What work is and what it could be

This blog is a place where I work through subtleties of how I approach the world.  I haven’t written in a while because I’ve felt fairly pleased with my recent approach.  Or at the very least I’ve been in a new stage of life that demands some conviction.  Since the last time I’ve written my wife and I have had a baby, I’ve bought a large share of the family business, and I’ve been challenged to revamp the finances and the workflow of that company.  It’s been a challenging, exciting, stressful, and enriching time.

For the longest time I’ve been circling the notion of independence.  What it means to me, my family, what it takes, whether it’s possible, etc.  At the core of that process is a soft goal of being able to work on what I see as most valuable at a given moment, be that interpersonal relationships, the stability of the lives closest to me, things which might have a positive impact on humanity, or just mastering Scrabble bingos.  This desire runs at odds with many prevalent notions of success.  To reach the top of any skill set takes many hours, focused effort on specific aspects of your flow, a balanced life, a solid reputation, and possibly even some luck (that’s a potential rabbit hole which I’ll hand-wave away for now).  I don’t want this notion of independence to make a drifter out of me.  I think that’s what I’m trying to get at in this post.

Excellence demands focus, day-in and day-out.  So financial stress is not the only thing which causes someone to ignore a large percentage of the interesting things in life.  I am both ambitious and curious.  A life spent exploring many different topics needs some common threads if it’s to lead to meaningful contributions to the world.  I could imagine a happy life, travelling from campsite to campsite reading various books and never laying down community roots.  I could not imagine that life leading to the creation of a new culture in an area, not while on the road.  After the fact you could tell about it or let the experience seep through you, but an impact requires some social constancy.  Maybe it could be virtual, if one were to write books or software or other intellectual property that has an impact no matter where you are.  In this internet age that’s increasingly common, but if one wants to plant crops and enjoy the fruit there is no way forward but to work in the same area for a long and consistent time.  Even intellectual crops require consistent effort in the same regions of the brain.

For yet another time in life I’m approaching the end of a long-standing goal.  I’m within a few weeks of finishing the development of an extensive enterprise-level system for the business.  I’m very proud of the work and the ways in which it has shaped me.  When the project is over I’ll need to decide what the next step is.  To continue producing private software that accomplishes a specific task, or to move towards abstracting the current project into a more general solution that could be sold to other similar businesses.  To achieve excellence in the open market will require a reputation, a support staff, a business model, a core philosophy, and a hundred other things.

Over and over I’ve seen that  what you think, how you think, your philosophies, will be reflected and will definitely shape the course of your life.  What sort of career am I building and why, is intricately tied to what I think life means and what I want to accomplish with my life.  Of course this is a moving target.  What I want at the age of 20 and the age of 25 and the age of 30 are all distinct.  There are common threads, and those are perhaps the best bet of seeing what will remain important at 35, 40 and beyond.

At this stage in life every hour spent working is an hour I’m not bonding with my daughter.  That adds a cost to work that wasn’t as severe before.  However, if I were to set my sights a bit lower in order to increase my hours at home this week or next, will it end up costing more hours when she’s older and guidance is a bit more meaningful to her?  Or worse, if I end up not achieving something meaningful with life will it set the precedence that the best life is one spent at home and not creating a better future for the world?  It seems absurd to hope that she can achieve great things that I don’t.  That’s actually controversial but great things don’t just happen.  It takes focus and dedication and work to create excellent output.  So at what level do you set the bar?

So again it forces the existential responsibility, my decisions about what life means create a prescription for humanity.  My actions and inactions alike create my concept of what a life could and should be.  Maybe it’s a bit simpler to look at what life could and should be.  I enjoy knowing how to do many interesting things.  I enjoy making meaningful contributions to other lives and am constantly working on how to do so with more efficiency and talent.  I have always wanted to be an excellent parent and that requires thought, sensitivity, principals, and setting a good example.  So what is the career equivalent?  How does one balance the ability to produce and actual production?

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A point for the system

I had a long discussion with a good friend the other night and I walked away with a new perspective.  There are no shortage of negatives in the way the modern world works.  This culminates in the various pressures that most everyone finds themselves under.  I’ve wanted to devise constructive ways of defusing this pressure, but this new perspective helped me to make some peace with the pressure.

So here goes: In any social system there are tasks that need to be done, those tasks take human-hours.  The various social constructs vary in how they get those hours logged.

In the world I know people spend most of their waking hours working, preparing for work, and unwinding from work.  Some number of those jobs constitute the grunt work that is needed to sustain modern life.  The thing that impels people to give these tasks their hours is the financial pressure they feel.  Straight-up: most workers in the first world feel the pressure of their consumption choices and the baseline dues that are demanded of them.  So working most of their usable hours is a matter of survival and possible comfort.  It seems a bit cruel in that phrasing, but it is fairly well decentralized.

Imagine a different system.  Maybe it’s a commune or some type of  non-monetary collective.  There are still hours that need to be worked by someone.  In any functional system someone will work those hours, but what inspires them to do so?  If it weren’t for the fiscal pressures it would have to be philosophical pressures or a believe system propelling them forward.  If it’s a morally or religiously based group then some belief in what the group is doing could drive you to the work.  To me it seems like having the system rely on the beliefs of its constituents is a bit fragile.  Beliefs change, refine, etc.  Maybe what drives you this year won’t in a decade.  Maybe the system relies on goodwill between its members.  Someone shunned by the others could easily lose their life/health.

So in this way our system isn’t so bad.  No one has to like you that much for you to survive, provided that you work.  Maybe we’re running out of jobs because of consumption ceilings or an increasingly international world.  Well I still think I prefer the decentralized and individual pressure to group-think or having your philosophies dictate your livelihood.

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Meaning in life; the big important questions

I think one of the big issues that everyone faces is finding worth.  I’ve seen people who have achieved financial and career success and still they seem to crave validation that their works have been meaningful.  I know that I’ve craved reassurance that I’m valuable. Self-worth has been a theme that I’ve seen and feared a lot lately.  I’m certain that it’s been going on in many people, for a long time.

“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be described as the general neurosis of our time.” -Carl Jung

“In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So– if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.   … Poverty is a relatively mild disease for even a very flimsy American soul, but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike, and kill every time.” -Kilgore Trout

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” -Ecclesiastes

I don’t think that this drive is really about having moral/merit-filled actions.   Rather I suspect it’s the fear that when we die we’ll have left nothing lasting left behind us.

From what I can tell there is a natural pattern to the way these feelings develop over the course of a life.  As a youth, with all of your years spread out in front of you, it’s natural to want to prove yourself.  Implicit in this is a notion that achieving success (even just for the sake of success) will bring a measure of happiness; the ability to look on your works and feel proud.  I think this comes naturally because society pushes us to produce things that society needs, and the vehicle for driving us is the carrot on a stick of contentment and success and status. Eventually one achieves these things (or maybe not) and that promised satisfaction isn’t likely to be there, or if it is it’s fleeting.  For myself, somehow in the process of this striving/competing I had lost something.  If happiness/success are what I imagine waits for me after accomplishing some goal or another then my competitors are no longer possible friends or colleagues but obstacles in the way of my happiness.  Even subconsciously one treats people differently when seeking out achievement.

“The achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of diminution of personality.” -Carl Jung

For me this has been in the realm of science, which is supposedly a place to seek out truth.  Eventually you compete for limited jobs and limited funding opportunities and find yourself mimicking the destructive behaviors of those who came before you.  Wanting to use students’ labor and guard your precious ideas so that you aren’t scooped.  My idealism is too high of a price for the meagre prize of a spot in the academic world.

Anyhow, I suppose there are other youthful paths to the same conclusions.  You could buy into the eat, drink, and be merry ride.  I suspect that the same dissatisfaction arises after too much time on the party train.  We’re all lead to the same big questions:

What am I doing?  Am I making an impact?  Is the path I’m on really leading to contentment and/or a meaningful life?

I’m still too young to know how this sort of thing shakes out.  I suspect that the questions get quieted by the responsibilities of life but that they’re always lurking, nagging just a bit at a subconscious level.  I’m not religious, but the old testament book of Ecclesiastes seems to be from someone older sharing the intimate details of their struggle with a search for meaning.  There is a laundry list of things that he’s tried (riches, wisdom, hedonism, power) that all turn out in vain (they’re all vanity and chasing the wind).  In the end it seems the he relies on God to judge the value of his works.  I take this to mean, we do the best we can with what we have and know, and you have to trust that if you’ve tried to do good works this won’t go unappreciated by the universe.  We’re a part of a process that is larger than us or our lifespans, and we may not be remembered but our impact is certainly there.

We’ll see, maybe one day I can serenely accept that notion.  In the meantime, I’ll try to do my best.

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Winds of Change

A lot of time has passed since last I wrote anything here, maybe 6 months.  In the mean time I’ve made some peace with capitalism in the modern world.  Let’s try to summarize that change.

There are many problems with the traditional American path, by which I mean the process of working towards owning a house paid for by making progress on a career path.  This life is geared towards raising a family in a way which is not so different than the way you yourself were raised.

One problem which bothered me is the morality of such a life.  I want to point out that this might have been a naive problem to have.  My wrestling with morality is rooted in a western, formerly Christian, world-view.  There are those who claim that the concept of Christian morality itself has done a great deal of harm to humanity (e.g.,  Beyond good and evil) by celebrating meekness and comforting the downtrodden thus keeping the masses from raising themselves out of a mediocre life.  The fact that  Nietzsche came along around the same time period as Darwin doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me.  When one starts to see the goal of nature as merely propagation and competition as the source of progress it seems natural to apply those concepts to human activity.  From this perspective modern capitalism and its free market ideals also seem like a natural offspring of the idea that competition for survival is the primary driving force in nature.  From this perspective it’s a bit ironic that in America these days the political groups which are most in favor of free markets tend to also corner the market on fundamental “Christian values”.  Anyhow, I don’t know that I’m ready to embrace the laws of the jungle.  My particular brain has been wired to celebrate the meek, dislike the materialistic, and respect the stories/feelings of most people I encounter.  I have little desire to profit from the misfortunes of others.  That is the core of my personal concept of morality.  So from that perspective I can easily ask if an American suburban home and life is one which is actively causing others misfortune.  There is no shortage of claims out there that the consumer lifestyle is causing environmental turbulence.  There are also claims that the standard American’s requirement of raw materials is a root cause of a great deal of political and military injustice in the world.  It really might be that my culture can only exist on the backs of cheap labor, totalitarian puppet regimes, and inequitable commodity trading.  The people who would make such a claim are often anti-capitalistic, pointing the blame at greed inherit in the system.

This is where I can begin to get at my new perspective.  I want to claim that capitalism as a concept is probably not the root cause of such issues.  Rather I think that concepts of a dominant culture are the primary cause of issues and perhaps a source of hope.

First, an example.  Sara and I just moved back to North America this summer.  When we arrived it was clear that the major outlets were all selling more organic food, promoting green products, etc.  A retailer can’t sell things that people don’t want, as a significant portion of the population adapts its desires the corporations respond.  NFL football gear won’t sell very well in Germany.  It seems like common sense, hardly worth noting.  However, inside of this fact you can see the speed at which industry attempts to adapt to the ever changing desires of the market.  In this way I suspect that if a large proportion of the public decided to drop off the grid and start living in cabins growing their own food, then it wouldn’t be long before every Wal-Mart would be filled with simple and cheap insulation products, high quality mosquito nets, do it yourself solar kits, etc.  If we don’t buy it they won’t make it, and if we want it they’ll find a way to sell it to us.  Competition really does seem to benefit humanity on some level, up until the point when advertising and opinion control join the picture.

The act of creating public opinion and tastes is a way of controlling the dominant culture so as to excel in the competition for market share.  Now there are certainly some problems with the current implementation of free-markets.  Chomsky argues that free markets are just a fantasy, an idealistic vision which might be great if ever they did exist but calling the current set-up a free-market capitalism is silly.  I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a claim there, but for the moment let’s suppose that we have an approximation of a free market economy.  One issue which would still be an issue for me is the question of how scaling down such an economy might work.  My current model of our world is borrowed/adapted from Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” and goes a bit like this:

In a society which produces way more than it needs for basic subsistence there is a tiny percentage of the population which must be employed in the production of the basics.  The rest of the society whose labor is freed from survival get roped into the production and marketing of increasingly useless things.  This has an expansive effect, we employ more and more techniques and people to convince other people that they really need all of the crap the  society is producing.  This gives a pretty quick insight into a lot of kitchen table debates with my conservative family.  Too many benefits to humans just for being human means less incentive for people to work/produce, and some part of the population is needed to work even in a society with minimal consumption.  It’s difficult to separate the important work from the work of ‘the spectacle’.  Conservatives can argue that reducing incentives will toss out the baby with the bathwater and this is the logic by which they insist that each person should carve out their own way (which I see as leading directly back into a society of mindless mass consumption since each person has to find a way to get their own piece of the pie even if they do non-essential work).

So I’m a fan of free-markets setting prices for things that people really want.  That is, provided that people aren’t being turned into mindless consumers throughout their childhood and manipulated by a system into wanting what they are told to want.  Also I would like to require that such a system should have a graceful way of downsizing naturally with demand.  Currently the baby-boomers are retiring and becoming empty-nesters which means they will naturally be spending less and less.  Since they were so numerous the western world is facing general decreased demand, which causes the current system to cease up and all sorts of discomfort.  That worries me, since in my ideal world people would feel as little pressure to work as possible (creating more free time and less tension in homes, more time for proper parenting, introspection, artistry, etc.).  If one were to minimize the number of hours they spend working over the course of their life it would likely require a fairly minimal set of spending habits.  If the current system is struggling so badly with reduced demand then perhaps my vision is an immoral and selfish one.

Is the struggle of the current system a cultural mirage?  That is, is the pain of the economy only a pain because we expect to be able to consume to our limits and are disappointed that we can’t?  (e.g. More college graduates are moving back in with their parents after school to save, is this a negative or a culture builder?)  I would imagine that a world in which less of the useless is produced is a world with less ecological problems.  I also imagine that a world in which westerners embrace living on less is more resilient to international supply chain disruption.  I’m a fan of self-sufficiency, but one can’t deny that our modern productive capabilities can save a huge number of man hours, also they can’t be utilized without some number of people working in distinctly unpleasant factories, and finally we’ve failed politically to find some way of distributing those saved man-hours that doesn’t lead to some inequitable situation and/or mindless consumption at every turn.  Maybe this is best captured in the following excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Somehow this is a battle of minds and perspectives, not of economics or government controls.  To make a better place means adjusting long held cultural traditions, which is the work of great artists not economists or politicians or soldiers.   I’m starting to see capitalism as a tool whose output will reflect the culture of a society.  In a culture which assumes stress and a slave-style approach to life it will create a psychological mess.  One could imagine some idealistic farmer’s market on a commune with it’s own currency in which capitalism will do little more than make sure people pay a decent price for things they want and people aren’t growing things which no one wants.  Anyhow, that is a sort of peace I’ve arrived at.

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Thoughts galore

I was writing this back in March and never finished it.  Too much time has passed to restart it in the right way so I’ll leave it like this.

I’ve got too much going on in my mind and have to make some sense of it.  For one I’ve been exploring world views, that is explanations for why things are the way they are.  The desire to make sense of things is so very human, and maybe it’s nonsense to try, but here I am trying to piece it all together.  In fact the analogy of putting together a puzzle makes a lot of sense for what I’m wrestling with.  You get a box of pieces with various stimuli on them and try to start making connections, groupings, little sections of the puzzle that you feel do go together.  The world view is then the picture on the box, which gives you an idea of how to sort the pieces and maybe what to expect to help speed the process.  At some point in life I decided that either I had put together inconsistent sections of the puzzle or had the wrong box picture.  So now I’m looking at lots of pictures and comparing them with what I’ve got and seeing if maybe what I’m working on is this picture or that.  In this little visual it seems pretty fruitless there are a lot of pictures to look at and I could probably pass right over it since I have so little pieced together anyhow.  At the very least it’s a good skill to practice since anyone who seems to think they have an answer or the answers has a picture and you’ve got to be able to compare their explanation of the world with what connections you’ve made.  Or maybe the right way to do it is just get up from the table and go play Yahtzee or paint your own picture.

Right or wrong I keep looking. This week I looked at at least three distinct concepts of the world.  The first was Alan Watts’ explanation of the Hindu world view, and while I was able to see the world that way it was a lot of fun.  Here it is: Imagine you had the power to control your dreams, make them as real as you want, populate the dream with anything, etc.  What would you do?  At first you would probably dream up anything you’ve ever wanted, make some dream which feels like 25 years of life as king or with super powers or whatever.  After a while of having dreamt up great joyful things you might get a bit bored.  So you try to have an adventure dream, and go slay a dragon or what have you, but you know it’s a dream and you’ll wake up safe.  So after a while this gets boring too.  So maybe you try to dream that you forget you’re dreaming so you really feel the excitement and forget that you’ll ever wake up and when you push this far enough you’ve got a reality like this one.  Bam, that’s what the world is.  We’re all the dream of a diety trying to convince itself that it’s not dreaming, and our experiences and drama and so on are fantastic performances.  All the world’s a stage… So while hearing that (and riding on a French train) I look at people’s cranky faces and think… bravo, you’re really feeling it, that’s great work.  It was sort of fun to look around at things as part of an ongoing play, because then you want to take things seriously but in the back of your mind you know it’s not real.  Another part of this is that everyone and everything would be made up of the same divine source.  This is very different than the western tradition in which God made the universe which is now an object, and we try to break down the object and understand what makes it work, to create a blue print.  Here we could (and I do sometimes) see ourselves as automatons in a universe which coldly obeys it’s internal machinery.  This becomes a techno-world and God the ultimate technician who understands everything.  Alan pointed out that this viewpoint is still hidden in non-religious/secular western perspectives, as we break things down always trying to understand how the universe put itself together (as opposed to how God put it together).

Playing with that viewpoint was nice because I could see a lot of anxiety of mine as a result of the basic disconnectedness inherent in the western perspective.  We are isolated from everyone and everything else and in that isolation trying to make sense of things on our own, maybe with no real hope of success.  The dramatic world view lightens the load a bit, in that case playfulness pervades the universe and understanding would take a back seat to the thrill ride (attempting to understand is sometimes very exciting too).  With as many movies and books and TV shows that we’ve all seen I think that my generation is exceptionally talented at understanding what makes a good narrative, how to make the heroes feel real and their predicaments believable without having it be too easy for the good guys or the bad guys being too absurd or powerful.  In this case maybe the feeling that there the odds are against you but you have a chance at winning is how so many people feel just because it’s good drama.  It’s not a very predictive model of the world, more of a coping mechanism for when the world seems too much.

The next world-view I toyed with was the Libertarian way of seeing things.  Specifically I read Murray Rothbard’s “Left and Right: The prospects for liberty”.  (End of draft)

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Digesting Alan Watts

I heard once the following notion: it take almost no time or effort to listen to someone repeat a familiar perspective while a foreign perspective (of similar complexity) would require a great deal of time and effort to be processed.  (This is why you don’t hear much new in the news, it could demand too much of the viewer.)

Over the last couple days I’ve been listening to Alan Watts podcasts and youtube clips in my down time.  I enjoy his perspective, but it’s hard to immediately grasp, so I need to process the concepts (which is the reason for this virtual space anyhow).  I’ll try to log some of the nuggets that I want to remember.

Life as music: When you listen to an orchestra it’s almost absurd to ask what the point of it is.  You listen to the beautiful patterns without understanding or trying to wrestle with it.  Where as in western life we are continually pushing our way through school into jobs through life looking for a final destination of success/happiness (which would be like trying to conduct the orchestra with the objective of arriving at the end).  Dance and sing and enjoy along the way.

Past/present illusion, consciousness problems, meditation : Using the allegory of a boat’s wake he describes the past as this path behind which fades out the further back you look.  The ripples didn’t propel the boat, the past doesn’t create the present.  Our (over) attachment to the past is a way of making a continuous narrative so that we can define ourselves/make sense of things and perhaps box ourselves to present others with a concise bullet-point  version of who we are.  He often repeats the notion that the here and now is all there is and the common pairings of observer/observed, past/future, myself/my body are illusions.  These illusions are likely because of our spotlight consciousness grappling with a world which comes at us from all dimensions all the time (while our consciousness is trained to focus on one thing at a time, processing linearly, like reading a book line by line).  The act of meditating is a way to recognize that the stream of thoughts that we live in is not reality, but a string of symbols that give us some way to grasp it.  To think that we could conquer nature with this sort of perspective is a bit silly (but predominant in modern industrialist thinking), our mind is perpetually maintaining our blood chemistry, breathing, growing cells and hair, and maintaining the processes of life simultaneously and without thought.  Our consciousness couldn’t maintain a system that efficiently.  To meditate and turn off your thoughts, observe nature without comprehending, listen to sounds without processing, is a way to discourage the temptation to view conscious thought as all-important and to provide you raw source material for talking/thinking later (since talking is something we humans naturally dig anyhow).  Another aspect, which is perhaps beyond me at the moment, is that we are all expressions of the same creative impulse to be, and who I think I am is the universe playing at being an Andy for a bit.  So somehow the act of meditating is also a connection to that concept, that I am not separate from you or the desk or anything else.  I would make no sense without a background or environment against which to see me. In this way it’s an illusion to think of myself as separate from the world.

Hermits, outsiders, the game of government/society, forced volunteering: He compares the view of the poets/drop-outs/beatniks and the businessmen/administrators/ participants within the eastern and western perspectives.  In the west (actually he says in the least confident cultures) it is asserted that everyone must play the game.  He lists things which we are required to do but which only make sense or work when done voluntarily, which forces/creates a sense of duty.  Everyone must vote, a good child must love his mother, thou shalt love the LORD thy God (a joke?), etc.  In this environment those who drop out (because it all seems stupid or they just don’t want to play) are seen as threatening and/or outcasts.  In the east however, the outsiders, those who choose not to play, are revered.  It’s the holy man up on the hill, and people give him food and respect.  The reason is that the drop-out shows the people that what they are up to down in society is in fact just a game.  Having someone to remind you of this keeps you light-hearted about your approach to life.  (A bit like living in a different country and really seeing that social norms are not universal, thus they must be a bit arbitrary.)  Having some number of hermits is necessary to a healthy society.

Those were some of my favorite thoughts from the Watts weekend and I hope I can incorporate them into my daily perspective.  I often take things too seriously, feel guilty when my desires don’t match my social duties, see myself as an isolated (misunderstood) entity sitting at the controls of a sack of skin which is my body.  In those moments it would probably be a good thing to remember that life is at its best when playful and that I can’t exist in any other way than the society that I’m existing in now.  It’s wasted effort to see myself otherwise.  Consider this the seeds of a recasting of my youthful idealism/utopianism.

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Personally planning for the various futures

I often get stuck thinking about financial planning for the future.  So I wanted to explore some of the issues there.  To set things up you need to know that I measure wealth in terms of leisure time, not particularly assets.  Somewhere in my past someone suggested that you could measure societies by things like bubble gum and other leisure activities, and it stuck with me.  After coming to France as an American I recognized that I work as if I could be fired at any moment, and I don’t take my time off in the same way (in France I have the impression that people work intensely when at work and do no work thinking when off, in the states we take less time off but steal more moments of dinking during the long hours).  When I see couples struggling and friends (or myself) under stress I tend to think that job pressures, time pressures, money pressures are inevitably the cause, or if not the cause an obstacle to a solution (no time to sit and talk or have some quality time to reflect).  So when I imagine an ideal future there is little in the way of time pressure or financial pressure.  Moving on.

So why work?  On an optimistic side one could say, to feel like you’re creating something of value, work within a team framework, etc.  From a pessimistic perspective it’s just about money.  Odds are it’s somewhere in between, but I tend to think that under no financial pressure one could work with others to create something of value just for love, a sense of worth, or the accomplishment of mastery (e.g. open source programmers).  I suspect that knowing how to creatively  spend your free time is one of the non-financial rewards of education.  So I’ll ignore the creative benefits for the moment and focus on the economic side.

My long-term personal finance perspective is focused mostly on reoccurring events.  That is, I work to minimize the amount of money that has to be paid out each month, and work to maximize the amount that comes in (without any of my effort).  If ever the amount that comes in without effort exceeds the amount needed each month you are financially free to choose what your day will consist of.  This is the starting point for a great many of my financial thoughts, a less rosy way of saying that would be, this viewpoint is the place where my certainty begins to run out.  For instance, by owning private property or paper investments am I perpetuating a system of hierarchal exploitation?  In the sense that I couldn’t fully rebel against a social system which is paying for my leisure.  If I own government bonds am I a war profiteer?  Maybe I take the categorical imperative too seriously, if my actions were to become universal law what would the world look like, could everyone have their needs met without labor?  If so, at what cost?  I’ll probably never become a captain of industry because of these thoughts, at least not without a different perspective.  Anyhow, because of such dilemmas and my practical axiom of maximizing in-flow minus out-flow, I began to mentally explore the notion of spending as little as possible while having a high quality of life.  Find some optimal combination of cost of living/quality of life/leisure time.  If you’re into exploring systems of equations you know that you have to come up with some boundary conditions.  Since I am clearly a bit uncomfortable creating massive revenue streams then I would need to think about minimizing my monthly consumption, that’s one constraint.  Another constraint to consider is how my perception of quality of life changes as my consumption might drop.  Finally, how much time would it take to achieve a given economic state, would that time be up-front or every recurring?

Sara and I have worked on decreasing our monthly life budget while maintaining a high quality of life.  My cooking natural meals at home we eat healthier, spend more time together, and spend less.  Life without a car or cell phone is freeing and wonderful here in Lyon which has nice public transportation including a top-notch bike rental system (essentially 15 euros for a year of unlimited biking).  Sara also has a knack for finding high quality output on any budget.  We’ve eliminated all of our debt and began our savings by living this way (on one (not so large) salary).  We downgraded the size of our apartment from our first year to our next, which means having less stuff, buying less stuff (being less tempted to buy because we don’t have room and wouldn’t want to ship it anyhow), and generally less clutter/faster cleaning.  It is nice to work in this direction, getting down more to the essentials of life.  I should point out that such changes have to take place gradually, growing up in a typical American house with a TV you end up with the instincts of the perfect consumer (happiness is perpetually one purchase away), so a cultural shift (which is destined to be slow and gradual) has to take place to increase quality of life while decreasing the size of our consumption package.

So what about the future?  Well what are the limits of decreasing the monthly cost of living within the constraints of being who we are?  Is it possible to get a monthly cost of 0?  Probably not.  I’ve found many people on the Internet living as homesteaders, found permaculturists, and others (haven’t met very many in real life so my sense of certainty is not very high either).  For one, there’s very few places that you can live without property taxes.  I could imagine growing my own food in a way which takes a minimal amount of human hours (search permaculture), and many herbal teas and things can help prevent a great deal of medical problems, but some problems really will want medical attention (pregnancy, broken bones, cancer) and some things are not worth the effort to make yourself.  We could also build a home from Cobb or plop up a yurt, but often local building laws wouldn’t allow you to live in such structures… So some life money will be needed.  If that’s the case then one really has to have some stream of income to cover those expenses.

As soon as you admit that you need to invest or have savings then you have to think about the future of society.  You become invested in what happens because the stability of the worlds’ systems becomes tied to the stability of your life.  I heard the notion that once people begin seeking comfort and aren’t nomadic then a world like ours becomes almost inevitable.  Which is more or less what I’m claiming here, on a personal finance level.  So how does one go about thinking about the future (in terms of how the individual will be impacted)?  I’ve heard two basic perspectives the futurist/technologist and the doom and gloomer approach.  Both perspectives only make sense in view of some problems which have been proposed about the next 10-20-50 years.  Some basic problems which are in the public consciousness are the cost/supply of energy, the forthcoming sovereign debt crises, and the ecological impact of modern life.  I suppose the doom and gloomers are those who see the problems and suggest that we will be unable to solve them in time (and then project what the impact of the unsolved problems would be), while the techologists believe we will be able to overcome the problems via human ingenuity (and then project what such a prosperous future might look like).  Maybe there is some middle party of economists who think that the free market will fix everything as needed.  Anyhow, all three problems I listed would have a huge impact (either in solved or unsolved form) on any sort of retirement planning.

When I say the cost of energy I’m thinking of the concept of “peak oil”.  It’s suggested that our demand for oil will continue to grow beyond our capacity to match the demand causing prices to begin skyrocketing sometime in the next X number of years.  I’ve heard some suggest that increased energy prices would force more clever folks into energy production causing a solution to appear before we know it, others have suggested that we’ll keep discovering more oil (some think it might in fact be a renewable resource), while others see a shift from oil back to coal when the price is right.  If the price of oil climbs and no alternative becomes cost efficient then I do believe that life as we know it would be quickly altered.  In the post-WWII world, oil has been an extremely cheap source of energy and many advances have come about because of that cheap oil including our global transportation networks, our current system of farming/food production (our pesticides and fertilizers are derived from oil), even our highway systems/suburbs are designed on the notion that cheap personal travel is available to anyone, and of course much of the power grid is oil based.  If the cost of oil were to become high without a real replacement then the cost of living and the cost of doing business would rise (meaning the wages wouldn’t likely keep up).  In such an eventuality one could imagine food riots, tough/cold winters, extremely expensive electricity, extremely expensive travel.  How would you prepare for such a thing?  Growing at least some of your own food, having passive heating/cooling in your house (via clever design), maybe a root cellar, and having planned for a post-oil monthly budget seems like something worth thinking about.  What about investments in such an outcome?  Well owning some index fund that follows the price per barrel of crude oil seems like a good paper asset hedge, producing enough food or lumber that you could sell surplus would be wise too.  What if the technologists are right?  In that world maybe we have this chlorophyll-based energy paint that you would paint on the side of your house so that all of your electric needs are met via the sun.  Maybe we all have some magic bullet basement generator that gives us each unlimited and cheap energy… in that case the monthly budget won’t be going up, so there’s not much to plan for.  Invest in video game companies or servers or even electric cars, since everyone could be doing super computing and charging up at home.  I’m not too worried about this outcome other than making your oil investments worthless (maybe they would still be used for producing plastics and the pesticides/fertilizers).

Sovereign debt, this one is scary.  I’ve seen no shortage of opinions that many industrialized countries will see their expenditures far out-pace their available budgets as more baby boomers reach ‘retirement age’.  This would mean cuts in many government/public services, police, teachers, defense, health care, decreased retirement funds, and increased  retirement ages.  The fear here is civil unrest and the potential threat of massive inflation.  If that were to happen then paper assets (including savings/currency) lose their value, you get forced back into the work pool because your savings become worthless.  It’s hard to imagine this being allowed to happen and I have no real expertise in the workings of international financial markets (in fact, it is kind of lame that I would need such expertise to think about the future).  The concept that you could work hard, save well, invest in low-risk bonds, retire, and finally have your investment stream inflated to essentially nothing is frightening enough to give it some thought.  In such an event you would want real assets, land, trees, maybe even some vacuum-packed disposable razors or toilet paper rolls (for selling/bartering in the event of a currency crash).  Again the ability to grow your own food would be essential.  In this case you might also want to know some survival medicine or have some such supplies in your cellar.  In theory, when inflation hits the price of stocks would rise to match the inflation (same with commodity backed holdings) so again, index funds seem like something to have.  I haven’t heard much in the way of optimistic outcomes for the sovereign debt world, just that the powers that be would do what they can to make sure the dollar doesn’t experience inflation via currency wars or drastic cuts, etc.  The ‘best’ positive outcome on this front would be if the world economy could grow fast enough to prevent this from happening I suppose (although infinite exponential growth just never really seems stable to me so this might not be a positive eventuality).  I suspect that learning the basics of community creating/protecting would be nice in the event of some sort of collapse, but there are plenty of gangs which already exist outside of the law and are well organized… Anyhow, let’s hope it doesn’t come to this one, but if it did, try to own (whatever that would mean) real assets.  The monthly budget would be out the window, or could just be measured in terms of value of investments which are commodity-based minus cost of real life goods (for instance any fixed rate mortgage payments would become dirt cheap in an inflationary world).

Finally there is the ecological problems.  I don’t particularly mean global warming either.  As an individual owning a tiny piece of land you have many natural flows which are out of your control.  Water that runs off from higher land through your land, air quality, animal migrations, radiation, noise, etc.  You could have a nice place set up and growing, the neighboring plot could be bought, turned into an industrial plant and you could end up with plummeting land values and toxic levels of who knows what in your soil killing off your crops.  Your food crops could be cross fertilized with GMO’s and you could be sued for it later on (happens a lot apparently).  The point here is that you can’t really hermit away, per say.  On a more global scale I do suspect that the weather is getting more and more extreme, highest highs, lowest lows, longest hurricane seasons, worst this worst that.  This might be partially to do with a lack of well kept records after X number of years in the past, but I suspect that it has more to do with deforestation, as (from what I’ve heard) the forests tend to have a mitigating effect on extreme weather.  Balancing temperatures, reducing wind strengths from the seas, creating better humidity for crop growth, etc.  On the global warming side I’ve also seen the notion that many cool cities of today could be underwater within 100-200 years (a bit past my lifespan, maybe).  I suppose that these concerns aren’t as controllable by an individual, and to plan a personal retirement in light of them would mean choosing lifestyle components that are based on the most robust plants (learning to eat Jerusalem Artichokes, or make weed smoothies, or investing in bamboo construction companies).  These concerns are actually the most compelling reasons to get involved in how things are done, because it would take the effort of many people to get things more in balance (you could plant trees on your own and try not to economically support companies which directly contribute to climate instability but really collective effort would be required).  On the optimistic side one could imagine a world in which we control the weather in real-time, grow things indoors with all of our extra energy, or have personal replicators which could make food out of raw material… who knows.  The little kid who read and re-read Jurassic Park tends to think that we aren’t so good at overcoming complex systems via technology as we don’t quite know what the impact of our interference would be.  Anyhow, maybe having some partially indoor food growing abilities would help in the face of whacky weather, also learning how to purify/test water without too much expense would be nice.

So, there it is, thinking about investing in the future means having a robust (well hedged) financial portfolio, and I’m inclined to want to be able to grow my own food for the worst case scenarios.  Learning to live happily on very little is a nice skill too.

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Forgiving yourself

Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-from Tao 67

I hesitate to be so vulnerable in an online space that employers could and are likely to see, but I think that every single person faces insecurities in this world.  If that’s true then pretending to have none is denying who and what we really are, and who needs that?  Anyhow I’ve been struggling for years with my need for approval.  It’s always been a part of me and when I realized the fact that what drives me in life isn’t some internal fire like heroes in movies but the need for affirmations and pats on the back it created all sorts of odd behaviors.  I went through phases of intentionally being unlikeable, refusing to be political in anyway, doing away with any small talk… Other times I’ve tried meditating and mantras and things to break my default mental cycles.  I’ve heard (what the bleep do we know) that these emotional cravings are actual addictions, like a drug that you’ll find ways to get into your system or face withdrawals.  The subtext here is that I never accepted myself or even forgave myself for having flaws.  I’m not kind to myself in this way, I’m over critical in my idealism.

For example: I work a lot and no one but me really knows the emotional cycle of my work days.  There are essentially two modes in which I’ll be extremely productive: 1) under guilty deadline/expectation pressure or 2) adrenaline and excitement because someone I respect is taking an active interest in my work.  That makes everyday another step in an internal emotional roller coaster, which isn’t very sustainable.  I’ve been producing some cool and difficult things but never am I producing them in some sort of relaxed state.

Since moving away from all of our friends and family we’ve had to make new friends and we live this semi-nomadic life.  As a result there’s fewer and fewer people who can give me pats on the back and reassurance that I’m doing fine.  As a result of this absence I can see the impact on my emotional eco-system of life with less approval. Less days of type 2 and more of type 1…  Further, without a set of well defined peers or a crew of any sort I’m more free to define my own sense of values.  I am really getting in touch with my morality, but to follow your own code means a) that it fits well within the parameters of the people closest to you or b) that you have the emotional strength to be yourself despite pressure to conform.  This extra dimension creates a formula for  a storm.  I want to live a life in accordance with my own values which are not particularly the values of the mainstream.  I need approval to fuel the engine of my life.  This is what creates my anxiety.  I’ve been searching for a stronger worldview, a way to feel at peace while pursuing my own way.

So that’s the dark side of it all, now to my title.  I started to read Krishnamurti’s Education and the significance of life which rocked me a bit.  He claims that seeing the world through the filter of idealism and utopias takes you away from seeing things as they are and sets you up to be a type of tyrant.  Furthermore, ideals are molds that dehumanize their subjects; in the sense that trying to mold yourself into an ideal takes away who you are where you’ve been and squeezes you into the ideal.  i.e., A way that one should be is what creates Malvina Reynold’s “little boxes” in the first place.  OK so I don’t want to be how the world wants me to be, but by pushing myself to fit some other concept of how I should be is no different; ‘meet the new boss same as the old boss’.  So I think, on some level, that I’ve been denying myself over the years while trying to mold a better Andy.  I’m OK, I’ve got quirks so do you, and I want to forgive them.  There are things about me that not everyone will like, that’s cool.  There are things about me that I don’t like.  I also have some amazing gifts and I’ve had some fantastic experiences.  Life is subtle and complicated and I’ve been treating myself too industrially for that.  Anyhow it’s worth a shot, and needed to put down on paper.

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The core of life: Hope, Love, Respect

I had a moment today when things made sense and that’s a sign that I should sit down and start typing.  Sometimes my internal mind-scape is overly complicated, there are complexities and subtleties in every interaction of any  given objects.  The desire to understand them is powerful and maddening.  The desire to understand things itself is worth looking at.  On some level desire is either goal-oriented or primal.  Maybe that’s not so clear, by goal-oriented I mean secondary, your desire to move is inspired by the carrot on the stick; I want to understand in order to feel something or prove my worth or feel peace.  In my moment of understanding I saw through the desire to the heart of what I want.

Three words passed through my mind:  Hope, Love, and Respect.  I felt like exploring each of them as primal emotions or objects or desires or whatever you might describe them as.  So I will.

Hope is one of the secrets to life.  In Bob Dylan’s poem Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie hope is given as the cure for that feeling of being lost, beaten up, confused, overwhelmed by pressures of modern life…. and he’s right.  In times of pessimism the door is open for doubt, defeat, despair, etc… and when you find some rationale for optimism the dark feelings seem less empowered, peace, happiness, contentment is free to return.  Nothing has to change, you can be sitting in one spot and have your perspective change in one moment and the world can go from bleak to bright.  Hope is a powerful thing.

In between that last sentence and here I had several days and several flights, this might make for some sort of discontinuity, we’ll see.  Regardless I’m also inclined to suspect that my sense of hope or hopelessness is a function of my internal narrative.  When I see a pattern in life that worries me the solution is often a story that explains it within the context of my worldview/map of reality.    For the scientist this is essentially the same as having a reliable model, it might not be the eventual truth, but it explains the observable for the moment and so long as this working explanation/model doesn’t contradict some long held truth then peaceful sleep returns.

The next core emotion that came into mind was love followed quickly by respect.  I wanted to break these apart into two things and look at them, but I’ve changed my mind.  One of the issues in life that is hard for me to understand (a pattern which doesn’t yet fit my map of reality) is the hierarchal structure of society.  Even in America, the country which strove to do away with aristocracy, its easy to see class structure.  To borrow a word we’ve replaced aristocracy with what we think is meritocracy, the power goes to those who’ve earned it.  This does seem like a decent system compared with monarchies being passed down bloodlines, but the part I’m so uncomfortable with is the fact that power exists and is sought after.  As soon as there are positions of power then there are positions of powerlessness, in fact for every one powerful person there must me a multitude of people under them.  It’s a social pyramid.  According to Ronald Wright’s ‘A short history of progress’ civilization is a pyramid scheme, and this is no modern phenomenon.  He claims that civilizations have a tendency to unravel because of two basic problems: 1) populations expand to the level of the food supply and 2) civilizations tend towards social hierarchies.  I see love and respect as the key to undoing this second problem.  I suspect on some level that most of what motivates us in life is the desire to be loved and that typically means being respected too: having people care about what goes on in your world, people to listen to you, people to perhaps comfort you, support you, and so on.  One of the little lessons in life that comes out of a good Kurt Vonnegut novel is that everyone has a story, every little character has a perspective, complexities, issues, strengths, desires.  Being heard and respected is something those with high status get for free, but the janitors often get glossed over, even if their thoughts are no less subtle or powerful.  With that in mind I feel like a strategy for mental health is to try and surround yourself with people who will love you and listen to you without pretension.  While on the other hand you should be the change you want to see in the world, so try your best to love and listen to and empathize with the people around you.  It’s hard to hate someone who’s perspective you see.  I see the act of embracing people around you as loving them, and I saw respect as the thing that we strive for… I won’t distinguish them like that anymore, just that giving love/respect will go a long way in warming people around you and easing social tendencies which don’t create psychological benefit, while finding people who can love/respect is likely what motivates a massive amount of our decisions.  Maybe this can lead to a way of hacking life, achieving the emotional goals without having to get a statue of us made somewhere.

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Conformity, Morality, and Dissonance

Something I inherited from my dad is a notion that there is nothing which I am incapable of (particularly if someone else out there is capable of it).  Regardless of the truthfulness of that notion, its existence in me does point to a deeply ingrained faith in willpower.  It also points at the fact that, on some level, I think a person can define themselves, which contradicts another belief I might hold on some level that people discover themselves.  What I want to get at here is this itch which has been bothering me.  If I am free to choose how I will be (a big if) then how do I make such a choice?  As an illustrative example, Sara and I have been adapting our food habits over time.  We’ve moved slowly from our origin (heavily processed foods from the local chain grocer) to our current ideal (food from local farms, in season, as natural as possible) and possibly beyond (perennials and/or edible weeds which grow with as little human input as possible).  Along the way there are invariants; for instance that dinner together is an important part of family life and that delicious flavors should be appreciated (and savored).  The act of changing over time (not just our behaviors but really even our tastes) in this way is a form of idealism.  Somehow we move towards actions which resonate within us as being right, even if that notion of right changes over time, and might not be pragmatic.  Maybe this is an act of ‘discovering’ our ideals while ‘creating’ our actions (in this case our eating habits) in the image of those ideals.  I’m OK with this resolution of the contradiction, one can discover your ideals and then choose what to do in light of those discoveries.  In fact, that resolution matches a concept I heard this summer, the idea that the best way to learn something is to alternate between reflection and action.  In this case the act of trying to match your ideal in behavior might then shape the next iteration of adjusting the ideal which then adjusts the way you act, and so on.

So we’ve now got the beginnings of a model for how someone might go about adjusting themselves over time.  Of course, in this model, the very act of change begins with a seed of dissonance.  Something about your actions must strike you, on some level, as inconsistent with the way you would want to be (otherwise things would likely go on as they were).  Even if you’re unaware of what’s inconsistent or that something is inconsistent there will be moments of recognition of the conflict.  This first recognition of dissonance, for me, is almost always associated with art.  Some narrative or museum piece or performance or lyric or phrase will stick with me because I recognize it as true and as a condemnation (even if it wasn’t intended that way).  This seed of conflict sparks off the process of discovering what preexisting ideals I might have (which, prior to any mindful adjustments, must be leftovers of childhood experience, cultural influences, etc.) and what behaviors I have that conflict with those preexisting ideals.

Now we are ready to face the next dilemma: social forces and what to do with your dissonance.  Let’s suppose that my default morality/ethics/sense of right and wrong comes from my parents, friends/peers, the culture I grew with, etc.  Then my desire to live in accordance with that morality might spring from, at some early stage, a  desire to fit in or be approved of.  I could imagine a young rebel with a well developed sense of right and wrong purposefully doing wrong in a noticeable way (I’ve done this more than once in my life).  Such an act might be a first step in deciding how internalized some moral might be, or an act of separating the act of doing good from the desire to be approved of, or deciding if the moral has practical implications.  This is the point at which  the model becomes more individualized.  That is to say that there is a hierarchy of importance in everyone, which guides their resolution of personal conflicts.  If person A finds clean counters to be extremely important on their internal cleanliness scale and empty trash cans to be less important and they find themselves with an unexpected guest, a cluttered counter, and a full trash can then they might clean the counter and leave the trash.  Not a great example, but when push comes to shove, that is when you are forced to make a choice between two things, then all else being equal you are likely to consult your own internal hierarchy of values.  Somethings will bother you more than others.  I intend to imply that morality, whatever that might mean, is something born out of social/cultural interaction, and the same forces which brought about the seeds of morality as children will bring about seeds of conformity as adults.  That is, a desire to be loved and accepted guides some of our behaviors, while there is also, on some level, a desire to have your actions resonate with your internal value structure and not cause you dissonance.  This conflict is inevitable.  We must all decide whether to live in accordance with our ideals or the ideals of our cultural environment.  When you sense a conflict you either make some sort of stand or you internalize the ideals of your cultural environment.  To bring back the food example, Sara and I have been eating vegetarian for a month now, based on the idea of not economically supporting factory farmed animals.  That decision causes social problems, it makes a stance which others might not agree with, thus, for us, we’ve been getting a little less comfort from the world at large.  We certainly haven’t formed perfect opinions yet, we just don’t have all of the facts, but the act of turning down a dish, is already enough to need facts in defense of this unsocial behavior (or to choose open minded or like minded dinner companions).  To turn down social acceptance, which is warm and comforting, for the sake of internal resonance requires willpower/confidence/strength and an internal hierarchy which places living in alignment with ideals somewhere above comfort (or I should say this type of comfort).  That’s the dilemma we all face when living in a world which just doesn’t universally match our own morals.

I don’t want to give the impression that this dilemma is just about our food choices.  For me, the morals which I have found in myself (or developed in some cases) that cause the most difficulty lie in the realms of time management, material wealth, and the role of careers as cultural identifiers (which brings up nasty phrases like class struggle).  I have no desire to have comfort which causes some dehumanizing of others, but I do have such comforts.  That is to have comfort which couldn’t be (in theory) universally had, not quite socialism, but enough-ism.  Not everyone in a city can live as comfortably as the wealthiest, so if I were the wealthiest person in a city I would feel a great deal of dissonance about that fact (which means I’m unlikely to ever become the wealthiest person in a city).  I think that free time and freedom are extremely important for functioning families/democracies/relationships, and that the vast majority of people I know are truly enslaved by financial pressures, their lifestyles, and jobs (such pressures seem to erode relationships, families, depth of life, quality of life, quality of food, etc.).  These sorts of internal morals are not so uncommon, but acting on them requires much more strength/willpower than saying no thanks to chicken wings.  So I arrive again at the notion that ‘I can do anything’ thus what do I choose to do?  Is the ability to look at myself in the mirror and know that I am doing well by my own sense of morality more valuable to me than being respected and supported by society?  Do you follow the example of Gandhi or your peers?

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