Today is the first day of a whole new direction in which I plan to head. I am starting classes towards a second bachelors degree in information technology. Since this blog comprises the extent of my knowledge of computing, I’m afraid I may have my work cut out for me. And in a way, I hope I’m right.
I’m in desperate need of a challenge — something that will force me to explore subjects and opportunities that have eluded me for the past several years. Of course, I’m grateful for maintaining employment throughout the economic turbulence of the past few years, but it’s always been at the discretion of others. I’m ready to depend on myself for a change.
In the past five years, I have been a civilian consultant (read: contractor) with a branch of the United States military. During that time, I have kept the same position while being shuffled among no less than four contracts. Every September, the end of the government fiscal year brings about the stress and anxiety of applying for your own job all over again. I’ve become too burnt out and cynical repeating the process year after year.
I notice that with my current experience and education I am perfectly qualified for one job: the one I currently have. And I can only do it until the government decides it doesn’t need it anymore. I finally got tired of hearing myself bemoan this fact and decided to do something about it. I stumbled upon a very interesting program that seemed perfect. So I went for it.
One of my goals through taking on a more minimalist lifestyle was to clear out clutter — physical and emotional — and live a more intentional life. I want to choose what happens to me as much as I can help it. I want to be able to make things happen for myself. I want to cultivate relationships and be worthy of others’ time and company.
I don’t just want to live a life of purpose, I want to live life on purpose. And I only have so many days to do it.
There were numerous reasons I ventured into minimalism with consumerism and materialism unofficially ranked towards the top. I’ve made a valiant attempt to not spend any money the past couple months (with a couple exceptions) making sure to adhere to the one in, one out philosophy when I do.
One thing I’ve found incredibly difficult to resist buying, though, is music. I was a notorious online binge shopper with most purchases comprised of books and music. The five to ten dollar price tags don’t look like much individually but they would quickly add up to fifty and one hundred dollar invoices before I even knew what happened.
I’ve compiled a large enough collection of books on my Kindle to keep me occupied for months. My interests in music, however, are simultaneously persistent and fleeting. I’m always playing something while listening for something new. I have a conscious aversion to pirating so I was forced to find another way to mediate between my desire for music and my commitment to minimalism and anti-consumerism.
This dilemma, coupled with the advent of Twitter #Music, led me to the discovery (albeit seven years late) of subscription based music services. Twitter’s #Music app and website allow subscribers to Spotify and Rdio to link their accounts through Twitter in order to stream music from the artists they follow through the site.
I immediately visited both sites and was amazed at what I was missing out on. Both services are very impressive. They each offer a vast library of music, a mobile app, a web player, and a Roku channel. The pricing models for individual premium accounts are identical at $9.99 per month. Both sites also offer a free trial period that I took advantage of.
I loved both but ultimately settled on Rdio for a couple reasons. First, the user interface is stunningly simple compared to Spotify. Setting up playlists and collections of albums and songs is easily done by long pressing any album or song within the app and merely telling Rdio where to store it for you. The web player allows the same function by either using a drop down menu attached to each album/song or by simply clicking and dragging what you want to where you want it to go.
Both apps allow you to synch music to your mobile device to allow offline listening. This was huge for me since my phone doubles as my iPod and I listen to it constantly in my car. Again, Rdio’s UI was easier for me to navigate in this regard making it simple to not only synch the music, but to toggle the app’s ability to go offline with only two swipes preventing inadvertent data usage and battery drain.
The second reason I went with Rdio is more a matter of taste. Rdio exclusively carries music by a couple artists I like, namely Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. Both sites’ catalogs are easily searchable, though, allowing individuals to align their tastes appropriately.
As far as quality is concerned, Spotify is supposed to offer a better bitrate. I found this difficult to confirm or dispute due to Rdio’s frustrating reluctance to disclose what bitrate it uses. I can say that after a few day’s use, primarily through an auxiliary jack in my car and the Roku channel in my house, I have not noticed a diminished sound quality. A more discerning listener may disagree.
The bottom line is that thanks to modern technology music lovers have amazing options now to access exhaustive amounts of recordings, old or new. And this minimalist can now subsidize his former music buying addiction for only $9.99 per month.
Carl Sagan once said:
I don’t want to believe. I want to know.
I’ve always loved that quote and used it quite often; however, it doesn’t exactly apply to my life specifically. So I’ve modified it into a version I’ll use from here on out:
I want to believe. But I have to know.
While embarking on my foray into minimalism, I came across an interesting article written by Brad Plumer in the Washington Post this past week about the phenomenon of “trickle-down consumption.” Basically, it explains in a scientific manner the detrimental effect of “keeping up with the Jonses” in an era of increasing income inequality. The article cites a study by University of Chicago researchers documenting the causes and effects of spending more without earning more:
As the wealthy have gotten wealthier, the economists find, that’s created an economic arms race in which the middle class has been spending beyond their means in order to keep up. The authors call this “trickle-down consumption.” The result? Americans are saving less, bankruptcies are becoming more common, and politicians are pushing for policies to make it easier to take on debt.
According to the research, this “expenditure cascade” effect is responsible for roughly one-fourth of the decline in household savings rates since the early 1980s. As far as keeping up with the Jonses is concerned:
As wealthier Americans spend more on things like expensive preschools or fitness clubs or even fashion, their middle-income neighbors start spending more on these goods too — without cutting back elsewhere.
On its face, that doesn’t sound so terrible. But “trickle-down consumption” can have less-happy side effects too. In an earlier paper, Frank, Adam Seth Levine, and Oege Dijk found that “expenditure cascades” tend to lead to more bankruptcies, higher divorce rates, and longer commutes. Keeping up with the Joneses takes a toll.
I won’t republish the entire article here, but it’s definitely worth a read. I’ve certainly been guilty of my share of careless consumerism — which ultimately led to my experiment into minimalism — but now that I’m looking more critically at myself with regard to finances and possessions, I’m happy to feel myself stepping off of that merry-go-round. I find the potential consequences of keeping up far too devastating to flirt with.
However, I also find validation in the probability that the people I used to envy and measure myself against are not as better off as I thought. As my priorities begin to tip in favor of quality of life and relationships instead of quantity of possessions, I can’t help but wonder: While exhausting myself (and my income) trying to keep up with others, who are they trying to keep up with? It’s no longer worth their approval to bother finding out.
Last night during my daughter’s gymnastics practice I was helpless to resist eavesdropping on a gaggle of cackling women swapping stories about their husbands’ ineptness when it came to the most basic parenting responsibilities. Of course, as most members of an impromptu story circle are wont to do, they devolved into an endless cycle of one-upmanship: “You think your husband’s an idiot? Get a load of this…” Listening to these women gave the impression that their husbands are members of a pack of bumbling buffoons incapable of watching their own children for more than an hour before crumbling under the strain and calling, if not begging, for help.
As a father, I’ve always resented this type of thinking. I am heavily invested in the life of my child and have been since the day she was born. My wife and I both took ownership of parental responsibilities (when biologically permitted) and helped each other learn and cope as we went along. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with women who believe that by simply ejecting a fetus out of their body, they automatically and intuitively hold a monopoly on some vast encyclopedic knowledge of parenthood that cannot possibly be deciphered or understood by some brain-dead sperm donor.
Something I’ve learned during eight years of parenthood is that nobody actually knows what they’re doing. You prepare as much as you can but in the end, most learning is done on the fly. This is due to the fact that any child you raise will possess its own independent personality and doesn’t really care what you thought raising a child would be like. This alone negates the majority of parental game-planning from the get go.
After listening to my brooding during dinner, my daughter said something that validated my frustration yet troubled me at the same time. She told me: “That’s why I don’t like watching shows with dads and kids. The dads always look like idiots.” Is this really the message that little girls are getting? At the same time, is this the message little boys are receiving as well? One thing I do know: if you treat someone like an idiot long enough, they will eventually oblige you and behave like one.
Towards the end of our conversation, my daughter said something else that assuaged my anger and reminded me that when it comes to parenting, I really only have an audience of one. After expressing her dislike of the portrayal of fathers on her TV shows, she concluded our discussion by saying, “…but you’re not like that. You’re nice and you take care of me.” At the end of the day, that’s really the only perspective that matters.
I recently witnessed someone I care about go through a horrible life-altering experience. It was actually more like three experiences that all happened simultaneously. A hard dose of real life, if you will. Without going into detail, this person hit the bottom, hard; but is slowly percolating back up. They lost their spouse, home, and job to begin with. In addition, this person is saddled with the sort of debt that enters into the legal arena and has forced them into one room of a house belonging to some old friends.
As I alluded to, prospects are now present and all is not lost, but while watching this misfortune unfold I couldn’t help but internalize some of it and critically examine myself. During conversations with this person, in their present state, I found myself becoming strangely jealous in a way. This may sound strange. I certainly didn’t envy how they got where they are, but the clarity with which they view the future made me confront certain aspects of my own life. What I found was a lot of clutter; physically and metaphorically.
After a long conversation with this person it dawned on me that everything they now own can fit into one bedroom. This is a person who had a two-story, three- bedroom house with a two-car garage the last time I visited. Now, every last possession of theirs fits into a 200 square foot room. However, this individual’s priorities are in order at the moment and they are focused on preparing for a second chance that life has afforded them. Taking all this in, and looking at my own life, I asked myself, why wait for a second chance.
I’m grateful to have a wife, a child, a job, and a house. But I started to get frustrated with myself when I wondered what I would do if any, or all, of those things disappeared. What is really important? What is monopolizing my time, attention, energy, and resources? And depending on the answer, does it deserve to? Finally, what items from my three-story house would I take with me if I only had one room to live in? Those questions were answered for my acquaintance through devastating life circumstances. So I’ve made up my mind not to let life make those decisions for me.
I’ve decided to minimize my life as much as possible. With a little research I discovered a few interesting sites that chronicle the minimalist lifestyle. (I’m sure there are more so please feel free to forward them on.) Some of the material comes across as preachy, but a lot of it has merit. Of course there are practical implications (e.g. the less you buy/spend, the more you save). But, the idea that your possessions end up possessing you really resonated with me. I realized that the time, effort, and resources invested into procuring, maintaining, and keeping things usually far outweigh the utility or happiness that I get back in return.
So here I go. For now, my plan is to trim my wardrobe down to one week’s worth of clothes and shoes; the rest get donated. All of my books, DVD’s, and CD’s are going to the library. And from now on, if I buy something new, I will give something away. Also, cable will be canceled the first chance I get. The time, energy, and all around liberty gained by owning less is very appealing to me at this point in my life. Most importantly, I want to impress upon my child the idea that the entire world is designed primarily for one purpose: to get your money. And the only way that happens, is if you give it to them. I’m ready to begin and will update any successes and failures.
In October 1966, on a mud-splattered hill just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Vietnam, LIFE magazine's Larry Burrows made a photograph that, for generations, has served as the most indelible, searing illustration of the horrors inherent in that long, divisive war — and, by implication, in all wars. In Burrows' photo, nowadays commonly known as Reaching Out, an injured Marine — Gunnery Sgt.
As the never ceasing gun control debate rages on, there appears to be a fracture forming between gun owners themselves. This seems due to an evolving idea of the very basis for the 2nd Amendment. Some gun enthusiasts have voiced a concern over assault weapons even though they themselves are avid hunters and/or target shooters. While the right to bear arms is never in question, the necessity of assault rifles escapes them. This is where the divide among gun owners is widening.
The 2nd Amendment isn’t for recreational or sporting purposes, they’re told; it’s to maintain vigilance against the looming specter of tyranny. All of the arguments in favor of assault weapons for hunting or vermin control seem to go out the window. An assault weapon for home defense becomes irrelevant, too. No, the true reason that we can, and must, possess these weapons is to defend ourselves against our own government if and when it decides to enact its sinister plan to corral and oppress the citizens of the United States for the foreseeable future. After all, the tree of liberty and all that…
If this sounds crazy, it should. The incongruity of this view is truly baffling. Let me tell you why. The very people who cling to their weapons in a preemptive attempt to stave off tyranny are more often than not the same people in favor of incredible spending to keep our military light years ahead of our closest adversary, technologically speaking. In fact, the United States outspends the next thirteen countries combined on defense.
This begs the questions: if you are so fearful of your own government, why do you continue to fund it so extravagantly? If the threat of totalitarianism is so tangible, where is the political mobilization to curb military spending? And if you think your vault of guns and pallet of ammunition are going to fend off tanks and drones for any length of time, I have some prime underground bunker-ready property I’d like to sell you.
Dissonant rationalizations like this aren’t even a surprise anymore. They’ve actually become quite predictable. The constant drumbeat of “small government” is always audible in spite of support for legislation of homosexual citizens’ relationships; or a woman’s uterus; or bogus superstition in public school classrooms; or marijuana smokers’ back porches; etc…
Have we really become this fearful? If America is really as exceptional as we’ve always been led to believe, what are we so scared of? And what is the next generation to learn from this discourse: to rise up, take responsibility, and meet challenges; or to cower down and barricade ourselves against them?
Sam Harris published an informative and thoroughly researched post about gun violence on his blog yesterday. It’s definitely worth a read but it left me disappointed. I typically agree with most everything Harris says. He has the enviable ability to distill most topics down with such lucidity to make almost any idea sound obvious. However, while there is much to agree with in his piece, he unfortunately falls victim to certain contradictions.
Harris points out that 55 million children were at school the day 20 children were murdered in Newtown, Conn. He adds that 543 people have been killed in mass shootings since 1982 while there were 564,452 total murders during that time — meaning mass shootings comprised only 0.01 percent of all murders in that span. Harris also notes that the rates of violent crime in America have fallen 22 percent during the last decade and 18 percent over the last five years. However, in spite of the perspective these numbers provide, he still advocates for armed guards at schools. Huh?
While a world without guns is more or less a pipe dream, as Harris asserts, placing well-trained armed guards at our nation’s schools is equally — not to mention financially and mathematically — idealistic. Current budget numbers bear this out. For example, the Department of Defense budget is now $633 billion — or roughly 25 percent of the federal budget. Education (and job training) only comprises 3.6 percent of the federal budget — or approximately $92 billion. The DoD currently has 440 bases (to include the National Guard and Reserves) in the continental United States. However, there are 98,817 public schools in this country. What do these numbers have to do with each other? Let me explain.
The DoD is responsible for the security of its bases whether home or abroad. Until recently, most bases within the United States used contracted security at their gates. They are now hiring police officers to fulfill the roll. A quick search on the federal government’s employment website, USAJobs, shows that the majority of officers are being hired at the GS-05/07 pay grade. That means the starting salary range is approximately between $28,000 – $44,000 (depending on locality adjustments).
Take a minute to digest those figures. The Department of Defense, which comprises 25 percent of the federal budget and maintains security of a modest 440 installations, can only afford to pay professional police personnel $28,000 – $44,000 for their protective services. How can it be considered even remotely feasible that another federal department, with less than 0.6 percent of the funding and responsibility for 98,817 buildings, will be able to train, arm, and pay guards for every facility? The very idea is absurd. Local municipalities simply cannot be expected to absorb this expense.
(I do realize and admit that federal education funds make up a fraction of local school districts’ budgets, but state funding for education has been in decline long before this latest tragedy. Don’t expect much help there either.)
So what is America to do? The answer, I believe, is to wait. Violence is on the decline and guns will never be outlawed — nor should they be. But more guns are not the answer. If they were, the United States would have solved this problem years ago. America is simply going to have to outgrow its obsession with guns. In the meantime, America can stop reacting to violence in such spectacular fashion. The truth is, we simply can’t afford it.
All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
Was he wrong? The answer is sobering. The United States is estimated to have spent a staggering $6.6 million for every single dollar Al Qaeda spent carrying out the attacks on 9/11. In addition, it’s difficult to ignore the economic and emotional strain America has experienced in the last decade of warfare; the massive bureaucratic overhaul in Washington by the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security; or the erosion of basic freedoms and rights to privacy during the “war on terror.”
America needs to resist sweeping reactions to singular tragedies. Doing so will rob violence of its power to influence our society — a power it doesn’t deserve. Until we are able to do this, we will bankrupt ourselves fighting violence in a world that is becoming persistently, albeit gradually, more peaceful. When any aspect of society is altered or forfeited because of one violent action, it emboldens and accommodates violence even more by allowing it to affect a greater number of people and validating the perpetrator’s intent.
I don’t want my daughter going to a school with guns. I want her to forgo concern for weapons, not be dependent upon them. Getting educated under armed guard would be tantamount to institutionalization. The sacrifices required to make that happen would render public education unworthy of the trouble anyway. Our resources would be better invested in cultivating a more enlightened and educated generation of Americans. How much of our national identity and public liberty are we prepared to continually sacrifice on the altar of fear, no matter how unlikely its consequences?
A story that has resurfaced in light of the Newtown tragedy is that of Anders Behring Breivik; the gunman who took 77 lives — most of them teenagers — during a calculated mass shooting rampage in Norway in July, 2011. Brievik was found competent and given a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison — a penalty that baffled many Americans. How could the citizens of Norway stand to not only spare this man’s life, but also guarantee his release at the relatively young age of fifty-three? One of the surviving victims, Bjorn Magnus Ihler, summed it up like this:
“That’s how it should work. That’s staying true to our principles and the best evidence that he hasn’t changed society.”
When will America be able to provide that answer?
I was the victim of a culinary shakedown at my local Panera Bread restaurant today. I ordered the Turkey Artichoke Panini, took a bite, and immediately realized something was off. Separating the sandwich halves I noticed turkey, a few onions, some (despicable) roasted peppers, and about five spinach leaves. What I didn’t see was any artichoke. At all.
I walked it back to the kitchen and asked if they had made me the correct sandwich. I was informed that the recipe for the Turkey Artichoke Panini had been overhauled — although its name remains the same. To accommodate the removal of actual artichoke, the use of an “artichoke parmesan spread” is now employed.
I reacted in typical first-world fashion and took my grievance to Twitter:
— Lance Goff (@CynicalDispatch) January 2, 2013
To Panera’s credit, they quickly replied:
And on it went…
@cynicaldispatch Sorry to hear of your disappoint. We updated the recipe a little over a yr ago. If you wish, we’ll pass your feedback along
— Panera Bread (@panerabread) January 2, 2013
.@panerabread No problem. And thank you for the replies. I’ll just eliminate this as a potential meal choice in the meantime. Bummer.
— Lance Goff (@CynicalDispatch) January 2, 2013
I suppose I was most incredulous at the thought of a condiment ingredient receiving top billing on the menu. With that in mind, I think next time I’ll opt instead for a fromage-covered dijon steak and tomato served within a toasted split roll — otherwise known as a cheeseburger with ketchup and mustard.