Category Archives: review

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Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-‘s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Weekly review: Week ending July 18, 2014

Lots and lots and lots of reading last week. Yay! Also, more talking to people. This week: meetings, another Emacs Chat episode, and more.

Blog posts

Link round-up

  • HeartMath Considered Incoherent: Fascinating analysis.
  • Using Themed Work Weeks instead of Themed Work Days: Sprints tend to work well for me too, although I generally don’t decide the theme far in advance.
  • Is it Ok to Be Happily Retired?: Sometimes I feel self-conscious about this experiment while other people around me work hard or struggle to find work. I’m getting better at giving myself permission to learn stuff, though, and I enjoy using some of my time to help out.
  • The Problem with Asking for Advice: I like the test of thinking about whether you’re going to change your behaviour based on the input. This also reminds me of why I push back on a lot of poll/survey questions with the meta-question: “What are we going to do about the answers?”

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (23.8h – 14%)
    • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Earn (17.4h – 73% of Business)
    • Build (0.5h – 2% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
    • Connect (5.8h – 24% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Have coffee with Nadia
    • Host party
    • Discuss F
    • Have coffee with Andrew
  • Discretionary – Productive (24.8h – 14%)
    • Fix website
    • Emacs (1.2h – 0% of all)
      • Record chat with Harry Schwartz
    • Writing (4.5h)
      • What are people looking for when they talk about challenges?
      • Quiet days
      • Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization
      • Books about applying advice to your life
  • Discretionary – Play (7.7h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (31.1h – 18%)
  • Unpaid work (9.3h – 5%)
  • Sleep (66.4h – 39% – average of 9.5 per day)

Monthly review: June 2014

I wrote that in June, I’d like to:

  • Deliver a chunk of functionality for project E1
  • Polish and publish the Emacs Lisp beginner course, possibly on a self-serve platform
  • Take it easy because of project F2

E1: Yeah, big milestone! Now working on related changes. And testing things, of course; there’s always more to test.

Emacs Lisp beginner course: I haven’t created a full course, but I’ll probably convert the beginner course into a downloadable PDF, EPUB, and MOBI this month.

As planned, I took it easier this month. Here’s a subset of my time changes:

Activity Percent of time vs previous month
Family 5.10% +4.8h / week
Sleep 37.6% +4.4h / week
Learning 1.7% +2.7h / week
Reading fiction 1% +1.5h / week
Quantified Awesome 1.2% -1.8h / week
Business 17.1% -3.2h / week
Emacs 2.1% -6.7h / week

In July, I’d like to:

  • E1: Update the documentation and help out in other ways
  • Turn the beginner course into a convenient download
  • Plan for project F3
  • Solidify my exercise habit

I’ve been rereading a lot about philosophy: Epictetus and Aristotle, mostly. This month, I’d like to dig into Emerson and Thoreau. Next week, probably what Bertrand Russell says about happiness and people. Hmm…

Blog posts

Weekly review: Week ending July 11, 2014

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (22.2h – 13%)
    • Do my first laser cut
    • Help with Helpouts
    • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Earn (12.0h – 54% of Business)
    • Build (0.0h – 0% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.0h)
    • Connect (10.2h – 45% of Business)
  • Relationships (4.2h – 2%)
    • Check out Festival of House Culture
    • Have coffee with Andrew
    • Have coffee with Nadia
  • Discretionary – Productive (29.4h – 17%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Go for yoga in High Park
    • Learning from frugal lives of years past
    • Planning my next little business
    • Writing (16.0h)
  • Discretionary – Play (14.5h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (22.1h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (10.5h – 6%)
  • Sleep (65.1h – 38% – average of 9.3 per day)

Weekly review: Week ending July 4, 2014

A week of learning about philosophy and spending time with people! =) Next week: Probably more events, hanging out, thinking.

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (8.8h – 5%)
    • Earn (6.8h – 77% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Build (1.6h – 18% of Business)
      • Do my first laser cut
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
        • File payroll return
    • Connect (0.3h – 3% of Business)
      • Help with Helpouts
  • Relationships (12.0h – 7%)
    • Check out Festival of House Culture
    • Send claim correction along with note to insurance company
  • Discretionary – Productive (28.1h – 16%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Go for yoga in High Park
    • Harvest more greens; clear out a square
    • Writing (18.7h)
  • Discretionary – Play (8.9h – 5%)
  • Personal routines (29.4h – 17%)
  • Unpaid work (16.2h – 9%)
  • Sleep (64.6h – 38% – average of 9.2 per day)

Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?