Simplify Simplify

Radical Detachement

(I wrote this about 6 months ago and am republishing it here with some recent updates. This is the promised follow up to the earlier Too much of everything post.)

I’m in the throes of a process I’m referring to as “radical detachment” in which I’m riding myself of much ephemera that I’ve held onto for years. I’ve got homework from elementary school, college notes, old toys, found rocks, ticket stubs, concert flyers, informative brochures and on and on.  I’ve long utilized objects as an external memory, the concept of the aide memoir writ large, and thus have saved so much stuff as part of this system.  I’ve long wanted to digitize a lot of this stuff so that the memory can remain attached to something and the object itself discarded. But that process in and of itself is a lengthy one.  But now it finally has come to a head, somewhat prompted by a forthcoming move but even more so by just feeling buried under my possessions.  I used to say that until you owned a couch you were a free man; owning such a large, heavy, expensive item so severely limited your mobility that you became trapped.  I do now own a couch, but even beyond that I just feel owned by my possessions.

2012 update
I’ve completed move discussed above and am now living in a very small place in Seattle. I’ve sold the couch and much of my furniture, leaving just what I need for this small space. I have stuff in Storage but have been slowly selling it all off. The goal is to eventually only have a small storage place with just things like camping gear and luggage and such that would be just sitting around in my small space.

I. Use it or Lose it:

This is an web based program with an associated iPhone app that one can use to upload, tag and publish webpages of photos of your stuff.  The idea is that you maintain an easy to create  and organize (essential) system that lets you keep a record of stuff without having the stuff.  Once you have an account there is two views: the published webpages and your account view. The published webpages are single page photo gallery with any entered text. As an example check out this one I made of video games and related ephemera. The interface a logged in user sees is pretty different than the published view. The user view is a grid of tiny pictures of all your stuff and a collection of tags. The iPhone app that you use to take the picture automatically uploads it in the formats and sizes it wants and puts it in an ‘unorganized’ folder. You can very easily then add tags and a description. You can then publish them on the web by tag, which looks pretty different and perhaps one wouldn’t do it for everything (the personal connection is what is important to me).

Downsides to Use It Or Lose It:

1) There seems to be no way to edit your pictures so a few of mine are upside down. Usually I check the photos first and retake bad ones, but I gave away to a co-worker all my Atari carts and so I took a lot of pictures fast and some are upside down. I’m hoping they’ll add rotation in as that should be trivial.

2) No database backup for users (presumably they back up their database). This wouldn’t be as much an issue if they were say Google, but right now its a free service that at some point they may decide they can’t afford. I’m going to email them about this but for now I’m planning to publish all my tags as webpages and then scrape them so I’ll at least have those webpages archived.

3) The interface is super simple, but maybe too simple: for instance I’ve added more tabs then fit on my Laptops monitor and it doesn’t turn into a scrolling pane. Hopefully that’s another thing they’ll update.

Anyway so far I’m cool with this program and with the exception of (2) not a huge deal. And even (2) has a workaround.

2012 update
Use It or Lose It has been updated to resolve  all of issues (1) and (3). There is still no direct database backup (which is a pity) but the workaround as described is adequate. So this is an even more useful tool as of 2012.

II. Delicious Library

A fantastic very well Mac integrated application for media organization. It does barcode scanning via the iSight camera on my Laptop or via an attached camera or barcode scanner. It looks things up on Amazon – all Amazons so it catches imported things and such pretty well. Manual entry can also use Amazon lookup so you only have to enter keywords. It has a beautiful display that can be visual (it gets pics from Amazon or you can add your own) or a text list. It supports full database backup, import and export. It gets product info from Amazon so you have description, full publishing info etc, plus you can add tags and notes. I’ve used this program for years and while its a bit pricey for shareware it is really a pro piece of software for what it does.

Downsides to Delicious Library:

1) It doesn’t have an associated iPhone or Android app  (yet) which I think is an essential feature – you could scan stuff remotely with the iPhone and then on sync it gets added. Or you can look up things in it off line, or check if you have something or so on. It does allow publishing stuff as a webpage which can be iPhone optimized so there is a workaround the lookup issue, but I hope they do do this at some point.

2) For some reason they removed a feature the old version had: Taking a list of ISBN numbers and looking them all up and adding to your library. I have a huge list of these from when I first started thinking about this (in the 90s) and the program used to be able to do this. When I got the new version (2.5) they had removed that feature. Not an issue for people without an old list though.

III. Evernote

This one I’ve just started using but it has been around for a long time and is well beloved. It is a cloud based data organizer for any media that is thus accessible anywhere. They have a standard web client, but also platform specific apps for Windows, OS X and iOS and Android. It’s free version is somewhat limited (but not terribly 30,000 text notes for instance but a lot less larger pictures and video) and paid versions aren’t too bad. iPhone app is really good and allows you to do mobile data entry. They have enough legacy and a revenue stream so I think they’ll stick around. All of the data can be backed up as its stored locally as well as in the cloud, so its actually redundantly backed up. In many ways this is probably the best of all these apps but it doesn’t quite have the specific ease of use of the specific ones (the media lookups of DL and the near instant nature of Use it or Lose it). With the iPhone app though adding stuff is quite easy and I think it’ll be the best place to hold scans and such.

2012 update
I’ve used Evernote a bit more since originally  writing this and I have to say I don’t use it as much as I’d like. That is it is a powerful organization tool that allows for a lot of different media and would be a good way to keep scanned ephemera at hand, but something about it seems to hinder usage.  It also seems to have trouble syncing in the iCloud era.  I’m going to keep trying with this one, but I could see alternatives.

IV. Murfie Music
Since initially writing this article an NPR report about a CD storage and online store called Murfie Music. This seemed like a nearly ideal solution to dealing with my quite large CD collection. I love music and have amassed quite the collection of CDs but it is an odd thing with music: one tends to hold on to music that one doesn’t really listen to anymore under the theory that you might at some point. Or perhaps out of nostalgia, or simply because at times it was so important to you that’d it almost be a betrayal to get rid of.  This makes it hard to get rid of CDs and I think Murfie is a good intermediate step. What they do is take your CDs (shipped at their cost), they then sell the jewel boxes, put them in envelops with the inserts and store them for a nominal fee.  It’s “free” at first (using the money from your jewel box sale) and then there is a very low yearly storage fee. Alternatively you can sell your discs through them at a price that you set and if there is enough activity the storage costs are covered. Additionally they’ll rip discs that are stored and as long as they are sold you’ll have digitalis files available. Of course it’d be cheaper to do that yourself, but then again there is the time factor.

So the best way to use this IMO is to send in the bulk of your stuff (rarer and more valuable discs that appeal to collectors would be better off sold in different markets) and setup a bunch of them for sale. Ideally have just enough sales to cover storage fees. Every year you can decide on new ones to sell. As stuff is away from you it is easier to get detached to it so I think this would get easier over time.  If one wants to hear something you can take advantage of their ripping service, or preferably rip most your discs yourself before you send them in. This way you can do so in a lossless format such as FLAC, or ALAC, set up backups and so on.

One thing I learned in my big move is how worthless a lot of this stuff is.  CDs, DVDs and Books just retain a fraction of their value when you sell them to a used dealer. But directly to people you can sell them for what those people would. A used bookstore might give you a dollar for a book and then sell it for five, so if you can sell it yourself you can get that yourself. Of course you have to take your time into consideration and that is why I think something like Murfie is a good deal

Using these tools I’ve been able to rid myself of a lot of stuff, but its hard.  I think digitizing a lot of my music in a lossless format is another tool to consider. eBooks on an iPad like device is another (especially for any reference books).  But one still needs to consider situations when your devices aren’t charged or there is no power.  Having put as much stuff as I could into these things and selling them off I find I still had way too much stuff. Its a process though – my detachment is not radical enough yet.  Its hard to let go of this, especially that stuff that you think should have value. But the fact is once you start selling off your old stuff, unless it is rare or one of those things that keeps their value (a lot of musical equipment is an example of that) you find this stuff is worth nothing.  That is a key thing to bring oneself to understand (and its been hard for me) – the value is what you bring into it. So a huge library of books only has the value that each book has to you and I think if you really think about it, it is certainly a finite amount of those books that have a value that requires their physical presence.

2012 update
The true cost of a lot of these tools is time investment.  I think a true process of radical detachment would be drop off everything but the bare essentials at the Good Will. Just walk away from all of this stuff. Our society though has fostered this myth that our identities are wrapped up in our stuff and too radical a process could be hard. So all of this is a way to let go.  If one starts young keeping stuff digital (and I think today’s youth are more inclined that way anyway) then it’s a lot easier. Digitize as you go, discard the physical right off and you never build up such a backlog.  I’ve found living in this small place that the amount of stuff I really need on hand is quite small. Most of my books and music are in storage and the longer they are there the less I feel I need them. Over the next month or so, I’m going to just rid myself of almost everything there. Even the stuff I have on hand I think I’ll move to be as digital as possible. I’ve already reduced myself to a couple of file boxes of personal artifacts and that I think is all that I’ll need of that sort of stuff. Music is easiest to deal with digitally, it always comes down to having real books on hand. But perhaps eBooks and library usage will eventually allow me to let that go.

So any other tools that can help in this process?

2 thoughts on “Radical Detachement”

    1. For that application its all about the simplicity. The Use It or Lose It iPhone app is so simple to use and its trivial to add tags for sorting. I’m (obviously) a big fan of Flickr but it doesn’t have that ease of use for this application. I also prefer to keep my Flickr more for photos of a different nature anyway, that is not so focussed on stuff. Certainly one could use one’s Flickr account if one wanted to, but I’d rather keep it separate.

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