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New adventure game

You may remember that I bought a ladder a few years ago. Well, I sold it yesterday, which means that it's time to tell you about this new adventure game I've been playing:

This is the second version of the game, which Honda made in 2004. The previous version had a power-up bar that went up to 9000, but the weapon was weaker and you couldn't level up as fast.

Soon after I got it I noticed that there's a hidden mini-game built in. If your character is Level 1 or Level 2 and you have your power-up bar most of the way full, there's a quick-time event where game turns sideways very suddenly, and you have to turn the wheel quickly or else you die. It was pretty exciting the first time I found that out!

The shield is very good but almost worn out. I've already bought a new one that's made of ceramic and metallic compounds. Just need to equip it.

I've already equipped some alternative weapons for it from Dunlop, which don't attack any stronger but they grant +10 to saves versus agility. Very useful for the hidden mini-game, which I end up playing all the time on the way to work. The Dunlops have Cold Weakness, though, so I'll be staying out of those high mountain dungeons until winter is over.

Anyway, it's very fun, so if you'd like to play my new adventure game, just let me know! (I won't say yes, but your desires will be noted.)

A modest proposal

Unless you live with your parents, you probably have a lot of papers that you file. Or should file. Utility bills, credit card bills, loan documents, rental agreements, mortgage payments, property tax bills. You might even have really important documents like the title to your car or your hospital records.

If you feel that you do a good job of organizing these papers, my bet is that you have a lot of free time. (Or you are reading this from inside of your in-patient treatment facility for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Enjoy your Jello.)

You probably suspect that I am deeply impatient when it comes to organizing these papers. You may also realize that, being a technologist, I hate the very idea of physical objects that anyone anywhere can force you to keep track of forever, simply by mailing them to you with the phrase "TAX DOCUMENT" printed on the envelope. And as such, you'd think I would have a gadget like a Paper-Port scanner to digitize all of this and just burn the paper. But what I actually do with these papers is just this:

I put them in a big pile.

If you are my parents, you are surely cradling your face in your hands in shame, but hear me out. First of all, consider this: I am a professional software engineer, with a degree in computer science from a debateably prestigious university. I get paid a lot of money to design systems that organize information, which is precisely the same as the problem of filing documents. The objects are physical, but the principles are the same. Really. So could it be that my filing system is not lazy, but actually state-of-the-art? Actually it's both.

Before I make my case for The Pile, let's consider what you're probably doing. Got a hanging file box? Or if you're over 30, got about 20 hanging file boxes? What are the labels on the files? Do you have one labelled "car"? Do you have one labelled "taxes"? "Utilities" maybe? Or "Electric bills" specifically? At the time you made up the labels, you probably had very little regret about the classification scheme you chose. It probably even made you feel good to "get organized."

Unfortunately there are two other times when you use your classification scheme besides when you created it--- when you need to add things, and when you need to find things. Let's see how the hanging file works for these cases.

To be nice, we'll start with finding things. Suppose you need to find your car's tax bill. That's going to either be in "car" or "taxes", each of which is probably about 100 pages. You flip through both, and you find it. If you're iron-clad about sorting by date, and you know when it was from, you can find it even faster. (And if you archive whole boxes of documents by year, clever you--- you'd be going back to the box where you archived. I'll come back to that idea.) So that wasn't so bad.

Now, what about adding things to the filing system? How often do you do that? I easily receive hundreds of pages per month, so that's thousands of pages per year that I would need to file with this system. I don't know if you file each paper right when you get it, but I sure as hell never did when I used a hanging file. I had a monthly pile, and I sorted them in a guilt-fueled frenzy on rainy Sunday afternoons that got further and further apart as I got busy. Unfiled papers made me miserable, and I fell badly behind.

So I made a big pile instead. Was I giving up? Or was I optimizing?

Here's the key realization: You do not need to quickly find your car's tax bill. Seriously! A hanging file system requires you to classify and organize every piece of paper--- that's thousands of moderately expensive sorting operations every year, and I bet you hate it as much as I did, or fell behind, or both. And for what? How many of those pieces of paper did you ever need to find again? Very few--- for me way less than 1%.

You maybe needed to find a couple things to file your taxes, and maybe you needed to find the title to your car so you can sell it. (That's what I just did just now. Do you sell your car a lot?) But everything else? You organized it for nothing.

A good computer scientist optimizes the system for the most critical (typically the most frequent) operation. A hanging file is optimized to find things, but frankly, you rarely do that. (And by the way, a physical hanging file is terrible at this: it only works if the labeling scheme matches your search task, and you didn't make any mistakes, and you haven't fallen behind. Computers deal with this by being infallible, fast, and using indexes to allow multiple labeling schemes at the same time. You probably don't have any of those things.)

To me, the most critical operation for the system is adding papers--- I do it all the time, every day, and I hate it. So I want that operation to be as fast--- as optimized as possible. What's the fastest way I can think of to add a piece of paper? Simple: I put it on top. That's it. When mail comes, I put it on top, and then I am finished with the mail. Doesn't that sound good?

I can already feel your projected anxiety on having an ever-growing pile of papers with no organization scheme. "What about when you need to find something! It's a needle in a haystack!" Well, it's not a haystack, for an important reason--- the stack stays in order by date, because everything goes on top when it arrives. So when I need to find something, all I need to know is roughly when it arrived in my house, and I can find it in about 5 minutes.

To help make this system scale, every January 1st I write the year in sharpie on a large white piece of paper, and I put it onto the pile that day. When the pile gets too big, I put the old year into a box, push it into the closet, and never look at it again. Even if I have to go back to a previous year, it's all still there in its box, in date order. Even if I have no idea when in the year a paper arrived, I can go through a whole year in about 15 minutes. I just spread it out on the floor in the living room, go through it, and then stack it back up in the same order it came out. Even if I don't know anything about when it arrived, I can go through four years in about an hour. I just go backward in time until I find it.

These access times sound bad compared to a hanging file, right? 15 minutes to find one thing? An hour or two if I don't know when it arrived? That's true, but how often does that happen? To me, it happens about twice a year. Compared to the time I used to spend filing, The Big Pile is much faster, in the sense that it is less total time spent on filing tasks in my life. Win.

This system has not failed me yet, and I've been using it now for over half a decade. Maybe your life includes a lot of looking up of past documents, so this won't work for you. But next time you fall behind on organizing your giant pile of papers that's making you depressed, don't go pay your guilt-fueled tithe for yet more predatory organizational products from the Container Store. Instead, consider switching to a superior data structure, designed for you by an expert in information theory.

You're welcome. :)

Footnote #1: The pile is not as pictured, it's actually in a box. So when I want to archive the year, I just put the lid on the box and replace it with a new box. It takes literally two seconds.

Footnote #2: If you seriously want to adopt this system, but feel daunted about getting started, don't bother--- the whole point is that its okay not to be able to find things quickly. Don't start by sorting all your old documents! Just put them in a box. If it's really important to have them sorted, you can sort them later, when you need to find something. (But I bet you won't. Getting the hang of it yet?)

Footnote #3: If you were actually swayed by my proposal, then I feel good that I was helpful to your life--- let me know how it works out for you! But the real point of this article was to make me sound crazy, for your amusement. How did I do?

The views expressed on this site are mine personally, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.