Category Archives: decision

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Quantified Awesome: Squishing my excuses

I’ve been fiddling with Quantified Awesome, this personal dashboard that I’m building so that I can keep track of what’s going on in my life and use that data to make it even more awesome. For example:

  • Tracking my time helps me make sure work doesn’t tempt me too much, and that I make time for both personal projects as well as connecting with other people. It also helps me improve my time estimates: How much time does it really take to walk to the subway station? How instant are instant noodles?
  • Tracking library books reminds me before they’re overdue, helps me collect my reading history, and gives me a greater appreciation for where my tax dollars go.
  • Tracking my clothes helps me remember to wear different types of clothes more often, makes it easier to donate items I don’t typically wear, and encourages me to try new combinations.
  • Tracking the produce we get from community-supported agriculture helps us avoid waste.
  • Tracking stuff helps me remember where infrequently-accessed items are.

It turns out that other people are interested in this too. 21 people have signed up through my “I’ll e-mail you when I figure out how to get this ready for other people” page, and my mom wants to use it too. That’s awesome!

Now I have to go ahead and actually build it so that other people can use it. That’s scary.

And like the way I deal with other scary, intimidating, procrastination-inducing things, I’m going to list my excuses here, so that I can shine a light on those assumptions and watch them scurry away like the cockroaches they are and, if necessary, squishing them with a well-applied flipflop.

  • Excuse #1: Idiosyncrasy. The way I work might be really weird, and other people may not be able to figure out what to do.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? “I have no idea how this works!” I end up with lots of crufty special cases because I can’t figure out how to reconcile different ways of working.
    • What’s the best case? I adapt the system to the way other people work, and I get inspired by what they do. I build a lovely, flexible web app and API.
  • Excuse #2: Risk. I’m fine with loading my own data into an experimental system, but if I mess up and delete other people’s data, I’ll feel terrible. Also, they might trigger bugs.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? Catastrophic data failure, nothing saved.
    • What’s the best case? Regular backups help me recover from any major mishaps, and careful coding avoids more common mistakes.
  • Excuse #3: Support. I’m going to spend more time handling bug reports and feature requests, and less time building little things that might be useful only for me.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? People get annoyed and frustrated because I’m currently focused on other things, like my work.
    • What’s the best case? I get the system to become mostly usable for people, and I use my discretionary time to build more features. People’s requests inspire me to build more stuff and create more value.
  • Excuse #4: Documentation. I’ll need to write documentation, or at the very least online help. This means confronting the less-than-intuitive parts of the system. ;)
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? I describe what currently exists, get frustrated because I want to improve it, and end up cycling between updating documentation and improving the system.
    • What’s the best case? I describe what currently exists, and end up improving it along the way. I build online help into the system so that it’s easy to change. There’s a blog that helps people learn about updates, too.
  • Excuse #5: Offline access. A web-based time tracker might be of limited use if you don’t have web access often. I’ve been working on an offline HTML5 interface, but it’s still buggy.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? Early testers try it out, but get frustrated because of the lack of offline access.
    • What’s the best case? I figure out the HTML5 offline thing. Someone else might be interested in building a native app, and we work together on fleshing out an API.
  • Excuse #6: Impatience. If I bring people on too early, they might get annoyed with a buggy system, and lose interest.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? People give it a cursory try, and give up in annoyance.
    • What’s the best case? Early users are extraordinarily patient. We figure out a minimal viable product for each of them – the simplest thing that could possibly support what they want to do. Over time, things keep getting better and better. Also, I build a decent export interface, so even if people move on to a different system, they’ll still have their data.
  • Excuse #7: Privacy and control. A bug might accidentally expose people’s information, which is not fun. I also don’t want to have to police the system for objectionable content, considering the thumbnail uploads.
    • What’s the worst-case scenario? Someone’s private notes get accidentally published.
    • What’s the best case? People sign on knowing that I might have bugs, and don’t save any super-secret or inappropriate information on the system.

Okay. I think I can deal with that. So, what are the smallest, least-intimidating steps I need to take in order to get closer to opening up?

  • Write a quick test to make sure that people’s data will stay private. We’ll make people’s accounts private by default, although mine will stay mostly-public.
  • Make a list of things that people should be able to do right now. (Not including new functionality!) Gradually write tests to nail down that behaviour.
  • Make a list of things that people may want to do some day. Eventually set up an issue tracker.
  • Enable Devise’s invitable feature so that I can set up accounts for people easily.
  • Doublecheck backups.
  • Bring one person on. Then the next, then the next…

It will still be better than nothing, it will be a good learning experience, and participation is purely voluntary anyway.

One step at a time.

Comparing Plan B Organic Farms with Cooper’s Farm CSA

After two seasons with Plan B Organic Farms, we’ve discovered a range of new recipes and learned that we can survive an invasion of beets. This winter, we decided to experiment with a different community-supported agriculture program. We chose Cooper’s Farm because they offered delivery, which will be handy when it starts snowing.

Plan B Organic Farms has a depot a block away from our house, and offers a box of organic produce for $25 a week. Cooper’s Farm offers delivery for $24.86 (including the delivery fee).

We received our first delivery from Cooper’s Farm this morning, neatly packed in a box. In total, the produce weighed 10.19kg, for a cost of $2.44/kg. Here’s the breakdown:

carrots 1476g
cabbage 3494g
onions 1380g
potatoes 1468g
sweet potatoes 651g
tomatoes 844g
turnips 878g

In comparison, here’s today’s box from Plan B Organic Farms (total: 5.85kg, $4.27/kg):

lettuce 355g
broccoli 734g
cabbage 1923g
tortillas 270g
onions 516g
acorn squash 989g
blueberries 170g
tomatoes 393g
apples 416g
garlic 83g

During the fall season, we received an average of 6.57kg from Plan B Organic Farms (stdev = 1.12kg), composed of 11 different types of produce on average. The fall shares included some imported items (kiwi, avocado, etc.) to add variety.

Plan B Organic Farms produce was generally good, but occasionally of poor quality: squishy tomatoes, apples with soft spots, and so on. Still, it helped us get more vegetables into our diet, so it was worth it. Cooper’s Farm CSA has been okay so far (except for one potato that we ended up chucking), although the produce required a lot more scrubbing.

It looks like Cooper’s Farm CSA gives us more local produce for our buck, but with less variety. We’ll see how the rest of it goes this season!

Decision review: Decision review

In September, I wrote about how I could get better at making decisions. I switched to organizing my decisions in a separate text file for ease of review, and I planned to ask myself the following questions after a quarter:

  • How many decisions have I written about?
  • How many decisions have I reviewed?
  • How many notes have I published?
  • How have I used my notes to help improve my decision-making?

Well, that quarter has passed, so let’s see how things turned out!

Since my blog post about decisions, I’ve posted nine entries in my decision category. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • described 1 pending decision
  • described 5 current / near past decisions
  • reviewed 2 decisions from a year ago
  • reviewed 1 decision from four years ago

There are eight decisions in my file that I haven’t published. Some of them are still being fleshed out, others are small, and a few are for private reference.

I find that the most helpful time is to write about decisions while I’m considering alternatives instead of long after the decision event, although I often wait to publish my notes until I have preliminary results. Decision roundups like this nine-decision review are fun to write, too, and my text file makes it easier for me to see which decisions are current and which ones I’ve archived.

I like writing about decisions. Formally describing the alternatives I’m considering helps me identify and test more of them. The same goes for assumptions. Writing down my reasons for a decision lets me go back and review them, and it also helps me calibrate my decision-making once I figure out the results.

Many of my decision-related posts have led to conversations where I’ve either helped someone else make a better decision or I’ve received tips from other people – and often both, and often within a few days of posting. Score one for sharing decisions.

Good decision. Would make again.

Upcoming decision: Considering different cellphone plans for J-

J- currently uses a prepaid cellphone with Virgin Mobile in order to coordinate with us, her mom, and her friends. She’s had it for a while and has been pretty good at using it, although we’re not happy with Virgin Mobile’s billing and credits system. We’re looking around for a better cellphone plan for her, ideally something that limits the risks of accidental charges while allowing important contacts any time.

Mobilicity’s current 50% promotion looks tempting. Their least expensive plan is $12.50/month for unlimited talk and text assuming 12 months’ preauthorized credit, although you’ll also need to add the cost of the phone (probably $99.99). That comes out to around $250 plus tax for the year.

A comparable plan would be WIND Mobile’s Smart plan ($25/month) with unlimited calls and text. The phone would be almost free (put on the Wind Tab and paid off through phone use), so we’d be looking at $300 plus tax for the year.

Like Mobilicity, WIND offers a small discount for multiple accounts. I’m occasionally tempted to check out Wind Mobile’s $29 unlimited talk/text/data plan, although (a) I’m almost always in WiFi zone, (b) the Kindle is handy for looking things up if I really, really need to, and (c) the Nexus One battery life is a bit short, so I won’t be doing a lot of mobile browsing on the rare occasions that I’m outside a wireless network. I may switch within the next year, but I don’t mind holding out until then, as the promotional rate is good for only one year.

Will network coverage be sufficient? Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the glossy maps published by cellphone companies. Coverage Mapper shows user-generated data for Mobilicity and WIND Mobile. Our neighbourhood, J-‘s school, and her mom’s place look like they’ll mostly be okay.

Decisions, decisions…

Decision review: Scheduling posts and using themes

I started using Posts Calendar to plan my blog while preparing for our trip to the Philippines. I wanted to schedule posts, and I also wanted to neatly organize a 15-part blog series so that people knew what to expect. Even after we returned from our trip, I continued using Posts Calendar to organize my posts into rough themes.

Before I started using this editorial calendar plugin, I mostly managed my posts using a modified WordPress post index that gave me some additional information. I wanted to avoid flooding people with lots of posts, so I set it up to warn me if I’d double-posted and also if I had gaps between posts. This is what that interface looked like:

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With Post Calendar, my admin interface looks like this:

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It’s much easier to move posts around, to see gaps, and to get nudged into making patterns. Hence: quantified self / tracking posts on Mondays, blogging-related tips on Thursdays, decision reviews on Fridays, and weekly reviews on Saturdays or Sundays depending on when I get to do them. Tuesdays are a good time to post other bits and pieces, like items from feeds and books, or a round-up of other thoughts that don’t merit their own blog posts yet. Sundays might be for telling stories from life.

This involves more structure than I’ve used on my blog in the past. I started by posting notes as soon as I wrote them, which was a little overwhelming. I limited my blog to around one post per day, but the occasional topic sprints (Emacs week! Drupal week!) were probably less useful to a mixed audience. (My mom skips most of my geek posts, although she occasionally checks out a few.) With this kind of plan, I think I’m making it easier for people to pick which topics they’re interested in and tweak their reading habits without necessarily learning the ins and outs of category-based feed subscriptions.

The plan helps me remember to write about different parts of life, too. Like the way status meetings help motivate me to make regular progress each week on projects, regular blog posts nudge me to keep moving along. It’s a little like the 20-mile march described by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in the recently-published book Great by Choice. Regular progress can be much more effective than sprints and waits. Knowing I want to post something about self-tracking every week, I make time to work on my systems and analyze my data. Knowing I want to review a decision or think through a future decision every week, I keep an eye out for opportunities to do so. I should dedicate a day to sharing things I’m learning at work, so that I get into the habit of posting those regularly as well.

Because I tend to write about what’s going on in my life today instead of trying to write “timeless” articles, sometimes I feel odd about posting screenshots or stories that might be dated. I still keep personal notes in any sort of order, so I’m not losing stories or ideas because of the blog structure. The value I get from reviewing chronological printouts is a bit lower now that blog posts are less tied to the time they happened, but I might play around with other methods for supporting memories. Despite the disadvantages, I think the system is working well for me.

Conclusion: For me, this is a good decision so far. A possible next step is to post more frequently if I find myself getting a big backlog and if my rate of writing is much higher than my rate of posting. I treat “one post a day” more as a guideline than as a rule, anyway. =)

What’s it been like for you? How can I tweak my blog to make it even easier for you or other people to enjoy it? If you blog, what are your experiences with planning or scheduling posts?

Decision review: Lenovo X220 tablet PC (with graphs!)

Mel Chua asked about my experience with tablets, so I thought I’d look at the results of getting a Lenovo X220i tablet PC last August.

J- needed a replacement laptop, so I passed along my Lenovo X61 tablet and took the opportunity to buy a new Lenovo X220i tablet. I kitted it out with maximum memory and a decent (but not solid-state) hard drive. For a while, I did my work development on it as well. After my work laptop got upgraded, I switched to using the new work laptop for development and work mail. Now I use the X220 for drawing, writing and personal projects.

The X220 arrived on September 1. From September 1 to October 27, I used it for work and life. My work laptop arrived on October 27. Here’s how that time breaks down:

September 1 to October 28 (58 days, 443 hours)
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and occasional use during our trip to the Philippines

October 29 to November 4 (7 days, 21 hours; day before time of writing)

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464 hours so far (probably undercounted)
Total cost so far $1300 = ~ $1150 + memory and hard drive ~ $150?
~ $2.80/usage hour (not including electricity, etc.) over 65 days

I think it’s definitely worth it, especially considering it’s only been two months. If I assume use of about 2-4 hours each day, that’s about 900 hours for the rest of a full year or a total of 1360 hours or so, which brings the cost per usage hour to about $1. If I use it for two or more years before replacing, cost per usage hour goes down even more.

I haven’t done as much drawing with the new computer as I thought I would, but that’s because building a personal dashboard has been filling my spare brain space, and I’ve been drawing on paper too. I should see about building in a routine of regular drawing lessons and exercises.

Other stats: I’ve been using the free Workrave program to remind myself to take breaks. One of the side benefits is that it can also report on some usage statistics, such as keystrokes and mouse clicks.

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Keystrokes are reported using the axis on the left, and mouse clicks are reported using the axis on the right. For ease of comparison, I’ve made the keystrokes scale ten times bigger than the scale of the mouse clicks. This tells me that how much I kept using my X220 for programming while I eased into using the X420 (so my work hours are undercounted in the table above), and that I used the X220 very lightly during our trip (October 4 to October 15).

Total number of keystrokes: 2,287,106, or around 450,000 words if I were typing just words instead of programming, navigating my system, deleting and replacing stuff, and so on. I’m surprised to see my mouse stats: a little over 1 mouse click for every 20 keystrokes. I’m not entirely sure how Workrave handles tablets, so a lot of that might come from drawing. Unfortunately, I don’t have stats from my X61 – it might’ve been interesting to do a comparison and see if I did end up using it much more.

Also, I now have even more appreciation for the things I can do with time-tracking and Workrave data. =) Yay multipurpose or effectively free data! Who knows, maybe I’ll even set up things like ManicTime so I can automatically track at the application level.

J- is delighted with the hand-me-down X61 and has been doing her homework on it. She’s even started taking it to school. She draws with it, too. It’s getting a lot of good use.

Conclusion: Good decision. Would make the same decision again if I needed to. In fact, would have probably gotten a new tablet at an earlier decision point. =)

Other tablet notes for helping people decide:

If you need the finer resolution, pressure sensitivity, and visual feedback of a Cintiq, it’s a terrific pro tool. If you don’t mind not being able to see your screen and you’ll usually have a flat surface to work on, a small tablet is a less expensive experiment. Tablet PCs are much, much more awesome, though – portability means actually using it more often!

History: I saved up for the Cintiq because I wanted the reassurance of being able to see what I was drawing without having to rely on hand-eye coordination. I also reasoned that keeping the drawing functionality separate from processing (so a tablet instead of a tablet PC) would make it easier for me to upgrade the processor/hardware specs, because I could just upgrade the computer it was connected to.

Getting the Cintiq was a good decision at the time. It helped me learn how to draw more quickly and more confidently. I ended up spending my drawing time downstairs, though, so I bought a small Bamboo Pen + Touch for portable experiments. I used that one from time to time on the kitchen table, but I found myself rarely using it elsewhere because I needed too much desk space, and the separated visual feedback wasn’t much fun. When I got an X61 second-hand, that was amazing, and I had much more fun drawing with it. Later, I crunched the numbers and realized that buying a current Lenovo X220 cost about the same as buying a used X61, replacing the battery, and adding other stuff. When J-’s old laptop broke, we decided to pass my X61 down to her, and I got an X220. (Which is awesome!)

In short: a tablet PC was more than worth it for me, and way more fun than a regular PC or a regular tablet. I’d recommend that as the path of least regret, although not if it involves going to debt or eating unhealthily. A small drawing tablet is a decent way to experiment, but it’s not very portable. The Cintiq is not portable at all, and doesn’t get you that much more compared to a relatively recent tablet PC. Hope that helps!