Awash in stuff: mall owners know it too

October 30th, 2011

When a representative of the retail industry says it, it may represent a real shift:

At the Cavendish Mall in Côte St. Luc, weak sales following the departure of top performing retailers like Gap Inc. and Roots Canada Ltd. prompted owners to demolish about 40 per cent of the mall, which is now being converted into residential townhouses, semi-detached and single-family homes. … “People are spending more on experience and service and less on stuff. The world is awash in ‘stuff’.”

I found it interesting how this is viewed by mall owners, who must adapt their spaces to medical centers, health clubs or condos. However, retail spaces are apparently still the most lucrative, so are still considered the gold standard in malls.

Steve Jobs

October 9th, 2011

I’m not a big fan of today’s Apple, but Steve Jobs had an an enormous influence on my life. My first computer was an Apple IIe, he was presenting the NeXT workstation when I visited the University I ended up attending, I was an intern and Campus Consultant for NeXT in the 90’s, and the Macintosh set me on a path to Computer Science. I even wrote a paper about him in college.

He is regarded as a minimalist, from his trademark black turtleneck and jeans, to this photo of his home in 1982, to his design philosophy.

However, what impressed me most was his lack of cynicism; he was abrasive and downright mean at times, but he was always sincere in creating something great. Goodbye, Steve.

Money-band / Rubber band for wallet

September 23rd, 2010

I’ve been seeing quite a bit of traffic from mnmlist, which turns out to be another site from the prolific Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits. I often feel like a fraud of a minimalist, given the amount of clutter in our house, but hey – Leo mentions the money-band, which is essentially a rubberband you use to hold all your stuff together. Looks nice, but I’ve been using those thick, small rubber bands that hold broccoli together for a long time now, and it is great. Works very well around credit cards, with cash folded twice stored on one side, and receipts jammed into the other. I used to have an enormous wallet, which was actually wearing wallet-shaped holes in my pants and giving me back problems. This fits in my front pocket really comfortably.

Rubber Band Wallet

Just One Club Card is also a boon to reducing the thickness, and works great here in Canada as well as in the USA. When I use it, it gets reactions ranging from “does that really work?” to “I need one of those.”

Really old laptop improves my focus

September 12th, 2010

I decided to upgrade to a newer Thinkpad laptop. Luckily, my old machine had still retained most of its value – I sold it yesterday morning for about what I had purchased it for a year and a half ago, thanks to Craigslist. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet ordered the replacement, waiting for a good sale might take a while, and I have to have something to use in my programming / project management job.

So I find myself typing on an old Thinkpad T23, a seriously amazing computer if we were still living in 2002, that I pulled out of a trashcan a while back. Seriously. It is like a wake up call. First of all, I can’t believe it actually works with the latest version of Ubuntu. It is slow, and I have to watch what I do since it only has 512MB of RAM, but it is surprisingly usable.

In fact, it is like a breath of fresh air in some ways. When I’m running my programming environment, I can’t really have my email program or a web browser running at the same time. So I have to focus on one thing at a time, and it really improved my concentration today since I hop around much less, and stay on track rather than continuously checking email and websites.

Although it is tempting to try and live with this machine long-term, I know that isn’t practical, as it does have some severe limitations that are going to cost me time and energy. But I’m actually looking forward to what I’m viewing as an experiment in tech minimalism for the next few weeks.

Income distribution vs. happiness

May 14th, 2009

Americans generally have more spending power now than 50 years ago, across almost all income levels. But the perception is that lower income families are losing ground. Of course, some are, but generally, pretty much all of us can buy more and better stuff than we ever could in the past. In 1909, many things we consider absolute necessities didn’t even exist. So why the perception of slipping back? The answer is that income distribution is indeed diverging. The extremely rich are getting much more of the expanding pie than anybody else, and those at the bottom get the least:

Income Distribution
Chart from the Afferent Input blog.

A rich class of people are becoming much more wealthy, and most other people are becoming somewhat more wealthy. So what? The problem is that our happiness is based on how we perceive we’re doing compared to those around us, and not on any absolute measure of our well being. This leads to three observations:

  1. A shepherd living in a hut in one of the poorest countries in the world is generally just as happy as someone living in a house in America, one of the richest.
  2. Displays of wealth are much easier for us to see than a measure of actual happiness – it is hard to fake driving around in a Lexus, but easy to hide psychologist visits for our depression.
  3. As soon as a remote shepherd acquires a television, his happiness will likely decline since suddenly he isn’t comparing his success with his shepherd neighbors, but instead to the wealthiest people on the entire planet.

Recognizing this human frailty – that our built-in happiness meter is relative rather than absolute, and therefore set more by how much stuff we see our neighbors have rather than by how much we have, is the only way to counter its effect. Moving yourself to an absolute rather than a constantly receding relative goal allows you to be happy with what you have even if others accumulate more. This is the crux of keeping up with the Joneses; the only way to win is to not play the game.

This also explains the discomfort I feel about credit card debt in the US. If it really did add to happiness, then all for the better. And indeed, some people use credit card debt for absolutes – food, basic shelter, etc that increase their happiness since they don’t starve to death. But the majority use it to try and exceed those just ahead of them on the consumption curve. Credit card debt therefore creates a self-fulfilling prophesy – you see your (current) peers pulling away with fancier homes, cars, clothes and stainless steel appliances, and you feel worse about yourself. So you also whip out your credit card to catch up, and the cycle continues. But nobody actually gets any happier, since the top keeps pulling away.

Have doubts? Let’s look further afield than the United States, where I suppose it can seem like I’m splitting hairs. Below is an IMF figure for world income distribution, albeit from 1989, although I doubt it has changed dramatically in the meantime. The people at the top of this diagram (United States and friends) are basing their happiness against their neighbors rather than the vast majority of the world.

World Income Distribution

Just in time

May 6th, 2009

The Just In Time business concept is like minimalism for manufacturing, but Martha Beck’s recent article has echoes of minimizing it forward and brings it to a more personal level. I have a hoarding instinct, and I’ll stand by the idea of keeping a week’s supply of food and water on hand along with basic medical and emergency supplies. But especially with the worrying press reports on the economy producing fear, this can become an obsession. The fact is that stuff is cheap and easy to get – we’re drowning in stuff. I agree that:

switching to a just-in-time mind-set (“Everything good is readily available”) restores health and balance to our lives

even though it is really tough to do.

Needs and circumstance

April 29th, 2009

Interesting poll on what people consider necessity vs. luxury (via WorldChanging). Perceived necessities are shrinking in the recession, but:

Finally, there’s the automobile — the ultimate survivor. It’s been around for nearly a century, but in good times or bad, it retains its pride of place at the top of America’s list of everyday necessities.

I hope this means “I need a car in my current situation” rather than “I need a car no matter what.” There are many places in North America where a car is a necessity – I grew up in a rural area with zero public transit, and the closest grocery store was over eight miles away. If I lived there now, I’d also tell the pollster a car is a necessity. Food is a baseline need, and if you need a car to get food, then yes, a car is a requirement.

However, such needs are a matter of circumstance. Realizing that your current situation is often a choice and can be changed means that you can largely define, and therefore limit, your needs. When making major decisions such as where to live, what size and type of home to buy, what type of work to do, or whether you have children, you are pushing some things from luxury to necessity. Make these choices carefully, and be mindful of the needs they will trigger.

Paul Graham on Stuff

March 6th, 2009

A while back Paul Graham realized that stuff is no longer valuable. Just as food used to be very expensive, and thus malnutrition and starvation were real issues, now overeating is by far the bigger danger for most people in America. The same thing has happened with stuff – it is now so easy to produce (or import) and acquire, the greater danger is having too much rather than going without.

Of course, you can’t talk about “Stuff” without a nod to George Carlin’s famous skit (NSFW: some swearing).

Thrift = disaster?

February 27th, 2009

Last weekend, I read When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson From Japan in the New York Times. I was hoping it would be about the benefits of thrift, but the article starts off a little differently:

As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect. The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers and making them dead weight on Japan’s economy.

Wow – “dead weight on the economy?” Too often we forget that the economy is meant to serve us, and not the other way around. How do we reconcile a society that demands ever-increasing consumption, yet is running into environmental and human limits? Less interest in cars is a good thing, not a bad thing, yet the article disapprovingly states:

… only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

There is no easy answer, and the economic pain is real. That said, there are plenty of jobs that need doing – they just aren’t the jobs that we’re currently set up to do. Let’s think about services, not stuff; more teachers, less cars; designers who make thoughtful products that last; repair, not obsolescence. Trying to prop up the failing status quo of an out of control consumer society is harmful, foolish, and destined for failure.

To help us keep the economy our servant and not our master, we need to measure more useful things: GNP is supremely flawed as a measure of success. Measuring contentment is more difficult than measuring dollars, but isn’t it much more important?

Minimize it forward

September 15th, 2008

“I might need it someday” is really a curse for getting rid of stuff. Treehugger has a typically fiddly Lifehacker points to a fiddly way of overcoming the urge to hoard stuff “just in case,” but I think their this method would likely result in keeping a mental inventory of what you’ve sold vs. what you’re replacing with the funds. That’s a link to the stuff that should be severed right away – out of sight is not out of mind, and snipping the mental link is probably even more important than physically removing the item from your life.

Here’s an easier way that helps me. When I legitimately think I might need something in the future, but don’t need it now, I pitch it to myself as a “minimize it forward” event. I give it away, usually via freecycle, or sell it, free and clear of any special accounting. Someone else uses it and extracts value from it. If I need it again, there is a decent chance I can find it within a few days on freecycle, craigslist, or a garage sale. If not, I get creative, do without, or buy a replacement. The key thing is to try and keep everything in play – ideally someone should be getting value out of every item at all times. If I’m sitting on something “just in case,” I’m basically preventing it from being used, and probably causing another one to be created for someone who needs it.

Minimizing is good for the world, not just the individual, so keep what you really use, and put the rest in play.