Friday, July 18, 2008

Stuff ist Angst

I've got this fantasy of selling everything I own and living a simpler and more meaningful life. The more I have the more stressed I seem to be. Owning more things just means more to maintain, more to worry about and more to feel guilty about owning.

This guy has taken on the project of limiting the things in his life to just 100 items. His goal is to arrive at that number by November 2008 and he has been blogging about his progress. He's gotten it down to 132 when I last checked. Many people have been inspired to follow suit and there's been some discussion online about what counts as a single thing. Does a pair of shoes count as two or one? Should you count each piece of your cutlery, socks, underwear etc? Some people are being more fundamentalist than others. One girl insists on counting her 20 pairs of shoes as a single item for her list.

Of course 100 is an arbitrary number. It may be an incredibly difficult count to attain but this type of exercise is a great way to force yourself to focus and prioritize what's important to you. It reminds me of the Dogma 95 restrictions for film making that were devised by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Also, the endless variations of the "desert island question" that asks you to pick your 5 books or 5 albums or 5 movies that you couldn't live without.

All of these regimes are limited arbitrarily but all of them will force you to ask something of yourself; what do I really need and what is superfluous? Each of them will force you to be more efficient, more effective and more conscious of yourself, whether it's by reducing your environmental footprint, allowing you to make a leaner film or discovering and being able to express that which is truly important and inspiring to you.

I don't think it really matters if you're so strict or not. I'm guessing that whoever decides to limit their possessions to 100 things will gain the invaluable benefit of perspective no matter how they choose to do it. Simply counting the number of things you own will undoubtedly cause you to think about those things in a new light. Whether you pare them down to 100 or 200 things you will likely come to realize that you may not actually need to have so many material possessions.

I have some friends who are talking about establishing an award to be given to someone not for their creation of something great but for their removal of something not so great. We rarely reward such things. Rather, we have become obsessed with growth as the only indicator of prosperity. This leads our current form of capitalism to encourage unhealthy growth. We have become far removed from any paradigm of balance and have embraced what can aptly be described by the metaphor of cancer which is the best example of unhealthy and unchecked growth. It eventually eats away and kills the system within which it grows.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

iPhone, Rogers and Genghis Khan

Most successful leaders have this in common: They love to be loved but don't mind being hated. The name of Genghis Khan enjoys god-like status in some parts of the world. But it would not be surprising to his devotees to find that others would revile the historical man. It is a part of the game of being a conquering hero that your own people will probably love you and those you vanquish will paint you as a baby-on-bayonet rape and pillager.

As a child living at one end of the legendary Silk Road I had heard stories about the great Genghis Khan. I was even named after him. Even though I've been called Jake since coming to Canada my real name is a derived form of Genghis. But growing up in the west I noticed that his name was often associated with a less than heroic narrative.

Billionaire Ted Rogers is a captain of industry well known by Canadians as a leader in the realm of telecommunications. Shareholders in his Rogers Communications love him while his competitors likely don't. His customers however seem to despise him. Owing to actual or near monopolistic positions in various businesses people have had to grudgingly make monthly payments to his companies while seething and hoping for some competitive horizon to level the field. As it turns out Apple's iPhone will only be offered for service on the Rogers network and they've taken up their monopolistic position by gouging their customers with exorbitant data plan rates. What has resulted is an explosion of displeasure that expresses itself in countless thousands of Internet postings decrying their rapacious opportunism.

While reading through some of the thousands of comments on (which became I noticed a pattern among the more colourfully metaphorical postings. There were countless references to the "raping and pillaging" of customers or how Rogers has engaged in "a scorched earth approach" to the sensibilities of the Canadian wireless consumer. These kind of characterizations are usually reserved for other types of leaders. The Genghis Khan brand is finally getting some reprieve for his name and legacy in the west through films like The Mongol but it has taken the better part of a millennium for this to come about. Maybe Ted Rogers doesn't mind being hated but he should take note and realize that the rehabilitation of the image of such a leader could take a very long time; longer perhaps than shareholders are willing to wait.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Waiting in Limbo

While waiting in a New York City emergency room someone fell off their chair and died. No one noticed for about an hour. The security video shows patients, nurses and doctors walking past as the woman lies face down on the floor. I could write about the sad diminishment of our instinctive concern for the well being of others or how such a thing is surely only typical of a cold-hearted metropolis like NYC, or validly make enquiries about class and race but I think something else needs to be considered here. If that person were to fall over on the street, in a subway car or in a store I think people would probably call for medical help. Ironically where medical help is most abundantly available no one moves to do so.

We need to consider the context and environment within which the event occurred. Whenever one finds oneself in a typical human environment there are a whole set of understandings, assumptions and expectations around what happens in such situations. To some extent the sidewalk on which you walk, the subway car in which you sit or the mall in which you shop can be viewed with some ownership. It is your town, transit system or shopping area. If something unexpected occurs like someone falling face down in front of you, this event is processed within the background of what you would expect and what you are supposed to do as citizen, customer, or human being. You would in most cases do something to help and we would all be reassured of our human dignity.

The hospital ER is an alien place unlike many environments that people know. It feels more like a transitional realm between the living and the dead. Like one of Dante's circles of hell it is terra infirma and terra incognito. People don't really know how to act or what to expect while waiting there and the fact that it is a highly regulated and designed environment leads people to assume that every contingency has been considered and that things will funnel through this process and fall where they should. They have an implicit faith in the system to take care of their needs.

Unlike their everyday earthly surroundings patients have no sense of ownership of their environment in an ER. In their alienated situation they are disassociated from their otherwise normal set of human practices; like acting in concern for another human being. All of this while very likely being acutely concerned with their own injury and their own mortality. One can almost understand, if not accept, the failure of the other patients to act but the callousness of the staff is unacceptable. It is here that we can question whether something more basic like human dignity is being compromised. As functionaries within a way of life in which they are also the designers they should have been able to notice the anomaly and acted accordingly. If they couldn't, then they need to be criticized for how they have so poorly designed the system in the first place.