April 2013

Weekly review: Week ending March 29, 2013

April 1, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • Send invoice for SR
      • Follow up on payment for presentation design
      • Prepare invoice and agreement
      • Discuss requirements for curriculum sketches
      • Follow up with U
    • Connect
      • London trip
        • Pack carry-on backpack
        • Print out travel documents
        • Pack bags
        • Travel to London
        • Arrange for GBP
        • Flesh out Emacs talk
      • Quantified Self Toronto
        • Explore Excel 2013
        • Give presentation on time results
        • Co-host Quantified Self meetup
        • Copy March 27 2013 videos
      • Co-host Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup
      • Produce Emacs interview with Carsten Dominik
    • Build
      • Debug typos
      • Call TJ Miron about accounting
  • Relationships
    • Attend LessWrong get-together
    • Buy 2 bottles of maple syrup?
    • Prepare something for Rachel Lane’s going-away party
    • Prepare vegetarian dish
    • Help Emma Logue with baking
    • Go to Rachel Lane’s going-away party
    • Go to superpower league potluck
    • Greet John Grimme happy birthday
    • Talk to Carsten Dominik about Emacs
    • Visit Steve Crawford
  • Life
    • Return library books
    • Suspend library holds

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • [ ] Go to E1 get-together
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • [ ] Work on SR edits
    • Connect
      • [ ] Attend Visual Thinkers call
      • [ ] Process March 27 2013 videos
      • [ ] Process an Emacs Conf video and post it
      • [ ] Pack for going home
    • Build
      • [ ] Sketch Culture Blueprint book
      • [ ] Sketchnote a book
      • [ ] Write about London trip
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Wednesday?
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Friday
    • [ ] Reschedule with Cena Mayo
  • Life
    • [ ] Reenable library holds
    • [ ] Study for the Canadian citizenship test

Time review

  • Business: 24.3 hours (E1: 8.8, Connect: 5.7, Drawing: 1.9, Coding: 0.4)
  • Discretionary: 49.7 hours (Emacs: 7.6, Social: 20.4, Writing: 3.1)
  • Personal: 23.0 hours (Routines: 11.8)
  • Sleep: 59.4 hours – average of 8.5 hours per day
  • Unpaid work: 10.5 hours (Cook: 4.6)

Brainstorming ways to help build the Emacs community

April 2, 2013 - Categories: emacs

John Wiegley and I had lots of fun brainstorming ways to help move Emacs forward, particularly as I’m carving out more of my time to focus on Emacs. Here’s what we talked about:

A rough outline of things to flesh out into articles/chapters:

  • productivity, org-mode
  • development
    • emacs lisp
    • haskel, rails, java, and other languages…
  • writing
  • e-mail
  • IRC/Twitter/FB
  • web
  • games and diversions
  • documentation
  • learning and discovery

Learning Emacs development:

  • tools
  • cons cells
  • macros, quoting
  • control structures
  • Emacs structures: windows, buffers, text properties, etc.
  • lambdas
  • libraries

Ideas for visualizations:

  • #emacs word cloud or URL frequency/analysis
  • IUseThis for Emacs, maybe with annotations


  • PLEAC for Emacs? Emacs Lisp cookbook?
  • Coding patterns

IDE challenges:

  • IntelliSense
  • Excellent project browsing
  • Refactoring
  • Integrated test harnesses
  • Asynchronous operation
  • Performance (especially of code analysis and navigation tools)

Target communities/audiences?

  • Emacs beginners: getting more into Emacs, learning more about packages, customizing Emacs; learning path through packages, maybe with time estimates?
  • Emacs intermediate: tweaking Emacs, getting into Emacs Lisp, contributing upstream; need to update Writing GNU Emacs Extensions
  • Keyboard enthusiasts: keyboard shortcuts, customizability
  • Non-developers (writers, scientists, mathematicians, etc.): Context-specific functionality, starter kits, easy installs, articles, screencasts – learn from Aquamacs, Ready Lisp. Pre-built Org starter kits? screencasts, interactive tutorials, games as introductions
  • Users of defunct editors: migrated features, migration guides
  • IDE users: integration with other parts of life
  • Vim users: configurability envy, migration/emulation

Emacs performance: elp, memory-use-counts, garbage collection, algorithms, cookbook, core work


  • packages: popularity, reverse dependency graph, URL log for #emacs, 24 packages for Christmas and other blog series, IUseThis, reminders to be lazier / stories for inspiration
  • EmacsWiki: guided tour, CSS design

Imagining awesomeness in 5 years: Responsive editor that’s easy to set up; SEO so that people can find useful resources; context/goal-specific documentation; regular virtual show&tell

Imagining nonawesomeness: Weak async; marginal/niche; people moving away to other editors because of growing gaps; performance issues; unmaintained code; developer burnout

EmacsConf: mailing list for next year, venue?


Here’s what I’m looking forward to devoting some of my time to:

Write and draw

  • EmacsWiki page updates
  • Guided tours
  • Emacs Lisp cookbook
  • Package reviews
  • Interviews with people so that they can share their tips (incl. screencast and transcript)


  • Package use
  • Performance
  • Logs


  • Performance optimization (Emacs Lisp and core)
  • Package descriptions and use


  • Issues
  • Feature requests
  • Integration
  • New code

Lots of possibilities!

Analyzing my London trip decisions: What worked well? What can I improve?

April 3, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, travel

Update: Fixed incomplete sentence regarding Google navigation – thanks to Geoffrey Wiseman for pointing it out!

I’ve just come back from a trip to the UK for an Emacs conference. (Emacs!) While the memories are still fresh, I want to think about what worked and what can be even better next time I travel.

What worked well:

Keeping a close eye on flight fares versus visa paperwork: When the conference date firmed up, I checked the flight prices (~$1200)… and then realized that I still needed to get my visa paperwork sorted out. It took me about a week to gather all the papers, and then another three weeks to get it processed. I didn’t want to book the flight until I got the visa, but I also didn’t want to pay sky-high last-minute prices. Because I wasn’t sure that I’d be granted a visa, I kept a close eye on the flight prices throughout the period. I figured that if it got to two weeks before the trip or flight prices started trending up, I’d book the flight and then deal with the change fees in case I didn’t get the visa after all. Fortunately, I got the visa notification two weeks before the flight, and I booked my flight for ~$1000 – cheaper than it would’ve been if I’d booked it right away. It won’t always work out this neatly, but I’m glad that it did!

Couchsurfing: It was super-nice of the organizer and his wife to let me stay at their place during my trip. Not only did that make it much easier to fit the transatlantic flight into my budget, but it also meant that I got a glimpse of everyday life: buying groceries, walking around the neighbourhood, eating yummy home-cooked food and discovering Serbian tastes. That worked out much better than staying at a hotel.

Oyster card: The Oyster card was my very first purchase, and it worked out wonderfully. I had no problems navigating the London public transit system, which I used to and from the airport and around town. I could probably have loaded 20 pounds on it at the beginning instead of topping it up throughout the trip. I ran into a negative balance at one point and ended up paying the cash fare on the bus because I didn’t want to delay other people. Still, public transit = good! I returned my Oyster card for a refund when I got to Heathrow.

Withdrawing cash from the ATM: I withdrew GBP 50 from an HSBC ATM once I reached Paddington. It worked out to CAD 79.19 plus a CAD 5.00 fee, for an effective total exchange rate of 1 GBP = 1.684 CAD. This was better than the foreign exchange rates posted there, although slightly worse compared to how much it would have cost if I’d gotten my act together and either converted cash through my bank before leaving (penalty: ~$5, which was the bank withdrawal fee) or switched my account to something that doesn’t have international withdrawal fees (but that would cost me maybe $53 in forgone interest per year, and I don’t travel or withdraw enough to make up for that). So it all worked out. It was the right amount of cash to have handy, actually, although I could’ve probably gotten away with GBP 40.

Sketchnotes: I took notes during the conference and I posted them right away. People really liked the notes! I need to go back and add more details so that they’re more understandable even for people who weren’t at the event or who aren’t familiar with the topics, and that will be part of my Emacs Conf followups.

Meeting people: The Emacs conference was incredible. I’d never seen so many Emacs geeks in one place, and it was fantastic to meet all these people I’d gotten to know over IRC and elsewhere. During the rest of my trip, I met several people for coffee. I chatted with Dave, Louise, and Joanne(sp?) about travel, paperwork, comics, and drawing. John Wiegley and I brainstormed ways to make the Emacs community even awesomer. I hung out with Michael Olson while on a walking tour (see below). I didn’t get around to meeting everyone I’d wanted, but it was great meeting lots of people face to face. Such is life!

Walking: I walked to places whenever I could – an hour-long walk along Regent’s Canal from home to Camden Town, another long walk coming home from Covent Garden… Walking around in London is enjoyable because there are plenty of shops and interesting sights, and I felt safe.

Walking tour: Michael Olson suggested meeting up for one of the London Walks, so I did. It was a lot of fun hearing the guide tell stories about the buildings and the people who lived or worked in them. Walking tours might be an excellent way to observe well-polished storytellers.

Offline navigation using Google Maps: I downloaded the map of London, which was handy. Although I couldn’t search for places while offline, I could use the navigation function if I’d already set it up previously. I also used the map to verify that I was walking in the right direction. I also wrote addresses down in my notebook in case I ran out of battery or lost my phone.

Eating supermarket food: Quite a few of my meals were from supermarkets and department stores, which worked out wonderfully. One time I snagged a 99-pence chicken tikka masala meal (warmed and ready to go, marked down from 3.50) from Sainsbury Local and ate that in a nearby park. Three pigeons tried to mug me for the food, and about 30 pigeons stared at me throughout the meal. ;) Supermarket food turns out to be tasty and inexpensive. One downside is that I hadn’t realized that self-checkout lanes sometimes don’t give you exact change, and I neglected to ask the assistant for the rest of my change. Oh well.

Free museums: I spent most of Monday at the British Museum, where I got to see the Rosetta Stone and other amazing things. Neato!

Fish and chips: Yummy, crispy fish and chips. I had these with mushy peas for the first time. I could’ve probably walked around a little more and found cheaper fish and chips, but the one I settled on was very filling.

Bank holidays: My trip coincided with the long Easter weekend, which was nice because that meant people were generally relaxed and unhurried, and my hosts had plenty of time to hang out. It meant that many shops were closed, but I wasn’t there for shopping anyway.

Evernote: Evernote worked really well for saving small maps, directions, contact info, and so on.

Technical flexibility: There were some technical issues during the conference, but we managed to make things work. For example, the Mac we were using to project the Google Hangout didn’t pipe its audio out the headphone jack, so we got my laptop into the hangout and routed audio out that way. This meant that taking notes was more awkward, but it was worth it. At one point, I had to write things down on an index card (forward and backward, just in case my webcam was set to mirror!) in order to pass messages along to Steve Yegge, who might not have been monitoring the text chat in the Google Hangout. Audio feedback was a challenge, too, so we ended up typing questions in. Anyway, it all worked out! =)

Weather: I can’t claim any credit for this one, but it was great to have sunny weather throughout the trip. =)

Hat: My black Tilley winter hat was a practical choice – a wide brim to shade me from the sun, and earflaps to keep me warm. I got several compliments on it, too.

Bringing stationery for a thank-you card: It’s always nice to say thanks, and it’s even nicer to not have to raid your host’s stationery stash or write it on plain paper. ;)

Saving the next day for recovery: I kept the day after my trip free of appointments, which was nice because I didn’t have to worry about jetlag. I ended up doing productive stuff anyway, but at least that was completely optional. =)

What I can improve:

Packing: One pair of comfortable winter boots saw me through the whole trip, and my scarf was also really handy.

  • I could probably have packed more thermals, but I compensated by walking faster and the cold didn’t bother me.
  • I didn’t use the headphones or the tablet as much as I had hoped.
  • I forgot the USB cable for my phone, so I conserved power for the first few days. Then I realized I could borrow a cable from Alex, which allowed me to charge my phone and use it more for navigation. Yay!
  • I think I misplaced my tablet USB cable at the conference venue. It must have gotten tangled up with my power cord. No worries!
  • Since I didn’t have anything liquid in my suitcase on the way back, I might have been able to carry it on and so skip waiting for baggage in both Montreal and Toronto. I wasn’t sure if I could get away with it, though. Anyway, I made it through the 1-hour transit in Montreal by asking people in the security line if I could cut in ahead of them. (“I’m so sorry, but my plane is boarding now – can I please go ahead of you?” Everyone said yes.)
  • I didn’t need the foreign cash I brought (USD, EUR, and CAD), siwith the ATM withdrawal worked fine. It would probably have been good to carry one currency just in case.

Roaming: I forgot to enable roaming before flying out to London, so I had to use payphones. This made it harder to coordinate, but I managed. There was one time when I had the opportunity to meet up with Alex and someone else who had flown in for the conference. I received their e-mail while using Michael Olson’s portable hotspot, but that was two hours after they’d met up. I didn’t think of finding a payphone and calling them to see if they were still going to be in the area for a while; instead, I walked around London some more. If I had called them, I’d probably have met up with them instead of walking around as much (although that was fun too!).

Tools: Camtasia Studio crashed and wasn’t able to record my part of the keynote presentation. =( I think it had to do with missing or disabled audio devices. This is the second time this has happened to me, so I have to figure out how to reliably capture my screen. My tablet video capture stopped after a while. The livestream wasn’t working in time for the keynote. It’s a good thing that my phone captured all the audio from the keynote, so at least we have that!

Setting aside time for video editing, or finding someone who can do it: We’ve got all these recordings… now what? I’ve volunteered to spend some time slicing them up into talks and getting them out there, and I plan to spend one day a week focused on this and other Emacs goodies.

In general, blocking off time for follow-up: There’s a lot of good stuff to follow up on, and I don’t want it to get buried in the day-to-day.

Publishing presentation: Would probably have been nice to have a Dropbox folder all ready to go. And screenshots/sketches of my own so that I don’t feel weird about the licensing of other people’s images…

More productive use of plane time: I mostly watched a few movies and slept a little bit. On the plane ride to the UK, I had an empty seat beside me, so I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted by anyone who needed to use the facilities. That meant that I could break out my computer and write code. I wrote my presentation code, and it actually worked. =) On the plane ride back, I was next to two people who needed to use the facilities frequently, so I didn’t feel comfortable setting up my notebook or even writing letters. And the Air Canada in-seat entertainment system wasn’t working for me on the ~8-hour trip back. =| Maybe I should use plane time to listen to audiobooks instead?

Better camera? I probably should’ve packed a small camera instead of using my phone. It would also have been nice to remember to take pictures, especially of the conference. I’ll just have to draw from memory.

All in all, an excellent trip!

Understanding my procrastination

April 4, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, reflection

This week’s Less Wrong Toronto rationality challenge was about procrastination: observing how, why, and when you procrastinate, and what you can do about it.

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin roots pro (“for”) and cras (“tomorrow”). The more I think about that, the more it seems that putting things off is actually a very useful skill, despite its negative connotations. There is only so much time in the day and so many years in a life. Figuring out what makes sense to do right now, what might make sense to do later, and what doesn’t make sense to do at all–that can be really helpful. To describe how we decide what to do later, we use the word “planning.” We reserve “procrastination” for when we put things off to our detriment, when we do low-value tasks instead of high-value tasks.

The Wikipedia article on procrastination describes procrastination as “replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority” (emphasis mine), but I’ve been working on not letting perceived urgency mess up my true priorities. Thinking of it in terms of value instead of priority helps me not get caught up in false urgency.

Because the procrastinating mind can be good at rationalization (“I know I should write that blog post, but dinner needs to be cooked and the blog post isn’t that important anyway”), it can be difficult to recognize procrastination unless you’re obviously avoiding something. It’s easier to look at various decisions to put off actions, figure out the reasoning behind them, and look for patterns.

I put off many ideas by adding them to my Someday/Maybe list or scheduling them for the future. I’m working on getting better at finishing projects, so I try not to get too distracted from today’s to-do list unless it’s really important. Stashing other ideas in my Someday/Maybe list means that if I get blocked on all my current tasks, I can easily find something else that I might want to work on. Structured procrastination for the win! (Procrastination explanation: Low value compared to current tasks.)

I put off various types of tasks to certain days. For example, I balance my business books and handle other paperwork every Friday. If I need to get an invoice out quickly, I’ll do that any day of the week, but having one day set aside for paperwork and all those other little things makes it easy to keep the rest of my week clear. I put off worrying, too. I allow myself a chunk of time for planning and questioning, then focus in moving in roughly that direction the rest of the week. Mornings are great for code, afternoons for calls, and evenings for writing. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do our household chores and lots of cooking. Roughly sketching out our days like this helps me batch process tasks. (Procrastination explanation: Reducing impulsiveness / interruptions.)

I put off actions depending on my energy level. When focused and excited, I code or write. When I’m more contemplative, I like drawing or reading books. When I feel uncreative, that’s the perfect time to handle paperwork or do chores. When I’m optimistic, I flesh out my vision. When I’m pessimistic, I dig into my backup plans. (Procrastination explanation: Low value or expectancy; I expect to not code well if I’m preoccupied with something else.)

I absentmindedly put off putting things away. Not all the time, but enough times that this gets in my way. I have some workarounds. For example, I switched to using a belt bag because that was an excellent if unfashionable way to not lose track of my phone and my keys. I’m still working on slowing down, having one place to put things, and minimizing stress. W- has this saying, “One hand, put away” – put things away while you’re holding them instead of going back and forth. Working on it. =) (Procrastination explanation: impulsiveness.)

I put off going to the gym with W-, reasoning that I’m pretty tired from biking upwind and uphill. I should build upper-body strength and other things not covered by biking, though. One way for me to deal with this is by bargaining with myself: if I’m not going to the gym, I have to do kettle bells or similar exercises instead of spending the time writing. Or maybe I’ll train speech recognition on my computer so that I can increase the value of that activity… (Procrastination explanation: Low value because I don’t particularly like that form of exercise; low expectancy because of salient bad experiences, even though I’ve also had very positive ones.)

I put off shopping, especially when they are so many choices. I do this because I feel overwhelmed. I deal with it by limiting my choices based on predetermined criteria and focusing on items that meet my price thresholds. For example, I buy only flat/low-heeled shoes and machine-washable clothes. I eventually buy things when sales, thrift stores, or other buying opportunities intersect with my criteria. (Procrastination explanation: Low expectancy because of the feeling of being overwhelmed; low value because I have lots of things that still work for me.)

I put off learning skills if I think the costs associated with learning outweigh the benefits I get from doing so. For example, although driving is widely acknowledged as a useful skill, I haven’t gotten around to learning it because becoming a confident driver requires several big lifestyle changes: expenses related to cars, fuel, parking, and maintenance; I would need to shift my work to somewhere that requires a car-based commute instead of one that can be reached with public transit or biking; and I would need to get used to the thought of controlling this big, heavy, potentially lethal machine. The money I save by not driving can pay for quite a few cabs during the times that I do need to get around (say, accompanying a friend post-surgery). So far, clear costs (money! no free exercise from biking!) outweigh vague benefits (possibly being able to drive W- if he needs help, being able to navigate more cities). I’ll get to it when it makes sense. Or slightly before it makes sense. (Procrastination explanation: Low value.)

I put off putting some things off. Sometimes I feel myself getting annoyed for something I have to do. I could go round and round, internally whining about it, but sometimes it’s more productive to put off the annoyance, get things done, and then channel that annoyance into making sure that I don’t have to do similar things in the future. This actually works out quite well. (Procrastination explanation: Well, this is actually a useful thing…)

There are a lot of other things I procrastinate, but since I want to actually publish this blog post at some point, this is probably enough of a sample.

I use a lot of pre-commitment to deal with procrastination. I’m also halfway decent at recognizing when procrastinating something takes more energy and emotion than just doing the thing I’m procrastinating. I’m good at discovering (or even inventing) meaning for my tasks to make them more palatable. I need to work on being more conscious, though. All these techniques are useful only when I detect that I’m procrastinating. If I want to stop absentmindedly putting something down somewhere instead of putting it away, then I need to make putting things away automatic, and I need to get better at checking impulses.

There aren’t any big ominous tasks hanging over my head that I need to un-procrastinate, but I want to get better at catching unconscious procrastination. (Which was not quite the focus of the Less Wrong blog post on beating procrastination, but I lump it together with deliberate procrastination…) I’ll be focusing on being more mindful over the next month or so. It’s difficult to track how well I’m doing with this, so I track failure instead by recording “foggy” moments. I’ll probably never get rid of it, but I can develop more automatic behaviours to catch the common cases. One of the nice things about being married is that W- can help me catch things. =) Onward!

Monthly review: March 2013

April 5, 2013 - Categories: monthly, review

Last month, I wrote:

March: Some graphic recording, a keynote for the Emacs conference on March 30, and more writing and drawing and thinking. More biking too, I hope. And more planning and experimenting…

It was an amazing month! Lots of Emacs and Quantified Self hacking (and finally getting to meet all these Emacs geeks!), lots of drawing, lots of writing, lots of learning… =D

April will be more about slowing down and following up, I think. But this is good.

Weekly review: Week ending April 5, 2013

April 6, 2013 - Categories: weekly

The Emacs conference was a blast! I’ve volunteered to process and post the videos, and I’m looking forward to making a lot of follow-up resources. =) Back on the ground and getting lots of things done, too. Yay!

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • Work on SR edits
    • Connect
      • Quantified Self: Process March 27 2013 video
      • Go to E1 get-together
      • Work on MT edits
      • Emacs
        • Colour and add more information to sketchnotes
        • Verify my account on YouTube
        • Write about London trip
        • Back up the files onto Alex’s computer
        • Pack for going home
        • Upload audio for keynote
        • Figure out plans
        • Give Emacs talk
        • slideify my talk
        • Reschedule with Cena Mayo
  • Relationships
    • Accompany W- to eye appointment
  • Life
    • Write about how I use Ledger
    • Reenable library holds
    • Write about procrastination

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • [ ] Follow up with U by phone
      • [ ] Sort out my schedule
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • [ ] Start drafting a curriculum sketch for M
      • [ ] Talk to Patricia Kambitsch about M
    • Connect
      • [ ] Help Dave Cooper with Emacs
      • [ ] Attend Visual Thinkers call
      • [ ] Write a blog series focused on Emacs
      • [ ] Chat with Matt Tanguay about delegation and business
      • [ ] Process March 27 2013 video
    • Build
      • [ ] Sketchnote strategy book
      • [ ] Write about planning a sketch out on index cards
      • [ ] Write about Org and presentations
      • [ ] Sketchnote a book
      • [ ] Sketch Culture Blueprint book
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Renew my passport
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Wednesday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Friday
    • [ ] Reply to Clair Ching by mail
    • [ ] Reply to Byron Uy by mail
    • [ ] Cook a lot
  • Life
    • [ ] Study for the Canadian citizenship test
    • [ ] Declutter

Time review

  • Business: 17.5 hours (E1: 9.2, Connect: 3.5, Illustration: 1.7)
  • Discretionary: 69.9 hours (Emacs: 27.2, Social: 3.3, Writing: 6.0)
  • Personal: 20.0 hours (Routines: 13.7)
  • Sleep: 52.3 hours – average of 7.5 hours per day
  • Unpaid work: 4.5 hours (Cook: 2.8, Tidy: 1.0)

Weekend cooking

April 7, 2013 - Categories: life

It was my first weekend back after the Emacs conference in London. We cooked enough to fill our chest freezer with labeled, dated portions in otherwise identical containers: shake&bake chicken, potato-and-beef croquettes, a ton of wontons. (Okay, 410 wontons – W- counted!) There’s homemade pepperoni pizza in the fridge, on top of a pan of lasagna. Just one pan this time. See, I can exercise restraint.

It’s easy to cook a lot when it’s relationship bonding time, and with background amusements like YouTube videos of a playthrough for the new Tomb Raider. W- is right: it can be a lot of fun watching someone else play a game. Maybe even more fun than playing the game itself – I’m too jumpy for that one! =)

The weather was sunny and warm(ish) on Sunday, so we did some yard work too. The forecast for next weekend calls for below-zero weather. I don’t know if the seeds I just planted will make it through. I’m looking forward to planting peas and lettuce soon.

I’ve been processing the videos from the Emacs conference as well, splicing in close-up video whenever it was available. Rendering video takes a long time, uploading takes even longer, but it will be good to have most of the sessions up there. The keynote wasn’t recorded on video, but oh well!

It took me years to get to this point, but it’s great that this now feels like home too.

Emacs Conference 2013 Sketchnotes (also, PDF!)

April 8, 2013 - Categories: emacs, sketchnotes

I cleaned them up a little and packaged them as a PDF for your viewing convenience:

Here they are individually, too! Click on an image to view the full-sized version, and feel free to share them under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence. Enjoy!

Visual book review: The Culture Blueprint (Robert Richman)

April 9, 2013 - Categories: business, visual-book-notes

The Culture Blueprint is an upcoming book that draws on lessons from Zappo’s corporate culture. It offers a mix of high-level advice as well as practical tips on how to influence your company’s culture and help your company be more effective. I liked the chapter on implementation, which includes a sample conversation showing how someone negotiated an experiment’s scope until the person got the resources and commitment needed. The tips are geared more towards medium- to large-sized companies, but even small business owners can benefit from the focus on values and stories.

20130408 Visual Book Review - The Culture Blueprint - Robert Richman

Hope you find this visual summary useful! Click on the image to view a larger version, and feel free to share it with others. © 2013 Sacha Chua (Creative Commons Attribution Licence) – http://sachachua.com

Disclosure: I received a copy for review. If you have or know of an interesting, well-written book you’d like me to review, I accept requests.

How I read books and do visual book reviews

April 10, 2013 - Categories: reading

Bakari wanted to know how I did my visual book reviews. Here’s how!

Over the past year, we’ve checked out an average of 13 items a week from the Toronto Public Library each month. I select books by browsing through the library’s new releases list or searching through their collection for a particular topic I want to focus on. I sometimes reach out to publishers and authors if I hear of an interesting book (particularly books related to visual thinking), and some reach out to me because they’ve seen some of my visual book reviews. In addition, I receive one or two books a month for review.

I skim through most of the books I get, since many repeat things I’ve already read in other books. When I’m conscientious, I mark pages with book darts or strips of paper. Sometimes I just dogear them and then donate to the library to make up for my guilty conscience. I don’t write in books, especially not library books. I prefer to keep highlights on my computer, where I can search them and reuse them easily.

Reading non-linearly helps me save time by jumping to chapters that interest me the most. From time to time, I come across fascinating ways to see things. I type or dictate quotes into my computer, or scan diagrams into my Evernote notebook. Then the book goes on the growing pile of things to return during our frequent library trips. (As of this writing: 3 items ready to be returned, 6 more to read by Saturday, 44 items currently checked out.)

For books that I want to share or deeply understand, I make a visual book review: a one-page summary of the key points from a book, based on what I think of it and what I want to remember. Visual book reviews help me:

  • Pay more attention to a book
  • See the structure of a book in better detail than a table of contents does
  • Easily talk about books with other people, because I can share the visual book review with them
  • Quickly review the books I’ve read
  • Build my visual vocabulary and practise my sketchnoting skills with good material
  • Get better at summarizing ideas in a few words or an image
  • Give something back to the authors whose books I enjoy
  • Attract publishers and authors who are working on books that I might learn a lot from so that they send me a review copy

I usually draw while reading the book for the first time. I’ve tried drawing on my second read-through, but I find many books boring if read again so quickly after the first time. I read the table of contents to get a general sense of how the book is laid out. Then I read through the book, holding the book open (or paging through it on my tablet if I’m reading an e-book, which I’m coming to prefer) while writing down key points in my tablet PC and doodling little illustrations. I erase, resize, and move things around as needed so that there’s space for everything I want to remember. Then I post the notes to my blog and add them to my public Evernote notebook so that I can find them again. I release my book reviews under the Creative Commons Attribution License (with attribution baked into the image! =) ) so that people can freely share them.

Many people don’t have the time or inclination to read. I read a lot. I enjoy reading, and it helps me learn so much more than I could have figured out on my own. I’m so lucky to be in a city with an amazing public library system, and to be alive in the age of the Internet and e-books. If I can learn as much as possible and share as much as I can (perhaps in more useful or engaging ways than a book that needs an hour or two to read), then that’s another way I can give back to the world. And I learn a ton along the way!


Emacs Conference 2013 videos

April 11, 2013 - Categories: emacs

Here are the Emacs Conference 2013 videos! http://j.mp/emacs2013videos

Unfortunately, our keynote wasn’t livestreamed, but I managed to record the audio so that you can hear what John Wiegley and I sound like.

I haven’t uploaded the Meta-eX performance because it’s a music performance. (Sam Aaron, do you want me to go ahead and post it?)

Sketchnotes: http://sachachua.com/blog/2013/04/emacs-conference-2013-sketchnotes-also-pdf/

More Emacs conference information: http://emacswiki.org/emacs/Emacs_Conference_2013,


Things I’m learning about sharing other people’s knowledge, or why you should show me what you’ve been meaning to teach others

April 12, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, learning

Many conferences don’t record sessions or share videos promptly, so I was delighted to find that the Emacs Conference 2013 was not only going to be recorded but also livestreamed. Jon (the venue contact) even brought a small camera for recording close-ups. Since the zero-budget conference didn’t have a professional videographer, I volunteered to process the videos and get them out there. I also took sketchnotes and shared them during the conference itself.

It’s important to me that people who weren’t able to make it to the conference can still learn from it. So much knowledge evaporates into nothingness if not shared. Besides, it  would be wonderful for people to get a sense of the people in the Emacs community, and that’s something that’s hard to pick up from just slides or transcripts. I had selfish reasons, too. I wanted to be able to go back and remember what being around a hundred Emacs geeks is like. (It was awesome!)

It took me 8.5 hours spread over a week to process and upload the videos from the conference. It was an excellent use of that time, and people have been super-appreciative. I’m planning to transcribe John Wiegley’s talk on Emacs Lisp development because it was full of great tips. I may transcribe the other talks (or coordinate with other people?) if that’s something people would find really, really useful too.

There’s a lot of good stuff in people’s heads, and most people are really bad at getting things out there where other people can learn from them. There’s the fear of writing or public speaking, of being wrong, of not being an expert, of embarrassing yourself. I write a ton, and I’m comfortable giving presentations. (Both skills are really useful introvert hacks.) It’s easy for me to share what I know, and I’m learning even more each day. So that’s good – but it might be even more interesting to pick other people’s brains and help them get their thoughts out there. I suspect that even if I spend the rest of my life sharing just what other people know, that would still be a great way to make life better.

I’m getting the hang of amplifying the good ideas that people have, helping them reach more people. Sketchnotes, videos, transcription, writing, podcasts and video chats, screencasts, blogging, visual book reviews… I get to indulge my curiosity, help other people learn, get conversations going.

This is good. This means I don’t have to stress out about being original or being an expert. I can be a conduit for other people’s ideas and lessons, while inevitably creating something of my own along the way. I’m sometimes divided on this. Shouldn’t I use my 5-year experiment time to pursue my own ideas instead of just channeling other people’s thoughts? But I learn so much by helping people share, and I get to see the interconnections among so many different things. And then ideas bubble up – things I haven’t read or heard, things that I do differently that I notice only when people ask – and these ideas demand to be created and shared. The choice isn’t one or the other. By helping people share what they know, I can get even better at making new things. =)

Anyway, on to lessons learned:

What worked well?

  • Sketchnoting and sharing during the conference itself: Great way to help people in person and online. Because there were lots of abstract topics to cover and I was helping with technical issues as well, my live notes were pretty text-heavy. I edited the sketchnotes after the event in order to add highlights and extra information. Tech-wise, I used WinSCP to upload the images in the background, and then used NextGen Gallery’s rescan folder feature to pull them in. This meant that I didn’t have to fuss with web server errors.
  • Using multiple tools for recording my presentation: I remembered to set up recording audio on my phone, recording video on my tablet, and recording my screen using Camtasia Studio. The audio recording worked, and both video recording and screenrecording failed. (Sigh.) But at least there’s audio of the keynote! I might recreate the presentations if people think that’s valuable.
  • Copying the conference videos before leaving the venue: Soooooo much faster than downloading them over the Internet
  • Volunteering to handle the videos: Because otherwise it could take forever (or it might not have happened). Besides, I really like Emacs, and helping out with this is a good way to build the community.
  • Setting aside time to follow up: It was great to have the space to work on this here and there instead of getting caught up in other work.
  • Splicing in secondary video: Jon took close-up videos of many of the presentations, which I added using Camtasia. This was great because the screen was difficult or impossible to read over the livestream.
  • Separating rendering from publishing: In the beginning, I used Camtasia Studio’s YouTube support to publish videos directly to the Internet. This broke after the first few videos, so I used to save the videos from the error dialog and then upload them myself. When I switched to producing the MP4s directly, then uploading them to YouTube using my browser, uploading was around five times faster. Uploading videos through my browser also allowed me to process the next video instead of tying up Camtasia Studio during the publishing process.

What would make this even better in terms of sharing knowledge from conferences?

  • Doing a livestream tech check and having guidance for speakers: The keynote wasn’t livestreamed because we had technical issues, and many of the presentations were unreadable because of the glare from a white background. Coordinating with the venue to do a technology check beforehand might help us avoid these issues in the future, and it’ll also tell us what we need to work around when we prepare our presentations.
  • Asking the venue organizer which files had the livestream video: The livestream videos were confusingly named with a .ps extension, but Alex found them by using the file command.
  • Bringing a personal video camera and a tripod: That might make travel a little more difficult, but it’s good to have more video backups, and the quality might be better too.
  • Editing the videos using a proper video editing tool instead of Camtasia Studio and Windows Movie Maker: Might be more reliable, as Camtasia occasionally crashed.
  • More hard disk space: I can move processed videos to secondary storage knowing that I have YouTube or Vimeo as a backup.
  • Bringing a large USB drive to conferences: Great for efficiently transferring files between computers. (Good old-fashioned sneakernet!)
  • Making sure Camtasia Studio doesn’t crash next time I want to record my presentation: This probably had something to do with not having audio sources. If I can reliably reproduce this and figure out how not to reproduce it, that should be good.
  • Learning how to cut: Editing to pick out highlights or make things flow more smoothly can help me save other people time and make information more accessible to people who can’t sit down and listen to something for an hour. I’ve done a little audio editing to remove ums and ahs before, but it might be interesting to do more radical cuts. I don’t particularly enjoy doing this yet because I vastly prefer visual/verbal learning over auditory learning (and used to regularly fall asleep in class, although I managed to graduate somehow!), but maybe that’s just a matter of practice, familiarity, and material. We’ll see. After I learn how to cut, maybe I can learn how to make audio and video even more engaging with music and effects. Someday!

I love it when evolving skills and interests come together coherently and become a platform for going from strength to strength. I started blogging almost eleven years ago as a way to learn more effectively, and now I see how I can scale that up even further. I wonder what this will look like in a decade.

Here are a few ways you can help me get even better at sharing what you and other people know:

  • Ask me questions. =)
  • Teach me what I should ask you so that I can learn a lot from you.
  • Suggest ways I can organize or share things even more effectively.
  • Tell me where I’m on the right track, and what “even better” might look like.

This is fun!


Weekly review: Week ending April 12, 2013

April 13, 2013 - Categories: weekly

This was the week of video-processing! I cut the livestream recording into talk segments, spliced in close-ups of the screen when available, and added a short call-out with people’s names. Now the videos are up at http://j.mp/emacs2013videos . Worth the time and effort! I also spent some time helping people out with Emacs over IRC, Skype, and Google Hangouts. I like it, and I’m looking forward to turning more of these things into shareable resources.

I really enjoyed the pacing of this week – it felt like there was plenty of space for the things I wanted to do. I had a wonderful lunch conversation about friendship (blog post tomorrow). I wrote a lot, too. Work was great, of course! It’s fun knowing how to pull the pieces together.

Next week, I’d like to follow up on some of the ideas that came out of the Emacs conference. I’m also looking forward to helping Peter Stradinger with Emacs. W- and I are learning Japanese in preparation for a potential trip, so I’ve been listening to lots of podcast lessons. I’ll be scribing at work this week – exciting!

I’ll be sketchnoting FITC next next week, so things will be busy. Good to prepare for the crunch. =)

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • Write agreement for F
      • Prepare invoice for F
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • Follow up with U
      • Sort out my schedule
      • Talk to Patricia Kambitsch about M
      • Confirm received cheques from M
    • Connect
      • Emacs
        • Write about Org and presentations
        • Help Dave Cooper with Emacs
        • Upload all the videos
        • Convert first FLV to MP4
      • Process March 27 2013 video
      • Attend Visual Thinkers call
      • Chat with Matt Tanguay about delegation and business
      • Send patch for org-read-date-get-relative
    • Build
      • Have coffee with Christopher Cowperthwaite
      • Sketch Culture Blueprint book
      • Root tablet
      • Explore Word 2013
      • Explore OneNote 2013
      • Explore Powerpoint 2013
  • Relationships
    • Reply to Byron Uy by mail
  • Life
    • Declutter

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
    • Connect
      • [ ] Process March 27 2013 video
      • [ ] Process audio podcast – Matt Tanguay
    • Build
      • [ ] Write about planning a sketch out on index cards
      • [ ] Move sketchnoteindex to Heroku
      • [ ] Sketch out what visual book reviews would look like improved
      • [ ] Sketchnote strategy book
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Monday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Wednesday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Friday
    • [ ] Renew my passport
    • [ ] Reply to Clair Ching by mail
  • Life
    • [ ] [#C] Study for the Canadian citizenship test
    • [ ] Set up dentist appointment

Time review

  • Business: 27.2 hours (E1: 16.5, Connect: 3.9, Drawing: 2.4, Coding: 1.1)
  • Discretionary: 39.2 hours (Emacs: 12.6, Social: 7.3, Writing: 5.7)
  • Personal: 18.0 hours (Routines: 11.1)
  • Sleep: 62.9 hours – average of 9.0 hours per day
  • Unpaid work: 20.8 hours (Commuting: 1.5, Cook: 9.4, Tidy: 2.2)

Time enough for friends

April 14, 2013 - Categories: connecting, life

Eric and I were talking about the ways of making friends, and I wanted to reflect on it further. Here’s what I’ve learned so far!

Friendship is good, at least according to Aristotle and a whole bunch of other philosophers, psychologists, and researchers. Some people seem to develop friendships effortlessly. Others don’t particularly focus on it. W- says that I’m better at it than I think I am, but it’s useful for me to think of this as something in which I’m a relative beginner. That way, I can see the parts and learn more about how they fit together.

I like developing friendships because:

  • Other people are awesome and I’m glad that they exist. Spending time with good people makes me feel even happier about life.
  • Conversations, letters, questions, and ideas help me learn all sorts of things that I might not have come across myself.
  • Working with friends helps make bigger things happen.
  • Life has its zigs and zags, and it’s good to share the journey with people. We can be sounding boards and safety nets for each other.

What are some of the key actions or stages? Where do I do things well, and how can I make things even better?

  • Meeting new people: I meet lots of people through presentations, meetups, blog posts, social media, and introductions. Sometimes friends bring interesting people to my tea parties, too. It’s easy for me to bump into new people.
  • Getting to know people: Chatting with someone at a meetup is one thing. Continuing the conversation over e-mail or coffee is another. In between, there’s the first hook: Is this someone I’d like to get to know? What common interests can we start with?Will we have interesting and comfortable conversations? Blog posts and presentations are great shortcuts for this because people can easily identify common interests. (“I’m a visual thinker too!”) I tend to respond better to people who are confident and who share some of the things they’ve been learning about too. If it’s just the surface details (who you are and what do you do?), it can be hard to go from there. I try to focus on getting to know quirky or inspiring things about other people as a way of making it easier to follow up with them.
  • Bumping into people frequently: Meetups are great for this because I can get to know the regulars. If people blog or are active in social media, I can bump into them there and learn more about their interests.
  • Getting to know people one-on-one: Coffee, lunch, or Skype chats let me learn more about what makes people tick. I’ve gotten to the point of having a one-hour chat with someone without worrying too much about imposing or about wasting people’s time. It feels a little awkward sometimes, but I figure that will go away with practice. Scheduling these is much better now that my assistant handles the details. For remote friends, e-mails and letters tend to be a great fit.
  • More conversations: Did we click? More conversations/letters/etc. can help us bounce ideas around or find out what’s going on in people’s lives. Most people don’t post as frequently as I do, so if I want to find out what they’re thinking about, I have to ask them. I’m decent at this and tend to be the one to reach out. Sharing things about myself and asking questions are good ways to encourage other people to share parts of their life too.
  • Mixing with other friends: I really like mixing friends because I get to know other aspects of people – things we’d probably have never gotten around to talking about on our own. Besides, it means I don’t have to worry about carrying half the conversation. I can mostly ask questions and share the occasional story or two. I’d like to get into the habit of hosting tea parties every other month or every quarter. I’d also like to have a clique of close friends who are close friends with each other, but I’m not sure how to establish that without the built-in affiliations of college, company, or accommodations (like the way housemates often become good friends). Anyway!

One thing I’m working on is creating more space to spend with people or working towards their welfare. I prefer spending my weekends with W-, so I rarely make it out to weekend things. I keep Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays generally free of consulting, so I can schedule lunches or coffees then. Weekday evenings are the best for getting together with people whose schedules aren’t as flexible. Weekends are great for writing letters. I’d like to grow into a wonderfully thoughtful sort of person, and thoughtfulness requires thought and time.

I’m pretty comfortable where I am, socially. I’m no longer as worried about losing touch with my friends from the Philippines (yay Facebook and letters and blogging), and I have frequent non-work conversations with people here as well as around the world. I think it’ll be fascinating to get even better at deepening friendships, learning more about other people’s lives, and being there for people. I’ve got a long way yet to go, but there’s time enough for friends.


How to present using Org-mode in Emacs

April 15, 2013 - Categories: emacs, org

You can do pretty much everything in Emacs, so why not give presentations too? Org-mode is an extensible outliner and Swiss Army knife for the Emacs text editor. Because it’s a great way to organize information, people have written a number of packages for presenting information from Org.

Here are some options for preparing and giving presentations using Org-mode, along with some guidance on what to use when. It may be a good idea to browse through the examples and create a small test presentation using the systems that catch your eye. If you choose your system before drafting your presentation, that can save you a lot of time, since the approaches differ in terms of the code you’ll need to add to your Org file.

Presenting outside Emacs

Do you need to distribute your presentation to non-Emacs users, or do you want to minimize the risk of getting your Emacs configuration confused? You can export your presentation to a number of formats.

Export to Beamer (LaTeX) and generate a PDF: Use this if you need to distribute your presentation as a PDF. You will need to install LaTeX, which could be a bit heavy-weight. Beamer is a slide package for LaTeX, and Org can export an outline to LaTeX code. Check out Writing Beamer presentations in Org-mode for sample screenshots and a tutorial.

Export to HTML and use S5: Light-weight browser-based slideshows are becoming more popular. They can be distributed as ZIPs or .tar.gz, or uploaded to web servers. See the section in the Org tutorials for Non-Beamer Presentations: S5. Here are some sample presentations.

Presenting within Emacs

Presenting within Emacs allows you to edit your presentation, execute code, or do all sorts of other interesting things. And it doesn’t have to be plain text – Org allows you to include inline images. (Microsoft Windows users may need to install additional libraries – see StackOverflow for tips.)

There are several ways to present from Org-mode. They tend to differ on:

  • the markup you need to add to your slides
  • the keyboard shortcuts to help you navigate between slides

so you can choose the one you feel the most comfortable with.

Org-present is simple and defines very few keyboard shortcuts: left for previous slide, right for next slide, C-c C-= or C-c C– to adjust text size, and C-q to quit. This makes it easy to edit your presentation as you go along. You’ll need to edit your ~/.emacs file to include some code. See the documentation in org-present.el for details.

EPresent is a bit more complex. It supports converting LaTeX into images, so you can embed pretty equations. The epresent keybindings include “n” for next and “p” for previous, so don’t use this if you’re planning to edit your presentation on the fly.

Org-presie takes a different approach by showing the outline instead of focusing on just one slide. When you press SPC, the previous headline’s content is hidden, and the next one’s content is expanded. It’s good for always giving people a sense of where they are in your presentation.

And then sometimes you may want to write your own. For my presentation at Emacs Conference 2013, I wanted to be able to:

  • allow me to indicate various headings as slides so that I can organize an outline of slides (why should they all have to be top-level?),
  • for each slide
    • automatically execute pre-written Emacs Lisp code (for animations and demonstrations!), OR
    • display images that fit the full height or width of the window, OR
    • display text if I don’t specify code or images
  • and have globally-set keyboard shortcuts so that I can go forward, backward, or re-do a slide no matter where I am in Emacs (and with AutoHotkey, even when I’m in a non-Emacs window)

You can find my code at https://gist.github.com/sachac/5278905

Emacs and Org-mode are wonderfully customizable, so you can probably build something that works just the way you want to work. Enjoy!

Building bridges to geekiness

April 16, 2013 - Categories: geek

On the #emacs channel, aidalgol asked me if people ever looked at me as if I were crazy because of my interest in Emacs. =)

I used to worry about being too different, being someone people couldn’t easily relate to. There were practical reasons for thinking about this. At IBM, I wanted to help people and teams make use of new tools and ways of working. Early adopters are terrible at helping mainstream people try out new technologies or approaches. You need someone in between, someone who can relate to early adopters and with whom mainstream adopters can identify.

If people thought I was too different from them, they would stop really listening. You know the excuses people give: “Oh, you’re young, that’s why it’s easy for you. I’m too old to learn this.” “You’re a techie, of course this is easy for you. I’m not very good at this computer thing.” There’s this gap, and that gap becomes a reason for people to not even try. This is also why I don’t like being called a rock star. It creates too much of that separation.

So it was natural to respond to compliments by downplaying what I do. “Oh, they’re just stick figures. You can do this too!” “It’s just that I’ve been doing this for a while. Everyone starts somewhere!” I toned down some of my excitement, tried to giggle less. Worked on minimizing the gap.

It’s becoming more and more fun to revel in the geekiness, though—to follow my curiosity into the winding rabbit-holes and share that sometimes incomprehensible joy. Emacs, Quantified Self, visual thinking and sketchnoting, cooking, reading… I am deeply into things. I play.

People often come up to me after presentations and tell me that I blew their mind. I used to think that was… hmm… Not bad, but not particularly good either. I wanted to show the possibilities, sure, but I also wanted people to walk away with practical things that they could do right now, those first few steps that could take them on even more interesting journeys.

But then there’s this quote, still one of my favourites over the years:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Here is what I’ve come to realize: it’s okay to be weird, to be geeky, to be different, to explore things that many people don’t get a chance to do so. It can inspire people to know what’s out there and what’s possible.

And then periodically come back and balance that with building bridges and on-ramps and ladders. When people are stymied by a seemingly insurmountable gap between where they are and where you are, help them figure out the next small thing that can help them move forward in the direction they want to go. Find it or make it. Then do that again, and again, and again. People come from different perspectives and start at different levels, so your answers may feel scattered in the beginning. Keep doing it. Then the patchwork of resources will grow, and you’ll be able to see how different things can come together and what’s missing. Build, organize, build, organize, step by step, and you’ll learn tons of things along the way.

This seems to work a lot better than trying to convince someone that you’re just like they were and that they can do what you do. No one believes that anyway.

Towards wonderful new normals

April 17, 2013 - Categories: life

I’ll be doing consulting for around two days a week for the rest of the year. Before I started this experiment, I hadn’t even considered this kind of work arrangement. Development tends to need larger chunks of time because you need to hold the codebase in your head, especially if other people are also changing it. Sketchnoting involves intense effort over one or two days. Illustrations are usually be short engagements with rapid turnaround. This social business consulting that I do with E1 works out really well. I can make a big difference on the days that I’m there, and I can also think about other things when I’m not in the office.

I like the work that I do when I’m consulting. It’s a mix of such different skills: writing, front-end development, database queries, Excel wizardry, statistics, automation, even drawing. I make good things happen.

What do I want for the second year of my experiment? This, I think – a wonderful new normal. Strengthen the foundation of fitness, remove more stressors and unnecessary obligations. It helps to remember that I don’t need to chase after every opportunity, that it’s okay to slow down and breathe.

Sometimes I think that I’m not using my other days well enough, that I’m too scattered across a number of potential projects. That I should be Doing Something Amazing. But worrying about it is even less productive, and I should expect that like all skills, learning how to make the most of discretionary time also takes time.

Hmm. There’s something interesting there. I don’t want to use these five years to have wildly awesome experiences and then go back to “regular life” afterwards. I want to use these five years to move towards new normals, new habits. It’s like the way I like keeping our lifestyle smooth and simple instead of varying it with incomes’ ups or downs. Slow and steady progress, sustainable growth, instead of fleeting impulses and momentary enjoyment.

Practice Perfect: Calling your shots

April 18, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, learning, tips

Practice Perfect is a book packed with tips for deliberate practice. One of the ideas I’ve been trying from the book is the practice of calling your shots by telling people what you are trying to do. For example, I recently helped some colleagues revise their presentation proposals for an upcoming conference. In addition to posting my versions of their abstracts, I also wrote about the specific things I was trying to do, such as highlighting contrasting ideas and writing with potential attendees in mind. By telling people what I wanted to do, I made it easier for people to understand the differences, and they could come up with even more effective ways to say things.

Calling your shots is an excellent way to help other people learn. It builds your understanding of your own skills as well. It can also lead to interesting discussions, and you might learn a few things along the way.

If you’re the one asking for help, it can be difficult to see what people have changed and why. It’s much easier to learn when people point out what’s different and share the reasons. Next time you ask for help and get a simple answer, try digging into the differences to help you understand things better. You can also call your own shots while learning something. When you write down or talk about what you plan to do, you’ll be more prepared to correct things if the results aren’t what you expected, and other people may be able to offer suggestions as well.

Give it a try!

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (Amazon affiliate link)

Impatient for spring

April 19, 2013 - Categories: gardening

2013-04-18 17.46.43

If you leave a little bit left when chopping green onions, you can grow new ones. The ones on the right are remnants from last week’s cooking session. Look at how quickly they’ve grown! It’s fascinating to see the difference day by day.

We don’t grow many plants indoors because the cats like chewing on things. I wish I could grow herbs like parsley and rosemary throughout winter, or start seeds for tomatoes and basil, but we don’t have the sun or space for it. We have a spare room upstairs, but it’s dark and carpeted, so working with soil is less fun. Oh well! When the weather warms up enough, I’ll jumpstart the garden with seedlings and set up the greenhouse for more seeds.

I bike through High Park and along the lakeside trail on my way downtown. There are many trees along the trail, and they’re starting to fuzz up with brown leaf buds. I’m sure we’ll see more green soon!

What will we plant this year? The garlic we planted last fall has survived the confusing weather. It now pokes out through the chicken-wire that we stapled over the box to thwart squirrels. We’ve been cooking with a lot of cilantro, parsley, bok choy, and green onions, so I’d like to grow those. Snow peas and sugar snap peas, mmm – I hope it’s not too late. Lettuce might be nice, too. And I’d love to give bitter melon another try, and maybe zucchini.

I want to spend more time gardening this year, so let’s see how that works out!

Weekly review: Week ending April 19, 2013

April 20, 2013 - Categories: weekly





We prepared various things because next week is going to be busy. I’ll be drawing at a conference from Sunday to MondayTuesday. On Thursday, I’m working too. But I’ll be having a massage on Saturday, so I’m looking forward to that.

W- and I are studying Japanese. He’s memorizing hiragana. I’m reviewing kanji. We’d like to go to Japan this year. Japanese is difficult, but we’ll try our best!

Please pardon my bad Japanese. If I want to improve, I have to practice. If you see any mistakes, please correct me! =)

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

  • Business
    • Build
      • Set up Heroku tools on virtual box
      • Contact kaizenaccounting to see if they can help me
      • Clear up disk space on my server
      • Despam quantifiedself.ca/directory
      • Clear up disk space on my laptop
    • Earn
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
    • Connect
      • Process March 27 2013 video
  • Relationships
    • Renew my passport
    • Reply to Clair Ching by mail
    • Help W-‘s mom with computer stuff
  • Life
    • Work on project P

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • [ ] Sketchnote FITC – Sunday
      • [ ] Sketchnote FITC – Monday
      • [ ] Sketchnote FITC – Tuesday
    • Connect
      • [ ] Transcribe John Wiegley’s session
      • [ ] Transcribe chat with Matt Tanguay
      • [ ] Process audio podcast – Matt Tanguay
      • [ ] Co-host Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup
    • Build
      • [ ] Sketchnote a book
      • [ ] Set up virtual box
      • [ ] Write about edebug
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Wednesday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Friday
    • [ ] Measure cushions
    • [ ] Send letter to Clair
    • [ ] Attend conversationalists meetup
  • Life
    • [ ] [#C] Study for the Canadian citizenship test
    • [ ] Draw emotions
    • [ ] Declutter
    • [ ] Buy seeds
    • [ ] Write a simple Japanese blog post
    • [ ] Read a volume of Doraemon

Time review

  • Business: 30.0 hours (Earn: 18.4, Build: 11.3, Connect: 0.2)
  • Discretionary: 33.7 hours (Social: 3.3, Family: 9.4, Productive: 10.2, Play: 2.4)
  • Personal: 21.2 hours (Routines: 11.6)
  • Sleep: 63.9 hours – average of 9.1 hours per day
  • Unpaid work: 19.3 hours (Commuting: 1.8, Cook: 11.9, Tidy: 2.6)

Crossing worlds

April 21, 2013 - Categories: life

Sketchnoting the first day of the FITC conference was a fascinating experience because the speakers were clearly passionate about design and art, and they were doing things that were way geekier than anything I’ve ever done. (For example, programmed electrical stimulation of muscles.) Crossing over into world-crossers’ worlds.

It’s fun stepping into other people’s worlds. People talked about installations, exhibitions, and residencies – these structures that just aren’t part of the programming, consulting, or sketchnoting that I do. And yet I’m part of this world too. There are overlaps through visual thinking, data visualization, Quantified Self, and interesting ideas like Stefan Sagmeister’s seven-year sabbatical cycle. (I’m doing a more extreme version of this, I guess. I’m starting off with a five-year experiment in semi-retirement.)

This crossing-over thing reminded me of Mel Chua’s reflection on reaching across worlds:

But I was made for bridging; it’s my gift. When I pull across worlds and stand between them, I feel both the pain of loneliness and exclusion and not having a home to belong to, and the joy of being fully used — because in any one world, only part of me is awake. I need to reach across worlds to be all me, be all there.

A different perspective makes it easier for me, I guess. I’m at home in many different spheres: development, consulting, sketchnoting, self-tracking, writing, cooking, gardening, reading… Home enough, at least, to often feel assured, and I know enough about the impostor syndrome to recognize it when it tries to creep in. I cross over because it’s fun to see if I can translate what I know, and what new things these new worlds will teach me. If I had to give up all those other worlds and concentrate on one, though, I would still have infinities to explore. Interests are often fractal and endlessly deep. On this adventure, I bump into other category-defiers and boundary-crossers. The lines blur, and that’s awesome.

Squishing my excuses: idea edition

April 22, 2013 - Categories: planning

I’ve been trying to figure out what intimidates me about this new idea every month challenge. I guess it’s because each business idea feels like a fresh opportunity for the impostor syndrome. I deal with the impostor syndrome by being up front about what I can do, assuming people are responsible for their decisions, by offering a satisfaction guarantee.

Fortunately, other people are exploring that path, and I can learn from their experiences. I’m a little envious of the folks over at Ridiculo.us, who’ve not only set a goal of 12 projects in 12 months but have also figured out how to quickly whip up prototypes. David Seah is another person I look up to, and he’s been working on designing a new product every day. It’s clearly something you can still do solo if you’ve got the skills to back it up.

I’d be more comfortable with committing to make something new every month if:

  • I had more practice in creating and supporting stuff, which is a catch-22 because you don’t get practice in creating stuff until you create stuff, so I should just go ahead and do it.
  • I knew more people with well-defined needs that happened to match up pretty well with what I want to create, which is easier if I talk about the things I want to build.
  • I set aside a monthly business budget in terms of money and time, which is entirely under my control and therefore something I should just go ahead and do.
  • I clearly define the parameters of the experiment so that I have multiple ways to succeed or I get more comfortable with the idea of failure.
  • I brainstorm a bunch of ideas that I can work on even when I’m not feeling particularly creative, and I break them down into smaller steps so that I can reduce the time between coming up with an idea and testing it out.
  • I remind myself that this is about practice and experimentation. It’s low risk, and this is as good a time as any to try things out.

Emacs chat intro

April 23, 2013 - Categories: emacs

It turns out to be lots of fun to talk to other people about Emacs. You pick up all sorts of tips and interesting ideas that way.

One of the reasons why I do these chats is to help people get a sense of other people using Emacs. Now that I know John Wiegley sounds like when he’s excitedly talking about Emacs, it’s so much more fun reading his code. =) I’d love it if you told me a little bit about your story. Sharing how you got started with Emacs (what helped, what needs work) might give us ideas on how to make it easier for people to start. What was your “aha!” moment? What are the things you love, and what would you like to see improved? Walk me through your config, highlighting any quirky things you’ve done to make Emacs fit the way you work.

In addition to your story, you probably have lots of little tips that could save people time or make their Emacs lives better. No time to blog or screencast? Show us your favourite tricks in a chat, and I’ll take care of putting it up on the Net. It’s a quick way to get things out of your brain and onto the Internet. =)

If you have Emacs configuration or Lisp questions, ask away. I might be able to help, or someone listening might know the answer. We can spend some time digging into code or bouncing around ideas. I’m happy to help for free. If you come away with something incredibly useful, you can buy me a virtual mug of hot chocolate through PayPal or make a donation towards an awesome Emacs thing like EmacsWiki.org. =) It’s all cool.

I’d love to record and share our conversation so that more people can learn from it. If there are parts that you’d like blurred or not have recorded, or if you prefer to not have the conversation recorded at all, please tell me and I’ll be happy to accommodate that.

Want to talk about Emacs? Get in touch with me at [email protected]!

Things I learned from sketchnoting the FITC design conference

April 24, 2013 - Categories: business, drawing, kaizen

FITC hired me to sketchnote the FITC Toronto 2013 conference/festival, which finished yesterday. Since the conference focused on art, design, and technology, visual notes made perfect sense. =)

20130423 FITC Toronto 2013 - 07 - Trying to Understand the Nature of Reality

Workflow: Because I do digital sketchnotes using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC, I could sit anywhere in the audience, sketch during the presentation, and publish and tweet the finished, highlighted sketchnotes 5-10 minutes after the event ends. This was very convenient, because it meant that I didn’t need any special room setup (so I could go to whichever session seemed the most appropriate) and we could tap into the buzz on social media while the session was top-of-mind. It also meant that the speakers could see (and share!) the summaries right away, as they typically monitored Twitter for feedback.

I spent about five minutes before each session setting up the image: copying the speaker’s picture, spelling the title and the speaker’s name carefully, and so on. I used the colours from the track indicators, although that ended up with this shade of pink for most of the sketches. I drew using my base colour, moving things around as needed. I added highlights on a lower layer in order to make it easier to focus on key points. I didn’t use placeholder filenames this time. I simply switched back to laptop mode and typed in the talk information. Then I used WinSCP to copy the .PNG over to the NextGEN gallery directory I’d previously created, and I rescanned the directory using the web interface. This worked out much better than uploading the files through the web interface because scp-ing it preserved the filenames and allowed me to not worry about timeouts. After the system generated thumbnails for the newly-uploaded image, I copied the talk information into the image description, and I used that in the tweet as well. I used AutoHotkey to expand !f into http://j.mp/fitcto13sketches so that I didn’t have to worry about mistyping the URL. (Although it turns out that I should probably choose shorter custom URLs…)

What would make this even better?

I can advertise the sketchnotes in the real world. A foam-core board on an easel would be a great way to point people to the URL for the sketchnotes. I could either hand-draw an image or print a poster. (Might even pull off a custom poster for a multi-day event!) That way, even people who aren’t monitoring Twitter or checking the blog could come across the sketches. It would probably be good to set up the publishing arrangements beforehand and include it in the program too, again to increase the value that people get from the sketchnotes.

I can try out reverse video. The room was kept very dark during talks to help people see the slides, so the light from laptops stood out. I created an inverse version of my grid, but I wasn’t sure how well I could deal with inverting the drawing colours too while keeping it printable. Maybe developing a set of colours that work well inverted? Might be something to consider for next time. Ex: Lynne Cazaly’s sketchnote of Frank Trindade’s talk

I can increase thumbnail size. In a week or two, once clicks have gone down or once I’ve gotten a proper development environment set up again, I’m thinking of tinkering with the theme on Experivis so that I have three columns of thumbnails that span the whole page. I might also experiment with embedding Flickr galleries, because Flickr might be a decent content-delivery network that takes the load off my server.

I can revise the images to remove information. If I write less, I can draw more. Revising old images is a way to prototype that look without having to think about getting to the right balance in real-time.

I like drawing conferences. I’m going to specialize in digital sketchnoting and book reviews with the occasional illustration or presentation design. No analog for me, as there are plenty of other people who can handle that and I don’t like doing post-processing as much! Winking smile

See http://j.mp/fitcto13sketches for the sketchnotes. Enjoy!

How I use Evernote to support my sketchnoting practice

April 25, 2013 - Categories: process

I’ve drawn many sketchnotes, which are real-time visual summaries of presentations or other sources of information. I often need to find a particular sketchnote or set of sketchnotes. For example, if someone’s curious about a book, I like being able to send them my sketchnote of it. If I’m convincing a conference to hire me for sketchnotes, it helps to pull up sketchnotes on similar topics. I also like browsing through sketchnotes and illustrations (both mine and other people’s) for inspiration.

Organizing my sketches

After drawing my sketchnotes using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and saving them as PNGs, I use a right-click shortcut to send them to Evernote. This adds them to the !Inbox notebook that I set up. Then I move them to the !Sketchnotes by Sacha Chua notebook, which I share publicly at http://www.evernote.com/pub/sachac/sketchnotes . The ! at the beginning of the notebook names makes sure that they get sorted near the top of my list of notebooks.

This is what a sketchnote looks like in my Evernote notebook:


I tag my sketchnotes with various keywords to help me find things again. For example, I tagged my recent FITC sketchnotes with fitc, fitcto, conference, fitcto13, and design. I sketchnoted a panel, so I tagged that one with panel too. I like keeping track of the tool I used to create sketchnotes (I sometimes need to search to find examples), so I tagged these with x220t as well. Selecting multiple notes makes it easy to add or remove tags.


Then I can use tag:____ searches to find collections of sketchnotes, and I can right-click on the set and export the attachments to a directory if needed.


Because most of my sketchnotes are published on the Web (either on http://experivis.com or at http://sachachua.com/blog/category/sketchnotes), I usually use Google to find my sketches if I remember keywords from the title. This has the benefit of being immediately shareable with people, too. For example, I might search for sacha chua sketchnote handbook to find my visual book review of Mike Rohde’s sketchnoting primer.

If I need to look for something within the body of the sketchnote or if I’m searching while not connected to the Internet, that’s when I take advantage of Evernote’s offline synchronization and image search. Evernote has some nifty optical character recognition that lets you find text (even handwritten text!) inside images. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. I’ve shifted from writing script to printing my letters in order to make it more legible, and that helps the search as well.

This is how awesome it is. I can search for “science” and it will highlight the hand-written text inside my image. Again, it doesn’t always match up, but it’s pretty awesome!


Building my visual vocabulary

I want to get better at drawing concepts in different ways. I started building a visual dictionary by drawing concepts on index cards, but it was difficult to flip through and handling concepts with different keywords was challenging. Evernote makes a great platform for building your own visual dictionary. I use Greenshot to capture sketches and snippets from the images I’ve drawn or the ones I’ve come across on the Web. I configured Greenshot to save all the images to a directory. I periodically import all those images into Evernote and rename the notes based on the keywords I think I’ll use to find them again. I merge similar items, too.

I browse through this visual library occasionally, and I also use it to look up specific concepts that I want to challenge myself to draw more creatively. I like looking at different ways people have drawn things. Here’s an example for “Twitter:”


Getting inspired

I clip other people’s sketchnotes and illustrations into another notebook for inspiration so that I can learn more about layouts, colour schemes, and great ideas for visual expression. Here’s a sample from my Inspiration notebook:


The Evernote Web Clipper is super-helpful. When I browse the Web, I use it to clip images, pages, or PDFs. The clipper links the note back to the original page, so I can easily go back and view things in context.

How this influences my style

Knowing that my notes are going to be shared and indexed by Evernote influences the way I draw. As mentioned, I tend to print my letters instead of writing in cursive. I also draw roughly horizontal text with good contrast and without too much going on in the background. This makes it less ornate than other sketchnoters’ styles, but people appreciate the clarity, so it works out. It’s a little odd drawing for people and computers, but it’s useful and worth it!

Other thoughts

I started off with a free Evernote account (60MB monthly upload), but I found that the premium version (USD 45/year) worked really well for me in terms of offline synchronization and increased upload size. I’ve approached the 1 GB limit only once. =)

I’d love better ways to randomly browse through my Evernote collection, which would be great for jogging memory. I also want to be able to flip through the notes quickly, like with a 5-minute slideshow. (Similar to rapid serial visual presentation, perhaps?) I may just have to sit down and code these things myself. I’d like to visualize my notes, too, and someday build more integration for Emacs or Freemind/XMind. (Currently waiting for Evernote to support out-of-band authentication.) Filing and tagging could be better with more quick shortcuts, and more keyboard shortcuts in general would be nice, too. Much room to grow!

You can find Evernote at http://evernote.com , and you can use it over the Web, on computers, and on and most smartphones. =) It rocks. Also, if you’re curious about having me do sketchnotes for conferences, presentations, books, blog posts, etc., check out http://experivis.com . Hope these tips help!

Why and how I’m (re)learning Japanese

April 26, 2013 - Categories: japanese, learning

Clay Shirky has a great term for this: cognitive surplus, or what you can do when you have discretionary time and available brainspace. Hence Wikipedia and open source and I Can Has Cheezburger.

There’s a lot I want to learn, but I figured that it would be good to carve out some room in my life to learn a language. It’s just One of Those Things. Latin is difficult to practise or immerse yourself in, especially if you aren’t a priest. It’s hard to find easy books for learning Cantonese, and I struggle with the tones.

Japanese sounds like it would be great. I can take advantage of the months that I spent studying and living in Japan, and there’s plenty of material on the Internet and in libraries to help me learn further. Visual expression is embedded in Japanese culture to such an inspiring extent, and I’d love to learn from those techniques. (Ukiyo-e prints, manga, animé…) Lots of technology news and innovations are slow to cross the language barrier, too, like some of the Ruby work and Emacs work hidden in insular tech communities. Besides, it’s fun!

Relearning Japanese

In 2004, I spent six months in Japan (three in Yokohama and three in Tokyo) on a technical internship sponsored by the Japanese government. To prepare for that, I studied Japanese intensively, and we also attended full-day Japanese classes while we were there. It worked out really well. I think I was #2 in my class, and my confidence in being able to find my way around made it possible for me to go on trips to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe instead of always staying in Tokyo, and exploring more of Tokyo as well. I remember watching a juggler in Ueno Park and being amazed that I could actually understand his jokes.

That was nine years ago, but it’s surprising how much of it is coming back in my review. I’m going through flashcards for kanji and vocabulary (more on this later), and it’s funny how I feel the answers. Grammar is a little harder, though. I’ll just need to make a concerted effort to relearn the patterns!

Unfortunately, the Japanese in my old blog posts has been lost in encoding errors, but maybe I’ll figure out how to put it back someday. Anyway, now that my site should be using UTF-8 throughout, this should be better now.

Tools for learning Japanese

Whenever I find myself waiting, I break out Obenkyo, a free Japanese study app on my phone. I’ve been going through the vocabulary flashcards by level, turning the readings on so that I can review those at the same time. Vocabulary is such a big part of following a conversation, and it’s fun rediscovering words. I like kanji. I’m starting to be able to understand the stories told by the parts within them, although the readings are still sometimes difficult. I find reading to be easier than listening, although I’m slower. =)

I listen to free podcasts from Japanese Pod 101 when I’m commuting or walking around. I can understand the beginner and intermediate levels, and I understand bits and pieces of the advanced audio blogs. It’s fun feeling more and more of it snap into place. Reading show notes is not really convenient in the podcast app I use, so sometimes I’ll read it on the computer instead.

As for video, it’s difficult to find Japanese-subtitled Japanese, but sometimes you’ll find videos on Youtube like this one. =) Kids’ videos are fun. Anime opening and closing sequences are often subtitled too. I also like watching Japanese game shows, cartoons, cooking shows, and the occasional bit of news.

For grammar, I’ve been reading books like Japanese in Mangaland. I also like Beginning Japanese’s mostly visual style (Kluemper et al). I remember liking Gene Nishi’s Understanding Japanese Step by Step book for its logical approach, and I’ve just requested it from the library. Because most of the Japanese I want to read is casual, I want something that introduces casual and idiomatic expressions early.

I used to have Reading Technical Japanese (which had awesome example sentences), but the Internet says that the new edition called Basic Technical Japanese is even better. It’s a bit pricey, though, so I might read the reference copy to see what it’s like.

I use WWWJDIC to look up words. I like WWWJDIC because I can search for Japanese or English within the same textbox, and it’s easy to find examples. When I’m looking up kanji, the Kanji Recognizer is pretty handy. I also use the IME pad built into Windows.

When I write in Japanese, I usually have to switch to the Japanese input method in Windows. It takes me a little bit of thinking because I normally type using the Dvorak keyboard layout and the Japanese IME uses QWERTY. If I’m going to type a lot, I might switch to Emacs and use the input method there because I can then type romaji with Dvorak and have that converted to kana/kanji. The kanji selection algorithm isn’t as nice as the one in Windows and I still haven’t gotten the hang of the keyboard shortcuts, though, so I have to pay closer attention to it.

Sometimes I use Google Translate to get started or to find words that fit together. I re-type the words using the Japanese input method to help me remember the pronunciation. When I put together a phrase or sentence, I use the regular Google search to see if other people have used it or what Google suggests would be better. I look at search results in addition to example searches because I want to see the context of the sentence or other things I may want to say.

Next steps: More learning! More reading! More practice! I want to complete all the vocabulary flashcards in Obenkyo and perhaps quantify my progress in doing so. I want to catalog the grammar patterns I learn and keep track of which ones I’ve spotted in the wild. I want to someday be able to speed-read manga without furigana and understand movies without English subtitles. It could take a while, but learning is good mental exercise anyway!

Weekly review: Week ending April 26, 2013

April 27, 2013 - Categories: weekly

やった!会議で素描した。「素描」の意味は「(n,vs) (1) drawing; sketch; (2) outline; summary; synopsis; (P)」だ。丁度いいね。もし辞書を読んだら、面 白い言葉を習う。

(… it’s totally awesome that a Japanese word for drawing/sketch also means outline/summary/synopsis. =) )

Blog posts

Lots of writing this week. =)

Accomplished this week

  • Business
    • Move Sketchnote Index to Heroku
    • Tidy up permissions on my server
    • Set up virtual box image for Rails development
  • Relationships
    • Set up next party (May 5)
    • Look up how to make slip covers
  • Life
    • Write a simple Japanese blog post
    • Check the status of my Canadian citizenship application
    • Analyze my grocery expenses
    • Arrange for alternate source for project R

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • Earn
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
      • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • [ ] Start drafting a curriculum sketch for M
    • Connect
      • [ ] Talk to Patrick Finucane about sketches
      • [ ] Sign up for Decisive talk?
      • [ ] Attend Toronto Agile Support Group
      • [ ] Help Cena Mayo with Emacs
      • [ ] Schedule a chat with nicferrier in May
      • [ ] Sketchnote Hackernest/Girls in Toronto talks
    • Build
      • [ ] Interface for goals
      • [ ] Sketch out what visual book reviews would look like as a business
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Friday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Wednesday
    • [ ] Drop by HackLab.to on Monday
    • [ ] Measure cushions
  • Life
    • [ ] Buy seeds

Time review

  • Business: 41.8 hours (Connect: 4.8)
  • Discretionary: 34.1 hours (Social: 3.0)
  • Personal: 21.8 hours (Routines: 11.6)
  • Sleep: 57.2 hours – average of 8.2 hours per day
  • Unpaid work: 13.1 hours (Commuting: 1.5, Cook: 4.1, Tidy: 0.3)


April 28, 2013 - Categories: gardening, life

This weekend was very much a home sort of weekend. I planted pansies in the front flowerbox. Planted peas and beans in the back, too. I want to see how much I can learn about gardening during my semi-retirement. I love the way plants grow. For example, the spring onions I transplanted to a pot keep inching upwards, and there are rows of seedlings peeking out of the mounded rows in the back cage. Yay! Maybe this week I’ll buy a 6-cell pack of cherry tomato seedlings and get those started too.

Prepared and froze Japanese croquettes, getting through most of the bag of russet potatoes that we bought. Future yumminess! Also prepared yakiudon, which W- helped me cook. We’re getting better at improvising dishes based on whatever looks good at the supermarket. It takes us a while to shop for groceries, but it’s social time.

Life stretches before me. I think it would be wonderful to get really really good at gardening and cooking and all of these other things that make life better.

Quantified Self: a year of grocery data

April 29, 2013 - Categories: quantified

I started tracking our grocery expenses when we decided not to sign up for a community-supported agriculture program. I’d tracked several seasons of the CSA, and I wanted to see if we would still eat lots of vegetables without the bi-weekly commitment of a farm share. I also wanted to get a sense of what we bought.

I started scanning my receipts, and I found an assistant who could type them in. I set up a spreadsheet where he could type in the dates, stores, and line items (including quantity, unit price, and total). There were occasional typos, but I could find and fix them. I used a look-up table to match the line items with friendlier names (ex: RDPATH SUGAR is white sugar) and file them under categories.

The data below isn’t complete because there were a number of receipts that slipped through the cracks. If I let too much time pass between data updates, I couldn’t remember what some things were. Still, it should give a general idea of how the year went. The data covers April 2012 to March 2013 and includes 1223 line items.

Here are some questions I wanted to explore:

  • A. How much did we spend in various categories, and how does that vary month by month? For example, how much do we spend on vegetables? Is this in line with what we want our diet to be?
  • B. What items do we spend the most on? This could point to better ways to economize (buying in bulk, finding cheaper choices) or show us where it’s worth spending on better quality because we use so much of it.
  • C. How frequently do we buy certain items? Can we predict consumption patterns or sale patterns, and stock up when things are on sale?
  • D. What are the normal prices and the sale prices for various items? When and where does it make sense to buy different things?

So, let’s see! Click on the images to view larger versions.

A. How much did we spend in various categories, and how does that vary month by month?


Grocery expenses worked out to be $422/month for this family of three in Toronto, Canada. We ate pretty well, enjoying our favourite foods, the occasional snack, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and buying organic milk (which turned out to be a large part of the budget, but probably worth it). Because we cook in bulk, some months have larger grocery bills and some months involve more freezer-raiding. The standard deviation was $160.

We spent the most on meat ($59/month) and dairy ($53/mo), but fruit ($47/mo) and vegetables ($46/mo) also made a respectable showing. Vegetables worked out to $22 every two weeks, which is less than what we were paying for the CSA box. That could be accounted for as a pricing difference between conventional and organic produce, and we still bought extra vegetables when we were in the CSA. Paying attention to our increasing vegetable spending helped us learn lots of ways to prepare food. Yakiudon turned out to be a house favourite, and other stir-fries are great too. We haven’t been able to get our vegetable spending to overtake meat, but that’s probably because of the occasional indulgence in lamb korma.

The month-by-month pattern made me think there were bigger differences, but because stocking up and bulk cooking means our monthly patterns probably aren’t a good source of information. Our vegetable spending is positively correlated with our overall grocery spending (0.7), which means that ~50% of the ups and downs are explained by the ups and downs in our grocery bill (maybe we just bought less).

Anyway, I feel pretty good about how the proportions worked out. There’s hope for us yet!

B. What items do we spend the most on?


We buy milk because J- likes it. It turns out that Canada prohibits the use of artificial growth hormones for dairy cows and antibiotics are also controlled, but we still get the organic version for extra safety. Lamb shanks from the butcher are a splurge when it comes to making lamb korma. We found that Metro often has the lamb cuts we want, though, so we check there first now. Shrimp sees a lot of use in pad thai, stirfries, and other wok-based dishes, plus our occasional wonton marathons. My standard breakfast is rice and fried egg, and we use lots of eggs in baking and stirfrying too. I was surprised that much butter (and we do, even though we try to stock up during sales!) because of baking, and that grapes made it into our top ten despite being something we don’t eat that often. We buy grapes only when they’re super-crisp, and sometimes we forget to eat all of them before they soften. Also, we usually buy chicken legs or drumsticks, but it was interesting to see that whole chickens turned up on this list even though we don’t buy them frequently.

C. How frequently do we buy certain items?

A block of butter, a carton of 18 eggs, and a bag of 4L milk every 1.5 weeks (eggs and milk feel more frequent than that, though…)
A 2kg bag of white sugar every ~2 months, a 1kg(?) bag of demerara sugar every ~6 months

It’s a little harder to tell how often things go on sale and how much we want to stock up, because we skip sales if we still have stuff in stock (ex: butter) and we shift our buying patterns depending on what’s on sale (ex: 30% on a particular meat package that’s nearing its best-by date). It looks like butter is always good to get on sale, though, and that seems to be every other month.

D. What are the normal prices and the sale prices for various items?

Hmm, I think it might be useful to remember which ones sometimes go on big sales, so then it makes sense to postpone until things are in season.

Butter is usually $4.97, sometimes $2.88. Salami is sometimes $4.20 off ($5.29), clementines are sometimes $3 off ($3.99), and bacon is sometimes $2.58 off ($2.97). Sometimes we can get Japanese udon noodles for $1 instead of $2.19. And then there was that time that Campbell’s condensed chicken soup was on sale for $0.50 instead of its usual $0.97, and we bought a lot. =)

In general, our neighbourhood No Frills supermarket has pretty prices for stuff, although some things necessitate a special trip to the Sweet Potato organic food store or the Welcome or Oriental Harvest ethnic supermarkets. Metro also stocks some sauces and lamb cuts that are hard to find elsewhere. I sometimes look up prices from my records, but the difference is usually pretty small.


So that’s roughly a year of data. Hmm… Should I continue? Maybe I’ll scan and stash the receipts, but I might not have someone type in the information until I have more questions I want to ask. It was interesting to collect that data over a decade, though!

How I got started in investing

April 30, 2013 - Categories: finance

When I was growing up, I raided my mom’s bookshelves for whatever I could understand—and quite a few things that I didn’t at first, but which yielded under repeated reading. In one of her personal finance books, I came across an anecdote about someone who bought stocks of the companies of which he was a frequent customer. When my mom decided it was time for us to learn a little about investing and offered us a choice of several Philippine stocks, I used the same reason to pick Jollibee. Although I didn’t eat at Jollibee that often, I knew lots of people did, so I figured that it would work out the same. I haven’t been tracking Philippine stocks since then, but apparently Jollibee has been doing pretty well.

When I moved to Canada for my master’s degree, I was fortunate to have a combination of research assistantships and scholarships. I never spent more than I had – another lesson drilled into me by my mom. Living frugally helped me graduate without student debt. By that time, I’d grown to love W-, which made it easier to accept IBM’s job offer and go through the permanent residency process here in Canada.

Once I started earning money here, I wanted to apply the best practices from the personal finance books I’d been reading all this time. I set aside a portion of my income for long-term investments. After lots of research, I settled on TD e-funds as an inexpensive way to get started with index funds. I didn’t know enough about individual companies to feel comfortable buying stocks, and books and blogs said it was really hard to beat the market anyway. Index funds were a less intimidating way to get started. Small steps – a tiny investment here to see whether I’d set things up correctly, then more as I became more comfortable with the idea.

I figured that if I hold the funds for decades and get average performance, that’s still all right. If the funds lose value, well, that’s life, and I wouldn’t be any worse off than if I hadn’t been saving. I joined the workplace and started investing just as the financial crisis broke, so it was a little tough buying while people were losing so much, but it turned out all right.

Canada has a Registered Retirement Savings Plan program (RRSP) where you can shelter some of your investments and savings on a tax-deferred basis, so I put in as much as I could. When the Tax-Free Savings Account program started, I moved my emergency fund into that, and then started using it for some of my investments too (also in TD e-funds). For my long-term goals, I needed non-registered investments as well, so more TD e-funds there.

The stock market has been up and down since then. The market value of the portfolio is occasionally below the book value, which looks a little discouraging. When I use the XIRR formula in Excel or other spreadsheet programs to analyze my actual returns, though, it works out okay because the reinvested dividends are also accounted for. Besides, as long as I keep an eye on the money I may need within the next five years, I can let the long-term investments go up and down without panicking.

Investing with uncertain income was a little more difficult for me to get used to. At the beginning of my experiment, I was worried that I might not have enough in cash despite my budget, and I wanted to keep as much as possible in savings accounts just in case. Lately, though, I’ve been able to relax a little and say that at least 10% of this should be put in long-term investments. I look forward to being able to increase this proportion as I become more comfortable with managing finances during this experiment.

It’s getting easier and easier to postpone present spending for the abstract idea of enjoying extra time and flexibility later on. For example, we were at a thrift store looking for books, and we came across some DVDs for movies we had enjoyed. After some consideration, we put the DVDs back because we get a lot of free movies from the library anyway. It’s easy to keep my lifestyle simple now so that I have the space to keep exploring things later.

I still haven’t sold a single stock or index fund I’ve ever bought. Well, I guess the transfer of my Sun Life funds (from the IBM defined contribution pension plan) to TD counted as a sale, because it needed to be transferred in cash, but I put it back into investments once the transactions got sorted out. I haven’t tried doing the paperwork for capital gains in non-registered accounts yet. I might do it one of these years just so that I know how that’s done and so I’m sure I’m keeping all the records I need. At some point, I should probably convert some of these e-funds to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for even lower management expenses. Bonds and stocks still boggle me, so it’ll be quite some time before I get around to buying these. (If ever!) Many things to learn! My sister is a lot more sophisticated when it comes to investing, I think, but as long as I can figure out something that’s comfortable for me, I’ll be fine.

Investing can be scary for lots of people, but if you can create some space for yourself so that you aren’t as worried about the ups and downs, it seems a little bit easier. The biggest risk of loss comes from having to sell at the wrong time, and that space can help. Many people struggle with saving even just a little, but if you can manage it, it might be worth trying investing. Like in gardening, it’s fun to see things grow without much more effort from you, even though sometimes the seasons can be tough. As long as you don’t have to use up your seeds for food, there’s always next season.