Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Lesser of Two Evils

I am confronted with a mountain of paper every time I sit down at my desk. I look just over it, most of the time, and stare instead at the left monitor, which of the pair has always been primary. The paper isn't scary, or difficult, and going through it would probably be of enormous personal benefit. It's at least half comprised of unopened credit card applications, scattered with actual correspondence, and densely packed with various credit card receipts.

It is these receipts that I am most trying to avoid. The easiest way to avoid them would be, of course, to stop getting receipts with most of my purchases like a normal person; and just balance online from time-to-time. But I can't do that, because I am my father's son, and I require a paper confirmation of purchases to balance against the creditor's computer or the merchant, because either of them could make a mistake.

Except I don't actually do the balancing anymore. I used to do it - enter paper receipts into a spreadsheet, and account for each line by line against the various cards' balance page - about once a week, for a period of several years. It was tedious. It was laborious. And it was truly productive. In absolute dollar value for time, it's probably the most productive thing I could do, because it forced me to account for every purchase - what it was, and what it cost - and eventually, I learned how to spend less than I made. But it didn't feel productive. It felt like work, and I avoid that whenever possible, so I stopped.

Anyhow, I choose the next easiest way to avoid something, and that's to tune it out. The mind really has no problem forgetting the details of our immediate surroundings. One of the major functions of the brain in crafting our perceptions into consciousness is to ignore all of what is deemed inconsequential, like most of the visual input we actually receive. In fact, it's incredibly common to fail to notice when our surroundings change, because we spend most of our time shucking our short term memory for a useful bit that could go onto long term memory.

Though, to digress for a moment, we actually have quite a poor understanding of what the brain deems useful for storage, or why. Consider for a moment, the case of the poor lady who one night while drifting to sleep suddenly, and without warning, began to hear full song arrangements - as if from a radio in the back of her head - endlessly looping. Sometimes the same snippet for weeks. She knew some of the tunes, but for many others she was both unable to recall having heard them ever before, and powerless to stop them playing.

So I can ignore this paper pile, is what I'm saying. And also, the brain is messed up. Really, really messed up sometimes. But at this moment, the pile is spilling over the bottom of the screen, making it tough to see my start bar. Which means I am constantly being tricked into looking at the pile when I mean to click on the PowerShell icon. And no, I'm not ashamed to run Microsoft's flagship OS, though I increasingly ask myself why exactly I'm doing it when Linux really does do almost every individual piece a little bit - and sometimes a lot - better (except stitch it all together into one convincing experience, I guess).

I think the receipt problem is the most important outstanding personal problem I have yet to solve. Or really even acknowledge. By writing this post, I have successfully not opened any of the mail, or signed up for to see if it could help me. At the moment, the solution I've arrived at is to write a simple web front-end that lets me enter receipts into a database of my design. Honestly, a dedicated coder with the slightest understanding of web forms could prototype this thing in an afternoon. Yet I have also successfully not written this seemingly trivial app in Python, or Node.js, or Phoenix, or vue.js. Which are all unquestionably awesome ways to do such things.

But now I'm at the bottom of the page, and I have to keep leaning to the right to see around the pile when I'm at the beginning of the line. :-(

Be seeing you!