Everyday

I’m not sure I have any new thoughts about working towards goals every day.

It’s a great idea. One minute of as many push-ups as you can manage every day, and soon you’ll be a primo push-up powerhouse. Read ten minutes a day, and you’ll be better read than almost anyone you know. Everyone already knows, we hear about it often enough to rarely forget, and we’d probably notice even if we didn’t hear about it.

I’ve tried to think of some clever thing to say, and I’ve largely come up with bromides that all sound vaguely familiar. Suffice it to say, a small step every day can add up to a large investment, and considering the cost of a couple minutes a day, it’s hard to imagine someone who values this highly enough.

I’ve made something to help keep track of these everyday, basic commitments. I hope you find it useful.

Everyday

Yearly Observances

There’s nothing quite like giving a thoughtful gift. It’s not always possible – some people are very hard to buy gifts for. But imagining a gift that is so personal that you could only give to them, and they’d only get from you, planning out the reveal, that’s perhaps the most enjoyable part of any birthday. Truth be told, my favorite birthday memory is probably my brother’s second to last birthday – a ‘sincere’ attempt at making his life better that perfectly relied on an odd in-joke. It’s been difficult to top.

I’d also like to keep track of (for instance) when I first date ladies I like so I can actually keep track of anniversaries. By the time I know the relationship is serious enough to keep track of, I’ve lost track of when precisely we met. I go slow with these things, and at some point even a decently good memory won’t do the trick.

There are also people I’d like to delight that aren’t just those closest to me, which means capturing more gift ideas well in advance. I’d keep a scratch file with ideas for everyone, but I’d like something to tell me which events are coming up so I can get everything in motion in time for the event.

I figured some auto-sorting would make the scratch file more useful, and I’d love to share this tiny system I built with you.

Yearly Observances

[n.b. Economists sometimes make the argument that gifts are inefficient – you buy gifts the recipient doesn’t want enough to buy for themselves, and receive gifts you don’t want. Reasonably clear thinking – but I try to find the gifts that people would love but don’t even know they want. That’s why they haven’t gotten it for themselves and why my presents should be better than just giving someone cash. shudder]

Offsets

I’ve occasionally mentioned my desire to learn Chinese and my love/hatred of flash cards on this site. They appear to be pretty useful – if they weren’t, I would gleefully abandon them. Indeed, I’ve done it before, only to come crawling back. At least five times.

I feel quite guilty about this, obviously. I believe flash cards should be a test of my willpower, so my aversion feels like a failure of will. And while I do appreciate the ability to do things I don’t want to do, and will continue cultivating that, I think rewarding myself for the effort is a good thing to cultivate, too. Paying for vices with virtue sounds great, as long as the conversion rate is in your favor.

I’ve actually been doing this manually for months, a text file shrunk down to a corner of my screen. I would do the mental subtraction and multiplication, but there’s no reason for a human mind to do those things anymore.

Offsets

Lazy Owl

I’ve been thinking about the importance of incremental UI changes, but it was still stunning to see all of the changes they’ve made to facebook recently. They aren’t all huge, but it had been years since I’d seen someone else use it, so it all hit me at once. It’s astounding how much they’ve tweaked and tuned their site.

My reaction was obvious enough: facebook has gotten pretty dumb these days.

It would be hard to build a better Skinner box to capture people’s attention. Considering how valuable that attention is, it makes sense that facebook is extremely competitive in this area. (Whether or not they are so effective as to constitute a cognitohazard, or direct danger to the proper functioning of your mind – not unlike narcotics or cults – is something I do not know. I can say that facebook seems like a waste of time, but that’s hardly news.)

So I’ve tried to make an island free of compulsive behavior and impulse driven checking, encouraging people away from easy but contentless “communication”.

Write letters to people. Read letters, and respond to them. They only get delivered once a day, so there’s absolutely no reason to check more often than that. Nothing new will be there until tomorrow.

As an aside, if anyone wants to collaborate with me on projects (something I’ve considered before but never had the logistics line up) – please, send me a letter at my Lazy Owl address.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have email, IM, and the option to call people. But doesn’t it make sense to make room for thoughtful letters? I love sending them, and am always delighted to receive something well crafted, so feel free to reach out for any reason.

Lazy Owl

Optimize Your Copy

Ask what owners of businesses selling online should be doing that they don’t have the time for, or don’t know how to start. Chances are, for the more savvy ones, running A/B tests to optimize their sales process will be mentioned.

In a sense, having visitors and not running tests is a waste of a valuable resource – information. You could be learning how to sell better with every visitor and every purchase. And the results people are getting can be quite fantasticly seductive, as I’ve mentioned before, even to the point that some people want to A/B test their way to a successful business, which is impossible. But once you’re established, busy, and everyone working in the company has plenty of work, it can be useful.

But that’s the exact time when there’s nobody there to do it. In the rare case you have someone who writes the copy, it’s often either not something they do well or professionally (like a visual designer) or someone whose immense usefulness to the company pulls them in other directions (getting a CEO to do A/B tests isn’t unheard of, but means you’ll hardly ever run any).

So I’m hanging out my shingle, saying, this important thing that will put money in your pocket, doesn’t have to distract from your core business functions. Once I get more comfortable with subcontractors I’ll let people optimize their design more broadly (the potential for big changes – UX changes, user flow stuff – is obvious but is much higher cost, so I’m still working out how that will be feasible. Definitely in the future, if customers show the desire for the turn-key nature of this service, though).

With an involuntary money-back guarantee, it’s hard to go wrong. Price is reduced for early customers (from the already making-me-nervous-because-it’s-low $500/mo), and you’ll get to help set the pace and tone of this new operation to suit your needs.

Optimize Your Copy

[This is the blog’s first commercial product. More free gifts to the world to come, but this will likely outstrip the customer surplus of all my free projects combined with each individual customer – so I think it is still quite a nice gift.]

Quantum Go Fish

It’s rare enough that party games are even played these days. Cards Against Humanity is one of the few I remember at parties, and Rocket League is pretty common for people hanging out, I suppose. I haven’t played Mario Party in a long time but I’d always be down if everyone present is involved.

But there is a party game I’ve rarely played for a different reason (that’s right – the decline of American medium-strength social circles didn’t cause this one!): Quantum Go Fish. I don’t play this game at parties because it’s legitimately hard to describe or play. And there are only a couple people I know that have the composure to play while even slightly drunk.

But the idea is fantastic. It’s normal Go Fish, but your hand could be anything. Everyone simultaneously learns what kind of cards you have from the asking and answering of questions. Asked for a Snickerdoodle (it is Quantum Go Fish lore that the suits are all made up by the first person to ask for them)? Then you must have one. They say yes? Now you have at least two. There are as many suits are there are players, so I think you could imagine how difficult it is to keep track of which moves are legal and which ones aren’t.

You win by asking the question that resolves all the ambiguity in the cards. There is no way to lose, unless you let someone make an illegal move. I think I have prevented those moves from being made, but it’s hard to know for sure without a formal proof. Suffice it to say, if you can swing it, that’s impressive in its own right.

I was introduced to the game by the fantastic Anton Geraschenko, whose enthusiasm for everyday thoughtfulness is delightful in ways few people can match (despite me not keeping in touch well at all over the years).

Here it is for your party enjoyment:

Quantum Go Fish

Mnemonic Major

I referenced in a previous post how there were some tricks you could learn to change how you register on some general IQ tests. I’ve done okay without such techniques but I figured it was time to get weird with it and see how far I can push things.

And while there are at least four different tools online to use as dictionaries for the Mnemonic Major System, none of them seem to even attempt to help people learn how to use the system on their own.

So I made a tool to help. This may not be reasonably possible to use without at least having the Wikipedia page in another tab while you get used to it. But I’ve learned the system decently well just building this and showing it to people. Hopefully it helps you as well, particularly in getting ridiculously good score on the Reverse Digit Span test.

Mnemonic Major

Willpower Personal Records

Willpower, even if not a depleting resource, does seem to be a skill that can be trained, and even the smallest steps help over time. And I like the idea of having as much control over what I’m doing as possible (although I have no idea how much that would be, truthfully – only one way to find out).

I’ve found that, for instance, endurance flashcards are almost perfect as a test of will: boring, yet useful. Reading non-fiction, again, is only sometimes interesting, but often useful far in excess of the entertainment downgrade. Blocking the fun parts of the internet. Posture. Smiling.

These things are important to do and get better at, but easy to forget about. Are you keeping good posture longer over time? That’s the question when it comes to posture, yet I cannot recall a single person I’ve spoken to who would’ve ever known the answer to this, good posture or bad.

So I’ve created a simple tool to help us remember, and see our stats go up over time.

Willpower PR

Queue Limiting: The Whole Point of Kanban

Kanban (看板) is a system for tracking the many-staged process of making something and delivering it to customers, and making sure problems in that production pipeline don’t get out of hand. Seemingly paradoxically, they do this by making problems in one part of the process become problems for everyone. That way, they actually get fixed – instead of being considered not-really-problems.

I included the Chinese characters (above) not because it’s exceedingly exotic, but because the characters only mean people should be looking at a board. Suffice it to say, the dominance of the Japanese manufacturers who adopted these systems wasn’t driven by silly Americans not looking at boards enough.

Kanban requires that each stage in the production process has limited inventory. If any stage has reached their inventory (or backlog) limit, it stops the preceding step from claiming their work is done (essentially, by refusing delivery). As Wikipedia says, “An English-language term that captures the meaning of the Japanese word, kanban, is queue limiter; and the beneficial result is queue limitation.” This helps identify (and have the whole business work towards fixing) the bottlenecks that arise – the places where, if they are improved, the whole business works faster.

I hope that was clear, but to make sure it sinks in: if people can just pile more and more crap on your desk instead of helping you and fixing the process, that’s just describing the system, not improving it. And it certainly isn’t kanban.

It turns out that many, many businesses are improved by developing systems to minimize inventory, so faking this effect whiffs hard, and ultimately serves to grab money from the business owner’s pockets. Software people in particular have adopted many different “Agile” systems to try and capture these benefits, Kanban tools being notably among them, but very few seem to even understand why they’d want to use these systems.

For instance, look at this picture of a popular “Kanban” tool in use. It’s a massive mess of tasks, and only one column (which is “helpfully” labeled “Buffer”) has any limit – and it’s been massively exceeded!

Or look at this example usage of another popular “Kanban” service. Again, only one stage in the process appears to have any limit at all, and this time it’s the bizarre “In Progress” column. Of course it’s in process. Everything is in some stage of the process. And since we exist in linear time, there is already a limit to how much we can do at once. It seems apparent that their nominal queue limiting won’t help.

More bizarrely, the example seems confused about what Kanban is for. It’s for seeing how different parts of the process of building things interact – pitching an idea, deciding on the product details, development, design, testing and delivering to customers are all good column ideas. “Do Today” is a subsection for a To-Do list.

It might be helpful to remind readers: businesses pay for the above services. They are on the first page of Google results on the topic. As far as I can tell, very few software products do this right (although I imagine the systems used by Toyota are great).

The core idea is simple enough. Add the relevant stages to your production pipeline, and then start introducing deliverable projects you’re working on. Here’s how you really get those sweet sweet supply chain benefits (this is just a proof of concept – if I wanted to base a business on forcing people to learn things I’d obviously charge quite a lot more than nothing for the product).

Queue Limiter: Kanban Made Simple

Time, for Internet

I’ve been thinking about my time spent buildings things for this blog. I’ve made some useful things, some interesting things, and ideally some that are both.

But I worry some of them are rather insubstantial. I’d like to spend more time building bigger things.

Time is a tricky thing. For most of human history, we didn’t have standardized time, nor clocks accurate enough and stable enough to keep time over long oceanic voyages. When we left for a great adventure it’d be reasonable to leave your clocks behind. They’d do you no good out there.

These days, clocks are necessary on the greatest adventures (that’s why they put the excellent clocks in the adventure-assisting space systems). I too have been using a clock of sorts for this little adventure, although at a pace too slow for metronomes: I’ve been posting every four or five days (almost always four, but I wanted to avoid posting on a day when I was moving). It’s three months of posts today at that pace.

But when building bigger things, it’s normal to need more time. Partially because thinking of useful and interesting bigger things is harder. So I want to post every week (I suppose this will be on Thursdays), with a post every once in a while for a for-pay mega-project. There are some projects that involve sending text messages, for instance – can’t give that away for free. We’ll see how this goes.

But as long as we are talking about taking the time for the Internet, we might as well mention Swatch Internet Time. No time zones, decimal, compact, increments of roughly the same size as we already use. Turns out that Ancient China used a decimal time system equivalent to this for quite some time (and may have had a ten day week if I understand 旬 as a measure of time correctly).

Much simpler than our current system, but the people who could standardize time first got to set the standard, so here we are.

Well, I think we should adopt that system again.

Internet Time