Category Archives: decision

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Tough decisions

I’m not sad. But I’m not thrilled, either. With all the challenges
ahead of me, I need to have net positive energy; I can’t even afford
neutrality. So as tough as it may be, I’m going to have to force the

Random Emacs symbol: nntp-with-open-group – Macro: Protect against servers that don’t like clients that keep idle connections opens.

Glasses, glasses

"You’re ordering glasses from the Internet? You’re braver than I am!" was the almost-unanimous sentiment I heard when I told people how my previous set of frames had fallen apart and that I wasn’t too keen on spending hundreds of dollars on a new pair. The sole dissenter was ubercool Leigh Honeywell, who told me that she had picked up a couple of pairs from Zenni Optical.

On her recommendation, I picked up two pairs. Both of them are fantastic. =) Prescription is right on. The frames are a little wider than I’m used to, but they’re both memory frames, so they fit securely on my head. And they’re way cheaper than frames bought in-store would be, not to mention the lenses.

Frame#:  3413 Half Rim Hingeless Stainless Steel $12.95 (Black)
Lens Width 49mm, Height 27mm, Bridge 17mm
FrameWidth 136mm,Temple Arm Length 140mm
Frame Weight with 1.57 index lens 11 grams


Frame#:  3412 Stainless Steel Half Rim Frame with Flexible (Memory) Plastic Temples $12.95 (Burgundy)
Lens Width 50mm, Height 28mm, Bridge 19mm
FrameWidth 136mm, Temple Arm Length 140mm
Frame Weight with 1.57 index lens 12 grams

Lenses are included in the frame price, although I paid an extra ~$5 for anti-reflective coating. Compare with… what… $200, $300 per frame, plus more for lenses?

I picked fairly conservative designs, but there are tons of styles on Zenni and other online retailers. =) Someday I may experiment with styles a bit more. These are fine. They’re hingeless: interesting.

Recommend, particularly for people who find optical shops way more expensive than they should be. Measure your old glasses to find out what frame dimensions you’re comfy with, then pick out a pair or two. =)

Decision trees and self-challenges: how my laptop’s recent battery failure is a great excuse to think

The battery on my Lenovo X61 tablet refuses to hold a charge, and there seems to be no way to fix it. The battery is no longer covered under warranty, so I’ll need to replace it on my own if I choose to. An easy algorithm for decision-making is be to postpone spending money until I can demonstrate really good benefits for doing so. (Or in this case, nine business days before I really need a new battery.) Because I’m curious about the way I might think about other choices, I’m going to think through some of the strategies I use to make decisions. =)

Decision trees

I like breaking things down into decision trees, similar to the technique described by Ken Watanabe in his kid-friendly book Problem Solving 101. It’s useful to figure out what the options are and what their costs and benefits might be. I realized that I actually have two independent choices: what to do with the battery, and what to do with the laptop. Here is my current decision tree.

  • CHOICE A.1: Buy a new battery for my Lenovo X61T
    • Will need this if I sell or give the laptop to someone
    • CHOICE A.1.1: Lenovo battery
      • CHOICE A.1.1.1: – trustable but more expensive; $160-200
      • CHOICE A.1.1.2: Craigslist – potentially $80-100, risk of getting older batteries
      • CHOICE A.1.1.3: Other Internet sources – risk of getting the wrong kind of battery
    • CHOICE A.1.2: Third-party battery $70-90 – risk of scams, unreliable batteries, hazards
  • CHOICE A.2: See if I can get by without one
    • Make my work laptop my main laptop for the moment.
    • Draw with the power cord plugged in.
    • Keep track of the instances when I’d like to plug in, and buy the battery when it gets on my nerves or when I notice myself using the computer much less. Currently using the tablet practically every day, so drop-off should be noticeable.
  • CHOICE B.1: Save up for X220 tablet
    • Longer battery life
    • 12.5″ outdoor-viewable display, more horizontal resolution: 342 extra pixels, widescreen aspect ratio
    • 3.9 pounds with 4-cell battery
    • Dual-array digital microphones – possible use for Skype, podcasting?
    • 2.7 GHz processor option
    • Rapid Drive for faster bootup/access?
    • Instant resume for wireless (up to 99 minutes)
    • Warns when walking away from stylus (heh, nifty; haven’t lost mine yet, though)
    • Gorilla Glass – scratch-resistance could be useful
    • CHOICE B.1.1: Give X61T to J-
      • May still need to buy a battery unless we want to treat it like a PC.
      • She’ll like the drawing bit.
    • CHOICE B.1.2: Resell X61T on Craigslist
      • Will need new battery anyway
      • Will need to sell at a discount because of wear and tear
  • CHOICE B.2: Stick with X61T until I reach the end of my two-year self-upgrade cycle, or until I have strong reasons to upgrade
    • 4.2 pounds, UltraBase, etc.
    • Doesn’t use new buttonless trackpad
    • Bigger wrist rest space
    • Could potentially scoop up X220T on secondary market, or wait for promos

I’m probably going to go with choice A.2 for the short-term choice, and we’ll see how my savings work out for choice B. We’re saving for a fair bit of travel this year, so B.2 is more likely than B.1. Fortunately, I work with two laptops, so it’s fine. My basic choice is good. Here’s another technique I use to examine that more closely:

Estimating option value

Hmm. Well, I can still use my battery-less X61T for drawing, writing, and coding. I’ll need to properly hibernate it before transferring locations, or leave it mostly in one place. I just won’t use it out and about as much. I don’t spend that much time in cafes, so it’s really more the shift between the kitchen and the living room or the basement.

So, what’s the estimated gap between the expected value of a fully-functional laptop and a battery-less one? In my case, probably not as much as it would be for other people, because I’ve got my work laptop in addition to this. The upper bound on value for me must be $5/day – definitely can’t be more than that, and is probably nowhere near that number. The cost is probably just a few more extra minutes starting up and shutting down, and a little less flexibility, which doesn’t translate into a large cost because I can use that time for something else. It might even be a net benefit if it encourages me to use a sketchbook during our upcoming trip. =) Worst-case scenario is that it might cost me an hour of work if I forget to save something, but that’s just about discipline.

The value gap might be bigger for J-, but we’ll see if she can handle it. It’s going to be a big gap if we sell this, but then it’s okay to get a new battery closer to that day. Besides, I usually run my laptops into the ground anyway. This one was an exception. I replaced my Eee after a little less than a year), but that was mainly because J-’s need for a computer coincided neatly with my curiosity about tablet PCs.

Setting up challenges

Another way to find out if I’m sufficiently interested in something is to ask questions and set myself challenges. For example, if I want to double-check the potential benefits of the fancy new X220 tablet compared to, say, the lower-prices X220 laptop or my current X61T, I can ask the following questions:

  1. Will I draw often enough to make the tablet worthwhile?
  2. Will I need more than 3 GB often enough to make the upgrade to a 64-bit OS worth the hassle?
  3. Will I run into CPU processing limits often enough to make sense to switch?
  4. Will I need the battery life often enough to make the extended battery life worthwhile?

Answers 2 and 3 seem to be “no” at the moment. VMs would be a good use of additional memory and processing power, but I’ve been doing fine with two computers. If I can cope with a battery-less life, the answer to 4 is probably not significant, unless I find myself going to way more conferences and meetings (and if my scanner proves unwieldy). The answer to question 1 is the most interesting.

I’ve taken lots of sketchnotes, but I’ve done fewer illustrations than I’d hoped I’d draw with the X61T. The workflow isn’t as smooth as keyboard + Cintiq, but it’s (semi-portably) fun. I haven’t figured out how to stop GIMP and Inkscape from jittering so much, although MyPaint and OneNote make beautifully smooth lines. I tend to do my sketchnotes plugged in, but I have a few sketchnotes from meetings where power outlets were few and far between. If I use paper notes for the portable sketches (maybe index cards or notebooks?), then I’ll get a better idea of the incremental value of A.1 or B.1. I can set myself an arbitrary threshold – maybe fill a notebook full of out-and-about sketches and notes – and reconsider my decision when I’ve achieved it. Result: Better drawing skills, a habit of drawing, and an idea of how much I might benefit from the infinitely scrollable paper and the multiplicity of colours on a digital canvas.

I’ve exaggerated the level of thought I usually go to for something like this. There’s room in my “dream/opportunity/kaizen” fund for a new battery if it turns out I absolutely must have one. But it’s fun to think through the techniques I might use to decide something, and writing it down now for something that isn’t critical may help me remember it later when I need to decide something more major. And who knows, it might get you thinking about something… =)

(I might end up getting a lot of value out of not having a battery for this notebook. Look, a blog post, and more reasons to draw/sketch on paper! Stay tuned for progress.)

Writing more about life

I am going to write more about life.

It took me a while to get used to this idea. I started blogging as a way of taking notes – source code, class lectures, and so on. That makes sense to write down. It’s useful. It might even be useful to other people. I’m comfortable with writing through decisions and sharing what I’m learning from life, particularly if I can geek out. But everyday stories? Should I write about those when I could, say, write tips or draft presentations instead?

Reviewing my print-outs of past blog posts, though, I find myself coming back to the memories. The tips I’ve written up for other people (or for myself) are handy. They’ll be the nucleus of a book someday. The technical notes I keep help me save time re-solving problems. The memories are the entries that improve with age, becoming richer and more layered over time.

The friends I’ve made through writing about Emacs, Drupal, and other technical topics also have plenty of insights on life, education, crafts, and other things. The experiences and perspectives I bring to life turn everyday experiences into geek explorations. I think it will all work out.

What it comes down to is this realization: These everyday moments are worth writing about, learning from, and sharing. I might think they’re ordinary now, but they anchor my experiences and make it easier to remember whole chunks of life, fleeting sensations, elusive thoughts. Like the way that even rough drawings help me see and remember more clearly, words will be the white pebbles dropped by this Gretel to find her way back. And who knows? Memories trigger other memories. I’m sure I’ll learn from other people, and I might help other people along the way.

2011-04-09 Sat 22:09

Mr. Fluffers: Stray or not stray?

I have a soft spot for cats. Our cats are all indoor cats, never allowed out except on a leash. There are a number of neighborhood cats who turn up on our deck for food or company. Some of them are definitely housecats let loose to run outdoors. Others, we’re less sure about. Housecat or stray? It can be hard to tell. We feed them some food, set out water, pet them if they’re amenable. Sometimes they even get dishes of warm milk.

Of the cats who visit us, we think one cat is either stray or somewhat neglected. Mr. Fluffers (as J- has named him) is a collarless gray tuxedo medium-hair domestic cat and a regular visitor. Medium-hair cats need a lot of brushing to keep their coats unmatted, and Mr. Fluffers obviously hadn’t been brushed in a while. W- combed away many of the mats in his fur, and even trimmed the most stubborn ones. But if Mr. Fluffers is a stray or neglected cat, it would be good to have that situation sorted out.

We’ve been thinking of taking Mr. Fluffers to the vet or to Animal services to have him scanned for a microchip, but we need to think through the decision tree first.

  • If Mr. Fluffers has a microchip
    • If the registered owners are reachable
      • Hooray! Cat reunion, or at least clarity on the situation
    • If the registered owners are not reachale
      • See decision tree for no-microchip case.
  • If Mr. Fluffers does not have a microchip
    • Take him to Animal Services as a lost pet?
      • Owners who lost him may not claim him there, considering impounding fee
    • Check for spay/neuter and then release him back into the neighbourhood?

For Mr. Fluffers and other potentially stray cats, I’m tempted to try the first step of attaching a safety collar with a tag that says: Not a stray cat? Please call us at XXX-XXX-XXXX… =)

2011-04-10 Sun 11:18

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 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