Friday, July 18, 2014

63 Days of Happiness

For my own inscrutable reasons - which you can scrutinise here- I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. One a day for 100 days, in the style of the 100HappyDays project.

Day 57

Exciting times! First lesson with my new private student, and a tiny but important step towards financial freedom. I got up early, filled a thermos with hot, sweet tea and hopped on a train.

The thermos is my favourite recent acquisition, for three reasons. First, it was free (swag for helping a friend move). Second, it keeps drinks hot for an infinite amount of time (because of science). Most importantly, it's from Starbucks.

Starbucks may be tax scallywags but they do have convenient locations and comfy chairs. With the thermos I can sit there, pretending to be consuming their beveripoffs, for hours.

This guy's taken it to the next level

Anyway, I got to Starbucks a couple of minutes before the lesson was due to start, couldn't see my student, and made myself comfortable. Knowing that I'd soon be earning money while stealing warmth and shelter made me feel great. Ten minutes later he still wasn't there.

I checked my diary and realised I was a week early.

That put a dent in my mood, but at least one person I know is happy to hear tales of my stupidity. "Jen," I texted, "I did a spaz." "Yay! Details details details!" Typical me: always spreading happiness.

Day 58

My friend Kevlar Vezt (not a pseudonym) is always trying to drag me to dangerous places to do dangerous things. "Andrew," he'll say, "let's go and strap sticks to our feet and slide off a mountain!" Or "I'm going to run about four times farther than humans are designed to run. By the end, my body will have started digesting my gums in a desperate bid to stay alive. Would you like to join me? They give you a hotdog at the end."

Or most recently: "Have you ever swum in Lake Zurich? It's safe - no-one has seen a giant squid there for ages!"

Weirdly, I didn't say no. (Possibly because the happiness experiment has altered my brain chemistry in a detrimental way?) And after checking the weather forecast, I thought, 'why the devil not?!'

So there I was, my foot hovering about a foot above the lake. "It's cold!" I whinged. "The water's 21 degrees," said Kevlar, "way higher than what I normally swim in." 21 did sound like a lot. That's like Tenerife in September, right? I touched my toe against the surface and it froze into an ice block and fell off. "My toe! I need that for counting."

"Look," said Kevlar. "See that platform? That's about 30 metres away. Swim to there, and if you're still cold, I'll buy you a nice hot tea."

So I nearly got hypothermia, but scored a free drink. On balance, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Day 59

My school is one of the few institutions in the world which understands and respects the concept of the Birthday Month.

All the June-born teachers are invited to lunch at the end of the month. (It's the same in other months, but for people who are not me, so I don't consider it noteworthy.)

It was my first restaurant meal since I started saving for retirement. My boss chose to bring us to Bar Basso, which is really nice and does superb pizzas. All washed down with lashings of prosecco.

"Ahhh," I said after a post-meal burp. "That was very heaven. And to think there are people in third world countries who don't even have a birthday."

Day 60

Today I started an online course from a top Russian university. The course is called Neuroeconomics, which is a word you've never even heard before. That's just the kind of thing I do. No big deal. Whatever.

What? You're in awe of me and my insatiable desire to learn new things? Oh, you're too kind. But why don't you go and learn something new, too? Don't let me hoard all the insufferable smugness. I'll put a link at the bottom.

Meanwhile, here's a neuroeconomics joke, which I understand because I study things like neuroeconomics.

Day 61

Recently it feels like I got a lot of stuff for free, and when I counted up the results of my 'Best at Savings' game I had saved about 200 francs compared to what I normally spend. In about ten days. With zero drop in quality of life. Quite eye-opening!

July is one of my worst months in terms of income. At best I break even. But what if I didn't spend anything at all? I decided to make it into a project and put it on the blog. Projects are fun!

I'm calling it 'My Miserly Month' unless I think of a better name by then.

Day 62

Jen was extremely supportive when I told her I planned to slash my spending in July. She showed her supportiveness by becoming furious and walking around in a stress bubble for an hour. (No, I don't understand it, either. I guess she thought I wanted to spend a month in the woods foraging for mushrooms while growing flax in a bum bag.)

The effort of raging at me seemed to tire her, and she collapsed, spent, on the sofa. To show there were no hard feelings, I began piling things on her. I got this far before I lost my nerve:

Day 63

Remember I joined the library? Today I went to get some books. They have so, so many books! And you're free to choose whichever ones you want. (Although as you know from neuroeconomics, you have to choose the one your brain chose for you 8 seconds ago. LOL.)

"Sir would like to borrow Harry Potter... again?"

As I was looking around - get this - I found a whole aisle full of audiobooks. New ones, too!

I borrowed one book that seems fun, and one audiobook, which I instantly ripped into mp3 format for me to listen to anytime I want! Ever!

By the end of the year I'll have mp3s of about 150 audiobooks. AhahahahahHAHAhahaha!

Progress after 63 days:

Mood: Good. Compliments: "I dreamt you died so I went to the South Pole to live with the penguins." "I don't hate you." "That was a very nice thing to do, Andrew. Jen is lucky to have you."
Optimism: High.

Learn something for free.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Andrew's Wedding Gift Calculator

Wedding swag

Webster's dictionary defines a wedding as 'an occasion where two people ask their friends and family for kitchen utensils and cash.' If one is invited to such a gathering, how much should one give?

It's actually easy. All you have to do is appraise the past, present, and future value of your friendship. I'll show you how by doing a case study on Cecile and Nick1.

(Amounts have been calculated in New Zealand Dollars because of reasons.)


At first being friends with Cecile was entirely beneficial. She was enthusiastic about my blog and encouraged me to write more (+NZ$50), helped me buy some stylish clothes (+50), and made me laugh with her antics (+100). Things got even better when I met her fiance. Not only was Nick the only person I could talk to about movies with giant robots (+100) but also he was the perfect badminton opponent (slightly worse than me), contributing to my health, fitness, and self-confidence (+200).

Cecile then gave me her old, broken iPhone. It couldn't do much but it worked well enough for me to appreciate the benefits of having a portable games machine/atlas/conversation-ruiner. Because of Cecile I've spent 840 dollars on phones and contracts. She did save me about 300 dollars by getting me banned from a cool but expensive cafe I used to frequent.

At that point they were in the red by 40 dollars, which might have been a factor in them deciding to leave Zurich and go to New Zealand. Just as I'd got used to having them around and started to depend on them as a constant, uplifting source of mental well-being, they skipped town. Cecile gave me a teapot and whatever tea she had lying around her flat, plus some wine glasses. So let's say that's worth 40 dollars and call it even.


Every time I write a blog post or a chapter of my book I email it to Nick and promptly receive lucid, detailed feedback . After making some changes I send the new draft to Cecile, and gain the benefit of her weeks of experience as a journalist. The end result is text so vivacious it hosts garden parties, and so stimulating truck drivers read it to keep awake.

Any writer will tell you this is incredibly valuable, so I'm awarding them a bonus of 25% of all my writing income from the last 2 years (+0).


Finally, we should consider the wedding itself. It will be held in Nice, meaning I have to take a flight and book a hotel (-255). That will be offset by all the free food and drink at the reception, right?

Wrong. While I'm sure there'll be flowing wine and prosecco (+50), I don't expect to eat much. Cecile has decided to only offer fish, with no meat or vegetarian options, because SHE likes fish and people who don't like fish (e.g. me) can fly across the world to her wedding and then eat breadsticks in a room that reeks of fish. 

Medium rare, please

So after we deduct 10 dollars for the burger and fries I'll have to sneak out and scoff, we can calculate the final total.

Cecile and Nick, your wedding gift will be an invoice for 215 dollars2

1 If you are going to use my methods, note that at Chinese weddings the gift amount is written down in a book, and at Turkish weddings the amount you give is announced to everybody via microphone. You might want to keep that in mind if you care what other people think about you.

140 Euro, 190 USD, 110 pounds


Thursday, July 03, 2014

56 Days of Happiness

For my own inscrutable reasons - which you can scrutinise here - I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. One a day for 100 days, in the style of the 100HappyDays project.

Day 50

There's likely to be a financial theme this week because I've become obsessed with the concept of 'extreme early retirement'. (I can't remember how I stumbled upon it because although I'm pretending to be writing this entry today, it's actually a week later. Oh, and when I said there's 'likely' to be a financial theme, I know there definitely is, because, like I said, the week is over.)

What is extreme early retirement? You slash your spending, raise your income if you can, and invest heavily. Thanks to the magic of compound interest, in 10 or 15 years you should have enough to 'retire' on.

Today I was happy to score a point on the 'increase your income' side of the equation. I met a prospective new private student and after an hour of my charm and modesty he was very motivated to learn English and give me his money. If I can meet ten more guys like him I'll be as out of work as Edward Snowden.

Day 51

Today was haircut day. I know that a lot of the Extreme Retirement community save money by cutting their own hair. As part of my early retirement plan, all expenditure must be questioned.

As I explained to my hairdresser, who has chosen the pseudonym 'Crazy Ice-Water-Swim Girl', it takes me quite a long time to get to her flat and she's slightly more expensive than the Turkish guys who cut hair in my local train station.

"But I give you a free magazine and a cup of tea," she said. "And a bickie."

True! She's also extremely tiny, so paying for the haircut feels quite like a charity donation.

Cutting my own hair isn't really an option - here's what happened last time I tried:

Day 52

Today I learned that my blog is huge in Slovenia. I got this message from a fan: "Your happiness project is the only thing keeping the country together after the JanÅ¡a Scandal. The willowy, ethereal women of Slovenia thank you."

Here's a picture of a Slovenian woman clothed in money. What are the odds of this happening to me in my lifetime?

I've calculated those odds - they're 3 to 1.

Day 53

If she doesn't have to work early, Jen pops round to the local bakery and picks up a couple of sandwiches. She eats hers with a weird hippy coffee made of hemp or something, while I devour mine in bed and wonder where all the crumbs came from.

Today Jen went to the bakery as normal, but came back with a couple of rolls which she made into sandwiches. "It was only 2 francs," she said.
"What do the ready-made ones cost?"
"10 or 11."

Instead of falling back asleep, I did some maths. Making our own sandwiches four times a week would save two thousand francs a year. 2,000! 

Proud of her frugality, I invented a competition called 'Best at Savings'. The rules aren't clear and the prize uncertain, but I went ahead and stuck it on the fridge.

(Photo shows the state of play a few days into the future, about Day 58, or as you know it, 'the past').

Day 54

While my head was fizzing with savings schemes and scams, Jen was out buying the most expensive riding helmet in the world. Why so expensive? Because she has a head so tiny the helmets have to be made by a specialist. (The sad part is, I'm not even joking.)

Jen's new riding helmet - safety first, everyone.  Safety first.

She insists it shouldn't count against her in the game because it's necessary for her job. A dubious claim, but I've come to realise that lots of the fun of 'Best at Savings' comes from bickering about which items can be included and which can't.

Example: Today a former student gave me a container of high-grade saffron worth 20 francs. She bought it for me a year ago but we hadn't been able to arrange a time to meet and then we'd both forgotten it. I bumped into her near her flat, took the saffron home and awarded myself 20 francs. Jen argued that a) I wouldn't have bought it if it wasn't free and b) I don't know what saffron is, so it shouldn't count in the game. A totally fallacious argument, I'm sure you'll agree.

But she lost the fight about my new financial innovation. Given that I recently bought 2 books for 35 francs, I thought that was an area of spending I could cut back on. I had a brainwave and joined the local library. Six rows of English books! Every time I take one out I'm going to credit myself 17 francs. Here's the reeeeaaaalllly clever bit - I'll get books for Jen to read too!


Day 55

More reading-based savings!

Imagine the following scenario. You are male and have money to buy things. Someone describes the following graphic novel to you. How much would you pay to read it?

"What if baby Superman had crashed on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and grew up to become Stalin's right-hand man? And what if insane genius Lex Luthor was employed by the US government to develop their own countermeasure against the Man of Steel, turning the Cold War hot?!"

Communist Superman? How much would you pay? A billion dollars? Me too!

Fortunately such a comic exists - it's called Superman: Red Son, and my friend Kevin lent it to me. For zero roubles!

(In case you're wondering, Jen didn't allow me to claim a billion dollars - or anything - in the Best at Savings game.)

Day 56

Jen's mother - who I always said is a very angel - bought us a top-of-the-line blender, just like the one I mentioned on Day 40


The last section of an almost endless wall of text on a blog she doesn't read seems the most appropriate place to say thank you.


Progress after 56 days:

Mood: Really enjoying trying to find creative ways to save money.
Compliments: "You should get out more." "You whinged a lot less than I expected." "You made it wet."
Optimism: High.

Life-changing link:
A lot of happy thoughts this week were inspired by the work of 'Mister Money Mustache' - a functionally retired dude (younger than me) who writes bombastic, motivational stuff about not wasting money. His concept is that happiness and saving enough to retire early are totally compatible. I started at the first post, and so should you. Click it.


Friday, June 27, 2014

49 Days of Happiness

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also parts two, three, four, five, and six.

Day 43

It was a day so hot the sun's hat melted. I stayed home and shed moist dead skin cells onto all the surfaces. To cheer myself up I played the next level of Monument Valley (a smartphone game inspired by the art of MC Escher).

The level is called The Box, and the whole sprawling expanse is hidden away inside a tiny little cube. Depending on how you open it, you'll find different things inside. Making a change inside one 'inside' will change something inside a different 'inside'. The insides and outsides expand and contract in a surprising, elegant, and satisfying way.

One of the insides of The Box

Playing Monument Valley is a dreamy experience. Not the kind of dream where I'm feeding my own face to a slobbering dog - I mean the kind of dream where I'm riding a flying mattress over Derbyshire. 

Day 44

Today I helped a child, and felt good about it. He was in the teacher's room watching a video on a Macbook and listening through headphones bigger than his head. He was breaking numerous rules by being there but I decided to be nice. (Wise - turned out he was the 'enfant' of a French colleague.)

"Dude," I said.
"Quoi?" he said, startled.
"Are you one of the new teachers?"
"Je nai fromage pas..."
I gave up trying to entertain him with my British wit. It takes the French years to grasp the fundamentals and to be fair, he hadn't even mastered watching computerised media. "Why don't you watch it in fullscreen?" I leant over and pressed two keys. The video expanded to fill the screen. It must have seemed like witchcraft to the lad. He looked up at me, awestruck, full of a gratitude he could only express with fearful disbelief.

Day 45

Did you ever have an emotion that could only be a race memory from distant ancestors? Like maybe a cloud moved funny and you thought the moon was falling? Or you saw a neanderthal-type guy and all the hairs on your back stood on end because you thought you'd have to fight him?


Walking down a busy street, cocooned with music thanks to my ace new bluetooth earphones, I heard a loud, unfamiliar bellow and had a moment of pure primal panic.

This was my thought: 
"There's a fucking hippo charging at me!"

I felt like this: 

I very quickly remembered that I live in Switzerland and there aren't any hippos on the loose. I also remembered that I was fully dressed. Still, I turned to check if there was an 1,800 kg James-Earl-Jones-faced-beast attacking me, and there wasn't. The cause of the bellow was mundane - a car had made a funny noise.

The thing I don't understand yet is why being scared of a hypothetical hippo made me happy. (But it did.)

Day 46

Today the World Cup kicked off, and I went 'Yay! A month of top notch football and drama and close-ups of sexy crowd women!'

It kicked off with the hosts Brazil against Croatia. I spent an hour drooling over the sublime performance of Luka Modric, then the referee handed the game to Brazil, and killed my buzz.

I like that the organisers aren't even pretending to run a clean sport these days; the refs wear the same kit as the team FIFA want to win.

Big in Japan tonight - gambling on pro sports.

Day 47

As you know, this blog's target demographic is the willowy Eastern European female, so I don't want there to be too many football-based posts.

But holy crap, Robin van Persie just startled me so hard I let out a mighty roar. (It woke Jen up from one of her little snoozes and she said 'Did you hear a badger?')

Holland are playing Spain. That's Spain, winners of the last three major tournaments. And this random Dutch dude hit the ball really far and RVP ran to where the ball was going. But it was, like, hard to kick the ball because it was up in the air for ages, so he sort bounced off the turf, trampolining the ball in a perfect parabola over the goalie's hapless head.

That's what cricket people call a 'champagne moment'.

There's a rather beautiful series of photos and gifs on a link at the bottom of the page. Watch it, sigh, bookmark it, and watch it again on your death bed.

Note - I like the World Cup again.

Day 48

"When is the World Cup final?" asked Jen, while I was watching my 7th game in about 50 hours.
"Um... 12th July I think."
"Just wondering how long it'll be before we can start watching the next season of The Wire."

That's right, folks! Jen has finally understood why people rave annoyingly and endlessly about The Wire. Oh lordy - if she thinks Avon Barksdale is scary, wait till she meets the new power in Baltimore's waters!


Yeah but that'll have to wait a month.

Day 49

And so, just like England's World Cup has ended (after one match), so too has Monument Valley. 

I knew (from reviews) that it was short, which was why I was rationing it. Oppressively hot? Take your mind off it with Monument Valley! Girlfriend reneging on birthday threesome promise? Monument valley!

Some of you might be wondering why I like this game so much. The puzzles are quite simple. It's very short. For a game that lasts about 90 minutes, 4 francs is way too much. If someone described the concept to me I would probably think it was annoyingly twee. It has little replayability.

So? I was happy every minute I played it.

Literally the only bad thing about Monument Valley is that there is now a Monument Valley-shaped hole in my life.

What will I do next time I'm sick? Next time it's too hot? Next time England forget to do something about Andrea Pirlo?

Perhaps my happiness project is doomed to fail...

(See that ending? That's one of those annoying hooks they put at the end of bad TV shows. I've actually written 6 of the next 7 days already, and they're ace! Happy happy happy!)

Progress after 42 days:

Mood: Enjoying life.
Compliments: "I'd love to see you running from a hippo." "Your blog? Yeah, I had a look at it."
Optimism: Apparently they're going to make a few more levels.


Friday, June 20, 2014

42 Days of Happiness

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also parts twothreefour, and five.

Day 36

Today is the first day of my Birthday Week. It's a concept I first learned about from my German friend Anna. We live in the age of entitlement and just one special day a year is inadequate for our psychological well-being. Thus we stretch birthdays into Birthday Weeks.

(My attempt to launch Birthday Month didn't take.)

It's not really about getting more presents - it's more that I can spoil myself and demand that my friends do whatever I want.

But the first birthday swag has come in, from Anna herself. Some luxury chai tea powder! Score!

I made myself a mugful after work, at about 7pm. Took a swig. Pulled a surprised face. "Pretty damn good!"
Jen looked worried. "But it's got matcha."
"What's that?"
"It's like amphetamine. Drinking that is like mainlining speed. You know the way your fingers twitch when you're watching me struggle to use my laptop? Your whole body will be like that."
"Waah!" I knew I shouldn't have trusted anything with the words 'just add soy' on the front.

Day 37

More swag - a cool bluetooth earphone set from Jen.

Plantronics Backbeat 2

The really nice part was that I'd made an off-the-cuff remark about wireless earphones about four months earlier and then forgot all about it. So that was very thoughtful of her.

But the best part of getting the present was Jen repeatedly telling me about one important feature of this particular model.

"I chose those ones because they are sweatproof." Significant pause. "Sweatproof."

Um. Thanks?


Another happy thing - a friend who I'll call 'The English Bill Gates' had used some of his fortune to pay for my birthday dinner - all organised in secret. 

Day 38

It's the World Cup soon, and as ever it will be a carnival of cheating, skulduggery, and graft.

But even football still has the capacity to bring a smile to one's face. Today I saw that fans of Bari (an Italian team) were defying the heat to line up and buy tickets for the decisive match of their season.

The players took time away from their busy schedules (getting tattoos and posting gibberish on twitter) to bring croissants and drinks to the people who pay their wages.

I thought that was Bari nice of them.

Day 39

In accidental tribute to my birthday week, an entire class of students didn't turn up.

"What joy it was to be alive, but to be paid to do nothing was very heaven."

Day 40

There's a documentary on Youtube called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. It is about a fat dude who drank green smoothies 4 times a day for 60 days instead of eating. He lost tons of weight and was able to come off all his medication.

A less cynical person would call it 'inspirational' - but anyway, I thought it would do me good to have green smoothies a few times a week (to balance the pizzas and tubs of ice-cream). 

Green smoothies are lots of vegetables (and some fruit to improve the taste) smithereened by an expensive blender. Jen's mum went on holiday today, so we could borrow hers (a premium model) and try it for a week.

The results look horrible. Look at that stuff. "Would sir care for a starter of green slime?" Seriously. But when you make it yourself it's not bad. I think it's something to do with being sure what's in it. We made one with apples and lettuce and while it wasn't what I'd choose for my last meal, it was palatable.

So not exactly a high point of happiness, but as I learned last week, it's hard to be happy when you're unwell. I'm quietly confident that with all the fruit and veg I'm ingesting in smoothie form, I will never get sick ever again.

Day 41

One way I treat myself is to take a bath. Sometimes I'll take an entire dinner in there - main course, dessert, cold beers. If happiness had a logo, it'd be a man in a bath with a cold can.

While today's bath was running I gave Jen her instructions: "In about twenty minutes I'll need a fresh beer from the fridge."
"I'm doing my taxes."
"Birthday Week."
"Oh, okay."

When I went back into the bathroom, things were amiss.

Perhaps I had used too much bubble bath, or perhaps it was just an extra-potent batch. I got in and tried to make the best of it, but there were just too many damn bubbles.

"What?" she yelled. "It's only been five minutes."
I heard her mumble "Jesus," then listened as her tiny feet pattered closer. "What?" She looked at the bubbles and said, with a different tone of voice, "What!"
"Jen there's too many bubbles. I need you to help me pop them."
"There's no way I'm-"
"Birthday Week."

Day 42

A heatwave struck, turning the end of my glorious Birthday Week into a sweaty, sleepless dungheap. I spent most of the day cursing the sun - literally poking my head out of the window and yelling at it - joylessly waiting for summer to be over.

Still, the point of this happiness project is to find something good every day, and some of my research suggests that helping other people is predictive of personal happiness. So I tried doing nice things for other people:

  • Ordered a new bathroom for my tenant
  • Lent more money to my Microfinance charity
  • Bought a nice football poster for one of my cousins
  • Bravely agreed to leave the flat to help Jen with one of her projects
  • Rescued some video game characters from monsters

The football poster is a celebration of Manchester United's 13 Premier League titles, featuring 
iconic moments from that time. Whichever cousin 'likes' the link I post on Facebook can have it. Game on! (Except Mark, because he's a City fan and will burn it, or worse.)

Progress after 42 days:

Mood: Being melted from the inside
Compliments: "So how old are you? 33?"
Optimism: It's too hot for that.