Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Minimalism: A Basic Guide

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

The Way of Tea is naught but this:

first you boil water,

then you make tea and drink it.

– Sen no Rikyu

Minimalism as a lifestyle is concerned with stripping unnecessary components to arrive at the most fundamental ones.  Minimalism has strong roots in Japanese lifestyle and design, such as Zen Gardens and Tea Ceremonies, and these things had a very strong effect on me during my sojourn in Japan.  My stay also caused many of the truths found in Christianity to become clearer and more personalized.

photo by telmo32

When people first hear the term “Minimalism”, it most likely conjures up ideas of empty rooms, riding buses instead of driving cars, paintings with practically nothing in them, and ordering “a tall cup of Joe” at Starbucks instead of your “double pump no foam soy mocha latte with whipped cream”.  Minimalism is not about elimination only, but rather about minimalizing the fluff and mere distractions in order to get to the truly beautiful things in life.  It’s about giving up that new cool car so you can save for a round-the-world plane ticket.  It’s about gutting mindless TV shows in order to free up time for creativity and relationships.  It’s about eliminating clutter in your house and office so you can focus on living life – without always having to clean it up!  It’s about decreasing the amount of time you spend checking email and text messages so you can notice the mesmerizing way the light reflects off trees when the afternoon breeze flows through them.

In reaction to the United States’s rampant consumer-culture of overspending and superfluousness,  I’ve developed a few basic principles that I try to abide by in my own life.  Just a few pragmatic things that have helped me simplify life and stay organized.

Toss Unnecessary Paper.

Junk mail, receipts, financial records, shopping lists, and random papers can really add up to create a lot of unneeded clutter that crowds our workplaces and home lives.  Finding ways to eliminate or decrease the amount of paper we handle can really help foster organization and decrease some of the stress we encounter in our lives.

One of the products that I use almost every day is Evernote.  Touted as “an external brain”, Evernote is a note-taking software that can capture just about any type of data and file it away into a searchable database.  Did you really enjoy that bottle of wine you had last night?  Take a picture of the label, upload it to Evernote (very easy if you own a picture phone), Evernote will automatically read the text in the photo and make it searchable, then go ahead and tag the note as “wine” to find the wine instantly next time you go to the liquor store.

Another program that I really enjoy using is Remember the Milk.  It’s a simple, easy to use to-do list that syncs across multiple platforms and can be used online.  I keep two lists: a to-do list, a shopping list, and I’m thinking about moving my bucket list from Google Docs to RTM.

Also check out Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Going Paperless, which includes tips for dealing with financial records, printing to pdf, and other ways to minimize tree killification.

Cultivate a Limited Media Lifestyle

Consistent with minimalist philosophy, the goal is not to eliminate everything, but to remove the unnecessary in order to expose the truly important.  I think it would go well with us to do the same with taking in media, aimless web surfing, TV, news, email pushed to smart phones, and other distractions.  I don’t cut off these things entirely, especially during election years (!), but I’ve found that most of the media that I took in was completely worthless.

“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” – Henry David Thoreau

I did a media fast for two weeks last year – no news, no TV, no movies, no books, no web “browsing”, no magazines, no blog reading.  I had so much extra time that I was oppressed by it.  I freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was forced to resort back to doing interesting things like practicing my guitar and talking with my family.  Try it out and see what happens.  I’m thinking about doing another media fast soon, but maybe for a whole month this time.

Decrease Clutter

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and dust destroy, and where theives break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there is your heart also.  Matthew 6.19-21

In the most pragmatic sense, minimalism is about owning less.  One good cooking pan is better than three average ones.  One good pen is more useful and reliable than a hundred ball point pens stolen from the local bank.  One pair of comfortable and stylish jeans will get worn more often than three pairs bought at a discount store.  Most of us know it to a certain degree already, but we don’t always acknowledge that our earthly possession give us a false sense of importance and status.

Start by going through each room in your house and identifying all the things you haven’t used in more than a year, or items that are constantly taking up space.  Get rid of them, and thank me for it later.  Craigslist, thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales should become your new bff.

At his time of death, Ghandi’s earthly possessions could be counted on two hands.  I think it’s time to reanalyze our opinions about what is needed in order to have a positive impact on the world.  It seems to me that possessions hinder, rather than aid, our ability to positively affect situations and people.

Automate Life at Every Opportunity

Time is quite possibly the most valuable thing we own.  It’s an asset which rich and poor are given equal share, a distinction which I’m quite sure is given by God to remind us that no man is better than another.  What better opportunity to be good stewards of the investment that’s been made in us than spending our time wisely?

Some simple ways to free up time:

  • Automate your budget by using
  • Sign up for direct-deposit at work and automatic bill pay for your monthly expenses.
  • Import all of your email to one account (I suggest Gmail).
  • Use a credit or debit card to keep track of purchases instead of using cash or checks. (But not recommended for those with little self control.)
  • Use an RSS reader like Google Reader to read blogs instead of visiting the site every five minutes to see if there are new posts.
  • Setup an automatic savings withdraw for each paycheck.  Put away a certain percentage into another savings account.
  • Batch tasks.  Do your laundry once every two weeks on Sundays.  Check your email twice a day at 11:00 and 4:00 (or once every week if you’re ambitious like Tim Ferriss).  Cook three days worth of food and refrigerate the extra for later.

Finally, find ways to automate income.  Perhaps the most vital key to freeing up time, most people don’t even realize that creating passive/residual income is possible.  Time doesn’t have to equal money, and you don’t have to put in the 9 to 5 in order to get paid.  I haven’t been able to build this process into my own life yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open for potential opportunities and doing a great deal of research on the topic.  Here are some resources to get you going: Steve Pavlina’s blog post – “10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job“, and book – “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss.

Live Debt Free

Living debt free allows you to better leverage your time and money.  Getting control of finances is a daunting task for some, and most especially for those who have, up to this point, lived paycheck to paycheck without a budget or any financial plan whatsoever.  “Learn to be SMART with your money!” as financial guru Dave Ramsey always says.  I highly recommend you get his book “The Total Money Makeover” and start listening to his radio show (9-5 M-F on 105.5FM here in Colorado Springs) or podcast.  He’s a virtual bank of practical financial knowledge, and it’s very motivating to hear people call into his show who, after digging themselves out of thousands of dollars in credit card debt and completely pay off their mortgage, yell the famous “3…2…1…We’re debt free!!!”  You can start by checking out the 7 Baby Steps to Financial Freedom.  No bills to pay?  Seriously, how minimalist is that?

Closing Thoughts

The same with every philosophical thought I encounter, I do my best to weigh it against the perfect example of Christ.  Jesus didn’t just teach people to live a simple life, he grappled with the deep issues of people’s hearts.  If you chisel away the passions and possessions that this world tends to distract us with, you aren’t left with purity or peace like Buddha teaches, you’re left with emptiness.  I believe that only through Christ, who claimed to be God, can we understand the meaning of our existence and gain purpose in our lives.  Shedding the extraneous stuff is only beneficial when you fill it with something better.   Morality, ethics, and philosophy can only be defined by a God who is “outside the box”, not by any human being, and so in this fashion we must fill ourselves with love for God, his people, and his truth.


Learn Songs Faster by Creating a Master Playlist

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

For those of you that don’t know, I just got back from a year long foreign exchange program in Japan.  I wanted to learn Japanese super bad, so I decided the best way to do it was to go there.  I found out later that you don’t need to go anywhere to learn a language, but, well, that’s another story altogether.  Using the advice from Khatzumoto, I started making Japanese my life.  I switched Firefox into Japanese, I tried reading stuff on Wikipedia in Japanese, I tossed out almost all of my books that were in English, I stopped hanging out with English speaking people as much as possible, and most of all – I completely quit listening to music in English.  That was really tough for me, because it’s obviously a huge part of my life, and provides the life force for my entire existence. And so I had to find a way to get good Japanese music, get it quick, and get it cheap.  I signed up for an account on imeem, and immediately started building a playlist of music that I liked.  It was free, easy to use, and I could access it anywhere I had a computer.  Since I spent most of my time studying with a memorization program on my computer (Anki if your interested), I listened to that playlist almost every day.  Needless to say, after listening to this playlist almost every day for 10 months, I started memorizing songs that I couldn’t even understand yet. I’d go to karaoke with my friends, and be able to sing a ton of songs in Japanese while my other foreign friends were stuck singing in English.  As you can probably imagine, a thought was sparked in my head, which in turn began an on-going project that I hope will help you in your quest to collect all the pieces of the triforce become a better musician.

“The Playlist”

You can probably see what’s coming next.  You’re going to want to take all of your most favorite music, and build what I like to call “The Playlist”.  Yup, your favorite music.  Now you’re reading this post, and you’re thinking “What the heck John, who hasn’t done that.  I mean seriously, everybody and their aunt’s FedEx delivery-man has a playlist of their favorite music … gosh dang it!” And in saying that, yeah you’re probably right.  The reality is that it’s just that: a playlist. But it’s a collection of the music that fuels your passion, the songs that made you start playing in the first place, the music that is so good that it gives you goose-bumps, the music that you can’t help dancing to – even when other people are around. It’s much more than just a “playlist”.

Constructing The Playlist

To start out, you want to embrace the life of a minimalist for a bit, and make sure that all of your music is in the same place.  Having files spread across computers, different programs, CDs, tapes, and vinyl, and other various places is a nightmare.  You can’t quite immediately get all of your analog media (tapes, vinyl, etc.) onto the computer, but just get everything in the same place.  Use your favorite audio software program to collect all your digital media in one place.  I use Media Monkey, and could rave about it all day, but I certainly can’t tell you which program to use.  If you’re in a band, I suggest you all agree on using the same media player and file format.

So now you’ve got all your files in one place and begin by making a playlist called, well, “The Playlist”, or anything you want I guess. Just make sure it’s not just another playlist on top of all the other “my favs”, “grandma’s music”, and “mix tape for Henrietta” playlists you’ve made. It’s gotta be recognizable instantly by anyone who sees it. Add a zero in front of it if you want it to show up first alphabetically.  Now you want to systematically choose the songs that you like the most.  You need to suppress your feeling a little bit while doing this, mostly because if you’re like me, you have about 500 favorite songs.  Most media players such as iTunes or Windows Media Player keep track of the number of times you listen to each song your own, so let’s start there. iTunes even has an automatic “Top 25 Most Played” playlist, unless you deleted it.  Add the top 25 or so songs to start out, and more if you feel like it.

If you’re like me, some songs with have a ridiculous play count.  Not because you listen to them a lot, but rather because you’ve been practicing them for a long time.  In my playlist for example, Karma by Bump of Chicken has been played 184 times, simply because I had to practice it so many times before I got good at it (it’s boat hard remembering lyrics in a second language).  You can choose to leave those songs in or take them out, depending on how much you actually like them.

Depending on how old you are (yeah, sorry to point it out like this, but it’s pretty obvious), you’re going to have more or less analog media.  Accept the fact that your music is outdated, in an inconvenient package, and that the sound quality is not nearly as good.  I know some people love the vinyl sound, or the tape sound, or the scratchy-overcompressed-radio sound, but for our purposes you need something more portable.  You’re gonna need to get it on your computer somehow.  Since you can’t readily add it like digital media, you have only a few options.  The first thing you wanna do is make a list of the analog songs that you actually like.  To do that, make a pile in the middle of your living room of all your analog stuff, and separate it into two piles – the “really good” pile and the “not as good” pile (you don’t still own all crappy music do you? why?).  Go through the “good” pile and make a list of all your favorite songs.  Choose specific songs and not just whole albums.  Take that list and hold on to it for the next part.

Next we want to choose songs that might have been missed by the play count (or if you don’t listen to music much on your computer). You’ll have to manually go through your entire playlist and find all the songs you consider top notch. These are 5 star songs, the cream of the crop.  Try to eliminate as much “good” music as you can.  This is your favorite music of all time isn’t it?  It might be time consuming depending on how much music you have, and will probably result in some nostalgia too :). But at the same time, don’t get distracted!  After adding these songs you should have a rather sizable list.  It might be upwards of 100 or 150 songs if you have a considerably large music collection, or you were just too generous when choosing your songs. Including your analog songs, this list should be somewhere around 150 songs.  If you have more, take some out; if you have less, don’t worry too much.

At this time, you’re going to want to have your analog songs in your computer somehow.  I’ve never done it, but there are some ways that you can record your tapes and records onto your computer, but I imagine it will seriously be a pain in the butt.  If you’ve had a different experience, tell me about it in the comments.  Rather, my suggestion is to just buy brand new songs online.  Yeah, it’s like buying the song twice, and yeah, you already own it.  But seriously, this music is awesome right?  That probably means the artists spent a lot of time and hard work writing that song.  They deserve to be paid.  You’re gonna want to listen to it everywhere you go, so it’s worth the extra price.  I plan on posting a How To soon about buying songs online, so check that out when it comes, and get those songs into 1’s and 0’s.

Further Notes on your The Playlist

Please realize that this playlist is not static, but rather, it’s very very dynamic.  Adding songs and deleting songs should be a regular occurrence.   It’s also a really great tool for a person pursuing a career in music.  Here are some examples of things I do/could do with my playlist:

  • The 50 songs number is just a target, so don’t be afraid if your playlist is swelling to 75 or more songs.  When I find a new band or album I like, I add all of their music to the playlist.  I find that the list quickly goes back down to 50 or so as I delete songs that aren’t awesome.
  • I add songs that my band is practicing, kind of as an addition to the list.  Meaning I get to listen to them often (very important) because they are in the list, but I don’t include them in the 50 song limit.
  • Show it to your friends or band-members.  They might be inspired to do the same, thus improving the quality of music you end up playing.
  • Like I said before, use it when forming/joining a new band to define the direction you want to go.
  • And the ever so blindingly obvious: to enjoy it.

Upon completion, you’ll have made your very own The Playlist.  It is the best of the best of the best.  Your very own representation of the greatest music on the face of the earth.  You’ve also done something on top of defining greatness, and not only created your very own inspiration tool, but have defined the path that your own music should take.  If this music has changed your life, or constantly brings you pleasure, then you should write music similar to that.  It is your responsibility to start writing that music, and take the step from passive reception into active transcendence, adding richness to the world by passing on inspiration and encouragement to others through your music.



First Post

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Hey guys, this is officially the first post.  Right now it’s 20:52 on August 4, 2009, in Japan anyway.  I’ve been doing quite the sprint in getting the site layout done.  I had to teach myself HTML, php, css, and a bunch of other internet programming languages to get it up.  It was dang fun though.  Its so rewarding to work out all the problems that come up, and and then finally see the results of your hard work.  There are still quite a few buggy spots, and a lot of empty space, which will hopefully get filled in soon.  I’ve just got to hunker down and pump out the text.  I’ve definitely got a lot of things I want to talk about.

At the moment I’m doing a year long foreign exchange program in Japan, where eating sushi and going to karaoke are a regular occurrence.  Actually, my avatar (the pic next to my comments) was taken while during a 6 hour karaoke marathon with my friends.  My voice was so tired I could hardly say “konnichiwa” to any of the beautiful Japanese girls on the way home.  They must have thought I was a wolverine, with my beardy beard and scratchy voice and all.

OK, ok, so on to something relevant.  I’ve joined a band here in Sendai, and I we’ve got a concert coming up in a few days.  We chose three songs to play, and have been practicing those for about three months.  It’s a ridiculously long time to practice for only one event, but my band-mates are too busy with school to practice more than once a week.  Practice room time is also very strict because everything in Japan is so dang small.  I’d like to practice everyday if possible, but it just ain’t gonna happen.  Anyway, we’ll make our debut/final show on the 11th, and I’ll leave for home on the 12th.  I couldn’t think of a better way to end my year here in Japan.

Note: I’m not afraid to write about my personal life, but I do hope to write posts that are useful and intended for a greater audience in the future…  But you can probably read more about that in the About Page.