An Experiment in Scotch

"I write to discover what I believe." Michael Lopp on Twitter

On Fences

In the mat­ter of reform­ing things, as dis­tinct from deform­ing them, there is one plain and sim­ple prin­ci­ple; a prin­ci­ple which will prob­a­bly be called a para­dox. There exists in such a case a cer­tain insti­tu­tion or law; let us say, for the sake of sim­plic­ity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more mod­ern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intel­li­gent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I cer­tainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

G.K. Chester­ton

There is a ten­dency in all of us to tear down fences built by oth­ers for rea­sons we do not imme­di­ately under­stand. It takes real effort to put our­selves in oth­ers’ shoes and divine their inten­tions. David Fos­ter Wal­lace called it our default-setting, a nat­ural instinct to self-centeredness. Instead of under­stand­ing some­one else’s rea­sons, we pre­fer to assume the worst or the use­less­ness of peo­ple, the things they have built, the sit­u­a­tions they are in. When some­one cuts us off on the road, we fume and yell and assume he is an ass­hole. Per­haps he is. But per­haps he is late for a job inter­view because his kid had the flu and the dri­ver has spent all morn­ing at the emer­gency care office. Per­haps his sis­ter is at the hos­pi­tal hav­ing her first child. Per­haps a mil­lion other things. It is so much eas­ier to say “you ass­hole” because we oper­ate in a default set­ting of self-centeredness. Under­stand­ing other’s rea­sons and sit­u­a­tions requires effort and empa­thy, an emo­tion on a long, slow, steady decline in our world of con­nected disconnectedness.

This hap­pens in my line of work where some­one will approach a piece of soft­ware and think “This is stu­pid and makes no sense. I will clear it away and build some­thing else.” This is an expres­sion of the same self-centeredness. It is eas­ier to assume our omni­science than it is to see both (or ten!) pos­si­ble sides of a prob­lem. Instead of ask­ing “Why is this fence here?”, we refuse to put in the work required to achieve under­stand­ing. And yet, there are always rea­sons why some­thing was done the way it was. True, they may be as sim­ple as “we didn’t have enough time to do it right.” But there were rea­sons. We ignore them at our peril because if those rea­sons still exist, we will tear the fence down and rebuild it exactly as it was, stone upon mis­taken stone, until we have recre­ated the prob­lem dif­fer­ent in author only.

In soft­ware, this results in a con­stant rein­vent­ing of the wheel and an inabil­ity to main­tain that which was cre­ated. A car has thou­sands of mov­ing parts and requires reg­u­lar main­te­nance to con­tinue oper­at­ing in decent shape. This is a fact no one will dis­pute. Few peo­ple in the soft­ware indus­try are so enlight­ened, often believ­ing that main­te­nance is lost dol­lars thrown away at the expense of cre­at­ing some­thing new. But just like with cars, main­te­nance dol­lars spent now pre­vent mas­sive break­downs or entire replace­ments in the future.

Part of the prob­lem is the infancy of our indus­try and no clear guide­lines on when we should change the oil and rotate the tires in our appli­ca­tions. Part of that prob­lem is that unlike in a car where the tires are in the same place and chang­ing the oil is a straight­for­ward oper­a­tion, there is no sched­uled main­te­nance man­ual for our soft­ware. Main­te­nance is fraught with the dan­ger of break­ing some unknown piece buried off in a rat’s war­ren of com­plex­ity. Imag­ine if one out of five times you changed the oil in your car, the brakes stopped work­ing. Or maybe it caused the heater to always be on. You would acquire a cer­tain hes­i­tancy towards reg­u­lar car main­te­nance because the last time it caused you to crash into a tree. Yet this is exactly the sit­u­a­tion most soft­ware is in today. It is a live, mov­ing, func­tion­ing sys­tem that needs main­te­nance just as badly as your car and yet chang­ing pieces of most soft­ware sys­tems may cause it to crash into a tree imme­di­ately upon leav­ing the garage.

Hear­ing this, you might won­der why it’s called soft­ware engi­neer­ing. You wouldn’t call some­one who built a bridge that had to be replaced in five years and couldn’t hold trucks over 2 tons after two years a civil engi­neer. There are places that are truly doing soft­ware engi­neer­ing. Google, Face­book, Ama­zon. These places are doing engi­neer­ing. But a huge chunk of the soft­ware out in the wild today is about as close to engi­neer­ing as the pine box derby car you built in Boy Scouts. Because soft­ware is rarely engi­neered, it is rarely main­tained. A bridge gets built and then over the years is exam­ined by inde­pen­dent author­i­ties and is resur­faced and is kept up but rarely added onto. Few bridges ever get a sec­ond deck or a heli­copter pad or a brew­ery. A piece of soft­ware is built and may have any of these metaphor­i­cal things or more bolted onto it through the course of its life­time. What we do is much closer to art and the main­te­nance of our sys­tems is much closer to restora­tion than it is engi­neer­ing. Restor­ing a paint­ing is painstak­ing, del­i­cate work com­pletely unlike chang­ing the oil in a car. You need a restorer’s touch to main­tain most soft­ware sys­tems along with a strong fear of failure.

The rea­sons for this are legion. Your aver­age every­day soft­ware devel­oper is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from your aver­age every­day Google soft­ware engi­neer. This isn’t a slight, just a fact of the bell curve. Also, most busi­ness soft­ware is a liv­ing, breath­ing, evolv­ing thing, the oppo­site of what a bridge or a dam or an elec­tri­cal cir­cuit is. There are only about 3 ways to inter­act with a bridge and one of them involves remov­ing your­self from the gene pool. When we engi­neer a bridge, the inputs into the sys­tem are known and finite. With soft­ware, the inputs are typ­i­cally unknown and approach­ing infin­ity. This isn’t just at the user level but also at the design and require­ments level. Things change all the time dur­ing devel­op­ment and just when you think you have a firm grip on what this par­tic­u­lar piece of soft­ware is sup­posed to do, you’re asked to make it peel a banana or change a dia­per. And sud­denly you have a mess on your hands. When it gets pushed out to users, it only gets worse. A piece of soft­ware is con­stantly evolv­ing and like our DNA, that evo­lu­tion results in dupli­ca­tion, left over junk and ves­ti­gial appen­dices. It’s also why that piece of code you don’t think actu­ally does any­thing never gets cut off. We don’t delete pos­si­bly unused code any more than we do elec­tive appen­dix surgeries.

Which brings us back to that fence. The next time you run into a piece of code that you don’t under­stand or doesn’t make sense or you want to call stu­pid, remem­ber that peo­ple with above aver­age intel­li­gence wrote it. They prob­a­bly didn’t want it to be a pile of crap. They prob­a­bly gen­uinely thought it was going to be fan­tas­tic because if they are noth­ing else, devel­op­ers are opti­mists. But through forces of nature and evo­lu­tion and shitty require­ments, the per­fec­tion they were hop­ing for turned into some­thing else. Per­haps it was inten­tional and you don’t under­stand the inten­tion yet. Per­haps it was a Fri­day evening and they were fix­ing a pro­duc­tion bug. Or per­haps they just weren’t very pre­pared. But give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt before you take a sledge­ham­mer to their fence. Chances are that at some point some­one will look at a fence you built and won­der how you could have been so stu­pid. Instead go away and think for a bit. Only when you can come back and under­stand the fence may you pos­si­bly tear it down.

How To Get On The Dallas “Do Not Spray” List

If you live in Dal­las, you prob­a­bly know that the city goes around in the sum­mer spray­ing blan­ket pes­ti­cides to “con­trol” West Nile Virus. I’m pretty sure that’s a com­pletely inef­fec­tive way to deal with the sit­u­a­tion and likely has far reach­ing neg­a­tive impacts on other pol­li­na­tors like but­ter­flies and bees. As it turns out, you can opt out though I have no idea how much help that is if they are spray­ing your neigh­bors house. Still, worth try­ing. The infor­ma­tion below comes from one of our Texas Mas­ter Naturalists.

1. Go to DallasCityHall.com

2. Click on 311 at the top right

3. Request Ser­vice at the mid­dle left

4. Click on Ser­vice Type drop down menu. Select Mos­qui­tos and Go.

5. Key in your address. Then next.

6. Drop down menu under “What is the nature of your concern?”

7. Click “Do Not Spray”.

8. If you would like to be con­tacted fill in your information.

9. Step 5 allows com­ments. I wrote in that box a mes­sage sim­i­lar to the intro­duc­tion above. Write what­ever applies to you.

10. Step 6 click Submit.

11. Then click Finish.

On Regularity and Bill Simmons

It’s been over two months since I’ve writ­ten any­thing in this space which is exactly NOT how to begin an essay but hope­fully you’ll bear with me for a bit. As a closet neu­rotic, though some might think the door has been yanked off the hinges, one of the habits I am inti­mately acquainted with is of self-improvement through habit. We all have these neb­u­lous ambi­tions of “doing some­thing bet­ter” but with­out the nec­es­sary habit of actu­ally doing those things, we tend to revert to our nat­ural iner­tia of lazi­ness and cookie con­sump­tion. One of the great analo­gies for this prob­lem is The Rider and The Ele­phant where our con­scious mind is rep­re­sented by a tiny rider on top of an ele­phant and our uncon­scious rep­til­ian cookie lov­ing mind is rep­re­sented by a huge ele­phant with the power to go where he wants. The key to change is man­ag­ing those two enti­ties in ways par­tic­u­lar to each. Often, a com­po­nent of that change is the replace­ment of iner­tia with habit which is some­thing I firmly believe in. Dis­ci­pline before mas­tery and all that.

But those things aren’t what inter­ests me today. Instead I’m fas­ci­nated by the mod­ern phe­nom­e­non of peo­ple who have some habit, par­tic­u­larly of writ­ing, and turn that into a career. Pre-Internet, if you wrote in a jour­nal every day, you were either a author or a teenage girl, the Venn dia­gram of those two groups being quite sim­i­lar. Today, writ­ing on a blog every day can turn you into a media empire assum­ing you have the req­ui­site audi­ence for your voice. I think about this because it became pub­lic two weeks ago that Bill Sim­mons will no longer be writ­ing any­thing for ESPN. For those unfa­mil­iar with the Sim­mons canon, he started writ­ing a sports blog about 20 years go when the Inter­net was still largely dri­ven by AOL CDs and flame­war chat rooms. He wrote about Boston sports and devel­oped a big enough audi­ence that ESPN hired him. Think about that for a sec­ond. He was writ­ing a blog before blogs were really a thing and he did it so often and with enough inter­est that ESPN hired him. If you enjoy sports and writ­ing, surely that’s a dream job, one you effec­tively cre­ated by per­se­ver­ance and talent.

From the lowly Page 2 where ESPN orig­i­nally put their edgy, non-mainstream voices back in the day up to run­ning Grant­land where they put their edgy, non-mainstream voices today, Sim­mons became a power house at ESPN all the while writ­ing and pod­cast­ing in a very sim­i­lar man­ner to how he started. If you read a post of his from 2000 and one from today, they are remark­ably sim­i­lar. Along the way he also cre­ated and spear­headed 30 for 30 which is one of the best things ESPN has ever done. Oh and did I men­tion he makes around $5 mil­lion a year? It’s not too much of a stretch to say he turned a Blogspot.com blog into a career worth $5 mil­lion a year. This is our mod­ern day Sam Walton.

There are oth­ers who have done the same thing. Ree Drum­mond comes quickly to mind as some­one who took a blog and turned it into a wildly pop­u­lar media career. There are likely oth­ers I’m unaware of. Partly, this is win­ning at the inter­net lot­tery. There are prob­a­bly thou­sands of other reg­u­lar writ­ers out there in inter­net land who are just as enter­tain­ing who never even rise above the level of “the friends and fam­ily audi­ence” which can be reward­ing but usu­ally not in the same way $5 mil­lion is reward­ing. In my long and sto­ried inter­net surf­ing career, I have read some very funny or poignant or what­ever else inter­ests me writ­ers who never started work­ing for the Food Net­work or run­ning an entire divi­sion at ESPN. Part of it has to be luck and for­tune and rub­bing the right Buddha’s belly.

But I can think of zero writ­ers with­out that pas­sion and per­se­ver­ance and habit who went on to work at ESPN. The only way to find your voice and thus your audi­ence is to write, though voice and audi­ence are not lin­early related unless you are James Joyce. Sim­mons cranked out 3000 word arti­cles and essays at an insane pace. This was partly due to his appar­ent chronic case of diar­rhea of the pen, an afflic­tion I reg­u­larly share and one that never really abated even with the strong antibi­otics admin­is­tered by the mas­ters at ESPN. But even that works in the favor of today’s aspir­ing Sim­mons clones because you can always turn more words into fewer words with some decent edit­ing. Rarely can you do the oppo­site. He once wrote 2500+ words about the power of E-Bay for God’s sake.

When you look at the ascent of writ­ers like Sim­mons or Drum­mond, it’s impor­tant to see the inter­ac­tion between the author and the audi­ence. One of Sim­mons’ ongo­ing arti­cle themes is the mail bag where he answers emails from actual read­ers. This is a genius way to expand an audi­ence because every­one likes to see their name in lights, even if it’s the lights of a no name blog in a dusty cor­ner of the inter­net. And if it’s on the front page of Grant­land, well that’s icing on the cake. Very few artists can ignore the audi­ence entirely and more often than not, it’s a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship not unlike a the­ater per­former. Today’s blog writer gets imme­di­ate feed­back with all the pros and cons that come along with it. Imme­di­ately know­ing that you’ve hit a chord with your audi­ence is invalu­able if you are build­ing a mar­ket­ing platform.

One of the keys to build­ing an audi­ence beyond the obvi­ous abil­ity to say some thing inter­est­ing is reg­u­lar con­tent. An essay a month prob­a­bly isn’t going to cut it unless you are Gore Vidal. Of course, not all of the out­put needs to be for pub­lic con­sump­tion. Most writ­ers have a jour­nal for ideas, exper­i­men­ta­tion and basic brain dumps. But if you want to move out of the dusty cor­ner of the inter­net you cur­rently live in, you need to write more. Sim­mons wrote a weekly NFL col­umn for years that made an attempt to pick the win­ners of that week’s games. I faith­fully read Sim­mons’ NFL picks essay every week for years. That kind of reg­u­lar­ity does two things. One, it builds antic­i­pa­tion in your audi­ence. If your read­ers know they can count on an inter­est­ing piece on a topic they enjoy every X num­ber of days, you are going to be far more suc­cess­ful. Two, it cre­ates a habit, one that gets harder to break as it hap­pens more and more often. These two things feed off each other in a very pos­i­tive way.

It seems that reg­u­lar­ity is good for the bowel and for the bud­ding artis­tic career. Maybe next month’s post can exam­ine how to make that pos­si­ble. PS. You now have the abil­ity to sign up for noti­fi­ca­tions when I actu­ally do write some­thing. If you’ve liked my stuff in the past, feel free to sign up in the col­umn over there on the right. Oh and tell you friends I’m hilar­i­ous. I’ll try not to dis­ap­point you too terribly.

Waffles And Clotted Cream — An Epilogue

Editor’s note: Four months ago, I wrote an arti­cle about infla­tion couched in terms I thought any­one could under­stand. My good friend Jim E. has writ­ten an epi­logue to the story, a story with­out a par­tic­u­larly happy end­ing unless you hap­pen to work for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. I never knew Jim was such an elo­quent writer. This isn’t the first time there’s been a guest writer at the Exper­i­ment but cer­tainly one of the best. — Brett

Cur­rency Wars Part … redux. Or how I stopped wor­ry­ing and learned to love deflation.

In the Land of Peo­ple with Below Aver­age Den­tal Hygiene, Hermione has worked her whole life and man­aged to save a waf­fle for her retire­ment. The waf­fle was impor­tant to Hermione because Hermione planned on buying-and eating-organic but­ter and clot­ted cream to make up for all the years of work­ing and doing with less so that she could save. It is not quite time to retire, so Hermione is look­ing for a “risk free” place to keep her waffle.

A gov­ern­ment offi­cial, who will by tra­di­tion remain face­less and name­less, decided that the gov­ern­ment could do more … well, gov­ern­ing … if only the gov­ern­ment had more waf­fles. So, this face­less and name­less gov­ern­ment offi­cial deter­mined that the gov­ern­ment could bor­row waf­fles. That way, the gov­ern­ment could have more waf­fles and, con­se­quently, gov­ern more, with­out the pesky prob­lem of wait­ing to accu­mu­late waffles.

Only one prob­lem. How to repay the waf­fles? Bor­row­ing can be expen­sive. Then, Bob — you remem­ber Bob who makes the excel­lent organic grass fed but­ter — shows up in Carl’s office. And, our face­less and name­less gov­ern­ment offi­cial see’s Carl’s plan of dou­bling the num­ber of waf­fles and our face­less and name­less offi­cial has an epiphany. Wait for it. It is coming.

So, with his epiphany, our face­less and name­less offi­cial decides that he can bor­row waf­fles by sell­ing gov­ern­ment backed bonds. And, he decides to call these bonds a “risk free” invest­ment because, well, it is the gov­ern­ment. Who can you trust if you can­not trust your own gov­ern­ment? (Don’t answer that. That would be skip­ping ahead). With his plan in hand, our face­less and name­less offi­cial prints up gov­ern­ment bonds and offers them for sale: one bond for one waf­fle. Like a match made in … the other place. Hermione buys a “risk free” bond from the face­less and name­less offi­cial with full expec­ta­tion of being repaid her waf­fle next year. And, Hermione will receive a very small amount of Bob’s organic but­ter to com­pen­sate her for lend­ing the gov­ern­ment her waffle.

If you remem­ber in the orig­i­nal story, Carl then dou­bles the num­ber of waf­fles. And, at that point, our face­less and name­less official’s epiphany is almost real­ity. The fol­low­ing year, after the num­ber of waf­fles had dou­bled, Hermione redeems her bond and receives her one waf­fle. A freshly baked waf­fle. Unfor­tu­nately, her waf­fle will now only buy half the organic but­ter and clot­ted cream that the same waf­fle would have bought a year ago. Hermione’s dream of liv­ing on organic but­ter and clot­ted cream is shat­tered. She is dismayed.

But our face­less and name­less offi­cial has man­aged to keep one waf­fle after repay­ing one to Hermione. Our face­less and name­less offi­cial is elated (that would be the big word for happy). Some­one is happy, so this must be the happy end­ing? Not exactly.

When the num­ber of waf­fles is dou­bled, the gov­ern­ment became the big win­ner and the hard work­ing, hard sav­ing Hermione … well not so much. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away from waf­fles and crum­pets, this was called steal­ing. Here. Now. It is called Fed policy.

And, the above is not some fan­ci­ful story. If you bought a US 1984 30 year bond in 1984 (and that would be with 1984 dol­lars), that bond would be worth about 40 cents on the 1984 dol­lar in 2014 — last year — when it was repaid. Not some far off future date. Last year. For some­one who retired in 1984 on a “fixed income”, they face Hermione’s prob­lem and have 40 cents of buy­ing power com­pared to the day that they retired.

And, that 40 cents on the dol­lar? That is found using the US government’s own offi­cial infla­tion num­bers. For some rea­son, I am not so trust­ing that the gov­ern­ment cor­rectly cal­cu­lates infla­tion. It is not in the government’s best inter­est to cor­rectly cal­cu­late infla­tion. I sus­pect that the 40 cents on the dol­lar is much worse: maybe even 10 or 20 cents on the dol­lar. But, maybe that is just me.

The above is a sim­ple story with­out much of the detail. But, it illus­trates the effects of infla­tion even when using the offi­cial gov­ern­ment infla­tion num­bers.
All gov­ern­ments use taxes to col­lect rev­enue. As illus­trated, infla­tion has the same effect on the gov­ern­ment finances as rais­ing taxes. Caus­ing infla­tion — an offi­cial pol­icy of the US gov­ern­ment — taxes the old and the poor. It is a hid­den tax. Hid­den in plain sight. But, you never hear it called a tax for some rea­son. All the unnum­bered face­less and name­less gov­ern­ment offi­cials as well as the elected with actual faces and names sim­ply keep quiet about it.
As an excer­cise, re-read the above and instead of dou­bling the num­ber of waf­fles, cut the num­ber of waf­fles in half. That would be called defla­tion. And, with defla­tion, our face­less and name­less offi­cial would have a real prob­lem repay­ing Hermione. And, that would be excep­tion­ally painful for this face­less and name­less official.

The Fed and the rest of the gov­ern­ment rec­og­nizes that defla­tion might be so bad that the face­less and name­less would have to find some­thing else to do and maybe actu­ally get a face and a name. And, that is never going to hap­pen if they can help it.

The Wilderness Warrior

I recently fin­ished read­ing Theodore Roosevelt’s biog­ra­phy, The Wilder­ness War­rior writ­ten by Dou­glas Brink­ley. The book is focused on the con­ser­va­tion cru­sade that Roo­sevelt embarked on to save mil­lions of acres through­out the United States from log­ging, min­ing and pri­vate hold­ings. I had no idea the scope of the man­dates Roo­sevelt handed down over his two terms. Many of the national forests and parks were set aside with exec­u­tive orders dur­ing Roosevelt’s tenure. He strongly held that a life lived out­doors in the wilder­ness was the way to hap­pi­ness. He called it the stren­u­ous life and he was deter­mined to pro­vide places that future gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans could lead lead that life among Nature’s beauty. I was struck through­out the book by TR’s under­stand­ing of the nat­ural world.

He was a mas­ter orinthol­o­gist before he went to col­lege at Har­vard, able to rec­og­nize hun­dreds of birds not only by sight but also by the songs and sounds they made. He wrote papers on wolves and elk. Roo­sevelt essen­tially was the father of con­ser­va­tion in Amer­ica from a polit­i­cal stand­point (there were many nat­u­ral­ists at the time like Bur­roughs or Muir but they were hardly in the posi­tion to imple­ment change that TR was). He was also the first Pres­i­dent to use the Exec­u­tive Order as a pol­icy means, imple­ment­ing hun­dreds of fed­eral bird reserves, national parks and national mon­u­ments with­out ever hav­ing to deal with Con­gres­sional approval. The next time you hear some polit­i­cal wag com­plain­ing about Obama’s or Bush’s usage of the Exec­u­tive Order to imple­ment pol­icy, remem­ber that TR used the EO a stag­ger­ing 1081 times, a full 864 more times than the record at that time, Ulysses Grant (217).

Exist­ing in a time before a 24 hour news cycle, TR was able to imple­ment pol­icy he deemed impor­tant and that pol­icy was largely focused on set­ting aside mil­lions of acres of for­est through­out the west­ern states of Cal­i­for­nia, Col­orado, Wyoming, Mon­tana and Utah. On one day in 1908 (July 1st), he cre­ated 45 national forests just by sign­ing his name with a pen. Of course it was a dif­fer­ent time and place but today, even the slight­est pol­icy change effected by EO is railed against by the oppos­ing party as if it were a per­sonal attack. In an envi­ron­ment of increas­ing polit­i­cal divi­sive­ness, I’m sur­prised Pres­i­dents, espe­cially out­go­ing ones, don’t use the EO more to imple­ment policy.

Roosevelt’s idea of the stren­u­ous life is another idea miss­ing from our world today. So lit­tle of what we do could be con­sid­ered stren­u­ous and this was one of TR’s great­est fears. He saw the increased urban­iza­tion of Amer­ica as a scourge to fight against at all costs. Today in our world of ease and com­fort, there is lit­tle that is stren­u­ous. Man­ual labor, even skilled man­ual labor, is dis­cour­aged across all spec­trums which Matthew Craw­ford wrote about in Shop Class as Soul­craft, another book I recently read. We choose leisurely careers, at least from a phys­i­cal view­point, and we spend our leisure time doing mostly leisurely activ­i­ties (says the guy writ­ing a blog post on a com­puter). Roo­sevelt advo­cated the oppo­site, leisure time spent in the wilder­ness hunt­ing, camp­ing, ranch­ing or bird­ing. He reg­u­larly went on expe­di­tions through the woods that were dif­fi­cult. In fact, he seemed to grow hap­pier dur­ing times of dif­fi­culty like hik­ing moun­tains dur­ing a snow storm or hunt­ing bears in Louisiana.

The book is long, per­haps too long at 800 odd pages, but it’s eye open­ing for some­one like me who long ago for­got the power of our 26th Pres­i­dent. It’s also an excel­lent reminder of a time when a strong per­son­al­ity in the Pres­i­den­tial office resulted in sweep­ing changes that affected gen­er­a­tions for years. TR’s empha­sis on con­ser­va­tion changed both the phys­i­cal and polit­i­cal land­scape of Amer­ica. As I go through the Texas Mas­ter Nat­u­ral­ist pro­gram, I see the effects of his poli­cies even today with the focus on con­ser­va­tion of range­lands and prairies in Texas. I hope to con­tinue liv­ing a stren­u­ous life in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.

On Naming A Cat

With def­er­ence to Eliot
And that Mis­ter Mistof­felees
Can you choose to name your cat
A sobri­quet like Socrates?
Or maybe since there is a cat
Already in the house who’s named
Vin­cent, you fig­ure surely that
Picasso for the newly tamed.
His eyes are blue like oceans bay
So you could call him Frankie, too.
He croons and purrs both night and day
And seems to get a kick outta you.
But if T.S were truly right
And two monikers are required
The pres­sure weighs and causes fright
In hope­less tur­moil I am mired.
A name is fixed and per­ma­nent
For­ever by it he will go.
I’ll hope for help from heaven sent
Bar­ring that I’ll just call him Mo.

On A Longer Fast

As I men­tioned in my Lenten 2015 post, I kicked things off with a 48 hour fast, my longest one yet. I had pre­vi­ously done a 24 and a 36 hour fast but most of the stud­ies out there point to the min­i­mum nec­es­sary as 48 hours (and the stem cell regen­er­a­tion stuff is say­ing at least 72). My last meal pre-fast was Tues­day night at around 9:30 after Mas­ter Nat­u­ral­ist class. Before start­ing, I did a lit­tle research on longer fasts and as with any­thing on the Inter­net, advice was con­flict­ing at best. This site seemed the most infor­ma­tive but also made it sound like fast­ing bestowed super human pow­ers on you. In my pre­vi­ous 36 hour fast, I did not turn into Super­man but after day 1, I did notice an increased abil­ity to focus up until about the time I ate. I don’t think this was observer bias since I wasn’t aware of the pos­si­ble benefits.

For this fast, day 1 was def­i­nitely the hard­est though noth­ing ter­ri­ble. I had my first tem­po­rary hunger pains around noon on Wednes­day. In my lim­ited expe­ri­ence, these are almost always minor and can be mit­i­gated with cof­fee and sub­stan­tial water. The more dif­fi­cult hunger hap­pens for me around 20–24 hours. In the arti­cle linked above, the author says this is your body try­ing to stay in home­osta­sis. This makes a lot of sense in our mod­ern world where for most of us (at least the ones read­ing my blog), hunger is a very abstract con­cept. Our bod­ies are used to eat­ing every 6 hours and when we miss a cou­ple of cycles, minor panic sets in at a nutri­tional level. But in the grand scheme of things, long term home­osta­sis with­out any stress to the sys­tem results in frailty. Think about sit­ting on your couch for a week. Your body doesn’t like that. There is some evi­dence that expo­sure to cold brings the body out of home­osta­sis and increases metab­o­lism. A reg­u­lar feed­ing cycle con­di­tions your body to never feel hunger and there­fore never acti­vate impor­tant mech­a­nisms like attack­ing free rad­i­cals which hap­pens dur­ing fasts. What I did to make the 20 hour hunger pains eas­ier was drink more water and imag­ine my body destroy­ing can­cer caus­ing free rad­i­cal cells. Obvi­ously this is likely a stretch but it helped with will power.

On day 2, I found it much eas­ier to ignore being on a fast. I was never actu­ally hun­gry in a phys­i­cal sense. What I did encounter was my brain try­ing to con­vince me to stuff some­thing in my mouth. Again, I think this was as much habit/homeostasis as any­thing. We have a cat that if you don’t feed her every 6 hours, she turns into a meow­ing kitchen timer. The thing is, she’s prob­a­bly 3 pounds over­weight and could go 4 days with­out food just fine. That’s what I thought about my brain on day 2. Of course, it didn’t help that some­one brought fresh fruit and donut holes for break­fast to work along with a work­ing lunch that would have included free sand­wiches if I had par­taken. Temp­ta­tions aside, the real strug­gle was just mak­ing the real­iza­tion that my hunger seemed to be largely psy­cho­log­i­cal men­tal panic and not true “I may die” hunger.

Mid­day, I started tak­ing half a tea­spoon of glu­t­a­mine in my water every 4 hours or so. This came on the rec­om­men­da­tion of the site linked above. I’m not sure if it helped but I’ll def­i­nitely use it more con­sis­tently on future fasts, espe­cially since I have 8 ounces of the stuff. He sug­gests daily use and I’ve heard other peo­ple talk about amino acid usage dur­ing inter­mit­tent fast­ing. I’ll prob­a­bly play around with it and report back.

My goal was a 48 hour fast but I was kind of hop­ing to make it 60 hours into Fri­day morn­ing. How­ever, even­tu­ally the men­tal hunger panic won out at the 47 hour mark. I ate pretty healthy start­ing out with an orange and then lean turkey. Hav­ing a lit­tle more expe­ri­ence with fast­ing helps avoid going crazy com­ing off of it. Not to men­tion, most sources say to go easy com­ing off longer fasts.

In the end, I didn’t achieve Super pow­ers. How­ever, I did notice that get­ting out of bed this morn­ing with only 6.5 hours of sleep was pretty easy. One of the sup­posed ben­e­fits of fast­ing is less sleep is nec­es­sary though that’s entirely anec­do­tal. I don’t have any­thing mea­sur­able at this point. I’m 45 days into a 90 day reset hop­ing to vastly improve my lipid pan­els so that will be the first mea­sur­able moment. The proof will be in the pud­ding. Now I want pudding.

Lent 2015

I don’t have a lot of tra­di­tions but Lent seems to be a con­sis­tent one that I uphold. For me it’s a jour­ney of both sac­ri­fice and growth. I give some­thing up to expe­ri­ence the sac­ri­fice inher­ent to the orig­i­nal Lent and I try to find some­thing cre­ative to do each day as a way of grow­ing. Last year, I chose to write a blog post every day. That wasn’t only a growth goal, it turned out to be quite a sac­ri­fice as it takes a lot of ded­i­ca­tion and time to write even a banal few para­graphs. Towards the end, I resorted sev­eral times to haikus or com­plaints about how hard it is to write every day. I’m not sure that’s in the spirit of the goal.

This year, we have a fam­ily Lenten sac­ri­fice. We have strug­gled some over the last year or so with finan­cial issues from a “we’re in a new rela­tion­ship and there are some things to ham­mer out” view, from a “we’re spend­ing too much money on bowel move­ments and hang­overs” view and not to men­tion from a “we had a really awe­some wed­ding in Savan­nah” view. Some of these were con­scious choices we made. I wouldn’t trade the wed­ding for any­thing. Oth­ers were habit, the habit of just pulling out a card. Pay­ing for some aver­age food and a cou­ple of drinks with a card is pain­less. Pay­ing for aver­age food and a few drinks with a $50 bill isn’t so pain­less. If you read any of the main­stream “no-debt” resources, almost all of them advo­cate pay­ing with cash to make you aware of your spend­ing, painfully aware in some cases. From this awe­some post at Get Rich Slowly

  • Pay­ing in cash forces you to con­sider the real pur­chase price — No mat­ter what you’re buy­ing, the fact that you’re pay­ing in cash turns it into an entirely dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence. That’s because you have no choice but to con­sider how much money you’re pay­ing over­all, and not just what you’ll have to pay on a monthly or yearly basis.
  • Pay­ing in cash might help you spend less – When you force your­self to pay in cash, big ticket items start to lose their appeal. Try walk­ing into a deal­er­ship with the inten­tion of pay­ing $15,000 or $20,000 for a newer car. All of a sud­den, the prospect of keep­ing your old paid-off junker becomes an incred­i­bly attrac­tive option. Am I wrong?
  • Pay­ing in cash keeps you out of debt — The best thing about refus­ing to finance things is that it keeps you out of debt in the first place. We all know what a slip­pery slope that can be. There are so many ben­e­fits to being debt-free, includ­ing the option to save more of your income, less stress, and of course, the feel­ing of not really being beholden to any­one. It’s a free­ing feel­ing, and it’s one that I will never, ever sur­ren­der with­out a fight.

Dave Ram­sey says much the same thing. The pow­ers that be tricked us when when they gave us all credit and debit cards and taught us that we could afford any­thing. Any­time some­thing is eas­ier, it should imme­di­ately arouse sus­pi­cion espe­cially when it comes to spend­ing money. So we’re embark­ing on a Lenten jour­ney of pay­ing cash for every­thing out­side of bills and auto fuel. I’m toy­ing with shut­ting down even the bills and send­ing in actual checks like peo­ple in the Stone Ages did (no offense, Mom). The upside of all of this is that come April 1st, we won’t have to lis­ten to the suck­ing sound of a $1000 or more black hole com­ing from the bank account as our credit cards swal­low money.

For a pos­i­tive fam­ily Lenten chal­lenge, we’re going to spend one night a week ded­i­cated to just us. We’ll have din­ner and then play a game or read a com­mon book. The goal is for it to be inter­ac­tive, to avoid the pas­siv­ity of the com­puter or the TV. I’ve been want­ing to learn Go for a long time so if we just trade off every week between that and Rum­mikub, maybe I’ll only get my tail kicked every other week.

On a per­sonal side, I’m going to repeat last year’s sac­ri­fice of sugar. I started this year with some new per­sonal record blood work (where the per­sonal record is cho­les­terol through the roof). I have some per­sonal ideas about car­bo­hy­drate intake and cho­les­terol that are, umm, not main­stream. Last year, I had my LDL lev­els down to 164 which is pretty good for me. In Jan­u­ary, they were back up to 245. Obvi­ously, that’s a heart attack wait­ing to hap­pen accord­ing to the main­stream med­ical media. I’m pretty sure it’s a result of 4 months of eat­ing like I was get­ting mar­ried and next to zero exer­cise. That 164 value came in May last year when I was eat­ing well, had just come off of giv­ing up sugar for Lent and was exer­cis­ing a rea­son­able amount. I don’t think that’s a fluke. To really kick things off with a bang, I’m going to do my longest fast ever, 48 hours. There is a wealth of infor­ma­tion out there in sup­port of reg­u­lar and inter­mit­tent fast­ing as a healthy prac­tice. I’ve been doing inter­mit­tent fast­ing (food intake only between 12 and 8ish) for a cou­ple of weeks. But the health ben­e­fits of a 48 hour fast are hard to ignore so I’d like to start inte­grat­ing that into my eat­ing. So start­ing today, until Thurs­day night, it’s water and cof­fee and tea only.

On the growth side, I’m going to think about it some today but I’m lean­ing towards some­thing sim­i­lar to last year as well when I wrote every day. If I did that, I’d expand it out to “write, draw or play the saxophone/piano” every day. On the upside, I miss those right brain cre­ative type things. On the down side, I have some goals for 2015 that would likely suf­fer because there are only so many hours in the day. Things like Span­ish and read­ing would go to the back­burner. I have ways to mit­i­gate this because I have a 2 hour train ride each day. But writ­ing more per­sonal code or exer­cis­ing would be harder and harder to fit in. So that’s going to be a medi­a­tion for today to try and iden­tify what I really want to focus on and what’s important.

Fast­ing Resources for those so inclined:

On Exporting Deflation

Return­ing to our char­ac­ters of a few weeks ago, we remem­ber that Bob and his coun­try had increased the sup­ply of waf­fles thus mak­ing the export of Bob’s organic grass-fed but­ter cheaper. This hap­pens because other coun­tries like Nigel’s can now get more waf­fles on the pas­try cur­rency mar­ket and can buy more of Bob’s but­ter. There is a slight (or not so slight in our exam­ple of dou­bling the waf­fle sup­ply just so Bob could sell more but­ter) infla­tion­ary pres­sure in The Land of Guns and Large Bor­der Fences. Another effect of this deci­sion is a slight defla­tion­ary pres­sure in Nigel’s Land of Peo­ple With Below Aver­age Den­tal Hygiene (LOPWBADH).. The rea­son this is so is because of the con­nect­ed­ness of the two coun­tries via the pas­try exchange mar­ket. The Nigel’s clot­ted cream now costs more to export it to Bob’s coun­try. On the sur­face this looks infla­tion­ary because the prices went up. But when think­ing about infla­tion or defla­tion, it’s impor­tant to con­sider both prices and demand. Because Nigel will now sell less clot­ted cream, he may have to lay off Colin, his dairy man­ager. Colin may then have to get a lower pay­ing job which means he has fewer crum­pets to spend. This lack of demand on a broader scale leads to defla­tion­ary pressures.

This lack in aggre­gate demand is a side of the inflation-deflation dis­cuss that you’ll rarely see in finan­cial press because it’s the part of the equa­tion cen­tral banks have almost no con­trol over. We’re cur­rently see­ing this in Euroland where the economies of the mon­e­tary union have been under sig­nif­i­cant down­ward pres­sure for months as unem­ploy­ment remains stub­bornly high in many coun­tries. When you don’t have a job, you don’t buy either clot­ted cream or expen­sive imported grass fed but­ter. The con­tin­ued defla­tion­ary pres­sure can quickly spi­ral down­wards. Once upon a time, defla­tion was a nor­mal part of the eco­nomic cycle and when every major cur­rency in the world was tied to a hard asset, typ­i­cally gold, there was a gen­eral defla­tion­ary pres­sure because you can’t increase the money sup­ply with­out increas­ing the pro­duc­tion of the hard asset. These days, with no coun­try tied to a hard asset, defla­tion is sup­pos­edly a thing of the past (though the time may be return­ing as the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has been buy­ing gold in large quan­ti­ties, another fact you won’t see men­tioned in the finan­cial press). And in fact, defla­tion is a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect for gov­ern­ments and cit­i­zens that are heav­ily indebted. Dur­ing defla­tion, the cost of debt rises as the cur­rency appreciates.

Imag­ine a sce­nario where 50% of your income goes to ser­vic­ing your credit card debt. What hap­pens if you sud­denly make less money or if the inter­est rates rise? Big trou­ble, that’s what hap­pens. Now your debt to income ratio goes up and you either have to do with­out things or begin to think about default­ing on the debt. Our reliance on debt as a soci­ety both con­sumer and gov­ern­ment means defla­tion is extra­or­di­nar­ily dan­ger­ous. For exam­ple, it takes half the tax rev­enue of the coun­try of Japan to ser­vice their pub­lic debt. What hap­pens if inter­est rates rise in Japan? Sud­denly, they strug­gle to pay their oblig­a­tions. That’s why they (and many other coun­tries) can’t afford to let inter­est rates rise. Their answer is to adopt a pol­icy of zero inter­est rates by manip­u­lat­ing the mar­ket with made up money.

Europe is cur­rently on the precipice of defla­tion. To fight it, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank has announced a $1.3 tril­lion (give or take a euro or two) stim­u­lus pro­gram aimed at increas­ing the infla­tion rate and sta­bi­liz­ing the fall in prices. Leav­ing aside whether this will even work, what effect does this have on other coun­tries? This inten­tional devalu­ing of the Euro will lead to stronger cur­ren­cies in the trad­ing part­ners of Europe. Those stronger cur­ren­cies now have to con­tend with the defla­tion­ary aspects which is exactly what is hoped for by the Euro­zone. This beg­gar thy neigh­bour approach even­tu­ally causes other coun­tries to retal­i­ate lead­ing to a cur­rency war which many peo­ple think we are cur­rently in. This is the mean­ing of export­ing deflation.

So how is the prob­lem actu­ally solved? A decreas­ing reliance on debt is the first start. In nor­mal times (like the 1800s) defla­tion was part of the busi­ness cycle. As defla­tion would occur, peo­ple, busi­nesses and coun­tries would delever­age, reduc­ing their debt. Even­tu­ally, the economies would cycle back to infla­tion. In today’s world, defla­tion can’t even be allowed to occur because of the debt lev­els of coun­tries. The goal is per­ma­nent growth because with­out it, we can’t pay our debts. But per­ma­nent growth funded by increas­ing debts is a fan­tasy world that doesn’t have a happy end­ing. A coun­try like Japan has no choice but to try and print money (the Bank of Japan cur­rently buys almost all of the country’s pub­lic debt) to ser­vice their debt and increase infla­tion. This is a grand exper­i­ment of our cen­tral banks unseen before in his­tory. In the short term, it means the Japan­ese yen will con­tinue to lose value to the dol­lar and the Euro­pean stock mar­kets are likely to increase just like the US stock mar­ket went up over the past sev­eral years dur­ing our own quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing. In the long term, it’s anyone’s guess. What hap­pens if Japan defaults? What hap­pens if the ECB’s tril­lion euro pack­age doesn’t work? At some point, the lev­els of debt have to be reduced either by the dif­fi­cult process of delever­ag­ing or by default. Nei­ther will be pleas­ing and the far­ther down the road we kick the can, the harder it will get. Even­tu­ally, the road will end on a cliff and we may all just tum­ble over it.

What I’ve Been Reading

Part of my morn­ing com­mute usu­ally involves catch­ing up on Twit­ter and most recently the finan­cial infor­ma­tion com­ing out of Zero Hedge along with a cou­ple of other sources from Maudlin Eco­nom­ics. Many of these arti­cles prob­a­bly don’t war­rant a full blog post but I thought I might start aggre­gat­ing them on Sun­day morn­ings with any thoughts I had. This has the poten­tial to hap­pen only this Sun­day but it’s good to have goals.

***

Mara has appar­ently been read­ing every arti­cle on the Atlantic lately based on my inbox but this one caught my eye. A cer­tain fac­tion of con­ser­v­a­tives, namely goody goody two shoes in Nebraska and Okla­homa are fight­ing Colorado’s mar­i­juana legal­iza­tion say­ing that the states have no right to pre­empt fed­eral drug laws, the irony being that it’s almost always the con­ser­v­a­tives who yell the loud­est about fed­eral encroach­ment on their rights when it comes down to health care, wel­fare or any­thing else that might help peo­ple who actu­ally need it. In this instance, the issue is being fought brought by law and order type con­ser­v­a­tives who don’t like that cit­i­zens of those two fine states are going to Col­orado to buy their pot. The issue here that the arti­cle high­lights is that the states are under no oblig­a­tion to enforce fed­eral laws passed by Con­gress that are too sweep­ing for the feds to enforce on their own.

Fed­eral drug law has always relied on the states for enforce­ment because the feds don’t have the man­power to enforce it. States go after lit­tle deal­ers in the sys­tem (which is why our incar­cer­a­tion rate has quin­tu­pled since Reagan’s mis­guided and dis­as­trous drug war went into effect. States throw peo­ple in jail for non-violent pos­ses­sion crimes while the Feds can go after the traf­fick­ers. How­ever, the states are under no oblig­a­tion to actu­ally do this and in the case of states like Col­orado, can actu­ally pass laws that are incon­sis­tent with that. Think­ing of it another way, if Con­gress passes laws that are too broad in scope, the states are in no way oblig­ated to fill in the gaps. This is actu­ally a good thing for democ­racy as it keeps an impor­tant check on fed­eral power. It will be inter­est­ing to see how the suit of Nebraska and Okla­homa against Col­orado pro­ceeds. If the con­ser­v­a­tive side wins, we will have set a prece­dent for remov­ing one of the last checks on Fed­eral power and take a big step far­ther down the path of cen­tral­ized government.

***

This week, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) decided to end its 3 year old cap on the franc to the euro and let the mar­ket move freely in rela­tion to the franc’s value. In response, the franc soared in value related to most major cur­ren­cies, the euro being the biggest move where it appre­ci­ated 17% or so. The cap was orig­i­nally put in place back dur­ing the last finan­cial cri­sis when the SNB decided to limit the volatil­ity of its cur­rency. And so for years, the franc has been excep­tion­ally sta­ble against the euro. The mech­a­nism for how this was done is beyond the scope of this post but the short ver­sion is that the Swiss would print francs and buy Euros to sup­port the cap. By doing this they acquire lots of Euros in their for­eign asset fund which seemed like a good idea at the time because the Euro was one of the strongest cur­ren­cies around.

Fast for­ward to 2015 and sud­denly the Euro is a mess. We’re talk­ing more and more about a Greek exit from the euro which is a total unknown. Defla­tion is sweep­ing Europe which is a BAD THING in the grand scheme of things for an increas­ingly indebted world. On Thurs­day, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank (ECB) will almost assuredly begin its own qual­i­ta­tive eas­ing where it floods the mar­ket with Euros to fight the defla­tion. All signs are point­ing to a weak­en­ing Euro and there is no end in sight. Imag­ine you are the SNB hold­ing a buck­et­ful of Euros and you might see why they want to bail out on drag­ging their own cur­rency down with the Euro. Of course, this move has lots of impli­ca­tions. On a imme­di­ate level, allow­ing the franc to appre­ci­ate is bad for Swiss exports. In the ongo­ing cur­rency wars, coun­tries try to improve their economies by weak­en­ing their cur­rency which typ­i­cally increases exports. So why would the Swiss do some­thing to actively hurt their own exporters? For one, they may have decided they don’t export that much stuff to the EU any­more and in fact they don’t. With the excep­tion of Ger­many, the only coun­try in the EU doing well (also a topic for an entirely dif­fer­ent post), Euro dom­i­nated coun­tries don’t account for a big chunk of Swiss exports. Instead, economies like Japan, the US and China are the ones buy­ing expen­sive Swiss watches and fancy cheese.

Because Switzer­land never joined the EU, they now have the flex­i­bil­ity to pivot their econ­omy and make it less depen­dent on the dis­as­ter that is unfold­ing across Europe. That is what they are prob­a­bly doing. One of the inter­est­ing side effects of this move is how it can roil mar­kets. That’s because in our over lever­aged, low inter­est rate finan­cial sys­tem, investors are always reach­ing for yield. One strat­egy is to trade in a cur­rency that has low volatil­ity like the franc. Firms were happy to loan francs to day traders at highly lever­aged rates (loan­ing 50 francs with only 1 franc as col­lat­eral is lever­age). They could do this because over the last two years, the franc had an aver­age volatil­ity of .1 per­cent. It seemed totally safe. Until it wasn’t when the franc got really volatile this week. Ever­est Cap­i­tal, a hedge fund in Miami, shut down a $830 mil­lion fund that hem­or­rhaged cash. Other hedge funds are in the same boat.

The take­away from all this is that times, they are a changin’ in 2015. The dol­lar looks to get stronger as the EU begins fight­ing defla­tion. Even in the US, prices are falling and retail sales aren’t too great. In look­ing at retail sales, if you remove auto sales, this Christ­mas sea­son was the third worst this cen­tury mean­ing only the Christ­mases of 2001 and 2008 were worse. Mmm, that doesn’t sound like a recov­ery to me. That sounds more like the US con­sumer is con­tin­u­ing to delever­age in an attempt to get their finan­cial house in order. And when the US con­sumer doesn’t buy cheap Chi­nese crap, China’s econ­omy gets slug­gish. And when that hap­pens, well, who knows what the end result is.

If you have a per­verse affin­ity to mon­e­tary pol­icy and its effects on our global finan­cial sys­tem, it should be a fun year.

***

Appar­ently the peo­ple who lived in our house for the last 50 years didn’t ever want a back yard and had no fence. With a road behind us that cuts through from one major street to the other, it felt like we lived next to a free­way at times. This week, we had a fence put in which has also allowed the garage to be cleaned out since it was hold­ing all the lawn fur­ni­ture. It’s start­ing to feel more and more like we don’t live in a home­less shelter.

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