Friday, August 29, 2014

My "Next" Adventure, and The Things I'm Not Telling...

Several times this past month I have been asked what my next adventure is. I offered a few suggestions, like running an ultradistance race, but really I have nothing explicitly planned at the moment. Oh I have plans and ideas for things I would like to try. But here is the thing, I have failed so many times, planning trips, preparing to do something, not finishing what I started, quitting after years of work, that I don't like to announce things until I'm about 80% of the way there. Maybe that sounds ridiculous, so hear me out.

Mt. Everest has been a goal of mine since 2004. I remember going to Colorado that summer and using my crampons and ice axe, doing some backpacking, and responding well to altitude again (for like the fourth time), that I thought, 'yeah, I'd like to take a crack at the highest mountain in the world.' In 2005, the next summer when I was taking rock climbing lessons on Lumpy Ridge, the guide asked what some of our goals were, I said, "Mt. Everest" and he said, "You could probably do that within 10 years or so..." Then rattled off a series of mountains to climb before Everest and skills necessary. I hadn't even told him I was already on a ten year deadline. That was about the most encouragement I had in the early days.

When I announced one Thanksgiving (2004 I think) at my friend's house I wanted to climb just Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in winter, my friend's dad who was an experienced backpacker said it was too dangerous. The next Thanksgiving I climbed it with a biology professor, without crampons because it was so easy.

Similarly, I taught myself how to climb. Oh I've taken paid climbing instruction from five different people/groups, but that pales in comparison to reading Mountaineering the Freedom of the Hills in its entirety (6th edition) and practicing everything. When I led my first traditional lead climb (putting gear into the rock) in August 2005, I didn't tell the guy climbing with me it was my first time until we reached the top and finished. I only had a set of nuts and a set of hexcentrics back then. (Side note: The Green Route at Crow Hill is one of the greatest routes to practice new techniques on. I climbed it with only tri-cams, I've climbed it in January, I've done it with only a hip belay...) In short, I didn't even announce I was getting into lead climbing, until I was already a lead climber.

Similarly, my second time ice climbing that biology professor handed me the ice climbing rack on the second pitch and told me to lead, it was WI 2, so pretty easy, still I hardly considered myself an ice climber.

In 2006 I tried to climb a mountain every month. February was one of the closest times I have ever come to frostbite, in a -50F windchill at treeline on the north side of Mt. Adams in New Hampshire. That year I would send emails and try to plan day trips to New Hampshire or to go rock climbing, and often times no one would bite. I ended up doing a lot of driving and hiking alone, even, or especially, in the middle of winter. When I try to plan something and then people, criticial people to the plan, drop out often the plan would fall through. I tried to plan an Orizaba trip to Mexico one New Year's that fell through. So when I announce something, I want to make sure it is likely to actually happen.

I still plan crazy things and come up with ideas that most people won't even imagine, I've had the idea of rowing across the Atlantic recently... But when I formally announce that I "have a plan" chances are I already have plane tickets booked and a schedule organized. So if racing my first ultra run or a weekend trip to Colorado or simply going canoeing don't seem like my "next" adventure because they are too small, well big things are built out of a lot of small things. The truth is, I am on my next adventure. I'm working on several of my next adventures, right now, this week.

We see the romance of a wedding, an anniversary, or climbing Mt. Everest, we don't see the questions, the arguments, the challenge of compromise, the 40 foot rock climbing fall, almost getting struck by lightening, being broke, being unemployed, or falling on a snow slope the second time using crampons. Yet those challenges are kind of the point. My moto recently in my head has been '60% the next step' because that's how anything gets done, one little insignificant uninteresting step at a time. What is my next adventure? The one worthy of other people thinking of it as a "real adventure", well I don't exactly know, and if you are still thinking an "adventure" has to be something big and dangerous, you missed the point of this post.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Biomechanically Average or Exceptional?

At times I have called myself both biomechanically perfect and biomechanically average, and I would stand behind both assertions. I can not in good conscious entertain the fact that I am biomechanically below average, because running as much as I have in the past decade would just seem impossible. For a tiny bit of background, here is an interesting article about biomechanics in the running (Jamaican sprinting) community. Sometimes these articles center on the genetic factor that our hips and knees, lower legs, calf diameters, Achilles tendon elasticity, all have certain dimensions that are more beneficial, and being symmetric is in general a help.

I work with a number of people that limp. Wether it is a genetic leg length difference, a hip thing, or some traumatic injury, I do not know. Also, given the three people I am thinking about now I am guessing they are all significantly different reasons. I will say, when I am out pounding out a workout and I think of those people limping it motivates me to push the pace and make it count. It also helps motivate me to do my core and extremity exercises.

My list of injuries is long. I'm not going to take the time to recount all of them, but numerous tendonitis issues, muscle knots and small tears, two bone breaks (due to running), muscle imbalances that led to joint issues, and all of these issues seemed to affect only one side or the other, never both sides at the same time. Therefore, I conclude based on the scant empirical evidence, that I am not symmetrically (and biomechanically) perfect from the neck down, otherwise injuries would happen to me symmetrically. (Definitely not symmetric from the neck up.) Yet, I am closing in on 30,000 miles of running and backpacking over the last 13 years and I am more healthy in terms of muscle balance now than I was when I was 15 and started recording my miles. To have that much consistency under my belt without more than two or three really serious injuries makes me think that I am an outlier in terms of recovery ability and biomechanics.

The truth is, I don't know. I think of myself as very average. Just about any high school sophomore could be where I am physically today, if they had 13 years to work on it, and actually worked on it. Mentally most give up well before they reach where I am, and that's okay, everyone has different priorities and that's great. If we were all the same, I would have to like Bud Light and American Football and spend all of my money on a new car, and none of those things are me. Back on topic, outside of scientific and medical measurements, I don't think there is any way to really know if I am biomechanically average or exceptional. There is so much more to running 10,000 leagues in 13 years than the physical portion of actually running for 4000 hours. The mental side of it is huge! I went vegan last year for 10 weeks! I tweet my bloody socks. I go to bed at 9 PM. I don't know. What I do know, is that the meager physical things I have done are far far more accessible to the vast majority of people than they imagine. Not necessarily today, or tomorrow, or even by next year, but with enough time, nearly anything is possible. We went to the Moon in 1969 with less computer than my iPhone 4S!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Battling my Insecurities

I think most people probably describe me as confident and sure of myself, and that may be true, certainly in some circumstances, but it doesn't always feel that way. I think that because I did so much acting when I was younger and learned to present so much in college, I look comfortable in front of a crowd, and I am. Yet we all have insecurities, and nobody likes their own. Who can explain their own insecurities anyway?

I'm writing this Monday night, and I didn't run today. You must understand, I take maybe 30 days off of running a year (when I am not on an 8000 meter expedition), and when I am in high volume training and uninjured, it's hardest to take a day off. It is a chasing numbers game, I am often chasing mileage goals. It's ridiculous. I mean it's not strictly productive the same way quality running is. It has gotten me injured in the past. Yet having 100 miles in a week or 400 miles in a month is a big mental reward.

Insecurities are a strange thing. We try to run every day because we are afraid that taking one day off, one needed day of recovery, will be a setback. We act smart because we are afraid that if people knew how little we know they would not respect us as much. We act fine being single because we don't want to be that desperate guy and because we are afraid we will be alone our whole life. Insecurities are based on our fears. Fears are an interesting topic.

Running is so convenient to talk about because it is so simple. I can easily say that I am afraid of growing old, I am afraid of not achieving the goals I have publicly announced, I am afraid that I have been given this aerobic gift and this body and I won't use it, when others do not even have the chance to do the physical things I do. So those are some fears. Admittedly, none of them are a really big deal. I mean, one day my running will no longer be like it is now, and the world won't end. Talking about relationships or engineering are much more difficult because the insecurities are even greater. I mean, when I was unemployed for the first three months of 2010, I gave myself back pain so bad two doctors thought I had kidney stones. How much do I care about engineering? I gave myself back pain when I wasn't offered an opportunity to practice it.

Maybe battling is a strong word. Yet there is a tension between what we do and what we fear, between running and taking a day off, between engineering and not engineering. I think, and I don't have the answer so feel free to argue, that while insecurities are not something we like, they keep us honest. We all have insecurities and those vulnerabilities are part of what helps us connect with others. If nothing else it is our weaknesses, of mind or body, and not our strengths where we open ourselves to connection.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Am a Sinner

I don't admit this terribly often. I like to pretend I am good, and that is a lie. It is so hard to admit being wrong, failing to do the right thing, being selfish, and a myriad of other imperfections. Yet admitting there is a problem, recognizing the imperfection, is the first step in solving the issue. Funny enough, this concept applies to engineering and science as well as it does to the lives we live. Admitting the design has a weakness is the first step in correcting the weakness.

Nothing, and certainly no one, will ever be perfect. I'm not even going to pretend that I am like the thought of accepting that. Yet when the best examples of perfection I can think of are often surpassed within a year or two, it is clear, we humans are not perfect.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I Live in Iowa: Week 166

Another week that was a seeming blur, except for the fact that so often by the time I get to 8 PM, I'm so worn out that time seems to slow down as I decompress from the day. Maybe a pretty typical week, maybe not. What is a typical week anyway?

I worked every weekday day this week, no real surprise there. The joke that I don't have any vacation until March 2015 really doesn't get old. I did have a whopping 24 hours of meetings, that I attended. Many meetings finish early, but the point is, around half of my week was spent in meetings. Meetings have two purposes, make a decision, and share information more effectively than email. A meeting can do both, but if it does neither, it's a waste of time. As I go to all of these meetings I like to joke that I am not an engineer, I'm a junior project manager.

Running was nice, but I have overreached and I'm taking Monday (today) off. I ran 35 leagues, much of that in hot and humid weather. I even have a little sunburn on my shoulders. I was hoping to get a few more miles this week, but I was too tired. Funny story about running Saturday morning, I get to Heritage trail about 9 AM. The Loras XC team was just finishing up, people were fishing, other cycling, in total maybe 30 cars in the parking lot, it was packed. About 30 minutes into my run it start raining, and only rains harder over the next hour. By the time I returned to the parking lot I was the only car there. Regardless of the season, day of the week or time of day that is unusual, especially on a Saturday at 10:30 am in the summer.

Pretty quiet otherwise. A friend lent me the Alien box set so I watched all four Alien movies this weekend. I went out for sushi and was reminded that I don't go out too often because it's really expensive.

Friday, August 22, 2014

...Every Day.

When one tries to do something consistently, whatever that may be, some days are harder than others. Yet those are the days you build the habit. Those are the days the good habit become ingrained. Before you know it, the average, the every day has become this big thing that others admire, or at least don't understand from a state of awe. As I get older I see this more around me. For example, parents don't get a day off and that is certainly not an easy job. Because these every day things can at times be so difficult, that adds to their value. The fact that parents don't yell at their kids more is a testament to the extraordinary patience of most parents. The moral of the story is, thank you for your commitment to (insert your thing here), because we are better off with you.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Question to Think About

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? The corollary is what does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century? How are the roles different, and the same, as they have been in the past, and not just the last 30 years but the last 3000 too?

I'm working on some articles about this.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Don't Let Me Take This For Granted.

I ran 5 leagues last night. That's quite a bit for a Tuesday evening. Yet in my mind, I was concerned how slow it was and how tired I was at the end. I've ran or bicycled four races this summer, getting second three times and winning one. It is easy for me to rationalize away my success as "there was no one there" or "it was a really small race". Yet the fact remains that against four different groups of people I have not gotten lower than second yet.

There is a certain mental seriousness, setting the bar high, that keeps me driving and pushing to ever higher standards. I talk mostly about running because it's clear and obvious and I'm not bound by any confidentiality agreements, but the concept applies to my engineering and other areas of my life too. I feel predisposed to not be satisfied with what "I" have achieved. I say I in quotes because I know that it is not me, it is a team effort, many people, over years and decades that have gone into what my body and mind achieve.

The results and the training this summer may be small potatoes, but that is no reason not to be thankful for those potatoes anyway. Sometimes small potatoes are sweet potatoes. I like big goals. I am used to failure, because success is so much sweeter than failure, if failure is a requirement, I can accept that. Yet sometimes we all could stand to look around and really appreciate how wonderful we have it. Let's not take this for granted.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

I Live in Iowa: Week 165

Where to start? That is always a challenge when discussing big things isn't it? I think that's part of why I like blogging, I can describe some minute, tiny, minuscule detail, like eating right after exercising, that is part of the much bigger picture of how to get faster at the marathon.

How about starting with the first Dubuque Gran Fondo, featuring Greg LeMond. What a day?! I was second overall in a bicycle race and first in my age group??!?? I'm not a bike racer. I've maybe ridden like 400 miles, all of 2014. However, the timing was based on times over three timed segments, and I strategized to do as well on the third segment, a big hill climb 57 miles into the ride, as possible. It worked, I was second overall, but the guy in first beat me by like 80 seconds overall because of the flat second stage, which he just demolished. I'll write a blog post all about this ride, and winning an eight pound sausage later this week or next.

Work has been good. We are solving problems and making the product better. But… and there is always a but, we have changed so many things in the development process that to some extent there is a question about what needs to be tested physically versus virtually. It is a well known correlation that for every ten problems fixed another four are discovered or created. Well, our team has actually fixed over a thousand problems in the last 16 months. Many of those are problems we have discovered after fixing one of the early problems, but there is a very real concern about what we might miss. Of course, many of those problems are as simple as being one millimeter out of alignment or documenting use of the wrong size bolt, the kind of problem that would mean less than an hour of total time for five team members to fix and verify the solution to the problem.

An analogy is how to you save a forest from bark pine beetle kill? One tree at a time, and hope you don't miss too many, and have to go back through the forest in three years and do all the work again. It is the same with building a new product. Quality is a function of time. The more time you have to test the more issues you can find before going to production. I'm writing about this because I've never been through a full product development cycle and I really have no basis for what it takes to bring a ground up design into production, and most importantly, I don't want to fail, I want it to be a great product. Also, discussing with colleagues that have worked on other product development teams at other companies, in the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9 "…there is nothing new under the sun."Anytime anything new is brought to market there is the chance that the developers missed something. Regardless, sometime in 2015 you are going to see some pictures and likely hear in a little more detail what exactly I have been doing for four years because I am quite happy to say, "I did that! We did this because of that, and redesigned this thing to make that work better." However, we've still got a couple bugs to work out of the system. Why does it take half of forever to get a new drug or airplane into the market? Testing, drugs and airplanes you really want to get right.

Running was a really quiet week, only about 24 leagues, rounding up. However I took Saturday off, because of the 23 league Gran Fondo. So really averaging four leagues per day is not so bad. Also, I did bicycle a total of 37 leagues for the week, my highest this year. That's also how much I drove this week. Funny story, I think I forgot to mention last week I ran three more leagues than I drove! That doesn't happen too often. Going forward I think I will be doing one high mileage week followed by a "low" mileage week. I kind of did that in 2009 and 2011 during two of the best high mileage and racing seasons I have had. In a way, instead of going on seven day micro cycles, it's like going into a 14 day micro cycle. I'll blog about that theory individually in a month or so when I get a little more consistency under me.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Eat Immediately after Exercising

Eat immediately after exercising. Every minute you wait you body will not absorb the food as readily, and for glycogen depleting endurance sports, like running and bicycling, every additional calorie matters. Meb eats right after running, and won the Boston Marathon. What to eat? It almost doesn't matter, but some carbohydrates, liquids, and some protein are best. I've been having blue berries and pickles with milk this summer. In the summer I crave the extra salt.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Teams Are Beautiful!

I screwed up. I dropped the ball, and making up for it will take more time and effort from the whole team. However, because we are a team, the mistake was found well before going to production. In fact because we found the mistake as early as we did, it is hardly even a setback, but rather the normal development process. A good team complements each other and makes up for each other's weaknesses. Teams are beautiful!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century: Conclusion

Instead of recapping the recap, which you can read on any Capital in the 21st Century review, I’m going to quote a few lines from the conclusion because they seem significant and summarize a lot of reading to me. 

“The inequality r > g implies that wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wage.”  This sentence basically means, imagine that you started saving for retirement 50 years before you were born, you would be rich when you get to retirement. That is basically what an inheritance amounts to. This is the reality that we are facing in the world today. As r = 4g or r = 3g, we run into more issues than if r = 1.5g or r = g. 

“The problem is enormous, and there is no simple solution.” Thus a 577 page book when many times the author suggests that an open democratic debate within parliaments, and involving more international governance and cooperation, is the practical solution, which we all know would take a painfully long time.

“The right solution is a progressive annual tax on capital.” Obviously that’s kind of the point of this book. While I will say that is his opinion and not necessarily a fact, after reading the book and the history he discusses, I agree with him.

“I dislike the expression “economic science,” which strikes me as terribly arrogant because it suggests that economics has attained a higher scientific status than the other social sciences.” People often get scared away from economics because it has numbers. I guess most people don’t find math fun and interesting. Yet the truth is, economists are even worse than weathermen at predicting or understanding their field. In other words, while we like to think of economics as similar to engineering, it might be closer to art history.

Finally Piketty ends the book with these sentences on page 577. “Yet it seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, and the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” That is basically what this book boils down to, the interests of the least well-off. The number of people that told me to work harder in 2010 when I could not find an engineering job (or for a time any job!) both infuriate me and make me laugh at their ignorance. The least well-off often can’t “just work harder” to get to the middle ground. Oh hard work is critical and a big component of having a fulfilling (and financially rewarding) career. However, hard work is not the only aspect of having a successful career.  Along the way someone has to take a chance on you, often multiple people multiple times. 

This book is in large part about inequality. Traveling the world, and perhaps to some small extent my own upbringing, I have seen the poor. They have no voice. I have this blog, which I pay only $11 a year to own, but also access from my iPhone over 3G and 4G, at coffee shops and other sources of Internet. Just having access to the full Internet is a huge privilege in the world. I read recently that Carlos Slim was the most wealthy person that ever lived. Ever. More than the kings of countries past, the barrons of the past, or anyone you have ever heard about in history. We can talk about Bill Gates being a self made man, but we must remember that he had unlimited access to a computer at his private high school when most colleges did not have a computer. It’s not hard to be one of the ten best programmers in the world when there are only 100 programmers in the world. 

This book is probably the most thorough, and most readable to a layman like me, history of income and wealth anyone has ever researched and written. To disregard the lessons of history is to be doomed to repeat history's failures. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I Quit Assistant Cross Country and Track and Field Coaching at the University of Dubuque

I quit my coaching job at UD. Oh it was tough! I am terrible at quitting things. I usually pursue things long past my usefulness. The reality was coaching was just stressing me out and I wasn't being as good at it as I would like. It involves rushing out of work every school day, arriving at practice most days late. Then it means giving up 20-25 Saturdays a year traveling around the Midwest for meets. When you spend all day Saturday traveling and watching races, it's really really hard to do something like visit my family or take a weekend trip of any kind. Plus, as strange as it seems, running with the college team is not good for my own training, because it is not the volume I thrive on or the workouts I need to excel.

My parents were in town Friday night and as I was telling them about the situation they were not surprised. In fact, they apparently have wondered how I had the ability to develop any sort of relationship with as much stuff as I do. Of course, they are my parents so they worry about me in general. Well, wonder no longer, I just came into a lot of free time.

There are other issues both significant and minor that played a role in this decision that took over a year to make. As I was reading online articles about when to quit, this one I read like seventh got me. Jeff Stibel wrote, "If you clicked on this article, the time to quit is now. ...The fact is that once you start looking for advice about leaving, you already have one foot out the door."

There is a lot of upside to this decision. I will be sure to do a few things this coming year that I would not have had the chance had I been coaching.

The last three years coaching have been great! I have learned so much. I hope that I communicated some life lessons to the athletes I worked with, as well as helping them run better of course. It is the student athletes I will miss the most. They are why I stuck with it so long. The demand for good coaching and good mentoring is so high. I had so many good coaching growing up I hope that I was able to pay that generosity forward.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I Live in Iowa: Week 164

What a week! Seriously, I had a pretty big event, life changing I would say. However it is so serious it deserves it's own post on another day this week. I'll get to it, don't worry. Suffice to say what I have to talk about was more than a year in the making, the public announcement can wait a few more days.

Work has been crazy! We had a colleague move to another area and he is not being replaced. The short story is my workload just went from not so big, to pretty big. I am now responsible for "sheparding" as I like to think of it, many more parts along the development process. The vast majority of work has been done to everything already, so it's manageable to be responsible for so many parts, I'm not working 70 hour weeks or anything crazy. I learned a tip recently, drive home slowly. Often we, at least I, leave work in a rush and the stress of work gets carried into the next activity for the day. I have been learning to take it easier and more relaxed. So I have been driving home after work slower and by the time I get home I have a smile on my face again. 

That being said, taking on all of this extra work recently I hope is noticed. I will tell you what, a thank you and a little recognition for doing "what you are supposed to do" or your job goes a long way. 

Running was a really good week. For the near future, I am going to give my mileage in leagues because the numbers are getting a little ridiculous to non runners and sedentary people. I ran 36.7 leagues this week including a 20 minute tempo and a half marathon trail race that I was second to Scott Gall in. Look him up, except for him being 40 I don't feel bad losing to him at all. Plus I ran the course faster than last year despite being in worse shape. It might just be that the mileage is starting to make a difference again. 

My parents were also in town Friday night and Saturday morning to see me race. You should have heard my mom when I jumped a guard rail "whoa!!"  Funny story, my mom didn't tell my grandma about my dad until the second time he asked her to marry him. 

I did go out once and played some cranium at a friend's house too. I have pretty great friends!

That just leaves the big news, and you just have to wait for that.

I hope you had a good week. I usually don't say it explicitly but I struggle a lot in my life, with relationships, work, running, selfishness, and plenty of other sins, and while I always try to put a positive spin on my life here on my blog, it certainly isn't all roses. I ran more miles this week than some runners run in a year, and more than some serious runners run in a month. Yet there are dozens of weeks where I just can't or don't get that kind of volume. In other words, I sincerely hope that you can look around yourself and smile at how blessed you are and tell someone you love her or him, despite the challenges of the day.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sunk Costs versus Opportunity Costs

Sunk costs are the time and effort we have put into something already.

Opportunity costs are what we are giving up to do a given activity in the future.

Most people value sunk costs more than opportunity costs. In other words we value the past more than we value our future. Yet, is that really the best way to go through life? I mean, the future opportunities could be very positive from making a change. This is the tension of change. The pull to continue the way things always have been or the pull to do something different. The point is, life has hard decisions about your future. Change can be very difficult. Yet it is change, and a new opportunity that can redirect the course of your life. Sometimes the opportunity costs of doing what we always have done become too great to ignore and we need to make a change.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

It's Hard... Until It's Not.

Sometimes it feels like I am banging my head against the wall. Okay, it feel like that a fair amount of the time. However, there often comes a point, when the wall no longer exists. There comes a time when it is not hard any more. Struggling to up my mileage I wasn't getting even 90 miles a week. This week I might get 110. Diffusion was confusing, until one day it made sense. We couldn't figure out how to solve a highly stressed structure, until we tried a simple solution that worked.

Many things in life are a struggle, and many always will be, but for some things there comes a day when it is no longer a struggle, when our weaknesses have become our strengths.  It's funny how things work out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Capital in the 21st Century: The Question of the Public Debt (Chapter 16)

Funny story, many of the people who say we need to reduce our public debt, at least in the United States, are the same people with millions and billions of dollars lending money to the United States and earning some interest off of that money. While we think of the public debt as money spent on services for the poor, at least that’s how it seems to come off in the media, the reality is the rich are lending to the government to do a service and earning interest on that debt. You are welcome to disagree with that assessment, and I am paraphrasing from the book, but please don’t try to convince me that foreign governments own all $14 trillion of our national debt.

This was a wide ranging chapter, from the national debt of European countries and their repeated failures, or procrastination toward a central government for the Eurozone, to climate change, the Cyprus banking crash, and discussing central banks in general. In fact, I will just summarize this chapter by sub section.

Reducing Public Debt: Tax on Capital, Inflation, and Austerity

Basically, there are three ways Piketty suggests to reduce the public debt. And before I go any farther, since this book is being touted by the tax reducing crowd as communist and liberal, it is worth say Piketty seems against any national public debt, although the reality is some number, maybe 10% of GDP, maybe 50% of GDP (but certainly not 90% or 100+% of GDP) may be appropriate. He does say that the way to decide on the level is through democratic debate in a parliament or congress, which is how the USA has arrived at our enormous national debt. In short first is the tax on capital he previously suggested, although he suggests in this chapter a one time, or maybe annual for five or ten years, a large tax with top marginal tax rates of 10% or even 20% on those with many millions or billions of euros. This is a no brainer because in Europe there is roughly six or seven times the amount of private wealth as public wealth, which is about equal to the public debt. In other words, In other words, the public debt in Europe could be erased and for every $6 of private wealth there would now be $5. Of course this progressive tax on capital would affect billionaires a lot more than people like me who have a net worth closer to the value of a Ford Focus. The second way is through inflation, which is the most common method, and quite effective. Inflation helps people (or governments) who are in debt. However, runaway inflation can happen rather easily and that is why most central banks are focused on not letting it happen. In a high inflation environment people can suffer from “minor” setbacks like not getting a raise that keeps up with inflation. There are many other issues with inflation, most of which I have trouble relating to because they happened before my time. The third way is austerity, which is not pleasant either. Apparently England in the 1800s had a lot of austerity because after the Napeolinc wars in 1815 they had debt that was around 200% of GDP. In short, austerity hurts because all of the services we like, grind to a halt. 

Does Inflation Redistribute Wealth?

Inflation can be an issue because some people, usually those with the most money to invest have the ability to move their money around when inflation is happening and mitigate the effects of it. However, the person with only $1000 in the bank, in a saving account will be losing money each year earning a lower interest rate than the rate of inflation.

What Do Central Banks Do?

Good question, they lend money to governments and companies out of thin air. Now, the actual amount of wealth does not change. They loan another $100,000 to a company, who suddenly has $100,000 in cash, and a new $100,000 debt. The sum is zero. That’s essentially what central banks do. And they do it in a way that inflation will not increase more than 2% a year. This was a long section like eight pages, I’m not going to cover it all. A strange thing about central banks is that they are part of the government, but independent of the government. In other words, every time they have had an increased role in the world has been during a time of crisis where the solution and role of the central bank has not totally been thought through. When the government closed last year in the US for a couple weeks, the month before the Federal Reserve Bank (the Fed) had resorted to emergency measures, which people didn’t even know if they were legal or not. As an example of what the Fed or any central bank can or cannot do, when the US bailed out General Motors, it was the federal government who made the loans and terms, not the Fed, who simply processed the loan you could say.

This goes back to the rich lending to governments who pay interest and then provide services to the poor. In other words, Wal-Mart and McDonalds surely have some money in US Treasury Bonds and then encourage their workers to take advantage of US government programs like SNAP (food stamps). In other words, instead of paying each worker $100 more a year, they lend $100 to the US government who pays, maybe $1 or $2 in interest (at current rates) back to the company. For the record, I made up those examples, they may not be true, but I would expect both companies do own US bonds and pay workers minimum wage. Although it is a stretch to encourage workers to use governement services for the poor.

The Cyprus Crisis: When the Capital Tax and Banking Regulation Come Together

This section is about an off shore banking haven for Russian Oligarchs and a one time tax on capital that was challenging due to very little transparency in banking. In short, most of my readers are US Americans and for better or worse might not know that last year Cyprus had a banking crisis, but the point is transparency in banking is a good idea and a tax on capital has happened recently, without the world falling apart.

The Euro: A Stateless Currency for the Twenty-First Century?

Piketty is amazed at the Euro, that it was created, without any sort of central parliament or democratic government. Which leads into the next section...

The Question of European Unification

The author is French, so I must apologize that this is not centered wholly on Americans. I’m kind of joking, because we live in a global society and we all know that, right? But I’m also not joking because a large number of Americans, maybe 65%, do not have a passport and are somewhat ignorant of the global economic environment we inhabit. This is a four page section where he argues for a central Eurozone parliament and a collective national debt instead of debt being done by individual countries. This is due to Greece, Italy and Spain taking out loans at low rates because they were in the Eurozone, but then running into trouble because their taxation and spending were not in line with other more fiscally conservative countries in Europe (cough, Germany, cough). Piketty seems to think that greater European unification is coming, although it may take decades. Of course, he says that as a Frenchman, and from my point of view the French and Germans, more than any other two countries, want a common currency (and maybe even budgetary government, but I haven’t thought that out...) because they do not, absolutely do not, want to go to war again.

Government and Capital Accumulation in the Twenty-First Century

The rich are going to get richer. As long as the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the growth rate (g) and I mean the compound growth rate of population and productivity together (which equates to the GDP growth rate), the rich will get richer. However, if a tax on capital can bring r=g, oh boy... now we’re into the “golden rule of capital accumulation”! Which leads into...

Law and Politics

This is a short section, despite the title, about how parliaments, and not judges, should decide on matters such as the public debt, through open democratic debate representing the will of the people. Matters like hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt, and new debt, are too important for one person to decide.

Climate Change and Public Capital

This is what everything usually seems to come back to, energy. For example, of all the oil and natural gas that comes out of the ground, how much should be owned by the citizens of the country (or county or city or state) that it comes from? Alternatively, assuming that there is a hurricane like Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina that happens again (and there will be, I will bet on it) and in the next 100 years many hurricanes, forest fires, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters related to climate change, what is the discount rate we give to those scenarios today? I love the concept of a discount rate! I’ve written about it before, the basis is, what do you expect the change to be per year on average over a long time, 1%, 3%, 5%? Because that figures into your planning. The point being even the economists agree with the climate change scientists that climate change will cause expensive damage to the world we know today, but they disagree about discount rate we should give ourselves when planning for that future (good thing economists don’t sell insurance). I mean, given a discount rate of 1%, we need to make major changes today to how we deal with climate change. Given a discount rate of 5%, we can expect that only a small effort is needed today to prevent the tragedies of the future. (So that this makes more sense, think of it like this, a discount rate of 100% would mean that it will not happen this year, but will definitely happen next year.)

Economic Transparency and Democratic Control of Capital

Again, I feel that the idea of transparency of capital is a critical feature of this book that most people are ignoring, maybe because very few people have finished reading it. My dad never wanted door locks within our house because he did not want us keeping secrets from each other. It made me mad at times, but now I openly blog about my life five days a week, and I understand that transparency and honesty are values I hold dear to me. It is the same with capital, wealth, money, etc. Once we know what exists we can decide as a group, as a country, or as a world, what we want and who might have the ability to pay a little more for such things, but of course the first hurdle is even knowing what exists.

Well, only a few pages for the conclusion left. I have to say, finishing all of the chapters I mostly agree with the author, financial transparency (honesty) and a global tax on capital both make sense to me.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I'm tired.

Most of the reason I am tired is from trying to increase my mileage. That involves trying to run in the morning as often as I can, which is tiring getting up that early. In the afternoons, it involves running more miles than I feel like running. It's like trying to dig myself in a hole just deep enough I can get out of it every day and dig another hole.

Secondly, I’m tired from Everest. Honestly, I’m not thinking about it too much these days. That being said it comes up in conversation probably more than once per day. I feel like I am shying away from some public social events because I fear it will come up and people will want to hear about it. I want to share, but it’s not a pleasant memory for me, and emotionally it takes something out of me when I tell another person. 

Third, traveling has gotten to me. This past weekend I just ran and laid around watching movies. It was amazing. I slept a like nine hours a night both nights, and almost napped both days. It was quiet and I had some time to reset from the barrage of activity that my summer has been.

Fourth, work certainly has it’s ups and downs as last Thursday demonstrated. I'm pretty good about not bringing work home with me, but if you have a bad day at work, and I mean emotionally draining because I care about doing my job well, it's really hard to come home and flip a switch and suddenly be full of energy and happy. 

I am growing to dislike more and more the phrase, "How's it going?" Because the response is supposed to be "good" and that's a lie a fair amount of the time. Sure I'm doing good compared to the situation of most people in the world, but for my average I am certainly hitting below average some days and I just want to say, "it's going pretty bad." No one wants to hear that. It's so easy to live in a Stepford, everyone is a little above average, world. I try hard to be honest. I don't always say what's on my mind because often it's not relevant to the task at hand, other times voicing my opinion would not help build relationships. In short, I'm tired. I've had better months, better summers. I feel like I have the authority to make a difference in my life, yet I sit there and do the same things that bring me success because I'm tired of failing. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Live in Iowa: Week 163

Another week in the record books. I don't think it would be wrong to say I can be an emotional person. My head has been up and down this past week. Some highlights…

Thursday, what a day! I am hosting a coworker from India and this was his last day in the office, so an eventful day in any regard. However, around 11:30 AM in a meeting we learned that we had failed a test. I won't go into the specifics, but let's just say failing this test was easily going to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and a hundred thousand was not an impossible unexpected cost from failing this test. I went into overdrive sending emails and calling people to basically get the rework started and get the manufacturing progress stopped, that day. The short story is this should not have been tested so late in the program. Quickly this escalated above me to managers and supervisors as we went about damage control. However, around 3 PM, as I'm still on the phone talking about this issue, I get a call on line two that the test was not done according to our internal specifications due to another product breaking the fixture recently. A quick rerun of the test results ignoring the erroneous test and substituting a similar test, and the news comes back, we passed!

How to waste an afternoon…

Then we went out for a wine tasting and out to eat a steak as a goodbye to our coworker who is leaving. Needless to say, by the time I went to sleep Thursday I was done. I ran twice, I did some social hosting, I had an emergency at work, that was declared not an emergency later that day.

I ran 87 miles this past week. I'm struggling to get my mileage into the 100s, but I've been in the high 80s the last few weeks. It takes time for the body to adapt to stress and recover and be able to handle ever higher mileage, and I feel I am getting there, but I am not there yet. On a side note, I think I might start popping a 27 mg iron pill every day instead of only two or three times a week. I've done that the last few days and felt much better.

Friday I spent an hour in a kevlar canoe with the best local paddler learning about paddling sports. Why am I dabbling in something new? If it goes anywhere I'll let you know.

The summer is ending, and I am sad about that. I am sad because I feel that opportunities are slipping through my fingers and I am doing nothing about it. To some extent we all live in the real world and our own fantasy world, but where does one end and the other begin? What is just my imagination and what is real?

Friday, August 1, 2014

I have NOT decided if I will return to Mt. Everest.

I told people I would not even make a decision about returning until August. I think a fair number of people expected me to announce a decision August 1st, and annouce I would return. Well, I'm not going to because I have not decided anything.

This is not an easy decision to make. 16 people died in one minute, not because of their skills, but because a serac collapsed and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yes, I still want to know if I have what it takes to climb to 29,000 feet without oxygen bottles, but after seeing others who have been without supplemental oxygen at nearly that altitude, and my own running and climbing exploits at altitude, I think I could walk to 30,000 feet.

Given the Sherpa strike and other experiences, part of me never wants to return to Nepal. To be honest, compared to Rwanda, Pakistan, Costa Rica, and most places I have traveled, Nepal was one of the least friendly places I have been. Most fun and exotic places to travel there are so few tourists that the locals have a pleasure helping the foreigners. In Pekanbaru, Indonesia a teenager walked around with me for over an hour just to show me around and help translate. In Rwanda a man I met the night before volunteered to go on a five mile run around his village with me the next morning, and we had a good run. In Pakistan our high altitude porter invited us into his house for a meal as we were leaving Baltistan. In Nepal, no one ever invited me into their house. They have had so many tourists that to them I am just another dollar sign.

My friend put it this way when discussing Nepal and the Everest region, "in a rural place a store ower is just happy you stopped at his shop. In the Solokumbu they wonder how much money they can get from you."

Yet I still have the question whether I can walk to the highest point in the world in my head. I also have friends there, and Asian Trekking was tremendously accomodating. I would have no reservations going on an expedition with Asian Trekking again, except to hope the other clients had high altitude and technical climbing experience.

Honestly, I might not make a decision until December. Physically I want to run another marathon. A 2:30:20 marathon PR is painful because it is less than one second per mile away from being a 2:2X marathoner. Mentally, I feel like I have already climbed Everest. Financially, I don't want to blow all of my money and I am really enjoying paying off my debt.

Honestly, I have been trying hard not to think of Everest and Nepal and I am doing a decent job of that. I am certainly not quitting mountaineering, there are five mountains in Pakistan I am interested in attempting, not to mention plenty of little routes in the USA I have not tried.

What does my future hold? I don't know. Regardless, I would like to get out to Colorado, or maybe even Washington, over New Year's for some technical mountaineering if anyone wants to join.