Lines In The Water 2017

How many lines do you have in the water? Folks in the Gig Economy have several, and then toss in crab pots, and rent a boat – anything to bring in the next gig. The phrase came back again while talking to a friend this weekend. He pointed out that I’ve probably never had so many lines in the water. I’m not the only one, but there has been a recent surge thanks to a few opportunities. Opportunities are great, but until they are realized, they are sources of consideration and sometimes consternation. The Gig Economy has great opportunities, but that also means don’t be surprised if the need for a day away from it all is that much stronger.

Entrepreneurs are familiar with tending lots of lines. A different friend told me about finally getting his web site working just right. Getting dozens of leads every day is great! Turning enough of those leads into revenue streams is harder. Which ones to pursue? Which ones to encourage? Which ones to ignore for a while? They may be called leads or opportunities, but they are people. People are logical and emotional, rational and irrational, have plans and are frequently disrupted by things out of their control. Welcome to the guessing game that is modern commerce.

Life is random, despite our attempts at plans. Several years ago I wrote about having several Lines In The Water. Some of the lines have been reeled in. Others have been productive. The most enticing ones are regularly reeled in, freshened, and cast back out hoping to make that connection. Plans are great. The most useful ones are written in pencil. Good and bad luck, however, can trump them.

Listen to biographies and autobiographies. Few successes happen without some mention of good luck. Being in the right place at the right time with the right people and the right resources is hard to arrange on purpose. Anyone who goes to that much effort can be seen as controlling, something many people avoid. A plan can set the right direction. Effort adds energy and builds experience. Networking broadens the awareness of skills and talents while also increasing the possibility of connecting with wants and needs.

It isn’t socially acceptable to give all the credit to good luck, unless it’s from winning the lottery jackpot; and even there, a ticket had to be bought. Giving credit to good luck is seen as self-effacing or humble-bragging.

It isn’t socially acceptable to give all the blame to bad luck, even though we read stories about one illness, one accident, one mis-spoken gesture or phrase that ruined lives and careers.

And yet, it does seem like some people have all the luck. Lucky them.

Lines in the water is another strategy based on diversification. Especially in the Gig Economy, diversification is powerful. Gigs aren’t permanent. Gigs are probably part-time. If a gig isn’t enough to pay all of the bills, other gigs are necessary. Even if a gig is profitable enough, its lack of stability means it is prudent to have another gig ready.

Fortunately, a few gigs and a few paycheck jobs have been added to my lines in the water. It is all good. All seem to be reasonably good matches to my skills and talents and their needs and wants, hopefully with sufficient benefit to both sides. There are no guarantees, which is why so much time has been spent tending the opportunities. Which is also why my brain ran out of energy Saturday afternoon.

The good news is that I can finally give myself a day off every week. I needed it. Sunday morning was a small breakfast followed by some laundry, and playing a game. Sunday afternoon was spent reading a book, taking a nap, and feeling guilty every twenty minutes. Sunday evening started with dinner and sneaking in a bit of work that worked as guilt relief as well as training for a possible new gig. I’ll finish this, and make sure I make time for a movie and some popcorn. Monday is only hours away.

The Gig Economy is new, or at least the title is. Entrepreneurs have been working such lines for centuries. Real estate agents, retail shop owners, anyone who relies on an unsteady stream of work is familiar with managing uncertainty. Over on another of my blogs ( is an article about the growth of the Gig Economy. While the concept is old, and the name is young, the data show that much of the improvement in employment (~94%) has been in the Gig Economy. As this trend continues, our economy, financial institutions, and lifestyles will continue to shift. Adaption is necessary.

With no surprise, adaptation at a personal level is happening faster than adaptation at a governmental level. Financial models, personal finance wisdom, and basic services are already changing because basic human needs must be met now. People can’t wait for legislation.

If you’re working in the Gig Economy and feel out of sync with institutions, don’t be surprised. You’re ahead of them. They’re following you. If you know people in the Gig Economy and they’re not listening to your advice, it may be because your advice is, or was, fine for a different era.

One thing remains a constant. Each person has limits that must be respected. I understand that sometimes it is necessary to work seven days a week, 10-14 hours a day. Advice is great – as long as you can pay your bills. Occasionally, though, take a day, let the lines in the water rest, and rest yourself. Practice playing, even if it feels a little guilty.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fresh Idea Passive Pump Flipped

Take that idea and flip it around. Thomas Edison (an inventor with a great first name) wasn’t the first inventor to find a way to record sounds. He was, however, the first one to find a way to play them back. Earlier inventors managed the first part, but not the second. I can appreciate their situation. My air mattress has a slow leak. It almost lets me sleep through the night, but eventually my butt hits the floor. I wake wrapped on either side by the remaining inflated sections. My workaround has been to turn on the pump for a few minutes while I take my inevitable middle of the night bathroom break. There must be a better and quieter way to pump in air about as fast as it leaks out. And, I think I found it in one of my other inventions. All I have to do is flip the idea around. Oh yeah, and prove that it works, first.

I guess I’m an inventor. I have a patent (thanks to Boeing) for an idea I developed while working on the aerodynamic control of a supersonic transport. Anyone can be an inventor because anyone can have a fresh idea. Making it work and getting the government to issue a patent for it is a lot more work. It’s like the difference between having a great idea for a novel and actually writing it, editing it, formatting it, publishing it, marketing it, and selling it. (If you want hints on how to pursue your inventions, check out Alan Beckley’s blog.)

I enjoy inventing so much that it got me in trouble at Boeing. A group of us were developing a new kind of airplane. The legal types playfully chastised us for not submitting inventions on an airplane that couldn’t fly without them. So, in three months I helped invent ten things. I was told that I “was too comfortable with new ideas.” So much for American innovation.

Just because I’ve turned into a consultant, writer, and artist doesn’t stop the inventive mind. Browse through this blog for several Fresh Ideas. Whether any of them are practical or marketable is a question to be answered when I finally have the time, money, and inclination to pursue them.

One in particular continues to intrigue me. The Passive Pump relies on Brownian motion and nano-manufacturing to create a vacuum pump that could passively remove the air and gas from a container. If successful, it could make it easier to store and ship perishable items like food and medicines to regions were electricity is unreliable or expensive. Disaster zones come to mind. I came up with the idea in 2005, wrote about it in 2012, and have watched some interesting traffic to the blog post over the years. If someone is developing it for humanitarian purposes, great! Give me a call. If someone is developing it for commercial purposes, great! as long as I am properly compensated.

Some of you have jumped ahead. It’s a pump. It can work both ways. That thought didn’t arrive until this afternoon while I was getting ready to put the air mattress away for the season. (I sleep on it during hot summer nights because it and the room it is in are cooler than my normal sleeping arrangement, my living room couch. If you want to know what happened to the bed, read Minimalism Meets A Carport Sale.)

The idea is simple. A patch or panel is built into anything that needs to be inflated or deflated. The patch or panel has numerous microscopic flaps in it that only let air flow in one direction. Make the flaps small enough and Brownian motion may, may, be sufficient to let the more energetic molecules pass. Give it enough time and one side will have a higher pressure than the other without requiring any energy source.

I don’t know if it will work, but I do know how I’d test it and develop it. The manufacturing technologies exist. Let me check those lottery tickets again to see if I can afford the fab and lab time.

Want more engineering details than I’m going to put in a blog? Schedule a meeting.

A recent saying in Silicon Valley is “If you want to make a billion dollars, create something that improves a billion lives.” That isn’t my motivation, but I could use the money; and this idea does have that potential.

Flipping ideas is not limited to inventions. It is rarely as obvious as realizing that you’re using the wrong end of a hammer; but it is as common as pulling when you should push. In karate, opposing the flow isn’t as effective as moving with it while redirecting it.

It can be hard to see it for yourself. One of the things I do as a consultant is to watch and listen for struggles that can be turned into energy sources, for negatives that can be turned into positives by flipping a perspective.

It is easy to overthink thoughts. Thinking things through is a good idea, but don’t be surprised if that flipped perspective effortlessly reveals a solution. It may just take a fresh look at an old fresh idea. If Thomas Young had flipped his idea for recording sound in 1807, we would’ve had recorded music seventy years earlier, and maybe that Thomas would be just as well known.

Posted in Fresh Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Laboring on Labor Day

It’s been a busy weekend, here in the Gig Economy. The good news is that I’ve had enough work to fill the days. The other good news is that I’ve had enough work to fill a good part of Labor Day. That could also be seen as bad news. One reply on Twitter pointed out that I should maintain balance by not working on the holiday. Ah, I look forward to the days when I can afford such luxuries. In the meantime, I work when work is available (with an occasional day off). I’m also about to get much busier finding other ways to fund the funds to finance my life. Life in the Gig Economy works to a different calendar, a different schedule, and with different holidays.

A bit of clarification. Labor Day suffers from the same fate as many US holidays. It was designated for one reason that we eventually reinterpret. Labor Day isn’t about celebrating laborers. Labor Day is about celebrating labor unions.

Labor history was a bigger part of my education than most, I expect. I was raised outside Pittsburgh just a few miles from several mills. My Dad’s career developed from his life as a trucker. His Dad was a miner. I worked in a steel mill, and was required to be a member of the United Steelworkers of America (though they may have changed their name by now.) My Dad was a shop steward in the Teamsters. His Dad could’ve been in the United Mine Workers, but by he died by the time I got old enough to ask about such things. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the songs I learned in grade school were union songs about solidarity and the struggle against power. So much for Mary Had a Little Lamb. How about Sixteen Tons and being trapped by debt in a dangerous job? Great songs for kids.

I saw both sides of the union versus corporation battle.

The site of the Homestead Massacre was only a few miles from our home. Knowing my Dad’s work schedule was proof of how hard some people had to work. Visits to my Granddad’s hometown were proof that good, hard work wasn’t a guarantee of an eventual good and easy retirement.

I was also threatened in the mill by other workers because I worked too hard. My Dad told a story about trying to deliver home heating oil during a deep-freeze, but had to talk his way past a fellow union member who pointed a shotgun at his head when my Dad tried opening the gate to the depot. He delivered the fuel eventually. Just a few miles from my Granddad’s home, rival factions within the miner’s union killed one of the union officials and his family.

I thought I left all of that behind when I moved to Seattle to be an engineer at Boeing. There, the engineers’ union was active and trying to gain the respect of the corporation. When I hesitated to join the union, I was threatened. The threats convinced me to never join. (They said they’d slash my tires. That wasn’t much of a threat. I lived close enough that I walked to work. Maybe they’d slash my sneakers.)

Union versus corporation is one of those battles that I don’t engage in because I’ve seen too many sides of it to be fully in either philosophy. It seems to me that abuse of power is the issue, and that sometimes laborers have to organize to generate enough power to negotiate, which has resulted in some great social advances, but which has also resulted in some great abuses and injustices, too.

There is talk within the Gig Economy of the need to unionize. I can certainly see the benefit, but I can also see the difficulties. Previous unions were built around mill towns, ports, mining towns, farms, and other industry centers. Need to gather a crowd? They’re all in one place. The Gig Economy is decentralized. That is one of its strengths and freedoms, but it is also one of its weaknesses. A coal mine needed miners who lived by the mine. An online business needs workers who have access to a computer and the internet. Instead of having a few hundred people to pick from, modern businesses rely on millions of workers willing to do jobs for free or for very small fees. If a few stop work in one country, just as many are available in a few seconds from somewhere else.

One reality of the Gig Economy is that, when the work shows up, it needs workers who are ready now, not later. The work defines the schedule. The schedule defines peoples’ lives. Weekends and holidays are simply anachronisms on the calendar. To those who are practiced at it, the flexibility is natural. Expecting to only work on proscribed days is quaint.

The uncertain nature of the work is an incentive for some to organize. It is also an incentive for me to explore other options. Irregular work makes it hard to make regular payments. This weekend’s work included some rough patches. People are stressed. Some of the stress is financial. Some is based on overload. Put the two together and don’t be surprised if people aren’t relaxed and the work stumbles instead of flows.

After a particularly tough bit of news today, I decided to get more proactive. Thanks to my network, several appealing opportunities have been suggested, but none have made a commitment. It was time to check their status. Some other jobs have opened on the island. Time to refresh and customize the resume, yet again. If that’s not enough, I’ve decided to start taking classes again, though I haven’t decided which ones, yet. Programming, to leverage my geezer geek skills from my FORTRAN days? Math, because it is a comfort zone and also a possible entry into finance? I joke about embarrassing myself in German, Japanese, and Russian; but I think those hurdles are too high to jump. And then there are the conventional careers that have always had some elements of the Gig Economy: real estate, appraiser, etc. Training is required there, too. Pragmatically, I have to balance time and money more than interest and familiarity.

There’s a rush order due tomorrow. I don’t know if they need my help. I hope so. I could use the money, and it is work I am comfortable with. If not, it might be a good day to take advantage of the fact that I don’t have any other commitments scheduled. Maybe I’ll take the day off to consider my options, to consult with myself for myself. I could use the day off. Maybe I’ll call it a holiday.

In the meantime, at least I got to watch a fiery sunset because I worked from home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nap Time

A guilty pleasure, taking a nap after lunch. Working from home has its benefits. It may be flashbacks to kindergarten. It may be healthy adult behavior. Whatever. I tried taking a nap a few days ago and failed. Instead of sleeping, inspiration took over. I now have the first few lines to my first book of fiction. It looks like story time will be taking on a new meaning.

We make fun of silly little rituals. Kids should take a nap, and maybe get the modern equivalent of milk and cookies later in the afternoon. Siestas sound lazy, but they may also be the key to making work less dreary, the mind more creative, and life more enjoyable. The British tea time sounds like an anachronism, yet I recall a study that suggested 3pm-4pm was the best time of the day for enjoying caffeine.

My main indoctrination into break times within workdays was at Boeing. I worked in a steel mill before that, but those break times didn’t leave much of an impression. That probably had to do with 100F temperatures in the mill and a rough and rude behavior by too many (but not all) of the guys in the air conditioned break room. The Hustler posters weren’t my style.

Boeing was much more gentile, and at least more relaxed about engineers taking breaks as needed. Maybe it was because the company wanted to encourage caffeine consumption and its energetic consequences. Lunch hour, however, was a bit different. Mine was typically from 11:30-12:10. Do the math. That hour was over in forty minutes. At lunch I’d revert to introvert mode. Rather than play bridge while eating a sandwich, I’d retreat to my car. Boeing’s commercial airplane plants are big. It took ten minutes to get to the car, and ten minutes to get back. That left twenty minutes for lunch and a nap. Divide it in two and find a “lunch hour” that was split into four ten-minute segments. I still tend to get hungry at 11:30, and I left that job nineteen years ago. Friends are surprised that I will excuse myself for a nap, and come back ten minutes later, refreshed. Very handy, even it is only a few minutes with the seat reclined in the truck.

It doesn’t always work that way. Thoughts about work and money, or aches and pains, or the state of the world can make it hard to sleep. Even then, though, I take the time to at least give my digestive system time to do its job unencumbered by other tasks.

I’ve had an idea for a sci-fi novel for several years. Like many ideas, it is hard to know when the first inspiration hit, but there is a milestone. I thought of the idea a year or two before I saw a painting that looked remarkably like one of the main characters. Someday I’ll ask that painter for the history of that painting. Maybe it can become the cover, if they agree.

I won’t go into details. I learned that from some of my previous non-fiction books. (It’s a bit early, but here’s the list for your holiday shopping.) The more I told people about the details, the more they encouraged me, and the less likely they were to read the book. They already knew what was in it. Why buy it? (Because the story is in the telling, not just in the title.)

Years ago I developed the background technology, sociology, logistics, ecology, and history of the main characters. That’s a lot, but that’s not enough for a story. A story is about people, or at least entities. (Hey, it’s sci-fi, aliens are welcome.) I’ve seen the struggles my novelist friends have, so I don’t dismiss the task of turning an idea into a story into something readers care about. Readers care about characters, and good writing. I cared about the characters, too, but I couldn’t find the key connection, the critical scene that defined their relationship. I had a sketch of an idea, but I didn’t have a story.

Try to take a nap. There’s a lot on my mind, as usual. Various career possibilities are being suggested, but they’re all for a little later without many details and without commitment. It may be time to be more proactive, in which case it is time to pick from my resume and history and develop a new work life, hopefully one that allows for naps and cups of tea.

Turn off the ringers on the phones and the email. Close the doors. Drop the blinds. Plunk my body down on the couch and pull a blanket over my body and a hat over my eyes.

And not sleep.

Instead, one character’s frustration finally found a voice and in a rather resigned tone asked the other a question. The words matter. I knew they wanted to talk to each other, but didn’t know what about. The setting was simple. The phrasing was simple. The first few lines of their story were no longer only an idea. They were specific sentences that readers could read, and hopefully want to read more.

Part of me groaned. Yet another project cluttering up cranial space. How is this one going to fit in with the rest? Books rarely make money. Why do this? Repetitive stresses are already causing problems. More typing? Groan.

Don’t expect anything soon, unless some unsolicited publisher gives me an impressive advance. This will probably take years, and I already have two other non-fiction books that I want to write about the time I turn sixty. And yet, who knows what will happen?

Naps are silly, childish, non-productive, and not as fashionable as exercise or meditation. They are also, free, healthy, and possibly one of the most valuable ways to spend some time. Give yourself a break. Find someplace safe and cozy and take a nap. It may be the start of a new story.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Causes Effects And Eclipses

Pardon me as I take a sip. Ah, the clink of ice cubes in a glass. Yesterday, there was an eclipse. Today marked a change in the seasons. Both involved community, simple pleasures, and an excuse to pause and consider. My frugal choice, a rare martini, and writing this blog post. New seasons are heading our way and it feels good to be prepared.

The photos and videos of the eclipse are overwhelming, especially in their quantity. That’s what happens when a rare event happens over a continent filled with smartphones wielded by people who understand science. Very cool. My experience was about an order of magnitude smaller, and yet was memorable. Whidbey Island had 92% of the eclipse (if you could find a place without any fog). That extra 8% made a bigger difference to my camera than to my eyes. I was lucky enough to aim for a place that just happened to be within 200 yards of the fog bank, Greenbank Farm. The Master Gardeners tend an exhibition garden there. Enough other folks with fancier equipment would be focusing on the Sun and the Moon. They were the big show. They were the cause. Causes are interesting. So are effects. Instead of buying special glasses or making a pin hole viewer, I wanted to see what Nature would create. Interlaced leaves create their own versions of pin holes. Instead of getting one image, a plant can create thousands. I wasn’t disappointed. The shrubs created some nice effects, but the grand conifers commandeered the parking lot as a massive canvas for innumerable crescents.

And then, everything returned to normal.

It is August, summer time, and yet time to look ahead. Our trip around the Sun continues and the Autumnal Equinox is about a month away. In the last two months, the area has had less than an inch of rain making Seattle one of the driest cities in the US. This too shall pass. We tend to stay dry for the next month or so, making this my favorite time to go hiking. It also means that the Fall and Winter storms are due. These hot and dry days don’t last long. Soon, the tourists will retreat and the clouds will return. Quiet will get redefined. So will the weather. Now is the time to get ready for wind and rain and cold. Today’s chore, buy and stack firewood that won’t be used for months to prepare for a familiar set of causes (storms) and effects (power outages).

The eclipse didn’t care whether I witnessed it alone. Winter won’t care, either. Both had the benefit of a bit of frugality and community.

Stacking a cord of firewood may be tough enough for those who don’t do it often. Buying it can be even tougher during Summer’s business version of a dry spell. Fortunately, two of my neighbors also wanted firewood and were willing to split a cord three ways, financially. We paid someone else to do the harder version of the splitting. The cord was delivered today by a guy who should have his own reality show. Affable, a ready smile, a forty year old truck that was younger than him, and an attitude of “deal in cash and I’ll get the work done. No worries.”

Cords of wood don’t get delivered in tidy bundles, at least not from anyone I know. Cords also don’t split into exact thirds. Wood is organic, random, and chaotic. We used a simple trick. We sorted the wood into three stacks. Pick up three pieces, put one in each stack. Old adage: Many hands make light work. Put enough randomness in the stacking and things tend to even out. We picked an order for the houses; then, we numbered the stacks 1, 2, 3; called someone up; and had them pick numbers at random. I get the second stack. We split the work, the cost, and the decision making.

The cause of the activity was preparation for the future. The effect was anticipating nights with a bit more ambiance and maybe some necessary heat.

Despite some scrapes on my forearm and some pine tar that snuck through gaps in my gloves, it feels good to have a supply of firewood in place while the weather is fine and the days are long.

The eclipse could’ve been a solitary event, but being at the farm (really more of an artist and tourist destination than a working farm) meant there were plenty of people about. While I was scurrying around chasing crescents and shadows, dozens were in the parking lot wearing cardboard glasses and looking at the Sun and the Moon dance. A few minutes after the peak, clunk and vroom as people got in their cars to leave. The show wasn’t over. Our Solar System was rewinding a replay, but the folks were done. Some were nice enough to roll down their windows and pass out their glasses. Yay! I got to see the eclipse – and found I was still more interested in the effects than the causes. Some folks may object to handouts, but that’s what literally happened. They handed out something they no longer needed. That’s communal. Something more communal would be to hand out something that’s needed by both the giver and the receiver – but that’s another story.

I’m thinking about changes. (See for “news for those eager and anxious about the future.“) This year has seen more changes than I can recall. Politics certainly aren’t the same, and are definitely changing. Technology is speeding up. Hello electric cars, automation, renewable energy, and medical advances. Climate change is changing the way I expected and feared. The conservative estimates publicized to generate the least controversy are easily being exceeded by the much less encouraging reality of temperatures and oceans rising. The seasons are regular and predictable, even if the weather isn’t. Eclipses aren’t regular, but they are predictable. Both return to some expected version of normal. Politics, technology, and climate don’t have to be regular. They are causes and effects creating expected and unexpected causes and effects.

A friend who also likes to consider such shifts wondered what to do with the resulting possibilities and anxieties. After an eclipse, get back to the regular schedule. After Summer, expect Autumn, Winter, Spring, and another Summer. Those of us who have been considering the less certain changes may find ourselves in a position to help others who are caught by surprise. Unconventional coaches, counselors, and consultants may be the equivalent of eclipse glasses (use as needed) and firewood (resources engaged in preparedness).

After a month of explaining eclipses, orbital mechanics, and photography I know that I enjoy helping people better understand the world and how to live within it.

Considering where we are heading in politics, technology, and the environment, I know that I’d enjoy helping others better understand how to live and work within those possible futures. (Give me a call if you have questions about living and working in our new weird world.)

A few eclipse photos are uploaded. My third of a cord of wood sits by the road waiting for some free afternoon for me to move it. Pine tar is stuck to my fingers, still. My drink is almost gone. The Earth continues to spin around its axis while orbiting the Sun. For a while, it may look like things have returned to normal. Community and frugality have helped. I also know that changes are coming. I’m glad I’m doing what I can to prepare.

I wonder if the alcohol in the martini will help clean off the pine tar. Hmm. Always something new to discover.

Oh no, sweet frog! Don’t stare at the Sun!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Silly Sea Salt

It is hard to get much more basic than salt. It’s cheap, but it’s vital. And I’m curious. Of all the DIY projects and frugal endeavours, making my own salt seems silly. Why make something that is so cheap some cities throw it on roads to melt ice (and corrode their cars and taint their downstream neighbors’ water supply)? Frugality is an appreciation of the resources like time, money, and materials. Logically, if I want more salt, even fancy flavored sea salt, I can get it quicker and cheaper and cleaner at the store. Life doesn’t have to have every moment justified. The old saying goes “the unexamined life is not worth living”, but I think the corollary is that “the life that is examined too much is not being lived.” I made sea salt, and had a weird sort of fun doing it.

Preppers wonder about how to make the vital ingredients for living. I do some preparation, mostly because I live beside a tsunami zone, over an earthquake fault, and in the neighborhood of several volcanoes. (My Incomplete Emergency Kit) One of the advantages of living on Whidbey Island is that, for some of the worst case scenarios, I’d have to fend off the land and sea. In the right season that means having to get by on crab, clams, and salmon. Not something to complain about. That got me thinking about what else was around. Around is the key word. I live on an island. It has saltwater all around it. Granted much of it has various types of agricultural, residential, and industrial runoffs, but that didn’t stifle my curiosity. How hard would it be to make a mineral that is vital for life?

Easy and hard was the answer.

Yes, I could’ve watched dozens of videos of how others did it, but that wouldn’t be as much fun. Besides, the few I saw emphasized complicated rigs using lots of energy. Keep it simple. Take saltwater. Subtract the water. The remainder is salt. Simple enough.

My deck gets hot. It faces west, out across Cultus Bay, the southern end of Admiralty Inlet, with a backdrop of the Olympic Mountains. Whoever built this house was wise enough to include a wall of windows. The architectural choices are great for the views, but can turn the deck into an oven. Sounds like a perfect location for drying things out. But, how to evaporate the water best?

First Try
Some cookie sheets are wide, long, and shallow thanks to a small lip around the edge. Maximize the surface area and maximize the evaporation. I suspected I should keep the bugs out, so I placed a cooling rack over the cookie sheet and covered it with cheese cloth. Don’t bump it because such a shallow pan sloshes easily. Also find a way to keep the wind from flipping it. It worked. The evaporation was quick and gratifying – and the salt was spread out so thin that it was harder to harvest, and the salt air rusted the cooling rack. Rust, not a good flavor, even for someone from Pittsburgh.

Second Try
One experimental technique is to investigate the extremes, then work to the middle. Instead of a cookie sheet that is vulnerable to wind, I tried a mason jar with cheese cloth for a lid. It was stable, could pull in light from all sides, and minimized the area for bugs and birds to cause problems. It worked, slowly, very slowly. Months later I had a jar with a salt-encrusted bottom that didn’t want to give up the product.

Third Try
Head to the thrift shop for something in the middle, a large pie pan. It is deeper than the cookie sheet, but still has a lot of surface area. Instead of a cooling rack supporting cheese cloth, I stretched plastic screen door mesh over the top, wrapped it around the bottom, taped it tight, and poured the water through the mesh. Ta da! In a few weeks, I had about a half cup of sea salt. And, I couldn’t use it. Within two days of putting it on the deck in the sunshine, a bird pooped on the mesh. I may be willing to deal with runoff, but runoff is diluted. Concentrated bird poop is too concentrated for me.

Fourth Try
Get silly. I set up the pie pan again, but this time I found an old window pane to act as a roof over the setup, and bracketed both sides with wire mesh to dissuade and critters from dropping in. My poor little pie pan looked like it was in prison. And, it worked. Two weeks in August was all it took to make salt that had a bit of a slurry to it as the last water evaporated away. I find it easier to harvest while it is still somewhat moist. I transfer it to a window sill for finishing.

More Tries
Of course there will be more tries. Nothing much happens at the start, but after enough water has evaporated a relatively quick crystallization happens. Instead of the tiny crystals in slat shaker, big squares start floating around in the brine. Cool. I’ve seen some simple rigs that use greenhouses and such. I may play a bit with those. There’s always a better way. I’d also like to get more scientific about it. As I understand it, seawater is about 5% salt. Can a pound of water create 0.05 pounds of salt? If a 5 gallon bucket holds about 30 pounds of saltwater, that could produce 1.5 pounds of salt. Impressive. After the process is improved, I may find the right rate for production to meet consumption, and also what additives like iodine are necessary. I don’t make margaritas, so my needs aren’t great.

It is a silly exercise. When I showed it to my neighbors I felt like it was the grown-up version of the high school science fair. And, I grinned like the kid whose baking soda volcano finally worked right.

It is a silly exercise, except that it isn’t. We take many things for granted. Too few folks know how their food and energy are created and delivered, or how their waste is disposed. For the price of a 5 gallon bucket, a walk to the beach (actually out to the channel to catch the cleaner incoming tide), a pie pan, and some reusable mesh, I learned a lot about something simple. I can’t justify making sea salt using frugal criteria, and I thought I was doing it just for the fun of it, but it turned out to be valuable, and fun, and yes, maybe a little silly. If I get good at this, maybe I should start making those margaritas.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My 40 Year Mortgage

Another interview! Not for a job, but for someone else’s article. (Someone out there must need a writer who can write about engineering in English.) The folks at wanted to write about 40 year mortgages and were having a tough time finding homeowners who had one and were willing to talk about it. They stumbled across my blog and gave me a call. Evidently, I’m a member of the 1%, not in terms of wealth but because only about 1% of homeowners hold such long mortgages in the US. Yet again, I’m not normal. I’m okay with that for several uncommon reasons.

I didn’t shop for a 40 year mortgage. It was a consequence of my Mortgage Modification a few years ago. Thanks to a government program (HAMP), an understanding official at Fannie Mae (“With a resume like that you just need time to get a good job.), and an odd path through mediation (a long story), my mortgage switched from a >6% 30 year mortgage to a 40 year mortgage at 2% that someday will ramp up to something under 5%. My total monthly payments dropped by about half (for now) and I get to stay in the only house I’ve considered home.

The downside as they state in the article, is another decade of interest payments. That’s more money heading out the door. Most people prefer going the other way, paying off mortgages in 15 or 20 years to decrease the total cost of the mortgage. A 40 year mortgage can come across as one of those deals where it sounds sweet for the homeowner, but the bank’s the one making the money on the deal.

Run the numbers. There’s probably an online calculator to make the comparison for your situation. I didn’t need to. I didn’t have any other option except to sell while the market was low, and then be penniless and homeless. I certainly hope your situation is more flexible.

It is easy to be seduced by the precision of the mathematics. I enjoy math so much that I watch documentaries about it and subscribe to Numberphile on YouTube (where tau versus pi is a passionate debate). Here’s the trick with the numbers. Check the assumptions behind them and the equations that use them.

Inflation bounces up and down, but take an average over a long enough period and see a general rise. That’s the nature of our economy. It relies on about 2%-3% growth, which roughly translates into inflation. Look back 40 years and find inflation has been about 3.5% per year. If the mortgage rate is less than inflation, then my interest payments are becoming a smaller fraction of my monthly expenses every month. My housing expenses may continue to rise with insurance and taxes, but the cost of borrowing the money gets smaller. Something that cost $1 in 1977 would cost $4 now. A 3/4 cut in a mortgage payment can happen by keeping the number of dollars the same while inflation rises four-fold. Even my eventual increased interest rate has a good chance of staying below long term inflation. Wait 40 years and that interest payment may be as small as the price of a nice dinner.

Housing is getting more expensive, especially in the Seattle area. With my 40 year mortgage, I get to live in a home for less than it would cost to rent. The downside is those increased insurance and tax payments. A house is an asset, which means it can also be an investment that I happen to live in. Good investments rise faster than inflation. An increase in my monthly interest payment increases my expenses by a few hundred dollars per month, but my house, my asset, my net worth can easily increase by several hundred or even a few thousand dollars a month. As the real estate market recovers, my house’s value is rising about $3,000 per month. Spend a few hundred to get a few thousand? Sounds like a deal – just be careful with liquid versus illiquid assets.

Housing may be getting more expensive, but for many it is no longer the greatest monthly expense. Health insurance costs are rising. I am aging. Combine the two and compound an expense that becomes prominent. As I’ve written before, health insurance can cost so much that I can’t afford health care. If I spent money on my health rather than on insurance, I’d be able to visit a different doctor every month. Oh, what a luxury. That’s more on my mind as a greater inefficiency than interest payments.

That aging thing happens. Will I be alive in 40 years? Maybe. Maybe not. If I’m alive and still in this house, great! That’s a celebration! If I’m not alive, I’m probably not worrying about my mortgage payments.

Concentrating on the expenses in the last 10 years of a 40 year mortgage only makes sense if I stay in the house more than 30 years. In 40 years I’ve had almost a dozen addresses because of careers, relationships, and opportunities. Half of all homeowners move again in about 10 years. Very few take out one mortgage and pay it off.

The Economy et al
Forty years ago we were in the Cold War, recovering from a political scandal, just out of Vietnam, just coming off the gold standard, and about to hit stagnation and high inflation and interest rates. The personal computer was a toy for geeks, the Internet was largely unknown, cable TV was a luxury, and coal and oil were king and queen. The Space Shuttle was replacing the Apollo Program. Want to guess how things will be in 40 years considering the singularities that may occur in automation, quantum computing, nanotechnology, Bitcoin, augmented reality, electric cars, cheap solar power, medical advances, and the inevitable unknown unknowns (or unk unks as we called them at Boeing)? Throw in climate change, political change, societal change. Toss in some chaos theory. Toss in some good and bad luck. The range extends from utopia to apocalypse.

Personal finance is personal, and even the finance part doesn’t exist purely within the realm of mathematics. Personal finance is about financing a person’s life, and that life exists within a far more complex environment that shouldn’t be ignored. As they quoted me at the close of the article; “I’m happy with the present and willing to accept what’s lined up for the future“. (Nicely done, Marilyn.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Triple Whammy Sixth Anniversary

Not long ago, this twisted, melted piece of plastic was a pulley. A simple, little thing; just a pulley. A simple, little thing broke. In the vast possibilities of bad luck, it broke in one of the best ways, though only after causing a struggle. That was true of my truck. It may be true of other pieces of my life. It’s true for everyone, because every life depends on many simple, little things not failing. This one seems to resonate as a mirror, the other end of an era of troubled times.

The view from Mount Townsend, oh so many years ago…

Finally, I’m taking a day off every week. Friends and clients tell me I look more relaxed. I can believe it. It’s prime hiking season. The snows melted out of the sub-alpine country. Wildflowers (and bugs) are enjoying their short growing season. I long for the high mountains. One night isn’t enough. I decided to splice two weeks together to get two nights off more than a mile above the record breaking heat. The goal: Mount Townsend, site of one of the best panoramas in the Puget Sound region.  From the ridge it’s possible to see out to the Pacific, and around 270 degrees of Vancouver, Everett, my house, Seattle; including a string of volcanoes: Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt Adams, as I recall.Load up the pack, remember to take the camera and tripod, load up the truck – and forget the abandoned attempt to hike into Anderson Lake where the truck acted like something was wrong, but was actually fine. A Low Fuel light came on even though there was ten gallons of gas left.

Drive up the island, ride across to the Olympic peninsula on the ferry, drive down to the Quilcene Ranger Station, take their thoughtfully prepared map, and start the drive up one of the nicest approach roads (paved!, mostly) for a 14 mile climb to a trailhead that would lead to a few thousand feet of climbing to wildflowers and cool air. (Smoke from Canadian forest fires would probably have blocked the view, alas.) Even paved approach roads are bumpy and noisy, but eventually one noise seemed determined to be heard. Grump. Stop the truck in the middle of a one lane road, but keep it running in case it didn’t want to restart, look under the hood and find – an engine that seemed to be working fine without being smelly or smoky. And yet, Chuck the Truck is 17 years old. Things break. I executed an 8-point turn which included dropping into 4WD to get back out of the ditch, and headed back down to the highway. The responsible side of me was trying to convince the over-worked side of me that it was the prudent choice. But, just a week or two earlier had been that trip that I shouldn’t have abandoned.

Here’s where the good bad luck started to happen.

Roll about seven miles back to the highway and resign myself to driving home. Nope. A quarter mile along US 101 the noise came back; then I heard, felt, and saw a series of somethings that convinced me to get off the road. Evidently, the engine was still running but power steering was gone. The best place to park took a U-turn and left the truck straddling a shallow, grassy ditch. Maneuvering a 4,800 pound truck without power steering in a tight space without knowing what’s wrong meant quitting before I started falling behind. On go the flashing emergency lights. Up goes the hood. A quick look showed the serpentine belt had tried to serpentine itself around the engine block. Grrr. Out comes the phone, and thank you AAA.

The friendly neighbor came out to keep me company. He didn’t have to stay long because the tow truck just happened to be finishing up a call about five minutes away, much better than the possible two hour wait I first heard about. I’d picked a repair shop at random (Gary’s Auto Service, on Martin Road), and he knew the guy. A call to the shop held the good news that he’d have the replacement part by the time we got there, about an hour to get hooked up and driven to the shop. That’s where we found the melted pulley. So much for a quick fix. Belts must be tight. The belt has a tensioner. The tensioner has a pulley. Something in there decided to stop turning, melting a bit of the belt, melting the pulley, and then throwing the belt off the other pulleys. It was late afternoon. I was already trying to figure out which combination of buses, ferries, and bicycle rides would get me home and back to the shop again. He decided to make another call. It was late, but they could get him that part, too. Probably less than an hour later, the truck was running again. When I asked for the price, he quoted something so low that it was obvious he wasn’t the sort to take advantage of the situation. I knew the truck needed a new battery, and I was happy to suggest he get that business, too. I was one of the last vehicles to squeeze onto a ferry (after a one boat wait) and got home at sunset.

Imagine the difference if the truck broke down at the trailhead, 14 miles in, more than thousands of feet up, and at the end of the day.

This happened near the sixth anniversary of my Triple Whammy, the summer when several simple and unrelated things broke in my financial engine. Each was unexpected. Diversity in my portfolio wasn’t enough to protect against a cascade of little things suddenly stopping big engines. The repair hasn’t been as quick as the good fortune that I had with my truck. And yet, I am hopeful.

The last time something similar happened was with my Jeep Cherokee Classic on the way down from Johnson Ridge in 2009. The Great Recession was in full worry mode. My portfolio was hit, but was recovering nicely, potentially. One the drive back from the trailhead, a rock somehow managed to wedge itself into the brakes. I couldn’t tell until I hit the highway, but there it was obvious something was terrible. The Jeep wobbled and bucked if I drove more than 15 mph, not good on a 55 mph two lane highway with few shoulders. The brake fluid boiled in the lines. A complete brake job went onto my credit card, reluctantly. Until then, I almost always paid off my balance every month. It and the problem with the dishwasher (see earlier post) were milestones that signified the beginning of an era. I’ve carried a balance ever since.

Getting the dishwasher fixed (though I am chasing a couple of leaks) felt like a mirroring of the failure of the first one, as if there was a symmetry at the beginning and end of an era. The similarities with the Jeep and the truck seem like a mirror as well because, while they were both bad, I have greater confidence that I’ll be able to pay down this repair (and the rest of the balance, too.)

Simple, little things break. Bad luck happens.

Simple, little things can be gifts. Good luck happens.

Luck plays a larger role than most people and organizations will publicly admit. My problem with my Jeep would cost me two full weeks of business revenue (not profit), and the recurring interest charges escalate that. My problem with my truck will cost me about four days of business revenue. The difference is significant for anyone who has to be careful with their bills. The same sort of things can happen to businesses, organizations, and governments. Realizing that makes me feel less alone, and makes me less likely to judge someone or some group. Maybe they just had some bad luck that tangled their engine, temporarily. Maybe they just need some good luck, and the opportunity to take advantage of it.

I think I’ll skip hiking for a while, though – unless someone else wants to drive.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Practicing Patience

Pardon me while I sweat. Better get some fluids before I dive much further into typing. It’s 81F in the house. A fine day for whacking weeds for Whidbey Camano Land Trust. Kyle, the Stewardship Assistant, invited me as Site Steward to join him in an afternoon of repelling the invasive species. Today was a day to use the noisy, gas-powered equipment that is a little too aggressive to use in larger work parties. It was a day to sweat, get some work done, and be reminded of the power of patience – unintentionally.

Earlier this week I had an interview. It would be great if it was for a job, but it was for a reporter who is writing an article about 40 year mortgages. She stumbled across my blog and some of my earlier posts. She asked good questions for her article and inspired me to ask myself good questions about my progress towards financial security. She has a deadline. I can take more time considering my answers to my questions.

I’m almost at the six year anniversary of my Triple Whammy. The traditional gifts are candy and iron. I’m sure my naturopath has an opinion about candy. Iron powered by petroleum was what I got to play with today. Call it a different kind of sweet crude and call is close enough.

I’m also at the three year anniversary of being able to keep my house. The fight with foreclosure was successful, though the specific date depends on your preferred perspective.

Like many people recovering from the Great Recession (which I consider the Second Depression), some things are better, some things are the same, age dictates that some things are a bit worse. Add them up and life is better. Compare the sum to what’s sustainable, and call up my Litany Of Optimism and Backup Plans. Want details? Click on those links. Both the Litany and the Plans are extensive.

If the Litany and Plans are so extensive, why isn’t the sum more than sustainable? Welcome to my daily debate. Welcome to the debate that many must maintain for themselves.

Many of my managerial, consulting, and coaching friends have analyzed my situation. The general consensus, great potential that is unrealized, yet.

It is the ‘yet’ that is the key. For anyone that is pursuing a personal strategy there is a question that can’t be resolved in advance. If the strategy sounds good but the results haven’t succeeded, does that mean it’s time to try something else, or it’s time to keep trying? Is persisting something to give up or continue?, I have an understanding of my potential. There are many things I can do, but my passion is for people and ideas. I enjoy listening to creative and entrepreneurial people, and helping them pursue their projects. I enjoy consulting more than climbing a peak or dancing to a big band. Getting the business started is the hard part, not just helping others succeed, but spreading the word about their successes while being necessarily discreet. In the meantime, I get to enjoy a second skill, writing. Its inspiration is people and ideas, but the goal is communication instead of strategizing. Those are my potentials, passions, and skills. Everyone has a set. I watch many of my friends pursuing theirs.

Emotionally, it can be difficult when the pursuit doesn’t flow. In modern society, the easiest way to make the process flow is to lubricate it with cash. At least for me, having an extra million made it easier to start new careers back when I didn’t need to. Now, there isn’t as much out there smoothing the way. Some days it seems every step is fighting friction. It’s tiring.

I’m tired as I type, but that’s because of the weed whacking. A couple of hours of that, a long walk there and back, and being a bit out of shape means it feels good to sit down. Luckily, the weed whacking happened in a place that provided a lesson.

We worked at Hammons Preserve, a nine acre farm that was made part of the Land Trust by the farmer. I’ve been Site Steward there for over eight years. The general goal is to keep some pasture as meadow, some wetlands as wetlands, and allow the rest to revert to forest. (Want details? Contact One of the first tasks was to take out several loads of the sort of trash that accumulates around a farm. The site was left with a shallow slope and an opportunity. In came the weed barriers and native plantings. For over seven years I’ve taken photos from the same spot, an irregular time lapse photo essay of the efforts of volunteers, nature, and time. Today, I took the same photo, as usual. It didn’t look much different from the last time. It looks much different from the first time.

As the native species were planted, the biggest thing in the view was a burnt stump. Without the trash, and as the plants grew, a stream began to flow from the stump, almost as if it had a pump installed by a landscape architect. More plantings, more weed whacking, more cursing the deer for eating the saplings, and eventually the plants established themselves. Then, the stump was obscured by willows and grasses. Now, flowers upfront grab the attention.

Nature is patient. Nature persists and perseveres. The Land Trust may help, but time and Nature do most of the work. The Land Trust decided on a direction, gave it some momentum, and now that portion of the land is naturally far more sustainable than it was before.

I’m tired. My fingers are telling me that it’s time to rest. They’ve had enough repetitive activity. I sit here encouraged by the power of patience and perseverance. I don’t know that I’ve picked the right direction, but it feels right. I probably just have to practice patience.

And, maybe mix myself a tonic with ice cubes, a lime, and some other select fluids. That sounds sweet.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dishwasher Celebration

Ah, the sweet sound of a machine doing the dishes. It’s been over five years since my tiny dishwasher turned itself into a complicated dish drying rack. The motor wore itself down until all it could do was make a grinding noise. It was one of those little household events that should’ve been innocuous, but instead sits as a milestone for the financial situation I’ve been in since then. Thanks to a local variation on craigslist, I have a new, old dishwasher. Pardon me as I load it up for a second time today, just because I can. Let the celebrations begin! And, let something simple provide insights into personal choices.

I can use my past strainer again! I forgot about that.

Simple things have pervasive effects. Sure, I can wash dishes by hand, but being a consciously frugal person made me reflect on the ways it changed my life. Dishwashers are labor saving devices, but not by much for me. Washing dishes by hand takes time, but time how long it takes to load, arrange, and basically manage the labor saving device and find that that difference isn’t as great. A dishwasher isn’t instantaneous, doesn’t pick up the dishes, can’t feel for leftover dirt, and won’t put anything away. A dishwasher doesn’t take care of everything, either. Knives, wine glasses, bulky pots, and wooden utensils are going to get the old-fashioned treatment.

The biggest impact I saw was the way I cooked. A Cuisinart (another garage sale find) or a mandolin (the thing with the slicing blades, not the musical instrument) may cut finer, faster, and safer; but cleaning those complicated blades by hands takes care. Accidents happen. Instead, I’ve almost always used regular kitchen knives. They’re a caution, too, but at least they’re easier to handle and clean. One consequence, I gave up on making my own (healthier) potato chips for a while.

Health, or at least sanitation, is also different. I’ve wondered how many upset stomachs weren’t from the food but from something I didn’t clean well enough. There’s no way to know. There is, however, some security in knowing that the machine is going to do roughly the same level of effort every time. At least some minimums are established.

Environmentally there’s a difference, but it has more to do with the person than the machine. One isn’t always better than the other.

Little things get overlooked and accumulate. It is easy to get used to that stain or to quit using something that’s too hard to use. Getting a hand stuck in a tea pot or a commuter mug may make a great video or an entry in the police blotter, but the possibility is one more reason to not look past the lid, or put something on the shelf for a while. Finally, small pleasures like using my favorite mug are back.

The reason for the second cycle today is to clean some of those things that I take for granted: that tea pot, the dish rack, a second try at the commuter mug (which didn’t get clean in the first cycle.)

Emotions aren’t ruled by logic, even while they use logic to rationalize feelings. Back when the dishwasher broke, the numbers already told me that I was in financial difficulty, but the realization that I couldn’t afford to fix something as simple as a basic appliance felt like a critical failure. I like being a responsible person, and here was something that I couldn’t respond to. It became the first in a long series of deferred maintenance and MacGyver’ed repairs. Hearing the dishwasher throw water and soap at things I want cleaned feels like one of the first steps in the end of an era. A bit of luck, a bit of money spent for installation, and a bit of “normalcy” returns to my life.

It all happened thanks to drewslist, the local and better variation on craigslist. I’ve described it before, but basically it is a small town email (and now online!) service that lets people post jobs, events, housing, classes, carpools – about a dozen categories. One of my favorites is “For Sale, Wanted & Free”, particularly the Free part. Remodel projects, downsizing, relocations all free up and create a flow of used stuff that may otherwise go to the landfill. Skinny, compact dishwashers rarely come up, but here one was for free. Yay!. And it works. Yay!! All I had to do was pick it up and install it.

The frugal and resourceful part of me would like to say I’d installed it myself. I tried. Unfortunately, the two dishwashers had completely different electrical and plumbing attachments. Listening to the old dishwasher throw sparks as I pulled it out didn’t help my confidence. Helping at a Hearts and Hammers event (a local variation on Habitat for Humanity) provided great evidence of the power of a leaking dishwasher. New kitchen floor and joists, anyone? I paid for two pros from Bayview Appliance to install it and carry the old one away. The good news, it works. The not so good news, I’ll have to devote about three days of my business revenue to pay for their one hour of effort.

Frugal living runs into such quandaries and comparisons. Is washing dishes by hand good enough, or does it come with missed opportunities? Even when something is free, is it cheaper to make it work by spending time, or by spending money? If the appliance works great, then spend time. But the risk of something going wrong can cost ten times the price of a new appliance. We can only guess at risk. There are no guarantees, except possibly when someone is paid to do the work.

Small things are more important in a frugal and minimalist life. The downs and ups I experience may not register with someone who could replace an entire kitchen because they didn’t like the color of the sink. Personal experiences, like personal finance, are personal. If it feels like a celebration, celebrate. Don’t care if no one else cares. A frugal life is one based on respecting individual needs and wants, and not living according to what some marketer puts into an ad.

I can already see one or two reasons why the previous owner upgraded. A few items still had dirt after the first cycle. The inside has a patina thanks to twelve years of use with well water that has lots of minerals. I can also see why I’m happy and relieved to yet again be able to do something as simple as delegate one more task to one more machine. It’s one reason I’ve been able to write this post. Ah, to dream of putting the next messy roasting pan into the magic box and letting it deal with my style of long, slow cooking.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments