Roof Roof

You know your roof needs work when… you can see the rafters from on top. Earlier this year, the patch over a patch was blown off by a wind storm. The next day I stood on the roof and could see wood where there should be, well, roof. Oops. Uh oh. Go with the flow sounds like a good idea until it means water washing down the interior walls. A new patch and some new research found an old solution that’s frugal and that wasn’t suggested by any of the professional fixers I know. Not surprising, for many reasons. Let’s see how my fix works.

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A good roof is important. Duh. This and other understatements are available for a small fee. ‘Having a roof overhead’ is the catch phrase for what homeless people hope for. Walls and floors are very nice, too; but the roof is the thing that gets mentioned first. Windows and doors get to take their turns, later.

A leaky roof is a major annoyance, and a structural threat even when the roof is working for 99.9% of the rain. I was annoyed for months when I lived in a relatively fancy neighborhood in Bellevue, WA because there was one leak, we couldn’t find the source outside, but inside the leak flowed down a vent pipe, then dripped onto the electrostatic starter for a gas cooktop. The rains would start. The drips would follow. Throughout the night, the starter would tick, tick, tick. Very annoying. Even more annoying was crawling into the barely-crawlable attic at the other end of the house to empty and replace a bucket that was in the attic over the kitchen. Eventually we found the cause: a six foot gash in the roofing paper under the shingles. Someone probably sliced it up during installation, and it sat there for years until it separated enough to let the water through.

That was shingles. I’m not a great handyman, but I can fix shingles. (Roof shingles, that is.) This house has something else.

“Does the roof need to be replaced?” “Yes.” That’s the essence of the conversation I had with a few roofers soon after I bought my current house. That response, however, was like that I usually receive from contractors. Why would they answer No to potential business? Maybe the work needs to be done, but maybe it’s just a business decision for them.

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I originally researched replacing the roof of the 1964 era beach-ish cottage (that can see the beach but isn’t by it) when I bought the house in January 2007. My net worth was diminished by the large downpayment; so I hesitated. Surely my portfolio would return me to full retirement soon. Wait a year and my portfolio would surely grow by more than enough to pay for a new roof, and it did, then it dramatically didn’t. (Details in My Triple Whammy.) Twelve years later, I wonder if I should’ve spent the money or whether I’m better for saving those thousands for when a perfect storm of bad luck hit.

It was obvious there’d been a leak before. The living room ceiling just happens to have a patch under a patch on the roof. Probably not a coincidence. Patches don’t last forever. Their patch was some type of tar glopped onto a crack in the roof material. After years it dried, hardened, buckled, and cracked. The patch was such a mess that there was now a ridge of useless tar. Chipping that off would probably make things worse because the roof looks like it is mainly some roofing fabric rolled out and glued together. But hey, if it works, it works. I tried sealant foam, which worked for a while.

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Eventually I upgraded to a beefier version of duck tape (which conjures images of a beefy duck, or a duck the size of a steer.) That worked for a season or two. When I got worried, I’d add another row of tape. After a few rows of tape, the roof looked like it was growing shingles. Then, the wind caught an edge, peeled back a few feet of rows of tape, and repeatedly slapped the roof with the mess for hours during a storm. The next day I climbed up there and saw wood exposed to the sky. I checked in with several hardware stores, got much more pragmatic advice from the shopowners, and ended with a re-application of the tape. At least for a while.

Ask around enough and answers change, and hopefully spiral into a solution. Roofs age. Mine was more than twelve years old, looked decades old when I bought the house, and would benefit from an upgrade. Unfortunately, it was constructed in 1964 using a technique that no one wanted to repair or replicate. Total roof replacement estimates came around to about ten thousand dollars. Ask some more, and get repair estimates of a thousand or two, but no one wanted to work with such material – especially when new roofs and new materials are easier and more profitable. Ask some more and … accidentally find DIY videos on YouTube about waterproofing flat roofs. Hmm.

My house’s roof isn’t flat, but it isn’t steep enough for shingles. The videos were about flat roofs, but one or two made mention that the paintable sealants worked on slight slopes, too. Hmm. Hello, hardware store, again. I’d just (almost) finished painting the outside of the house thanks to old paint, discounted mis-tints (where someone didn’t like that particular shade could you make it more mauve), and finally a color match and a custom mix of a couple extra gallons. I went back to the same salesperson, asked about roof paint, and put in yet another custom order. This time it was for fifteen gallons of very thick, glaring white.

Several years ago, the EPA conducted a study that proved that painting roofs white was a simple way to save energy. The answer was so simple yet so significant that it faded, possibly because we expect more remote, complicated, and painful solutions to big problems. The idea that painting a roof white would help would also require actual action by homeowners. Sadly, complaining and finger pointing are more popular than actually doing something personally. A white roof can’t reduce my air conditioning bills, they’re already zero; but a white roof that can reflect some of the sunshine can;

“help roofs to absorb less heat and stay up to 50–60°F (28–33°C) cooler than conventional materials during peak summer weather” – EPA

Sounds good to me; especially because my west facing windows can raise the living room temperature into the nineties. Very tropical.

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Some smart supplier realized the benefit of making a paint that is reflective and contains waterproofing. A gallon of it costs about the same as a gallon of regular paint. They make more per square foot, though. A normal gallon of house paint can cover about four hundred square feet. A gallon of roof paint is much thicker. It can only cover about one hundred square feet. My 868 square foot house plus carport plus utility room roof looks like it will require those fifteen gallons. Buying in bulk will bring the price down to about four hundred dollars, much better than thousands or tens of thousands.

The work’s not done, yet. I started with ten gallons (two five-gallon buckets), and they covered the living area. Hopefully the rest gets covered this weekend.

Some tips:

  • Wear sunglasses. After about three hours of painting, my world had a red tint. I started by painting the south section, where the patch was, which meant sunshine reflecting into my face even when the clouds came by. My eyes were getting a sunburn.
  • Don’t back up too far. Duh, again. It’s a roof. I was making great progress at one point, realized I was more than halfway past the peak – and am glad I stopped when I did.
  • Work in batches. A five gallon bucket of thick paint weighs a lot. I sacrificed a relatively clean bucket to be able to work two and a half gallons at time. Carrying more up the ladder probably would’ve artistically modified my deck paint job.DSC_0291 - Edited
  • Buy into throwing things away. This is paint with plastic in it. It’s waterproofing. It is roughly four times thicker than regular paint. I had to cut the roller off the handle. Throw away a paint roller versus throw away a roof. Take your pick and pay for it.
  • Expect to do it again. Waterproof paint probably doesn’t last as long as a metal roof. But, at these prices, that may be a fine solution.
  • Look forward to better days. Repairs and resourcefulness take time and money, too. I look forward to some day when I have the spare money to buy a new roof, effectively buying myself more time.

Painting a roof may not be a compelling story, unless you have a leaky roof, are frugal, or want to see what simple solutions can provide. In the meantime, I have plans to protect my house this weekend, then apologize to the garbage collectors that will pick up a heavier than usual can on Monday.

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Population People Supply Demand

There’s a lot of people running around this planet. We passed seven billion and are climbing towards eight billion. That’s a lot of babies – and think about how many people worked (and played) so hard to make that happen. It isn’t mentioned as much in the media as I think it should be, but that trend is influencing more than ‘just’ the planet. The number of people alive affects personal finances. Supply and demand demand something changes.

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My father passed away about four years ago (Donald L. Trimbath, Sr.) He never understood the need for worrying about the climate, limiting our use of resources, or even why one country should worry about what another country is doing. For most of his life, there was little need to worry about how we lived on the planet. Other countries and other people were involved, but that was primarily World War II, a short time that he spent as a Merchant Marine seeing the world and hoping not to get sunk. His world was like that for fifty years, why shouldn’t it be that way for the next fifty?

Scroll back through history and see his perspective. Prior to 1970, prior to the first Earth Day, most people, especially Americans, didn’t worry about using unrenewable resources. He drove trucks for, then managed, petroleum deliveries for more than one company. There was plenty to go around. Prices were low, like $0.37 per gallon, basically one-tenth today’s price. Countries weren’t obviously intertwined, partly because the news didn’t emphasize the complexities, partly because the speed of business was only starting to speed up thanks to jets and telecommunications. Flying was a luxury, and long-distance calls cost a lot. Shop local was the norm.

When he was born, there were fewer than two billion people. There was room (and yet we fought over land.) There was more than enough for everyone – or at least it looked that way.

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About the same time as the first Earth Day we also reached the first Earth Overshoot Day.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.

The fact that people were inspired to celebrate Earth Day and track Earth Overshoot is proof that some people were raising the issue before we even landed on the Moon. The major environmental success on a personal level in America was the anti-littering campaign.

Those people born after 1970 were born into a world where we’re using more than the planet can sustain. That’s been happening for about fifty years. The message is taking a long time to spread, and it has far too far to go. There were just about four billion people in 1970.

We’re approaching eight billion.

Double the supply, and don’t be surprised if prices go down. With population, however, ever bit of supply also creates a bit of demand for the necessities, as well as some luxuries for the fortunate.

One issue captures two aspects of the implications: affordable housing.

Those four billion new people need new housing. The need (demand) has grown while the supply tries to catch up. But, building housing is a risky business. The supply doesn’t always meet demand. It’s too risky because some builder will be the one that builds too many. Too few houses means prices rise. Prices also rise because builders make more money on larger houses, but in modern society, larger houses don’t necessarily house larger populations. Two people living a 6,000 square foot house? Sure. It happens, and frequently such a house is only temporarily occupied.

Those four billion new people need some way to support their lifestyle. They won’t all get jobs, but almost all will work officially or unofficially. In a sustainable environment, maybe the increased population would demand and absorb a larger workforce, but the increased population is happening as we introduce increased automation. Labor-saving is a relief, but on a corporate scale it means greater profits but less spent on labor. While increased mechanization has usually increased the number of jobs, there’s reason to believe that this time is different. “Humans Need Not Apply” is a video that articulates the impact well.

The value of a worker, of a life may be diminishing; at the same time that profits are concentrating. Wealth and income inequality are expanding. Inflation adjusts the numbers, but instead of the current population of billionaires of over 2,000, there were about 200 back then.

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Affordable housing may seem like something that can be solved with more housing (sufficient supply can drop the price), but the ‘affordable’ part reflects the other aspect of the reality. People aren’t making enough to buy the houses, though some are making so much that they can buy several regardless of whether they are going to use them.

We are no longer in my Dad’s world.

Population will continue to grow. It’s projected to eventually stabilize at about eleven billion in about 2100, a time frequently used in the news when describing sea level rise and such.

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In that time:

  • population will increase, possibly lowering the perceived value of each worker
  • automation will continue, possibly reducing the demand for workers
  • climate change, soil depletion, and several other unsustainable trends will continue, possibly reducing the usable and available for food and housing, thereby increasing the demand and value of the remaining land
  • while the only way we have to find more room is on or in the ocean, in space, or on other planets, moons, and asteroids.

At the same time, wealth and income inequality are concentrating those assets in fewer pockets leaving less money to flow through the economy that’s trying to sustain a massive and growing population. Half the wealth of the world is held by fewer than forty people. The other 7,731,901,949 get to divide the rest, and then try to meet basic needs like housing – and food, and education, and health care, and something for fun.

The trend to more people, fewer resources, more disparity, and more powerful technology is something I consider when I look at my personal finances. My Dad understandably lived his life based on his experiences from the majority of his life, even as the fundamentals changed. I’m regularly challenging my assumptions because the change has accelerated. Positive things are happening, like renewable energy and greater social awareness, but those have little direct effect on my life.

I’m no longer as surprised to see how hard it is to get a good job. Many applicants but few are chosen, and those that are chosen are more likely to get a wage that doesn’t fund their necessities. Benefits are treated as luxuries, even as they supply necessities. A few will be lucky enough to get the jobs that pay extraordinarily well. There are enough of them to make the news, but I get the impression that they aren’t the majority.

I’m less surprised that some people see other people as expendable, as if the loss of a life is easily accommodated because there’s such a great supply.

Look back to 1776. The new United States of America had a population of about 2,500,000; basically less than 1% the current population. The “Founding Fathers” are portrayed as icons and visionaries. They were. It was also easier for them to stand out, find common ground (which was easier than today, but far from easy even then), and enact action. Now, standing out when there’s more than one-hundred times as many people is numerically more difficult, though telecommunications helps. Common ground is less common because there’s much greater diversity and awareness of it. Action is interrupted by hundreds of millions of cooks in a very messy kitchen – and we aren’t all cooking to the same menu.

Within the time it takes to add another billion people the climate will have continued to change, there will be fewer resources (unless we mine asteroids – hopefully simultaneously reducing a planetary threat), and technology will continue to advance. I consider these influences as I plan my future, knowing that what worked for my father eventually didn’t work for him, won’t work for me, and that my own assumptions should be challenged regularly and my plans adjusted accordingly. Hang on. I suspect this ride is about to speed up and get very bumpy. Pardon me as I adjust my seat belt.

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Poised

to hold supported or suspended without motion in a steady position” – Merriam-Webster

We stand poised. The world feels weird because it is shifting eras. Anachronistic cultures continue, for a while. Uncertain cultures are being defined. The previous tide tries to pull us back. If we stand, we still must prepare for the next wave which may push us in unexpected directions.

Life is a wave. Your attitude is your surfboard. Stay stoked & aim for the light.” – Drew Kampion, editor Surfer and Surfing magazines

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How to spend time and money in the meantime, (or as some see it, the mean times)? Frugal folks have an advantage.

Oh, politics. Whether it is impeachment now, or re-election soon, or a redefinition of government, there’s a lot of energy and jostling going on. Bandwagons are lining up, trying to fill themselves with supporters. It’s enough to make it easier to step away from social media, and maybe let the phone screen the calls. The direct cost of politics is time now, and taxes later. I have political opinions, and have even thought of running for office, but for now I’m an occasional spectator waiting for the day when I get to participate: when I mail in my mail-in ballot.

The environment is trickier. Everything we do affects the environment we’re in. A drive to the office costs time, fuel, and eventual maintenance. But, make a good enough income and it’s easier to afford a more fuel-efficient vehicle and maybe not have to work as many days. I don’t know of any cookbooks that list the energy and time costs, as well as the impact of shipping ingredients around the world. Vanilla is a natural ingredient, but it certainly isn’t something I’m growing in my backyard. What’s the true cost of shipping a bean? Which is better: slow roasting a cheap cut of beef, broiling a salmon, collecting a diverse set of ingredients for vegetarian or vegan casserole, or going raw? Better becomes personal because each person’s body and therefore diet is different. Is heating with wood better than heating with fossil fuels? What if a tree fell in the backyard? Getting rid of it otherwise might burn more energy than the wood could provide as heat. It is doubtful that there’s one answer that fits all people.

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Culture is changing, as it always has. This time is different. It only takes seconds for themes and memes to wrap around the planet. New ideas took months, years, or decades before the Internet. There’s great hope that some sudden awareness will switch perceptions overnight, or at least within a news cycle. Finally, injustice is being rapidly relayed, but sometimes that’s too fast or too slow or too skewed. We’re getting better at it, in my opinion. In the meantime, or the mean time, paradigms are being energetically uprooted while defenders and deniers energetically try to block the change. (See politics and environment above.) With over seven billion people, there’s no way there’s one answer. And somehow, people pay attention to celebrities who are celebrated for being celebrities. Nice gig.

None of this is new, and if you read this far, congratulations.

I write this because of where we stand. Politics has swing through an era that cheered democracy and inclusion, into global surges in nationalism reminiscent of the preludes to some of our worst wars. The environment arguably passed the point of no return a few years ago when atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 350 ppm. Culturally, we’ve run out of room for communities to exist without impacting each other because those seven billion people, and their lifestyles and choices, are bumping into neighbors and overlapping territories. If you feel pulled and pushed and challenged and resisted, then again, congratulations. You’re aware of the world.

A frugal approach to personal finance has some unintended consequences. Becoming aware of personal values means I’m more aware of my values, particularly in contrast to what I see in the news, the ads, and social media. It’s almost as if they’re talking to someone else, like someone with health benefits, secure income, and a desire to compete with everyone they know. Understanding my personal values means a different balance of my impact on the world and the world’s impact on me. Your answer will be different. I haven’t found a church, political party, or non-profit that exactly reflects my values. For decades I saw that as a failure of my part. I couldn’t fit in. Now I’m glad that my exploration of my values during these more recent decades means I’m more likely to hold positions that don’t have to be negotiated with a clergy, politicos, or other peer pressures. I accommodate and adapt, but I do some from an understanding of my fundamentals.

It would be nice to recount a particular tale, or to show numbers behind some of these assertions. That would make a better literary argument; but that’s not my goal. My goal is simply to pass along encouragement to those who feel so many conflicting pressures from so many influences around them. I’m glad frugality has made it easier to at least partly find a few certainties within an increasingly uncertain world. I’ve found where I want to stand, know where I want to go, and am ready to move. At least to some extent, I’m poised. I hope the same is true for you.

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Switching To ATT

The first bill arrived. The suspense is only partly over. At the end of July I made many people happy by switching from Sprint and my flip phone to AT&T and a smartphone (Flipping To A Smartphone). Finally, they can text me!, they cheered. After horror stories about charges, coverage, and customer service I made the change; and have waited a month and the first bill before making a judgment. As with most of life and personal finance, there’s a bit of good, a bit of bad, and a bit of something different.

My biggest worry was the bill. AT&T has some sort of automated system that estimates the first bill. The folks in the store told me to ignore it, but they had to provide it. The folks I called in Customer Service said the same. That estimate was for over $300 for the first month and over $200 for every month after that. Ouch! With estimates like that I kept my phone usage to a bare minimum. No new apps. No streaming video. Mostly phone calls, and only a bit of web browsing when real estate required it. The real answer: ~$168. Kind of high, but not bad considering it included one month plus the pro-rated part of the first month.

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If I read this four page bill correctly, it looks like next month’s bill will be under $100. That’s almost double my Sprint bill, but cruise back through the prior post to find how poor the service had become. AT&T is said to have dropped calls, but Sprint wouldn’t even connect sometimes.

Without the rumors and stories, I would have little evidence of any problem with AT&T service. There’s only been one place where I couldn’t place a call. I’m sure there are others, but that’s not bad. Without friends and coworkers, I would probably still be trying to figure out how to answer the thing. Thanks to everyone who didn’t produce a video of me punching fingers at the screen. Swipe, dude. Swipe. At least now I can answer the phone, receive texts, and sometimes get into voicemail. (Still working on that one.)

Eventually, I’ll learn how to take and move photos without having to remove the microSD card. Eventually, I’ll add apps (particularly the real estate ones.) Twitter will follow, and I’ll set up an Instagram account. But, I’m a minimalist. The fewer apps the better, as long as it isn’t too few apps.

But back to that bill.

The bill arrived within about ten days of its due date. I haven’t set up bill pay for AT&T yet, so I called the contact number on the bill. Pay by phone? Sure. That sounds quick and efficient. Step one, call. Result one, they sent me a web link. Nope. I want to talk to a person. Stay on the line with an estimated wait time of seven minutes – which turned out to the just about right. Verify ID, and he tries to send me to the web site, too. It’s simple; all I need is my PIN which should be 5 or 6 or 7 digits. I recall making one in the store. It was 8 digits. How about I just pay my bill? Not yet. Dive into Settings, read off numbers, pass along financial info, and get back a 15 character confirmation code. Fifteen characters? That’s over 10^24 possible combinations. How many unique confirmation codes do they need for a planet with a population of fewer than 10^10? Is AT&T getting ready to take over the galaxy, the universe, the rest of the universes? At least the bill got paid. It only took about ten minutes.

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The bill is longer than usual, possibly because it is the first, but also because the AT&T Help Desk people had to undo things the people at the AT&T outlet signed me up for that weren’t necessary. Add this, then subtract it, then add in the right thing. Then try to understand it.

Still it looks better than I thought it would.

And then I noticed the equipment costs. As I mentioned in the prior post, I had a specific phone in mind when I arrived. Its main feature was that it was cheap. But.

The $179 phone from earlier was gone, but there was a special deal for a $1/month phone for people switching service. Nice! Within the next two hours, that offer somehow vanished, and I left with a phone that may only cost me $104. OK, $179-$104 is still $75 less than I expected.

According to the bill, the equipment price is more than $200, and I have 29 more installments to make. Granted the monthly installment is only about $5, something I wouldn’t even notice, but there’s that principle of the thing. How’d that happen?

This is why personal finance advice frequently over-simplifies personal finance decisions. Actions usually create other actions. A decision isn’t confined to the moment it happened. Each step is a commitment to many more steps to make sure the steps are heading in the right direction.

The switch has been a good thing. I would’ve made it earlier, but the delay touches a much longer and older story involving MicroVision. If you don’t know, there’s no need to ask (or you can dive into the rabbit hole of my posts about MVIS.) Real estate on Whidbey Island has been hectic enough that a reliable phone service is a necessity, and an unreliable phone service can mean someone doesn’t get to sell and someone else doesn’t get to buy.

The switch has been a good thing, but I miss my flip phone. It was small, rugged, and simple. The smartphone is bulky, feels fragile, and complicated. I’m sure it will become familiar with practice. For some reason, that form factor works for billions. Go figure. I’ve seen the possibilities of the marriage of a small phone with a big display, but that’s that MicroVision topic again.

For now, my smartphone sits beside me, usually at a distance because I don’t want something that powerful beside me. Glad I bought a headset. Let’s see how long smartphones stay this shape. I hear someone’s working on implanting them inside our skulls. That’s a transition I may never make. So, pardon me when you call. As complicated as the phone may be, the biggest delay tends to be me trying to untangle the headphone cords. There’s a technology that could be improved, or a user that can be educated.

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Have Paint Will Play

Well. (I started that way just to tick off a writer friend of mine.) I did it again. I played with paint. So many of my friends are painters that if I tried to list them all I’d accidentally skip dozens. They paint with purpose and perfection. I paint to use up old paint. At least that’s how it started.

Buy a house and frequently find shelves of paint cans filled with tones, shades, and colors that already cover some of the walls. Paint can be considered hazardous waste, so many folks just leave partial pails in garages and utility rooms. One option is to open the cans and let the paint dry out, ‘naturally.’ Being a bit frugal, it is hard for me to purposely waste anything, especially something that was useful once and could be useful again. So, instead of taking the paint and its can miles away to dispose of officially, I find something to paint. The price is right, which is a wonderfully freeing feeling.

The deck #WOST2012I did this before. About seven years ago I did something similar. The west side of my house gets a great view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains (I continue to have to remind myself that I’m looking at a National Park, weather and lighting permitting.) That also means it gets blasted with photons when the weather is clear, and rain and wind and a bit of salt the rest of the time. Without protection, the wood would need replacing far more frequently than if the house was inland and shaded by forest. So, those seven years ago, when I’d owned the house for about five years, I painted the deck with whatever was in the utility room. Some blue, some beige, and then because I could, I splattered and scattered dots and lines of paint from the dregs of other leftovers. It was a bit Jackson Pollock-y. A nice departure from normality, a nice touch during my stint on the artist’s tour (for my photos, not my deck), all while appreciating a real estate broker who put up with my play time while the house was on the market.

Those who follow my story know the good news. I managed to keep the house.

A while later, the deck needed repainting, which I did; but working seven days a week, typically ten-twelve hour days, meant the deck got a bland but protective coat. But hey, at least it used up more paint and protected the wood, again.

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Leap to the present day, or at least the summer of 2019. The deck was peeling. The artwork was gone. There was less paint left, but remnants remained. I’d just finished my required real estate continuing education classes, completed a transaction on a very nice house for some very nice people, watched some deals get outbid (a common occurrence currently), so had some time. Oh yes, and we were in the usual drought the area sees every August.

Eight different paint colors later, the deck is painted, and along the way the house got painted, as well as most of the trim, the deck benches, and the various outdoor stairs.

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Evidently, one thing led to another and another and repeat.

Take a look. I had white paint. That was the first two stripes. I also had black paint (for some reason.) That would be too much contrast so that became two boards on the opposite side of the deck. Between them I tried to decide how to blend in a pale sage green, and a bit of blue. OK. Maybe a bit of mix and match.

Here’s where the play gets to come in. Why not put a few boards of green beside the white and a few boards of blue beside the black? Maybe a bit of a blend in the middle. It may look like mud, but that’s part of the play.

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Here’s where the serendipity comes in. After painting a few boards of green I noticed a particularly faded wall. Old boards, possibly old-growth, were barely tinted by eroding paint. I felt sorry for them, so I painted them with the green. Step back, wonder how I’m going to have enough for the deck, but realize that’s a nice shade for the rest of the house. So much for only painting the deck. Order up some paint for the walls!

Back on the deck, time to use some of that blue. A sea of blue is appealing for the ocean, but too much of a good thing for my deck was too much. So, several boards of blue; but then a board with mostly black and a bit of blue; then a board with more blue; then repeat until they began to blend back into the main. Well, not quite, but close enough. At least the deck was protected, and a few cans of paint were depleted.

Order up that sage green for the house and get to it. My exercise schedule was replaced with painting from just after work until dark. Truly dark. Some of those sections are a bit sketchy. Three pails of paint, and several days later, I finished the last bit of ladder gymnastics with less than a half inch of paint left in the last can. Yes! No waste, here.

Homeowners are familiar with what happens next. So, with the deck painted and the wall painted, the rest looked weak. Hmm. What colors are left for the screen frames, the door trim, and the stairs and door sills? A bit of grey here, some beige donated by neighbors for the deck benches, and then a mix of the grey and the beige for the bench supports. How crazy is that?

It may be a designer’s nightmare, or a guilty pleasure being able to play with paint; but it was also one of the more environmentally conscious ways to use rather than discard, protect rather than waste.

There are limits though. Upon the advice of various friends, I’ve curtailed my exuberance. You see, there are these cans of primary colors: red, blue, yellow. It would be so much fun to squirt squiggles of color across the banded fields of refined colors, at least on the deck. But, sometimes good enough is best. Though I am trying to find some colors for those doors. Hmm. A blue door, a red door, a yellow door? Let me play with that idea.

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It’s possible that my clothing became the real work of art.

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Contemplating Negative Interest Rates

Sounds weird, but it is true, and has been for a while. Bonds and mortgages are being sold that have negative interest rates. Ready for that on your credit card? Probably won’t happen, but I’ve been squinting at articles and scratching my head about this twist in personal finance possibilities. One consequence, a reminder to not physically scratch my head while wearing a dark shirt. Pesky dandruff. As if politics and the planet weren’t going through weird enough phases, welcome to yet another bit of weirdness in finance.

Jyske Bank, Denmark’s third largest, has begun offering borrowers a 10-year deal at -0.5%,…” – The Guardian

So, let’s see. Many mortgage rates in the US are about 3% to 4%, far higher than Denmark, but even lower than the double digit rates the US saw in the early 80s. I wonder how many online mortgage calculators will break because they assume mortgage rates must be positive. I think about negative rates now so my brain doesn’t break if they show up.

Basically, a negative mortgage rate means your remaining debt decreases by more than the principal you pay. For details check out the Guardian’s article or Investopedia or your favorite financial professional. I’m not a financial professional, but I can at least tell you what I think about how it might affect me.

For right now, it won’t affect me directly. I don’t live in Denmark (though I would like to bicycle through the countryside.) It might indicate, however, that mortgage rates have downward pressure as well as upwards pressure. They’ve risen into double digits in the past. Can they fall by double digits in the future? Can they? Academically, possibly, I guess. But we at least have proof that in some countries they’ve already gone negative.

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Mortgage rates aren’t the only interest rates that have gone negative. About three years ago I posted a series of instances where national central banks were already imposing negative rates on major lenders and depositors. The negative mortgage rates are possibly tapping into those financial instruments, allowing this mind-twisting scenario.

While some argue about wealth inequality and the rights for some to optimize tax havens, some governments have been noticing a tendency for assets to accumulate rather than circulate. As money piles up, there’s less money to move around. The economy relies on money moving between people. That’s how people earn and spend to make their lives livable, not just in luxuries, but in necessities as well. The current economy encourages accumulation. The more you have, the more you can get, which means you can have more. Those who play the game the best end up with the most, leaving less for everyone else. Wealth taxes can be difficult for politicians to pass, but interest rates can be set by bankers who may have some autonomy. Impose a negative savings interest rate and putting money in the bank comes at a cost. Better to move it than lose it, so goes the thought.

Evidently, that hasn’t been a strong enough incentive. Wealth inequality continues to grow, and negative interest rates are reaching further, not retreating. We in the US don’t hear about it much, but negative interest rates have existed in several countries.

Weirdly enough, negative interest rates hit corporate bonds, too.

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There’s so much concern about where to buy into fixed income financing that over 90% of such debt is being managed in America, where rates have yet to go negative.

A second response can be fear. Despite a reputation for finances to be run by mathematics and logic, fear and greed continue to rule. Where do you want to put your money for the long term? Cash under the mattress, or the equivalent, holds its value if inflation doesn’t exist – but mattresses, or their equivalent, can burn. Various assets can hopefully appreciate, but investing is based on some risk, which means there are no guarantees. Layer enough negative options and some investors and depositors are willing to make sure they only lose a little rather than a lot.

Corporations historically spent discretionary case on research and development, but megalithic companies seem more secure buying back stock than inventing new products that will compete against their existing money makers. As they become monopolies, there’s less pressure to compete; so, why spend when your money can make money?

Other assets aren’t as attractive. Despite political posturing, investing in oil and gas and coal is being challenged by those who want to invest in solar and wind. Oil prices are back down below $60/barrel. As solar and wind become more popular, the economy of scale drives down their prices making them more competitive; while the fixed costs of oil, gas, and coal are spread over fewer customers raising their prices and making them less competitive. It was easy to invest in physical commodities like a tanker of any of those things, but there is no tanker of solar or wind. (Except batteries, but that’s a digression too intriguing to follow, now.)

This may be one reason for the flight to real estate. Certain hot markets are attracting buyers of ghost houses, houses that are bought to appreciate. Renting them can generate income, but that income comes at a risk. Renters might damage a property, even accidentally. Also, selling the property is quicker if it’s vacant. Hence, housing shortages for those who actually want to live in a house.

It may also be why gold is reaching new highs.

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There are two long term worries that seem unlikely, but then so did the Great Recession and now negative interest rates: currency (in)stability and deflation.

Currency (in)stability may be why Bitcoin refuses to collapse. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are gaining acceptance. To some they are appealing precisely because they aren’t tied to a country, its politicians, or its banks. If currencies were to lose credibility and hence some value, it can be a reason to be satisfied with a small definable loss. This takes some more pondering, but currency collapses are common throughout history. When people fundamentally lose trust in government, currencies lose their value. (Though then, wouldn’t a negative interest rate be paid in a shrinking currency? More dandruff material.)

Deflation is a big worry. If it was tough to get people to spend money in today’s economy, imagine how much more difficult it would be in a deflationary economy. Why buy today when you can get it cheaper tomorrow? I see this almost daily as people try to guess about the real estate trends, holding off on a purchase because they’re hoping for a fall like we saw in the Great Recession. Maybe they’re right. Maybe while waiting for a 25% drop there will be a 40% rise. Take that to a global scale and imposing negative interest and savings rates on accumulated wealth seems like a relatively benign method.

Professionally, negative interest rates will make my job as a real estate broker very educational. I’ve frequently held jobs in dramatically shifting environments. At least I know how I deal with change. Learn. Learn. Learn. Adapt. Adapt. Adapt. Of course, people who buy or sell because they know what they want to do with their lives can get on with those lives sooner than those who are waiting for the right market moment.

Personally, I don’t expect any immediate change. I doubt my mortgage servicer is going to give up a forty-year commitment, even at a relatively low cap of 4%. Of course, I’d be more likely to refinance, but that will be a while. That will be a while partly because I need to pay down a credit card that is charging over 15%. That’s temporary. Pay that down, get back to a good credit score (oh, 824, I knew you so well – until my mortgage issues), and then see what’s happened to credit card companies that have to deal with dramatically lower long-term rates from the competition (not just sweet introductory offers.)

Negative interest and savings rates aren’t aimed at me. I’m not rich enough. I’m not hoarding cash. Definitely am not hoarding cash. If negative rates gain greater acceptance, the fundamental shifts may be in the corporations and coffers and havens that have been out of reach of courts. If that releases money to flow back into the real economy, that may be a very welcome and pervasive consequence that’s more important than my mortgage or credit card rates. Negative rates may not be aimed at me, but I may benefit from them – even if they don’t change my bills.

(Disclosure: I am a licensed real estate broker (with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties on Whidbey Island.)

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Buying A Lottery Ticket

Thoughts that came to mind while putting a lottery ticket in my wallet and walking across a parking lot .

“Buying A Lottery Ticket”, notice the emphasis on ‘A’. Conventional wisdom says don’t spend money on the lottery. Every day experience proves millions of people don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Buying ‘A’ lottery ticket has incredibly small odds. Buying too many lottery tickets can be an unwise idea, and may be the sign of an addiction. (Need to check for that? Here’s the Washington State link.) As usual, reality is in the middle, and there’s real value, there.

Let’s hammer the extreme, first; kind of as a public service announcement. Any addiction is something to manage, and usually not manage alone. Got doubts? Good. Personal awareness is a positive sign. Go check that out.

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But, if everyone avoided everyone else’s addictions, the majority would miss out on a lot of living. Use does not equal abuse. Knowing the difference is a sign of maturity. Remember all of those notices about “Use Responsibly”? They mean it.

Let’s get the other downer out of the way. The odds stink. Even the best odds of the lotteries I play, Hit5, are 1 in ~576,000. Even the worst stocks probably have better odds. The smallest odds are 1 in ~303,000,000 for MegaMillions. But then, Hit5’s payout starts at $100,000; not enough to buy a house or even pay off my mortgage. While MegaMillions has almost lived up to its name with jackpots that have reached hundreds of millions. (Seems that a megamillion would be 1,000 kilomillions which would be one million millions which would be a trillion. Finally enough to almost buy out some mega-corporations.) Terrible odds. Why would anyone spend money on such bad odds?

Because, eventually, someone wins. If the odds of a million dollar lottery are one in seven million, and you heard someone won, and you think fewer than seven million tickets or numbers were picked, then your odds are better than one in seven million. The tricky part is that there isn’t always a winner; but when they do, they get that much more. As they say; “It could be you.” Said another way, “If the rest of your hard work isn’t working, then you can at least try this.”

An engineer friend pointed out a long time ago, that the odds of winning are ridiculously small; but the odds of winning go to zero if you don’t buy a ticket. So, buy a ticket and divide a teeny number by zero and get an infinite improvement; but buy two tickets and your odds barely change at all. So, Buy A Lottery Ticket.

If the lottery was all about mathematics, far fewer people would play, and the lottery wouldn’t pay. Lotteries do well, so they must be doing something well.

Buying Hope

“If the rest of your hard work isn’t working, then you can at least try this.” For the large portion of the population that doesn’t have a few hundred dollars to handle even a small emergency, life can be long list of anxiety-filled episodes. A scratch, a leak in the roof or under the car, a computer or phone that’s acting quirky, a long list of getting by every day hoping everything makes it another day and another day. Such levels of anxiety are reasons to talk to a counselor, something they’d probably do if they had more money. The Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu cautioned about feeling trapped. People who feel trapped can become desperate. Give people a possibility of escape and they find a reason and a way to live. Whether that’s society’s intent or not, I know that a lottery ticket in my pocket is a piece of paper that buys hope. That piece of paper costs a lot less than an hour with a health care professional. Ironically, if I won the lottery jackpot, I’d probably make that appointment. One friend’s approach is to buy a lottery ticket, check its expiration date, and hang onto it for months; then, just before its time is up, he checks it. For months, $1 provided him a possibility of relief.

Buying Entertainment

How much entertainment does $1 buy? There’s plenty of ‘free’ entertainment online; but it’s truly only free if you’re accessing it on someone else’s computer and internet connection without having to spend time or money getting to it. Time with friends can be free, but scheduling free time usually takes time. Have a ticket in your pocket and even a 30 second break while the computer crunches on some task, or some manager is delivering some boilerplate presentation to your group, your mind can wander off to as many ‘What Ifs?’ as you can fit in that time.

Buying Perspective

While the odds are small, the results are real. One measure of today’s world is a promo catch-phrase displayed on a lottery kiosk months ago. (paraphrased) “When did one million dollars become not enough?” Winning a million dollar jackpot thirty years ago would buy a house, even in the Seattle area. Even after giving up half to take the lump sum and paying the taxes, probably being left with ‘only’ $300,000, it was possible to buy a house, a nice house, or seed a nice retirement. Imagine buying some particular Seattle-area stocks in 1989. Now, today’s Hit5 jackpot of $120,000 is less than some starting salaries, Lotto’s jackpot of $1,600,000 pays out enough to buy a median-priced home in some of Seattle’s neighborhoods, leaving the significant payouts of PowerBall at $138,000,000 and MegaMillions at $65,000,000 with their odds that are similar to randomly picking one person out of the 300,000,000-some people in the US.

Buying Possibility

And, any ticket can be a winner. So, I buy a ticket. I look forward to writing that story.

Buying A Gift

A few years ago, when money was very tight, I bought tickets (Lottery Dreams). A bit of hope, a bit of entertainment, a relief valve from desperation, and a possibility. And then I realized I was buying something else. I’d watch to see when someone won, and eventually check my ticket. I wouldn’t wait months, like my friend; but waiting weeks was common. One time when I found that I didn’t win I thought about the fact that someone did. I felt good about that. Someone else who thought it was a good idea to buy a ticket, won. Maybe they needed the money, and maybe not. They probably had a really good day. I didn’t win, but I realized I helped someone else win. The winners can’t do it without the contributions of the rest. How much would you spend to know you helped someone else feel happy for at least a day? That’s worth much more than $1, to me. It may be sad that they need it in this society, but at least I can help provide it.

My Approach

Washington State’s lottery has a handy feature for a lazy way to play. I don’t buy a ticket a day. I don’t even spend $1 a day. The drawings for Lotto and Hit5 are a couple of times a week. WA State allows players to play the same numbers for up to 25 drawings in advance. I give the ticket clerk $20, and get a ticket that’s good for weeks, twenty drawings. It’s somewhat like dollar cost averaging in investing. Instead of trying to pick the right time to buy, I keep myself covered by visiting the booth or kiosk about once a month or two. I might buy another ticket for overlap, or if I’m having a tough day, or if I think it would be a great story to win hundreds of millions and then give almost (not certainly not all) of it away.

By the end of the year, I’ve spent less than some people spend on one pair of shoes. For that, I get hope, entertainment, perspective, possibility, and most assuredly welcome gifts for several strangers. Those lottery tickets provide a lot of value for a few pieces of paper, and the value far exceeds the costs cautioned against by conventional wisdom.

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Triple Whammy Eighth Anniversary

My ride through America’s wealth classes continues. Thirty-one years ago, I retired. (See my book, Dream. Invest. Live. for details.)Dream Invest Live cover Ten years ago, my portfolio was about to dramatically recover from the Internet Bubble, a divorce I asked for, and taking money out of the market to buy a house, my first true home. Eight years ago, my finances were hit by a Triple Whammy, or what I described as “two whammies and a flounder.” That began an unraveling my finances that has provided ample material for this blog and a planned sequel to Dream. Invest. Live. The journey isn’t over, but the path has improved from a rutted ditch to something smoother and straighter.

Statistics are hard to imagine as reality. Statistically, someone will somehow manage to always come out on top. Check the lives of many celebrities and public figures. Most include the word luck at some point in their biography, though it is glossed over as a minor details. Americans like to think success is a measure of merit. Statistically, for everyone who can flip heads up ten times in a row, there will be someone who gets the opposite. For thirty years, my investing strategy (Long Term Buy and Hold) was either lucky, skillful, or random; hence the repeated requests for me to write the book. Then the Triple Whammy.

Within a few months, my portfolio fell by 80%. Savings vanished. My portfolio was drained. I began early withdrawals from my IRA, incurring penalties at the very time I needed every dollar. I almost lost my house. (See Mortgage Modification Chronology for details.) All of this happened despite a diversified portfolio, several Lines In The Water, and detailed Backup Plans. Rainy day funds are essential, but there’s little advice available for what to do after they dry up, too. Fortunately, I’m fairly frugal. First that was by choice. Subsequently that was by necessity. Frugality became a skill honed several times a day. Oh yes, and it happened to happen as The Great Recession made it harder to sell a house, get a job, build a business, or move to a more affordable area.

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As I wrote above, the journey filled this blog with a chronology I never expected.

The journey continues. Here are how some of my lines in the water and backup plans have produced, or not.

Applying for a job only succeeded at two interviews for full-time employment. One of those was because they simply wanted to see if someone with a resume like mine was real. (After they turned me down they admitted that my resume was legit and my skills were impressive, but I met 22 of their 24 criteria, and the two I missed were considered non-negotiable.) I’ve been told I’m over-qualified, know the wrong people (at least from one group’s perspective), and probably wouldn’t be considered because I was male. (They were open enough to tell me that they weren’t comfortable hiring males, and smart enough not to put that into writing.) If it was tough to get a job at 52, it would surprising to get one at 60.

My portfolio has yet to recover. Companies that became profitable and that would’ve commanded premium stock prices were sold or merged before my portfolio saw the benefit. Of the remaining stocks, AMSC was supposed to rebound from a theft of intellectual property, DNDN was supposed to recover from a missed earnings report, MVIS was supposed to succeed with a product within the next six to nine months – any day now. In August 2011, AMSC was trading at ~$54 down from peak of over $400; now it’s at ~$7. DNDN is harder to track because it was driven into bankruptcy after climbing from ~$3 to over $44. MVIS is now ~$0.60, but back then it was feeling tortured at ~$8 because several investors expected something more like $320. What felt bad then became worse with the years.

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My business, Trimbath Creative Enterprises, pulled me through:

  • as program manager for an online museum (hcle.org),
  • information and social media manager for a now-defunct frugality non-profit (tons of irony there),
  • as a photographer (FineArtAmerica.com),
  • as a writer (including my books, as well as Seattle.Curbed.com and 360Modern.com),
  • and even as a business consultant to inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs (something that is very fulfilling).

My business continues to aid my income; but the biggest boost has been my transition to helping people buy and sell properties on Whidbey Island. (Disclosure: broker at Coldwell Banker Tara Properties) Finally, a job that doesn’t discriminate on gender or age, and then encourages skills and talents and hard work.

Real estate has also benefited my net worth, simply by living in my house. As the market has recovered, there have been months when my house’s appreciation has been much greater than any income I’ve earned. It’s hard money to spend, but it demonstrates the value of letting assets build assets. It’s hard to re-retire based on income alone. Money has to work at making more money.

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Riding the roller coaster through America’s wealth classes reveals the view behind our many facades. What it’s like to be independently wealthy, and having to balance compassion and personal preservation. What it’s like to be zero net worth and be treated as if I had negative self-worth. (Poverty is always the person’s fault. Right? Not from what I’ve seen and witnessed.) What it’s like to have a job, work hard, and watch much of the money go to debt, insurance, and maintaining a house and a vehicle and various kinds of health. Vacations and those other things in the ads? Ha! That’s someone else’s world. And to see those with much much more with perspectives and situations otherwise unimaginable. And to see those with much much less with perspectives and situations otherwise unimaginable. When we lost our class-less society, or at least an attempt at a class-less society, we lost our few shared perspectives. Us versus them became much easier.

My path is getting smoother, but I’m not doing all of the work alone. The greatest help has been people who literally invested in my career(s). Thoughts and prayers are appreciated, but loans help until leads lead to income. Being able to appreciate beauty and nature, being able to meditate or exercise, being a good listener or story-teller are valuable for humanity; but the economy requires money for food, water, heat, clothes, transportation, housing, and the rest.

From where I stand, the future looks encouraging. That horizon is only weeks away, not years as before. With a bit of good fortune, the ten year anniversary of My Triple Whammy will be a wake and a remembrance, and maybe an opportunity to celebrate the publication and launch of the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live. Until then, there are clients to talk with, properties to research, and classes to attend – as well as books to write, photos to take, and clients to listen to and work with.

Thanks to everyone who has stayed tuned during this very trippy journey.

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Flipping To A Smartphone

My real estate colleagues are relieved. My fellow MVIS shareholders acknowledge a capitulation. I’m waiting for the first two bills to see how big a change it really is to go from a flip phone on Sprint’s network to a smartphone on AT&T’s network. Oh for the simplicity of a phone wired to the wall and the world via a network managed by a monopoly.

51fqu8xbkxl.sr160240_bg243243243I buy tools, not gadgets. I bought my first cell phone in about 1999 or 2000 because I was about to attempt a solo bicycle ride across America. It was a little pricey, but I was a millionaire at the time. Besides, a phone that combined the hardware and software to communicate via three kinds of analog and digital networks was necessary to work in every state. It would be handy for calling home, but its primary purpose was to call 911. The roads aren’t always friendly, or so goes the worry. It was an era when email existed, but public access was uncommon. Wi-fi and texting were even less common. The calls were expensive, but being able to connect was comforting. In eleven weeks of riding I never needed to phone in an emergency. It served its purpose.

A few years later, I continued to carry it around, but didn’t use it much. Most calls could wait until I was home. Few things needed immediate attention. Having a cell phone in my pocket was convenient. I knew cell phones were becoming ubiquitous when AAA assumed I was calling from one. The real test came on a hike near the Canadian border. That story is a long one. A full telling takes about 45 minutes, and I’ve been asked to repeat it because it involved sleeping with a dead body during a night so cold that my backpack stove froze on an arid summit with no water or protection. Maybe I’ll tell it some other time. I was the only person alive and on the mountain to guard the body, and to call in the recovery helicopter. Nothing gory, but there’s intrigue, mystery, and international implications. Depending on which side of the mountain I stood on, the phone would switch from power-hungry analog mode to a sketchy digital mode. At dawn, the battery only had enough power to pull in one erroneous text message, possibly the first I ever received. The best communication device that day was me waving my big orange guide jacket as I tried and succeeded at getting the helicopter’s attention. After that, dialing 911 anywhere became one of my key criteria for any cell phone.

Move forward a few years, and I moved from the mainland to Whidbey Island, a place notorious for coverage holes caused by folds in the Earth as well as remoteness of towers. I switched from Verizon to Nextel, which meant switching phones. At least Nextel’s phones had an energy-saving call-to-talk function. I never had to use it, and also had no reason to replace it. That was true until years later when Nextel sent me a letter telling me that they were removing the hardware from the towers that would talk to my phone. I could keep the phone, but it wouldn’t work. Evidently, I hold onto equipment longer than most. Why throw away something that works?

Somewhere in there I started watching my early-adopter friends proudly playing with their iPhones. Cool, but I didn’t have a need, so I didn’t make a change.

Kyocera cell phoneNextel was bought or merged with Sprint, which meant yet another change not required by me. The company had other plans, evidently. As years progressed, the service degraded. I could hold the phone in my hand, waiting for a call, then getting a note that I had a new voicemail. A call would come in, but not ring; even though the voicemail notification would arrive. It was embarrassing. Recently, the service was so poor that sometimes I gave up after trying ten times to connect a call. It was a common occurrence. As a consultant, writer, museum manager, and general member of the Gig Economy, it wasn’t an issue. Email ruled.

Two years ago, the pressure to change multiplied. I started on the path to becoming a real estate broker. Carrying a flip phone that could barely make a call or receive a text was a hindrance and a source of jokes. Some brokers solely survive on text messages, it seems. At least I got some good stories out of my old phone. And yet, I didn’t get a smartphone because I knew something better was coming.

There are Early-Adopters, the people who buy gadgets as soon as possible, almost as a sport. The general population comes later, and is responsible for the majority of sales. There’s a third wave of consumers that only change when they must, but then they do so from obvious benefit, not just from peer pressure or ad campaigns.

Screen shot 2018-01-06 at 7.20.35 PMFrom about the time I bought that first cell phone, I’ve been invested in a company mentioned frequently in this blog: MicroVision (NASDAQ: MVIS). For twenty years they’ve been teasing their version of The Next Big Thing: a cell phone with an embedded projector. Why stare at a tiny screen when you can create whatever display size you want? Why limit yourself? First, the idea was direct retinal display. Beam the image directly onto the retina and the image is daylight readable, completely private, and uses hardly any power. That idea evolved into an embedded projector that beamed the display on any surface in a way that couldn’t be out of focus. No need to hand the phone around to show a photo. Point it at the wall, the floor, or someone’s shirt and everyone can see it at the same time. As a bonus, it became possible to interact with the display as if it was an enormous tablet. With a potential like that, and investment like that, I delayed and delayed and delayed as I waited for a cell phone, now called a mobile phone, now called a smartphone with that capability.

Finally, just after getting my real estate license, it happened a variety of smartphones became available with always-in-focus, HD displays, that at close range were very bright and in darker rooms could be very large.  I almost bought one. They weren’t readily available in the US because the US market is no longer the main target. China, India, Brazil, Europe were leading the way. Can’t blame the companies. Go to where the money is. There’s money in the US, but there are larger middle classes elsewhere. When my preferred one dropped support for the US, and when MicroVision managed yet another delay and shift in strategy, I gave in.

A week ago I visited an AT&T store in Oak Harbor, at the other end of the island. Because of my business it was important that I kept my phone number, so I wanted to make sure we transferred things right. It took two hours. It actually began with a visit months ago when I investigated getting first one of those projector phones and then one of the regular smartphones. There was so much to learn that it took me months to return with my decision.

The $179 phone from earlier was gone, but there was a special deal for a $1/month phone for people switching service. Nice! Within the next two hours, that offer somehow vanished, and I left with a phone that may only cost me $104. OK, $179-$104 is still $75 less than I expected. The service was quoted at $80/month. That’s higher than my Sprint flip phone, but I recognized the upgrade, as well as the value of reliable service. All acceptable, with the bonus that I walked out of the store with a new phone and the transfer complete.

Then I got home. Instead of $80/month, the paperwork estimated next month’s bill to be over $300, and every subsequent bill to be over $200. What?! It was too late to call them back, so I waited a day.

The next morning, before I called the store, I decided to call AT&T’s Customer Service.  I’ve heard horror stories, but decided to talk to ‘corporate’. Whew. They said the next month’s bill was more like $200, and the subsequent bills would be $104. Then, the representative suggested I talk to someone else, usually not a good sign. I was wrong again. The next person listened to how I wanted to use it – as a phone that happened to have some other functions. Their next remark was something like; “Oh, they signed you up for way more stuff than you’ll ever need. I’m sure we can knock that down by $20. Let me put you on hold.” Going on hold to save $240 a year? Sure. Back on the line, the reduction was more like $35. $104-$35=$69. There will be taxes and such, but that’s a great relief from hundreds of dollars per month and thousands per year.

The story continues. I’m getting to ask my friends sheepish questions about how to make a call, answer the phone, track down voicemail, and find those pesky text messages. I’ll dive into emails and apps after I’ve figured out dial tones. The more important part of the story will wait a month or two. Until I receive the next two bills I won’t know for sure what I’m paying. At one extreme, I might have to do an emergency switch to some simpler service if the high-end bills happen. At the other extreme, the improved service may connect me with clients as we successfully complete transactions – all while barely increasing my monthly bills.

I don’t know which way it will go. That’s life. But going to an AT&T store conjured the contrast with the simplicity I recall against the complexity I’m witnessing. Stay tuned.

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A Galaxy A10e? resting on my Chromebook photographed by an iPad – including a couple reflections of me

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Who Are You Wearing

This isn’t about wearing fur. Most clothes are made from plants (may they rest in peace for the sacrifice they made for our clothing), or oil (yucky, but useful), and occasionally wool or silk (close to fur because animals are involved, but much saner.) But are you wearing what you would wear if you choose the clothes that best fit your life, or like almost everyone, are you wearing what was on the rack or online and that fits, somewhat? A visit to South Whidbey’s local department (Webb’s in Freeland) and some time spent at the Whidbey Island Fair made me think about brands, messages, and freedoms. And then, there was a news item.

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Webb’s is so local and well-established that I can’t find a web site for it. (Looking for Webb’s on the web pleases the writer and programmer in me.) No need for a web site, if you’re on the south part of Whidbey Island you’ll be able to find directions by asking another local. They have something there I greatly appreciate and plan to buy: baseball hats without logos, sports teams, brand names, or messages. It’s nice to have a hat that isn’t trying to detour a conversation. They probably have the other hats, too; but I’m not looking for those.

I already have many hats. Like most folks who’ve worked in the Gig Economy, it’s easy to accumulate resume hats and resume shirts. The hats are preferred because they’re easier to switch if you playfully want to wear the right hat for the right gig. Photo on 2017-05-07 at 10.52Changing shirts that often gets cumbersome. As I type, the hat beside me is “Photo-Press” from a volunteer photo gig I did with Hearts & Hammers (like Habitat for Humanity, but for repair instead of construction.) Behind me is my Coldwell Banker hat, for when I want to emphasize that I’m a real estate broker. (It helps in redirect otherwise distracting discussions so contractors, neighbors, and others can easily identify who is the broker and who is the buyer.) The pile of hats deserves its own rack. The same thing is true with T-shirts and polo shirts. As I type, I’m wearing a polo shirt from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville bar, a souvenir from my bicycle ride across America (Just Keep Pedaling.) Instead of a resume, it’s a conversation starter.

The idea of wearing clothes with someone else’s name on them is new. Thank mass production and marketing. Now, it’s common to wear your favorite sports team, or political message; but it’s also common to wear brand names. We pay to advertise companies, declaring some allegiance, even if it was really just a case of finding something that fit, or at least fit the wallet. Go back a hundred years and athletes needed some of that display, which was better than shirts versus skins. Armies have needed such displays for thousands of years. Friendly fire and the fog of war aren’t new.

Over the weekend, Land’s End delivered a few T-shirts that I ordered. No logo. No pockets. Nothing extraneous. Even the little tag inside was minimized to being printed on the fabric, not some scratchy sewn-on label. (The history of those labels is surprisingly intense with labor unions and desperate messages, but that’s another story.) Even with such simple clothes, I’m wearing someone else’s idea of fit and function.

This weekend’s country fair was a reminder that it wasn’t that way hundreds of years ago. At the Fair there were handmade clothes, fabric arts from scarves to gowns. Not my style, but impressive work. One period piece from a seamstress known for creating new vintage clothing (Patrician Designs) was notable for the expertise involved, (the lack of good lighting for me to get a good photo), and the custom nature of the clothing. Then, there was more functionality incorporated into the fashion. Now, it is a fashion statement (or an art piece for some museum or gallery.) At the Fair there were also a range of choices. There were plenty of logos and such, but there were also handmade outfits, or clothes heavily personally tie-dyed or embellished. The clothes weren’t just being worn, they were displaying individuality.

Now, most of us wear what’s available. If we can’t find it, we aren’t likely to design it, sew it, or custom hire it. (I’m sure clothiers will be happy to do so.) It’s a luxury to wear something that fits and that doesn’t intrude on the wearer’s personality.

As I sit here in my real estate office, I realize that people are probably more likely to hire an architect to custom design a house than to hire a tailor or dress designer. Why not work with someone to make pants with the right pockets, shirts with the right collars, a kilt or a dress that’s gender neutral yet functional?

Cost, of course; and familiarity. Few folks can afford architects, yet there are several on the island. Fewer are familiar with the idea of buying clothing that isn’t as convenient as possible – even though clothes cost less than houses. Those T-shirts I bought were all on sale. Not quite the colors I wanted, but they weren’t black or white, either. That’s about as expressive as I’m willing to afford.

And then there is other consequence of wearing someone else’s name. I like New Balance’s shoes. Sorry, Nike; but New Balance has helped me complete a few marathons, walking tours, and hikes. I don’t know why, but their shoes fit my feet better than any brand I’ve tried. But, wearing their shoes means wearing their logo, and wearing their logo reminds me of their CEO’s political positions. It’s possible to find dress shoes that don’t have logos on display, but running and hiking shoes don’t provide those options. Shoes, in particular, must fit well. They may be the most functional clothing we wear, at least when the weather behaves. But their fit and function can be far secondary to their corporate owner’s opinions. My opinions don’t get such a display.

Except within nudist communities or for recluses, we silly humans must cover up to not distract each other with our natural humanity. Clothes are a necessity. Individuality has become a luxury. I’m glad I know people who can enable theirs and others individualities. As for me, I’ve got some ideas, but for a while it will continue to be mass-produced sales and simplicity – maybe with a bit of Sharpie work to cover up a logo or two. Nah. That wouldn’t be stylish.

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