Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The "Vimes' Boots" theory of economic injustice.

In Terry Pratchett's excellent Discworld series of satirical fantasy books there is a character names Sam Vimes, who is the head of the Night Watch, and later commander of the City Watch. While he eventually progresses over the course of several books to a fairly prosperous position, he started out in the poorest part of the city, and developed this theory.

Basically, he says, as a watchman, his pay is about $38 a month. He's on his feet constantly, and his boots are an essential tool of his trade (literally "shoe leather" police work). A really good pair of boots, that would hold up for years, cost about $50, but all he can afford on his pay are cheap, $10 boots. He may wear out several pair of these a year, even if he cuts cardboard to patch the worn out soles when he can. Over the course of 5 years, the man in the good boots has only spent $50, while Sam has gone through 10 or 11 pair of boots, costing him twice as much and - here's the kicker - he still has wet feet!

This theory applies in our modern world not only to consumer goods, but to utilities, food and even finance as well., any area where those who can't overcome the initial investment barrier on something durable are faced with paying over and over for an inferior product. For example, banks charge fees on many types of accounts if they have less than a minimum balance, and the worse your credit is, the higher your interest rates on any sort of loan or credit card (yes, it's possible for people who have plenty of money to ruin their credit, but that's a different matter, I'm talking about the 15-20% of Americans to whom "living beyond your means" means "eating regularly, having transportation to work and sleeping indoors").

Add to this the requirements for getting a job, many of which require, at the very least, a good suit ($500-800) for an interview and a reliable car (several thousand dollars for anything that can be considered "reliable, paid in cash up front unless you can get a loan, which carries its own penalties, plus fuel, maintenance and insurance) and, if the job pays any kind of living wage, likely at least a bachelor's degree ($$$$$$$$$$).

Now, before you think I'm clamoring for some sort of Great Communist Revolution (those usually end pretty badly), relax a bit. It very much IS possible to get out of the poverty trap, but it requires a lot of work, more than a little luck, and a lot of good decisions. Unfortunately, we're not necessarily educating people on how to make those decisions, so they end up spinning their wheels and wasting their potential.

Mostly, at the moment, I'm just sharing an interesting way of looking at the problem, and something I've seen personally (been on "that job-car-education" wheels a time or two) in action. Also, I'm recommending that if you haven't read the Discworld books, you give them a go, they're good, funny reads that will get you thinking, which is about the best recommendations I could give any book.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pocket Notebook Throwdown: And the Winner Is...

As I've mentioned once or twice, I'm very picky about my notebooks (which is possibly why I'm such a lonely, lonely man) and have been searching for the perfect pocket notebook. My weapon-of-choice up to this point has been the Moleskine Cahiers notebook, which are nice and thin and don't create a bulge in a dress shirt of sport coat pocket.
The first round eliminated a cheap Moleskine look-alike from Target (too flimsy) and the Rhodia No. 11 (a great little notebook, but too blocky for the shirt pocket).

Now we get down to the big boys, the mighty Moleskine vs a Field Notes brand notebook.

First, a bit about the Moleskine.
The company has been around for a bit more than a decade, but draws on a tradition of little black notebooks going back centuries, and claims that these are the type of notebooks used by artists and writers such as Picasso and Hemmingway (note, the company literature makes it sound a bit as if these are the actual brand used by past celebrities, but it's just marketing-speak).
The Cahiers notebooks are 3.5"x5.5" notebooks 32 (64 pages) sheets thick. The last 8 sheets are perforated for easy tear-out, and there's a simple pocket on the back cover. The cover on my preferred model is black cardboard and the pages have a light blue ruling.

The Field Notes brand is about the same age (it's a bit harder to find a company history for them) and are styled on the agricultural memo books used by farmers rather than the artists claimed by Moleskine. They have the same external dimensions, but are a bit thinner at 24 sheets (48 pages) thick. They lack the back pocket and perforated sheets of the Cahiers, instead they feature a ruler and some "useful information" inside the back cover (some of it more practically useful than others). The "original" design which I've been using has light brownish grid lines on the pages, which don't obscure lighter pencil writing like those of the Rhodias.

The Moleskines have a few advantages, first of all that you can buy them at your local Target or Barnes and Noble. They also have 8 additional sheets (the perforated ones) and the pocket. They run around $10 a three-pack, but can sometimes be found for less (about $7) online (plus shipping, etc).

The appeal of the Field Notes, on the other hand, lies in their rugged, no-frills aesthetic. They give the impression of durability, which my time using them has substantiated. The notebook that's been traveling with me for about a month now has taken on a bit of a curve to match my pockets, but is still perfectly fine. I thought the lack of tear-off sheets would bother me, but I found on the one occasion that I needed to, I was able to tear out a back page cleanly and with no problem. I also realized I've never used the pocket in the Cahiers (I've used it in other sizes of notebooks, but those are used for other things and travel in briefcases/backpacks, so I consider them a different animal entirely). Also, unlike the Moleskine, which is based in Italy but made in China, Field Notes are made in the US, and tell you right inside the back cover what they're made of, right down to the ink.

So, which do I like better? Well, I just put in an order for another three-pack of Field Notes. I admit that my decision was made almost entirely based on the fact that I like the look and field of the brand better, but I'm OK with that because this is something I carry with me pretty much all day, every day, and like a pair of shoes or a jacket, I think both style and function come into play. I also like that they're made in the US by a small manufacturer, and are less ostentatiously "artistic" than the Moleskine. Moleskine makes a fine notebook, and I'll use their other sizes for other applications (Field Notes only come in one size) but I'm making Field Notes my new shirt-pocket book of choice.