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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Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2015

Another half a year, another dive into my portfolio to see how things are going. I actually check more often; but I have a semi-annual exercise schedule for my portfolio (and lately it feels like my physical exercise schedule, too). Silly me, I got into the habit of checking in and writing it up every June 30th and December 31st. What was I thinking? I was thinking it was a good idea, and it is. The timing has a bit of a conflict on New Years Eve, though. So, here it is, the public disclosure of how I feel about how my stocks and portfolio have done this year. Words are handy, but here are some numbers and simple analyses (as appropriate) for AMSC, AST, GERN, GIG, MVIS, RGSE, and the economy in general.

The short answer: things are better, uneven, a bit worrying, and equally encouraging. That’s an improvement over years where the worries were stronger than the hopes.

The quick background: I can’t take credit for coming up with the semi-annual exercise independently. Peter Lynch suggested something similar, though less regular and less public. I simply built upon his idea that an investor should always be able to concisely describe their investments and why they own them. The details are in the lists of links to various discussion boards (see below). The summary is here. While others have thanked me for my efforts, I do this for my benefit (or humility); it just happens to be worth sharing – evidently.

The markets were relatively flat this year. That’s understandable considering how much they’ve risen from the depths of the Great Recession (or the Second Depression). As the Quantitative Easing has eased, so have the gains. As China has slowed, so have the markets. As oil prices fell, well, gas prices went down; but the commodity wealth of countries also fell, limiting their economies. The good news is the rapid adoption of renewable energy and the simultaneous divestment from fossil fuels. Maybe a bit of the bifurcation in the markets is a new economy stepping in to replace and old economy.

As usual, I expected my portfolio to end 2015 in a much better position that it was in at the end of 2014. Relative to 2014, 2015 looks good. Relative to where my portfolio was before my Triple Whammy, 2015 didn’t make much progress. The stocks bounced around a bit, with ups and downs. The companies, however, are in much better shape. Eventually, that improvement should show up in the stock price, too.

  • AMSC may not have received the positive news from the Chinese courts about the intellectual property theft case, but they are receiving new orders. AMSC is up 23% since mid-2015.
  • AST is still in early clinical trials for regrowing damaged nerves, but some of the responses have been so encouraging that for a while the stock quadrupled, until a competitor had good news, too. AST is down 14% since mid-2015.
  • GERN is also in clinical trials, but it is further along and navigating the FDA and international regulatory agencies on its way to possible approval of a cancer treatment that has great implications – if they can get approval for at least one specific cancer. GERN is up 13% since mid-2015.
  • GIG under-promised and over-delivered by saying little, then achieving GAAP profitability. The little company is getting a lot of attention as the year closes.  GIG is up 143% since mid-2015.
  • MVIS was perceived as over-promising and under-delivering, but even with that, they are making progress, have record revenues and backlog, and continue to maintain an impressive potential – that will be realized within the next few months (which has been the case for several years.) MVIS is down 7% since mid-2015.
  • RGSE has managed to somehow stumble in the high-growth, high-demand industry of solar power. The company is worth less than many homes in America. It dropped so far and so fast that even selling now wouldn’t buy me much of anything else. RGSE is down 50% since mid-2015.

My patience has been tested so thoroughly that it has put down its No. 2 pencil and is sitting back to see what happens with the grading. Aside from some minor adjustments, and one fortuitous profit-taking trade, my portfolio remains in a reasonably good position in terms of company progress, which has only begun to show hints of portfolio progress, and which is well-enough positioned that 2016 may be the year when I get to regularly share good news again.

I feel that I am witnessing a race between the advancement and progress of the companies I’ve invested in, and the troubling signs I see in an economy that is at least bifurcated and possibly destabilizing. (Much of the economic news is over on my blog for “news for people who are eager and anxious about the future” (aka PretendingNotToPanic.com). PNTP shirt In the best scenario, everything is awesome for my companies and stocks, and the economy. In the worst scenario, everything falls into the Reprise of the Great Recession, or as I call it, the Third Depression. In a bizarre scenario, as the economy trips on itself, some of my stocks provide the economically appealing new solutions to energy, health, and information issues thereby ratcheting up their stock price premiums. It could happen. What’s most likely to happen is something I haven’t listed.

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.

For the details of the stocks, 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

The Motley Fool
Economy and Markets

Silicon Investor

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Personal Finance Perspective

Fasten seat belts, or the mental equivalent. Today I read something that convinced me to put personal finance (the inspiration for this blog) in perspective. They’ve finally proved that the universe is weird. As if you didn’t know that, but these folks have proved it. The universe is weird, and yet within that we have to make sense of money – supposedly in some logical fashion. The ride will take us through seemingly disparate regions, but they are all part of our reality, imagined or real.

Part of today’s news feed on my other busy blog, PretendingNotToPanic.com



, there was a very geeky bit of physics news. Researchers at Delft University proved Bell’s Theorem. Here’s a quote from my commentary about their news (reformatted to hopefully improve clarity) ;

“As if Relativity wasn’t weird enough, and as if quantum mechanics (and its reliance on probabilities) wasn’t weird enough, Bell’s Theorem suggests there’s something more fundamental than space and time. Space and time may be consequences of reality. Just like realizing that:

  • things are made of molecules;
  • which we then learned were made of atoms;
  • which we then learned were made of protons, neutrons, and electrons;
  • which we then learned were accompanied by bosons, leptons, etc.;
  • which we then learned were made of three kinds of quarks;
  • which we are now hypothesizing are made of strings;
  • – space and time may be like those molecules, composed of something which we are only now beginning to recognize the existence of.

As even the researchers at Delft stated when they recently proved Bell’s Theorem;
The universe is conclusively weird.” – Delft University

Skipping the details, because otherwise this one post would become a series of books (which isn’t a bad idea, but this post is intended to take up a lot less time than that), it suggests that the space-time continuum played with in science fiction is also an illusion. The concept of reality as an illusion will resonate with some Buddhists, Hindus, Shamans, and others. Spirituality and physics meet again, something that is happening more frequently (with members of each camp claiming, “I told you so.”)

I follow physics because I am curious and considered a career in high-energy particle physics. In retrospect, that may have been a better choice considering the effective abandonment of America’s space program. I also follow physics because pure research enables the innovations that more conservative minds and policies can’t imagine and won’t fund.

Those innovations are opportunities for investing. The potential can be enormous (ask early investors in $MSFT – which I was). The risk can be enormous (ask early investors in Kaypro, Osborne, dozens of failures for each success.) If you want more details, buy my infrequently purchased book, Dream. Invest. Live.Dream Invest Live cover

As great as those potentials can be, personal finance is dominated by the need for a person to make more than they spend, and using the excess to invest.

My personal finance was dominated by decades of success and frugal living; then dominated by years of what more than one friend has called a “perfect storm of bad luck“; followed by my persistent, though fatigued, patience and perseverance.

Finance is just another label for resources, and in the mainstream economy, the main resource is money. How I manage my money is largely determined and dictated by procuring the essentials of life: food and shelter. To live within the modern world there are additional essentials like health care (sometimes just for appearance’s sake because it is unseemly to be unhealthy), and insurance (which comes in many varieties but which are as likely to support the system and maybe the individual.) The essentials are expenses exchanged for money gained from income. Passive income is awesome. Passive income is one of the primary reasons to invest because it costs the least amount of time which is the most precious and personal resource. Few people can access passive income and must rely on active income from jobs.

In today’s society, essential expenses are largely determined by external influences: competition for resources, interest rates, corporate and governmental policies, societal expectations. The great majority of my expenses are housing (including a government-enabled mortgage, property taxes, and insurance), food (because I must eat to live), transportation (because most of us don’t live in self-sustaining villages), communications (because we’re in the Information Age and my business is primarily information), and insurance (my second largest expense after housing and largely dictated by government policy. Oh yes, and income taxes, because I live in the United States and, now that I’m no longer rich, I have to pay higher taxes.

In today’s society, essential income is largely determined by my luck at being born a white male in America, my education which was paid for without going into debt (which is why I got a degree in Engineering instead of Physics), my efforts, all of which must occur within the bounds established by laws, regulations, and ethics.

Income and expenses then encourage me to be very aware of politics, societal shifts, non-governmental advocacies, and global trends.

Global trends have never been easier to track. Economic interconnections aren’t limited by borders. Prosperity in one country flows money into less-prosperous regions shifting power and assets, so a slowdown in China or an excess in Saudi Arabia, mean changes in San Jose housing prices and unemployment in North Dakota. Politician’s aggressive policies chase millions of people thousands of miles into countries that can’t or won’t welcome them, and put the average refugee into refugee camps for an average of 17 years.

Global influences have never been as powerful. Deforestation in the Amazon induces a drought in Sao Paulo creating an exodus from a city of 11 million people. Oceans may only be rising by millimeters a year, but each millimeter displaces thousands because the planet is populated by billions.

The influence of the Information Age means we’re more aware of the problems and possible solutions. The influence of the Information Age’s attendant technologies means new solutions are being created that have inspired, enabled, and communicated improvements in health, energy, education, and sustainability.

One of the signs of maturity, both personal and cultural (Charles M. Johnston), is the progression from taking care of the self, to the family, to friends, community, region, nation, species, planet (and…?).

Considerations of personal finance are essential in today’s society; but the conventional wisdom behind many of its aphorisms are based on a world that had closer borders. Now, what’s happening beyond the personal matters.

  • Whether my income exceeds my expenses matters.
  • Whether my community is sustainable matters.
  • Whether our society is becoming more just matters.
  • Whether our civilization improves or degrades our planet matters.
  • Whether our sciences connect us to fundamental truths matters.

If, as some scientific and spiritual researchers have pointed out, we are all connected – and that “we” may include all life and matter in the universe; then, it may not be a surprise that I am as equally fascinated by what’s happening in my neighborhood, what’s happening in politics, what’s happening in the plane’s climate, and what’s happening at the borders of science and spirituality.  If you ever wonder why this blog is so eclectic and diverse, it is because for me it is all connected.

There’s a Zen quote; “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” In the modern world I take it as, “Pay bills. Wash the dishes. Learn. Repeat.” (An interesting take on a book title. Hmm.)

The nature of reality may be that space and time are consequences of reality. Others have suggested that life and consciousness may also be consequences of some underlying fabric that we mis-interpret. With all of this to consider, is there any reason to wonder why I consider physics and spirituality more fascinating than sports and sit-coms; and that personal finance is simultaneously vital and inconsequential?

Now, it is time to conclude this post and then go wash some dishes. I’ll pay the bills after my clients pay their invoices.

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Surprising Samaritans

The Sun has set. Christmas Eve has begun. Listen to the older Christmas carols and hear about ghost stories. Tonight was saved from being my scariest Christmas Eve. A good Samaritan, actually someone I know from Whidbey Island, heard about the things I’m trying to do, the troubles I’ve had, and remembered something I did years ago. The result: a check in the mail that covered my biggest bill. Pardon me as I pause and think about that, yet again. They made the difference. They turned a holiday framed in worry into a holiday framed in hope.

For those of you just tuning in, about four years ago I was hit by a Triple Whammy. It happened during The Great Recession (or the Second Depression), but that was a coincidence. As more than one financial professional described it, I was hit by a perfect storm of bad luck. In today’s America, that’s unforgivable. Thanks to some help, I saved my house. Thanks to some folks that needed my help, I’ve been able to pay almost all of my bills by consulting. Thanks to patience, a long-term perspective, an appreciation of how much worse it can be, and a lot of work, I have hope.

And then the fuel pump on the truck died and needed to be replaced. It is one of those pumps that lives inside the gas tank. It had to be fixed. I couldn’t do it myself, but the nearest shop was able to get it fixed and running again – for more than I could afford, and they would only take cash or check. There’s finally enough room on the credit card for emergencies, but they didn’t take plastic. My truck was held hostage to their money policy. I scrambled, paid their bill, and then wondered how I’d pay the others.

Earlier in December, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to start a coworks in Langley (ReCharge Langley). I have approaches for other locations, like my current address of Clinton, but a good building in Langley became available at just the right time. Fundraising campaigns are public events, at least this one is, and in the midst of the various pledges and messages of enthusiastic support there was one email from a friend from years ago.

Before the truck, inspired by the campaign but not related to it, the email thanked me. Evidently, what I do, how I do it, and why I do it made an impression. Evidently, years ago I listened in just the right way, at just the right time, about a personal matter that was dealt with discreetly. When they saw what I was doing now, knew what I’d been through recently, and remembered what I’d done years ago, they decided they had to do something. They sent me a check for me, not the campaign. Value delivered for value received.

What I did wasn’t difficult. I didn’t do it to take advantage of a friendship (which others had evidently done). It is the sort of thing we all do for friends. Pardon the cliche but, that’s what friends are for.

Humans are social. We survive because we help each other. Does the phrase, “We The People” come to mind?

Here I sit, typing this post on Christmas Eve, not bemoaning the task of writing but wondering how many people don’t have my good fortune. Almost every day I post “news for people who are eager and anxious about the future” on my other main blog: PretendingNotToPanic.com. Today there was only one story. Homelessness and hunger are rising in America. Earlier this week I also posted that the upper class is doing better, and more people are joining it. There’s a bifurcation in America that, as one commenter mentioned; “So we’ve returned to Dickens-era conditions? Bah, humbug!” An appropriate comment on Christmas Eve.

Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol“, is about an era in England when there was the upper class and the lower class, and few living in the gulf between them. As much as it is about Scrooge and Cratchit, there were also the folks gathering money for the less fortunate. It was a time in England that preceded a more benevolent period. By the end, Scrooge becomes one of those helping the unfortunate. England eventually changed, too.

I can’t quote the conversation that resonated with my benevolent friend, someone who was always more likely to help, and was never a Scrooge. I am that much more impressed with them, thankful for the money of course, but impressed because they acted in a way that was more than words, sincere, and vital. We have wrapped money in stigmas and taboos, and it is refreshing to see someone who makes their own judgments. I am humbled that I am the recipient of their generosity.

I’d like to present them with a gift, but evidently I delivered that years ago. Just for fun, though, I sent them one of my books as part of an inside joke that would be too hard to describe here.

To everyone who cares about others, thank you. To everyone who helps others, thank you. Amidst the rhetoric and ideologies in our ceaseless debates, there are people who treat people as if they were people without labels; just like a Samaritan who tended a Levite, as a person taking care of a person simply because they were a person.

Enjoy the holidays, and each other.


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Eccentricities Planning And Joys

You are encouraged to consider the following declaration as eccentric. I like program planning. Okay, I’m not going to make it one of my hobbies, but I evidently have a tendency to enjoy hearing about a disparate collection of activities dancing around a goal, and then coming up with a way to line them up so they all head in the same direction. I’ve been told that this is not normal; but hey, it’s what I do. Finding, and accepting, our eccentricities is a great gift that can’t be wrapped, is difficult to deliver, but may be more valuable than anything under the tree. Program planning isn’t as appealing as some of the other things on my wish list, but I am glad to admit that I enjoy solving such puzzles that help people get things done. It may be eccentric, but it may also be a case study in discovering your valuable eccentricities.

I didn’t recognize it until recently. When I look back over decades, I can spot hints and suggestions, episodes and events, that I wished I’d recognized at the time. About ten years ago a friend pointed it out to me, and I thank her.

We were sitting around a kitchen table, a small group working on a new venture. It was fun. Ideas were bouncing around the table, escalating and flying off, then brought back again by more new ideas. Brainstorming (formal or chaotic) makes me think, dream, and smile. After an hour or two I had to leave and catch a ferry. Some schedules will not be ignored. After I got home, I collected my notes, sketched out the various ideas, connected the boxes, and then lined them up. Then, I sent them back to the group. My friend pointed out that it was impressive that I’d caught all of those ideas, and that it was bizarre that I’d sort them into something that made sense – because the meeting certainly hadn’t.

It turns out that I like playing with the little details and the big picture, that I enjoy putting a goal on paper and then figuring out the steps that can get to the goal. To me, that’s natural. To others, that’s bizarre.

DSC_6141One of the gifts a client gave me was the managerial license to update the program plan for their project. (The History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum – a project that may appreciate a shorter name.) We built a plan a few years ago. I’ve kept it updated, but it was time for a major overhaul. The plan wasn’t a sketch on paper, but a file that contained dozens of tasks that were linked to each other in a program called TeamworkPM. I may have exceeded its designer’s expectations because the project is large. Preserving, studying, and exhibiting the history of how computers and computing changed the way we teach and learn is an enormous endeavour. Given the right funding it will take about 3 years and – I’m working on the cost estimate, but expect it to exceed one million dollars, maybe three. TeamworkPM is a program designed to manage tasks that fit on a computer screen. The museum’s plan is five feet tall and three feet long. Fortunately, I know a printer who helped me convert a dozen screen shots into one piece of paper that was ready for the red pen.

Pardon the digression into a bit of geeky management, but that’s the point. Some of the most valuable things a person can find are the things that their talents and skills that are uncommon. Evidently, few folks enjoy looking at dozens of tasks, keeping them mind, and then sorting them back out in a useful manner. But then, too few folks know how to engage dozens of five-year-olds and teach them something. Too few folks know how to sit and listen, and only offer advice when asked. Too few folks will step into the uncomfortable moments in life and find a way to comfort someone. And yet, we need kindergarden teachers, counselors, and hospice workers.

I know I have other eccentricities. We all have eccentricities. The average normal person doesn’t exist. If they managed to be the average height, average weight, average education, average wealth, average whatever, something in the next second would change their height, weight, education, wealth or whatever.

I envy counselors that get to spend the day listening to people who are dancing around the blind spot that hides their defining characteristic, and are able to introduce the person to that aspect of themself. I try to do a bit of that with my consulting; otherwise, the consultation isn’t nearly as effective. But, I am no psychoanalyst.

And, that’s the point. Especially, during this week of Christmas, it is easy to focus on things, stuff, boxes and wrapping paper and credit card slips. That’s the tradition (though it didn’t originally include credit cards.) I don’t want to deny some kid the joy of waking Mom and Dad up far before dawn (and only a few hours after Mom and Dad went to sleep.) I don’t want to deny that to the adults, either. But, if you find yourself secretly wanting to do something “nobody” considers fun, but that you enjoy, consider treating yourself and doing it (as long as it is legal and doesn’t hurt anyone, including yourself.)

There’s snow in the mountains, and it’s been years since I skied. I’d like to get back up there, and will. In the meantime, there’s a gratifaction in pulling blackberries at the local Land Trust property, a joy in helping someone with firewood or reaching the top kitchen shelf, fun in hearing some danceable music and dancing wherever – even if it is in the lobby of the bank (video recorded and locked down).

I don’t know what your fun eccentricities are (unless, of course, we’re already friends.) The main thing that matters is whether you know what your fun eccentricites are. If you don’t already know them, finding them may be the greatest gift you can give your self.

As for those plans, they’re a good idea because they tell you that there’s a least one path that will get you from your dreams to your goal, but the other trick is to remember that life laughs at plans – but you may not be able to take the right next step without them.

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Truck Repair And The Value Of Community

Ugh. The week before Christmas, time to get the tree (hoping for a late shopper’s discount), and the truck’s dashboard lights up red. The battery symbol flashes, the rpms drop, the engine dies, and I steer and brake the 4,800 pound truck without power steering or power brakes to a spot on the side of the road that should leave enough room for a tow truck and safety. Ho. Ho. Ha. A little more than a day later I have a renewed appreciation for the compassion within community and the humor of the universe. Ho. Ho. Yeah.

I have a truck. I didn’t buy it. My father gave it to me when he moved off the ranch after his second wife died. He married her after my mom died, and moved from suburban Pittsburgh to her twenty acres of rural California because he fell in love after 70. Without her, he didn’t need the land, or the truck, and moved back to Pittsburgh. In a situation like that, the appropriate response is thank you for the truck, and bid farewell to 27 years of owning Jeep Cherokees (the regular Cherokees, not the Grands).

The math is simple. In 2015, a 200 Chevy Silverado 1500 is about 15-16 years old. Things break. I’ve held off on a long list of repairs because I didn’t have the spare cash. After my dad died, there was and is hope of enough of an inheritance to fix a few things, and I hoped the truck would hold on until then. It did what it could, and then it couldn’t do anything.

The short version of the story is that, instead of a quick fix by replacing an alternator which would’ve had the truck operating the same day for about $250, it turned out to be a fuel pump in the fuel tank and $860 the next day at a garage that won’t take credit cards. Alternative modes of transportation quickly became either a ten mile walk in hypothermia conditions, catching a bus that only gets to within two miles of my house then walking two miles in hypothermia conditions, or calling an expensive taxi to take me to a part of the island they rarely visit. I’ve bicycled across AmericaJust Keep Pedaling. I’ve walked across ScotlandWalking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland. Cold and wet and travel can be done, but not if I’m trying to present a professional image. I vented on Facebook, called a few friends to vent, and support began to arrive.

Within a couple of hours I had four offers to drive me home. After I got home (thanks to someone who knew it was a good time to serve me a cocktail first), I got multiple offers to drive me back to the garage, or someplace to work including people opening their homes to me. As word spread about the financial impact, I received offers of loans from friends, offers of pre-paid invoices from friendly clients, and a reminder of a promised non-holiday-related gift of money that would cover the costs. Modern economics can place a value on such offers from community, but economics misses the greater value of the compassion displayed.

The truck is now fixed. My cash has been maneuvered to pay for it (though I’ve yet to figure out the repercussions to my other bills.) There’s more than a whiff of fuel around the truck, but I’m hoping that is temporary and is only the consequence of a spill during the repair. I’ll let the truck sit for a day to let the seals set, and then try to let it sit for a weekend because, if it has to be fixed again, I don’t want to deal with that while the shop is closed.

Ironies and synchronicities have been evident throughout. The truck broke down. That’s sad. It broke down just after I’d mailed off my Christmas packages, deposited a major check from a primary client, and paid myself. The truck broke down in one of the few places where it could safely get onto a shoulder. This is one of the windiest and wettest Decembers on record, and the weather was calm and dry. The breakdown almost occurred beside a friend’s backyard, and only a mile from the garage – a garage which was beside the sites of three meetings I was supposed to facilitate that afternoon. As the truck was being delivered by the tow truck at the garage, my old Jeep drove up and parked across the street as if in sympathy. As I woke up about the time the stock market opened, my portfolio was up about the same amount as the price of the repair. The offerings of help enabled a serendipitous encounter with one person, a long-delayed deeply emotional conversation with someone else, a prompting with an advocate of my idea for a coworks, and a better payment arrangement with a long term client.

coworks logos lightning

There was even a mad dash reminiscent of silent movies. As I was working from yet another coffeeshop, I set down my tea to steep, opened my computer to check for emails about an eagerly anticipated meeting about the coworks Kickstarter campaign, I noticed that there was only one bus that would get me to the garage before they closed, and the bus was leaving in minutes. I left the full cup on the table, dropped the computer into the briefcase, and scurried to the bus stop. A few minutes later, the bus arrived. After it dropped me off, and as I walked up to the garage, the truck came down the road from its test drive. The mechanic recognized me, handed me the keys, I walked inside, asked a few clarifying questions, and quickly drove back to the coffeeshop to find my tea still there and my table still available. Minutes after I unpacked the computer, the person I was meeting with arrived as if it was all orchestrated and choreographed. The conversation about the potential for Langley, Whidbey, the new economy, and the coworks was so good that they had to kick us out when they closed two hours later.

Spending $862.32 on a truck repair in the week before Christmas can change holiday plans. If I lost myself in angst and anxiety, I would miss the precious nature of the ironies and synchronicities that arrived. During the holidays, it is easy to overwhelmed with shopping and tradition; or too aware of the financial inability to participate in traditions. You can’t wrap the gifts I’ve received in the last few hours and days. You can’t photograph them. But, I can certainly appreciate them, the value of friendship, relationship, and community. Thank you, all.

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Christmas Movies And Treasure

Christmas is not supposed to be about money. All that stuff with the money changers and the temple came much later. (Check the Bible for details.) Christmas has become what we’ve decided we want it to be – which means it is a wide variety of things to a very diverse set of people. For me, it is tradition, reflection, and a bit of indulgence. One indulgence is the list of movies I pick from every year. The thing that surprised me as I listed them was how many deal with money. I watch them for their silly, sappy, sweet nature. I like having reasons to smile, no analysis required. Money, however, drives the plot of many; which makes me go, hmm. What treasures are involved?

Christmas is not supposed to be about gifts, either; but those three wise men probably set the tone. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not cheap, which is why they were mentioned. A poor couple forced to travel in winter that couldn’t find lodging find shelter with the animals. That’s better than many homeless manage, but not an auspicious beginning. A few days later (as I recall from my readings), great gifts are bestowed upon them. It wasn’t until I reflected on the movies and the money that I began to wonder. What did Joseph and Mary do with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Were they treasured forever, or were they expected to exchange them for something they immediately needed, like food and shelter?

Christmas is also about more modern stories. Has any story generated more modern Christmas traditions and icons than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens? One of the reasons he wrote it was because his wife was pregnant, again. (They eventually had ten children.) Much of Dickens’ work was about the income and wealth inequalities of the time, much of which is mirrored today. It would be interesting to see which story has more movies associated with it, Joseph and Mary’s, or Scrooge’s.

My short list of holiday movies would probably be longer if I spent an hour browsing imdb.com, for the five that come to mind the easiest are;

  • Muppets’ Christmas Carol – “Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!” – Charles Dickens meets Jim Henson, which also means the best Ghost of Christmas Present I’ve seen; the ultimate being living in the moment – and nowhen else. Also true to the dissonance between the rich and the poor, and the possible revelation.
  • Scrooged – “Sometimes you have to *slap* them in the face just to get their attention!” – The runnerup for the Ghost of Christmas Present; Carol Kane hitting Bill Murray with a toaster to change his perspective. The rich and the poor, again; with a willingness to show the dark turn of homelessness, and the inevitable revelation that is broadcast to millions through the wealth of a major network because that’s the way the world works now.
  • White Christmas – “You know, in some ways, you’re far superior to my cocker spaniel.” – It’s a musical, so it is about song and dance; and the thing that gets them on the train is money, the reason for the big show is money, and the dissonance between the poor dancers and the rich crooner. (Definitely good dancing. Be careful how you hold that fan.)
  • Love Actually – “Thank you, sir. I did have an awful premonition that I was gonna fuck up on the first day. Oh, piss it!” – And hallelujah! A movie with Love instead of Dickens involved in the title; and even though it touches on class and wealth the message is that the season, any season, can be about something more basic and more valuable.
  • Hogfather – “Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and THEN show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet… you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.” – Okay, this one is out there; but it goes someplace I enjoy because it is simultaneously a parody of the modern holidays and a reminder that we can make them as valuable as we want, that we have the power to make it so.
  • A Wonderful Life – Not one of my favorites, so I’m not going to even look up the quotes; but a reminder that the main motivation is the resolution of a banking, housing, and personal crisis.

There are other movies I traditionally watch: the entire Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Ring trilogy; but they are personal seasonal favorites for personal reasons.

Very few movies remove the influence of money, particularly for a season that is supposed to be about family, friends, emotions, charity, and generosity. The money is there, but that’s not why I watch. I enjoy the relationships, the humor, and of course the happy endings. (The goose may have a different opinion, naturally.)

This will be another very simple Christmas for me, and that’s fine. As I approach sixty, I understand why so many people approaching retirement don’t want more stuff and do want more connection. Hugs are treasures. My financial situation is about the same as this time last year, but the potential is greater; but potential doesn’t buy presents, so I’m doing what I can to make a few things for a few folks. (Gotta get to the Post Office soon.) As I’ve had less, I’ve had to view Christmas differently. What do I really care about? What do I really treasure? How much of what I’ve done in the past was by habit and expectation, but didn’t necessarily truly touch a person?

The tree from 2014

The tree from 2014

A few traditions remain. I enjoy cooking, so a feast of some sort will occur. I like the lights, and put up a few (and feel sorry for the outdoor tree that died and is simply acting as a scaffold for lights this year.) A few cards have gone out, but at least one less this year because my Dad died a few months ago. Cookies (gluten-free) have been baked, and some are being shipped, and some are definitely only to be consumed in Washington State because one particular ingredient isn’t supposed to cross state lines. The caroling has already commenced on my evening walks. With less than ten days to go, it will be interesting trying to get a tree again. Maybe I’ll do what I’ve done recently, help someone clear a bit of their property by picking a volunteered Charlie Brown tree that would be cut in the spring anyway.

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They Decline Rewards

The action behind the scenes is always more interesting. The kickstarter campaign to create a new type of coworks continues. The public appearance is that of 1% funded. The backstage activity is appealing and encouraging; but, it is purposely backstage, I have no idea if it will walk out into the lights, and it may not have to. People are pledging, and some aren’t asking for rewards. After reading dismal newsfeeds all day, it is refreshing to hear from advocates, surprising to hear from people who want to help without expectation, and amazing to see the chords the idea strikes.

For those who are just hearing about this now, welcome to a Kickstarter campaign I launched to create a new kind of coworks. Others have preceded meoffice photo 062813, and I benefited from their creations. But, there are always lessons to learn, and hopefully good ideas can be improved to become even better ideas. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before – that sort of thing. If you want more details, browse back through the blog posts, or head to the official Kickstarter page, or contact me. Enthusiasts are knocking on each of those doors.

Rewards are part of crowdfunding campaigns. Pledge $100 and the campaign gets closer to its goal, and you get one of my books. Folks who contribute to PBS and NPR are probably familiar with the process. So, let’s keep in mind that one possibility that some folks are declining rewards is because they don’t want what I have offered, but they want the project to succeed. Let’s also keep in mind that some folks want to see all of the money go to the goal, no shipping charges required. Now that the campaign is launched, I might have the time to go back and add some more rewards that are more specific to coworks. Stay tuned.

Have you ever tried to get shop owners to put posters up in their windows? Whidbey’s a good place, if the poster fits the style of the place and the cause helps the community. I was surprised when I was asked to put together something to tape, or pin, or prop up for others to see. Here’s the first draft. You are welcome to print it and display it, and if you want a better copy, contact me.

Langley ReCharge montage 121015
I know people who work full-time making logos, graphics, and ad campaigns. Me, I like to take photos, and have some practice at making simple graphics; but the advice I’ve received has steered me to an update to the icon. The earlier version showed a partly charged battery. Adding a hint that it is being recharged works closer to the purpose of the coworks as a place to recharge your business, charge and charge again if you’re fortunate enough to have repeat customers and clients, and for the simple service that it is designed to be a place to recharge phones and laptops – especially, when the power is out. (That’s assuming enough is pledged to buy an appropriate generator or power supply.)

coworks logos lightning
I don’t know if the campaign will succeed. You are a better judge of that because the crowd is in control of crowd funding. I have already received a benefit. It is sweet and touching to see and hear from people who share my passion. My passion is for people and ideas, and I enjoy bringing them together. I’m not the only one.

One of the most positive signs I’ve seen develop in the last few years is crowdfunding. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, are based on an idea that was nearly impossible before the Internet. Asking people for money has always been difficult. Taboos around personal finance are constraining even if no one else is part of the conversation. And yet, it is happening.

Giving money to people you don’t know in the hope they’ll use it the way you approve has always been a tough dynamic in charity and philanthropy. That’s one reason rewards are part of Kickstarter, perks are part of Indiegogo, and NPR hands out tote bags. Even if they don’t spend the money as you expected, at least you get a mug or a bag.

With the mass acceptance of the Internet and social media, the appeals are no longer limited to wine and cheese events reserved for targeted high net worth households. It is possible to fund almost anything: from museums, to art shows, to gadgets, to medical bills, to whatever. The money has always been there, but now appeals can be made to the people who appreciate the situations of people with ideas and needs but not enough money. Crowdfunding is working because teachers understand what classrooms need, artists appreciate the value of a seminar or specialized tool, gadget freaks can fund gadget inventors rather than waiting for mega-corporations to convene a committee and a focus group.

Friends, family, neighbors, and the beleaguered rich may have a difficult time helping; but within the billions of people connected electronically, if even 0.1% of the people on the Internet support an idea they are a crowd of 3,170,000. One dollar from 0.1% funds a multi-million dollar project. The goal for ReCharge Langley (the updated working title) is $18,000. It isn’t limited to that. Crowds frequently pledge far above the goals, enabling stretch goals and accelerating ideas and benefits. Let’s see, if everyone on the Internet pledged a penny they would raise $31,700,000. ReCharge doesn’t need that much, and would have to immediately begin paying forward which is part of the stated goal. Okay, that works for me. (And, oy, would I be busy!)

Of course I hope you pledge, whether you accept or decline the rewards. Of course I thank those people who have pledged to ReCharge Langley. I also thank everyone who has helped crowdfund the good works that are going on because the world needs good ideas, good ideas frequently need funding, and individuals building to a crowd are making the ideas flow and making the world a better place. That’s a reward we all share, no shipping required.

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The Second Depression

If I was writing a book I could give this concept a better treatment, but practicalities inspire me to write about it anyway. We may be living within a spiral of history, when things repeat but not in the same way. It’s happened in other theaters before, and a trick of language emphasized the somewhat similar recurrence. Are we really recovering from the Great Recession, or are we in the midst of the Second Depression?

The ‘War to End All Wars’ was also known as ‘The Great War’. The ‘War to End All Wars’ didn’t happen only once; but the war that started in 1914 was the first one that was readily recognized as a world war. It was barely conceivable that a second such war could happen because surely we humans had learned our lessons. After the start of the second world war, the ‘War to end all Wars’ was seen to be a fallacy, and there wasn’t much about the first one that was seen as Great. It became ‘The First World War’ and ‘World War I’.

Pick your date, but 1929 is a reasonably accepted start of ‘The Great Depression’. The US had many depressions prior to it, but this one got the name ‘Great’. It defined a generation, dramatically redefined the nation and its government, and became something to avoid at all costs. America had eleven more recessions before the Internet Bubble, a bubble that will only happen once. Right? That was followed by a recovery and then – ‘The Great Recession’. For some, The Great Recession is past because stock prices are high, interest rates are low, unemployment is low, and housing is recovering. For others, the jobs and wages haven’t returned, many feel trapped by mortgages, and expectations of advancement are seen as fantasies.

Spirals are only circles from one perspective. Every rotation involves change. World War II was not World War I again. Many of the countries and battlefields were the same; but most of the people, technologies, motivations, and strategies changed.

The Great Depression is typified by the Dust Bowl, the market crash of Black Friday, bank failures, mortgage foreclosures, massive unemployment, and massive government intervention.

The Great Recession is typified by the housing crisis, failed financial institutions, massive unemployment, a market crash, massive government intervention, and is possibly exacerbated by changes in climate and weather (he types as yet another extraordinary storm storms through in an increasingly ordinary fashion.)

The Great Depression is also known by how people adapted. They grew more of their food. They lived in simpler houses. They shifted jobs as necessary. They fixed rather than bought. They saved rather than spent.

After the Great Recession, localvores are in fashion, tiny houses are in fashion, nomadic workers and coworks are in fashion, maker spaces are in fashion, getting out of debt is in fashion.

Within this spiral of history, many things are reminiscent, but are considered retro and fashionable instead of depressing and regressive.

Fashionable is a good word for people who grow their own food, live in tiny houses, abandon conventional careers, make things, and become debt-free by choice. For many people, there is no choice. Growing their own food is cheaper, living in tiny houses is cheaper, conventional careers aren’t available, making and repairing costs less than buying, and getting out from under debt is a financial necessity because that money is needed for food, housing, and the other necessities of life. Even with all of those efforts, they may not be able to afford health care, day care, or retirement.

If America never had another depression or recession, those past two events could maintain their unwanted titles of ‘Great’. On average, the US has a recession every 4.8 years. The Great Depression wasn’t the only depression, but it grabbed the title. For the many of the 37% of Americans who aren’t working, The Great Recession isn’t a bit of history, it is current events.

There are troubling signs in the economy; always. The wealth of China is hunting for safe havens because of uncertainties in China’s economy. Some housing markets are in bubbles. Commodities, even oil and coal, are declining. It’s possible that the main thing propping up the dollar is the poorer state of the rest of the world currencies. Financial institutions have changed so little that the Fed is calling them into meetings to warn them that the public may not bail them out next time. Climate continues to change, regardless of any human debate. Refugee crises have already begun.

Maybe everything will work out. Maybe we really have learned our lessons and a new economy will clear up the inequities and renewable energies will clean up the environment. This isn’t facetious. We humans are amazing and can make these things happen.

In case we don’t mature quickly, maybe it is time to consider at least a simple shift in nomenclature and recognize that we didn’t just pass through The Great Recession, but instead are trying to survive and thrive past the troubles of the Second Depression.

I’d delve deeper and edit more thoroughly, but there’s a job application to complete, a kickstarter campaign to manage, and an intriguing conversation with a local entrepreneur in the food industry to consider.

A Kickstarter campaign for a corworks for nomadic workers

A Kickstarter campaign for a coworks for nomadic workers

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A Second Step For ReCharging

One idea inspires another. I launched a kickstarter campaign to fund a coworks for Langley, WA. A perfect campaign would be launched with everything a perfect business needed. Perfection, however, is an illusion. Flip the switch and let the campaign and all its attendant parts run. Instead, I started with more than enough, but far from everything. There’s an advantage to getting started and then adapting, rather than trying to make the world work to an unachievably perfect model. Fresh ideas arise as soon as the first few steps are taken. The coworks is already evolving and improving. It even has a new name.

I’ve been thinking about a new concept for a coworks that might work in small towns since I participated in the most prominent coworks in Langley’s recent history: Fusion Spark’s coworksoffice photo 062813. It wasn’t perfect, but it had many of the basic and necessary elements: 24/7 access, a quiet environment, good power and internet, a kitchen-ette-ette, a bathroom, and a place for making conference calls. It was a good model that was closed for strategic reasons in the parent company. Very understandable.

Thinking and doing are very different. Pundits and politicians, ideologues and philosophers, are impressive with assertions and seemingly logical conclusions that can be best when never tested. Try to act on their suggestions, though, and reality begins teaching lessons.

Overthinking the new model of the coworks was a trap I wanted to avoid. I knew it could be a waste of time, and I knew I’d learn something as soon as I took that first step.

Langley and Whidbey are known for their populations of heavy thinkers. Advice is easy to find, frequently delivered even when it is unsolicited, and commonly contradictory, and inevitably valuable. Before I launched the campaign, I talked to some of the local business owners. They shifted what I intended to offer. After I launched the campaign, more ideas came in. Sitting back the next day, the various ideas swirling through my head helped align into new insights that I may act on – later.

In the meantime, I realized a few things.

  • If it works in Langley, variants may also work in Clinton, Freeland, and other small towns – but each model would require customization.
  • I can’t do it alone; which is one reason for the campaign, but also a recognition of the value of community.
  • New ideas need new names.
  • New concepts can benefit from new symbols.

And, I decided what to do about them.

  • The other towns will have to wait (unless someone is inspired to get there first).
  • I am lucky enough to know people who are willing and capable of helping.
  • The name that I thought of as general ‘Langley Coworks’ is too close to the name used before. I filled a blank sheet of paper with dozens of names that attempted to capture the difference, and found I liked the first one I wrote: ReCharge Langley. A later post may dive into the layers behind ReCharge, but there are other ideas to develop first.
  • Communications have gone visual. While names are important, icons and graphics rule online. With a name like ReCharge, I played with a white board at another coworks (one for writers that is hosted by the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts) and came up with an image of a battery. It is a work in progress, especially for someone who is not a graphics illustrator, but I like it as a good first step.coworks logos green battery

And then, there’s power. There are the ideas the world reinforced. Islands make people aware of things like power. In the city it is easy to assume the electricity will work, and if it does go out, it will probably come back on through some path in the mesh of powerlines. On the island we know it can go out, that the lines are long, not much of a mesh, and strung across open water; and that the work crews will get to us – eventually. Eventually isn’t good enough for people who must keep their businesses operating. For many independent contractors, without electricity and the Internet they can’t make money, and if they can’t make money, they might have to take drastic action. It sounds extreme, but even among the highest income Americans, at least 25% have less than $2,000 available for emergencies. A few days lost business can make someone lose their business. The idea of making reliable power and internet available sounded like a nice embellishment – until the power went out. That idea of having a generator, just in case, became a much higher priority.

The concept of the coworks is developing; but the narrative hasn’t changed, the implementation has only slightly shifted, though it does have a new name and image. It would have been difficult to appreciate the important elements without taking that first step.

Ideas inspire others, especially when they are introduced to the world, treated with a reasonable amount of care, tested with a reasonable amount of caution, and adjusted and adapted as they develop. It is true for my concept of a coworks. It is probably true of almost any idea but only if the idea is taken past the first step and encouraged to take that second step. That’s how ideas and people progress.

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