MicroVision And CES2017

Usually, when I want to hear about MicroVision’s activities at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (also known as MVIS at CES), I check in on PetersMVISblog. He has great access, an understanding of the history, and enthusiasm for the company, its technology, and its stock. I was disappointed that he couldn’t attend it this year. Official news is nice, but it must be careful, circumspect, and familiar. The customers get to make the big announcements. Personal stories can tell a better, more open, tale. I sat back to wait for insights from other shareholders who visit. They may not blog, but I hoped they’d post on the various stock discussion boards. Independent investors can access such simple and valuable resources.

Partway through the event I got an email from a different friend. They were visiting CES for other reasons, knew I am interested in the newest trends and technologies, and wondered if I could suggest any companies they could visit. Visit? YES! Oh, pardon me. Yes. How about MicroVision? They didn’t have a booth, but they did have a suite. They probably wouldn’t be unveiling anything dramatic – but maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was too familiar with their story and what looked like old news to me would look dramatic to them. See what you can find, and if you can’t even get in the door, that’s okay, too. I understand.

Surprise, here’s a report on MicroVision at CES from a person who has heard of the company, has an independent point of view because they aren’t a shareholder, and knows how to write. Name withheld upon request.

On 1/5/17 I went to the MicroVision suites at the CES show in Las Vegas, hoping to gather some useful information as to what the company is up to and upcoming plans.

I met a receptionist who was quite amiable, but she apologized that all of the key MicroVision personnel were in meetings with clients. To me it seemed odd that MicroVision was paying for 3 different suites on two floors of the Westgate Hotel, and yet everyone was meeting clients elsewhere. But that is just me. She advised if I returned on Friday 1/6 at 10 am I might be able to meet briefly with someone.

So, I returned on Friday 1/6 at 10 am and she was quite apologetic. There were indeed people meeting in the adjacent suite, but no one had any free time at that time. I told her “thank you” and walked out into the hallway preparing to depart to the elevator. I was about to leave when I noticed three men in the hallway about 15 feet away from me. I heard introductions and caught the name of Alex Tokman, CEO of MicroVision, as one of the men in the hallway. I decided to try a creative tactic of simply lingering nearby in the hallway until someone noticed, then to see if I got an opportunity to gather information.

Soon, Alex noticed my presence and the other two men were clearly a bit irritated as it was obvious I was not an invited guest nor one of the clients (as they were). I apologized and just told Alex I was there on behalf of a business colleague who had significant stock in MicroVision but who had not been able to attend the show (Tom Trimbath). Alex was amazingly amenable. He suggested that if I went into their suite down the hall that someone might be able to meet with me in a few minutes (there was a meeting in progress across the hall from the suite he sent me to). I told him, “thank you” and went into the suite to wait a bit.

In that suite, I was met by a different receptionist whose job was clearly that of gatekeeper. She knew I was not on the schedule, nor an invited guest, she said everyone was “quite busy” (true statement) and that she needed to keep Alex ‘on track’ in terms of his appointments. By this point, we were out in the hall again. Alex saw that she was about to show me the door and he came to my rescue. He walked over to me and said he could spare me a few minutes for a brief show and tell in the suite. The gatekeeper clearly did not like this turn of events.

On the table in the suite MicroVision had a collection of their products, as well as a RoBoHoN from Sharp. I believe one of the items was the new small form PSE-0403-101 or -102 that MicroVision is promoting will roll out in the second quarter of 2017.

He mentioned the RoBoHoN, then took a few minutes and showed me a cool demo of the PicoBit projector on a nearby wall. The resolution was amazing and the colors were bright. He had a trailer from the new Ghostbusters loaded on the PicoBit. Even on a beige wall from 3 or 4 feet away, the projection was quite good. He explained that these were not ‘optimum’ conditions – a dark screen is much better. I mentioned to him the fact the unit tends to get quite warm after a few minutes of use and asked him if there had been any complaints or problems with that. He said “no” that it wasn’t a problem at all.

I thanked him profusely for his time, gave him my name and business card and told him I was there on behalf of Tom Trimbath. I gathered product flyers on PSE-0400Li-1xx, PSE-0403sti-101 and PSE-0403-102 and left.

It was quite nice of him to take about 10 minutes away from active meetings he had with actual clients to do a show and tell for me.

It is easy to miss the value in such simple encounters; especially with such quiet companies as MicroVision that are at such critical times in their development. Here was an example of management’s willingness to engage at least informally, a suggestion of customer interest, and an independent assessment of the product. The entire event may have only taken a few minutes, but that’s more time than most analysts have spent on the company, and is about the time that most customers will spend while shopping for a product. It is also an example of how independent investors with the right time and money and manners could learn about companies that seem abstract and distant.

This confirms for me that the company is making about the level of progress that I expected (though not as much as I hoped last year). Not so much that they had a booth on the floor with a line waiting to see a new product. Not so little that the suites were quiet and empty. I won’t buy or sell on the insights, but I will give management good marks for being in the right place at the right time. Detailed financial reports, announcements of sales and revenues, as usual, those will come later – and hopefully soon.

Thanks again to an intrepid entrepreneur.

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Virtual Reality On Whidbey

As if Whidbey’s reality isn’t virtual enough, virtual reality has come to Whidbey. Virtual reality rigs are slowly making their way into homes, offices, and classrooms; but sometimes it takes a champion (who wouldn’t give themself such a label) to make a new idea available to everyone, not just early adopters and uber-geeks. For the last several months, I’ve been informally and casually working with Ethan Bishop (in other words, we kicked around a lot of ideas when we had the time), someone who understands this new world, understands its software, its hardware, and what’s coming next. In a classic case of great ideas trying to find enough money, or least an opportunity, to turn thoughts into actions, Ethan’s managed to create a uncommon experience in a place as uncommon as Whidbey. We’re both wondering where his new initiative will lead him. From what I’ve seen, this is a moment that reminds me of the introduction of the Macintosh, and the moment when America Online opened itself to the Internet. I wonder what it will me for me, too.

Trying to explain virtual reality is like trying to explain the personal computer when everyone thought a computer had to be the size of a room and dedicated to scientists. Personal computers seem obvious now. They didn’t thirty years ago. Any yet, a bit of patience then and now means many people will become familiar with the experience very soon. The concept is potentially that pervasive.

I’ll skip the long list of examples and stick to one that I’ve mentioned before. Imagine a blending of the virtual world called Second life and the social media world of Facebook. Now, you log in to see little icons of your friends, read a few words from some, see a photo or an album from someone else, and check out their very polite and never political posts. It can still seem silly, and yet billions use it. Welcome to a larger community that can simultaneously be superficial and deep. Facebook is already considering a VR version of the experience. Put your headset on, and see your friends (or at least their avatars), talk to them, dance, play games, go places. Be in a place with them, and instead of being a spectator, stand in a panoramic view and point out things together.

I get ahead of myself. But, that’s also what I do. I watch trends, see which ones can run the farthest, and hopefully benefit from the knowledge and insight. With the Mac and AOL, I was able to do that by buying stock. (Want details? I wrote a book about that, and more. Dream. Invest. Live.Dream Invest Live cover) This time, I’m not sure how to engage with the momentum.

If you get the chance to try out any VR rig, go for it. Keep in mind though that many of them are like the first computer screens, low resolution and a bit jittery. Keep in mind that many of them are like dialing into the Internet for the first time, odd protocols, slow connections, and bizarre interruptions. Google Cardboard is a good intro, so are the units from Oculus (Facebook bought them). Ethan’s rig is a Vive system good enough for him to use it for games, but also for designing parts that he then prints in 3-D.

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We tried a variety of venues where we (largely he) could set up his rig and demonstrate it. The goal wasn’t exclusively altruistic. This is an opportunity to provide a benefit in return for compensation. The industry is so new that an obvious business model has yet to emerge. Some of our venues may succeed, or not. In the meantime, Ethan independently arranged to create an arcade in a very retro and very cool pinball arcade. (Dozens of original pinball machines carefully renovated by Tim Leonard and lit up in an arcade two block from “downtown” Langley, are worth a visit on their own.) It’s a good match, it made the front page of the local paper, and I was glad to see it and get a chance to visit.

People may line up for games. I watched a kid have a blast simply throwing a virtual stick to a virtual dog on top of a very realistic local mountain. No need for anything more exotic than that. When I tried that experience a few months ago my brain knew I was in a room, but my senses convinced me I could fall a long way.

Watch an artist get the chance to paint in 3-D, and to walk inside the artwork, then scale it down to the size of jewelry.

For me, I want to use it for design, invention, and would thoroughly enjoy wading through datasets and computer visualizations of physical phenomena.

When I first used a Mac I knew it would succeed, and that I had to have one. When AOL finally added a button for the World Wide Web, I remember telling someone in the room that this will be as big as AT&T. I had the same reaction this time.

And yet, I haven’t gone into debt so I could buy stock in the various companies. The Mac had no real competitor. The sea of PCs that swirled around it made more money, for a while, but picking a winner was difficult. AOL stood alone and was a simpler choice, but it went through years of unprofitability before succeeding as a stock and a company. I don’t know if Vive will be the ultimate victor, and suspect the industry has yet to find the key hardware, software, and marketing that will succeed. Wireless is an obvious upgrade. Resolution and response times will improve, and are almost good enough, but not quite. Hand controllers (because there are no keyboards) continue to evolve. I suspect a major benefit will be a headset that can be made opaque, translucent, or transparent with a switch. (I think MicroVision has great potential here, but then I think that about them in many industries and applications.)

This is VR’s training phase. Computers and the internet both went through phases when early adopters were paid to help others adopt and adapt to the new technologies. Ethan’s already doing that. (He also builds and sells rigs for others.) I look forward to helping. Yet again, technology creates a Wild West frontier where there are lots of opportunities, a great uncertainty about the rules, and a lot of pioneers who may get lost along the trail.

My frugal self looks forward to this because of the opportunities for creating things in 3-D and then printing them. The part of me that is passionate about people and ideas looks forward to learning about the technology and introducing others to it. The investor in me is watching for the companies that have stock that are engaged in the trend, not just watching and wondering about it.

If you get the chance to drop in on Tim Leonard’s Machine Shop (630 Second Street, Langley, WA 98260), check to see if Ethan and his equipment are there. It’s worth the trip. If Ethan isn’t there, bring a bunch of quarters. The rest of the arcade is awesome. Of course, I’m assuming they still take quarters. I had a pocketful but had so much fun talking to Ethan and using his rig that I never got around to playing pinball.

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Good News No Time

Well, the amount of time is always the same, despite what time traveling sci-fantasy shows show. But, this is just a quick post to pass along that 2017 has started off very busy. That’s very good, except for the pain in my wrist and in my – well. No need for those details.

The situation may be temporary, which is always because permanence is an illusion. When twelve hour days follow each other for a variety of reasons, the chaos can be unsettling; but I’ll put that in perspective. For the last several years, the workload has been similar, but much of it has been – entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs know how much work goes unpaid in the hope that compensation will eventually follow. Between the mad, barely paid scramble and the seemingly mythical sustainable occupation, there exists the swirl of energies that must be ridden even if there’s no apparent direction to the underlying current.

Several years ago, twelve hour days were common, but only two or three hours were billable. This year is starting off with twelve hour days, but four or five hours are billable – for now. It is hard to know if this is a surge that will fade, or the precursor to more stable and more than sufficient pay. There are tantalizing possibilities, few of which I can mention because they are so ephemeral.

So pardon any lapse in a more descriptive discourse on this chronicle of an American who has gone from middle class to millionaire to muddling by to somewhat manically working towards something. One measure of how busy I am is that I turned down an invitation to go dancing. Shocking, I know.

Some news that will eventually be relayed:

  • my experiences re-entering the conventional American healthcare system
  • news about a history documentary I have been asked to write
  • news about coworks on Whidbey
  • news about virtual reality (and probably 3-D printing)
  • an analysis of charitable contributions in a progressive small town
  • and maybe a guest blog post about MicroVision at CES from a friend who was able to attend. Maybe. Hey. It’s not like I’m paying anyone to do that, eh?

Thanks for your understanding. Welcome to the wild weird year that is and will be 2017. Expect the unexpected? Bah. That’s already happened. That was just the start.

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Expense Report – Fuel Costs

Watch my frugal friends wince. I drive a truck. I drive a good old ‘Merican pickup truck with a cap on the back, 4WD, and a tow kit. Surprise. It turns out to be quite frugal. Not as frugal as my friends who bicycle almost everywhere, but I can confidently state that my fuel mileage is better than most Americans. My truck’s fuel mileage isn’t very good. But mine is. Frugal can mean many things. Seemingly unfrugal choices can still fit into a frugal lifestyle.

dsc_7168My truck is a 2000 Chevy Silverado. My Dad passed it along to me. Before that I had Jeep (not Grand) Cherokees since 1987. Drive them right and I’d get 28 mpg. (Set it into 4WD on some particularly gnarly roads to trailheads and watch the instantaneous fuel mileage drop to 1 mpg. That was a bit spooky when I had less than a quarter tank left and miles of ruts and gravel to travel. See my hiking books for more stories.) The Silverado weighs more, is larger, is equipped for a contractor, and unsurprisingly gets much worse mileage. Unfortunately, I’ve been so busy that I hadn’t taken the time to work through the exact numbers – until now.

Let’s skip the suspense and dive into useful data.

dsc_7180After looking at a year of data, I now know that the truck gets 15.6 mpg. I suspect that’s more like 18 mpg on the highway, but that’s not much consolation. Flip that number into something more useful for frugal folk and it works out to $0.18 per mile. The local theater is ten miles away, so going out to a movie costs $3.60. Good thing the local theater only charges $7 for the movie and $1 for the small popcorn. It’s good to live in a small town. Beware of spoilers from your friends in the big city. The cost of gas is one reason I turn down lunches. “Meet me for lunch. I’ll pay.” Sounds great, but I’m still trying to pay previous taxes, haven’t found enough to save for this year’s taxes, and know I can make lunch at home for less than the cost of gas. Even the time spent in travel costs because it isn’t billable, as even the least profitable of my jobs are.

Sounds like a good reason to ride the bicycle, which I do whenever I have the time, don’t have to also carry my computer, and can arrive a bit perspired. (Looking forward to a coworks where I can store a computer and a change of clothes. It could happen, again.)

With those numbers and that situation, it doesn’t look good for the truck.

The truck isn’t very frugal (though it is very useful.)

Let’s take those same numbers and look at them a different way.

Miles driven in a year = 3,922. Gallons of gas burned and turned into work, heat, and pollution = 289. Total cost of fuel in a year = $783.
Or
Miles driven per month = 327. I know people who drive that in two or three days.
Gallons of gas per month = 24. That’s less that one tankful, but then, this truck has a big tank. At least I only have to go to the pump about once per month.
Cost per month = $64. That’s still about $2 per day, but that’s less than some people spend on one meal.

I’m more frugal than the truck.

I’m not trying to fly a banner, sound the trumpets, or build a pedestal. I have several friends who ride farther and get much more done on their bicycles, have to remember to trickle charge their hybrids because they’re driven so rarely, and have mastered mass transit. They’re the ones that deserve the accolades.

My fuel costs are low without being extreme. I don’t drive much, but I wouldn’t drive much more if my finances were much better, except for more frequent trips into the mountains. My situation has encouraged greater frugality, but I present it here as an example of another approach to frugality. I doubt that I could trade the truck for something more reliable and just as capable, even another truck. The truck isn’t the issue. How the truck is used, is.

Frugality isn’t about using less. Frugality is about making the best use of the resources available. Make your things fit your lifestyle. Live your life, not the lifestyle of your things.

That’s a generalization, of course. Sorry to dilute the message there, but reality is important. Part of the reason I live the way I do is because of my house, my computers, my clothes, and of course my truck. We aren’t totally independent. It is more important for me to realize that, while my truck isn’t frugal, I can be.

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Popular Posts 2016

Writing is an interesting exercise. Writing about personal finance is particularly interesting to me because I treat finance as something personal, emotions included. And yet, deciding what to write is always a guess. What will people care about? I tend to write about what I think fits the purpose of this blog, but readers decide which topics are most important to readers. I am a fan of data, so here they are, the posts you decided were the most popular in 2016. Apologies to December posts that don’t get the advantage of January’s head start; but it all works out in the end because the most popular posts draw traffic for years.

  1. MicroVision Before And After
  2. Will Zillow Make Me Move
  3. One Confused Obamacare Applicant
  4. Spreading News – MVIS And CES2016
  5. MicroVision Today The World Someday
  6. Sad MVIS Shareholders
  7. Lowered Expectations For MVIS
  8. Transition For Writers On Whidbey
  9. Upscaling Whidbey
  10. Corporations Meet Owners MVIS 2016

See a trend? Of the top 10, 6 are about MicroVision and its stock, MVIS. This is for a company that has fewer shareholders and employees than any of the zip codes on Whidbey Island. Housing, healthcare, and two posts about Whidbey are the remainder – all topics that I’ve written about other times.

Writers, take note. This is one of the powers of blogging, actual measurements about what your audience responds to. The next seven posts were all about stocks, mostly MVIS. That’s surprising considering the price is so low that it won’t buy a cup of tea at my local non-profit coffeeshop.

My emphasis for this blog has been to create a chronicle of the realities of personal finance, not just the math, but the emotions, implications, consequences, and imperfections that are inevitable in something as personal as financing a life.

I’m not done, and see no reason to stop. I won’t be so mercenary as to only write about what the readers want because I’m telling a longer story here of which MVIS, housing, health, and writing are simply temporary story arcs.

Tell me what you are interested in because I may be overlooking something we both care about. You may notice that I don’t get into politics (though I can’t ignore my perspective). For some “news for people who are eager and anxious about the future” on a planetary scale, check out my other main blog: PretendingNotToPanic.com (which even has its own merchandise.)

In the meantime, stay tuned; and thanks for reading.

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Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2016

Why rewrite an intro that is as true now as it was six months ago, which implies a lack of progress. So it goes. So it went.

If it’s in italics, it’s a copy and paste from June 30th, and maybe prior to that. Stagnation on the surface while great actions take place in the chaos below.

Welcome to my semi-annual portfolio review, a bit of due diligence that is easier when the portfolio is growing, and an exercise in openly assessing the situation when the stocks are sinking. Personal finance is easy when everything works. The last few years have been the test of the personal side of personal finance; looking at an unpleasant situation, but looking at it objectively. Just like it is easy to ignore the fundamentals when stocks are rising, it’s important to pay attention to the fundamentals when stocks are sinking. Fundamentally, the majority of the companies I am invested in are improving. Quantitatively, their stocks aren’t. Trusting fundamentals isn’t easy when there’s a large gap between cause and effect; but, that’s why long term buy and hold emphasizes the holding for a long term.

AMSC

Superconductors are cool. Pun somewhat intended. Increasing the efficiency of our existing electrical power infrastructure would seem like an enormous market. The company might – might – be about to become profitable, but they have yet to breakthrough with a significant success. Too many remember the fiasco with the customer/competitor in China. So, the stock is down about 11%, there was no news except for one $5M order; but certainly profitability will make a difference. Right?

AST (Asterias)

They haven’t enabled a paralyzed person to walk again, but one patient did make the news by regaining upper body functionality. One good video clip can be more powerful than reams of data, which may be why the stock almost doubled in six months. The questions are, will it happen to more than one patient, and will the FDA make the approval process easier out of compassion or harder out of conservatism.

GERN (Geron)

By now Geron should have a success. They’ve been working on innovative biotech for years, but have had to sell off technologies because nothing has succeeded (until it departs the company, see AST). If they succeed at controlling cell death they can fight cancer and auto-immune diseases with the same technology. That’s powerful. But they haven’t. That’s why they’re down 20%.

GIG (GigPeak)

Imagine that, a tiny company that helps enable the high speed internet, video streaming, and cloud services is becoming profitable. They’re “only” up 28% in six months. Depending on the competition (as is true of every company), they could excel. Re-retirement would be nice.

MVIS (MicroVision)

Really, this time is different. Within the next 6 to 9 months, MicroVision will finally breakout and become a public success story. (Did your sarcasm monitor detect something there?) Really, this is different. Insiders are buying stock. Management has released (very loose but very positive) revenue guidance. Products are being sold. And yet, the lack of confidence and credibility means dilution and a stock price that’s down 29% in six months. Ah, but regular readers know, if MVIS succeeds, you’ll be able to read about it here (assuming I haven’t had to sell or something weird happens.)

RGSE (Real Goods Solar)

Proof that great ideas in great markets can manage to somehow crater. Real Goods Solar somehow has managed to go down 94% in 6 months. I’m sure my research will finally uncover why now that it is too late. I’d sell if the stock was outside my IRA because there would be benefits from the tax losses. Inside my IRA, they’re just losses.

TOTAL

All it all up and my decreasingly diverse portfolio is only down 10%, while the market hits records. Sigh, and yet, that’s why diversification is important. The ups can counter the downs; and while the downs are limited to only going down 100%, the ups can no such limit. The consequence of the last six months of investing are similar to the previous reports. I continue to work seven days a week and haven’t found a stable way to pay all of my bills. Ah, but 2017 will be different, so I’ve been led to understand.

 

Sadly, the following conclusion is a also copy and paste from the previous semi-annual exercise, and has echoes of the same from the last few years. Ah, but persistence pays. Right? Right?
The likelihood of my portfolio doing well has improved. My positions haven’t changed much, and my portfolio continues to hold enough potential to allow me to re-retire, or at least to begin transitioning to something less than a seven day a week work schedule. That’s been the case for years. Patience and a Long Term Buy and Hold strategy remain that classic conundrum of doing the same thing and expecting something different (a delusion) or proving the value of perseverance. Some time between now and the next semi-annual portfolio review, I should know better. In any case, stay tuned as the story continues.
And, the story continues, and continues, and – well – patience is inherent in long term investing, though patience can be quite inconvenient when paying bills is involved.

For the details of my investments, I post the semi-annual review of each of my stocks on various discussion boards. I could post the entire collection here, but 1) it would be very long, 2) the more public the conversation the more valuable it becomes, and 3) reading my posts on those boards introduces you to individuals who have different perspectives, strategies, and experiences. Collectively, those communities are more powerful than large financial institutions because the motivations and incentives are those of similar individual investors rather than that of profit-minded corporations.

Here are the links to the discussion boards I use. Feel free to comment here or there, and to pass along links to others. The bigger the discussion, the better the chance of valuable insights (as long as the trolls and flamers are moderated appropriately.)

Investor Village
AMSC
AST
GERN
GIG
MVIS
RGSE

The Motley Fool
AMSC
GERN
MVIS
RGSE
Economy and Markets

Silicon Investor
AMSC
GERN
GIG
MVIS

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Frugal Christmas 2016

I hope one of my island friends doesn’t mind me passing along their moment of holiday glory. All their presents are made; and now it’s time to wrap and deliver! Subtle and significant shifts happen with one word. ‘All their presents were made’, not ‘All their presents were bought’. Whether by choice or necessity, it is fun knowing people who make rather than buy. Christmas really can be a surprise, that way. Yet, that’s not the only way for Christmas to be sincere.

That simple comment popped a revelation into my brain. I can’t recall the last time I visited a mall. Decades ago, I hung out at malls. Weren’t we all supposed to? I didn’t buy much, shopped a lot, people watched even more. Around Christmas, though, I’d wade in with my lists and shipping deadlines. Local friends, family on the opposite coast, a few things for me, the shopping marathon went on for weeks. When my career was doing well and there was plenty of discretionary income, I could easily spend over a thousand dollars on gifts that were best guesses. I suspected they’d fall short, but after a while I realized that the acts of making the list and buying the gifts were an exercise in empathy. At least once a year, I’d concentrate on what I knew about their lives, needs, and desires and try to buy something they’d enjoy. I probably got more out of it than they did, and they never knew.

As kids got older, families dispersed, and friends accumulated more than enough, my trips to the mall became exercises in investing. I’d shop and buy; but I was more likely to notice which and how many bags were being carried, which stores were visited too quickly, and where people hung out when they needed a break. Trips like that were one of the reasons I was happy to own Starbucks stock, even though I am a tea drinker. (For more on that story, check out my book, Dream Invest Live coverDream. Invest. Live.) Pixar was another benefit, before they were bought by Disney. At home, I started making my Mom’s Christmas cookies, partly for nostalgia, eventually as gifts to family as she could do less.

After I moved to the island the mall lost its appeal. Driving to the mall meant about twenty dollars spent on the ferry fee and gas, just for the privilege of jockeying for parking and diving back into ‘Merika, a different culture that I once was a part of. Instead, I shopped in Langley, a tourist town that would almost fit in Alderwood Mall. Art galleries, boutique shops, and some thrifty stores were more fun and a lot less crowded. In the time it could take to find parking on the mainland I could drive to Clinton or Freeland for less touristy establishments. And, I always made sure I dropped in on the galleries, wine, and cheese shop at Greenbank Farm. Hang out with friends, watch money go directly to good and appreciative artists – why go anywhere else?

I’m not as good as my artistic friends at making things, unless it’s food. Some years, the ingredients would cost over two hundred dollars; but it was fun – as long as there was enough time. Part of the cost of making something is spending the time to make it. Cookies and fruitcake (on demand, believe it or not) were baked and delivered. As I started writing books and selling photos, it seemed odd to include those, as if I was turning the gift into a marketing gimmick; but a few folks were sincerely interested and I was happy to provide.

dsc_7149The passage of the last of my parents plus the financial constraints I live within mean I don’t even make it into the shops of Langley, unless I’m buying lunch or tea. The season can be just as busy with cards, decorations, some socializing, and a bit of baking. My tree shopping has been replaced with helping people with vacant lots get rid of weed trees that just happen to be the right type and shape. I do get some interesting looks from the neighbors, though. My every prolific rosemary hedge gets whacked back to reveal my driveway yet again, and the trimmings become trimmings: wreaths and garland. I did visit one store, Dandelion Botanical, but did that online. Foodies do appreciate good herbs and spices. And I do finally feel more comfortable giving away my art, usually as cards from my photo galleries.

With all of this emphasis on making, I still enjoy whatever gifts I’m offered. I have thoughtful friends and family and whether it was made or bought isn’t as important as the thought. (The nostalgic deli package from Pittsburgh will probably be opened before Christmas morning, though.)

I regularly write about mansions for Curbed.com. They’re filled with fine art, exquisite furniture, huge closets and pantries, and of course are incredibly decorated for the season – if their agent allows them. I wonder about the sellers, though. They could gift budgets hundreds of times greater than my most expensive Christmas, which would be amazing to witness. A brand new car in the driveway would certainly amaze me, but I wonder if in the midst of such opulence whether they’d be derided for only giving a few things they made: a bottle of vanilla for a cook, a story about one chapter in their life, an ornament made from a found object that was then personalized.

People I know who have less to give, can give with a sincerity that may be unavailable to people living lives of ever increasing expectations.

A neighbor brought me a bottle of wine, and thanks for being a good neighbor. (Wow! I just checked. It’s a bottle of champagne. Nice.) A friend found some storage bottles in a thrift shop and a dusty decanter, which will make it easier to store some of my culinary creations. They are like the gifts I remember the most, nothing extravagant, but something sincere. Imagine what it would be like if, instead of a price tag, each gift was tagged with how much it would be appreciated.

Whatever holiday you celebrate (and congratulations to those who’ve figured out how to celebrate everyone’s holidays), I hope you give and get those sincere moments whether the gifts were bought, made, or were simply shared compliments.

(Great, writing this makes me wonder about making a chipped ham sandwich with BBQ sauce late on Christmas Eve Eve. Great stuff, and you’d be amazed at the shipping logistics required. Wow!)

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Health Insurance Confusion 2016

photo-on-2016-12-20-at-18-53A toast, to paying for something I don’t quite understand yet is in my second highest expense category: health insurance. Yet again, I’m enrolled. It only took hours and days of effort to pay for something I haven’t been able to use for years, and only rarely before that.

A bit of repetition: I have health insurance. That does not mean I afford conventional health care.

I’ve always had health insurance, first through my parents, then through college, then from Boeing and spousal coverage, then from monthly premiums that seemed reasonable at the time. Until my Triple Whammy, my perfect storm of bad luck, I enjoyed, yes enjoyed, going to the doctor because I appreciated the value of good health and the efficiency of preventive care. Since my bad luck hit I haven’t been in a “western” doctor’s office, have even developed an anxiety reaction to the concept, and have relied on “unconventional” medicine, and my best attempt at healthy eating, exercise, and general lifestyle. Working seven days a week has made me miss my goals, but I suspect the lapse is temporary. So I keep telling myself.

If you’re having trouble sorting out health insurance options, you aren’t alone. I’ll skip the suspense. I have health insurance. It’s probably similar to what I had before (One Confused ObamaCare Applicant), except more expensive. No surprise there, and the lack of surprise is a sad statement. What I can chronicle is the time and effort required to keep what I had, health insurance that has helped society by contributing my share, but that hasn’t and possibly can’t help me – at least until I am richer.

Over the last few months the emails and letters have arrived telling me to make sure I sign up. About a month ago, my financial situation was looking dire enough that I realized I might not be able to afford health insurance. Finding enough money for insurance, taxes, and other bills was more important than any particular package. My life is evidently remarkably frugal because many people have remarked on how frugal my life is. All of my other non-insurance bills provided some direct benefit: housing, food, heat, water, etc. Insurance is an expense greater than everything except housing and taxes.

Without insurance on the house, I’d probably lose the house. Without insurance on the car, I couldn’t legally drive making work difficult at least. Without health insurance, I’d, well, I’d, well, I wasn’t going to the doctor anyway, so what difference would it make? From what I understand, with Obamacare visiting the doctor is far more affordable. As long as I was healthy and only had to pay for the visit, the visit would be affordable. If I wasn’t healthy, then the insurance would kick in – after the deductible, and if they approved the expenses. The last time I relied on doctors, the diagnostic tests alone totaled over $7,000. Treatment for whatever would be additional. For a while, that was enough to bankrupt me if the insurer decided not to cover the tests.

Walking Thinking Drinking Across ScotlandThe story of how I reacted became a walk across Scotland and yet another book, Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland. It looked like most of my symptoms were stress-related. Walking, thinking, and drinking my way across Scotland cost half of the potential diagnostics bill. I’m glad I did it. Since then, however, the stress level in life has gone up.

Several bits of good news have hinted at making 2017 a much nicer year, so I decided to at least continue my insurance. Maybe I’d actually make enough to do more than pay the premiums.

I sifted through the various communiques, found a few that suggested contacting my insurer, and decided to give them a call. But first, more mail arrived. It was a bill for the old amount and mentioned 2017. Great! The same old plan, continued into a new year, and maybe I could skip the paperwork and online maze that I feared. I paid the bill and relaxed.

Why not give them a call, just to make sure? With a day to go before the deadline, I placed the call that should be a quick confirmation. One hour of being on hold was bad. Every thirty seconds they’d spend about ten seconds telling me that my call was important. Those thirty seconds were thirty seconds of the same harpsichord music repeated – forty seconds of both repeated for an hour. So much for my mental health.

I live tweeted my frustration. Surprise! I got a response. They offered to have someone call me directly. Such service! It was already late because I work from about 8am to 8pm, which meant it was almost 10pm. I suggested they call after 4:30pm the next day.

The next afternoon, maneuver my schedule so I can be somewhere convenient for the call. Wait. Wait. Wait. Over an hour later I had to leave, let some folks close their shop, while I headed for a dinner engagement. The call finally came in at 5:45pm, while I was outside in mid-twenty degree weather. They got points for calling back, but lost a few for timing. The good news, the deadline was extended to December 23rd. I tried calling later that evening, but again couldn’t get past Hold.

Work until after 8pm several more evenings.

Oops. I went to try again, this time in the middle of the day. Before the call I sorted through those months of mailings and found that I’d missed a payment. Now I had two things to resolve, or was it three, or more? After yet another hour of Hold, begin to wonder if the Customer Service number was really out of service. At least the harpsichord music was gone.

The next day, pick up the mail and find my New Card! as if nothing was wrong. Maybe I did something right and didn’t know it. Hey, it happens. Try to call again, this time before dinner. Only thirty minutes on Hold and I’m caught by surprise. Someone answered. It took me a minute or so to remember my string of questions.

It turns out that they thought everything was fine and all I had to do was pay my new premium (~15% increase) by the end of December. Evidently, I paid the bill at the old rate so early in December that they took it as the November payment. No fines. No fees. While I had Customer Service providing a service, I asked about cheaper coverage options, but nothing made much of a difference. All I had to do was go to my online bill pay system and pay the bill. Which I did, and I hope I did it right, or did it wrong in a good way – which seems to happen.

The cost of trying to figure out how to give my health insurance company money for benefits I may never be able to comfortably use was three and a half hours on hold, and one week of calendar time as the holidays approach – time that could’ve been used for making the money to pay the bill, finding better employment, or maybe even baking for the holidays.

At this point, I have lost track of my deductible, restrictions, and possible benefits because the only number that is important is the premium I pay.

At this point, I also realize that the people I should talk to aren’t Customer Service, or Washington Health Planfinder, or doctors in their network, but the people in my network of friends.

Many of my friends have lived through expensive medical conditions. The vagaries of descriptions of health care options aren’t as valuable as the real life experiences of people who have had to rely on health insurance to access health care. So I ask you, if you’ve experienced relying on health insurance while barely being able to afford it, what did you learn about which plan to sign up for? Between the people with more than enough and those with no insurance are the people who face bankruptcy to pay for staying alive. What do you differently now? What do you wish you’d done then?  You’re the experts I want to hear from. Help clear the health insurance and health care confusion.

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Litany Of Optimism

Tonight there’s a full moon. Lately, every day has felt like a full moon, unexpected, uncertain, uncomfortable times as a world redefines itself. That’s what’s been happening in my life for the last several years. I’m getting very practiced at reciting my Litany of Optimism. It helps, but if I used a real rosary, the beads would be worn to grains of sand by now. A litany of ideas doesn’t wear out. My litany works for me. Perhaps one can work for you. Perhaps one can work for all of us.

The world’s been weird enough for the last month that the news media are confused. That  little revolution can be a good thing. I listed some of my optimisms for the world in my Thanksgiving post. I’m making so few assumptions about what’s happening politically and socially that I’ll leave those topics aside for now. I have enough to think about.

Without going into details, some of which are necessarily discreet, three of my largest clients are redefining their projects. The best scenario is an expansion that includes expanding my pay. The most likely scenario is that things don’t change. The worst scenario is that the work moves on. Each of the three has three scenarios. Trying to understand all of the implications and permutations kicks off moments of ease and moments of anxiety. When the anxiety arises, the litany gets recited.

Employment
I’m glad to hear that various aspects of my work is being recognized. Several independent sources have commented on my program management skills, publications, and consultations. Compliments are encouraging. Proper compensation would greatly ease issues. It can all improve with one phone call or email.

Housing
According to Zillow and Redfin, the market value of my house is rising about 12% per year, and is now building equity. Rising real estate creates a buffer than is difficult to use, but 12% applied to hundreds of thousands of dollars is powerful arithmetic; and I have reason to believe it is only just beginning on the island.

Community
Whidbey Island isn’t one community. Neither is South Whidbey. Neither is the southern tip of South Whidbey; but, I’m pleased to see the community building safety nets. In some cases, people fell before the nets were built, and now have to get lifted back above the net, but the trend is encouraging. People are caring about people. I volunteer, and am amazed at the efforts of others. Housing, healthcare, food, and havens are being provided. This is a good place to be.

Stocks
The value of my stocks is flat, but the value of the companies are increasing. Aside from my investment in solar energy (Real Goods, RGSE), each of the companies is making progress. That progress isn’t be recognized by the investment community; but when it is, the recovery can be swift. I’ve seen it in individual stocks before. This is the first time I’ve witnessed so many deflated positions with such potential. There are good reasons for me to look forward to 2017. (I’ll dive into details with my end of year report at the end of the year.)

Health
I got my teeth cleaned today, and they didn’t need to fix anything else. (Thank me for not including a close-up photo of my teeth.) I’m old enough that I always have health concerns (the major one being trying to afford health insurance, and eventually health care). I’ve gained weight because I’ve been working more than working out; but I also feel stronger. (A bit of arithmetic explains it. Adding ten pounds may be bad, but at 30% body fat, that’s still seven pounds of added muscle and bone. Looking forward to bicycling again, but that’s another story.)

Networking
This is a catch-all that includes employment and community, but I must admit that I’m happy to be included in so many conversations about disparate initiatives, projects, new businesses, and various ideas. Land projects, dances, coworks, art projects, welcoming new residents, interviewing old residents – the list continues. To get quantitative about it, my Klout score hangs around 59, and my Facebook connections are about as broad at the CEO’s even though I have far fewer Facebook friends. The ones I have are evidently very well connected. Glad to be part of their networks.

I could dive into minutia, and I do, but that happens inside my head as I walk. My details aren’t as important as yours.

Too many of us are having tough times, whether financially, emotionally, or existentially. The worries can overwhelm. Worries can especially overwhelm if they attract all of the attention. So, deny them. Pay attention to optimism, not just pessimism. The solutions are positive, not negative. Recognize the negative, and then look to the positive to negate the negative.

Feeling dumped on?

Feeling dumped on?

I can’t say that my litany has solved anything, except that it has. Realizing the near reality of optimism is one of the most powerful tools and exercises I have available. We can each build such a tool and use it ourselves.

It’s a full moon tonight. That means a low tide in the dark. It’s cold (freezing, actualy), clear, and relatively calm out there. After I publish this post I intend to walk the tide flats in the dark (and in my boots.) Ironically, in the darkness is when I am most likely to be looking for the brightest thoughts.

A previous full moon. Can't you tell?

A previous full moon. Can’t you tell?

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Frugal Resilience

Have you ever skied over a forest? This is the time for cards with the requisite snow-draped branches, winter scenes as tradition as if everyone lived in the same climate. Let me check. Jerusalem’s forecast is for about 60F/15C. Not exactly winter wonderland. In the mountains around Seattle the storms are arriving and adding up their snow totals. The record for yearly snowfall was set on a spot I can see from Whidbey. Mt. Baker had 95 feet (29 meters) one year. The previous record? That was on another mountain I can see from the island, Mt. Rainier. It snows here. And yet, the forests survive. Their resilience is echoed in my frugal friends’ lives. It is amazing what can be accomplished with persistence and resilience, something frugal folk are very aware of.

Winter Resilience - from Twelve Months at Lake Valhalla
My cards arrived this week. The inspiration for this post is actually from the Christmas cards I had printed from one of my photos: Resilience. The photo comes from my book, valhalla coverTwelve Months at Lake Valhalla, the second in the Twelve Month series set on the border of Washington’s wilderness. For twelve months I visited a lake that sits along the Pacific Crest Trail, or at least I tried to visit. Some months there was just too much snow. Not a surprise considering the lake sits on the ridge that runs between Baker and Rainier. Summer hikes were done in lightweight boots. Winter trips were sometimes a mix of snowshoeing and skiing, each carried on my back while the more appropriate of the two carried me through the woods. Much sweating was involved. I didn’t look elegant.

I never dug down to the tree tops to prove my point, but in that area, some slopes won’t allow an avalanche in the early and late season. Tall conifers lock everything in place. Deep enough into the season though, bushes, then weed trees, then young pines are covered creating unbroken runs for snow slides. The route changed throughout the season as the trail was covered, then as the slide hazard increased, then as the valley snow created questionable and sometimes serviceable avenues. Skip the image of graceful turns and effortless downhill runs. I’m not that good. Bump, flip, crash, repeat. My favorite was the time I was snowshoeing down a snow-covered ravine that was too steep, tight, and bumpy to ski (not an impressive route-finding day), I tripped, flipped, and ended up standing, or at least wobbling, upright. No one was within miles so don’t expect a video.

Spring has its own meaning and timing in the mountains. Elevation means as much as the month. The year I was there, the lake was still frozen in June. The fish spent more time under an ice cap than under blue skies. As the temperature warmed, the depth of the snow became evident. As I skied or snowshoed along, the tops of trees would be revealed. I’m sure that what I traveled across were tall saplings, not ancient residents. Even 95 feet of snow compacts to something less than the tallest trees – maybe only a dozen feet or so. And yet, I was impressed at the seemingly undamaged treetops that were just at boot level. Without drama, as the snows melted, the trees would begin to straighten. As the snowpack accumulated, rather than fight it by standing tall (and catching the strong winds and chilling conditions), they bent, not surrendering, but not fighting either. They turned the snow from a threat into a benefit. Wrapped in white, they were insulated from the worst cold and safe from the winds. As their burial melted, they slowly unfolded.

The strategy may seem bizarre, but every tree in the forest was small enough at one time to necessarily take that approach. And the forest survives and grows.

It is natural to see challenging conditions and challenge them in return. To fight foes. To demonstrate self-worth and pride.

Karate taught me lessons similar to that of the forest, which is interesting to me because Okinawa is not known for its ski resorts. (Though coincidentally, my style’s name roughly translates as Small Pine Forest Karatedo.) Whoever attacks makes themself vulnerable.  Do not move unless it is to your advantage. When you can, rather than fight or flight, be still and breath.

2016 has been a weird year and there’s little reason to believe 2017 will be saner. There is always plenty that we can do. With economic and financial issues, it is easy to amplify the work ethic, exercise every lever in our control, and get out that bloody grindstone. In some cases, that will work, bloody nose and all.

This week has delivered a load of weirdness to my situation. No need to go into details. Some of it requires discretion. Some of it is moot. My emotions have been struggling on deciding whether fight or flight is the better response. It’s Friday. I work seven days a week, so the next two days don’t make much of a difference in my work tasks, but the old work habits of thinking of Friday night as a time to unhook remain. I look silly when I replay my reactions to the week’s news. Uncertainty heightened anxiety. The issues are large and significant, but my best response may be much simpler and smaller. I’ve seen that in my frugal friends’ responses to their situations, as well. Recognize the issue, wait for the right time to respond, and resolving an issue can be as simple as flipping a switch.

Persistence and resilience may be my best tools for working on my current situation. Bend, don’t break. Accept a simple hardship, and wait for spring. Notice that entire forests are created from a few seeds that found a way to simply survive otherwise hostile situations.

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