Encounters with My Former Self

Something has started happening in my life that I never expected; indeed, I never even anticipated. As I grow old, I keep running into myself!

As a boy, I had a lot of curiosity. One way I expressed this was to look at things very, very closely. Naturally, at some point in time I got a microscope for Christmas. Then along came a chemistry set, and then later a telescope. I learned a lot about the physical world from these tools. In those days, these items were actually more tool than toy.

Also as a boy, I had a great imagination. I would get on the floor, either in the living room or in the basement, and set up my spaceship sets or blocks or whatever and play for hours. I had no difficulty transporting myself into my play. I think my ability to imagine facilitated this mental leap.

I also read a lot. I enjoyed comic books first but moved into paperback books when I was a little older. The town library was within walking distance so I got exposure to hardbacks as well. And the price was always right at the library, especially in the late summer when I was bored and the air conditioning felt great. I really liked science fiction and could easily get lost in books by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt, Jack Williamson, Fredrick Brown, and Isaac Asimov. The only real problem I had while getting lost in books was my imagination – I’d start reading a book and the next thing I knew I was awaking from a daydream! Uh … what was this story about again? I’d have to go back and re-read the last ten pages to find out.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been curious, somewhat imaginative, and have read fiction off and on. However, I largely turned my back on these qualities when I came of age. I went out to meet the world on its terms and learn whatever I could. I was, after all, an adult. Uncle Sam gave me the opportunity to travel to foreign lands. A solid education gave me a professional career and the resources to raise a family in a nice town with good schools. I’m eternally grateful for such good fortune and fond memories.

Now, however, I interact with the world pretty much on my own terms. I spend more time doing the things I like to do, not unlike when I was a kid: I read, learn, research, study, think, work with my hands, and imagine. Fortunately, I don’t have the problem with daydreaming that I used to have when reading fiction. I realize now that daydreaming as a young boy was all about me – I was the hero, the protagonist – in whatever adventure I was daydreaming about. I suspect this is true of the daydreams of most young boys, and perhaps girls as well.

I find that I almost never daydream anymore. I’m not sure if it is because I no longer have the need, or I no longer have the faculty, or both. What I do apparently need is some real adventure in my life. That’s why I own a cruising sailboat and spend my winters sailing in Florida. Each year I push myself a bit further, doing something I’d never done, nor would have ever done, before.

 

The Robot Economy -Finding a Niche

 

My March 13, 2017 post, entitled “The Robot Economy,” looked at how humans might prepare for the day when robots do all the work people used to do. It seems likely that people will still need some income if they are to enjoy the advances afforded by modern technology. Strategies I identified in that post included owning a working robot to hire out for income, or even owning stock in the companies that build robots and pay good dividends.

Other strategies have surfaced, which I collectively call Finding a Niche. These strategies revolve around people taking the initiative to either create their own jobs, or finding gigs within the evolving labor market. Entrepreneurs, inventor/investors, and freelancers are people who create jobs. People who pursue gigs include moonlighters (part-timers), entertainers, personal service providers, casual laborers, public speakers, and handy-people. One of the best contemporary examples of a worker with a gig is an Uber driver. Uber lets people work whenever they can/want to – simply by signing on as available to pick-up passengers.

For many young people with little or no accumulated wealth, these strategies are far more viable than buying an expensive robot. There’s no reason why entrepreneurs, freelances, part-timers, personal service providers and others can’t make a comfortable living for themselves. Some will even get rich, although many won’t simply because the percentages are against them. There will be more opportunities in the future, but there will also be more people pursuing them.

One idea I think is especially promising is for people who come across business opportunities while engaged in their hobbies. Recognize that in the future many people will have more time for hobbies. What constitutes a hobby is virtually limitless; it comes down to pretty much any legal pastime people wish to engage in. The business idea comes when a person needs something for his hobby and discovers no one makes it. Could he make it himself and sell it for a profit? Or there’s the hobbyist who fashions her own unique tool to make her projects go smoothly, then realizes, “Could other people use this tool, too?” Making such products to sell online could be a successful business because, while the demand is evident (i.e. the tool worked for her), the demand would not be big enough to attract major manufacturers. As another alternative, for years people have established their own businesses by buying select hobbyist’s supplies in bulk – far more than needed by any of their potential customers – and then repackaging them in to smaller quantities to sale to individuals. Sometimes called cottage industries, these businesses are now far more common than ever.

Unfortunately, this glance into the future hasn’t surfaced anything terribly new or insightful. There will be those who “follow the money” and there will be those who “pursue their passion.” If money is a person’s passion, then the solution is for them to go into business. For all the rest, the whole issue of future employment comes down to the three basic questions that it always comes down to: 1) what is my passion, 2) what do I want to do, and 3) what am I good at doing? Many people spend their whole lives trying to answer these questions. Sometimes when they find the answers, they face challenges reconciling them. Nothing suggests it will be any different in the future.

The Robot Economy

The prevailing worldview is that robots will eventually do most of the physical work in America. There is clear evidence to support this view. The fact is that the US has greater manufacturing output now than ever, while there are fewer workers in manufacturing now than before. Advances in manufacturing technology – specifically automation – are what made this possible.

Some people believe that the best way to prepare for this future robot economy is to save their money and buy a highly capable robot – when such robots become available. The idea is that they can hire out their robot to whoever needs work done for which the robot is suited. This way people can participate in the robot economy by making money off their robot. After all, people will need some sort of income since everyone will be out of a job in the robot economy.

Naturally, the smarter and more capable a robot is, the wider the variety of work it will be able to perform. No one would want to own a robot that is suited to just a few tasks since those tasks, just like human manufacturing jobs, may be taken over by highly specialized machines. Herein lies the conundrum regarding the capabilities of these robots. Highly specialized machines take on whatever appearance and configuration they need in order to perform a task with the best speed, accuracy, and efficiency possible. Yet, it would seem difficult to build a robot to do such a job while also being sufficiently capable to do many other specialized tasks. In other words, how is a general purpose robot able to compete with highly specialized machines?

One approach to reducing this challenge is the use of modularity and re-configurability in robot design. For example, the “brain” part of the robot could be in one module while the moving parts could be in several other different modules, depending on the nature of the motion needed for certain tasks. A module with wheels could be used for rolling, while one with “legs” could be used for walking, or one with “arms” and another with “hands” could be combined to pick up and assemble parts.

The down side of this modularity approach is that robot owners would then need to decide which modules they should buy or possibly rent. A solution to this might be to buy a large collection of modules, but this would likely be too costly for all but the wealthiest people.

My thinking is that maybe owning a robot is not really the best way to participate in the robot economy. Instead, what if one owned stock in the companies that built robots? That makes the decisions a lot easier. One would have to live off the dividends but they should be significant. Even if robots start making other robots, which will surely happen, these companies will remain at the helm.

Don’t Just Stand There – Buy Stocks!

When I retired over six years ago I had a simple dual-budget strategy. My baseline budget was fixed by two sources of income: social security and an annuity. My discretionary budget was dependent on my investment income. This investment income was variable and highly dependent on one factor: how well I did with my investments. I have IRA funds in several self-directed accounts, meaning I directly control how the money is invested: what stocks and bonds are bought, when they are bought, and when they are sold. The relationship between these two budgets is this: I could get by on the baseline budget but I would be quite limited in what I could do. More specifically, I would not have been able to buy the 31 ft. sailboat that I own, nor would I have been able to extensively refit the sailboat like I have, nor properly maintain the home I own in Ohio, nor travel to the conferences I’ve been able to attend, nor spend money on birthday gifts for my family, nor winter in Florida, nor lastly, pay significant medical expenses. Most of these things were paid for by my investment income. Obviously, it has had a huge positive affect on my retirement quality of life.

People might think that I must be a pretty good investor. The truth is, not nearly as good as I’d like to be. A key lesson I learned over the years is to never, ever pull your money out of the stock market soon after it has had a big drop. And yet, it is surprising how many people do this, at the same time swearing they will never invest in the market again. However, years later these same people see Everyone Else making money in a raging (bull) market and they jump back it – usually close to the top of the market. This is known at the “sell low, buy high” strategy of stock investing and it is guaranteed to lose money.

One reason why I’m not a great investor is that I have largely missed out on the recent run up in the market; the one starting after the November 2016 election. Oh, to be sure I did make some money since I always have some money in the markets. However, I could have easily made 10% if I’d made the same moves that the Smart Money folks made. Specifically, they invested in banks that would do well with expected rising interest rates, and they invested in corporations that would benefit either from the promised corporate tax restructuring, and/or the repatriation of money held overseas.  

Consequently, this has been another learning experience for me that I will add to my sizable lessons-learned notebook on investing. Still, it is hard to say how things will play out in the coming months. If interest rates rise slowly and the promised tax changes get bogged down in Congress, the market may go sideways or even pull back. Then again, if the economy continues to improve these tax issues may not be that important to stock performance in the near future.

Clearly, I’m not as happy about my investments as are the Smart Money people. And yet, I could have done worse. According to recent data released by the Census Bureau, 68% of workers in America are NOT contributing to any sort of retirement account. Sadly, these folks did worse than I did in the recent run-up – they didn’t make a dime.  

Ditty Bags and Backpacks

Decades ago I was a young airman in the US Air Force stationed near Biloxi, Mississippi. After basic training in Texas, I was attending electronics technician school at Keesler AFB, right next to Biloxi. I was in a group that went (marched) to school at 6 a.m. We later left (marched) at noon, went back to the compound, and then marched in review at around 12:30 pm. This completed the “business” part of a typical day, with physical training later in the afternoon.

As one may imagine, we had a number of books, workbooks, and diagram packets to take back and forth to school. The Air Force solved the problem of how to carry all of this material so that we could still march with arms at our sides. We called them ditty bags back then. I don’t know where the name came from, but unlike a sailor’s ditty bag these bags were the functional equivalent of what people today would call a backpack. They held all of our school materials and were worn on our backs with two shoulder straps.

I mention this snippet of nostalgia for two reasons. First, recognizing the longstanding popularity of backpacks among several decades of school age cohorts, who would have thought that the Air Force in the 1960’s was the genesis of what would become such a sweeping, entrenched fashion trend? No student these days would be caught without their trusty backpack nearby. Secondly, as it turns out I’ve never been much of a fan of backpacks, except of course for actual backpacking. My point is that, back then I would have gladly let someone who was a fan of backpacks take my place wearing one and marching in review in that Mississippi noon sun. Perhaps it is not surprising that I didn’t get any such offers – after all, ditty bags weren’t in back then.

 

Clever and Cunning People

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many people who I believe thought of themselves as clever. Clever is an adjective with positive attributes. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines clever as: mentally quick and resourceful. Sounds like a good thing to me; we should all want to be clever. Unfortunately, I observe that some clever people are also cunning. While cunning is a synonym of clever, consider this simple definition of cunning from MW: getting what is wanted in a clever and often deceptive way. Deceptive adds an altogether different, negative connotation. For example, the noun deception has synonyms that include fraud, subterfuge, and trickery.

Perhaps a good general example of cunning is when one person exploits the trusting nature of another to gain an advantage. By gain an advantage, I mean to stage a perception that aids the exploiter, or by making the trusting soul feel and/or look like a fool.

When I was a teenager, I belonged to a youth organization that helped teenage boys develop into responsible, law-abiding young men. A few adults ran the local organization and guided us teenagers in both civic and personal development activities. Some of the adults who helped out were parents of some of the boys. As boys worked their way up in the organization during their teen years, they could (if desired) run for the several elected offices of the group.

I left the organization before my high school graduation. Decades later I was going through a box of mementos when I came across an old newspaper clipping from my hometown newspaper. My mother had cut it out and saved it for me. It included a photo of me and another boy in the organization. It showed us working together on a civic project for an upcoming holiday. As soon as I came across the clipping, I remembered having seen it many years ago. This time, however, I quickly saw something about the photo that had totally escaped me in my youth.

When the photo was taken, I was maybe 16 or 17 years-old. The boy I was working with (I’ll call him Roy) had just joined the organization, so that would have made him around 13. He was a pleasant fellow even though I didn’t know him very well. I recall his father was also at the photo shoot, along with a photographer from the newspaper. In fact, it was the father who told us how to pose for the picture. Roy was posed standing on the third step of a step ladder so he could reach the work area. I was posed standing at ground level, reaching up with my right hand to give Roy a staple gun. The angle was such that Roy’s face was oriented more towards the camera while my face was at best a side profile.

Looking at the clipping now, it was clear to me that I had been set up. I now realize that Roy’s father knew exactly what he was doing when he set up the pose. He was showing his son in his best symbolic light – moving up the ladder, face towards the camera for good recognition – while I, a more senior member of the group, was shown merely as his helper. I now realize that Roy’s father, who otherwise seemed like a typical parent, was actually a very cunning man.

Naturally, I was a naïve young man back then. My mother, being the sweet lady that she was, never saw the symbolism and kept the clipping for me as a memento. My dad never paid any attention to such things, which helps explain why I was in the organization to begin with.

I can’t say that this event had any significant effect on my life back then – it’s hard to say for sure. As for now, it’s an open question. Why? Well, for starters I learned that tragedy had struck Roy some years after this seemingly harmless photo shoot. Sadly, he died of illness in his mid-twenties, and his father was understandably devastated.

It sounds both ridiculous and baseless of me to suggest that the actions of Roy’s father long ago had anything to do with his son’s tragic demise. And yet, as I look across other events of my life, and other people whose paths have intersected with mine, it all gives me pause. In future posts, I’ll say more about these other events and why they give me pause for thought. For now, let me simply say that I believe that all the cunning in the world couldn’t have averted Roy’s tragic ending.

 

The Modern Interest-Free Loan

On three recent occasions, I’ve been offered interest-free loans. The first was when I had my house furnace and air conditioning system replaced. The cost was significant and the company doing the work offered to give me an interest-free loan if I wanted it. However, when I compared the total costs of the two options (paying in cash vs. signing up for the loan) I saw that the interest-free loan option costs $428 more. When I asked about the added cost, the salesman told me it was the fee for the loan. Even though he was straight-up with me about this, I thought it was deceptive that the loan option costs so much more than the cash option. Technically, it is indeed an interest-free loan. However, the fee more than makes up for the free interest.

The two other occasions were those extra checks banks send you if you have credit cards through them and have good credit. The checks offer “no interest” on the amounts they are made out for, and for a specific duration – say 14 months. Each check/transaction, however, cost a fee of 3% of the amount of the check. So, if I wrote a check for $1000, I would pay $30 for the use of the money for 14 months.

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, these “deals” are nothing other than taking what used to be called the interest charge and instead calling it a loan fee. Worse, it ‘s collected upfront. So why would any seller or retailer what to play this fee-vs-interest name game? I think the answer is they want to advertise an interest-free loan. That way people who aren’t paying close attention can tell friends and spouses how savvy they are by getting an interest-free loan.

A reason I’m writing this essay is because it illustrates the power of words. It also illustrates how easy it is to latch onto a catch-phrase and jump to conclusions. In my decades of experience, most banks have always charged fees for loans; it is a standard business practice. The thing is, back in the day, those fees were modest relative to the size of the loan and the interest charged (house mortgage loans being an exception). I’m talking maybe $5 or $10; that was like 0.25% or so of the loan amount.

I think years from now companies will be advertising no-fee loans because that will be the catch-phrase then. Somehow, if they do I suspect there will be interest charges buried in there somewhere – maybe in the fine print.

 

 

 

 

Words and Meanings – Freedom

I’m posting this essay today – December 7, 2016 – because it is the 75th anniversary of the Empire of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. America’s entry into WWII is a fitting reminder that freedom comes with a price; we do indeed have to fight for it. There is, however, more I want to say about freedom. Those familiar with my “Words and Meanings” posts know that I seek to uncover the true meaning of words as we understand them today.

The challenges in describing or defining what freedom is center on the fact that freedom is what I call a high-concept word. This means that human emotions are entwined in its meaning. This is implied when we recognize that talking about freedom outside of the context of human affairs has little meaning. Does this mean that human emotions are the realm wherein freedom resides? Possibly. Let’s take a look at a few practical matters in hopes they will shine light on this apparent entrainment.

Those of us who live in a mostly free society know that freedom comes with two things: rights and responsibilities. One must have rights, such as free speech, to establish a lower boundary of one’s freedom. Responsibilities, on the other hand, are not what we immediately think of when we think of freedom. Responsibilities require something of us; they entail obligations and/or commitments. Aren’t we less free with them? Well, it would seem so, but we do have the responsibility to observe the rights of others i.e. those boundaries just mentioned. And don’t we have the responsibility to fight for freedom? So, responsibilities appear to establish an upper boundary on freedom. We are responsible for our own behavior. Indeed, we have the responsibility to own our own behavior.

Of course, people who live in less free societies are also responsible for their behavior. So, what is the difference? It appears to me that the difference is whether all peoples in a society are held to the same standards of rights and responsibility. The reality of our imperfect world is that some people in society must exercise more rights than others, and have more responsibilities than others, if we are to govern ourselves. As long as these people are assigned these additional rights/responsibilities through the accords of a free society, freedom is preserved. When these governing rights/responsibilities are usurped from people then freedom is diminished.

So where do emotions fit into all of this? As I see it, you have to want freedom badly enough to overpower your strongest instinct – survival – to get it. Even if you yourself don’t have to pay this price, you understand that others have, and you also understand that you don’t really achieve freedom until you feel free.

 

The Bestseller

Recently two writers co-authored a book that looks into the question: what makes a novel a bestseller. The authors, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, have published their findings in The Bestseller Code. From what I can make of press releases and book reviews, the authors took a quasi-scientific, computer-aided approach to analyzing over 500 bestsellers, as well as non-bestsellers, to find out what made a novel a bestseller. Their claims include the ability to predict if a novel will be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

I’m fascinated with the premise of the book and look forward to reading it. However, there are several reasons why I’m in no hurry to do so. First, several reviewers make it clear that the authors are not claiming to tell people how to write a bestseller. Good, because I’ve done enough work in fiction writing and analysis to know that there already exists a number of excellent books on how to write a great novel; even a bestseller. Two that immediately come to mind are Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. There are others how-to books from popular novelist such as Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.

Another reason I’m a little cool on the book is that I have some experience in tackling projects of this nature. Several years ago, I embarked on a project to develop a categorization methodology for science fiction (SF) stories. A working categorization scheme currently exists and is used by book and story reviewers. It is based largely on the generally accepted types or subgenres of SF, such as military, time-travel, post-apocalyptic, robots, artificial intelligence (AI), space opera, alternative histories, steampunk, and many others. Unfortunately, there are several problems with this categorization approach. First, a specific story may fit into two or three or more of these categories. Secondly, and most important, these categories fail to offer any real insights into the stories themselves. For example, one can read ten time-travel stories and afterwards realize that the stories varied widely in just about every aspect imaginable – except of course for the common fact that time shifting played a role in each of them.

I ultimately set aside my project, primarily because I realized I could not enumerate all the factors that could play a role in categorization. Further, I suspected there were probably interactions between some of the factors. Thus, much more research and expertise was needed than I could apply at the time.

My point is, I expect there are similar challenges in trying to nail down the essential elements of a bestseller. I’m not saying it can’t be done – editors do it all the time. What I am saying is that it seems to me that if it is done successfully, and at sufficient depth, then the results of the work do reveal how to write a bestseller!

I acknowledge that Archer’s book may offer more insights than I’m anticipating. However, I’m waiting to see if I should buy it or not. Even though it is nonfiction, how will I know if I should buy it? Well, obviously, I’m waiting to see if it becomes a bestseller.

 

 

End of an Era

When I was around the age of ten, I started making occasional trips to the local public library. There was a branch within walking distance and it offered an alternative to an otherwise boring summer. I enjoyed looking at science books and before long discovered the science fiction (SF) section. Thus began my informal summer reading program. I read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt, Fredric Brown, Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Simak, and many others. These authors were part of what was later called the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

That I recall, in those days (late 1950s to mid-1960s) there was only one SF magazine that continuously made its way to the library periodicals shelf: Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I began reading it and found that I enjoyed Analog. John W. Campbell was the editor back then and is widely accredited with helping some of the Golden Age authors get their start. I also especially liked the art work of Kelly Freas. I sometimes purchased the latest issue of Analog at the book store and supplemented it with trips to the library.

My reading of Analog during my adult years was sporadic. This was a consequence of life’s demands and priorities. Even so, I always came back to Analog when my interest in SF was rekindled. There were several periods when I held a subscription to Analog but it never lasted for more than a year. That is, until about five years ago when Analog introduced a Kindle e-book version. The e-book subscription price was half of the print subscription price and well within my budget. I’ve been a subscriber ever since.

In a recent visit to my local library branch (part of the same county library system as before but not the same branch) I noticed they no longer carried the print version of Analog. The reference librarian explained that the print magazine no longer had the number of check-outs needed to support its continued subscription. She also confirmed that all the other branches of the library had already dropped their subscriptions.

It was those trips to the library decades ago that introduced me to Analog. Nowadays, it appears young readers become acquainted with publications through downloads. I have used this method myself to check-out free library e-book materials. Another thing that has changed in the world is there are now a number of SF magazines available (only) online.

It’s difficult for me to compare the download experience with the library experience. While I have fond memories of visiting the library, for the long haul I must admit the download experience is better – if for no other reason than far fewer young people growing up these days live within walking distance of a public library. Not that they would find an issue of Analog there even if they did!