You Can’t Take It With You

Last September, I traveled for a month carrying only a 35 L backpack. I didn’t always look proper, but I survived freezing temperatures at 8,000 ft in Yosemite, Malaysian heat, and Philippine-typhoons. Coming back to my apartment, I realized I own many things.

I’ve got shoes for every occasion and multiple sports. More button up shirts than days in a week. Notebooks from freshman year at university. Too much.

With Christmas-consumerism looming a few weeks away, I decided to drop items. I’ve always meant to do this, but tossing stuff is hard. Everything had value. Emotional value. Monetary value. Just-in-case functional value. Furthermore, each item had its own disposal method. Sell high value, donate low value, toss the private or really low valued items.

The first method, selling, is tough. I’ve had the most success with books. They are easy to describe thanks to ISBN’s and they are easy to ship. In contrast,  I’ve got a rockin’ GoreTex, unused jacket, but it’s a models old, difficult to describe precisely, and, as a winter jacket, is best sold during only a few months of the year. I’ve got a gorgeous leather carry-on that I never use, but the brand is vague and the value is difficult to assess. It’ll continue to hold shoes I shouldn’t have bought.

Now, obviously, woe is me. The gainfully employed American has too much stuff. First world problems. But since I don’t struggle to find my next meal, dodge bullets or bombs, I’m going to write about what I know. And let’s be honest, you’re reading a blog from the internet. The Internet!

Anyway, a few interesting ideas floated my way. First, the 100 item project. Reduce your personal items to total 100. Strictness varies from all shoes counting as one item or counting each shoe (such as the left New Balance) as one item. As my friend said, its less about going Spartan, than realizing what you can live without and what you really enjoy living with.

Second, the story of stuff. Manufacturing products causes more waste than just the plastic packaging. (Frankly, I found the video annoying. The statistics lacked context, but I got the point.) So buy less. My favorite clothing company tracks their carbon foot print and water consumption well and even encouraged people to not purchase their products, unless the needed them.

So I tried. I tried to reduce. And I still am, but an entirely different idea caught my attention over a the ribbon farm, it’s called “acting dead”. (Footnote)

To save money and reduce waste (transportation, packaging), I used to buy dry beans, soak them the night before I wanted to cook them. Except I usually forgot, and either went without protein or accelerated the soaking by boiling the beans, which I presume is inefficient compared to industrial canning.

To save money (and to be ironically behind the times), I kept using my 2005 PowerBook G4 12″ laptop, even when it creaked under Pandora, overheated in the summer and required fridge cool-downs. Also, as a PowerPC computer, I continually dug for old software and used the last great thing. I would burn time traveling to computer labs to use the latest software to ensure compatibility when sharing files.

But my diet bent towards malnutrition. And I started to eat out more to quickly compensate. And I hesitated to pursue CPU-intensive side-projects. I couldn’t use my secondary monitor, because my laptop’s graphics card initiated an internal Malliard reaction. I was acting dead.

I was trying to do what my dead ancestors do much better. They spend zero dollars per year and generate zero waste.

At somepoint, trying to be thrifty and environmentally-protective inhibits living. So be judicious about it.

But I’m still going to hold onto my Razr. No, not the 10 inch, Kevlar-backed Razr.  The one that flips open. The one you’ll tell your kids about. Because I’m still trying to be cool.

Footnote: Venkatesh explores the how the middle class is fragmenting. Definitely check out the read, because he touches on social capital practically skips over income equality.

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Full Screen Google Tasks

I originally didn’t like Google Tasks because the side panel in GCalendar or GMail felt cramped. Fully specified tasks wrapped into long blocks, and my forever long list felt hidden. However, I started using Tasks a few months ago because (1) I’m always in Calendar and Mail so my list was always available, (2) unlike my Notes in my iPod Touch, they are available anywhere and a breeze to type, (3) and the simplicity prevented me from adding unnecessary details like due dates, notes tags, etc. Unfortunately the integration led to distraction; why review and complte the tasks when I could read and write emails? Now, thanks to LifeHacker, I just pop up Tasks in full screen. No (well, fewer) distractions.

I haven’t tried Remember the Milk, Evernote, Ta-Da list, or Teux-Deux, but people keep talking about them.

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Getting Real

Just read Getting Real. I highly recommend the book for anyone working on anything, but especially software products. I don’t agree with everything, but sometimes reading a highly opinionated articles is refreshing to change perspective. Be small, be quick and always be moving.

Coming from a design background, I embrace many principles behind agile development methodologies. I haven’t seen it applied well firsthand within a proper product development or design process, but I admit that with the right people, you can build solid software fast. Some teams will struggle.


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Fresh: A Friend’s Online Portfolio

A friend just published his redesigned online portfolio with crisp pictures and solid video work. I love  the ample negative white space, flexibility to add more material, and ability to highlight his best projects. A few odd navigational quirks appear when you dive down, but otherwise it’s easy to understand.

Screenshot of Arlin's online portfolio

I recommend the deep water soloing video as starting point, or stay seasonal with some skiing photos.

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If We Don’t

A few years ago, I read about the long portrait, a short video of a single subject. Executing one is a tricky balance between haunted house trope and surprise, Promethean staring contest. But the Tumblr blog If We Don’t, Remember Me is making magic with carefully edited, strung-together and looped movie stills.

2001: A Space Odyssey from "If We Don't Remember Me"

2001: A Space Odyssey

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou from "If We Don't Remember Me"

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Note: the Tumblr title is presumably taken from the movie “Kiss Me Deadly

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Tall Man Letters: Emphasizing differences

In 2001 the FDA encouraged pharmaceutical companies with similarly spelled drugs to enhance product differentiation by reformatting their drug labels. To emphasize name-differences, the unlike letters were capitalized.

Old Name Format New Name Format Drug Function
chlorpropamide chlorproPAMIDE insulin secretion enhancer, meant to treat diabetes mellitus type 2
chlorpromazine chlorproMAZINE typical antipsychotic

In the biz, they call it “Tall Man Letters”.

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Form Design

Randall Munroe discusses form design.

I admit, knowing that a service has my email is more reassuring than knowing that I typed the same invisible character string twice.

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Never forget why fall is the best season (warning: colorful language).

Three men walk on NH road in the fall

2011 October 22- New Hampshire. Walking with friends at the end of a hike (I’m on the far right in grey). Courtesy of the Young Urban Professional.


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Go get lost. Go past your limits. Go hurtling toward a future in which I imagined that that we were doing and what we were capable of doing had somehow, suddenly become the same thing. Go find what you’ve been looking for. Go forward. Go forth. Go west.

I wish you way more than luck.

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30 Day Experiments

Fellow Bostonite, the Young Urban Unprofessional, is beginning his series of 30-day experiments by living one month without a landfill.

August’s challenge is to accrue zero waste in my daily life i.e. not throwing anything in the trash to be sent to a landfill. I am allowing myself to recycle materials, to compost food waste, and to fill no more than a small ziplock bag with waste that I accidentally produce.

Over the weekend, I traveled with the Unprofessional to hike Killington Peak. From straws, dishes for sour cream, and athletic tape, going waste-less while traveling in the modern world is not easy. The 30 day experiment idea seems to have been popularized by Morgan Spurlock’s documentaries, but I love the optimism and encouragement for self-improvement expressed at a TED lecture. I’m strongly considering emulating the Unprofessional this month, while casting around for my own experiments. Equally interesting is brainstorming categories for experiments:

Exercising everyday is obvious, but how can push my body in new ways? I’d love to do yoga everyday for at least 30 minutes. Last weekend, a friend suggested to the Unprofessional to list the top 20 exercises (perhaps by greatest number of practitioners, largest percentage of regular exercisers, etc), but then exercise for a whole month by not doing any of those activities.

Since the GRE is in my sights, perhaps I could cycle through the following: crossword (verbal), watch a Khan Academy video on mathematics (quantitative), and write a response to one of my favorite columns (analytical writing).

Other categories might be professional, social, academic, cultural, etc. If you have any experiment ideas, category suggestions, or suggested category taxonomy, shoot me an email.

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