Wednesday, July 7, 2010

not a unique snowflake

This post ended up pretty long and covers a lot of topics, but after reading the whole thing. I think that line from Fight Club is apropriate.

Some people talk about a shared "collective unconsciousness". It's a neat idea that we're all psychically connected and our feelings, thoughts and ideas are shared with other people around the world. I get that people would feel comforted by that idea, since in a way that means you're never really alone. But until we observe some kind of a broadcast signal from our brains that other people could receive, or find ANY evidence for ESP, I think that "collective unconsciousness" is just a fun fantasy.

But I am going through something of an existential crisis because of a similar idea. Years ago during my batchelor's degree it occured to me that given how many people are currently alive and have ever lived on earth, every thought I'd ever had, must have been thought of before. Adding to this effect is the growth of globalized media and the internet. The more similar all of our lives are, the more similar our ideas must be.

I'm not saying that no one has ever had an original thought. Lots of people do. (Eistein comes to mind first for me.) And I'm not saying that the internet is stifling creativity. On the contrary I love how the internet allows a rapid distribution of countless unique ideas every day and must stimulate countless more.

But I also see a lot of trolls and fanboys. I see huge amalgamations of news and marketing, conditioning us all to know who michael jackson is and what a pair of golden arches mean.

Although, finding out that there are hundreds of people out there who are just like you isn't all bad. Youth growing up gay in small towns can learn that they're not freaks. People around the world can create communities around common interest instead of location, and accomplish great things and form life-changing relationships. Believe me, I love the internet and I will write about how transformational I believe it has been and will be for the world.

But when I realized that in my life, I hadn't had a unique thought, I craved it. It seemed important in terms of my identity as a human being to have a unique thought. (Instead of some combination of repeated experiences, like a mosaic of people who had come before me.) What middle-class white kid hadn't moved out of his home, lived in rez, tried some drugs, got laid, traveled in Europe, crammed for exams, got drunk, and thought about profound philosophy (with and without the aid of the previously mentioned drugs).

Sure we're all unique, but I'd liken our uniqueness to how bolts off of a production line are unique. You take a bunch of inch and a half M8 machine screws and look at them under an electron microscope. You'll find subtle differences in the crystal structure of the metal, impurities of the alloy, micro-cracks in different places. At that resolution of detail, EVERY screw is unique. On the atomic level each screw HAS to be unique. But in practical terms those millions of screws are identical. I realized that people are essentially the same. We all love to convince each other and ourselves how important we are.

Some of us come off of different production lines, moulded to fit into different parts of the machine of society, but there's a million other people right now, JUST like you that can take your place. (Okay that was a little depressing. I will write other posts about changing the machine and rejecting the intended slot where you are supposed to fit. But that's not for today.)

So I'd mentioned an existential crisis. In my pursuit of a unique idea, I went into grad school. One of my major motivations for doing research was to get to the leading edge of scientific knowledge and take a tiny step forward. I wanted to think of something that no one had ever thought of before.

Yeah I'm kind of naive that way. Don't laugh. Everyone is optimistic when they start grad school. That was an unrealistic goal which lead inevitably to the existential crisis I'm having now. Every day as I stare at my computer, trying to write up my thesis, I know that I didn't accomplish my goals. And these aren't just professional goals, I've wrapped so much of myself into this work, that it's personal. I don't want to let go of my project so I'm very reluctant to finish it.

But I realized that my unique idea, (if I'll ever have one) isn't going to come from this project, and I have to wrap it up. But it's a terrible feeling documenting what essentially feels like a failure.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

reusable coffee cups

A few days ago I listened to a presentation that really got my brain going. The talk described the huge number of disposable paper cups that are used every year in the USA because of take-out coffee. Paper coffee cups (while possibly the single biggest contributor) must be a small fraction of the total amount of garbage produced by take-out food. But I agree with the presenter that the disposable coffee cup is a great symbol for the larger problem.

The presenter worked on a team of people trying to solve this problem. The project's name is betacup and has a website and corporate support. I was quite pleased with the ideas on their website, in particular because the number 3 ranked idea was my idea!

Just to be clear I had NOTHING to do with jovoto's submission that is idea C3 on the betacup website. They developed and submitted their own idea completely on their own. This is a case of many people having the same idea independently. Not a case of plagiarism.

In fact I can't really claim that I thought of the idea on my own since I'd already seen it in action at the food fair, at a local music festival I'd attended. Really, how original is offering reusable dishes that are borrowed (requiring a deposit) at the point of purchasing food? I think not very. I just took that idea and thought it could be applied to a chain of coffee shops instead of at a single location.

Jovoto does a better job of describing the proposal and made some slick presentation slides. But here's my shot at a description with my slight additions.

The coffee chains (and I think Starbucks is the ideal chain to get the ball rolling and be the backbone to this system) would loan out re-usable, highly durable coffee mugs to every customer they sell take-out coffee to. A $3 (or so) deposit would be added to the cost of the cup of coffee, and you can get your money back when you return the mug. But since the next time you come back to the Starbucks you probably want to buy more take-out coffee, you instead trade your dirty mug for the clean one your coffee is served in.

As long as the deposit covers the cost of an un-returned mug (plus a bit of profit) this is a win-win situation. Starbucks will actually save money because they no longer need to stock disposable cups and eventually can reduce the number of mugs delivered to each store. The environment benefits: less garbage and eventually less shipping. And customers benefit since we don't need to remember to bring in our re-usable tumbler every time. (Altho there's nothing stopping anyone from continuing to use your old tumbler if you remember to bring it.)

Maybe you forget to bring in your reusable mug a few times, you would accumulate a few mugs but eventually you bring back 5 or 6 at once and get your $15 bucks back. Not the end of the world right? 

The really brilliant thing about this idea is you don't need to bring your mug back to the same Starbucks that your originally got it from. And that's where I would add to the idea.

I think as momentum grows, eventually all coffee shops will adopt the reusable coffee mug loan program. So you buy your reusable mug at a Starbucks, but bring it back to a Second Cup or whatever local coffee shop is nearby that is participating in the program. If one store starts to build up too many mugs, they can sell them to another coffee shop that needs some for the deposit price. (There would be a fee to join the program that covers the shipping costs of the mugs.)

I also think Starbucks can encourage people to collect their mugs (which generate profit) by branding the mug with the location it was first sold at. How cool would it be to get your mug of coffee in Seattle that says it first served a cup of coffee in Hong Kong? Suddenly every mug has a story. And each generation of mug would need to look different so you can track how long they last and how the mug in your hand is. They'll gain the same kind of appeal as old currency, which fascinates collectors.

While we're at it I wish grocery stores would put in a similar policy. I've got way too many re-usable bags kicking around my place and I'm forever forgetting to bring them when I go to the store.

What do you think? I think it's a relatively simple idea, that requires little or no effort for consumers to adopt, that has obvious economic and environmental benefits.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What's going on here?

I've tried blogging before. Then I gave it up.

It was a great way to keep in touch with my friends and family when I was living abroad for while. That and Flickr. But my persistent online identity eventually got eaten up by facebook. (Sound familiar to anyone?) So I have plenty of ways to publish information about myself online.

This is going to be something different. I wanted to experiment with anonymity and I wanted to write a blog about ideas. I want these ideas to stand on their own; completely apart from my identity. That's not to say that there won't be posts that involve events from my life. This is still my blog and if this is to be a genuine expression of my ideas, then it's going to draw on who I am.

But this blog isn't about me. It's about the ideas.

And who knows? Maybe they'll even start a few conversations. (Over-used as I think that word is, I think it's appropriate this time.)

Hello World

Seemed an appropriate way to start