The Problem Is Choice

Red Nebula ArtThere is no denying that the pandemic has caused many of us to analyze our emotional state. We have been put in a box and told to stay. Given this situation beyond our control, many of us tried to occupy the time with hobbies, home projects, and even refocused on family, but really it all comes down to how we perceive our own state: physical and mental.

At first it seems so simple, we think of ourselves on a path and along that path we are presented with choices. Some we make thinking we know who we are and what we want, some we make not knowing, some we think are no choice at all, that our freedom has been taken away and that we are somehow restricted to do something that is inherently terrible for us. Through it all we think that choice is good and that this is what we strive for, that we want control of our life and we want to make these choices.

You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

However the human condition is an extraordinary one. We most often do not make choices, we in fact are compelled to situations in which the removal of choice is what actually makes us happy. We in fact take the blue pill more often than the red one. Simply put, we don’t want to be Neo. We don’t want the truth. What is making us miserable is choice.

A few years ago, I watched The National Parks documentary by Ken Burns and decided to venture out into nature and make that my mid-life crisis. I thought about going into the wild and confronting a bear, much like Brad Pitt meets his end in Legends of the Fall. This was the idea, crazy as it sounds. When I actually got out to the California sierra, I found that backpacking is incredibly hard and requires physical and mental strength. It took all my will power to keep going every day. This is what the attraction was to many people. They want to forget the office and all the endless tasks that they need to accomplish in order to feel productive. The hiking helps them concentrate and just move forward with something, there is no thinking involved. There is still a choice, but really you made it already the moment you decided to go out there. You just have to keep going. For many people this helps them clear their mind and they think that now they can go back to the real world and tackle the mundane tasks of their job.

Before the pandemic, I use to go to Target every week and just walk around. My shopping experience would often be interrupted by the eventful tantrum of a child. The details of which most often involved a parent who was trying to reason with their emotional child, which makes no sense if you think about it. They are a child, they are not suppose to be reasonable. The issue is that parents give their children choices now. This is totally the opposite of my upbringing where children were hardly ever given choices. You ate what your parents told you to eat and that was it. Today, kids have too many choices. They have smart phones with all the world’s music, all the knowledge, and entertainment they could ever want at their finger tips. This gives many kids anxiety, because they don’t know what they should like, what they should watch or listen to. There is an entire group of influencers to help them with recommendations, playlists, reviews, and endless opinions. Choice is too hard, when you have so many options. You are not happy. Every now and then the influencers themselves break down and admit as much.

So what do we do? Take the red pill or the blue pill? The answer will be different for each of us. Whatever paradigm you come to, what matters is what your perception is. Do you believe that climbing a mountain or facing a bear will make you whole? Maybe perhaps you think that finding ten minutes a day and drinking your morning coffee in silence is all you need, or you think forty minutes of cardio is all you need. For the most part, there is some repetition involved. You limit your time or concentration to one thing and make that a routine. Eventually that is your thing and that will make you sane. And yes, that too is a choice, but you are choosing to limit yourself to this one thing, and that is the human condition.

Reading The News

Over lunch, I was discussing computers and rehashing the whole Intel v/s AMD debate, which is pointless in this day and age. The desktop computer has been replaced by the smartphone. This little device that you carry around with you, is faster at almost everything and it is mobile! I am an avid reader of news and so the iPhone has been my default reading device for some time. In the beginning Apple created Apple News as a quick news reader app and it was great. It was not an exhaustive collection of news stories, just the main ones and some interesting topics thrown in. I could read Apple News for an hour a day and learn quite a bit. Today, the iPhone is running iOS 15 and Apple has a subscription service for Apple News, which I do not subscribe to.

In all honesty, I do not see any value in the Apple News app or its service. Most of the stories in Apple News are now click-bait and there is not much actual news at all. This is partially due to the news business itself, where magazines and newspaper publishers have cut staff or went out of business all together. Occasionally I see some interesting stories in Apple News, but these are rare these days. Coverage of the COVID pandemic is horrible, though still better than television news which tends to gravitate to a biased summary of the topic regardless of channel.

My news reading now comes from the following sources:

New York Times Subscription

For a long time I resisted paying for news, but after everything that has happened in the world, there really is no alternative. The NYTimes digital subscription is very affordable and the app works well across all my Apple devices. The NYTimes writing is the best out there and they are the number one source of network news anyway, so why not just get the news from the actual source. Occasionally they cover subjects from a New York City slant, but overall they deliver a good product. It use to be the Washington Post had long in-depth stories about a person living in Iowa or Nebraska, and they still do this at times, but the Washington Post is not as good as it use to be a few years ago. If you are a news junkie like me, the NYTimes is as essential as your morning coffee; you can try doing without it, but you are going to hate yourself for it. After the NYTimes, you can fill-in the blanks with the Washington Post, WallStreet Journal, and political news sites like Politico.

Tech News

There are arguably a lot of tech news sites, but overall I don’t have all the time in the world to review all the tech sites. For a quick summary of what is going on I go to Techmeme and review the summaries. If anything interest me, I will click on it and read up on it further. The other site that many people don’t know about outside of the tech and startup circles is Hacker News. Similar to Techmeme, I read the top 100 links, and also click on new to see anything posted lately. To me Hacker News is interesting for the comments and for top stories, the feedback lets me know what technical people think and what is going on in the consciousness of people. For more in depth coverage I will go to Arstechnica and AnandTech, then there is MacRumors for all things Apple related.

The View From Home

When I graduated from college, I was the first person in my family to get a degree and I had two paths in front of me. I could take some time off and apply for graduate school or I could go ahead and put some roots down in Iowa City by buying a house. Within a few months, my parents helped me to purchase a house and my girlfriend and roommate moved from our apartment to the house. For many years I regretted buying the house, I thought it was the first step to denying myself the opportunity to further educate myself and perhaps do something I really loved which is write. I always thought I would end up living in San Francisco and becoming a smug intellectual. The other regret was that perhaps I chose the house over the opportunity to really test myself; no one wants to fail, and if I did not every try, then maybe I would never know.

With a house, comes responsibility, which any young person in their twenties is going to hate. A house means you have a mortgage, insurance, taxes, house maintenance, tools you have to buy in order to do that maintenance, basically things break all the time. Windows break, lawn mowers are terrible to maintain, furnaces need replacing, roofs leak, and my personal dread is plumbing problems! In the beginning you are young and determined, you think Sears has all the tools you need, just start buying some and fix it yourself. Black and Decker has those books that show you how to fix a faucet, (now you have YouTube as well that you can watch how the professionals do it). As I got older, my patience would become shorter, and I started to take a hammer to everything. You’ll find that nothing quite fits right once you take it apart, or it does not screw in tightly, or it is too short or too long, and in the case of plumbing, yeah it still leaks! Eventually you do need to hire a professional for some things like roofs or a new furnace.

This leads me to the other great nuisance, when you own a home everyone is trying to sell you something. People show up at your door all the time to sell you meat, popcorn, candy, carpet cleaning, new windows, and of course a new God. My favorite was when a nice lady knocked on my door to sell me the Internet. She was from the phone company and was inquiring to see if I wanted to get this new technology called DSL instead of using my reliable 56k modem connection. I actually did signup for it, so the phone company got what they wanted that day.

Although I live in Iowa, we live in a midsize town and so I have neighbors like most people who live in larger cities. For the most part I have been very lucky. My neighbors are awesome people. We say hello to each other when outside and we help each other out every so often when our cars get stuck in the snow or there’s a bad storm and we have to pick up broken branches. For the most part we live our lives and we mine our own business. I can’t say this is the case for everyone, there are times when you can have neighbors who you don’t get along with for whatever personal reasons, but I can’t really say that is my case. I have a big snow blower and when I can, I clean up my neighbors sidewalks. It helps them out and it only takes me a few extra minutes.

At this time, my oldest son lives with his girlfriend in northern Iowa. The middle son lives a mile away in his own apartment and is close to finishing college. Our youngest is a teenager and is the only one left living at home. What seemed like a small house for a family of five and one dog, seems a little empty. Nowadays, I very rarely try to fix anything in the house. Ironically the garage is filled with tools that I don’t have any inclination to use any time soon. I change light bulbs and maybe attempt on occasional faucet repair, but for the most part I’d rather hire someone to fix most things.