Friday, December 9, 2016

Life Hacks


In this essay I examine the most modern meaning of “hack” (essentially, short for “life hack”) and provide a half dozen useful life hacks that I’ve stumbled upon myself. 

First, some etymological rambling

I most recently came across hack-as-a-noun in The New Yorker, which had four essays from various writers under the heading “Life Hacks.”  These essays—which needless to say inspired this one—included a software recommendation, a critique of A.I. cooking, an essay about gaming Twitter, and an examination of whether screen time is bad for kids.

As recently as 2004, The New Yorker itself defined “hack” very differently.  The term was only described in the sense of computer meddling, though the article allowed that “hacker” could mean—in geek parlance—“a righteous dude.”  In modern parlance, “hack” can be a noun—not in the original noun sense of “a rough cut, blow, or stroke,” “a writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work,” or “a horse for ordinary riding”—but as a reverse formation from the verb “to hack,” meaning to do something in an unconventional way.’s top definition of “lifehack” is (as of the moment), “A tool or technique that makes some aspect of one's life easier or more efficient.”  (“Hack” in the sense of computer hacking—or “cracking,” as pedants now describe the illegal stuff—is gradually being displaced.)

The first time I heard of “hack” as life hack was around a year ago when a mom on my kid’s high school mountain bike team asked, “What do you think of this hack:  after a muddy ride, I take my daughter’s bike to the self-service car wash and spray it off with the high pressure nozzle.”  (In case you’re wondering, this is a bad idea:  such a powerful spray can get past the seals on the bike’s bearings and destroy them.)  I answered, “Fine hack, but you better watch out for the NSA.”  No I didn’t.  (I warned her about the bearings.)

And now, on to the life hacks I recommend.

Life hack #1:  switch from cotton to wool

It might seem strange for a Californian to recommend wool over cotton.  It’s warm and sunny year-round here like in Baywatch, right?  Well, not exactly … it does get cool and damp here, which bothers us because we’re all wusses.  Plus, Californians still sometimes get rained on, which is the sweet spot for wool because wool keeps you warm even when it’s wet.  If you live in a place with real winters, you’ll get even more benefit.

But warmth isn’t all wool has going for it.  It also feels less clammy on the skin (very important when you’re hot and sweaty) and, in the case of socks, is more comfortable and durable than cotton.  Wool socks provide better cushion, don’t slide down your leg, and don’t become threadbare at the heel.  Don’t tell anybody this, but I like to wear wool cycling socks with my business suit.  They’re tall enough that nobody would ever know!

Synopsis:  Wool is like cotton on steroids.

Life hack #2:  stop trying to get your cat to love you

(Note:  if you don’t have a cat, run right out and get one, preferably from the pound, and then come back and finish this essay.)

Pet ownership (or, as they say in Berkeley, “human guardianship of companion animals”) can be hard, especially with cats.  We love them so much, but they don’t love us back!  They turn their noses up, or more to the point turn away so their butts are in our faces.  In short, cats are disloyal, snooty, and antisocial.  It’s heartbreaking.

But if you stop dreaming of a love that can never be, and accept the truth about cats, you’ll realize it has its benefits.  Their attitude takes all the pressure off, frankly.  It’s impossible to disappoint a cat, and almost impossible to sell a cat short.  All a cat wants is regular feeding, a roof over his or her head, and a clean cat box.  So you never feel guilty!  What dog owner hasn’t regretted his or her inability—or, let’s admit it, unwillingness—to give poor Waldo the attention, walkies, and love that he deserves? 

Then there’s the matter of energy levels.  Most of us humans are tired all the time.  The way a cat naps 24x7, she does a pretty good job of seeming to relate.  Contrast this with the burden of a dog’s crazy energy:  the frenzied greeting at the door, the bounding around, the almost pathetic hope he musters up when you go anywhere near his leash.  I don’t think I could handle it.  Much better to pick up a cat when you feel like it, pet her a little, notice her complete apathy, and walk away convinced that there’s no need to try any harder. 

Once you acknowledge these benefits and stop craving the attention this beast will never give you, it’s easy to love her all the more, even if most of your human/cat interaction is you watching her sleep.

Synopsis:  a cat is like your pet dog on Quaaludes.

Life hack #3:  go back to traditional books

Embracing the very latest meaning of “hack,” here’s an ironic one:  “Stop futzing with technology in your spare time.”  That is, set aside your phone, your tablet, and your laptop and spend some more time with traditional books.  Since most of our leisure time is in the evening, the main benefit of books is that they don’t interfere with sleep.  There are so many studies out now about screen time causing insomnia, I won’t bother to cite any (but here is a listing to get you started).  The idea is that the bright screen confuses your brain and inhibits melatonin production. 

Beyond any issues around sleep, old-school books, unlike various screen-based sources of text, can be bought used, borrowed, or checked out from the library.  Thus, you don’t have to pay for them—whether with your money or your privacy.

Plus, reading a traditional book also increases the odds that you’re reading something worthwhile; after all, a publisher wouldn’t spend good money printing most of the folderol on the Internet—all the blogs, online magazines, tweets, and mindless comments from haters.

Perhaps best of all, you can read a paper-bound book in bed without bothering your spouse/other.  Sure, there are some who wouldn’t mind the intrusion of a Kindle, tablet, or phone, but there are plenty more—like mine—who mind very much.  In fact, my wife put her foot down and won’t allow my smartphone in the bedroom at all.  On the flip side, I really doubt there’s a spouse/other on the planet who insists on a screen instead of a book.

Besides, isn’t there just something so cozy about a good old-fashioned book?

Synopsis:  a paper book is like an e-book on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Life hack #4:  drink your coffee black

I won’t elaborate a lot on this because I wrote a whole essay about it:  click here.

Synopsis:  coffee, neat.

Life hack #5:  get thee to a library

I am so sick of people telling me, “I can’t believe you don’t have Netflix!”  You know what?  Netflix—just like the cable TV companies—can go straight to Hell (where they’ll surely join bike thieves, telemarketers, and tobacco industry executives).  Since you’re forking out good money for these subscription-based services, you have a built-in lizard-brain impulse to get your money’s worth, which leads to all kinds of wasted time.  And you know what else?  I happen to know—because I surf Netflix when I donate platelets—that their movie selection is bad and getting worse.  Twice I’ve started a movie—and not my first choice, mind you, because they didn’t have it—hoping to finish it next time, only to discover on my next visit that the movie I’d been watching is no longer available. 

My library, on the other hand, has all kinds of movies.  I can reserve them online, pick them up from my local branch when they’ve been brought over, and keep them for 3 or 6 or 9 weeks, so I can watch them when I get around to it.  Often, when I happen to be at the library, I’ll grab a few movies practically at random and give them a try.  If, after 10 minutes, I’m not enjoying the movie, I’ll just eject it and try another.  Costs me nothing.

This works the same with books, of course, with the added benefit that you don’t have to struggle with the great debate of whether it’s harmful to authors and publishers to order from Amazon.  An added bonus is that the library is a great place to hang out, enjoy some peace and quiet (and free WiFi), and get some work done, without having to order coffee or food to pay your rent.  Meanwhile, you’re supporting a public institution which, as recently lamented by a fine author, is under threat (at least in the UK, and probably in this country as well).

Synopsis:  a library is like getting Netflix, Amazon, and a coffee shop on the house.

Life hack #6:  only drink with friends

A famous Harvard study on happiness, which tracked 268 men from all walks of life over a 75-year span, proposes two central ways to prolong and enjoy your life:  value your relationships and don’t abuse alcohol.  As described here, the study found that alcoholism among those studied “was the main cause of divorce” and “was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression.”  And as quoted here, the main author of the study, Dr. George Vaillant, declared, based on the evidence, “Our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.”

After losing a good friend of mine this summer to a tragic accident, I decided to try to get out and see friends more.  Simultaneously, I noted my 10-pound weight gain since the previous summer, and (as I cannot bring myself to eat less food) decided that my (albeit moderate) alcohol consumption had to come down a bit.  So now I don’t stock my fridge with beer anymore.  If I want a drink, I have to go out.  From the Harvard study perspective, I’m killing two birds with one stone.  Is it working?  Yeah, I think so.  I’m seeing more of my friends, and have lost half that extra weight.

Synopsis:  imagine this initially breezy essay bogged down with bulgur wheat, flax seed, and other dietary fiber.  Yeah, sorry about that.


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