Category Archives: analysis

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Thinking about outsourcing transcription or doing it myself

I like reading much more than I like listening to someone talk, and much, much more than listening to myself talk. Text can be quickly read and shared. Audio isn’t very searchable. Besides, I still need to work on breathing between sentences and avoiding the temptation to let a sentence run on and on because another cool idea has occurred to me. Perhaps that’s what I’d focus on next, if I ever resume Toastmasters; my prepared speeches can be nice and tight, but my ad-libbed ones wander. More pausing needed.

So. Transcription. I could do it myself. I type quickly. Unfortunately, I speak quite a bit faster than I type, so I usually need to slow it down to 50% and rewind occasionally. ExpressScribe keyboard shortcuts are handy. I’ve remapped rewind to Ctrl-H so that I don’t need to take my fingers off the home row. But there’s still the there’s the argh factor of listening to myself. This is useful for reminding me to breathe, yes, but it only takes five minutes for me to get that point. ;) The other night, it took me an hour to get through fifteen minutes, which is slower than I expected. An hour-long podcast interview should take about four hours of work, then.

I could use transcription as an excuse to train Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11, the dictation software I’d bought but for this very purpose but haven’t used as much as I thought I would. It recognizes many words, but I have a lot of training to do before I get it up to speed, and I still need to edit. This would be a time investment for uncertain rewards. I still need to time how long it takes me to dictate and edit a segment.

Foot pedals would be neat, particularly if I could reprogram them for other convenient shortcuts. Three-button pedals cost from $50-$130, not including shipping. In addition to using it to stop, play, and rewind recordings, I’d love to use it for scrolling webpages or pressing modifier keys. I often work with two laptops, so it’s tempting. (And then there’s the idea of learning how to build my own human interface device using the Arduino… ) – UPDATE: I’ve built one using the Arduino! I can’t wait to try it out.

In terms of trading money for time, I’ve been thinking about trying Casting Words, which is an Amazon Mechanical Turk-based business that slices up submitted files into short chunks. Freelancers work on transcribing these chunks, which are then reassembled and edited. The budget option costs USD 0.75 per audio minute, which means an hour-long interview will cost about USD 45 to transcribe. That option doesn’t have a guaranteed turnaround, though, so I could be waiting for weeks. In addition, I tend to talk quickly, so that might trigger a “Difficult Audio” surcharge of another USD 0.75 per minute, or about USD 90 per audio hour.

For better quality at a higher price, I could work with other transcription companies. For example, Transcript Divas will transcribe audio for CAD 1.39/minute, and they guarantee a 3-day turnaround (total for 1 hour: CAD 83.40). Production Transcripts charges USD 2.05/minute for phone interviews.

I could hire a contractor through oDesk or similar services. One of the benefits of hiring someone is that he or she can become familiar with my voice and way of speaking. Pricing is based on effort instead of a flat rate per audio minute, and it can vary quite a bit. One of my virtual assistants took 14 hours to transcribe three recordings that came to 162 minutes total. At $5.56 per work hour, that came to $0.48 per audio minute, or $28 per audio hour. oDesk contractors are usually okay with an as-needed basis, which is good because I’ve scaled down my talks a lot. (I enjoy writing more!)

So here are the options:

  • Type it myself: 4 hours of discretionary time
  • Dictation: Unknown hours of discretionary time, possible training improvements for Dragon NaturallySpeaking
  • Foot pedals: Probably down to 3.5 hours / audio hour, but requires a little money; hackability
  • Casting Words: USD 90 per audio hour, unknown timeframe
  • Transcript Divas: CAD 84 per audio hour, 3-day turnaround
  • Contractor: Can be around USD 30 per audio hour, depending on contractor

I’m going to go with dictating into Dragon NaturallySpeaking because I need to train it before I can get a sense of how good it is. It takes advantage of something I already own and am underusing. Who knows, if I can get the hang of this, I might use it to control more functionality. We’ll see!

Decision: Piano lessons?

My last piano lesson is on Thursday, so I’m thinking about whether or not to sign up for more lessons, take lessons elsewhere, or do something else.

Benefits from the past three lessons:

  • Motivated to practise daily because of accountability and because I was paying for lessons
  • Picked up new exercises (two-octave scales, triads)
  • Paid more attention to dynamics, timing, and staccato
  • Got through pieces at a faster rate than I might have on my own
  • Worked on to playing staccato with one hand and legato with the other – shifted to listening to the music and imagining what I want it to be
  • Dealt with some more nervousness

Costs:

  • CAD 20-25 per 30-minute lesson
  • Time for actual session (30 minutes + 20 minutes of walking total)
  • Practice time (30-60 minutes each day, or 3-6 hours)

Considerations:

  • I’m only interested in playing casually, so I don’t mind not doing dynamics or a lot of other things. I just want enough music to relax my brain and nudge my imagination.
  • I might focus on learning chords and favourite songs instead. The things I’ve been learning in class didn’t really get me closer to playing Still Alive, but I can learn that by patience and careful practice.
  • I’m actually not that keen on my goal to finish all the exercises in this piano book. It would probably feel good, but I don’t mind putting this on hold and focusing on other interests such as writing and drawing

Options:

A. Finish this set of lessons, then switch to learning on my own. I can find Youtube videos of the pieces in my piano book, which will help me with timing. I may also try different pieces. I might continue my experiment with regular practice times and see how far that gets me.

B. Give the lessons another month. Possibly talk to the teacher to see if I can refocus the lesson on the parts that motivate me more.

C. Shop around – try different teachers. Can do this, but I’m less inclined to do so.

D. Dial down piano and dial up a different interest. Writing. Drawing. Latin. Volunteering. There’s a lot I can do with time and a little money set aside for learning.

I’m leaning towards D with a touch of A, maybe practising every other day and working on other interests the rest of the time. Blogging it here to remember my reasons for decisions. =)

2011-08-09 Tue 20:25

Thinking about activities to share with others

Over the past two weeks, I had been planning to go see Hugh Jackman’s concert with some friends. Apparently, he can sing quite well.

I found myself hesitating even as I juggled coupon codes and RSVPs. With a week to go and seats selling out, I ended up deciding not to go. I realized that I’d rather spend a quiet evening with W- or by myself than watch a concert.

One of my friends really wanted to go. He asked me if there was anything stopping W- from watching with us. I replied that it wasn’t really W-’s kind of thing. Come to think of it, concerts aren’t particularly my kind of thing either.

That made me think about what activities I might share with friends, and about introversion and friendship.

It’s easy to reflect on this because J- provides good contrast. She’s on her summer break. At 13 years old, she’s independent enough to choose her own activities, such as sketching at home or walking over to friends’ houses. She’s comfortable spending time on her own, but she lights up when she hangs out with friends. Not a day goes by without a get-together.

I remember being a bit like that: enjoying lunch with friends at school, inviting people to our house for snacks, suggesting things to do and movies to watch. But I’m also really comfortable by myself or with W- and J-, so it takes effort to organize or go to get-togethers.

Time to break out a tool that I sometimes use to help J- think of ideas: the list. If I think about activities I can share with other people, then it might be easier to get out there and do it, and it might make it easier for other people to share activities with me.

Some ideas:

  • Concerts and symphony performances: Probably not. They tend to be more expensive, too.
  • Musicals: Very rarely. I enjoyed “Evil Dead” and “Wicked” greatly, and sprung for the awesomest tickets I could get. Other musicals tend to be .
  • Opera: I like opera. Watching opera makes the music come alive for me. I prefer community opera by the Toronto Opera Repertory over the Canadian Opera Company. Maybe it’s the memories (the particularly awesome date with W- that kicked all of this off). Maybe it’s knowing that the singers are doing this on top of their other lives.
  • Movies: Hmm. I watch some movies in theatres because I want to vote for them with my dollars or because I think the theatre experience will be worth it (usually great effects or decent 3D). Watching a movie is a fairly passive sort of experience, though.
  • Movies at home: I much prefer watching movies at home, actually – a cat or two on my lap, subtitles, the ability to pause it whenever, a comfortable couch, maybe laundry to fold… The library is awesome.
  • Exercise: Biking. Walking around. I’d be up for that, even if biking involves relatively little conversation unless there’s some sort of picnic.
  • Cooking: Definitely. I wish more of my friends organized potlucks, or were up to coming over for one. In the meantime, I host tea parties as an excuse to prepare interesting recipes. I enjoy the process of cooking, particularly when I’m sharing it with other people, and I like sharing the results.
  • Writing/reading/drawing/sewing: I think it would be really cool to share more of my learning activities with friends. I might be up for a book club, for example. Or a writing group with exercises. Or drawing lessons. Or sewing lessons, although I’m more keen on writing, reading, and drawing. =) I’d much rather develop skills than consume experiences.

It’s a little weird working on understanding this. J- plans the other way around: she calls people and invites them to hang out, and then they figure out what to do. I feel the influence of my introversion here. I often prefer to spend time writing (look! here I am) than hanging out.

I suspect it’s good to put myself in the way of learning from other people’s lives, though, especially since many people share their lives in conversation and not online. Maybe it’ll come in time. (I’m starting to have parent-y conversations about summer enrichment!)

What activities do you share with other people?

Mindful spending, experiments, and living in line with your values

A friend was thinking about splurging on an event that included an 8-course dinner for $95. He wrote, “I’d like to go, but that’s more than I’ve ever paid for a single meal. Thoughts?” He said that he had justified past splurges by telling himself, “Well, I’ve spent money on more frivolous things before.” He didn’t need to see me give him The Look to know that this was not the best way to go forward. I gave him plenty of advice, and here are additional reflections.

I think about spending carefully. If I can spend on the right things, minimize spending on the wrong things, and learn as much as I can from getting it right or wrong, I’ll enjoy better quality of life than I would otherwise. 

One of the techniques I use is something I picked up from Your Money or Your Life (Dominguez and Robin, 1999) – there’s an excellent blog post series on The Simple Dollar for people who want to catch up. I calculate the discretionary value of my time and use that to see if things are worth the time it takes to earn the money for them. One way to do this is by taking your income, subtracting taxes, fixed expenses, and work-related expenses, and dividing it by the number of hours you spend working or preparing to work. I like an even stricter measure. I look at the discretionary part of my bi-weekly savings allocations – that’s after taxes, savings, retirement, and other categories. I divide that by 14 days, so that I can easily get an idea of how much of a typical week, month, or year I might be committing to a purchase. This is actually a small number, because I take so much off the top for savings – less than a dollar per hour, which is why I calculate by day instead. ;) Then I can easily get a sense of how large a part of my year something will take up, and whether I think it will be worth it.

I often write down the options I’m considering and the costs, benefits, and consequences of each. For example, when I was thinking about replacing my laptop battery, I listed the options and estimated the value differences of each. I sometimes do this even for small decisions because I learn so much about my preferences and values along the way. I consider intangibles, too, and I use this technique for non-financial decisions as well. Sometimes I’m looking for a clear winner, and sometimes I’m interested in just writing my thoughts down and seeing what I’m leaning towards.

I also review my decisions to see how things turned out and if I need to tweak things further in the future. For example: clothes from Value Village, yes; compost accelerator, no; watching movie in a theatre by myself, maybe (better if I get together with friends). If something turns out to be really worth it (or really not worth it), then I learn a lot. This also helps me avoid analysis paralysis, because even if I’m not certain about a decision, I’m sure I’ll learn something from it. In fact, the more uncertain I am, the more I’ll learn – a tip I picked up from How to Measure Anything (Hubbard, 2007), which defined a measurement as whatever reduces uncertainty. Your Money or Your Life also encourages people to review their monthly budget and expenses to see which categories they want to increase or decrease depending on what contributes to their life. The practice of reviewing decisions is key to making better ones.

I sometimes nudge myself towards action using the First Circus principle, a family favourite. Not only does this tend to lead to interesting experiences, but this also takes advantage of some psychological biases. We’re more likely to regret things we didn’t do more than ones we did, and we’re also more likely to notice the presence of something (in this case, joy or disappointment) than to figure out the subtler effects of deciding not to do something.

Those are decision-making tactics. Strategy, on the other hand, involves getting a better idea of what I value, enjoy, want to become, want to support, and so on. That’s a great learning adventure, too. The more I learn about what I want in life, the easier it becomes to say no to the things I don’t want and to focus on the things that matter to me (and to the people who matter to me).

It’s all about getting better at making decisions – with money, with work, with love, with life, with everything. You’ll make tons of decisions over time, so developing your decision-making skills pays off tremendously. Money is a good way to practise: a finite resource (particularly if you think of it in terms of time) that you can choose to spend in line with your values.

How do you make spending decisions?

Walking outside my comfort zone – bike? push/kick scooter?

This walking-around-a-strange-city has its pluses and minuses. Plus: I got to see Denver’s downtown pedestrian zones and how they’ve set up the 16th Street Mall with plenty of trees and benches. Minus: My phone was dead, so I didn’t have GPS, and I hadn’t fixed and brought my MintyBoost yet, and I didn’t have a physical map. I missed my stop on the way back and ended up walking an extra 4.5km. Easy enough to plan for next time. On my next trip, I’ll definitely bring a power supply!

While walking around, I thought about what would make exploration easier. GPS and offline maps are definitely big ones, which probably means just making sure that I can recharge my smartphone on the go.

The thing with walking is that if you make a mistake or you miss a stop, it takes a long time to get back on track. On a car, you can swing around quickly and be halfway across town in a few minutes. On a bicycle, you can still cover a lot of ground. Walking? Trudge trudge trudge trudge. In the dark, this can be a little scary.

Walking also means I can’t cover that much ground. I know I can take a taxi, but I find it hard to shake the idea that taxis are a luxury. ;) Public transit is good, but the schedules can be tricky. CoPilot Live for Android shows me where the nearest bus stop is. As long as I keep the last bus times in mind, I’m pretty okay with asking for directions and waiting a bit at stops.

Reasons why it might be worth hacking this:

It would be really awesome to reduce anxiety. I get fidgety if I’m walking by myself and there are few people around. Public transit schedules tend to have gaps, and sometimes it’s hard to find a place where I can get a cab. (Which of these roads will lead to a hotel? Hmm.) If I’m on a bike, I can cover more distances myself, with the trade-off that I’ll just be worried about accidents. (Bright lights, reflective tape, road caution, helmets?) Even a push scooter might get me quickly from a silent patch to someplace with more light and/or people.

It would be great to not take cabs to client sites. Yes, I know, it’s a business expense. But I still take public transit whenever possible, even if I don’t benefit from the savings. Part of it is being aware of the moral hazard of a company expense account (when you change your behaviour knowing someone else is footing the bill), and part of it is fighting the hedonic treadmill (when you get used to a level of consumption).

It would be great to see more of the places I stay at. Might as well, I’m there already. I’m an odd sort of traveller, though. I’m not driven to take my picture beside famous landmarks. I don’t collect knick-knacks. I occasionally meet up with people, but I’m also fine connecting virtually. I do like checking out thrift stores. I can’t stand paying retail, and browsing through people’s donations gives me a little idea of what people are like.

I’m probably looking at two or three solo trips over the next year and some light use back home. No big deal – the null option (listed below) might still be cheaper.

How can I cover more ground and reduce the cost of making mistakes?

What about renting bikes? Most cities have bike rentals. I’m not sure if I can generally take advantage of them – time, familiarity. Well, maybe a handlebar mount for my Android, and spare power in case I need to charge up? If the weather forecast didn’t call for thunderstorms this week, I might’ve borrowed a bike and used it to get around.

What about a folding bike? Two of my friends take folding bicycles with them on trips. That might work, too, because then I won’t have to think about rental hours or availability. I tend to pack light. My travel clothes fit in my carry-on, which means I can keep the suitcase for the bicycle. A bicycle would give me better range and might come in handy if I can’t hitch a ride with a coworker. Would a folding bicycle be worth the investment? It will primarily be useful for solo air travel, and I don’t plan to take more than two or three such trips over the next year. (Note: Watch out for airline fees!) It may also be useful for subway or bus-assisted trips – not the one to work, but maybe when visiting friends. If it’s light enough, I might also use it for short trips in spring and fall, when my town cruiser is hung on the bike rack.

How can I test this idea?

  • Bikeshare program: Cheapest, if available. Will need helmet and lock. May have a hard time adjusting bike height. Dependent on bike sharing locations – usually only downtown core.
  • Rentals: Inexpensive for trips shorter than 1 week. Dependent on bike availability, rental shop hours, and location.
  • Bringing bike over: $100+/trip + bike packing materials. May be difficult to get from the airport to the hotel with a bicycle and a suitcase. Larger van, more costly?
  • Shipping bike over: Some people ship their bikes by FedEx or UPS. This is a little scary, though, and requires that I find a mailing store for the way back.
  • Folding bike: $400-500, maybe more? Might be easier to lug, though. Airline bike fees might mean that renting would be cheaper. Plus side: it will be my height, and I don’t have to worry about different brake systems.
  • Taxi/bus: The null option is worth keeping in mind, given the few times I might want a bicycle. This is really about making sure I have emergency power for my phone, the phone number for local taxi companies, and enough cash in case they don’t take credit cards.

What about push scooters? Other people swear by them, as they fold up smaller and are lighter than even the lightest folding bikes. A folded-up scooter is less bulky than a folded-up bicycle, and many models can be rolled along like strollers or shopping carts. Pushing myself might be interesting given the flat shoes I typically wear, though – I might change into a pair of sneakers. A push scooter would primarily be useful for getting around town on solo trips in conjuction with public transit. It might also be useful for going to the library or to the grocery store for quick trips, and for getting to the subway station when I’m not biking to work (when rain is expected, or if my bike’s still up on the rack). I walk to the supermarket or library about twice a week, but this is usually a social walk with W- and J- too.

How can I test this idea?

  • Check out the push scooters in Toronto. Check prices, feel, etc. Rainbow Songs (Roncesvalles) sells the Xootr Mg Push Scooter with fender/brake for $243.78. It’s ~$229 in the US, so it looks like getting it in Canada will be fine, although the US will have more choice. There’s also the Razor A5, which Toys R Us sells. Advantage of being short: I can raid the teens’ scooter lineup, although the perks of grown-up scooters look tempting.
  • Check scooter prices in the US. Plan to spend an extra day looking around, perhaps? Maybe I can visit friends and have stuff shipped.
  • Walking. The null alternative to a scooter would simply be more walking, maybe with extra power for my phone/GPS or a separate GPS unit with longer battery life. Extra power for phone seems like a better bet, so that I can call a cab if needed – and I’ve got the MintyBoost for that, I just need to fix the electrical short.

If the forecasted thunderstorm lightens up, I’m going to take the bus down into Boulder tonight to check out some of their thrift stores and to try the dining options along Pearl street. While there, I can think about which of the options would have given me the most benefit.

Hmm. Thoughts? Experiences? Advice?

2011-05-17 Tue 14:37

Stuff or experiences

Soha wanted to know what I thought about the differences between spending on stuff and experiences. This took me several drafts to figure out, and I don’t think I’m all the way to a clear understanding yet, but I’m trying to say something I haven’t really found in the personal finance books and blogs I read.

Stuff or experiences? Neither. It’s a false dichotomy, and one that often starts with the wrong question: “What will make me happy?” If you aren’t happy, it’s very difficult to buy happiness. Probably impossible.

What will make me happier than I am now?” – is that a better question? Not really. What’s “happier”, anyway, but something that draws an ever-moving line between you and some ideal?

I like this question instead: “What do I want to learn more about?” No guarantee of happiness, no pursuit of happiness, just curiosity. Happiness doesn’t have to be pursued. It just is. Happiness can be a chosen, developed response. So what I decide to spend money or time on is determined more by what I’m curious about.

I confess to having a strong distrust for people trying to sell me ways to happiness. A designer handbag won’t make me happy (or happier). Neither will a three-week vacation of idle relaxation on a pristine beach. Quite possibly even an enlightening weekly course on meditation wouldn’t do the trick. My life will be a good life even if I never stay in the best suite in a five star hotel, see the aurora borealis, or learn to fly a plane (ideas from Richard Horne’s “101 Things to Do Before You Die”, which does have amusing forms). It will simply be different if I do, and that only matters if I can do something with the experiences and ideas I pick up and recombine.

In fact, I’d rather spend on stuff – the raw ingredients of an experience – than on pre-packaged experiences. I’d rather spend on groceries for experiments than on a fancy meal at a restaurant or a cooking class with a famous chef. I’d rather spend on lumber and tools to build a chair, than spend on a cottage rental. Turns out this is based on sound psychological principles: we value what we work on more than what we buy. (For more on this, read Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality.”)

You can’t untangle good stuff from experiences. The bag of bread flour I buy leads to the experience of making home-made buns, the experience of enjoying them with W-, and the lasting enjoyment of developing skills and relationships. Fabric and thread become simple gifts accompanied by stories.

Besides, it doesn’t have to be the question of what you want to spend money on. That’s just a matter of budgeting. Many things are possible, but you may save up a little longer for things that require more money. What it really comes down to is a question of time: do you want to do this more than other things you could do? (For example: yes to cooking and gardening; a theoretical yes to improv, but it’s not as high as other things on my list, so I focus on other things; no to the massage deals I see on dealradar.com when I wander by.) If yes, then budget appropriately. Don’t get distracted by low-cost, low-value activities or expenses. (Or worse: high-cost, low-value ones.)

If you feel you’ve made a mistake about spending, don’t beat yourself up over it. Learn and make better decisions next time. Not saddling yourself with consumer debt helps, as debt has a way of multiplying regrets. Stuff can be second-guessed more than experiences can, but it’s even better to break the habit of second-guessing yourself. Think of your sunk costs as tuition. You’ve paid for the learning, now go and use it.

Money can be considered in terms of time, too. Is the incremental benefit you might get worth the opportunity cost of enjoying other things earlier, the compounding growth you may give up, or the corresponding days of freedom in the future? (For me: yes to some wedding photography in order to reduce friction, but no need to get the top wedding photographer; yes to a wonderful bicycle I feel comfortable with; no to the latest version of the Lenovo tablet, although I may reconsider in a year or two.)

Stuff or experiences? Start with what you want, not what other people want to sell you. Treat it as an ongoing experiment. Evaluate your purchases and improve your decisions. Think about what you want to spend your time on, not just money. Good luck!

2011-04-24 Sun 16:45