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Started gardening – April 2014

The weather finally warmed up last weekend. W- and I raked the back yard, and I started planting seeds that would likely survive just in case we get another frost. Spinach, peas, lettuce… I don’t know how well the seeds will do, but I want to get things growing again. I can’t grow anything indoors because the cats love nibbling on greens, so I’ll just have to buy my tomato and basil starts from the garden centres. In the meantime, though, I can experiment with seeds.

The soil feels better now than the sandy mix we started with, although there’s always room for improvement. We’ve added lots of compost to it over the years – mostly manure, but there was a year that our compost heap was active enough to steam. Toronto gives away leaf compost every Saturday, so we might check that out too. We’re thinking about ordering compost in bulk this year instead of getting bagged manure from the store. I’ll probably put in the compost around the time that we clear out the peas and get started with tomatoes, so I can get some sprouts going while waiting to sort all of that out.

What am I going to change this year? Here are my notes from October 2013:

Gardening notes

I changed my mind about irrigation. I think I’ll start by hand-watering the plants. It’s not that hard to do, and I’ve marked the rows a little more clearly now so I know what to expect. I probably won’t pay for a landscaping or gardening company. Maybe I can share more notes on our garden and ask folks for tips. I’m looking forward to growing more greens and herbs, and giving bitter melon yet another shot.

I planted the first batch of seeds this weekend, going through many of the leftover seeds from 1-2 years ago. After all, the seeds aren’t going to get any fresher, so I may as well plant them and see what sticks. Some of them germinate in a week, so let’s see if there’ll be any progress.

Yay growing things! (Well, eventually. =) )

Rethinking my time categories: the blurring of business and discretionary activities

I track my time with medium-level categories (not detailed enough that I’m tracking individual tasks, but not so high level that it’s hard to make sense of the data). From time to time, I notice categories drift, or they stop fitting. Consulting is definitely business, but does working on Emacs really belong there? Why is coding classified under business but writing is classified as discretionary time? Most of my categories still make sense a year or two later, but some of them could use more thinking about.

What is business, anyway? I suppose it can include anything related to the earning of money, including support such as paperwork or delegation. Packaging (by which I mean creating e-books and other resources) is part of business, since I earn a small income from that (and pay taxes on it, too!). So is responding to e-mail. Technically, Emacs is related to money, because people have actually booked and paid me for help sessions online (http://sachachua.com/help). I consider programming-related activities to be part of maintaining my technical skills and network. In that sense, coding, web development, system administration, and other geek things are business-related. I distinguish between sketchnoting for client engagements and drawing on my own. Many of my drawings are more along the lines of personal or business planning. Perhaps I should track more under those categories now that I’ve established drawing as a way of thinking, and shift to using “Business – Drawing” when I’m specifically working on illustrations or improving skills.

Discretionary time includes the stuff I do just for fun and the things I learn about just because (Latin and Morse, for example). Probably the only weird thing in here is that I classify writing as discretionary time. It’s fun. Coding is fun too. Coding is more obviously valued, though, so I guess that’s why I consider it business time. And also, if I classify writing as coding time, I’ll tip over way too often into the “working too many hours a week” zone, when I’m not really doing so.

Maybe a better approach is to classify coding, drawing, and other fun things as discretionary time instead, even if they occasionally result in money. Benefit: I get to celebrate having more discretionary time and a lighter workload. (Yeah, it’s all mental anyway…)

Or maybe I need to take a step back and ask myself what kinds of questions I want to be able to answer with my categorical data.

In general, I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time working, because I want to force myself to work on my own projects. That’s why I track the time spent consulting, doing paperwork, and connecting with people (including responding to e-mail). I usually keep a close eye on my Business – Earn subcategory, since that’s the one that can creep up on me unawares. That’s fine with my current categories.

I also want to look for patterns in time use. How does spending more time on one activity (and less time on other activities) influence what I do and how I feel? How bursty am I when it comes to different discretionary projects? As long as I’m tracking at the subcategory level, it doesn’t really matter what the root category is.

Hmm. Since I’m not actually using the distinction between discretionary and business for reports or visualizations that nudge my behaviour, I can probably leave my categories alone if I remind myself that those ones have fuzzy boundaries. It would matter more if I wanted to set goals for investing X hours a week on business things (or, conversely, spending Y hours on discretionary non-business related things, which is oddly harder). Since I don’t care about that at the moment, I’m fine. Also, it’s easy enough to reassign the parent categories, so I still leave the door open for analyses at a later date.

As long as I can keep things clear enough in my head so that I feel confident that I can explain to any auditors that yes, my  business expenses make sense, I should be fine. I feel a little weird about not having a proper business plan for lots of things I’m working on. I mean, I can write them (or draw business model canvasses, more likely), but I prefer this pay-what-you-want model. Oh, hey, there’s an assumption there that I can dig into. People can (and do!) build metrics around freemium or pay-what-you-want models. Maybe I can figure out how to approach this in a business-like-but-still-generous way.

What would a more business-y way look like? I would float an idea to see if it’s useful. Then I would make stuff (and sometimes I’d make it anyway, just because). I might actually track conversions, and try things out, and reach out to people and communities. I’d publish little guides and videos, and maybe add a tip jar for smaller pieces of content so that people can “vote” for things they like more.

All things to do in due course. In the meantime, knowing that the path is there means I can leave all of this stuff still filed under the Business category, because it is. Even if it’s fun. Writing still feels more discretionary than business-y (even posts like this, for example), so I’ll leave that where it is. So no change, but I understand things better.

Do you track your time and have fuzzy boundaries between categories? How do you deal with it?

 

 

Reflecting on goal factoring and akrasia

Following up on sketching my goals: I’ve been thinking a bit more about goal factoring. What do I want to be able to do with an overview of my projects and goals?

  • I want to make regular progress towards important goals, especially since I tend to move from topic to topic.
  • I want to translate abstract goals into measurable projects, and I want to translate those projects into actions.
  • I want to brainstorm alternative approaches that may get me to my goals faster, cheaper, or more effectively.
  • I want to see which actions or projects can support multiple goals.
  • I want to prioritize my projects and goals, putting things on the backburner as needed.
2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

One of the benefits of writing down my goals is that I can look at the gap between plans and reality. An e-mail conversation with Daniel Reeves (Beeminder and the awesomely geeky Messy Matters) pointed me to the concept of akrasia, which is when you act against your better judgment (Wikipedia: akrasia; LessWrong: akrasia). In general, this happens because we value the present much more than the future. Short-term gains are more compelling than future ones. Immediate pains matter more than far-off sacrifices.

I haven’t thought a lot about akrasia yet. If I can understand the concept and identify my akratic actions, then I can change my systems or try other tactics to live better.

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia - acting against my better judgment #rationality

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia – acting against my better judgment #rationality

  • Sleeping: I could probably get away with sleeping less. That said, it’s good (and uncommon) to get plenty of sleep, so this might not be too bad. I averaged about 8.9 hours a night over the past year. If I manage to tweak this to get, say, 0.5 hours more core time per day, that would be amazing. On the other hand, I could be the sort of person who really does need that much time, and it’s still within the normal range. We’ll see how sleep works out with my changing routines.
  • Reading fanfiction during my commute when I could be reading nonfiction, learning Morse code, writing, or listening to podcasts… Actually, I’ve been doing more Morse code lately, so maybe this is not an issue. And I should probably have more mental downtime anyway.
  • Being glued to my phone: On a related note, W- has teased me about my being occasionally glued to my phone. (It’s funny when I’m trying to tidy up or make the bed one-handed.) This is more of an awareness issue.
  • Not doing enough strength/flexibility/endurance: Biking helps me with lower-body strength, but my arms are weak. If I don’t exercise to maintain my flexibility, I’ll lose it over time. I have plenty of energy throughout the day, although I suppose it’s good to build that up so that I have even more energy for bigger tasks. If I determine that mornings are the best time to exercise, then my lack of exercise is a combination of my desire to spend that time reading or writing (even though I already do this to the point of possible diminishing returns) and my dislike of how it initially feels to exercise.
  • Socializing: I often don’t feel like going out, although I conceptually know that connecting with people is a good thing. I suspect it’s because I feel more connected with people around ideas instead of history or circumstance, and connecting to people over the Internet tends to more reliably result in good conversations like that compared to going to events or get-togethers in person.
  • Crossing my legs: This is an awareness thing. I just have to notice it, and then I can gradually untrain myself. If I’m seated correctly, I’m fine. I tend to cross when I need a higher, slanted surface to draw on. More observations – maybe stochastic?

There are lots of other possibly akratic actions in my life. These came to mind first when I thought about things that I often do and that I can change when I pay attention to them. Still, looking at this set… I don’t have a strong desire to eliminate akrasia while the suboptimal results aren’t major hindrances. I’m fine with having a little slack in my life. Even when my actions diverge from my stated goals, I still learn a lot.

That’s an interesting meta-thing to explore, though. Am I too comfortable? I’ve experimenting with moving away from carrot-and-stick approaches to personal productivity (or taskmaster and slave) and more towards appreciative inquiry (let’s observe what’s working well, and do more of that). Most people want to become more machine-like in their productivity, reliably following their plans. The contrarian in me is curious about alternatives. I don’t know that life would be better if I worked with more focus or commitment. I know that it would be different, and there’s a possibility that following the butterflies of my curiosity also creates value.

So let’s say that akrasia (or at least how I understand it so far) tends to be effectively addressed with self-imposed deadlines, commitment devices, constrained environments, and so on. Writers sign up for NaNoWriMo. Entrepreneurs bet each other that they’ll complete their tasks. Dieters remove junk food from their cupboards. These constraints support progress (by adding enough incentive to get people started or to convert downtime into productive time) or prevent backsliding (by removing temptations and distractions).

What are the trade-offs I make for not using these tools against akrasia? Are there ways I can turn weaknesses into strengths for those approaches?

Commitment devices are good for keeping you focused. If I let myself follow my interests, then I don’t get to take advantage of momentum or compounding results. However, my habit of sharing along the way means that people can get value even from intermediate steps. Cross-pollination is valuable, too. On my personal blog, it’s probably a good idea to have variety instead of focus, so that people can find what they’re interested in.

Commitment devices are good for preventing backsliding. When you make undesired actions more costly (ex: eating junk food), you make desired actions cheaper in comparison (ex: nibbling on carrots). If I don’t tinker with incentives that way, then I’ll be more influenced by short-term effects rather than long-term effects. I am generally future-oriented anyway (ex: retirement savings, batch cooking) and I have fun connecting actions with long-term plans, so the disadvantages may be somewhat mitigated. I don’t have a sense of urgency around this, either. Perhaps I need to exaggerate long-term costs in order to make this more compelling.

Things to think about…

Have you reflected on akrasia? Can you share your insights?

Lion cut

From Sunday: We’d neglected brushing Leia’s coat until there were mats that were difficult to work out. I tried to comb them out with a dematter or snip them out with scissors, but there was only so much Leia would tolerate. So plan B: shave it all off!

2014-04-13 Lion cut

2014-04-13 Lion cut

We had been thinking about it for a few months, but we figured she probably wanted to keep her fur during winter. With warm weather on the horizon and the mats getting thicker, it was time. W- and I didn’t know what to expect. We looked up pictures of lion cuts on cats (hilarious!), watched videos (of which there are plenty on the Internet, which exists primarily for the dissemination of all things cat-related), and read forum posts (for example: my cat is shaved & depressed).

Then we took Leia to her first appointment with a cat groomer. Leia wasn’t too happy during the process. The groomer had to use the Cone of Don’t Bite Me. There was a lot of… err… expressiveness.

She cheered up all right afterwards, though. We made sure to reassure her with lots of cuddles, although it took us a good few hours before we could resist the urge to chortle whenever we looked at her.

Actually, no, still happens. <giggle> She’s tinier than I expected! I always thought she was the same size as Luke, but it turns out that was all hair. She’s actually the same size as Neko. Maybe even smaller. Boggle. And her head is so big! And she’s wearing boots!

Yep, should totally do this every year.

Working fast and slow

When it comes to personal projects, when does it make sense to work quickly and when does it make sense to work slowly? I’ve been talking to people about how they balance client work with personal projects. It can be tempting to focus on client work because that comes with clear tasks and feedback. People’s requests set a quick pace. For personal projects, though, the pace is up to you.

It’s easy to adopt the same kinds of productivity structures used in the workplace. You can make to-do lists and project plans. You can set your own deadlines. I want to make sure that I explore different approaches, though. I don’t want to just settle into familiar patterns.

2014-04-07 Working fast and slow #experiment

2014-04-07 Working fast and slow #experiment

I work on personal projects more slowly than I work on client projects. When I work on client tasks, I search and code and tweak at a rapid speed, and it feels great to get a lot of things done. My personal projects tend to be a bit more meandering. I juggle different interests. I reflect and take more notes.

Probably the biggest difference between client work and personal projects is that I tend to focus on one or two client tasks at a time, and I let myself spread out over more personal projects. I cope with that by publishing lots of little notes along the way. The notes make it easier for me to pick up where I left off. They also let other people learn from intermediate steps, which is great for not feeling guilty about moving on. (Related post: Planning my learning; it’s okay to learn in a spiral)

Still, it’s good to examine assumptions. I assume that:

  • doing this lets me work in a way that’s natural to me: what if it’s just a matter of habit or skill?
  • it’s okay to be less focused or driven in my learning, because forcing focus takes effort: it’s probably just the initial effort, though, and after that, momentum can be useful
  • combinations of topics can be surprisingly interesting or useful: are they really? Is this switching approach more effective than a serial one or one with larger chunks?
  • a breadth-first approach is more useful to me than a depth-first one: would it help to tweak the depth for each chunk?
2014-04-02 On thinking about a variety of topics - a mesh of learning #my-learning

2014-04-02 On thinking about a variety of topics – a mesh of learning #my-learning

One of my assumptions is that combining topics leads to more than the sum of the parts. I took a closer look at what I write about and why. What do I want from learning and sharing? How can I make things even better?

2014-04-02 Evaluating my sharing #sharing #decision

2014-04-02 Evaluating my sharing #sharing #decision

Emacs tinkering is both intellectually stimulating and useful to other people. It also works well with applied rationality, Quantified Self, and other geekery. I can align sketchnoting by focusing on technical topics and  on making it easier to package things I’ve learned. Blogging and packaging happen to be things I’ve been learning about along the way. Personal finance is a little disconnected from other topics, but we’ll see how this experiment with the Frugal FIRE show works out.

If I had to choose one cluster of topics, though, it would be the geek stuff. I have the most fun exploring it, and I am most interested in the conversations around it.

What does that mean, then? Maybe I’ll try the idea of a learning sprint: to focus all (or almost all) my energies on one topic or project each week. I can work up to it gradually, starting with 2-4 hour blocks of time.

2014-04-02 Imagining learning sprints #my-learning

2014-04-02 Imagining learning sprints #my-learning

Because really, the rate-limiting factor for my personal projects is attention more than anything else. If I experiment with reducing my choices (so: Emacs basics, Emacs chats, open source, Quantified Self), that will probably make it easier to get the ball rolling.

2014-03-28 Identifying rate-limiting factors in my work #kaizen

2014-03-28 Identifying rate-limiting factors in my work #kaizen

So I’m still not adopting the taskmaster approach, but I’m reminding myself of a specific set of areas that I want to explore, gently guiding the butterflies of my interest down that way.

We’ll see how it works out!

Raspberry Pi LitterBox Cam and quantified cats

We have three cats. One of our cats occasionally poops outside the litter box. We had our suspicions, but we couldn’t pin down who or why. Territorial issues? Finickiness about box hygiene? Sickness? Fear or surprise? What could we do to reduce the frequency of incidents?

We decided that a litter box webcam was an excellent first project for the Raspberry Pi computer that W- just bought. The Pi is a tiny, quiet, inexpensive Linux server. My webcam worked without hassles, and Motion was easy to set up for motion detection. We set it up to capture videos when the computer detected motion. I watched the videos and encoded the data, tracking which cat and which litter box. I figured that exploring this would be a good excuse to work with the Pi and learn a little more about computer vision.

2014-03-24 Litter Box Cam with Raspberry Pi #raspberry #cats

2014-03-24 Litter Box Cam with Raspberry Pi #raspberry #cats

You might think that watching litter box videos would be boring and somewhat icky. It was surprisingly informative. I had no idea that Luke sniffed so many litter boxes before settling on one. Leia usually checked out one or two boxes before doing her thing, but if all the other boxes were used (even if one of them was used only by her), she sniffed everything and then circled around in indecision before finally pooping in the middle of the basement floor. (Watching her try everything made me feel somewhat better.) The two cats cover, but Neko never does. (Territorial dominance marker by the smallest cat?)

We collected a week of baseline data, which showed that box 1 was twice as popular as box 4 and 5. W- hypothesized that it was because box 4 and box 5 were near the furnace, and the strange noises from the furnace might startle the cats occasionally. Leia pooped outside the box twice, both times sniffing all the boxes before going in the middle.

We took to calling Leia our little data-generator.

2014-03-29 Litterbox analysis #quantified

2014-03-29 Litterbox analysis #quantified

Since the cats often left a little bit of extra food in their bowls and the vet had suggested they needed less food or more exercise, we decided to try reducing the amount of food we gave them. That change seems to be going well.

We also moved box 5 closer to box 1. That led to box 5 being much more popular than it used to be, which was a pleasant surprise. If Leia likes box 5 a lot more now that it’s away from the furnace, maybe it’ll be easier for her to find a clean box to poop in.

Preliminary cat litter box results

Preliminary cat litter box results

We set the camera up to capture 2 frames per second in order to save space. Watching it in real-time eventually lost its novelty, so I looked up how to speed up the AVIs.

for FILE in video-*.avi; do
  if [ ! -f "fast-$FILE" ]; then
    ffmpeg -i $FILE -vf "setpts=0.10*PTS" -r 30 fast-$FILE
  fi
done

I also started looking into how to use SimpleCV for computer vision and image processing. I had a hard time getting SimpleCV set up in my Ubuntu virtual machine, but the Windows version worked fine after a lengthy install process on my computer. After much learning, I figured out how to identify changed areas, get the largest share over a certain area threshold, find the centroid of that shape, and plot it back on the image. The real challenge is figuring out some kind of visual output that makes sense to me when I look at it. The image below is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not quite what I need.

summary-113-20140329224621-00

The Raspberry Pi camera module arrived, so we swapped that in and eventually got everything working again after some SD/power-related grumbling.

It would be great if I could get Python to automatically figure out which cat is in the video, distinguishing between multiple cats and flagging it for manual review if the motion detection got confused. Even better if it can track the path that the cats take!

On the other hand, the speeded-up AVIs are now fast enough that the bottleneck isn’t waiting for the video to play, it’s me typing in the description of the path (since I track not only the litter box they use, but any other litter boxes they check along the way). Maybe this is fine.

While watching me encode data, W- said, “Isn’t this something you can have your assistants do?” It’s data entry, sure, but I feel embarrassed about assigning people to watch our cats poop. <laugh> Besides, I’m learning a lot from the encoding process. We’ll probably treat it as a time-limited experiment.

Pretty cool! =) Next steps: Collect more data, try more experimental changes, learn more about image processing…

Anticipated questions/responses:

  • That’s so geeky. You’re weird. Yup.
  • You have too much time on your hands. I like spending my time learning things, and getting better at computer vision and data analysis will come in handy. =) Better than watching TV or reading forgettable things. (See also: Too much time on her hands)
  • Just get a self-cleaning litter box. We got a Litter Robot because that was the best-reviewed of the self-cleaning litter boxes, but only Neko likes using it. We’re not into fancy litter boxes that require cartridges or special litter. It’s hard to tell if Leia will take to a new automated litter box, and returns/refunds for used litter boxes would be a bit weird. We can probably figure out something that works with our current setup, or maybe with an additional regular litter box. We still need to clean daily anyway, so it makes sense to try low-cost approaches first.
  • How about tracking both input and output? Too much work at the moment, and not enough interest in the data. (Weigh the food bowls? Weigh the boxes? Distinguish between cats?)
  • What about rigging up an automated water sprayer / Nerf gun to fire when cats poo outside the litter box? That will just make them poop outside the furnace room. It’s much easier to clean the furnace room than the carpet, so if they’re going to poop outside the litter box, that’s as good a place as any. We don’t want them to get any negative associations.