Notes from Quantified Self Toronto, October 27, 2010

Bits from the meetup: automated tracking of computer activity, CureTogether.com for aggregated health self-reporting of conditions and treatments, and the oddly popular desire for a statistical silver bullet that will crunch your data and tell you what’s potentially interesting about you, instead of you coming up with questions and designing proper experiments. This makes me think about t-tests and how you can do too many tests for significance (PDF). Intentional experiments may be slower, but I think they’re worth it.

Anyway, here are the notes!

I took these notes using Microsoft OneNote 2007 on a Lenovo X61T tablet. I then exported the graphics to the Gimp, did a little bit of editing, and uploaded them to Gallery2 on my blog. See my other sketch-related blog posts, or check out my other sketches in the gallery.

Experiment: Shopping for groceries online

It was Friday, and I was preparing for a tea party. I didn’t have some of the ingredients I needed to make apple pie. The forecast for the weekend was rain, rain, rain. W- was in crunch mode and would probably be too busy to take the car to the supermarket, I needed more than I could comfortably fit on my bicycle, and I had far too many things scheduled for Friday to walk to the supermarket and back.

So I decided to give GroceryGateway.com a spin, encouraged by the positive tweets I’d seen. It probably took me fifteen minutes to review all the categories I was interested in and select the items. I ordered lots of groceries and set my delivery window to 7:00 – 8:30 AM the next day. I paid for my groceries online as well, although there’s an option to pay by debit card on delivery.

The deliveryman arrived with my two boxes of groceries at 7:30 AM. We completed the transaction and verification in less than five minutes.

Produce is a great way to test quality. The bagged Macintosh apples were slightly bruised, but otherwise in good shape. The Pink Lady apples were in perfect shape. The lemons were bright and shiny, but he asparagus spears were a little dry, with small indentations from a too-tight elastic.

To my relief, the eggs arrived intact.

The rest of the groceries were the same as the ones I regularly buy from the neighborhood No Frills. I was delighted to find steel-cut oats in stock online, as I rarely see them in stores.

The groceries were priced higher than the ones we buy at No Frills. GroceryGateway is run by Longo’s, which positions itself more as a premium supermarket. For example, the GroceryGateway 3 lbs bag of Macintosh apples cost $2.99, but I can get 4 lbs for only $2.49 at No Frills. My groceries cost about $110, which is probably about 10% more than I would have paid at No Frills. Add to that a $9.95 delivery charge (softened by a $5 credit for the first order), and the price of convenience turned out to be around $15, and probably $10 + 15% for future orders. We usually save even more on our groceries by shopping the sales, so the gap would be even bigger.

In terms of time and convenience, it was a good experiment. It took me about 20 minutes for the entire thing, compared to maybe two person-hours if W- and I went shopping, or 1 person-hour if I went on my bicycle. I’d save a bit more time if I bought more groceries in the batch.

I probably won’t use GroceryGateway regularly. I like shopping for groceries with W-, figuring out what to do with what’s on sale. No Frills occasionally doesn’t stock things we like (such as steel-cut oats!), but we’re pretty good with working with what’s available. It’s good to know that a service like GroceryGateway exists, though, just in case we get really busy someday.

Good to experiment!

Links:

“What are you planning to do in 2009?”, or thoughts about #lifecamptoronto

I’d been meaning to hold a lifehacking-oriented BarCamp since early last year. Timing is particularly good over the next two months: January is when most people make their resolutions and goals for the year, and February is when most people abandon them. By sharing best practices and support, we might be able to inject that extra little bit of energy people need to get over that hump… and by sharing our goals with each other, we can deepen our connectivity as a community.

Here’s a snippet that shows you just how powerful this is:

What are you planning to do – no matter how large or how small – to make the world better in 2009?

One of our Ferrazzi Greenlight thought leaders, Mark Goulston, M.D, recently asked this at a networking meeting of high level lawyers, financial advisors, CPAs, and consultants. Mark noticed something interesting happening: People could recall, almost to a man, what others said their 2009 mission would be. Meanwhile, after having been together five years in this group, they still had trouble remembering who was in what profession! Elevating the conversation to something that truly inspired them connected them in a way that professional small talk never could.

Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone

(Check out their discussions, too!)

One of the best things I did during the holiday season (and quite possibly one of the best networking things I’ve done in the past year) was to send out my updates and ask for people’s goals. It sparked wonderful conversations with many of the 200 people in my initial list. If people e-mailed me their plans, I added notes to their address book records so that I could remember their goals. Knowing that about people made me feel much closer to them, and I’m actively looking for or keeping an eye out for things that can help. Based on that great response, I’m now slowly expanding it to my LinkedIn and Facebook contacts as well.

I’d like to do this, but on a bigger scale. I want to start experimenting with facilitating networking events – not the schmoozy, sleazy type of networking events, but something positive, filled with energy, and packed with hacks for making your life better. I want people to come together, learn a whole bunch of useful tips, share what they’re passionate about and what they want to make happen, and meet people who can help them make those things a reality. I want to create an environment for maximum serendipity.

So here’s what I envision:

  • People will submit their goals and tips before the event, on a website that helps people identify people they might want to meet up with.
  • It’ll be a brunch event, because morning’s a great creative time and we need excuses to drag ourselves out of bed (relatively) early on a Saturday or Sunday morning
  • There’ll be coffee, tea, and morning snacks, sponsored by smart companies interested in people interested in developing themselves, personal development coaches, gyms…
  • Everyone’s nametags will have a number and their first and last names on them. The number will be cross-referenced with the website list, to make it easier for people to get back in touch with each other afterwards. Maybe like the way speed dating is set up…
  • The event will have an open mike where people can share their goals and their tips. If people find the tip helpful, they can write the person’s number down to thank them later. If people can help with the person’s goal, they’ll raise their hands and shout out their number. The person at the mike can write down that number and try to bump into those people during the rest of the event.
  • The rest of event will be for networking.
  • After the event, people can use the website to look up people’s web addresses or e-mail addresses. Alternatively, people can drop their contact slips into a box. I can encode and send out lots of connecting e-mails in case of a match or partial match.

I’d like to make this happen in January or February. I need:

  • co-conspirators who can help me plan the event, since I’m new to event-planning
  • a target date
  • a website – we can start with something like eventbrite or a wiki page
  • lists of people possibly interested in attending
  • lists of people attending
  • a bright and sunny place where we can have a brunch event with a sound system, depends on number of people
  • sponsors, or someone who can help me learn to approach sponsors (after we figure out how big the event will be)

You know it’ll be interesting. Let’s make it happen. =) Or borrow the idea and make it happen in your own city – that would be awesome too!

Lifehacking: Switching to a rolling laptop bag

I’ve been paying attention to the preventive advice I picked up during my last session with a registered massage therapist, and I thought I’d post an update on how things are going with this life-hacking.

  • I switched to flat shoes. When the massage therapist mentioned that high-heeled shoes could be the reason why some of my muscles were tense, I said I’d switch to flat shoes. This was apparently not the way most women react. They’re more likely to say, “Sure, when they make flat shoes that aren’t ugly.” Well, I found two pairs of shoes that look presentable enough for the office. =)

    It turns out that you really do need to walk a mile in your own shoes before they’re broken-in enough to be comfortable. Both of my new pairs of flat shoes are now comfy enough for extended walks. The fancy insoles I picked up to add arch support threw me off balance and induced enough pain to make me hobble, so I got rid of the insoles. Now I just use plain liners to keep the shoes relatively clean.

  • I switched to crossing my legs at the ankles, not at the knees. Sometime after grade school, I picked up the habit of crossing my legs at the knees. I suppose it was because practically everyone else I saw did it. Probably not good for my back muscles and circulation in the long run. Stopping this behavior took a little conscious thought for a couple of days, and then it felt natural not to do it any more. Now I just cross at the ankles if I want to, all proper-like.
  • I switched to a rolling laptop case instead of a backpack. Yes, it’s a bit of a challenge getting a bulky rolling laptop case through the wickets or up and down stairs, but my shoulders think it’s a good trade-off.

There’s only one thing I’m having a hard time doing: leaning back. The massage therapist said that some of my back and neck muscles are tenser than they need to be because I lean forward instead of using the chair back. I’m not used to the idea of leaning back against the chair. It feels casual, and it sometimes means that I’m not in quite the right position to type.

Hmm…

Taking book notes

It turned out that our newest team member, Tom Plaskon, is also a bookworm. Over lunch last Wednesday, we chatted about how we keep track of what we’re learning from books. My system hasn’t changed that much sinceI described it in February, but I thought I’d post an updated blog post about it, just in case writing about it prompts ideas.

How I get books:

I still read lots of books. I usually order books from the Toronto Public Library system or pull them off the library shelves when I go on a library run, but sometimes I’ll pick up books from the bookstore or order them online. I occasionally get book recommendations from other people, too.

I tend to read in sprints, focusing on a single subject. I’m currently revisiting personal finance, and I’ve read about comics and graphic novels, sketching, storytelling, writing, leadership, time management, Javascript, CSS, relationships, communication, management, consulting, entrepreneurship, photography, cooking, presentation skills, education, reading, economics, parenting (yes, I read my mom’s parenting books when she was raising me – made for an interesting childhood!), social networking, quarter-life crises, career planning, learning, creativity, self-defense, exercise, romances (particularly classic Regency ones) gardening, and other topics that slip my mind at the moment. Reading in sprints allows me to get through books quickly (few non-fiction books are packed with new ideas) and see the interconnections between ideas in books. Sometimes I’ll go for variety when I’m raiding the library shelves.

This is a pattern of reading that practically requires a well-stocked public library, as there’s no way I’m going to spend all that money doing a reading sprint by buying books from Chapters or Amazon. I’d be limited by my book budget and I’d end up with too many books full of too much filler. Using the public library allows me to get value from books I might not ordinarily buy and books that are mostly fluff except for one or two good insights. (Or books that have one good idea and just keep hammering it in.)

How I read books

While I’ll slow down and enjoy a dense, well-written book, most books are worth cursory scans. Sometimes I’ll look at the table of contents to get the lay of the land. Other times, I’ll just plunge right into it, skimming the book for good quotes, interesting insights, or good explanations.

I read books on the subway, over breakfast or dinner, while walking (except across intersections), on evenings and weekends, and whenever I can steal a moment. I try to always have a book or two in my bag.

How I take notes

The first step is to mark the passages I want to keep. I don’t like writing in books (and absolutely abhor the idea of writing in a library book!), so I have to keep track of the passages I want to put into my book notes system. I must confess that I’ve resorted to dogearing pages. Post-It flags feel wasteful and torn slips of paper are inconvenient. I’d be happy to switch to a better method for remembering pages if it was something I could do while walking around (rules out scanning text with a digitizing pen) and it allowed me to keep track of any number of pages (rules out bookmarks, unless I carry a whole stack of them).

After I’ve gone through a book once, it’s time to put the passages into my book notes system. If I have time, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate the book details, page numbers, and relevant passages to my computer. It’s fun, it reinforces my memory, and it helps me train the speech recognition engine. If I’m pressed for time, I scan the relevant pages, then and use Tesseract Optical Character Recognition to convert the scans into text.

I currently keep my book notes in a large text file with a little markup to make it easier for Emacs to display it as an outline. (Hooray org-mode!) Each book is an outline item, and each quotation starts with the page number. I also add my own notes.

How I review my books

The human brain is good at associative memory. When a conversation topic reminds me of something I’d read, I can usually come up with a few titles or keywords from the quotations. My book notes allow me to send not only the book details but also the relevant quote, which helps other non-bookwormish people zero in on the part they might want to check out. So far, my text file has been working well.

I occasionally review my book notes by flipping through my book notes on the computer or on my Nintendo DS, jumping to a random note, or searching for certain keywords. I also reread particularly good books to see if I’ll get even more insight this time around. This helps me keep the content fresh, and it also prompts me to think about who I know would benefit from the book I’m reviewing.

How I can make this system better

I think I’ll start using LibraryThing to keep track of the books I’ve read. This allows me to take advantage of social recommendations. I used to use Amazon for that, but it’s also nice to run into fellow bookworms with similar interests and to see what else they’re reading.

It might be good to capture diagrams neatly. I’ve got the scanner, so I just need to work out a good image storage thing.

I want to be able to link related quotations and books with each other. Blog posts would be a good way to do that. I just need to make sure I save my post locally, too.

I need to think about which new books are worth acquiring. =) There are a few presentation-related books I’m going to order (Back of the Napkin, Presentation Zen, Slideology).

From Lifehack: How to Make Yourself INSANELY Useful

Here are some great tips on how to become insanely useful.

  1. Share what you know
  2. Be confident in yourself
  3. Solve the current problem
  4. Give willingly — even when it’s your job
  5. Satisfy your own curiosity
  6. Listen to others
  7. Don’t take over
  8. Know when to stop
  9. Teach, don’t tell
  10. Be sensitive to people’s feelings and shortcomings
  11. Ask for help
  12. Model best practices
  13. Be reliable

Being useful, even insanely useful, doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be used. It means offering what you can, when you can, and doing so gladly. This applies whether you’re doing favors for friends, working with a team at work, writing instructions, or anything else — set limits, but within those limits, be wholly available.

Lots of people are useful — they do the things they need to do, solve the problems they need to solve, and keep things chugging along. People that are insanely useful are in high demand by the companies they work for, the organizations they take part in, the clients they serve, their friends and family, and society in general because they not only solve problems and make things work but they add value to every relationship they take part in.

Lifehack.org, How to Make Yourself INSANELY Useful

Check out the article for concrete tips. =)