Vices and Virtues

I’ve been using the Offsets app almost every day since I made it in September. I like the idea behind it, obviously, and I’ve found it to be a fantastic way to think about terrible, terrible things like flashcards (that are also essentially a superweapon in my attempt to learn Chinese without losing my mind). And that level of use has refined the tool – it’s been updated since that blog post to do the job better (once I learned what I wanted it to do better). And it’s still massively simple.

But then I realized I wanted to track programming too – it’s pretty fun but I think making an incentive for it only helps me get started. And I’d like to offset both of those against not just e.g. watching a video on YouTube, but against reading fiction, and a bunch of other things.

This got difficult to keep up, I ended up using the Offsets app plus some notes in my notebook for conversion rates. But those rates would change, because my priorities change, so my notes are filled with me crossing things out and replacing them or trying to keep track of where the latest rates are in my notebook. The whole thing seemed really silly for someone who makes tools like this for breakfast, or something.

After noodling a bunch of different ways it could work, I settled on this one. You track activities. Hopefully it largely makes sense. Click the point conversion rate to edit after you’ve already made it. There’s a timer there to help with goals that involve time spent. Should look and work good on mobile, which Offsets didn’t quite manage.

I hope you like it.

Vice and Virtue

Sequence

Multitasking is a curious thing. I’m generally very positive about tests of working memory, which multitasking certainly is, but perpetually doing more than one thing at a time seems like a recipe for mediocrity (yes, a terrible pun – but I’ve previously experimented with extremely focused and laborious mealtimes and have no bad things to say).

Focusing in on important things looks, feels, and is, weird. It almost doesn’t matter what that thing is. I try to avoid unchanging or monotonic priorities – which is just as well because I have totally non-overlapping interests and I’m trying to get better at scheduling my days out.

I realized that while I have a few checklists actually written down, most are informal routines that I’m less consistent with than I’d like because there’s so many things on them.

So I made something to help me do exactly one thing at a time. Focus, and move forward.

Sequence

Up To Current

I’m a big fan of serialized fiction online. Regardless of your opinion of HPMOR, it would be hard to match the excitement of the Final Exam – the most exciting live event for fiction lovers I’ve ever experienced [warning: mad spoilers, don’t start with the final exam].

I think Unsong is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern fiction. If you aren’t reading it, you should be.

Worm is a model for what superhero fiction should be, in many ways – although if you can stomach lots of fast-paced fight scenes (I literally could not finish watching Avengers 2, so I understand I’m not the average audience member) The Zombie Knight is quite the page turner as well.

I’m also enjoying Mother Of Learning, perhaps the best time-travel novel available today (depending on how much you care about the time shenanigans being coherent – it’s also got a strong shonen vibe, so that might rub some people the wrong way). And plenty of others – a truly absurd number of talented fiction writers are giving away their art for free online, and I love to read what my favorite authors write in real time, along with other excited fans.

But the most common pitfall, as a reader, is that new updates to a story I follow are sporadic (as is my availability), and it can be hard to remember where I was. Sometimes the story has been finished for some time, and I read some and don’t come back to it for weeks. I could just check the last couple chapters, but that’s time consuming and runs the risk of spoilers. Browser bookmarks sometimes do the job, but I can’t always remember to remove the bookmark when I start reading, and putting the important bookmark in a place I’ll remember about requires a level of organization I don’t typically have for two-minutes-a-week hassle avoidance.

But now, all my problems are solved! Grab the bookmarklet and go to town on any of your favorite works, or if you’re an author, add it to your site and let everybody (even people who don’t read this blog) follow along just as easily.

Up To Current

Zip

I didn’t know there was anything fancy to Excel (barring VBScript hackery) until I heard about pivot tables. It’s clear they’re pretty flexible, and let people do things in Excel that I assumed were impossible without code.

There’s a lot to be said about building tools at every level of technical complexity, so that people can level up their knowledge slowly and just as much as they need. But boy howdy, are pivot tables not something that normal people understand.

I do know that many users of spreadsheet programs want to do some simple tasks that aren’t just formulas and sorts of their data. They want to zip two things together, or see which rows have an employee ID not in the list of people bringing snacks to the company event at the park, or any number of things.

Some things are so complicated that there simply is no tool that can do them without tremendous complication. I think pivot tables allow for sub-aggregations, for example.

But if you want to match up the columns of two different data sets – well, I hope that just got a lot easier.

Zip Your Data

Journal

I’ve mentioned before I have a tragic hopelessness at remembering anniversaries of otherwise innocuous things. Honestly, anything to do with my personal life is most likely to be forgotten. But I don’t want to forget.

But having a blog full of irrelevant, quotidian thoughts and emotions (the favorite of the modern youngster – normally using a social network) doesn’t sound great either. I’ve been cyberstalked before, which was tremendously uncomfortable (yet my uncovering of the culprit was near-Sherlockian, if I do say so). I’d prefer not to have anything remotely resembling that again.

I could just open up a text file on my computer. I’ve tried. Doesn’t really lead to a lot of actual record-keeping. So I’ve made a simple journal (simple enough to exist despite the terrible Omega-Flu contagion I’ve been experiencing) that will hopefully allow me to be a bit more consistent.

Journal

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

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