Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for November, 2010

The Optimal Breaking Point for Capitalism and Sustainability

How long should products last?

The knee-jerk answer is “forever” but that’s neither realistic nor financially practical. Furthermore, the breaking down of products, or the process of continuous consumption is one of the underlying assumptions and forces behind capitalism. If people bought all things only once, the global economy will be a lot smaller.

Household appliances used to be built like tanks and lasted a long long time. The laundry machine, dishwasher, air conditioner, telephone, TV, and vacuum cleaner my family bought when we moved into our new house in 1985 lasted close to twenty years, and most of them weren’t replaced because they broke but because higher quality alternatives became available. People also used to repair household appliances, but now that’s virtually unheard of in the developed world. People would rather buy new ones to avoid the hassle, and it is often cheaper to do so.

According to people I’ve talked to in Japan, there was one appliance company that realized that people don’t mind a product breaking down after a certain amount of time. They kept making their products cheaper and cheaper in both price and build quality only to notice that there weren’t any significant pushbacks from the consumers. Now this is the modus operandi for most consumer product companies in the world, along with planned obsolescence.

What worries me is that this trend runs counter to one of our other values: sustainability. As we go through products faster and faster, we are using more and more resources to produce, deliver, and sell those products. The current fad is “eco-friendly” or “green” products, but in reality, except for some high energy consumption items, the environmentally friendly thing to do is not to buy new products.

Of course no company can survive by telling their customers not to buy their products. To this effect, I sometimes wonder if we need to find some other form of economic system beyond capitalism in order to reach true sustainability. After all, capitalism was developed when human resources were scarce and natural resources were abundant. Now human resources are abundant and natural resources are scarce.

What is beyond capitalism? I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll get there someday. It’s crazy to think that how the world works will not change forever.

(Side note: For high energy consumption items like refrigerators, air conditioners, and even cars, it makes sense to buy newer versions if the benefits from increased efficiency outweigh the resources required to create the new product)


If life was a video game

What would you do differently if life was (more like) a video game?

If you had multiple lives and could pick up 1-ups for doing some good deed, would you live more recklessly? Would you try bungee jumping, sky diving, and traveling to Somalia?

If you had save points that you could always revert back to, would you start new companies, ask that girl/guy on a date, buy that car you always wanted?

If you had a walkthrough that you could follow, would you read it to optimize your life, find those hard to get secrets, and make sure you complete everything before it’s over?

Many of us live lives like it’s a video game, taking risks as if we have more than one life, making decisions as if we can go back on them, and following advices like there is a predetermined path.

Life is not a video game, but it can be like a video game, and often, it’s more fun that way. Just remember: everything in moderation. Let’s go for an adventure.


East and West, Eating while Gambling

I always find it interesting when two different cultures find distinct solutions for the same basic human need. Today’s example: eating while gambling.


Legend has it that the sandwich was invented either by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich or the chef who served him when he wanted a one-handed snack during his gambling binge. The simple concept of putting cold meat between two slices of bread allowed the Earl to eat one-handed while continuing to gamble with the other.

Tekkamaki (鉄火巻)

While the origins of the Tekkamaki, the tuna sushi roll, is disputed, the commonly accepted theory is that it was designed for gamblers to easily consume calories while continuing to gamble. Enclosing tuna and sticky rice in a slab of dry seaweed allowed gamblers to eat sushi without getting their hands messy. That is why Tekkamaki shares two of the three Japanese characters as the word for a gambling parlor: Tekkaba (鉄火場)

While the way people go about satisfying needs is a function of the complex environments and cultures that one belongs in, the basic human needs are often similar across the globe. It shouldn’t be surprising that variants of noodle/pasta, friend chicken, or pickled vegetables exists around the world.

What has me wondering however: Why is gambling an innate human need? Do any other animals gamble?


The start-up life versus the corporate life

The other day, I came to the realization that I am really working for a start-up company inside a Grand Ecole in France (closest English approximation: graduate school).

In the start-up life, you have no job description, or if you do, what you do goes well beyond it.
In the corporate life, you have a job description that describes what exactly you’re supposed to do.

In the start-up life, you are hired because you can get things done and work well in a team.
In the corporate life, you are hired for one specific function, which you’re supposed to be good at.

In the start-up life, you almost never disconnect, always thinking of new ideas and ways to make things better.
In the corporate life, you dedicate 40 hours (35 hours in France) of your life per week and keep the rest for yourself.

In the start-up life, you have much more things on your to-do list than you have time for, and you do as much as possible.
In the corporate life, you are given a specific set of tasks which you complete within a given time frame.

In the start-up life, you have mostly colleagues.
In the corporate life, you have mostly bosses and subordinates.

Gross generalization? Maybe. Far from truth, far from untruth.

I never really considered myself to be an entrepreneur, but I might be quite entrepreneurial.

What is your life like?


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