Utopia Yourtopia Mytopia

I am glad to see that utopia is still more commonly used than dystopia. (Check Google Ngrams and Google Trends for data.) That alone means there’s hope for the human race. But, except for magazines like Yes! and Intelligent Optimist, there’s also a lot more discussion about financial, environmental, and societal disasters. It seems that we are far from utopia. That’s also nothing new. One thing that is always new and unique is every individual’s image of utopia, their mytopia or yourtupia. No matter what the world is going through, understanding mytopia is one of my best guides to living.

The desire for utopia has always existed. We want to be and do our best, and we want a world that lets that happen. Many now see utopia as eco-friendly, peaceful, and thriving with clean cities, ample resources, and a sustainable civilization. I suspect the cavemen utopia was a clean cave, easy food, a happy clan, and not being eaten by some fanged beast. Same thing, but it looked very different.

We do seem to emphasize the downside. While there are extreme positivists, much of human communication is about what bothers us. The media feeds on our tendency. I know that I am guilty of it as well as I give a personal voice to troubles that are usually reported in generalities and statistics. I’m known for being positive and optimistic, but I’m also known for pointing out dysfunctions and incongruities. That’s reality.

Human nature plays out a bit in this blog’s traffic. The most popular post is about one man’s contribution to community, A Bow To Drewslist; but followup posts languish. Solid traffic comes to my less-than-positive posts about health care, mortgages, and financial turmoil; some people stop following, but those that follow follow methodically and gather audiences of compatriots. (They are also the first to hear the good news and appreciate the contrast.) The greatest volume of reliable traffic is for any post about stocks and investing; which, I guess, is because so many bloggers write about investing merely as a sales pitch for their services. (I’m happy to help clients and sell books,Dream. Invest. Live. but the numbers prove that I write this blog largely without financial compensation.)

The classics prove the appeal of the dismal. What’s more dismal than Hell? Yet, Dante’s Inferno is recognized by many who’ve never read any of the classics. The story is terrible and rich. Most people aren’t aware that Inferno is the first book in a trilogy (oddly named the Divine Comedy, so there are definitions that were broader back then.) The second and third books are Purgatorio and Paradiso. Dante’s journey didn’t end with an escape from Hell. He went through Purgatory and Paradise. If we were so in love with utopia, Paradiso would be the best seller, not Inferno. But in each subsequent step away from Hell, the verbiage becomes less vivid and less engaging.

Society and individuals progress regardless of our apparent concentration on destruction. We talk about how bad the weather is, and we build stout buildings – though they aren’t as stout as a cave. We complain about finances, and generations continue to work hard hoping to get ahead. We shout about injustices that never seem to fade, and yet progress is made over decades.

Regular readers are very aware of my turmoil of the last few years. Readers from the beginning can see the contrast to the days of dreams that were almost realized. (Until the dreaded Triple Whammy.) Through it all I have aimed at a dream, a mytopia, that has changed little except for the necessary change in scope and timing based on finances. Mytopia may be further away than ever, yet it draws me more strongly because each setback required me to reevaluate my values and expectations. The biggest jump was realizing that the standard American dream wasn’t just a bad fit, it was counter to what I wanted and valued. Everything after that has been an intensely personal refinement.

Mytopia is a small house; on sufficient land for comfortable autonomy; in a sustainable region, environment, and community; with enough resources to live with ease. There are plenty of other details, some of which are so personal I won’t share here; but, most of them can be summarized as Live Long and Prosper, Relax and Enjoy, Be Excellent to Each Other, with a good chance to practice DFTBA (the catchphrase of vlogbrothers, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.) It is not a small life. It is a life that is just the right size to meet my abilities, needs, wants, and resources. – and help others.

What I have to keep in mind is that utopia is an abstraction, and becomes an easy way to say no to possible solutions. My current house is my favorite home, and yet it is obvious that it is a little too big (even though it is only 840 square feet), on a lot that is a little too small (because 7,000 square feet aren’t enough for a proper garden plus outbuildings plus workout space plus etc.), in a neighborhood that doesn’t encourage decentralized utilities (except for the house-by-house septic systems, which I want to replace with a proper composting toilet.) Mytopia is for something else, which would make it easy to give up what I have, but what I have may be good enough. Most people on the planet would consider my house, its yard, and the utilities to be luxurious. And they are right. And I am right to acknowledge that something a little different could be a lot better.

The only true judge of such decisions is the person involved. Knowing that you are the only person that can truly judge you and your choices is powerful in housing, finance, and generally in how you want to live your life. Go ahead and complain because that emphasizes the contrast between where you are and where you want to be, but don’t let a search for utopia or yourtopia or mytopia pull you away from what is already good enough.

Relax and Enjoy

Relax and Enjoy

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Personal Trust Diversification

Here’s my plan. It’s Saturday, the day I tend (with several long lapses in recent years) to post about investing and the markets. Here’s reality. It’s Saturday and the more cyber-astute are reacting to and recovering from Heartbleed, a phenomenal security hole in the Internet. Finding such a hole in the Internet is like finding out that a business couldn’t trust the electricity, water, and sewers to keep working; and that for the last two years sparks from the wires were scorching the walls, drips were rotting the foundation, and messes were piling up in hidden corners. Maybe everything is fixed, but someone’s going to have to go down into that basement and make sure – and be prepared for anything, (like Heartbleed’s cousin?). This can lead to a bit of insecurity, and investors don’t like insecurities.

The Internet created modern commerce, but not intentionally and not alone. The Internet existed for years doing what it was designed to do, connecting up various organizations so they could send data around without having to create a tape and drop it in the mail. As more people began to play with it outside of work, it blossomed while being derided as trivial. There were plenty of guesses about what it could be used for, but most of the non-work activity was discussions and hobbyists. (Serious historians can slice this gross-simplification to shreds, but stick with me here.) Then came the web, and the traffic went from text to graphics. The Internet become prettier. In addition to everything else, businesses began creating pages as digital storefronts; but really nothing more than just brochures, because they were trying to get people into the malls or catalogs. Add a bit of security though and something serious like payments could happen, and did. Hello, Amazon.

Regardless of the distrust in the investment community, my investments did well in that era, and even afterwards because I trusted in the acceptance and growth in the Internet.

Aside from stock bubbles and revolutions within industries, the Internet has grown because it has become more secure. We rely on online transactions for shopping, but also for paying bills, investing, signing contracts, talking privately, and now for storing our files in the cloud. Heartbleed proved the immaturity of the system that we’ve come to depend on and take for granted. If you can’t trust password protected accounts what can you trust? And, if you can’t trust the Internet are you prepared to retreat to paper, pen, envelopes, stamps – or even driving to the store and being limited to what they have in stock?

Despite any damage to trust in Internet transactions, businesses based on online commerce will continue. There may be a sudden spike in the demand for digital security specialists, but we’ve reached a new norm. We’re as likely to abandon the Internet as abandon electricity.

The trend I am watching is the general acceptance of diminished trust. Financial institutions lost their veneer when we saw the risks they took in the financial markets. Government shutdowns primed us to consider the possibility of losing our central authority. The Vatican continues to deal with its scandalous priests. Current economies clashing with political wills are challenging the primacy of various currencies. Tens of millions of shoppers found that their credit cards were compromised by people expending very little effort. And now, Heartbleed. I’m looking for the trend that will reinforce trust, but I haven’t found it. (The effect of writing on the writer. Having written this paragraph I noticed that the paper covering my computer’s camera had fallen. A few months ago I saw the camera light go green for no reason. Pardon me as I put the paper back in place.)

It is very easy to get scared by staring at the imperfections in the system. I definitely have concerns, but I know that my best plan is to assume everything will return to normal because we rely on this new way of living to the point that we can’t go back without trauma.

I believe it is also wise to be very aware of the imperfections in the system, and because trauma can happen. People taking on the challenge of actively managing their personal finances are to be commended. Our society is based on a currency economy. It certainly isn’t barter. But, assuming that everything will stay the same and always work ignores one of the most powerful tools available to everyone, diversification. What if online transactions couldn’t be trusted, even if for a while? What if online communications weren’t secure? What if the predominant currencies lost their dominance? Only the wealthiest have sufficient resources to cover every contingency, but at least the rest of us can take some steps to cover the contingencies we consider most likely.

Here are some of my Personal Diversifications: (in addition to diversifications within my portfolio, of course.)

  • One of the benefits of living simply is that I am less tied to the various aspects of societal infrastructure. I can do a lot with just a bicycleJust Keep Pedaling.
  • I live in a rural area where plenty of folks are happy to grow and sell food. I’d like to live even more simply by living in a house that could go off-grid. We lose power here often enough that secondary power and heat are normal parts of conversation.
  • As much as possible, I buy things that can do more than one job; and if something only does one thing I better need that frequently or in an emergency.
  • Through necessity I am generating income by relying on various skills: project management, strategic planning, social media, speaking, teaching, writing, etc. Much better than only having one skill.
  • I’ve even shopping around for crypto-currencies as a diversification against the US dollar. Why not?

Trust is under assault. If the NSA didn’t know about Heartbleed, then the NSA is not living up to their reputation – and maybe not even their mission, goals, or budget. If the NSA did know about Heartbleed, then by no saying or doing anything publicly then we may doubt their intent. Did Heartbleed reveal the NSA as incompetent or as immoral? In either case, there’s less reason to trust the NSA. Or maybe, trust was always under such suspicion but it wasn’t until we had an instantaneous and ubiquitous communication medium that we could hear each other’s doubts.

In the meantime, my stocks await a positive catalyst that I trust will arrive and I’ll continue to investigate the best way and time to diversify into a crypto-currency – ironically trusting to the very Internet that is a little less trust-worthy now.

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Tax Inequity Increase

I paid lower taxes when I was rich.” I said that last year. This year proves it out even more. Income was down about 40%. Income tax was up about 40%. I was traumatized by the numbers. Surely our system isn’t that dysfunctional; especially when approaching the poverty level. Surely I was wrong – and I have plenty of friends in similar situations to prove it, at least to me. There is a bit of good news but it only became apparent after downing a stiff drink and then venting with a dear friend who understands the situation too well. Maybe things will get better.

Was the first governmental conversation about income tax overly simplistic (the more a person makes the more they’re taxed because they’re more likely to afford it), or did they imagine the loopholes and byzantine paperwork to appease a draconian authority (fill out this form but attach this schedule if the worksheet produces a number in excess of the value on the appropriate table)? It must’ve seemed simple at the start. Maybe it was.

Really, I can understand the appeal of an income tax, but the reality of it has bizarre consequences.
I make a mistake in the govt’s favor I’m a chump and they’ll happily take my extra money. If I make any little mistake in the other direction, I’m a criminal.“*
A math mistake, putting a number in the wrong box, or misinterpreting arcane language across reams of instructions carries the fear of being charged with a federal offense.

When I had far more than enough income and net worth, I trusted my tax preparation to a professional. She was honest and properly pedantic, and worked through W-2s, real estate rentals, stocks, options, and miscellaneous. During my temporary, early semi-retirement my taxes were so simple that I could do them because I had no income. Make some money by making one or two stock trades per year was easy in many ways, including the paperwork. After I bought my house, and then decided to sell books and photos I used software (TurboTax) to work me through the details. Then the Triple Whammy hit. I have been working several backup plans simultaneously since. None of my efforts have succeeded comfortably, but all combine to maybe make enough to keep my house. Unfortunately, having such a diverse set of incomes means many more forms. I relinquish control to the software because properly understanding the requirements for services, retail, wholesale, royalties, etc. would require so many hours that I could probably qualify as a tax preparer.
filing taxes is a money losing proposition“*
just found out I’m making about $6.00 an hour and working my heinie off besides. Owning my own business is not all that it’s cracked up to be.“*

From what I hear, the job market is improving. What I see is many friends, unable to get hired (in many cases despite multiple degrees and phenomenal work ethics) turning instead to entrepreneurship. I submitted job applications for two years and only received one interview for a full time position – and they even admitted that they didn’t plan to hire me, but they wanted to meet the person with such an amazing resume. Trust in the conventional job market has faded, just as trust has faded in many of our institutions and conventions.

Here’s where trying to get ahead when you’ve fallen behind puts you further behind.

Welcome to something I’ve skimmed past in the past, but ran hard into this year: self-employment tax. I don’t understand how it operates but I know that, because my business’ profit margin dramatically improved I ended up paying more in self-employment tax than I paid in total for the previous year. As I said at the top, “Income was down about 40%. Income tax was up about 40%“. Part of the reason income was down was that much of the early income came from early withdrawals from my IRA, which is now seriously depleted.
According to another friend,
I’m better off earning $20K than $36K. at 36 I owe $4000 or more. Makes me sick.“*
The folks that considered themselves “lucky” were the ones who could claim large business losses.
only reason we lucked out this year is because of business losses“*
Though, it doesn’t always work out that way.
we are getting a little back, but the amount dropped significantly when I put in my little business loss…a loss…. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.“*
Making sense of a dysfunctional system is a waste of time, and most of these hard-workers don’t have that extra time.

One of the tenets of the American Dream is that good, hard work will be rewarded. We encourage people to work their way out of trouble. But it is while working hardest that taxes hit hardest. I worked hard enough at Boeing that my early retirement was largely encouraged for health reasons; yet, I work harder now. Corporate life also comes equipped with professionals responsible for properly accounting for withholdings and reporting. Tax season rarely held a negative surprise. When I worked the least was when I was comfortably living off my investments. (Though, for a while there I was doing nothing much for pay, but working 32 hours a week on charities. So much for lounging.) Living off investments can make life balance very easy. Trade once or twice a year, live off the proceedings, and match losses to gains. There were several years when I had two or three times my current income and paid less than a few hundred dollars in taxes. I’d like to get back there, but I wonder how the government can function under such a system.

Entrepreneurship is discouraged enough that a common chorus is a desire to return to the corporate world, just to simplify life.
When I complained about taxes I’m told to “get a better job”.“*
I got royally stung when I tried the non-S corp route. My taxes were over double previous years. You probably get that, right? I’d rather do the corp dance than see that situation again.“*
Of course, the entire issue started because better jobs weren’t available, despite the news reports and economic data.

If the system is flawed, change the system. It’s our country, right? We should be able to do that.
The waste of humanity that is our income tax system. We need a flat tax.“* – David Nelson (and with his talents I’m surprised he hasn’t single-handedly made that happen)
We need to repeal the 16th Amendment, make the states pay federal taxes… and start following the 10th amendment.“* – Peter Jungmann (and he has a plan to make it happen)

So, where’s the good news? At least for me, the good news is that last year I had to use my credit card to pay my taxes. This year, if I scrape around in various accounts and only pay the minimums on some bills, I might, might be able to pay in cash. Of course, some of the cash will come out of my skinny IRA which will kick off a tax penalty to be paid next year, but well, oh well. The taxes will get paid, then the health insurance (if I still have it), and then the trial payment for the mortgage – oh yeah, and incidentals like food and gas and . . . But hey, it is a step in the right direction. My business is growing (want to be part of the growth? hire me for some strategic planning or program management), and the increased revenues and increased profits will mean – increased taxes – and maybe enough left over to get ahead after falling so far behind.

* (Quotes courtesy of a very active social media response on Facebook with some comments on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who participated.)

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Googly-eye-ing Disney And Projectors

Smartphones are it! So are tablets. So were laptops. So smartwatches and eyewear and wearable computers shall be. So we can be proud we’re working the trends. You ain’t seen nothing yet, and when the next thing shows up it may look like nothing to everyone else, but the wearer will see a different world. I tried on Google Glass, listened to the pitch, saw a presentation from Disney Research and realized the world is about to change again – and not only because of Google.

For the first several days in April I attended the Museums and the Web conference,

photo courtesy of Andrew Lewis (@rosemarybeetle)

photo courtesy of Andrew Lewis (@rosemarybeetle)

a conference for museum operators and staff that are wise enough to know that marble columns, white walls, artifacts, and little placards aren’t enough in 2014. Visitors expect to walk in with their smartphones in hand, take photos to share regardless of copyright, and are more likely to access wikipedia than a curator or docent. I was there as Project Manager for the Virtual Museum of the History of Computing in Learning and Education (HCLE). Smartphones in our museum? Our museum will be in the smartphone. No red velvet ropes. No dusting required.

Most of the presentations were from museum people talking about museums, visitors, and technology. Just like in education, where the teacher’s role and control changed because of computers (which is one of the primary motivations for our museum), museums’ roles and controls are changing. (I think they have a lot to learn from the educators, but then I have a bias.)

Two presentations that came from the technology side pleased the geek in me.

Eric Brockmeyer from Disney Research (Pittsburgh) gave a sweeping show about using technology that brings the animated characters out of the movies and into the real world. Rapid prototyped versions of the characters are equipped with robotic parts, LED light-piped eyes that track the motion of the visitor; even ways to save and store and listen to sounds generated by, in, and around plants. A quick segment, maybe not even a minute long, showed two pico-projectors working in concert to as part of a game. Investors in MicroVision, like me, know the potential for pico-projectors; and we’ve frequently cautioned our prognostications because we realize the company’s success may come from applications we haven’t imagined. These two pico-projectors played a new trick (at least to me). One used visible light. One used infra-red. The visitor only sees one, and may not know how the other one adds depth and intelligence to the interaction. Robots aren’t just for building cars. LEDs aren’t just for lighting the living room. Plants may finally get a voice in a language we can hear. 3-D animations may walk across a table and play with your drink. (A sobriety and sanity test I just invented.)

Google brought Google Glass, their revolutionary eyewear that is so well-tested that I’ve seen about a dozen in demos and in real life.

Google Glass - so common there was one in the front and one in the back

Google Glass – so common there was one in the front and one in the back

The presenters made a good case for how wearable computers will change the way we interact with the world and each other. Previous wearable computers were bulky, required belted joysticks and keyboards, and large CPUs and battery packs. Miniaturization has shrunk much of the hardware into a pair of glasses and a smartphone. (One presenter mentioned that we all have smartphones. Ha! My mobile is a Kyocera flip phone, Photo on 2014-04-06 at 18.42 and I only have it because Sprint pulled the antiquated tower hardware that could actually talk with my previous, perfectly capable flip phone.) To me, the main enabler was the control being voice and a finger swipe rather than hand-controllers. Free the hands and increase the interaction, museum or not. Add sensors and the interaction reaches other sensory dimensions.

After the presentations I quickly roamed the exhibit hall. There was a lot to do, so I couldn’t spend much time with the vendors; except for my friends over at STQRY. Maybe it is easier to chat because any business from HCLE is theoretical or years away. They make mobile apps, or apps for mobile devices; which means they are central to the conventional museums’ conversation and conversion. And they had a Google Glass tester, which I happily wore. If they expected a bigger reaction, I may have disappointed them. I’ve seen such devices before. As friends I asked them about the potential I have seen with pico-projectors coupled with hands-free computers.

Pico-projectors don’t just act like another screen. They can project. They can read. One application is a computer that replaces the screen with one pico-projector and the keyboard with another. Computers can take the next step from room-sized to desktop to laptop to handheld to worn to – I don’t know, sewn in? One of the consequences of MicroVision’s technology is that, while it is projecting an image it can also capture finger movements. Hand swipes on an iPad can become hand swipes in mid-air, which may look strange but are less obtrusive than people talking on cell phones. A computer becomes a device the size of a coffee cup, or smaller: CPU, memory, power, and two projectors the size of thin mints.

That doesn’t change the museum experience until someone takes the extra step and makes it wearable. Keyboards in air, that are only visible to the wearer. Displays that are transparent, and that can overlay the world with data or digital graffiti (which is far preferable to real graffiti). If the glasses are indistinguishable from spectacles, then there is no control over what the visitors sees or accesses. A virtual world overlaying the real world means white walls have their place. Or shares, because this can also improve the appeal of museums. A visitor having a revelatory experience can immediately share it to their social network without interfering with the rest of the visitors. Awareness grows. Culture spreads. Museums increase their relevance.

Such a vision may be going too far for some conversations. Yet, the speed of the technology will not be changed to accommodate the speed of a museum’s evolution. The revolution will walk in the door; and it won’t just happen in museums. Classrooms, conference rooms, offices, even around the home will work best if they work with the fact that people will use their finger tips to call up data from anywhere without intruding on someone else’s life. Though, casual observers may find it fun to watch a bunch of people wagging fingers at each other. And of course, the wearers may have a grand time in the virtual world making fun of the computationally naked folks.

As an investor in MicroVision I am encouraged, at least for the technology and hopefully for the company. Their proprietary technology solves many problems simultaneously while adding features: always in focus, even on moving curtains; biometrics, by possibly conducting real-time retinal identification; and evidently the possibility to extend beyond visible light, to do . . . ?

Many of the technological changes are discussed as extrapolations, dreams of possibilities a decade away. Pico-projection has been in work for decades and may disrupt technologies and our world, even institutions like museums, within years – and for all I know, months.

About ten years ago I tried on a wearable computer. MicroVision actually released it as a product. The Nomad was a cigarette-sized box clipped onto the brim of a baseball cap, with a hand controller worn on a belt. The display was only in red, aimed at too niche of a market (auto mechanics), and wasn’t designed for manufacture or repair or profit. Yet from what I recall, Nomad’s image was clearer than Google Glass’. Maybe that’s just my age. I also recall the color prototype that played images directly onto the retina, dramatically decreasing power requirements while also making the display readable in daylight (except for maybe in the desert at high noon.) Nomad’s controller was more responsive because it didn’t rely on wi-fi. But it didn’t look nearly as nice (which is a very sad statement for both) and didn’t have Google’s publicity and name spreading the word.

I am glad to be alive as we live through this era, just like I find it unique to have lived through an era that so dramatically changed education and the rest of my life. Just like before though, people become comfortable with the new speed of change that follows a disruption – and then the next disruption hits. I don’t know if it will be from Disney, or Google, or MicroVision, or someone else, or some combination of them; but, I am more convinced that it is about to happen. I hope I can afford to buy in and enjoy.

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The Day After The ACA Deadline

The deadline passed. Obamacare, ACA, the Affordable Care Act, the great grandiose pack of wonders or horrors depending on your point of view reached and surpassed its quota of subscribers. The wonders and horrors are already being touted. It sounds like the day after someone gets their first car; do you want to hear about the grand and glorious places they can go, or do you want to hear about the cost of gas and the vehicular accident rates? The systemic economic statistics won’t be available for years, but those of us that signed up by the December deadline have months of personal data to back up our stories.

To those who’ve shared their stories and their data with me, don’t worry, discretion will be maintained.

To those of you just finding this blog and my story, here are a few links along the way.

To those of you who’ve been following my story, the slapstick fun never seems to end.

But wait. My pratfalls, banana peals, and whoopie cushion moments were supposed to be over. I finally got everything arranged. Provider chosen. Payments arranged. Premiums paid. You are a silly person, or maybe it is just me.

First I couldn’t log in. Then I got coverage but at a 60% increase. Then it turned out I probably didn’t have coverage. Then I got coverage and got the tax credit and the rate came back down to my pre-ACA rate plus ten dollars. Then I didn’t get billed, and only resolved it within hours of the deadline.

Welcome to March. I expected a bill in the mail because the fine folks at Washington Health Plan worked hard to set that up for me. I trust technology more than many, but enough had gone wrong that I wanted paper delivered that I would respond to with an envelope, a stamp, and a paper check. Ah, but an email came in that looked like an auto-pay, but hey, at least it was paid.

Or not. I watched my bank account and the money hadn’t been withdrawn. Open the email, click on the link, spend too much time and energy logging in and having to reset passwords again, to learn that the email has a link to the bill, not to a payment. I was supposed to print the bill myself. And the payment wasn’t due at the end of the month. It was due a week earlier.

The regular mail wouldn’t work in time. Even Express Mail doesn’t take a letter stamped at 10pm on the 30th and get it to its destination by the 31st. Bang my head slowly, otherwise it hurts too much – and for all I knew and know, I don’t have coverage.

Ah, but a glimmer of hope. There was a Pay It Now button, which I clicked, where I paid, and received a receipt. So, I don’t know if I have coverage, but I do know that they have my money. One spot of good news is that my premium dropped 10%. One spot of bad news is that friends tell me mistakes in the paper payment process take months to resolve.

Have you caught on to what’s missing in this discussion of health insurance? There has been no mention of health being cared for. No doctors visits. No prescriptions. Just payments in money, time, and emotional reserves.

Let us celebrate millions of people signing up for health care. Authentic anecdotes tell of people finally receiving medication, going to the doctor, not being bureaucratically limited by pre-existing conditions. But almost all coverage includes co-pays (usually reasonable), deductibles (which is $2,000) in my case, and some portion of the doctor’s visits, tests, and procedures.

I believe that healthier people will systemically decrease the cost of health care (duh, and yet that point isn’t raised enough), will increase the productivity of the nation, will free up ideas and time and energy and money to improve almost every aspect of society. But we aren’t talking about free healthcare. We’re talking about health insurance that costs as much as some people are paying for food, or housing; and those are the people who had to make tough choices about which bills to pay which may have been why they weren’t insured at the start.

Here, in the first days of April, I don’t know if I have insurance. Yes, I know it will be easy to find out. Just call. But I’ve learned that any such call can easily take two hours, and two hours chasing electronic ghosts is two hours I’m not billing hours that pay my bills.

Signing up for healthcare is simple. Enough of my friends have proved that. Maybe my issues have to deal with overwork, which could also be said about many of those who’ve signed up.

Personal finance is inherently simple. Saving for retirement is simple. Spend less than you make and invest the rest.

The simple stories suggest simple solutions. There are details that don’t fit in short articles, or even in episodic blogs. Especially in healthcare, every situation is different because we are all unique.

As the March 31st deadline approached I could tell that a lot of people were looking for help in unofficial places. My blog traffic grew every day until it set records. The most popular posts were of my experiences trying to sign up, pay, and confirm my health care coverage. Considering that healthcare tends to be tied to a region, there were a lot of people in Washington State looking for help; and Washington State is one of the better run systems (from what I’ve heard.)

I suspect I’ll know even more if I ever actually visit a doctor. In the meantime, I’ll continue my version of eating right, exercising, trying to get plenty of rest and fluids, and maybe getting a massage or visiting an acupuncturist. No insurance required.

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Shopping For A Coin

I want to buy some money. That can sound like a silly idea. “Hey, how much will you charge me for that dollar?” And, no, I’m not about to go on about trading in currencies. That’s been going on for centuries. The money I want is something new, and I don’t want to trade it. I want to use it. In the last few years cryptocurrencies have arisen. Have you heard of Bitcoin? It isn’t alone. People are searching for alternatives to dollars, pounds, yen, and anything printed by a nation. They couldn’t find what they wanted; so, they created what they sought. Now comes the hard part, making it work. The hard part for me is learning more. The easiest way to learn? Buy a Bitcoin or one of its cousins and see what I can do with it. Let the shopping begin.

The dollar and the Euro continue to rule the world of finance. All the cryptocurrencies added together are still worth less than a corporation like Starbucks. Bitcoin is not threatening Fort Knox. But the recent turmoil decreased confidence in the conventional financial system. Some people want to disassociate themselves from the economy that includes the military-industrial complex, fossil fuels, and corporate egregences. Movies like Money & Life illustrate some of the unsustainable assumptions behind the current system. My concern comes from the systems analyses that suggest the system is dangerously unstable.

Cyptocurrencies have been designed to answer many of the concerns. They aren’t associated with governments or banks. They can’t be printed at whim the way governments print more money. The transactions have the potential to be more secure, more secret, more reliable, and harder to abuse (though recent events have proved that no system is perfect). They are decentralized, that scary notion that power isn’t concentrated; which is also appealing to some.

There is plenty of precedent. History is filled with non-governmental currencies. The dollar didn’t become the standard US currency until 1863. As a society we’ve yet to find the perfect economic system, and alternative currencies are evidence of our attempts.

There is also plenty of ignorance, which is where I am.

Despite my ignorance I am interested because I am a curious fellow and because enough of the concerns mentioned above have convinced me that a bit of diversification is a good idea. Stocks, bonds, mortgaged real estate, and most financial instruments all have the same single point of failure. If the dollar becomes unstable, they become unstable. As an engineer I don’t like unstable systems that have critical single points of failure.

Bitcoins drew my attention over the last few years. Oh, if I had only bought back then … Last month I wrote about my early interest in it. A few weeks later the news broke of the big Bitcoin heist. I’m glad I waited. I’d like to claim wisdom, but I was too busy to get around to making the transaction. The subsequent news items and the charts convinced me that Bitcoin may be in a bubble. Just because one coin is askew doesn’t mean the others are too. I’d heard of litecoin, peercoin, and dogecoin; but the coin that inspired me to do more than study is auroracoin.

I like Iceland. They just announced a cryptocurrency that is for their citizens, and to make sure their citizens all have an equal opportunity within the crypto-economy they gave everyone the same number of coins at the same time. Instead of early adopters stepping in and making the equivalent of a land grab, they gave everyone a stake and an equal opportunity. Very cool. (I also like what they did with mortgages.)

Auroracoin and the rest have a basic problem. Everyone knows how regular money is used to buy things, but crypto-currencies are novel enough that only those with the greatest incentives have been exercising them. Unfortunately, that has frequently been the illegal set. For cryptocurrencies to succeed they have to become useful for buying food, clothes, shelter and paying for utilities. Supply and demand are flirting with each other, but it is still like boys and girls sitting along opposite walls at a high school dance. Very few are making that first move.

I may have a unique opportunity to delve in, learn more, pass along what I learn, and maybe even use such a currency for something that is legit. I already have a virtual currency from Second Life called Linden Dollars.

My house in Second Life

The view from my house in Second Life

I’d like to diversify those dollars, so why not a non-Second Life cryptocurrency? I live in Washington State, which just legalized marijuana (though it isn’t on sale for recreational use yet). Marijuana shops have high enough hurdles when it comes to handling money through regular banks that another cryptocurrency has sprouted call Potcoin. Maybe exchanges can be made.

As I’ve mentioned, my passion is for people and ideas. I enjoy helping projects and new ideas. (That’s why I enjoy consulting.) This is a new idea that I may be able to help merely by buying a coin. And it may help me by placing me at least one small step closer to diversity in currency. My next step? Shopping for money. Always something new to learn, eh?

PS Something I recently learned is that some coins are gaining popularity as a way for readers to tip bloggers. Want to leave a tip whether I buy a coin or not? I’ve got a PayPal account. (tetrimbath@whidbey.com)

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Borrow A Bowl For A Bash

Borrow a bowl! Why yes, I’d be happy to. Why borrow a bowl? Because I had something to celebrate. A community helped, which meant the celebration would be more than just me. That sounded like a party, a bash. Got problems? It is good to have a supportive community. When’s the best time to build community? Before you need it. When’s a great time to reward community? After it has come together without expectation of reward. And repeat.

The good news is that it looks like I get to keep my home. Maybe. Really I am in a trial period that may result in a mortgage modification that may have a probationary period, but those are details. As long as my business can generate enough income (and a few extra hours consulting with paying clients helps a lot ), I’ll probably end up with a modified mortgage that is about half of the original. This was something to celebrate, particularly with the community of friends who’ve helped me through.

One of my clients is building and reinforcing community with a simple idea. The Six Bowls Project, instigated by Penny Bauer, is ingenious. Six bowls made by local potters, carried in artisan baskets, tucked in with words from local poets, and hosted by local businesses are borrowed for weekend events for free. DSC_4231 Borrow a bowl. Carry it home in the basket. Invite some friends around a community theme. Share the literary contribution. Share the food. Then clean the bowl, share the stories, and return the bowl and the basket and the words for the next person. Then, after six bowls have catalyzed a year of stories, auction off the bowls for a charity that helps clothe and feed the community. Brilliant. My role? Be a sounding board, then feed the Facebook page daily. I get paid to pass along stories. Nice job, even if it is more editorial than managerial.

So many of the stories are parts of grand ventures: trips to Africa, groups that have been together for years, generations supporting other generations covering every age. My story was about the fact that I could stay put. But too many others are embroiled in that same struggle that a bit of good news should probably be passed along. (And a friend just told me he may be able to save his house by learning from what I’ve gone through. Imagine that feeling.) The email invite list was long (and incomplete as always) and the party was to be as simple as ever.
Been to my parties before? Same plan. I’ll put out some munchies and wine. No need to bring anything else but if you bring something then you know there’ll be something there you want to eat or drink.
Casual. My place isn’t that fancy (though I think the view is marvelous and a good reason to get here before sunset). Finale Mostly chit-chat, and usually some dancing before the end. You folks are entertaining enough that there’s no need for games and such. If you want to dance, I’ll have a boombox and some cds, but you are welcome to bring better equipment and music.

But what to put in the bowl? So many of the other stories have impressive recipes. I love to cook, but those recipes set a high bar. Then I looked at what came with the bowl. Patricia Duff wrote the meaningful backstory to the bowl. (Every bowl gets some bit of literary eloquence.) She called it an Everyman bowl (by Lyla Lillis). Cooking for every one is difficult because we are a diverse crowd by choice and necessity. So, I decided that, rather than try to navigate dozens of diets, I’d put enough different things in the bowl to please (almost) everyone. DSC_4236Sausage in the middle, flanked by carrots and celery, fronted with cheese, and backed with brownies. (By the time the party started I had to switch out the sausages for smoked salmon. Long story. Burp.) And if no one ate them, I’d have good leftovers.

The bowl wasn’t alone. There was also the basket which was empty without the bowl, so I dropped in a sign: “Fill the basket with ideas.” Few had the time to write anything, but one idea was dear. “We should start a progressive party – take this to someone else’s house every couple of hours.” Marvelous. Maybe next time.

The party was so good that we didn’t get around to dancing. (Though I admit to missing that.)

Then it was time to bundle the bowl back into its basket (after washing it). Hang onto the memories of the party and my friends and what they’ve helped achieve.

DSC_4246

Community is built from within and by more than just one. Penny’s idea for Six Bowls is simple and powerful; and succeeds because so many people participate. Other individuals like, Drew Kampion of Drewslist, work on their own spending incredible time and effort creating vital services that ultimately reciprocate (and if you’re on drewslist have you sent him a donation lately?). Organizations like Good Cheer are more like what many expect, large non-profits officially providing an otherwise non-existent safety net. The beauty and the power of such support come from the efforts of individuals taking simple ideas, filling needs, and leaving egos behind. Most of their work is unacknowledged off-island. Do the same work in some urban environment and end up on the national news. But here, we get to see their efforts first hand, and appreciate them greatly.

Here we get to see what community can do for community – and it always starts with individuals.

Frugal people understand that personal finance is about value, which only sometimes involves money – though mainstream media makes it sound like money is the only thing of value.

If you’re on the island; borrow a bowl, donate to Drew, cheer on Good Cheer. If you’re not on the island; look around to see what’s there, and if nothing’s there know that you can make it yourself and make community at the same time.

Nothing is certain so it makes sense to celebrate what we can, how we can, and include as many as we can. And maybe there will be more dancing.

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Tolerate Risk Or Not

Fear freezes people. It works for fawns. Not so well for opossums, at least since we showed up. Fear is tied to risk and risk can’t be avoided. Risk is also personal. Understanding my risk tolerance is why my bio is so long and varied. Years ago I realized that in many things I am a chicken adventurer. My adventurous friends think I am a chicken. My cautious friends think I am adventurous. Knowing where to draw that line is immensely enabling, whether that is in the natural wilderness or the artificial one we’ve invented called investing.

Friday night I got to do one of my favorite things to do in public that doesn’t involve dancing. I gave a talk. (Thank you Friends of Langley Library.) Yeah, I’m easily entertained and one way to entertain me is to let me entertain others. I enjoy the very thing so many people are afraid of, public speaking. The talk was the first in a three-art series. March, bicycling across America. April, walking across Scotland. May, year-round hiking and skiing in the Cascade Mountains. A persistent theme for questions centers on fear. Wasn’t I worried about getting hurt? Of course. But I’ve learned when to continue and when to turn back.

On Saturday I got to provide one my favorite services from my business, consulting about life and money. Personal finance has never been simple. The recent turmoil has shaken peoples’ confidence in the system, which makes them even more likely to worry and doubt. Read my previous posts and you know I can sympathize.  Yet, more people are finding the courage to find their own answers. I’m impressed. Rather than work with their fears, I try to find their comfort zones, and then maybe expand those borders, and sometimes even shrink them based on their risk tolerance.

The risk tolerance of a chicken adventurer like me is a tested tolerance. I like to hike on cross-country skis. No lycra required. When I find an open slope of fresh snow I pause and check the situation. What was the avalanche report? Do I see any evidence of a slide? If it looks safe, but then I hear the snow settle under me, I prudently turn around, thank the world for a fine view and head back to safety.DSCN2102 When I bicycled across America I reduced my risk by simply shifting when I rode. In the morning people are on their way to work and don’t want to be late. After work they may have had a bad day, may not be in a rush to get home, may have had a few drinks, or may just be fatigued. So, I rode early and stopped early.

My risk tolerance with stocks has been tested, massively. Losing almost everything, not being able to pay the mortgage for over a year, and witnessing my triple whammy would be enough to convince many people to never invest again. Yet, I continue to invest.

The avalanche slope was a risk. But the rest of the trip was worthwhile even without that last bit. Investing is a risk, and I’ve felt the pain; but, I’ve also had enough worthwhile experiences to encourage me to continue.

But that is me.

Everyone has to find their boundaries and their limits. It is not an academic effort. It is not just a thought experiment. A bit of testing teaching more than a lot of thinking.

But, after those boundaries are better understood, then it is time to turn back to the zone they border. There’s where the positive parts live. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to optimize every endeavor; especially when that endeavor is retirement planning conducted close to retirement. Maximize everything! No.

I see many people trying to prop up the edgy investments. There’s a value in that as long as it doesn’t cost too much, and I’m including the emotional cost. For good listeners it is relatively easy to hear the person’s tone change as they describe what they’re considering and doing. (It is why even consultants need consultants.) Staying in a job a few more years can sound like fun, or boring and dull and doable, or a grind emotionally and financially. A house can be a home and a joy, or an acceptable shelter, or an onerous burden. Investing in stocks can be exciting, or dry but useful, or scary. Asking about each of those, and other, topics can sketch a border. How risky is it to stay in the job, the house, or the stocks?

My home, which is a joy - and is also for sale

My home, which is a joy – and is also for sale

If there is some combination that works, great. If not, then it is time to get creative; which can be a lot of fun.

How about partial employment, or one and a half jobs, or self-employment, or even taking a sabbatical? How about selling, or renting, or getting a roommate, or swapping for a while? How about diving into individual stocks, or maybe mutual funds, or maybe bonds, or maybe some of the sharing economy possibilities like peer-to-peer lending?

The more frugal the person, the more options they have. How else do you think I’ve managed to maintain some semblance of normalcy? My favorite scenario was from a very frugal person who had a moderate windfall, that was large but not large enough. We realized that ten percent of that windfall and a frugal lifestyle could buy a year-long sabbatical and a lot of time to find creative and highly personal solutions. Meanwhile, the other 90% would be invested and possibly allowing the sabbatical to extend.

My home looks out across Cultus Bay, a tide flat with a view. I purposely bought above the historic tsunami line and back from the steeper hillsides. Between me and the mountains is Scatchet Head, a community with some of the most beautiful views. Yet, I look at the houses built on the water and below the hillside and know that I don’t want to live in such a risky place. But for them, it may be perfectly fine and never a problem. It is good that we both know our risk tolerances.

Scatchet Sunset - from Twelve Months at Cultus Bay

Scatchet Sunset – from Twelve Months at Cultus Bay

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Something Like A Mortgage Payment

I couldn’t wait. The authorities may all expect me to act at the very last moment, but that would delay my sense of relief. Why would I do that after more than a year of struggle? For the first time since Autumn 2011, I mailed a check to my mortgage company. I hope they like it. And, while I am celebrating the event, I also know that this isn’t actually a mortgage payment. That won’t happen for months, and there’s no guarantee it will happen then, either.

Welcome to another episode in my housing chronicle. The news makes the mortgage crisis sound onerous, and yet has to simplify each story to fit inside a few minutes or phrases. My story has been playing out in more than a year of episodes; and it isn’t over yet. Thank you to all who waded with me through the tougher times. Here’s another part of the story that’s on the nicer side.

The offer I described weeks ago finally arrived. It was just like they said. After reviewing my finances, and I’ve given them months of bank records to work from, they calculated that I could make a modified mortgage payment that is about half of my original payment. This sounds good. Yes, the principal has gone up by the amount that I haven’t paid, and by the penalties, and that seems appropriate. But the interest rate will possibly be down to 2% for a few years, and then take more years to ramp back up to an index based on a Fed rate. It may take a decade before it returns to what I signed up for when I bought this house over seven years ago.

Home For Sale

Small house for sale

The details that are less likely to become a news story involve months of uncertainty. The payment I just made is the first of three, or four, trial payments. If the mortgage servicer decides I made the payments in an appropriate fashion, they may, may, decide to offer me a modified mortgage that will probably, but not necessarily, be approximately the trial payment. Evidently I’ll know they approve of my actions when I receive a FedEx package of refinance paperwork. If they approve what I return to them, then they may offer the modified mortgage, or not. If they make the offer, I’ve been cautioned that I should continue to be extra-vigilant for months as if I am on an unspoken probationary period. I am potentially more than half a year from stepping past this process.

Well, that’s easy, right?

Welcome to my slapstick afternoon.

I am a nomad. My office can be anywhere because most of my work is online. But, since last May I’ve worked in a co-working space in downtown Langley. Langley is nice place to work. My workspace, the post office, the library, and the bank are all within view of each other.

Click for our Langley video

Click for our Langley video

Small towns are great that way. They are actually efficient places to work, as long as the money comes from somewhere else. Langley is also quaint, which I mention for two reasons: 1) because a friend hates that description, and 2) because lately it has been far from quaint. The street in Langley that leads to all of those places is a major re-construction site. (But hey, they’re working towards an impressive goal.)

We don’t have “Don’t Cross” signs because some things are obvious. On most days, a dozen heavy earthmovers can be quickly driving up and down the street – er – arena of dirt, mud, gravel, dust, and ditches. Simply crossing the street requires good shoes, alert senses, and nimble steps. Simply running errands isn’t simple. DSCN4972
Sending in a check isn’t simple, either. I was strongly advised to make it a cashier’s check for the exact amount, get copies of everything, and then mail it by Certified Mail with a Return receipt. Okay. Bank, cashier’s check. Library, printer. Post Office, trusted mail. Except that I got to work, collected everything I needed, and realized I left the number at home. I didn’t know what to make the check out for. Rummage. Quickly contact my official counselor. Wait for a reply. And then wander out to the parking lot where one scrap of paper happened to have the right amount written, which was confirmed when I got back to the office and saw the email reply. Catch breath. Drop in on the Post Office to check on the advice I was given, and make sure I was going to do things right. Scurry to the library to print a cover letter. Go farther to the bank. Proclaim my ignorance of cashiers checks and such. And realize I brought the wrong checkbook. Wind my way back to the office. Sidle past the caution tape and the ditch. Find the checkbook. Kick myself in the butt. Try again. And succeed. At kicking myself in the butt. And then rerun the errands. It only took about two hours. I needed to take a break after that, and luckily Langley has lots of places for good tea and such.

Better organized people have fewer problems. Maybe. At least if we ever make this into a movie there’ll be plenty of material for comic relief.

Despite the doubts and cautions, my situation is improving. I know that’s not the case for others. While the news talks about fewer foreclosures, I can see an empty foreclosed house from my backyard. I am relieved to still be in my house, even with my dammed plans. Their house has a blue tarp on the roof. The curtains are pulled back to reveal the sad sight of empty rooms. They left the neighborhood before I ever heard their story. Maybe they just aren’t as open and willing to expose the process as I am. Maybe I’ve been too busy in my own struggle to notice theirs until it was too late.

My house may be mine again. As my business and fortunes improve, the house can be improved too. The trial payment isn’t a mortgage payment, merely a demonstration that sells the idea that I am financially healthy enough to carry a modified mortgage. For me, the trial payment buys me things far more valuable: hopes, dreams, and opportunities.

Sunset nearly due west over Scatchet Head as we approach the Equinox - a Cultus Bay Stonehenge moment

Sunset nearly due west over Scatchet Head as we approach the Equinox – a Cultus Bay Stonehenge moment

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Geron Ouch And Yet

Great ideas rarely run smooth. Geron, a biotech with disruptive ideas that could redefine medicine and health, is probably years from proving itself, except that it suddenly looked like it would, just as suddenly looks like it won’t, and yet no one can predict the future.

How’s your risk tolerance? Mine’s been exercised so much I think I’d qualify for the investor’s Olympics. Few should attempt what I do. I’ve even had doubts myself. The buzzword version of my style is small cap startup LTBH. Want details? I wrote a book about that. Dream. Invest. Live. The short version in words is long term buy and hold in small companies with big ideas that may not be worth much when they start but could be worth incredible amounts when they succeed. Patience and acceptance are required. Research is a good idea too.

This seems to be a critical year for the markets and me. For several years the markets were scared, then timid, then began their confident climb (that may have been fueled by quantitative easing, and marginal managerial relaxation.) Profits are up. Corporate cash is accumulating. Big investors were buying big positions in big companies. The small companies languished for lack of financing and their customers’ adherence to convention. Things are changing.

Geron had some stellar news that almost tripled the stock. It’s new drug looked like it treated blood disorders and possibly even returned damaged bone marrow back to health in some cases. Then, the FDA gave them a call, a verbal communication, to place a hold on Geron’s clinical trials. The livers of some patients were experiencing abnormalities that might be chronic if exposed to the drug for a long time. “Verbal”, “some”, “abnormalities”, “might be”, “if” are the cautionary words being used that could soften a harsher truth or could be an overreaction from an overly-cautious regulatory agency dealing with technologies that are revolutionary. Dendreon has similar clinical and corporate upsets during its tests of disruptive (though eventually clinically successful) technology. Geron’s stock dropped 60%.

Those quick with math will already know what I’m about to show. GERN tripled, up over 200%, then dropped just as much by falling about 60%. At the end of June 2013, GERN’s market cap was $196,000,000. With the autumn news it jumped to close 2013 at $611,000,000. Last week it dropped back to $236,000,000. Yes. After GERN’s bad news, the stock is up 20% in less than a year. Rather than try to read anything into the specific numbers and percentages, I take the action as proof that the market’s error band is enormous. Especially with startups there is rarely a consensus of a stock’s value – despite strong declarative statements. Check around. There will always be an opposing, yet equally confident opinion.

Because this is such a critical year for the economy, my stocks, and me I decided to add a quarterly review to my semi-annual reviews. (Some of the data I’ve referred to can be found in my mid-2013 and end-2013 reports.) The news from GERN, MVIS, AMSC, and RSOL convinced me to do a quick check.

  • AMSC (market cap was $0.106B is $0.142B) up 34%
  • GERN (market cap was $0.611B is $0.236B) down 61%
  • GIG (market cap was $0.033B is $0.038B) up 15%
  • MVIS (market cap was $0.042B is $0.075B) up 79%
  • RSOL (market cap was $0.110B is $0.1151B) up 37%

Even with a “down 61%” a portfolio can do well with so many other large “ups”.

  • AMSC had good news about its court case in China, which is far from resolved, and if resolved in AMSC’s favor could be a very good catalyst.
  • GERN had bad news, which may just be cautions that are eventually outweighed by impressive positives.
  • GIG really had nothing to report – except that their disruptive technology may be pushed to even more impressive levels.
  • MVIS had – something – to report. And while there is great debate about what they actually said, the optimistic picture continues to be very optimistic.
  • RSOL even changed their trading symbol to RGSE as they became a player in the solar energy industry consolidation, which is also an expanding market.

None of my stocks have released the key story that propels them to my valuations (present value of future revenues discounted for risk), and yet they’ve seen impressive increases. We’re still a far way from my second semi-retirement, but it is closer.

My portfolio has been in a rough phase. GERN just hit a rough phase. My dreams of relaxed and easy retirement hit a rough phase. And yet -

How about you? Could you handle the occasional very rough “Ouch”? Listen to your answer to that. You may have just told yourself something about how you do or do not want to invest.

Ouch. Ah, it’ll get better.

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