Off Grid Living In Town

Power! People were offering me power! And I turned them down, with thanks. One way to experience off-the-grid living is to move to a rural area where storms are common. Up comes the wind, down come the trees, out goes the power. A hundred fifty years ago, not having electricity was the norm. In the last seventy years, having the power go out feels like an entitlement has been stolen. Twenty years ago, technology made it easier to disconnect from the grid, especially in remote places where the cost of connecting to the grid was ridiculously high. Now, there are so many options that when the power went out a few days ago, I had several offers of excess power being generated in various ways – and yet, I turned down almost all of them. Off grid living has come in from the wild.

Yes, Whidbey Island got hit by a storm, again. Northern Pacific Ocean storms don’t get names like they do in the sunnier latitudes. Storms in the US Southeast are basically troubled celebrities that attract a lot of press. Storms that hit Whidbey Island might get mentioned, then are easily forgotten, and people wonder why the power goes out so much, as if it was a surprise. We get hit by a recently identified phenomenon called an ‘atmospheric river.’ Imagine part of the tropical ocean evaporating in and around Hawaii, rising into great clouds, then storms, then those storms getting pulled and pushed by currents like the jet stream, then aimed to hit the west coast of North America somewhere in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, or Alaska. Now we know that at least 30%-50% of the local rainfall is actually from such storms.

Record setting rain. Weakened soil. Strong winds. Trees fall and land slides. And the power goes out. At one point, almost the entire island was out of power. Over 350,000 people in the area were out of power. Whidbey was slated to get repaired later, after the main damage on the mainland was fixed or at least patched. The estimate was that it would take four days to fully restore power. Eep.

Islanders, however, are prepared. Fancy homes can be equipped with automatic generators that clatter to life, even if no one is home. Folks in occupied homes might have to drag our theirs, disconnect the grid, fill the fuel tank, start the generator, hope, and carefully turn on some subset of lights and appliances. Until recently, almost everyone else got by with fireplaces, woodstoves, camping equipment, and maybe frantically feasting on everything that might spoil. Personally, I have relied on an ice chest in the carport, a car camping stove, and maybe some cold meals. Don’t feel bad for me. Some of those meals were smoked salmon Caesar salads with organic veggies, and a very nice wine. An adventure – for a day or so.

As word spread that we’d be out for four days, my smartphone got a few calls. Do I need power? One friend recently had so many solar panels installed that about the only thing they couldn’t run was the big oven. They had an extension cord reaching to the driveway for any friend who wanted to recharge batteries. A neighbor recently bought a very nice RV, a diesel RV with a large fuel tank and a very capable generator. Initially I declined the offer to use their external outlet, but decided to test it – just in case. By the time another friend called I’d spent so much time considering the alternatives that I surprised them by saying “thanks but no” (despite also turning down a visit to their awesome garden – but, well, the pandemic discouraged the visit.)

Within the last year I bought myself a couple of presents: a small solar panel, and a small battery pack. The solar panel only generates 10 watts. The battery pack only holds about two recharges (basically more than two days) for my smartphone. They only work for small devices, but that isn’t much of a hardship, anymore.

Up until a few months ago I had what I called my “big hurking battery”. It only could deliver 400 Watts for a couple of hours, but that was enough to keep batteries charged, and periodically power up the router so I could check on the internet. Nothing fancy. Actually basic brute force, frugally, of course. But, good enough for temporary outages.

The battery died, and I couldn’t find a direct replacement.

My internet connection changed. The old dsl line could work as long as I had power for the router, and the router didn’t demand much. Now, I have a fiberoptic connection, but when the power goes out, it goes out. Eep! again.

Thanks to the pandemic and just generally shifting to working more from home, there was less to count on at the office. Almost all of my new equipment is smaller, more efficient, and can be charged from a USB connector instead of a three-pin plug.

When I couldn’t find a direct replacement for the big hurking battery to power the router, and because the internet connection was no longer as robust, I did some research and learned that my smartphone’s Hot Spot meant I could still access the internet.

The smartphone could be charged from the solar panel or battery. Careful laptop management helped it last days. Even my various newer flashlights and lanterns either used very efficient LEDs or were rechargeable without plugging into anything except the Sun, indirectly.

I still appreciate big power sources for heat and cooking. But the reliance on those wall plugs is diminishing. The cost of hooking up solar panels is decreasing. The efficiency of our electronics is increasing. The difference between how much power a household can generate versus use is shrinking, and in some cases has flipped to the point that there’s so much power that they can call people and invite them over for electricity.

Going off-grid (or returning to an older more rural way of life) was a necessity for remote residences. Now, there are more reasons and it is easier to go off-grid even in suburbia. As these trends progress, connecting to the grid is becoming a mandated anachronism. Sure, there are advantages to being part of the grid, but it had been a necessity. Soon it may be something to do because the municipality requires it.

Climate change continues because pollution and consumption continues. But a small, local, temporary disaster proved to me that we’re making technological progress, progress that in another twenty years may mean fewer reasons to have power poles poking up along roads, fewer reasons to have power lines scratching across views, and fewer interruptions as power switches from centralized power plants to each house generating at least some of its own. This storm was also a reminder of the power of community and generosity, even during, or especially during chaotic times. A bit of lightness that shone more brightly because of the darkness.

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Go West Or Somewhere

Things are changing. Ha! That and other gross understatements are provided at no charge (so far). “Go west, young man.” was advice delivered to people (men) struggling to escape terrible conditions on the east coast of the US. Gold rushes helped. The advice wasn’t new. For most of human civilization there was always somewhere else to go, assuming you could escape kings, warlords, and slave owners. We may finally be reaching a limit to that advice, and its effects may only now becoming apparent. What happens when there’s no west to move to?

This came up during a phone call the other night. (The easiest way to maintain a safe distance.) And, yes, I know people who’d rather play with ideas than replay what happened in some spectator sport.

Our species started in Africa. (So, yes, everyone has an African ancestry, sort of.) For some reason, someone moved east through the Middle East, some moved north into Europe. Feeling crowded? East to the rest of Asia, and eventually south to Australia and Oceania. Wait a while and all of that feels crowded. Oh, goodie; the ice began to melt and someone decided to walk or sail to this other hemisphere. Wait several thousand years and some of those Europeans decide to leave Europe. Now the east coast of this new nation gets crowded and, well, go west young man, woman, whoever. Fast forward to about a hundred years ago. The Gold Rush is over. The Dust Bowl chased more people west. Now, there are almost eight billion people on the planet. Where do we go next? Movement stalls. It’s hard to be a pioneer when the last frontiers are in space or the depths of the ocean. 

As recently as a few decades ago, the rule of thumb was that people moved about every six or seven years. Better prospects, bigger family, want a different climate? Save your money and move to a place you think is better. And don’t be surprised if someone is making the exact opposite move. Trading houses happens.

Then the Internet Bubble burst. There was a Great Recession (the second Great Depression?). And now, a pandemic. Moving isn’t as easy as it was before. As wealth and income inequality increased, it became harder to move from a poor place to a rich place. Sure, there are better jobs in the cities, but if you’re living in a place with low wages and low housing prices it becomes difficult to accumulate enough to move, whether that’s moving to the west, east, north, or south. Up and down are available, but start with billion dollar checkbooks.

From a typical six to seven year span between moves, it lengthened to about ten, and now to about thirteen. Thirteen years between moves means fewer houses on the market. Fewer houses on the market means less supply even if demand remains high. Less supply, high demand, higher prices. Higher prices are fine as long as incomes rise more quickly. Oops. Income hasn’t budged much in the last twenty (forty?) years. There goes affordability.

I’ve watched such trends for decades. Watching the way our society and ‘civilization’ change fascinates me. A few years ago I became a real estate broker on Whidbey Island (Dalton Realty, Inc.) and had a better reason to dive deeper into such data. One trend in particular is making me ponder. 

At least on Whidbey Island, the current rate of decreasing inventory can’t be sustained. Extrapolate that curve (and extrapolation is bad and will be shown to be incorrect) and hit less than zero homes for sale within two years – which won’t happen. It is hard to have negative inventory. 

Here’s the other inspiration for this post, my regular presentation about real estate and affordability on Whidbey Island. (Whidbey Real Estate During Covid19 – January 2021, available on another of my blogs and on YouTube)

So, inventory will probably run into some other limit because there is always someone who has to sell or wants to sell or can no longer use the house. 

Within systems, when a trend runs into a limit things can either break, move off in a different direction, or surprise us, or some combination of all of that.

According to various economic reports, this isn’t only happening on Whidbey. The trend from six to ten to thirteen years between a house changing ownership is national. 

And then the pandemic hit. Now, some people have an even greater interest in moving; while at the same time, many people are reluctant to move. Demand rises. Supply falls. Ah, oops?

I wonder how much discontent is based on feeling trapped in a bad situation. I wonder how much dissension is heightened because the great mixing pot that was the US isn’t getting stirred as much. And, I don’t see anything that is readily going to change that. 

What happens when there is no equivalent of the west to go to? While I watch trends, the other main trend I am seeing is a retreat from the recent growth in urbanization. Social distancing is difficult when you have to share an elevator, a laundromat, or even just a hallway. Rural life is inherently distanced. Even suburban life has more room than a condo in an excellent downtown. Sometimes a garden in the backyard is more appealing than having a theater within walking distance. (And I know of a few places where it’s possible to have both.)

Much of personal finance is based on anecdotes, rules of thumb, conventional wisdom, traditions and habits. The world has changed, then the pandemic changed it again, and something else may make yet more changes. With that many changes it makes sense to check assumptions about personal finance plans. I have a 40 year mortgage with about 35 years to go. Life in 2055? My plan is highly unlikely to survive that long, partly because it is highly unlikely I’ll survive that long. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen. My apologies if you thought I was going to provide perfect predictions of the future. The only constant is change. I’m in the process of challenging my assumptions about my plan. Will I be here in 35 years? Will the US? Will money? Will climate change change my choices? Will new frontiers like Mars, the Moon, orbital platforms, or living in the ocean become options?

I’ll try to share as I change my plans. In the meantime, especially during turmoil, I plan to continue to spend less than I make and invest the rest. Now, about the amount that I make, can I interest you in buying a house on Whidbey Island, or even more startling, selling one here? Stay tuned. It will be a long time before the world gets back to dull.

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Popular Posts in 2020

Oh, what a year it was.

Some of the topics I wrote about where: Politics, a pandemic, wildfires, storms, floods, changes in a social structure (including social media), health care, health insurance, Social Security, tea, writing, science fiction, real estate, frugality, food, anxieties, recovery, rural life, community, taxes, kindness, sustainability, Gig Economy, work from home, shopping local.

Good traffic for much of it, but what did readers want to read the most?

The top ten in 2020

Take away MicroVision (MVIS) posts and there’s my invention for tidal power, a guest post by Alan Beckley from 2014, and two posts about stocks (including MVIS.)

Hey, people, there’s more to life than MicroVision. Of course, the interest in MVIS might be explained by the stock hitting a record low price of $0.15, then rising to a peak of $9.74. Twenty years of waiting, almost got back to break-even, and all on only suggestions of catalysts.

To me, this was a year of enough financial recovery that I was able to retire some anxieties by a bit of repairs, some replacements, and an inspection or two. Like everyone, I was adapting to shifting pandemic instructions as the scientists learned what to do and not do, and as many people revealed their self-interests. Compassion, kindness, and community aren’t high priorities for many, too many. I made progress on three books (the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live., my first sci-fi novel, and a gift book about tea.) Real estate‘s been a surprise as supply went down because people didn’t want to move from safe places, while demand was up as urbanization was recognized as having a few issues with density during crises. Two accidentally positive things I’ve witnessed are people who are critically challenging which professions are truly essential, and people who took the time to practice frugality as they planted gardens and baked bread.

And people want to read about MicroVision (MVIS). Fine, but I will continue to post to the blog based on its original intent, to write about personal finance from a personal perspective. My roller-coaster ride through America’s wealth classes will be the basis for the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live., which inspired this blog. Reading this blog is one way to follow my notes and my journey from blue collar to professional middle class to millionaire to barely getting by to recovery. I’m not surprised at the lack of understanding across those classes. I hope to address those perspectives, but it may take a year or two more before I can consider my situation recovered (though lottery tickets could always accelerate the process.)

We can’t put 2020 behind us. Even if the pandemic disappeared today, we’ve now challenged the notions of work, school, support, essential services, and many archaic and anachronistic institutions. People have revealed how much or how little they care about other people. Stereotypes that were hidden are now far more public. I suspect the people of the United States are effectively going to be debating what unites the states.

I’d like to raise a shot glass to 2020 and a champagne flute to 2021. And I’ll definitely keep watching, learning, adapting, and hopefully recovering.

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Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2020

While the wide world and my private world were in turmoil, something unexpectedly positive happened in 2020. In the last six months since my mid-year semi-annual portfolio review and exercise my portfolio rose by a factor of 2.7. Since the beginning of 2020 it has risen by a factor of 4.0. What had been a few months of living expenses is now over a year’s worth. The irony, and a fine insight into the stock market, is that my good news from my stocks’ good news, had almost nothing to do with news of any sort from the companies. Yes, they had good news, but nothing as startling as a major product announcement, or a declaration of profitability.  That’s the way the market works. That’s why I am glad but also cautious. There’s chaos under heaven and at least this aspect of this situation may be hinting at excellence. 

Let me put this in perspective. Historically, a portfolio performance of about 10% is worth celebrating. Stocks rise and fall. Portfolios can be well or poorly positioned. How many stocks and portfolios were drastically surprised by Covid-19? My stocks didn’t rise because of Covid-19. But, up 170% in six months and 300% in a year? That’s news, and there are reasons for that.

As long-time readers know, my portfolio fell apart when I was hit by My Triple Whammy. At that time, about nine years ago, a few folks pointed out that I had a perfect storm of bad luck. Within about six months back then, my portfolio dropped 80%. The companies seemed to be doing fine with fundamentals and near-term catalysts, but three of the major ones were hit by news that sent conspiracies swirling through the message boards. It wasn’t until this year that I learned that it wasn’t bad luck. Two of the biggest holdings, stocks about to help me re-retire, were undermined by acts that have now been proven in court to be illegal, felonies, and not a matter of chance. Unfortunately, stockholders’ losses aren’t compensated. Something like justice happened, but it is doubtful anyone went to jail. 

As long-term readers also know, I buy stocks for the long-term. My portfolio only has four stocks left, but all lead back to original purchases from about 2000. I’d like to say it is proof that I have excellent patience, but the reality was that the stocks fell so far that it wasn’t worth selling them. One purchase dropped so far that its worth as a tax loss would be enough for about six month’s living expenses. It only makes sense to sell that holding when I have similar profits. That seemed silly last year. It is less silly this year.

The stock market is not rational. Emotions, psychology, and whim are important, too. There’s a herd out there and it doesn’t always know why it is moving and where it is going. While a company and its stock can be valued by objective criteria, innovative companies can have so little financial data available that investors become speculators as projections are made from guesses. Irrational exuberance happens, as does irrational pessimism. 

It is reasonable to surmise that these old startups have been living with irrational pessimism. They have been making progress in the last two decades, so their intrinsic value should have been rising even as the stock prices were falling. As they attract attention, even rising to a nominal valuation can require significant stock appreciation. That may be what is happening. My biotechs (GERN, LCTX) are proceeding through clinical trials. MVIS continues to juggle suggestive press releases about possible buyouts and possible technical advances. NPTN was impacted by impetuous trade wars, which may soon abate. Each have reasons to rise, though none have revenue projections I consider reliable. And yet the stocks rise and I don’t mind.

MVIS’ story has been the most dramatic. I wrote about it two weeks ago because the stock had risen from a low of $0.15 in March 2020 to $4.00. Then the stock kicked in to hit $9.74 just before Christmas (Santa Claus rally, but really Santa on a rocket). Now, it is all the way back down to ~$5. Check your perspective. Is it up a phenomenal amount, or has it dropped dramatically? The right answer may be Yes. I ran a poll on Twitter (hence very unscientific), and most votes were for the rise being speculation about a buyout rather than a product launch. If there is a buyout in negotiation, then we’ve just tested a wide range of price points. That story isn’t over. 

The stories for the other stocks aren’t over, either. NPTN is grinding along as the only one with an established product line. The biotechs are making progress, but unless the FDA does something with a compassionate approval, they have years of trials to complete. 

I certainly won’t complain if my portfolio rises a factor of 4 again in the next twelve months. I’m not planning on it. Considering the subjective nature of the news surrounding these companies, I also won’t be surprised if their prices retreat. But I also recognize that each of these companies is probably not valued properly as each has been either overlooked for years, or has stories attached to it that affect subjective sentiment rather than objective valuations.

As I said above; “There’s chaos under heaven and at least this aspect of this situation may be hinting at excellence.”

Stay tuned.

The following links are to the various discussion boards I follow. Many of the independent investors who contribute to the discussions provide in-depth analyses that either aren’t available elsewhere, or would cost too much to buy. The other advantage is the diversity of perspectives. Unfortunately, I don’t engage as much as I did before. Some discussions have degraded due to lack of moderators, or too many immoderate voices. Some boards are effectively ghost towns, or feel like cavernous empty warehouses. I suspect some of the tensions are associated with a stressful year, and the subsequent delay in product announcements, program developments, and general business conservatism that is waiting for better news about the pandemic. Regardless, here are the sites I continue to visit, even if it is only to lurk and listen. 

I encourage you to tune in, because more voices (as long as they’re mature) make for a better conversation. Maybe I’ll read you there.  

Investor Village

LCTX

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

The Motley Fool

GERN

MVIS

NPTN

Silicon Investor

GERN

MVIS

Reddit

MVIS

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Cratchit Is Not Scrooge

Cratchit is not Scrooge. That seems like a silly thing to write. The two main characters in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are known well. Scrooge, of course, is the better known. He is the wealthy character that is dragged through a transformative journey. Cratchit represents poverty and compassion. Simple enough. Good story. I watch at least one version every year. (Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite. “Light the lamp, not the rat!”) This year I also watched Scrooged, a more modern version that made me reflect on the more modern work world – and how some folks have a very different interpretation of the story.

Bob Cratchit works almost every day. He also has to work hard at getting some time off. Meanwhile, there’s also a house to keep, a family to support, while somehow maintaining a positive attitude. Health care is definitely an issue. Fortunately, somehow they manage to occasionally afford a bird to roast.

In Scrooged, Bob Crachit is replaced by a single mom in a multi-generational apartment trying just as hard – and usually only getting a bath towel for a bonus. They can’t even afford a tree.

Welcome to 2020. How many people do you know that are working as hard and as long as they can – and are grateful because there are others who don’t have jobs, or health care, or a ready supply of food? How many of them work for corporations that are more like Scrooge?

Stereotypes. Memes. Political talking points. Nothing new, except that 2020 emphasized and amplified the troubles felt by those that have too little. (For my improved situation, see my August post More Than Enough.)

Here’s the weird part. I know people who conflate the two characters. They know the story, but they read it differently than I do, or at least act on it differently. Scrooge was a workaholic by choice. Cratchit was a workaholic by necessity. Yet, I’ve heard criticisms that assume that anyone working that hard is greedy like Scrooge.

This strikes me every year. How could such a message get so mis-interpreted? America breeds workaholics. We have lots of examples around us. Considering the political word-wrangling of the last year or so, confusing and conflating seems to have become the norm – or at least accepted and not challenged.

Even now, as I type, I pause.

I think most corporations aren’t evil; they’re simply impersonal entities. They can have a transformative journey, but it requires many managers to agree, many shareholders to vote, and frequently a profit motive.

Private companies can be large, have many employees, and can have a culture that shifts overnight. Unless you believe in ghosts, the best chance is that the ones in charge watch the story and see a mirror instead of caricature.

There is a much larger and growing segment called the Gig Economy, the millions of people who would’ve been called employees, but who now are independent contractors who are also independent of steady income and benefits. If they’re workaholics by choice, they’re probably not affecting any other Cratchits. If they’re workaholics by necessity, well, that struggle has been going on for centuries.

Christmas messages, like this post, are expected to be uplifting, positive, and pleasant. I could re-write this to fit that stereotype, to fit cultural norms; but this blog is meant to represent my interpretation of personal finance. It saddens me to hear such criticisms, to hear advice given out as if work was not a necessity. “Your problem is that you work too hard. You wouldn’t be in this situation if you took some time off, like on a beach in Hawaii.” (paraphrased but real) There’s a phrase I append to such advice “As Long As You Can Pay Your Bills”, which is also the very inconvenient hashtag #ALAYCPYB.

Most problems aren’t fixed by someone finishing a transformative journey then delivering “the biggest goose in all of London.” I suspect in the real world the bigger gift was Cratchit’s raise.

As for the modern world and what we’ve witnessed during the pandemic, there is a gift that is so large that can only arrive in pieces. Imagine all, all, of the people we know now are truly essential workers: postal workers, firefighters, EMTs, nurses, drivers, delivery workers, grocery clerks, farmers, ranchers, teachers, people making less than a living wage, people who need community, and others easily overlooked getting a living income and essential benefits like housing, healthcare, food – and maybe even a day off.

Such a gift may not fit in Santa’s sleigh. Maybe that’s our first job, building something big enough to benefit all.

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Lessons With LTBH Via MVIS

A stock goes up over fifty percent in a week, and people get curious about it. Why? What happened? Should I do anything about it? Well, I’m not a certified or professional financial advisor so I won’t answer what you should do about that. I can, however, mention what I did about it. And in that there are lessons both arithmetically positive and negative. MicroVision’s stock went up more than 54% this week, on almost no news. That was good and bad and odd.

Google Finance

For a synopsis of MicroVision and their stock, MVIS, pardon me as I copy from my own stock synopses posted as part of my semi-annual portfolio exercise, which will be updated at the end of this month. It may be necessary to drill through links in that post for the most details. For far more details, this blog has two tags for that. MicroVision MVIS

MicroVision is a company based on the technology of oscillating mirror(s) on chip(s). Bounce light one way, and create a projector and display. Bounce light the opposite way, and create a sensor or a camera. Bounce light both ways and people can interact with the projected image. The advantage of MicroVision’s tech is the ability to create devices that are small, use less power than some competitors, and project images that are always in focus. Their projectors aren’t as small as embedded cameras, but they are closer to those camera’s size than to conventional projectors.

That explains one four-letter acronym in the title, MVIS.

The other four-letter acronym is LTBH, Long Term Buy and Hold, an investing strategy that I’ve used for decades (inspired by Peter Lynch’s books). That and frugal living (similar to Your Money or Your Life, and I’m in the second edition) and some good luck allowed me to retire at 38, which led to my book (Dream. Invest. Live., written by request), which led to this blog.

Hi, this is all part of a very long story.

Long is the key word.

The idea of Long Term Buy and Hold is to buy stocks and hold them for a long time. Duh. At least the way I do it, it is a strategy that does not expect to optimize financial performance. It does, however, allow me to better optimize my time. Day traders can concentrate on every bobble in a stock price. Short term investors may only have to check in every few days, especially around news events or financial reports. Some long term investors may only check in a few times a year to see if the company is proceeding, though they may have no intent to trade. They do get to spend a lot more time and many other things, like living.

Regular readers and folks who’ve known me for a several years know the strategy failed me due to what some financial professionals called “a perfect storm of bad luck” and what I call My Triple Whammy.

Folks who’ve known me for decades saw the strategy work better than most.

LTBH is not a panacea. No strategy is. I’ve seen the good and the bad. This week in MVIS pointed out a key reasons I continue to follow the strategy.

Ideally, investing would be logical, factual, and methodical. Humans are involved so there goes that assumption. Investing can seem mysterious, capricious, and ridiculous. Ah, humans.

If investing was that logical and fair, everyone would get the same information at the same time and have the same opportunity to buy or sell. Even then, professionals could trade sooner because that is their job. Individual investors who could only trade when they got home from work, or when they had a day off would be at a disadvantage. One solution is to buy before the news is released. That could be days, weeks, months, years, or decades early.

I regularly read; something that is becoming less fashionable. I’m also a geek, so I am more likely to read dull science-y stuff. I try to be open-minded, so I am drawn to inventions and discoveries. As I find intriguing ideas I write them down. When I have the time and the money to consider investing, I find companies working on those ideas in positive and hopefully profitable ways. Buy. Hold. Read. Listen. Wait. Repeat if necessary. Sell if the risk gets to be too great for the possible reward.

I bought 500 shares of MVIS in 2000 at a price of about $38. The stock spiked (Yay!) and then the Internet Bubble popped (oy.) But, I wasn’t deterred, much. The company was showing off a pair of glasses that could display a television image without obscuring the viewer’s view. There were expectations that they would be profitable within a few years. Cool. I’d seen market corrections before. It would come back. I’d seen innovations people laughed at that succeeded. At that point I already had a history with AOL, AAPL, and several others.

Google Finance

Fast forward to this week. Those early shares and prices need to be adjusted by a one-for-eight reverse split. (500/8 = 62.5 shares, $38×8 = $304) Today’s price is ~$4, a 98.7% loss.

So much for long term buy and hold. Earlier it was worse. The low for the year was $0.15. ($0.15/$304 = too sad a loss for me to want to calculate. Call it 100% and be close enough.)

Google Finance

This week’s stock move was a surprise. There was no new news. There was old news about possible products and possible buyouts, but not news released by the company that was positive, significant, and quantifiable. Waiting for the news would mean continuing to wait.

So, why did it move? Humans. Either, humans are speculating that good news is due any day now, a situation that has also been considered likely for years. Or, someone has heard the news before they’re supposed to know it or supposed to be able to act on it – but that would be possibly felonious and that would never happen. Right? Humans.

The recent move still is significant for me because I continued to buy the stock. As long as the story was sufficiently encouraging and as resources allowed, I continued to buy. I’ve made over two dozen purchases since that first one. My purchases haven’t been as methodical as some, more random; but I made purchases in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. And yes, I missed the bottom this year (and wrote about it here – No News Big Smiles MVIS.

The majority of those purchases are now profitable. Some have even had a reasonable return on investment (ROI). The significant losses from those earliest ones will be harder to recover from.

Time is the powerful tool, but it works for and against the long-term investor. Buy early and beat the rush. Someone probably bought their first shares of their first investment by buying MVIS at $0.15 within the last year. Buy too early, like me, and the compound interest necessary to produce a reasonable ROI means the money for those early shares should’ve been put in something else, like a no-load index fund. Waiting while holding shares of a startup can also mean dilution (A Study In Dilution MVIS). Despite continuing to buy shares, the company issued so many more that my participation in its success is greatly diminished. Originally, if MVIS became a $1B company I would have become a millionaire. Currently, if MVIS becomes a $1B company, my holdings will be worth about a year’s frugal living expenses. Nice, but not as NICE as it would’ve been.

I hesitated to write this post because MVIS’ great recent performance has yet to be tied to positive, significant, quantifiable news. Currently, MicroVision’s technology has made impressive advances, and may already be incorporated in planned consumer electronics and more sophisticated components. MicroVision is also trying to sell the company, which some see as encouraging, and I see as discouraging because I think the best value to the shareholders would be for the company to remain independent. (That’s another long post for another day.)

Story stocks, stocks that are in companies with impressive stories for whatever reason, make it easier to remain engaged as an individual investor. Dull can work fine, but dull is easier to forget about to the investor’s detriment. Companies don’t always make much noise if they fade away.

I almost forgot to mention, startups can have ridiculously rapid rises. Several times I’ve had holdings that rose 140% in a day, one rose 240% in a day, and the most I’ve ever seen on the market was 640% in a day. So, am I hopeful? Yes. Am I overwhelmed with the recent performance? No. Glad, but not overwhelmed. I’ve seen positively overwhelmed and I look forward to seeing it again.

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Fresh Idea – Floating Car Barge

Fresh ideas, inventions that I pass along to the world. Maybe they already exist. Maybe they’re useful. Maybe they’re fun. Maybe I don’t have the time, money, and resources to patent them, or develop them, or both. At least by writing about them here I am less likely to forget them. But really, a floating car barge? Well, have you seen footage of floods? There might be a use for something that lets the cars rise with the tide.

The idea is simple, so I’ll describe it before describing the design details and the benefits – and maybe some comical side effects.

Imagine a car or truck-sized barge that either sits in a recess in the ground, or is low enough to easily be driven onto. Sizes will vary, of course, but for every ton of vehicle weight the barge needs to displace about forty cubic feet of water. Many vehicles are less than eight feet wide and eighteen feet long. That’s 144 square feet, so a 1 foot deep shell could displace 3.6 tons of water, and hence that size vehicle. Size as appropriate. (Check my math.)

I call it a barge, but this wouldn’t have to be seaworthy, just able to float and remain stable. Maneuverability is not an issue. Anchorage is.

The barge also has to lift its own weight, and as an engineer I naturally want a safety margin.

Park on the pad/barge. Set the brakes and make sure it is in Park. And forget about it. Maybe make sure the windows are closed. Ideally, the barge will be ballasted to balance the vehicle.

Why do such a thing? Floods. Floods already happen regularly. Watch the news for footage and frequently there will be pictures of entire parking lots of flooded vehicles. Cars can be carried away, floating down streets and rivers. In neighborhoods, in addition to flooded houses, people also have to deal with repairing or replacing flooded vehicles. The flood water recedes, the clean up work begins, but the truck might not work well enough to make the trip to the hardware store or for getting back to work. Imagine the loss to car dealerships, or fleet owners.

Flooded cars are so common that Consumer Reports has reported on them for consumers’ protection.

On an individual basis, not having to replace a vehicle can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Multiply that by the number of cars flooded after only one spring flood, flash flood, hurricane, or other drenching disaster. Ten cars, a hundred thousand dollars. A hundred cars, a million dollars. A thousand cars – hopefully you get the idea.

While it saves money, it also might look silly. Each barge would need to be anchored by an anchor chain or cable sufficiently long enough to exceed the depth of the tide. This is something to use outdoors. Inevitably someone would build one inside their garage which would merely make it bump up against ceiling. Outside it might work well enough, while at the same time making the car bump up against the house which means it can’t be put just anywhere. If one breaks loose, that image of it floating down the street then river then maybe out to sea should be enough to make sure the anchor is secure.

Aside from saving money, it also saves time. During a disaster, minutes count. If the vehicle is already on the barge, then the owner can concentrate on protecting the house, their company, or their community – which may also save substantial funds and recovery time.

Time, money, and then there are materials. If a flooded car has to be replaced, that means that much more waste, and that much more mining and refining to produce the replacement. A barge is far simpler than a truck.

The cost every vehicle turned into junk far exceeds the cost of the replacement in terms of time, duplicated effort, maintaining a growing pile of old tires, and cleaning up the pollution as oils leak into flood waters.

In some regions, it seems that insurance companies would have an incentive to subsidize the deployment of floating car barges.

There’s a good chance that this idea is a natural for someone who lives on an island (though purposely far above sea level and on land that slopes and drains well), and who drives through tsunami zones, through neighborhoods that experience king tides, and in general hates waste.

Whether this Fresh Idea is serious or silly, writing about it is also a little gift to me. I enjoy playing with such ideas. Evidently, so do some readers. Years after I’ve posted some of them, they continue to attract traffic. Two of the more popular ones are: Dockside Tidal Power and Passive Pump. Maybe someone else has the resources to pursue them. Maybe they’ll remember where they got the idea and will be gracious enough to include me. Who knows? But the world has many problems. We need new ideas. It is hard to know which ones will make the biggest difference, but if ideas stay locked inside heads, the ideas may be revealed too late, or never.

OK. Let’s assume we’ve saved the car or truck. How about the house? How could we make a house float? How could be make a house act like a boat? House. Boat. There’s something there.

Oh, to know how to draw…

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Fascinating Realities

I’m surprised I haven’t told this story before; or maybe I have, but even I can’t find it in the hundreds of thousands of words that comprise this blog. A friend told me a story about his road rage and how he eliminated it; and that has affected how I look at much of the current news – and more.

Think back about thirty years. It was a time of particularly difficult commutes in Seattle. (That must all have been resolved since then. Right? No? Glad I moved to Whidbey Island.) My friend’s commute was constantly a torture of slow moving traffic. For years, he changed lanes at every opportunity that looked like it could get him ahead. Bozos. There were so many bozos getting in his way. The other drivers were doing the same thing. He’d shout, shake his fist, but he was just mature enough to not get into anything more than throwing insults through his open window. A few years go by, tormenting himself this way, twice a day, five days a week. It wore him down. He was a geek and eventually accepted the mathematical truth that he couldn’t control or out-think a chaotic system, chaotic in the mathematical sense. His anger continued though, because he saw how the other drivers were putting the rest of the cars and drivers and passengers at risk. This continued for a few years. And then one day, a day like the rest, he had a breakthrough. Instead of getting angry, he became sarcastic, massively sarcastic. Within a short while, the sarcasm became a source of humor. The unbelievably stupid things others were very seriously doing became entertaining. Watch some stupid maneuver, and instead of shouting, he tried laughing. And it worked. A while passes and one of his jokes reaches back to his geek heritage. He mimicked Spock. Fascinating, Captain. Fascinating how these humans act. Why would they do such things? What would they think something that illogical would be the way to live a life? And then, no joking included, he actually asked himself that question. Why do those people do those things? Take another step. Why do people do what they do? Why do I do what I do?

Channeling Spock brought him a bit of enlightenment. He didn’t see that one coming.

Has the world been weird enough for you, lately?

Climate change, a pandemic, assaults on political and societal institutions, gross injustices. Even if we all were working together towards a common goal, as if we were united or something, it would be a stressful year.

And yet, we aren’t working together. Each of those have people who are adamant that the other side isn’t just wrong, but is delusional, that conspiracies are involved, and that discussion has become pointless. Just looking within the US, tens of millions stand proud of their opposing opinions. It’s almost as if checking facts takes too much time. Opinions are far easier to shout. Opinions don’t require asterisks, footnotes, or references. Opinions define identities.

Fascinating.

There’s a lot of shouting going on. There are a lot of unchallenged assumptions. People are reading between the lines when there are no lines to read between, or the lines are mere mimicry, echoes from perceived authority figures.

Fascinating.

Why is that? I don’t know. I can guess, but guessing is not knowing. Guessing is in style, right now.

Something I do know is that ‘those’ people are adamant and proud. Rather than debate that, I accept that. Expecting everyone to suddenly agree on the same position is unrealistic – in my opinion, my guess. But there’s a value to accepting ‘they’ will exist and probably persist.

I’ve learned that I am not a particularly persuasive person. If I was, the world would be a better place – isn’t that what most folks think? Don’t try to change what I can’t change, but don’t ignore what I’ve learned.

Climate change, a pandemic, assaults on political and societal institutions, gross injustices. Progress for or against each of these is going to be influenced by the fact that we’re not united. The ideal solutions are good goals to have, but reality will be different.

I won’t get into each of those topics. They’re simply the ones that came mind, came to fingers as I typed. But I will pivot this to personal finance because that is not remote. I have to deal with my finances, my personal finances. For each of those topics and many others, my plan is to assume there will be a struggle for months, years, and decades. The struggles may go on for centuries or millennia, but unless we develop immortality that I can afford, those longer time scales are moot, to me.

I’m glad I live by the Salish Sea. Climate change will happen here, but moderately compared to much of the world. While many expect the pandemic to fade, and it might, I also recall an early article from epidemiologists who labeled this a ‘Practice Pandemic‘. As bad as Covid19 is, it doesn’t carry some of the more worrisome, deadly aspects of their worst case scenarios. (I agree after researching the histories they referenced.) As for political and societal institutions and injustices, the Middle East is a good example of how long we humans can adamantly hold serious grudges for serious reasons. Common, united ground could be generations away.

This year has been cathartic. Disruption and change have been the norm, and that won’t suddenly stop in 2021. At least for the next few years, my personal finance plan, and life plan in general assumes an extrapolation from now. Even if there was some sort of revolution, history shows there is an undercurrent with immense momentum that doesn’t change everything, everywhere, all at once. People have to eat, sleep, and poop. Kids have to learn. (So do adults, in this world.)

I am hopeful about 2021. I expect there will be a slowly-building great relief as at least this pandemic gets under control. Shoppers, businesses, employers and employees, and the government will try to dance the economy back into something healthier. We may not recognize how much better it is until we’re looking back from twelve months in the future. Hopefully face masks will gradually find their way to the back of medicine cabinets, glove boxes (which should be called mask boxes), and junk drawers. Maybe some of our essential workers will finally get a vacation, and a raise.

But, we’re still human. We’re still fascinating. Enjoy the free entertainment.

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Spending Time On Social Media

Posts making your crazy? Folks on Facebook revealing a bit too much about the values behind their facade? Tweets flittering by as if there can’t be content in a few dozen characters? LinkedIn seeming to be so dull that it isn’t worth watching? Yeah, me, too. But what’s really there and why am I willing to spend time, precious time, the most precious resource on social media? I’m a geek. Arm-waving and considering anecdotes isn’t as satisfying as taking data. Here are a few insights into how Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn fit into my life, if at all.

Here’s how I did it in case: 1) you’re curious, or 2) you want to check out the same thing for yourself, or 3) both.

Of the dozen or more social media sites where I have accounts, I only regularly spend time on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You’re welcome to go have fun on Pinterest, Instagram, and others. Similar data can be gathered there, too. For each of my main three platforms I scrolled through four hours of posts (which takes much less than four hours if I ignore the content). Each post or tweet was informally, unscientifically, and rather quickly categorized as social, meme, advocacy, entrepreneurial, commercial, or news.

Social – “Hey, look at what happened in my life.”

Meme – “Hey, this has nothing to do with me, but it is cute, or pretty, or funny.”

Advocacy – “Someone needs to do something about this!”

Entrepreneurial – “You must know me because we’re friends or connections or following each other; which is why I know you need to know about my business. Buy now!”

Commercial – “Hi, I’m a mega-corp trying to look all friendly-like and you should “Buy Now!”

News – “Here’s the news but without advocacy or agenda from trusted sources – as much as possible in November 2020.”

Every social media platform has some combination of these kinds of posts. Your categories and mix will be different. Mine skews towards data and away from politics, until politics begins crashing into budgets. One of my other blogs is Pretending Not To Panic, news that is “for people who are eager and anxious about the future”, news that is significant, based on facts, data, logic, and ideally apolitical. Apolitical. Ha! Several years ago I fed that site a few posts a day. November 2020, zero; none so far this month. That observation helped prompt this study.

How much of what I’m seeing is truly social, or simply news, or highly opinionated, or really just another ad?

So, I counted. And now my eyes are a bit bleary, but I haven’t done this in about three years, and may not feel the need for a few more years. (Wasting Time on Facebook, October 2017)

Here we go. Data. Charts!

Do you want social? Facebook rules. And yet, when I joined Facebook (twelve?) years ago every post was social 100%. As I recall, we couldn’t even include links. Photos were a new thing. In 2017, that was down to 25%. Now, 20%. That’s much more social than the other two, but it also shows that about 80% of the posts have little or nothing to do with being social. It’s now more common to see things created by others and shared. Original content is fading. People are more caring though. Maybe this is a measure of November 2020, but about 25% of the posts are exhorting people to action. Being a moderate with a wonderfully eclectic collection of friends, this also means I see extremes that may only reach each other by meeting at infinity approached from opposite directions.

Twitter has the news, at least in my feed. About 2/3 of what I see is either news or opinion. News plus advocacy pulls in most of the traffic. There’s a great grey area between supposedly academic discourse of current events and how to interpret those events. One handy feature is seeing the different opinions beside each other. Sure, Twitter now runs ads, but they’re only about 15%; more than Facebook but far less than LinkedIn.

Ah, LinkedIn. The most purposely boring of the sites, even though that’s where work is getting done, or at least announced, or where folks are asking for work or trying to hire people. It’s not a surprise that an environment like that is home to ads. The surprise is that so many non-profits are on the site that there’s more advocacy there than on the other sites – at least in my feed.

A few other observations:

Small businesses are busier on Facebook. Corporations are posting more to LinkedIn.

All three are giving voice to advocacy, which can also mean very free and sometimes commentary that is less self-critical.

Four hours held ~180 posts on Facebook, ~520 tweets, and ~53 LinkedIn posts. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to balance quality and quantity.

For me, this is not academic. It cost me a few hours of time to compile the data, but as I’ve said frequently, time is the most precious resource. Why shouldn’t I analyze the way I spend time to a greater degree than how I spend that less precious resource called money? Personal finance in a hectic world should consider both. In 2020, there doesn’t seem to be enough of either.

If I wasn’t working I know I’d spend less time on social media. A double cost or double benefit, depending on my financial perspective. Social media is how I run my business. Social media is a remarkable tool. I make remarks about it frequently, sometimes accompanied by grumbles of frustration. I’ve taught classes on how to use it for business and advocacy. And those lessons continue to change.

Social media is free, at least financially. It costs me time. My activity, all of our activities on their sites make them money. Someone has to pay for the servers, the service, and the updates (whether we want them or not.) Free, as in no fee, however, is hard to ignore for an entrepreneur.

I’m sure this little analysis will trickle through my brain as I ponder options and alternatives. Facebook is adding so many features that it crashes my browser, hence I am using it less; even though it has the largest audience. Twitter is my preferred site because it is easier to get useful news, and occasionally directly contact corporations’ Help Centers. LinkedIn, boring LinkedIn, will stay in the rotation because, while it offers less, it also offers more credible connections. All of them include enough friends, real people, that each has a community worth visiting.

I don’t expect many others to do this. How OCD, anal-retentive, and bored must someone be to do such a thing? I will, but we all that ain’t normal. Maybe about every three years seems about right.

Now, it’s time for me to finish this post, add some links, engaging graphics, hashtags and keywords, and then share it out to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And it all goes round, and round, and round. See you on the feed.

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Help With Social Security

This week I started signing up for Social Security. The benefits are better and not as great as I expected. The process is easier and harder than I expected. I’m not done yet; and I’m sad and glad to be doing it. The train wreck happened when I was asked about my job. Ha!

As I wrote on my Bio page; Real Estate Broker, Consultant, Writer, Speaker, Teacher, Photographer, Engineer, Entrepreneur, etc.

“So, what company do you work for?” Mine? Many? Do you want the biggest one, the one that’s biggest and most recent? Frustration ensued until she checked an official resource she could’ve used earlier instead of asking me. 

Life in the Gig Economy has been strange enough. I think my record before becoming a real estate broker (required disclosure: Dalton Realty, Inc.) was nine gigs in one day. Social Security expects one job, one answer. The IRS is a little more accommodating because each job can ‘simply’ be another set of duplicate forms. Part of the frustration was caused by her use of pronouns. “OK, use that company.” That? We just mentioned several possibilities, which that is that? After several minutes of a conversational round-about she brought up the IRS database, read my tax returns and said to use ‘that’ company – without ever mentioning Trimbath Creative Enterprises. Suddenly all I had to do was list my one company, not every one where I’ve been an independent contractor. Good.

Aside from that sticky set of nomenclature, the rest seems to be remarkably easy. For much of the information they’ll willing to accept my memory: marriage date instead of Marriage License, divorce date instead of Dissolution Document. The one they seem to care most about is my Birth Certificate (maybe because I wasn’t very aware when one day old), which I serendipitously have because I recently had to clear out my safety deposit box. (My local bank was bought out by a larger bank which said it would keep things local – and recently announced they are closing the branch.)

The system is modern enough to be available online. The system is anachronistic enough to assume people have one job. Like many governmental sites, the web sites are accurate and seemingly comprehensive but skip over details like whether a document has to be delivered in-person, by mail, or by email. Just enough answers are correct in ways that aren’t necessarily useful. No system is perfect, especially systems that have decades of history, hundreds of millions of records, and are probably underfunded. 

I expected barely any benefits. One of the consequences of retiring at 38 and being un-retired at about 50 is missing out on 12 years of income and 12 years of contributions to the system. A few years after being un-retired I signed up for a temporary and early accelerated pension from Boeing, where I spent 18 years as an aerospace engineer. That acceleration doubled my pension, but only until – hmm – next year? After that it halves the original value, a quarter of what I’ve been receiving. 

At the start, it took care of my mortgage. Now, the ARM of my mortgage has risen just as the pension will fade. Until Covid hit, it looked like real estate business would more than make up the difference. Maybe real estate will, but I don’t want to live that risky of a life. So, sign up for Social Security at an early date, know I’ll miss out on larger payments later, but fill a gap that’s too drastic to leave unfilled and unprotected. 

The good news is that the reduced pension and the early Social Security will almost cover my frugal lifestyle. A bit more income, or even a lot more income, or maybe an unexpected windfall (hey, it happens) could reduce major anxieties in my life. Social Security living up to its name. 

I’m glad for the benefits, and sad that I have to take them. And I wonder about others who aren’t as fortunate. And I wonder about younger people living with a government that may be so large that it may not change to reflect the way they live, earn, and age.

As I type this, I’m finishing yet another twelve hour work day. As an artist and a real estate broker and a sometime member of the Gig Economy it is common to work hard and maybe get paid eventually. Great exposure! Good work! Keep it up! But books take a long time to write, and may not sell well. Photos can accumulate Likes and Shares, but usually not sales. Consulting is gratifying, but many clients prefer anonymity because they don’t want to reveal the fact that they asked for help, making word-of-mouth a difficult advertising option. And while real estate is crazy busy, not every offer is accepted and not every deal successfully concludes. Another broker commented about a situation I was in. I helped my clients submit an offer on a very nice house. There were about sixteen offers. The seller and their broker had good news. One of the buyer/broker combinations had good news. That leaves fifteen clients and fifteen brokers moving on to the next listing with greater urgency, all good work gone to nothingness. Twelve hour days, working hard, sometimes seven days a week, is no guarantee of earning a living. 

I am fortunate. It took a bite out of my pride to apply for an early pension, to ask for help keeping my house, to accept substantial support in starting yet another career, and to apply for Social Security. That’s a lot of bites. How many folks don’t have an early career to tap, who weren’t lucky enough to find the right phone number when the Default notice is stuck to the front door, and to not have an amazing support network that provides more than nice words? Too many do not have those things.

Old adages like work hard have a good basis, but nothing is a panacea. Individualism and independence are admirable virtues, but sometimes a bit of “We the People” and community help regain self-sufficiency. My business is improving. My name recognition is reaching far beyond family and friends. I have good reason to hope. But first, I’ll be glad, yet again, for a little help.

First, though, I have to put aside signing up for the benefits because a client just made an offer on a house and was accepted! Good news for us. A few more twelve hour workdays, but with more promise. Sorry news for the other offers. This paperwork before that paperwork, and the work continues.

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