I enjoyed looking at this series of photos of Swedish students showing their modest amounts of possessions. I know that I’m no longer a student, and I do have children who have their own collections of things, but I do aspire to have a more portable existence. If I were to move to a small space, the most obvious problem is that I have thousands of paper books, many of them with my hand-written notes inside. If only there were an efficient way to scan all of those pages, to shrink all of them to the size of an external hard drive.
Another problem is that I have a workshop full of tools. Last night, I reached into some spare parts and fixed the furnace, so I’m weary of giving away even the boxes of odds and ends, much less the tools that I use to repair things at the house. And what would I do with my musical instruments? I have several guitars, as well as a PA and (once again) boxes of music.
Then again, I sometimes imagine the house being destroyed by fire–we all escape with nothing at all, but I do have backup hard drives off-site with all of my writings, photos, movies, financial paperwork. It would be a disaster, of course, but in this thought experiment it would also be an opportunity to rebuild my collection of possession leaner and meaner.
Annie Leonard (“The Story of Stuff”) urges us to stay home on Black Friday, offering us some stunning images in this one-minute video:
What else is there to do? Fifty years ago, people would have thought you were an idiot to even ask this question.
Although I have NEVER shopped on Black Friday, I signed Annie Leonard’s Pledge.
Michael Norton points to the difficulties of winning the lottery, then suggests that there are ways to use money to buy happiness. One trick is to spend money on others, especially others with significant needs. His conclusion: “If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re not spending it right.”
Our family vacuum cleaner had seen better days. Like most things that break these days, it wasn’t that old; my wife and I bought it less than five years ago. Thus, the frustration and an opportunity. We were aware that there was a vacuum repair store less than a mile from our house, and we decided to see whether we could save our vacuum.
Upon entering, we spoke to “Dan,” who has been running his vacuum repair shop for fifty years. He is a affable fellow with a small shop filled with more than 50 used vacuum cleaners. After a quick test of our machine, Dan announced that $40 would get our old vacuum working again. That would have been much less than $200, the price we would pay for a new vacuum cleaner. But for $100 and our vacuum as a trade-in, we could upgrade to a significantly better “commercial vacuum” that someone else had traded-in and which Dan had already repaired. My wife and I decided to upgrade, and we are now happy with our powerful “new” vacuum (not so powerful that it sucks up pets and children, but quite powerful).
It occurred to me that this is an unusual way of doing business in modern America. As Annie Leonard explains so well in “The Story of Stuff,” most things that are manufactured these days are designed for a single use (including immense amounts of packaging). My family makes regular use of other kinds of re-sell-it shops, including Goodwill, Salvation Army and private garage sales. But how nice, to also be able to make use of a store for fixes things in order to keep them out of the landfill, especially when these things are expensive household appliances. Perhaps a vacuum cleaner is about as cheap as appliance can be while it is still expensive enough to make it worthwhile to offer a repair shop. At least, I don’t remember seeing any smaller appliance repair shops; a look on the Internet tells me that such shops do exist, however.
Dan had more than a few noticeably old (repaired) vacuums for sale, a sight that made me think of the phrase “planned obsolescence.” I do think society would be better off with fewer big box purchases and more repair shops. And since Dan was such a competent and friendly fellow, I’ll mention that he is an avid bowler who recently bowled his second 300 game.
Today is that time again when about 1.5% of the world will be watching a particular ball game in America, The Superbowl. Although Superbowl madness has been addressed on this forum, I’d like to put forward a couple of observations.
The Superbowl is the culmination of the 20th century adaptation of sports to mass media. The packaging, production, and marketing of this one game is a major profit center based on what is essentially a sedentary activity. There are 22 players on the field, and 100,000,000 people watching, most in comfy chairs via television.The game play is nominally an hour long, but the coverage lasts many hours. This includes pre-game and post-game coverage, plus the three hours needed to watch the sixty-minute game.
Worse than just sedentary, a predictable large fraction of the audience will be eating badly and drinking immoderately during the event. The advertising in all the media up to and during the event panders to and fosters this market segment. The message is clear: If you are not eating fried things and washing them down with booze, you are a weenie. If you are not buying these things for the family, you are not a good provider.
So let’s take a look at the activity itself. You have nearly two dozen buff young men in shiny tights periodically thrusting their bodies together to accomplish the explicit task of firmly holding a tapered cylinder with the goal of placing it repeatedly into the opponents end zone.
The result of this “scoring” is brief solo dancing and many a manly fanny patted.
What do I do on Superbowl Sunday evening? I go to a contradance. I spend the evening with a couple of dozen women in my arms, moving in rhythm and breathing hard. And the jocks in school called me gay.
In his bestseller, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1988), John Paulos introduced the term “innumeracy” to refer to “an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance.” Paulos bemoaned that innumeracy “plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens.”
Innumeracy causes many people to struggle with their own personal finances. I’ve personally spoken to people who have taken out payday loans (about which I’ve written quite a bit), who cannot tell me what 10% of $100 is. One problem, discussed extensively by Stanislas Dehaene (The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics (revised ed. 2011)) is that human animals are naturally rigged to understand zero, one, two, three and four but on our own we cannot precisely identify or work with greater numbers. To do that, we need an incredible human invention, mathematics, which provides us with an intellectual scaffolding for comparing and manipulating larger numbers. Without a solid grasp of mathematics, humans are left only with vague intuitions about the numerical meaning of the world around them.
How can we help those who are mathematically impaired? Money counselors have often recommend that people stop depending so much on credit cards and operate more on cash. This does two things. First, it keeps you from spending more than you have. Second, it allows you to visualize what you are spending. It causes more pain to hand someone several $20 bills than to swipe a credit card, because you are actually seeing significant amount of cabbage leave your wallet.
I thought of this problem of innumeracy as I viewed an excellent new graphic produced by a website called xkcd.com. The concept is simple, but the execution was excellent and designed to illustrate various salient political issues. The result is an highly detailed image that allows you to see the numbers that are affecting our government and our lives. I invite you to take a few moments (or longer) to visualize thousands, millions and billions of dollars.