Pop Goes The Power

Here comes the wind again. Rushing in, flying branches, popping power lines, simultaneously encouraging quick writing and a post about frugality. Let’s see if I can get this done before the lights flicker again. One of the advantages of frugality and minimalism, it takes a lot less to keep me happy – or at least I have less to complain about when I’m resorting to candles and paperbacks.

One of the great exercises within personal finance is to be aware of how you spend money. What is the benefit that comes along with the cost? When there’s very little money, the benefits are direct and apparent because expenses are reduced to necessities. Those necessities make themselves very apparent when income is equal to or less than expenses. Luxuries are abandoned. When there’s a bit of excess, that extra money becomes such a great relief that it is easy to fall into spending it on those remembered luxuries. The relief feels so good and the luxuries are much more appreciated; that’s also the time to remember to invest in yourself, your portfolio, and your skills. When the excess is great enough, some will feel the abundance, but others redefine the luxuries as necessities and ratchet up their feeling of lack. Someone who is upset that their mobile phone is the wrong shade of purple probably has ratcheted up their expectations and desires.

I live on an island. The power goes out often enough that most people have a supply of candles, paperback books, playing cards, warm blankets – and maybe a generator. If you can afford the generator and the fuel you can become quite popular. Many houses are equipped with emergency generators that seamlessly take over when necessary. For some, that’s a necessity for health or business reasons. The ones I find amazing are the automatic power systems that keep vacant vacation homes lit and warm while the neighbors are rummaging around for matches and there are homeless people struggling with the storm. When the power goes out, the sound of generators kicks in. I get by with a big backup battery that powers the internet router for a few minutes every few hours. The rest of the time is a reason to enjoy an imposed peacefulness – as long as I ignore the noises outdoors.

Frugality, voluntary simplicity, and minimalism were variations on a lifestyle I have enjoyed by choice. For the last few years, I’ve continued the practice by necessity. As circumstances shift, I expect to continue living simply (though, if I won a few million there might be a very nice vacation added to my calendar.)

Various vacations I’ve enjoyed have been in cabins and cottages in the mountains and on the shore. A tiny place with a bit of a kitchen, a bed at least big enough for me, and sanitary facilities covers most of what I’d actually use in some fancy suite. The nicest hotels I’ve stayed in had more in the room than I could use in a week. Let me ski into a cabin with firewood, an outhouse, and maybe a bit of propane and I might just sleep better than in a five star hotel.

I was surprised to find that this weekend is the Super Bowl. Stadium sports aren’t something I spend much time or money considering. If a city wants to encourage sports, I think spending a billion on Parks and Recreation makes much more sense than funding a stadium for millionaires. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, though. I won’t watch the game, but I will watch the ads.

Most years, I wait until after the game, then visit YouTube. YouTube usually has a compilation of the ads. It never seems to be complete, but it does have dozens of ads collected, and provides the opportunity to vote them up or down. My life is unconventional, so I watch to re-engage with mainstream trends. One message always comes through. “People lives aren’t good enough, so they should spend more money on – whatever.” The ads won’t be about necessities. If they are about food, shelter, clothing, or health, the goods and services are probably luxurious versions that add little value relative to their added costs. There will be a few public service announcements, but the main attraction will be how advertisers can attract consumers’ incomes.

The advertisers are smart. Professional sports is about extravagance. Rather than applauding your neighbor for sinking a basket, sit at home and watch a person who has devoted their life and health to amazing feats in dangerously short careers – and then, go buy paraphernalia with their name or the team’s logo, buy whatever they endorse, and buy into the things that were advertised while you watched them whether the goods or services have anything to do with the team, the sport, or your own desires. The people who can afford the time to watch, who can afford the tickets, and who can afford the trinkets represent an enormous market; if they didn’t, the teams, players, corporations, and advertisers wouldn’t be making billions of dollars.

The wind is subsiding and the power is on, for me at least. A few places on the island are out. I don’t wish a massive outage for people to be forced to retreat from consumption. Living is more than just surviving. Living should include thriving, celebrating, feasting, and enjoying more than just the bare necessities (without going to extremes that deny others the same.) Ideally, everyone gets to define their needs, wants, and desires. Ideally, everyone gets their needs met, and has at least a reasonable chance at attaining their wants and desires. I do wish that more people would make that consumption match their needs, to spend on what they want and desire rather than on what they’re told to want and desire.

I know for me, understanding my needs, wants, and desires has resulted in a life where I am easier to please, where a little extra money makes an enormous difference, and where the truest treasure is something that can’t be bought but can be spent: time. Which is one reason I won’t be spending hours watching the game. After my work is done and I’ve watched the ads (and maybe blogged about them), I expect I’ll be reading a book, something I can do with or without electricity. I have the power to do that.

Photo on 2016-02-05 at 20.16 #3

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Grind Grind Grind

Hey! How’d that happen? The first month of 2016 is almost over, already. One-twelfth of the year has gone by. Less than eleven months until Christmas. Only two and a half months until Tax Day (for those of us in the US). So much has been going on that it is easy to get head down and not looking up, especially in a Seattle winter. Yes, there are gloriously sunny days; but, bills are insistent, opportunities must be pursued, and patience and persistence are only exercised by letting time pass. Good news doesn’t like being rushed. In the meantime, I am glad I can dive into a grind that does good work, pays those bills, and opens doors for those opportunities – and yet, grinding away for the sake of grinding away leaves nothing but grounds.

This new year, 2016, has become a fascinating mix of optimism and pessimism that is prime fodder for my news feed of PretendingNotToPanic.com.

#PNTP

#PNTP

The issue isn’t trying to find something to post every day. The issue is finding a way to pick just a few items to spread out and post about. Within the first month of 2016 there have been optimistic updates on the sentience of trees, the possible redefinition of cities because of autonomous autos, US coal usage dropping to new lows, decreases in cancer, good jobs reports, and other items that didn’t make the daily list. The daily posts also included pessimistic updates on the economy, sea level rise, the apocalypse, over-fishing, homelessness, cyber attacks, and forest fires. The topic that attracted the most attention was the worsening wealth inequality (which inspired some impassioned responses that I have yet to respond to. Apologies, but I’ve been grinding away at work.)

We’re probably entering one of the most dynamic times in human civilization. It isn’t a surprise that the rhetoric is getting louder, especially during a US Presidential election cycle. Change is accelerating, possibly reaching rates that human discourse can’t match. Climate change is relatively slow, but understanding what’s happening requires research that is slower. Economic changes are made by humans, so we should be able to keep up; but much of finance is automated and operating at nearly the speed of light. Social changes are also made by humans, are far less predictable, and can be inspired by the simplest of events. Centuries ago, such issues were limited to a region and rarely interacted. Now, they all play with and against each other. Trying to understand it all may only be possible for a computer, which leads to the technological acceleration that may lead to the Digital Singularity.

As one friend commented; “How do you keep all of that in your head at the same time?” My first thought was, doesn’t everybody? But, no. Many people either implicitly or explicitly decide to limit their attention to their daily grind, leaving time for sitcoms, sports, and shopping. There is wisdom there. They aren’t grinding their brains about things they can’t change (supposedly.)

Personal finance (the main theme of this blog, believe it or not) benefits from an understanding of economics, finance, society, and personal values. Understanding any one of those four items is an admirable accomplishment. Understanding all four would probably warrant some sort of prize, though it is less likely to be a Nobel and more likely to be a shoulder stretching pat on the back.Photo on 2016-01-29 at 18.52

I try to understand as much as I can; and dive deep when something verifiable, quantifiable, and important catches my attention. I’ve spent a lot of time these last two weeks understanding the implications of Oxfam’s report on wealth inequality. A few of us have been trying to find ways to display the math of the inequality, no judgment involved, and have learned how extreme it is. Even finding a way to print a graphic about it requires more money than any of us have available. One version of the print would be 500 feet x 500 feet. Multiple that out times a nominal $18 per square foot and get a printing bill of $4.5M. That may be unbelievable, but that’s also the point, and also why I’ve spent hours trying to prove myself wrong. (See my post for the background about the issue and Joe’s post about the technical difficulties in making such a print.)

The style of karate I practice has a concept that other styles have, too. Tight; no tight. There are times to commit everything to a task, to tighten the muscles and spirit to accomplish the goal. That level of effort can’t be maintained by humans forever, and no tight actually is the response that enables recovery, preparation for the next task, and long term sustainability.

If you find that trying to make your finances work sustainably is tightening your brow, your muscles, your attitude, and your actions; keep in mind that, to sustain life humans also must relax, rest, and recuperate after enough effort has been expended.

Grind, grind, grind, is admirable persistence. But, getting your nose too close to the grindstone gives you a bloody nose. Grinding a piece of glass properly creates new ways to see the world, but can also create a blurry mess.

If you find that today’s world has you grinding your teeth, remember that, while it make take the world’s population to fix the problems created by the world’s population, you don’t have to and can’t do it all yourself, that it’s okay to take a break; and that if it seems like it is too much to keep in one brain, that you have demonstrated a proper perception of the modern world. When the world gets to be too much, step back, catch your breath, trust in the billions of other people on the planet, and then step back in. The trick is to grind away at the problems and the issues, not at our selves and our souls. With seven billion of us grinding away, the issues could be done in a day – which at least rhymes, but would seemingly be the case for future generations looking back at our accomplishments. That’s a grind we could be proud of.

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Extreme Displays Of Wealth Inequality

(Updated January 27, 2016 after having enough time to fix some math errors and typos.)

“The very fact that this is beyond some of our technological limits is a message -“

Wealth inequality is so staggering that the nearest analogy are astronomical numbers, and astronomical numbers are so hard to grasp that most folks don’t worry about them. Besides, look at all those stars streaming by on Star Trek and Star Wars. About a week ago, Oxfam released their annual wealth inequality report. As of the end of 2015, 62 people own as much wealth as half the population of the planet. I’ve been tracking it over the years, and the trend has me worried for the global economy. There are several representations of the previous years’ situations, but the extreme nature of the situation has become literally unimaginable. Our brains don’t deal well with vastly different numbers and tend to slip from reality into abstraction. Unfortunately, there are real world implications and they are manifesting faster than many of the other global issues. The above quote came from a Facebook discussion as a few creative people tried to find a way to use graphics instead of math or words to communicate the extreme disparity. What we didn’t expect was to find that wealth inequality has reached the limits of the human eye, the limits of computer software, and the limits of physically creating a visual tool – at least reasonably. We’re continuing with some of the less reasonable approaches because working on the problem has revealed to us how massive the problem is, and how difficult it will be to resolve.

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 08.31.28

Here’s an edited version of the conversation that steps through our increasing awareness. The individuals involve creative people who are educated in handling large numbers (engineering, marketing, image processing, and manifesting large projects) and people who have experience communicating (photographers, painters, writers, film producers). Wish us luck.


 

Tom

Hello, fellow digital artists. I’m interested in creating a graphic to demonstrate wealth inequality. I think the debate can benefit from someone creating a graphic that shows 62 pixels (representing the number of people that own half the wealth of the planet) and also shows 3.5B pixels (representing half of the people of the planet.) I’ve got a way involving copy and paste (which is tough to keep track of), which I might do, but I suspect that at least one of you has a better way to display it. Any ideas?

Joe

I could come up with something…

However, showing 3.5B pixels will take an enormous image. Have you considered showing with a single pixel equaling some larger unit than 1?

Tom

We’re thinking along similar lines. Another option is to show 1 pixel surrounded by 56,451,612.

(That’s 3,500,000/62, or how many people the average member of the 62 matches in wealth.)

Brian

You won’t be able to see that pixel.

Tom

Is that 7,513 pixels by 7,513 pixels? Check my math.

Brian

Yep. Still won’t be able to see that single pixel.

Kinda the point though, isn’t it?

(A limitation of the human eye)

Linne

Pyramid?

A long/wide rectangle, center point (needle, like in a haystack) line with a callout?

Joe

Yeah, the only way to really do it is to create an image of the full number of units. But that you would have a number of them equal “1”; otherwise as Brian said, you wouldn’t be able to see individual pixels.

So you’d need like maybe four pixels per unit of 1 to see them, perhaps even more, to distinguish them as units with a stroke around each unit.

Since the smallest a stroke can be is 1 pixel, you’d actually need a few more inside to be visible; so, it’s those plus the surrounding pixels per strike just to equal one unit. And then multiply that by your 3.5B – so – yeah, an enormous image size. No Web browser could easily display that.

Now – thinking this through – it’d be a tedious task, but if you did it in vector, it could be scaled on the Web as an svg file.

You’d have to use single point dots with some separation between them…otherwise they’d look like a halftone pattern or just a field of noise.

I can run some experiments.

(A limitation of computer software)

Tom

I’m thinking of a real world print that we could then use as a prop in photos shared on social media – staged with a magnifying glass.

Joe

So herein lies a problem:

The largest photo ever taken, a 411 image composite by the Hubble, comes in at pixel dimensions of 26,004px X 9,289px.

And yet that is, while ginormous, “only” 214 Million pixels.

You want billions.

For some perspective, at print size of 300 pixels per inch, that would be about 7.2 feet long.

However, you can’t see pixels at 300 per inch (which is kinda that point with intentionally good prints).

To be able to barely discern individual pixels, you’d have to print at about 50 pixels per inch. So that would make this relatively small (compared to your requested image size) image (of the largest photo ever) a whopping 43 feet long.

Your image would need to be literally 16 times this size. To “see” the pixels.

(A limitation that illustrates the quality of fine art prints)

(A limitation that illustrates practical considerations of printing, displaying, and sharing such a representation.)

Joe (hours later)

I tried it out this morning with the 7,513 pixel per side image; with basically a checkerboard pattern black/white pixel per pixel. As expected, zoomed out it’s just gray. Zoomed in a little more it’s a moire pattern that makes my eyes all wonky. And, zoomed to print size at 50 pixels per inch – well – it’s still a wonky pattern.

This is a good way to show it; starting around the 1:15 mark.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSxzjyMNpU

Tom

Yep. Saw that video. It is now three years old. It serves its purpose, but I think there is a need for a static image, or an image like Chris Jordan’s images.

(A limitation based on time, because any representation that takes time to create is therefore obsolete, like that video from 2013 when the wealth inequality was five times fairer than now, in 2016.)

Joe

Well, that’s a good point: Chris is able to show it BECAUSE he zooms in and out in the animated versions on his website.

The static images, however, if printed, can work too; but each object has to represent a higher number, which is how he’s done it with all of his Running the Numbers series. It’s always an enormous number of objects, but only a fraction of the larger number he’s representing by breaking it down into understandable chunks.

It would take 35,000,000 $100 bills; but if broken into chunks that could be replicated a thousand times – then – oh god – it would still take 35,000 replications. Which, if you had only one minute per replication/movement/placement of each cluster would still take 583 hours to produce. Also would probably crash Photoshop.

Back to the drawing board……….

(So the only way to make the problem visible is to scale it down by factors or ten or a hundred.)

(A new limitation based on computing hardware and software)

Tom

The very fact that this is beyond some of our technological limits is a message.

Thinking 3D. If one person is represented as a cube, the others are represented by a cube 383.6 longer, taller, and wider. So, if one person is represented by 1 cm3 (a sugar cube), then the rest are represented by a cube 383.6 cm X 383.6 cm X 383.6 cm, or 3.836 m x 3.836 m x 3.836 m. (12.85 feet per side) That almost sounds like the interior volume of the Store foyer. Build a cube of 12 long sticks draped with fabric and one little cube beneath or on top or beside – suspend from the ceiling.

Also could be a sphere with a radius of 288 cm. How big is that globe they hang in the foyer?


At this point the conversation shifted to Joe and I playing with ideas in his workspace, Fine Balance Imaging, where we could experiment, and reach new limits.

We could find various ways to represent the inequality, but then they were difficult to photograph. How do you make and where do you put a 12.85 foot (383.6cm) cube that represents the wealth of 56,451,612 people which equals each the wealth of one of those average billionaires? How about a sphere with a radius of 238 cm, which is a diameter of 476 cm beside a marble? A tetrahedron would be 782 cm tall. Maybe use something more familiar and work backwards, like a standard shipping container that we see on ships and trucks which has a volume of 1,360 cubic feet that would be empty except for a tiny box 1/56,451,612th as small: a 0.347 inch cube? Or how about making the billionaire one grain of sand (.25mm radius) and a cube of sand 4.16 inches per side (10.5cm)? That may go too far the other way.

Brian then passed along a different approach. Instead of going 2D or 3D, go 1D. Here’s where metric make so much more sense. If one billionaire was one cm, then a line representing their equivalent poor population would be 56,451,611 cm long, or 5,645,161.1 meters, or 5,645.1611 kilometers. Think English (but not British because most of them are smart enough to use metric, but not us Yankees) and get 3507.7405 miles. Start with one centimeter on the west coast of North America and you can end up in the Atlantic. Wealth inequality that doesn’t even fit on a continent. At least NASA or the NSA should be able to photograph it, but not well enough to show that first centimeter.

Check my math. When the numbers become so overwhelming it is easy to lose perspective. And, that’s the point. Wealth inequality has reached such a point that it is hard to imagine, tends to become and abstraction, gets discussed in ideological terms. My approach is from an understand of math and systems. When great key resources become vastly concentrated, systems destabilize. If that instability is left uncontrolled, the effects on the rest of the system can be dramatic, traumatic, and catastrophic.

As one private message reinforced from my previous post;

“When half the world’s wealth is stagnant, the world’s economy loses half of its chief resource.”

The wealth is accumulating. Economies are stagnating. If only we could find a way to show that.

 

PS To help my friends’ wealth, here are links to some of their work.

Joe Menth

Brian Kern

Linne Pullar

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Wealth Inequality Worsens

I admit it. I am worried. I’m familiar with the ways that big systems work. When a system is big enough, it makes more sense to trust the data more than the rhetoric. When key measures depart from the norm and show no sign of changing direction, there’s a good chance the system is unstable. Oxfam released their annual update on wealth inequality. Since 2010, the number of people who own half the world’s wealth has dropped from 388 to 62. A key resource to the world’s economy, wealth, is accumulating and concentrating, and showing no signs of stopping. If wealth inequality isn’t destabilizing the economy, it is a visible symptom of an economy that is unstable for other reasons. Both possibilities are probably true.

The super rich have always existed, but for most of human history their influence was limited to a few miles. The poor have always existed, but for most of human history they’ve also had the means to sustain themselves – though not without a struggle. Any instabilities were limited to those few miles, and the consequences were limited because most of the people had at least some opportunity to farm or hunt.

Within the last hundred years, the super rich have been able to extend their reach around the planet. As civilization has monetized and urbanized, the poor are increasingly under the control of landowners and employers. People complained, and fortunes rose and fell, but the impact remained limited by country borders. Much of the wealth was sovereign wealth, wealth held by royalty and partly represented by the wealth of their realms.

Within the last few decades, wealth has extended its reach through globalization, and globalization has been amplified by technological advancements in transportation and information. Now, non-governmental institutions have accumulated enough wealth and influence that lenders can dictate government policy, forcing austerity and diminishing nations’ support of their citizens. Much of the wealth now effectively exists outside the reach of realms, countries, and governments.

Those trends are largely rhetoric, which means they can be argued and debated without resolution. (Though, if someone has the data, please share it.)

Within the last few years, the number of super rich has decreased to the point that they can be counted. In 2010, 388 held half the world’s wealth. In 2011, 177. In 2012, 159. In 2013, 92. In 2014, 80. In 2015, 62. At this rate, by 2022 half of the world’s wealth could be concentrated in one person’s net worth. Ridiculous, eh? Is it ridiculous if it is only two people, three, four? It can be more ridiculous because is one person’s net worth is more than half the world’s wealth, then effectively the number of half the wealth becomes less than one. We could be there in six years.

wealth inequality

Source: Oxfam

When a system is exhibiting such a trend, the only thing that limits it is a change in the system or a failure in the system which creates a change uncontrollably. Either people decide to make improvements, or the system fails and people have to respond to a messy situation.

At this point, I am hearing rhetoric about change, but finance reform remains rhetoric, not action. That leaves me with the expectation that the system will fail, and possibly soon.

The trouble with our understanding of our economy is that we may not have calculated the critical number at which wealth concentration creates the instability that fails the system. Some think we’re already past it, and that the failure is in progress. Others think that wealth inequality is a natural consequence of the system, is not inherently worrisome, and will self-correct if necessary. I think that the critical point of failure is passed when some percentage (x%) of the population holds half the wealth (though it could also be something like 25% or 75%). We don’t know the number, and may only know the number in retrospect. In the meantime, we’ve passed from a time when the number of people holding half the wealth could easily be expressed as a percentage and now can be expressed as an integer, and that the integer is a number smaller than the capacity of many restaurants. Within six years, half the world’s wealth may fit on one motorcycle.

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 08.31.28
When half the world’s wealth is stagnant, the world’s economy loses half of its chief resource. Fill your car’s engine or battery only halfway, and it doesn’t make it doubly efficient; it only goes half as far. Give a billion people a thousand dollars each, and nearly a trillion dollars will flow through the economy by necessity. Give a thousand people a billion dollars each, and less money flows. Give a hundred people ten billion dollars each, and less flows. Give ten people a hundred billion each, and less flows. Give one person a trillion dollars and there’s little or no reason for it to flow.

I’ve been tracking wealth inequality for years. (It is common thread on my other blog; PretendingNotToPanic.com) Last year I posted to this blog as a result of Oxfam’s report. This year, wealth inequality, commodity crashes, private wealth bubbles, cash being stored as uncommon assets, and negative interest rates convinced me to convene a salon of interested individuals – and I was going to get to that right after my birthday. If you read the previous post, you know I’ve been busy. In the meantime, the stock markets are ailing and joining other asset classes in a global retreat. Holding a salon to consider actions in 2016 is becoming moot.

I may convene the salon, anyway. Whether we prepare for the choices society will make, or whether we prepare for the consequences our society will encounter, maybe that bit of rhetoric with a bit of data can at least lead to personal action regardless of our monetary wealth.

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Happy Working Birthday

Hurrah! I survived another year. Thursday was my birthday and I celebrated by working a day that was fuller than most. The fact that I was glad to be working surprised many people. I’m not surprised. For people in the 1099 Economy, conventions like days off belong to another era and another world. Thanks to someone else’s temporary reassignment, I was given the opportunity to spend four days doing their job, too; and making more than I needed. That’s something that only happens about once a week. If that sounds a little sad, then consider that the majority of Americans make less and own less than I do, and that the idea of taking any day off for a celebration. Our world, society, and conventions are being redefined by necessity. So are our celebrations, and they are celebrations.
Photo on 2016-01-13 at 20.09
I thank my editor at Curbed Seattle, the founder of the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum, and a variety of my clients. Thanks to you, I had a good day. It was hectic and involved so many hats that I’ve considered installing a rack beside my desk so I can switch from one to another to remind myself of whether I am a Guest Editor, Contributing Writer, Project Manager, Strategic Consultant, Social Media Manager, prognosticator, or creative sounding board. If I rented an office, I’d probably do that.

Conventions change slowly. At the same time, we know that all types of changes are accelerating. Why would our conventions stay the same? Work and benefits have changed enough to be included in the 2016 State of the Union address to the US Congress.

“It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber.” – President Barack Obama

Outside institutions like the Senate and House of Representatives, most people know their jobs are increasingly unstable. The upper income jobs were more reliable, but even they are prone to layoffs, now. I know at least three international experts who have lost their jobs when they were in their 50s or 60s. Suddenly, the price of health care, more correctly, health insurance became less abstract and very real. Retirement and benefits exist for some, but the number is shrinking.

Welcome to the 1099 Economy, where the freedom to work is welcome and a marvelous development – as long as you can pay your bills. If you can pay your bills, and save money, congratulate yourself; and get to it because you are your retirement plan. As one talented consultant put it;

“I paid for my seventies by working in my sixties, and now I’m working in my seventies to pay for my eighties.”

Health insurance costs can be a shock. Realizing that a day off is a day without pay, work that was only postponed (unless it was lost), and that any celebration incurred additional costs – all of that combined can make time off something precious and something to cherish far more than when it was delivered as a use-it-or-lose-it policy. It can also become something too expensive to afford, a luxury.

A few years ago, I was talking to a shop owner during a break from staring at my computer and while they didn’t have a customer in their shop. I joked about their customers that tended to show up on Saturdays and Sundays, their days off and the shop owner’s most profitable days. I asked my friend if they could imagine getting two days off every week, and on top of that getting a dozen or more days throughout the year where they’d get paid to not show up. My friend tossed their head back and laughed at the concept, and a few seconds later realized that they couldn’t experience that, but relied on people who took it for granted. It was a sobering realization.

Our economy is changing. Whether it is income and wealth inequality, or increased automation, or a bifurcation where some live in a deflationary economy while others witness inflation, or if globalization means even local retail loses revenue and jobs to overnight shipping from the other side of the planet – jobs, careers, and sustenance are changing, and our lives and celebrations are changing, too.

My life is much better than it was two or three years ago. When I make a statement like that, many listeners are relieved. People are tired of hearing bad news. I can’t blame them. I’m tired of living with bad news. I continue to work almost every day according to my Rule of 7, and because some of my jobs involve daily news feeds that can miss a lot by missing a day. To do good work for my clients it makes sense to do good work every day.

Despite the improvement in my situation, I can’t pay all of my bills. The problem with my truck was alleviated by a friend who rode in like the cavalry. Serendipity happens, and I know dozens of people who rely upon it. I’ve watched an interesting reaction when I honestly answer, “So, how are you doing?”. If I start out with, “I can pay almost all of my bills.” the reaction is as if they edited the line down to, “I can pay all of my bills.” That “almost” is the difference between getting ahead and falling behind. The conversation continues as if everything is fine; yet, I spend almost everyday on the wrong side of “almost”. That’s why it was such a treat to be making more than enough on my birthday. For a few days I was getting ahead. That’s a good feeling that I get about once a week on average thanks to my clients.

I don’t write about such episodes as calls for sympathy, but as examples of what many people are going through. As strange as it is, I am middle class. There are millions of Americans who are less fortunate (and billions outside America who recognize our necessities as luxuries.) The old economy models of days off, casually seeing the doctor, and planning for retirement continue to exist for enough that most political commentary and institutions assume that’s the norm for everyone. Days off, healthcare, and retirement are marvelous concepts; but they are based on a thin slice of history. When I think about working every day, not visiting the doctor, and working until who knows when, I also think about pioneers encountering (someone else’s ) wilderness, dairy farmers from before automation, and independent agents who never had benefits: accountants, realtors, lawyers, and sales staff. The conventions that existed then, and that have persisted outside the corporate culture are the conventions that are returning to prominence.

It won’t take much of an improvement in my business or portfolio to move me from falling behind to getting ahead. I am an optimist and have good reason to believe it will happen. That’s an attitude shared by many entrepreneurs and workers in the 1099 Economy. Without that optimism, it is difficult to continue. Until that optimism is proven correct, I’ll probably keep celebrating the unconventional birthday that helped me get ahead.

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Lottery Dreams

Okay. I admit it. I buy lottery tickets. It is some of the cheapest entertainment I can buy. (The best entertainment is free, but that’s another story.) Tonight is the drawing for the largest lottery jackpot in US (world?) history. Tomorrow is my birthday. So, I just gotta. I just gotta. I also gotta be real, and realistic. Numbers are real, and here’s how I look at the numbers.

Screenshot 2016-01-12 at 16.01.25The odds of winning are so small that there’s no doubt; buying a lottery ticket is a gamble, and a bad one. Articles, blog posts, tweets, and every human communication have enough calls for people to wise up and not buy the tickets. How could we be so foolish?

  1. Being foolish is human. If we were always reasonable, logical, methodical, and analytical we’d all be Vulcans and predictable and dull. It is okay to be a little frivolous occasionally.
  2. Expecting the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results is one informal definition of insanity. I think the majority of people are sane, and that we all have quirks that make others question our sanity on, but that’s part of being human. The seeming insanity is part of our daily lives. That’s one reason I blog on PretendingNotToPanic.com; because things really are that strange and weird. As Sun Tzu pointed out in the Art of War, people need an outlet or they react irrationally. If hard work, frugal living, and honesty don’t seem to be leading to success the way they did, maybe a fling at a ticket is a relatively small risk with the prospect of a big reward – a reward they can’t find anywhere else in their lives.
  3. As entertainment, a $1, $2, or $3 ticket is far less than the price of a movie. A movie costs more and is over in less than 3 hours. The ticket, however, can inspire dreams for days. One friend makes the dreams last for weeks and months because he only checks his tickets long after he bought them. It is the lottery version of Schrodinger’s cat. As long as he hasn’t checked the tickets they could be winners or losers, so he might as well enjoy the dream of at least one of them being a winner.
  4. Lottery tickets are a voluntary tax, and because the money is collected by the state and not the federal government, a buyer can know that the money isn’t going to defense spending, or whatever federal program they may disapprove of.
  5. For a dollar or so, I know I am contributing to someone who is about to have the best day of their life, at least monetarily. I want it to be me, but even if I don’t win, it is nice knowing that someone will receive more than enough – something that is happening far too infrequently.

The odds of me winning the lottery are small. Millions to one are some of the smallest odds we voluntarily deal with. The odds of someone winning the lottery are much higher. Jackpots aren’t won every time, but they are won often enough that the odds of any particular jackpot being won are probably more like dozens to one, maybe less. There’s nothing that differentiates one person from another; so, if someone is going to win, it could be me.

Dream Invest Live coverAs I said, lottery tickets inspire dreams. What would I do if I won? Considering how much I consider finances (have you read my book, Dream. Invest. Live.?) I tend to pull apart the possible winnings in specific ways – all of which are like any plan, something to be invalidated as soon as it is tested.

Because it is my birthday, I have one ticket each for Powerball, Mega-Millions, Lotto, and Hit 5.

  • Hit 5 current jackpot = $100,000 ~ Hey, that means someone won the previous drawing. That could be me! It could be my friend who rarely checks his ticket. Congratulations to whoever won. With $100,000 I would take a vacation, and not quit my day jobs; though I would work one less day per week (My Rule Of 7). Two or three immediate house repairs would be accomplished. The truck would be fixed. The 2014, 2015, and 2016 taxes would be paid. I’d pay off the credit card. The remainder would be set aside for living expenses and invested. There’d be at least one vacation, probably sitting in a cabin or hiking.
  • Lotto current jackpot = $4.9M ($2.4M cash option) ~ The annuity would be nice, but the cash option would be definitive. All of the above bills are paid. Everything is repaired, even me. Retirement returns. Some luxuries come back into my life, but very few extravagances. I might not even move – well, maybe. There’d probably be a boat in there somewhere. I’d definitely do a lot more skiing. I also know how quickly bad luck can make a couple of million evaporate; so I’d remain somewhat cautious. I’d still
  • Mega Millions jackpot = $15.0M ($9.2M cash option) ~ At that level the annuity becomes attractive. Can I live on ~ $43,000 a month? Yep. That first $43K would vanish within a month considering my Dammed Plans, but a few months later surpluses would accumulate. Of course, I do have worries about the economy and currencies; so maybe I’d take the lump sump, give away a large part of it, and live comfortably. Oh yes, and I’d probably spend a lot less time investing. After there’s more than enough money, quit spending time on trying to make more. There’s a word for that.
  • Powerball jackpot = $1.5B ($930M cash option) ~ Yowza. No wonder people are buying tickets. For a little bit more you can win a hundred times more. The Mega Millions jackpot is more than enough; but what a story it would be to win. I might even continue the blog just to document the progression I’ve written about before: from Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By to Mama Mia! And yes, I suspect I’d give away almost all of it. I’ve already sketched out the philanthropy, the key people, and the timing.

I know rich people. I was one for a while. One of the saddest things is to realize how much damage too much money does to a person’s perceptions of the world, the defenses they have to raise, the lack of compassion shown to them. While it seems that money can make all the problems go away, no matter where you go, there you are. Money becomes a multiplier. Positives are amplified. Negatives are amplified. I’ve witnessed the realities of the chart that shows happiness increasing as money increases, but only to a point. After an income of about $75,000 per year, happiness can fall quickly unless a person avoids the dysfunctional conventions within our society. That’s a tougher task than it seems, especially if you care about what others think.

Of course, even this post is just an example of the main benefit I know I’ll receive from buying a ticket. I get to play with the idea of winning. That’s something I couldn’t do as well if I hadn’t bought a ticket.

Decades ago a friend who was equally schooled in math (we both had masters in aerospace engineering) pointed out that buying a ticket instead of buying none increased the odds of winning infinitely, to a very small number that was at least greater than zero, and that the odds were so small that doubling the small odds didn’t increase the odds much. The solution: buy a ticket, ignore the probability, enjoy the possibility, and be real.

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Spreading News – MVIS And CES2016

It works in investing. It works in the rest of the world, too. People are better information sources than companies. Thank you, residents of the Internet. Companies can be guarded, ambiguous, or more concerned with private than public conversations. People have a much better idea of that people want to hear; and by telling us what they know, they help create community. Unofficial voices can be the best news sources, even with something as simple and public as one of the biggest, most publicized, trade shows in the world. My thanks to Peter Jungmann and other individuals who visited the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and posted what they learned. Because of their efforts, I have a better idea of what one of my companies is doing.

The gadgets we talk about today probably showed up at CES last year. CES attracts over 170,000 people, over 3,600 companies, and uncounted new ideas. Even ideas that are kept secret or at least quiet, are exhibited – though probably in side conversations between corporate officials. And yet, there’s enough displayed that attending the show is an easy (if somewhat expensive) way to see the technology trends that are accelerating into our lives. If I had the money, I’d enjoy attending. Instead, I’ll thank Peter Jungmann, fellow MVIS investor, who went there and shared a few, key insights that would otherwise only have been available to attendees.

The good news:
IMG_0417MicroVision components are showing up in more devices. In addition to last year’s pico-projectors: PicoAir, PicoPro, and MP-CL1 (an ugh of a name); we now know that there are also the PicoBit (a pico-projector with an embedded touchpad, and the recognition as a CES Innovation Award honoree), ViewSmart (another pico-projector with an embedded mouse), and Qualper (an Android smartphone with an embedded MicroVision projector.) Three more catalysts to MicroVision’s revenue stream. The particular good news I like is the possibility (with caveats from the Forward Looking Statement clause) that MicroVision would probably be profitable 6-9 months after the introduction of a smartphone with an embedded MicroVision projector. Definitely good news for sometime before the end of 2016 because the Qualper was introduced in China in December 2015. How do I know all of this? Because Peter went to CES, took some photos, talked to some people, and wrote some words.

Time to update the catalysts chart.

MVIS_Catalysts_010716The disappointing news:
For me, the major disappointment was that MicroVision plus Celluon plus Sony plus the manufacturers of ViewSmart and Qualper released fewer words and photos than Peter. One person with two posts exceeded the communications output of several corporations.
For the market, something was a major disappointment because the stock dropped 10% in one week, most of which was Friday – a bad day for the markets in general, but also a day when the investors had very few official reasons for optimism. Aside from one tweet about the PicoBit and one retweet there haven’t been any press releases, blog posts, or emails announcing the very things that they had incorporated into their exhibit. If it was in their exhibit and on public display, the material is supposed to be available to everyone, not just the people who can afford to travel to the event.

There is reason for optimism and enthusiasm. In previous years, there were many allusions to many private conversations. In 2015, there were more substantial comments that dramatically raised the confidence that Sony was using MicroVision technology and components. The surprise was when Celluon launched their product; a bonus. In 2016, there were few if any allusions, while there were several real products (PicoAir, PicoPro, PicoBit, MP-CL1, ViewSmart, and Qualper.) They’ve also announced the introduction of RoBoHoN, separate from CES (was it even at CES?). Within reasonable speculation is applications within Sony’s Life Space UX line, Pioneer and others’ HUDs, the resurgence in eyewear; and the applications like that few envisioned prior to the surprise prototypes of a game controller, UPS’ package sorter, and tabletop retail displays.

As I type this, Peter has posted about Day 1 and Day 2. CES ran from January 6-9, so there may be more. I’d be surprised if there isn’t. He’s probably typing as I’m typing.

Whether you are invested in MVIS or not (and I’m impressed with your due diligence in understanding personal finance if you’ve read this far and aren’t an MVIS shareholder), this year’s CES was an important show for MicroVision and also an important demonstration of the power of individuals disseminating public information that would otherwise only be available to a few. (Granted, 170,000 is only a few if measured relative to seven billion.)

Peter has a personal interest in the information. His is not a purely selfless endeavor, but his sharing of knowledge and insights is a good example of what each of us can do to help others. When you find data and information that is potentially valuable and isn’t being shared, there’s a value to sharing it. Within the world of investing, the usefulness is obvious. Outside the world of investing, the usefulness may actually be more valuable; especially, when the data and information are facts that help clear away speculation, when reason can replace rhetoric.

MicroVision may not be saying much as a tactic to shift the investment community’s perception from over-promising and under-delivering to under-promising and over-delivering. Pleasant surprises are appreciated, and stocks appreciate because of them. They may have over-corrected if they released information at CES that wasn’t released in the public press; but it is probably just a case of me missing a press release or a part of a transcript. Regardless, I’m glad for the news, glad for Peter’s work, sad to see the market’s reaction, and looking forward to better news in 2016; and looking forward to more people doing more of the same.

PS
Sure enough, Peter just published Day 3.

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Fresh Idea – Dockside Tidal Power

Tidal dock power

start of a sketch

Fresh ideas come along that might be worth a lot or a little; and some should be launched into the world because they may be needed now and shouldn’t wait for me to develop them fully. Sometimes, ideas have to flow and go. Maybe I can catch up later.

Of all the renewable energy sources, tidal power is one of the most predictable and ubiquitous – at least along shorelines. From my research, it would appear that I’ve come up with a variation that generates power without interfering with wildlife and also without having to be submerged in the corrosive environment that is salt water. Tides are inexorable. As long as something is buoyant, the rising tide will lift it, regardless of its weight. In its simplest form, my fresh idea (invention?) uses the tide to lift heavy objects; then, as the tide goes out, the potential energy of the lifted object can be converted into electrical energy. No need to guess about the weather and the winds. No need to check the latitude. No need to wait for the Sun to shine.

Some tidal power concepts rely on tidal currents turning submerged rotary machinery. They are successful but many people worry about wildlife hazards (though the rotation rates are so slow that it would be hard to get hit), and operators worry about maintenance and repair which is necessarily deep enough to necessitate divers and some danger.

Some tidal power concepts trade potential energy for electrical energy by trapping the high tide in a reservoir and using the outgoing current to power rotary machinery, as above. The machinery is easier to access, but the tidal reservoir takes up acreage and can also interrupt sea life.

Even with those caveats, I am fans of those systems.

Imagine instead, a floating dock like those we have in my neighborhood’s marina. As the tide goes in and out, the docks go up and down. If we tried to lift and lower the decks with electric motors it would require a ridiculous amount of energy. Yet, they go up and down about twelve feet every day.DSC_6079 My idea for Dockside Tidal Power leaves the docks as nothing but inspiration and as a physical foundation for the power generator. For discussion, imagine a weight that is allowed to slide up and down along a piling. The pilings are there to keep the dock in place. They are overbuilt for the purpose because all they do is make sure the dock doesn’t move back and forth too much. As the tide lifts the dock, it also lifts the weight. As the tide goes out, the dock drops. The weight drops, too; but the weight’s motion is retarded by any of a series of mechanisms that brake its motion and turn that braking action into power. In the simplest form, it only generates power as the weight descends. In the more advanced form, it generates power as the dock lifts. In a more sophisticated form, the dock is the weight with the proviso that the dock always remains in contact with the water. This latter form is more elegant, but also has some failure modes that could affect the use of the dock.

I came up with this fresh idea years ago. It wasn’t until a conversation during a land trust work party that happened to overlook the bay that the idea became defined well-enough to pursue. To me, the idea was simple enough that I thought that someone must have already developed it, and found some fatal flaw. After hours of research into tidal energy I became more of a fan of that version of renewable energy, and was surprised that I couldn’t find an example. One reason for posting this fresh idea is to find out if someone knows of such an application.

I did find a proof of concept that had nothing to do with tides. There are many gravity powered lamps. Raise a weight, let it slowly fall, transfer the motion to electricity through gearing and braking, and provide pollution-free light anywhere. One such device is a floor lamp that uses a 50 pound weight and a 58 inch drop to generate 40 watts for four hours. http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/gravity-powered-lamp1.htm A 55 gallon barrel weighs about 450 pounds, suggesting 360 watts. A typical American house needs 1.24 kilowatts. So, this could work for partial supply or backup; or gang four and power the house.

Given my Aerospace and Ocean Engineering background I’d thoroughly enjoy designing, testing, developing, and maybe even producing and selling such a device. If I had the money and the time, I’d turn off most of my other projects, build a team, and get to work building the device and the business. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough money which is I am working so many hours that I also don’t have the time. I considered crowdfunding the idea, but my recent crowdfunding campaign already delayed development and its lack of success makes me hesitant to embark on another campaign so soon. I could take the long and slow approach, something I am known for. Someone I’ve known for decades is also an inventor, and also has an extensive blog about the process and the probabilities. I think, however, that the world needs low-impact renewable energy now. Any delay simply so I can claim ownership is putting my needs over those of the coastal communities of the world. I think I should let the idea out there so it can grow, or be proven to have a fundamental flaw.

So, I pass along the fresh idea along with a sketch or two. If anyone wants to develop it, do so. Do it right and quick and pass it along, and no one will own it but many can benefit from it (if it works.) If you want me to help, definitely contact me. Of course, I’d like to help. Compensation would be appreciated, though. I ask for that from need, not choice.

There are too many variants to adequately describe here. I enjoy brainstorming and have had to pull myself back from generating yet another way to convert the power, arrange the system, and develop new applications. If you want more details, contact me.

My neighborhood has a marina, but I don’t use it. I don’t have a boat (and least not one that floats for very long.) When I bought my house I expected to buy a boat, too; but my Triple Whammy hit. I still hope to buy a boat, but that’s another story.

My neighborhood also has a beach, a twelve foot tide, a view of dozens of miles of Puget Sound to a hidden horizon. It is awesome to stand at the shore, look down to the horizon, and realize that quietly, every day, enough water flows in and out of that basin to cover square miles with feet of water – for free, predictably, without polluting anything, in a way that the sea life has evolved to live with. If we harness a small portion of that energy, we could probably power a city, or a marina could power a neighborhood, or at least someone with a dock might be able to power their house.

November Sunset

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ReCharge Langley Lessons

Well, I’m glad I tried. The Kickstarter campaign launched to create a new kind of coworks for Langley didn’t meet its financial goal. The people who pledged get to keep their money. I get to keep my idea. And, I get to keep the lessons I learned. But, I share; so here I’ll share the idea, a bit of the conversations, a bit of what I learned, and what may happen next.
coworks logos lightning
First, I have thanked and am glad to thank again, everyone who officially pledged: Alan, Nancy, Petra, Mary Jo, Deborah, Ann, Lori, Kim, Jo, Patricia, Jonathan, Andy, and Irishman. Special thanks go out to Steve, who would’ve been the first, but couldn’t get the site to take his pledge. I’d pass along the last names, but some folks have asked for anonymity. Take this as an opportunity for anyone named Alan, Nancy, Petra, Mary Jo, Deborah, Ann, Lori, Kim, Jo, Patricia, Jonathan, Andy, Irishman, or Steve to claim some credit for supporting the campaign.

Coworks are more than ideas.

Coworks are an active and successful part of the new economy, the 1099 Economy, where employees are asked to work outside the office and usually called contractors who get 1099s instead of W-2s. Coworks are supporting the new economy, and while Whidbey likes new ideas, new businesses can be tough to start. Hence, the Kickstarter campaign, because the service would have a better chance of succeeding if it was adequately capitalized.

Coworks have operated on the island, and the best example was the one run by Russell Sparkman. It provided two things that aren’t available at libraries and coffeeshops, 24/7 access and a place to hold uninterrupted phone calls. For strategic reasons, that incarnation was closed. Other variations exist, but none have that level of anytime and professional service.

The conversations, however, were highly encouraging.
Photo on 2015-11-18 at 21.37 #2A recent power outage proved that scores of people are working from laptops in libraries, coffeeshops, and homes; because WhidbeyTel, the local communications company, opened their conference room/lecture hall to anyone with a laptop and a need. They probably sold a lot of coffee that day, because there’s a coffeeshop in the same facility. That episode proved the size of the hidden economy, the reliance on uninterrupted power and communications, and the technical capacity of the communications network that is starting there and branching out now.

Building owners contacted me about possibilities. For some, it was a new idea and a new possibility for the unused use of their spaces. For others, coworks are familiar, but they appreciated realizing that different models may be more successful than what they’ve witnessed.

The people who might work in a coworks were obviously interesting to talk to, and supported the idea; but because the 1099 Economy is also frequently associated with subsistence lifestyles, they weren’t able to pledge, even if they might be able to subscribe to and benefit from the service.

What I learned was both the superficial and the deep.
Some simple reasons were presented that might explain why the campaign failed: fundraising in December means asking for pledges while people are spending money on things like gifts, the rewards and perks offered for pledging weren’t specific to the space or valuable enough to people living off the island, asking for money to start even a salary-free business was seen as charity and proof that the idea isn’t sustainable, and maybe the word didn’t get out fast enough or far enough and that a second attempt may be more successful.

The deeper reasons will require more thought, naturally. When seen from the perspective of a 1985 economy, coworks sounds like communism. Starting with co- strikes some people as un-American, even if the idea is already pervading the country by necessity as much as by choice. A community known as a tourist destination may prefer consumer retail rather than business services. A coworks is not exactly the sort of thing Conde Nast is going to profile in a travel piece. And, of course, the deepest thing for me to consider is that someone else may be better at running a campaign or a storefront. Introspection and humility are always required.

What will happen next, at least for me, is a shift to another project that was put on hold while I ran the campaign. I have a possible invention for generating tidal power that shouldn’t have much if any impact on wildlife or the environment. (If you want to understand the complexities and possibilities of inventing, visit Alan Beckley’s blog – Ideaworth.wordpress.com).  I already have ideas for other coworks possibilities in other places in Langley and on Whidbey Island, and it may be best to see if they develop quietly in the meantime.

What may happen next may not involve me directly. With the idea introduced, and the conversations started, someone may take the idea, modify it again, and launch a coworks. Fine by me. I wanted to initiate the service, not necessarily to make money from it (though I wouldn’t have complained if it paid me, too) but because I think the community needs it. It would be nice to be included in the conversation, but the main benefit would be the service which I, others, and the local economy would benefit from.

While the campaign was active and as pledges came in, I tried to thank everyone who pledged via Facebook and Twitter. I hope I thanked everyone. For those who pledged at levels that would give them a book or a photo, I’d like to honor that as reasonably convenient. So, if you’re on the island and pledged, send me a note and we’ll see what we can do. And maybe, just maybe, we can kick around some ideas on how to start a coworks that works in the small towns on the island that is Whidbey.

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Popular Posts 2015

As much as I enjoy writing about many aspects of personal finance, including living in a conscious community like Whidbey, the most popular posts of 2015 almost all dealt with one of my investments: MVIS, the stock for MicroVision.

  1. Pico Air Meets ShowWX – where MicroVision’s pocket projector from years ago was compared to the next generation, a pocket projector from Celluon.
  2. Mysterious MicroVision – where MicroVision started the year with great potential, and hints of news.
  3. MicroVision Has Real News – I Think – where I parsed a MicroVision press release that would mention a Fortune 100 Global company, but not call it Sony.
  4. MicroVision Spring Catalysts – where I decided to try to make some sense of all of MicroVision’s possibilities by producing a chart of the possible catalysts (which I continue to update.)
  5. and then, the outlier, the only post about Whidbey or housing to make the list, Will Zillow Make Me Move – where Zillow’s Zestimate exceeded my MakeMeMove price, prompting the possibility of finding an interested buyer in a hot real estate market.

There are about 95 other posts from 2015, and several years to browse through. This may become a collection of notes for another book. Who knows? Stay tuned. Thanks for dropping by.

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