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One of the things I have the hardest time with is focus. I have times when focus comes easily, and I get a week's worth of work done in hours, come up with ideas that need sustained thinking, write blog posts that have been bouncing around my head for years. Other times my attention is flighty, and I have to struggle to keep myself from finding low-investment sources of entertainment.

The biggest component of this is how excited I am. When I really get into something, that's when focus comes easily. I recently finished a project at work where I was building something that dramatically improved something the team had found frustrating for years. I could see where I wanted it to go, and I was excited enough that when I ran into issues I pushed at it until I had good solutions for them. The bass whistle project was another one like this, where I couldn't think of anything else for about a week, until I had something coded up and working. I didn't need to make myself focus, I needed to make myself do the rest of my life.

A lot of other factors matter, but are mediated by excitement. Short iteration cycles, where I can quickly find out whether something worked, are so important to me because they keep the excitement from draining away. Doing something no one has done before, that a lot of people are going to like, that needs doing urgently, or that I've been thinking about for a long time all help, but mostly because those are exciting things.

In-person collaboration also helps, in at least two ways. When I'm working with someone, talking to them directly, it feels like ideas flow much better. It's most fun when we have complementary skills, each filling in for and learning from the other, but even when the other person is inexperienced it still helps to have another person's worth of working memory. And then if I'm working one-on-one with someone I can't respond to brief roadblocks by letting myself get distracted.

There's also a component of mental patterns: if I'm in the habit of tabbing over to Facebook I'll fall out of focus more easily. [1] The hard part for me is that I'm often doing work that is full of short breaks that should be fine to fill: waiting for compiles, for queries, for tests. This means that when I've tried to make myself rules like "no distraction activities" I either get bored enough waiting for things that I can't stick to the rule, or I learn how to turn some previously fine activity into a diversion. The feeling of "I can't make progress right now, let's distract" is shared between "my code's compiling", where waiting will help, and "this problem is hard", where waiting (mostly) won't. How well I'm able to distinguish these in the moment varies, however, and I'm not all that good at it. This also means that if I'm doing a kind of work that lends itself to unbroken effort (washing dishes, framing a wall, coding something that's fully in my head) then I'm much more likely to just work until I'm done.

There are also kinds of work where I need to be in a very distraction-prone mindset. Analysis is often like this for me, where I relax my barrier between having an idea and trying it. Sometimes this leads me to explore aspects of a problem that are really promising, and other times it leads me to explore the history of bi-level railcars. You would think this would be very easy to reign in, and it is for me when I'm excited about the analysis, but my excitement can go off in pretty random directions.

Another aspect is that when I have something I have to do that I'm just not excited about, it's really hard to get myself to do it. I do have strategies, like sitting down with just a piece of paper or a single browser tab and telling myself I can't get up until I've hit some criteria, but it goes very slowly and is very unpleasant. Sometimes leaving tasks like this until I do get excited about them helps, but not if I never end up feeling that way.

In the other direction, I've done some of my best work while distracted from something else that I was supposed to be doing: my sense of what's exciting sometimes gets at something my conscious prioritization doesn't. Additionally, "doing things when I'm excited about them" often means "do things when they're most tractable". I'm nervous about breaking something that overall has outcomes I like.

Some of this feels like what Constantin describes in The Costs of Reliability. The whole post is good, but in particular: "people given an open-ended mandate to do what they like can be far more efficient than people working to spec... at the cost of unpredictable output with no guarantees of getting what you need when you need it".

There's also a lot that resonates in Graham's Disconnecting Distraction, including "Another reason it was hard to notice the danger of this new type of distraction was that social customs hadn't yet caught up with it. If I'd spent a whole morning sitting on a sofa watching TV, I'd have noticed very quickly. That's a known danger sign, like drinking alone. But using the Internet still looked and felt a lot like work." Time holes and culture of handling them are both evolving, and figuring out how to keep from falling into them involves constantly learning how to tell good from bad uses.

Overall, this both is and isn't a big problem for me. It isn't, in that I am often very focused and get a lot done, at work and at home. It is, in a sense of opportunity cost: possibly I could be doing a lot more if I were able to focus more by either (a) influencing my excitement or (b) doing important things without excitement.

I initially wrote this as a "here's where I am" post, but rereading it I do have a few ideas:

  • Putting more effort into recognizing the cases where "wait a bit" will help me make progress
  • Bring a book to work to read during times when waiting really is the best next step, since it's both much less addictive than a digital device and better understood.
  • Spending more time working directly with others.

[1] A strong correlate for this with me is, if I put a piece of chocolate in my mouth, do I chew it or am I able to wait and enjoy it slowly? And, weirdly, this seems to still give signal even though I now use it for self-evaluation.

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Answering some questions about EA

A teacher in Vienna recently wrote to say that they had assigned an article about us as part of a Social Issues class, and asked whether I would be up for answering questions. The students asked me their questions via video snippets, and here are my answers:

Gergo: When was the first time you gave money to other people? Did it start when you were younger, or when you were in college?

The first donation I remember was a pair of political donations leading up to the 2008 election. I gave $50 each to two candidates who were very unlikely to win: Mike Gravel and Ron Paul. I was hoping to expand the range of ideas people were discussing in the primaries.

The next time I donated was $500 two years later, after deciding to give half of what I earned to charity starting in 2009. I think I decided to make my first donation in 2008 instead of 2009 because I misunderstood how income taxes worked and thought it was better to spread donations across years (in the US it's actually the opposite).

Emilie: How did you get into this to start with and how do you keep up with it? How did you get into the mindset of "we can give so much and that's what we want to do", without flaking out?

When I started my first real job and was suddenly making much more money than I'd ever had before, the contrast between what I had and what I really needed weighed on me. Based on my upbringing and temperament I would have continued living simply and saved the money, but after a lot of discussions with Julia I realized that I wasn't ok having so much while others had so little, and couldn't keep it.

This contrast hasn't gone away, and the level of need in the world remains unconscionably high, so I can't see doing something else.

It also helps that I've written a lot about this publicly, and it would be pretty embarrassing to go back and say "you know what, I'm done with this 'charity' thing, saving up to buy a yacht is just too important to me."

Danilla: At 22 you were broke and even though you had no job you still donated all of your savings to the charity. Why you did that and how did you live at that time if you didn't have any money?

This question is phrased as if it's intended for Julia, but I can give my perspective. While Julia hadn't found a job yet I was working full time, and so I think she felt secure enough to donate her savings. In retrospect I probably should have suggested keeping some, in case I lost my job, but I don't think she would have listened to me anyway.

Danilla: In 2011 I noticed that you didn't make any donations? Did something happen, or did you change your mind?

It was a combination of two things. Julia had decided to go back to school to become a social worker. She went to school full time in order to finish school sooner, which meant she didn't have any income to donate. I had joined a startup which meant that part of my compensation was stock options instead of being entirely cash. I decided that if my options ended up being worth something I would donate them, which made sense to me as a way to handle me being risk-averse for myself but risk-neutral for charity. I no longer think this was a good decision, primarily because I overestimated the value of the options.

Jin: Why do you donate only internationally, even though America currently has a lot of problems? For example, something like 9/11 could happen again, or there could be a natural disaster like an earthquake. Why do you donate globally to help people outside of your country?

While the US does have a lot of problems it's also a very rich country in a strong position to address those problems. Both 9/11 and earthquakes are examples of the kind of thing the US government takes very seriously and has highly-funded agencies to handle. On the other hand, many other countries are much poorer and don't have the same kind of resources to address their problems. For example, we've donated to the Against Malaria Foundation to fund bednet distribution in countries like Malawi, helping people protect themselves from malaria. Malawi is a very poor country, and the US is about 175x richer, per-capita, which means our money is much more able to help there.

This doesn't mean that Americans don't have problems or don't deserve help, but with the current levels of inequality, problems in the US aren't at the top of my list.

Emelie: How long are you continuing this, and what are you planning for the future now that you have a child?

I'm planning to continue trying to use a substantial portion of my time/money to help others as best as I can at least until I retire. Having children (we now have two, 5y and 3y) has been wonderful, but hasn't led me to change my goals or values.

Olivia: Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your ultimate goal or what you intend to achieve? In the article that I read it said that as your salary began to increase you began to give away more, but where do you see yourself ultimately reaching? What are your limitations and aspirations as you go into your future years?

If I started making substantially more money I could see trying to donate more than 50%, but for now 50% feels like a good place. I might also, at some point, switch from trying to have a positive impact via donations to something similar via directly doing valuable things. I tried this in 2017 and would do it again for the right opportunity.

Neja: What brings you joy in donating money?

This varies a lot between people, but for me it's not really about joy. It's about seeing how wrong things are and trying to make it better. It's about wanting to do the right thing.

I didn't used to feel any emotional connection to giving, but that changed when I had kids. As a parent of small children, looking at how malaria nets mean fewer parents have to bury their children makes me choke up. The world is so incredibly unfair right now, and some people have to go through so much pain, but we can all help make things better. So while I wouldn't call it joy it definitely makes me determined to help.

Aviva: Do you ever have second thoughts about donating? For example, if one month you're on a tight budget do you think, like, "maybe this month we shouldn't donate". Or, does it come naturally for you?

Sofia: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you could have used the money you gave away to charity, and do you have any regrets about that? Do you have any money saved up for those situations? Do you put money aside for emergency situations or do you try to manage with the money that you have left after donating?

We're fine financially, mostly because we're lucky enough to have lucrative skills, and also because we're reasonably good at living within our means. We've been incredibly fortunate, and I'm very happy with our lives.

On the other hand, when I look at the money we've donated and think about how our lives would be different if we had saved it instead it does make me a bit sad. We could have gone the FIRE route, in which case I think we would have been retiring around now, in our early 30s, with more time for kids and hobbies. Being able to afford to play music full time or create new musical instruments would be really fun. But then I look at how many people are living in poverty, dealing with sickness, hunger, disasters, war, unemployment, and it's very clear to me that this would have been the wrong choice.

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Somerville Housing Units

In the comments on yesterday's post on Somerville building age someone suggested census data for housing units could be helpful. I've now looked into it, but it's not great: Somerville seems to not have been submitting building permit data to the census until recently, and the way condo conversions are tracked overstates growth.

Initially it does look good: we have B25001 "Housing Units" representing estimates for how many housing units there are in various places, including Somerville. Here's are the 1-year estimates from the ACS:

year number margin of error
2017 36,788 ±1,952
2016 33,565 ±1,918
2015 32,226 ±1,849
2014 33,085 ±2,025
2013 34,375 ±2,187
2012 33,079 ±1,730
2011 32,794 ±2,086
2010 31,604 ±1,989
2009 30,198 ±2,047
2008 32,621 ±2,257
2007 32,903 ±2,401
2006 31,781 ±2,347
2005 33,627 ±2,901

The methodology (pdf) says the estimate comes from:

2010 Census Housing Units + New Residential Construction + New
Mobile Homes - Housing Units Lost

A surprising thing to me, then, is that the reported margin of error is relatively consistent. If we're starting with a decent estimate from the Census every ten years, and then adjusting it to try to keep it current, I would expect to see a low margin of error in 2010 (and 2000) and then see it rise over the course of each decade.

Anyway, since Somerville doesn't have many (any?) mobile homes we're just talking about New Construction and Housing Loss.

For New Construction they estimate based primarily on building permits:

building permits issued x permit completion rate + non-permitted

Building permit numbers come from the Building Permits Survey which claims to have data for 20,000 municipalities. Each one files form C-404 "Report of Building or Zoning Permits Issued and Local Public Construction". The documentation (pdf) has:

Two sets of data are shown for each type of construction:

  1. Estimates with Imputation - includes reported data for monthly respondents and imputed data for nonrespondents.
  2. Reported Only - includes only reported data for respondents.
Pulling out the data for Somerville (sheet) there are many years where "estimated" differs from "reported", which means Somerville was nor submitting the form every year. Worse, the data doesn't distinguish between "they submitted the data and it was zero" vs "they didn't submit any data". The "reported" data from 2005-2014 is all zeros, so this does sound like failure to report.

In 2015 we suddenly have 604 units reported, after a decade of zeros, and since that's ~3x higher than what we see in 2016-2018 I wonder if some number of previous years of permits got reported all at once in the 2015 data?

Mostly this makes me not trust the ACS housing units numbers here very much: it looks like they stayed flat for years because of missing data and then suddenly jumped up year over year because of perhaps a backlog coming in.

There's also a problem with the way they calculate loss. A lot of new construction in Somerville is replacing existing buildings, some of which are residential. But loss is calculated extremely roughly:

We calculate housing unit loss by applying an annual loss rate to the housing stock. Then, we add to that estimate the number of units lost due to natural disasters. Housing loss rates are derived from the 2009 and 2011 American Housing Survey at the regional level. A unit is counted as lost if a survey was completed in 2009, but it was listed as a non-response (Type C, 30 - Demolished) in the 2011 survey.
This means that if the rate at which units are demolished and replaced changes it will be picked up in the construction numbers but not the demolition numbers and erroneously counted as an increase. Looking at the 2018 building permit survey numbers I see Somerville reporting 32 permits for new 1-unit buildings, which sounds to me like condos. Since those were probably conversions from existing 2-3 unit buildings, we're counting the added units but not the removed ones.

Overall it does not sound like the ACS numbers are very useful. They're missing a lot of data and what data they do have is unclear. I would love to have solid data on this, especially going back a long time, but it still doesn't sound to me like that's been assembled.

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Somerville Housing Over Time

I wanted to understand how the number of housing units in Somerville had changed over our history, but wasn't able to find anything searching online. We can get an estimate, however, by looking at the "Year Built" field in the Assessor's Database. This shows the age of Somerville's current housing stock, to the best estimate of the Assessor.

Decade Number Built
17xx 7
180x 36
182x 3
183x 1
184x 30
185x 65
186x 79
187x 143
188x 476
189x 1025
190x 4657
191x 1863
192x 2104
193x 401
194x 55
195x 75
196x 104
197x 181
198x 394
199x 72
200x 24
201x 51 (57 projected)

In estimating how much building was happening in various decades this will be biased towards the present: a building that was demolished and replaced will show up as being built recently, replacing the earlier older listing. On the other hand, newer projects are often larger, as former industrial sites are converted to housing. Still, it shows that current building levels in Somerville, while higher than in the 2000s, are still very low by historical standards.

(The most recent year I see in the data is 2018, so I've scaled the numbers for the 2010s decade up by 10/9 to reflect that we're missing 2019 data. I've also truncated the data to just the decade because my understanding is it's common for the database to use the first year as a stand in for "some time that decade", with 1910 to mean 1910s. Only 11,847 of the 12,145 parcel records contain a "Year Built" field so I'm ignoring the other 2%. I'm also ignoring 84 Perkins St, parcel 14057, which claims to have been built in 1518.)

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Battery Manual

I'm probably lending my battery system to someone for a protest. I started writing them an email with instructions but decided to make a blog post instead. So, here's how to use the battery system:

There are three pieces: two batteries and an inverter. Make sure you have all three! The batteries are super heavy (64lb/each) so be very careful moving them. You really don't want to drop them and hurt yourself or someone else.

Once you have the batteries in position, plug the connectors together. There's no wrong way to connect them; the shape of the connector ensures that black goes with black and red with red. Make sure you've connected both batteries; they're a mated pair and always need to drain and charge in parallel. Check that the other connections are still tight, especially the finger-tightened terminals at the inverter which tend to work loose a bit when the it's moved.

Be careful to keep conductive things away from the battery terminals: you want to be very sure that the positive and negative terminals don't get shorted together.

Dressing Outside

This is not a good pattern:
Parent: before we go outside you need to put your coat on
Child: no
Parent: it's a cold day, and if you go out without your coat you'll be sad
Child: no
As a parent, there are a lot of cases where you have a better idea about what your child is going to want than they do, and these cases are hard. You know your kid isn't going to enjoy the cold weather, but they may have all sorts of reasons they don't want to put a coat on.

The traditional solution here is just to tell them they have to put their coat on before leaving, and over time they get in the habit and it feels normal to them. This is more or less fine, but it both requires forcing them to do something and doesn't really teach them the skill of predicting what clothing they're going to want.

What I like a lot better is just saying "ok", and sticking their coat in my backpack. Once we get outside they'll typically ask for their coat and put it on. If they don't, that's fine with me too: sounds like I was wrong about whether they would want it.

While we can't always put off decisions until they're ones the kids are going to be in a good position to make on their own, it's more common than you might think.

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