Saturday, July 19, 2014

I can't trust him

A while back I was coaching a boys basketball team, a group of 14-18 year old boys at church.  We would hold practices in the basketball gym at church. I tried to teach the boys basketball skills while teaching myself how to coach.  I enjoyed the experience even though it took time away from my young family.

One day I needed to leave practice early and the boys wanted to stay.  The problem was that I had the key to the building and the building needed to be locked.  I identified a boy to trust with the building key.  His parents were leaders in the church and community.  They had a large family and were very organized and responsible.  I thought I could trust him.

Next time I saw this boy I asked for the key.  "It's at home".  I kept at him, calling him several times.  Finally he admitted to me that didn't know where the key was.

What should my reaction be?  My trust was broken, so I resolved to NEVER lend a key to a teenage boy again.  They can't be trusted.  The problem is, that means that every teenage boy that I would meet for the rest of my life would be punished for the error of one boy.

It's true that teenage boys make plenty of mistakes.  But if I followed this pattern of broken trust, all teenage boys would be punished for the failings of others.  I wouldn't be able to trust a boy to wash my car, mow my lawn, walk my dogs, bag my groceries, date my daughter or grand daughter, etc.

Luckily I realized this pattern early and adopted a policy of trust first.  A key can be replaced.  A boy experiencing an unjust loss of trust and freedom can result in a lasting scar.

That's why I cringe when I hear the emotional cries for stricter laws.  Every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist.  We take our shoes off, empty our pockets and sometimes get patted down when we want to fly on an airplane.  Luckily this policy has been slightly reversed [link]

Every gun owner is a potential mass murder.  There are just as many deaths from drunk driving as there are from guns.  We tried taking away the freedom to drink and that ended up giving more power to criminals.  Why will taking away guns be better?

Laws are passed.  Signs pop up all over the place restricting access or behavior.  Is it any surprise that more and more people escape into virtual worlds of video games and social media?    

It's something to think about.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Flying to Financial Freedom

While we all consider flying to be a safe form of travel, not all flying is safe.  For example, general aviation (small planes) and space shuttles are less safe than commercial airlines.  There are principles related to flying an aircraft that relate to how you manage your finances.  Some of these principles are as follows:

  • Altitude - How high you fly.
  • Lift/Weight - How the wings make you lighter than air
  • Propulsion - How the engine pushes you forward   

See if you can figure out the underlying financial principle.

How high you fly - Altitude

The lowest safe altitude (LSALT) is defined as 1,000 feet about any obstacle or terrain for the planned route.  Stunt pilots may like to fly low, but this is dangerous.  Obstacles (trees, power-lines, buildings) and terrain (hills, mountains) are unforgiving obstructions.  Commercial airlines fly around 35,000 feet.

A common cause of aircraft crashes is CFIT ("see-fit") or Controlled Flight Into Terrain.  That's what JFK junior did.  Basically its when the pilot doesn't see the mountain they are heading towards or don't realize that they are actually flying into the ground.

Lift/Weight

The shape of the wing is an amazing discovery.  As it slices the air, the wing creates lower pressure on top and higher pressure on the bottom to lift the airplane.  If there is a pressure change in the air, it changes the lift.  This is why turbulence (a mixture of high and low pressure) shakes a plane so much.

The weight of the plane has to be less than the lifting force from the wings in order to get off the ground.

Lift can be increased by changing the size and/or design of the wing.

The Power Plant - Propulsion

The power plant or engine is what propels the aircraft through the air, creating lift from the wings.  The more powerful the engine, the greater the lift from the wing.  Loss of power will cause the aircraft to lose altitude (fall from the sky).  For safety, many aircraft have more than one engine.

The Story

Your flying your aircraft and you decide to fly at 5,000 ft., well above the lowest safe altitude. You hit a pocket of low pressure and quickly drop to 4,000 ft.  As you increase your throttle to climb back to 5,000 ft, your engine stalls.  You're rapidly losing altitude while you try and restart the engine.  You get it restarted but now you are at only 1,500 ft.  Still, the engine doesn't have full power, so you have trouble climbing back to safe altitude.  You know a mount range is coming up, so you need to climb.  You have some heavy cargo that you push out the door.  With less weight, your able to climb back to 5,000 ft just in time to navigate a safe route through the mountain.

What does this have to do with money?

Altitude is like your savings (your "nest egg", the result of "saving for a rainy day").  Having $1000 is the lowest safe "altitude".  Having $5000 is better.  Having $35,000 results in safe travel.

The obstacles and terrain are the late fees, finance charges, interest payments, etc. that kill us when we are in debt (negative altitude or below the ground).

The loss of power that made you quickly lose altitude is the unexpected expense (car repair, doctor bill, etc.).  If you lose your savings, it takes time to rebuild it.

The power plant is your income.  The engine stalling is like losing your income (job, etc.).  It results in you burning through your savings while you try to restart it (find a new job).  A weaker engine (smaller income) reduces your ability to climb (save).

The weight is your debt and monthly obligations.  The debt load needs to be small enough for your "wings" to overcome it.

The wings are how you manage your money.  Even with a small engine (income), you can have high-lift wings that can elevate you to great heights.  This means saving more of your monthly income.

  
Solar powered airplane after flying 24 hours up to 29,000 ft altitude

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Global Warming Update: Polar Bears vs. Melting Glaciers

Let's discuss two concerns regarding the changing climate:  endangered Polar Bears vs. Melting Glaciers.

Which do you think is the biggest problem?

The findings may surprise you.

FearReality
Polar BearsThe extinction of the polar bears could upset the entire ecosystem of the Arctic and may represent a "canary in the gold mine" scenario.  If they are wiped out, what species is next?There are 20-25,000 polar bears and the populations have been stable for 30-40 years.  Many areas use hunting to keep the populations in check.  The biggest threat to polar bears right now is hunters. [1]
Melting GlaciersThe melting of glaciers is a serious problem.  The areas of the glaciers will be turned into deserts and the oceans will rise and flood islands and shoreline.The glaciers have been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age 400-500 years ago and will melt even without Global Warming.
"There is high confidence that current glacier extents are out of balance with current climatic conditions, indicating that glaciers will continue to shrink in the future even without further temperature increase." [2]

I think that a bigger risk than endangerment of polar bears and melting glaciers is the lack of honesty in the climate change discussion.  This disregard for reality creates skeptics.  If climate change is real and a risk for our futures, let's be honest about it so that we can work together to figure out a solution.

References:
[1] http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear
Two months ago I reviewed the World Wildlife Foundation website regarding Polar Bears.  It clearly stated that the polar bear populations have been stable for the last 30-40 years and that hunting is used for population control.  The website has been redesigned and this information is no longer available.  The primary focus is on the risks of Climate Change.  The previous site had a map of subpopulations showing which ones were increasing in population, which were stable and which were decreasing.  The new site only states that 8 of 19 subpopulations are in decline.  Here is the old graphic (which I luckily saved)
[2] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Technical Summary for 2013 regarding melting glaciers.  http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_TS_FINAL.pdf  page 41

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Average = Beautiful?

Tom's stroke resulted in very specific brain damage.  In every way he was normal except in his ability to connect names with things.  When asked to draw a picture of a rose, what he drew was definitely a flower, but his flower didn't exist on earth.  The type of flower he drew was actually a rare glimpse into the human brain; it was the "average" of all flowers he had ever seen.  The way our brain remembers things is to create a composite picture of the "type" of thing.  Seeing new flowers is simply processing the differences.  Our brains do the same thing with faces.

In separate research, a number of photographs of faces is averaged using a computer.  The mouth, nose and eyes are average size.  The eyes are an average distance apart, etc.  Most people find the resulting "average" face more attractive than any of the original faces.

In the context of both of these ideas, the phrase "easy on the eyes" makes sense.  Someone with an attractive face resembles the average in our brain and requires less brain power for processing; literally their face is "easier" to look at.

So this got me thinking about the broader context.  What about people that look different from our "average"?  Is it really that they are "unattractive" or is it that our "average" is too narrowly focused?  If this applies to flowers and faces, can it also apply to ideas and beliefs?  What would happen if you had a greater diversity of people you associated with and exchanged ideas with?

References
The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human, V. S. Ramachandran
Try averaging faces yourself here: http://faceresearch.org/demos/average
More info here: http://faceresearch.org/students/averageness

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scarcity: Avoid the squeeze by building slack

We all remember our mom telling us to “Eat your vegetables!  Don’t you know there are starving kids in Africa?”  I always thought that scarcity was a far away problem.  I was wrong.  While hunger and poverty are scarcity of food and money, being too busy is a scarcity of time.  Having too much stuff is a scarcity of order.  Loneliness is a scarcity of sociability.  Obesity, drug addiction, violence are manifestations of the scarcity we live in. 

'Eat Me' Cake or 'Drink me' Potion

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds a bottle of potion with a tag that reads "Drink Me".  She drinks the potion and becomes too small to reach the key she left on the table. She then finds a small cake with a tag that reads "Eat Me".  She takes a bite and becomes so large her head hits the ceiling and she starts to cry.

We all are afraid of being too small, and so we've been convinced to eat the cake.  Now we are so large, it is making us miserable.   In "The Power of Vulnerability", Brene Brown writes "We're not rich enough, good enough, safe enough, certain enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough".  The result is that we have got ourselves into a scarcity trap.

Scarcity Trap

We require mental bandwidth: time and energy to think, plan and decide.  When we make decisions that result in scarcity such as using our time or money unwisely, we can end in this trap.  We then focus on immediate, urgent demands and ignore more important decisions ("Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much", by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir).   

Slack and avoiding the Squeeze

In the book Scarcity there's an example of packing a suitcase.  If your suitcase is too small, you need to spend a lot of time (bandwidth) packing it just right and thinking about what to pack or leave home.  If your suitcase is large, you can throw in whatever you want.  You have "slack".   Slack is what frees up people to not have to spend time worrying about the little things.  Wealthy people have financial slack.  

The problem is that we tend to try and "squeeze" as much out of life as possible.  In "Antifragile: things that gain from disorder", Nassim Taleb writes about the high cost of "squeeze".  Being 15 minutes early to the airport (slack) costs 15 minutes.  Being 15 minutes late to the airport (squeeze) costs time, money, stress.  Squeeze occurs when people have no choice but to do something, do it right away, regardless of the cost.  We need the "potion" with the tag "drink me" to shrink our life and create slack.

Here are some things I've been trying to do to increase slack in my life:
  • Don't stay up late trying to get that one, last thing done (squeeze).  Instead go to bed early (slack).
  • Instead of worrying whether the payment due today is going to bounce (squeeze), keep a large balance in your checking account (slack) .
  • Instead of waiting to the last minute to get ready, hurrying, worrying that you'll hit traffic, and arriving stressed out (squeeze), leave early with enough time to account for traffic (slack) 
  • When you push yourself, you'll feel tension in your shoulders, back, face, or wherever (squeeze).  This is the time to take a break and think about if you really have to push yourself so hard and strategize about how to avoid this pressure in the future (slack).
  • If you're doing something that you can do alone (checking your Facebook, email, text messages, etc.) (squeeze), drop it when you have a chance to interact with real people (slack).  
Do you have any more suggestions?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Supernatural?

Attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

Do you believe in the supernatural?  Let's see.

Science has a high degree of confidence in evolution as explaining the richness of life on Earth.  This is attributed to the engine of life: the mechanism used for replication genetic material in creating new cells and organisms, as well as the creation of specialized cells for nerves, skin, muscle, blood, etc. and for growing these specialized cells into complicated organisms.  Science is achieving a greater understanding of how this engine of life works, but where it came from is one of the great mysteries of science.

Conclusion: How genes/DNA originated is beyond scientific understanding.

One of the laws of nature is related to entropy; the tendency for things to become more disordered.  Left unattended, paint fades and peels; buildings crumble; rocks and mountains erode into sand and dust.  Life, on the other hand, creates order from chaos.  Plants organize dirt into beautiful, elaborate structures; trees, flowers, etc.  Animals create populations of sophisticated hunter gatherers.  People create living habitats in inhospitable locations.  

A volcano erupts, destroying all life for miles.  This is entropy at work.  In a short period of time, slowly life reclaims this land, first with plants, then trees, then animal life.   Life defies entropy.

Conclusion: Life is a force that defies the laws of nature.

Go outside.  Everywhere you look you see life or signs of it.  It's hard to find anywhere on Earth where life doesn't exist.  Life is supernatural.  The creations of the genetic engine, the source of which is beyond scientific understanding and the demonstration that the laws of nature can be defied.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why I Changed My Mind About the Vietnam War

It seemed that all that I've heard has lead me to believe that the Vietnam War was a big mistake and a waste of lives.  This was reinforced by a memory of a Vietnam Vet I would see often near where I worked.  He would walk up and down the sidewalk and spontaneously burst out yelling incoherent words.  It only made sense that such a mistake as the Vietnam War would result in mental distress for its participants.

Then someone joined our carpool.  A young Vietnamese engineer.  I was very impressed with him.  Masters Degree in Engineering, respected professional, savvy investor, well read, etc.  As I got to know him better, and respect him, I decided to ask his opinion of the Vietnam War.  His reply shocked me.  "I think it is great that the United States got involved".  Why?  His father was one of the Boat People that were refugees after the U.S. left Vietnam and the communists took over.  I remember hearing about the Boat People on the news at the time, but I never connected with their plight on an emotional level.  My friend's grandfather was a political prisoner and died in prison.  I didn't ask any more questions.  I assumed he was glad that the U.S. involvement opened the opportunity for him to come to America.

Recently I asked again about his father.  He told me to search "Boat People Archives" on the internet, where many people had recorded their stories.  I did and couldn't make it past the first YouTube video.  I found out that 1.5 million people fled Vietnam after the U.S. left, and that 500,000 perished.  There are makeshift graves all over south eastern Asia.  It had a similar impact that I experienced when I went through the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The feeling was an overwhelming sense of tragedy.  Why haven't we heard more about this?

Today, I asked my friend another question "Were the Boat People fleeing a known fear or unknown fear".  Here in the United States, it seems like most of our fears are unknown.  We feared the Affordable Care Act before we experienced the consequences.  We fear the wrong candidate being elected.  We fear Global Warming.  My question was really "Did the people flee because of what the communists might do, or was it because of something they already did?"  He said most all of them fled because of what happened: their property was seized and everything was taken from them.  He then told me a little more of his families story.  His grandparents and parents were wealthy.  His father was drafted in the war and fought for the south.  He is very proud of his service fighting against the communists.  After the war, he returned home and the communists gradually infiltrated the South, confiscating property and arresting enemies.  My friend's grandfather was sent to prison where he died.  The grandparent's home and parent's home were next to each other, so whenever the troops would do midnight searches for "traitors", his father would sneak over the wall back to his parents house.  Only his mother and aunts lived there.  Finally, his father fled the country on a boat and eventually was able to bring his family over.  After hearing this, I said "You have an amazing family heritage".  And I decided to write this post.