Monday, December 6, 2010

On Minimalism

As I approach the end of my graduate school career, I am forced with the decision of what to do with all of my stuff. As soon as I finish, I won't have any kind of permanent place to live for a while, so this means I need to get my stuff down to the essentials.

I have lived pretty simply the past few years, so compared to most people, my room is pretty empty. Nonetheless, I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of. Over the past year or so, I have sold and given away a ton of stuff, especially books and video games.  However, I have mostly restricted myself to selling things which still have fairly high market price and could get a reasonable percentage of what I paid for the item or gave away items to friends who I knew would get value of of the item. This type of downsizing is pretty easy to do from a psychological perspective. But what about all of the other stuff?

I still have a good amount of media items, especially video games, DVD's, and books. I have sold off all the high value video games and books and almost all DVD's are not worth much today due to Blu-ray and digital downloads replacing them. However, they still have a perceived value to me. In particular, some of the video games, which have sub-$10 market value, I really, truly enjoyed. It is even possible I would want to play them again someday.

I can't deny that it seems like such a shame to let go of something which I paid upwards of $60 for for about $6 (In practice, it is hard to even get the market value for a game as online resellers like or have somewhat hefty fees to post as well as shipping costs). It is fair to say I have a certain attachment to some of the media I have. Some things just feel like they shouldn't be given away for free or such a small price.

It is no problem to leave behind or donate clothes or shoes which cost much more than certain media items. I think this is probably because, while a used media item is essentially exactly the same as a new one, this is not the case for clothes or shoes. Also, it just seems easier to not get attached to these items.

Nonetheless, as I continue to get more and more ruthless with the things I get rid of, I am faced with some tough decisions. Some things are sentimental and some things just feel like they should have some value. Sometimes, the decisions themselves end up consuming a lot of time or energy. The challenge, then, is to not only get to the point where you can disconnect the original price paid from the current price you can sell it at, but also be to calculate the likelihood that will want or care about that item again at some point in the future. There is also the fear, that perhaps, some things are just irreplaceable.

In reality, this calculation is probably easier than it seems, and almost definitely less expensive. Almost everything I have gotten rid of, I have never missed. Additionally, if I did miss it, I could always buy it back (this has only happened once or twice). This is typically really easy and cheap to do for video games, books, and other media items. The slight discrepancy between price sold for and price repaid for is probably offset by the money made by all the other things you sold. There is also the additional benefit of just having less things and living more minimalist.

I am currently faced with the decision of selling 12 xbox 360 video games for $80. They probably cost me around $600 or so and some of them I truly enjoyed. My Xbox 360 no longer works (just type "RROD" into Google) so, in practice, I cannot even play them anymore unless I buy a new Xbox 360, which I am not going to do.  A perfectly rational person might say that I am getting $80 more than what their current value to me is (i.e. $0). I think this is probably true, but I can't deny there are some painful moments as I approach a truly minimalistic lifestyle.

I still have a long way to go before I get to the point where I really feel like I am down to the essentials. It may be a tough journey, but I think it will be worth it. When I finally get to the point that everything I own can be carried by me and me alone, I think I will have a feeling of true freedom, and I can't wait!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sexual Rat Race

Throughout life, there are many activities that humans engage in which causes momentary or temporary satisfaction or happiness, but then, after time, lead to the desire to get more or something different. A classic example is the corporate man who sacrifices more and more time and energy to move up the corporate ladder and get promotions only so he can get more prestige and more money which will most likely not actually enhance his life. People, especially in a society like the US, seem to really value hard work for the sake of hard work. If you are making money and devoting your time to something perceived as work, then this is a good trait. This desire to always be moving up and always be changing can affect other parts of our lives as well.

Evolution has trained out genes, and, as a result, us, as survival machines for our genes, to always be seeking the best and strongest partner in which to procreate with. This desire causes humans to engage in a rat race very similar to that of the traditional rat race. I call this the sexual rat race. If you have read my blog in the past, one might be convinced that I have escaped the traditional rat race. I believe I have freed myself from many material desires as well as the desire to impress people with what I have as opposed to who I am. I feel confident in living cheaply and believe I will be able to avoid sacrifice in future work situations. This has significantly reduced the stress in my life and has caused me to be happier. Nonetheless, I realize I am engaging in a sexual rat race.

The book, "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz, discusses two types of people, maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are clearly the rat racers of the world, and the book argues that these people "objectively" do better (higher earning jobs, better mates, etc.). Satisficers are the other type, who are more likely to settle and feel content with their choices. In a free society with so many options, these people might do "objectivity" worse than the maximizers, but often are subjectively better in terms of happiness and confidence in their decisions. In a big city, there are clearly tons of members of the opposite sex, and it is hard to ignore them, even if in a long-term relationship. While one may feel happy with their current partner, the typical maximizer or sexual rat-racer will wonder if there is something better. Even if one does get another partner, just like increases in pay or a new car, eventually it just becomes more normal again. It is indeed a rat race.

Is there a way to combat this? For some, it may be fairly easy and natural to move from one person to another, so it may not be too stressful, but for others, this could be a very stressful activity. I believe the sexual rat race is a little more complicated than the traditional rat race. It is not clear to me if it is better to be a satisficer or maximizer here. I believe by staying with one person, it may be an act of fear: fear of being alone, fear of not meeting anyone of similar quality, fear of less, etc. But it is also another endless race. No matter what, we are programmed not just to desire the best, but also to desire something different. This certainly affects men more than women. At this point, I am not sure if the best approach is to work on some cognitive training to combat the sexual rat race. Is it better to work on not being attached to the opposite sex at all or is it better to be ok with just one person and not be attached to the variety we are programmed to desire?

Books like "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley talk about how just about everything humans do stem from the desire to ultimately reproduce. So, in some sense, the sexual rat race encapsulates what we think of as the more traditional rat race of desiring more money and corporate promotion. People engage in all this sacrificial work subconsciously to obtain the best mate. Perhaps it is best to figure out to do this without being in the money rat race, as the sexual rat race is ultimately what we are programmed to do. It certainly feels rewarding and our brains and bodies have set up several reward mechanisms for this. Ultimately, how one approaches this dilemma will have large consequences on their life. I am curious as to what other members of the community think about this dilemma and how you have dealt with this so far in your life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Vagabonding at Home Challenge Update 1

It has been a few weeks since I posted about the Vagabonding at Home Challenge. In spite of a big road bump in the challenge (see True Tests of Your Character), I have made some progress with the challenge. First, I'll discuss how my clothing experiments have gone, and then I'll discuss some of the new gear I have tried out.

I love my Vibram Five Fingers KSO's. They are by far the best workout and running shoes I have ever used. My calves get an unbelievable workout when running in them, and they are super comfortable for wearing in the gym. Also, coupled with my size Large MSR Packtowl (which is still very small), I no longer have to bring a giant gym bag to pack my tennis shoes and normal sized towel. I now just bring a small backpack and all my workout gear packs in about 1/4 of the backpack. Like I said, I love these things.

However, I only wore them as my regular and only pair of shoes for a week or so. First of all, they make your feet sweat. And the thin layer of moisture surrounding my feet made them very cold while sitting in my air-conditioned office. My feet are actually much warmer barefoot or in sandals. Also, any slight puddle will make them wet and this is uncomfortable. Kept dry, they are a very comfortable shoe, and the sensation of feeling the texture of the ground below me is really quite amazing. However, this feeling is not enough to make me want to wear them everywhere I go. They are cold, and they probably will start to stink, although mine are not too bad yet. I have yet to try them with toe socks. They would certainly help with the coldness, but would kind of kill the barefoot aspect of the shoes. Also, they would look pretty dorky with socks. Nonetheless, a pair of sandals and a good pair of waterproof trail-runners are probably the best way to go for footwear. For now, I have my pair of Rainbow leather sandals and a pair of Vasque Blur SL Gore-Tex trail runners. These are pretty heavy and big compared to the running shoes I am used to, but should be good for a variety of conditions.

A single pair of convertible pants is probably doable, but most likely not preferable. They will start to smell a bit after 3 or 4 days without being washed, even without any serious physical activity. This can easily be remedied by hand washing them in a sink with some Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. However, if you get them seriously dirty, like I did on a 2 day, 1 night backpacking trip, hand washing is not going to do it. Well, maybe it would, but it would take a long time and some more powerful cleansing soap. I think probably it is best to have 2 pairs of convertible pants, washing them by hand every couple of days or so, and then every other week or so paying to get them cleaned with either a washing machine or a dedicated hand washer, which are very cheap and easy to find in most countries.

The 2 pairs of Ex Officio underwear have really been great. Every night I wash one of them and hang it to dry with my Rick Steve's Clothesline. I have only used my two pairs and have only hand washed them. They are as fresh as can be, and I do not see a reason to get any more at the moment.

I have not made much progress on getting the right shirts. I ordered a medium, large, and x-large Icebraker Bodyfit 200 Contour Crews from These were not really my preferred shirts but would help me to understand how Icebreaker Bodyfit shirts fit. Well, they all fit pretty awkwardly. I usually wear medium t-shirts but it was a toss-up between the large and x-large versions. I didn't like the fit of either really. I also tried out some other Icebreaker t-shirts, but again I did not like the fit. Unfortunately, REI did not have medium versions of the Tech T-Lite 150 shirt, and this is the one that I think my research so far will probably be the best for me. I will probably order some of these soon, although at $60 each, it is hard to convince myself to do it. There are several other Merino wool brands such as Smartwool and Minus 33. The Minus 33 products seem to be about 2/3 the cost of the others and reviews for them are pretty favorable for comfort and durability. The might be good ones to try. For now, I have just been wearing a couple of Hanes medium black crew t-shirts. I have not had any issues with smell, and they even look reasonably nice but I am pretty sure if I was in a hot area where I was sweating, these would get gross fast. The good side: they are only about $3 each. I also currently have several cheap synthetic, dry fast shirts on order to see how these perform and look.

I am starting to get a good idea of what my clothing will be for moderate to hot temperatures, but what about rainy and cold days? To get high quality rain and cold gear, one could easily spend $1000 or more. I want to find a good balance between cost and value. The most efficient way to prepare for a variety of cold, rainy, or combination of the two conditions is to use a good layering system. That means a good base layer (whatever t-shirts I get will do), a good insulation layer, and a quality waterproof shell top layer. I will start with the shell.

I ordered several shells including the Mountain Hardwear Typhoon, Marmot Oracle, GoLite Tumalo, and the least expensive option of the four, a Marmot Precip jacket. In the end, I decided to keep the Marmot Precip as it seems to be a good balance of weather protection, price, and weight. It also has a nice style which seems at home in the city as well as on the trails. I additionally picked up a pair of Marmot Precip Full-zip rain pants, although these may end up not really being necessary for me. My convertible pants are pretty water resistant, and I never really cared too much about my legs getting a bit wet anyway.

For the insulation layer, I have tried out several products including the Marmot Zeus Down Jacket, GoLite Cady 2477 Jacket, Arc'teryx Apache AR Zip Fleece Pullover, and the Patagonia R3 High-Loft Fleece Jacket. The Marmot and GoLite are down and synthetic stuffing respectively but their "shiny" outer fabric looks a bit too ridiculous to wear in the city. At least for now, I decided against these "shiny" fabric styles, although the Marmot Zeus, in particular, was very warm, light, and comfortable. The Arc'teryx was pretty warm, but not warm enough given the bulk and lack of compressibility. I ordered a large Patagonia R3 but this was a bit too large for me, so I am currently waiting on an exchange for a medium. This jacket is incredibly warm and highly compressible, although also, quite expensive. I also have a couple of other cheaper insulation layers from White Sierra just to see the difference in weight and warmth with the premium priced R3.

My gear quest is still very much a work in progress. It has been going somewhat slow as I wait on somewhat slow shipping, and the fact that I have been so busy with other things. I hope to have all of my stuff ready to go within the next couple of months. The backpack will be a very important part of this, and it is very tough deciding the best way to carry all my stuff in addition to a laptop and DSLR camera. Without the DSLR, I am sure I could pack VERY light, maybe even at the level of Tynan. Wanting to bring my DSLR though makes things a bit more complicated. Stay tuned for more updates on my gear and let me know if you have any suggestions!

True Tests of Your Character

It is very easy to preach one thing or another. It is totally different to follow through on what you preach. When faced with a decision which flies in the face of everything you have been talking about, this is when your character and principles must really be tested. It is easy to preach virtue and honesty, but much harder when faced with the option to almost effortlessly download copyrighted media online for free. If you really want to tests someone's character, there must be options available to them that go against what they say. It is easy to keep dating the person you are with when there is no one else around. But how is it if something new comes along?

I was recently faced with a potentially life-altering decision. I had a job offer, which to most people, would seem like an incredibly extraordinary opportunity. One in a million. Impossible to refuse. It was totally unexpected, and initially, I completely wrote it off as it flies in the face of everything I have been convincing myself of the past two or three years. The job offer meant I would have to postpone, for at least two years, my long-term travel plans and desire to work on my own projects. I specifically meant to NOT look into any job opportunities because I did not want to face any decisions or compelling offers. Sometimes life throws you curve balls though.

Despite initially thinking there would be no way I would take the job offer, I decided to not decline it right there outright, but just to sit on it for a bit. After thinking a little more and talking to my research advisor, I was able to work out a pretty sweet deal. I would graduate about 5 months earlier than originally planned and start at the new job almost 2 months later. Not only would I finish graduate school early, but I also had bought myself some time in between to travel and explore my own projects and ideas. But 2 months is very different from the 2 years I had imagined. This was DEFINITELY a compromise. However, for a while, I thought maybe it was one I could live with.

Everyone who really knew me could not believe I was considering the job offer. I have been quoted on saying ridiculous things such as "even if I got offered a job with a salary of $500,000 a year, I would still have to turn it down." I had spent the past two years proving to myself how little money I really need to live a complete and happy life. I had taught myself that time was your most valuable asset, not money. But here I was, faced with a clear option which went against all this. My character and values were most definitely being tested.

The next week of my life was one of the most stressful in recent memory. Going through in my head all the pros and cons of taking the job or not. Most of the time, I felt a slight leaning toward taking it, and then, in a moment of extreme clarity, I felt so ridiculous about the prospect of taking it. I knew it was not what I wanted. This cycle persisted.

In the end, I decided not to take the job and stick with my original plan to travel, take time off, and work on my own projects and maybe projects with friends. It is the MUCH scarier option, that is for sure. But it is the one that excites me. It is the one that pushes me to grow. My character was tested, and I had passed the test. The next time yours is, will you?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Vagabonding at Home Challenge

While it is important to know how to live an awesome life while in graduate school, it is just as important to have one after graduate school. I can hardly believe I am typing these words, but I will be done with school in less than a year (and hopefully much less). After school, I plan on taking a mini-retirement while travelling for at least a year full time.

If you have read previous posts of mine, you would know I value efficiency and simplicity. I do not just want to go out and see a few things while blazing from place to place, I want to give vagabonding, or long-term travel, a chance as a lifestyle. There are numerous ways to make money which are independent of location, and I plan to explore these while travelling. Nonetheless, with my extremely simple and inexpensive life as a grad student, I have managed to save a bit of money which will hopefully allow me to travel for a while even if I cannot successfully make money on the road.

I want to maintain a simple, yet highly connected and productive life while seeing the world. This will involve taking some steps to make sure I have the right gear. One thing that I absolutely require is that I must be travelling light, very light. However, I must still be very functional and not make any huge sacrifices of convenience, productivity, or connectivity.

Since I still have a bit of time left in my graduate career, I have decided it is important to get started on what I call "The Vagabonding at Home Challenge." I want to live in such a way that will closely mimic how my life will be when I am travelling. This will force me to start looking at the gear which I think will be useful on my travels, whether it is clothing, technology, or other things. Every ounce matters when aiming to travel very light, so this will force me to discover what I really need (and not just what someone else's travel blog says I will need).

In this initial state, I will primarily focus on clothing. Since where I live now is pretty warm all year, I will focus on clothing for moderate to hot weather. As far as clothes go, this is my plan:
  • 1 pair of shoes
  • 1 pair of convertible pants
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • 2 shirts
This is it, at least for now. There are also a couple further rules. Once I have all of the items (at the moment, I am still waiting to get the shirts I plan to use), I can wear these items and only these items. On top of this, I can only wash these items in a sink, just like I would probably often have to do while travelling.

Now let's talk about the clothes I am testing. My ideas so far are very much inspired by people like Tynan and Tim Ferriss, but the point is I need to figure out if their recommendations are right for me. The current list is:
  • 1 pair of Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes (Black/Gray Camo)
  • 1 pair of White Sierra Convertible Trail Pants (Stone)
  • 2 pairs of Ex Officio Men's Give-N-Go Boxers (1 Black and 1 Charcoal)
  • 2 Icebreaker Short Sleeve T-Shirts (haven't decided on exact models)
I have had an interest in the barefoot-style Five Fingers for a while now, and I have heard good things about them as a travel shoe. The pants are just the ones I already have, and I find them to be just fine. The quick drying Ex Officio boxers have the motto "17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of underwear. Okay, maybe two." It seems like these are right up my alley. The Icebreaker shirts come recommended from many long term travellers and are made of Merino wool which is known to be extremely resistant to odors while being very durable and comfortable. I have a bunch on order from in various style and sizes, and I will be sure to report what I find.

I am very excited to see how my initial clothing challenge goes. Will my office mate say I smell? Will my friends get bored of my attire? It will be interesting to see, but this is exactly why I am doing this. If I can be comfortable with this lifestyle during my normal life, I am sure it will be good for my life after graduate school.