The Bright Red Staircase

Wednesday, January 26, 2022
By dreeves

Beeminder graph with a staircase as the bright red line (and a bee climbing it)

This is still pie-in-the-sky philosophical navel-gazing but it makes me very happy. Not just because I love pie-in-the-sky philosophical navel-gazing (we could say Product Vision if we wanted to sound more respectable) but because a couple years ago this sounded preposterously theoretical and fantastical and now it sounds inevitable and kind of obvious. We are making steady progress here.

I think it’s worth articulating this now, well ahead of when we’re ready to implement it, because it’s helpful to have the mental model of the Platonic ideal of Beeminder. (I’m still trying my hardest to avoid business-speak like “product vision” and “roadmap”.) I believe that with the right interface, this can be elegant and simpler and clearer and intuitiver — a boon for both newbees and veterans.

Alright, enough buildup, “bright red staircase” means that the bright red line that Beeminder draws on your graph — the line you must keep all your datapoints on the right side of [1] — should reflect exactly what the deadlines are. If there’s a deadline every day — as in the current Beeminder — then we’d draw the red line not as a smooth slope but with 24-hour-long horizontal segments punctuated by vertical jumps at your daily deadline.

The first advantage of this is that it becomes literally true that crossing the bright red line means derailing. We already talk as if that’s true but in reality, with the non-stair-steppy way we draw the red line, you can in fact be on the wrong side of the bright red line as long as you get your datapoint back on the right side before your deadline hits. Midnight or whatever time you’ve set as the official end your day.

But the real advantage is how elegantly this generalizes…

Weekly Goals (or Monthly etc)

Newbees commonly expect to be able to set up weekly goals. Like if they create a goal to cook 3 meals per week, they feel very put out when Beeminder expects them to have cooked at least 0.43 meals the very next day. They expect to be able to procrastinate for 7 days and cook all 3 meals on the last day of the week. Mostly people are wrong to want that [2] and just last week we made an important change to the goal creation interface to force you to reframe “X per week” as “X/7 per day”. Hopefully that alleviates the confusion and misunderstanding.

But the point is, with the bright red staircase, we could actually support that. Instead of day-long flat spots we’d just have week-long flat spots. In principle you could make StickK-like contracts where you just have to get your novel written by the end of the year, with no intermediate progress enforced at all. We think that’s pretty un-Beeminder-y so we’re more interested in the other direction.

Hourly Goals (or Minutely etc)

I’m excited about having work goals where I have a beemergency every hour during the work day, 9am-5pm, and then flat the rest of the time. I’m also weird enough to like the idea of fully continuous goals: There’s no fixed deadline at all, you just get some amount above the red line and that defines exactly how long till you next collide with the line. If you want to be able to get a full night’s sleep, you better do enough work to buy yourself 8 hours of safety buffer. It’ll be great.

“Weekends-off would just be one more special case of the bright red staircase”

(I know, I know, this sounds awful to many of you, and it may well be awful for many goals. I have an elaborate defense of it for some kinds of goals but we needn’t go down that rabbit hole. The default would surely be daily and you’d opt in to anything else.)

The real point is that the bright red staircase is fully flexible and general, while ironically having fewer moving parts. Weekends-off would just be one more special case of the bright red staircase.

Weekday-ly Goals (or Other Weirdo Cases)

Inbox goals might need to be a stegosaurus rather than a staircase: You want your number of messages to go down during the day (and during the week) but allow your inbox to grow overnight (and during the weekend).

For Do Less goals, the continuous version may well make sense. If you’re beeminding servings of sugar, for example, the whole concept of a daily deadline doesn’t really make sense. There’s just always, at every moment in time, some hard cap on how much sugar you can eat.

And of course nothing prevents staircases within staircases. You could have weekly stair steps with deadlines on Fridays plus daily deadlines at 5pm on workdays plus hourly deadlines throughout the workday. [3]

Again, the beauty of this is greater consistency, simplicity, and generality. What’s currently a collection of settings — deadline time, weekends-off, rate units — all become captured by the piecewise-linear function that is the bright red line.

Flappy Birds, The Past, and The Future

I like to imagine the bright red staircase as a slow-motion game of Flappy Bird. The bird flies along horizontally (or upward at a constant rate in the case of Do Less goals) and if you don’t do anything it will crash into the cliff that is the next stair step. You keep that from happening by entering data, which is like flapping your bird upward to clear each stair step. In the continuous case, without stair steps, the dynamics are the same. By default you’ll collide with the bright red line. Adding data prevents that.

A year and a half ago we navigated the delicate transition to what we called at the time the Yellow Brick Half-Plane. That now feels obvious and natural and has made it so much easier to reason about how the the bright red staircase should work. So when is the bright red staircase going to happen? We currently predict after 2022. The good news is we’re getting there inexorably.


 

Footnotes

[1] Formerly known as the Yellow Brick Road.

[2] It’s actually perfect possible to get pretty close to what newbees expect from a weekly goal by just starting the goal with a week of flat spot.

[3] As Neil Hughes put it: fractal beeminding, right down to units of the Planck time!


 

Special thanks to Philip Hellyer for the discussion that first put the “continuous beeminding” idea in my head and to user mwalla for proposing the staircase metaphor.

Image credit: Faire Soule-Reeves

Tags: , , , , , ,