Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘home improvement

A few further thoughts on norms, experience, etc.

leave a comment »

A few follow-ups on two recent, overlapping texts ([1] ,[2]):

  1. In the previous texts, I argue against adopting furniture/ideas/methods/behaviors/whatnot that we see used by others by convention. However, there is nothing wrong with adopting them when they bring us a net benefit. Similarly, it is not necessarily wrong to temporarily adopt something as an experiment to see whether it would bring a net benefit. (With some reservations for the cost of the temporary adoption.) On the contrary, I strongly encourage looking at others as an “experience short-cut”—as long as it is done with a critical mindset, while keeping oneself the final arbiter of what is beneficial, and with an eye at an individualized adoption.* Indeed, failure to be open to such impulses is just a variation of the “take the norm for granted fallacy”—the norm now being the status quo, personal habits, whatnot (also see an excursion at the end).

    *Exactly this critical mindset was missing in some examples given in [1]: I bought a washing machine because I made a blanket assumption that I would benefit from it and/or through an unconscious attitude that a washing machine “belonged” in a household. The carpet and the chandelier, similarly, were not based on a thought-through decision about what would improve my then apartment. Instead, it verged on a fix idea that I had built when visiting my grand-mother as a child—when I grow up, my apartment will …

    For instance, when I (as a software developer) have seen someone else working or encountered his finished code, I have often found some idea that makes my own future work better. For instance, to stick with homes, I found the grilled sandwiches my father made during my recent visit to be delicious and bought a mini-grill of my own once back in Germany—and have been very happy with it as a value-adder.

    The latter also exemplifies the type of individualized adoption mentioned above: My father’s grill was a specialized sandwich toaster, while I went for a more general-purpose, low-end Foreman imitation. Firstly, this gave me more flexibility both to grill non-bread and to grill larger slices of bread, which suits my lower prioritization of kitchens and kitchen implements better—one tool for several tasks.* A sandwich toaster might be better at sandwiches at a given size, but then I would need other tools for other tasks. Secondly, it allowed me to duck the preparation problems my father occasionally had (e.g. regarding how the bread must be buttered), which suits my different effort-vs-taste priorities better.

    *The recurring reader might be surprised that I do not apply the Unix paradigm of “doing one thing well”. This is partially because different spheres (e.g. kitchen implements and software) can have different requirements, partially because the difference in quality is not that large (arguably, even a matter of taste), and partially because the “one” is largely a matter of complexity—and my grill is no more complex than my father’s. In contrast, a combined grill and coffee maker would have left me skeptical. It could even be argued that my grill is closer to Unix ideals through being more flexible at the same level of complexity.

  2. Untested assumptions can be troublesome, especially when a difficulty is under- or overestimated. (Also cf. an older text on how an easy task can be harder to do right.)

    For instance, my problems with orders and deliveries of shelves and whatnots (cf. some earlier texts) are examples of underestimating difficulties, of assuming that something would “work as advertised”. (More correctly, “work sufficiently close to advertised that I did not spend hours of effort and encounter weeks of delays, only to have nothing to show for it in the end”. I have been burnt before…)

    For instance, my later measures to remedy my shelf situation show overestimation, the assumption that a certain difficulty would be so tough that I had to make it easier: I spotted a cheap and light-weight* shelf, which reached an assembled height of 1.5 m while being just 0.8 m long pre-assembly. Seeing this as something that I could realistically bring home on my own, I bought one to see whether I could make it fit with my plans.

    *Six kg per a later weighing.

    In order to get it home, roughly 2.5 km away, I bought a large plastic bag at the check-out counter and took the train for most of the way. The plastic bag was more of a hindrance than a help, because it lacked the depth needed, forcing me to repeatedly intervene, lest the package fall out of the bag.

    Satisfied with the assembled shelf, I later bought two more to approximately cover my original shelf-needs.* I brought a luggage-on-wheels to make the transport easier and to avoid a second train ride**, but found that it was hard to get both shelves to stay on at the same time***. As a result, I spent roughly half the way home “carting” both shelves, and half carting one and carrying the other. I found the going to be slower and the work harder in the former case. I had to stop for short rests several times, and saw virtual stars when I had gone up the stairs to my apartment (preceded by a bit of a hill).

    *The result has less depth and height, compared to my original online attempts, but greater width. The maximal load is considerably lower, but that is not currently a problem.

    **Whenever the distance, load, time, whatnot, does not make it unrealistic, I try to walk as a matter of course.

    ***This might have been solvable with e.g. a rope.

    Yesterday, this time to extend my kitchen, I bought another two of these shelves and, wiser from experience, just took one under each arm and walked. Apart from a few red-lights, I never stopped and I never, not even at the red-lights, put either of the shelves down until I was at the house-door—and then only because I needed free hands to find my keys… Compared to the second time, I was home earlier, I was less tired (both in terms of “cardio” and most individual muscles), and my hands were less sore.

    If I had not overestimated the difficulty of carrying the shelves, I would have saved myself a train ticket and a bag* (first time) and would have avoided a lot of paradoxical effort (the second time).

    *The bag was not expensive, but I thoroughly detest paying for items that display advertising and that often were complimentary in the past. Also see e.g. [3].)

    Note, however, that this is not a recommendation to be optimistic—the way to go is to be realistic. If in doubt, gather more data or make an experiment. For instance, my first trip, with just the one shelf, would have been a perfect opportunity to gather experience with little risk, seeing that I could have alternated between rested arms. If I still had found myself over-challenged, I could just have dropped into a coffee shop for a cup, a sandwich, and a twenty minute rest.

Excursion on the status quo as norm:
An over-focus on the status quo as a norm is quite common, especially in the business world. (With some variations, e.g the “not invented here” phenomenon.) A particularly annoying case is the German claim/cliche “X hat sich bewährt” (roughly, “X has proven it self”) as a means to silence suggestions for something new or to end a discussion without actually providing factual arguments. When used honestly and insightfully, this claim is not something bad, because it would point to an evaluation of X based on experiences and experimentation. In reality, however, it is (be it as an excuse or through narrow-mindedness) almost always code for “this is what we have always done, and we do not care to experiment”, “we tried this once, the apocalypse did not follow, and we have stuck with it ever since”, “this was originally my idea and I will stick with it till the bitter end”, “I do not know why X was chosen, but someone must have had a reason”, or something similarly narrow-minded.

As a special case, that the current choice once was legitimately good (which might often be the case), does not imply that it still is: There might be better choices available today (but not back then). The needs to be filled might have changed. The world with which the choice interacts might have changed to make it work less well. Etc. Correspondingly, it can pay to re-evaluate choices every now and then—even when those choices were originally well made. That T-Ford is not a good choice for car, be it in absolute terms or relative the price.


Written by michaeleriksson

May 17, 2019 at 3:50 am

Improving my apartment, going against conventions

with 3 comments

Even when having enough money to be more conventional, I have usually been fairly frugal and unconventional when it comes to e.g. furniture and appliances—including having never owned a dish-washer, never replacing the, to date, sole washing-machine I have ever owned after it broke, preferring* a mattress on the floor to a bed, and even having had a stretch where I used moving boxes in lieu of shelves after a move.

*Truly preferring. I have even on occasion put the mattress of an existing bed (in a furnished rental) on the floor. Advantages include more space, use of the floor as a very large night-table, and the extra exercise from getting down and standing up.

After finally actually living in my purchased apartment, I had planned to change this considerably, including buying a load of furniture, a better mattress (cf. below), a dish-washer, a washing machine, …; as well as replacing the sub-standard built-in kitchen(ette)*. My experiences with eCommerce, deliveries, and whatnot (cf. a number of recent texts) has put a stop to this plan. I have gone through my actual needs in detail, and have decided to (for the time being!) limit myself to a freezer, possibly a better fridge, and some type of table or other (non-integrated) means of increasing the work-space around sink and stove.**

*Which I had brought with me from an older apartment. Due to different placement of fixtures, the original compact row needed to be split into pieces; it is unnecessarily small; there is wear and tear; the fridge is barely adequate in size; and there is neither freezer nor dish-washer.

**As well as the shelves that I have already procured. Concerning dish-washer and washing machine, the decision was also influenced by the lack of space in my bathroom and how the piping in the kitchen is awkward to reach with the current innards.

The question of mattresses form a particularly interesting special case:

I bought a cheap foldable mattress, normally used for temporary guests, shortly after I bought the apartment: I knew that I was not going to move in officially for quite some time, that I would only spend the odd weekend in the apartment until then, and that investing in a “real” mattress so early could back-fire, because I could not know the optimal measurement that far in advance. The guest mattress might have cost me about forty Euro; a “real” mattress would cost several to many times that (especially if I listened to the sales people in the mattress store). This mattress worked surprisingly well even after I had moved in full-time, and only started to grow uncomfortable after about six months of heavy use, when the mattress had developed deep compressions—and I got another (less comfortable) six months out of it simply through putting a folded duvet over the compressed parts.*

*I stress that this duration was not planned. The duvet-solution was intended for a much shorter time, but other tasks with higher priorities and the eCommerce/delivery issues led to an excessive delay.

To avoid delivery issues, I decided to try something original—an air mattress. (Which I could, obviously, carry from a store with no problems.) If it worked, I was well set for a low cost; if it did not, I had unnecessarily spent a small amount that I might still be able to re-coup at a later time, e.g. by using the mattress as a guest bed. The result was mixed: the particular specimen that I bought was not up to the task of a permanent mattress, giving too little support in areas under heavy load and moving too much under my weight, but the principle was sound and a (presumably more expensive) mattress with more than one air-compartment might have worked quite well.*

*Other partial solutions include a narrower mattress, which might give more stability in exchange for less space than the current 120 cm, and a higher air pressure. (I found myself wanting a suitable pump, “pumped” by mouth, and might have ended slightly below the ideal pressure. Then again, a higher air pressure might have resulted in too little yield.) I would certainly give an(other) air mattress a further try, before shelling out a fortune on a conventional mattress.

Realizing that the current set-up did not work well, I was suddenly struck by the memory of having slept on just a duvet for a some time around ten years ago. Going for a new experiment, I let out the air, put my duvet on top, and have since found myself in better comfort than the last time I had a real mattress! My only complaint is that, if I remain still for too long, there can be a slight pain on certain points, notably where my hip-bone is pressed into the duvet when I lay on my side; however, this has been reduced by a slightly different sleeping position (shifting pressure from bone to muscle), more movements lead to a further reduction, and another duvet would likely take care of any remaining objection. (I have not felt the need to date, but this might change.) Meanwhile, my posture is better, a slight occasional twinge in the lower back is reduced, and the rest of my body is quite comfortable.

This type of unconventionality was not always there, however. Notably, my early adulthood was still influenced by an expectation of what belonged in a home from my childhood. For instance, I bought the aforementioned washing-machine at a very early stage, without having ever investigated my needs and the advantages and disadvantages. For instance, I was moved to buy a small crystal chandelier and a smallish oriental carpet (both in an affordable quality, however), because my paternal grand-mother had had similar objects in a room that I slept in when visiting her. Over the years, I learned to be more pragmatic and more questioning of whether what most people have/use/whatnot is actually worth the money* and effort—sometimes it is; sometimes not. (This especially with an eye on different people having different needs, e.g. due to size of household, spare-time activities, whatnot.)

*The main reason for why I had more extensive original plans is that I simply had more money available than at earlier stages of my life—and splashing out a few thousand to get a conventional and decent kitchen and whatnot at age 44 was well within the realms of the affordable and responsible. This much unlike what might have been the case at e.g. 24—and much unlike those who actually spend twenty thousand on a kitchen, sometimes without having the money at hand. However, a contributing reason is that I had spent such a long time living in furnished apartments and hotels (for professional reasons) that I had started to lose track of the right attitude and indeed slipped a bit in the direction of adhering to expectations. Without this slip, I would likely still have had similar plans, but I would have spent more time investigating my needs and wishes before making the plans. (As is, I made the plans with too little thought, was given a “second chance” through the delays, and revised the plans over time.)

Excursion on general principles:
Generally, I have found it important to question norms, typical behaviors, accepted truths, whatnot.* For instance, I view various societal phenomena and institutions, claims by politicians and news-papers, whatnot, with skepticism unless and until I have had the time to form an independent opinion. I have certainly learned that much of what is taken for granted or is preached as inviolable truth does not actually hold up to a critical examination, especially not when viewed from scratch**. Do not expect me to fall in line as true believer, if a claim does not have convincing arguments to back it. Do not expect me to believe everything an authority says. Do not expect me to do something in a certain way just because it is the conventional way. Do not expect me to automatically consider the current state of affairs the best, let alone the sole possible. Etc.

*Which is not to be confused with the claims of doing the same by e.g. some post-modernist, quasi-Marxist, PC, or whatnot groupings. Firstly, quite often they are the providers of the conventional truth and norms, while what they criticize as alleged norms often no longer are (if they ever were…) the norms. (Indeed, my attitude owes a lot to exposure to faulty claims and reasoning, norms that do not makes sense, whatnot, that originated with these very groups…) Secondly, they are rarely intent on a fair critical examination, which might well result in an acquittal, but on proving a preconceived opinion that this-or-that is evil and must be condemned/abolished. (Recurring examples include Western culture, traditional roles, and anything male or White.)

**By which I mean approaching an issue e.g. through the perspective of a human from a very different time period. Consider e.g. the reaction of a pre-historic farmer if he had to surrender a proportion of his harvest (minus expenses) corresponding to modern German tax-rates and got as little in return as many of us have. Similarly, while a pre-historic farmer might not be negative towards a modern mattress, he would likely find it highly odd and e.g. a thick layer of straw more natural—as might, indeed, the typical farmer until far more recently. Ditto when the cultural perspective is switched, e.g. by comparing German and classical Japanese sleeping arrangements. (The latter being reasonably close to my current.)

Excursion on rentals and kitchens in Sweden and Germany:
An interesting difference between Sweden and Germany is that kitchens are usually provided by the landlord in the former and by the tenants in the latter. While the Swedish system might give a lesser flexibility, the German is associated with ridiculous cost increases for those who do not spend decades in the same apartment. This not only through the considerable additional costs for de-installing, moving, and re-installing the kitchen with every move,* but also through the risk (as above) that the kitchen does not fit well in the new location. To boot, there is a risk that market prices for kitchens are driven up artificially through excess demand; ditto cost per man-hour for the installers and movers. Certainly, the costs will automatically be higher (at a given quality and content) for a private person than for a land-lord, due to economies of scale. Notably, if the first kitchen in an apartment is installed by the builder**, he can buy in bulk, can use the staff at hand (which is cheaper than hiring per hour), and is not explicitly or implicitly billed for travel costs. Then there is the issue of deductible VAT and deductions of costs from revenue, which the builder and landlord can apply, but the tenant can not.

*Some of these tasks might be doable by the tenant, but many will lack the skill or the man power for some steps, it can pose an unnecessary danger (e.g. through water-damage due to amateurish plumbing), and some steps might legally require a qualified handyman, e.g. connecting ovens to electricity in Germany. Even in a best case scenario, there will be an opportunity cost through all the extra work.

**Who will often be the landlord, work for or in cooperation with the landlord, or later sell to the landlord.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 13, 2019 at 4:51 am