on finances. The more I can improve or entertain myself with free or low-cost resources, the richer life I live. As I build online and offline relationships with people who share similar values, my world grows.

The difference between the management expense ratios of TD e-series funds and index ETFs probably isn’t going to result in a significant difference in my investment results. Not as significant as the decision to keep investing, or the choice of a particular lifestyle. But as practice in breaking down and trying out intimidating things, I think it will be worthwhile.

Update: Converted my RRSP investments in the Canadian index to VCN. So far, so good! Things haven’t fallen apart yet, and I’m being careful about my record-keeping this time around…

The balance between doing and improving – evaluating yak-shaving

March 26, 2015 - Categories: emacs, learning

A reader wrote:

… I came to realize that many Emacs users seem to spend a great deal of time learning about Emacs, tweaking it, and writing new extensions, rather than getting non-Emacs-related work done. Sometimes it feels as though heavy Emacs users actually get less done overall, if you consider only non-Emacs-related tasks. My question is, is it possible to get work done in Emacs, without most of that work being Emacs-related?

It got me thinking about skills or tools that can be used to improve themselves, and the balance between using and improving tools.

2015-03-15c Skills or tools that can be used to improve themselves -- index card #learning #bootstrapping

2015-03-15c Skills or tools that can be used to improve themselves – index card #learning #bootstrapping

Not all skills or tools can be used to improve themselves. I’m learning how to sew, but that doesn’t lead to making my sewing machine better (aside from fiddling with the dials).

Here are some skills that can be used reflexively:

  • Philosophy asks questions about good questions to ask
  • Learning about learning helps you learn more effectively
  • Woodworkers and machinists have a tradition of making their own tools
  • 3D printers can print parts for their own models
  • You can program tools to help you program better: testing, version control, project management, etc.

Although making your own tools takes time, here are some advantages of doing so instead of buying them off the shelf:

  • You understand the internals better, and you can appreciate the subtleties
  • You can customize it to fit the way you work
  • You can create different variants for greater flexibility. Mass customization can’t anticipate or cost-effectively provide all the different types of things people may want.
  • As your skills and needs increase, you can create better and better tools for yourself.

Many programmers spend time deliberately improving their toolkits; if they don’t, they stagnate. At the basic level, people try programs or frameworks that other people have created. The next level might be scripting things to work together. A third level might be writing customizations or extensions, and a fourth level might be creating entirely new tools or frameworks. Beginner programmers might start at the first level of reusing other people’s code, but wizardly performance often involves a mix of the other levels.

So the question is: How can we balance doing things and improving things?

No one can answer this for you.

Me, I tend to avoid hard deadlines and I do things faster than people expect them to be done, so I have plenty of leeway to improve my tools – which helps me be even more effective, so it’s a virtuous cycle.

You’ll need to find your own balance. You might get urgent stuff out of the way first, and then figure out how to balance smaller requests with investing in capabilities.

Here’s something I put together to help you figure out where you might be in terms of balance. Alternatively, if you’re thinking about whether to pick up a skill or tool that can be used to improve itself, you can use this to evaluate what you read from people sharing their experiences with the tool. Can they find a good balance for themselves, or are they frustrated by the challenges of getting something to work?

2015-03-16a The balance between using and improving tools -- index card #learning #bootstrapping

2015-03-16a The balance between using and improving tools – index card #learning #bootstrapping

  • “I have what I need in order to work.” This is the basic scenario. People focus on doing things instead of improving things.
  • I can keep pushing, but performance is dropping, so I should invest time in maintenance.” It’s like the way a knife or a saw dulls over time. When you notice diminishing returns, it might be good to invest some time in maintenance. It’s not an urgent need, but it can pay off.
  • I’d better take care of this now before it becomes a problem.” This is like maintaining a car or taking care of your health. A little time now can avoid big problems later.
  • Grr, it’s broken. I have to fix it before I can work.” If you let things go for too long, or if you’re working with something finicky, you’ll be forced into maintenance mode. For example, some 3D printers require a lot of fiddling. Watch out for this scenario.
  • It’s fine the way it is, but I know I can make it better.” The way you’re currently doing things is okay, but you know (from your experience or from what you’ve read of other people) that you can invest a little time to work more effectively. You might even know the return on investment. It’s easy to decide whether you should just go ahead with the status quo or invest the time in improving.
  • It’s fine the way it is, but I think I can make it better.” The way you’re currently doing things is okay, but you have some ideas that might make it even better. If you think those ideas might be worth it, it might be good to give yourself a time limit for exploring those ideas so that you don’t get distracted. Alternatively, you can save it for a slower time.
  • I’m waiting or stuck, so I might as well work on tools.” Maybe you’re waiting for feedback from someone else. Maybe you’re waiting for programs to compile or tests to pass. Why not spend a little time exploring how to make your tools a little better?
  • I’m doing this for fun/learning.” Tool improvement can become more enjoyable than some of the other ways you used to like spending time. For example, you might find yourself wanting to watch a screencast or try out a tweak instead of watching TV or browsing random sites on the Internet. You don’t have to completely replace other activities, you just have to shift a little time from things that have less value to you.
  • I can’t write about my actual work, but I can write about this.” If you’re wondering about yak-shaving propensity based on the blog posts you’re reading, consider: do people write about their improvements instead of the work that they’re doing because their work is confidential or hard to explain? Maybe they think blog posts about improvements are more interesting. Maybe they’re writing about improvements in the process of figuring things out (which in an excellent process, by the way). All these things can skew your perception of how much time people spend doing things versus improving things, and how much they accomplish within that time.

In terms of Emacs, these things mostly apply to me:

  • “I’m doing this for fun/learning” – Emacs tickles my brain, and the community is wonderful.
  • “I can’t write about my actual work, but I can write about this” – I suppose I could write more about the other stuff I’m interested in (sewing? cooking?), so there’s that. However, the consulting stuff is covered by agreements, and that’s a small fraction of my life anyway.

I assume other geeks are rational, especially if they have a lot of experience with it and other tools. Therefore, if people spend time tweaking (while avoiding the consequences of low performance), I assume it’s because they see the value of doing so (whether the pay-off is certain or not). On the surface, an effective person’s behaviour might resemble an ineffective person’s behaviour – six hours sharpening the saw for two hours of work, or six hours procrastinating and two hours of cramming? But if you look at:

  • if they get stuff done
  • whether other people are happy with their performance, or if they generally appear successful in their endeavours
  • how happy they are about the process

then you can get a better idea of whether it’s working for them.

As you think about your own balance or read other people’s blogs, can you identify what scenarios you and other people might resonate with? Am I missing any that I should add to the list? Please comment below!

Quantified Self: How can you measure freedom?

March 27, 2015 - Categories: quantified

At a recent Quantified Self Toronto meetup, one of the participants shared his key values (freedom, health, happiness, purpose) and asked for ideas on how to measure freedom. I gave him some quick tips on how I measured:

  • Money:
    • Long-term freedom through a theoretical withdrawal rate: expenses vs net worth and investment returns
    • Short-term freedom for discretionary expenses: opportunity fund for tools and ideas, connection fund for treating people
  • Time, particularly discretionary time (my own interests and projects)

In addition to those two easy metrics, there are a few other things that contribute to a feeling of freedom for me.

2015-03-06b What makes me feel free - What can I measure -- index card #quantified #freedom #independence #feeling

2015-03-06b What makes me feel free – What can I measure – index card #quantified #freedom #independence #feeling

  • How often do I have to wake up to an alarm clock, or can I sleep until I feel well-rested?
  • Am I starting to be stressed because of commitments? Do I have to juggle or cut back?
  • Can I follow the butterflies of my interest/energy, or have I promised to do a specific thing at a specific time?
  • Can I share what I’m learning for free, or am I restricted by agreements or by need?
  • Am I getting influenced by ads to want or buy things that I don’t really need? Do I experience buyer’s remorse, or do things contribute to clutter? Is it easy to remember my decisions or my values in the din?
  • Do I have the space to enjoy a great relationship with W-?
  • Can I make the things I want? Do I have the skills to create or modify things?
  • Am I reacting or responding? How reflexive is my ability to see things in the light that I would like to see them in, and to respond the way I would like to respond?
  • Can I learn about what I’m curious about? Do I use it in real life?
  • Can I make small bets and learn from them?

I think it’s because I tend to think of freedom as freedom from stress and freedom to do things – maybe more precisely, to live according to my choices without having to choose between deeply flawed options. I’m in a safe, rather privileged situation, so I’m not as worried about freedom to live or move or speak or learn; those are more important freedoms, for sure! So with the definition of freedom I have, I feel pretty free. Based on my impressions from conversations with other people, I think I’m probably in the top 10% of freedom in terms of people I know. Or at least a different sort of freedom; I’m more risk-averse than some of my friends are, for example, so they’re freer in that sense.

2015-03-06a How can you measure freedom -- index card #freedom #independence #quantified

2015-03-06a How can you measure freedom – index card #freedom #independence #quantified

If you break down the abstract concept of freedom into different types of freedom, you can figure out which types resonate with you and which ones don’t. You might then be able to think of ways to measure the specific types of freedom you’re curious about, and that will help you get a sense of areas in your life that you may want to tweak.

Philosophy has a lot to say about freedom, so that’s another way to pick up ideas. The biggest freedom, for me – the one I most want to cultivate and keep – is the freedom that comes from choosing how I perceive the world and what I do in response. I like the freedom described in Epictetus’ Discourses. How could I measure this or remind myself about this? Since it’s entirely self-willed, I can keep track of whether I remember to take responsibility for my perceptions and responses and how easy it is to do so. I imagine that as I get better at it, I’ll be more consistent at taking responsibility (even if I realize uncomfortable things about myself) and that I’ll do it with more habit. I can also track the magnitude of things I respond to. I know that I can maintain my tranquility with small events, and I’ll just have to wait and observe my behaviour with larger ones.

What does freedom mean to you? How do you observe or reflect on it?

Weekly review: Week ending March 27, 2015

March 29, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

I started yoga again, and I think it might be a good habit to build. It’s been good to spend time with people, too. =) Next week, I’m looking forward to sewing some box cushion covers, cooking more, doing more yoga, and spending more time with folks.

2015-03-29f Week ending 2015-03-27 -- index card #weekly output

2015-03-29f Week ending 2015-03-27 – index card #weekly

Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (33.0h – 19%)
    • Earn (7.2h – 21% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (10.8h – 32% of Business)
      • Drawing (8.2h)
      • Packaging (0.6h)
      • Paperwork (0.3h)
        • File payroll return
    • Connect (15.0h – 45% of Business)
  • Relationships (4.6h – 2%)
    • Check on project F4
    • Hang out with Eric on Friday
    • Drop gift off at Jen’s
  • Discretionary – Productive (12.8h – 7%)
    • Emacs (2.2h – 1% of all)
      • 2015-03-18 Emacs Hangout
    • Research yoga places
    • Research private yoga lessons
    • Writing (2.5h)
    • Review Createspace
  • Discretionary – Play (6.0h – 3%)
  • Personal routines (31.6h – 18%)
  • Unpaid work (15.3h – 9%)
  • Sleep (64.6h – 38% – average of 9.2 per day)

Sketched Book – Self-compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind – Kristin Neff

March 30, 2015 - Categories: visual-book-notes

I read Kristin Neff’s Self-compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (2011) on the recommendation of a friend who’s been working through many of the issues addressed by the book. I liked the book’s differentiation between self-esteem and self-compassion, and its exercises for acknowledging your inner critic and becoming kinder to yourself. The website ( has MP3s for guided meditations and a hyperlinked bibliography of related research.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2015-03-24a Sketched Book - Self-compassion - Kristin Neff -- #sketched-book #self-help

2015-03-24a Sketched Book – Self-compassion – Kristin Neff – #sketched-book #self-help

I’ve been thinking about self-compassion and self-care over the past few years, ever since I decided not to set up that taskmaster dynamic with myself. Instead of trying to force myself down one path or another, I chose to go along with myself, focusing on understanding and then slowly guiding myself. It seems to be working well. I can tell the difference between that and the approach many people seem to take (decision, guilt, shame, force), and I like the kind approach more.

It’s good to be able to look at your negative internal monologue or the parts of yourself that you’ve been avoiding thinking about, become aware of what’s going on, and work on reframing or transforming those thoughts. It’s good to look at what you’re resisting and figure out how you can embrace and move through that pain.

I’ve had a very easy life so far, compared to other people I know. I’m glad this book exists; the techniques will help me through the challenges that are sure to be ahead, and I hope they’ll help other people too. Good book if you often beat yourself up, judge yourself harshly, or feel lost and frustrated.

Haven’t read the book yet? You can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link) or get it from your favourite book sources.

Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

What do I want to get ready for next?

March 31, 2015 - Categories: experiment

I’ve been thinking about what I should prepare for during the fourth year of my experiment. The first year was about exploring business. The second year was about digging deeper. The third year focused on self-care. I still don’t know what shape my life will take in my fifth year and beyond, but I can plan for the probabilities.

2015-03-28b Imagining the fourth year of my experiment -- index card #experiment #vision

2015-03-28b Imagining the fourth year of my experiment – index card #experiment #vision

Here’s what I know:

  • The stock market has been doing well. This is not likely to continue, but I don’t mind investing for the long term, and I should be able to weather dips.
  • I continue to provide good value through consulting, even though I’ve reduced my hours. It’s nice to know that it’s doable.
  • This year I’ve had excellent quality of life, and I like it. I learned a lot about cooking and thinking. I revisited sewing and yoga. I loved having the space to deal with complex thoughts and issues.
  • I want to tackle health. It would be great to move on from the fourth year of my experiment with good habits, strength, flexibility, and stamina.
  • I want to collect good people and interesting ideas.

What signs should I watch for to know when I’m ready for a transition? How can I prepare?

2015-03-25c When do I move to the next phase, and how -- index card #experiment #plan

2015-03-25c When do I move to the next phase, and how – index card #experiment #plan

I’m reasonably certain that I’ll move to the next phase. I’m just not sure when. In the meantime, I can prepare by keeping my eyes open for people and ideas, developing skills, and learning more about what makes me energized.

What kind of business would I like to build next? I like our life too much to sacrifice it needlessly, so any business needs to either fit around this lifestyle or be worth it in terms of making a difference.

2015-03-25h Imagining my next venture -- index card #experiment #vision

2015-03-25h Imagining my next venture – index card #experiment #vision

Businesses sometimes develop lives of their own, so I want to be careful about the patterns I set up for myself. As tempting and straightforward as it would be to follow the usual plan of working intensely over a short period of time, I wonder if there are other ways.

I suspect a business makes sense for me to build if there’s a problem that I want to solve at scale, and if solving that problem involves money. There are lots of problems I can work on for free or pay-what-you-want, so I might want to lean towards working on those while I can.

There are different ways to come up with ideas or recognize opportunities. I respond better to specific individuals than to abstract markets, concepts, or even personas, so it makes sense to be on the lookout for people to work with or serve. I can also start cataloguing strengths, resources, and needs (for myself and other people) so that I can play a large game of connect-the-dots. Here are some of the strengths and resources I might be able to build on.

2015-03-29b What strengths and resources can I use to help others -- index card #strengths #experiment #business

2015-03-29b What strengths and resources can I use to help others – index card #strengths #experiment #business

I’m particularly curious about the strengths outside technology. I feel like I’m getting better at being specific about language, teasing out differences and organizing thoughts while learning out loud. I enjoy exploring different scenarios and identifying adjacent possibilities, reining in perfectionist tendencies or analysis paralysis with satisficing. I like making small improvements, organizing things in sequences for easier flow and learning. I haven’t invested as much in supporting other people or building relationships outside the household, but it might be interesting to try that.

So, if I were to apply myself with more ambition, what could that look like?

2015-03-29d What would more ambition mean -- index card #ambition #experiment

2015-03-29d What would more ambition mean – index card #ambition #experiment

I can improve my physical habits to increase energy and joy. With a solid foundation of self-care, I can connect more deeply with more people, helping them grow. This will help me develop empathy further, making it easier for me to write, draw, and share things that are more useful to more people. It will likely also involve getting the hang of writing, finishing, and spreading books/courses, since people benefit from organized paths. I might run into ideas for tools and platforms along the way, so I can build those if my capabilities catch up to my wants and my wants outpace existing technology. If that generates additional cash, I can look into converting that into more advantages.

Mm. I think that could work. Bringing it back down to the level of things I can do right now:

2015-03-28c How would I like to take things to the next level -- index card #improvement #experiment

2015-03-28c How would I like to take things to the next level – index card #improvement #experiment

I’m making good progress on doing a bit of yoga every day. (~30-90 minutes over the past 6 days so far!) To improve our quality of life even further, I’d like to get better at transforming the meals that we cook. As the weather warms up, I want to enjoy more park time and shared reflections with friends, and to use my focus on quality of life to help friends who are going through difficult times. (Friendfeed indeed.) I’ll continue saving up so that the next steps will be easier – but I’ll probably get even more out of a deliberate effort to catalog people’s people’s interests, skills, and needs, especially if I can practise helping people accelerate.

Mm. Sounds like fun.