Saturday, April 06, 2019

Making my phone less addictive - I moved my email off the home screen

It's crazy how making it even slightly harder to access email on my phone, has caused me to almost never check email on my phone now.

Take a look at the screenshot below, of the front page of my phone.

That conspicuous gap to the left of the calculator, towards the bottom? That's where my Gmail icon used to be. I moved the Gmail icon over a few screens, so that I have to swipe 4 times from my home screen, before I can open it. 

And now, I almost never open email on my phone. This is not because of a personal rule or guideline or anything on my part. I just made it slightly more inconvenient to access email. And now I almost never do. 

What's the lesson for me, here? It is that convenience and inconvenience are incredibly important, in structuring my life the way I want to live it. I don't want to constantly be checking email. It's distracting, and pulls me away from things that I need to be focusing on. There's usually nothing interesting in it anyway. But there's occasionally that little nugget of interesting news, or a message from a friend, etc. That's the variable reward happening - the same thing that casinos use, in order to hook gamblers. 

What's interesting is how weak the reward was, in terms of accessing the email. It just takes 4 extra swipes to get to email! But I don't anymore, not from my phone. I guess the occasional payoff of an email wasn't worth the swipes.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

My daily routine for writing Weigh Every Day

I started my book Weigh Every Day back in July of 2018. It's not my first book—that title goes to SQL Practice Problems. You'd think my second book would be easier. But Weigh Every Day is far more difficult to write than my first book.

My first book, SQL Practice Problems, practically wrote itself. This was mainly because I'd been collecting really good practice problems, illustrating common data issues, for a few years. So it was a matter of systematically working through them, putting them in the right order, writing the introduction, etc. I'm not saying that it was trivial, but I didn't have to struggle with what to actually say, and how to say it.

My new book Weigh Every Day is completely different. I have tons that I want to say, and loads of ideas to explore in it. I need to make the book very well organized, and very convincing. I want people to believe that what I'm saying about losing weight, and maintaining your weight. My goal is for readers to have an "aha" moment, and to make permanent changes in their life based on reading the book.

But all of these things that I want to say require lots of difficult, painstaking thought. It requires serious research, and planning. There's no recipes or detailed meal plans, which usually take up about half of most diet books, and are easy to come up with.

I'm strongly motivated to write the book. It'll be an interesting, novel and hopefully workable approach to the problem of overweight and obesity, which is truly an epidemic now. But the mental work that it takes is challenging.

My approach to actually working on the book—putting in the focused hours necessary to plan and write—has evolved through the past months.

I don't even try to write in the afternoon, and definitely not in the evening. It's odd—I can do technical work in the afternoon, and sometimes into the evening. For my database consulting gigs, if I have a specific problem to work on, and especially if I'm working directly with someone, I don't experience any kind of mental slowdown in the afternoon.

But if I'm writing on this new book, coming up with ideas on my own, and working through them to figure out the best way to say something—that's a completely different type of work. When it's all coming out of my head, and I'm not collaborating with anybody else, I need a very controlled work environment. My absolute best work time is in the morning, and that's the only time I can do this type of writing. I have to be very focused, with no distractions, so I work at a local co-working space instead of at home.

My kids were home from school two days this week because of snow. I stayed home with them one day, and it was a lost cause in terms of work—I got nothing done. I just can't stay focused with constant interruptions.
My target daily word-count is 1,000 words, just because it's a nice, round number. Once I hit that number, unless I'm on a real roll, I feel fine stopping for the day. Do I feel bad if I don't get 1,000 words done?  No. I definitely feel better if I meet that goal, but honestly, some sections of the book are just much harder to write. And sometimes I need to do lots of reorganizing and editing, and that takes time.

I use the pomodoro technique for time management and focus. It's the essence of simplicity—you just do focused work for 25 or 30 minutes, then take a five break minute. And that's it! The only app I have open on my phone when I'm writing is a pomodoro app. It shows me a little timer, with how much time I have left. It also shows me how many pomodoros I've done that day, and that week. There's also a little tick-tock noise (very motivating) when the pomodoro starts. And that's pretty much all there is to it. The key is to save potentially distracting tasks (checking email, getting coffee, etc) for the breaks.

I made a checklist of things to do before starting work, to stay distraction-free. This involved items like
Close down all non-work tabs in the browser
Shut down all non-work programs on my laptop
Shut down all apps on my phone, except for my pomodoro app
Start up a word-counter website in my browser

Originally, my workflow was just to get to my co-working space relatively early in the morning, like 7:30. And then—I'd start writing whenever I felt like it. Or...whenever it "just happened".
Needless to say, that was a mistake. Sometimes I would feel like it at 10 am. A day like that would definitely be a low word-count day.

Now I have a goal of starting to write at 7:45. That works much better.

Previously, I started my pomodoro app only after I went through my pre-writing checklist. This was a big mistake. Now I first start the pomodoro, and then  go through the checklist. That little adjustment gets me writing far more quickly.

If I feel that I absolutely just can't write anything, I'll go through a list that I keep, of idea and thoughts to put in the book. That will usually get me started. Also, as soon as I have anything written (even just a few sentences), I'll copy and paste it into the word-counter website. The word count may be just 20 or so, but it's motivating to see a number.

If I run into something interesting that's not book related while working, or if I think of something I need to do later in the day, I write it up into a text editing program I keep open. I go through that list daily, after I stop writing.

I'm very good at avoiding things that are completely not work-related, during my work time. Like news websites, for instance. What I do have a problem with is going down research rabbit-holes. A website or book looks useful, and I get into it for far too long. It's hard to reel myself back in, and start writing again.

Once I've gotten my final word count for the day, I put it into a spreadsheet that I keep in Google Sheets. I'm going to experiment with not checking email during my breaks. It has the potential to get me distracted, and there's really nothing that can't wait till the afternoon. If anyone really needs me, they could call.

And that's it! My goal is to be done with the book in a few months, but I have no firm deadline yet. Maybe that's the next thing I should do—set a firm deadline.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Testing the Fasting Mimicking DIet (FMD)

Many years ago I was interested in the concept of Calorie Restriction for improved lifespan. Theoretically you can extend your life by eating about 30% less than your normal calories. Anyway, that's the way it works, very reliably, in all kinds of animals, from single cell organisms, to worms, to mice. Primate experiments seem to show the same effect of increased lifespan.

I was interested, I read a few books (mainly Beyond the 120 Year Diet, by Roy Walford), but never actually reduced my calorie intake by 30%. It seemed too hard and uncomfortable.

Recently I've started listening to a podcast called Found My Fitness, by Rhonda Patrick. She interviews a lot of interesting researchers, and recently she interviewed Valter Longo, a scientist at the University of Southern California. He's done a lot of research, not on calorie restriction, but fasting, for periods of time of up to 5 days. Apparently mice who had the equivalent diet lived quite a bit longer than regular mice, and similar diets in humans lead to improved heath.

What Longo has developed is not a strict water fast, but a "fasting mimicking diet" of 5 days, where you eat between 30 and 50% of your normal calories. It's not a lot, but it's much easier than eating nothing. He developed the fasting mimicking diet after realizing that compliance with a water-only fast was very low, and people cheated a lot. He wrote it up in the book The Longevity Diet, published this year.

I decided to try it out, at least for one day.

I have fasted before. Once when I was in college I did a 3 day fast. My main recollections are that I got very tired—I needed to sit down on my walk to classes, and also when I actually started eating again, my mouth got a little sore from what I ate—I believe it was an apple. I guess your mouth loses it's toughness after you haven't eaten for a few days.

Then in the past year or so I tried just a day long fast, and it was not easy! It was uncomfortable, and I didn't feel good.

But I did want to try this "semi fast", and see how much easier it is if you eat just a little bit, instead of nothing. Longo has a commercial product that provides the appropriate amount of calories, but
I decided to just take the calorie count, and make my own DIY version.

I originally thought I'd do just one day. But then the first day was so easy that I added another day! I ended up doing a total of 2 days, and overall it was straightforward and I could see doing it again, for the prescribed amount of time, 5 days.

Here's a few notes on my experience.

I felt hungry, but not wildly, uncomfortably hungry. The first day I had one "wave" of hunger, about 15 minutes, where I did feel kind of uncomfortable, but then I was okay.

For breakfast both days I had a very watery oatmeal with blueberries, which worked very well since it's similar to my regular breakfast, just more watery.

For lunch the first day I had a cracker and hard-boiled egg, with some cut up celery and carrots. I had absolutely no appetite for the cut up celery and carrots, and just nibbled on them a bit. Then I decided to make cabbage vegetable soup, and had that for dinner. It worked much better—it's so much more appetizing to eat soup than sliced raw vegetables.

The soup was a very basic recipe that I just made up, from cabbage, carrots, celery, a can of diced tomatoes, and chicken bouillon. Barely any calories, but easy to eat, and satisfying.

The second day I napped for almost 2 hours! And I very rarely nap--I often feel inclined to, but just can't do it unless there's absolute quiet. But on the second day of my fast, I took a long nap even with a bunch of ambient noise around.

What else can I say about this experience... Overall, it's much easier to eat a little bit than nothing. There's a wave of interest in fasting now, Longo is all over podcasts and blog posts. The research sounds pretty convincing, and I hope that it continues to go in the right direction, that of this type of fasting providing serious health benefits. I will consider making this a regular part of of my life. Longo recommends fasting like this a few times a year, for people who are overall in good health.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

I created my own grocery list "app" with Google Sheets

I've gone through multiple grocery list apps, and have basically always used one. But they seem to always have some problem that causes me to ditch them.

With the last app I used (Out Of Milk), what finally put the nail in the coffin was the fact that very frequently, when I wanted to mark that I actually bought something that was on the list, I would accidentally move it to another category.

For instance, say we had celery on the list, I bought it, and wanted to swipe it aside to note that it was purchased. Frequently, I would accidentally swipe it from one category to another--say from produce to frozen food.

Anyway, after getting annoyed with, and deleting that app, I searched for a replacement. Nothing appealed to me, though.

So I decided to see what I could do with just using Google Sheets, on my phone. Google Sheets is pretty full-functioned for an online spreadsheet, and I thought I could make it work.

Here's how I set it up:

- I have a Google Sheet called Master Grocery List, that I share with my husband.

The important columns on the sheet are GroceryItem, NeedToBuy, and EricOrSylvia. In the above picture, we need to buy canola oil, and it's assigned to Sylvia. When I set this up this Google Sheet, I added all the grocery items that we normally buy. I have one sheet which is the "Main" sheet, which has these items.

- To create the weekly shopping list, we go through the list and figure out what we need. Those items get a "y" in the NeedToBuy column. Then we also go through and enter who it's assigned to ("e" or "s" for Eric or Sylvia).

- Then I go to my data views, called Sylvia and Eric. I have 2 data views set up. Data views are very flexible filters that you can set up for Google Sheets.  The data view called Sylvia only shows those items from the Main sheet with the NeedToBuy set to "y", and the EricOrSylvia set to "s". When I switch to that data view, I see only the items which are assigned to me. Eric's is the same, except only showing those items assigned to him.

- I copy the data from the data views to separate sheets, one for Eric, and one for Sylvia. The reason for this is that the Google Sheet app on my phone can't do data views. Data views can only be done on the desktop version.

- Then we go shopping! We take separate carts, which makes things much faster. To mark that I've put something in the cart, I thought I'd be able to easily delete the item from the sheet (my sheet, not the main sheet). That ended up taking multiple steps on my phone. So instead, since making an item bold or unbold was very easy to do on the phone, just one tap, I just do that--make everything bold to begin with, and then unbold items as I put them in the grocery cart.

Voila! It was a lot of fun to come up with this process, and makes creating the grocery list, and grocery shopping much quicker.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side of the fence

When Jean and I did a hike last week to Snowgrass Flats, we also walked on the Pacific Crest Trail for a short while, and met some thru-hikers. These are backpackers that are walking from the Mexican to the Canadian border. It's a huge accomplishment to most people, and on a lot of bucket lists.

Thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail
Anyway, I was talking to one of them, and said something self-deprecating like, "We do shorter hiking trips to see the most beautiful areas, nothing like the Pacific Crest Trail, which is such a massive accomplishment". In reply the hiker (I never got his name) went on and on about how he'd love to be doing shorter hikes, or even car camping, where he could bring everything he wanted to, and not need to pay so much attention to how much everything weighed!

I guess by this point he'd been on the trail for about 4 months, and was ready for a change. It was just interesting to meet someone who was doing something that so many people would regard as a major life accomplishment, yet who was tired of it, and would rather be doing something else.

It reminds me of a quote from Jim Carey:

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.

The point being that it's ALL about the journey. Actually getting to the "destination" will not make you happy. So don't plan your life that way!

FYI - I've blogged about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence before:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My ultralight backpacking freezer bag cooking innovation

For years now, on backpacking trips, I used "freezer bag" cooking as a way to simplify mealtime. It means you package your meal in a ziplock quart size bag at home, pour boiling water in the bag at your campsite, and let it sit for 5 minutes or so while it rehydrates/cooks. 
This approach works great, but you do need something to hold your dinner bag with, both so you don't burn your hands and also to insulate it. Previously, I used a knit hat. It seemed like a good multi-purpose device - I could use it for warmth as well as for insulating my dinner bag.
However, there was a problem with using it to insulate my dinner bag. A knit hat has no structure at all, and flops all over the place. I almost never got through dinner without getting some of my dinner on my knit hat. And once I had spilled food on it, I really didn't want to use it as a knit hat until I was able to wash it.
So I was looking for an alternative, and thought about taping together some bubble wrap. The bubble wrap area at my local Walmart was right next to the bubble wrap mailer envelopes, though, and they looked like they might be the right size.

After some trimming at home, it turns out a 6 by 9.25 inch plastic bubble mailer is a great for a quart size ziplock. I've used it on multiple trips now, and it works really well, providing support for eating my dinner (with my long-handled spoon) and not burning my hands.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Incentive systems - they're challenging to design!

I wrote a blog post a while back about incentive systems, and how they're gamed. I thought of a few more examples. Last summer, trying to get the kids to help out with pulling weeds in the yard, I told them that they have to pull a certain amount (I think it was around 50), and then they'd be done. The only rule was that they needed to have the root, they couldn't just pull the green part.

What happened? Well, you never saw little micro-weeds smaller than the ones my kids pulled up. They were more like sprouts than real weeds.

It made me think of this quote, by Austrian economist F.A. Hayek:

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Kids lives have become more and more constrained

From one point of view, kids lives are better. They have so many more toys! They have an amazing amount of electronic stimulation! Their parents are constantly driving them here and there for sports, arts, and other enrichment activities!

But I look at many kids lives, and I'm saddened. What they do not have is so important. Here's some of the things that I had, growing up in the 1970's, that most kids (including mine) do not have:
The chance to knock on a neighbors door, to ask a child out to play, and have a 50/50 chance that they will be successful
The ability to roam freely in open areas with friends, doing things like making cattails swords. Just messing about in the outdoors, having fun.

In our neighborhood (and from what I hear from friends, most neighborhoods are like this), there are never any kids playing on the street. And I mean never. The chances that while walking around, you'll see any activity whatsoever except for an occasional dog-walker are almost nil.

When I was growing up, we frequently had large, kid-organized games of kickball and other games happening, with 6 to 10 kids.  My kids have literally never experienced any kid-organized activity like this. Sure, they're been to organized sports activities like soccer, where somebody tells them where to go, what to do, how to play, etc. But that's a 100% different experience, and much inferior to a group of kids working it out themselves, communicating and negotiating with their peers, and having fun on their own initiative.

I recommend the book Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) as a good overview of the problem. I can't say I have any particular solutions myself.

Monday, January 23, 2017

I thought I wasn't athletic, until I tried Pickleball!

I've been looking for a sport recently, and decided to try badminton, since I like racquet sports (though I never got really into tennis). It turns out there's a badminton center nearby, and they offered drop-in classes, so I took one after the first of the year. It turned out pretty well, I enjoyed it, and the instructor was good.

But over the weekend, a friend of mine had gone to the local community center, where they have drop-in pickleball, and told me I should try that. I went, and people were friendly and welcoming, teaching me the ropes and including me in games right away. I'm fairly coordinated, so I was able to play at a basic level right away. I had a total blast! Now I'm in love with it.

The funny thing is, I've tried pickleball a few times already, but didn't stick with it. I had heard about pickleball years ago, and went to a drop-in pickleball session at the Mercer Island community center. It was fine, but the level of play was fairly high, and people weren't all that welcoming to a new player. Which is fine, they were there to play, and not necessarily teach newbies. I should have persisted, but I didn't. Then a few years ago, a friend of mine who's really into pickleball took me to an outdoor court, showed me the ropes, and we played a bit. And still — I didn't pursue it anymore. There was still the "what next?" question — how to actually play with people (besides my friend, who lives a distance away).

Why is it that this time, I've really gotten into it? A couple reasons, really. One is that once I got up the courage to actually go, the players at the community center drop-in pickleball session were really friendly and made it easy for me to start up. Even though it took some guts to walk up to a bunch of strangers and essentially say, "please teach me pickleball", it was very much rewarded. Also, I've really been longing for a physical activity that involves winning and loosing — it just makes it so much more interesting than activities like swimming.  Also, the community center is really close by, and lots of people go for the drop-in pickleball, so there's plenty of people to play with.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Kids books nowadays don't reflect their lives (because playdates are boring)

A while back my son Peter was reading the book There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Fly Guy. It's a fun beginning chapter book about a boy with a pet fly.

Fly Guy is riding his bike, alone, to his grandmother's house for an overnight stay
What struck me most is that in the book, the main character rides his bike, alone, with a backpack and with his pet fly on his shoulder, to visit his grandmother's house for an overnight stay. My immediate thought was—that would so never happen nowadays. Kids today are almost never allowed out of the house on their own. Much less on a bike, with a backpack, headed for an overnight stay.

The popular kids books nowadays (the Harry Potter series, the Rick Riordan books) do not talk about kids lives, as they're actually lived in the present day US. The kids in the books, much more so than in previous eras, live in a world of adventure and independence that's very, very far removed from their real lives. You wouldn't read in a children's book about kids going on a playdate, or being driven to soccer practice, because it's boring and there's no story, as the kids have no ability to make decisions.

I think kids today are missing out on so much, because their lives are so constrained and controlled. I'll be writing a few more blog posts on this topic soon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The review system in Amazon is routinely hacked

I wrote a book recently called SQL Practice Problems: 57 beginning, intermediate, and advanced challenges for you to solve using a "learn-by-doing" approach, and published it on Amazon. It hasn't been a best-seller, but it was fun to write, and I think I did a good job of gradually increasing the difficulty of the problems, and introducing the most common problem that come up in database work.

A few weeks ago, when I looked up the general keyword "SQL" on, I was amazed to find that the book that's listed first is a thrown-together compilation of text copied from various websites (for instance, a website detailing ANSI SQL standards). The entire books is like that, completely useless garbage for anyone trying to learn SQL, and obviously written by someone who doesn't know anything at all about the topic, as a quick money-maker.

This terrible book comes up first on Amazon when you search for SQL
How the heck does this book regularly and consistently, every time I've looked, come up first when searching for books on SQL on Amazon?

I'll tell you why. Amazon has made positive reviews by verified buyers into either the most important factor, or one of the most important factors in ranking books. However, all of the positive reviews on this book are all paid for! How do I know this? Because I know the subject matter backwards and forwards, and I know how poor the quality of this book really is. I'd bet good money that all the five star reviews are paid for. Here's one that's obviously fake:
This book is simply amazing. I think many of the other reviewers have done a great job evaluating it. I just want to share my own experience because I like the book so much. I am not a tech savvy but I've taken a position that requires me to know how to run SQL queries. Therefore, I had no prior knowledge of SQL before buying this book. I've been able to go through the book, step by step, and understanding it. So if you are simply looking for how to get data out of a SQL Server like I am, this is the perfect book for you.
But here's one that's not so obvious. Had I not known better, I would have thought this was a real review:
I work with Microsoft SQL Server daily. I have literally read dozens of SQL books since my college days. Although I am very proficient in SQL now, I am constantly looking for the easiest way to teach the people I work with who have zero SQL experience. The most common problem with every book I have read is how they overcomplicated simple concepts and without simple examples. This book is truly a simple and easy to understand beginners guide. The best part about this book is the code examples it provided. They are real problems that you could face in your daily SQL operations. If you are a moderate experienced SQL user, you will find this book makes a great pocket reference.
Some of the obviously paid-for reviews are not even five star reviews! There are 72 five star reviews, and 31 four star reviews. I assume that if a book has too many five star reviews as compared to four star reviews, that's a red flag to the system. There's currently 72 five star reviews, and 31 four star reviews. I'm assuming that all of them are paid for.

Here's an interesting tidbit - there's only 1 three star review. And it seems like a real, not paid-for review. When you look up the reviewer, you notice a few things. Number 1, the reviewer actually shows their reviews. Many (but not all) of the reviewers who doing reviews for payment do not show their reviews. There must be some kind of setting in Amazon that allows you to hide reviews. Number 2, some of the other reviews that this reviewer has posted are for physical items, instead of Kindle books. The fake reviewers have posted mainly reviews for Kindle books.

I don't envy Amazon, having to come up with a system to weed out the real reviews from the fake, paid ones. It's a very difficult problem. But the honest truth is they're doing an awful job, based on the fact that in the area in which I'm most knowledgeable, the book that ranks highest has almost nothing but fake positive reviews and is a truly terrible book.

I've counted on Amazon reviews for years to give accurate information, and now I only do that with big caveats, and with a skeptical eye. I look at the negative reviews much more closely than the positive reviews.

What could Amazon do? I think for one, they need to pay more attention to the problem of fake reviews. Fake reviews are causing all reviews to become less valuable, and that's a big problem. It's a tricky problem because inevitably they will flag some real reviews as fake, and piss people off, and those people will complain mightily. But it's something they need to do, because as there are more fake reviews out there, the whole review system becomes much less valuable.

Monday, January 16, 2017

What to do for a broken toe? It depends who you ask...

My son sprained or broke his toe yesterday. It was painful, and swollen, and is a little discolored now.

He's not a complainer, so when he limped for hours, I looked online to see what the best options were. And of course, the course of action recommended is very heavily dependent on what type of site it is.

American websites—at least those run by professional organizations—will always recommend that you go immediately to a doctor. They'll say something like this:
If you think you have a fracture, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible. A fracture that is not treated can lead to chronic foot pain and arthritis and affect your ability to walk.
(The above is a direct quote from the website of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons)

However, the NHS website (National Health Service, the government run health care service from the United Kingdom) specifically says that most broken toes can be treated at home, unless there's complications.

I'm not at all in favor of government run health care. However, these two different approaches are a really good example of how a difference in self-interest leads to a difference in opinion. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons wants everyone to run to an orthopedic surgeon if they suspect there may be a sprain or a break because it's great for their bottom line.

But an organization like the UK National Health Service is trying to limit the number of people that go to the doctors office. And writing up webpages that advocate reasonable self-care is a good way to do that.

It's just like the saying "don't ask a barber if you need a haircut". I remember chatting with my hair-stylist, when getting my hair colored around the year 2007 or 2008, at the start of the recession, and asking her if her business had gone down at all, since many people were short of money. She immediately replied, very definitively, "Oh no, women always continue to get their hair done, because it's important to their self-esteem, and they cut back on everything else first". I immediately thought to myself—her self-interest is definitely coloring her opinion, and this is her view of what the world should be like. It didn't work—I color my hair myself now. It's much faster, and of course cheaper.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Meeting someone with a truly different background

We had dinner yesterday with the mother of a friend of ours, I'll call her Amy. Amy is from East Africa, and is maybe 5 or 10 years older than I am. It's been a very long time since I've spoken with someone at length who has had a really distinct background from mine, and it was a pleasure to spend time with her. She told some very interesting stories about her life in Africa, and her move about 7 years ago to Sweden, as a refugee.

First of all - she grew up in an agricultural village. She had to go to the river daily for water, carrying the water on her head in a clay jar. If she met a man, she had to bow to him (I didn't quite get how that could happen without the jar falling down, but apparently it's possible). She also had to wait until she could no longer hear the man's footsteps before she could start walking again.

Men in general were treated like kings, and acted like them. She had to ask her husband, who was known as a kindly man, for permission to go anywhere, including the market. She was extremely lucky in that she got an education, almost no girls her age did. Because she had three daughters, who were only "half children" (compared to sons), she had to always be concerned about being replaced with another wife. She was taught to kneel or curtsy to teachers or elders, or to greet guests.

Growing up in her village, animals were a constant danger. Five of her relatives were killed by animals. She has a hatred of wild animals to this day, especially snakes, which she hates particularly. A spitting cobra snake once spit in her eye and blinded her, but luckily with special herbal preparations she avoided being blinded permanently, which is a grave danger with spitting cobras. Amy loved her grandmother, and would walk a lonely path to her hut, always carrying a stick and rocks in case there were animals. She remembers with fondness evenings around  the campfire, where elders would tell stories, usually instructional stories involving animals, those were especially good times.

Moving to Sweden in her late 40's or early 50's was a massive adjustment in everything imaginable. When I asked what Sweden was like, the first word she said was "lonely". It was very difficult to adjust and to learn Swedish. There's much less social life for her there. She said it was like starting again in life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Goodwill vs Value Village - which is better?

Ever since I've shopped for my own clothes, I've gone to thrift stores. I like them better than regular retail because there's so much more variety, there's always the "treasure hunt" aspect of it, and, of course, the prices are so much cheaper than standard retail.

Around here, in the Seattle area, there's 2 main chains of thrift stores, one for-profit (Value Village), and the other a nonprofit, Goodwill. I've been to both, a lot, and over the years have developed a clear favorite, which is Value Village. I think Value Village is run much more efficiently, and with the customer in mind.

For instance, I was looking at kitchen knives recently. At Goodwill, they were all jumbled together into a bin, with occasionally a piece of opaque masking tape over the sharp edge. It was very dangerous, because the masking tape came off sometimes, so you had to be extremely careful if you didn't want to get your fingers sliced. Also, you couldn't see the knife edge, to see whether it was straight or serrated, since it was covered with masking tape.

At Value Village, on the other hand, they've thought about it, and have a good solution. The knives have transparent, strong packing tape on their sharp edges, and on the side opposite the handle, there's a reinforced hole so it can go onto one of those straight hooks that store displays have. So instead of everything being tossed together into a bin, it's hung up, and customers can easily look through them.

You see this same type of quality difference everywhere when comparing Value Village and Goodwill. In Value Village, if a garment is hung in the Women's jeans, size 6 section, it will definitely be Women's jeans, size 6. In Goodwill, at least 25% will be incorrectly sorted.

Why is this? I've seen this at a lot of nonprofits. They're very invested in "doing good", and have signs everywhere about the people they're helping. Which I applaud. But that doesn't excuse them from doing a good job at the main purpose of the storeselling well-priced merchandise, organized properly, in a well-run store.

Value Village does a much better job, even though they start with significant disadvantages. For one, they pay taxes. They also actually pay for the items that are donated to them (via a scheme where they give credit to a local nonprofit for everything donated to them, even if it goes directly to them), as opposed to Goodwill, which gets straight donations. Also, there are many people who will only donate to Goodwill, specifically because they're a nonprofit.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Daily weigh-ins—they really work for getting weight off, and especially keeping it off

Back in 2010 I wrote a a post on this topic, called, Daily weigh-ins—they really work!.  I've been weighing myself daily now since then, and maintained my weight (more or less). I've also seen friends and relatives lose weight and gain the weight back again multiple times, doing various diet programs and detox programs. Everyone that's I know who's done these diet programs (weight watchers or other programs) has NOT weighed themselves daily. As a matter of fact, the diet programs my friends and relatives have been on actually instruct you to NOT weigh yourself daily, and only weigh yourself at the meetings.

My weight chart
I think avoiding a daily weigh-in is rotten idea if you have weight issues. Weighing yourself daily is the most powerful things you can do in order to maintain or lose weight. The companies that sell weight loss programs and devices would love to be the gatekeeper, and have you rely on them for help with your weight. But the most powerful, long-term answer to weight loss and maintenance is to control your weight yourself. You can do this in your home, in about 5 seconds a day, by stepping on the scale and making an x mark on a graph. When you notice that your weight is up a pound or two after an indulgent meal the evening before, that's a very powerful, critical nudge to eat more lightly the next day.

Will your weight fluctuate on a daily basis? Sure it will. It needn't bother you once you've gotten used to it, and realize that usually these fluctuations have a cause and can be accounted for.

What about the fat vs. muscle argument? Some people say that you shouldn't weigh yourself daily because you may get discouraged as the scale goes up, when you're actually gaining muscle instead of fat. I say that's baloney. Compared to the number of people that are overweight because they're too fat, the number that are overweight because they're muscular is tiny. Unless you know for sure you're one of them, this is not a reason to not step on the scale daily.

I did a little research online, to see what people are saying nowadays about weighing yourself daily to control your weight.

What did I find? When I searched for my exact old blog post title, the first link that comes up on Google was this self-serving post, 5 Reasons to Stop Weighing Yourself Everyday, put out by a company that sells very expensive body composition analysis machines, designed to be used "by professionals only". They're so expensive that there's not even a price, you have to call them for a quote. So they definitely don't want you to use something as cheap, easy, and accessible as a scale, because that would be bad for their business.

Next on the Google search results list was this post by Jillian Michaels, entitled "MYTH: WEIGHING YOURSELF DAILY WILL HELP YOU STAY ON TRACK". It's another story designed to sell her products—a meal plan and exercise app. She basically says that because for many people weighing themselves is a source of stress, and it should only happen once a week.

There are a few more links that are more even-handed, and do recommend weighing yourself daily. But the fact remains that the links that got highest up in the rankings are those that presumably spent the money on SEO, and as a consequence are giving out information that is bad advice for most people.

Friday, January 06, 2017

My 2 best tips for getting kids to do their chores

Okay, I know—most of the time, it's faster to clean and do other chores yourself. But there has to be a tipping point sometime, an age where the energy expended in actually getting the kids to do chores is less than the energy expended to do them yourself.

I think we've reached that tipping point, for some chores, with my kids—at least Kenny, my 13 year old. My younger son Peter (age 9) still daydreams quite a bit. Still, it's important for kids to do chores, to learn to do practical things and to contribute to the running of the household.

However, the arguing over whose turn it is to do the chore is something I want to avoid. One way we've made the assigning of chores easier is by the extremely simple rule that determines whose day it is. There's no chore chart, or labeled calendar. If it's an even date, it's Peter's turn. If it's an odd date, it's Kenny's turn. That very simple device avoids 95 percent of the arguing over whose turn it is. And that's the way my parents ran the dish-washing routine when my brother Tom and I did the dishes—the same odd/even thing.

Why does this only avoid 95% of the argument, and not 100%? That's because of the fact that there are more odd dates than even dates (some months having 31 days, and always starting with a 1). So when Kenny has 2 days in a row to do, there will be complaints. But he's older anyway, so this will be the way it is. With Peter I'll help out, to keep him on track. Kenny can mostly do it on his own.

The other tip that helps with the mess is that before they have screen time, there's certain things that need to be done (school things put away, room cleaned, bed made, etc). I have a checklist that they're supposed to go through before turning on their Ipads. It works remarkably well, but only if I'm diligent about actually checking whether they did the things on their list or not.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The happiness of little fixes

The little fixes I'm talking about are the little physical things that don't work in your life. These are things that bug you frequently, but aren't necessarily serious enough for you to spend a lot of time and money on.

For instance, in the cabinet above my oven, I had no good place to store the lid for a casserole dish. I would always just prop it up on the side, trying to get the angle right so that it wouldn't slide down. But it usually would slide down, and prevent me from easily taking out my frequently used casserole dish. 

So recently I fixed it. It's a really hacky fix, but it works great. I just taped a large plastic straw from McDonald's down at about the right spot, so the lid couldn't slide. It took about 5 minutes, once I decided to do it, and almost all of that was finding the straw. But it works great now, I can get things in and out much more easily.

Another fix was sewing up my plastic laundry basket, which was tearing in a high-stress spot. There's nothing special about this laundry basket, but it's slimmer and lighter than the ones sold nowadays, so I wanted to keep it. I had fun with this, drilling holes in the plastic and sewing it up with a piece of plastic coated wire. The fix has lasted now at least 5 years or so, with no further tearing.

Making fixes like this is a good mood builder, for a couple reasons:

  • I've solved a problem that persistently bugged me
  • My environment now suits me better
  • When I later see these little fixes, I get a little micro burst of competency
Try it out! Find something small in your home that bugs you, and fix it. You'll love it!

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A lesson on obesity from War and Peace

I decided a few months ago that I should be a little more ambitious with my reading, and finally read War and Peace by Tolstoy. I had picked it up multiple times over the years, but just couldn't get into it. This time, it was enjoyable once I got into the story, and started getting interested in the characters. I didn't have a hard time finishing it.

But anyway, in War and Peace I came across a quote that really illustrates an essential component of obesity. It's in a scene where the Russian army is chasing Napoleon's army back across Russia, in the dead of winter, with very little warm clothing and food. Both soldiers and prisoners of war are dying of cold and starvation on all sides. A group of soldiers is lounging around a campfire in the evening, commenting on the situation, and one soldier nicknamed Crow says,
"If a man’s sleek and fat he just grows thin, but for a thin man, it’s death."
The point is that over the entire history of humankind, this is exactly what has happened. Whenever there was a crop failure or a shortage of food for any reason, the fat got thin (and survived), but the thin died.

What does this mean? It means over the millennia, the people who survived to pass on their genes are the ones who ate what they could when there was a surplus of food, and developed a little extra layer of fat. Those genes that encourage us to eat more, to stuff ourselves when there's yummy food available, to get hungry easily—these are the genes that stuck around, because the people carrying them survived famines and food shortages.

Now, we have the opposite of food scarcity. We have a tremendous abundance of food, engineered to be as delicious as possible, relatively inexpensive, and available anytime, anywhere. So, our environment has changed tremendously.

Our genes haven't changed, though. They're still screaming at us, via our senses and desires, to eat, and eat more, before the next famine comes.

For whatever reason, this doesn't come up much in the whole discussion about obesity. It's not a problem of evil corporations that develop addictive food, and it's not a massive lack of willpower. It's the fact that while our environment has changed to become much richer in calories, our genetic heritage says, "eat now, so that you don't die when food is scarce".

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I've switched! From Remember the Milk to Workflowy for my to-dos

For organizing myself, I use my to-do list, and have done for years. I had it in my paper binder/organizer for years, then in my old Palm Pilot for many years, till 2010, when I switched to an Android phone, and also switched to the Remember the Milk task tracking app. It was a great app, very full-featured, with great support and a great website. It was a paid app, $25/year. I sent in a few tips for their "Tuesday Tips" contest, and one of them won a year's additional membership! That was exciting.

Anyway, I'd been thinking for a while that the app was a little too restrictive. For instance, I wanted to order the things on my to-do list. But other than setting a priority of 1, 2, or 3, that wasn't possible. You could hack it by putting fake letters in front of the to-do (for instance, a - buy bananas would sort over b - call mom). But that was pretty unsatisfactory. They had developed a new version, which included hierarchy and sorting, but I wasn't successful using it.

So after a lot of searching around, I've moved completely away from a to-do app at all. I'm now just using Workflowy, an online outlining tool. And I love it! It's a completely different concept from a to-do list. Instead of a list of to-dos, with various attributes like priority, due date, etc, it's a hierarchical information manager, with a great interface, very clean and minimal. One of my top level hierarchies is To-Do. Indenting/outdenting, moving things around - it's all very easy.

I'm sold on it. It's a free product until you add more than 500 list items a month, and once you get over 450 a month, there's a very sleek unobtrusive message box at the bottom telling you "450 of 500 free list items added". I'm skirting on the edge now, but I'm going to have to upgrade to paid membership pretty soon, which I'm okay with ($50/year).

I don't only use it for outlining, but also for tracking and organizing all kinds of things. For instance, my new business SQLPracticeProblems is managed almost entirely in Workflowy (a different section from the to-dos).

I don't use some of the more advanced features (tags, etc), but I may work up to that at some point. Right now I'm enjoying the flexibility of using an outlining tool, instead of a to-do app. I briefly considered OneNote, but it's a little too feature-rich and cluttered.

Actually, just now I did a tiny bit of research, because it strikes me that $50/year, paid every year, is actually a good chunk of money. I just took a look around at some other tools. So far, none have struck me as the right combination of usability and a clean/uncluttered look.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A few notes on our summer trip to Europe

We've been back for 3 weeks already, but the first 2 don't count since I got a massive sinus infection that only released its hold on me after I started taking antibiotics. I'm feeling peppy now, so time to jot a few notes before everything fades. I also put up a few select pictures here.

My original goal was to try to recapture the experience of living overseas, that we had in Geneva a few years back ( Kind of like a mini-sabbatical. I thought and researched a lot, but it turns out that kind of experience is really difficult to reproduce on a short-term basis, with a family. Maybe impossible. Yes, you can plop your family down in a new location, but unless you have some kind of connection there (school, work, family) I think you'd feel isolated and disconnected, if you were to stay there any length of time. I'd be happy to hear from people who discovered otherwise.

So, what we ended up doing was pretty much a regular touristy trip, just spending more time than most people would, in the various locations we stayed at. And that worked out fine.

Here's a few general impressions:

- There were next to no tourists in Belgium. At least, in the locations that we went to. I wonder if lots of people stayed away, spooked by the recent terrorist activity?
- The police presence in Brussels was very, very high. Possibly this was because the Brussels airport was where the recent terrorist attack took place.

But in a town less than a half hour away, Ghent, you saw almost no police, even at very large public gatherings (the Ghent Festival).

- The people in England were, in general, really friendly. People walking down the street would sometimes nod and smile at you. And we got into multiple longer chats with people. That didn't happen elsewhere. Apparently this is characteristic of northern England (which is where we stayed).

- England really seems to have a sex-segregated drinking culture. In England, on a Friday or Saturday night, you would see many large groups of people, either men or women, but usually not mixed. They were very carefully dressed, and it really seemed like a big deal. Also I saw lots of groups of women, wearing a colored sash indicating they were in the same group (like a "hen" party, or somebody's 40th birthday celebration).

- I would love to go back to Ghent and York, those were some of my favorite places. Central, friendly, easy, loads and loads of things to do. Both university towns.

What would we do differently? I should have stressed out less over not having everything planned. If you don't go to the main tourist locations at the very most busy times, you don't need to plan so far in advance.

Also, I should have tried harder to find quick-drying clothing. Since I was washing everything by hand, and then trying to hang things in the hotel rooms or apartments we were in, drying time was a major hassle for some things (I'm looking at you, 100% cotton). I did use the tips I wrote about in my article on hand-washing clothing, and that helped.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

I had an ant stuck in my throat

Here's what happened.

We were on a camping trip to beautiful Fort Stevens, Oregon, and my son Peter and I were picking blackberries and thimbleberries along a trail. We had just encountered a nice big patch of ripe thimbleberries, and were eating them avidly - they have a great taste, a little nutty, with a touch of honey. Thimbleberries are native to the Pacific Northwest, and you'll never find them in stores, because they're extremely delicate and usually get a bit smooshed when you pick them.

Obviously there was one ant that thought as highly of thimbleberries as I do. While eating, I got a scratchy feeling in my throat, like something wouldn't go down. I thought I had perhaps eaten a bit of dried leaf stuck to a berry, or swallowed an insect. It wasn't painful, but it was uncomfortable and didn't go away.

We biked back to our campsite, my throat still feeling weird. I gargled, and then tried eating a piece of bread to push whatever it was down my throat. No luck.

I had my husband Eric look at it. He said "There's a black thing in there". I had the kids, with their sharp eyesight, look at it. They told me that there was an ant stuck in my throat! I looked in the car mirror, and it was pretty visible, clamped onto my uvula, which is the dangly thing hanging from the back of your throat.

Can you see it back there? By the way, on the right that's a silver filling, not a rotten tooth.

Now you can see it, right?

I tried getting a spoon and scraping it off. Major gagging was involved, but I wasn't able to scrape it off. I tried wrapping a napkin around a spoon, and scraping it off, to give it a little more friction. Still no luck.

Then I just reached back into my throat with thumb and forefinger, and pulled it off. There was a little tug as as I pulled it off - it was clamped on pretty well!

It sure was a relief to get the ant out of my throat. I had no problem ignoring my gag reflex - having an ant in my throat was a powerful motivator!

And it's out!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

How to create a shortcut on your Android phone to a Google drive doc

The shortcut to my Google doc is in the bottom right corner, above the email icon
I wanted to create a link on my phone recently, to a Google drive doc that I wanted to have quick and easy access to. It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, so I thought I would repay the world a favor (considering how often I go to the internet for help) and write up how to do it. It's actually very easy once you get past a couple gotchas. This is on Android version 5.1, I'm not sure what other versions it works on.

Step 1 - Go to a blank space on your phone home screen, and long press on the screen.

Step 2 - You'll get a screen that has, on the bottom, the choice of Wallpapers, Widgets, and Settings. Choose Widgets.

Step 3 - Now you get a list of all the widgets that are available. Scroll down until you see Drive (Google Drive).

Step 4 - On my phone, all I saw was 2 options, Drive 4 x 1, and Drive scan 1 x 1. This puzzled me for quite a while. Finally, I realized that you can scroll off to the right, and I found Drive shortcut 1 x 1. Touch and hold on this.

Step 5 - It may look like nothing is happening here, but after a few seconds, it should bring up your Google Drive. Find the document you're looking for, highlight it, and click Select.

Step 6 - You should now have a shortcut on your phone home screen for this doc. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My craft foam sun visor for ultralight backpacking

In the desert, with my sun umbrella and sun visor
I get big kick out of making my own backpacking equipment, and this was a fun little experiment which turned out well.

Before I went on a desert backpacking trip to Joshua Tree with my friends Jean and Kelly, I made this sun visor, which weighs in at 8 grams. It's made of craft foam, which you can buy at Michael's or Walmart for about 15 cents a sheet (which is enough for one visor). Here's a template that you can use to cut it out.

Once I had it cut out, I poked a hole in the ends, and strung some elastic through, so it would fit on my head properly. It worked really well, and was much sturdier than I thought it would be. Another part of my defense against the sun (very important in the desert!) was a very lightweight umbrella, which I just held in my hand as I hiked.

One thing to consider when using this is that it doesn't protect the top of your head, in case you sometimes get a sunburn on your part. That wasn't a problem for me because I was also using the umbrella, and this visor was just a backup.

Me with my ultralight visor

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just started podcasts - loving them!

I'm late in arriving at this party, I know, but I've just in the past months started listening to podcasts. And...I love them! Mainly what I love is that it's a different - much, much slower - way of getting information, that doesn't require me to stare into my laptop. Which I do far too much of.

I started listening to podcasts because I was intrigued by some of the subjects on The Voluntary Life - but it turns out it's only available in podcast format, there is no transcript or blog. I played around with a few podcast apps, and ended up using Podcast Republic, which seems adequate.

The main reason I'm enjoying podcasts so much is that it's a way of dealing with my information/screen addiction (I surf the web far too much) that allows me to be doing something else at the same time - cooking, cleaning, playing K'nex with the kids, etc.

Also, interestingly enough, I treat the information I get from listening to podcasts differently from what I get reading an article or blog post. It takes so much longer to listen to a podcast that I actually absorb much more information, and take it more seriously.

One more bonus with podcasts is that the kids are exposed to new ideas as well. They hear what I'm interested in if we're all hanging out in the kitchen and I'm listening to a podcast. Good extra!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

I love cooking in the microwave!

In the past few years I've been gravitating much more to cooking in the microwave. There's many recipes that involve lots of stirring and monitoring when cooked on the stove top, that cook away happily in the microwave with no more than an occasional stir.

Microwave chocolate cornstarch pudding

Here's a few of my favorites :

Microwave Pudding: We used to make instant pudding but this is so much better. I started out making the stovetop version, but the microwave version is so much easier, and you don't have to stand there the whole time, stirring.

Microwave scrambled eggs: This is my latest greatest favorite microwave recipe. I had tried microwave scrambled eggs many times, but always in a cereal sized bowl, which is a big mistake. Now, after some research online, I make them in a mug. Two eggs, scrambled, with a crumbled slice of cheese, in a coffee mug. Maybe some ham bits as well. Cook for 30 seconds, stir and break up chunks, then another 30 second, stir, and perhaps another 10 seconds. Heavenly! Such an easy hearty meal.

Microwave Peanut Brittle: People absolutely LOVE this this peanut brittle. It looks long and involved, but doesn't really take that long. Here's my version.

Microwave Cornbread: Cornbread usually does taste better in the oven, because of the browning. But it only takes 5 minutes in the microwave! And I put it up on, as well, and got 81 reviews!

Microwave popcorn: No need for bagged popcorn, this container works great, and I've used it for years - Nordic Ware Microwave Popcorn Popper

Microwave cheese crisps: I absolutely love these! Many years ago I went to someone's house for dinner, and as an appetizer the hostess made cheese crisps, but on the stovetop. They were delicious, like slightly browned crispy cheese. Well, in the microwave, they turn out great, and are so easy! Parchment paper is the key.

Microwave potato chips: just slice them very thin (we use the mandolin), brush some oil on them, and cook in the microwave until crispy and brown.

Microwave mug cake: truly a great idea, this was the rage on the internet about 5 years ago. There's some wonderful and luscious chocolate mug cake recipes out there...if you ask me, though, the key is no egg, and a spoonful of peanut butter or nutella. This recipe is the one I started with.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Homemade KIND bars - improving the process - Part II

I had a lot of fun developing my version of the KIND bar - those expensive but tasty nut/grain bars that are sold at most Starbucks. My initial recipe is here: Homemade KIND bars - my own recipe, far cheaper and healthier - Part I.

Since then, I've made lots of improvements. That's the pleasure of developing my own recipes, and keeping good notes - I get to continually tweak the recipe to make it easier and better. This recipe in particular needed lots of tweaking because of the inconvenience of dealing with a sugar syrup.

The main improvements are these:

  • I always use a wooden spoon to stir up the ingredients, and every time I stirred (you need to take it out from the microwave and stir every minute or so), I would spend a long time scraping the mixture off the wooden spoon with a knife. It took a long time. Now, I just LEAVE THE SPOON in the bowl while it heats up in the microwave! No scraping off required except at the very end, and lots of effort saved.
  • I'm making much larger batches now. I enjoy these, they keep forever in the freezer, so why not make more?
  • I halved the amount of raisins and/or cranberries I was putting in, and may skip them altogether. They seem to make the bars too sweet.
  • I added coconut. At my favorite grocery store (WINCO) they have unsweetened coconut flakes, which are a little difficult to find, so I stock up when I'm there. Coconut gives a really rich flavor to the bars.

So here's my updated recipe.

Syrup ingredients
½ cup sugar
¼ cup corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt

Nut/grain ingredients (mix and match whatever dry ingredients you like, as long as it totals 6 cups)
1 ½ cup parched wheat
1 ½ cup peanuts
½ cup cranberries
1 cup almonds
1 ½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Spray non-stick spray on tin foil on cookie sheet, also spray the bottom of a drinking glass for pressing down the mixture
Nuke the sugar, corn syrup, and salt first for 30 seconds, to make it easy to stir
Leave wooden spoon in bowl - no scraping off!
Add the dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly.
Microwave for a total of 3.5  minutes, stirring every minute or so
Empty the bowl onto the cookie sheet, spreading with the wooden spoon and pressing down with the drinking glass
Let cool 15 minutes, and then cut into bars. Don't leave it longer than 15 minutes, because it will harden too much, and crumble when you cut it.
Wrap the bars (I put them in snack size ziplock bags)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My new side-gig: converting books in the public domain to Kindle format, and publishing them on Amazon

I have a new side-gig now, which is taking old books that are now in the public domain, converting them to Kindle format, and then publishing them on Amazon.

My most recent book
What the heck is public domain, anyway? In a nutshell, books that are "in the public domain", are books that were published before 1923, and whose copyright has expired. This includes all the old classics such as Pride and Prejudice, and Tom Sawyer. However, there's hundreds of thousands of other books also in the public domain, that never got anywhere near as popular, and are not regarded as classics.  But they're are still interesting to read nowadayspartly for historical interest, and partly because good storytelling is timeless.

How did I come up with this idea? I was going through some forums on side businesses, and came across a post from someone who said she was making a small, but completely passive income just from some old books she'd converted to the Kindle format and uploaded to Amazon. The idea intrigued me because I've been a reader of old public domain books for a long time, usually from

My first experience with old books in the public domain was in college. When I was writing my senior honors thesis, I had a study carrel that was right next to a selection of Horatio Alger books. Alger was the original "Rags to Riches" writer, whose specialty was hard-working boys and young men who, through hard work, optimism, and perseverance managed rise up  from poverty tousually not riches, but middle class respectability. They're pretty formulaic, and the themes tend to repeat themselves. Still, I found them interesting enough to read—anything to procrastinate on my thesis. And ever since then, I've had a special interest in old books.

Back to the original forum post that got me interested in the possibility. She had gotten started via a job at her college, scanning a bunch of old books. Instead of just leaving it at that, she also formatted them for the Kindle, and put them up on Amazon. Most of them got no sales at all, but one of them regularly made about $100/month.

The idea intrigued me, partly because I love old books, and partly because there's a gambling aspect to it. Most of the time you make nothing, but every once in a while, you hit a chunk of gold—in her case, a popular book!

So far, I haven't hit any gold nuggets, but I have made a tiny bit of money—embarrassingly small, but it's very satisfying to make any money at all using new skills. And speaking of skills, the really fun part is that I've needed to develop expertise in many new areas. The main ones are image processing (mainly Gimp), Canva for creating book covers (very user friendly, somewhat limited in capabilities), and OCR software for "reading" the page images and converting them to text. Also copy-writing, for creating an attractive description for the book. That's the most gratifying part, and what I like the best—becoming competent in new areas for an immediate need.

Over the long term, I'm pretty sure that this isn't actually a viable business or side-gig. There's just too much of an initial time investment to get a book online in a salable condition, for a public domain book that you can't price very high, and which may not sell at all. Plus, Amazon takes a much larger chunk of the revenue for public domain books—75% instead of 35%. But as a fun hobby "business" that may lead to new ideas, this is very worthwhile.

Here are a few of the books I've put online:

The Finding of Jasper Holt - an old romance novel, so far my best-seller
Julius, the Street Boy - by Horatio Alger, the story of a street urchin from the New York City of the late 1800's who had an opportunity to improve himself by moving out west.
Max and Moritz - Here's what I wrote up for the description of this one:
The story of Max and Moritz is a never-to-be forgotten classic of German culture. This time-honored story has entertained children and adults for over 150 years, and has not lost any of its irreverent humor. The story is not for the squeamish —the two boys do come to a bad end, and are not mourned by anyone in the village—but the pranks, the delightful verse, and the illustrations together make a jewel of a tale. 
This particular edition is actually not in the public domain anymore, because I redid the original old translation (and improved it a lot, I like to think). So even though the illustrations are old, the text is mine.