An Experiment in Scotch

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

On Achieving Goals

Ah the tab­ula rasa of the New Year where so many of us decide how much bet­ter we’re going to make our­selves in the next 365 days. We decide to lose weight or get our finances in order or be more pro­duc­tive. Occa­sion­ally we announce to the world these lofty ambi­tions like Don­ald Trump boast­ing how rich he is. Then for a month or six weeks or if we’re really lucky to the spring equinox, we really focus on these “goals”. We go to the gym. We save money. We write blog posts. And then some­thing qui­etly breaks that we aren’t even aware of and sud­denly it’s August and we’ve gained the weight back plus found a new appre­ci­a­tion for that kick ass donut shop that just hap­pens to be on the way to work. What happened?

As it turns out, hav­ing goals makes us largely unhappy accord­ing to James Clear. This makes intu­itive sense because goals so often end in fail­ure for a vari­ety of rea­sons. Then we are left with a fun­da­men­tal lack of accom­plish­ment. For sev­eral years, I’ve wanted to learn Span­ish. That’s a Goal. But hav­ing Goals with­out a clear path to achiev­ing them is des­tined for fail­ure. What you also need is a sys­tem or a habit plus a rea­son­ably accu­rate, mostly sim­ple way to track that sys­tem (not the goal). This kind of think­ing leans heav­ily on “small strokes fell great oaks”. We are crea­tures of habit but the key is get­ting into a habit of doing some­thing dif­fer­ent from our cur­rent habits. As it turns out, lots of small steps are a lot eas­ier on the path to new habits than huge jumps. Yet our Goals are nec­es­sar­ily designed around these huge jumps.

Hav­ing a sys­tem medi­ates that. A sys­tem involves what you do every sin­gle day to achieve a Goal. If you want to write a book, your sys­tem is “write for an hour every day and track the num­ber of words”. If you want to lose weight, your sys­tem is “I’m going to fol­low the five rules of the Slow Carb Diet.” If you want to write 26 let­ters, your sys­tem is “I’m going to write one let­ter every first and third Sat­ur­day of each month”. These sys­tems are for­mal­iza­tions of the cues that are nec­es­sary to form new habits which lead to progress towards change. The beauty of sys­tems and cues over goals is that even if your goals turn out to be slightly harder than you thought, you can still gain a great sense of achieve­ment by ana­lyz­ing the results of your sys­tem if you track it well.

Let’s say your goal is to win the Mas­ters next year. Your sys­tem is hit 500 balls a day. You record this in a spread­sheet and write an easy sum func­tion and an easy aver­ag­ing func­tion to dis­play progress. In 2017 when you are watch­ing the Mas­ters on the couch, if you have fol­lowed your sys­tem, you almost guar­an­teed to be a MUCH improved golfer regard­less of the result of the goal. This is key to Clear’s third tenet linked above con­cern­ing the fact that Goals make you think you have con­trol over things you don’t. So many times life gets in the way and we lose sight of our goals. But if we have a solid sys­tem in place like “Don’t eat white starchy things”, we are more likely to just keep plug­ging right along. Also, hav­ing that system/process view­point can help on the days we don’t do well or have slight set­backs. If my sys­tem is work­out 60 min­utes a day, a day where I only do 30 min­utes isn’t the end of the world because I can go for a long run on the week­end. I don’t feel guilty about work­ing out less on some days when the sys­tem is in place.

Sys­tems lead to progress and we can take com­fort in progress even if goals are never reached. I find it help­ful to know where I am in my sys­tem so I built a basic spread­sheet where I can track activ­i­ties that move me towards my goals. You could eas­ily copy it and mod­ify it for your goals and progress. I have instant feed­back on where I am which helps me feel much bet­ter about my progress (or iden­tify places that I’m falling behind. Time to watch a movie!). And this pro­vides the behav­ioral rein­force­ment of the sys­tem which hope­fully results in a very pos­i­tive feed­back cycle. With that in hand, I will be able to look back at the end of 2016 and feel very good about the progress I’ve made regard­less of the end result.

The Year in Review And Beyond

Inspired by David Collum’s epic Year in Review post (and it is epic in both senses of the word and I highly rec­om­mend you read it), here is my year in review that once upon a time was a semi-regular occur­rence around The Exper­i­ment but like The Exper­i­ment itself has fallen on hard times lately. Per­haps a mini epic post (like Lone­some Dove, Abridged) could reawaken the slum­ber­ing lit­er­ary dwarf within me.

Picasso came into our lives this year after we lost Rocky last Decem­ber. We got him from SPCA Dal­las and he has been a happy addi­tion to the fam­ily. He has a per­son­al­ity that is a cross between Garfield and Bucky. Vin­cent and Scooter put up with him as well as they can.

My main learn­ing goal last year was Span­ish. I def­i­nitely did not spend 180 hours on Span­ish. I don’t have a set rou­tine at home for study­ing Span­ish so the main way I get in time is on the train. Unfor­tu­nately, there were two large projects at work this year that involved lots of work­ing late and tak­ing the train home late is right below “Prostate exam” on my list of favorite things to do. So for two months in the sum­mer and six weeks in the fall, train rid­ing, and thus Span­ish lessons, ground to a halt. This is a lame excuse but the only one I have. On the upside, I actu­ally learned a lot of Span­ish in the time I did spend. Duolingo cur­rently says I’m 2% flu­ent which is prob­a­bly about right. That sounds pathetic after a full year but I can read at a higher rate than that for sure. Lis­ten­ing is still a prob­lem but I’m start­ing to pick up words from ran­dom con­ver­sa­tions (espe­cially if they revolve around cerveza or carne or tacos de lengua). Assum­ing work life returns to some­thing resem­bling nor­mal­ity, I think my flu­ency rate will start to ramp up as I get enough foun­da­tion laid.

The big trip for the year was my com­pany trip to Beaches Turks and Caicos. This was an incred­i­ble vaca­tion to a des­ti­na­tion we wouldn’t likely have vis­ited or been able to afford on our own. We went in Sep­tem­ber which is the low­est of the low sea­son and that cer­tainly helped. We had the resort to our­selves and in talk­ing to sev­eral staff mem­bers, the dif­fer­ence in num­ber of vis­i­tors in Sep­tem­ber com­pared to the high sea­son of April-June was extreme. The div­ing was excel­lent, on par with the reefs of Belize with­out hav­ing to go far off shore. If we were to ever visit again, I would def­i­nitely want to dive dur­ing the week because they go far­ther off­shore and to dif­fer­ent loca­tions. There were 19 restau­rants on premises and never any short­age of new food to try. Favorites were the French restau­rant Le Petit Chateau and the Japan­ese restau­rant Kimono’s. We didn’t do any off premise excur­sions because the resort was so large. I think we def­i­nitely could have spent a week there with no problems.

Prob­a­bly an equally fun trip was a week long excur­sion to Gulf Shores, Alabama with friends. We stayed in a 5 bed­room house on the bay with beau­ti­ful sun­sets and access to a pier right behind the house. The beach was an easy walk from there and we spent large amounts of time in the surf. We ate and drank like glut­tons but it was vaca­tion and thus per­fectly expected.

We camped in two new loca­tions. The first was over Labor Day in Caprock Canyons State Park. We went that way in an attempt to escape the heat but largely failed as it was 95+ dur­ing the day all week­end. The park was beau­ti­ful and it looked like the hik­ing was really good but we didn’t get to do nearly as much as we would have liked because of the heat. In the future, we’ll want to book ear­lier to get an elec­tric camp­site as all the tent camp sites are a decent walk from the park­ing area and not par­tic­u­larly secluded from each other.

In Novem­ber, we camped at Caddo Lake State Park with friends. It was pretty rainy but we still man­aged to have quite a bit of fun. The canoe­ing was the best part as we went quite aways down the new pad­dling trail there. It’s very serene and peace­ful back in the swamp. I’d like to do another trip there and take the gear out to the WMA via canoes or kayaks for more prim­i­tive camping.

Skink — No Sur­ren­der — I love Carl Hiassen and his cru­sade through fic­tion to increase the public’s appre­ci­a­tion for Florida’s dis­ap­pear­ing nat­ural beauty. This is actu­ally a young adult book that I must have acci­den­tally requested from the library but it’s a fun and easy read, good for the beach or the train. His char­ac­ters are a wacky group of odd­balls and mis­fits who thrive in the crazi­ness of South Florida. Prob­a­bly not too excit­ing for narco fas­cist real estate devel­oper types but every­one else should find his books fun to read.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour — This book popped up in my con­scious­ness ran­domly when I saw a review for it in the Dal­las Morn­ing News. Fer­ris’ voice isn’t main­stream and it takes a lit­tle while to decide if the book is good. But there are some good char­ac­ters here and there is def­i­nitely a theme of com­mu­nity and its mean­ing that I found inspir­ing. I was reminded of The Broom of the Sys­tem as I read it as both books switch between real­ity and fan­tasy regularly.

Shop Class as Soul­craft — More fully reviewed here but this book had a pro­found effect on my think­ing about our throw­away soci­ety and our inabil­ity to trea­sure what we have.

The Wilder­ness War­rior — Reviewed here

Switch — An excel­lent book on why our efforts at self-change largely fail and ways to change that. A book length expo­si­tion on The Ele­phant and The Rider orig­i­nally explained in The Hap­pi­ness Hypoth­e­sis, this book explains why we strug­gle to lose weight, learn a lan­guage, make more friends or work­out more. Find­ing ways to moti­vate the Ele­phant and ways to not over­whelm the Rider are key. Search YouTube for great videos from the authors if you want an intro­duc­tion into how you can man­age change in your life.

The 4 Hour Work Week — Tim Fer­riss’ first book lay­ing out the ideas behind the rest of his media empire. Thought pro­vok­ing to say the least, I came away from this book with more under­stand­ing of pas­sive income and the effects it can have on your life. While I don’t ascribe to his ideas of lots of mini-retirements instead of one long bor­ing one at the end of life (mostly because I don’t want to live in Hong Kong or Aus­tralia or wher­ever), the idea of hav­ing a steady flow of pas­sive income that frees you from the addic­tion of a steady pay­check is appeal­ing. Appeal­ing enough that one of my goals this year is to fol­low through on acquir­ing a mod­icum of pas­sive income (see Goals).

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas — Hunter S. Thompson’s epic tale of debauch­ery and gonzo jour­nal­ism, I read this on the beach in Gulf Shores because it seemed slightly fit­ting. I won­der how much of our reliance on Real­ity TV for enter­tain­ment in today’s world has its roots in the work of Hunter S. Thomp­son. Fic­tion and non-fiction began to con­verge with his work (see also The Ken­tucky Derby Is Deca­dent and Depraved, a favorite of mine) and this was where it started.

The Long Nar­row Road To The Deep North — An incred­i­ble book fol­low­ing the life of one man through his jour­neys in POW camps in the Pacific the­ater in World War II and the effects of a sin­gu­lar love of a woman through­out. I’m see­ing many of the same themes in Charles Frazier’s Thir­teen Moons that I’m read­ing now. The Long Nar­row Road is depress­ing in its vivid descrip­tions of the lives of POWs under Japan­ese con­trol. A strong sense of fatal­ism runs through the course of the novel and is epit­o­mized by the Japan­ese offi­cers in their bru­tal actions towards the pris­on­ers. One of the best books I read in 2015.

That Old Ace In The Hole — I think my mom gave me this book a long time ago when she inher­ited it from some­one. I had orig­i­nally found it slow and unin­ter­est­ing. Like the brus­sel sprouts of my youth, I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet. It had been sit­ting on my book­shelf unread for years patiently wait­ing and I pulled it down this sum­mer. I’m not sure how it stayed there so long. As an Amar­illo boy, this tale of a man work­ing for Global Pork Rind Com­pany as a scout for pos­si­ble pig farms in the Texas and Okla­homa Pan­han­dles struck home both because my grand­par­ents’ farm in the Okla­homa Pan­han­dle was sold as a poten­tial pig farm and for the sweep­ing descrip­tions of the land­scapes of those areas. Most peo­ple encounter the Pan­han­dle and find it lack­ing of all inter­est­ing fea­tures but there is an aching beauty in the plains and grass­lands that is sub­lime. This book cap­tures much of that for me and I think I found it more inter­est­ing on sec­ond read­ing many years older as I real­ize things I miss about that area of Texas.

The Grave­yard Book — Highly rec­om­mended to me by Mara, this was my first intro­duc­tion to Neil Gaiman and a wor­thy one. The fan­tasy world Gaiman cre­ates inhab­ited by all man­ners of good and evil and in-between char­ac­ters is rich and engross­ing. More and more my taste in fic­tion revolves around epic tales of a sin­gu­lar life and while this book is fan­tasy, it fits the bill. I need to put a few more Gaiman books on my list for 2016.

The World’s Largest Man — Eas­ily the fun­ni­est book I have ever read. Mara would often men­tion to Scooter “He’s read­ing the book that makes him gig­gle cry again.” It’s a mem­oir of the author’s father and the expe­ri­ence of grow­ing up in the rural South. Noth­ing I say about it can explain how funny it is so you should just read it. Read this as a pre­cur­sor and try not to shoot milk out your nose (espe­cially if you’re drink­ing coffee).

All The Pretty Horses — The first book in Cor­mac McCarthy’s bor­der tril­ogy (The Cross­ing and Cities of the Plain being the other two), this book is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of McCarthy’s incred­i­ble use of the Eng­lish lan­guage to describe the old west in dif­fer­ent terms that we used to see in the west­erns of Louis L’Amour and oth­ers. McCarthy is one of the great nov­el­ists of this and the last cen­tury. I tried once to read The Road which is his lat­est but found it too depress­ing. How­ever, all other books of his includ­ing Blood Merid­ian, The Orchard and Sut­tree have been outstanding.

In recent years, my goals have been very sim­i­lar and they are unlikely to change much this year. I’d like to get to 10% flu­ency or so in Span­ish accord­ing to Duolingo. Once again, it feels like the 2015 hunt­ing sea­son got away from me. I didn’t go bowhunt­ing in Octo­ber at all when the sea­son first opened and just haven’t spent much time in the woods. I’m hop­ing to have a lease next year but we’ll see if that works out with every­thing else that is on the table. I’d like my exer­cise to be more con­sis­tent regard­less of weather. I reg­u­larly use the heat of the sum­mer as an excuse not to work­out but I’m find­ing it harder and harder to come back from 2 months off. Prob­a­bly the biggest goal for this year is to have some form of a pas­sive income stream. I’m set­ting the bar pretty low I think in say­ing I’d like to be able to make one mort­gage pay­ment from pas­sive income this year which would be $750. I feel like my best chance at that is to write books that peo­ple want to read so the main focus in the first part of 2016 will be on that. That will prob­a­bly require an entire post in itself though.

I’ve had a goal of writ­ing let­ters for two years now and it’s never even sort of been achieved. Nei­ther did last year’s “Write 52 things”. I might have writ­ten 10 things. I’d like to reat­tempt both of those again. The key to goals though is hav­ing set times and habits for achiev­ing them and I worry that there are too many things I think I want to do. Span­ish is easy enough with con­sis­tent train rides but writ­ing let­ters and blog posts and exer­cis­ing require set times in the sched­ule. Some­thing as spe­cific as “write a let­ter on the 1st and 15th of each month” would prob­a­bly be suf­fi­cient. So I’ll try these goals that have ways to track them built in.

  • Become 10% flu­ent in Span­ish by study­ing for 180 hours
  • Be more fit by aver­ag­ing 300 a min­utes of exer­cise a week
  • Write 26 let­ters by writ­ing one on the first and third Sat­ur­day of every month
  • Read 18 books (this will be a 50% increase over last year but again should be eas­ier with reg­u­lar train ride
  • Have a pas­sive income stream of at least $750 a year by writ­ing a book 1000 peo­ple buy

Look­ing For­ward with Trep­i­da­tion
If you read Collum’s tome linked above (or have a lick of sense or fol­low Zero­hedge on Twit­ter), you prob­a­bly real­ize things aren’t so good out in the real world. Accord­ing to Credit Suisse, 25% of all Amer­i­cans have a neg­a­tive net worth. Pen­sions across the coun­try are hor­ri­bly under­funded. The six biggest banks in the world are now 50% big­ger than they were at the begin­ning of the finan­cial cri­sis that nearly destroyed the world (or so we’re told). We are now in the 6th longest recov­ery since the Civil War (read: we are long over­due for a cor­rec­tion). The Fed has expanded their bal­ance sheet to extremes we’ve never seen before. S&P 500 for­ward earn­ings are plum­met­ing while the S&P con­tin­ues to saunter north­ward. The dol­lar is get­ting stronger and stronger while other cur­ren­cies are get­ting weaker and weaker. I have a ten­dency of read­ing sources that just strengthen my con­fir­ma­tion bias (don’t we all?) but it seems to me that the US econ­omy is tee­ter­ing on the brink. This “recov­ery” has been just about as weak as it could be while still being con­sid­ered a recov­ery. Col­lum makes the anal­ogy of walk­ing into your kid’s room and pulling out some build­ing blocks. Start stack­ing them up as high as you can. Even­tu­ally you reach a point where some seem­ingly unre­lated ran­dom event causes the whole thing to come crash­ing down. A cat sneezes or a branch falls on the roof or a dust mite gets a wild hair and lands on top. When things are struc­turally unsound, it doesn’t take much to push them over. The US econ­omy (and to an equal or even greater degree, the entire world) feels like it’s a big stack of children’s blocks.

What to do about that? It seems to me that being a con­trar­ian is almost always the way to go as it relates to stocks, gam­bling or Set­tlers of Cataan. That is, do what other peo­ple aren’t. The Amer­i­can peo­ple have more debt that they know what to do with? You should do every­thing in your power to have zero debt. Stocks going up in spite of bad news and bad for­ward earn­ings? Sell. Gold and sil­ver and oil at multi-year lows? Maybe time to buy some. Gov­ern­ments declar­ing war on cash? Make sure you have some around, prefer­ably in harder assets than the paper they print.

I’m no econ­o­mist though that should hardly dis­qual­ify me from writ­ing about the econ­omy given most econ­o­mists dis­mal track records. But I do under­stand regres­sion to the mean and law of aver­ages and how evo­lu­tion works to some degree. And so if we’re in one of the longest recov­er­ies on record with­out a reces­sion and none of the crap finan­cial genetic mate­r­ial that caused the last dis­as­ter got cleaned out, I feel like we’re over­due for some pain. And that tends to worry me a lit­tle. But who knows? Let’s just go buy some­thing at the after Christ­mas sale and we’ll all feel better.

I don’t have any. If you came here for con­clu­sions, you’ve been hor­ri­bly mis­led. Over­all, we had a pretty good year here at the Exper­i­ment. Here’s to a suc­cess­ful and pre­pared 2016 as well.

Ruby Arrays of Objects and Unions

I’m work­ing through the Advent of Code and needed to union two Ruby arrays of objects together based on some prop­er­ties on said objects. I wasn’t hav­ing much luck get­ting it to work and my Google fu was fail­ing but I finally fig­ured out the issue and want to post it here in case some­one else ever man­ages to search using the right terms.

The key here is that you can’t just over­ride eql?. You have to also over­ride the hash method. So for a Posi­tion class, it might look like this:

This would allow the union of two arrays of Posi­tion objects to only include Posi­tions that are unique by X and Y coordinates.

Shelby Joins The Band

The rest of Sun­day and all of Mon­day flew by in a blur. All I could think about was the pit in my stom­ach and the ball of desire in my throat for that woman. School was use­less. I man­aged to avoid both Wool and Bill. I saw Stil­ton once in the hall but ducked into a class­room before he saw me. I kept return­ing to the encounter, won­der­ing why I didn’t ask for her name, why I didn’t ask for more infor­ma­tion. She just sat there and I just stood there, quiv­er­ing. I woke up Tues­day with what felt like a bee­tle in my stom­ach try­ing to gnaw its way out. Eat­ing was out of the ques­tion. I half wanted prac­tice to get here as quickly as pos­si­ble, half wanted to run off into the woods and return in about a week. After school, I headed home to pick up equip­ment. I was load­ing it up in my car when Stil­ton drove up.

Still on for practice?”


I’ll fol­low you over.”

I backed the car out of the dri­ve­way. I had wanted to be the first one there. Now I had Stil­ton in tow and for all I knew, the woman was already knock­ing on Wool’s front door. I’d be like the lion tamer walk­ing into the cage after some­one had let all the lions in, help­less and out of con­trol. Though frankly, I felt like I had such pre­cious lit­tle con­trol at this point any­way. Seemed like Fate was just unwind­ing before me like a blood red car­pet rolled out towards an exe­cu­tion. We got to Wool’s house with only Bill’s old Nova there, no Chevy in the dri­ve­way. That did lit­tle to quiet my churn­ing insides, for all I know she could have floated over from the next county. My grip on real­ity was fad­ing fast. I grabbed my stuff and headed towards the door. Stil­ton was strug­gling with his gui­tar and ampli­fier. Wool opened the front door.

Thought maybe you would have found a way to get rid of him since you’ve been ignor­ing us for the last two days,” he said.

Well, I have a plan but I’m not sure it’s going to work.”

What is it?”

Prob­a­bly best if I keep that to myself.”

Fine. I hope it works. That guy makes me nervous.”

I took my stuff down into the base­ment. Stil­ton fol­lowed me, still strug­gling with the equip­ment. Bill was sit­ting behind the trap set look­ing at last year’s Sports Illus­trated swim­suit issue. He didn’t look up as we came down the stairs. I started set­ting up the mike and putting my horn together. I hadn’t played it since Sun­day at the rest stop. It looked prac­ti­cally for­eign to me. I thought of her sit­ting up at her house some­where behind the pines lis­ten­ing to me play. My hands got a lit­tle clammy. This was going to be an inter­est­ing afternoon.

Where should I set up?” Stil­ton asked. Nei­ther Wool or Bill offered any information.

Prob­a­bly over there on the right side. You can plug in behind that bookcase.’

The door­bell rang and stopped my heart. When it started back up, I thought I was dying.

I’ll get it,” I said avoid­ing eye con­tact with Wool.

I ran up the stairs. The other three would have to be sus­pi­cious at this point. Why would I answer the door at Wool’s house? None of that mat­tered. I opened the door and again, my feet turned to con­crete. She was wear­ing ten­nis shoes, blue jeans and a sim­ple LSU sweat­shirt. To me, it looked like she was wear­ing an evening gown. Her hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail. Her lips were the color of mahogany and I would swear her eyes were the size of gran­ite col­ored saucers.

Can I come in?”

Oh yeah, sure, sorry. We were just set­ting up.”

Some­how, I man­aged to get my feet mov­ing in the right direc­tion and led the way back down the base­ment stairs. I opened the door to the base­ment and walked in. The other three guys looked up and I could tell I wasn’t going to have to worry about explain­ing her presence.

Guys, this is…um…”


Shelby,” I fin­ished. “She’s going to be in the band. She can sing.”

Actu­ally, he doesn’t know if I can sing or not. I just told him I could and he said OK.” The woman had an uncanny way of mak­ing me feel uncom­fort­able. “He was out prac­tic­ing at a rest stop on the Nacog­doches high­way Sun­day and I went to lis­ten to him.“

The other three looked at me like I had two heads. There wasn’t any use explain­ing. No story could pos­si­bly make them understand.

Look, let’s just fin­ish get­ting set up and start prac­tice. It’s get­ting late already,” I said. “Shelby, you can use my mike.“

We started off with “In A Sen­ti­men­tal Mood. The sound that came out of Shelby’s mouth caused the rest of her to melt away, as if the voice was a thing in itself, dis­en­gaged and unat­tached to the per­son pro­duc­ing it. I real­ized at that point that I was in love with her. Her singing picked the rest of us up and forced us to play in a dif­fer­ent con­scious­ness. The walls wept slightly at the sound of the band. We were sud­denly bet­ter than good. I wasn’t sure what we were yet but we were def­i­nitely bet­ter than good. Well, most of us. When the song ended, she looked at Stilton.

You’re not very good. Why are you in the band?” It was a ques­tion directed at me even while she looked at him.

Well…I…” Stil­ton stammered.

He’s got Harry by the short hairs and he’s yank­ing on them with tweez­ers.” Bill seemed overly proud of his expla­na­tion. Shelby looked at me.

It’s a long story.”

We ain’t go noth­ing but time.”

The story still sounded ridicu­lous and absurd in my head. She had this voice that demanded to be hon­ored with a band that could stand up to it. I had a band that had a guy who couldn’t play his way out of a shoe­box if you cut down four sides for him. I had to explain to her how I poi­soned his dad’s dog and how he was black­mail­ing me.

His dad works for my dad at the oil com­pany,” Stil­ton said. “They wouldn’t let me in the band so I told him I’d get his dad fired if he didn’t let me in.” I looked at him in amaze­ment. I wouldn’t have expected him to lie for me. I had no idea if she bought it. Given her pre­science about me, I doubted it.

Well you’re not very good. Do you practice?”


That’s not enough. You have to prac­tice all the time. You have to give up every­thing else and prac­tice. You have to live with that gui­tar. It’s not enough to be tal­ented. It’s not enough to have a rich daddy. If you’re going to be in this band, no mat­ter how you man­aged to get in, you’re going to be good. If you can’t be good, you won’t be play­ing.” She said this all as a mat­ter of fact, not threat­en­ing, not vin­dic­tive. Just an expla­na­tion of how things were going to go from here on out. She didn’t even act like it was her band. She was just mak­ing it clear that there were stan­dards here, like every­where else in life and no amount of money or influ­ence or black­mail was going to allow any­one to sub­vert those stan­dards. I couldn’t tell if they were her stan­dards or some­thing pre-existent beyond the realm of my experience.

Give me your gui­tar.” For a brief fleet­ing moment, I thought she might beat him to death with it. I could tell by the look in his eyes, he was con­sid­er­ing the same thing. Ten­ta­tively, he handed her the instrument.

Play it like this.”

And then she showed him exactly how she expected it to be played. The notes were light and sup­ple­men­tal to the feel­ing of the song. There was no per­sonal inter­pre­ta­tion, just a per­fect accom­pa­ni­ment. After 20 bars or so, she handed it back to him.

That’s how you should play it next time we rehearse.”

Stil­ton looked like a car with four flat tires. He was vis­i­bly smaller as if some­one had reached into his soul, pulled out his ego and let half the air out of it. I doubt he’d ever heard some­one talk to him like that. To his credit, he took the gui­tar back qui­etly and with­out resent­ment.
She looked at me.

What’s next? No use stand­ing around gawk­ing. This is your band, start act­ing like it.”

I knew that wasn’t the case any­more. Every­one else knew it too. Like a shadow cor­po­ra­tion set up to fun­nel money from one place to another, I was just a shell. She was the sub­stance and no amount of my “lead­ing the band” would ever change that. Strangely, that suited me just fine.
The rest of rehearsal went in much the same man­ner. She seemed to just know all the music. If she had said she was born know­ing the music, we wouldn’t have argued about it. She could sing any­thing we played and prob­a­bly then some. We cer­tainly didn’t run into any songs she didn’t know. She gave point­ers to all of us, sub­tle changes in phras­ing or tone or approach. She sang like there was an audi­ence of thou­sands lis­ten­ing, each song given the same level of con­cen­tra­tion and effort. Even when one of us screwed up and we had to start over, she jumped right back into the song as if noth­ing had hap­pened. After we had run through all the songs we knew, we waited for directions.

So do you want me in the band?” As usual, this was not what I expected from her. We all knew it was clear she was the most tal­ented and we should have been ask­ing her that ques­tion. The other three looked at me.

Well, umm, sure we’d love to have you. You seem like you’re a good fit and you’re a great singer.”

Great.” Her smile was radi­ant and hon­est. “When’s the next rehearsal?”

Next Tues­day.”

Cool, see you then.”

And she left, leav­ing the four of us star­ing at an open door to the base­ment stairs. Rad­i­cally, in the span of two days, the band had changed in two fun­da­men­tal ways. I wasn’t sure if things were bet­ter or worse but they were def­i­nitely different.

Where did you find her?” Wool asked.

I really don’t know. I think she found me more than any­thing.” I told them the story about the rest stop, how she had just appeared because she wanted to hear me play. I left out the part about falling in love with her. It didn’t seem that prudent.

She’s good,” said Bill. “Real good.”

Yeah. She is.” I didn’t say it so much for con­fir­ma­tion as out of a sense of wonder.

I’ll get bet­ter,” Stil­ton said.

I know. Thanks for not telling her about your dad’s dog.”

And with that, we started pack­ing up. I put my horn in the case and real­ized I didn’t deserve to even have it. I had this tal­ent, a river run­ning through my veins that pulsed with the beat of music and emo­tion but I had been ignor­ing it my whole life. Sure I could play but not play, not like she could sing. I had been cheat­ing my tal­ent all these years like some fat old bas­tard sneak­ing across town to sleep with a whore while his wife went to a church social. I had pre­tended I could play, showed off for my par­ents but all I was doing was pre­tend­ing. There was this abil­ity I had that I had specif­i­cally cho­sen to short change, to push to the side while I went on about being a pre­ten­tious ass­hole. I thought I was ded­i­cated but it was all just play act­ing. Lis­ten­ing to her sing, watch­ing her work, I real­ized noth­ing I had done meant a damn thing as far as the sound com­ing out of my horn was con­cerned. I looked at it lying in the case and made a promise not to neglect it or my tal­ent any longer. But promises are easy to make and hard to keep and Fate had other plans.

Setting Up My Development Machine

Two weeks ago, my lap­top started crash­ing ran­domly. With­out going into all the gory details, I took it to the Apple store and they wiped the drive to try and update the OS. Turns out it was a bad stick of RAM so now I’m in the posi­tion of rebuild­ing my dev machine. This is prob­a­bly a good thing because this is the same machine from 2010 that I started my Ruby-Javascript-Clojure jour­ney on and it was an evo­lu­tion­ary process with lots of genetic dead ends. So this is just a frame of ref­er­ence for the future when I need to do this again with a brand new machine. Almost every­one of my reg­u­lar read­ers can go right back to what­ever they were doing before they landed here.

1. install lat­est OS, cur­rently El Cap­i­tan.
2. Install XCode
3. install Home­brew
4. install rbenv: brew install rbenv
5. install macvim: brew install macvim
6. install rails: brew install rails
7. Install post­gresql: brew install post­gresql
8. Install heroku toolkit and xcode devel­oper kit
9. Install The Ulti­mate Vim Dis­tri­b­u­tion
10. Drink more coffee

At this point, I’m able to work on my main project in my main toolset which is rails. I can deploy to Heroku, run rake tasks and not dread all the man­ual work I had to do when my lap­top was dead. There are still a bunch of things to get back up and run­ning full time (install Clo­jure, bring all my code back from backup, install Scrivener, write long blog post about check­ing the easy things like RAM first when your com­puter starts to wig out, etc, etc). But thanks to home­brew, set­ting up a dev machine in 2015 is infi­nitely eas­ier than it was in 2010. Not to men­tion, I half way know what I’m doing now.


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

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 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.

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