Playing Detective to My Own Mysteries

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I’m cleaning out closets in my never-ending quest to follow my tidying-up guru, Marie Kondo. This morning I went though boxes of old family papers that I inherited when my mother died years ago. I had stashed them away to avoid processing them. These include old family letters, orders my father got from the Air Force, ancient report cards, newspaper clippings, birth-marriage-death certificates, and other records with proofs of long forgotten facts.

1959-1960 Report Card Browns Mills New Jersey 400px

I was going to throw the entire box away, or give it to my sister and let it be her problem. Then I started noticing enticing facts here and there, like addresses and dates I’d long forgotten. I grew up always on the move. I have no idea how many houses I lived in before I moved away from home, nor am I sure of all the schools I attended. I remember what states I lived in, but not always sure when. For example, I lived in South Carolina twice, but I can’t place the first in time at all. Some of my faulty memory clues tell me it was after I started school, but I have absolutely no memories of going to school in my very vivid earlier memories of South Carolina. Since we moved a round a lot, it could have only been for a summer, and I’ve even wondered if my parents kept me and my sister out of school. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember it being cold. I figured it was sometime between age 4 and 7.

I’ve always believe the first time I went to a movie theater was when I lived in South Carolina the first time. I later learned that movie, Snowfire, was released May 18, 1958. I would have been six, and I started first grade when I was five. Growing up I vaguely thought I had lived in South Carolina the first time before I started Kindergarten, which I attended in Miami in 1956-57. But Snowfire wouldn’t come out for two years. Both memories can’t be right. I do remember the theater building, which I think was on base, so it could have been in New Jersey in 1959, and we were seeing Snowfire as an older release.

It seems a little anal now to worry about where I used to live almost sixty years ago. I could throw all those papers away, or I could go through them and look for clues. Creating a timeline of when and where I’ve lived might be an interesting mind building exercise. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be cleaning out my memories like Marie Kondo pushes me to clean out closets. Does it really matter? No one is interested in it but me. My mother saved all this stuff that was important to her, and now that she’s dead, it’s just landfill. The 94-year-old lady living next door recently died, and her family have parked a long dumpster in the back yard to clean out her house. Their family has been living there almost as long as I’ve been alive. The weight of her memories piles high in that container.

1915 - Helen Delaney High School 1200px

I’m also thinking about just scanning all this inherited paperwork. Although I’m not sure how often I would look at it after making such a huge effort. Will this information become more important to me when I’m in my seventies or eighties? Marie Kondo asks me to hold each object I own and ask myself, “Does this bring me joy?” Nostalgia could be a form of joy – maybe? On the other hand, freeing myself from the weight of the past, brings another kind of joy.

My father died when I was 18, and he’s always been a mystery to me. We never had many conversations. My parents were alcoholics. Dad died before I got old enough to be curious about his past, and even though my mother lived to be 91, she chose to forget a lot of her past. I once asked her about our first time living in South Carolina and she couldn’t remember when it was. If I took the trouble to examine this box of documents I might discern some information about my Dad. I’ve even thought of using the freedom of information act to track down information about my father’s Air Force assignments.

I have scanned in most of my family photos that go back to the 1920s, and I’ve been trying to find ways to useful organize and display them. Often I don’t know the exact dates when the photographs were taken. I wished I did. I could name each photograph and scanned document by the date and have a timeline slideshow. I’d have to date them like this: “1930-08-07 Great grandparents.jpg” and “1963-12-25 Report Card Becky.jpg” to sort properly and know what they were.

On the other hand, I could just trash it all. I doubt these odds and ends artifacts have been looked at three times in the past fifty years. One thing I’m learning from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is everything should have a place. As I organize my physical belongings to reside in their unique place in the house, I wonder if I shouldn’t put all my digital belongings in their unique place on Dropbox.

JWH

Less Is More–The Intel NUC 5i5RYK

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, June 7, 2015

I love technological marvels. I’ve been lusting after the new iMac, the one with the 5K 27” screen, but since I didn’t have that kind of money my new tech toy is the tiny Intel NUC 5i5RYK – a powerful desktop computer smaller than a book. Whenever I buy a new computer I have great expectations before my purchase, and all kinds of imaginative ideas how I would redesign the computer afterwards. Because I’m reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I was inspired to get the NUC to significantly reduce computer clutter.

The evolution of computers in my lifetime has been towards smallness. How little can a fully functioning desktop computer get, and still offer all the usability and configurability that a traditional desktop offered? Many users have already given up on desktops, switching to laptops, tablets and smartphones, but those mobile devices have limitations that force their users to buy extra gadgets to return them to desktop functionality – like keyboards for tablets. Or they invent kludgy apps, like programs that use the camera to scan images. People write novels and edit movies on laptops, but it’s doubtful we’ll see that kind of work done on a smartphone or tablet. And even heavy-duty laptop users often add an external monitor, mouse and printer.

This experience has made me wonder what the perfect desktop computer setup would be for me. Contemplating tidying up my life reveals the essence of my tech needs.

  • Fast computer (I hate waiting)
  • 27” monitor with highest resolution possible (I love to see the digital world as sharply as possible)
  • scanner (paper input)
  • printer (paper output)
  • speakers (digital music output)
  • keyboard mouse (for me the best interface for communicating with computers)

I figure the Apple 5K iMac with its 27” screen is about ideal for reducing the size of a computer and leaving it big enough for productive work. However, it costs a fair penny. Since I’m a do-it-yourselfer and cheap, I bought an Intel NUC 5i5RYK. The NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is tiny. My NUC was $384, plus $98 for 16GB of memory, and $117 for a Samsung 250GB M2 SSD, and $20 for an Amazon Basics wireless keyboard and mouse.

NUC with wall wart

The machine the NUC is replacing is a desktop I built myself with an Intel i5 2500K CPU, 8GB of memory, a 2TB drive, housed in a spacious Antec ATX case with 600w power supply. The NUC seems about 1/30th to 1/40th the size, yet has roughly the same capabilities. Intel even claims the NUC can drive a 4K monitor – something I want to buy in my future. I threw Windows 10 Technical Preview on it and installed all my favorite software. My desk is closer to the Zen simplicity of my fantasy, and my home office is silent enough for meditation.  Since I ran my old desktop 24×7, I didn’t know how much ambient noise it made.

Both machines are fast enough for me. The old chip, a 4-core i5, ran at 3.3 Ghz, and the new 2-core i5 runs at a much slower clock speed, but is a 5th generation Broadwell chip that is much more efficient. I assume my old machine has a lot more muscle for processor intensive work, but I don’t do those kinds of jobs, nor do I play games. I’ve also learned moving to a SSD drive is blazing fast compared to the mechanical drive. I don’t ever want to go back. The boot up time is so fast I don’t mind shutting the NUC down when I’m not using it. Not only is this computer small, but it only uses 6-30 watts of electricity, as oppose to 80-200 watts of the old machine.

My fantasy before buying the NUC was to have a very clean desk. I pictured this simple box sitting on the desk, out of sight, or even attached to the back of my 27” monitor. The NUC does come with a plate to do that. However, I didn’t foresee how many wires I’d have to plug into the thing, which has turned it into a desktop octopus. It has two USB ports on the front and back, including one powered port in the front.

It terms of clutter configurability, I wished all it’s ports were on one side. What I need is two USB hubs. One to snake around to the front of the monitor for easy access for removable devices, and second hub for permanent connects I can hide in the back.

I currently have a 27” 1080p monitor without USB ports. I plan to buy a 27” 4K monitor with 4 USB 3.0 ports when the price is right.  That should solve most of those wiring problems.  You can never have too many USB ports, but how many are too little? I never had enough USB ports on my iMac at work before I retired, or my big desktop at home. I’m always swapping out cables. Engineers can design smaller computers, but we still have all the peripherals to deal with. I have these USB devices (but don’t always use them):

  1. Printer/scanner/copier all-in-one.
  2. Web cam
  3. Microphone
  4. Wireless nub for keyboard and mouse
  5. UPS backup
  6. External drives
  7. Apple iPhone/touch/Nano/iPad and other MP3 devices
  8. Kindles and a Nexus 7 
  9. Cameras
  10. Memory card readers
  11. LP turntable
  12. External Soundblaster

All-in-one computers elegantly solve the problem of reducing clutter, but if something goes wrong, they are hard to fix. Modular systems are ungainly, but it’s easy to swap out components. The goal is to get rid of wires and cables. A wireless keyboard and mouse are about perfect in their minimal footprint. All-in-one printer/copier/scanner machines are approaching an ideal minimal design. My Epson WF-3540 has SD card readers and a USB port, and it’s wireless. Sadly, the wireless only works with printing, but I can print from my iPad and iPhone. I wished the scanner would work through the Wi-Fi so I could store the Epson out of sight. I hate seeing it on my desk.

My speakers are now the ugliest thing on my desktop. Each speaker is about seven times the size of the Intel NUC, plus an ugly subwoofer under the desk, and they have a lot of tangled wiring. No all-in-one computer has great sound, but I might find high-fidelity nirvana with a sound bar, or a SONOS system. There’s no reason why the music playing from my computer must come from near my computer. On the other hand, Mackie Studio Monitor Speakers might be the way to go.

Finally, I have my ugly UPS surge protector. Since the new setup is so low powered, I will be able to get a much smaller UPS in the future. Most people don’t use a UPS backup, and I wonder if I could live without one too.

I haven’t decided if I’ll put iTunes on this system, or even use Windows Media Player. I only use iTunes to put Audible.com files on old Nano players. I only used Windows Media Player to rip CDs. I’m very close to giving up CDs and MP3s because of Spotify, and I get all my audio books through my iPhone now.

Most of my data and photo files are in the cloud. I think going from the 2TB HD to a 250GB SSD is possible.

I’m already well satisfied with the NUC. I gave one of my desktops away, and packed the other in the back of a closet. My on-the-go computer is a Toshiba Chromebook 2 with a 1080p IPS screen. It’s also tiny. Once I let go of my old desktop, I’ll be done with CD/DVD/BD drives and mechanical disk drives. Next, I wonder if I can ever give up printing and scanning?

JWH

Tidying Up My Music Collection Using the KonMari Method

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidy, preaches, “Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy.” I’ve been buying music CDs for over thirty years and my collection is a huge mess. I definitely don’t love all the albums I own. There’s always the conflict between collecting and playing. Like all hoarders, I tell myself that one day I will want to play this album. Well, I have albums I haven’t played for a quarter century. I bought Marie Kondo’s the life-changing magic of tidying up because she talks about sorting through books. I figured the same approach applied to albums. This issue is further complicated by the fact that nine-five percent of the time when I play music, it’s via Spotify.

Six key issues to consider:

  • Does owning compact discs spark great joy?
  • Do I find great joy in the high fidelity of compact discs?
  • Do I find great joy in the album or the song?
  • What sparks the deepest joy in collecting albums?
  • How does digital libraries affect the philosophy of tidying up?
  • How many albums is too many?

 

Exif JPEG

 

Does owning compact discs spark great joy?

Streaming music services like Spotify offer gigantic music libraries for a low monthly subscription. Why bother keeping my thousand albums when I have instant access to millions? Kondo says we should only own things that bring us joy. Is the physical container of music something that brings us joy? Even though I’ve put the price of a SUV into my music collection, is it still worth keeping? Does the whole collection have sentimental value, or just parts of it?

Kondo tells us “The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.” Does a CD have some kind of emotional physical value? Is a favorite song less meaningful to my life if it streams through my Roku rather than plays on my CD player? To be honest, I don’t have any physical attraction to my CDs. I was quite sentimental over my LPs when I bought them back in the 1960s and 1970s, but when I started buying CDs in the 1980s, they never acquired that aura of emotional objects.

If I knew I could always have access to the same music I own through renting I’d get rid of all my CDs. Because I don’t have that assurance, I want to keep all my albums that I treasure. Yet, what do I treasure when its not the physical object? Is it all the songs on an album, or just special ones?

Some albums bring me great joy. Some albums are keys to memories. I need to save those keys.

Compact discs were always too small to enjoy visually, and their booklets were always too hard to read. They succeeded because of convenience and sound quality. Streaming music is even more convenient, but the sound quality isn’t quite the same.

 

The Allman Brothers Band At Filmore East

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the High Fidelity of Compact Discs?

One of the main reasons to keep compact discs is their high fidelity. This only matters when I’m sitting in my den and I’m listening to music in the same way I concentrate on a movie at the theater. Otherwise, 320kbps streaming files are fine. However, there are times when I want as much sonic detail as I can get. The other day I read One Way Out,  a history of the Allman Brothers. It inspired me to get out my Allman Brothers albums that I haven’t played in a decade. Once again I was back to listening so intently just to distinguish Duane from Dicky.  Listening with intense concentration to  every instrument begs to have the fidelity to create a large soundstage that showcases every musician’s performance.

Until Tidal, all subscription services used highly compressed files that have less fidelity than compact discs. And there are other digital formats that offer great fidelity than CDs. Unfortunately they involve buying digital files I’d have to maintain, and that’s a kind of clutter that’s more difficult to manage than physical clutter.

When it comes right down to it, the essential reason to own a compact disc is because I want to have it forever. I don’t want to ever lose access to some songs. Second in importance is to have the highest fidelity possible. I’m going to assume that future streaming will involve higher fidelity. But I can’t assume Spotify or its competitors will always have a license to stream my most cherished memories.

 

Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the Album or the Song?

Most of the albums I bought in my life were because of one song. Few albums spark joy in their entirety. Blonde on Blonde, even though it’s a double album, in one I embrace in its wholeness. It’s a complete work of art. As I study what Kondo is trying to teach me, a philosophy of how to live with objects and always keep them in their place, I push myself to understand why I love certain things. When dealing with albums and books, I’m really judging them as containers of art. The art is priceless, but the containers are just that.

Compact discs are storage bins for music. Spotify is another kind of storage bin. Contemplating this tidying-up issue, I realize there are two kinds of music containers – one which I never want to lose no matter what. That involves keeping the album. Songs, on the other hand, which appear in various other kinds of containers – best of albums, anthologies, singles, soundtracks, etc, are much easier to rent through Spotify.

I’ve always loved the 1965 hit single “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. Yet, I’ve never been without a copy. I’ve had it on 45, LP and CD in various collections. Now I stream it. And I believe it will always be on streaming. I recently owned the original LP album it appeared on, but it was an old beat up copy I got for 50 cents. When I cleaned out all my LPs I gave it to the library because it was the only song on the album I liked. There was no sentimental reason to be attached to the LP.

When I ask myself if a CD/LP sparks joy, it can’t be just for one song – unless that song is nowhere else. “Song for Our Ancestors” by the Steve Miller Band, off their Sailor album, is the only song that sparks Kondo joy. Actually, it’s the only Steve Miller Band song that unlocks a memory. It’s not available on streaming. I have to save that CD if I want to always have access to “Song for Our Ancestors.” If that song had been on a Best of Steve Miller Band album, I wouldn’t save Sailor.

This also makes me ask: Should I save Best Of albums? Hits are the one type of song I can depend on Spotify to always have. Hit songs are constantly repackaged, anthologized and put on soundtracks. Hits are frequently heard on radio and Pandora.

 

Sailor---Steve-Miller-Band

 

What Is The Deepest Joy In Collecting Albums?

I love to visit someone’s home and look through their shelves of books, music and movies. When we collect, we create the fingerprint of our pop culture soul. The albums I want to save are the ones that define me. Not because I want my friends to see them, even thought I dig when they do, but because I want to define myself to me. My shelves of books, movies and albums should be a mirror for self-examination. Growing up, I tried to define myself by the size of my library, but now the only thing that matters is what each work of art reveals about myself. When I play an album I love it’s an act of meditation.

 

After Bathing at Baxters - Jefferson Airplane

 

How Does Digital Libraries Affect Tidying Up?

It’s quite easy to part with albums that I know are on Spotify. Do I learn the same lesson from giving them away if I knew I couldn’t listen to them again online? Because of Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Audible, Kindle and Scribd I now buy fewer books, albums and movies. My pile of digital clutter grows and grows, but it’s out of sight. Can I still derive the psychological rewards of being tidy that Kondo promises if I have an invisible pile of possession in the cloud?

If every book, movie and album was on Scribd, Netflix and Spotify, I could just own nothing, and just think of all those works in someone else’s library. Then it would be Scribd, Netflix and Spotify’s problem for keeping things tidy. I could reduce my home library to a chair and iPad for Zen like simplicity. I could paint the walls white, wear white clothes, and sit in my room reading and listening to music in my tidy personal Shangri-La.

 

Horses - Patti Smith

 

How Many Albums Is Too Many?

After a lifetime of buying thousands of albums, I realized I no longer listen to most of them. When I retired I had about 1,600 CDs and hundreds of LPs. Two years of culling and I’m down to about 900 CDs and 50 LPs. Soon, I’ll be down to less than 500 CDs and no LPs. Yet, I expect my collection to keep shrinking. 500 is still too many. Kondo tells her clients to have a goal in mind. My goal is to have a library of albums I absolutely adore. I can’t even remember what I own. That’s not special. It’s like having more children than you can remember their names.

When I first retired, I realized I could have become a record collector because I was buying used LPs and CDs five or ten at a time. However, the convenience of Spotify has spoiled me. I only get out a CD when I’m in the mood to thoroughly focus on the music. And that tends to be for albums I really love – the ones I want to play straight through. What I’ve learned from fifty years of buying music is most of what I bought hasn’t been memorable.

I had a friend, John Williamson, who died back in the 1990s. John was crazy about music. Before he died, he told me he had gotten down to listening to just Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. My sphere of music is shrinking too. To maintain a vitality for life you have to maintain as many interests as you can. Yet, getting old means learning to live with less, and as we age, the amount we can handle dwindles. Two years from now I might still love 300 albums. If I live to 80, I might just cherish a 100. I believe John died young because he got down to only two musicians. I wonder who he was hearing when he left this world? Benny or Duane.

I’ve been playing Blonde on Blonde for half a century. Will it be playing when I fade out of existence?

Some of my younger friends fear this trend. They see losing interest in things once loved as a bad sign, but I see a positive angle in my declining years. As my record collection shrinks I get to know what’s left better. It’s a musical tontine.

Music is like a drug that energizes me. If I’m feeling down, music can lift me up. Music hyperlinks me to people and events. Music anchors my memories. It’s terribly sad when I play an album I bought long ago and can’t remember why, when or where I bought it, nor remember any of the songs. That’s an area of my garden I neglected and now it’s patchy with dirt and weeds. What’s best is to let another album expand into that space. I think shrinking my collection as pruning.

 

The Body Wins - Sarah Jaffe

Using Spotify has taken away the incentive to buy new CDs, but I do on rare occasions. I still discover new artists on Spotify, and when I find one I want to keep forever, I buy their CD. For instance I’ve bought the last three CDs of Sarah Jaffe. I don’t think I will ever get so old that I’ll stop adding albums to the library of music that defines me.

Nor, have I found all the replacement CDs from the past LPs I loved. The last LP replacement I bought was Shady Grove by Quicksilver Messenger Service – an album I’ve been waiting for a decade to come to subscription music. I finally gave up and bought it. I bought it the first time in 1970 as an LP. It had just one song I loved, “Edward, (The Mad Shirt Grinder)” I couldn’t get on Spotify.

Another positive purpose in culling albums is it gives me purposeful activity. Being retired, and having all my time free, requires a knack for keeping busy. I should be outside tending to a real garden, but I’m not that kind of guy. I’d rather tend a sound garden, or make up metaphors about one.

Shady Grove - Quicksilver Messenger Service

Since 1965 I figured I’ve bought between 2,500 and 3000 albums in my life. That’s about 2,600 weeks ago, so call it an album a week on average. Although for many years, I averaged four albums a week. I started out with LPs and 45s, but eventually bought mostly CDs. The way music is delivered has changed a lot in my lifetime. I mainly skipped the cassette and 8-track phase, but I did dip into SACDs and iTunes singles. I pretty much went from CDs to streaming music, which is where I’m at now. I could go to Spotify for all my listening, but I still want to own a album collection. I’ve had one since I was thirteen, so I can’t stop now.

In the heart of Marie Kondo’s book is the lesson to save what you cherish. I’m on a journey to discovery those albums I truly love most – and defining that library sparks joy.

JWH