Gamestop And Moving Smaller Stocks

Oh dear. Some financial institutions are upset that some individual stockholders figured out how to play the market taking advantage of the institutions’ techniques. The big players are upset that others have begun beating them at their old game. Simply by buying and selling in just a particular way the stock price of GME (Gamestop, the strip mall game store) rose dramatically, making money for the individuals and potentially making the institutions lose billions. As one comedian put it, the tiny violin factories are getting busy. Such is the changing nature of the US stock market which may be about to enter a revolutionary period. Or not.

Here’s my overly simplified (yet sadly long) interpretation of what happened to GME.

Believe it or not, it is legal and allowed to sell shares you don’t own. Why do that? Do that if you think the price will fall. Instead of the conventional ‘buy low sell high’ it is ‘sell high buy low’. How do you sell something you don’t own? Borrow shares from a shareholder (who probably thinks you are wrong), and buy them after the drop. There are a few problems with that. One) Selling short is betting on failure, and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy because as the price goes down, the company’s ability to borrow money for growth also goes down. Two) Some short sellers will promise to borrow shares – eventually. It becomes possible for too many promises to be kept, too many shares borrowed than can ever be found. Three) The most a long-term shareholder can lose is 100%, but short sellers can have unlimited losses as the price goes up.

Imagine being a shareholder in a company that you consider to be promising that someone else thinks will fail, or can be made to fail. You’re ready to wait for years but the shorts think they can make money now. A shorts’ attack can ruin innovations and growth, making billions for the shorts without regard for jobs, lives, or solutions. From what I’ve heard, the shorts were hoping to make money on GME because it relies on sales at their physical stores, and more gamers are buying and downloading rather than driving to the mall. As an investor and shareholder, you might be more than a little upset if you think the company has a profitable strategy.

Imagine being an upset shareholder thirty years ago. About all you could do would be to go outside and scream at the sky. Now, scream online and probably find others screaming, too. Rather than play the institutions’ game of short seller, however, a crowd of investors realized that one way to literally make the short selling institutions pay was to drive up the price. Buy. Buy. Buy. If the institutions could be forced to sell above the prices they bought at, the institutions would lose money. One report mentioned about $5B in losses. That probably exceeds most SEC sanctions from previous cases, didn’t require political lobbying, and maybe made money for some of the long term investors, too. If the shorts promised to borrow more shares than existed, then there can be a scramble to buy buy buy to limit losses, which ironically drives the prices up.

Trevor Noah (The Daily Show) produced an excellent interview of Doug Henwood better describing the macro-view that includes Fed funds, another bubble, and the need and futility of investing reform. They mentioned one thing in particular, if a crowd of individual investors lose billions, it is taken as a sign of their amateur status, but if institutions lose billions they ask for financial aid from the government – and might get it.

I’ve been watching with some interest because I’ve seen similar losses ignored. Even when the losses were manufactured by felonious manipulation of the stock price, all the individual shareholders can hope for justice, not recompense.

This is the nature of individual investing, or at least that was the situation.

The stock market is supposed to operate openly, fairly, honestly, legally, and without collusion. Sounds like a good idea. The market is really driven by greed, fear, privilege, bias, power, and greed. Did I mention greed? Greed. Markets were developed to allow company owners to sell bits of their companies (shares) to raise money for creating, growing, and maintaining the business. Technology shifted that. Computers made it easier to analyze every company, not just a selected few. Understanding one industry well was less profitable than finding the best leverage regardless of industry. The stock became more important than the company. Connect the computers via the Internet and the speed of trading accelerates to the point that there’s no need for traders to appear in person on a trading floor. Automate as much of the process as possible, and the computers can analyze, select, and execute trades faster than any human. Get more sophistication into the system and institutions can buy long and sell short at the same time for the same stock in ways that ‘hedge their bets’. Individual investors become increasingly disadvantaged.

(Personal note about my personal finances: That’s why I invest in companies that most of the market decides to ignore, at least for now. Even though institutions could analyze every stock, there are institutions that are restricted from buying or selling companies that are too small. That’s where I go shopping.)

And now add discussion boards, places online where shareholders can share notes, analyses, insights, tactics and strategies, rants and raves. GME’s shareholders found allies on a reddit.com board. (Check my Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2020 for the boards I track.) Get enough disgruntled people together and they might just try something, as they did with GME. I don’t know the details of those conversations. I don’t need to. I do know, however, that the stock jumped over 1,200% in the last month, and over 5,500% in the last year – and that is down ~50% from the peak. Shorts got burned.

Google Finance

There’s an argument to be made that what just happened was collusion, which is something the SEC can investigate. There’s a counter-argument that the combined assets deployed by the individual investors was small compared to the assets deployed by even one institution. If ten individuals are working together does it matter if they are all on the same institution, across more than one, or are ten people with personal finance plans? Should the SEC investigate everyone? That might be necessary for reform on a scale similar to uncovering governmental corruption or domestic extremists. Should the SEC only investigate the individual investors? That would be more ammunition for the battle between the haves and the have-nots. Should the SEC hold back and implicitly allow an abuse of the system that was developed to invest in companies and the country’s future rather than simply being a money manipulation scheme? That question may be the fundamental perspective that underlies what happened with one stock within one year. Do the rules only get enforced for this one stock this one time, or is this a return to enforcing regulations systemically, or is this the opportunity for a reform that would challenge major sources of wealth and power in the US?

Back to the personal side of personal finance. As I mentioned in my Semi Annual Exercise EOY 2020 at the end of 2020; my portfolio is “up 170% in six months and 300% in a year”. Is that because all of those companies made that much progress, or because they were overlooked but aren’t now, or because (as mentioned in the video above) the Fed has put ~$5T into the financial markets, or now I wonder if something similar to GME is happening with MVIS and LCTX in particular? Is this yet another bubble like the others I’ve seen over the decades? We are about due.

Google Finance

The essence of investing is buying and selling. I appreciate the appreciation in my portfolio, but I am not planning to buy more or sell what I have. I don’t have any casual cash, and by my analyses my companies and their stocks are probably undervalued based on ‘Present Value of Future Revenues Discounted For Risk’. (Details in my book, Dream. Invest. Live.) I am watching, but I am not acting because I am an investor. The closest I come to speculating is in buying stocks in companies that aren’t profitable, yet. Without profits they are harder to analyze, and computers like having numbers to analyze, which gives me an opportunity to buy low and eventually hopefully sell high. (The book includes examples of when that worked and when that didn’t.)

The story behind GME is handy as an insight into the way things were done, can be done, and might be done. This could be the event that leads to a more equitable way to trade equities. Or not. Entrenched institutions have erected impressive battlements. But even without reforms, it looks like the country-folk might have found a way into the fortress.

“Miracle Max: Have fun stormin’ da castle.
Valerie: Think it’ll work?
Miracle Max: It would take a miracle.”

Princess Bride, IMDB.com

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Retiring Anxieties – Plumbing, Health, Government

Use By Dates? Ha! In the midst of tackling yet another anxiety, I found a bottle of (probably haz-mat) stuff that was so old the bottle didn’t have a Use By Date, or a bar code, or (gasp!) even a web site! That’s today’s treasure from a retiring a plumbing chore, a day that also saw a medical concern alleviated, and – oh yeah, a more peaceful government come to power. Slowly, life gets better, but we (or at least my stresses) have a long way to go thanks to a pandemic, climate change, societal unrest, and other injustices. One thing at a time is good. Three at a time can be even better. All at once can be too much.

I mentioned government last, but will write about it first. I don’t want to create a false sense of suspense so let’s start there. I’m glad the nuclear codes are in mature and responsible control. I’m glad to hear science, facts, data, logic, reason, and compassion are coming back into style. I’m glad there is at least the intent to actually manage and govern the country while also defending and protecting the US Constitution. There is some relief, there. 

There are also a long list of anxieties of which;

Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways.
But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.
” – President Joe Biden

I am glad for the relief. I am also too aware of the scope of those challenges, as well as being aware of an echo from one of the first posts to this blog (long lost to Apple orphaning the software that supported that post) from President Obama’s election. While many were cheering the man named Barack, I was glad, but also weighed down with the reality of the work required to recover from the Great Recession (The Second Great Depression). A familiar weight remains, but with the awareness of an undercurrent of people willing to attempt an armed insurrection.

So, some anxieties relieved; but not ignoring the rest, either.

I list these anxieties as I retire them because I’ve found selective amnesia is willing to forget the depths of the downs that can highlight the heights of the ups. I also list these because it is also easy to forget how long it takes for such transitions to happen. 

One anxiety I’ve been quiet about was spawned by an off-hand comment by a newly-graduated eye doctor. They were probably still learning a bed-side or chair-side manner as they casually began to listing the various ways I could go blind. There was even a hint of how I could die. Not a cheery office visit. That was several years ago. Since then I’ve been too aware of those possibilities and the price of those surgeries and treatments. Finally, thanks to a gift from a friend, I was able to afford a second opinion and possibly a surgery. This time it was from a doctor closer to the end of their career. They were also closer to my age, very aware of the same issues, but much better practiced at putting things in perspective. Instead of comparing my aging eyes to the perfection of youth, he compared me to himself and others our age. Yes, my eyes aren’t perfect. Hey, that’s life. Yes, there are issues to keep in mind. No, no need for surgery; but a new prescription – and A Lot Less Stress – would clear up many issues. Oh yes, and if a massage helps, go get a massage. Weird as it may seem, after weeks of intense work, I’ve found an hour long massage improves my eye sight. (I’m sure there are straight lines in there, but the improvement is seriously good enough that I skip the jokes.) 

The same topic from two different perspectives is more than doubly valuable. Of course, I’m reminded of the problem with old-style watches that didn’t keep the most accurate time. A person with one watch might be confident, even adamant, about the time, because they had one number and that’s all they needed. A person with two watches might be confident if the watches agreed, but they rarely did; so, the person with two watches knows at least one, and maybe both, are wrong. A person with three watches might have a better idea of the time, but they’re probably also giving their friends reasons to worry about them.

And then there was the plumbing problem. Since I bought this house fourteen years ago (hey! just realized this is the anniversary!) there’s been a sink with a slow drain. I don’t use it much, so didn’t worry about it; but I did wonder. Plumbing problems can easily mean four trips to the store and a bit of plumbing out of operation between the trips. I dreaded trying to pull it apart, hoped it wasn’t anything major, hoped I wouldn’t break anything, hoped it wouldn’t cost too much, and hoped I wouldn’t have to call a plumber. 

Step one, clean out the area. And, hello, a bottle of some cleaning product that was so old that the company is probably gone, there were no instructions about what it did or how it did it or what to do if it got splashed around on skin. This is also the one that had no barcode or web site, which are now so ubiquitous, that finding something without that information seems like an archaeological find. 

Step two, carefully start disconnecting pipes, celebrating the fact that none of them cracked or broke, and finding that the only problem was a hairball from the previous owner. No need for new parts or a drain snake. 

Simple? Yes. But for years there were higher priorities for fixing and repairs like the roof, the gutters, windows, walls – and I’ll spare you the long list. 

Our big problems are unlikely to go away that easily. If we could clear away our larger problems as if they were just caused by a big hairball that would be a hairball that I wouldn’t want to meet. Besides, a hairball that size might fight back.

Retiring anxieties are definitely worth celebrating. There’s a cascading effect that is also worth celebrating. The money I put aside to possibly repair the septic system wasn’t needed because the repairs were minor. Whew. That money has helped sustain me during this downturn. The money set aside to retire one anxiety can fix it if necessary, and if not necessary, can slide over to work on the next in line. 

I’ll check my lottery tickets, but it is rare to be able to tackle every anxiety simultaneously. Most of us must manage cash flow. (As I write that it reminds me that the country can’t do everything instantaneously and simultaneously, either.) Look back at the previous Retiring Anxieties posts and notice that I tend to group mine into threes. Writing about each individually would get boring for readers. Ignoring progress could become disheartening as selective amnesia minimizes memories. Trying to do everything could hurt, and possibly require more cash than is available. Bit by bit, not doing nothing, not doing everything, and making progress because of it.

Stresses remain. As issues are put aside, the others step to the front of the line distracting from the successes. There will always be more issues. I’m human and trained as an engineer. I can always find something that needs improvements; but for today (really tonight) I will have a glass or two of wine, get out my old glasses so I can watch a movie, and also cheer the shards from shattered glass ceilings.

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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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