Thursday, April 24, 2008

What do I do?

Today's post is inspired by a challenge from IttyBiz. The author, Naomi Dunford, reflected on how many readers aren't aware - through no fault of their own - of what we blog writers actually do for a living. So, the challenge was to answer five questions to introduce ourselves (again) to our readers:

What’s your game? What do you do?

By day, I'm a web developer working for a major government contractor. By night, I'm a freelance web designer, artist, and writer.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

I love web design. It's the perfect melding of programming, art, and writing.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

Most of my clients are game companies. I've done artwork or websites for a fair few people as individual commissions too. Usually, the people interested in my services are those looking for a friendly face and an understanding of the game industry that just isn't there for the majority of web design companies.

What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?

I don't know what a USP is, but I'll say this - I'm the guy who knows what I'm doing, and I know what my clients are doing too. At the end of the day, I'm a gamer as well as a designer!

What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?

Right now, Mana Trance Creative - the name I do business as a freelancer under - is pretty low on my list of priorities. I take a new client once every three months or so, much reduced from when I was just out of college (and unemployed). However, over the next year I'll be slowly building up MTC. My goal is to be self-employed at roughly the same standard of living I have now by December of 2009.

So, if any of you reading this needs a website (or art) or knows someone who does, shoot me an email (!

What the client wants isn't always what they need.

Guest Post by Monica O'Brien of Twenty Set

I've recently noticed a trend in software development that is along the lines of "If we build it they will come." This is a problem in any type of product development, but it seems to happen more often in software development because there are fewer entry barriers to start a technology-based company.

The problem with "building things" is there are no limits to technology in terms of virtual products. If you can dream it, you can find a way to make it virtual. Which means there are a lot of people trying to make money off of products or enhancements that are missing one thing: a customer need.

What technology companies need most when developing a new product or enhancing an existing product is marketing research. Unfortunately, research is thought to be costly to be hired out, so many companies do an ad hoc version of marketing research which comes down to implementation managers asking customers what they want and reporting back to the company.

This methodology is inherently flawed, however. The first rule of marketing research is you don't ask your customers what they want.

'If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me "A faster horse."' ~ Henry Ford

Customers are good at identifying solutions, not needs. In this example the user needs to get to places faster and comes up with a solution based on previous experience.

But where's the innovation in something a customer has already experienced? Most customers don't understand technology the way a software developer would, and the solutions a customer presents cannot be new or different because they are solutions someone else has already created. A company that uses solutions to determine what to build next will become an aggregator rather than an innovator; and while aggregators can be useful, they are certainly not original, cutting-edge, or exciting.

Aggregation leads to other problems, namely complicated or unnecessary functionality. Which is why most software becomes too expensive, too slow, or too buggy.

Some advice for companies developing software - if you want to be an industry leader, learn how to extracts needs vs. solutions. There is an entire science built around how to do this, and in my experience people without formal training in marketing research are absolutely horrible at understanding the voice of their customer. So maybe hire someone instead - the cost incurred will return tenfold in profits.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day 2008

oday is Earth Day.

To celebrate, today I'm going to post a short list of some great links in the spirit of the holiday that are relevant to the Millennial. My favorite is the solar-powered iPod, but check them all out!

Reegle - A renewable energy search engine that tries to bill itself as Web 2.0. Technologically speaking, it's not particularly advanced - no social media, the web design itself is a little off in places, and it appears to be trying to model itself after Google but doesn't come close. However, as a resource for renewable energy information and news related to that topic, it does a good job. There IS a blog, too, and though it clearly needs an editor, the content is in the right place and well-informed.

EcoWorld - This site has a wealth of content. Don't let the ugly design put you off - everything is fairly well organized, and there's a few fun things in there, like this biofuel land calculator. I'm no scientist though, so take this - as with all things - with a grain of salt.

Solar-powered iPod charger - With this and an iPod Touch or iPhone, you can take your mobile computing into the bush and not worry about powering the thing. Also, because it's solar power, it's greener than the alternative.

GreenTechnoLog - One of the better green tech blogs I've found. Multiple good articles with great information!

Dumb Little Man has an excellent post on reducing your carbon footprint. I can't recommend this blog enough, and it turns out he had a perfect post for this topic!

GreatGreenGadgets has a blog post about...well, a whole lot of green gadgets, tricks, and websites. Lots. Check it out!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Moving to Mobile: How to work from any computer

Lately, working on multiple computers has started to take its toll on my time and productivity. I regularly use my work computer, my laptop, and my home computer, and occasionally use university computers and conference room computers. That's five different machines on a fairly frequent basis. It's hard to keep track of everything - especially if I need a file that's on machine X, or a password that's in the Firefox password manager on machine Y.

So, to fix that, I'm going full mobile. I'm moving everything that can be securely moved (i.e., nothing proprietary from work) into the cloud. Here's a few of the things I'm doing to accomplish this:

  • KeePass - I'm moving all my passwords and login names into the freely-available KeePass password manager. It's portable and very secure, as well as able to generate some really nice passwords for you - and all you need to know is one password to unlock the database. No more having to remember dozens of different passwords and logins.

  • Google Docs - Documents that I don't use often I'm archiving to DVD. Everything else, which isn't much, I'm moving into Google Docs - both for ease of access and for the unique collaborative quality of document editing in the cloud.

  • Google Reader - Though I love the Flock browser's social media functions, I'm moving to just using Google Reader for all my feeds. That way I can keep up without having to worry about logging on the right machine, and feeds that aren't allowed at work - like the Wizards of the Coast feed - I just keep in a separate, closed folder that doesn't trip the firewall.

  • Google Notebook - No need to keep track of all my favorites/bookmarks separately. Notebook does this for me. It even integrates with Firefox with a nifty toolbar.

  • Portable Apps - For those times when I really need a specific application, I'll just load up Portable Apps on my flash drive. GAIM, OpenOffice, 7zip, Notepad++, it's all there and all portable.

The only applications which I can't transport easily are Photoshop and Star Wars Galaxies, but seeing as Adobe just released a web-based version of Photoshop that's freely available, the former's not going to be a problem. And I really don't need to be playing Galaxies at work, so that's not an issue either, heh.

I'm taking my first steps toward being fully mobile. If you have any suggestions for additional ways to do this, let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Choice in the workplace? What will they think of next!

It seems that lately more companies are veering towards non-uniformity in system design. Employees are allowed to use any computer they want, as long as certain key criteria (e.g., ability to get onto the company intranet) are met. Google has taken this approach, and I imagine it'd be a good thing for Gen Y to universally follow Google's lead.

With the creep towards distributed computing once again, we could even have "mobile dumb terminals" without too much effort or complication.

So, with all that in mind, let's hear what you think about this. Should companies allow their employees to use whatever computer they want?

Do you REALLY need that?

n the digital age, we are bombarded from all directions with social links, RSS feeds, Twitters, and all manner of other social media gizmos. We are constantly plugged into the world of Look What Just Came Out That You Need Now messages from friends and colleagues. Oddly, we never stop to think whether we really need that new gadget.

Lately, I've been feeling pressure to buy an iPod Touch. A thousand little voices tell me I need it, I can afford it, what will it hurt to just buy the lowest-storage model....but they rarely, if ever, touch on the most important topic: do I need it?

As a web worker and an erstwhile member of the "coworking coffee crowd," I experience near-continual exposure to the Benefits and Advantages of Switching to Mac. I own a first-gen iPod Nano that I almost never use, and that's about the extent of my Apple-ness. So, one voice is telling me to get the Touch because, hey, it's an upgrade over my ancient Nano. Another voice, from the people in the coffee shop, is telling me - sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly - that Apple is what all the Cool Kids have.

I try and rationalize it. The iPod Touch can store contacts. It can access the Web via wifi for free. It lets me view the weather forecast wherever I find a hotspot. It plays music - and doesn't need to be connected to my computer to get new songs. It plays video, and if the rumors are true, Quake III Arena. All things that, as a web worker, I Need.

...but do I really? Will my life be any more complete after buying a Touch? I tend to think not. After all, most purchases we make in our lifetimes should satisfy a genuine need. Entertainment, personal growth, and other less tangible concepts can easily be obtained through non-material means. Hiking every month, for example, is a lot cheaper than buying a new video game every month...and a lot better for you, too.

So the next time you're tempted to buy that new gadget that just came out, think long and hard about WHY you need it. The decision may make you a better person.

If you have a story about a time when you passed up (or bought!) a gadget you didn't really need, go ahead and share it!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fear and Aggression....the dark side, are they?

ecently I read a blog post railing against the lack of willingness to stand up for others in modern society. Too often, this observation proves widespread. I myself experienced something similar a long time ago, and regret not acting to this day.

Most of this, I speculate, comes from a culture of individualism....and a lack of confrontation. We are sorely lacking in aggressive quality these days. This is not to say we should have more anger and violence; rather, we need to improve everyone's quality of life by introducing a little bit of healthy fear into the mix.

For example, I avoid cobras when possible, as they tend to strike fatally when provoked. This is not a crippling fear, but rather a fear that guides my behavior for my (and the cobra's) safety. Not all fear is bad, no matter what our illustrious long-lost President said.

We must be willing to step in and do what's right, and aggression is necessary for that. Pacifism only works when everyone is pacifist. This isn't just walking around the streets defending little girls from thugs, either - standing up for someone's idea in the office when the office bull-head is beating it down for no good reason is JUST as relevant.

So next time you find yourself in a position to save someone, do it. Don't think about it. Just do it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Wake up with the sun and regain control of your life.

ost people in college and just out of it are night owls. I even know one or two who regularly sleep until noon. This behavior is reinforced by a student culture that emphasizes socializing at night as the highest priority.

As a wise man once said, that's no way to go through life, son.

I wake up every morning at 6:00 AM on the dot. Sometimes I use my alarm clock. Sometimes I don't. Either way, during winter I'm up before the sun and during summer I wake with the sun. As a result, my days are more productive, more active, and healthier. Ben Franklin had it right when he wrote "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

  • More Productive. Since I wake up earlier, when fewer people are active, there are fewer distractions. I take a few minutes to just relax and collect my thoughts. Sometimes I'll make a rough plan for the day, though usually I just identify a few key goals I want to accomplish.

  • More Active. Waking up earlier, for whatever reason, gives me more energy than sleeping late. The difference between sleeping from 12:30-8 and 10:30-6, though both give my optimal 7.5 hours, is remarkable. By waking up before everything starts happening, I'm able to set a plan of attack instead of having to react to all the late-morning stimuli exploding around me. As a result, I don't tire as easily later in the day.

  • Healthier. There are two main health benefits to waking up earlier. First and most obvious is lower stress. I lead a life that is almost completely free from long-lasting distress (as opposed to eustress, or good stress). I'm positive that waking up early helps with that, since as I stated before, I don't have to react to anything right away. I can just chill for a good hour or so. The second health benefit is a greater duration of exposure to sun - one of the few places you can get vitamin D. Vitamin D is your friend. Vitamin D is important. Get more vitamin D. Wake up early!

Here are a few links which go into greater depth on this topic, and which offer some tips as to how to get up earlier painlessly:

Zen Habits - Ten Benefits of Waking Up Early and How to Do It

Wikihow - Wake Up Without an Alarm Clock

How to Wake Up Early (dot com)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This blog is ending.

Officially, I will never write another word. Ever. After this one. Seriously.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Once in a while...

Today, I'm going to do something a little different. I had a post about chivalry and conscience nearly complete, but instead I think I'll present something a little lighter....a recipe, and its origins.

Called "Watergate Salad," it's not really a salad in the traditional sense. Since I'm not feeling too well, my girlfriend made up a batch for me. It's not healthy in any sense, but it does indulge my sweet tooth!

Here's the recipe:

Watergate Salad

1 can (15.5-20 oz) crushed pineapple
1/2 bag mini-marshmallows
1/2 tub light Cool Whip (or similar)
1 package instant pistachio pudding (I prefer Jello brand)

Just mix all ingredients together and serve! Must be refrigerated and covered for storage.

Watergate salad is a variation on "ambrosia salad," a dessert dish that appears to have originated sometime during the 19th century in southern America. Some sources place its starting point at somewhere around 1830, although given the wildly divergent recipes floating around both then and now, it's likely that it never had any single inventor or point of origin.

Another blogger who has posted this recipe, Dorcas Walker, has some more information and, in her comments, some variations you can try.

This recipe is great for parties. The next time you drop by SXSW, bring a carload of it and you'll be an instant celebrity!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Forget the rules, tell a story.

Writing has taken on new meaning as I've gotten a little older and a little wiser.

Grammar and spelling, in particular, are not the twin unbreakable pillars they once appeared to be when I was in high school or earlier. Reading Tolkien, and considering his status within the literary world, is evidence of that; though his grammar completely defies the Laws of English Class in several ways (particularly in the Silmarillion), he is held up to be one of the greatest writers of fiction.

Originally, I believed there was only one way to write - the Correct Way, in which the form of the language matched the textbooks perfectly. Now, though, I have come to believe that not only are there multiple ways to write, but different forms of writing must be used in different contexts. The Correct Way is appropriate only in certain situations.

One of those situations is in business letters, resumés, and other formal career-related communication. The purpose of the language used is to impart a sense of your competence and professionalism. For us twenty-somethings, this is the area that is most often lacking. In college, a scant two years ago, I proofread some classmates' papers in upper division courses and was appalled by the errors in what should have been fundamental form. Run ons, fragments, and similar literary atrocities abounded. This is no way to demonstrate our competence in the workplace, particularly for those of us who work as freelancers outside the relatively safe cubicle world. Our communication style is vital.

Now, while that professional Correct Way is appropriate and even necessary in the corporate world, it is often inappropriate for the world of fiction and narrative writing. As per Tolkien's example, there is a different kind of focus for narrative form - the telling of the story. Flowery language makes it more difficult to read, certainly, but using unusual words and sentence structures forces our brains to creatively interpret. Once we engage that half of our brain, suddenly these worlds that the authors are weaving for us take on a life of their own.

This kind of writing is also necessary for our development as individuals, though many people don't allow it to flourish...or even practice it. Flowery writing makes us think and produces new pathways in our still-growing brain patterns, something ever so vital for a twenty-something newly recovering from the culture of university.

Storytelling is an important skill, and being able to forget the Correct Way for awhile and forge new trails helps us become more rounded people.

So, the next time you find yourself free for fifteen minutes with nothing in mind to do, grab a sheet of paper or a word processor and tell a story. Forget the us your world.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Connect and Prosper.

omething missing in a lot of big companies - whether office, factory, or what-have-you - is a sense of community and connectedness. There is frequently no connection between You and the Team. In the case of freelancers, it's between You and the Client.

What do I mean by connection? I mean empathy. I mean that feeling you get when you really understand someone, and they understand you. There's way too much focus on Lone Wolf, out-for-number-one tactics out there.

I recently read Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard and found myself nodding at every third paragraph. Michael's research is impeccable and his findings are both simple and profound. He goes into great detail about the hows and whys of connecting at the workplace. His conclusions are that A) connections at work make that company a great place to work for, and B) in the case of customers and clients, that company becomes a great one to do business with. People are happier when they're connected.

Michael doesn't go too much into scale and volume, but he does make notable mention of the fact that big companies that encourage communication and connection do demonstrably better work, backed up by trustworthy data.

According to his research and my own personal experiences, people who make connections are happier, healthier, more optimistic, and generally more energetic than those who do not.


When's the last time you made an effort to make connections in your workplace? Do you know the name of the guy in the cubicle across the way? If not, introduce yourself. Get to know the people you work with, for, and above, and you will find that the rewards greatly outweigh any remotely possible cost to yourself.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

3 lists that will save you time and keep you sane

In today's online culture of GTD, productivity, time management, and so on, we are focused on getting more done in less time. We are told that quantity is generally preferable to quality. What this mindset doesn't take into account is another important aspect of life - happiness. Too often, I find myself thinking that line from Jurassic Park, "[they] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Time is valuable, yes. The most valuable currency in the world. Now think to yourself - do you spend all your money? Do you have a plan for every dime you will ever earn?

When you get right down to it, you have a finite amount of time available to you during your lifetime. There is no chance you will receive more, but frequent opportunities to get your supply shortened or even cut off permanently. So, you must spend your time wisely...and that includes leaving some flexible time so you can catch a breather and just relax!

To that end, here's a few lists of things to think about when you plan for the future.

One day every week (Sunday works for me), write down a list of three goals you want to accomplish over the next week. These goals don't have to be work-related; rather, they should be things that you really want to do. For example, my weekly list might read:

  • Ride 5 miles on my bike (Biking)
  • Draw 5 new illustrations for my game (Art)
  • Complete a perfect back-spin kick (Taekwon-do)
Your second priority (never, ever your first) should be to make a list of three goals you need to accomplish over the next week. This list is of things that need to get done, but that you don't necessarily enjoy. For example:
  • Pay gas bill (Bills)
  • Shovel sidewalk (Chores)
  • Turn in P3 report (Work)
Finally, make a list of three goals to meet for the next week that you should accomplish. These can be just about anything. For me, the list might look like this:

  • Find a good local dietician (Health)
  • Finish my current novel (Reading)
  • Spend half an hour learning about leadership (Education)

Keep in mind that all of these things should only make up a PART of your time. The rest can and should be fluid, allowing for sudden shifts in schedule and just plain old relaxation. Personally, I try and incorporate some daily rituals into my life, but that's just what works for me. Experiment to see the best solution for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Art of eating M&Ms

hen you rip open a bag of M&Ms, how do you eat 'em? Pop one at a time, rapid-fire? Pour the contents into your waiting maw? Or do you slide a single one into your mouth, suck on it for awhile, then finally swallow and consider, possibly, having another?

The way you answer that question could have remarkable ramifications for how you approach life in general. Are you the type of person who consumes new experiences at a phenomenal rate? Do you let everything go by in a rush as you focus on something else? Or, perhaps, do you savor each experience one at a time?

Interestingly, conventional wisdom might be right for once. Savoring one experience at a time lets you take in more, and more importantly, understand more. I once met a maharaja who visited my cultural anthropology class in New Zealand. He insisted that it would take many years to learn what he was about to try and teach us in an hour. Being young and inexperienced, after the lesson was over I privately scoffed at the seeming simplicity and easiness of the concepts. How could it possibly take years to learn this?

Now, eight years later, I understand.

Some things, like the meditative world view the maharaja tried to teach us, are intellectually very easy to disassemble...but very difficult to actually ingrain into your being. Learning and understanding are two very different, though interrelated, concepts. In order to fully understand a lot of the seemingly simple productivity and personal growth concepts floating around the Net right now, you must experience them over an extended period of time instead of merely seeing them, analyzing them, and casting them aside.

So the next time you open up a bag of those candy-coated chocolates, try savoring them one at a time. You might be surprised at how much more you enjoy them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Clash of the Generations

Recently, a student at Ryerson University in Toronto was charged with over a hundred counts of academic misconduct. His crime? Running a chemistry study group on Facebook.

Now, while I'm sure there is more to this story than what the article states, the case seems fairly clear: a professor considers online communities different from offline ones. This is despite the differences being negligible for the purpose it was intended for.

Though I graduated university last May ('07), I still live two blocks from campus. I'm plugged into the college community there, and it's definitely not the pure-offline world that a lot of the older professors seem to think it is. The majority of students at SDSU seem to have a Facebook account at the very least. Even some professors do, though they're almost entirely the younger ones.

This is not the first clash between old and new ways of thinking about human interaction, and I guarantee it won't be the last. However, we as young adults need to work with the older generations to demonstrate three things:

  • Technology is not a replacement for traditional forms of communication, it's an enhancement of it.
  • The Internet is not lawless, despite it being unregulated. There are rules of behavior online just as there are ones offline.
  • Education is more and more becoming inseparable from the Internet, and things such as online study groups are inevitable evolutions of that paradigm.

Ranting, raving, and threatening is most definitely NOT the way to prove to the older generations that our way of thinking on this issue is correct. Instead, we need to approach this on their level - and with their tools. We are one society, not two separate ones.

Personally, I think Ryerson University's wording of their academic dishonesty policy could use some updating. "Any academic advantage" being made illegal would seem to me to disallow reading textbooks.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Workplace? Nah, we need the Lifeplace.

Too often I hear people complaining about the workplace or chattering about the differences between the workplace and the home. Many people seem to enjoy making tremendous separations between Work and Play.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

See, life's about three key concepts - Production, Play, and Provision. All three are necessary for all aspects of life, and cutting one out of any part of it makes life less fun, less whole.

Production. The art of giving something back to society. If you want your life to mean something, you produce. Writers write, engineers engineer, and If you spend a good deal of your life dedicated to one thing, you will become good at that one thing. People who are happy with their jobs almost always have combined their favorite productive activity into their working life.

Play. The art of doing something just for the hell of it, with no obvious return. While this doesn't directly create New and Better Stuff for society, it improves you and those around you as a person. It's a social activity. While Me Time has its place and is necessary for mental health, playing with others is a vital aspect of a healthy society and can really be refreshing for the mind, body, and soul. From a working standpoint, it encourages teamwork, communication, and energy, all very important concepts for Good Workers.

Provision. The art of keeping oneself and one's dear ones alive and happy. Feeding yourself and your kids (if you have them) is only part of the equation. In your working life, the ideal worker is one who cares about his colleagues, his projects, and yes, even his managers. Japan partially got this right in the Old Days before the bubble economy and after the Occupation, where every employee of a company was a member of a "family" of sorts. Caring employees are happy, more productive, and more fun to be around.

Think about it. In the perfect job, you'd have fun, have a recurring sense of accomplishment, and be a proud member of The Team, right? Everyone else would think the same too. This is much easier to do with startups, ala Silicon Valley, than it is with larger established companies, but it's still possible. Be proactive, and set up the change. You don't have to fight management to make this happen.

Make it all part of your life, who you are, who you will be. Change your workplace into a lifeplace, something that you are happy to include as part of your existence on this Earth. You'll find that everyone is happier, is more productive, and generally better people when it happens.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Get an awesome new hobby to improve and enrich your life!

Balancing a frugal life with a fun life can be difficult. Many hobbies and forms of entertainment cost money, and some are more expensive than others. Some hobbies - like yachting - are prohibitively expensive for the average joe. Others, like hiking, are practically free in the right circumstances. Choosing fun hobbies that don't hit up the wallet too hard can be a great way to reduce living expenses while still letting you lead the life you want.

Choosing a new hobby is a simple process, though some of the details can require a lot of thought. Follow the next few steps to gain a new, cheaper, more exciting handle on life!

  • Consider the cost. Cheaper is better, but there are multiple angles to think about. Entry cost is only one part of the equation. There are also incidental costs (like, say, the cost of buying more paintballs), maintenance costs (repairing your hiking boots), and upgrade costs (like getting more involved in the hobby's community). Cost is not necessarily monetary, remember! It can involve significant time and social commitments.
  • Think about your overarching interests. Are you a nature lover? An athlete? Do you like making things? How about challenging yourself? Thinking about these things will get your mind working on the possibilities.
  • Favor physical activities over sedentary ones. Being physically active is much better for you. Mental growth is important too, but if you're used to sitting at home, opt for the physical new hobby over the mental one.
  • Make a list. Considering the first three steps, do some research on fun activities that might match your interests. Don't just rely on Google, either; check out the local library and review your options in your home town. Some cities have extensive bike trails, while others might have public tennis courts. See what's available.
  • Narrow the list. Pick two options from it, and try out both. Go with the one that seems more fun to you after a month or so.
  • Enjoy your new hobby! Spend a lot of time with it. Hobbies can stagnate and become boring if you don't engage them often, so try and dedicate specific blocks of time to it every week.

Don't worry about retiring old, expensive hobbies. Just devote a decent chunk of time to your new hobby, and if you enjoy it, you'll find that your other hobbies won't seem as important and will fade in time...along with those expensive side costs that accompanied them!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Web workers don't need Stuff.

As is frequently the case, a dozen article ideas struck me as I was checking my daily blogs today. One article I read seemed particularly noteworthy - the Tyranny of Stuff on Get Rich Slowly. After reading it, I thought about how much Stuff is appropriate for various kinds of people. Then I thought, how much Stuff do I, a web worker, REALLY need?

The technogeek in me cried out "lots of it! Gadgets define me!" The philosophe in me grumbled "I need nothing. Sell! Trash! Throw out!" Then the rational side started to churn.

I've always gone through short periods of BUY BUY BUY followed by long stretches of GET RID OF EVERYTHING I OWN. It's a vicious cycle. More than that, though, it's telling of how I view Stuff.

Something that few people seem to think about is the exact level of Stuff they need to be happy and productive. Most are content with continually buying more and better Stuff. A rare few find happiness in owning next to nothing. We really need to think about not just what makes us happy, but what makes us happy for the lowest personal cost. That isn't just cost in terms of money, either. Every single interaction we make has a cost of some kind, and this is particularly true of acquiring Stuff.

Stuff has multiple costs - the monetary price, the space it takes up, and the time its usage takes away from other things. There are also a bunch of other indirect costs, such as what others think of us for acquiring this Stuff, opportunities lost because of it, and so on. Rarely do we ever consider all of these; most of the time, we are purely focused on the monetary cost.

I blame that mostly on our materialistic culture, but the cause isn't important. Only the solution is. So, let's look at exactly what a web worker in general needs to own in terms of Stuff.

Obviously, a computer is a necessity. While it's possible to use only public machines in Net cafés and the like, it's not cost-effective by any reckoning. So, that's one item of Stuff that's necessary.

Coffee, Mountain Dew, energy drinks - all consumables that really have no lasting positive effect on us. Bad Stuff there.

Housing is vital. Renting versus owning is outside the scope of this article. Utilities, obviously, are also vital. Groceries too....though we really don't need to buy that extra yummy snack just because it's on sale.

The latest gadget off of ThinkGeek is not vital. In my case especially, we're only likely to use it for a few days or a couple weeks at most before it becomes just another part of the scenery. So, too, with the latest computer games. That's not to say that computer games are bad Stuff, though - just reduce the frequency at which you buy them. One or two a year is plenty. One or two every couple years is better.

Cars are very sturdy things. Buying brand new ones is just silly, so if you really must buy a new car, get a used one that's at least three or four years old. If you're going for a hybrid, though, that's a different matter. Do NOT buy a used hybrid right now....the new battery cost will eat you alive. Get a new one if you must have a hybrid or other alternative energy vehicle.

Similarly, how many blogs/websites do you REALLY need to read every day? Though they don't have any monetary cost, they DO have associative costs like time and opportunity. Knowledge may be power, but knowledge at the cost of living tends to drag you down in the end.

There are hundreds of thousands of other things I could list here, but I'm sure you've already come up with a few of your own. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you believe is necessary Stuff and what isn't.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Art of Positive Deletion

A very important concept in programming is what we coders call "garbage collection." Basically, a program is like an old pail of water - if you don't make sure all the holes are filled, that water's gonna go all over the place. It'll get everywhere and make your life miserable. A computer only has so many resources, and holes in a program (e.g. memory leaks) will keep taking up more and more of those resources until there's nothing left.

The concept of garbage collection can be applied to life in general, though. I call it "positive deletion," since what you're doing is eliminating Stuff from your life so the Stuff doesn't clog up the rest of your life. After all, you only have so much Life!

Positive deletion is a combination of time management and spatial organization. You need to get rid of things that take up resources as quickly and completely as possible. Parkinson's Law is only too true, so you need to make sure you're only spending as much time on a project - whether personal or for work - as absolutely necessary. Thomas Edison couldn't have invented 1,093 things in his lifetime if he didn't understand this principle.

Of course, that doesn't mean pushing out an incomplete finished product. Do what needs to be done, but try and do it in half the time you (or your boss) originally assess it at. If you fail to meet this ambitious goal, then I guarantee you will at least have made it in under the original assessment! There are other task/time management techniques you can use (e.g. batching, worst first, etc.), but they're out of the scope of this post.

Another aspect of positive deletion is the outright culling of unnecessary garbage from your life. For example, how much time do you REALLY need to spend in front of the TV every day? Or the computer?

Try out some of the following tips to get rid of the garbage:

  1. Sort out your goals. Make a list of all of your personal and work-related goals. Categorize them by importance - Vital, High Priority, and Low Priority. Assign due dates to each of them, assuming that you will work on only one goal at a time.
  2. Knock out the most difficult task first. Also known as the Eat a Frog principle, doing this will ensure your day can only get better...and you'll gain self-respect for not procrastinating in the process!
  3. Reduce your time-wasters. If you're a chronic TV-watcher, try dropping an hour off the time you spend watching the tube every day for a month. Next month, another hour. Similarly, if you spend way too much time reading email, try the Ferriss method of email batching.
  4. Plan your day. Using Google Calendar, 30 boxes, or another calendar, plan out tomorrow from waking to sleeping. Include half an hour for planning the day after that. Keep doing this for a week. At the end of the week, start planning out the entire week after that, and so on. Most importantly, stick to the plan! While there will inevitably be unforeseen events (such as family emergencies, flat tires, etc.), for the most part the plan'll keep you on track and away from the little time-wasters like neuroticly checking email every ten minutes.
  5. Set limits. Don't just let yourself "work until it's done." Set a specific stopping time, and stop when you reach it.

There are many more possibilities here, but those five will be a good starting point for you. There are a great many other blogs dedicated specifically to productivity (43 folders, Steve Pavlina, Lifehack, etc.) that will expand on the positive deletion principle. For those of you already familiar with productivity optimization, you may be interested to read Dumb Little Man, as it has some interesting and unique tips that go beyond the usual.

In the end, if you can take charge of your life, you'll find that the most valuable currency of all - time - is yours to command. Positive deletion is but one of many tools to help you with that goal. Try it out for a month, and see how it affects your life!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Free software, free world

The concept of a free world is near and dear to those advocates of FOSS. In recent years free software advocacy has grown in volume if not in momentum. Subscribers to this peculiar philosophy - that all software should be free, open source, and readily available to the public at large - seem to hold certain similarities to other philosophical positions.

Anarchism, for one. Libertarianism for another. But it goes deeper than those mere labels.

All software being freely available as a good and desirable trait of a society implies...nay, requires that believers subscribe to the idea that materialism and ownership are inherently negative concepts. In this they resemble some beliefs of a few Native American tribes. Non-market economies based on concepts of barter and dumb-barter, however, almost always have a concept of ownership behind them even if there is no currency or common value basis for items. In small societies, the materialistic bent of placing value on an item gives way to placing value on the exchange of the item, thereby replacing economic value with social value. In today's anonymous global village, social value is of far less importance, and thus materialism has risen as a natural consequence.

Interestingly, the FOSS advocacy movement seems to be pushing for a return to social value over material value. Linus Torvalds is considered influential and prestigious for his uncompromising dedication, generosity, and competence. Bill Gates, while similarly intelligent, is reviled for his tremendous wealth and reputed anti-FOSS tactics. A developer's prestige in the FOSS community is directly proportional to his or her contributions to the community.

Now, while this is all well and good and I applaud a return to social value over material value, there is one glaring flaw in the FOSS advocacy philosophy - free software doesn't pay the bills. Some companies get around this by offering services to support their free products, but service isn't particularly time-consuming, thus enabling fewer developers to support a single product and restricting the number of jobs available at a given company. This suggests that the entire software industry is either flawed in its concept or flawed in its execution and gives rise to questions regarding the legitimacy and efficiency of the current paradigm.

For FOSS to become a viable methodology, the software industry must shift from a production-centric environment to a service-centric one. This is not to say that development itself must go by the wayside; rather, services need to be placed higher in priority than development so as to foster an equivalent financial return for developers and still promote the free usage of software. Service industries account for 70% of the economic activity in the United States; certainly, by transforming the software industry into such will bring no great harm to the pocketbooks of developers as a whole...but its effects on the individual developer can't be directly determined.

Personally, I hope that the FOSS philosophy and its focus on social value is a sign of a general disillusionment with materialism in general. Certainly, it can't hurt to help others through ideas such as FOSS. To find out more, check out the Free Software Foundation's website. Their Resources section is particularly helpful.