Alex's Alliterative Adventures

Thoughts on Programming, Life, and Travel

Controlling your barriers

I currently pay €2.50 in bank fees every month for an account that earns almost no interest. I’m used to free Canadian bank accounts which earn 2-4% interest, so paying money for nothing drives me crazy. I want to open a free, high interest account as soon as I can, but I’ve hit an active barrier: all of the legal text is in German. It’s an easy barrier to overcome: I can translate the documents online, and there are only a few pages to read. But just the thought of all of that work has made made a simple task stick around for weeks while I keep losing money.

Ramit recently wrote a fantastic guest post on get rich slowly about barriers, like these German webpages, that influence the way you think. I’m a notorious procrastinator, so I know that this roadblock will always make me want to read “later”. So I make the roadblock smaller: I keep the translated pages open on my work machine, so they’re always in my face when I’m waiting for my machine to build. I also emailed them to myself, and they’re sitting ugly and bold in my inbox. Even if I only read a couple of paragraphs a day, at least I’m reading something and getting a little bit further.

Ramit focuses on how barriers can get in the way of doing what you really want. But since barriers have such a shockingly strong effect on our beheviour, why not use them for good instead of evil? This is why I launched my secret weapon: I run my mouth. I create a passive barrier for myself when I tell everyone who will listen that I’ve found these awesome banks, and that I’m signing up right away. Once I’ve told people I’m about to do something awesome, fear of looking bad gives me all the motivation I need. Hell, I even wrote a blog post to create LIMITLESS SHAME if I don’t sign up for a bank account by the end of the month. Now, I don’t have to read those webpages, but I’ll sure feel pretty dumb if I don’t.

Schedule a homecooked meal with your friends to avoid eating out. Put a bowl of fruit on your desk, and put the chips and chocolate in a box behind the washing machine in the basement. Put your workout clothes on top of your laptop. Record your impulse buys on a public webpage for all of your friends to see. Make it physically or emotionally taxing to slack off, and make it painfully easy to stick to your guns.

All of us are lazy procrastinators. We’ll get tempted, we’ll forget our priorities, and we’ll just make bad decisions. So accept it, plan for it, and use your weaknesses to achieve things you used to only daydream about.

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My home gym

My roommate installed a chinup bar in the hall. It challenges me every time I leave my room, begging for one quick pull. When I shower, when I get home, when I brush my teeth…

When I pass under the gauntlet, I’m usually in a rush, or I’m dead tired, or I’m just particularly fascinated by yet another hole in my dwindling supply of socks. But it catches my eye once a day or so, and I become locked in gravitational combat with my unyielding foe. He drops me to the ground, a lifeless husk, my arms reinforcing the stereotypically geeky physique I so rightly deserve.

But I’m gaining ground. A month ago I was shaking after one pull. Yesterday I did 10 after showering and 5 more with a backpack before heading downstairs for breakfast. I’m still not in shape, but it’s a great way to regain the strength that parkour demands.

When my roomie and I eventually part ways, I gotta get me one of these:

Chinup bar

Picross is no more

I finally beat Picross DS.

My life’s to-do list just got a little bit shorter.

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Counting in German

One of the strangest parts about German is counting. Things start out simple enough: Eins, zwei, drei…

Like most other languages, German has a system for the two digit numbers above twenty (zwanzig), only the Germans decided to mix things up a bit. Instead of saying twenty-one, you flip it around, and say one-and-twenty (einundzwanzig), like some ancient founding father whose car got 40 rods to the hogshead.

Things get worse when you start using larger numbers. German’s notoriously long words are usually compound words on steroids, since German encourages you to pair up any remotely related words, like some kind of redneck singles club. If you ask a English salesman about the price of a new car, he might tell you that it costs twenty-four thousand three hundred ninety-five Euros. A German would say this:

“Das Auto kostet vierundzwanzigtausenddreihundertfünfundneunzig Euro.”

word by word, that’s four-and-twenty-thousand-three-hundred-five-and-ninety. Simple, no?

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Not yet the b-word

I’ve always been relatively carefree with money. Not only do I pay my bills on time, but I graduated from university with no debt to speak of. I even managed to sneak in a couple of flights to Europe without breaking the bank. My mom always told me to floss and keep a balanced checkbook, but since I can get by without keeping my money on a tight leash, I figured that budgeting is like studying: a good idea that’s probably more effort than it’s worth.

But a few months ago, I started flossing. I don’t mean the half-hearted, weeklong fling I’ve done so many times before. My name is Alex McCarthy, and I’m a Daily Flosser. It’s been something like 4 months now, which crosses the line from new years resolution to bona fide habit.

My old way of life was crumbling down around me, with firm gums opening the floodgate of full-blown fiscal responsibility. My head was spinning when I renegotiated my bank fees (in German, no less). My heart still pounds with excitement whenever I think about my monthly cell phone bill (15 Euros a month for unlimited landline and network calls). But it wasn’t until I started hanging around with the pushers (personal finance blogs) that I started to think about hitting the hard shit: budgeting.

At its core, budgeting is about planning where you want to spend your money, and keeping yourself in line. The trouble is, I know that I pay rent every month, but after that it gets a little hazy. I created a Wesabe account to figure out exactly where my paycheck disappears to every month:

Wesabe - my spending breakdown from November 2008 - February 2009

I started by uploading a list of transactions from Deutsche Bank using XL2QIF, and I’ve recorded my cash transactions for the past few weeks. A few hundred Euro crawled out of my wallet before I started tracking what I was spending, so I’ve flagged the missing funds as MIA.

Here’s where Wesabe gets interesting:


Now, these numbers are pretty rough, since I extrapolated my lunch costs for January and February. But I’m spending around 60 Euro per month on lunch alone, which seems shockingly high. I’m not ready to actually make a budget, but it’s definitely time for the home-made sandwich to make a comeback.

And the earnings (green) vs. spending (blue) graph makes me feel all warm and fuzzy:

Wesabe - Earnings (green) vs. Spending (blue) from 2008 - 2009
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Happy new years

We welcomed 2009 by setting off explosions on the streets with dozens of German neighbours. The sky was lit up in every direction. The sonic booms filled my ears like a field full of live ammunition. Fireworks ricocheted off tree branches, veered off course and exploded over houses, and rocketed over the streets as cars drove slowly and drivers prayed to survive the next block.

The firetruck was kind of a downer, though.


Blogging on 3G

I’ve replaced my gargantuan cell phone with a shiny new toy that gives me fast German internet on the go. I had planned to only use the phone’s internet connection on my laptop, but I’ve found myself surfing on the go more often. As much as I’ve missed email access at home, I haven’t missed the countless hours spent clicking the refresh button. I’m now using my phone to turn dead time into something marginally more productive. The tram ride to work and the walk to the grocery store are now my prime emailing times. I make a few more typos, but I stay connected while keeping my household emailing to a minimum.

I’m also using google reader to fill that dead time. While entertaining and informative, RSS feeds are my biggest online time sink, so a lazy tram ride to work is the perfect time to clear out a few posts.

I’m going to give up the 3G internet access once I have good old-fashioned wireless internet again, but the convenience will be missed.

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The past month and a half have been a whirlwind of progress. My first paycheck made its way into my new bank account. I have a cell phone contract with an internet plan. I managed to get my cell phone to share its sweet, sweet intersphere with my laptop, so I can finally facebook from the comfort of my own home.

I should actually have my own home soon, maybe even by Christmas. I’m trying to get my hands on a German driver’s license, and if my German lessons keep going well, I might even be able to read a German driver’s license soon.

But the hardest adjustment has been learning to live without the internet at home. For the past month, I couldn’t translate cooking instructions, find directions, send email, phone friends and family, research programming questions, or watch Comedy Central. It hasn’t been all bad, though. After a week of painful withdrawal, I found new ways to pass the time. I’ve rediscovered how much fun it is to watch TV with the roommates. I’ve read a small book’s worth of Paul Graham‘s essays (downloaded ahead of time, of course). If you’re thinking about starting a startup, or just looking for a good read, then you should already be clicking.

I’ve also done an obscene amount of programming. I started writing a simple 2D game creator in 2007 to build my portfolio and try new aspects of game development. I’ve worked on it in spurts over the past year or so, but I’ve probably accomplished more in my first internetless month here than I did in the last two semesters of my degree. I still have a lot of work to do, but my little hobby has started to turn into something I’m rather proud of.

I might even follow in my mentor‘s footsteps and release the damn thing.


Austria 11 – Back home

October 1, 2008 

A flight back to Germany, a series of trains, and a handful of levels in FFIV.  An uneventful day, which was just what the doctor ordered after a week and a half in Austria.

I definitely didn’t expect the surprise birthday party. I think that I could grow to like it here.


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Austria 10 – Last Day

September 31, 2008

After a day of hiking on a mountain, a day spent walking around town is child’s play in comparison. For the record, child’s play is becoming increasingly difficult for us old timers. We attempted another geocache, designed by young scouts for young children. We wandered in circles in the woods for 30 minutes before deciding that the cache was lost and that our search was futile. Several days later the intrepid young scouts confirmed that the cache was where it should be, and we were in fact just very old and dumb. Those scouts should learn to respect their elders, and keep that racket off my lawn.

Our spirits crushed and energy drained, we headed out for some tranquil, relaxing rock climbing. I should really look into picking up the sport. It’s certainly more legitimate than Parkour, although the shoes hurt a lot more. The pictures are less awesome, to boot.

Two days of rigorous exercise had put us in the perfect state of mind to enjoy the culmnation of our trip: all-you-can-eat sushi. With surprisingly little sushi.

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