Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without

Dmitry Orlov points out that one of the consolations of Soviet society was that it inadvertently instilled resilience in its citizens:

Soviet consumer products were always an object of derision – refrigerators that kept the house warm – and the food, and so on. You’d be lucky if you got one at all, and it would be up to you to make it work once you got it home. But once you got it to work, it would become a priceless family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation, sturdy, and almost infinitely maintainable.

In the United States, you often hear that something “is not worth fixing.” This is enough to make a Russian see red. I once heard of an elderly Russian who became irate when a hardware store in Boston wouldn’t sell him replacement bedsprings: “People are throwing away perfectly good mattresses, how am I supposed to fix them?”

That mattress anecdote has stuck with me for a long time. While on the farm we slowly and sometimes painfully cultivated this sort of resilience—and were often blocked in our efforts by the status quo. Sometimes we would figure out what we needed in order to make a repair, only to find that the parts were sold only to people “in the business”, appliance repairmen and such. Occasionally I resorted to making up a business name to have parts sent to, and I returned suspicious looks with a smile at the appliance parts wholesaler.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. Selling strictly to the trade is a thing of the past, at least for the things I want to buy. And the diagnostic information available on the internet—astonishing! A few weeks ago Debbie noticed that our dryer was struggling with heavy loads that previously had caused no trouble. It took less than 30 minutes to search for answers, learn a bit about how electric clothes dryers work, find and glance at videos and webpages identifying the likely problem, find the best price on the necessary replacement part, and order it.

Same exact process a month earlier when our gas oven had finally gotten to the point where it took much too long for the gas to ignite. Who knew there was a ceramic gizmo that did this by getting extremely hot very quickly while a little bit of gas trickled out, and over the years had increasing difficulty getting extremely hot? Not me, until I started googling around. Nice enough that this explanatory self-repair video was provided by Sears itself—but not as nice when you learn that their goal is to sell you a part for $165 that you can get much cheaper elsewhere (after more googling, we bought one for $24). Chris took fifteen minutes to install it (and to adjust the gas/air mixture), and now the oven not only lights after a few seconds, it performs much better overall, I assume because the flame comes back on faster when the thermostat tells it to.

My mindset on this still has a long way to go, but I’m getting better. I use an Aeropress three times a day to make coffee, basically a tube in which the coffee is brewed plus a plunger to press the brew out once it’s done. After five years the plunger was no longer sealing well, irritating me enough to decide I needed to replace it. After all, $25 for five years of daily service, not a bad deal. But for some reason I started googling Aeropress, and discovered a store that sold not only the entire apparatus but replacement parts. Replacement parts for a $25 gizmo? It hadn’t even occurred to me. But sure enough I could buy a rubber stopper to replace the one that had finally gotten too loose—for $10, which seems a bit steep, but no other part of the Aeropress is likely to wear out, so I bought one and expect another five years of faithful service from it.

More thoughts on our homeschooling journey

I’m glad we focused on weaknesses and let gifts take care of themselves. Because there are plenty of weaknesses that need work (e.g arrogance), and focusing on gifts makes it too easy to let them slide. We always provided what was needed for a self-motivated pursuit of a gift—sometimes that was seized upon, sometimes it was neglected for lack of interest. We never pushed, and of the gifts our kids have I don’t think they would have benefited significantly if we had pushed them in those areas. But we did push, gently but steadily, in areas where they were weak and they seem to be very well balanced as a result. (I’m not saying that it’s wrong to focus on a child’s gifts, only that it isn’t the path we chose, largely because we could foresee dangers we preferred not to deal with.)

I wish we had leaned further toward unschooling. But I don’t think this was a mistake as much as inability to put the necessary pieces together. Unschooling assumes that the child will actively seek out the knowledge they need guided by their interests, that self-motivation will somehow do a proper balancing act. We didn’t see that, and never figured out how to spark the appropriate interests. I don’t mean that we had unrealistic expectations of what our little geniuses would pursue—they read a lot, for example, but have little interest in “literary” works … which actually persuaded me to move those works from the essential to the optional category in my mind, coming to understand that they are good but there are also other avenues for gaining the wisdom they offer—so we only focused on those in order to give the required dose of work-they-didn’t-need-to-like-but-needed-to-do.

I think that full-on unschooling is the way to go, if you can manage it. But I also think that the modern world works strongly against the possibility. If we had managed to build a real farm-centered family economy in a farming community, we probably could have kept booklearning to a minimum. But modern life is just too passive by nature to spark the interests that need sparking.

Word count

I almost forgot to start my daily journal last night, but remembered in time to spend twenty minutes on it. All I did was review the events of the day, so the writing was spare and fragmentary—just what I’ve been aiming for. And I ended up with 700+ words, far more than I would usually produce in the same time while blogging. I’ll continue, probably 30 minutes every evening, and I look forward to seeing where this might take me. (Haven’t yet started the thoughts-on journal, but that’s attractive enough to me that I know it will happen.)

It occurred to me that I’m continuing to fill my non-work hours with set routines. At the moment I devote three hours per day to meditation and exercise. The daily journal will take another half-hour, and although I count the daily blogging more as an experiment than a routine it often takes a good chunk of my time to write a post. But it’s probably an improvement—overall my activity has drifted into being too demand driven, which can lead to imbalance, favoring the urgent over the important. I am fine with routine, and if I can establish stronger, more thoughtful patterns (especially during work hours) it will help me both to avoid wasting time and to allocate the time I do spend more intelligently.

Why write? ctd.

I came up dry last night (when I usually write the next day’s post) and was about ready to write a meta-post saying that I would need to back off my original goal of posting daily, maybe dropping back to three times per week or such. But while on the treadmill this morning a few ideas came to me, and then I wasn’t so sure.

Except that the ideas were a little more demanding than I had time to address. I was hoping as this project proceeded that I’d find a way to inteleave my more weighty posts with items that were shorter, lighter, and took much less time to write up. But that hasn’t happened yet, which increases my admiration for the bloggers who are able to do that—the ones whose writing I like, anyway.

Then I got an email from Derek Sivers—along with tens of thousands of other folks on his email list. Sivers is known for founding (and eventually selling) CD Baby, is a very smart guy, and is very generous with his thinking. He doesn’t write much, but when he does he emails a link to his latest to everyone who has asked to be on his list. I always read them immediately, they’re sure to be good.

Today Sivers comes to my rescue, sort of, with a post that I can both link to and also use to nudge my writing pattern. His suggestion:

Keep one file that you open in the word processor of your choice.

Every day at some point, just open up this file, write today’s date, then start writing. Even if it seems boring, write what you did today, and how you are feeling.

It works best as a nightly routine. Just take a minute and write at least a few sentences. If you have time, write down everything on your mind. Clear it all out. But if you miss a night, make time the next morning to write about the previous day.

Not exactly novel advice, but maybe I just needed to hear it again at this time. My objective for daily posting was not so much to generate a stream of public writing as to get myself writing more freely. Regular private writing may be the way there.

Sivers offers a second related suggestion:

There are certain subjects in your life you think about a lot. People, places, hobbies, health, plans, finances.

For each subject that you might have ongoing thoughts about, start a separate “Thoughts On” journal. Whenever you have some thoughts on this subject, open up that file, write today’s date, then start writing.

This one actually fits my thinking a little better—one reason why I’m going to prioritize Sivers’s daily journaling over thoughts-on journaling, I need to discipline myself to practice what shouldn’t be such a big deal but currently is for me.

He then offers a delightfully long list of topics he journals on, one I’ll study a bit for inspiration. As he points out, some of the topics (e.g. “airports”) rarely get an entry, but once or twice a year he’ll find himself sitting in an airport, and sometimes a thought will come.

Sivers ends by noting:

Almost all the thoughts I have on any subject are the result of writing in my diary and journals, then questioning myself and working through alternate ways of thinking about it, and finally returning to the subject days or months later with a clear head and updated thoughts, seeing how they’ve changed or not over time.

I certainly take this approach in my thinking, but rarely record the process—I try to write about things where I’ve done that, and then either discarded the thought or gone on to put it into practice—the writing is usually looking back from a distance. Keeping a private record of that process intrigues me.

In a comment on yesterday’s post, constant reader Servetus brings this blog post to our attention—and it’s a good one! I especially like this phrase, which I think points out an important truth:

so every time an expert or a reporter casually and thoughtlessly treats them as a certainty, they are creating the certainty that they only claim to predict.

In this case the “them” is autonomous cars, but substitute any hot trend you like, the observation still works. The writer also uses dying brick-and-mortar stores and colleges that close as examples, pointing out that in any particular case the story behind the event goes far beyond any single overarching narrative—and yet a narrative emerges nonetheless, and if you look closely enough the story being told is usually the one that powerful interests benefit from having told. And the “certainty” the writer mentions is not created by driving events in a certain direction, but by telling a story attractive enough that people stop looking for alternatives, making the outcome of the story inevitable.

The writer spins one example of how the process works:

With autonomous cars, there’s real money involved, and so every time an expert or a reporter casually and thoughtlessly treats them as a certainty, they are creating the certainty that they only claim to predict. If it turns out that you can’t simply unleash tens of thousands of perfectly working autonomous vehicles onto the current road network, it will be made to happen by changing the infrastructure. The autonomous car makers will buy out HOV lanes and put guides on them and get manually driven cars banned from them, in the name of safety or experimentation or innovation. Then they’ll argue that any accidents on non-guided roadways are actually human error, not autonomous car error, and push for eliminating manual drivers from all high-speed highways. Inch by inch it will happen–and “prediction” will have played its role.

I like mindfulness practice because it is aimed precisely at liberating people from this sort of bondage. It teaches us to respond rather than react, to open up just enough space between the event and us to allow a response, introducing a moment in which we can observe the event and say: now what? Faced with a single overarching narrative, reaction chooses one of two options: embrace or reject, I want this or I don’t want this, I’m with you or I’m against you. But if we can learn not to react when a narrative confronts us, we can consider it and then ask: how else might I respond?

Other possibilities may become visible, among which we can choose. Or the choice might be to embrace or to reject, but at least it will then be a thoughtful choice.

MarketWorld

I’m reading Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. I’m not enjoying it as much as I thought I would, and I’m not sure if it’s the writer (who is competent enough) or just that I already know the subject material so well that I’m kind of bored with the retelling. But his angle has clarified some important things for me. It’s there in the subtitle: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas maintains that the last thirty years have given rise to the idea of doing good by doing well, or at least a new interpretation of that idea—and that it is a fraud that deflects us as a people from normal inclinations towards fairness, all the while enriching the elite who are pushing it.

He calls the elite “MarketWorld”—not very catchy, perhaps a symptom of why I’m not liking the book much. But you can get his point without reading the book by taking a look at this excerpt just published in the Guardian.

This genre of elites believes and promotes the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.

This is what I call MarketWorld – an ascendant power elite defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened business people and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls “thought leaders”, its own language, and even its own territory – including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which its values are reinforced and disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind.

The elites of MarketWorld often speak in a language of “changing the world” and “making the world a better place” – language more typically associated with protest barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that even as these elites have done much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the US’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.

And a few paragraphs later he makes his key point:

How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is – above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners. In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. Society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.

One thing I like about Giridharadas is his emperor-has-no-clothes take on MarketWorld. These guys are so good at bamboozling, and we’re so eager to be bamboozled, that a stunning fact goes unnoticed: doing good by doing well just doesn’t work. We have thirty years of evidence to demonstrate that. Which points at a deeper mystery, one that always fascinates me: when our thinking fails us, why do we tend to double down rather than abandoning it? I don’t think Giridharadas will have much to teach me about this—he apparently leans toward returning to government regulation, in my mind just as flawed. But he’s given me another item to add to my long list of failed ideas that never get labeled as such.

Apples

I’m behind the times on this particular shift, but sometime during the past couple of years I found myself wondering: where did all these new apples come from? I’ve always enjoyed apples, though I didn’t buy them regularly. I like them tart and crisp, so growing up if it was anything it was always Granny Smith. Then about twenty years ago I saw my first new variety in many years, the Fuji, tried it and liked it a lot better. Then Gala came along, and I liked it a little better, so I alternated between the two depending on what was cheapest. But still it was just an occasional thing.

While in El Paso I began a fairly strict pattern of eating, and a daily apple was part of it, so I began paying more attention to what was available. I guess the first cutting-edge apple I bought was a Sweetango—nearly twice the price of a Gala but oh-so-good—and only available for a three-month window so I didn’t feel so extravagant in upgrading. And then I found Jazz, which weren’t quite as expensive (though still pricey), available year round, and just slightly less tasty to me than Sweetango, so that’s my apple of choice now. If they’re too expensive or not available I’ll drop back to Gala, but our local Kroger has them on sale every few weeks for $1/lb, so I can usually stock up.

And lately I’ve been reading that all this was made possible by an explosion of apple popularity due to the Honeycrisp—which I also like, but is very expensive and usually too large for my taste. Still, it was apparently the contrast in texture and sweetness between the Honeycrisp and more traditional store-bought apples that re-interested people in buying them, even at premium prices, and now there’s a race to bring even more exotic varieties to market. All that doesn’t mean much to me now—I’m not a foodie anymore, I just want my apple to be enjoyable—but I’m glad to benefit in this way from the foodiness of the American public.

Here’s a fun six-minute video that traces the history of the Sweetango, produced by NPR’s Planet Money program. It’s a good overview, though shallow. And it’s a good example of the problem I mentioned a few days back of how the trend to video has led to major dumbing down of content—this video contains at most a few written paragraphs worth of information that could probably be read in 15-30 seconds. Instead I spent six minutes on it, all the time wondering what might have been if all the time, effort, and money that produced it had been redirected to a written article on the topic.

Fun fact: apple cores are a myth. Ever since I saw this I’ve been eating apples from the bottom up, and it’s true, the core “disappears”. I often pause in the middle to pick the seeds out, but not always, they go down pretty easy with the rest.