Ian's Blog

The stuff you have

with 5 comments

From Raymond Chen’s non-tech entry today:

I knew a guy once who claimed that you didn’t really own anything that you couldn’t carry at a dead run while firing an AK-47 over your shoulder.

For some reason this made me laugh out loud. It reminds me of the never-ending battle I have with my wife over stuff we should keep. I’m apparently significantly closer to Raymond Chen’s acquaintance on the spectrum of ownership philosophy.

Every time I find myself cleaning the house, this line from Fight Club leaps to mind:

The stuff you own ends up owning you.

Now I’m not prepared to make any insightful comments on our consumeristic society, but I do believe that you actually have to spend time on maintenance and organization of the “stuff” that you have. And you have to make a decision how much of your life you want to spend on maintenance and organization of your stuff. I sometimes joke that I was not aware, when I married my wife, that I was also committing to a lifetime storage contract for a large number of rubbermaid boxes full of mysterious, but apparently important, “stuff.”

If you “have” something, but you don’t know where it is or whether it works, do you really have it? I think not. My wife’s opinion differs. (In her defense, there is also a significant portion of the basement dedicated to old computer parts. I think there are at least 4 14-inch CRT monitors down there. But hey, they all work.)

My desire for a well-organized basement is in lock-step with my desire to have clean, well-organized code. The stuff in your basement is like a seldom-used API: if nobody’s sure where it is or how it works, and there’s no documentation, it’s virtually worthless. A basement full of mislabeled (or unlabeled) boxes is like an undocumented library written by an ex-employee 7 years ago: almost useless and taking up valuable space. Obviously code doesn’t take up space in the same way rubbermaid storage containers do, but the concepts of code cruft and basement clutter are closely related in my mind. It we’re going to keep it, let’s keep it in a state that’s useful in some way. And when we add new stuff, let’s make sure that’s also organized in such a way that we truly have it. Too much code, too poorly organized, can end up “owning you” in a very real sense.

So yes, honey. I’ll refrain from throwing out the Bed Bath and Beyond coupons we got in the mail. I’ll put them in the ever-burgeoning “to be thrown away in six months” pile.

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Written by Ian Olsen

March 24, 2006 at 12:09 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I agree wholeheartedly. To be honest, I wonder if it’s more of a genetic, survival instinct. Kind of like how dogs will eat everything that they’re given because they instinctively don’t count on being fed again. To the same extent, I think that there’s some rationale in humans that overrides sensibility with a survival instinct that heavily values various “what if” scenarios. For instance, “yes, this garden hose spray nozzle shaped like a pokemon probably won’t ever be used again, but we’ll keep it in case forest fire rages through our neighborhood… or if we can re-gift it to Peter at his wedding.” I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a lose/lose proposition. Unless you really do give it to me for my wedding because I’m a big fan of Jiggly Puff.

    Peter Waitzman

    March 24, 2006 at 1:50 pm

  2. I am one of those wives mentioned. I do however agree with all that is said. I am an orginizational freak and all of the items I have are labeled and yes I know what is there and it does all work. My problem is that I was raised to never throw out anything that could be used in the future. So I have children’s books, toys, etc that I’m not using now but hope to soon. My husband is also a programmer and I know this drives him crazy. He hates clutter. I am trying to be better and 2 or 3 times a year a trunkful of items get donated to the local Goodwill. So there is hope that some of us packrats learn to let go.

    J.L. Johnson

    March 26, 2006 at 12:23 am

  3. I’m pretty impressed that you’re using rubbermaid boxes. I’m still using discarded corrugated cartons for my stuff… the “I have to keep this for some reason that is currently unknown to me but will one day become clear with the wisdom of age or the archeological searchings of future generations.” I imagine this… “a yellow and badly aged notebook was found penned by a midwestern American male… good verbal skills and well-developed thoughts. This discovery advances our understanding of 21st century culture and is a major breakthrough for forensic psychologists seeking to understand the motivations of this lost generation.” Pretty grandiose, but it’s my excuse. A big yes to clean code… go Ian!

    Stephen B. Starr

    April 7, 2006 at 9:25 am

  4. Got a kick-ass laugh out of this one!!! šŸ˜€

    Sanin Saracevic

    April 19, 2006 at 11:47 am

  5. […] Ian Olsen I’m reading Cryptonomicon for the second time, having rediscovered it on a basement shelf and remembering that I really enjoyed it years ago. Last night I got to this part, when […]


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