Sunday, May 07, 2006

Stuff about Stuff, Virtual Stuff and Other Stuff

Hang with me on this one folks. Bikes fit in with this somehow.

The thing of it is this: you'd think it shouldn't be about things.

I'll start making sense in while.

I recently found an interesting translation of the Tao Te Ching here:

and it states it fairly well. Here's how it starts out:

If you can talk about it,
it ain't Tao.
If it has a name,
it's just another thing.

Tao doesn't have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.
Stop wanting stuff;
it keeps you from seeing what's real.

When you want stuff,
all you see are things.

Those two sentences
mean the same thing.
Figure them out,
and you've got it made.

Clearly this translation is more from the Jack Kerouac/Quentin Tarantino school of thought than any ivory tower and that's cool with me. I'm a pretty simple guy and the basic teachings from Tao and Zen have always resonated with me.

Here's the thing of it. Even a relatively simple guy like me has lots of stuff. It often seems like too much stuff. My wife will tell you it's definitely too much stuff and I've long been convinced that she's the wisest soul in this family.

But thinking about too many things is still thinking about things. We are creatures of the world and the world is full of things. I write about some simpler things, things that I've used to replace other things. I don't think I'm on a path that ends without things, but I am on a journey where I think quite a bit about the things that I carry.

I think I've figured out why I like the fixed gear bicycle: it's enough bicycle for me. A bicycle is often enough of a transport vehicle for me. The simpler solutions appeal to me. I like simple things. I like simple bikes.

My life is fairly simple, but I still think a lot about stuff. I write about stuff. I write reviews of stuff and sometimes those reviews show up on this blog or in Dirt Rag or in the pages of UltraCycling. And the more I write about stuff, the more stuff folks send me. And the Internet is one giant window into a whole universe of stuff. I get emails from folks asking me what I think about some bit of stuff and a lot of times I write back and tell 'em. I've got opinions. In some cases, I've got experience. And I've still got too much stuff.

I've got a lot of books, but I try to pare that down. Back in 1982 I got rid of most of my stuff and took my first really big bike tour. I rode from Minnesota to northern California. I've always been a bookish sort, but books are heavy so I only took one paperback with me. I'd read that book in the evenings after the day's ride and when I finished that book I dropped it off at a used bookshop, picked up something else and continued on. For that time of my life, it wasn't a bad way to live.

It is perhaps worth noting that even such standard-bearers of simplicity as Henry David Thoreau were not always purely simple, all the time. Thoreau lived in that cabin for two years, two months and two days. In the opening page of Walden, he writes "At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again." And one of my favorite jokes was delivered by Bob Newhart in his droll, button-down delivery, "Thoreau said 'simplify, simplify, simplify.' Wouldn't it have been simpler if he's only said it once?"

I am at present a sojourner in civilized life. I live with a roof and walls and windows and a stove. I share this space with many things including a box that keeps ice cream frozen and another that lets me send these words out into the ether. I have such a luxurious place for my stuff (to use George Carlin's phrase), that I actually can afford to have a paper copy of Walden as well as the very handy electronic one. Excessive luxury, perhaps. Perhaps I hang onto the paper copy out of sentiment.

Our Google-searchable, fiber-optic and wifi-linked world has not eliminated paper but I've realized that these are days in which I read more words from screens than words from printed pages. I am eying my bookshelf with suspicion.

I sometimes get paid when my words hit paper but in this weird virtual world I bet you are reading this off a screen. And you may be reading it just minutes after I wrote this down. Or maybe you are reading it years from now. But let me tell you a story about this weird virtual world, where books become bits, where books don't have to be paper and where bits become stuff again.

Last summer I raced the length of the Continental Divide on a single-speed mountain bike. The story of that ride appeared in the pages of Dirt Rag and as a virtual book at: The folks at Dirt Rag paid me for the article based on what they knew of me from my online writing. Many, many people put up money to help me make that trip based only on words they'd read off screens. Since the trip, many more have paid me something for the virtual book. I'm not getting rich, but as I said, I'm a simple man. I do make more money from words on screens than words on pages.

On this blog, I write about what interests me. I try to keep it connected to bikes, since I'm basically a bike guy. Interestingly, again it was my words on screens that helped me convince people that I could make the jump from being a software guy to a bike writing and bike advocacy guy.

And while this blog is basically non-commercial, I did add a couple of potential revenue streams to the bits. I hope I've added these things in ways that are not too obnoxious. My Mountain Turtle story has has a PayPal link attached for those who want to pay something for that tale. I also have a Café Press store that sells T-shirts and other items. And a few months ago I decided to experiment with an Amazon Associates Store called The Mountain Turtle Market which provides links to various items that I find useful. None of these things generate tons of money but little bits count up.

The Amazon stuff has been the most interesting. Back in January I wrote about the PrincetonTec EOS headlight and a bunch of you folks must have needed a light like this because 20 of you ordered an EOS. I get about 5% commission off those sales, so in that case I made back the money I spent on the light. The EOS is the single most popular item in my online store.

A very interesting thing about Amazon is that if you go to Amazon through an Amazon Associates Store or link and purchase anything within the next 24 hours, the referring shopkeeper gets a commission on that sale. So even though I was only linking to bike and sporting-related items and books, I wound up getting commissions on software, computer books, CDs and all kinds of other things. A standard searchbox like this:

lets all of Amazon be a potential revenue stream.

Let me restate that I'm not getting rich. But I did get my first quarter commission from Amazon and the best deal is if you take it in the form of an Amazon gift certificate. So naturally I used it to buy more stuff. In this specific instance, I got this specific thing a PalmOne Zire 31:

Now here's why this is semi-bike related. I use this primarily as a document reader. This is smaller and lighter than my paper copy of Walden but tucked onto the thumbnail-size SD card is the text of Walden and the Leaves of Grass and the writings of Lao Tzu and novels by Joseph Conrad. And more. Sites like:

are my libraries and bookstores now. Thanks to writers like Cory Doctorow I can also read some great modern books as well as the classics. Is this simpler, is it less stuff? In one way, certainly not. Electronics and batteries and SD cards and USB cables don't have the simplicity of paper copies. But in another way it is a smaller pile of stuff. I've got a load of paper books to take to the used bookstore now. I don't think Henry would approve but Whitman might. Perhaps I'm not simpler, perhaps I contradict myself. I think Walt would be OK with that.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
-- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" US poet (1819 - 1892)


Anonymous said...

Great post, Ken. Nowadays talking about simplicity can be taken rather lightly, the way some people take Thoreau or even Whitman because it is so easy to over quote them. But how can one not quote them? (What was it that they put in the water back then? American Transcendentalism was / is such an under-valued philosophical school.) Yet, some concepts are so formidable – indeed so formidably “simple” – that they escape us entirely. That north-eastern school surely hit it on the head. I sympathise with you and hear your words rather loudly. I’ve been struggling to simplify for years – and what does one simplify to, as you so very well suggest? – that it comes as no surprise to see that simplifying isn’t simple at all. It may be one of the most complicated endeavours one can undertake. (By the way, your post is totally bike related!)

Anonymous said...

I think living without stuff is really hard. I think living with stuff is really hard. I think living with contradictions is good. Its the space between the contraditions that holds the tao.