My Year of Living Dangerously

My Year of Living Dangerously: Being consistently broke this year has given me a great perspective though. I’m fascinated and disgusted at the same time by the people who use sites like Wesabe or Mint to tally, organize, count and recount their money over and over again. I mean, do you realize that more than half of the U.S. doesn’t have any savings beyond a 401k, and the bottom third has no savings at all and heaps of debt? From reading the echo-chamber on the blogs you’d think everyone would find these sites useful. They’re not, especially to the 100MM people in the U.S. that aren’t in the middle or upper class. Seriously, where are the online financial services that will let me schedule out a bunch of bills, and pick and choose among those I can afford to pay this month based on an income that’s less than the total debt payments? That’s what I – and the other 1/3rd in the U.S. – would like to see, believe me. [I had serious conversation about a product like this, although the focus was savings not bill schedule displacement. However, the important difference I see is that it is hard for that bottom third to gain enough access to computers to make the service worthwhile, and of course, they can’t pay for it directly, it would have to be ad based or collect bounties for steering people to other useful credit tools/services/etc. Not simple. I should add that I spent quite a few years being poor when I worked as a musician, and can feel his pain quiet acutely to this day.]

Only two years left

Only two years left: Here’s a question that you should clip out and tape to your bathroom mirror. It might save you some angst 15 years from now. The question is, What did you do back when interest rates were at their lowest in 50 years, crime was close to zero, great employees were looking for good jobs, computers made product development and marketing easier than ever, and there was almost no competition for good news about great ideas? [Working on it… (Bought a house, and started a family for starters… still working on many other things.]
Source: Seth’s Blog

I just wanted to go for a ride…

…they’ve been few and far between this year. I really need to get out more. Here’s my latest attempt.

I have a scheduled call at 10am. I have to drop off my son at brother’s because my sister-in-law is kind of enough to watch Noah, what with day care being closed for the week (sigh). They live about 35 minutes away, and I can drop him at 8:15. Then I’m meeting some folks for a bike ride at 11 about 15 minutes away. No sweat right? A little preparation, and this should be easy.

Uhh, not so much.

Noah despite going to bed late, is up at 4:50am. And cranky, fidgety-tired to boot. OK, I’ve dealt with this before. Moving along, we get my wife out the door… I should be 15 minutes behind. I start to get the recycling together and then it starts to unravel.

First Noah wants cereal, and not just the bag I’m preparing for him (we have one ready, but he normally takes more…) but he wants the additional cereal in the already full bag. We work something out (he more or less gets his way) and I finish up with the recyling. Then he wants a bowl and some milk with his cereal, and I have one more task to do, so I figure what the heck, and set him up. (Can you feel the lateness piling up?)

Next, I get him into his coat, and start grabbing all the stuff. Noah meanwhile decides that one bear is not enough for today’s excursion and that three would be better. I’ve got my coat on now, and proceed to grab (in no particular order) his lunchbox, backpack, blanket, bag of plastic recycling, extra bag of cereal, newspapers and magazine recycling, keys, and ultimately Noah. We make it down the stairs, I get the garage door open, drop off the recycling for the moment, niftily shift the keys to a position where I can open the car. Turn around, and… no Noah. Sigh.

I drop his stuff in the car, go back to find him in the hallway struggling with his bears. Get him out the door and into his car seat. Strap him in, he gets the bears situated. Leaving the door open, I put the recycling out by the curb, collect the newspapers walk back past Noah, who has chucked at least one bear onto the driveway, and drop off the papers. I get yelled at (did I say he was cranky?) for not arranging the bears correctly, and leave him to do it. I know this is going to be trouble, but I close the door now, so I know the bears will at least be in the car.

I get in car, start things up, and commence defrosting the windows. Shouldn’t take long. Noah’s already demanding “his” music so I plug in my iPod, and find whatever unnamed song he’s demanding on top of his lungs (“Not that song Daddy, the clapping song.” Huh? Whatever, “this one?, this one?, this one?…”). OK, the windows are clear enough, start to back out and hit some piece of (de)construction junk piled up on the side of the driveway ripping the left side of the front fender off the car. Who’d a thought it was that easy? I see dripping… uh oh. Hmmm… seems to be the windshield washer fluid. Did that break or is it just pulled out? Dunno. Doesn’t really seem to click in… but my hand is freezing from the fluid dripping on it and I can’t see any better and I’M LATE!!!

I bash the flap b’s from the bumper into the slot a’s on the car and get things pretty much squared away, totally cursing the guys who left the studs with the nails sticking out in that spot with just the right number and height of them stacked so that they were invisible from inside the car, the universe at large, etc. and head off to drop Noah. Several blocks later Noah informs me that his foot is cold. “Your foot is cold?” “I want my sock back Daddy”. Noah often removes his shoes in the car but he’s usually sane enough to leave his socks on so his feet don’t freeze. Not today. Find a spot to pull over, find sock, and shoe, put them back, ask Noah to please not remove his shoes and socks in the car without permission, and proceed promptly to turn onto the interstate in the wrong direction. Sigh.

Worse, there’s no close exit to turn around, so now I’ve added 15 minutes or so to my trip because I have to go around the long way to get to my brother’s house. Have I mentioned I’M REALLY LATE!? Noah falls asleep because he’s exhausted so no more disk jockeying for me. There’s some, but not a critical amount of, traffic. I meet my brother in the driveway, we pause briefly for pleasantries, and then it’s time to get Noah going. I grab all his stuff, and him (since he’s mostly asleep), and bring him inside. I lay him on the couch and start answering questions that I thought my wife had discussed and answered earlier. Noah wants me to sit with him despite being excited about spending the day with his Aunt (he really loves her). I catch my first break, a show Noah enjoys is playing. He’s happy to sit and watch (a treat for him). A few more questions and I’m out the door, running back toward home and my phone call.

I get home 45 minutes later than I expected, now wondering how I’m going to get it together to meet my friends. I start redressing, realize that half of what I need is downstairs, redress a bit since there could be a painter there any second, and as I’m making my way down, realize that the phone’s going to ring any second. And so it does. 25 minutes later there’s no way I’m making it to meet my friends.

When I first planned this ride it was with one person. Last night it blossomed to three other people, which was totally cool, except, now it wasn’t a “sorry, I’m running late and let’s figure out how to make this work”, it was a I’d be hanging up the group thing, and no chance of rearranging. I was self-annoyed to say the least. I put on a nice voice and called my friend. The upside, I didn’t screw up her ride since she still had folks with whom to ride… downside, it was going to be fun and I’ve missed a chance to hang with some great people and get some exercise.


That’s what my excited preparation looked like from the night before… ah well. All I wanted for myself was a ride…

[Update on the ride…. Yeah, it wouldn’t have been good. Sometimes it goes that way…]

Simple doesn’t scale, nothing is simple.

Most of the time what we often call simple is really “optimized” for some particular thing. To use the same example as Paul Homer mentions in the piece quoted below, if you purchase a food processor to speed chopping, and you use it for one small chopping task, you’ll most likely spend more time cleaning the parts than you saved with the speedy chopping, and now you have to store it, care for it, and add complexity to another aspect of your life. Not so simple eh? It may be optimized for the fact that you broke your wrist a week ago, and chopping is out but everything else is OK, or any other set of factors that might make what seems “less than the simplest thing” optimized as a solution. (BTW, cleaning it, storing it, and good knives explains why we don’t own one, for us/now that’s an optimization.)

Something that is simple when a problem is small is often not simple at all when the same problem is big. If I need to print one piece of paper and deliver it in a timely fashion there are so many solutions to the problem that “what is simplest” can be defined by other factors such as where I am, how much time I have to devote to this today, importance of the document itself… but if I have to print 50,000 items and deliver them in a timely fashion, or I’m the New York Times, the same solutions are not available. Other constraints narrow the number of solutions and complexity rises.

These are two aspects of the same concept… that we’re generally not simplifying, as nothing is simple, but we are optimizing for our current set of issues. And the important difference is that optimizations must be tweaked and maintained to remain optimal because our lives are not static, and the problem space grows or shrinks and certainly changes. “Simple for me is not simple for you” is a problem every business deals with in many ways. As a developer I run across this in interface design, and keeping code “simple”, and many other ways.

One of the things I hope to continue to get better at is “feeling the pain” sooner, being more aware of the shifts away from “maximally optimized” in order to ensure that more things remain as balanced as possible. It is an important skill to be able to retrospect with clarity.

My wife and I have been working hard on “simplifying” our lives, a multidimensional problem that encompasses who we were before we met and joined our lives, who we want to be together, our child, and so much more. By constantly looking at how we’re doing, and paying attention to the feedback presented by how we feel about things, we progress toward what we describe as simpler lives, but is really, a more optimized life at a given moment. Good enough.

The Programmer’s Paradox: The Nature of Simple: Without a measure, you cannot be objective so you really don’t know if you’ve simplified it or made it worse. In any multi-variable system of equations, you might use something like linear programming to find some ‘optimal’ points in the solution space, but you cannot apply a fixed simplification, at least not one that is mathematically rigorous. Finding some number of local minima is not the same as finding a single exact minimum value.