May 2015

Weekly review: Week ending May 1, 2015

May 3, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

This week started off really fuzzy (sore throat, boo), but I’m feeling back to normal now. I remember that week to have been pretty slow, but now that I review it, it seems like a good week after all. Funny how that works.

Our new barbecue arrived, yay! We chose to assemble it ourselves instead of taking advantage of the store’s offer of complimentary assembly. It was fun putting the barbecue together with W-. Now that we have a rotisserie, we’re focusing on getting the hang of rotisserie chicken. That promises to be a yummy addition to our cooking repertoire.

As a personal reward for progress on one of my projects, I treated myself to Liberty fabric this week. It’s more expensive than other cottons, but it feels nice. I’m looking forward to cutting and sewing it into yet another one of my tops. Oh yeah, I sewed a soft-sided box and a lined zippered pouch… Mwahahaha!

Oh, and I watched Age of Ultron with my consulting clients. =) Fun movie! I wore that Marvel top I made, for extra fangirling…

2015-05-01b Week ending 2015-05-01 -- index card #journal #weekly


Blog posts


Focus areas and time review

  • Business (17.5h – 10%)
    • Earn (7.4h – 42% of Business)
      • Prepare invoice
      • Send time to E1
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (9.8h – 56% of Business)
      • Drawing (8.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.7h)
      • Quatified Awesome
        • Fix user edit screen
        • Look into time graph
    • Connect (0.3h – 1% of Business)
  • Relationships (9.4h – 5%)
    • Check on project
  • Discretionary – Productive (19.9h – 11%)
    • Emacs (3.5h – 2% of all)
      • Send reminder to hangouts list
      • Help with Emacs Hangout
      • Update G+ event for conference thing
      • Announce upcoming hangout
      • Reschedule Emacs Lisp Development Tips episode with jwiegley
      • Update previous hangout with link
    • Sewing
      • Prepare pattern for boxes
      • Order PUL
      • Prepare fabrics for tops
      • Finish leggings
      • Cut tops
    • Writing (2.3h)
  • Discretionary – Play (15.2h – 9%)
    • Check out cherry blossoms
  • Personal routines (24.2h – 14%)
  • Unpaid work (12.5h – 7%)
  • Sleep (69.3h – 41% – average of 9.9 per day)

Monthly review: April 2015

May 4, 2015 - Categories: monthly, review

2015-05-04g April 2015 -- index card #monthly

Level up! I learned how to use Hacklab’s laser cutter this month. I’ve been giving it quite a workout with all these tops. It’s a lot of fun working with the laser cutter, since precisely-cut pieces are much easier to sew. Besides, it’s much better than cutting at home, where I often have to shoo the cats away from my fabric. =)

The weather has finally warmed up enough to start gardening and biking again. Whee! I’m not too positive about our chances of growing bitter melon – I think our garden has a disease – but maybe the other plants will be fine. The peas are starting to come up. The strawberry, basil, and tomato seedlings I planted seem to be doing fine too.

This month was a good opportunity to take a close look at my sub-optimal states. <laugh> Between squirrel-brain and fuzzy-brain, it’s a wonder I got anything done. Still, I managed to do the usual consulting bits, broaden my sewing experience, and collect ideas for things I might want to build someday and people I might want to work with. Anyway, the month provided plenty of practice in patience, persistence, and philosophizing, so I got some good out of it.

I’m not entirely sure what next month will be like. Still – onward!


Blog posts


Daily: 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Category Last month (%) This month (%) Avg h per week Delta (h/wk)
Discretionary – Play 3.1 6.1 10 5.0
Business – Connect 6.2 7.1 12 1.5
Business – Build 4.5 5.1 9 1.0
Discretionary – Productive 8.8 9.0 15 0.3
Discretionary – Social 1.7 1.7 3 0.0
Discretionary – Family 3.7 3.6 6 -0.2
Business – Earn 5.8 5.5 9 -0.5
Sleep 38.5 37.5 63 -1.7
Unpaid work 9.3 8.0 13 -2.2
Personal 18.4 16.4 28 -3.4

That’s odd. Given all the fuzziness, I expected that I slept more this month, but it turns out that I slept less. Well, maybe some of that sleep got moved to playing Persona 3 (4.8% of the time, which is almost as much as I spent consulting!), since I was taking it easy. I spent a little more time at Hacklab, too. But yeah, interesting…

I expect May to be a little less sleepy. =) More biking (counted under Personal) and gardening (counted under Discretionary – Productive) too, I hope. And cooking, and sewing…

Embracing the fuzziness

May 5, 2015 - Categories: productivity

I’m feeling a little more clear-headed at the moment — not as fuzzy-brained as before. Well, there’s the slight matter of my ongoing cough and congestion, so I’m not quite all the way there, but I can think more easily than I did last week.

Cycling through different mental states (normal, squirrel, fuzzy, etc.) in quick succession has been helping me get better at differentiating among them, and I’ve been thinking about how I can make the most of them. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of considering one or the other as my “default” state, or of getting rid of the notion of a default state altogether.

2015-05-03e Default or majority state and fuzziness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-03e Default or majority state and fuzziness – index card #fuzzy

If I think of clarity as my normal state and fuzziness as a short interruption, then when I’m sharp, it makes sense to make the most of it, and when I’m fuzzy, it makes sense to do the background work that will help me make the most of my next sharp period.

If I think of fuzziness as my normal state and clarity as a gift, then when I’m clear, it makes sense to invest a lot into building the systems, habits, and skills that would make fuzzy times even better. I’m not sure how probable this is, but I’m leaning towards it being likely, even though I tend to remember my past as clear. I’m basing this on the fact that many people around me have reported being relatively slower compared to their younger selves, possibly due to age and circumstances. On the other hand, I know a few people who are older than I am and who seem to be accelerating, so there’s something to be said for that.

A mix of both strategies seems to make sense. I can spend some time putting the infrastructure in place to do well during fuzzy times, and I can also take advantage of quick sprints to make things happen when I have a clear idea.

So that might translate into the following:

2015-05-02e When I'm sharp, when I'm fuzzy -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-02e When I’m sharp, when I’m fuzzy – index card #fuzzy

When I’m sharp, that’s the time to lean in on health and systems and skills, the time to act on ideas and explore questions, the time to come up with lots of ideas and define tasks that I can do while fuzzy. It’s important to write, too, so that I can remember what it’s like to be sharp.

When I’m fuzzy and don’t feel particularly like pushing, that’s a good time to focus on self-care and close relationships. It’s okay to relax, to observe, to explore.

One of the nice things about being fuzzy is that it’s easier to explore alternatives and develop skills; it’s all right to do something you’re mediocre at when you feel mediocre at everything, or too fuzzy to do things you’re normally excellent at. <laugh>

And there’s always the philosophical practice at being patient and dealing with challenges… It’s good.

Hmm. What’s a good way for me to tell whether I’m under-preparing, over-preparing, or getting the balance right?

2015-05-05f Balancing preparation and action in different mental states -- index card #fuzzy #sharp

2015-05-05f Balancing preparation and action in different mental states – index card #fuzzy #sharp

  • If I under-prepare for fuzziness while I’m sharp, then when I’m fuzzy, I’m stuck with low-value activities like video games. This is okay, but with some thought, I might be able to tweak it to get more value.
  • If I over-prepare for fuzziness while I’m sharp, then I’m missing the opportunity to build momentum and get stuff done.
  • If I under-prepare for sharpness while I’m fuzzy, then when I’m sharp, I end up spinning my wheels or doing things that I could have done when I was fuzzy anyway.
  • If I over-prepare for sharpness while I’m fuzzy, I might prolong my fuzziness or feel bleah.

Hmm. It might be interesting to revisit my notes on the kinds of things I can do when I’m sharp and when I’m fuzzy (High energy and low energy activities). That might help me detect if I’m using my sharp time well.

Also, it’s okay not to totally optimize this. =) I can be a little inefficient.

There’s definitely more fuzziness in my future. It might be interesting to graph this to see when I’m majority-sharp and when I’m majority-fuzzy, but even without those patterns, it can help to start slowly thinking about how I can make this better. Hmm…

Planning the next things I want to sew

May 6, 2015 - Categories: sewing

I spent an hour at Designer Fabrics thinking about patterns and what I might want to sew next. I didn’t see anything I particularly wanted there, but I did pick up a yard and a half of Kaufman London Calling Lawn Abstract Stripe (like this) from The Workroom just so that I have something to work on. =)

2015-05-05a What kinds of patterns do I want to play with -- index card #sewing #patterns

2015-05-05a What kinds of patterns do I want to play with – index card #sewing #patterns

Anyway, top-wise, it might be interesting to break out of my comfort zone: not just florals, but also more black-and-white patterns and more geometric prints.

2015-05-04b Thoughts on fabric for summer -- index card #sewing #fabric

2015-05-04b Thoughts on fabric for summer – index card #sewing #fabric

The cotton lawn feels nice, but I think the shirting cottons are okay too, and the quilting cotton is actually pretty okay once you wash the sizing out of it.

2015-04-23d Imagining my sewing, a year from now -- index card #sewing #future #imagining

2015-04-23d Imagining my sewing, a year from now – index card #sewing #future #imagining

I might actually have sewn enough tops now, though, especially after I finish the four I have in progress. That’s enough to spend a week in 100% cotton, which will be better than the cotton/poly broadcloth blends I started with, and maybe 2-3 weeks in between delicate laundry batches.

So, time to figure out: what next? There’s a little temptation to complete things I’m tempted to try to take on more types of garments. (Get to the point, perhaps, where every stitch I wear is mine? Shoes might be tough, though. Moccasins?) On the other hand, when I started this sewing thing again this year, I said I’d pace myself by trying to replace only one category of things per year. That way, I could reduce the risk of burnout.

2015-04-30e Sewing plans -- index card #sewing

2015-04-30e Sewing plans – index card #sewing

2015-05-05b Rethinking next steps for sewing -- index card #sewing

2015-05-05b Rethinking next steps for sewing – index card #sewing

I considered upgrading the broadcloth tops to the nicest cottons I can find – probably Liberty fabric, or some of the other cotton lawns. On the other hand, that might be well in the neighbourhood of diminishing returns, so maybe it’s better to wait.

I looked into sewing with stretch knits too, making a pair of leggings. I might make yoga pants at some point, but I don’t feel a pressing need for them, so I might wait too.

Stash-clearing, then. Ideally, making various containers and household things. Maybe I can make a patchwork garment bag to use up some of my scraps and protect my winter coats. Maybe I can make bags and zippered pouches. Maybe I can make things neater and more organized.

2015-05-02b Lined pouch -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02b Lined pouch – index card #sewing

I made a lined pouch with some of my scraps: the Marvel fabric on the outside, a yellow broadcloth inside, and a red zipper. It was fun. I haven’t figured out what to put into it, though. I’m sure something will come up.

2015-05-02c Containers -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02c Containers – index card #sewing

There are all sorts of containers I can learn how to make, and so many things that I can contain within them.

2015-05-02d Rough edges I could smooth -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02d Rough edges I could smooth – index card #sewing

2015-05-05c Containers and organizers - pain points -- index card #sewing

2015-05-05c Containers and organizers – pain points – index card #sewing

It might be good to start with the things that annoy me the most, like my disorganized sewing drawer. Mmm. Yes. Skills that improve themselves.

2015-04-28e Scrap ideas -- index card #sewing #scraps #repurposing

2015-04-28e Scrap ideas – index card #sewing #scraps #repurposing

Besides, it would be nice to get through more of those scraps. The boot shaper I made took a surprising volume of scraps for stuffing, so I’m looking forward to collecting more and making the one for the other boot. Then more little projects…

Quiet afternoons and weeks

May 7, 2015 - Categories: experiment

I work about one day a week, sometimes less: enough to keep interesting things on the go at my consulting client, and with plenty of space for other things in my life.

2015-04-23e Working once a week -- index card #consulting #pace #experiment

2015-04-23e Working once a week – index card #consulting #pace #experiment

It’s been a little tricky working once a week, since the communication gaps are much wider than they were with a twice-a-week schedule. I could probably not work, but I like the team and the work we do. My client would be happy to have me work more hours, but I like the rest of my week, too.

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore -- index card #self-direction #experiment

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore – index card #self-direction #experiment

Still, it’s not quite like the extra-long weekend that W- sometimes jokes about. At home, I’m not sure if I’m using my day the best I could, but I’m also not keen on cramming it just because I can. There’s something to be said about being patient and working through my mediocrity as I learn the skills for self-direction. Exploring is not as clear-cut as working, but I hope it will still be useful.

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success – index card #experiment #success

It’s hard to want anything too different from what I have now. My quiet, flexible life is more tempting than, say, entrepreneurial success.

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success – index card #experiment #success

I know that I hadn’t always wanted this, but I think that was mostly because I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. In university and grad school, I wanted to teach, catalyzing students’ enthusiasm and learning. As a consultant, I enjoyed working with great people on awesome things. Work-life balance and happiness was already on my radar, though. And now that this is here, and this is a possibility… I like it. I would like it to continue. I would like to figure out how to get really good at it, although I’m not quite sure what “good” and “it” and “really” are in this case.

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons -- index card #experiment #pace

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons – index card #experiment #pace

But there’s still a little bit of restlessness, especially when I feel fuzzy. There’s still that urge to check something off a list, the desire to feel momentum, that feeling of wanting validation, even after three years of trying to get used to self-direction. I think it would be good for me to keep getting used to this, relaxing into it. There might be something interesting there, in between ambition and a narrowly-circumscribed life…

Quantified Self: The numbers on sewing

May 8, 2015 - Categories: quantified, sewing

Some people love shopping. That’s why “retail therapy” is a thing. Other people hate shopping, and try to do it as little as possible. It’s hard to find anything I like, even after I talk myself into being okay with buying things at full retail price, and even after adjusting my price range higher and higher.

I tried desensitizing myself by going out shopping without a particular goal in mind, just familiarizing myself with the colours and styles, and being open to buying something if it appealed to me. Several weekends of this turned up a few pairs of pants and T-shirts, but no epiphanies.

I started looking into alternatives. It seems wardrobe stylists work on commission, so you should plan to spend a good chunk of money – maybe $500 or $1000, which was more than I wanted to do at that moment. The custom dressmakers I asked quoted me rates around $250 for a single garment (although I didn’t ask if they’d reduce it for a super-simple pattern). Online tailors had very mixed reviews.

I figured it would be worth giving sewing a try. I didn’t need anything fancy, after all. I spent a few hours looking around for the simplest free pattern for a top, and I settled on the Colette Sorbetto pattern. I sewed a few, and then simplified the pattern further by removing the pleat. I sewed a few more. When I learned how to use the laser cutter, I used the laser to quickly and accurately cut even more pieces for sewing.

Let’s talk numbers.

The typical shirts I like cost between $40 and $120 at the store, but take hours and hours to shop for. It’s also a tiring and frustrating experience.

Broadcloth costs $2 a yard. Quilting fabric and cotton shirting tend to be around $12 to $14 a yard. The fanciest cotton I can get (in terms of fabric, not just design) seems to be Liberty cotton lawn, at $24 a yard. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it, but it is nicely breathable, so maybe. I typically buy 1.5 yards per top, although this leaves me with lots of excess fabric. I could probably fit a top in 1 yard.

I’ve spent about $130 for the 16 tops I’ve made so far, or an average of $8 per top. I expect future tops to cost between $15 to $40, depending on fabric quality and whether the design is one-way.

The bulk of the cost is really time. Since I started in February, I’ve spent 105 hours sewing: picking out fabric, cutting, sewing, thinking about patterns and plans. This is an average of 7 hours per top, which feels a bit on the high side. I think most of it is indecisiveness about fabric. =) Prepping and cutting the fabric on the laser takes maybe 20 minutes total, and once that’s done, I can sew a top in about 2 hours.

You can analyze time trade-offs by assigning an arbitrary value to them. You might use minimum wage, or the replacement cost of hiring someone to take on some of your lower-value activities for you. For example, you might use $15/hour as a replacement cost, since that seems to be the going rate for a housekeeper in Toronto. If so, then my tops have cost an average of $110 or so. I expect future tops to use nicer fabric but require less time, so the estimated cost will likely be $75-100 per top.

Alternatively, you could use a higher rate – say, my consulting rate – since I could theoretically be working instead of sewing. But I don’t particularly feel like working more. If I did, there would be other activities I would cut back on first, like playing video games, or reading fiction.

Where did the time come from? It’s hard to say, since I was changing some of my other routines too. Anyway, I analyzed a weekly summary of my time records, correlating different categories with the time I tracked under sewing.

Category Correlational coefficient
Business – Build – Learn -0.94
Business – Build – Quantified Awesome -0.92
Discretionary – Productive – Japanese -0.82
Business – Build – Drawing -0.64
Discretionary – Play – Read – Fiction -0.61

I shifted away from learning, coding, and Japanese review, and I reduced my drawing and reading time. They’re all discretionary activities, so it’s not like I was working less or sleeping less in order to sew. (I actually worked a little more than I did before.)

I’ve come to think of sewing as fun, so I might consider the time as “free.” In fact, it might even have a positive effect. Making things myself helps me develop skills and enables imagination, so it’s like education. Cost-wise, it feels like spending on fabric and time is a definite win compared to, say, buying fast fashion tops that may or may not be ethically sourced.

What did I learn?

I learned that it takes surprisingly little time and money to develop a comfortable level of skill when repeating the same sewing pattern. I started sewing on Feb 11. On Feb 23, after about six hours total, I wore my first top. Here you can see DIY taking over the clothes I wear:

Week starting Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri
Feb 7 x x x x x x x
Feb 14 x x x x x x x
Feb 21 x x mine x x mine x
Feb 28 x x x mine x x x
Mar 7 x x x mine mine mine mine
Mar 14 mine x mine mine mine mine mine
Mar 21 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
Mar 28 x mine mine mine x mine mine
Apr 4 x x mine mine x mine mine
Apr 11 x mine mine mine mine mine mine
Apr 18 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
Apr 25 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
May 2 x x mine mine mine mine mine

I learned that I really enjoy the things you can’t buy with money. There’s this feeling of freedom that comes with knowing that I don’t have to rely on manufacturers and retailers to make things I like. I might even be able to come up with things that I wouldn’t be able to find in stores. If things wear out, I can repair or replace them.

I have two more tops on the go, so that should bring me to a total of eleven cotton/polyester tops and seven 100% cotton ones. I think I’ll hold off on sewing more tops after that. Maybe I’ll sew containers and bags to use up my scraps, and then I’ll think about sewing other things I wear. I’m not interested in sewing things for anyone else (aside from family, maybe), so don’t bother asking me. <laugh>

Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it was easy to reduce the high-stress, low-value activity of shopping with something I enjoy much more. =)

Weekly review: Week ending May 8, 2015

May 10, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

Lots of sewing last week, experimenting with zippered pouches, leggings, and cotton lawn. I prepared a quick Quantified Self talk sharing some of the numbers from my sewing, too.

More thoughts on fuzziness and sharpness, and how to make the most of the cycle between them.

Oh, and biking, yay!


2015-05-11g Week ending 2015-05-08 -- index card #journal #weekly

Blog posts


Focus areas and time review

  • Business (19.6h – 11%)
    • Earn (2.9h – 14% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (15.7h – 80% of Business)
      • Drawing (12.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.0h)
    • Connect (1.0h – 5% of Business)
      • Attend meetup
      • Research Quantified Self
      • Process Quantified Self Toronto videos
  • Relationships (4.3h – 2%)
    • Holiday get-together with W-‘s family
    • Check out cherry blossoms
    • [-] Call tomorrow to see if Sunday morning is okay for cat grooming
  • Discretionary – Productive (27.0h – 16%)
    • Emacs (0.2h – 0% of all)
      • Announce Emacs Hangout 2015-05-13
      • Work on menu planning in Emacs
      • Reschedule Emacs Lisp Development Tips episode with jwiegley
      • Host Emacs Hangout
    • Sewing
      • Modify pattern for tops to cut out bias
      • Iron and prepare cotton lawn top
    • Writing (8.0h)
  • Discretionary – Play (6.7h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (35.8h – 21%)
  • Unpaid work (13.5h – 8%)
  • Sleep (61.0h – 36% – average of 8.7 per day)

Laser-cutting bias tape in off-cut regions

May 11, 2015 - Categories: sewing

I have a few more tops to do. As an experiment, I cut my bias strips from the offcuts surrounding the peach top I was working on. That took a bit more work than cutting a 10″ square and following the continuous bias tape tutorial from Colette, but it was satisfying to use the oddly-shaped offcuts for something useful.

To make this easier in the future, I modified my basic top laser-cutting template to include bias strips (and a few other circles and 2″ rectangles) in the off-cuts. I’ll be able to use it for the Kaufman cotton lawn that I haven’t started working on yet, and I’m looking forward to giving this tweaked pattern a try.

This is what it looks like in Inkscape:

2015-05-08 22_40_17-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape.png 2015-05-08 22_40_17-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape

The perpendicular seams waste a little more fabric and are a little bulkier compared to 45-degree seams, like this:

2015-05-08 22_03_29-2015-05-07-top.svg - Inkscape.png2015-05-08 22_03_29-2015-05-07-top.svg - Inkscape

but I find perpendicular seams easier to sew, since I don’t have to worry about the pointy ends getting misaligned.

How to draw the diagonal lines:

  1. Use the pen tool to draw a long diagonal line, using the Ctrl key to constrain it to a 45-degree angle.
  2. Use Ctrl-D to duplicate it many times.
  3. Select all the duplicates.
  4. Use Object > Arrange to arrange the lines in one row (uncheck the checkbox for equal width and height). For 1″ bias strips, set the X offset to 1.414 – the diagonal line’s width. This will be a negative number. Set the Y offset to 0. Arrange the items.
  5. Combine the arranged lines and move them into position.
  6. Duplicate your main pattern with Ctrl-D.
  7. Select that and the combined diagonal lines. Use Path > Cut Path to cut the diagonal lines where they intersect with your main pattern.
  8. Delete the lines you don’t need.

Here’s one way to draw the horizontal or perpendicular lines in Inkscape:

  1. Use the pen tool to draw a line at the desired degree, using the Ctrl key to constrain the angle.
  2. Change the width (and height, for diagonal ones) in the toolbar to make it exactly fit between the lines.
  3. Select the seam line, then select a diagonal line. Use the alignment tools to align it to the top of the diagonal line and align the right edge to the left edge of the diagonal line. (Play around with the alignment tools until you figure out what works.)

2015-05-08 22_47_36-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape2015-05-08 22_47_36-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape.png

Now I just have to figure out what to do with these bias tape bits that are piling up. This patchwork string tutorial looks promising. In addition to using the bias tape for binding, I can use them for straps, strings, and ribbons. Hmm…

Here’s the file:

From dreams to experiments

May 12, 2015 - Categories: experiment, philosophy

Since my childhood, my parents have always told me to follow my dreams. It wasn’t just the usual maxim passed on from books and the child-raising culture of the time. I had proof of the power of dreams in the adventures of my father.

I talked to my parents last weekend. They’re a little worried about me during this amorphous 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Am I doing okay? Am I following my dreams?

At that moment, I realized that I’d found something that resonates with me even more than dreams do. I’m not following my dreams. I’m doing something stranger and more exciting to me. I’m experimenting.

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments -- index card #experiment #mindset

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments – index card #experiment #mindset

I’d reflected on the difference between plans and experiments, and dreams are like that too. A plan has a certain end. A dream is a plan with passion and maybe a long-term story: “I’ve always wanted to…”. There’s that sense of certainty when you’re following your dream. You know where you want to go, and you know what progress you’re making towards it. You can feel it in every fibre.

I want something else.

I want the experiment. Uncertainty. Learning. I seek out in myself where the vision is still uncertain, where there’s not enough data from other people’s lives.

It’s neat being able to trace my growth over time. In 2012, I became more comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” In 2013, I started letting go of the need for certainty, for clearly defined passions. In 2014, I found a metaphor that resonated with me: exploration. Now I know that I want this more than I want to check off boxes. I find myself the most curious about the things that are hardest to explain, going further away from common experience.

I could not have dreamed what I’m learning now. I’m well into territory that my younger self couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t know it was possible, then. Even now, I don’t know the full range of possibilities. I’m not entirely clear on what awesomeness would look like. But I’m curious, and exploring is its own adventure. Wherever I end up, I’m sure it will be somewhere my present self can’t picture.

I don’t dream of being happy, and it’s not something I pursue. That’s is because I am happy. I see happiness as a deliberate response to the world: a steadfast focus on what’s good about life.

If I strive for anything, it’s equanimity. But even that is in my grasp as soon as I want it. Equanimity isn’t a destination to arrive at. It’s something to practice. Only time and trial can tell.

Aside from equanimity, what else is there to want? I’m as comfortable as I could be: roof, food, resources, tools, community, access to knowledge. Even those things are not essential. People have lived greater lives with less.

I don’t dream of mansions or influence or fame. I don’t need to wait for these things. Knowing that makes me free to appreciate and make the most of my current life.

I want a mind that takes everything as fuel. I want to turn both victories and obstacles into springboards. A thought: How can I intensify this experiment? How can I get better at learning?

  • Reading and re-reading can help me identify role models, build on other people’s wisdom, find the words to describe what I’m thinking, and combine interesting ideas.
  • Developing practical skills increases my independence and enjoyment. Sewing, electronics, and woodworking might be good candidates to focus on.
  • Writing and drawing might help me find people who resonate with these ideas. If I’m lucky, we might even explore them together.
  • With self-care as a solid foundation, I can slowly grow outwards to encompass more within my circle of influence.
  • To do that, I’m learning more about playing with the world: negotiating changes, developing relationships, applying energy and enthusiasm. We’ll see how it turns out!

It’s odd – I’m still not a big fan of uncertainty when it comes to physical space. Spur-of-the-moment road trips? That would drive me up the wall. I like having autonomy and being able to manage my levels of stimulation. But there are some kinds of uncertainty in life that have a different flavour to them, and that’s what I want to explore.

Is this, then, my dream? It seems so different from the usual dreams that it’s understandably hard for other people to understand. It feels constantly novel and evolving, instead of being a fixed North Pole for my journey. It is what it is, I guess, and I’ll explore it while I have the space to do so.

What kind of tribe do I want to build around Quantified Self in Toronto?

May 13, 2015 - Categories: connecting, quantified

Attendance at the Quantified Self Toronto meetup has been low lately, and it’s a good time to think about revitalizing or even redesigning the community.

2015-05-11f Thinking about Quantified Self Toronto turnover -- index card #quantified #meetup

2015-05-11f Thinking about Quantified Self Toronto turnover – index card #quantified #meetup

The way it is now works okay for newcomers. I imagine the experience for newcomers is mostly like: Wow, I’m not alone! I’m not weird! There are other people who track stuff! (I know, I get that feeling each time I go too. =) ) If they work up the courage to share what they’ve been learning, they often pick up plenty of tips and ideas, and they can connect with other people tracking similar things.

From regulars, it’s great to hear updates or find out about other things they’re tracking.

The talks do tend to be a little repetitive. Often it’s about people sharing data collected using apps or devices with predefined visualizations, and the occasional self-promotional bit. Sometimes we get new analyses or unconventional experiments, and those are the kinds of talks I enjoy the most.

The repetition is understandable – good, even. I think that’s mostly because each person has to go through an individual journey. Even if two people present the same topic and have similar conclusions, it’s good to recognize each of their experiences.

Still, it might be interesting to think about how we can increase the value for regulars and long-time trackers…

Mmm. If I could selfishly redesign this community to be even better-suited to my interests, what would it be like?

I go to Quantified Self Toronto meetups because I like the kind of people who use data to make better decisions about their lives. I particularly like it when someone’s curious about something off the beaten track, whether they’re collecting data on paper or they’ve built their own tools. Experimental manipulation is also interesting for me. I also like having the occasional nudge to design, conduct, and report on my little experiments. I’ve talked about a lot of odd things over the years (like cat litter box use, and more recently, sewing), and I like resonating with people in an unexpected way.

If I were to tilt Quantified Self Toronto to be something more personally useful for me, I might focus on:

  • Getting more people to the point of being able to explore and analyze their own data instead of relying on apps
    • Learning to notice when you’re confused, and thinking of ways to explore that uncertainty
    • Tracking on paper
    • Analyzing with spreadsheets and graphs
  • Connecting with other toolmakers so that we can bounce ideas around
  • Developing my own skills in data collection, analysis, and visualization
    • Android programming or scripting?
    • Electronics?
    • R?
  • Trying out other people’s experiments so that I can share my experiences and notes with them
  • Researching unconventional experiments/measurements using and similar blogs, and drawing inspiration from those

At the Quantified Self Conference I went to in 2012, I gravitated towards people who tracked their own questions or even built their own tools. I don’t expect the majority of Quantified Self Toronto to be creatively technical, but it might be interesting to attract and retain a core of people like that. What would make 2-3 hours worth it for them, and what would make it more worthwhile for me? Alternatively, what are other ways I could build that kind of tribe? I think education, inspiration, and shared experiments might be interesting to play with. Hmm… The same combination could help encourage newcomers to develop along those lines, too. Might be worth looking into.

2015-05-13 Emacs Hangout

May 13, 2015 - Categories: emacs

Console Emacs vs GUI Emacs, keybindings, Org Mode, cooking, nyan, window management, calendars, SuperCollider Usual disclaimer: times are approximate, and the note-taker often gets distracted. =)

  • 0:00:00 Emacs configuration
  • 0:11:22 Console Emacs vs GUI Emacs? iTerm integration, mouse support, 256 colours, drop-down menus (although you can get a text one), …
  • 0:14:59 multihop TRAMP
  • 0:16:01 keybinding philosophies, Hyper and Super
  • 0:22:15 Remapping keys on Mac OS X (dealing with separate Alt and Meta)
  • 0:28:04 Org and mobile
  • 0:30:25 emulating hyper and super keys
  • 0:32:15 orgzly
  • 0:33:33 Org Mode and cooking, org-map-entries
  • 0:39:31 nyan
  • 0:43:04 One window, workgroups
  • 0:46:56 winner-mode
  • 0:53:30 rinari, zeus, ruby
  • 0:54:53 neotree
  • 0:58:22 keyboards
  • 1:03:24 conference
  • 1:09:22 calw; also, something about rainbow-mode, and palette, and then later Org Mode
  • 1:23:13 SuperCollider, Overtone, yasnippet
  • 1:45:13 blackink?

Text chat: Here’s the gif I have as my nyan

Sahil Sinha 9:23 PM
Jack G. 9:24 PM (setq mac-right-command-modifier ‘hyper)<br>(setq mac-right-option-modifier ‘super) (global-set-key (kbd “H-h”) ‘er/expand-region
George Jones 9:32 PM
Jack G. 9:36 PM nyan Cranky_walk.gif
Jack G. 9:42 PM
me 9:42 PM ?
Daniel H 9:46 PM
me 9:48 PM winner-mode
George Jones 9:59 PM
George Jones 9:59 PM Xah Lee writes a LOT about keyboards
Jack G. 10:02 PM
Bogdan Popa 10:10 PM
me 10:11 PM org-gcal
Daniel H 10:12 PM
George Jones 10:12 PM having real trouble hearing…
George Jones 10:20 PM when you open a PDF in docview you can get the text with ^C^T (default bindings)
Jack G. 10:21 PM Thanks George!
George Jones 10:21 PM C-c C-t runs the command doc-view-open-text
me 10:27 PM
sai tejaa Cluri 10:27 PM hi
Jack G. 10:37 PM link
me 10:37 PM This was a fun demo of Org Mode and SuperCollider
Levi Strope 10:40 PM Jack your audio is crystal clear now… whatever that change was
Jack G. 10:45 PM
me 10:48 PM

Shifts in my writing

May 14, 2015 - Categories: blogging, quantified, reflection

Sometimes, when I sit down to draw my five index cards of the day, I have a hard time delineating five interesting thoughts – things I want to remember or share. They often seem so inward-turned.

I was thinking about the shape of my blog, too. I feel like I’ve shifted from a lot of technical posts to a lot of reflective posts. Possibly less interesting for other people, but useful to me. It’s hard to tell. These are the kinds of posts I’ve been starting to find useful in other people’s blogs, anyway, so who knows? Maybe these things are interesting for other people too.

It’s wonderful to be able to flip back through my archive and see the patterns over time. Of the 2,800+ posts in my index as of April 2015, I’d classify around 170 as mostly reflective. (Totally quick classification, just eyeballing the titles and categories in my index.) Here’s the breakdown:

Year Reflections
2008 4
2009 9
2010 20
2011 7
2012 25
2013 20
2014 59
2015 25
Grand Total 169

While writing a recent post, I searched my archives to trace the evolution of my understanding of uncertainty over several years. I can remember not having these snapshots of my inner world. When I reviewed ten years of blog posts in preparation for compiling Stories from My Twenties in 2013, I was surprised by how many technical and tip-related blog posts I skipped in favour of keeping the memories and the questions, and the sense of things missing from my memories. Maybe that’s why I wrote almost three times the number of reflective posts in 2014 as I did in the previous year. 2014 was also the year I switched the focus of my experiment from other-work to self-work, and that might have something to do with it too. I’m glad I have those thinking-out-loud, figuring-things-out posts now.

The end of April was around 33% of the way through the year, so I’m slightly ahead of last year’s reflective-post-density (expected: 20 posts, actual: 25). Comments are rare, but I’ve learned a lot from them.

I’m fascinated by the ten-year journals you can buy in bookstores. They give you ways of bumping into your old selves, noticing the differences. I like the way blogs give me a little bit more space to write, though. =) Here’s a slice of my life going through May 14:

I have shifted. I focus on different things. I like the direction I’m going in. I can imagine, years from now, getting very good at asking questions, describing and naming elusive concepts, and exploring the options. If it seems a little awkward now, that’s just the initial mediocrity I have to get through. Hmm…

Laptops and lap cats

May 15, 2015 - Categories: life

If I sit on the couch, it doesn’t take long before one of our three cats decides my lap is a much nicer place to hang out than wherever they were before.

If I pre-empt them by keeping my laptop on my lap, they’ll try to squeeze in between my keyboard and me anyway. I could ignore them and keep typing, but it’s kinda nice when the cats decide to spend time with me (even if I suspect they’re just using me as a soft radiator).

2015-05-04f Laptops and lap cats -- index card #life #cats

2015-05-04f Laptops and lap cats – index card #life #cats

Since this occurs fairly regularly, I’ve given it some thought. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

2015-03-12b On cats and laps -- index card #life #cats

2015-03-12b On cats and laps – index card #life #cats

My effective typing speed when I’m trying to explore a thought is around 16 words per minute, so I don’t lose much by typing on my phone instead of my laptop. It would help to keep a USB charger within easy reach, though. Sometimes I switch my tablet PC to tablet mode and draw on the side, or hand-write things.

One of our cats can be tempted off a lap when someone else gets up off the couch and leaves a warm spot. This is good to know, because she’s the one who occasionally digs in with her claws if you try to prematurely shoo her off your lap. We’ve also discovered that she can be persuaded to leave your lap if you angle yourself out very slowly, but she’ll complain a lot along the way.

I’ve tried just cuddling the cats until they decide they’ve had enough. Sometimes they’ll get a little pointy while still insisting on staying in your lap. Also, one of our cats doesn’t actually have an upper limit to cuddling and will happily fall asleep on your lap, so…

Weekly review: Week ending May 15, 2015

May 17, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

This was the week of lots of walking. With my bike out of commission for the moment (need to fix one of the brake lines) and having resolved that walking is actually a really good use of my time, I decided to see how far I could walk with a target of 10,000 steps. I’ve comfortably beat that target each day I’ve had it. As it turns out, Hacklab is within that walking range (at least one-way), so that means I can just walk over there on Tuesdays. =)

Other stuff: family get-togethers and conversations, an Emacs hangout, a chat about personal knowledge management, and a new top in cotton lawn…

2015-05-18a Week ending 2015-05-15 -- index card #journal #weekly output

Blog posts


Focus areas and time review

  • Business (33.5h – 19%)
    • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Earn (6.9h – 20% of Business)
    • Build (20.3h – 60% of Business)
      • Drawing (14.4h)
      • Paperwork (1.0h)
    • Connect (6.4h – 19% of Business)
  • Relationships (8.2h – 4%)
    • Holiday get-together with W-‘s family
    • Hang out with Gabriel
  • Discretionary – Productive (18.8h – 11%)
    • Emacs (2.0h – 1% of all)
      • Work on menu planning in Emacs
    • Fix subscription page
    • Research Quantified Self
    • Sew prepare cotton lawn top
    • Integrate journal with review
    • Verify Jen’s public key by calling
    • Writing (5.7h)
  • Discretionary – Play (7.1h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (23.0h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (14.7h – 8%)
  • Sleep (62.6h – 37% – average of 8.9 per day)

What do I want instead of or in addition to advice roundups?

May 18, 2015 - Categories: blogging

I occasionally get requests for advice to include in an “expert roundup.” It’s one of those quick content generation / search-engine optimization techniques, and often goes something like this:

  1. Cold-email a bunch of famous and not-so-famous people who likely have opinions on something.
  2. Ask them for a quick answer to a simple question. Famous people probably already have soundbites ready to go, so it’s easy for them to reply.
  3. Reach out to more people and name-drop the famous people who have already responded.
  4. Other people feel flattered to be included in that kind of company, and add their own perspectives.
  5. Paste and format the quotes, add pictures or relevant stock images, and use a list-type headline.

If you’re lucky, those people will drop by your blog, read other posts, and maybe even comment or subscribe. If you’re really lucky, they’ll link to your post (“Look! I’m featured over here!”), which is good for broadening your audience and improving your reputation with search engines. Besides, your other readers will be able to read a post that indirectly demonstrates your social capital (“I got Bigname Expert to reply to me”) while possibly offering something to think about. (Although I don’t think it’s really the lack of advice that holds people back…)

On the plus side, at least an e-mail-based soundbite survey requires a little bit more effort than making a grab-bag of quotes harvested from one of the categories of those popular quotation marks (often misattributed and almost never with source links). So there’s something to be said for that. I still prefer posts that have more of the self infused into them, though, whether they’re the products of personal research and interpretation or (better yet) personal experience and insight.

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice -- index card #blogging #advice #sharing

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice – index card #blogging #advice #sharing

But it’s much easier to write the first two types of posts rather than the third and fourth type of post. It takes less time. It seems less self-centred. It’s more generally applicable. You could even write books following that formula.

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me -- index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me – index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

And if I think about it from the reader’s perspective, I can actually work to extract a little bit of value from stuff like that. Sometimes, when reading lists or blog posts, I come across an interesting name for a concept I’ve been having a hard time defining or expressing. The keywords help me search more. Other times, a short paragraph is enough to get me considering a different perspective, or thinking about the difference between what it says and what I want to say. Pithy sayings get me thinking about what makes something a memorable maxim. Noticing a collection of intriguing thoughts from one person can lead me to dig up more details on that person. And then there’s always the satisfaction of finding unexpected resonance or an authority you can enlist on your side (the more ancient, the better)…

Still, I want to see people apply the ideas and share their experiences. I want people to share what they struggled with and how they adapted things to fit their situation. Sure, it’s interesting to hear what Aristotle’s purported to have said (although that collection certainly does not include “Excellennce, then, is not an act, but a habit” – that’s Will Durant ccommenting on Aristotle), but it’s also interesting–possibly even more so–to hear what thoughts people distill from their own lives.

Most advice (especially for generic audiences) sounds pretty straightforward. Things like: Spend less than you earn. Live mindfully. Get rid of unnecessary tasks and things. But the challenge of change is hardly ever about hearing these things, is it? I think, if we want to make it easier for people to grow, it’s better to help people flesh out who they want to be, feel they can become that, and see how they can set themselves up for success and appreciate their progress.

A reflection on reading advice: I notice that I’ve grown to like books that dig into personal experience (especially if they avoid the trap of generalization) and books that interpret results from large research studies, but I feel less enlightened by books that rely on anecdotes (cherry-picked, possibly even modified). Since it seems pretty difficult to nail down reliable effects in psychological studies and it’s tempting to cherry-pick research too, that probably indicates that I should dig deeper into finding people with similarly open, experimental approaches to life, which probably means focusing on blogs rather than books. Hmm…

So that’s what I’ve been thinking as a reader. On the other side of the page, as a writer and a learner, what do I think about sharing advice?

Writing from my own life, I realize that I can hardly generalize from my life to other people’s lives: no “You should do this”, but rather, “This seems to work pretty well for me. You might want to consider it, but maybe something else will work even better for you. If so, I’d love to hear about that!” So I don’t have much in the way of generic advice that I can contribute to these advice round-ups.

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at -- index card #advice #yeahbut #different

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at – index card #advice #yeahbut #different

In fact, thinking about some of the things I do that people have both expressed an interest in doing and have struggled with – even when I’m talking one-on-one with people who are half-open to the idea, it’s difficult to help them get over that first hump. Blogging, Emacs, tracking, mindsets… There’s some kind of an activation threshold. People tell me that sometimes hearing from people like me or others about what it’s like helps them resolve to go for it, but that’s not the majority of the push. Anyway, once people get past that, I like swapping notes: not really as a teacher, but as a peer.

Mm. Trade-off, but I think I can deal with it. I can write as a way to bring out the people who resonate. I can skip doling out advice until much later (if at all). Questions from other people are good ways to prompt further reflection, and ongoing blog relationships with people who post their thoughts are even better. It might take time to build that, but it’ll probably be interesting!

Mapping knowledge

May 19, 2015 - Categories: learning

I chatted with someone about maps and personal knowledge management, so I thought I’d write an extended reflection.

2015-05-13e Mapping knowledge for yourself and others -- index card #mapping #pkm #sharing

2015-05-13e Mapping knowledge for yourself and others – index card #mapping #pkm #sharing

Mapping is useful for myself and for others. For managing my own learning:

  • Scope: What’s included, and what’s not? How does this relate to other things I’ve learned or I’m learning?
  • Landmarks and destinations: Role models, motivation, tracking progress…
  • Main path, detours: How do you get from A to B? Are there interesting places in the neighbourhood?
  • Here there be dragons, places under construction: Managing appropriate difficulty; tracking areas to explore or revisit

When helping other people learn, mapping lets me:

  • Define scope: Define a manageable chunk, and link to related maps: zooming in, zooming out, going to other places
  • Provide landmarks
  • Main path, detours: Organize a reasonable path (particularly based on someone’s interests) and nice detours
  • Here there be dragons / construction: Warn newbies, encourage intermediate/advanced exploration

So here’s my current workflow:

2015-05-13f Mapping what I know -- index card #workflow #blogging #index-cards #mapping #pkm

2015-05-13f Mapping what I know – index card #workflow #blogging #index-cards #mapping #pkm

2015-05-08c Managing my structured information -- index card #pkm #knowledge #sharing

2015-05-08c Managing my structured information – index card #pkm #knowledge #sharing

Using index cards, outlines, and chunks seems to be working well for me in terms of current thinking, although I haven’t been turning my attention to organizing, fleshing out knowledge, and filling in gaps.

Here are some notes from 2013 on mapping forwards (plans) and backwards (guides for other people). I’ve figured out ways around some of the challenges I encountered before:

  • Rough categorization of blog posts: I’ve written some Emacs Lisp code to help me update my blog post index monthly.
  • Hundreds of sketches with few links: Now I have more than a thousand sketches! But that’s okay, I have metadata in the filename, integration in my outline, and eventual chunking into blog posts.
  • Duplicate metadata entry, no synchronization: Tags in the filename and a NodeJS script that sets the same tags on Flickr upload, yay
  • No clear picture of follow-up questions, ideas, or actions: Outline still needs work; maybe also a quick way to review open sketches?
  • No clear role models: Found historical and contemporary ones, yay!

Mostly I’ve been focusing on little explorations rather than map-making. It’s like collecting nature specimens so that I can start to classify them, since you don’t see that order until later. Sometimes I look back and retrace my path. That’s when I can try to figure out where things are and how people might go a little faster or in a better order. Other times, when I’m looking forward, I’m trying to see what’s close by and how to get there. I remind myself of the landmarks in the distance, too, and what progress might look like. But I can only walk the routes until I reach a height that lets me review the paths ahead, so sometimes it’s just the accumulation of steps…

2015-05-12d What do I want to get from my blog archive, looking back twenty years from now -- index card #blogging #pkm #archive

2015-05-12d What do I want to get from my blog archive, looking back twenty years from now – index card #blogging #pkm #archive

2015-05-12e What do I want from my archive of index cards -- index card #pkm #archive #drawing #index-cards

2015-05-12e What do I want from my archive of index cards – index card #pkm #archive #drawing #index-cards

Fuzzy brain; also Ni No Kuni

May 20, 2015 - Categories: life

Low energy both physically and mentally today, but I managed to squeeze in a 90-minute walk that included the library and the supermarket, so my walking streak continues. I can feel the fuzziness start to encroach, so ah well. Time to indulge a little. Aside from the walk and the usual chores, in fact, I spent practically the entire day playing Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

I like playing role-playing games, particularly ones that are forgiving enough to let you restart or change your mind if a battle’s too much for you. I enjoy watching the story unfold, and I like slowly getting the hang of the battle system and character development.

I prefer turn-based games like Persona 4 Golden where you have a little time to review the situation and think about what you’re going to do. But Ni no Kuni is such a pretty game – gorgeous visuals and sound (Studio Ghibli! the Tokyo Philharmonic!) – that I’m working on getting the hang of the real-time battle system. I expect the game to take me a while, though. This is good, because I happen to have said while.

There are many things I could do with my time, and I’m sure they’ll rise higher on my list after I settle in. There’ll be time enough for other things.

What it’s like to work with data

May 21, 2015 - Categories: business

How did I learn to work with data?

I learned the basics of SQL in high school, I think. In university, I got most of my kicks from the extracurricular projects I worked on because doing so let me hang out with interesting people. As those people graduated, I moved to handling those systems on my own. Blogging have me another reason to explore data analysis, since I was curious about my stats. Eventually, with Quantified Self, I started collecting and scraping my own data.

I do a lot of data analysis and report creation as part of my social business consulting. It has deepened my appreciation of database indexes, subqueries, common table expressions, recursive queries, caching tables, arrays, partitioned queries, string manipulation with regular expressions, and visualization tools. I’d love to get together with other social business data geeks so that we could swap analysis questions and techniques, but we’d need to get approval for sharing data or set up a sanitization protocol that my clients would be comfortable with. We’re doing some pretty cool stuff.
What is it like when my clients ask me data questions, or when I think of a question I’d like to explore?
I start by thinking of whether we have the data to answer that question, or how I can collect the data we need. I think about whether there are similar questions that are easier to answer. Then I start thinking about how to bring everything together: which tables, which joins, which conditions. Sometimes I have to use subqueries to combine the data. I’m getting into the habit of using common table expressions to make those easier to read. I feel satisfied when I can connect everything in a way that makes sense to me. I also like seeing the common threads among different questions, and turning those insights into parameterized reports.
Sometimes the first report I make fits the situation perfectly. Other times, we go back and forth a little to figure out what the real question is. I really appreciate it when other people help me sanity-check the numbers, because I occasionally overlook things. I’d like to get better at catching those errors.
Once the report settles down, I can think about the performance. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding an index or creating a table that caches complex calculations. Other times, I might need to modify the presentation or the question a little.
In addition to making my reports more reliable, I’d like to get better at visualizing the data so that people can get an intuitive feel for what’s going on.
I also want to get better at making inferences based on the data, especially when it comes to teasing out time-delayed or multivariate factors. I think my data sets are usually too small for things like that, though.
Anyway, that’s what it’s like to enjoy crunching the numbers. I love being able to do it, and I like exploring the kinds of questions that people imagine. =)

Building tools for my future self

May 22, 2015 - Categories: idea, planning

I was thinking about steps towards personal digital assistants. In a separate thread, I was also thinking about the psychology of aging. In a third thread, I was thinking about projects I might want to build to help me learn more. It makes sense to bring all these threads together: thinking of systems I can build to improve the quality of life I’ll enjoy in the future.

I think this might be a better fit for my experimental learning than either a hypothetical market or specific people. After all, I’ll always have a future self who could benefit. (And if I don’t, I’ll be past caring!) If the things I build along the way turn out to be useful for others, all the better.

Anyway, I was thinking about the kind of simple, deterministic, idiosyncratic assistant I could build to make life a teensy bit better in the medium term and the long term.

I could start with a text box interface on a webpage, then move to alternative inputs like dictation or neuro-integration(!) when that becomes reliable. It would be great to have some kind of offline buffering, too.

In terms of logic, I could start with stateless well-defined responses, add synonyms, support conversational interfaces, use weighted factors, add feedback mechanisms, and then eventually reach proactive notification and action. Inferences would be awesome, but I don’t have to wait for them to be sorted out. Ditto for program generation and adaptation.

In terms of sensing and acting, I can start with existing APIs and tools, write specific adapters for other sites, push into the physical world with sensors and actuators, use context and probability to simplify, and then take advantage of improvements in fields like computer vision or biometric analysis as other people build and commoditize cool tech.

But first, it starts with building a simple tool. Hmm, maybe a little thing that suggests what to do next (and coincidentally makes it easy to track)…

Weekly review: Week ending May 22, 2015

May 24, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

Almost 26 hours of playing video games this week – Ni No Kuni is such an engaging option for my fuzzy brain. Some thoughts and conversations, though, so I didn’t vegetate the entire time. =)

Planning to take it easy over the next couple of weeks: games, drawing, writing, some code…

2015-05-25a Week ending 2015-05-22 -- index card #journal #weekly


Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (20.1h – 11%)
    • Earn (7.8h – 38% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (10.0h – 49% of Business)
      • Drawing (8.9h)
      • Paperwork (1.1h)
        • Calculate deductions
        • Transfer money for salary
        • Write and deposit cheque
        • Remit deductions
        • File payroll in Quickbooks
    • Connect (2.3h – 11% of Business)
      • Chat with Michael Crogan about Emacs
      • Chat with Ab Velasco about Quantified Self talk
  • Relationships (10.7h – 6%)
    • Work on personal project
  • Discretionary – Productive (9.9h – 5%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Make a list of all my TFSA contributions
    • Verify Jen’s public key by calling
    • Review Createspace
    • Add to my TFSA
    • Writing (2.9h)
  • Discretionary – Play (25.7h – 15%)
  • Personal routines (22.5h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (21.4h – 12%)
  • Sleep (57.6h – 34% – average of 8.2 per day)

Thinking about adaptive menus for tracking

May 25, 2015 - Categories: design, development, geek, quantified, research

I’ve been thinking about building more tools for myself. Some of the ideas I’ve been playing around with are around simplifying activity tracking further, possibly getting it to the point where it suggests things for me to do when my brain is fuzzy.

My current tracking system has two tiers. For my most-common activities, I use a custom menu that I can open from my phone’s home screen. I created the menu using Tasker. It’s easy to configure menu items to update my Quantified Awesome activity records as well as run other logic on my phone. For example:

  • “Eat dinner” creates an activity record for “Dinner”, then starts MyFitnessPal so that I can log the meal
  • “Walk home” creates an activity record for “Walk – Other”, then starts step-by-step navigation of the walk back to my house
  • “Sleep” creates an activity record, then launches Sleep as Android
  • “Ni No Kuni” creates an activity record, prompts me for what I want to do after an hour of playing, opens a page with tips for the game, and then reminds me of my plans after that hour passes

One advantage of using something on my phone is that I don’t have to wait for the initial web page from Quantified Awesome to load. My keyboard occasionally takes a while to come up, too, so the menu-based interface gets around that as well. Also, as I get the hang of using Tasker, I can set up more intelligent processes. The menu has a link to open the web version, so if I want to track something less frequent, I can always use the web interface.

In the web interface, I usually type a substring to identify the category I want to track. For example, “kitch” results in an activity record for “Clean the kitchen”. I use this interface if I need to backdate entries (ex: -5m), too.

In addition to the two interfaces above, I’ve been thinking about taking advantage of the predictability of my schedule.

Research into adaptive menus turns up quite a few design ideas and considerations. Since I’m building this for myself, I can get around many of the challenges of adaptive interfaces, such as privacy and predictability. I’m curious about the following options:

  • Text-based input with minimal cues, as part of a more powerful command line
  • Context-sensitive menu with a handful of items (3-4, with a link to more): I can probably suggest candidate activities based on the past two activity records. That might mean a little bit of latency as I check, though. It also means that the menu will keep shifting, so I’ll need to read it and find the item I want to click on.
    • For everyday use?
    • For really fuzzy moments?
  • Static menu of frequent items, but adaptive highlighting (ex: green or bold, or fading out other things slightly)
    • Abrupt onset, others fading in over 500ms
    • Colour?
    • Weight?
  • Split menu: frequent items on top, everything else below
    • Static
    • Adaptive
  • Hierarchy of menus: speedy, but lots of tapping
  • Cut off menu: show only the activities that come after the one I’ve just tracked

Hmm… It might be interesting to play around with different menu options. It would be good to experiment with NFC as well, especially early in the morning. =)


Building tools for myself: grocery receipt tracking

May 26, 2015 - Categories: quantified

Today was another good day for writing code. I finally built that quick-feedback receipt item tracker I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’d built a simpler version into Quantified Awesome (not linked from the main interface, since it was very rough), but I found the browser roundtrip too disruptive. Today’s implementation uses Angular for faster responses. For good measure, I’ve got a NodeJS server proxying the requests to either my local development copy of Quantified Awesome or to my production version.

Here’s a screenshot:

2015-05-26 22_21_38-sachachua.com_8080_receipt

On the left side, I have a scanned receipt in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (or a paper receipt on the side). On the right, my autocompleting tracking interface. It’s not pretty, but it fits what I have in my head. I like the way that typing in the first few characters of the receipt line item is often enough to uniquely identify the receipt item type and retrieve the price history. This means that as I track, I also get a sense of the price trends and what a good sale is.

Aside from keeping track of the prices, I’m also looking forward to analyzing our consumption by category on a more regular basis. I did a few analyses along those lines before (here’s a year of data), but it might be neat to have that kind of feedback on a daily basis. Entering my receipt archive was easy. I ended up typing in the receipts from here to January because it was fun. =)

Next up: fast categorization, some graphing… I’m also looking forward to making a quick price book interface. Hmm, if I dust off that grocery list tool I had started building into Quantified Aweome and I integrate the price book, that might be handy.

Various cooking-related notes

May 27, 2015 - Categories: cooking

Posting them since I want to be able to find them again someday, and because it’s good to bring scattered ideas together once in a while.

2015-03-08c Getting better at cooking -- index card #cooking

2015-03-08c Getting better at cooking – index card #cooking

In terms of organization: we now have an index-cards-and-magnets kanban on the fridge door, tracking three states: “Get groceries for”, “Cook”, and “Eat”. Seems okay so far, but time will tell if we stick with it. =) Still have to work through more of the raw ingredients in the freezer. Lots of new recipes and food types, though!

2015-05-27c Getting better at cooking -- index card #kaizen #cooking #learning

2015-05-27c Getting better at cooking – index card #kaizen #cooking #learning

It’s fun to break skills down into smaller aspects I can work on. I’m working on knowing what kinds of tastes I like, which involves both trying out new recipes and tweaking the ones that we have.

2015-05-05d Flexible cooking -- index card #cooking

2015-05-05d Flexible cooking – index card #cooking

Speaking of waste reduction and flexibility, it’s nice to slowly accumulate a stock of recipes that can accommodate odds and ends. =)

2015-05-04d Chicken chicken chicken -- index card #cooking

2015-05-04d Chicken chicken chicken – index card #cooking

Our rotisserie is getting lots of use. Yum!

2015-04-28d Japanese curry combination -- index card #variety #meal-planning #cooking #japanese

2015-04-28d Japanese curry combination – index card #variety #meal-planning #cooking #japanese

I sometimes plan using the five-colours, five-ways method from Japanese cooking. Curry is surprisingly colourful (brown beef, green peas, yellow potatoes, red carrots, white rice). Omu-rice is colourful too. Nice to have these dishes!

2015-01-26 Shepherd's pie -- index card #cooking

2015-01-26 Shepherd’s pie – index card #cooking

Also nice and colourful.

2015-02-05 Biscotti -- index card #cooking #baking

2015-02-05 Biscotti – index card #cooking #baking

I’m pretty comfortable making biscotti now. Eventually I’ll work my way through the supermarket snacks aisle. ;)

2015-05-25b Japanese cheesecake -- index card #cooking

2015-05-25b Japanese cheesecake – index card #cooking

Yummy! So nice and fluffy. Uses much less cream cheese compared to the classic Philadelphia cheesecake recipe on the box of cream cheese. I like both types.

2015-03-16e Decision - Slow cooker -- index card #decision #cooking

2015-03-16e Decision – Slow cooker – index card #decision #cooking

Still no slow cooker, since simmering things on the stove works out fine for us and we don’t need its timing capabilities.

It’s starting to feel like summer, so it’s a good time to eat fruits, leafy vegetables, and salads. Looking forward to exploring more tastes and recipes!

Leaning into absent-mindedness

May 28, 2015 - Categories: kaizen, research

From time to time, I notice a spike in the number of small mistakes I make due to inattention. It’s a good sign to slow things down, rejig systems and habits, and figure out how to make things better. For example, noticing that I often lost track of small things I was carrying around, I switched to a belt bag in summer and a vest in winter.

There are still quite a few slips I haven’t figured out how to work around, like the occasional times I put the oven mitts on the opposite side of the stove from where they usually are (I must have absentmindedly thought “Aha! An empty hook!”), or the time I tucked the sesame oil into the fridge. (“I’m holding a bottle; many bottles go into the shelves on the fridge door; this probably goes into the shelves on the fridge door.”)

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness -- index card #research #fuzzy

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness – index card #research #fuzzy

It turns out that there are lots of forms of absent-mindedness. Cheyne, Carierre, and Smilek (2005) defined a scale for attention-related cognitive errors (ARCES) that goes like this:

  1. I have absent-mindedly placed things in unintended locations (e.g., putting milk in the pantry or sugar in the fridge).
  2. When reading I find that I have read several paragraphs without being able to recall what I read.
  3. I have misplaced frequently used objects, such as keys, pens, glasses, etc.
  4. I have found myself wearing mismatched socks or other apparel.
  5. I have gone into a room to get something, got distracted, and left without what I went there for.
  6. I fail to see what I am looking for even though I am looking right at it.
  7. I begin one task and get distracted into doing something else.
  8. I have absent-mindedly mixed up targets of my action (e.g. pouring or putting something into the wrong container).
  9. I make mistakes because I am doing one thing and thinking about another.
  10. I have gone to the fridge to get one thing (e.g., milk) and taken something else (e.g., juice).
  11. I have to go back to check whether I have done something or not (e.g., turning out lights, locking doors).
  12. I go into a room to do one thing (e.g., brush my teeth) and end up doing something else (e.g., brush my hair).

I find that I tend to be okay at broad strokes (intentions), but sometimes I miss finer details. I’ve walked out of the house in inside-out or back-to-front clothing before (technical shirts feel the same either way!), although usually W- helps me catch those situations.

It’s not that bad, though. Although I sometimes don’t remember what I walked into a room for (especially if I get distracted by a conversation part way), I can almost always recall what I intended to do, and what was before that (if I hadn’t finished that yet). It also helps to have the habit of writing down quick notes and consulting my agenda for tasks to work on, but mental rehearsal is usually enough for me to “pop the stack”.

Fortunately, all this appears to be normal human experience. I might be a smidge more absent-minded than some folks, but it doesn’t get in the way of life, and even W- forgets a mug of hot water in the microwave occasionally. Besides, I enjoy working around the limitations of my brain by taking notes and tweaking the way I live.

This is probably why I enjoy reading research into the brain. It turns out that there are many possible explanations for absent-mindedness. There are different ways to measure it, and even a few ways to play around with it.

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy #research

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy #research

When I read through the research, I feel oddly optimistic. Even though I know I’m likely to get more absent-minded as I grow older, I also know that experience, mindfulness, more deliberate responses, and good habits using external-memory systems can help a lot.

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness – index card #fuzzy

I notice that I respond to the fuzziness in my brain with curiosity instead of frustration. I like this attitude, and I hope to keep it as I go through life. Instead of getting frustrated with myself, I get a good laugh out of the little mishaps (oh hey, I’ve put the plates where the saucers usually go; I can see how that happened!), and I explore it to learn more. So a bit of both, I guess: accept the fuzziness and hack around it.

Besides, the incidents aren’t that frequent. They’re just more prominent in my memory because I pay attention to them. =)

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life – index card #fuzzy

Actually, it works out really nicely that I’m thinking about this at this time. I know people around me also experience absent-mindedness, so I don’t have to have a hypochrondiac’s worry about early-onset diseases. (Although if we get to the point where this does actually get in the way of an awesome life, I’ll be sure to ask for help.) Instead, since I keep my life relatively smooth (low stress, plenty of sleep), I have a baseline of feeling good. That lets me notice changes more clearly, instead of the changes getting obscured in the noise of perpetual sleep deprivation or constant background stress. It also means that I can think of fuzzy-brain moments as temporary, local, and impersonal, and I can use my non-fuzzy times to figure out how to make the fuzzy times even better.

What are some things that could make absent-minded moments better?

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy

I might need to wait for better technology for some of these ideas, but most of the ideas are ready to go. Putting things in the wrong places is a minor inconvenience, and safety hasn’t been a big issue for me yet. I’ll probably focus on fuzzy memory and observation, looking for ways to take notes on or automate the things I do. For example, I’ve added notes on how to find and deploy code to the TODO lists for my personal projects, since I might go a few months without thinking about them. Notes also help with checking and monitoring. As I gain more experience and develop those systems and habits, that will help with brain fog as well. I trust my lists to help me with task disruption, and I keep lots of buffers in my life to soften the impact of forgetting. It’s a fascinating balance between taking things slowly and keeping things interesting enough so that my brain doesn’t go into too much of an automatic mode.

It’s odd how taking this kind of perspective changes how I experience forgetfulness. Instead of thinking to myself, “Where did I put those keys? I suck!”, I find myself thinking, “Oh look! I wonder what I’ll learn from this one…” We’ll see!

A constant observer

May 29, 2015 - Categories: reflection

I notice that even when I’m fuzzy-brained, there’s a part of me that observes it curiously. Even when I move slowly, tired, there’s a part of me that savours it. Even when it’s like there’s a big fuzzy blanket on my mind, there’s a tiny part that looks forward to being able to think about it.

I like having that little observer, the one who turns all sorts of things into learning experiences. I wonder how I can get even better at this.

In terms of drawing: Sometimes I feel a little odd circling around similar thoughts, like what to do when I’m fuzzy. But it’s okay to do so, especially if doing so clears away the surface thoughts so that I can notice little things to be curious about.

In terms of writing: If I have a bunch of posts scheduled, then I tend to skip writing when I’m fuzzy. But maybe that’s when I should write, so that I can remember what that fuzziness is like and dig into it deeper. There’s plenty of information out there already, so it’s okay for me to take some time to explore the things I haven’t figured out myself – even if they’re simple for other people.

In terms of learning: I like reading research. I pick up tools for understanding, and I can place my experiences within a bigger context. The more I read research, the easier it gets. I tend to be more interested in research than in popular science books or other non-fiction these days. Maybe it’s because the abstracts for research are so concise, and the occasional full-text article that I get to read goes into more detail than books usually do. Hmm, maybe I should learn more about the library’s research resources…

In terms of self-observation: Stoicism talks a fair bit about this. It might be interesting to make myself a reflection guide to use especially when I’m fuzzy. Even if it means reviewing the same thoughts, that should be fine. After all, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius works well despite – perhaps even because of – the repetitive exercises.

What would it be like to have this part of me even further developed? I imagine being able to keep my calm in trying situations, and to appreciate life as it comes. I imagine being able to notice the tiny new things in each rotation. Even when I walk in circles, I can go somewhere new.

Weekly review: Week ending May 29, 2015

May 31, 2015 - Categories: review, weekly

Less sleep this week, but I used the mornings for coding, so it worked out okay. I realized that building tools for my future self is an excellent use of my time, so I’ve been thinking about what kinds of systems can help me during future fuzzy-brainness. Taking it easy otherwise.

2015-06-02a Week ending 2015-05-29 -- index card #journal #weekly output

Blog posts


Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (37.6h – 22%)
    • Earn (8.2h – 21% of Business)
      • Prepare invoice
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (29.4h – 78% of Business)
      • Drawing (7.2h)
      • Paperwork (0.0h)
      • Fix key renaming in record data
      • Set up PDA environment
      • Make an Angular page that displays buttons for recording my most common tasks
      • Explore CouchDB
      • List all the categories below the recommended one
      • Create quick way to track grocery items
      • Provide quick command feedback
      • Match partially
      • Handle authentication on the server side
      • Fix select
      • Distinguish substring and exact
      • Fix command handling
      • Clean up data
    • Connect (0.0h – 0% of Business)
  • Relationships (3.7h – 2%)
  • Discretionary – Productive (5.0h – 2%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Renew
    • Review Createspace
    • Verify Jen’s public key by calling
    • Writing (2.9h)
  • Discretionary – Play (27.9h – 16%)
  • Personal routines (26.4h – 15%)
  • Unpaid work (11.6h – 6%)
  • Sleep (55.7h – 33% – average of 8.0 per day)