Guest Post : Angelita Williams on The Russian Experience

This is my first unsolicited guest post, which is rather exciting. Even more exciting is that Angelita's article is coming from a part of the world that I have never been to nor know much about. (She also cites The Paradox of Choice, which is one of my favorite books and definitely recommended reading.) She was great to work with, and very gracious as I was super busy and often late in getting back to her. That being said, I'm glad how this turned out: I really enjoyed her essay and I hope you will, too. I am still very open to guest writers, and if you think you have a story and experience to share, please email me and we can get working on fleshing out your ideas to the fullest potential!


The Russian Experience: How My Time Abroad Changed My Perspective
When I was an undergraduate student a few years ago, I decided to take a semester to study in Russia. I had been studying the Russian language for a few years, and so I figured I should put my knowledge to some good use. However, what I didn't bank on was how much it would change my perspective on several different things, not least of which was my relationship to consumer goods.
It would be trite to say that America is a consumerist society mired in the acquisition of material goods. And whenever anyone said something to that effect, I always thought it was more of a stereotype than anything. However, when I went to Russia, I realized that there was more truth to the stereotype than I had ever imagined.
One difference that I encountered was the fact that no one kept tabs on anything. The Russian students I hung out with were very serious about sharing. When I was in college in America, there was always talk of "I got you the other day, now you owe me X." Not only did this notion of debt not surface among my friends, but whenever I told a Russian friend, "Hey, I owe you a meal; thanks for helping me out with this or that," he or she was not only dismissive, but actually confused. "What do you mean?" they would say. "I did it because you're my friend; you don't owe me anything." This idea that everyone has a share in everything, that when it comes to things ownership is irrelevant, is even reflecting in the language. "My" is often omitted in phrases like "I lost my key," and when you say "I have an X", the literal translation is "I am next to an X".
Another distinction between Russian and American students that I noticed was a profound respect for both the arts and sciences. Where I studied in America, if someone was studying hard sciences, he or she knew or cared little about things like literature, art, etc., while if you were a humanities student you didn't dabble in mathematics or physics. In other words, knowledge in America is considered to be black and white. You're either interested in one side of it or another. Most of the Russian students I met, however, drew inspiration from various fields, even if they were focusing on one in school.
One of the most refreshing differences I encountered was the fact that there was far less choice in terms of brands and products. Trips to the grocery store were simplified ten-fold simply because I wasn't being inundated by millions of different varieties of the same exact product. Of course, there were a few varieties, but not nearly as many as I was accustomed to in America. When I returned home, I had become so used to the simplicity that I found it frustrating to even step into a superstore such as we have. This reminded me of a recent book I read called "The Paradox of Choice". It was not until I experienced the alternative in Russia, that I saw author Barry Schwartz's theory--that too much consumer choice actually can cause anxiety and inhibit our ability to choose--in action.
This is not to say, however, that Russia doesn't have its fair share of problems, or that its culture is perfect or even preferable to American culture. However, it was a truly eye-opening experience in that it made me see my own way of living in a different light. What's more, spending six months in Russia also did much to dismantle the popular image I had of Russians as cold, suspicious people. And I think it's precisely this destruction of stereotypes that makes living in a different place so valuable an experience. If you have the chance, I think everyone should spend time abroad, no matter where you go.

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7 @gmail.com.



On Cultivation Of Musical Tastes Via Old-School Serendipity

One thing my resolution of not buying music for a year has taught me is that music is more than a commodity. It is more than something to be bought, consumed, and collected. Huge digital music libraries, in this day and age, don’t say much about their owners. Yet we continue to define ourselves by what style or artists we listen to. I think this is misguided - personal musical taste, rather than the musical collection, should be the object of curation.

This is somewhat paradoxical, because the primary way we expand and refine our taste is through acquiring new music. We buy new albums, give them a few spins, and, if we like them, keep them. If we don’t like them, we still keep them because A) the album was an investment and we don’t want to suffer the loss of getting rid of it, or B) the music has been ripped on our computer, and it now pads our iTunes song count. The ultimate end result of both reasons is that we accumulate music we don’t necessarily want. I’m dealing with this right now - I have a couple albums I impulsively purchased from Amazon MP3 at the end of last year, and now I never listen to them. I don’t want to delete them because that would effectively mean I lost $10. What should I do?

I don’t have this problem when I buy used CDs. If I buy a CD and end up not liking it, I give it away to a friend who may like it. If I have no interesting interested friends, I just take it to Goodwill; somebody else may enjoy it, and the money goes to support a good cause. I’ve gotten rid of scores of CDs this way. It’s great. Music on physical media is easy for me to get rid of. But could it be easier? What would be the easiest, most cost effective, legal way to discover new music? Let’s look at where the current options are lacking.

The obvious answer is bittorrent, but that is illegal. Internet radio stations like Pandora or Last.fm, or sweet sites like YouTube Disco, are legal, but they’re not very mobile yet. (You know, for the 95% of the market that the iPhone hasn’t penetrated.) And if you do hear something you like on those services, you still have to go out and buy an album. Besides, the key word in play is discovering new music. There is, almost by definition, a huge serendipity quotient here. This is not music that Amazon, iTunes, or Last.fm recommends to you. This is not borrowing a friend’s CD to give it a listen. This is music you may/would never have sought out on your own. This is browsing the “recent arrival” racks at your local record store.

But browsing racks takes a lot of time. You have to stand there and flip for the better part of half an hour. Also, you don’t know if you’re going to get something good; what if the CD is scratched? There are other downsides: record-store CDs are not (relatively) cheap. Most discs are near the $7 mark - a lot to spend on a album you’re not sure you’ll like. And if you don’t like it, you again have to deal with how or if you’ll get rid of it - kind of mentally taxing for what is supposed to be serendipitous.

So it’s clear we need a music format that is:


*Home to a wide range of music

*Cheaper than $7

*Widely available

*Practically disposable, so that there is no separation anxiety if the album is crap

What am I talking about here?

I'm talking about the audio cassette tape, which neatly fits all of the required categories: You can stick them in a Walkman (which never skips!), you can find every type of music on them, you can buy them at any thrift store in the country for pennies, and because of that you feel no guilt about throwing them away should you not fancy whatever you bought. As the saying goes, it’s a win-win(-win).

Cassettes are so cheap that it is no problem to wolf them down, glean any nutritious value from their music, refine your musical tastes accordingly, and toss them. If you like the music, keep the cassette until it wears out, and then legally download it. That’s the great thing about digital music - you can get practically any music from any time period. You don’t have to waste time tracking down another copy of your favorite cassette.

I love cassettes. A few years back I was driving a borrowed Nissan that only had a cassette player. I went to the local Salvation Army and bought three tapes for like a dollar: David Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise, Nirvana’s Bleach, and Primus’ Pork Soda. Those tapes got really heavy rotation because they were all I listened to when I was driving. The Bowie album was awesome; the other two pretty much sucked. So I bought the Bowie record on CD and the others were lost when the car was totaled and towed.

Experiencing music this way was so easy yet so practical. Musical taste: Refined! Cost? Minimized!

A year later I had my own place and kept a tape player in the kitchen. I spent a lot of time in there and consequently was heavily exposed to the only two tapes I had at the time: Living Colour’s Vivid and Poison’s Look What The Cat Dragged In! Hard rock albums on cassette is a glorious thing. For a reason that I have yet to discern, I took the tape player to Goodwill when I moved. I still don’t know what on earth I was thinking. I recently was given some more cassettes (Public Enemy, Frank Zappa (!!), Smashing Pumpkins, Cream) and now I have no player to play them on. Sigh.

Some might raise the objection that I’m being sentimental. If I was being sentimental, I’d advocate records, which, oops, I already did like two years ago. Records are great for establishing a music collection, not for trying new music out. Try the cassette out, then, if you like it, buy the record. The cassette even mirrors the double-sidedness of a record! Seems perfectly acceptable to me!

Another objection might be in your minds: But cassette’s are only available for old music!

So? The object here is to refine musical taste cheaply. Was there no good music available on cassette? Or have you heard it all? Yes, cassettes are old. So is Hysteria, Aja, London Calling, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and like a bajillion other albums that weren’t released in the last twenty years. If you’re going to be that elitist, feel free to stick with the Popular Songs Right This Second list on the iTunes Store.

I really do believe that cassettes are the best way to develop a great taste in music - they are the cheapest, easiest way to expose yourself to any and every artist and style of music. It excludes new releases, but who cares? If I want new releases, I can go to Amazon, Ping, iLike, or one of the other dozens of services who want to define my musical taste for me. With cassette tapes, I’m being exposed to music history serendipitously. And much of the music that makes up music history is really, really good. Cassettes deliver that to me. But even if they don’t, that’s OK - in the same motion I can toss it into the trash and pop something else in the Walkman. (As soon as I get one!)

Dann writes from his home in Minnesota, which can be rearranged to spell "Aeon Mints," which, you gotta admit, is a pretty great name for a band.

_DZ submit to reddit