Wednesday, December 26, 2007

HOWTO: GTD with Google Docs & PocketMod

Take control of your unwieldy to do-list by combining Google Docs and PocketMod. With the system described here you will always be ready to take notes, and never run the risk of losing an idea!

Update (July 30, 2009): Now using a Google Docs template.

I use a subset of GTD ("Getting Things Done") by having a digital copy of my next actions, sorted by context (@Home, @Office, @Shopping, @Computer, etc.). This lets me easily look up what I need to do, depending on where I am.

However, a digital copy is not very useful by itself, since it is not accessible when I am offline. Putting it in my PDA is not ideal either, since the overhead of adding a new note is too big (turning on the device, opening the right application, having it recognize my handwriting). That's why I print out my to-do list on paper once a week and carry it in my pocket. It's the ideal way of accessing and editing tasks. Before I print out a new list I spend a minute or two copying the edits from my old printed list to the digital copy.

So the question is, what format is preferred for the digital copy and how do I best print it? This question has lead to an unending debate among GTDers, and David Allen, the guru himself, doesn't offer any concrete suggestions. For me, it is important to be able to access the digital copy from multiple computers. At the same time, the printout needs to be small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket.

I have previously blogged about the advantages of managing your to do list with the online GTD-application Toodledo. I especially like the way it lets you print your tasks as a folded credit-card sized 8-page booklet, easy to carry with you at all times. Unfortunately, to be able to print a booklet with one page per context, a Toodledo Pro package subscription is required. It's only $14.95/year so it might be a good deal for some, but I was looking for alternatives.

Actually, you can achieve the needed functionality for free by using a combination of Google Docs and the PocketMod converter. Together with a Pilot G-2 XS pen, which always writes and fits great into even the smallest pocket, you are always ready to take notes, and never risk losing an idea! Below, I describe the system I use.

Requirements:

  1. A free Google Docs account.
  2. PDF to PocketMod converter. This Windows-only application will be used to shrink the 8-page PDF into a single page.
  3. A PDF reader (Adobe Reader or Foxit Reader) for printing the final result.

Steps:

  1. Create a new Google Docs document from the template below by clicking "Use this template".
  2. Customize the document so that it will be useful to you. Enter your contact information and the contexts you need, and make a brain dump of your current tasks.
  3. From the Google Docs file menu, choose "Export as PDF..." and save the document as a PDF file on your computer.
  4. Open "PDF to PocketMod converter". Click the "Open PDF" button and select the file you saved from Google Docs in the step above. Next, click the "Save as PocketMod" button, name the PDF file for the booklet and wait for the process to finish.
  5. Print the file generated in the last step using your PDF reader.
  6. Cut the printed sheet and fold it into an 8-page booklet according to these instructions.

Next week, reopen the document, copy your edits from your booklet, and continue from step #3.

Enjoy!

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bankroll-Breaking Even Money Bets

Some ten years ago I ran Gambol, a short-lived gambling fund that invested money in statistical sports betting. I even managed to convince gullible friends to invest. Eventually, the fund lost all its money to the online bookmakers, and I tried to figure out what went wrong. I ran lots of simulations to better understand what had happened, and in one of them I encountered something remarkable. Recently, I was indirectly reminded about the paradox I had discovered, which I still have a hard time to understand intuitively. Here's the story of our gambling hero Andrew, who despite being an intelligent gambler, here takes a tumble and loses his entire bankroll.

When Bob offers Andrew to flip coins for even money, Andrew wrongly assumes that this couldn't possibly be a losing proposition. The catch is that Andrew needs to bet x% of his bankroll on each coin flip. He is free to choose the value of x himself, provided that x stays the same throughout the game.

Theoretically, the expected value of each betting round is +-0 for Andrew. His chances of winning each coin flip is 50%. When he loses a flip, his bankroll decreases by x% and if he wins he gains the same amount.

Andrew decides to bet 10% of his bankroll, which is $100. Let's take a look at possible scenarios for the outcome of the first rounds. After the first betting round Andrew's new bankroll will be either $90 or $110. If he ends up losing the first bet, his bet for the second round will be $9 (10% of his new bankroll of $90), and if he wins the first bet, his second bet will be $11. After round two he will end up in one out of the following four scenarios:

  • 1st round lost + 2nd round lost: $81
  • 1st round lost + 2nd round won: $99
  • 1st round won + 2nd round lost: $99
  • 1st round won + 2nd round won: $121

It is important to note that in 3 out of 4 cases Andrew is a loser after round #2. Theoretically, each bet is even money, and the average bankroll in the four scenarios remains $100 - but still Andrew is likely to be a loser in the long run. The more betting rounds there are, the more likely Andrew is to eventually lose his entire bankroll. There is also a chance that he will win a lot of money, but that chance is getting slimmer and slimmer for each betting rounds he participates in. After the third round Andrew happens to be back at a 50% chance of being a winner, but this is just a temporary fluctuation as he is again a likely loser after the fourth round.

Below is a graph showing how Andrew's bankroll develops in 50 simulations of 2,500 betting rounds, betting 10% of an initial $100 bankroll. After 2,500 bets the best case out of the 50 simulations has Andrew's bankroll at less than $60.

All 5 scenarios over 2,500 bets

The blue line in graph below shows how many of the 50 initial scenarios are in the black (with a bankroll not smaller than the initial $100). The red lines displays the average bankroll over the 50 scenarios. The average bankroll should have stayed around the initial bankroll, since the expected value of the bet is +-0, but due to the limited number of simulations (50 in this case), we eventually run out of winning scenarios. No matter how many scenarios I choose to run, I can always make the average bankroll go down towards 0 by running enough betting rounds.

Average bankroll and scenarios in the black

This bet, which theoretically is even money, makes you lose your money in real life - a fascinating paradox! Note that the final outcome where the bankroll dwindles towards 0 does not change, no matter which value is chosen for x (the ratio of your bankroll wagered on each round).

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Real Newspaper Thumbnails

FeedJournal now creates an authentic thumbnail of the generated newspaper's Page One. An example can be seen in the left column of this blog.

Existing widget users don't need to worry, the functionality has been automatically rolled out and is available to you now. Every time you generate an updated newspaper of your blog, an accompanying thumbnail is generated as well. If you use the widget on your blog, it will automatically find the location of the thumbnail. For those of you who like to write your own HTML code, the image is in the same path as the generated PDF file - just replace the ".pdf" extension with ".png".

This service is available to all FeedJournal users. Users of the free basic service get a thumbnail sized 140x200 pixels, while silver and gold members will have the ability to customize the size (soon to be available). If anyone needs this customization urgently, just give me a shout and I'll get it done sooner.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Linux Compatibility and Smaller PDFs

Marco let me know that he wasn't able to open files generated with FeedJournal on his Linux PDF readers, including Linux-based e-book readers iLiad and Cybook. It turns out that PDF readers running on Windows are more tolerant when parsing the format.

By debugging the problem I found that null characters are appended to the end of the PDF file, making it unnecessarily large and causes problems on Linux. It was an easy fix and everything should now work fine on all operating systems and readers. If you despite this still have problem to open FeedJournal PDF files on a specific piece of software, please let me know. If anyone has an opportunity to try it on the Amazon Kindle reader I would be happy to know the results!

Expect PDF file sizes to shrink by up to a couple of hundred kilobytes with the new code deployed on the web site!