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Home away from home

Some say that home is where the heart is. But when you travel for work, you end up leaving your loved ones behind on a regular basis, and feeling at home in some random hotel room can be quite a challenge. Over the years, I have developed a few strategies to feel at home wherever I go.

Single hotel chain

Whenever possible, I always book a room from the same hotel chain. In my case, I picked Hyatt, because it offers the best range of options in the places where I travel most, especially in Asia. Beside points and status, sticking to the same hotel chain brings familiarity, from the scent of the soap, to the habits of the staff, or the rules that govern minibar consumptions.

Same hotel

If you end up traveling a lot to the same places, going back to the same hotels reinforces this feeling of familiarity. After a while, you know where the gym is, whether you need to bring your own towel, or whether the sauna is set at the right temperature (I love sauna). Eventually, you’ll know which dishes should be picked at the hotel’s restaurant, or whether you’ll find better options at a nearby joint. For example, when I used to stay at the excellent Sheraton Miyako in Tokyo, I would always have dinner at a sushi restaurant that was a 5-minute stroll away, and I knew precisely where I could pickup and drop an umbrella in case it was raining.

Same hotel rooms

Once you become accustomed to a particular hotel, time might come to pick your favorite room and stick to it. That way, you will always know where all the light switches are, which is quite nice when you wake up in the middle of the night with a severe case of jet lag. Over time, you will learn to appreciate the view that you have from your room, or all the little imperfections that you might notice on walls or some pieces of furniture. For example, my favorite room at the fabulous Park Hyatt Tokyo is located on the 45th floor, a short walk away from the sauna, and with a direct view of Fujisan. Whenever I check in that room, I experience a deep home-sweet-home feeling that I would not trade for anything.

Music

Playing some familiar tunes in your hotel room is another good way to feel at home. Fortunately, streaming services like Spotify are making it easy to play virtually any kind of music you might like, directly from your laptop of cellphone. From there, sound quality becomes the next challenge. As a music lover, I cannot be satisfied with the quality of the sound coming out of my laptop, and very few hotels provide decent speakers onto which you can plug a phone.

For some time, I have been carrying my Grain Audio PWS around. While I love it, I do not want to bear the extra weight, especially now that everything is on my back or on my shoulder (Cf. Nomad). I have also tried various combinations of cables for plugging my laptop to the in-room media center, but every setup is different, and I usually do not feel like fighting with RCA cables after a long flight. Clearly, the best solution would be to use AirPlay, and I really wish that some Hyatt manager is reading this post right now…

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life

My inspiration

Two nights ago, my father passed away. More than anyone else, he was a profound source of inspiration for me. What I am doing today, I owe it to him. And my love for computers is my father’s legacy. When I was eight or nine, he told me that “computers never make any mistakes.” From that moment on, I was hooked.

Mohammed Ghalimi was a sociologist, fascinated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. As such, he had to practice statistics and use a minicomputer at the university. I remember going with him into a dimly lit room and looking with wonderment at the glowing green screen showing numbers that made no sense to me at the time, but seemed to be of unique value to him. These numbers would then get printed on reams of green bar paper, which provided limitless supplies of media for my early drawings of fancy buildings and intergalactic spaceships.

At 10, I watched Whiz Kids on TV, and my inner geek was born. From then on, I became obsessed with the idea of having my own computer. My family had relatively modest means, therefore could not afford such an expensive purchase. For a while, all I could do was nurturing some dreams while flipping through the pages of SVM, the first computer magazine in France. I then went to middle school and enrolled into the computer club, where I learned rudimentary Basic programming skills on a Commodore VIC-20. PRINT and GOTO became parts of my vocabulary. And 3.5KB of memory was all I had to play with. Eventually, my father convinced some friends to lend us a French-made Thomson MO5, with 48KB of memory. A full order of magnitude improvement over my first setup. I could barely believe it…

Somehow, my very first program was not much different from what I am doing today: a simple barchart. And this is when I realized that I was not a very good programmer, because without knowing the existence of the FOR loop, I had to copy and paste the same chunk of code 20 times if I wanted to draw a chart made of 20 bars. DRY, I certainly was not…

A couple of years later, my family’s financial situation improved a bit, and my father and I drove to town on a Saturday afternoon to buy an Amstrad PC1512. With 512KB of memory, it gave me another order of magnitude improvement over my previous rig, and a real operating system. With it, I got my first spreadsheet (Multiplan), and my first database (dBase III+). One Summer, my father hired me to help him with data entry work for some statistical study. I spent days recording survey answers, and became a virtuoso typist with the numeric keypad.

Eventually, I went to high school, and my father upgraded to a 386 PC, which provided a faster CPU and more memory, but felt to me like an incremental improvement over the 8086. Truth be told, I was much more fascinated by the Apple Macintosh (and the Next), but it would be another 15 years before I could afford one.

Two years later, my father hired me again to write a database application for processing student registrations. I was 17, and this job helped me finance my very first trip to Japan. Back in 2009, I invited him to spend a week with me in Tokyo and Kyoto. This was our second and last trip together where we would be just the two of us. A time of blessing.

Looking back at all these years, it feels like what I am doing today (a Big Data Spreadsheet) is nothing more than the kind of tool that my father would have liked to use. Part spreadsheet, part database, with a solid pivot table and some nice charts. And as I am educating myself on the subject of machine learning, I keep marveling at the legacy of Pierre Bourdieu, my father’s role model, who pioneered the use of multiple correspondence analysis in the field of social sciences. It all makes sense now…

Dad, when you count the stars in the sky, you can use my tool.

And that will be all thanks to you.

Thank you dad. Thank you!

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life

Farewell dad

GHALIMI

G — H — A — L — I — M — I

GHALIMI

This name means nothing. It is a pure invention of the French colonial administration. A simple approximation. A misspelling.

GHA — LI — MI

Of these seven letters, I pick three.

The first? The second one. H. Why this one? Because you can’t hear it. Unless you pronounce it Rhalimi. But here, we say Ghalimi. Like we say Ahmed. Or Mohammed. Yet the H is there…

Mohammed Rhalimi. Capital H, as in Human. The husband. The father. But before being a husband or a father, Mohammed Ghalimi was a humanist. A lover of the human spirit, bent on discovering its inner workings. A disciple of Bourdieu the sociologist. A son of Pierre and Marie-Odette, his foster parents. Un man full of travails, passions, and affections.

What a man!

And the second one? I off course. I because there are two of them: GHA — LI — MI.

I, as in Integrity. Because a man full of travails and passions will only make sense through his integrity. His absolute necessity to respect his own beliefs, his own knowledge, his own decisions. And this integrity is what drew us to him. It fostered sympathy, affection, then love (amour).

Amour with a capital A. The third letter of his name.

Three letters, like his three children.

Amour.

Amour.

Amour.

To my father, Mohammed Ghalimi, 1948 – 2014

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life

Au revoir papa

GHALIMI

G — H — A — L — I — M — I

GHALIMI

Ce nom ne veut rien dire. C’est une pure invention, de l’administration coloniale française. Une simple approximation. Une erreur d’orthographe.

GHA — LI — MI

De ces sept lettres, j’en retiens trois.

La première ? La seconde. H. Pourquoi celle-là ? Parce qu’on ne l’entend pas. Sauf si l’on prononce Rhalimi. Mais ici, on dit Ghalimi. Comme on dit Ahmed. Ou Mohammed. Pourtant, le H est bien là.

Mohammed Rhalimi. Avec un grand H, comme l’Homme. Le mari. Le père. Mais avant d’être un mari ou un père, Mohammed Ghalimi était un humaniste. Un amoureux du genre humain, épris de comprendre ses tenants et aboutissants. Un disciple de Bourdieu le sociologue. Un fils de Pierre et Marie-Odette, ses parents d’accueil. Un homme plein de ses tiraillements, de ses passions, et de ses affections.

Quel homme !

Et la seconde ? I biensûr. I parce qu’il y en a deux : GHA — LI — MI.

I comme Intégrité. Parce que l’homme plein de tiraillements et de passions n’a de sens que de par son intégrité. Sa nécessité absolue de respecter ses croyances, ses savoirs, et ses décisions. Et cette intégrité, c’est elle qui nous attirait à lui. C’est elle qui créait la sympathie, l’affection, et puis l’amour.

Amour avec un grand A. La troisième lettre de son nom.

Trois lettres, comme ses trois enfants.

Amour.

Amour.

Amour.

À mon père, Mohammed Ghalimi, 1948 – 2014

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less.best

Nomad

By any standard, I am what you could call a modern nomad. Today, I split my time between Singapore (my home base) and Palo Alto (one week every month). And by next month I will also spend a week a month split between London and Paris. At this pace, I will fly over 200,000 actual miles this year. Once you get used to the jet lag, luggage becomes the next challenge, and I consider myself an expert in that area. In fact, I’ve become so good at it that before long, I should be able to carry with me the bulk of my material possessions wherever I go, without ever having to check any piece of luggage in.

This rather aggressive luggage optimization process is part of my Reduce, Rent, Refine project, and is the result of many streams of reduction and optimization. Among them, I could explain how I simplified my wardrobe, which bags I am using to carry my few things around, and what you will find in these bags. Beside these items, I do not own much: a bicycle at my office in Palo Alto, a couple of unwrapped original iPhones in a bank’s safe, a few extra pieces of clothing in Singapore, and a handful of items that I will get rid of before the end of the year.

Clothing

By far, the hardest thing to reduce for a reductionist like myself is clothing. No matter where you live, you need to wear something on your skin. And if you happen to live in society, it is considered best practice to wash it at regular intervals, which means that you need multiple copies of it, unless you like to socialize in laundromats.

To work around this problem, I have fully standardized my attire. Others have done the same for convenience purposes, mostly because it frees them from asking themselves what they should wear on any given day. In my case, this strategy was motivated by multiple factors:

  • Coordinating all possible combinations of clothes
  • Layering clothes to accommodate different climates
  • Ensuring that changes could be acquired anywhere
  • Removing the need for dry cleaning or ironing
  • Enhancing comfort during long flights
  • Reducing luggage weight
  • Reducing packing time

As a result, my wardrobe is entirely made of name-brand items in neutral colors. Following years of experimentations, I have now settled on the following configuration:

  • North Face jacket (warm, waterproof, lightweight)
  • North Face sweater (warm, lightweight)
  • Muji polo shirts and T-shirts (good quality, very low price)
  • Calvin Klein underwear (good quality)
  • Levi’s jeans (good quality, very low price on Amazon)
  • Calvin Klein ankle socks (good quality, small to pack)
  • Campers shoes (lightweight and comfortable, albeit expensive)

Whether I’m in Palo Alto, New York, London, Paris, Johannesburg, Singapore, Sydney, or Tokyo (all places that I visited this year), I know where to find any of these items. And more often than not, I simply order changes ahead of time, and have them shipped wherever I plan to be next. I also make sure to always carry a folding umbrella on all my trips, which allows me to carry fewer changes.

Bags

Once you have put a wardrobe together, you need a bag to carry it around, and I’m a bit of a luggage freak. Over the years, I must have purchased over 100 different bags and suitcases, small and large. Eventually, I settled on a backpack, for multiple reasons:

  • My standard attire does not include a suit
  • I do not want to check any bag in (faster, less risky)
  • I do not want to roll a large suitcase down the aisle
  • I do not want to worry about an oversize suitcase
  • I want both hands to be free at all times

The only drawback of a backpack is that you have to carry it on your back instead of rolling it. Obviously, this would not be an option for anyone with back problems. But in my case, I found that if I pack light enough, I am fine carrying it around for a while.

With that in mind, I looked for a backpack that would be very sturdy, yet would not look out of place in a high-end hotel lobby. The one I found is made by Brooks in the United Kingdom, and has the extra benefit of being a rucksack. As a result, its variable geometry allows me to use it to carry my entire wardrobe when I’m on the move, or just a few grocery items when I’m at home. And thanks to its innovative shoulder straps, it’s a lot more comfortable than a messenger bag when riding a bicycle. When fully packed, this wonderful bag includes:

  • My clothes organized into three Tumi packing cubes
  • My toiletry kit stored in a smaller Tumi packing cube
  • My workout gear stored in a Tumi toiletry bag
  • My folding umbrella
  • My travel wallet with spare passport, credit cards, and currencies
  • My chopsticks and mug

Beside the backpack, I also carry a small messenger bag, for two main reasons: first, I need something small that I can put under the seat in front of me in an airplane; second, I need something lightweight that I can carry to meetings. Therefore, when selecting this bag, the goal was to find something as small as possible that could contain everything that I need to carry around. After quite a bit of research, I settled an the ONA Leather Price Street bag, which I stuff with the following items:

  • 13” Apple PowerBook laptop and its charger
  • Apple iPad Air 2 tablet
  • Leica M-P 240 with a single lens and a leather case
  • Mini toiletry kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, eye drops, etc.)
  • Slim pouch filled with various cables and SIM cards
  • Bose active noise reduction headset
  • Montblanc rollerball pen

I like this bag, but it’s not perfect. First, it’s a tiny bit too tight for all the things that I must put in it. Second, while the leather quality is great, the design and stitching leave quite a few things to be desired. Therefore, I am likely to switch between a few bags until I find the right one, most likely in Japan.

With my backpack and my messenger bag, I am not just carrying most of my belongings with me, I am carrying them on me, making me not just a nomad, but the nomad’s camel as well. This gives me a sense of freedom that is hard to describe but is quite satisfying.

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less.best

Reduce, Rent, Refine

Eight years ago, I started an experiment dubbed Office 2.0. The idea was to remove all pieces of software from all my computers, and use online alternatives instead. This experiment was documented on the now-defunct IT|Redux blog, and lead to the Office 2.0 Conference, which hosted the launch of Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It worked, and what was ground-breaking then is now commonplace.

Today, I am starting a brand new personal experiment: it is called Reduce, Rent, Refine, or #r3redux. It is a variation on the solid Reduce, Reuse, Recycle moto, and it is my modest attempt at discovering a better way of life, less driven by the consumption of material goods, and more focused on the enjoyment of daily experiences. The idea is pretty simple, and can be summarized in three basic rules:

  1. Reduce your number of material possessions
  2. Rent your commodities whenever possible
  3. Refine the few objects that you must own

In other words, we are talking about an incremental process of elimination whereby you remove something from your life whenever you do not absolutely need it, you rent it instead of buying it if you cannot live without, and you buy it only when you cannot rent it. It is that simple!

Why would you want to do any of this? Because science showed us times and times again that very little pleasure is actually derived from the ownership of material things. Instead, you and me usually derive our enjoyment from social interactions and personal experiences. Reduce, Rent, Refine is a simple way to get more of that goodness. Through this process, less is not just more, it is better.

Reduce

It all starts with reducing the number of things that you own. To do so, I am following an exponential reduction process, which starts with an exhaustive inventory of all the things that I own, and follows with a yearly reduction, whereby I cut in half the number of things that I own. Today, I own 1,024 things. Next year, I should own only 512. The year after, 256, and so on, until I reach some equilibrium between my desire to own less, and my ability to live a happy life while owning less.

This equilibrium will be different for different people. In my case, I believe it could be as few as 128. For most people, it will be more. But for Diogenes of Sinope, it was just 3: a clay wine jar, a robe, and a stick. The absolute number does not really matter though. What does matter is the process leading to the reduction of material possessions, and the by-products of going through the entire process (less things to worry about, better things to take care of).

Getting rid of things can be difficult, and for most people, it is downright excruciating. To facilitate the process, you should ask yourself what to keep, instead of asking yourself what to get rid of. By doing so, your emotions will be focused on the things that are kept, and you will not have to go through some grieving process for every material possession that will be abandoned. Therefore, the next question becomes: “what should you keep?”

Again, different people will have different answers, but some patterns are likely to emerge: following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it should be pretty safe to assume that you will need to keep some clothes (even Diogenes did), some tools (Diogenes did as well), and some memorabilia items (he actually managed to get rid of those). All other items should be good candidates for reduction.

Once you have made the list of all the things that you really need to keep, you can start getting rid of the others. But to make the process less difficult, and possibly quite enjoyable, you can try to get the most out of them: sell the ones for which you can find a buyer, donate the others, and recycle everything else. You have now reduced your material footprint to your current minimum.

Finally, you will want to continue down that path, and the best way to go about it is to turn it into a game. To do so, you will need to keep scores, which is why you will want to start with an inventory. By putting it all on a list (like David Allen would have you do it for Getting Things Done), you will have a complete picture of your material estate. From there, you can start eliminating the things that you actually do not need anymore. And before you know it, you will get addicted to this reduction process, and removing new things will get easier and easier… until it does not anymore. When things start to get harder to remove, you will know that you are getting pretty close to your long-term equilibrium.

Rent

When trying to get rid of something, you have two options: either you decide that you do not need this thing anymore — and I am willing to bet that you do not actually need most of the things that you own today — or you realize that you could borrow or rent it whenever you need it, instead of owning it outright.

Thanks to services like Airbnb, Uber, or Zipcar, renting has never been easier, and things will only get better over time. If you plan to live in the same place for years to come, owning a house or an apartment might make sense (if you can afford it). But if you are planning to move around, or if you are living in some overpriced metropolitan area, renting might be a better option, even from a purely financial standpoint.

Earlier this year, my wife and I sold our house in Palo Alto, CA and moved to Singapore for a year or two. This relocation gave us the opportunity to improve our financial situation, while getting rid of most of the things that we had accumulated over 10 years of living together. The two of us and our three children packed a few things in a couple of large suitcases, and off we went across the ocean. Once there, we rented an apartment and spent a week-end at IKEA to get it furnished with the absolute minimum amount of furniture that we would need for our intended length of stay. And before moving, we made sure to sell our two cars, replacing one by a leased SUV loaned to my in-laws who live in Los Angeles, and the other by a bicycle that I leave at my office in Palo Alto. We use the SUV whenever we come back to visit our friends and family, and I use the bike whenever I visit my team (about once a month).

Today, the question is not so much what you can rent, but rather what you cannot. And the answer is surprisingly difficult to come by. Houses, cars, boats, or planes can be rented easily, pretty much anywhere. The same goes for books (Kindle), music (Spotify), or movies (Netflix). At the end of the day, the only things that I cannot rent are my clothes and shoes, my work tools (laptop, phone), and my memorabilia items. For many, the latter might be difficult to get rid of. But in my case, once all my photos had been moved online, it all came down to a single item: my wedding ring. Everything else is gone, or is being rented.

Refine

Once you’ve elimintated all the things that you do not need and rented most of the others, you are left with the few things that you cannot live without, yet cannot really borrow or rent from anyone. This is when you deserve a reward: instead of just keeping whatever is left, ask yourself whether you could make it better. And in so doing, try to figure out a way to get better things by having less of them. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean by that.

First, my wife and I used to own a lot of photographic equipment: two professional Canon DSLR cameras and half a dozen lenses. Over time, we realized that we were using only one camera, always with the same lens. After some discussions, we decided to get rid of it all, and we bought a couple of mirrorless snappers. One was an affordable model made by Sony (my wife’s), but the other was a top-of-the-line Leica M-P 240 (mine). The price of our new equipment was about the same as the old one, but the enjoyment we’re getting out of this simpler, smaller, and lighter setup is far greater. In this case, less is not just more, it’s also better.

Second, like any married couple, we got a lot of dishes and silverware at our wedding, most of which we rarely used. After we sold or donated the bulk of it, we went looking for replacement items that could make us feel at home wherever we might find ourselves at any point in time. For me, it boiled down to a couple of items: a pair of chopsticks and a mug. Both are made out of titanium, hence are light enough to carry around. I use the chopsticks whenever I eat at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, and I use the mug for my coffee and tea, and I cannot tell you how happy these two little items make me whenever I use them…

Some utilitarian mind might think that such a refinement process is unnecessary, and amounts to nothing more than luxury. While the latter might be true, the former is not. In fact, I believe that most people will need this third step in order to go through the first two successfully. There are a few reasons for it: first, the desire to own something and the feeling of security that one can derive from this ownership are deeply ingrained within oneself, therefore are not something that one would want to get rid off entirely; second, the gratification that one gets through the process of buying something should not be under-estimated, as short-lived as it might be.

Consequently, I am not advocating for an ascetic life, and I am not against any kind of consumption or even consumerism. Instead, I am proposing a model whereby we consume better experiences (through rental) rather than possessions, and whereby we focus on owning less but better things. By so doing, not only can we reduce our ecological footprint (always a good thing), but we can also improve our relationship with the few material things that we own. The latter point deserves some explanations.

The more things you own, the more they own you: the minute you buy a house or a car, you are in charge of its maintenance if you do not want it to lose its value (too fast); and the minute you buy something just for the impulse pleasure of buying it, you are left with the desire of buying something else, which in turn leaves you in a perpetual state of unsatisfaction. To get rid of the former, you should rent instead of buying. To get rid of the latter, you should buy better things, less often.

Coming back to the example of my new camera (the Leica M-P), it is worth describing the buying process that I went through. I thought of switching camera more than two years ago. During that time, I did a ton of reasearch online, talked to a few friends who had made a similar switch, and went to a few stores to get some professional advice and try different cameras and lenses. Eventually, I made up my mind and decided to splurge on this highly-priced piece of luxury photographic equipment.

As a result, I replaced an impulse buy with a two-year-long research project, and I enjoyed every bit of it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that when my decision was made, I refrained myself from ordering my new camera online or driving to a nearby store. Instead, I decided to wait for my next trip overseas (Australia), so that I could buy my camera tax-free on my first day there, while enjoying it through the rest of the trip. I did just that, and I am proud to report that I did not experience any kind of buyer’s remorse. And today, this wonderful camera goes wherever I go.

Following this successful experience, I decided to take a critical look at every single item that was left in my possession, and to find ways to replace multiple mediocre items by a single one that would be as good as I could afford it to be. By good, I do not mean luxurious for luxury sake. For example, owning a gold-plated iPhone won’t make me any happier than owning a stock aluminum one. But getting the new iPhone 6 will bring some benefits over the 5S model that I own already. Even better: replacing an iPad Wi-Fi attached to a portable GPS with an iPad 3G means carrying one thing instead of three (iPad, GPS, cable) in my pilot’s bag. And before I knew it, this reduction process became a really fun game.

Now, instead of constantly buying new things that I do not really need and that I will rarely use, I satisfy my buying impulses by being on the lookout for better things. For example, I will spend hours looking for a better messenger bag, or a better electric toothbrush. And instead of buying standardized products that all look the same and will be out of fashion by the time I unwrap them, I go out of my way to find artisan products that have a story to tell and will create life-long connections (like this bicycle).

Reflect

Today, I am just getting started with this experiment. I do not know where it will take me, but much like I did with Office 2.0 and IT|Redux, I intend to document my journey on this blog. Here, I will share the products found, the tricks perfected, and the lessons learned. As with my other blog, it is a mostly personal experience, with very little concern given to potential readers. But if you can derive any value from reading my poor prose, good for you!

Update: check less.best for implementing this approach.

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