Two questions about people and money (but mostly about people)

I work in a cubicle farm. That means that I get to overhear a lot of complaining over the work-related background chatter. A lot of complaining. Some of the complaining is sensible, some isn't.

Since the stock markets took a dive two years ago, and since we're in the thick of tax season, much of the complaining is about money. There are two prominent complaints that I think are wrong, but I'm not sure. Maybe you can correct me.

Complaint 1: It's really bad1 that the value of my 401(k) account is low because of the stock markets. Mind you, this complaint is coming from people in their late 20s, early 30s. It seems to me that this is a fabulous time to be putting money in your 401(k). If the markets are low, then we're buying more shares for the same amount of investment. Sure, the value of the account is low now, but we can't withdraw from it without penalty for another thirty years anyway.

I think we -- "we" as in "us young folks" -- are getting a deal on this one. Some of the people I overheard in the cubicle jungle were talking about stopping their regular investments into their 401(k) accounts until the market recovers. Some were talking about withdrawing it all. Who's right?

Complaint 2: It's really bad that I have to write a check to the government for underpaid taxes. Isn't it better to underpay during the year and owe money on 15 April than to overpay and get money from the government?

Either way, the amount you pay in taxes for the year is constant. The tax rates are posted before the start of the year (estimate yours for 2010). If the government owes you on 15 April, then you're getting an amount of money that brings you to the constant level. But if you owe the government money on 15 April, that's money you could have had in a savings account making more money. Then when you pay the government to get up to the constant level, you'd keep the interest2. For example, if you owe $1000, but had it in a savings account paying 1% for a year, you'd make $10.

I'm no genius with money (else I'd be on my own private island, not here writing this junk). I suspect the complaining is from people whose lizard brains were provoked. Ah! The account value is low, panic! Ah! I have to write a check, panic! But I could be wrong -- wouldn't be the first time, won't be the last. Leave a comment, let me know. I'd like to correct my mistakes.

1 No one says "it's really bad." I G-rated that.
2 Side note: Looks like Einstein isn't the source of that line about compound interest as the greatest invention in history.

Goodbye, old friends (or: you can take my Asolos when you pry them from my cold, dead feet)

It had to happen someday. Today was that day. Let's all pause for a moment of silence.

I wore a pair of Asolo AFX 535 hiking boots for about ten years and 3000 kilometers. They've been a loyal pair of boots, but they are no longer trailworthy -- haven't been trailworthy for years, really. It was always just "one more hike and then I'll replace them," something I lied to myself for five years. The first time they ever gave me blisters was in July 2009 on their last ride, a 25 kilometer hike to Mt. Webster, Mt. Jackson, and Mt. Eisenhower in New Hampshire. By then the treads were several millimeters shorter, the leather was stretched and cracked, and they were just a tired old pair of boots. They were honorably discharged.

Asolo hasn't made the AFX 535 in years. [cursing] In 2007 on eBay, I found a pair of them in size 8 -- hooray, etc. But when they arrived, I learned that the seller had mislabeled the auction page. What I received was a pair of size 7 AFX 535 for women. [more cursing] This Saturday I reluctantly bought the closest thing, a pair of Asolo TPS 520 GTX. I've taken them on a test hike from the living room to the kitchen and they feel good. I may even take them to get the mail downstairs tomorrow.

Old friend, new friend

Now I don't know anything about marketing but I'm going to define brand loyalty anyway. Brand loyalty is wearing a pair of boots until rocks the size of grapes can sneak in through the cracks in the side.

And brand loyalty is pointing at a boot on a wall, grunting "Size 8," and stalking out of the store when the salesman is sorry he doesn't have a pair in that size. No I do not want to try a pair of Vasques.

What's next for these new boots? White Mountains. Green Mountains. Whatever color of mountains.

What's next for these old boots? I think I'm going to tie one to a brick with some baling wire and throw it into the Cedar Creek at Beaver Bend in Ingersoll Scout Reservation. I think I'm going to throw the other off the side of Corkscrew Peak in Death Valley National Park. Go ahead and do the same with my ashes when I die. But bring a good pair of boots when you do it: it's a few miles each way to get there.

Oh, the places we've gone:

Gone but not forgotten:

A Portrait of the Artist Doing an Unintentional Captain Morgan Pose on Corkscrew Peak

Life is like driving in Boston

Life is like driving in Boston: opportunities are taken, not given.

(Alternate endings:

  • Life is like driving in Boston: it's confusing.
  • Life is like driving in Boston: you're probably not going where you think you're going.
  • Life is like driving in Boston: there is no right way to go, but there are many, many wrong ways.
  • Life is like driving in Boston: no one gets out alive.
  • Life is like driving in Boston: if you're stuck, making a lot of noise doesn't help but it sure feels good.

)

Saturday at the Turtle Lane Maple Farm

On Saturday I went with some friends to the Turtle Lane Maple Farm in North Andover, Massachusetts. I guess we're at the age where we do things like that for fun. It was fun, and it was interesting to see something being transformed from its raw state, tree sap, to a fully finished product, maple syrup (and maple sugar and maple candy). Who knew that maple syrup didn't come from a plastic bottle?

What I really wanted to learn was how they came up with the idea to start their own business. That question nags me all the time. How does someone go from zero to a functioning business? How does someone make the leap?

Granted, Turtle Lane Maple Farm is not their full time job, but Paul and Kathy Boulanger's sugar house is full of activity. During the maple farming season, February and March, it does effectively serve as a second full time job for them. They sell their products (sorry, there's no more maple bacon ice cream left), but they don't make much -- if anything -- from the effort. Nonetheless, it's a fully functioning enterprise.

Their operation is small, but sophisticated and professional. There were enough pumps, stainless steel tubs, and digital meters to look like a laboratory. Obviously they know what they are doing. To me, knowing how to do something better than anyone else seems like the only legitimate reason to become an entrepreneur. How could you start unless you had dominant skills?

But they didn't know what they were doing when they started.

The idea was born when they went on a tour of a maple farm in New Hampshire. Their nine-year-old daughter asked if they could do that at home. Being practical parents, they gave a practical answer: "No."

Fortunately, the kids were relentless -- good for them.

They started out in the backyard, tapping a few trees, boiling the sap on the grill. Then they upgraded to a ten-foot by twelve-foot shed. Now they have a much larger, garage-sized facility and taps all over town.

It is shocking to think that you can start from nothing -- no knowledge, no equipment, no facilities, nothing -- and transform curiosity into a hobby and then into a profession. That's audacious. It's just maple syrup, but that's bold maple syrup.

The humbling

Now I've heard back from both the MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Both of my applications were outright rejections. I wasn't put on the waitlist, just straight dropped.

That was the unexpected, humbling part. Of course I expected to be accepted -- why else apply? -- but I didn't ever consider missing the waitlist. I hate losing. To anyone. At anytime. At anything.

I think my first indication that I'm not cut out for business was that I played the game in the first place. The chief, measurable difference between me in July (before signing up for the GMAT, before researching schools, before writing applications) and me now is that I have about $2000 less than when I started. That's the cost of registering for the GMAT twice, buying study materials, submitting applications, and traveling to Michigan for an interview. Don't even get me started on the opportunity costs of the time invested.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. (I don't believe that, but it makes a suitable lament for a few seconds. And those few seconds are over.)

As an ace writer and interviewee -- immodest? yes. accurate? maybe. -- I don't think my presentation was the problem. My problem was the content presented. Each application required a version of the following essay: tell us about the time you led something at work.

Boom. That's the dealbreaker. After leaving Orbital two years ago, I haven't done much leading of anything -- nothing within the bounds of work, at least. My career goes roughly like this: the more money I make, the less responsibility I have. That works for some people. Not me.

In light of lingering unemployment, perhaps I should be happy with what I've got. But no. That's not a satisfactory justification. "...I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."

I don't know if I'm going to apply again next year. I don't know how I'm going to accomplish something an admissions committee is going to want in the next six months. In my current role, I am more or less locked into the same task for the next twelve months (thanks to Earned Value Management, I know this, precisely, to the day -- hooray for being another cog in the machine). If I'm going to make a second play for business school, some things are going to have to change. I don't know if I'm going to want to perform for the committee again. Regardless, some things are going to have to change. When? Soon. What? I don't know.

Onward and upward? Absolutely. But. What is onward? What is upward?

Does there ever come a point in life when the number of answers is equal to the number of questions?

And with that I end this phase of whining and enter the next phase of doing. Thank you, MIT and Michigan, and goodnight.

Heroes from my former life

I'm preparing a speech for our local Toastmasters meeting tomorrow. I'm going to tell the group about my heroes. As I'm organizing my thoughts for the presentation, I thought I'd share a little bit of it.

I haven't thought about who my heroes are since I don't know when -- certainly not since I was a space cadet a few years back, although I never did pick up their habit of assigning hero status to astronauts. I think Neil Armstrong is a hell of a great guy. And I like Steve Nagel, but mostly because he's from statistically unlikely Fulton County, Illinois, where I'm from. And I've met Buzz Aldrin three times, but twice he was a jerk and the third time he was nearly incoherent.

When I think about it, there are three people, family not included, that I admire. There are a host of others on the second tier, but there are three at the very top for me.

Michael Johnson is my hero because he demolished records, but maintained a sense of humility and dignity. (See also: Jerry Rice.) I like that he was the favorite in the 200 meter dash in the 1992 Olympics, failed to qualify for the finals (food poisoning), then came back in the 1996 Olympics and won two gold medals. What I really like is that he has his own running style. It is preposterous. It is his alone. I remember reading ages ago about coaches who wondered how fast he could be if they could just fix his running style. No. Sorry. Michael Johnson won by running like Michael Johnson.

I like the guys that do things their own way. I like the guys that act like humans even when their achievements are superhuman.

Hicham El Guerrouj is my hero not just because he was the best 1500 meter runner for almost a decade. It was because he failed to win a gold medal twice -- he fell in the 1996 Olympics and didn't place, then he was passed in the final meters in the 2000 Olympics and won a silver medal. In Athens in 2004, he finally won the 1500 meter run (and the 5000 meter run). I wonder what was more difficult: beating Bernard Legat or beating the demons of past failures?

I like the guys that fall down but don't stay down.

My final hero is Kurt Vonnegut. I won't say much about Vonnegut. I could talk all day about him. I will say this: the first time I read Cat's Cradle, I didn't know I had finished it. I turned the last page, found a blank page, flipped the page back over, turned the page, and so on, a few times. I couldn't believe it had ended the way it did. I was convinced that the last pages had been ripped out.

That's how I came to be a fan of his work. There are two reasons I consider him my hero. First, his prose is short, direct, and gets to the point. No time is wasted in the windup. He just hits you with it. It sounds easy, but it takes an immense amount of editing to get there. Second, I think that at the core of many of his works is the idea that people are beautiful, hopeful creatures that never fail to do ugly, destructive things. He is at once hopeful but fatalistic.

Ah, see? I started rambling about Vonnegut. I'll stop here, for now.

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please--a little less love, and a little more common decency."

--Kurt Vonnegut, "Prologue," Slapstick (1976)

Besides reacquainting myself with the pertinent details of Michael Johnson, Hicham El Guerrouj, and Kurt Vonnegut so that I could talk about them for a few minutes, I learned one thing: I need new heroes. These guys are great -- the best -- but I also realized that my heroes are stuck in a different era of my life. I learned about each of them in high school.

As much as I like them, I'd rather write about the heroes of my current life, whoever they are.

On motivation

Have you ever wondered where the source material for entertainment like Dilbert comes from? Real life, man, REAL LIFE. For example, from the emails-I-received-from-my-boss's-boss file:

All - Just want to commend you on a great job filling out timecards.  Last week was the lowest "late timecard" result we've had ever, at 2%. This was among the best numbers across engineering! Great turn-around, and keep it up!

That's what six years earning a B.S. and an M.S. in aerospace engineering and three-and-a-half years of work experience will get you: congratulations for entering your work hours correctly. Hooray!

Suggested reading, A Walk in the Woods

The following books were listed in the "Suggested Reading" of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson:

  • Attenborough, David. The Private Life of Plants. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
  • Brooks, Maurice. The Appalachians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986.
  • Bruce, Dan "Wingfoot." The Thru-Hiker's Handbook. Harpers Ferry, WV: Appalachian Trail Conference, 1995.
  • Cruikshank, Helen Gere, ed. John and William Bartram's America: Selections from the Writings of the Philadelphia Naturalists. New York: Devin-Adair Co., 1957.
  • Dale, Frank. Delaware Diary: Episodes in the Life of a River. New Brunswick, NH: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
  • Emblidge, David (ed.). The Appalachian Trail Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Henry Holt and Col., 1993.
  • Farwell, Byron. Stonewall: A Biography of General Thomas J. Jackson. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1993.
  • Foreman, Dave, and Howie Wolke. The Big Outside: A Descriptive Inventory of the Big Wilderness Areas of the United States. New York: Harmony Books, 1992.
  • Herrero, Stephen. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1988.
  • Houk, Rose. Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Col, 1993.
  • Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon House, 1991.
  • Luxenbourg, Larry. Walking the Appalachian Trail. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1994.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. Wildlife in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor, 1990.
  • McPhee, John. In Suspect Terrain. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Parker, Ronald B. Inscrutable Earth: Explorations into the Science of Earth. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.
  • Peattie, Donald Culross. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991.
  • Putnam, William Lowell. The Worst Weather on Earth: A History of the Mount Washington Observatory. New York: American Alpine Club, 1993.
  • Quammen, David. Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. New York: Avon Books, 1996.
  • Schultz, Gwen. Ice Age Lost. New York: Anchor, 1974.
  • Shaffer, Earl V. Walking with Spring: The First Solo Thru-Hike of the Legendary Appalachian Trail. Harpers Ferry, WV: Appalachian Trail Conference, 1996.
  • Stier, Maggie, and Ron McAdow. Into the Mountains: Stories of New England's Most Celebrated Peaks. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1995.
  • Trefil, James. Meditations at 10,000 Feet: A Natural History of the Appalachians. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
  • Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1992.