Friday, October 20, 2006

The Tyranny of Objects

I really try not to accumulate stuff, as I may have mentioned before. It's not that I'm not materialistic or anything like that - I'm naturally acquisitive, like most people, and, if there were no costs to it, I'd like to live in an infinitely large space with an infinite collection of things that I could access instantaneously.

But here in the real world, keeping stuff has costs. It takes up your living space. You can't buy anything because you don't have space to put it. You're afraid to move. You can't find the things you want among your possessions. Plus you should probably occasionally dust all that crap.

A few months ago, I went through all of my books. I kept the children's books that were in good condition because I might have a child. I kept non-fiction books that I enjoyed. I kept books I have not yet read but intend to read (of which there are only a few). I kept a very small number of books where the actual copy of the book has sentimental value to me. And I kept some books that I like to read over and over.

All other books (about half of all the books I owned) went to a thrift store. If I ever want to read one of them again, I'll be able to find it at a library. Meanwhile, I have a lot more space in my room and, as a bonus, someone else will get to enjoy those books for cheap.

I also went through my knick-knacks, of which I really own very few. Knick-knacks are dangerous because, the longer you keep something, the more meaning accrues to it, until suddenly that ribbon that meant nothing to you when you were 8 and got it for participating in a 1k run is something you can't bear to part with, just because you've seen it so many times. This can happen in just a couple of years. A mug from a job you hated will become a treasure because it reminds you of a prior era in your life. Throw it out early before it starts to accumulate significance.

Objects are not memories. I believe in keeping a real minimum of memory-objects. This includes family heirlooms. If a thing is useful to you, or looks good in your home, then keep it. But you don't have to keep everything your grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., ever owned just because they owned it. I feel like we should really fight the way that meaning accrues to objects over time, because it leads to owning way too much crap just because, you know, "Oh, that was the pan my mom always made brownies in." Get rid of it! Take a picture first as a keepsake. You can store a lot of pictures in the space it takes to store one artifact.

Another thing people keep is objects that might be useful one day. Say you bought a pickax a few years ago for a project. It's a pretty nice pickax, so you've been keeping it in case you ever need to use it again. Maybe you think you'll need a pickax once every 10 years. Is the cost of a new pickax in 10 years really worth storing a pickax for 10 years? Think about this carefully. Many useful things can be rented or borrowed when you need them. And there is probably someone else out there who really does need a pickax, and would be happy to have your old one if they found it at a pawn shop or thrift store. Pickaxes are made for use, not sitting around, and yours will thank you for getting it back into work rather than leaving it propping up your garage wall for years at a time.

Clothing is also good to consider giving away. How many t-shirts do you have, and how many do you need? Do you wear one daily and do laundry twice a month? Keep 15 or 20 of them, then, and get rid of the rest. If you're keeping them for sentimental value, take a picture instead. Do you have more than one set of clothes that you'd only wear to a funeral? Is this in case you have to go to two funerals on the same day and you get dirty inbetween? How about interview clothes? Do you have some items that you could, in theory, wear, except that they don't fit quite right, or for some other reason you don't ever actually wear them? Do you have clothes that are a size you probably will never be again? Are you hoarding these things because you're afraid they will stop making new clothes for you to buy if you need some in the future? Or is a hypothetical $200 you might someday have to spend on a few new pairs of pants or a business suit really worth storing dozens or hundreds of items for years?

Objects are not memories. Useful things can often be rented or borrowed. You don't need to own things you can readily get access to for free, or for very cheap. Storing items has a cost. Fight the tyranny of objects!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Spring Preview

Metro's class schedule for next semester was just released Monday, and I finally went to have a look at it. I can register on the 30th.

Those of you who have seen this process in the past know that I typically change my mind a lot before the semester starts, or right as the semester starts. However, I only have six more courses to take for my degree. Six! So I'm running out of options.

After this semester, I'll have all prereqs out of the way for everything, except that two of my upcoming courses are a sequence: Software Engineering Principles, and Software Engineering Practices. The CS department sets these up so that one is in the evening and one during the day each semester, staggered so that you can take them in consecutive semesters either both in the evening or both during the day. The Spring is when I need to take Principles in order to have them at night, and Spring of 2008 is my last semester, so I have to take Principles this semester. It's on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7:00 to 8:50. Yuck!

Fortunately, two of the other classes I need are at adjacent times. I can either take Linear Algebra from 5:00-6:50 on those same nights, or I can take Foundations of Geometry from 5:30-6:45. (It's a 3-hour class, which is why it's shorter than the others, which are all 4 credit hours.)

Given that I have this grant project going on, and how late the second class will run, I think I'll go for the shorter one, Foundations of Geometry. That lets me leave work half an hour later, and gives me a few extra minutes between classes (probably wasted time, but I don't mind).

I keep thinking I have two years of school left, but after this semester, it's just 3 semesters! (OK, so that's one and a half years. Still, I'm impressed.)

Registering for next semester's classes always makes me feel better about the current semester. It's like the light at the end of the tunnel - something to look forward to. (I always, always look forward to future classes.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Debt Reduction via Snowball

I was going to title this post "Snowballin'," but I have a bad feeling that might be a term for some kind of sex act. (If you find out, don't tell me. If I wanted to know I could google it myself.)
Anyway, the "snowball" method of debt reduction generally means paying all your minimum payments and then sending any extra money to one particular debt. Once that one is paid off, you'll have even more extra money to send to the next priority.

Generally, people either advocate paying off your high-interest debts first (thus paying the least amount of money overall) or paying off your smallest balances first (thus keeping yourself motivated because your number of debts shrinks faster).

Recently I've been looking at this handy snowball calculator, which lets you calculate your debt schedule either way. You can do this yourself with Excel, but it takes a while, and this little website is pretty nifty and quick. Plus it makes a nice compact spreadsheet for you.

I put in my existing debts, and the amount I have available every month. In the past, I've based this monthly number on my budget, but this time, I looked at the past 5 months and took an average of what I've actually paid to my debts each month. (I didn't go before that because I got a raise and some other financial details changed.) So I think that's the most realistic number I can have. It does not take into account any bonuses or other additional money I might get - I'm actually expecting $3000 in grant money this year, plus probably a Christmas bonus at work.

It's good that this schedule isn't too optimistic, because according to the calculator, it'll take me 32 months to pay off my debts. That's too slow! I really want to be out of debt when I graduate in May of 2008. So I hope I can speed it up.

Anyway, according to this, it will take me 32 months to pay off my debts regardless of whether I do smallest-first or least-interest first. Doing smallest-first will cost me an additional $252 in interest over the entire 32 months. It allows me to pay off my first four debts in 2/07, 5/07, 12/07, and 10/08 rather than in 2/07, 10/07, 8/08, and 6/09, so it should be more psychologically satisfying. I estimate that the greater motivation of paying off more debts more quickly is worth the $252 (not that I'd pay $252 for the satisfaction; more that I think I'll send in more than enough extra to compensate as a result of the additional motivation).

Anyway, without further ado, here is the full chart. I hope to reference this later with good news about how I'm doing in relation to what it says here. Hopefully this will expand if you click on it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Google Spreadsheets

I keep this big ole spreadsheet about my budget. It has a tab for the budget, tabs for each of my checking & savings accounts (1 checking, 3 savings, 1 HSA), a tab on which I track my debts, and various other things that all interact to let me know what's going on financially.

I keep the file on my data stick, which mostly lives its life in parasitic attachment to my work computer. (A few years ago, I decided to keep all of my personal files on that type of storage device so that I can always just take them with me from work, instead of having them live on my work computer at the mercy of my company. But I usually just leave the stick here.)

Sometimes I want to look at my checkbook at home, but then I'm just SOL.

So I'd heard that Google now has an online suite of Office-type products, and I decided to see if keeping my big budget spreadsheet online was feasible. I knew their spreadsheet program had fewer features than Excel, so I wasn't sure if it would have everything I needed (formulas, freezing panes, formatting, multiple tabs - I had no idea what might be missing).

So I went to Google Spreadsheets and I was able to import the whole thing, and format it, and the formulas still work, and basically it's just super. It's slightly slower than Excel (since it's online rather than running on my computer), but not very slow. And I can access it from anywhere! That's pretty cool. Good job (as usual), Google.

Should you be so inclined, you can also share your Google Spreadsheets with other people, either for viewing or for editing, and if they look at it at the same time as you, you can chat with them right there next to the spreadsheet. Nifty!

The Circularity of Work

Something happened today at work that happens all the time in my office. To some extent it's probably unavoidable, but it can be a bit maddening. All names below have been changed to protect...well, me.

So yesterday, Peter asked Rich for some pieces of information for the SEC. Peter suggested to Rich that I might be a good source for some of the info, so Rich came and asked me to get it to him today. This morning, I did the research and emailed him the info. He forwarded the email to Peter.

Just now, Peter asked Kristin, a woman who works with me and is slightly junior to me in the department, for some of the exact same information. Fortunately, Kristin came to me to ask for help with it, since she wasn't sure exactly what he wanted, so I was able to call up Rich and let him know Peter was asking for this still. We don't know if Peter didn't read the email, or if he did and still had questions, or what, but it's kind of odd that he would ask Rich to ask me, and then would himself ask Kristin.

Usually it's more like our boss Steve asks my immediate boss Ken for something, Ken says he will get me to do it, he assigns it to me, and then Steve asks my pseudo-boss Brenda for the same thing, and she asks me for it, and I say, "Is this for the same thing Ken is asking me for?" (since sometimes people just happen to want the same thing for their own diverse purposes) and then Brenda and Ken both get annoyed at Steve because he can't remember (or doesn't care) that he already asked Ken to handle it.

I'm sure this happens in every office, and sometimes it can't be helped. Today it was just amusing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Follow-Up to Proofs Quiz

I posted the other day about my Proofs quiz that nobody seemed to complete. Last night we got the quizzes back. I got 10/10 on it, but unfortunately my professor doesn't discuss the overall grades with us, so I don't know how other people did. (The woman next to me got 6/10.)

But there were hints. The professor told us he would drop our lowest hundred consecutive points. He also told a long story about taking his grad school prelims and totally blanking out and feeling like he knew nothing and could not even get started on the things he had to do. So he said he understands how you can blank out or have a bad day.

I conclude from this that my surmise was correct.

He did also go over the proofs that were on the quiz, in detail, and at least one of them could have been done in a much shorter way than how I did it. His grading is kind of capricious, and it's hard to guess how much explicitness he wants in the proofs, so I tend to err on the verbose side.