David Erik

"This blog has more redesigns than posts" - Any reader

A new perspective on time saving

Saving plenty of time later by spending little time now is something that occurs at at a regular basis. By spending initial time structuring work, many hours will be saved during the now well organized project. Document the code you write and you will save time when you have to understand the same code a few years later. Paint the house thoroughly instead of doing a sloppy work, and you won't have to do it again every year. This concept makes a lot of sense. But it can be interesting to consider the opposite: Saving some time now, at the cost of having to spend plenty of time later.

This is commonly know as the "bad" version of time management. Just take the opposite of the earlier examples and it's obvious why. Skip code documentation and tear your hair out when you have to understand that code later. Don't fix your broken bike and instead walk to school for a month (losing 30 minutes every day) to avoid spending 30 minutes once to correct the problem. The examples are numerous and it's considered bad to choose this path. But this is not always the case. Consider these two scenarios:

The principle is assuming that my time later will be worth at least as much as my time right now. And time value can shift incredibly fast. Let's reuse the coding simile and pretend that a project must be done at a tight deadline. You could complete the project and documentation exactly in time for the deadline. But you skip the documentation part and five hours are yours to spend as you like. A year later when you have to change something in the code, this takes ten hours extra since it's so badly documented. You gained five hours and lost ten. Bad deal. Unless those five hours right before the deadline had more than double the value of these ten hours. Maybe you had the possibility to travel into space, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Maybe you just had a nice time with your friends. As long as those five hours were more valuable to you than ten arbitrary hours later when nothing would have happened anyway, this is considered a good trade. The example might be a little bit stretched, but the principle stands. Time can have different value at different times. And more time isn't automatically the best outcome.

There is also the possibility that you never have to spend the "punishment" hours that should happen as a consequence of your "lazy" action. If neither you nor anyone else would ever need to change anything in that code, the five hours would be a direct gain. You could bring statistics into this if you enjoy such things: If you know the odds of the punishment happening, you can weigh the gained time verses the potentially lost time and find out what action would result in the most won hours.

I'm not saying that you should be lazy. And no, I'm not saying that you should never document your code. I'm simply stating that time saving is a little more complex than it seems. Effectivity is not laziness.

 

The result of Lift, month 1

During November I have been using Lift: an iPhone-application to track daily habits. Or as the official homepage states: "a simple way to achieve any goal, track your progress, and get the support of your friends." Personally, it is the gamification that attracted me to Lift in the first place: If I can see statistics on my habits, I am sure that I will constantly try to beat myself.

You can add any habit to Lift, and I chose four deliberately vague that I wanted to track: Exercise, Sleep before midnight, Read, and Write.

Why I prefer games that give me a headache

There are two kinds of games. (Well, okay, there are a lot more kinds than that. Ignore them.) Games that you play because you want to have fun with your friends, and Games You Want To Win (GYWTW)*. Both of these are nice, and I can appreciate both. Having fun with your friends is nice. But winning is better. And winning is actually only winning if you play a game of the second type.

There are a lot of social games. Lets say Yahtzee. It's a nice and friendly game. But incredibly boring. There are so few actions to take, so few decisions to do, and so little interaction between the players. It can be nice to play, but if you win, it will be because of luck rather than skill.

Now, you can of course be a Yahtzee pro as well. Calculate probability and follow the optimal path, and you are probably going to win more often. But here's the thing with social games: Since the others didn't try to follow the optimal path, there's no fun in winning. Sure, they made some decisions about how many dices to reroll, but that's it. So if you beat them by spending 20 minutes calculating Everything, it really is no big deal.

GYWTW is totally different. The number of available actions is almost infinite, everything you do is dependent on what the other players have done and will do and and there are really unclear variables in play (such as verbally convincing another player of taking a certain action). Acting before the other players complain over how long time you take to act is a sign of either an incredible flow or not trying hard enough to win. When it's your turn in GYWTW, you should almost expect to hear when the fan who keeps the brain cold increases in rotation speed. It's a good indicator that a game belongs to the GYWTW category when I get a headache a few hours in the game. The game search tree expands so quickly and widely and changes entirely all the time, that the task of finding the best possible action is too much to handle and this leads to overheating. Has this ever happened to you while playing Pick-up sticks? I promise you it can happen during Munchkin, Poker or Dominion for instance.

This feeling, that the game stretches my brain to its entire capacity, feels amazing. I take a headache and an amazing game over a non-headache and a game of "Go Fish" any day.

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* Of course, you always play these games to have fun with friends as well. With the possible exception of Poker with strangers.

Merino wool is amazing

And more specifically, the clothes made of merino wool from the amazing brands Icebreaker and Smartwool. Typically, these clothes are targeted to people who hike, climb, travel and do other cool stuff. One can read about the many advantages with merino wool on their homepages (especially Icebreakers) so I will only cover things I personally have noted. There are a million reasons why one could prefer clothes by these brands instead of any cotton brand. Here are a few:

  • The merino wool keep its warming capabilities when wet. Have you ever been out jogging, only to be ambushed by a shower-like rain? If wearing cotton in this case, you immediately get cold. Your first instinct when you get home is to "get out of these wet clothes so you won't get ill". When I arrive home from rain running wearing a merino wool shirt, I want to keep it on.
  • Wicks sweat away from your body. Amazing when exercising in any way.
  • Compared to cotton clothing, merino wool clothes do not smell bad at all after use. Especially useful when travelling.
  • Merino wool dry fast, and does not feel wet as fast as cotton. Notable when putting on socks after swimming, for instance.
  • This applies to the Icebreaker brand rather than the actual material, but still. The Icebreaker shirts look and fit really well. It's simple to assume that a product targeted for use in the great outdoors would have put the entire focus on functionality, but the look and fit of the clothes are really neat as well.
  • I can identify with this product line. We identify ourselves with many things in life: brands, types of music, politics and so on. Earlier I have not identified with anything in the clothes category, but with Icebreaker I can. Combine my Norröna outershell and Norröna fleece with some Icebreaker merino, and I am in the zone.

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There should always be a list of negative things when one writes a blog post like this. Based on my own experiences, it can be concluded in three points:

  • Merino wool clothing is expensive. There's a reason we buy cotton. It's extremely cheap.
  • Merino wool is not like ordinary wool, so there are no itching to worry about (as you could imagine based on old memories of wool sweaters). But with that said, I personally think it's hard to beat the softness of cotton.
  • Due to its water repellent nature, it becomes practically impossible to wipe glasses clean with merino wool. (Luckily, this is no problem since my Norröna outershell comes with a built-in glasses cleaning cloth. Yes, I will stop talking about my Norröna outershell now.)

The Light Button toggle syndrome

This is something we have all experienced. We enter a room, often a bathroom. We automatically move our hand to the light button. Instead of turning on the lights, we actually turn them off, since they were already on. The action was automatic and the light button did not prevent our error. This is something that's annoying people all over the world.*

The problem here is that our mental action is not "turn-on-light" but rather "toggle-light". We have the same mental action for both leaving and entering the room. This is probably very efficient brain-vise or something, else we would not do this, so lets assume it's good in some way. This kind of behavior is common for daily tasks: the fact that I always toggle the music on my computer when I start a video (which results in music AND video playing if I wasn't listening to any music at the time) falls into this category as well. And most of these errors are very small and fairly irrelevant. But when the error grows, so does the importance of the problem.

In this case we could solve the problem by changing the light functionality from a toggle to two different actions. A light button with double-tap functionality to turn off the light would prevent us from turning of the light when we enter and the room is dark, for instance. In the rooms which use motion sensors, this is even further simplified with one automatic action for turning on the light and no possible way of making the toggle error (being unable to turn off the light is an entirely different problem).

As I said, these are minor annoyances only. But the same principles applies to more important situations, and in those cases it is crucial to create a usability flow that helps us avoid errors. The high beam headlamps of your car could serve as an example: if you encounter a car, you toggle to turn these off. If they were already off, but you did not not reflect over that, you would dazzle the approaching driver and could potentially cause a traffic accident. And there is a reason safety mechanisms on guns don't use a toggle button.

It is simple: If you design something that causes big problems when toggle states are accidentally triggered in the wrong direction, please don't integrate simple two-way toggle functionality.

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*Well, except the parts where they don't have electricity.

Why good habits can be bad for you

I love Spotify. It's amazing. Everyone should use Spotify. A friend of mine doesn't, and I asked why.

"I don't want to be dependent on that service. If I stop or can't use it anymore by any reason, I will have absolutely no music at all. If I stick to buying albums, this can't happen." *

The point here is that even though something is amazing, it might not be worth it.

In the example above, Spotify would make things better NOW, and (in the unlikely event that Spotify goes out of business) worse later (music vise). Something amazing ends up being bad for you - a typical example. Unlike this example, we often know when amazing things will bring bad futures. And we choose amazing NOW over bad future later. Anyone ever stayed up late because it was amazing to listen to music/talk with friends/etc, only to regret this the next morning when you have to get up early - and the entire work day might be ruined because of this? Or staying up late and then just sleeping most of the next day, getting nothing done. The last one is arguably all-through amazing, but not very productive. (And productivity is arguably important.) The list is endless, and things in general that come back and bite us later isn't really optimal. So we sometimes try to "start our new life" - new good habits, less bad ones. But in the long run this might not be entirely optimal either.

Consider the opposite of the last example. Instead of staying up late and having fun on evenings, you go to bed early in an exemplary fashion. You wake up early and are well rested, so work goes great. All is well in the world. But the problem is that this habit now has to be kept. Forever. You must keep getting up early and getting work done. Why? Because now you will feel even worse for sleeping until 14:00.

Before your amazing habit of getting up at seven, you did not reflect much about how many hours you were missing out. You stayed up, enjoyed the late hours, and slept until your body decided it was hungry. But once you get up early in a few weeks, you get tons of things done. You have SO many hours available! You can change the world twice before lunch.

And then comes the relapse. You stay up late, and sleep far into the next day. When you wake up, you no longer see the upcoming hours as your day. You see them as the last hours of a very much longer day, a day in which you just spent the first seven hours doing nothing more than possibly dreaming about spiders. This new habit has made it much harder to appreciate your ordinary day. The only way to avoid this problem is to simply keep the habit running. Forever.

Lets reconnect this with the Spotify metaphor. Spotify is amazing. Before Spotify, I listened to the music I had available, and was satisfied with my music setup. Then came Spotify and it was amazing. Lets now pretend that streaming music would suddenly become illegal. All music streaming services are instantly shut down. I would have to go back to my original music setup.

My music experience would be terrible.

The habit would have changed my view of the possibilities. And knowing about better possibilities, it's hard to be satisfied with the current ones. Had I never known about Spotify, there wouldn't be any problem.

Conclusion: New amazing things could be a problem if they won't remain in your life**. So be careful what habits you decide to pick up. Also, Spotify is amazing.

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*Okay. That wasn't an amazing quote. Probably paraphrased. And you could still lose all your music if your house burns down and you don't keep cloudy backups. Doesn't matter. Move your eyes back to the beginning.

** I feel that there's a drug reference here somewhere, but I'll leave it be.

 

Real world application of improved senses by disabling one

Disclaimer: This might come off as a bit stupid, but think about it for a few seconds. It worked (kind of), it didn't end in any disasters and most importantly, applying theories in practice is always good, right? That’s how we learn.

I was heading to the gym last night, as usual by biking. This is no long trip, only a few minutes, and most of it is downhill. Naturally, I want to get to the gym as fast as possible. To get there, I need to cross a car-populated road twice. The first time is easy, because I approach the road with a 90 degree angle. The second time, I bike in parallel with the road, and will cross right at a roundabout: cars driving behind me will often turn right and I will have to check for cars before passing. But this is the part were I got the most velocity. Stopping to check for approaching cars is ineffective. Trying to look (almost) right behind me when biking downhill is not a good approach either. It is too hard to hear if there are a car up close since there are many roads and cars nearby. The solution?

While biking I remembered the cool thing about our senses: if you ”disable” one sense, the others get more brain processing power* and improve in effect. That is, if you are blind, your sense of smell and your hearing improves. Ah, notice that. Better hearing. In this moment, when biking downhill towards a road crossing, I decide to close my eyes to fake blindness, to improve my hearing so I can figure out if it's safe to cross the road in front of me.

It didn’t take long to realize some drawbacks of this approach. For instance the fact that I was biking downhill with my eyes closed. Or that it may take a little bit longer than four seconds for the senses to adjust according to emergency blindness. Nevertheless, my possibly-not-improved-at-all hearing informed me that no cars were close. And since I did not fall of my bike, I managed to pass the road without slowing down. Brilliant plan.

In hindsight, it might be more suitable to choose taste, smell or touch instead of sight in that (or any) situation. On the other hand, they are far harder to quickly turn off. Please try this and inform me of your results.

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* Strong simplification/pure guess. Don’t have a clue what happens, exactly. Google it.

Iceland

Earlier this year, me and my dad went to Iceland. It was quite an experience. Iceland is a beautiful and strange place. A calm place. If I were to do an Into-the-Wild-thingy and just randomly start living in the wilderness, this could be that place. I read somewhere that Iceland used to be used for astronaut training, as the terain is unlike anywhere else. It actually do make sense.

I don't really know how to describe Iceland. When I try to put words to the visit, it sounds rather boring and presents Iceland as an almost too calm place. Instead, I've decided to upload a few pictures.

The amazing Blue Lagoon. Bathing in the byproduct of a geothermal power plant. A healty byproduct. A strange concept. Image one is mine. Image 2 is stolen, to indicate the how pointless it is to take pictures by myself when someone else always will do it better.

Gullfors. An amazing two-step waterfall. Most of my images from this place were blurred since my camera got wet just by being close to this magnificent place.

The most ambitious meal we had were at a restaurant at the top of the water tower on top of Reykjavik. In addition to its extraordinary location, this restaurant also rotates slowly, so you can look in all directions during the meal. Pretty fancy.

Okay, fine. This image might not be very describing. But I liked it enough to let it conclude this light image presentation. Besides, rain is awesome, and it rained ALOT during parts of the trip. All rainy days can be used as additional reasons to justify my overexpensive Norröna outershell - so no complaints there.

Visit Iceland if you have the chance.

Travelling light

”Is that bag everything you brought? Really? [pause] Wow.”
- fellow traveller on a train, who launched into a complaint session regarding unnecessary and heavy stuff in his huge bag on the floor

Something that nomads often talk about is the value of packing light. The less stuff you bring with you and carry around, the more you can appreciate the traveling itself. As a person that like the feeling induced by actions like deleting files from my computer or throwing out old papers that I no longer need, this looked like something interesting for me. During two weeks of traveling Europe by train, I finally really tried this concept.

It feels great.

Being able to bring all the stuff I need to live decently, in one pretty small backpack (that I, as a side note, have used as backpack since elementary school, thank you McKinley for this amazing quality), is both very flexible and simple. I can carry all my stuff on my back the entire day, and sure, it could be tiring sometimes, but it doesn't even come close to carrying one of those monstrous 40 litre bags bags full of unnecessary stuff (and lets not even mention the bags on wheels). If I stay somewhere where they give you the possibility to lock in some stuff in a locker, I can literally put ALL my stuff there. Having only one small bag is also useful when flying, no need to check in luggage and no risk of having your luggage getting lost as long as you hold it in your hands.

When travelling light and with a less-than-normal amount of stuff, this puts some pressure on the stuff you actually bring. The things you have should be smaller than normal if possible, but preferably still better than normal - this is a combination that naturally is not always easy to achieve. A good example is a typical microfibre towel, a towel that takes a lot less space than an ordinary one, while still outperforming other towels (maybe except for coziness. And cost). Apply this notion on everything you bring, and you will be surprised how little space and weight all the "important" stuff together accounts for.

The main rule: When you only have a few things, make sure they are truly excellent.

Working as a Digital Nomad

”A digital nomad is someone who uses technology and the Internet to work remotely - from home, the coffee shop, Internet cafe, or even to collaborate remotely with teams anywhere in the world. These entrepreneurs & professionals frequently use new technologies like a smartphone, wifi, and web-based applications to develop location independence and earn an income wherever they live or travel.”
- Wikipedia

 

According to definition, I am not a digital nomad. Yet. I am still a university student, I have no automated or location independent income sources. But as a student in Computer Science, this lifestyle appeals to me. During our two weeks of traveling Europe by train, I tried the concept of having everywhere as my workplace, or in this specific case: mostly trains.

As a digital nomad, Internet and electricity is a necessity. After a while on the road, you develop a remarkable WIFI and electrical outlet-spotting ability. A cellphone plan with flatrate 3G Internet all over the world would be fabulous. Currently, using data through your cellphone is incredibly expensive and thus not an alternative. You’ll have to rely on public WIFIs in bigger cities, as well as the fact that most hostels offer some kind of Internet service.

I was surprised, however, how hard it is to find electricity. I can work without Internet, to some extent, but without power my MBP cannot. Trains within countries in western Europe usually provides at least one power outlet for every two seats. Other parts of Europe, however, does not. What surprised me most was that not even the night trains had this service - when you spend your nights in trains instead of hostels, you have basically no other time of the day to charge your stuff. If you occasionally check into a hotel, make sure to leave with power bars at max (we tried to do this in Venice and it turned out that they didn’t have any power outlets in the room - so we used the small bathroom outlet for charging. It looked ridiculous).

Every now and then though, when you have electricity, WIFI and some place to sit down, it’s easy to realize how I could work from Budapest as well as from home. Your computer will be the same, independent of where you sit in front of it. Try it out, and you will sooner or later look up from the screen, just to be surprised to find Berlin or Tokyo around you instead of your regular apartment. It’s surely is an amazing feeling.