Only a few bits left

There was a time not so long ago I was obsessed with media. Well, to be specific, I was obsessed with owning media. Boxes of books, movies, video games, CD’s (mostly of bad bands) and all other things I had piled everywhere just taking up space in the off chance I wanted to revisit Underworld: Evolution. Okay I did that a few times (I CAN MAKE BAD CHOICES) but still, the vast majority of my possessions were just things that never saw use.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t hording things, I was happy to loan things to people I and we always were good about spring cleaning. I knew how to give up things, but I was really good at holding onto things that I thought had value. That’s started to change.

I couldn’t tell you the exact time I wanted to own less, but I think it is related to the desire I had to change myself after I left Mines. I was fundamentally very unhappy, and I didn’t know why. So, I basically hit resent and started making major changes to my life.

Step one was when I shaved my head. Say what you will, I looked good. Then I started to get rid of crap. I sold video games initially and then started to donate them because I don’t really value money. I donated books and movies. Not my usual two or three here and there, I got rid of almost all of them. I don’t own a DVD anymore, certainly no CD’s. No more physical video games. The word physical is where things really pick up here.

Who buys DVD’s? No seriously, the only people I know who buy movies are people who either don’t get the idea of streaming or….. okay they’re actually the only ones. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now, I can cheaply watch more good shows and movies than I could ever possibly hope to watch. Music? Google Play Music is my personal choice. I’ve been on digital music for a while, but streaming is just frankly easier and more unified in a lot of ways. I still have physical copies of the Bible, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, but that’s mostly just a bit too much nostalgia to give up. Besides that, Kindle books are cheaper anyway. As for video games, I’ve grown to prefer PC gaming anyway, and what chump buys physical PC games?

Here’s the thing, it feels truly liberating to have less stuff. Obviously I’ve been out of the house for some time now that I’m in college, but I used to just keep a bunch of stuff at home. I wanted nothing to do with that anymore. It’s seriously just stuff I have no intent of using anymore. I literally don’t have a room at my family’s house anymore (it’s not sad like it sounds, there’s just a lot of people in a small space).

Does any of this mean I am consuming any less media? Not at all. I don’t buy as much anymore, but I’m getting as much or more joy from entertainment than I ever have. I just spend less and own less. I really like it. I can get things I like anywhere I happen to be I have what I want. Travel has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and owning less makes that seem a lot easier. I’m hoping to spend a year in Russia soon, and if I were to go today, the computer I’m currently typing on already has everything I would possibly want ready to go. Nothing I’d have to entrust with people while I’m gone or try to stuff together. Just the freedom from being owned by possessions. It’s kind of like Fight Club.

I would not quite call myself a minimalist yet, but I’ve gotten to really enjoy owning less. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that is made by podcasters and bloggers who are hardcore minimalists. They didn’t get me started on getting rid of possessions but they sure have helped me along the way. The main idea that I am trying to embody is only buying things that add value to my life. They have a phrase I’ve been trying to keep in mind. “Love people and use things because the reverse never works.”

Shiny and Chrome

When I got my first summer job for my grandpa’s construction company, I knew what I wanted to buy. I wanted a computer. My mom was always a technophobe, so I only had really limited experience for most of my life, and in spite of (or maybe because of) that I am very much a technophile. So, what was my small budget going to purchase?

Spoilers, my first laptop was a Dell Inspiron 13, and my current computer is a Lenovo Y700. But when I was looking I saw these weird new things called Chromebooks. They were (and still mostly are) cheap laptops that were basically a version of the Chrome browser with a couple cool tricks. In my days of low technological understanding, I wasn’t sure if it would be able to take Google Docs offline like I planned to do for debate, so I didn’t get one. I thought they might have been a flash in the pan, but they are honestly looking more appealing by the day.

Most of the cool things about Chromebooks (insane security, frequent updates, dirt cheap) are still largely there, but so are the limits. It’s still mostly just a browser. That’s changing. As of last year, Google started to make the Google Play store available on certain models of Chromebook, and recently announced that all new Chromebooks in 2017. What’s more, they announced a set of new computers from Samsung called the Chromebook Plus and Chromebook Pro. They’re both plenty powerful, but they are made from the start with the intent of having Android apps available. So, any fears I once held about enough features are largely absolved.

The most common work related programs are word processors. Originally, Google Drive was available to this end, and even as I write this on a Windows 10 computer I still prefer to use Google services for pretty much everything. But the reason I like platforms like Windows and Android is they are open, and I like having the choice to do with my things as I will. So more options for productivity is never bad, and Word for Android is actually a solid choice.

Here’s the thing, Word Online has been available in the Chrome browser for some time now, but that isn’t full Word, and it isn’t available offline. Those are conditions that most people can live with, but Word for Android can go offline. Still it isn’t full Word. Here’s the thing, I don’t think that is actually that big of a problem for 95% of people. Most of us don’t do anything but type and maybe mess around with the font a little. The features that Android Word lacks compared to Windows and Mac are edge cases at most.

Think about it, how much do you really do on you need your computer to do. If you’re a video editor, engineer, or PC Gamer, yeah, you need more muscle and specialized programs than Chromebooks can provide in the near future. Android games are obviously a thing, with some lighter spin-offs of classics like Civilization Revolution 2 or the full multi-platform Hearthstone (the greatest F2P game available), and there are some very basic video and photo editing apps available, but for those really dedicated, we still don’t have enough for everyone.

But what about the people who spend most of their time on social networks, shopping, streaming shows, or writing? I honestly think that is the majority of what most people do. That would certainly explain the popularity of smartphones and tablets, and think about the great things you get in exchange. The hardware is lighter, so it is one, well, lighter. Chromebooks, even those with larger screens, are thin, light and easy to carry around. Even more, the lower specs can provide for dramatically better battery life. For as much as I like my laptop, having a core i7 and a discrete graphics card can really drain a battery, even with lighter work. So, will my next computer be a Chromebook? Eh.

Getting an OS closer to Android that takes less space and more battery life are almost exclusively advantages for me, and most of what I do on a computer would be done as well or even better on a Chromebook. As for the rest, well I’m a nerd who likes PC gaming. I like Hearthstone plenty, but I’d miss Stardew Valley, Diablo, Skyrim, and any number of other games I already enjoy, and am looking forward to. The games are what will hold me back at this point, but I don’t know for how long, and if you don’t need a high end computer, why are you spending the money? You can get a Chromed out OS for pretty cheap.

Time well wasted

I am a workaholic. I hate not having something to do, and I dread long school breaks because I feel so unproductive. I started learning a little bit of French over Christmas just to take up time. All I remember is je mange pomme de terre, and I’m not even sure if that is right. But I’ve found a problem, I overwork myself. I push too hard and then I’ll get dangerously close to having a minor breakdown, so I’ve had to teach myself a thing or two about self care in college. I’ve discovered that for myself some things work better for relaxation than others.

Strangely, I find I enjoy things more as they seem more like a waste of time, so there is a scale of things. I like listening to podcasts and books, but both of those feel at least a little like work, a little too much like I’m being productive and doing something to enrich my mind. Nightmarish I know, but only for situations when I don’t have too much stress, just a little unwinding.

One tier below that is TV and movies. It’s much more passive, and often a good deal more silly. Watching Rick and Morty can be more relaxing than reading a book about the history of NPR when I just want to sit back and relax.

When I’m really feeling the ole grindstone grate against my last nerve, nothing will do in the place of some stupid video games.

Of course there are plenty of intellectual video games with strong points to make (my personal favorite of these is Papers, Please) but I’m talking about games that are serious wastes of time. Maybe there’s a story, but that’s not the lure of a game like XCOM, Hearthstone, or Ultimate Chicken Horse.

Those are all great, but my personal favorite when I need a pick me up is Stardew Valley. There’s the incredible music, the simple gameplay, and a whole other list of things I can rattle off, but the whole experience together blends into a place I can just get lost, be happy, and grow some corn.

I’ve always liked games, but for most of my life, I could never allow myself to value them. With rare exceptions, they were basically complicated toys, not anything I could have an intelligent conversation about. Then I had a really great class last year called Humans and Technology where I really got to value a wide range of artistic mediums. And from there, I realized I don’t particularly care if they’re of any great value.

Stardew Valley is a truly wonderful game that helps make me happier when I am going through some hard times. It is an experience that helps me find happiness. If other people don’t value it, who cares. I want to do things that make me happy in my life.  If that means some good old fashioned play time with some pixelated cows, then so be it.

Silver linings

I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a bad year. I refuse to believe that it is just media coverage, this was a bad year. But there were a few things this year I really liked (mostly entertainment stuff for the purposes of this Post) and got me through, so I want to talk about them.

Music

The first thing is actually tied to an early unfortunate event, and that is Blackstar by David Bowie. I remember the moment I read about his death. I had “Lazarus” playing on Spotify when the Rolling Stone headline showed up on my Twitter feed. If you haven’t heard the song, it is Bowie’s song that kind of acknowledges mortality. That’s been read into plenty, but at least I’ve had something to listen to from the get go.

I really can’t mention 2016 without mentioning Kanye’s new album. I adored The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. I’ve written about Kanye already and recent events have shown some interesting turns in his persona, but Pablo gave me a lot to identify with and lean on for strength. Also, just go ahead and lump his concert in there because I’ll remember that little trip with Grace for years to come.

I actually saw quite a few concerts in the second half of my year. After I saw Kanye, I also got to see MC Lars, a longtime favorite of mine. He was every bit as nice as I could have hoped and the show with Mega Ran and mc chris was high octane and unique.

This year I had the habit of getting tickets to concerts as Christmas presents, the final show I went to was a Christmas show from Trans Siberian Orchestra. They make an incredible spectacle, but the highlight for me was when they had a tiger change into a dragon change into an attack helicopter. I still don’t know why they did that, but that has yet to affect the degree to which I care.

Film

The next thing I loved was the new Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s on HBO at the moment, and that’s good because it’s hard to explain all the reasons I like this venture without ruining a lot of things, not by killing plot points, just really cool and odd jokes. If nothing else, the sheer amount of incredible names should speak about why I’d be so thrilled by a period movie like this.

Sandwiched between the album and the tour, I binged some serious TV and I have to say, Netflix had a good years. Bojack Horseman has been going strong for a few years, but that blend of flippant humor with serious and potent commentaries on sensitive issues (i.e. mental illness, abortion, nontraditional relationships) is something that I can’t get enough of. Also, I didn’t expect to like Stranger Things, but there are few things made that so perfectly fit with what I live. I know I’m not from the 80s, but I don’t care. Just as I liked the setting of Hail Caesar! I adore that aesthetic that permeates so many things I love.

The other source of TV that entered my life was HBO. My family never paid for the cable subscription. We still don’t. But I subscribe to HBO Now so I’ve gotten to enjoy what they’ve put out, and it has been some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Westworld and Veep but my favorite has to be Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I’m impressed with the sheer variety they can produce and there has yet to be a time I could not get out of a funk with those three magic letters.

Games

Before I say anything here, I must acknowledge that I’ve been playing a lot of older games this year. For instance, I’ve only recently gotten into Skyrim. Not the remastered on on consoles. The PC version. No special mods. I just finally found what makes it fun. If you want to know what has had a major emotional impact, look to Spec Ops: The Line. It incredibly subverts expectations to show what war is like. To be fair, I haven’t been to war. I probably never will. But I definitely can understand the stress there. That’s just the beginning of my list of older games I liked this year.

Another thing that was incredibly cheery was Stardew Valley. I love that game. I have never experienced something that so easily made me feel comfortable. When I think about the gameplay itself or the story, there’s nothing all that impressive. But the loop always makes me feel productive and relaxed. When paired with the incomparable soundtrack, it’s basically a digital blanket I can cuddle into.

In terms of time sinks, there has been little that could compare in my life to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and Civ VI is not an exception. I don’t know if I like it as much as IV yet, and I certainly haven’t spent as much time with it. But its on its way. That could easily get to be my most played game. Full stop, It’s going through the roof as we speak. Twenty hours in a week, thanks to winter break. Life is sad sometimes.

Tech

I need to give a shout out to my phone here. I’m on my own phone plan now, and I adore the phone I have for it. While I don’t have the brand new OnePlus 3T, that wasn’t announced until a few weeks after I got mine, but I don’t care. I love my OnePlus 3. In our society, our phones have gotten to be an expression of who we are. My iPhone was fine, but I think this represents who I am better. It’s a smart buy when considering value. It’s unique because no one else has it. That’s my problem with Apple products. They all blend in. They look nice, but boring. Where my phone is concerned I want to feel unique, and it is.

Person

I can’t mention Stranger Things, Westworld and trashing on Apple without thinking about the person who spurred me to watch it, my wonderful girlfriend Allie. I try to keep an air of professionalism with this silly blog and not directly address her, but she is definitely my favorite thing about 2016. I’m not an easy person to be with, but she seems to be sticking it out. She leaves for Canada soon, but I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have her. She makes me happy. I love her, and she’s my favorite thing of the year.

UnBlocked

What’s the best way to follow up a post about how advertisements are poisoning the young mind of my sister? A post about why we should all allow ads. Let me be clear, I don’t like ads. I find them unpleasant at best, and toxic to our collective conscious at worst. So, why am I okay with them?

The internet might be the most incredible thing mankind has ever made. Not an original statement by any means, but I think it is worth reminding us all about how cool it is that a large amount of wires have enabled every member of the human family to contact each other and learn anything. This digital revolution has upended the world in the name of freedom, but we can’t expect the cost to also be free.

Of course we pay for an internet connection. We pay for wires to our house or else we pay for data from a wireless provider, but we have developed a certain expectation of free services online. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a host of other free services are all available to anyone for free. Technically.

We don’t see the magic behind the veil, but all of these services are run by massive companies with huge amounts of infrastructure, and long payrolls of valuable employees. They need to make money and keep the whole operation afloat somehow. There are two ways to do this, either pay outright for a service like Netflix, or get it for free like, well, like pretty much everything else.

To make their service free, most websites, especially social networks and news outlets run ads to us. I don’t like it either, but I want access to these things and I have to pay with either money or by being exposed to ads, and I’d rather just see the ads. It would seem most people agree with me.

For evidence look at the success of free Facebook vs. the flop of freemium Ello. Or look at the success of mostly online news outlets like Huff Post vs. the struggles of print magazines. Consumers expect that these services should not cost money. If we want these services to stay around, we need to provide something in return. That’s the big issue I want to address here.

Adblockers like the simply named Ad Block Plus can make the internet virtually ad free. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t tried them out, and I would blaspheme to say the internet didn’t look a lot nicer that way. But I uninstalled because I don’t want to give up my highly limited funds.

A good deal of sites that I frequent, Wired, South Park Studios, among others, can detect the use of ad blocking software and make it a lot more difficult to use the website. Some would complain that this is unfair, but I actually think this is generous. I want to get free stuff, the fact that Comedy Central will let me watch the newest episodes of South Park without paying is kind of amazing. By the principle of bulk order, a lot of people watching that make them a couple cents will let this continue. Or I could go pay for the season. This leads to what I think of as the Spotify option.

Spotify has two options, the free version which has limited features, or the unlocked premium version. If you want to pay money and skip ads, along with other features, you pay money. If you don’t want to pay, you can just hear ads in your Kanye/Katy Perry playlists. Either way, the service can continue. This really outlines the ultimate choice we as digital citizens are left with.

Option 1: Pay up. This is simple, but I would argue that fragmenting the internet is bad for the overall health and ideology that underlie the internet. But it’s an option that exists.

Option 2: Stop blocking ads. I don’t want this either, it feels like the man is winning and that almost causes me physical pain. The use of ad blocking has been on the rise, and I want to keep my access to things without paying. That doesn’t work if too many people don’t buy in with me, and it takes a lot of people.

Even in an altruistic world where people will work for free, it costs money to even just run the minimal task of keeping the servers on. I don’t want to see the ads, but let’s all just grit our teeth for the collective good.

Consumer cannibalism

I am a strong believer in the merits of technology. When I was a little kid, my mom was (and is) staunchly against computers, mostly on principle. And by principle I mean a deathly fear of change. One might think such circumstances would produce a technophobe. In my case, that is not true.

Though our home lacked a computer, I couldn’t be insulated from computers, and that only had limited exposure only made me more interested. Maybe that’s part of the reason for my time spent as a computer engineering student, and it is certainly responsible for my obsession with gadgets. So if it isn’t obvious, I’m a big proponent of technology for education and benefiting society in a myriad of other ways. Today, something happened that dampened my optimism.

Earlier this year, I bought my youngest sister Stella a tablet. Nothing fancy, just a cheap little Lenovo. In my mind, this was a fun present that would open up educational stuff to her with some occasional games for long car rides. That worst case scenario would render her a gamer with a better understanding of the basics of technology than I did at her age. If only.

With Christmas break rolling around, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Stella, and it is great. At school I really miss getting to be a hero for breathing and playing the Mr. Scrooge game with her. While I spent a good portion of last Christmas break and the summer like this, that isn’t what she wants anymore. She is devoted to YouTube Kids.

I’m not judging watching YouTube, I think there’s some really good content on there and frankly can’t stand the majority of current “family” shows. Pair that with a fostering of DIY ethics for a lot of creators, YouTube’s something I don’t have any inherent qualms with. Then I saw what she was watching, and I felt kind of gross.

This is all content curated for Stella’s age group, so nothing that even registers PG, The gross part is that Stella is enchanted by ads. I understand that to have free content, some adds are necessary, that’s fine. But she will watch hours and hours of videos of toy unboxings and channels that just talk about how cool the new Frozen grab bags are so cool. The voices are pandering, and I really had trouble believing that this many adults would be so enchanted with these products.

So, it was time to dig. It is important to note that the YouTube Kids app doesn’t allow easy access to description or comment sections, so I had to go and find some of these videos in my Chrome browser. Upon the slightest scrutiny it turned out that, almost without exception, they were made by people being paid to pretend they are really, really into Shopkins, just like every kid should be. The internet has made finding ads a lot more confusing. Sure, some stick out and a lot go unnoticed due to the popularity of ad-blocking software. What if the content that drives internet traffic is, to some degree, an ad?

Paid content in mainstream media is nothing new, but there have always been federal regulations that require disclosure that the content is being paid for. So if you read a review someone was paid to write for a product on Amazon, they are required to disclose any financial gains, including a free product, in the words. Videos don’t work the same.

On YouTube, there only has to be a disclosure in the description. No one, child content creator or otherwise, makes a point to mention this in a video, so its always in the description. Personally, I already think this is kind of deceptive for adults. Kids? That’s a whole other ball game.

As previously mentioned, it’s hard to get to that description through the app to begin with. Even if a kid figures out, it probably wouldn’t make a difference. Stella is a smart kid. Really smart. Still, like most 5-year-old people, she can’t read. Assuming that the population of her age group is on the same or lower levels, getting to the description doesn’t make a difference, they can’t read it. This is unfair on multiple levels.

For those who don’t know, I listen to podcasts semi-obsessively and one of my favorites is “Stuff You Should Know.” Recently, Josh and Chuck ran through some information about advertising to kids, and that is some really, really gross stuff.

Until the Reagan administration, advertising to kids was heavily regulated, but then laissez-faire took over, and the next thing you know there are full length shows that are basically ads. Adults can differentiate, but children can’t. No, literally. Studies show that until around the age of 12 the human mind can literally not differentiate between the fun toons they were just enjoying with some Cap’n Crunch and the products people want to shove down their throats. Their mouths are wide open to these early stages of consumerism.

Most of the videos Stella watches are for licensed products, Disney Princesses and Trolls in particular. They found a devious way to sell a lot of these, grab bags. I won’t pretend I don’t understand part of the fun of collecting, I had my own obsessions with Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh cards, but I think that’s different.

Maybe it’s my old man deep down already getting angsty about the kids threatening to step on my lawn, but this seems more dubious. Those cards were part of a game and encouraged trading and social behaviors. That’s why I still like TCGs. These have no purpose beyond growing a horde, and Stella knows so much about them. When I opened a Zapdos card, I knew it was special because I knew that was a cool character that was hard to find. Thanks to her videos, Stella knows specifics of rarity and and class of these little figures. And because there is no way to know what is in the bag ahead of time. So she always wants more.

Here is where I will differentiate consumerism as a problem. Full disclosure, it’s a drug I still struggle with, but this seems like purchasing for the sake of purchasing. I had a lot of cards, but they were for a game. I had books, but I read them. I had movies, but I watched them. Now, the toys go unplayed with, collectible heirlooms for kids. Many would argue that they make them happy, so who cares. I understand that, but that is going somewhere really scary.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer I really started to rage against the machine and reduce my possessions, and I realize now that it was probably because I was groomed by Pokemon cards, even though I really do hold to the belief that it was more innocent and valuable. This is really the same model, but much, much more potent. When I was advertised to, I didn’t realize it, but I hadn’t been trained to seek it out. Maybe I’m just worried about the kids of today, but I want it to be clear that I do not blame them, they don’t know it’s happening.

I understand that we live in a mostly capitalist society, and so some of these issues are unavoidable. But every segment of every industry seem to be collaborating to make the next generation wonderful at buying crap they don’t need or necessarily want until they see a very enthusiastic description online. It’s the same as its always been, just a lot worse. It’s taking advantage of people to make a profit. That’s not okay.

What’s worse? I have no idea how to fix this mess. We can try to teach kids about how to identify ads, but who knows how effective that would be? Even if it worked, that’s still consumerism, just a bit smarter consumerism. It doesn’t get to the central issue of this sociological tumor. And it makes me really sad. This is why I’m liberal. I’m not nearly as worried about Big Brother watching me as I am society selling its soul for a few trinkets.