Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Path to Mastery part 2

My last post may leave the impression that one can become a Master at something by simply learning the rules and following them. One might assume the the rules are the important part of the process. This would be a mistake. As part 2 I am writing an addendum to expand Step 6 of the Path. It is as follows:

6) Teach yourself when and how it is appropriate to bend or break the rules. This is called improvisation

a) Try something that isn't covered by the rules
b) Fail
c) Go back to 6-a and repeat until something works
d) When something works keep it and go back to 6-a again

Following the rules is based on being consistent and minimizing the chance of failure. Improvisation, however, is based on failing a lot and learning from those failures as much as possible.

If the path in question is not a place where one can fail repeatedly, then there is no room for mastery and one should move on to something else.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Path To Mastery

This story has been written many times throughout the ages, but it is always the same. The Path to Mastery is simple, but arduous. It is joyful, but painful. It is fraught with hazard, but the rewards are impossible to quantify. It is as follows:

1) Find the Master

2) Follow them until they agree to teach you the rules

3) Learn from them all that you can

4) Practice the rules diligently until they become boring

5) Practice them more until you forget the rules and they become a natural way to act

6) Teach yourself when and how it is appropriate to bend or break the rules. This is called improvisation

7) Restructure your experience into a new set of rules

8) Teach these new rules to another pupil, so they may continue on their path

This path is always cluttered with dead-ends, false prophets, and mistakes. Nonetheless, it is the only way to master anything. The greatest risk is that, as ignorant pupils-to-be, we lack the ability to separate the pretenders to mastery and the masters of nothing from the real thing. The ability to accept that risk and walk the path anyway is what we call "faith." The difference between those who happen to choose real masters and those who do not we call "luck."

And finally, there are some whose only master is themselves. These people have a high degree of both "faith" and "luck." The process, however, is still the same.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong

It is nearing the anniversary of my father's death, which was Feb. 23rd. It was about 6 years ago, but it seems like only yesterday. I still miss him dearly, and when he died I stumbled upon a poem by Tennyson that summed up the feelings I had for the man. My father's was a life consumed largely by work, though he lusted for rest and retirement. At any rate, this poem provided some minor resonant comfort at the time and I return to it around this time each year without really intending to. I hope someone else enjoys it.

Song of the Lotos-Eaters

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass ;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes ;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And through the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

Why are we weighed upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness ?
All things have rest : why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown :
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm ;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
‘There is no joy but calm !’
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things ?

Lo ! in the middle of the wood,
The folded leaf is wooed from out the bud
With winds upon the branch, and there
Grows green and broad, and takes no care,
Sun-steeped at noon, and in the moon
Nightly dew-fed ; and turning yellow
Falls, and floats adown the air.
Lo ! sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
All its allotted length of days,
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life ; ah, why
Should life all labour be ?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb,
Let us alone. What is it that will last ?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil ? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave ?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease :
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream !
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height ;
To hear each other’s whispered speech ;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray ;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy ;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heaped over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass !

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears : but all hath suffered change :
For surely now our household hearths are cold :
Our sons inherit us : our looks are strange :
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle ?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile :
’Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse then death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto agèd breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

But, propt on beds of amaranth and moly,
How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)
With half-dropt eyelid still,
Beneath a heaven dark and holy,
To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
His waters from the purple hill—
To hear the dewy echoes calling
From cave to cave through the thick-twinèd vine—
To watch the emerald-coloured water falling
Through many a woven acanthus-wreath divine !
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretched out beneath the pine.

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak :
The Lotos blows by every winding creek :
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone :
Through every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust blown.
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
Rolled to starboard, rolled to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurled
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curled
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world :
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong :
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil ;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whispered—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar ;
Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Financial Brain Dump

So, anyone that knows me knows that I've been wallowing in financial articles for the past few months. Basically, since I decided to repair my credit I've been trying to wrap my brain around how to manage my (rather limited) money to it's greatest effect. My mind is starting to get a bit full, so I figured I could dump some stuff on a blog entry and see what it looks like in a month or so.

Since this all started with credit repair, I may as well start there. It turns out, credit building is super easy. Pay off recent collections and lates. Wait out super old collections and lates (these fall off your credit report after about 8 years most of the time). Get a secured credit card, if you don't have a card already. Pay stuff on time, every time. After a couple of months get another credit card (unsecured, if you can), but watch out for cards with excessive fees. After a couple of months get another. Keep getting cards if you want, but I stopped at 3. Try to keep card balances below 10% of their limit. That's it. In 6 months my FICO has jumped from around 500 to around 650. It will probably keep rising to about 700+ over the next couple of years.

So, now I can borrow money (sorta). That takes care of today's needs. What about tomorrow's needs. My thinking on this is still hazy. I'm still learning a good deal, so most of the stuff I'm about to write may well be flat wrong. Time and research will tell.

I prefer to use a problem solving method, because it puts things into a real-world perspective. I think up likely problems and try to solve them before they happen.

What if my bike breaks tomorrow....I'll have to use credit cards to fix it and then pay them off.
That's pretty stupid. If I had money saved I wouldn't have to lean on an 18% loan.

What if I get fired tomorrow....I'll have to live on my credit cards until I can find another job.
Again, that's dumb. Doing that would ruin all the credit building that I've been working on this year.

Solution 1: Save up around 3k in a savings account. This should cover any immediate curve balls life throws at me, or pay my living expenses for 3-4 months. If I socked away 20% of my pay into a savings account it'd take about a year to build that big an emergency fund, but I could probably take care of it in 6 months if I really cut back on money-blowing fun stuff.

3k in savings = 20% pay cut for a year. Next!

Next up are a couple of short-term fears I've had for a while with no easy solution. What if I get in an accident, get hurt really bad, or get really sick. I'm a fairly young guy, but shit happens. The obvious answers are insurance. Catastrophic insurance and Long-Term Disability insurance. Unfortunately, this stuff isn't cheap. Bare minimum for a HDHP is 50 bucks a month (600 annually). Bare minimum for Long-Term Disability insurance is 25 bucks a month. So, for 75 bucks a month I can have a little protection in the event that I have to be fed baby food for the rest of my life. It's something to seriously consider, but I haven't made my mind up yet.

$900/year = coverage in the event of catastrophe

So, I've thought about today. I've thought about tomorrow. I've thought a little about next year. What about the next decade? I'm closing in on 30, and I'm betting 40 is gonna show up faster than I want it to. How am I going to ensure that I'm looking better in my 40s than I am now? Well, other than the typical career building song and dance (which I plan on following) I'll be investing. For me, investing makes the most sense if you think about it backwards. My Dad died at 62. My Grandfather died in his 50s. My Great-Grandfather died in his 60s (I think). With modern technology and a quasi-healthy lifestyle, I'll probably die at around 65-70. That said, I don't want to be working after 60. I'd rather not be working after 55, though that may be unrealistic. So, I'm starting my investing with my eyes on age 55+ (that's 2034).

I started with a Roth IRA. The conventional wisdom is that you should open a Roth as soon as you start working and chuck a little money in it every paycheck, and you'll be a millionaire when you retire. That is baloney. If you were born in 1939, started investing in 1959, and cashed out in 1999 then you'd be a millionaire. Because you rode the Econ-Bubbles up to the top and cashed out at the right moment. In short, you got lucky. I've heard the compound interest story so many times I could puke, and it always relies on that canard of, "The stock market historically provides a 12% return." HA! If you're lucky. Gone are the days of chucking money at a mutual fund and forgetting about it. Retirement. Accounts. Don't. Pay. Interest. They do provide returns, if properly managed. We can call this return "interest," but I've always found that word misleading about the amount of risk involved.

That being said, Roth IRAs are an incredibly useful tool for retiring. This assumes you are willing to study a lot on where to put the money inside the account. Since this is a 25-30 year project it puts me in an uncomfortable position of having to be patient and rush at the same time. I've decided to break my investing into 3 tiers. The first tier is a Roth IRA that won't be available to me until 2039. This is where I'm going to stick my long-haul purchases. Since I'm relatively young I'll try to buy some solid stocks with a good reputation for paying dividends and simply reinvest the dividends over time. Lucky for me, many of those stocks are quite cheap right now. Ford is way down. Alcoa is way down, and pays a decent dividend. Coke looks like it's going to dive after their 4Q Reports come out. There are a few others I've had my eyes on. There'll be a few other things I throw in there over time, but nothing too risky. I'm looking for stable, consistent bargains where I can find them.

My second tier is mostly for education. This is more of a medium-term trading account. I don't plan on owning anything in it for longer than a year, and I don't plan on dumping much money in it until the rest of my finances are sitting pretty. I may drop this idea altogether, but there is so much to learn here that I have to at least dip my toes in the water.

My third tier is for fun. This is for learning how to manage short term, high risk avenues of trade. This will be minimally funded. I'll be looking at stock-options, for the most part. I'm generally not a gambler, but a little bit can be entertaining. In addition, learning how options work is a great addition to learning how to protect investments once you've made them. Case in point, if you owned AIG last year and kept a few conservative Put Options covering it then you'd be sitting quite pretty despite their plummet to the bottom.

As I'm still in the research phase, I don't have a lot of budgeted numbers to go with this grand plan. Since my income is rather slim, then I don't expect huge returns. Even so, I see a solid investment plan as the only way I can avoid living out my "Golden Years" as a greeter at Wal-Mart.

I've had a couple of other ideas knocking around my head. I've thought of enrolling in a government backed IDA to help fund education and home purchase expenses down the road. I've considered enrolling in a few Drip programs to help grow my investment purchases over time. I've thought about enrolling in a HDHP and pairing it with a HSA to mitigate the high-deductible risk. I've considered, if my finances really improve in the next few years, starting an ESA or 529 account for my nephew's college education.

In addition there are a couple of things I've decided to avoid. Selling option contracts sounds like a bad idea in most cases. Covered Calls might be a decent income supplement, but I don't think I'd be comfortable with the Risk:Reward. Selling Puts might be a decent way to discount an intended long-term purchase, but I'd have to have the numbers down to the finest detail. In general, I don't like the notion of risking a lot of money to make a little bit of money.

Well, this has been a rant. There may not be much continuity, but like I said...this is a brain dump. I'll try to make a little more sense out of it in a week or two.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell and squandering talent

I love Malcolm Gladwell. Whether i agree with him or not, he's always got a way of forcing me to look at old problems from a new perspective.

In this video he touches on a topic that is near and dear to me. Talent. Not just brains, but talent. Talent at anything. Computer programming. Football. Stock trading. Whatever. In America we have a very simply method of discovering and exploiting human talent. I like the term YOYO. You're On Your Own. The only way to get good at something is to try, but you'd better not suck at it when you start. We want instant results. Meaning NOW. There is no patience for allowing someone to grow a skill. If you can't beat the other kids your first time out then you "Suck." We do this all over the place, with all kinds of things. Academic pursuits. Sports pursuits. Certainly occupations.

I think the rest of the world sees us as lazy because of this. It's the stereotype, right? Fat, lazy Americans always wanting something for nothing and too impatient to wait for the really good stuff. I don't think that's really the right answer. We aren't lazy. We work damned hard. I don't have the statistics on hand, but Americans work harder than our European counterparts and nearly as hard as our Japanese counterparts. We bust our asses! And I don't think we're necessarily impatient. We're willing to wait for the 401k payoff to retire. We're not all slavering for the winning lottery ticket all the time.

I think the problem, when it comes to nurturing a skill in ourselves or our children, is two-fold. Firstly, we don't know. We don't know that it takes a LONG time to develop a skill at anything. It takes us months to learn how to tie shoes, and we expect people to learn a job in 90 days and ROCK at it! That sort of attitude is contagious and toxic. I don't think it's rooted in impatience (except on the part of shareholders). I think it's rooted in ignorance. The second problem is related to the first. We don't give a fuck. America is really sliding into this Social-Darwinist, Law of the Jungle, Dog Eat Dog, Survival of the Fittest sort of cultural grudge match. If you're "meant" to be a oncologist, then you'll do what it takes to be one no matter what your circumstances. If you fall flat, then it's your fault. You should have worked harder, and it ain't nobody's problem but your own. Horatio Alger, Ra Ra Sis Boom Ba.

This whole Don't Know Don't Care attitude is rooted in so much sickening cynicism that it's difficult to even contemplate. Even when it tries to be positive, like every time someone's told you, "I'm sure you'll figure it out" it still smacks of negativity. "I'm sure you'll figure it out" has "on your own" left implied but still there. It screams, "I've got better things to do than give a shit about other people's problems." But there's a flip side. How many people's lives have to be wasted reinventing the mousetraps of life "on their own," and how many doctors, scientists, and engineers do we have to see waste away as waiters, cashiers, and dishwashers before we realize that there's a better way? And it's not that complicated really.

It's called giving a shit.

Not made in America.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

One of the many reasons I voted Obama...

A wonderful speech from Barack Obama's 06 Senatorial race on religion in America.

Full text at :

It's so wonderful to hear a politician speaking about religious faith in terms that are unifying rather than divisive. Much of the Us vs. Them garbage spouted by Moral Majority shills this past decade has done nothing but divide America in a way that is completely unnecessary, and solely done in an effort to fracture the electorate for selfish gain. It's nice to think that maybe Americans finally saw through the trick this time. And I'd like to tip my hat to John McCain for not trotting out that tired old pony in this past election. Say what you will about him. He at least had enough honor not to sully the most precious beliefs of those he would lead so as to enrage them into voting for him. If there ever was a man who deserved to almost be president, that point of honor qualifies John McCain. I cannot say as much for his Republican brethren.

Fortunately, the sun has very nearly set on that obscene political strategy. Jerry Falwell is, thankfully, dead and it looks as though he has taken the real teeth of the Moral Majority with him. Bush's Neocronyism is fast fading from this earth, along with the careers of his fellow gang members. Reagan's voodoo economics are whirling down the drain, along with our floundering economy. The Preemptive Doctrine has been revealed as the hopeless rantings of a deranged paranoid lunatic in the blood soaked sands of that quagmire that is Iraq.

I believe President-Elect Obama. Change is coming. Like it or not, change is coming. And it has precious little to do with the election of a new president or senate. Change is coming because the ideology that we've operated under for the past three decades has been utterly discredited, and good riddance. The work of repairing our nation will be arduous and largely thankless, but in rebuilding this country I hope we never forget the lessons of our own history. A house divided against itself cannot stand. We have nothing to gain by demonizing our own people beyond poverty, war, hatred, and paranoia. We are better than that. We must be.

Monday, November 3, 2008

My Hope. My Fear. The day before the election.

It's the day before Election Day, and I am filled with hope for my country. I am, and have always been, a staunch liberal. The odds are good that my party of choice, The Democrats, will do quite well tomorrow. The odds are better than even that my party of choice will also inhabit the White House. One would think I would be ecstatic at this long-awaited opporunity. I am happy about this election, but I have my doubts.

My first doubt is whether Obama will actually win. No matter what the polling says, I still have a hard time believing that he might actually win. It's simply too unlikely. This is a pro-choice, pro Social Medicine, black man with a funny name and a Muslim father. His middle name's Hussein, for crying out loud! I simply can't believe that we might elect this guy, even though I know we need to. Call this my pessimism of the public in general. I hope to be wrong.

My second doubt is whether our political system will allow even a huge majority of Democratic seats and a Democratic presidency to accomplish anything at all. I feel as though our government has been hobbled by free-market right-wingers and well-heeled moneyed interests for the last 3-4 decades, and I'm not sure it's up to the task of repairing itself that quickly. The last 3 Republican administrations have left this country looted to the tune of 10 TRILLION dollars. Can there be any room in any budget to do anything but try to repair this damage? I hope to be wrong here as well.

My third and final doubt is whether Obama is the man he appears to be. I will break an unspoken liberal rule, and criticize Clinton about this. I think Bill Clinton was a far better politician than he was a Democrat or a president. We liberals aren't really allowed to talk bad about Clinton in public, just like conservatives aren't allowed to trash Reagan in public. That said, Bill Clinton helped gut the US Welfare system, signed off on NAFTA, and was working on privatizing Social Security before he spooged on that lady's dress (Thank God for premature ejaculation). He was (apparently) anti-Union, involved us in several foreign wars, and slept at the wheel on the widening gap between The Rich and Everybody Else. In short, he was a TERRIBLE Democrat! I fear a similar occurrence with Obama. I have no good reasons for this, but it is a pessimism with politics in general.

I think this lack of hope in the foundation of our democracy is a symptom of the slow dismantling of what made our country great. If everyone on television is screaming that "Government IS the problem" then you start to wonder if they're right. This demonizing of government is so puzzling in a country such as this one, because it is outside the very nature of our culture. We have no system of hereditary rule (excepting our sitting Moron in Chief). We have no system of iron-clad castes. We have no system of intractable aristocracy, or even slavery anymore. We ARE the government. So, if "Government is the problem" then by extension, WE are the problem. Shills and salesmen told us that taxes were unjust, and we bought it. They told us that income inequality was irrelevant, and we bought it. They told us that providing a safety net simply encourages laziness, and we bought it. And by they, I mean us. These slimebags go to our schools and churches. They used to shop at our grocery stores before they got too rich to need to. They used to work with us before we bought their faux-philosophy of "Rules are Bad (unless you're poor)."

It has been a point of unrelenting irony and pain for me that our country was founded by a bunch of Liberal, Elitist, Atheistic, Epicurean, Academics of moderate wealth. And now Americans in general HATE those people! Our founders were intellectuals to a man, and now we (self-included) have trouble trusting Barack Obama because he's the same kind of man. What have we done to our America? That we would even consider giving the reigns of our nation to an ignorant hawk like McCain and his more ignorant wing-nut of a VP pick Palin is tragicomedy at it's most absurd. And so, I will vote for Barack Obama tomorrow. And I will hope that he does right by all of us. And I will hope that the new Democratic congressmen and representatives will do the same. It might be a fool's hope. But I hope to be wrong.