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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Why we have so much stuff

The average household has over 300,000 items. We need them all—mostly to protect all our other stuff

A recent investigation found that the average household in the United States has over 300,000 items. The authors claimed that most of these items aren't needed. and that we spend 153 days in our lifetime searching for 198,743 lost items. If so, two-thirds of everything you own will get lost at least once. But these claims are contradictory: if we don't need it, why would we be searching for it?

Many of these articles have a hidden political agenda: the authors want you to ditch all your stuff and move into a micro-house to reduce your so-called carbon footprint. But living cheap is also popular among the young, who are comfortable renting almost everything they use.

I'll have none of it. I just moved into a smaller house, and I hate it. Before I moved, I sorted out my box of wall-wart power supplies with the aim of counting and disposing any redundant ones. There were 51; I got rid of two. The rest all had different voltages and currents. They sat there, just daring me to throw them away, knowing that I knew what would happen if I did.

Scene of junk-filled storeroom from Harry Potter

Then there are the USB connectors: we have A, B, C, mini A, mini-B, micro-A, B, and Lightning. Eight connectors = 64 possible cables. If you've looked at your computer, you know that USB 3 ports are just a teensy bit different from USB 2.0 ports. So, 64 more.

Now that everybody has a USB charger in their car—even Dewalt, the electric tool maker, sells one that looks exactly like their battery, which how I accidentally ended up with one—we'll be forced to change to something new. But we can never throw the old USB cables, because as soon as we do, we'll discover we need one desperately.

Even so, obsolete computer cables, chargers, and power supplies, along with the many different types of PCI cards, PCIe cards, Micro Channel cards, and old ISA cards, probably account for less than 10,000 of the items we have in our homes.

The other 290,000 items are things we need to keep those 10,000 items working. We need a cabinet to store them in, a duster to clean them with, and screwdrivers and screwdriver bits to repair them with. There are literally hundreds of different screwdriver bits. And screws: there are many different kinds* and we need all of them. I have so many—I estimate about 9,000 washers, nuts, and screws—I finally built a cabinet for them, made of bits of wood left over from the bookshelves my movers demolished. But then I had to buy more stuff: a big piece of plywood, a new bookshelf, and a new shop-vac filter to clean up the sawdust. So now I have 9,003 items. It's not working.

We also need deadbolts and padlocks to keep other people from stealing all this stuff. In some places, that's not enough, so we need big plates of steel to replace the strike plates on our doors. Then there are the houses. They look bigger on paper, but they're really not. Nowadays, fewer have usable basements or attics, so we have to use the garage, which means that even those of us who have a two-car garage have to park their car outside.

I have another box full of stuff my dentist gave me over the years: toothbrushes, tiny boxes of floss, toothpaste, mouthwash, and dental picks. Another box is full of incandescent light bulbs, fluorescent bulbs, and LED bulbs. There are many, many types and sizes of light bulbs, all incompatible with each other. Try getting rid of one, and they'll stop making them, and you'll have to buy a whole new fixture.

Then there's the stuff I have to carry around all day: my PIV card and the two other ID cards that hang around my neck, the collection of keys, licenses, and insurance documents, and that damn telephone, about which I am so proud of myself for not smashing with a sledgehammer. We are all walking, talking bureaucrats now.

I'm not hoarding. I use all of this stuff. You'd have to pry my screws from my cold, dead hands. But more and more of it is there solely to fix the other stuff that I also need. We acquire stuff to avoid having to buy even more stuff, which means it's an economically sensible decision.

But don't get me started on papers. Our governments (yes, we have three of 'em) have a nasty habit of “discovering” that we forgot to pay enough taxes ten or twenty years earlier, so we have to save every receipt and tax stub essentially forever to prove otherwise. So we have to buy more things to store them in, stuff to keep them clean, stuff to paint the file cabinets with, and on and on and on. Most of what we own is there to protect one piece of stuff from another: if your carpet gets a permanent ding from your file cabinet, it can cost you thousands when you move, so we have to buy carpet protectors and rugs to put over the carpet.

Eventually, though, it will get to the point where if something disappears, it becomes cheaper to buy a new one than to spend the time looking for it. Knowing the rate at which you buy things and the rate at which they break, I could derive an equation to calculate what the steady-state number of items would be. But first I'd have to find the charger to my calculator.

If these eco-activists want me to reduce my carbon footprint, they can start by getting rid of the frickin' government.

* Wood screws, sheet metal screws, deck screws, cap screws, self-tapping screws, lag bolts, carriage bolts, set screws, drywall screws, and machine screws; Philips heads, slot heads, Pozidrive heads, star heads, Torx heads, and hex heads; round head, flat head, galvanized, steel, brass, stainless steel, and nylon. There are a couple dozen different sizes. There are ASCII and metric.

sep 19 2019, 6:42 am. edited for brevity sep 28 2018, 6:01 pm

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