Most of the things which just do not work do, in fact, work great somewhere just not where you are.

For example, audiophile hifi gear is hugely a product of studio engineers in places like the BBC trying to get perfect sound reproduction for their jobs. They’re handbuilding speakers for work in the 1970s, then going on to sell them (Spendor!). Then that kind of gear becomes a status symbol, like the Top Gear guys are with cars: if you have disposable income and want to show you love music like the professionals do, you buy a hifi. The buyers are not audio professionals, they can’t really tell when they are being sold inferior products with good marketing, so the entire arena fills with expensive crap, bringing the very concept of “audiophila” into severe disrepute.


Same thing with expensive watches: military chronographs were mission critical equipment in WW2 because radio equipment was too bulky, insecure and flaky to use for synchronizing many operations. After the war, former military pilots, divers and commandos wore those watches, and they became known as a piece of equipment that serious people have. Then a lot of other people bought them, and you wind up with forty thousand dollar rolexes.

Goretex works pretty well for climbing everest. Can you fill in the gaps here yourself?

An enormous amount of our stupid consumption comes from taking yesterday’s expert equipment, and poorly copying it for a mass market that wants to look good, but does not actually know what those experts know, or do what those experts did. The gear does not work out of context. Some people call this cargo culting.


And now, a few things which are overrated and do not work.


  1. Gore-tex, and in fact the whole “base layer, mid layer, shell” philosophy.
    Why it doesn’t work: mountaineers are in incredibly cold (and therefore dry) places at high altitude where sweat evaporates almost immediately. The gear is evolved for those conditions, not bicycling through muggy drizzle in Surbiton. Nearly anything will work if you are strolling, but exercise past that, goretex usually leaves you wet from your own sweat.

    About the only time I’ve seen base-mid-shell work properly is when I was doing stuff in Finland in winter: dry-cold. The bleeding edge military equipment designers work with four climates (hot dry, hot wet, freezing dry, cold wet), and focus on fast-drying, not staying dry: the assumption is that whatever you are wearing will soak through with sweat when you are running for your life away from incoming mortar fire, and it better dry quickly while you huddle in a crater waiting for the next chance to run, or you’ll freeze.

    What does keep you warm and dry?
    Synthetic down” puff jackets worn over some sort of wicking base layer, probably merino wool. They’re fairly water repellent, but if you get wet, you don’t get cold because they stay insulating, and your body heat will dry them out pretty quickly. A lower tech approach is big thick wooly jumpers, but you’ll want that military poncho in the event of a total downpour in either case. And a hat. I learned this approach from Wiggy’s who specialize in a super water repellent insulation called “Lamelite” which retains essentially zero moisture, so dries instantly. It is uncanny. It’s a crying shame this technology didn’t become the standard for outdoor gear. 
  2. Audiophillia
    By the time you are old enough to afford it, you can’t hear it.

    Human hearing tails off at the high end quite quickly after 40, and often before that if you like loud music or play music. Basically a mug’s game, which is why they hate A/B testing. For practically everybody, powered studio monitors are the speakers you want. You can still pay more than you should even inside of this category, but because it’s made for audio professionals, they can’t get away with telling people that gold plated screws improve audio quality. However, pretty much all battery powered bluetooth audio devices are shit, and bluetooth itself is pretty shit, and noise cancelling headphones have poor sound quality compared to the same price point without noise cancelling (unsurprisingly) so most people younger than 30 have never actually heard music. You can tell that by what they listen to (i.e. the death of classical music.)

    The “goldilocks zone” for audio quality is powered studio monitors between $200 and $500 for almost everybody. Spend no more. Plug them into any vaguely decent audio interface (focusrite anything) and you’ll be right. 

All manner of “won’t damage your wall” sticky stuff
Blue tac, white tac, removable sticky dots, post-it note whiteboards, you name it: if it promises not to damage your walls when you take it off, it lies like a rug. 3M “command” stuff? Stick it on glass, be left with a mess that solvents can’t shift. The answer is nails/thumbtacks, and carefully applied filler after the fact. I am convinced of this.

Your parents were probably a lot richer, relative to the rest of the world, than you are. This means things from 30 years ago – or longer – are often of staggeringly high quality, and incredibly worth having if you like that sort of thing. A few good buys.


  1. Leather
    Leather has fallen completely out of fashion. Old-old vintage leather, and we’re talking 1970s, is heavy. It’s thick, the surfaces rich and creamy. As manufacturing technology “improved” they started cutting leather much thinner, more clothes from a hide, but durability and quality really suffered. The good stuff is still available, for $1700 new, or $35 old. You’d need a specialist to tell you how to shop for leather jackets on eBay: I hit flea markets. In Europe, Hidesign bags are incredibly cheap on eBay, and just beautiful. Crumpler laptop bags, not leather, but super durable and great designs, are also typically ten or twenty pounds. Whole hides are less than $100, brilliantly dyed Italian leather as would be used for car upholstery, and I’ve chucked one over my couch to protect it, which will make my landlord very happy if I ever move.

  2. Smooth or polished cast iron pans
    See above for why they are great. They show up on eBay in America pretty regularly for a few dollars. Make sure it’s the smooth surface, not the modern “Lodge-style” rougher surface.

  3. Cotton
    Cotton outerwear, old, names like gaberdine and ventile. Ventile is still made, and is almost completely waterproof under most conditions. Surprisingly practical, this is what people did before goretex. Style questions are up to you. Military ripstop cotton is pretty amazingly comfy.

Military surplus
It goes in waves as armies sell things off. For six months there will be tons of Oakley goggles around, then it’ll be cooking gear. Clothing tends to be more perennial. Many good dealers.

Some completely amazing things you should not pay full price for, unless you are rich.

Some of the designer stuff is completely amazing, but unfeasibly expensive. Watch office clearances, most of this stuff is work equipment intended to be bought on corporate budgets, with its costs amortized over years of marginally increased worker productivity.

If you’re buying it out of a “quality of life” budget, it’s a lot harder to justify, but maybe now with the long term “work from home” it all makes more sense. Tricky.


  1. Chadwick Chairs
    The Chadwick chair is a successor to the Aeron, by the same designer. Same materials, same niche as the Aeron, but a different “ergonomic philosophy.” The Aeron sort of clamps around the body, and provides massive support. The Chadwick is open and moves with the body. I love it. They’re hard to find used, but Bruce Sterling’s sermon on quality of life applies here. Do it.

  2. Humanscale
    They make all kinds of things. Watch eBay like a hawk. I have a couple of their monitor arms and lamps. The monitor arms are just great, with elegant cable management, and many degrees of freedom – you can even flip from portrait to landscape just by turning the monitor. You’ll need a very strong desk to mount them. Apple sells a VESA mount adapter for iMacs. The lamps produce a beautiful, clear light which is strangely like daylight. I think they don’t flicker at 50hz as the AC current flows through them, so appear static. Things of beauty, really precious.

    I love light.

  3. Terminal hifi
    I did succumb to audiophilia. I was in Dublin a couple of hours early for a ferry and walked into a mall, and in the mall there was a B&O store. Now I know the audiophiles are already wincing, but hear me out. I’d auditioned the Spendor 1/2e’s a decade before, and knew what could be achieved with two speakers the size of refrigerators and a power amp that dimmed the lights for four city blocks. I knew. But the Beolab 3’s were bookshelf-sized, and came with their own amp, and that was it: I listened, I heard, and it was better sound quality per unit of volume than I believed to be possible. Then I asked the price, and realized why they sounded Pretty Good.

    A few years later I brokered a deal to get a hundred thousand solar lights into Pakistani refugee camps, and took my winnings to a barn on the far side of Gatwick airport that specialized in used B&O gear, and bought the most beat up version they had in store. I’ve never regretted it, but I might have done it differently if I’d put six weeks into auditioning loudspeakers and amps!

    The key, however, is you can’t really upgrade that system: audiophilia is committed, and there’s no tinkering. It’s not like you can switch out the amp and the pre amp and the speaker cable and so on on that endless “one more tweak” cycle: it comes in the box, and that’s the end of it. But, not ever new. If you’re going to spend that much money on new hifi gear, you can do better. Used, it’s an open question: depends on who’s selling what when you are buying.

    I also love sound.