Coronavirus Implodes MicroVision

When bad news hits, I prefer to wait a day before writing about it, unless telling the story is therapeutic. A company I’m invested in was hit by ripples from coronavirus. It wasn’t because an employee was infected. It was because quarantines in China closed factories, which killed supply lines, which severed supply chains. Just as MicroVision was expected to announce a major product that would make them profitable, their hopes were punctured by something out of their control. The stock was down over 50% after hours. The reason I’m writing this now, however, is because some people are physically shaking from the news. I’m not hurt as hard, but I’ve been there and know that words delayed can arrive too late. Hence, I write.

Pandemics sound academic. They rarely happen, thanks to the efforts of the medical profession. The health care system may have flaws, but that seems to be more on the accounting and insurance side. Emergency responders respond well. They and others keep contagious infections contained. There’s an atmosphere of constant vigilance because they know that if something significant happens, it isn’t going to wait for hearings and meetings. That’s why coronavirus is a threat; it isn’t that it is deadlier than usual, it is because it seems to be highly contagious, spreads rapidly, and yes, is more than deadly enough. Hence, China’s quarantines and factory closures. (Personal Pandemic Prep)

My original MVIS shares are twenty years old. If they were human they could vote, serve, and be told it was time to move out and get a job. MicroVision has worked on a technology that has the ability to revolutionize display technologies. Shine light on an oscillating mirror, and either display or capture an image. Build it onto a chip and use micro-electronics for the lights, and a projector shrinks to nearly the size of the camera in your phone, and sensors can fit into almost any electronic device. So what? Imagine how much of a shift it was to get rid of the cathode ray tubes that powered televisions and early computers. They were big, fragile, somewhat radioactive, and wasted a lot of energy. Think back as screens got thinner, flatter, and sturdier to the point that they can survive pockets and purses (mostly). They aren’t radioactive, but they use rare materials from exploited regions, and quickly become hazardous waste. MicroVision’s displays have no radioactive tube, no glass, no screen, and use incredibly little power. It is easy to imagine why investors could be so eager to buy into a small, inexpensive company that could radically reform the technical world.

Screenshot 2019-02-25 at 13.58.38

But, it never seemed to happen. Skip the ‘seemed’. It didn’t happen.

At this point it is easy to dive into a critique of two decades of management. While none of the CEOs succeeded (and today’s news kicked out the most recent one and introduced a new one), they were all well-paid. Millions of dollars went to managers who never produced a profit despite incredible technology and potential. I might delve into that managerial review another day.

Today I want to reach out to investors who welcome innovation and potential to slide from the label of investor to speculator. Big risks and big rewards are the reality, but it is too easy to think big risks equal big rewards. There are no guarantees. When the risks lead to rewards, it can be marvelous. Hey, that’s one of the reasons I retired at 38. (See my book: Dream. Invest. Live.)Dream Invest Live cover When the risks lead to – well – nothing, it can be traumatic. That’s one of the reasons I became un-retired. (Not the only one, but that story is leading to the sequel. A bit much to go into right now, but read about My Triple Whammy for those details.)

I remember shaking. Dendreon (DNDN) finally succeeded, technically. They developed a real cancer vaccine, FDA-approved and all of that. It was a monumental struggle, but the succeeded at saving lives where no other treatment did much more than mild improvements. That produced dancing, not shaking. One of the first quarters when we expected to hear about real-world successes and real-world profits, they announced they missed their revenue target. It wasn’t that they weren’t successful. It was that they weren’t successful enough quick enough. They made hundreds of millions of dollars, but the stock market didn’t care. Follow the DNDN tag on this blog that long story. Not only did the company fail, but lives that could’ve been saved have been lost. Tens of thousands, potentially. The shaking commenced.

When that stock sunk, I shook. I felt sorry for so many of my friends who also invested in it. I called a few to commiserate and console. As Spider Robinson observed; “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.” I also became aware of yet another aspect of our society where people in pain are likely to be reviled rather than comforted. Individual stockholders trying to do better than a mutual fund are treated as if they are privileged pariahs who don’t deserve sympathy. I’ve had people tell me they are glad to see it happen, even when the folks it happened to only had as much as their accuser. Turning that around is unrealistic, and is why I encourage people shaking with the shock of lost dreams and lost finances to reach out to each other. As contentious as online forums can be, they can also be a source of community in time of need.

One irony is that, for some of the companies I’ve invested in and watched crumple, their technologies and services can eventually succeed. Good ideas don’t die easily. The employees who developed them can move on and find fertile ground for them elsewhere. Intellectual properties, like patents, can continue. The benefits to the world may be delayed, at a cost, but new champions can carry them to their goal. Shareholders may not benefit directly, but after a company implodes it helps me to know that there may yet be indirect benefits.

As a society, we stumble. We’re terrible at getting something right the first time. We haven’t had one consistent plan since the days when the only plan was to survive another day. Yet, we continue to move. Whoever said it doesn’t matter, but; “There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent.” I’m having a hard time with ‘excellent’, but agree that this is the way we progress. Try. Try. Try.

The coronavirus may or may not be a pandemic. It is certainly disruptive and deadly enough. We can’t manage every risk, predict every scenario, control every situation; but we can help each other, recognize each other’s pain, and find a way to keep trying, trying.

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Personal Pandemic Prep

As some regular readers know, sometimes I plan a post, and sometimes an idea needs to be worked out by writing about it. (Note to writers, the planned posts don’t get more traffic than the extemporaneous ones. Overthinking happens.) Recently I heard a story on NPR about the people quarantined in their homes because of the coronavirus, which now has some other name. (For a brief amateur’s description, mine, of why some are worried, read Practice Pandemic which can lead to other sources.) Hearing the story about a person trapped in their house reminded me that the disaster you prepare for may never happen, but the preparations can be valuable, anyway.

The person NPR interviewed has been quarantined at home for over a month. The emotional progression went from worry with a bit of guilty pleasure at time off, to pragmatic concerns about supplies and how much longer they have to stay home. The atmosphere sounds more spooky than quiet patience.

The thing that made me think was how this is so unlike other disaster scenarios. In earthquakes and storms, after the event the survivors have to deal with outages of power, food, water, medicine, etc. Surviving the event leads to rebuilding a life. Emergency preparation kits concentrate on food, water, shelter, communications, and health. In this viral disaster, at the start almost everything is available, infrastructure isn’t damaged, few people have died, but the survivors don’t know if they will survive. Even if they do survive, how do they live while exercising a prisoner’s version of patience?

Power, electricity, and usually water are delivered via a network. There’s no need for people to contact people. Sewer or septic are hands-off (mostly). In a quarantine, food and medicine are the pragmatic supplies that may be difficult to deliver, and the lack of community and human contact can affect the mental health. At least some semblance of community exists with social media, but Liking someone’s post is not the same as a hug.

Hello, well-stocked pantry. Hello, home-grown veggies. Hello, chickens and eggs, as long as birds aren’t what is spreading the disease.

I like the idea from a recent library Emergency Preparedness presentation. The focus was on earthquakes because Whidbey Island has several fault lines under it, has more for neighbors, and has a celebrity fault that is the Cascadia Subduction Zone. (Minimalism Meets Emergency Preparedness)DSC_5840 The idea is simple. Buy canned goods by the case. Keep the case intact and handy. Watch the Use-by date. When there’s a good sale or when the Use-by date is close but not too close, donate the old case to a food bank, and replace it with another case. Of course, buy cans of something you’ll eat. Duh. Add that to pantry staples like rice, beans, and pasta. The diet may get dull, but that’s manageable. Stocking the pantry is also a good reason to keep a well-stocked bar and wine collection. During a quarantine there may not be much driving, so maybe there can be a bit more drinking.

For most people, one obvious downside (assuming they are one of the healthy ones) is a lack of income. The bills probably won’t stop coming. Rainy day funds exist for a reason. Folks with online jobs may not have a problem. Folks with portfolios that only have local stocks might have an issue. There’s even worries about the coronavirus’ impact on the international economy. Supply chains are looking risky for electronics. (MVIS, are you OK?) If delivery companies can operate, probably wearing impressive protective gear, then people working from home may have the least disruption – as long as they aren’t distracted by having all the kids at home, in the house, all the time.

Weird as it may be, writers may finally finish their books. If artists have enough supplies, there might be a reason to have a post-quarantine studio tour. Houses may finally get cleaned, painted, and lots of little chores finally completed.

A rule of thumb is that no plan survives past its first step. The corollary is that having no plan can be the worst plan of all. Minimalists, frugal folk, and pragmatists may be best prepared even without trying. But maybe in a case like this it can be a good idea to not be too minimal because the pantry may have too little, too frugal because paying for shipping may be safest, and concentrating on pragmatism too much can amplify anxieties for too long.

Preparing for something like a quarantine, a pandemic, is a weird mix of worry and protection; while also being forced to be patient, do less, and take care of yourself – and your self. Still shaking my head at this weird world we are in. Despite so much to think about, one thing I can do is spend a bit more time and money in the bulk food section of the grocery store. And maybe stock up on some alcohol, for medicinal purposes. (Really, because several stiff drinks may be necessary to cope with such uncertainty.)

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Taxes And Pay

Death and taxes, something we all have in common – or not. Technology is working on redefining death’s schedule. More about that some other post. Taxes, well, all for one and one for all doesn’t apply as we’ve seen billion dollar corporations and individuals pay far less than their share. But even looking back on one person’s life, mine, it becomes obvious that here in tax season it’s possible to have a completely different experience from year to year, or person to person. We got into this mess because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh, if we could pave a road with good intentions. Where would it lead?

Dependents

I started as a dependent. Folks just a little older than me were born as something the US Internal Revenue Service paid no attention to. Now, kids are starting with Social Security Numbers and are counted by their parents for tax breaks. It may not mean anything to the kids, it didn’t to me, but so begins the tax journey.

Cash Under The Counter

Shh. My first jobs were paid without any paperwork. Nothing was reported to the IRS. Why would it? Parents pay kids for lots of things. There are even these things called allowances. Imagine that. Tax-free! Eventually, my Dad paid me to do things at his office, too. A real job, and one that I did, but didn’t leverage. I learned how to do a job and be responsible and dutiful, but didn’t think about learning about business, logistics, customer service, etc. Of course, being 11 years old, getting woken up at 5AM on a Saturday to work until Noon usually meant that when I was done with my tasks all I wanted to do was take a nap. Being a janitor in an oil depot was…less than inspiring. The only paperwork was a few dollars I received that my Dad pulled from his wallet at the end of the shift.

Summer Jobs and W-2

Summer jobs existed, way back when. I hear they’re harder to get now, possibly because senior citizens are handing onto simple jobs to bridge financial gaps after retirement. Mine started small, staffing something new and radical at the time, a self-service gas station. They liked the idea of a tall high school student who might intimidate the thieves who regularly held up the station. Then the boss saw my six foot height came with less than 150 pound weight. Not intimidating, but I worked cheap. Never got robbed, though!

From there, a more substantial summer job, working in one of the local steel mills. Irvin Works, a sheet metal plant that was over a half mile long. Guess who got to sweep it. Here’s your broom. Here’s one end of the building. See how far you can get to the other end in eight hours. Also, join the union. Not optional. Oh yeah, and stay alert because any one of the over seventy furnaces may open without warning within a few feet of the broom. (There was a warning, but the siren wasn’t much louder than the furnace.) In 1977 I was paid $9.75 an hour, a rate that some consider reasonable in 2020. Really? At least by the end of my third summer there I’d advanced to the title of hooker. Really. There’s a crane. It has a hook. The person who works on the thing being hooked or unhooked is called the hooker. Good pay. Layoffs without notice.

And paychecks. Finally, paychecks – and deductions, and eventual tax forms which flowed from yet another form, the W-2.

A Career Job and W-2 and Not Much More

Graduated college, got a job with Boeing, and those W-2s got bigger numbers. For a while, filing taxes got easier. I was living on every other paycheck and saving the rest. The IRS came out with the 1040-EZ, which worked for me because my finances really were easy.

Then Came Stocks and More Complicated Forms

Eventually I saved enough to return to college to get my Masters, which I did. During that period I became a more determined stock investor. Enter capital gains and losses and keeping track of transactions, something most people didn’t do because they either didn’t save, or let mutual funds take care of things, or hired someone to deal with details. The stack of paperwork and arithmetic grew rapidly. The tax form may only need a few bits of information, but the supporting documentation made file folders bulge.

Then Came A House and More and More

After my Masters I went back to living on only half my paychecks. Now, instead of the money accumulating in a bank account, it went into stocks, lots of different stocks. (See my book, Dream. Invest. Live., for details.)Dream Invest Live cover At least the paperwork was familiar, and computers were becoming more common. That helped. A practiced savings plan and frugal lifestyle meant I saved enough for a downpayment on a house. Oh dear.

Setting aside my lack of experience with house maintenance, I was a first-time homebuyer, tax codes encouraged homeowners to track expenses to account for money spent on improvements. There were benefits to reducing taxes when the house was sold, a detail that isn’t as important, now because I think the code changed.

The tax task grew because those forms were getting more numerous.

Then Came Marriage and Help

Skip ahead a few years and welcome to the married world. Two incomes. No kids. Many of the same issues and forms, but now there were three times as many accounts: mine, hers, ours. Help! Which we found by hiring a tax accountant. It was still work to compile the documentation, but someone else figured out the forms, the tables, the deductions, walked us through the results, we signed, and we were done. Especially with the addition of rental property, it was a relief to have professional help.

Then Came Retirement and Divorce

For one year I celebrated an early retirement at 38 years old because the two of us shared common habits of frugal living and determined investing. The taxes didn’t change, though, because only one of us retired. There was a period when we were both retired, but it was so short that the taxes didn’t change much.

Single and Retired

Finally, a simplification in taxes. I was retired and living off my portfolio. One or two trades a year satisfied my expenses. No W-2. No rental income. No house, except for the one I rented. Back to simplicity. If only it could last.

Triple Whammy and 1099

My Triple Whammy. My taxes remained simple because my portfolio imploded. The main complication was paying penalties for early withdrawals from my retirement account. When you aren’t making money, there’s little to report; but sometimes it takes several pages to prove that zero or nearly-zero really is a very small number. To make sure I got every advantage, without spending much money, I enlisted Turbo-Tax.

For years, the only change was the number and size of my 1099s. I was fully engaged in the Gig Economy, dutifully reporting my income, while working seven days a week and not being able to pay all my bills. (Hence My Mortgage Modification.) I probably could’ve benefited from professional help, but how could I hire someone when I couldn’t even pay my mortgage? My Turbo-Tax sessions became anxiety sessions.

Add Real Estate and Help

Recently I became a licensed real estate broker. Oddly enough, the forms haven’t changed. Brokers are independent contractors, a common term in the Gig Economy in a profession that’s used the term for decades. Trying to understand a new business and its own special tax codes was too much. The total income had changed enough to be encouraging, barely. A small mistake could make a big impact. I hired a tax account, yet again and was glad. And will do so again. I’ve already started collecting the documentation. I’m also working on closing a large enough deal to pay the taxes, but that’s another story.

Everyone Else

When I hear politicians and economists and ideologues talk about tax policy, they frequently speak as if everyone is having the same experience. There’s some mention of the taxes of the rich versus the taxes of the poor, but I see the taxes that are a mess. There is no generalization. People living off W-2s have a different experience from people living off 1099s, people concentrating on the forms for capital gains and losses, trust fund and annuity and retirement incomes. Each person can have a mix, and a mess. It is amazing that anyone gets it right, even with professional help.

Tax season affects us all, but each of us experiences a different effect. “Get your rebate now!” A rebate? Are you kidding? My 2018 taxes are still on my credit card, dwindling, but still there. Self-employment taxes don’t seem to care if “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is barely profitable. There are taxes based on revenue, not income; an irony considering that the Internal Revenue Service manages Income Taxes but sometimes taxes revenues even if there is no income. Another reason to be impressed with any entrepreneur who finally breaks into profitability.

Even writing this post reminds me of how little I know. Some tax professionals are probably shaking their head the way some health care professionals shook their head at my issues with the health insurance (not healthcare) companies. And yet, work at almost anything else in life for fifty years and expect to get much better at it. The only thing I’ve gotten better at is recognizing when asking for help is a good idea.

Each of these tax codes was passed for what seemed like a good idea: deductions for kids, an easy form for simple finances which has since be eliminated, using Social Security Numbers for taxpayer identification even though it wasn’t supposed to be used that way, et al. Et al, now means over 2,500 pages of US tax code. If you haven’t read and understood it, how do you know you’ve filed your taxes correctly?

I am glad I’ve found someone to rely on. I barely understand my taxes. My accountant is a professional and human, so I expect her to know much more than me, but I don’t expect her to know everything and everything’s implications. If I can’t understand my taxes fully, I won’t make claims about someone else’s, what works for them and what doesn’t. What I can state is my great desire for someone somehow to greatly simplify the situation fairly. With the way the US is going politically, and the increasing debt and deficits, this unsustainable situation is going to change. If everything eventually dies, maybe that will apply to the US Tax Code, too.

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Super Bowl Ads 2020

Here we go again, though by the time you read this, there they went again. Welcome to another of my personal finance exercises. The annual event that is the Super Bowl Ad Campaign is something I pay attention to because I want to see what everyone else is paying attention to, besides the game. (Begin soap box moment.) After a bit of research into the NFL I admit that I can’t get enthused about old billionaires exploiting  impressionable young people by turning them into multi-millionaires, well, that part is OK,  to hurt each other in billion dollar stadiums funded by municipalities that don’t supposedly don’t have enough money for roads, education, or their unluckier citizens. (End soap box moment.) Consumer spending is a major component of the US economy, and this is one way to see a summary. This year adds the flavor of political ads, which affects the economy, too. Thanks to every advertiser that at least makes their ads entertaining.

The process is simple. Watch as many of the ads as reasonable. Watch for trends. Listen for the messages, and also what seems to resonate with others. It isn’t comprehensive. Starbucks started by specifically not advertising (wisdom) , until they got so big that they had to (folly?). Great ads don’t make great products or profits. Bad ads can ruin reputations. But, in general, ads are one way to measure management strategies and effectiveness. So, I’ll put this draft aside as I watch the ads collected on AdBlitz’s YouTube channel, make notes as I go, then sift through to learn what I saw. You’re saved that hour or two of waiting. I wonder what I’ll see, hear, and write. I might even feel something.

(Note: This took long enough that it passed from me drinking tea at the start to whiskey by the end.)


What was there

  • Cars will be electric and smarter than you. (Even Hummer will be electric.) Your phone will be smarter than you. Your house will be smarter than you.
  • Diversity has progressed from rare token appearances, to accepted but uncommon, to the obvious norm, but has yet to progress to people being treated as people regardless of their DNA. For decades I’ve assumed that anyone can do anything. Evidently, this is still news. (Meeting one of the first Sea Gals, the Seahawks cheerleaders, as she taught one of my first karate classes helped. Could kick my butt, literally and repeatedly.)
  • Astronauts that are women? This is news? Hope they got paid for the ad. They deserve to be better paid than the football players. I wish they’d been part of the ad on Mars rather than a beauty cream ad. Their accomplishments make appearances inconsequential. 
  • Rich people have more fun and can get away with more stuff. Break the law in your fancy car? OK. 
  • Movies are fantasies. In the Depression, it was musicals. Now, it’s fantasy action.
  • SUVs are statements, not vehicles for sports or utility.
  • The majority of ads aren’t showing what they’re selling, and if they do, the products are more likely to be props. They’re selling sizzle and hoping no one cares.
  • What is it with mattresses? That’s a trend. 
  • Exercise equipment comes equipped with electronic coaches. Evidently, we need more than internal motivation – something I am reflecting on as I type instead of working out. But hey, people are working out in those and other ads. Note: Workout clothes are equipped with pockets for phones. 
  • Facebook/Google/Amazon are your friends. (Please don’t break us up with anti-trust regulations.)
  • Don’t cook. Either meet us in the parking lot or we’ll deliver it to your door. Convenience rules.
  • Food is defined by either what’s not in it, or an excess of spices.

What wasn’t there

  • No politics? At least not on AdBlitz. I was saved from that. Thanks.
  • Sorry, MVIS. – A separate and long topic.

Familiar favorites (that have yet to convince me to buy their products or services)

  • Old Spice – Make fun of ads. Yes!

New names (the real benefit for investors like me in such an exercise)

  • Genesis/cars – Not for me, though I recall a friend talking about Tesla years ago. He should’ve listened to himself.
  • Takis/food – Not for me, because snack food isn’t for my approach to investing in positive products.
  • Quibi – A ten minute YouTube? Sure, but why? And yet, such simple innovations can succeed spectacularly. Something to watch – in many ways.
  • Purple – Plastic mattresses may be comfortable, but I doubt they’re practically sustainable.
  • Pro-Form – Glad to see workout equipment do well, but I think the long term customer base may someday transition to something simple like working out because they want to.

Well, that was over two hours of, blink blink, watching YouTube. Whew. It was worthwhile, though. The tone is less dire than during the Great Recession; but the emphasis remains excess for the rich as something they deserve and distraction for those without. The ‘us’ is more about people than country, which will be interesting to compare after November’s US election. Automation and the surveillance state is a given with cautions that are treated lightly rather than seriously, not a surprise considering the companies aren’t selling luddite solutions. Artificial intelligence has taken the place of the Internet. The Internet enabled entrepreneurs. Artificial Intelligence could do so, too; but it looks like the corporations are in control. The diversity was the most positive part, for me; and as I alluded to above, I look forward to it being treated naturally rather than under a spotlight. That may take a generation or three. Few made great claims about where they’re going, almost as if no one has confidence of what will happen by this time next year.

I am sure there are more ads I didn’t see. Fine. I’ve seen enough for my purposes. Time for my eyes and conscious mind to relax. My subconscious will filter through. In the next day or two I’ll read other interpretations. I always learn something from the conversation. This year, however, I didn’t find something that inspired me to buy or invest. Maybe next year.

An aside. We had a rare, sunny Sunday, today. I took the time to work in the yard. There was yard waste to chip and spread. It should be no surprise that power equipment with whirling blades would have a warning label. This one came with several languages, which unintentionally made a comment about ads. The English part of the warning label said “WARNING!”. Beside it was another language’s warning “AVERTISSEMENT”. Echoes of irony.

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Shop Different Shops

We silly humans. We set boundaries and us-versus-them distinctions naturally. We remain tribal, despite being ‘civilized.’ Give us a few generations and that might change. There’s something frugal and personal we can do in the meantime that breaks those borders and saves some money. Shop in different shops. Even better is shopping in different local shops.

Ah, life in a rural community. Food is more a than commodity when you regularly drive past fields, orchards, and ranches. The life you see may be the life you eat that means you can sustain your life.

Ah, life in a small town in a rural community. It is easy to get to know the people farming and ranching, or at least get to know their names. Getting to meet them may require showing up at breakfast places while most people are asleep, as the farmers and ranchers are already done with their first set of chores. Muddy boots are optional.

It’s also possible to meet them at their farm stands, when they deliver a food subscription to your front porch, or at farmers’ markets. Say hello (and pay on time.)

Despite such proximity, most people shop at groceries. Farm stands rarely carry everything else like toilet paper. One stop shopping is certainly convenient.

You may have noticed that I use the word ‘grocery.’ Within the bottom 25 miles of Whidbey Island there are several places to buy food. In addition to the farmer-proprietor places, there are five or six favorites. Some are small and only have enough room for groceries, nothing fancy. Some are called supermarkets, but that’s relative considering the size of Safeways and such in the Big Cities. All provide at least some nod to local produce, dairy, seafood, and meat. A trip to the store can be like visiting several farm stands without having to navigate muddy parking strips.

I have a preference, like most. My preference is The Goose, an ironic name for a place where I buy chicken. “The Goose is the result of a one-of-a-kind partnership between Goosefoot, a non-profit organization, and The Myers Group, a family-owned business.” That’s a sentiment I appreciate, a community grocer run by a non-profit and a family. It is also very convenient, to me, at least for now. My real estate office is part of the same partly-paved/partly-gravelly/partly-puddle-y parking lot, sort of. This is great. While I usually bring my own lunch, it is a treat to walk across the lot, browse the shelves for sales, then buy lunch from the deli. Then, before I head home, I can walk back to the grocery, pick up the deals I like, then head home. I get to save money and have a very nicely stocked pantry.

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As much as I like it, I know others who drive right past it. Payless, a few miles away in Freeland, has a loyal following. It is probably the biggest of the stores. The Star Store in Langley is also only a few miles away. It may be the smallest, but it has high-end ingredients. Jokingly, it is the place for free-range/organic/fair-trade/shade-grown/sustainable whatever. Head down-island instead of up-island and get to Red Apple in Ken’s Corner, (which recently was bought by an employee, as I understand). Farther south is Clinton Foodmart, a place that gets busy in waves as hundreds of ferry riders swing past on their way home or to their vacation destination. Each has a loyal following.

The surprise to me is how many only shop at one store. The Goose is my current favorite, but at various times each has carried that label, except for Payless. Currently, I work by the Goose. Previously, I worked by or commuted past each of the others. Rather than a few random visits, I’ve had opportunities to get to know each place. The Goose’s deals are good, but I also know that the others have their highlights. The Star Store has single-serving steaks that are just the right size, and gluten-free deli choices. Red Apple’s my choice for produce like onions and such. Clinton’s Foodmart may have the widest gluten-free selection. I hear good things about Payless’ bulk foods, but don’t know much about them because I never worked near there.

Only shopping in one store, grocery or otherwise, develops loyalty and makes life simpler. But, visiting other stores helps find better prices, breaks habits, introduces new ideas, and spreads the wealth.

It isn’t just true about shopping. It is too easy to stay within self-imposed, arbitrary borders and to only consume what’s within. There’s loyalty and simplicity there, but that can come at a high price.

I also am glad to be able to mention the place for food that impresses me the most, the Good Cheer Food Bank. Food banks have stigmas. I don’t know about the rest, but Good Cheer is centrally located to all of the groceries I mentioned, doesn’t care or ask about income (at least they didn’t ask me), and has a surprising selection. Of course, they have beans and rice, pasta and sauce, and other basic staples; but on occasion they seem to get someone’s surplus, which might be salmon or fresh produce. I’ve been part of the gleaning crew (the Good Cheer Gleaners) who harvested local fruit and delivered it there. The stigma some have about food banks are yet another arbitrary boundary, another us-versus-them example.

Shopping in different shops is more than simply saving money. Breaking stigmas and crossing borders are ways to meet the rest of us, and to realize there is no them.

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Tea And Frugality

Sitting beside me, and somewhat inside me, is a cup of Formosa Oolong, a tea with a name that would cause a controversy if mentioned in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, it is welcome, which isn’t a surprise to folks that follow me on social media, particularly Twitter (@tetrimbath). There, my tea habits inspired a hashtag, #TomTea. It started as a silly idea, but sometimes silly things are more important than serious things. Regardless, I have Starbucks and frugality to thank for a beverage I enjoy every day.

Millions of people know Starbucks because of its coffees. I know it because of its teas and spices. Way back then, Starbucks had one store, it was in Pike Place Market, and I was playing tourist in the Big City (Seattle) which was near the Boeing plant where I just got a job.

It might seem strange, but I made it through college getting a degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering without resorting to coffee. I relied on tea. I fell asleep a lot, but it is hard to tell if that was from not enough caffeine, or the fact that studying frequently meant only three or four hours of sleep each night. Many tea bags were wrung out as I tried to balance keeping school costs down by finishing on time versus getting high enough grades to get a job afterwards.

Picture a newbie to the PNW. This was 1980, when Seattle’s reputation was for dreary, not dynamic. Tourism was happening, but Boeing was the big thing. Still, Pike Place was already known as a draw for tourists, but mostly for locals who wanted more authentic choices. The hour or so drive made it impractical for me to shop there, but it was novel and I didn’t know what else to do on the weekends. (Hiking and skiing and bicycling and sailing kicked in later, but that is an entire shelf of stories. Go to my Amazon Author Page for more.)

Wander into the Market. Roam around because the booths were varied and the people were friendly; but don’t know what to look for because shopping without branding was a culture shift and an education. But, ah, Starbucks. At least I’d heard of them.

1820251403starbuck_sign_original_logo

Step in. Find a skinny shop with a counter at the back of the space, a long line of shoppers, and a wall of coffee, teas, and spices. Check the original logo. Coffee, Tea, Spices, and a more graphic depiction of the mermaid which has subsequently been sanitized and recolored. Finally get to the front of the line, ask for a cup of tea, and begin an education.

It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get just a tea bag and a cup of hot water. The person working there (I don’t think they used the title ‘barista’ much then) took the time to describe some of the teas, the benefit of loose leaf, the proper way to brew it, and the proper way to store the leaves. A cup, hot water, a tea-filled strainer shaped like a spoon, and directions to have one of the very few seats at the window counter. Spend four minutes watching the people go by, then remove the tea, maybe let the cup cool a bit, and enjoy.

This was better than yet another cup of Red Rose or Lipton or Tetley. This was a bit of a ritual, but not too much of one. It was also a welcome introduction into a West Coast culture, not the tea, but the concept of treating a customer as a person, not a transaction; and the idea that a little education can become the basis of a long term relationship.

That day may have been the turning point when it would’ve been just as easy to become a coffee drinker. Instead, it was the time when I started exploring other shops, blends, flavorings, and experiments that continue forty years later. As an investor, it was the day that planted the desire to own some of their stock, something that happened about six months after SBUX went public. (For more of that story, dive into my book on personal finance, Dream. Invest. Live.)

Now, I drink about a liter and a half per day. Sometimes it is one type in a thermos, doled out as I work. Sometimes it is strong black tea in the morning, shifting to oolongs, then greens, and maybe some herbal infusions by the end of the day. There’s much to learn, and no need to do so. That’s relaxing, too.

In addition to the flavor, I appreciate the frugality. Tea is cheaper and simpler than coffee. Dead leaves are relatively easy to keep from going stale. A tight tin kept in a cupboard suffices, nicely. Bulk loose leaf can cost as little as under $2 per ounce, and an ounce can last weeks. Good loose leaf tea, in particular, can last longer because the same leaves can be used more than once, hence one ounce lasting a long time. I don’t test this overnight, but I’ve used the same leaves five times without noticing much degradation. The caffeine was probably mostly washed out in the first steep, but some use that as a way to organically and cheaply make decaf. Toss out the first cup, make another, and then another, saving money with every extra cup. Or in the summer, make one pot with fresh leaves, then use those leaves in a sun tea jug, or the opposite.

No need for the equipment necessary for fancy coffee concoctions. Hot water, dead leaves, and a way to strain out the leaves is all that’s necessary. Get fancy, use a tea kettle to actually get water at 190F-210F. Get fancier, pour the hot water into a tea pot where the leaves can steep with room to bloom. Maybe use a French press instead, because it gets the word ‘French’ involved. Then, either wrap the pot in a cozy (not quite my style, but useful), or pour the tea into a thermos. Milk, lemon, honey – scotch – are all optional. No need for thousands of dollars spent on a cappuccino machine.

Just like coffee, all true teas come from only one species of plant. How that’s grown and processed, and where it is grown create varieties that keep it from being dull. Oolong isn’t green, and not black, and not Pu-Erh, and not white, and not – well, there’s undoubtedly something else out there. I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. Explore there a bit, though, and find how easy it is to create blends that have never been branded, to develop mixes that are customized to one set of taste buds.

If I want a ‘breakfast’ tea, I know to buy Assam and Keemun, and mix them by pouring them into a jar. I now tend to skip flavored teas because they might use oils that stain my teeth and cup. Infusions (what many people call herbal teas) are even easier and more frugal. My current favorite is a blend of herbs from my yard (lemon balm, mint, maybe some rosemary or sage or lavender), plus some local weeds (nettles from a friend’s yard), and a bulk spice like rooibos or honey bush (great name) or licorice.

Currently, combining the collections from my kitchen cupboard and my office desk drawer I can choose from about two dozen teas. Some are getting low, so I just ordered more from Dandelion Botanical, and intend to order some more from Joyful Alchemy. I don’t need more. I just want more.

Living a frugal life is not about saying No all the time. It is about knowing when to say Yes. Good tea is an affordable indulgence. I might be in the midst of trying to deal with insurance and mortgage providers, conversations that tie into monthly thousand dollar expenses, but beside me will be a cup that is simply filled guilt-free. That’s one way to combine caffeine and calm that I can appreciate.

image

OK. So sometimes a tea bag is handy. Maybe it is time for me to educate a local coffeeshop or two.

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Health Insurance Confusion 2019-2020-

Neglecting to click one button leads me to a health insurance bill of over $1,200, and there wasn’t even a doctor’s visit or prescription or consultation involved. I called my health insurance company to clear up a lost $90 payment, and found that I owed them >$1,100, and stumbled into the fact that they double charged me months ago, at least once. The consequence of one frustrating phone call and two helpful (or at least diplomatic) phone calls is a bill that arrived today. I owe them $1,202.16. So, the $90 isn’t resolved, the tax credit isn’t being applied, and there’s no agreement about their overcharging. This is not healthy, and it isn’t over, yet.

Let’s start with my mistake. Check back through some of my posts and find my journey through Obamacare, Washington State Health Plan Finder, and my distaste for bureaucracy. For the first time, I didn’t contact the State’s marketplace because it seemed unnecessary in recent years.

The first year of Obamacare was confusing. I struggled through, and was glad for the subsidy. The task was tough enough that I chronicled it in One Confused ObamaCare Applicant. It turned out to be a useful post for thousands, and remains this blog’s most popular post. Each year after that I dutifully called the State’s support number, usually because I couldn’t remember the username and password. It seemed that every time I called the response was something like; “Everything is fine. Your coverage has been renewed.” I wrote about it for a while, but that seemed unnecessary.

This year was different. I recall receiving letters and emails saying that my coverage was renewed, so I decided to put the topic aside, and simply keep paying my bills. Then, the adjustment came. No surprise. It was a new year so I expected a new premium. But, the bill came in late. I didn’t want to be late with the payment, so I blindly paid the most recent amount, and then paid the difference when the bill arrived. That was about $90.

They received it late, and considered me delinquent. Hence, the call to them. It was probably just a case of bills and checks passing each other in the mail. But, I knew they received both payments. My bank told me so. I called, bounced through phone menus, and began talking to someone who couldn’t find the $90, and informed me that I owed them over $1,000. My reaction was not healthy, but I tried to remain diplomatic. I’ll save you the description of the frustration, but imagine talking to someone who can only respond with what they have on the screen in front of them. After asking to elevate the conversation with a manager or a supervisor more than once, I was connected to a boss.

The boss/manager/supervisor (a distinction that was important to them) took the time to listen, ask questions, and start untangling the mess. Remember my mistake, that button I didn’t click? That was the button on a web site that I was supposed to click. Clicking that button was necessary for renewing my tax credits (~$700 per month). (That number is startling when I think of how much health care that health insurance money could buy, but this is how much the insurance company gets monthly for a service I can’t afford to use.) OK. After a call to WA Health Plan Finder, I realized my mistake, they reinstated my tax credits – which will start in February. Better late than never, but if it never happened I’d simply cancel the insurance out of necessity.

As for the $90, it turns out that my insurance company won’t accept electronic payments from my bank. One mega-corporation and another regional large financial institution haven’t figured out how to transfer money any other way except by printing and mailing a check. That explains the delays in some of the payments. It doesn’t explain how the insurance company lost track of it. Sure enough, the manager encouraged me to find images of the cancelled checks, and the bank helped me find them online. So, it was my job to find copies of the cancelled checks via the bank because the insurance company couldn’t find them. Weird, but I was able to do so. Also unsettling that they’d lose something as basic as a payment.

If they lost that one, did they lose any others? I looked back through 2019’s payment history and found two times when they sent me a delinquent bill notice. I dutifully and embarrassingly paid them as double payments to get ahead of the next month. Just like the recent bill that showed up too late to pay on time, something similar happened earlier that I assumed they rectified with my payments. From what I can tell, they may have done so in one case but not the other. While tracking down their lost $90 check I may have found one or two lost $650 checks.

Nods to the manager who took each item separately. I think the $90 check is now ‘found’. The manager thought I might be able to get the tax credit retroactively applied to January, but no. (Though I should get the difference back when I file taxes in 2021. 2021!) The manager also tried to reconcile the doubled payments, but seems to have counted some of the double payments as single payments. That’s unresolved, at least from my perspective.

I am fortunate enough that this is all happening after closing a real estate transaction a few days earlier. If I began the investigation at the start of the month my anxiety level would’ve spiked at a time when I was already overwrought with another issue.

How many people is this happening to, and how much worse does it get when treatments are involved? The corporation has the money, can demand more, and can degrade someone’s credit rating while the consumer has to counter without teams of lawyers or the funds to pay. Cases that include tax credits involve people without sufficient funds by definition. Asymmetric power multiplied by millions.

When I called back to double check on the tax credit I heard something real. The insurance company’s customer support person sounded new. While clicking through the screens they had a question. Without putting me on hold or putting them on mute, they called over their boss/manager/supervisor. I got to listen to the conversation. The company probably has recording or the transcript or both. When the new person saw how much I owed without the tax credit they said something like, “How can anyone afford that?” I suspect that person has more empathy and understanding than most because they’re probably making an annual salary close to mine. Call centers aren’t known for big paychecks. The supervisor/manager/boss may not be in a much better position.

It is easy to feel assaulted and dismissed when confronting a corporation, especially one that can represent a person’s largest monthly expense that provides no benefit, and yet requires time and effort to maintain at best a neutral relationship. It is harder to not take out frustrations on those who have the job to be the public face for the corporation.

I am glad for the help I received. I am dismayed that the corporation is so poorly run that they can’t keep track of the money I send them. Other corporations impress me with carrying forward credits, and working through payment issues.

I have a similar frustration with mortgage companies. (Yet Another Mortgage Story)

Healthcare and housing are major issues in the US. Both are backed by major corporations. Yet both seem to be inefficient and, in some cases, unresponsive. Healthcare and housing are also major issues for humans. These are fundamental issues that will take more than one competent manager/boss/supervisor to patiently untangle. These two issues are also entangled at the personal level. I am considering refinancing my mortgage, but refinancing a mortgage is tied to having an acceptable credit rating, and poor practice from an insurer can damage my ability to obtain new financing.

On a personal level, without teams of lawyers or a community of politicians working on near-term solutions, it becomes necessary to make more money to feed their machines. Making the extra money to pay for health care or improve personal finances results in unhealthy life choices. So much for ‘do no harm‘ and ‘fiduciary responsibilities.’

In the meantime, I do have the best health care I can recall. My local naturopath operates from a subscription service. For one monthly fee I get monthly doctor appointments that are long enough to have real conversations, and care options that fit my lifestyle, finances, and values. They are sensitive enough to their patients’ situations that they apologized for a $10 or $20 monthly increase. Even with that, I get a year’s treatment from them for the price of one month’s (basically worthless) health insurance (not health care) payment. There are solutions, but I’m not finding them in corporations.

My health insurance bill arrived today. Despite things being resolved or unresolved, they are billing me $1,202.16.
“PLEASE NOTE YOUR ACCOUNT IS CURRENTLY PAST DUE AND SUBJECT TO LOSS OF COVERAGE.”
I intend to pay because as an optimist I hope things will be sorted out, but I also know that if they cancelled my coverage, I and the State would save over $1,000 every month. (Yeah, yeah, I know. There are fees and fines, but they’re starting to look very attractive.)

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Oh Know 2020

Oh, no. It looks like 2020 is going to be bumpier than 2019. Allow me to reflect on what I know about 2020, and what it may mean for personal finance, frugality, and planning. As for predicting the future – Ha!; the universe laughs. I’m glad it appreciates the joke. (If you want the bright side skip to the very bottom.)

Impeachment

That happened in 2019. Whether anything happens in 2020 – well, something will happen anyway. There are possibilities for removal. There are possibilities for additional impeachments for one or reaching others. Regardless, the singular event last year is already creating crashing waves internally and externally. Every event will move financial markets, cause more social divisions, and affect individuals. People have already died from the repercussions. Indirect effects will be harder to track, but in addition to real warfare, trade warfare will affect businesses, jobs, personal finances, and what we buy and sell. That will be trivial for some, and critical for others.

Elections

Elections probably won’t resolve the divisions. If no politician loses their position, the other side will amplify their offense. If leading politicians lose their positions, their side will amplify an offensive defense. Lawyers on both sides are probably already getting ready for suits to file in November. Debates can be productive, but this election season will probably be a bit nutso, distracting, and wasteful. Imagine that much political money being directed to fixing problems instead of fixing elections. Of course, fixing the election system might be a good first step. Fight or flight may turn from academic to action. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see political refugees move state to state to get away from losses of liberties, or move to places that accept their lifestyles. Later 2020 may inspire a lot of movement, even while suits wander through courts.

Social Unrest

It is nice to imagine that the international protests against various governments or in favor of certain causes will progress to action. Protests tend to fade or reach a resolution; but those who have power do not give it up easily. The social breakthroughs are hard to see amidst the mass marches. Maybe that’s because it make take a hundred marches to reach a breakthrough, which is celebrated by only one march. The pervasiveness of the protests proves we’re not trying to solve one issue but many, too many. In America, such movements rarely result in interruptions in transportation, communication, food, or other vital services; but America is made up of people, and people are what make up those other protests. If it can happen there, it can happen here. (A somewhat catchy phrase that’s more correctly stated, if it can happen in one country it can happen in any country. ‘Here’ is relative, but pardon the bias as most of my readers are in the US. We’ll see if the US remains U after all of this.)

Climate Disasters

Climate change is no longer debatable. It is actual. While it is rare that short term disasters like storms and wildfires are solely due to climate change, the effects are amplified. The more significant changes are more subtle and may not affect 2020 as much as the short term amplified disasters. If we were wise we’d prepare for them, but there will probably be enough of the short term events to divert tens of billions of dollars as we try to fix what we’ve broken. Add climate unrest and refugees to the social versions.

Natural Disasters

DSC_5840Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and basically bad weather are a constant. One bit of good news is that we’re getting better at predicting them, and can prepare and mitigate them – if we decide to do so. If not, it basically costs about seven times more to repair than prepare. (I believe that’s a FEMA estimate.) Of course, getting governments to act can be difficult, especially when they’re distracted by their own actions. It is a good reason to personally prepare for emergencies. (Minimalism Meets Emergency Preparedness)

Financial Instability

The economy is doing great! As long as you’re wealthy and in the US, or even wealthier anywhere. A recession is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US recovery is setting records, which proves to me that economics and politics are actually disconnected more than most think. Yet, politicians will use economic data to fight political battles. Some worries are increasing economic inequalities (having a hard time finding affordable housing?), negative interest rates (something common outside the US, for now), increasing governmental debt (with ‘fixes’ that exacerbate rather alleviate), and system analyses that predict the economic model is unstable and is likely to reach higher highs (which is where we are now) and lower lows (something that we know can happen quickly.)

Unknowns (the beginning of the earlier-mentioned good stuff)

Here’s where some of the good news may happen. Revelations happen. Archaic systems eventually fail and can be replaced with functional innovations. The American Revolution was a good thing. Getting rid of slavery was a good thing. Defeating fascism was a good thing. Those three things happened in relatively short time after decades of discussion. None were resolved simply. Institutions like the NRA and certain faiths are faltering, hopefully to be replaced with initiatives that treat people as people, instead of disposable ideological pawns. Renewable energy has accelerated while fossil fuels are entering a financial spiral. Energy efficiencies like LEDs, electric vehicles, and more sustainable building practices are upsetting anachronistic industries. The ‘Health Care’ industry’s name is being challenged as transparency is illuminating ridiculous prices and business practices, and finding room for innovative treatments – which are sometimes thousands of years old. These changes won’t fully resolve in one year. Human civilization has too much inertia for that, but this may be a breakthrough year.

The Best News

2021, 2022, … The world has gotten weird. This year looks to me to be weirder than last year. And yet, I think this is our crisis year, our catharsis year, our breakthrough year. People are finding their voices. The majority remain silent, happy in cocoons of entertainment. That’s nothing new. The goal of most people is to live, which frequently takes a day’s worth of effort every day with no time left for issues beyond the household’s walls. They may not stand up for a march, but if enough of them move to vote, that may be more than enough.

Personal Actions

Fortunately, frugal people already are living lives and have acquired the skills that help navigate such chaotic times. Live simply, and it is easy to ignore the complexities that aim to detour and distract attention. Respect your resources, and know what you value rather than what a corporation or organization tells you to value. Trust yourself and your self, because those are the core of any person, though many are told to mindlessly obey others. Spend less than you make. Invest the rest, which sometimes means investing in yourself, your self, and your community. Keep it simple. Use what you have as you can. And know that the only constant is change, and change can simply take time.

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Popular Posts in 2019

I find each year’s popular posts list an interesting exercise. As an investor, it provides hints about what people, in particular other investors, are researching. As a writer, the list provides great feedback about what may bring people back. As yet another person on this planet, what is it people care about?

The top ten in 2019

In other words:

  • Stocks, particularly MVIS
  • My inventions
  • Another inventor’s perspective
  • Serendipity and general weirdness in the world
  • Emergency Preparedness
  • Real estate and Affordability trends on Whidbey Island

About half of the posts are from before 2019. I’m glad and curious about the continuing popularity of my invention for Dockside Tidal Power, an energy device I’d like to develop, but don’t have the resources for – yet. Of course, maybe someone else is taking it and developing it without telling me. An intriguing possibility.

The specific posts may change, but the topics tend to be the same. Stocks, inventions, wondering at weirdness, and Whidbey Island. Of course, I’ll continue to write about other aspects of personal finance. This blog is based on the personal finance book I wrote, Dream. Invest. Live; and is becoming the sketch ground for the sequel.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2019

Sigh. The too common refrain. Companies making progress in a rising market, but their stocks languish from too little good news, delays, or damaging tweets outside their control. 

Dream Invest Live coverThis is my regular exercise to understand what I own, why I own it, and whether I should buy or sell. My strategy is described in better detail in Dream. Invest. Live., my book written prior to but published during the beginnings of the Great Recession, or as I call it, the Second Great Depression. A perfect storm of bad luck (someone else’s assessment) I call My Triple Whammy imploded my diversified portfolio. This exercise was easy and encouraging prior to that. Since then, I continue the exercise because the exercise remains valuable. Rather than being deterred by the downfall, I’ve decided to continue. Life and investments can exhibit cycles. Down then up then down then up – maybe in 2020? Tracking my portfolio through the ups and downs is more valuable than only looking at the ups. The downs hold the more valuable lessons.

Personal finance has changed within the last twenty years. 

Discount brokerages are the norm. Look at the New York Stock Exchange floor to see that computers have more control than humans. Advantages of nano-seconds enter the competition between computers, leaving humans with our tenth of seconds reaction times lagging. Within the last few years, tweets swing markets and economies. Corporations have lower tax rates and are hiding more in tax havens while incomes stall. Traders, people who hold stock for seconds or at most days, may be impacted the most.

Investors, those who analyze a company’s financials, estimate value and potential, and buy or sell accordingly are potentially less affected. They work with trends that last months, quarters, and maybe years. Nano-second response times don’t change the timing of quarterly reports. The initial trades are affected as computers feed fresh data through ultra-fast computers, but the overall effects have time to accumulate.

Aside from traders and investors are speculators, individuals who work in uncertainties. Computers work in data. Speculators are more comfortable with what-if, could-be, assumptions layered on assumptions. If MicroVision captures 1% of the global display market, what is that worth? Speculators keep themselves busy with such considerations. Computers can conduct massive Monte-Carlo simulations, but judgment is required to produce a result. Humans still have a niche.

I prefer to be an investor, but my remaining stocks have fallen into speculative territory. High upsides, high risk, and little institutional interest because the computers can’t properly analyze unknowns – or are better used analyzing more concrete companies. I am human. I should work from my strengths, especially where the competition is weak. I feel weak currently, but I also remember feeling strong, strong when stocks with low prices and far-off potential finally succeeded. That’s when dismissive advice becomes congratulations on foresight. I don’t know if it will happen, but it can’t happen if I quit. Hence, the exercise continues.

Here are the links to the discussion boards I use. Those discussions are less philosophical and hopefully more practical. Feel free to comment here or there, and to pass along links to others. The bigger the discussion, the better the chance of valuable insights (as long as the trolls and flamers are moderated appropriately.)

Investor Village

AMSC

LCTX

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

The Motley Fool

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

Silicon Investor

AMSC

GERN

MVIS

Reddit

MVIS

 

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