Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Central Heating

If you live in a cold region, it is reasonable to assume you need heat in the winter. After all, a human would freeze to death if he were directly exposed to sub-freezing temperatures for long, especially at night. This doesn't have to be "active" heat, however--heat that is generated by burning fossils fuel or consuming electricity. Passive heat can work just as well, provided the space you are occupying is small.

Most people in modern industrial societies consume far more heat than they need. They own or rent cavernous homes--size proportional to income--which they insist on heating in their entirety, even though most of this space is used only for storage. This is where "central heating" is required. This is a a furnace or other heating system that forces heat into the rest of the home via ducts or water pipes. Compared to distributed heating systems, like space heaters or fireplaces, central heating is relatively efficient, but the fact that it is required at all suggests you have far more space than you need.

The custom of heating large spaces to live in is a cultural phenomenon, not a requirement of survival or even comfort. For practical purposes, all you need to heat is the air immediately around you, and often insulation alone is sufficient without the need to burning anything.

In everyday life, you need heat for two things: for sleeping and for conducting relatively sedentary waking activities, like reading or working on a computer. Can you be comfortable doing things without central heating?

Sleep is the time when you are most vulnerable, so you'd think that's when you most need heat. Wrong! Because you aren't moving much when you sleep, you can wrap yourself in insulation -- warm clothing and bedding. If you are cold, you just add more layers. You can also use bedding systems that are more enclosed, like sleeping bags, rather than loose ones like blankets. It makes no difference to the body whether it is wrapped in several sleeping bags in an unheated room or is sleeping with a single blanket in a home heated to 78 degrees. The financial difference, though, can be huge. The cost of sleeping bags is trivial compared to the ongoing cost of burning fuel to actively heat the home.

The most important key to survival in harsh climates is not staying warm but staying dry. If your bedding gets wet, then its insulation value collapses. This is where shelter comes in--be it a house, shed, tent or car. It protects you from water! If you have waterproof shelter and plenty of warm clothing and bedding, then heat is mainly a comfort issue. As with all comfort issues, heat is negotiable. It's a balance of cost and what works best.

There is little reason, apart from social and cultural expectations, to heat an enclosed home a night--regardless of the outside temperature. As long as you remain dry and the air around you is still, there is no low temperature that can't be addressed by passive insulation wrapped snugly around you. If one sleeping bag doesn't work, try two or three. The only plausible reason for nighttime heating in cold regions is that the indoor plumbing might freeze (just one more curse of this modern contrivance!). Okay, so if you already have central heating and insist on having indoor plumbing, then set your thermostat to just above freezing. That's a reasonable baseline for the amount of ambient heat you need around you when you sleep.

In the morning, of course, it can be a challenge to get out of a warm bed into a cold room. That's when you need more active heat sources. If you are actively exercising, your body generates it's own heat, and you can do these activities outdoors or in an unheated space. But if your job is to type things on a computer, it is hard to imagine doing this with gloves on in a room that's close to freezing. There is a limit to how many layers of insulation you can wear around you and still engage in subtle motor skills.

However, when you are sitting in one place doing something, you aren't occupying much space. You can work on a computer just as easily in a 5-foot cube as in a spacious study, so why do you need to heat the whole house? In general, the smaller the space, the more cheaply and efficiently it can be heated. Yes, central heating may be efficient overall, but not as efficient as heating just the room--or portion of the room--you happen to be in.

So why not just work in a 5-foot cube? If it was well-insulated, your body alone would heat it and you wouldn't need any fossil fuels. Of course, it is hard to find a 5-foot cube on the market designed for that purpose, but you wouldn't expect it in our society. Our commercial culture always wants to sell us excess -- like a 2000-square-foot home with all the accessories and upkeep -- because that's where the profits lie. If you want a humble 25-square-foot box to work in (or even live it), you'll probably have to make it yourself and accept that society will see you as eccentric.

Central heating was a reasonable solution to heating the traditional house--better than fireplaces at least. But if you think about what you really need in life, both the house and the heating system may be unnecessarily. First of all, do you need to be living in this cold climate at all? As long as you avoid the humid lands, life is far easier closer to the equator. Secondly, wouldn't your life be more efficient if it were housed in the smallest package possible? Not only is it cheaper in terms of rent and heating fuel, but it encourages you to live a lean and nonsense-free life instead of a flabby and cluttered one.

A reasonable compromise for the modern knowledge worker is a small studio apartment. It's easy to maintain, cheap to heat, and because there's a hard limit to the available space, it's not going to be filled up with Things You Don't Need. Yes, it is useful to have a place to sleep, eat, store a few clothes and perform whatever meaningful activities you are engaged in. The rest is vanity and empty entertainment, and there is no sense trying to heat it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


We have already ranted against television. Your life is much richer without it! But what about "concentrated television", where you can replay shows at your own convenience and zap out the ads?

Services like TiVo and DishPVR allow you to "timeshift" your viewing and perhaps do it more efficiently, but the underlying programming is still the same. Television in any form displaces your own thoughts with someone else's. Instead of thinking about your own problems and your own productivity, you're sucked into a script provided by others.

Television and other sensory addictions subdivide your consciousness, which is a finite commodity. The more things you try to attend to, the lower the quality of that attention will be. If you are keeping track of the lives of dozens of fictional characters and stories, then you can't be attending as well to the real characters and stories of your own life.

Watching concentrated television is akin to taking concentrated drugs. You're cramming more sensory stimulation into a shorter period of time, with even less time to process it. Furthermore, when you can timeshift your television, you'll never miss your favorite shows. You'll see ALL of them! If you pre-program your shows in advance, you will come back later to have them all waiting for you. This is like having a big buffet in front of you. How can you resist eating it all?

Back in the old days, you had to be in front of the TV at the time the show was broadcast. If there were conflicts with other shows or with real activities in your own life, then you simply missed the show. Is this such a bad thing? Schedule conflicts and the pain of having to watch the ads were natural limiting factors on how much TV you watched. Concentrating the television just makes it easier to watch and more irresistible for most people. Like concentrated food, TiVo encourages "data obesity" where people overindulge to the point where their true quality of life is very poor.

It doesn't matter if a drama is "good", a comedy is "funny" or a documentary is "informative." There may be a lot of admirable shows on television. The only question is whether they are the best thing you could be doing with your limited time on Earth.

Also see: Mindless Entertainment Wasting Our Planet (Kilroy Cafe #16)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hand Sanitizer

This stuff may make sense in hospitals, but it's a waste of time and money in the real world, which is so plastered with "germs" that it's best to let nature take its course.

The very concept of "germs" was created by the advertising industry to sell products. Germs are evil little cartoon characters that only "Scrubbing Bubbles" and other cartoon heroes can deal with. The end goal here is always to sell you something, and to do that the commercial world invents new threats you never knew existed.

In reality, the only "germs" are bacteria, viruses and maybe mold spores. Mankind has been living with them since the beginning of time, and we have reached a detente: the microbes do their thing, and we develop defenses against them. By going overboard on sanitation you may end up disrupting the detente and ultimately giving the microbes the upper hand.

At best, hand sanitizers and similar products are simply ineffective. There are too many germs in the environment and too many ways for them to get to you. At worst, sanitation products may actually weaken your immune system and breed stronger germs.

Take a product that claims to kill "99% of all bacteria". Sounds good, right? Wrong! What about the 1% of bacteria that weren't killed? That's right, they multiply! Since they weren't killed by the product initially, they must have an immunity to it, so your next generation of bacteria are going to laugh the product off.

The body's best defense against disease agents is its own immune system. You keep the immune system primed by ALLOWING it access to disease agents. People who live in plastic bubbles never have a chance to develop immunities, so when disease agents inevitably get through the plastic wrap, the body has little defense.

The same concept applies to antibiotics. The inevitable effect of the overuse of antibiotics is that we have bred stronger bacteria resistant to them. That's yet another case of a "miracle" product turning into a bad thing in the long term. (In truth, there are no miracles in life, only trade-offs.)

I'm not suggesting you forgo antibiotics if you need them to stay alive and or that you you should bathe in germs, like swimming in the river Ganges. You just don't need to go overboard and try to kill ALL germs. It's probably a good idea to keep wounds clean, wash your hands after going to the bathroom and take a shower on occasion to reduce the bacterial hordes, since even the strongest immune system can be overwhelmed. But you don't need to use a hand sanitizer every time you touch a door knob or shake someone's hand.

That's just sick! You need to contact life directly, without a hundred lotions, sprays and obsessive-compulsive rituals getting in the way. Just shake hands, kiss babies, use public toilets and when you begin to stink, take a shower.

You don't want a flabby immune system, do you? Give it some exercise!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Has there ever been a point when your life seemed so painful that you considered suicide? Sure, we have all probably thought about it, at least in our teenage years when our lives are filled with such melodrama. Obviously, if you a reading this then you declined the option, but if the issue comes up again, how do you process it?

A big unknown is what lies on the other side. Does it change the equation to know that Paradise or Hell or Nothing at All awaits us in the afterlife? I say no. The decision about whether or not to end your life can be made solely on what you know about life already, and the logical, intelligent answer is usually to hang on to it.

Whatever lies beyond, it is another universe without much bearing on this one. Whether it will be eternal joy or eternal damnation or eternal nothingness, the "eternal" part means that it doesn't make a whole lot of difference whether you get there now or later. You can let this life play out, and Heaven or Hell will still be waiting for you. The only universe you know about for sure is this one and you have already built up some skills here, so you might as well use them.

That is not to say that suicide is always wrong. If we remain lucid until the day we die, there is a good chance that you and I will be making end-of-life decisions that are roughly the equivalent of suicide. For example, say we are diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the doctors give us the option of a painful and invasive treatment that may extend our life by three months but at great cost. Do we push for the three months or decline the treatment and just enjoy the time we have left? It's not like putting a gun to our head, but not accepting the treatment is still essentially a suicide decision, and in many cases it may be the right one.

You could call this a "strategic end-of-life choice," and a lot of things factor into it: not just your own comfort and well-being but that of the people you leave behind. Whatever you may believe about the afterlife, it seems clear that life on Earth will continue without you, so as you get ready to check out, this continuing life becomes more important to you than your own. Since the afterlife is beyond your control, all you can invest in is what you leave behind on Earth.

Think back to your teenage years and the suicidal thoughts you inevitably had. Were you really thinking about the good of humanity when you considered it? No, it was more like, "I'll show them! One of these days I won't be around, and THEN they'll be sorry!" That's the narcissistic form of suicide, and like other narcissistic thoughts it overestimates your own importance in the world. The fact is, you're not much good to anybody dead. Sure, they will grieve, but they'll get over it, and you'll just end up out of the loop, without any influence at all.

Post-teenage suicide - the kind where a relatively healthy adult blows his brains out with a gun - is also narcissistic. It's not thinking about the people you leave behind but only about your own selfish interests. (First of all please choose a cleaner method, because scraping your brains off the ceiling and your blood off the walls can get very expensive.) Almost always, there were options, but you were so wrapped up in yourself that you refused to see them.

Okay, so your business has failed; your spouse has left you and you lost two legs in an auto accident. That doesn't mean you are powerless or that you can't contribute anything to the world you leave behind. As long as you can move one finger, you have power in the world, and your creative challenge is to figure out how to use it.

It seems to me that just thinking about suicide can be very freeing. If you are ready to give up everything, then you should be able to step back and say, "Okay, instead of giving up everything, why don't I just give up the things that vex me?" Thinking about suicide opens the door to radical experimental solutions - like walking out on some of your commitments or letting your business fail. It's going to happen anyway if you kill yourself, so why not hang around and make these decisions selectively and strategically instead? Suicide can be a really great idea if in fact you back off from it and choose to radically restructure your life instead.

People usually consider suicide because that are hemmed in by preconceptions of what they need in life, and life just doesn't seem to be delivering. The really radical solution is not suicide but to hack away at the preconceptions. True creativity is to renegotiate things that you once thought were beyond negotiation, and hitting rock-bottom in your life opens up this option like nothing else.

I have know several people who committed suicide, and - at least in this small sample - they were all very rigid thinkers, not open to compromise. They had certain expectations about life, and that's all they would accept. When some circumstance turned against them - relatively minor in my book - they said, "Fuck it!" and checked out.

I would make allowance for overwhelming physical pain. If the disease is terminal and you are suffering so much that you can't even type on a keyboard, I suppose you might call Dr. Kavorkian (when he gets out of prison). However, most who consider suicide are suffering only psychic pain, which usually comes down to not wanting to change ones cherished preconceptions. Psychic pain is reversible, but only if you make the decision to give up something. If you are rigid and not open to change, if you care little about what you leave behind and don't see any point in life, then I guess suicide is an option. It's not my option, though. As I see it, every misfortune can be turned into an advantage if I choose to. It's not a matter of circumstance but of attitude.

Life is a resource, and you can either use it or not. If you choose not to use the remaining time at your disposal, I can't really argue with your decision, but once you do it, you're not part of my world anymore. The rest of us may grieve for a while, but we'll move on, and pretty soon we'll forget you even existed.

Isn't that frightening enough?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Indoor Plumbing

Now, I'm not going to claim that indoor plumbing can't be USEFUL. In dense cities, modern sewer systems and sanitary drinking water systems have saved countless lives. Prior to indoor plumbing and the advent of the Crapper™, human waste was dumped in the street, where it spread infectious diseases and often contaminated nearby water supplies. I'm not saying that new homes shouldn't be equipped with plumbing systems or that plumbing should be ripped out of existing homes. Indoor plumbing, however, has created a whole new set of social and environmental dilemmas, and its value in your own life may be overrated. If you have to, you can probably get by without it.

Indoor plumbing does two things: It brings fresh, safe water into the home and it carries liquified waste out. The unfortunate effect, however, is that it encourages the abuse of both systems. People with plumbing tend to use way more water than they need, and they produce far too much liquid waste. Given the availability of nearly free, effortlessly-obtained water, consumers will use hundreds of gallons a day rather than the couple of gallons that could get by with. At the other end, they are producing huge amounts of waste water, which has to be run through a resource-intensive treatment process. They are also flushing just about anything into the sewer, not just toilet paper but garbage, gum, cigarette butts and anything else that will fit, accompanied by countless wasted gallons of flush water.

While human waste dumped in the public gutter is a bad thing for both the environment and society, the same waste dumped on biologically active land—in reasonable amounts—is generally good. Urine is moderately poisonous to most life forms, but when animals pee, even big ones like cattle, the land manages to deal with it. On the other hand, the land loves shit! It's great fertilizer, and there's a whole host of flora and fauna prepared to deal with it.

Modesty aside, is it better to relieve yourself in bushes or in the Crapper? From an environmental standpoint, probably the bushes! You're not wasting any water, and your shit is being put to good use! Of course, if a hundred people used the same bush, there might be disease and overload issue, but if it's just you, no problem!

Where should you dispose of your toilet paper? You could bury it and let nature do its work, or you could put it in the trash. Most domestic trash now goes to landfills where it is essentially entombed for eternity. As distasteful as this may sound, landfills are the most environmentally benign disposal system we currently have (apart from the recycling of high-value materials). If you flush your t.p. down the john, there has to be a process at the other end to filter it out—at which point it is probably going into a landfill anyway.

On the input side, does an individual human really need to run through 100s of gallons of clean water a day? It's amazing how much you can do with just a gallon or two with a little thought and ingenuity. The most important thing we need water for is drinking, but that usage rarely reaches even a gallon a day unless you're sweating like a pig. (Do pigs actually sweat?) Of course, a gallon won't run a modern dishwasher or washing machine or give you a decent shower, but your need for those things may not be as pressing as you think.

Even if you have indoor plumbing right now, you may someday encounter circumstances when you won't have it. In that case, you get along better than you think! Below are various tips and observations that might be helpful. (Some of them are drawn from my other blog, Homeless by Choice.)
  1. You don't need water to brush your teeth, only toothpaste and a toothbrush. Your own saliva provides all the wetting you need. You don't need to rinse your mouth afterwards; just spit. (Toothpaste is non-toxic and harmless, should a little residue remain in your mouth.) Water is USEFUL only to rinse off your brush when you are done, but you don't need much. If you are unable to rinse your toothbrush for several days, it may get a little crusty, but you can still use it.

  2. The need for a dishwasher is generally the result of having TOO MANY dishes. (See dishwashers - automatic.) If you have only one set of dishes per person, you might end up not washing as much and eliminating the need for the mass washing.

  3. In the developed world, the pendulum has swung from "unsanitary" conditions to "hypersanitary" conditions. That is, when we have the resources we now insist that things be much cleaner than they have to be for any genuine health need. For example, you use a glass once, then put it in the dishwasher. Why can't you use the same glass all day? There's no real sanitary reason why not, just a cultural "ewwww" factor. Our epidemic of hypersanitation is encouraged in part by commercial marketing, which always has a product to sell you to address it. (To sell you the product, marketers first have to create the need.)

  4. "Germs" are a marketing invention and don't really exist. Instead you have two potential disease causing agents: viruses and bacteria. You can never eliminate them entirely, and your body has defenses against both. In fact, your body needs regular exposure to viruses and bacteria to keep its defense systems in tune. If something you touch is covered with "germs," it doesn't necessarily increase your risk of disease, and your health is not necessarily improved by continuously washing everything you come in contact with.

  5. In general, you're not going to catch any diseases from viruses and bacteria emitted by your own body, only those from other people's bodies that happen to be infected with diseases you haven't been exposed to. If there are millions of bacteria on every square inch of your bathroom, that's not necessarily a health risk if they're all your bacteria. Likewise with the viruses and bacteria of your immediate family. Within a household, there are so many vectors for disease, like kissing, that you're going to be sharing "germs" anyway, so keeping your home surfaces sanitized is irrelevant.

  6. It is absolutely insane to produce a half cup of urine and flush it down with four gallons of clean water! There has to be a better way! If public norms were not an issue, you could keep a pee bottle and dump it only once a day. I'm not saying this is right for you, but if you have an opportunity to not waste so much water, maybe you should try it. (Pee in the bushes!)

  7. You don't produce so much urine—and thus don't have to flush so often—if you simply don't drink so much. People in the modern world tend to drink far more than they actually need: quarts of drink per day rather than the few ounces of water they can usually get buy with (except when sweating). This is due largely to their caffeine addiction, which is epidemic throughout the world. People also insist on drinks with every meal, which is also unnecessary. If your pee is more clear than yellow, you're probably drinking more than you need. When you limit your fluid intake, it is amazing how long you can go without a bathroom break.

  8. Everyone needs to bathe, but probably not as often as most people do. If you feel you must shower twice a day, then indoor plumbing is necessary, but if 2-3 times a week is enough for you, you might be able to "rent" a shower—say, by using a health club. How often should you bathe? Since the main issue is usually odor and its social effect, not health per se, you need to smell yourself to find out. Admittedly, this isn't easy, but there has to be a certain time frame where offensive body odors kick in (two days? two weeks?). If you bathe more often than that, you aren't getting much benefit from it.

  9. Health clubs are great places for personal hygiene without the need for plumbing of your own. You can use all the hot and cold water you care to, while someone else pays for it and maintains the infrastructure.

  10. In situations where you have little water for dishwashing, disposable plates, cups and utensils might do the trick. You might also be able to use non-disposable plates and cups and simply wipe them off with a paper towel instead of washing. Again, there's no reason to fear "germs" on your plate if you will be the next one using it.

  11. Food residue that has dried onto your plate may be unsightly, but it isn't a health risk. Bacteria doesn't grow in a dry medium!

  12. When bacteria does grow on spoiled food, it may produce toxins. For example, you may get sick from drinking a cup of spoiled milk. You won't get sick, however, if there's just a thin layer of milk residue on your glass, even if it looks unsightly. This type of bacterial growth is different (and a lot more benign) than the bacteria passed between people as disease agents.

  13. If you have no plumbing of your own, you can wash your clothes just as well at a facility called a "Laundromat". This is a commercial establishment available in most cities and towns where you "rent" washing machines and dryers by placing coins in them. The price may seem high, but it probably beats the monthly cost of owning a washing machine. Commercial washers usually use water much more efficiently than home washers do, and they may work better.

  14. You can stretch out your visits to the Laundromat by not changing your clothes and bedding so often. Do you need a new set of clothes every day, or can you stretch them out for several days? Maybe you should test for actual dirtiness (by appearance or smell) rather than just assuming.

  15. Shit stinks! That's one reason you can't just through it away in the trash. Surprisingly, shit in a plastic bag stinks even worse! That's because plastic prevents the dung from drying out, while it continues to pass odors. What doesn't stink? Shit wrapped in both plastic and aluminum foil! That's because foil passes no odors. Believe It... Or Not!™

  16. If you think throwing shit away in the trash is offensive, consider this: Baby diapers are routinely thrown in the trash. There's no other way!

  17. Urine stinks, but only under certain circumstances. It smells bad in humid corners where there is no opportunity for it to wash away (like in New York City subways). Urine doesn't smell in the desert or in the bushes, at least not enough to be detectable.

  18. Bottled water may be relatively expensive, but if you are very frugal with it, it could be less costly than plumbing over all. You can do even better if you bottle your own water from someone else's tap. That's usually free!
Some of these ideas can be applied even if you possess indoor plumbing, or you might use nearly all of them if you are camping or traveling.

Whatever happened to the good old outhouse? Modern building codes and environmental regulations have run it out of business. Same with the septic tank. Biologically, these seemed like pretty good ideas: The waste had a chance to decay naturally, then was returned to the environment in relatively small doses.

Industrialized civilization can't tolerate these ad-hoc solutions. The trouble with modern law and environmental regulation is they demand the same solutions for everyone, regardless of the circumstances. We can't let you pee in the bushes, the reasoning goes, because if EVERYONE peed in the bushes, there would be chaos. We can't tolerate people living without plumbing, because if everyone did it there would be disease epidemics.

Building codes and environmental regulation have certainly improved public health compared to medieval times, but they have also resulted in absurdities, like the U.S. Park Service spending huge sums on high-tech, supposedly environmentally-friendly toilets in their parks, replacing the traditional outhouse. Heaven forbid some human should shit in the woods! While masses of people living together have to have plumbing codes and a thousand other regulations, it doesn't mean these rules are best for you or that you are damaging anything by evading them.

You are not "everyone". You are one person, and as long as you are not inviting a hundred people to pee in the same bush you are, you should feel free to find solutions that work for you. If no one sees you and the actual impact on the environment is nil, then go ahead and drench that bush! If it's civil disobedience, then so be it.

Someone has to stand up to The Man!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


People seem willing to pay enormous amounts of money for a "room with a view"—like a hotel on the beach or a house on a hillside overlooking the city. You don't need it, though. You can enjoy beauty wherever you find it, but it can't be bought, sold or nailed down in any way. As soon as you try, the beauty is lost and you're stuck with a product that doesn't work as well as it should.

Beauty, of course, is subjective. Is the Grand Canyon beautiful, or just an unsightly gouge in the earth? It depends in part on what you are used to: If you have never seen it before, you might be duly impressed on first viewing, but you won't be if you come from a whole planet of Grand Canyons where it is just another hole in the ground.

One thing is certain: The longer you remain at the Grand Canyon, the less you are going to be awed by it. It's going to fade further and further from your consciousness until only your life on the edge of it matters. After all, you can't DO much with the Grand Canyon; it just sits there.

People may rave about how beautiful something is, but when they do, it is usually because (a) they are new to the experience, or (b) they are trying to sell you something, or (c) they are trying to sell themselves on the wisdom of investments they have already made.

Real estate agents always play up the supposed beauty of whatever area their selling: "Look at those mountains. Look at that seashore. If you buy this property, all of that can be yours!" In fact, it can't be yours. You can buy the property, but what happens shortly thereafter? You stop seeing the view!

Beauty, if it exists, is a temporary emotional reaction inside you, not an inherent quality of the outside world. It is not something you can hang your decisions on, because emotions change. The same view that got you excited the first time you saw it will probably be ho-hum by the fifth time. In the long run, you are concerned with the pragmatic struggles of life, not its setting.

There are things that people universally find beautiful. For example, we seem to be programmed by our genes to see certain facial configurations as attractive—a certain spacing of the eyes, for example—but even this universal beauty fades with exposure. If you marry a fashion model, her objective beauty vanishes to you almost immediately, and what matters from then on is the actual functioning of the relationship.

When it comes to making practical decisions about your life, beauty—in any form—is a big con job. If you choose real estate, relationships or even vacation destinations based on perceived beauty, you are bound to be disappointed. Although the brochure may look pretty, the destination isn't going to look the same to you once you get there and get acclimated. The real operational question is, "What do I do?" and beauty can't help you with that.

The people who try to buy beauty or sell themselves based on it are a sorry lot. If you choose a mate based on appearance or a house based on its scenic view, then you have cheated on the operational criteria that really matter in the long run. You can show off your landmark home or trophy wife to others, who may be impressed at first, but that's not much comfort later if the house doesn't work for you or the relationship hits the skids.

Beauty is something you are free to notice, even turn your head for, but if you start making real decisions based on it, you're doomed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Recreational Vehicles (RVs)

A motor home or travel trailer may sound like a good idea for those with a wanderlust, but it ends up making travel much more complicated, not easier. These ungainly houses-on-wheels are promoted as giving you the "freedom of the open road," but in fact they imprison you. If you really care about traveling, you don't need one.

RVs are for bloated Americans who can't bear to leave home without all their useless Stuff. The RV allows them to carry it all with them! Unfortunately, this also forces them to carry a huge, expensive infrastructure with them, too. Like a fixed home, the RV has to be maintained. Instead of spending your time and resources seeing the world, you're spending them on the RV itself.

I've actually owned an RV (a small one), so I know how useless they are. I would have been far more comfortable in a van or car. Most people who buy a RV make only one or two trips before the magic is gone. Thereafter, the vehicle sits in storage and is merely a burden.

The gas mileage is horrible, and there are a lot of places RVs can't go. This leads to the absurdity of people hauling a regular car behind their RV to use for sightseeing and errands. Your range is also limited when you're in an RV: You can't take it on a plane or boat with you, so you're trapped on the well-worn highways of your current continent.

If you want to experience the road, it is much easier to fly somewhere and rent a car. You keep the car only for as long as you need it, and someone else is responsible for maintaining it. Where do you sleep at night? Try a motel! Anywhere you can plug in a RV you can usually find a cheap motel. You can stay at a lot of Motel 6™s for the cost of an average RV and campground hook-ups. And, again, you use the room only for as long as you need it while someone else is responsible for maintenance.

Better yet, try CAMPING! That's real camping close to nature, not pseudo-camping in an artificial bubble. You will experience the environment directly and learn how to adapt to it! Or how about sleeping in your rental car? Once you get used to it, the back seat of a car be as comfortable as any RV bed.

An RV provides bathroom facilities, but in the rural areas where people typically take their RVs, there are plenty of facilities—everywhere! Try the bushes! If you go in the woods or in public restrooms, there is no holding tank to empty or water system to maintain.

Kitchen facilities? Again, you can buy a lot of nice restaurant meals for the price of an RV with a kitchen. If you are traveling in a rental car, you might not be able to "cook" or "refrigerate", but there are plenty of innovative options you can come up with for cheap eating based on local food sources.

There's hardly any Stuff you need to take with you that you can't buy or rent when you arrive. Instead of hauling a bicycle or kayak with you, you can usually rent one at any scenic attraction where such devices are used. Or try walking on your own two feet, which involves no rental charge.

Unlike a fixed home, an RV depreciates quickly. As soon as you buy it, it starts losing value, so as a financial investment, it is a very poor one. It's also a poor travel investment, because it ties you down to the road you're on.

If you like to travel, then just do it! Just get on a plane and go! You don't need all the excess baggage.

Released from San Antonio, Texas.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Real Estate

It is conventional wisdom that once you have the resources or credit to do so, you need to buy a home. This is supposedly better than renting because for about the same money you are "throwing away" every month in rent, you could be "building equity" in a stable place you can call your own.

The recent housing collapse exposes that fallacy. The people who can walk away unscathed are the renters, while the owners are in dire straights indeed.

In reality, you can't own real estate. Real estate owns you. Once you have engaged it, it starts to dictate your life to suit its own needs, while yours are marginalized.

Unless you have enough money to pay cash, real estate is essentially a 20-30 year rental agreement, vs. the typical 1-year agreement of renting from someone else. It takes a lot of self-confidence to enter into a 30-year contract for anything. It implies that you know where you are going to be in 30 years and have your life all worked out. You MAY be able to get out of the contract at an earlier date by selling the real estate, but this is by no means guaranteed. At the end of the 20-30 years you may own your home outright and no longer be required to pay rent, but at that point you're approaching the end of your life, and the value of the home—indeed the value of money itself—may not be the same to you.

You can make a lot of money in real estate, but you can also lose your shirt. Life is too short for that kind of speculation with the bulk of your resources. It's like going into a casino and wagering everything you have (and everything you will have for the next 30 years) on a single roll of the dice. No matter how good the odds look, you don't need that kind of risk.

People will always need places to live, the conventional wisdom goes, so the value of real estate is always going to rebound in the long run. Think again! People need places to sleep, shower, changes clothes and eat, but that don't need the vast spaces they have come to see as their birthright. Especially in the post-internet era when so much of people's lives is virtual, they need very little space to live comfortably or impress others—e.g. 100 square feet and an interesting website, not 2000 square feet plus 5000 square feet of empty lawn.

What happens when people have more living space than they need? They start collecting Things They Don't Need! Whatever space is available, it will soon be filled with junk—dubious art objects, needy pets, appliances that are never used, clothing that is never worn and food that will probably never be eaten. Instead of just being a place to stay, the home become a shrine to its owner, a tastefully decorated personal museum that hardly anyone ever sees and that will eventually be liquidated in a garage sale.

Then the space itself needs maintenance, so you need cleaning supplies and tools. You need a lawnmower for the lawn, vacuum cleaner for the carpet, ladders to paint the house and a security system to protect it all from theft. As soon as it is "owned", a home can quickly mushroom into a vast, unwieldy empire that absorbs all of ones extra time, energy and money.

If you merely rent, you may also collect TYDN, but the tendency is much less, knowing that you may move in a year. Renters are less invested in their home, which may be bad for maintenance of the property but good for every other aspect of their life.

Your highest calling is not necessarily to be a financial investor or a museum curator. Shouldn't you be, above all, a creative entity? Creativity implies and requires the ability to move, to shift gears and change location, to follow the muse and opportunities wherever they lead. Real estate ownership inevitably constrains that.

The choice often comes down to: Do you want to accomplish great things, see the world, solve important problems, explore new creative avenues—or do you want to spend your life paying for and maintaining a piece of real estate?

You can't take it with you. It's cold comfort to eventually live in your home rent-free only to discover that a huge portion of your creative potential has already vanished.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Safety Experts

"You can never be too safe."

That's the proposition peddled by safety experts. There are threats everywhere, and you've got to be constantly vigilant against them. Predators lurk on the internet, rapists at every highway rest stop, germs on every bathroom surface. Identity theft will rob you of everything you have. Impurities lurk in public water supplies and deep within your intestinal system. Carbohydrates should be avoided, or is it fat or sugar? All around you is danger, danger, danger...

Unless you buy the safety expert's product or service.

There is no shortage of people eager to give you advice on how to protect yourself—some of it no doubt wise. Each expert, however, inevitably goes overboard in promoting his own chosen threat. A terrorism expert is going to pump up the threat of terrorism, even though the actual chance of it happening to you is infinitesimally small. Police officers will tell you horror stories about crime. Dentists give you unending lectures on dental hygiene, while home security experts will inevitably recommend home security systems. The experts' livelihood and ego are tied up in making his threat seem bigger than it is and convincing you to attend to it more than you normally would.

The fact is, there is no safety. It's an illusion. If you obsess over one safety issue, you are inevitably creating an opening for another, which tends to sneak up on you unannounced and grab you from behind. For example, if a nation dwells too much on terrorism, problems with its economy might go unattended and ultimately cause far worse suffering than any terrorist attack.

Instead, life is a game of probabilities. You can reduce the chances of a certain calamity happening, but you can never eliminate it, and it is unwise to try because attempting to purge that last sliver of risk can be enormously costly and distract you from much bigger threats.

Life is a dynamic balance of risks and opportunities, and it is this balance that the experts rarely seem to grasp. They always want you to attend to their risk above all the others, but if you do so you'll probably end up less safe overall while your real quality of life deteriorates.

Safety is always a double edged sword. You need it to stay alive, but if you focus too much on any one threat, you're going to pay a price in freedom. Every lock you place on your life to keep the bad things out is also going to trap you inside and make it more difficult for you to move and adapt. A life of perfect security is also known as "prison," and even a prison is never as safe as it seems to be.

Everything you do in life presents risks, and you've got to calculate those risks whenever you choose a course of action. It's okay to listen to an expert's advice (or a friend's) but you have to understand that it is a skewed assessment of risk based on the adviser's own personal investments. Your job is to evaluate all the risks, not just the one the expert is peddling.

After you've calculated the probabilities, you're going to have to accept some risk. There is no safe path through life. You will have to make a safety compromise, take a chance and plunge ahead.

Also see Kilroy Cafe #20: Kill the Experts!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mental Clutter

Back in the early days of computers, every second of computing time was considered precious. On mainframes, users were billed for the CPU time their program used. Computing time was horrendously expensive, so people wrote their programs to use as little of it as possible. Each program was run in sequence (or "batched"), and when the computer got to your program (stored on punch cards or paper tape), it performed the task quickly then sent you the bill.

Today, computing is ridiculously cheap. Today's personal computers can do more that a multimillion dollar room-size computers a few decades ago, so no one thinks much about CPU usage. As long as your own computer has sufficient capacity for the task at hand (say, the word processing program I am using now), no one cares how efficient the program is or what empy processes are running in the background.

Unfortunately, the same oversupply of computing power does not apply to the human brain. If you think of the brain as a biological computer, its physical capacity hasn't changed in thousands of years. "CPU time" is still extraordinarily precious. Everything though you think takes time. You have think about things sequentially—first about one problem, then another—and at the end of the day, there are only a limited number of thinking units available to you. The physical machine also has a limited lifespan—longer that a typical PC but certainly not infinite.

In your own universe, your brain is the most expensive and valuable mainframe you have. Why, then, would you want to throw any of its capacity away?

People can be very efficient with their thinking time when they are focused on an important task, like writing a report or bringing an airplane in for a landing, but as soon as you give them the freedom to use their brain time as they wish, they seem intent on wasting it.

It is not a waste of brain to just sit and think, as long as the topics covered are important. Daydreaming is not necessarily a misuse of the brain's CPU time either, because that's often how you solve real-world problems. There is nothing wrong with staring into space and free-associating, because this is the way we process our past experiences and plan our future actions.

What is a waste of mental resources are all those millions of outside products and diversions that do nothing for us except soak up CPU time. Crossword puzzles and video games are prime examples. Vast swathes of brain time are absorbed by these devices with nothing to show for them in the end. Come to think of it, just about everything marketed as entertainment is a mental time waster of some kind. People are always seeking "stimulation" in their entertainment—that is, a high occupation of mental resources—but it isn't usually meaningful stimulation that contributes anything to their lives.

It seems as though most people want to waste their own brain capacity. They drink to avoid using it. They "party." They watch meaningless TV shows for hours every day. They have those iPod thingys stuck in their ears at all times so there's no possibility of any conscious thought intruding.

Perhaps this is the most destructive addiction of all: the addiction to thought avoidance.

This disease manifests itself as "boredom" whenever ones mental time isn't fully programmed. Boredom is like the smoker's craving for a cigarette or an alcoholic's lust for drink. As soon as most people have "nothing to do," they panic and try desperately to fill the mental space with something.

And it isn't just video games that fill the void. A voracious reader can be just as much an addict. Is he reading because of the real benefit he is getting from the content or because of the anxiety he feels whenever he sits alone without anything to process?

Why do people avoid their own thoughts? Perhaps it is because those thoughts keep leading them to unpleasant conclusions. If you feel, deep down, that you are worthless or have made mistakes you can't deal with, your unhindered thoughts are always going to lead you back there. If you keep your brain continuously occupied, then you never have to think those thoughts. When the amusements run out, though, that's when panic strikes and you look for something, anything, to keep the bad thoughts at bay.

If you care about doing something useful with your own mental capacity, you can't be swayed by boredom or panic. Instead, you must only do things with your brain time that make sense. Like CPU time on a mainframe, your "thought space" is something you need to protect and never waste. Like any other precious resource, it has to be carefully managed.

You can never tell your brain exactly what to think, but you can manage the environment in which it operates. If there is too much clutter in that environment, you're not going to get a lot of useful thinking done. If you are constantly being interrupted by outside stimuli, it is going to be difficult to accomplish much complex higher-level creativity. If you turn off the radio, remove the Bluetooth from your ear, turn of the laptop and withdraw temporarily from people, the quality of your thinking processes will probably improve.

Those are exactly the conditions that most people equate with "boredom," but if you are wise, you will learn how to work with boredom and make it your friend. Only by being comfortable with your own thoughts can you make the most of your brain capacity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Automatic Toilet Flushers

Since the dawn of the technological era, the marketing emphasis has been on "automatic"—automatic toasters, automatic clothes washers, automatic transmissions, etc.—that is, devices designed to reduce human labor and attention by performing routine and repetitive tasks without complaint. In fact, some of this contraptionology is highly USEFUL, allowing you to spend minutes on a mechanical chore that once took hours. There comes a point, however, where automation goes too far, when it starts to become a false substitute for human responsibility.

Take the automatic toilet flusher. It sounds like a good idea: As you approach the bowl or urinal, the device senses your presence, and as you draw away it graciously flushes the waste for you, no touch required. It seems like another brilliant labor-saving and health-preserving device, since the customer no longer has to exert pressure on the handle and contact any potential "germs" that might reside there.

Unfortunately, the net effect of these devices is to train the public not to flush toilets, so when they encounter an old manual device they decline to activate it. The automatic flushing of some well-heeled toilets results in the net unflushing of less heeled ones and probably a reduced rate of courteous flushing overall.

This is due to both trained sloth and overactive health consciousness engendered by the automatic devices. People who are used to automatic toilets may simply forget to flush manual ones, but they may also become squeamish about touching something someone else has touched, given the implied message that touching is bad.

The same problem applies to automatic light switches that turn on when you enter the room and turn off when you leave, thus training people to never turn off a light switch on their own. These devices don't necessarily improve our lives overall because they disengage us from fixing problems that our own actions create. They just add another layer of maintenance and technological complexity to our life with no net improvement to its quality.

The old manual devices were pretty reliable, performing their tasks for years with little complaint. The new products are less stable, require far more maintenance, and are more often found broken. In places where they seem to work flawlessly, like in hotels and airports, there is usually a well-funded maintenance structure in place to keep them that way. In "ordinary" restrooms, homes and public places, these automatic mechanisms are just another thing to go wrong.

And what about the "germs" supposedly contacted by manual use of these devices? Whatever a "germ" may be (since this is a marketing term, not a scientific one), they are everywhere and you can't avoid them. The paper money and coins you touch every day probably carry more potentially disease-causing agents than any toilet handle, but these agents rarely cause disease because the human immune system guards against it. In fact, the immune system needs regular contact with threats to keep it healthy and active.

There is an endless array of such supposedly "labor-saving" devices on the market, from automatic can openers to automatic kitty box strainers. Many of these products requires more effort to set up and maintain than any labor actually saved—plus they cost money and take up space! Sometimes, they are only used once or twice until their uselessness becomes clear then they are set aside in semi-permanent storage.

As useful as it may sometimes be, automation usually has the effect of isolating people from their environment and from the effects of their own actions. For example, when a toilet gets flushed, by any means, where does the waste go? Most people don't have a clue. It just "goes away." Therefore, they feel comfortable flushing anything down the john, knowing that it will somehow be taken care of.

The word "automatic" ought to be a warning sign. It could be a device that saves a trivial amount labor in the short term but invites substantial dysfunction over time.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Addiction Treatment

Once you recognize that you or someone you care about has an addiction—be it to drugs, alcohol, pornography, shopping or any other destructive habit or attitude—what's the treatment for it? In short, there isn't any.

Addiction treatment is a huge industry ranging from smoking cessation patches to expensive residential rehab programs to educational classes designed to teach addicts or potential addicts the dangers of drugs. Nearly all of it is ineffective by any statistical measure. Lots of programs can provide short term relief—if nothing else by separating the addict from his source of drugs—but in the long term, most programs are no more successful than a placebo in preventing relapse. Even when a program can statistically prove success, the results are so marginal that they hardly justify the huge cost.

Addiction treatment, of any kind, is a fraud. It simply doesn't work.

You can wear a Nicoderm™ patch to stop smoking or take methadone to get off heroin, and they seem to work at first, but then how do you get off methadone or Nicoderm? So much of what is called "treatment" is like that: just substituting one addiction for another.

This grim assessment may seem to be at odds with the many ex-addicts who claim that Alcoholics Anonymous or some other treatment system saved their life. They honestly believe this, but that doesn't mean it's true.

You could test the hypothesis by assigning addicts randomly to one of two different groups: Alcoholics Anonymous and some other "placebo" social group, like a hiking club, with no treatment component. In that case, research seems to show that there would be no substantial difference in relapse rates, and some people in the second group would claim that the hiking club saved their life!

The people who praise AA are the ones who succeeded, who already made the commitment to change and who would have latched onto any program available to them. AA may seem to be the cure, but really it came from within.

The only real cure for addiction is the addict getting so beaten up by the bad effects of his behavior that he makes his own decision to change. No outside "program" can do that for him. In fact, the availability of treatment may only serve to give the addict one more excuse not to quit: "I have a disease; someone else has to fix me."

Addiction is a philosophical disease as much as a chemical one. It's the natural consequence of fatalism. The central issue is a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you think you can kick the habit and decide to do it, then you will. If you don't think you can do it and choose not to, then you won't. It seems like a simple little switch in the brain that could go either way, but people become emotionally invested in fatalism, and those investments are the main barrier to change, not the chemistry per se.

If I decide to take control of my life now, then I have to accept that all those stupid things I did in the past were my own damn fault, not someone else's. People aren't comfortable with that kind of regret, so they resist changing their philosophy.

No outside force can make you more responsible for your own actions. Other than the molding of childhood and the hard lessons of experience, self-responsibility is simply unteachable. There are, however, plenty of ways to make people feel less responsible for their own actions, and one of them is offering cures from the outside.

All forms of addiction treatment send a philosophically defective message: "We will rescue you." Given such assurance, the addict has no reason to exert his own control. That's fundamentally why treatment doesn't work.

What does work? As a friend or family member, your options are limited. One route is to completely remove the addict from the environment in which the addiction takes place. If you take a child out of the home of addicts and place him in a home with no culture of drug abuse, you are likely to change his own propensity for addiction. Unfortunately, this really only works with children, since adults tend to carry their addictive philosophy with them and will reconstruct new addictions to replace the old ones. If you move your spouse to a new city to try to get him away from a bad crowd, it means you are treating him as a child and are giving him a free pass to act like one.

The only other thing you can do is withdraw your protection for the addict, so he experiences the effects of his behavior as directly as possible. If he gets falling-down drunk, then he needs to fall down, with no one there to catch him. If painful consequences happen to him enough times, he might change or he might not, but it usually offers better odds than any treatment program.

The barriers you encounter in this second option may be inside you as much him. Are you willing to let your spouse or family member fall? What will happen to your investments together? The key problem may be your own addiction to enabling his addiction. "I must rescue him," you tell yourself. "I have no choice."

As soon as you say, "I have no choice," you're doomed. There are always options, just not pleasant ones. Escaping from addiction always involves pain, but so does not escaping. If you choose less pain overall, then you will take whatever unpleasant actions are necessary now to achieve a better long-term outcome.

If you believe you "have no choice," then you're an addict yourself!

Also see: addiction, caffeine.

Also see Kilroy Café #22: "Words Don't Work"

Also see my comments on an L.A. Times article: Shaming Johns (another dubious "scared straight" program).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


We live in a society that actively promotes addiction. It isn't just chemical dependencies that seduce people, but behavioral addictions of all kinds. Obviously, you can be addicted to cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, but also to television, fashion, running, travel and mountaineering. Any behavior that is repeated impulsively detracts from one's quality of life, not matter how harmless it may seem on the surface.

Addiction lies at the core of the commercial agenda. It is the mode of human behavior that advertisers are always trying to promote. They want you to get hooked on their product—Diet Coke™, Playstation 2™, Major League Baseball™, etc.—and lust for it just as automatically as a smoker longs for a cigarette.

People may also say, with some pride, that they are addicted to apparently healthy things, like exercise, volunteer work, gardening or listening to National Public Radio. Aren't these good addictions to have?

I say, no, nearly all addictions are bad for you in the long term, even running or NPR. We all engage in addictive behaviors during the course of our lives, but our ultimate goal should be to live without them.

How do we define an addiction? It is a repetitive behavior that serves no functional need (at least compared to the alternatives) and that provides no real satisfaction when repeated. The behavior is engaged in not for its positive effects but mainly because of the anxiety one feels when not doing it.

Why does a smoker have to light up every hour? It is because of the anxiety that overwhelms him when he doesn't smoke. This is due to the reduction of nicotine levels in the blood, but all the smoker knows is that he is starting to feel really bad. The cigarette itself doesn't provide much pleasure, except in the sense of ending pain, but it relieves the smoker's unpleasant feelings by restoring his blood nicotine levels.

Smokers may say that the cigarette gives them "pleasure" or "relaxation," and for years cigarettes were marketed on those terms, but any smoker who is honest with himself (and any spouse of a smoker) knows that isn't true. It's the anxiety of deprivation that drives the activity, not the purported reward.

It's not much different with the addicted runner, traveler or public radio listener. They may talk about the pleasures or practical benefits of the activity, but it's really anxiety that pushes them to repeat it over and over.

All addictions are powered by the primitive parts of the brain that regulate emotion. At the basic neurological level, the runner's anxiety when he is blocked from his activity is similar to the cocaine addict's feelings when deprived of the drug. This brain circuitry exists because it regulates sex and human bonding. The unpleasant feelings of the runner or drug addict are similar to the anxiety of a young child separated from his mother or lovers separated from each other.

The longing for sex can be as powerful and addictive as cocaine, and for good reason: Nature wants to hold a man and woman together long enough for them to raise children. Couples have far more sex than is necessary for procreation because it is a bonding device designed to keep drawing the partners back to each other. In fact, love can be thought of as addiction in its purest form.

Love, sex and bonding are "good" forms of addiction—or at least they are so integral to the human species that they cannot be separated from us. All of those other addictions, however, are parasitic ones, riding on the same circuitry but not doing any useful work.

How do you identify an addiction? You know it because (a) the behavior deviates from functional need, and (b) you are drawn into it by an unnamed anxiety, not by reason.

"Functional need" is what you must do to survive and pursue positive goals. For example, your need for food isn't an addiction. You truly need it to survive, and your body is eventually going to shut down if you don't have it. Cheesecake, however, is not a functional need. You aren't going to die if deprived of it (provided you have other food available). The need for cheesecake is, in a sense, all in your head. It's a neurological problem, not a physical one.

Why do you eat cheesecake? You might say that the pleasurable taste draws you in, but this is true only for a while. True flavor is never sustained when you eat the same food over and over. Any food addict knows that it's really anxiety that drives him to eat: the unpleasant feelings when he thinks about cheesecake but tries to deprive himself of it. After he has broken down and eaten it, he doesn't feel good about himself, and he may acknowledge that the taste wasn't that thrilling, but at least the anxiety is reduced.

As long as you are obeying your anxiety and not what you "know" is good for you, you are going to be hurt by an addiction. The addictive behavior may not cause direct damage, but invariably it will displace more productive activities.

This is true even with seemingly good addictions. If you run for hours every day, you have far exceeded any true health benefit and are instead stealing time from the more important activities of living.

Are you listening to public radio because of all the useful information you are receiving or because of the anxiety you feel when the radio is turned off? Only you can say. The cost of a radio addiction is the opportunity to think your own thoughts and work through the problems of the day.

Even useful activities can be bad if repeated blindly, because you aren't exercising of your experience and wisdom. Just because the activity looks healthy doesn't mean it's the most important thing to do at the time.

Also see my essay on addiction: Words Don't Work.

Also see: caffeine, soft drinks, addiction treatment.

The illustration above is from a New York Times article: A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects (2/6/07)

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Caffeine is an addictive psychoactive drug like any other. The fact that it is legal and is used by the majority of humans doesn't make it any better for you. It's a space-filler: It soaks up your time and money and may indirectly damage your health while giving you nothing in return.

Like all addictive substances, the problem is acclimation. You may get a jolt of "energy" from your first caffeine experience, but the high becomes less and less the more you use it. Soon, you are using the drug not to feel good but just to avoid feeling bad.

Yes, caffeine may help you get started, but it also invisibly creates the condition where you can't get started without it. There is no free lunch in the brain: Every "high" at one point in time must be paid for with a "low" or painful withdrawal at another time. Those are just the laws of physics.

There is a huge economy based on caffeine addiction. The massive soft drink and coffee industries depend on it. As with any other drug trade, the profit margins are huge. This supports ubiquitous advertising campaigns to convince us we are consuming the drug for some reason other than addiction.

Is caffeine a "harmless" drug? People don't usually kill each other over it, and there is no substantial evidence linking it to direct health damage, so why not?

It's unnecessary, for one thing. Why invest in an expensive habit that does nothing for you? The cost of caffeinated drinks, in both money and time, is substantial. $4 lattes and $1.50 sodas add up over time—equivalent to a smoker's outlay for cigarettes. $5 spent on caffeine every day is $150/month or $1800/year, a non-trivial amount in anyone's budget.

The health effects of caffeine are indirect, arising from the drink that carries the drug. Sugared soft drinks and sweetened or creamed coffee can contribute to obesity and tooth decay and displace healthier foods.

When you are addicted to caffeinated beverages, you also take in much more liquid than your body needs. The craving for the drug is often mistaken for "thirst" and encourages drinking even when the body is well-hydrated. While there is no proven health damage from taking in too much liquid, it certainly means you have to pee more often. Instead of 3-5 times a day, you might have to go every hour or more. All these pit stops add up and can be a real burden to your daily activities. (If your pee is more clear than yellow, you are obviously drinking more than your body needs.)

If you're a caffeine addict, maybe you should just admit it and start taking caffeine pills instead (NoDoz™ or similar). That would be cheaper and would strip caffeine of its veneer of respectability.

Probably the most costly effect of this or any other drug is simply that you become a slave to it. Instead of living the best life for your own real needs, you are arranging your life to serve the addiction. This can happen in many subtle ways. Maybe you can't get any work done until you have your morning fix, which means you can't work just anywhere. You have to have the caffeine delivery infrastructure in place, which may not be available everywhere you go.

How do you kick caffeine? It's just like quitting any other drug. You decide to quit, then you do it. There is no easy way. The initial detoxification period is going to be difficult, but as you get over the hump and your brain chemistry adjusts, it gets easier and easier. Soon, you might even find the effects of caffeine unpleasant and avoid it without any difficulty.

In a culture steeped in caffeine, there's always a chance of backsliding. Caffeine is often seen as fun and trendy. People freely admit their addiction like it's something to be proud of, but that doesn't mean it's right for you. Is that what you life is all about: just serving your addictions? If not, then you have to change.

Also see: soft drinks, addiction, addiction treatment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Sex happens, typically followed by, and sometimes even preceded by, pair bonding. It seems a natural human inclination to pair off in twos, with both parties emotionally attached to each other in the same way a child is bonded to his mother. It's not something that you have to have, but it can be USEFUL at times. You can potentially gain another set of eyes and ears on the world through the close communication that pair bonding fosters.

What you DON'T NEED is a public contract stating that the bond is permanent. Nor do you need a legal merging of your finances that erases the economic boundaries between you—i.e. marriage.

I'm not saying that a pair bond can't become permanent of its own accord. I'm just saying that you shouldn't declare contractually that it will be, because as soon as that happens, the relationship ceases to be a free-will choice. Are you there because you want to be, because the relationship continues to prove itself on a daily basis, or are you there because you have to be, because the practical costs of breaking the contract are so high. With the outside contract hanging over you, you can never really be sure.

Legally, marriage is primarily a financial agreement—essentially an incorporation. It is saying that your separate economic lives have ended and have been replaced by a single "community". Henceforth, any assets your spouse obtains are also your assets, but any debts and liabilities he incurs are also yours.

In theory, it sounds nice to share everything you have with someone special, but in practice, marriage suffers from the same problems as Communism: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Whenever this arrangement is implemented in the real world, it usually ends up that one party starts taking more than his share, while the other party has to give more to compensate.

A marriage might coast along nicely as long as there are plenty of resources to go around and no big changes, but whenever the going gets tough, it seems much easier for one or both parties to fall back on the community to solve their problems rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.

A "joining of two hearts" seems harmless enough, and if you want to have a ceremony and hold a banquet to celebrate your relationship, that's fine. It's the "joining of two pocketbooks" that is really destructive. Unfortunately, that's the legal essence of marriage in every jurisdiction, even if you maintain separate bank accounts after the wedding. Money will always be an important part of each person's identity in the world. It is a measure of one's labor and of control over one's own life. If you erase this essential boundary between people, then you may have pushed intimacy too far.

In our interactions with others, we must always balance two opposing forces. One is loneliness, or the urge to merge with others. The other force could be called "engulfment," or the unpleasant loss of personal control to others. No one wants to be alone, but it can be equally painful and damaging to have lost control of your own destiny to outside forces, even to someone you love. Young people who are just starting a relationship can only see the benefits of merging; they don't yet grasp how quickly the pendulum can swing in the other direction: to where you feel trapped in a relationship because you have given up too much of your own discretion.

The most essential tool in maintaining this balance is negotiation. You need to negotiate, on a case-by-case basis, what you are going to share and what you are going to keep separate. This can be awkward sometimes, like when deciding who should pay for dinner, but this kind of interaction is really the essence of what a relationship is: "Ongoing negotiations." If you give it all away in a single "I do" you may also be inadvertently giving up the very life and substance of your exchange.

If you ask divorced people when their relationship started going bad, their answer is often, "On the day we got married." This is not surprising, since the boundaries that people have known all their lives have been instantly erased. Now you may think you have "security," but every student of history knows that security is a double-edged sword. Always there is a loss of individual liberty, sometimes much greater than the perceived threats that security was meant to address.

Are many married relationships successful? Sure, but I contend that it is in spite of marriage and not because of it. These people have established healthy boundaries and productive negotiations within the bounds of the traditional structure, but perhaps they would have done so regardless.

More often, if you look closely at real marriages, you see dysfunction. One partner becomes the child and the other the parent—or maybe they BOTH regress to childishness. What could they have become without each other? They can't imagine it themselves, but we can. Sometimes, marriage just isn't healthy for the personal development of either party, even when the marriage lasts.

Clear boundaries between people are an essential part of our healthy functioning in the social world. We would be unwise to give them all up with a single wave of a magic wand.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Latest Technology

It almost never pays to be the "first on your block" with any new technology. Whether it be a computer, or certain kind of cell phone, a new version of Windows, a new kind of can opener, a new line of cars or anything other "new thing", if you buy it too soon, you may pay too much for a unreliable product. It is much better to drag your feet until the technology stabilizes and proves its value and the price comes down.

A case study: When digital wristwatches first came out in the early 1970s, they were awkward and ugly LED devices selling for $3000. (I remember Bill Bixby using one on the television show The Magician, which was considered chic and James Bondish at the time.) Then they dropped to $1500 a few months later, then $700, and with each price drop, the product actually got better. Today, you can buy one at the 99 cents store, and it's probably more accurate and reliable than that $3000 model was.

That's what happens with all new technology. An additional risk is that if you start investing in an untested "cutting-edge" standard, like Sony Betamax video tapes, the rest of the world may start adopting a different standard (VHS) and leave you in an evolutionary dead-end.

When it comes to electronics, cheap is good! A laptop computer for $500 does almost everything a $2000 model does. Marketers always want to sell you the more expensive one because the profit margin is higher. They can list all sorts of "enhanced features" it has that the cheaper one doesn't, but the practice benefit of those bells and whistles almost never matches the extra cost.

Technological items are essentially perishable, like milk and eggs. If you can't get enough value out them by the expiration date, then don't bother buying them.

There is often some benefit in being a Luddite: one who distrusts technology. If there is a simpler, low-tech way of doing things, you should try it. It just might work and save you a bundle.

High Definition

These days, everything is supposed to be High Definition—television, radio, cameras, lip gloss, etc. If you can't see every pore on an actor's face, you aren't getting the "full experience." So say the marketers, because they're the ones pushing this whole High Def craze.

I say it's all nonsense. High Def, in almost any field, just complicates things and rarely enhances the "experience" of anything you do. There is a certain optimal "definition" for any art form, and if you exceed it, you aren't getting any additional benefit.

Let's look just at video: Most of us were raised on ordinary Low Def television screens, 480 lines of resolution, first in black and white (if you are old enough), and then in color. You could argue that color was a significant advance, because most of us see in color, so it makes the image more lifelike.

But do you really get more out of a television program in color than you do in black and white? The experience as you remember it (like a movie you saw long ago) is really no different. You remember what happened in the movie, not the colors. (Do you remember if Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was in black-and-white or color? I don't, but I vividly remember scenes from the movie.)

Likewise, there is really no difference in your memory of a movie seen on a small Low Def screen vs. a big High Def screen. It's the story you remember—that is, what happened and what was said.

The fact is, your brain and eyeball are Low Def devices. They don't really process all those millions of pixels, only the broad outline of what is happening. What is processed and stored in your brain—the consciousness and memory of what happened—is as Low Def as you can get. You remember only the essentials, mainly the portions of the scene that were important to you at the time.

It is totally pointless to have an output device that far exceeds the resolution of the input device. For example, if the resolution of your eye is X dots per square inch but the resolution of a video monitor is 10X dots per inch, all that extra resolution is wasted on your eye.

A High Res monitor could be useful for a static display such as a computer screen, where you might glance at different parts of the screen, but it is meaningless for movies and dramas where an active story is being told. In that case, images pass quickly across the screen and the filmmaker is supposed to be directing you to what is important. If you become aware of the pores on the actor's face, it means that the story itself has lost you.

Think of the great movies of the past, like Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Would they be any more powerful if filmed in High Def than they are when you see them on a tiny black and white screen? I think they would be LESS powerful.

The same applies to almost every other art form. Do you get any more out of a song if you hear it in rich bass-boosted Dolby stereo than if you heard it on a scratchy AM radio? Arguably, the sound is richer and more layered at the time, but your memories of it aren't: You remember the tune, the words and the musical theme in the background, that it!

The function of art, in any form, is to distill the human experience into a few broad strokes. All great art simplifies reality so we can more clearly understand it. High Def goes in the opposite direction: making art more complicated. To make art work in a new High Def medium, you actually have to obscure the definition—say, by blurring all but the most important part of the image. The job of the artist is essentially to get rid of all that definition that technology has given him.

Who is behind the High Def conspiracy? Of course, it is the people trying to sell you the latest Thing You Don't Need. They have to sell you something, and if you already have everything they sold you last year, then they'll have to create a new imaginary need for you to fill this year. "You're not getting the full experience until you see it in High Definition." Baloney!

It is no mystery that crappy television in Low Def is just going to turn into crappy television in High Def. More pixels don't add quality of any kind.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Live Music

Assuming that you find music to be USEFUL (which is a more complicated question than it seems), what is the best form of music: recorded or live? In other words, if there was a song you liked, that you somehow found germane to your life, what is the most authentic way to listen to that song: played on the radio from an old recording, or played in front of you by the artist himself live in concert?

I say only the recording is genuine. The concert is the fake!

Here is what music mainly consists of: sound. All that really matters is the sound that comes into your ears and what it means to you. It doesn't matter how the sound was produced, what the artist looks like, whether he perfored it naked, what his original intentions were, whether he can dance, or whether you are surrounded by 10,000 people at the time you listen. If you believe that music itself is useful to you, all that really matters is the sound.

At concerts, the sound usually sucks.

It is not just that the acoustics of the sound are poor, but any true feeling that the artist ever had for the song is long gone by the time it gets to the stage. At that point, he is merely faking it, going through the motions for the audience but not really feeling anything for it inside. If you are astute, you can hear the difference in the singer's voice: The concert version almost never lives up to the much more refined and subtle studio recording.

There have been scandals in the past when some big-name singer has been found to be lip-syncing all or part of their concert. I say what's the big deal? It's all essentially lip-syncing anyway. A concert is a vain attempt to reproduce the definitive version that was already made in the studio, strictly as a way to make money.

I do have some sympathy for the musician here, because there aren't many ways to make a living in the music biz. The artist doesn't get anything if someone merely hums the song and holds it forever in his head. If the artist wants to stay alive, he has to sell the consumer something, and a concert is one exploitation mechanism. Unfortunately, it will always be a "show", and like other forms of entertainment, it is more a burden to the listener than a benefit.

The studio version, on the other hand, was probably recorded shortly after the artist wrote the song, during a period where he was still trying to get it right and still had some feeling for it. It is a moment in history that can never be reproduced. When the artist tries to reproduce it onstage, he is essentially doing a fake "cover" of his own song.

A concert is more of a religious experience than a listening one. People are gathering together to pay homage to their spiritual leader, but in the process I think they are losing touch with the music itself. What counts is not all the culture, theatrics and personalities of music. It's just the sound.

Like the stoners say, "It's all about the music, man!"

Friday, January 30, 2009

Backup Software

In this age when much of people's lifetime work consists of computer data, you DO NEED some reliable way to back up that data in case of error or catastrophe. It is incredibly painful and frustrating to work for hours or years on some project and have it all vanish in an instant. In the bigger scheme of life, you might actually benefit from a hard disk crash every once in a while if it forces you to rethink your life (just like a forest fire clearing out the dead wood), but it's still something you want to avoid if you can.

Precisely because data backup is so important, you can't rely on backup software to do it for you. Depending on some outside process only lulls you into a false sense of security. Backup software also backs up much more data than is really needed and unnecessarily complicates things.

If you truly care about your data, then you need to know where it is at all times. Instead of backup software, you should develop an intelligent backup strategy. Here are a few elements of mine...
  1. Don't worry about backing up applications and systems files. These can be reconstructed from the original software disks that you have stored in ONE place. For backup, you only need to worry about files that contain REAL WORK (e.g. image files, word processing documents, spreadsheets, etc.). These are what you need to keep track of and replicate in multiple places.

  2. Wherever possible, store all of your new documents in a single file folder by month. For example, nearly all of my work this month is stored in a folder named "January" in the subdirectory "2009" on my computer. When I copy this directory to a DVD or an external hard disk, I know I have preserved most of my work for the month.

  3. Buy an external USB hard disk. (They are quite cheap now and will probably have more storage than the disk on your P.C. or laptop.) EVERY TIME you complete a significant amount of work (say, more than 30 minutes worth), copy the data file you have worked on to the external hard disk (using the same monthly filing system as described above).

  4. Whenever you leave your home base, disconnect the external hard disk and hide it from view, so burglars don't walk off with it. (It's not normally something that appeals to burglars—vs. a computer itself—but you don't want to make it obvious.)

  5. Whenever you leave home base with a laptop, assume that it will be stolen or broken, and back up your latest work to the external hard disk.

  6. At the end of every month, back up the contents of the month folder onto a DVD (or whatever your permanent medium may be). Make TWO copies of the same DVD. Store one near the computer where it is handy. Store the other far away, preferably in a different building.

  7. Be suspicious of any application that stores all of its data in a single file or folder than can't be easily backed up on one DVD. It make not be a necessary application to begin with.

  8. Wherever possible, store your data on the web. Servers maintained by big-name corporations are for more reliable than any computer you can own. (When was the last time you heard of a Google or Yahoo server crashing and losing people's data?) A document that exists both on the web and on your computer hard drive can be considered adequately backed up for now. A document that exists ONLY on the web might also be adequate if the work is something you can reproduce if you have to (like an address book).

  9. Don't try to have a perfect backup of everything. Instead strive for "good enough" backup of documents that are most critical to you. Divide your data into things you MUST preserve (like the novel you have been working on for years) and the data you would LIKE to preserve if possible (like your old email). Concentrate your backup energy on the important documents, copying them frequently, and worry less about the optional stuff.

Data backup, like everything else in life, is a balance of risks and costs. You need to be paranoid, but not too paranoid. You should at least be paranoid enough not to trust some outside entity to back things up for you. Know your data, feel it, sense what it wants and how it might go bad. Only then can you feel truly secure.