I was chatting with one of our staff surgeons a few months ago. He saw me looking up some headphone recommendations for a friend while I was on a break. He wondered if I even had a stereo at home. I told him I did, although he seemed surprised that my main source of music was a turntable. He reminisced about his early residency, sharing that it used to be a rite of passage to buy your “first real stereo” out of med school, once you started making a little bit of spending money. Now, he lamented, he’d be surprised if even one of the residents in their program owned an actual stereo.

87 Speaker by macattckI use the term stereo knowing full well that many of you do not really understand this concept. A few years ago, I didn’t either. On a real stereo, music is played from two speakers (left and right). When these speakers are placed in appropriate position relative to the listener’s ears, a three-dimensional “image” forms roughly between the speakers. With appropriate stereo recording and engineering, it’s not that the drums come from the left speaker and the guitar from the right. You can actually picture a stage in front of you. The drums come from 1 foot left of center, the guitar from 1 foot right of center, and the lead vocalist sounds like he is singing directly between the speakers. Better yet: the bass drum kicks dead center, the hi-hat two feet to the left of that and the snare hits between them. In other words, an entire concert takes place between the speakers. Or even beyond the sides of the speakers. Have you ever heard music in true stereo? Imagine standing in the front row at a concert. That’s what your music should sound like at home!

So why do we settle for anything less? I think a major reason is ignorance, especially among younger listeners. If you’ve never heard music you love on a proper stereo, you’re not only missing out, but you don’t even understand what you’re missing. Once you hear it, in my opinion, there’s no turning back. Convenience is also a factor. Today, there are so many devices for listening to your music: TV sound-bars, Bluetooth speakers, iPod/iPhone docks, headphones, car speakers, and even laptop speakers (shudder). Almost none of them actually sound good or give true stereo imaging, but the companies that make them have powerful marketing departments. They’re all sold as “ready to listen” devices. Plug in and press play. But if you only understood what you’re missing! And listening to music that sound this good doesn’t even have to be expensive!

Listening habits have changed, too, but it’s a more fundamental change than saying music is more portable. There are plenty of ways to listen and maintain portability. But stereos are from a different era. Forty or fifty years ago, both adults and kids sat down to listen to an album, although probably still not together and not the same artists. Think about that. When was the last time you sat down and just listened? No phone, computer, or tablet, and not cleaning the house, chatting with friends, exercising, or driving. Music has become, in most instances, background noise.

You notice things when you sit down and listen, especially to good, well-recorded and well-produced music. You notice inflections in people’s voices. You notice the sound of instruments. You realize there are different drums in a drum set. You notice the lyrics and consider what they mean. Music is an emotional art, and that emotion is ripe when you sit quietly and listen to it. Take it in and let it run through you. That’s music.

Turntable by David LenkerA few weeks ago, an old friend was in town. She is one of the few others I know who owns and uses a turntable. This was the first time she had been to our apartment since I have owned a decent stereo. We visited a local record shop, Bullseye Records, where she bought Illinois by Sufjan Stevens. We were both in for a treat the next morning when I put the record on. I, because I had never heard this album before. It’s fantastic. I bought it a few weeks later. She, because she had never heard it on vinyl in stereo. She mentioned afterwards that she should get some real stereo speakers for her ‘table instead of the built-in speakers. (n.b. This post actually has nothing to do with vinyl. Similar results can be obtained with CDs or music downloads. Don’t be discouraged!)

This got me excited because I love to spend other people’s money, but I also love to help them get a good deal and great value for their money. I’ve been reading a lot about home audio lately. I have a subscription to Stereophile magazine, and I read Steve Guttenburg’s blog The Audiophiliac over at CNET. Although Stereophile tends to focus on very high-end equipment, out of the price- and interest-range of 99% of the population, I do keep my radar up for components with particularly high price/performance ratios. Stephen Mejias’ column, The Entry Level, frequently reviews these high-value components. I mentioned to my friend that I had recently read Mejias’ review of a set of decent sounding bookshelf speakers selling for $50/pair, and she seemed interested. A few days ago I read another article from The Audiophiliac recommending pairing these speakers with an inexpensive but high-quality amp. All things considered, with these components you can own a very nice sounding stereo for $70-100.

This made me wonder whether others might be interested in such a set-up. An advantage of building this stereo from components is that you can modify what you buy based on what features you want. Here is the basic stereo I would recommend, including prices.

  • Dayton Audio B652 bookshelf speakers – $40-55 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Lepai LP-2020A+ amplifier (without power cable) – $20 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Recommended upgrade: Power cable (12VDC 5A, only if buying amp without cable) – $15 [PE]
  • Recommended upgrade: Speaker wire (16 AWG OFC) – $9-11 [PE] [Amazon] [Monoprice]
  • Total: $85 + $15 shipping
  • Optional upgrades: Bluetooth input ($20), improved DAC ($40)

People frequently spend this amount of money or much more on a TV sound-bar or Bluetooth speaker or iPod/iPhone speaker dock or even headphones. They’ll spend 4-5 times this much on a “Home Theater in a Box.”  So what about you? Would you ever consider spending $100 to make your music sound infinitely better?

My Conscious Spending Plan

This is a post on personal finance inspired by Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. In this series, I am documenting my attempt to put the techniques in his book into practice.

If anyone talks to Sadie, you might hear her grumble that I’m obsessed with personal finance now. I can see why she thinks that, and in some ways I guess I am. I do talk about it a lot more than before. But she also always sees me with my “budget” spreadsheet open. I can commiserate with the government on one thing. Balancing a budget is tough, especially when you’ve got a lot of debt.

As a resident, I make a decent salary, but my med school student loan interest eats about 33% of my take-home salary. I won’t go into the details of student loans now because I’m saving that for a future post. Suffice it to say that some of my loan interest will be subsidized for 3 years, but I’m still accruing over $800 per month just in student loan interest. Yuck! Now, I’m actually only required to pay about $500 of it, but I plan to pay the amount that’s accruing every month. If I don’t pay all of it, the amount of unpaid interest capitalizes every month. The last thing I want is for my gargantuan debt to snowball over the next 4 years of residency. So as you can see, my student loan debt adds a major expense to my budget.

Now if I were a smart person, I would have followed Ramit’s guidelines to make my Conscious Spending Plan. He recommends taking about 30 minutes to get a rough estimate of your budget using some general guidelines. He recommends allocating 50-60% of your take-home pay to fixed monthly costs, 10% to long-term investments, 5-10% to short-term savings goals, and 20-35% to guilt-free spending. I actually did do this, but he also recommends spending 2 hours refining your plan in order to optimize your spending. This is what has turned into a larger project.

Given that my student loan debt is so large, it skews my fixed monthly costs to greater than 60%. I also need to save for a wedding. More importantly, I had a budget worked out already from a few years ago. With some minor tweaking, it accounted for all of my regular expenses. But when I put it all together, things weren’t working. No matter how I crunched and tweaked the numbers, they never fell in line. Even worse, whenever I thought I had made it work, I would remember something that I had forgotten that would cause this house of cards to come tumbling down.

Having put so much thought and calculation into my plan, I now appreciate the simplicity of Ramit’s technique. It gets you moving past the details and into action. Regardless, my plan is done, and I’d like to share it.

I currently take home about 73% of my quoted salary after taxes and health insurance. That number is actually better than I was expecting. I believe Ramit suggests estimating your take-home pay as 66% of your quoted salary. For retirement savings, our residency program used to have a 403(b) plan, but they discontinued it this year because the residents weren’t really using it. Ugh. I highly doubt they provided any kind of employer match, so it’s no big loss. From my take-home pay, I allocate 10.70% to my Roth IRA.

[NERD ALERT] It’s more than Ramit’s suggested 10% because I’m using a technique I read about elsewhere. I’m actually dollar-cost averaging over the length of my residency. To do this, I’m using the estimated take-home pay that I will make as a PGY-4 (a few thousand dollars more per year) to determine my 10% investment contribution. This way, I will invest like I’m making my PGY-4 salary for the next 4 years. The proposed advantage is that I will invest a consistent amount over the next 4 years (plus an annual inflation raise), instead of investing more in 2015 when I’m a PGY-4. The actual difference is just under $30 per month, so it’s not a huge difference. If that’s all Greek to you, just skip over it. I’m basically investing 10% of my take-home pay. [/NERD ALERT]

I’m allocating 17.84% to short-term savings. This number is significantly higher than Ramit’s suggested 5-10% basically because I’m saving for our wedding. As he points out in his book, weddings are expensive. Although we’re set on having a lower-budget wedding, it’s still requires a lot of dough.

Next up are my fixed monthly costs. These come out to 64.07% of my take-home pay. This is slightly higher than Ramit’s suggested 50-60%, but considering it includes my $800+ student loan interest bill and my living expenses, that’s not too shabby. In fact, without my student loan interest, I’d be down to 38.52% of my take-home pay. Apparently I’m living frugally. I guess that was roughly my goal. Also, I set aside just under 10% of my fixed monthly costs for “stupid mistakes.” It’s just another great tip to make sure I don’t blow my budget.

Unfortunately with all the other categories getting “extra” money, my guilt-free spending really suffers. I’ve allocated a paltry 7.40% to guilt-free spending compared to Ramit’s suggested 20-35%. I could never imagine spending 35% of my take-home pay “guilt-free” unless my fixed monthly costs were really bare bones. As it stands, my fixed monthly costs include everything that I spend on regularly, including things that don’t get paid every month. This means that my guilt-free money is really for me to spend on things I want and enjoy, not a haircut.

So that’s my customized Conscious Spending Plan. I know it would’ve been smarter and easier for me to just use Ramit’s rough estimates and adjust my spending over time. But I have specific, time-sensitive goals that I need to meet and some data on my past spending habits. I saw no reason to throw that knowledge away just to fit his exact algorithm, which is actually a guideline to help you get started. And in the end, I didn’t end up too far off. I’m sure things will get adjusted as time goes on, but I have to say I’m happy with my plan. On the other hand, I do wish I hadn’t spent so much time on it. Now I need to leave it alone and just make sure I’m sticking with it. Sorry, Sadie!

IWT Challenge: Eliminate Remaining Debt

This is a post on personal finance inspired by Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. In this series, I am documenting my attempt to put the techniques in his book into practice.

I was in a decent amount of debt a few years ago, mainly from credit cards and a car loan. It started a few months before medical school and tailed off around the end of my second year. At that point, I got a small job on the side, made a budget, and stuck to it for about 14 months until all of my debt was paid off. This was no easy task considering I had a fixed student income. After the debt was paid off, my budget-spending relaxed somewhat, but I was able to curb my spending enough to keep myself out of debt. I did learn a valuable lesson about being in debt. It’s soul-sucking, and I never wanted to be in it again.

Unfortunately, the problem arose again recently during the tail end of medical school, although not nearly to the same extent. My student loans only covered living expenses through the end of May, and my first paycheck did not come until the end of July. I built up a small amount of credit card debt from moving expenses and living expenses that absolutely have been curbed by the fact that I read I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I am also proud to say that I did not take out any residency interview and relocation loans.

After getting my first paycheck, I eliminated this debt by foregoing some savings for one month, specifically saving for long-term investing and pre-paying my student loans. While I am disappointed that my investments will suffer, I am happy that this debt is small enough to be easily eliminated.

I’ve taken a few precautions to avoid future debt mishaps. I started an emergency fund, and my goal is to slowly save enough to cover three months worth of my new salary. This is a bit slow-going at the moment since I’m simultaneously trying to save for a wedding during the next year. I also took Ramit’s advice and added a “Stupid Mistakes” entry into my Conscious Spending Plan. He recommends adding a buffer of 15% of your fixed monthly costs that can be used when you forget to save for or budget for something. I plan to transfer the remainder to a separate savings account. Every six months or so, I’ll figure out what I should do with the excess. I’ll probably transfer most of it to my emergency fund and spend a little!

I’m doing my best to stay out of debt in the future. Unfortunately, med school loans are my next major soul-sucking debt. If you or someone you know is in debt, suggest they change their behavior to get out of it as soon as possible. Give them a copy of Ramit’s book, or even just talk to them about their debt. Many people think they can’t get out of it. Others don’t even understand that it’s a problem. It takes discipline to pay off debt, but only then can you start to plan a secure financial future.

A Fresh Coat of Paint

It’s strange to think that I started this blog 4 years ago. I designed it myself in the summer of 2007 and started officially blogging on it in August during medical school orientation. I based the design on the Default WordPress theme, which was in-turn based on the venerable Kubrick theme. Last year, after many years of updates, WordPress finally retired its Default theme with the vision of creating a visually refreshed default theme, which they dubbed Twenty Ten. The idea was that WordPress developers should design a new theme every year.

It was about the same time that I began to notice some of the cruft in my own design. But my design had a personality to it that I liked. Plus, the design took a considerable amount of work on my part, and this was neither something I was willing to throw away haphazardly nor something I had time to recreate from scratch in a more modern fashion. And so the cruft lingered on and got even cruftier.

Encephalosponge New Design

Encephalosponge: New Design

A few months ago, a stunning theme called Duster appeared on I knew this would be the theme that I based my next site design on. Little did I know that WordPress developers had the same idea, and they recently released their new default theme, Twenty Eleven, which is based on Duster. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visually refresh my site based on a WordPress default theme that I love. In the new design, I wanted to highlight some personal changes that I’ve gone through over the past 4 years, and I also addressed some things I learned along the way. The timing is right, too, since I am transitioning from medical school into residency.

Encephalosponge Old Design

Encephalosponge: Old Design

WordPress has changed a lot for the better over the past few years. I’ve been able to keep up with most of the major new features, but keeping up with new features can be a time-consuming job. Now using Child Themes, I can customize my WordPress theme without altering the original. When I created my last site design, I basically copied and altered all of Kubrick. This meant that when any fixes or upgrades were released, I had to do them manually, which usually meant they didn’t get done. With a Child Theme, the Parent is automatically kept up to date without messing up the customizations that you’ve made. Additionally, many WordPress themes now include easy ways to customize the theme’s background, header image, link color and fonts. This provides an easy way to make your site look unique without having to create an entire theme. By adopting a well-maintained theme, I will also get the benefit of having new WordPress features added without any additional work. These themes are also generally designed appropriately so that plug-ins work well and so that they work across multiple operating systems and browsers, including mobile browsers.

Over the past few years, I’ve embraced Free Software and the Creative Commons. With my old design, I used graphics and fonts that were licensed under restrictive copyright terms. This made redistributing my design impossible. I now use a free computer operating system, create graphics in a free graphics suite and choose images that are free to redistribute and remix. For my header image, I found a macro photo of some Brain Coral that I remixed to fit my color scheme. It doesn’t have as much personality as my previous design, but it works well with my new, more reserved one. It is also easily replaced if I come up with something better down the line. I also use Google’s Web Fonts project to bring my design to life with open-source typography and not embedding my non-traditional typography in images.

My final revisions are a work-in-progress. I am refining the content of this site to be my primary blog, but not my primary online point of contact. I set up my own site on Blackhall Family Sites, where I would like to host a more appropriate bio, contact page, and stream of personal news. I will continue to use this site for blogging about interesting topics and I will reserve that site for information about me. I would also like to continue to refine the content of this site to a more narrow set of topics and types of posts.

So as the content of this site undergoes revision, I thought it was a good time for it to get a good facelift as well. The archive isn’t going anywhere, but I thought everything could use a fresh coat of paint and a good buff to shine. Let me know how it looks.

Automating Bills Using Online Bill Payments

This is a post on personal finance inspired by Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. In this series, I am documenting my attempt to put the techniques in his book into practice.

On Ramit’s recommendation, I have a Schwab High-Yield Investor Checking account, which offers a bunch of great features. One of them is “free online bill pay.” It’s funny because my old checking account also touted this feature. It was something I heard and promptly ignored. Ramit’s book suggested using this free feature to automate paying most of my recurring monthly expenses.

My problem was that I never really realized what this “online bill payment” service actually is. It’s basically a service that you can use to make payments to nearly anyone in the country without having to write a check. For some reason I was under the impression that this meant I needed to know information about their company’s bank account, and I had no intention of calling my utility companies to find out that information. In reality (at least with Schwab), bills can be paid in a number of different ways. Often times, utilities and a bunch of other companies supply their account information to banks in order to facilitate electronic bill payment services. I assume this is because it means the company then gets regular on-time payments. In Milwaukee, I can pay my Time-Warner Cable/Internet and electric bills this way, in addition to many other services that I don’t use. I just have to put in some basic information and my utility account number. However, you can use bill payment services to pay basically anyone. If Schwab doesn’t know the company’s (or person’s) account information, they mail a check that will arrive by the date you specify. So for example, let’s say that you pay your child’s babysitter $200 per week. You could enter her name and address into the bill payments center and then you could pay her using bill payments. She would receive a check in the mail on whatever dates you specify.

There are a few different ways to make payments. First, you can manually enter in a payment amount and payment date. This is obviously useful for bills that are for different amounts every time or ones that don’t need to be paid regularly. Second, you can set up automatically recurring static payments. This is really useful for something like rent. Enter your landlord’s name and address, and ask the bill payments center to make sure that your landlord receives a check by the first of every month. Since the Account Number field is customizable, you can enter your address as an Account Number and it will appear on the check. I just set this up for my landlord, and I’m truly excited about never having to worry about paying my rent on time again. Third, some utility companies and credit card companies can forward you e-statements and e-bills through the bill payments center. In this case, the bill payments center knows how much you owe every month, so there’s no need to enter it manually. You can direct it to pay all or part of your bill every month before it’s due, even if the amount changes.

Money Wheel

CC-BY by Andrew Magill

Before I continue, let’s address the elephant in the room. You’re sitting there saying to yourself, “Man, it would be great to never have to worry about paying my rent on time, but I’m afraid I won’t have enough money in my checking account to cover the check.” I know this because I can hear Sadie worrying out loud about it to me. It’s a valid concern, but it’s not as big of a deal as you might think. The bill payments center has customizable reminders. You can use them with or without automatic payments. Meaning, you can have the bill payments center send you an email on the 20th of every month to remind you to pay your rent. You can then manually log in, check your account balance, and then manually submit a payment afterwards using the bill payment center. Alternatively, you can set up an automatic payment but still have them send you a reminder. The reminder would be your bank sending you an email saying, “Hey, we’re sending out a check in a few days for $900 to pay your rent. Let us know if you want to change that.” This would remind you to log in and make sure there’s enough money in your account. If you realize that your account won’t have enough to cover the check, you can also cancel the payment before it’s sent and make alternative plans for paying it. You can also make changes if for some reason your bill is different from normal this month.

Of course, if you use Ramit’s automation plan, you shouldn’t be too worried about not having enough money in your account. He advocates changing all your bills’ due dates to early in the month so that your bills get paid right after you do (assuming you get paid on the first of the month). But mistakes do happen and fortunately he also discusses techniques to get things like overdraft fees waived if you make a rare mistake.

I do worry about delays with the mail and postal service holidays, so I simply make my payment arrive a few days before it’s due. If you’re worried about automating something that could potentially become too big of a bill, like your credit card, adjust your payment if you have to. In the long term, try to identify and rectify why you’re spending more than you’ve budgeted.

This automation makes me genuinely excited about getting started with paying my bills. It also helped me understand the brilliant online bill payment system. This is going to make paying my bills much easier, and more importantly it will relieve the stress of always wondering if I forgot to pay a bill this month. My bills will be paid automatically, so I won’t even have to think about them. What a novel idea! This stress relief will be a major advantage during residency because thinking about bills is the last thing I will want to do with my time off.

Bills automated: Rent, Internet, and Credit Cards (Sadie pays for power). Anything that’s not automated is paid via credit card and the credit card is paid off in full every month.

Overall, I can see this system working very well for me. In addition to just being easier, the automation will help make sure that I never miss a payment. As residency gets more intense, it will be more likely that I’ll forget to send in a rent check one month or miss a due date for my Internet bill. Automating everything means that will never happen. Since we’re paid monthly, I am scheduling all of my bills to be paid a few days after I am paid. That way there is always enough money in my account to cover my bills. I am also finalizing my plans for saving and investing, which will happen automatically too. And finally I am finalizing my Conscious Spending plan, which I’m working on putting into practice this month. These are all topics for future posts though.

Do you have comments, questions, or objections about something I’ve described? If so, let me know in the comments!

Personal Finance: In Theory And Practice

It’s about time I start putting some of what I learned in Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich into action. In order to keep myself more honest, I plan to blog about my experiences. If that’s helpful to anyone, it’s all the better. These posts will come at various points throughout the year. They will highlight what I’ve learned and how I am applying it, challenges I face along the way, and my successes and failures. They will also include my commentary on how well or poorly Ramit’s techniques work and whether I’ve discovered any useful insights about putting his techniques into practice.

Review: The Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing

This review is going to be inescapably biased. I read Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich a few months back. Since then, I’ve become very interested in personal finance, and I’ve been on a hunt for more reading material on the subject. A large portion of this review will be comparing and contrasting The Bogleheads’ Guide with Sethi’s book.

You may wonder, after all the praise I gave Sethi’s book, why I would even want to read another personal finance book. First, I wanted some resources to confirm the advice given in that book. More importantly, I wanted some more detail on a few topics that I felt Sethi’s book glossed over. In his book, Sethi advises average readers to invest in life-cycle funds. These funds do all of the investing grunt work for you, making them easy to use and maintain. You just keep adding money. He also advises the reader on how to set up personalized asset allocation and invest in individual index funds manually. He describes the potential for a slightly higher return by managing your own individual investments compared to simply choosing a life-cycle fund. Unfortunately, he does not give a lot of detail on how to distinguish various index funds from each other. I started looking for personal finance books that could offer more insight into how to evaluate an index fund. I actually found The Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing through Sethi’s book recommendations page.

The Bogleheads' Guide to InvestingThe Bogleheads’ Guide To Investing ended up being much more than I anticipated. I was happy to see that it was not simply a rehash of the same information and ideals found in I Will Teach You To Be Rich. This book was something altogether different and yet written from a similar perspective. Bogleheads are a group of investors who have been influenced by John Bogle. Bogle is the founder of The Vanguard Group (an investment company), and he has been a long-time advocate of indexed mutual funds. Vanguard created the world’s first indexed mutual fund under Bogle’s supervision. Thus, Bogleheads are Vanguard proponents who believe in the advantages of indexed mutual funds.

This book is set up to be a sort of personal finance bible. It has everything from how to save money, how to get started with investing, why you should invest in index funds, and a lot more. The sheer scope of this book is phenomenal. It goes beyond simple personal finance advice. There were two chapters on tax efficient investing, a chapter on setting up college funds for your children, and even a chapter or two on estates and how to pass on your wealth effectively.

I am comparing this book to Sethi’s for a few reasons. One of the things I noticed is that they actually complement each other pretty well. Sethi’s book gives better motivation for getting started with investing. It contains specifics (with numbers) of how to set up a conscious spending plan (or budget) and it’s very task and goal-oriented. “This week, you should complete tasks X, Y, and Z.” It also caters to a fairly specific audience, people in their 20s to mid-30s. The Bogleheads’ Guide is built for all age groups. It talks about the importance of starting early and how compounding interest works in your favor. It gives advice for changing your investments as you progress towards and into retirement. It has chapters on saving for your children’s college education and even what types of insurance are appropriate for different people at different ages. It also talks about ways to minimize taxes on investments and how to pass on an inheritance to your family.

I can’t say that this book answered all of the questions I had about asset allocation, choosing funds, and vetting fund quality. I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by all the detail about retirement and education planning that will be useful in the future. But more importantly, after reading the chapters on asset allocation and getting started with fund selection, I realized that both books were telling me that choosing specific funds isn’t nearly as important as asset allocation and fund expense fees. In fact, I could picture Ramit face-palming himself and yelling, “Quit debating minutiae and get started already!”

While I liked both books a lot, there are a few reasons that I will likely recommend Sethi’s more often, at least to people around my age. First, I liked his motivational writing style. It instantly motivated me to get started. Second, while The Bogleheads’ Guide is very thorough and will be useful to me over the years, for someone who has never invested (or even thought about investing before), it would probably be overwhelming. Sethi also warns about debating minutiae (because it leads to inaction), and The Bogleheads’ Guide is full of tweaks and sometimes unnecessary details that could precipitate this inactivity.

Overall, I did like the book a lot, and it’s one I will definitely be keeping around for future reference. If you’re young and looking to get a handle on your personal finances, I recommend you start with I Will Teach You To Be Rich. If you’re older than 40 or you just want some more detail than Sethi has to offer, The Bogleheads’ Guide is an excellent choice. Just don’t forget to put things into action right away! Remember Ramit’s 85% solution. It’s better to be 85% of the way right and actually doing something than be 0% right by doing nothing. Don’t become paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Doing nothing is the mistake.


Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Empathy

Ubuntu’s built-in messaging application is called Empathy. Messaging in Ubuntu is great for a lot of reasons. In fact, I could write a whole post on it. I know that because I almost just did. Then, I remembered that the point of this series isn’t to evangelize an application. It’s about my computer making me feel an emotion.

I’ll be the first to admit that web-based messaging like Google Chat and Facebook Chat are extremely convenient. It allows instant communcation no matter what computer you’re on. It facilitates context-based conversations (“Hey, let’s chat about this email”). But do you know what annoys me? It’s when I’m in the middle of writing a blog post and I hear the “ding” of an instant message. Now, I have to go figure out where it came from. It’s not just that it interrupts my work. Often I want to chat. The problem is that I’m usually in the middle of something else, in this case writing a blog post. Now I have to switch tabs every few seconds to keep up with the conversation. And if I get a Google Chat and a Facebook Chat going at the same time? Oh, save me now!

Despite the convenience of web-based messaging, their chats are constrained. You’re stuck with a little box on a website. Am I in prison? If I switch contexts, I constantly have to come back to that site to continue the conversation. Are we playing telephone? I want direct communication with people, and I want my chat to have its own window.

Ubuntu can empathize. It has messaging built right into it. I’ve already mentioned its slick notifications. It also lets me chat on a bunch of different networks (Google, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo!, etc.) with one application. Messaging is nicely integrated into Ubuntu, much like music. Empathy nestles itself quietly into the “Messaging menu” (envelope icon), where it waits until I need it (or until someone needs me!). It’s easy to change my chat status to “Busy” or “Away” across multilple networks with the “Me menu,” whose icon looks like a speech bubble. In other words, when people chat with me on Ubuntu, it feels like a natural part of my computer, not just some website I have open.

All of the little details are great, but today Ubuntu made me happy because it lets people chat with me on my computer, not on a website.

Ubuntu has Empathy

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Wallpapers

Ubuntu is built by a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. A company called Canonical funds a significant portion of Ubuntu’s development, but a large community of volunteers also contribute to it. These groups of people with varying interests and skill sets come together to create something great. The community of Ubuntu users and developers is vast, and despite some misconceptions you may have, you don’t really need to know anything about programming (or even computers!) to contribute to Ubuntu.

As an example, community photographers contribute their work. For each new release, which come every six months, the design team asks for photograph submissions on Flickr. They sort through a plethora of excellent candidates and include 17 new photo wallpapers with each Ubuntu release. For people like me who always love them all, they also have a “wallpaper slide show” that changes the wallpaper photo a few times per day. This way I can experience all of the photos without having to choose, and I constantly have a fresh new wallpaper to see.

When I first start my computer or when I get everything else out of my way, I want to have something sleek and refreshing to look at. Ubuntu made me a happy because it gives me beautiful photographs for my desktop wallpaper. [Larger individual photos]

Wallpapers for Ubuntu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Notifications

Ubuntu is good at staying out of my way. The last thing I need when I’m writing an important email is something popping up and breaking my concentration by saying “You should install this update (or tell me you’ll do it later).” When I’m working, I want to work. I don’t want my computer creating distractions for me. For this reason, when it’s time to install some updates Ubuntu’s Update Manager always starts behind all of your running applications. It’s there to remind you to update, but it never steals your focus. While software updates are important, they never require immediate attention, so I like that Ubuntu doesn’t nag me to install them.

Sometimes notifications are time-sensitive, and they require an interruption. Since it’s often difficult to tell which notifications are important to me, Ubuntu notifies me without completely interrupting me. A shaded box appears at the top right corner of my screen with a message. It’s there if I have time to look at it, but it quickly disappears and does not nag me if I don’t. If I need to click on something behind the box, it nearly disappears and stays out of my way.

As an example, Empathy, Ubuntu’s instant messaging application, shows me the contents of a new instant message without disrupting my work. In addition to notifying me, it also turns the Messaging Menu icon (grey envelope at the top right of the screen) a bright blue so that if I temporarily ignore a message I don’t forget to reply to it later when I have some free time. Also, I like that the notification shows me who is messaging and what they want. This means that I don’t have to switch over to a different browser tab or open an application to figure out whether it’s something I can ignore. Ubuntu made me happy because its notifications do not intrude on my work.

Ubuntu Notifications