Living free of Facebook and Amazon

By Dan Wilcock

Last June I quit Facebook after reading Who Owns the Future? Since then, I bought a used DVD copy* of the Social Network and have watched it twice. The film’s parable of asocial ambition confirms my bias against Facebook’s fundamental creepiness. My update: I don’t miss Facebook, but must admit that I subsequently became a more frequent Tweeter. These companies can fill real human needs, but they also fuel unfortunate screen addictions. Riding the bus every day, I’m surrounded by folks and their feeds. They have one thing going for them, though: At least they aren’t driving!

But back to Facebook–good riddance. Why should we make them rich by handing over our life narratives? It’s a pity no-one reads the user agreement. It says that they won’t pay you for the content you provide. My guess is that one of the big companies will one day start paying people for what they do online, and a new market will be born. Until then, we are suckers in their game.

As a new year’s resolution, 2014 is my year of Amazon.com abstinence. So far so good, but here again I have an admission to make. Although my overall spending declined, I’ve still bought books, music and gifts. My four sources are importcds.com for music, bn.com and Better World for books, and eBay for other random things. This fracturing of purchases into more discreet categories is probably a good thing. If I know what I tend to buy more clearly, I can focus on whether I really need to do so. For example, sometimes I really feel I must add a book to my collection. I’ll do so, sometimes, but I can usually extinguish this desire in one of two ways:

  1. Check out the book from the library and read the first 100 pages. If I’m still convinced it’s a classic that I’ll re-read at least once, then I’ll buy it. But otherwise I’ll be satisfied without, and in some cases I won’t even finish the book because it’s a drag. Ownership is a funny thing. Once you expand the concept to include all of the resources in the public domain, for which you likely helped to pay, then the need for stockpiles of “private” goods diminishes.
  2. Count the number of unread books at home. I usually come up with about 50, to which I could add about 10 on the shelf in my office. All of these at one point occupied the part of my brain dedicated to impulsively acquiring things. By rekindling the desire I once felt for these things, the realization dawns that I could go the rest of the year and probably all of next year without buying another tome. To the extent that I’m reminded of my partial “ownership” of the library, it’s possible that I won’t need to for the rest of this decade. Perhaps the print publishing industry will have comepletely gone up in flames by then, at which point I’ll reluctantly start reading books on screens.

Here’s to raging against the machine in small incremental ways.

*I got it for a dollar at Record Exchange, one of Silver Spring, MD’s handful of badass record stores (hey, there’s a great idea for a forthcoming post.)

Ignore the noise, but not the real value of STEM

I think we can all agree that perpetual disruption and reinvention can be tiresome, especially when the unspoken subtext is that a lot of folks are going to get fired. A lot of Thomas Friedman columns these days just get booed down. We’ve heard that record before.

Lingering over a cup of loose-leaf-brewed tea, walking or running in the woods, talking in person with family and friends, and reading printed books all bring joy to life. These fulfilling activities were equally available (with the possible exception of books) to our distant ancestors as they are today.

We may in the not-too-distant future transition to spending much of our time working and playing inside virtual-reality. The internet has already brought us halfway there. Facebook is currently spending tens of billions of dollars (!) buying up companies that will complete the trick.

But so much of the innovation that gets touted as disruptive is tacky. Facebook and (alas) Twitter are businesses in which you, the consumer, are the product being sold to corporations that want to sell you stuff you probably don’t need. 3D printing at home is another example. Sure, we can all use CAD files and replicating machines to bring manufacturing in-house and fulfill our wants with ever greater precision. But at the end of the day, it’s mostly just a bunch of customized plastic. (I’d like to know how well the recycling system will work to ensure that what we print can become the raw material of our next creation. If it’s done right, and it becomes more ecological than factory production, I could see myself changing my mind about 3D printing.)

I’m not advocating for a return to analog-everything. Despite the fact that the best things in life may be simple things, I think science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have made us much better off than those folks of yesteryear who only had simplicity and their wits.

Better application of science and technology for health and prosperity can be far more profound than the superficial offerings of social media, Google Glass and 3D printing. For me, the part of the STEM revolution that brings value is the power it gives us to better enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

What could be more basic and life-affirming than enjoying good health? Because we’re alive today, we can read medical science books informed by more comprehensive data and better technology. Here are two examples:

I first encountered David Agus, MD, in the pages of Wired magazine. That feature article opened my eyes to a different, more systematic, way of understanding biology, which he outlines in his book The End of Illness. His scientific/systems biology approach allows him to distill some simple recommendations about health that cut through the media hype. Some of these are somewhat surprising, such as his advocacy of cutting vitamins and supplements in favor of eating real food.

Robert Lustig, MD, is famous for “Sugar: the bitter truth,” which has been viewed almost 4.5 million times on YouTube, where I was first exposed to him. Like Agus, Lustig takes a systems approach that makes a compelling case against added sugar and industrial food processing. His book Fat Chance makes that case convincingly and scientifically.

Then there’s our financial health. The simple life is aided by avoiding all the complexities of poverty, and in this regard people-oriented financial technology is making it easier for the disciplined “little guy” to achieve some degree of financial independence (FI). Index investing is a product of the IT revolution, and its champions—people like Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, the financial academic Burton Malkiel, and the increasingly popular blogger Mr. Money Mustache (all three are worth reading)—point out how computing power has made investing simpler and less costly.

Technology allows us to track our health and wealth with greater accuracy than ever before. To the degree that next generation body sensors (like Fitbit) and financial aggregators (such as Personal Capital) aren’t distracting or even all-consuming, these are great reminders that until we die we always have room to grow and improve.

My point is that STEM has the power to transform complexity into life-affirming simplicity, and its power to do so is getting better each day. Underneath all the noise, these are the real life improvements.

A few wise maxims

  1. The best way to “buy green” is to buy nothing at all.
  2. Not buying something is a 100% discount, and even more savings can be had if the thing requires upkeep.
  3. If something requires advertising to sell, it’s probably not a necessity.
  4. The best food usually doesn’t require a nutrition label.
  5. Pay yourself first.
  6. With dripping drops of water, even a water jug is filled.

PS – none of these are original ideas

Dripping drops

(Photo by Sven Hoppe via Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo by Sven Hoppe via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Many of life’s transformations occur gradually, drop by drop into a bucket. We don’t get to choose the nature of the bucket’s overall contents by deciding the fate of any one particular drop. If the bucket is full of badness, that can only be changed with time and persistence. We may have several buckets, some full of clear water and others filled with slime. Most people have a mix.

For me, this is one of the best metaphors for the process of developing virtue/s and improving life. By no means my original thought, this metaphor is attributed to the Buddha. It can be found in the Dhammapada, which records the Buddha’s teachings in poetic verse. Verses 121 and 122, as translated by Gil Fronsdal, read:

Don’t disregard evil, thinking

“It won’t come back to me!”

With dripping drops of water

Even a water jug is filled

Little by little,

A fool is filled with evil

*

Don’t disregard merit, thinking

“It won’t come back to me!”

With dripping drops of water

Even a water jug is filled

Little by little,

A sage is filled with merit

These phrases are a nice microcosm of the entire poem, which uses contrast and repetition creatively to teach the reader about alternatives and causality. What I like about the metaphor is its positive assumption (yes, we can direct our lives and change our outcomes), tempered by realism (the process is as slow, and the mechanism can go up, down, or possibly sideways).  It makes a lot of sense to me, and inspires me to make incremental changes to improve life knowing that results won’t appear for a long time.

Here’s are a few riffs on the theme that come to mind:

Dripping drops

  • build more financial resilience and pay down debts
  • keep extra pounds from accumulating on bodies
  • form meaningful social connections
  • make equanimity possible
  • increase people’s capacity to help others

Of course sometimes life kicks over the bucket. A car crash. Getting fired. Unpredictable disease. And no matter how well a life is lived, the drops that contribute to aging and dying accumulate as well. For younger people, the metaphor is kinder. Time is on their side. For older people, it’s harder to change the mix but not impossible.

Review: The Information Diet

By Dan Wilcock

Here’s a book that most of us could use. Clay Johnson’s book The Information Diet (2012, O’Reilly Media) takes a non-pretentious look at what would be painfully obvious were we not so engrossed: we’ve become information obese. Our brains are constantly fattened for the kill. We need to be a lot more choosy about the quantity and quality of what we put into our heads.

Johnson is an IT guy. He founded Blue State Digital, the digital strategy company that helped Obama first win the presidency in 2008, and has since gone on to found a variety of ventures at the intersection of policy and software development. He writes with a smart, non-pedantic style. Yet he isn’t immune to hyperbole:

The Internet is the single biggest creator of ignorance mankind has ever created, as well as the single biggest eliminator of that ignorance.

Perhaps he’s right about this. Depends on how you define “biggest,” but it’s a bold claim nonetheless. That being said, boldness is a good strong suit to have if you’re going to take on the media matrix in which our minds swim. Rage Against the Machine once critiqued this matrix as follows:

No escape from the mass mind rape
Play it again Jack and then rewind the tape
Play it again and again and again
Until ya mind is locked in

Believin’ all the lies that they are tellin’ ya
Buyin’ all the products that they are sellin’ ya
They say jump, ya say how high
Ya brain dead
Ya gotta fuckin’ bullet in your head (source Metro Lyrics)

Johnson basically concurs with Zack De La Rocha, but without the stridency:

Our attention is the currency that marketers lust for, and it’s about time we started guarding it, consciously, like we guard our bank accounts.

Being an IT guy, Johnson favors a programming approach. Perhaps for most people already addicted to social media and their favorite pundits it’s more like re-programming. He suggests that people move beyond “a reactive model of computing, where you’re constantly being tugged and pulled in every direction and responding to every notification that comes across your screen, into a conscious model, where you’re in complete control of what you’re paying attention to.”

Music to my ears. The human can manage information, not the other way around. So simple it’s kind of dumb, but what’s really dumb is that far too many of us are not awake to this reality. Johnson argues that we have four powerful mental muscles we can flex: searching, filtering, creating, and synthesizing.

Johnson’s framework and the how-to advice that flow from it are the book’s best aspects. Less developed is the larger societal context in which he tries to fit these skills in the book’s final pages. After leaving Blue State, Johnson directed Sunlight Labs, part of the pro-government-transparency Sunlight Foundation, and I think he’s still too close to that foundation’s mission to be objective about it. It may be the case that this mission is what drove him to write the book in the first place (he often recommends going to original source information such as government databases), but for me the book’s general lessons are more valuable–and more universally applicable–than the limited issue of whether Government data gets posted.

All in all though, a very worthwhile book by a socially conscious technologist. More like this, please.

Overcoming the Amazon.com Addiction Pt. 2

‘Tis New Year’s Eve.

No, I haven’t broken my 2014 resolution of severing my ties to Amazon.com before the new year has even begun. Nonetheless, things have become interesting in the weeks since my last post. No sooner had I cancelled my Chase Amazon credit card with thoughts of quitting Amazon cold, when a great friend of mine gave me a wonderful birthday present: a Kindle Paperwhite — Amazon’s newest reader.

At first the dilemma gripped me. How can I be honestly grateful for this gift when I’d sworn off shopping at Amazon?

That’s when my wife, who has a knack for thinking far more practically than me, suggested the middle path: use it to read library books.

Luckily, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which believes in libraries so truly that it’s building new ones in Gaithersburg (opens this weekend) and Silver Spring. In addition to making investments in libraries for the next two generations, the county’s library system makes it easy to borrow digital books by downloading them temporarily onto Kindle.

Using a intermediary software platform called Overdrive, which publishes its own how-to on downloading public library books onto Kindle, you basically click on the books you want, then check-out for free at Amazon.

Long story short, it looks like I’ll be doing some business on Amazon in 2014–just not the kind in which my bank account diminishes. Granted it may be tough to avert my eyes from all that customized product placement, so I’m sure updates to this post will follow.

The first book I intend to read on Kindle: The Circle by Dave Eggers.

Meanwhile, I have every intention of continuing to read paper books from the library. Just tonight, I finished reading The Unwinding by George Packer, which is due on Saturday and should be in someone else’s hands by early next week.

Long live libraries! In this age of digital pocket-drain, we need these public institutions more than ever.

Overcoming the Amazon.com Addiction

By Dan Wilcock

I know, I know. The drones are coming. Yet resistance is not futile. I also realize that this post may somehow be hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), but there’s a ghost in this machine. There may be a Chase Amazon credit card in my card wallet, but that doesn’t mean it must reduce me to penury. It can be cancelled and snipped.

In the coming year, I’ve decided to embark on a challenging (for me) adventure: sever my deep ties to Amazon.com. Flash back to the middle 00s, when I first started shopping there. What a discovery! A commercial web site with a grasp of books, movies, and music unrivaled by any library. My interests often run fairly far down the long tail—my most recent book purchase: the Diamond Sutra as translated by Red Pine. So it became my “go to” for books on Shinto, films by Kurosawa and Ozu, and music by Steve Reich. That’s probably how a lot of people started their general-consumption relationship with Amazon.com: come for the rare out of print album, but then pick up a packet of coffee because it brings the total just high enough for free shipping.

It’s curious how companies that dominate the world often hail from Seattle: Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon. When I first started shopping on Amazon.com, I wouldn’t have even thought to put this site that sells books, DVDs, and CDs in the same category.  It was a link to self-sent care packages of books when I spent the years of winter 2006 to spring 2008 in Japan, but I didn’t imagine it would supplant Borders, and perhaps one day Barnes & Noble.

I’ve kept shopping at Amazon despite misgivings. Despite benefiting lavishly over the years from being able to buy things tax-free, I realize that Amazon wields this advantage to the destruction of community businesses across the country. I even picked up that Chase credit card, since it saves me 3% on the site. So why am I going to try to cut the cord now, given that I’ve always been able to rationalize saving money on Amazon.com in the past?

You get a 100% discount when you don’t buy anything, and the best thing a dancing consumer can do is to stop the music.

My CD collection is curated to within an inch of perfection (yep, I’m a total Generation Xer in my fondness for compact discs) and my collection of books and films isn’t too shabby. Here in the DC area, where people are constantly dumping these items (CDs in particular) on the used/thrift/library charity market, they generally can be had for about a buck a pop. Speaking of the library, they can generally get me whatever I need in terms of mind-expansion.

Meanwhile, Amazon is readying the drones. I also imagine they are experimenting with branded 3D printers that will allow people around the world to print what they order in minutes. Amazon is here to stay, and its crafty futuristic-minded leader Jeff Bezos has created a company that can honestly claim to have changed the world.

But that doesn’t help me and my family in our quest for sustainability. We too can be crafty, and choosy about who and what we support. I may end up spending a bit more on some things, but I imagine that there will be more net savings (har har).

One of the big changes on the digital horizon is the rise of the websites that seamlessly customize themselves to your preferences and desires. Amazon is a pioneer in this space, and Rakuten, Japan’s version of Amazon, is also making moves in this direction. Coupled with the potential loss of net neutrality, which means that corporations can slant which sites you see, this trend portends even more mindless consumerism.

So I’m going to see how I do, now and throughout 2014, in resisting the urge to load up a cart on Amazon.com. I’m sure I’ll be back for an update or two on this topic, especially if I lapse. If I do, I wonder how long it will have taken.

Dec. 8, 2013, Rockville, Md.

Identity

Like most people in rich counties, I find myself all too often falling into the trap of thinking that identity can be purchased. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this mistaken belief is the source of endless fool’s errands. Life isn’t necessarily made more authentic by acquiring this and that. If anything, the acquired thing (whatever it happens to be–clothing, entertainment, etc.) has no influence on character. Most of the time, especially for the fortunate, the thing in question is something we already have. This confirms that the thing in question is just a temporary mental fixation. These fixations are an easy escape from a thornier mental issue–the quest for identity. Many Mahayana Buddhists believe that identity is an illusion, that it blinds us to the reality of our interconnectedness. That may well be so. But for day to day life, simpler ideas will suffice. “I already have one,” when true, are some of the most powerful words we can speak. By not filling the container to the top, we can leave space for living.

Finally, 3 reasons to be excited about DC’s Metrorail

Metrorail hasn't changed much since '76. But some long overdue updates are coming. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Metrorail hasn’t changed much since ’76. But some long overdue updates are coming. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Daniel Wilcock

Like me, Washington DC’s Metrorail subway system was born in 1976. Also like me, it is starting to show its age. This was never clearer than in the June 2009 Fort Totten train collision that killed 9 people, injured 80 and kept passengers trapped for hours. Since then the system has been a joke by international standards, with single-tracking and multiple station closures common—especially over weekends.

Decades of delayed maintenance due to the chronic underfunding driven by the system’s fractured governance have finally caught up. The endless outages have settled over the city like a rain cloud that never leaves. Blogs like Unsuck DC Metro have gained big followings by serving as a conduit for rider rage. It’s been so bad for so long that any positive stories about the system are liable to be held forth for universal ridicule.

But in a sneaky way, a lot of nifty improvements are cresting on the horizon. Here are three reasons for cautious optimism:

1) The silver line will be an equal partner to the old-school color lines (orange, blue, red, green, and yellow). When the Washington Post published the new system map this week, designed by Lance Wyman, the same man who designed the original map 37 years ago, I was relieved to see the silver line shooting all the way through town. Previous maps had the line ending at East Falls Church, raising the annoying prospect of needing to transfer to get downtown in an encumbered and jet-lagged state after touching down at Dulles Airport.

2) The new rail cars will be made by Kawasaki, a Japanese company. Having lived in Japan, I can attest to the quality of Japanese rail systems. The 1976 models designed by an Italian firm, still in use, will one day be a topic for nostalgia. However, I don’t think they’ll be missed. The prototype from two years ago of the 7000-series, which will replace more than half of the system’s cars within the next five years, pointed to some cool features such as video panels. When these cars start to roll out, I’m certain that folks will notice the almost-four-decade design difference. At the very least, the new cars promise to not have such consistent air conditioning problems.

3) You’ll be able to pay your fare using a smartphone. Buried in a recent Post article was the following bit of news:

“[Metro’s General Manager Richard] Sarles said the agency also had decided to buy new fare gates that will allow riders to pay as they enter with a SmarTrip card, a credit card or a smartphone. The stainless steel gates will be installed throughout the Metrorail system and will replace the 1970s-era gates. Riders should begin seeing the new fare gates next year, officials said.”

This is the logical evolution of Metrorail’s SmarTrip card system, reducing the need for smartphone owners to carry around yet another plastic card.

In other metro news: SmarTrip cards are getting cheaper, and, within the next few months Metro will put its trains back on autopilot (they’ve been operated manually since the 2009 accident, with resultant choppy service).

Winning by Losing

By Dan Wilcock

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to explore how character and mindfulness influence a life lived well. Last week the center published an article called Failure Makes You a Winner that rang true to me.

The power of failure is available to anyone flexible enough to learn from it and not give up. Failure is a teacher. It guides us, corrects us, and, when encountered with the right frame of mind, strengthens us. It is encoded in any form of mastery built on apprenticeship, which is a form of controlled failure.

Failure also sets the context for life’s sweetest victories. I believe that Tom Petty had it right when he sang “even the losers get lucky sometimes,” (if I ever owned a minor league baseball team, that song would play every night.)

Finally, failure sometimes saves us from dead ends by deflecting us from them. Didn’t get that job, you coveted? Well, you just saved yourself years of misery. Couldn’t score those drugs you wanted? Well, at least you’ve still got those brain cells. This is an area where grace can enter our lives.

That doesn’t mean that failure’s not tough and it doesn’t hurt. That’s why I agree with the author of the article on failure, who writes “heroes share a key quality: GRIT.”