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Wednesday, 15 May 2019


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Mike, I've thought a good rule of thumb for house size is that it's too big if you need help cleaning it on Saturday -- assuming you don't let the clutter pile up during the week.

You have mentioned the term sufficiency several times. Kirk Tuck and Ming Thein have also written about it. And this is the issue that plagues camera-makers now: most photographers have a digital camera that is more than sufficient for all their needs. And there are not enough gadget geeks around to keep supporting new and more feature-filled cameras (despite what you may read from the "photographers" on the infamous Dpreview). I predict some major consolidation in the industry in the next 5 or fewer years.

I kind of disagree with your premise here. Sure, if you don't know anything else, seeking the middle is an ok strategy. But for most people, it pays to apply a little more thought to optimization, IMO.

Sticking with your image, personally, I feel like the best strategy is to look to the left at least 1 standard deviation for products you care very little about, and to move to the right at least one standard deviation for products you care a great deal about.

For example, a lot of people really don't care about their car. A mainstream SUV or midsize sedan might be the "Apex", but really all they need is a reliable (likely used) commuter that gets them from A to B with minimum hassle and maintenance. In those cases, seeking the middle leads to a lot of unnecessary expense that could be better spent on products they do care about.

[I would just point out that you can't move to the left or the right by one SD if you don't know where the middle is...just sayin'. That's all I meant by "seek the middle." But I'll amend the post. --Mike]

What living in a dumpster for a year taught this professor about the things we don’t need

Jeff Wilson’s life had all the trappings of a conventional adult existence.

For starters, he was living in a comfortable, 3,000-square-foot Brownsville, Tex., home with a large walk-in closet, an easily accessible bathroom and a $1,600 monthly mortgage payment. He had a tenure-track professorship at a state university, an hour-long commute and a matrimonial social arrangement with a fellow professional.

Today, Wilson has none of those things — and insists that he’s never been happier.

Between then and now, there was a divorce, a new job in a new city, a surrendering of worldly possessions, a new social arrangement with a new romantic partner and — perhaps most importantly — an olive green dumpster that he called home.


In this case it is both the man and the "estate" that are more than three standard deviations from the mean. And it can't hurt that he lives in a very prosperous nation.

Back when I was only a lad my parents would watch Hee-Haw so I am familiar with cornpone, but I don’t believe I have read the word cornpone online in the 21st century, anywhere….ever. I’m also fairly certain I’ve never come across the phrase “cotton to cornpone” either. You made me smile. Well scatted, Sir.

Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing or maybe it’s just my age but the middle way has usually been my way. For example, all of my digital cameras received approximate 80% scores at DPReview and I figured that was good enough. This middle of the road way does have exceptions though. In the last week I’ve researched sunblock and USB condoms (blocks data transmission at charging stations). The maker and cost of the USB condom probably doesn’t matter all that much since they merely block the data pins in the cable but when it comes to sunblock in the desert, I need the very best. Consumer Reports showed me that there are sunblock brands that provide half the protection listed on the label. Some of these weak brands are even marketed towards babies which is appalling. Bless the trusted review site. Life would be more difficult without them.

Not being entirely sure what form your dumpsters take I wondered why the couple didn’t tip it on it’s side to make it easier of access, more weatherproof and provide a sun porch. I googled dumpster and then “dumpster house” and if you look at the images there are quite a variety of them ;-)

The cigar thing reminded me of one of Doug Ford's (current premier of Ontario) campaign priorities: the buck-a-beer.

The house I live in is just a smidge to the left of your Apex house. It has two stories plus a semi-finished basement. Through a door in the basement there's a smaller section that we call "the cold room," which is a combination utilities area, workshop, and storage. It's about 10x30 feet.

I was standing in the cold room a couple of days ago and I was reminded that this lower back corner of my house is bigger than my first solo apartment where I lived for a year in my mid-20s. I have no plans to go further right on the bell curve; if anything, age and a dislike of complications might send me the other direction. But just a bit. Like maybe half a standard deviation.

Adamson's 2¢ on cigars...


Probably at more than 5¢.

Hello, I wonder where your apex falls on stereo equipment (say for a dac, headphone amplifier/ headphones or powered monitors)?

Coincidentally I was just watching the ZeOS ( https://www.youtube.com/user/ZeosReviews/videos ) video where he was ranting about how expensive equipment at audio shows is so he's planning on spending/crowdfunding to showcase much more affordable options at the Denver Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF).

Ira Levin also wrote a dystopian novel, This Perfect Day, which I think bears comparison with Brave New World.

Gotta go political here.
My tax preparer once said to me: "No one needs more than three times the salary of a public school teacher." So take all the wealth used for stuff out beyond the right side of that curve and use it to solve the myriad problems humanity faces these days!

From my POV, the only thing in the middle of the road is roadkill. Why strive for mediocrity? Ain't there already enough?

I'm neither ostentation or pretentious, so I tend to be well to the left side of the curve. That's why I choose to drive anonymous pick-up trucks—and live in a studio apartment.

Boys will be boys, and so will a lot of middle-aged men. I'm officially an old-man, and I'd rather waste my money on wine, women and song 8-)


To combine bawdy poetry and what is desirable in an object, I refer you to the great Robbie Burns, and his poem "Nine Inch Will Please a Lady":



I wonder if the same logic should be applied to spouses?

What do you get when you cross Buddhism with capitalism? 1 standard deviation.

The bell shaped curve also illustrates devices performing best near the middle of their design/operating range.

If you eliminate the impoverished and extravagant products at the ends of your bell curve, the bell flattens out and the previous middle-way products become the new impoverished or extravagant products. Think of Soviet cameras before the USSR fell. All were mediocre copies or resurrections of ancient designs. The scope was very limited.

Maybe we need really bad products to make us appreciate the average ones. And maybe we need extravagant products to show what's possible if cost is no object.

Extravagance is relative. The Leica haters don't understand this concept. For some people, a $7,000 camera is no more extravagant than a $700 camera is for someone else. To a truly poor person, spending even $70 on a camera might seem foolish, and spending $700 would seem downright crazy. So I don't care if someone drops $7,000 on a camera, unless their family starves as a result. The sales tax they pay might fix a pothole on my street.

And I don't care if someone buys a 37,000-square-foot mansion, either, although I'd favor taxing them a bit more so that nobody has to live in a dumpster.

I'm an old dawg econ guy, so I enjoy these kinds of analysis, this kind of thinking.

Hmm. Well, my apex camera seems to be the Nikon D7500 these days, in spite of the lack of DX primes (curse you Nikon!). To the right is the D750 and to the left the D5300. Damn, why do I own all three?

Never mind.

3,500 square feet? That's huge!

As one of my other interests besides photography is cars, this jumped out at me:

"Just because something is good doesn't mean more of it is better."

In North America at present, we've blown way past that one in terms of vehicles. Where I live now about 40% of the vehicles are pickup trucks, many with dual rear wheels, which at 6000lbs or so in a common configuration are way 'more' than their owners need and are driven very, shall we say, exuberantly. Another 40% are SUV's which might average at 4500lbs and are also way 'more' than their owners need. 15% are small, inexpensive cars such as the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit driven very cautiously by pensioners. 5% covers all the rest, which are some sedans, some sports cars etc.

The apex concept reminds me of Garrison Keillor's quote that closed the weekly monologue about Lake Wobegon on "A Prairie Home Companion":
"Well, that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

NY Times ran a story today about a Jeff Koons "sculpture" selling for $91mil at auction. Artistic and aesthetic value: far, far to the left on the curve. Price: far, far to the right. You could argue that we're not talking here about a "useful" good for which there are various models; bare-bones, competent and worth the price, and luxurious. I would say that art is "useful" albeit subject to the demands of personal taste. Anyway,when you're just talking about absurd amounts of money and not really about art at all, how do you draw a bell curve?

No Cuban cigar, but close.

Most of my camera is not apex of a bell curve but on the long tail of a Possion one.


Many of us in our life chase the bell curve as either average or the beat the average like the peak of it. But there is another way.

Using 8x10, Pentax, hasselbald, ... is playing the long tail. Playing vinyl is playing the long tail. Sort of fun.


I often think in terms of the 80:20 rule.
You can get to 80% of perfection with 20% of the money or time.
Its the final 20% that is either expensive or unnecessary.

So you're a Hoosier... me too. I'm 38 years in California. I don't know if where you live is midwest or east. It's certainly not NYC.

Using the inflation calculator at 1913 to today, that nickel cigar would cost $1.29. But that's a pretty gross estimate and doesn't take into account how different products respond to inflation. In the case of cigars. I would argue that that would most likely be about a 5 buck cigar today. By no means the most expensive cigar by a wide margin, but I think you've got to spend about that much to get a cigar today that could be called half decent and not convenience store bad. BTW, don't ever buy a cigar from anyplace that doesn't have a proper humidor kept at the proper humidity, preferably walk-in.

Mike replies: ...one of my more famous posts, "Letter to George" (2010).

I have a low boredom tolerance, and was suffering from massive internet ennui, so I followed the link down the rabbithole. Several jumps later I came across this gem.

Ctein, writing about Orthodox Zonies said: "The Weston Gallery always has some examples of their labors on its walls. Think of perfectly-tuned pianos playing Three Blind Mice and you'll get the idea."

Oh so true! The Weston Gallery isn't the only place where Three Blind Mice tops the hit-parade.

I get your general idea, and think it makes sense, but I was brought up short by the 3500 sq ft house as the functional apex. For anywhere that I have lived in the UK or Canada, that size of house would be far to the right. I think that also holds true for other countries that I am familiar with or have visited. So I suggest that your "average" 3500 sq ft house is an anomaly restricted to the less populated regions of the US. It surely depends on cheap energy for construction, furnishing, maintenance, and access to the owner's workplace. What happens if energy stops being plentiful and cheap, for whatever reason?

I am coming more and more to the realization that making a conscious decision to trend to the left (on your graph I mean!) will help me and everyone else.

(BTW, here is a book recommendation for you: David Brooks (NYT columnist) "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life". As I read it I try your technique of applying what he says as if it was about photography. Great read!)

[I was just guessing at the specs of an "ideal house," and you're right, it's probably too much based on conventional norms in suburban and semi-rural areas of the US where land is cheap. I recently found my own "ideal house," at least for me personally at my current age, and it's one story and 1,579 square feet with a partially finished basement and a 2-car garage, and a minimal yard (my current acreage takes a lot of work and expense to maintain, and probably isn't feasible for an older me).

BTW I like David Brooks. He was once amusingly described as "the affirmative-action hire at the Times" because he's a conservative--the NYT is not known for having a lot of conservatives on its Op/Ed page. --Mike]

Just a data point: I just sold the 2000 sq. foot house that my kids grew up in. Four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths.
I think that's about a half sigma to the right of the apex in that prosperous-but-not-wealthy suburb of Detroit.

(We bought it trashed, for not very much, and spent just 30 years fixing it up. Then we flipped it.)

I'm a fellow Hoosier, also relocated to California, and I find the idea of 3,500 square feet insane, something only the fabulously wealthy would do as a way to share their excess money with the local community.

I did back in Indiana, too, where my 2,400 square foot house also seemed crazy, but I couldn't find anything smaller I liked better.

I currently share 900 square feet, of which about 200 ft2 is a garage, with another human. If I had more space I'd just fill it with more crap and have a tougher time sweeping up for company.

Apartments in Jerusalem that students and academics can afford apex at about 90 meters squared for a family of 4-5, 25 - 35 meters for a student alone or with a partner. We have 160 (not every meter is strictly legal, but we are discreet about it. (one square meter is about 10 square feet). Penthouses the size of a suburban singe family home are more than 3 standard deviations out to the right in any city. But we can read about them in the Sunday NYTimes.

The older I get, the more I yearn for simplicity. Time seems far more important than money or things, and complications eat into my time.

I downsize everything that requires too much time and energy to maintain, and spend more on things that simplify my life and give me more time, or more options for things I can do with my time.

I can't think of anything more pointless than dying in a huge house with a vast number of accumulated objects. I'd rather spend what time and money I have wandering around Budapest with my Xpro2.

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