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Just Do It

Thu 18 September 2014

Six months ago I sold everything I own to travel around the world. Everything I own fits in a ten pound backpack. I went from being a full time Facebook employee to walking or taking buses most places, eating out of grocery stores and convenience stores, and owning only two shirts and two pairs of underwear.

I love it, but I know it's not for everyone. Oddly when I tell people what I'm doing the number one response is "I wish I could do that... but."

This phrase kills me. Words are powerful, and hearing words coming out of your own mouth is even more powerful (it's why we pray). If I say "I wish I could do that but," I'm telling myself that I can't do something. Instead I'm very clear with myself: either I want to do something or I don't. I never tell myself that I can't do something.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned was from the video below. Steve Jobs tells it convincingly, years before he got famous for rescuing Apple: life isn't a game. No one is going to tell you that it's OK to do the things that you want to do. Many people might tell you you're crazy. You just have to start doing what you want and see if it works.

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Throw Away Your Map

Travelling is better without plans

Wed 17 September 2014

Tienanmen Square. Beijing, China.

I was talking with a traveller yesterday who just finished riding his motorcycle from Belgium to Russia and then by boat to Japan. He crossed through twenty-two countries before arriving in Hiroshima and finishing his trip.

What was most remarkable to me about his trip isn't what he saw. It's how he did it. He planned little: sketched a rough route, applied for visas, and got a motorcycle passport. He stayed in small towns, met remarkably friendly people, and had almost no problems.

Then he complained to me that a coffee in Hiroshima costs almost $3 and that the people were too busy and unfriendly. He was used to spending $10 per day for food and sleeping in the mountains for free. This stuck out to me because I felt the opposite way about Hiroshima but the same about Bali.

It got me to thinking: small towns are more pleasant than big cities, and tourist towns are the worst. How do you avoid tourist sights? How do you find nice small towns? You have to go off the map like this guy did.

New Maps

It should be clear, but our map of the world is expanding rapidly. Almost every restaurant, cafe, hotel, or store with a name has an online review and pictures now. Think about how impossible that was just a few years ago.

In the Facebook age it’s actually fairly easy to travel and stay entirely on the map. You can visit the same towns, restaurants, and tourists sights that other people visit. Even when I accidentally open Google Now it decides to show me nearby photo sights, tempting me with more things than I'll ever have time to do.

Even being aware of options for other things that we could be doing can make travel harder than it should be. I'll never do as much as the next person. If I look at a social network or travel engine it’s designed to show me the highlights, but to me the most memorable parts of my trip aren’t the highlights that would be transmissible through pictures or digital stories.

The most memorable thing about places to me is the zeitgeist. It’s the minor places. It’s smelling what the air smells like in a town, looking at how people treat each other, and seeing what people do with themselves and what they keep in their houses.

Honestly, the only time that I think I’m not doing enough or not exploring enough on my trip is if I log into some social network or Google around and see what other travel bloggers write about a town. In my personal reward system, how I feel without comparison to other people, just sitting still in one place for a while and watching the world go by is fascinating enough. Striving for more — more sights, more foods, more beaches, more mountains — can just make me tired.

Going off the map

How does this translate into practical travel advice? The best advice I have for finding places to go is to ask friends or locals directly or to just take a long walk. Sometimes I find good cafes, small parks, or interesting sights. To me there's not much appeal in staying on the map or making plans. The joy of travel is in the adventure itself. I'll always miss something, so I try not to remind myself of what I'll miss or make too much of a plan about what I want to do in the future.

I'm envious of the motorcylist's trip not because of any specific place he saw, but because I have some sense of the mental challenges and rewards that he experienced. There's not a lesson that he could transmit, not a photo that he could give, that would make me want to re-live the specific towns and people that he visited. I don't want to pull out a map and chase down his vacation, I want to find my own. It's his framework for travel that I most admire.

The picture at the top of this article is from Tienanmen Square. I went there not because anyone suggested it, but because I've wanted to visit it for my entire life. I wanted to stand in the middle of that big space and see what it felt like. If there's any country you want to visit there will probably be places like this you'll want to see as well. I try to go find those spots, the ones that I can't miss. If I have time I'll read a history of the town before I arrive. If not, I'll just take a walk and find my own stories.

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How To Own Nice Stuff

The true cost of ownership and how to minimize it.

Mon 15 September 2014

Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. One of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. So I went back. September, 2014.

When I tell people how much something I own costs, or that I just bought something new, they often give me shocked looks. In the past year I’ve purchased three laptops. I’ve also bought five or more lenses, five or six cameras, and a car that I later sold. What’s the deal. Am I really horrible with money? Am I going broke? No.

The true cost of something is completely unrelated to what you pay for it. This sounds like some terrible aphorism. It’s not, and I’m not going to try to convince you that money isn’t meaningful.

Here’s the trick: If you buy things that don’t depreciate, or buy things that you know you’ll use for a long time, then they sometimes don’t cost much more than buying cheap stuff. Often things are cheaper to rent than to buy, but often they’re cheaper to buy and resell than to rent. Here are some examples:

  • I could buy a $100 lens and put it on my camera and sell it in a year for $90 after eBay or Amazon fees. Or I could buy a $1,000 lens and sell it in a year for $900 after sales fees. This works because lenses rarely depreciate, and the difference in cost between the two lenses isn’t $900 — it’s $90. In fact earlier this year I bought a lens for $900 in Japan and sold it in New York for $1,100. From my experience a $1,000 lens is often worth it, but much over $1,000 lenses get too heavy to be useful.
  • I just bought a new laptop in Japan to try out. I’m now fairly sure that I’m not going to keep it. Why am I not concerned? Because although the laptop sells for $1,800 new in Japan, it only costs $1,550 after the discounts given to an American passport holder, and it sells similarly specced for $2,800 on Dynamism. I made the decision to buy the laptop after careful research. As I see it I basically bought a laptop with the option to make money on it if I don’t like it. I expect that after eBay fees and shipping I’ll earn maybe $200 on the transaction.
  • Film cameras are dirt cheap now, especially medium format ones. Good quality film cameras like a Hasselblad 500CM have leveled out at around $800-$1,000 and are probably never going to depreciate again. These cameras cost around $5,000 when they were new, and back then $5,000 behaved a lot more like $15,000 did today. They are wonderful machines. A Hasselblad feels amazing in your hands. So I bought a Hasselblad 500CM from Australia for about $800, shot a few dozen rolls of film through it, and sold it for $850 a few months later on eBay. In this deal I actually lost a bit of money — about $10 after eBay fees and shipping — but I got to shoot one of the best camera designs ever made for $10.
  • For years I paid close attention to the Mac Buyers Guide to see when Apple would release new hardware. I’d buy Apple hardware that I wanted as soon as it was released then resell it a few months before a new design came out. Apple hardware barely depreciates as the item you’re selling is still the current generation. For example I might buy a used iMac, use it for nine months, and resell it for a $50 loss. I used to do this frequently. My worst deal overall was buying a Thunderbolt display in 2011 for $850 and selling it, used, for $640 cash in 2014. I paid $210 minus lost interest to own a monitor for two years that actually still retails for $1,000 today. This is far less than you might think when you initially see the $1,000 sticker price on a new Apple screen.

Temple on Miyajima Island, Japan. April, 2014. A local cult built their headquarters directly across the water lining up with this temple to steal its energy.

My method for this is almost subconscious, but here’s how it works. First, I do careful research to find products that everyone knows about, that everyone loves, and that people will almost always want to buy. I try to find the classic designs in each category. You can generally find these by searching for “best X” where X is whatever you’re looking for — “best camera”, “best monitor” etc. Then I try to buy that classic design either used or at as low of a cost as possible. I try to resell it before any major events happen that would cause it to depreciate. If a new laptop or camera is rumored that might cause something in my collection to depreciate I’ll unload it as soon as I can for a reasonable price on eBay or Amazon.

Some technologies depreciate slowly, others depreciate quickly. Apple produts do well used because only one company makes them and a new model comes out at most once per year. Lots of people in the world want an Apple product and there will always be a deep market. No name or very obscure electronics won't do nearly as well, and any time you buy something above the minimum cost you can find it for — like buying on the street at full retail price — you've lost that money forever.

A lot of people are lazy and don't want to sell their stuff. This drives me nuts. Right now I'm running heavy on gear: three laptops, two cameras, and two phones. In a few weeks I'll own one camera, one laptop, and one phone. I'll go through the steps necessary to sell these things as soon as I can. If you just let these electronics rot and depreciate in your house they'll someday be worth nothing, but if you sell them quickly it's more like renting than owning.

One more thing: I would not recommend buying and reselling things as a way to make money. The risk is high and the earnings are unpredictable. But buying things to try them out and selling them if you don't like them is a totally appropriate action. Your true cost of ownership isn't what you paid for something — it's what you paid minus what you get back after selling, plus lost interest. Compare that to the enjoyment and fulfillment you get out of something and decide if it's worth it.

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The Apple Watch

Technology that wants to be upgraded every two years married with fashion: a perfect revenue machine.

Sun 14 September 2014

I don't think it's much more than a coincidence, but the newly announced Apple Watch is basically a perfect long term revenue machine.

I was in Kyoto the other day shopping for a watch. Unlike my previous self1, I'm cheap now and found a decent Casio for $10 that does the job fine.

Some men will spend over $100,000 on a watch that doesn't do much more than my Casio. We can argue about materials, complications, and durability, but a huge percentage of the price difference between a $117,000 Patek Phillipe and an $10 digital Casio is status. I think that the cost difference is about 20% supplies and labor and 80% marketing and markup .

The iPhone is also a status symbol, but inside the Apple store the most expensive iPhone still only costs about twice as much as the cheapest one. Having an iPhone, especially the most recent one, awards you status, but which iPhone you have never meant much.2

Last week Apple announced a watch which starts at $350 and could easily go over $1,000 for the high end model. Unlike a $1,000 conventional watch, the Apple Watch will be obsolete in 2 years. Just like a conventional watch, a huge percentage of the cost difference from the base functionality to the most expensive Apple Watch is payment for status and margin.

Many people will be perfectly happy with the $350 Apple Watch, but other people — especially in more status obsessed cultures — will spring for the most expensive one available. I'd love to be Apple in this situation. Apple makes one of the most advanced products in the world. Like most Apple products the Apple Watch will already sell for around 30% gross margin. Now Apple has found an acceptible method for pushing margin closer to 70%.

Since people will want to upgrade their Apple Watch every few years as the technology changes, Apple has found a perfect marriage of the high margin fashion buisness with a technology business that quickly obsoletes itself. The Apple Watch is a perfect revenue machine.

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  1. We could nerd out on watches. I'm guilty of buying nice watches and once bought a Rolex clone for about $120. This was only after looking at Rolex and Omega watches and realizing how stupid I'd feel having a $1,000+ watch stolen. I'm glad I bought the cheap watch, because it did get stolen, and I bought another for only $100. My advice: If you want a nice looking watch shop Japanese. Something like a Seiko 5 is more accurate than a Rolex and about 1/100th the cost. It doesn't have the same durability. There are fewer links, they aren't properly spaced, and the watch face isn't made of Sapphire. However, for the $6,950 you save vs buying a Rolex Submariner you'll do fine to buy a second Seiko 5 or Invicta with next-day shipping as soon as the first one fails. 

  2. It's interesting that Apple didn't take the opportunity to make the gold iPhone a $200 premium option. In the past they've sold iPods and MacBooks in black for $100 to $200 more than they sold for in white. Of all the changes in Apple's recent history, not charging more for different colors is a positive one. 



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