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Archive for December, 2017

As the wife and I wandered around in London this past May, we stumbled across Kew Gardens which is a botanical gardens located in the western part of London around 11 miles from where we were staying. We had to take a couple of trains to get there. Most of the sights that the average visitor sees in London are concentrated within a 2 mile radius of the center of London, extending out from the UK Parliament building. But Kew Gardens is not close to that, it takes a little effort to get there. It’s also not one of the places that all the guidebooks tell you to go.

I used to live in England for 18 months, (technically 15 since I spent 3 months traveling around the world and wasn’t in the country) and I had been to London several times (I didn’t live there, I lived in a town about 90 miles west). But I had never heard of Kew Gardens.

We don’t normally visit botanical gardens, so we figured we check this one out.

I was amazed by it. There are lots and lots of little exhibits and greenhouses within it, including one where they grow a bunch of tropical plants despite it being the middle of London – a city not known for its tropical weather, or even nice weather. I thought that was cool.

But the place that blew me away was a little museum house that housed the paintings of a woman/philanthropist that traveled the world in the 19th century, taking pictures of all the places she had been to – The Marianne North Gallery. And, she had been to a lot.

Marianne North created a lot of paintings. According to the website, she did 883. I took a few pictures of some of the various walls.

I was so impressed by Kew Gardens and this museum that every time I hear that friends are going to London, I tell them to check this place out. I don’t think anyone ever does, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending it. It’s cheap to get in, and it’s not that busy.

2017-12-30-KewGardens1

In the picture above, you can see all the paintings by Marianne North on one of the walls; each wall had more paintings, and the building has several rooms. You can even go upstairs and look around the top.

The walls are divided into areas of the world, you can see in the picture above that they are divided into Singapore and Japan.

2017-12-30-KewGardens2

There’s also a lot of paintings of plants, like flowers, herbs, and trees. So many of them are native to the part of the world she visited.

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I don’t remember what’s going on here, so I assume that this is the wife’s favorite picture.

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Finally, I took a picture against a mosque, but I don’t know what country it’s from. However, it reminds me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey so that’s why I took the photo.

I remember thinking that North’s life work will live on decades and centuries after she has passed on. I then thought to myself that I don’t have anything similar. Sure, I’m fighting spam and malware, but that’s more of a treadmill than something that lasts and which others can admire long after I am gone.


I’m not always this impressed with the places I visit. For sure, I enjoy so much of what I go see – museums, theaters, restaurants, botanical gardens, even mountainous locations. However, what I like is the sense of wonder I get from going to out-of-the-way places that I had no idea even existed, and seeing that there is so much work put into it. I love having my expectations shattered.

That’s one of the best things about traveling.

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Over the past several years, whenever the wife and I have traveled, we’ve mostly stayed in AirBNB’s rather than staying in a hotel. I’ve even used this tactic when I travel (alone) for work in that I sometimes stay (by myself) in an AirBNB rather than a hotel where the conference is taking place. I’ve done this in San Francisco and in Philadelphia.

Yet this year, we’ve discovered that staying in a hotel is not so bad. There are advantages both ways.

For AirBNB:

  • It costs less, which is especially important if you are footing the bill
  • It’s a more authentic experience
  • You can sometimes get more stuff, that is, the host will give you travel tips and brochures

But there are drawbacks:

  • Sometimes you only get a single room in a house where the owner also lives
  • The facilities are sometimes underwhelming (lack of amenities like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)
  • The location may be quite noisy

The wife always used to eschew hotels, but this year we stayed in one on four separate occasions – in Sonoma, CA in February; in London, England in May; and in New York, NY in September; and in Toronto, Canada in October.

The wife enjoyed the first one because there was a lot of on-site facilities like a spa and she had a free pass to go in and enjoy it. In the second one, it was a last-minute booking (we did it from the airport in London) and it was a nice location. It was in downtown London,  was a good location since it was close to everything, and had nice facilities. The wife keeps asking me “When are we going to stay in a fancy hotel again?”

In both cases, the cost of the hotel was either covered by another company, or by credit card points.

But what we both notice is that we like staying at slightly nicer places. We’ve stayed in lesser-quality places before and while that was fine in the past, we don’t care for it so much anymore. They are too noisy, or too hot, or not that clean, etc. I can put up with it for a while so long as I have free wifi and the place is not cold.

I didn’t think I would get pickier as I got older… yet, here I am.

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I thought I’d take issue with the list of so-called accomplishments posted on Twitter by US Vice-President Mike Pence. Here they are, in case you missed them:

2017-12-28-PenceAccomplishments

Let’s take a look them, and whether or not they are something that the Trump/Pence administration accomplished, or whether or not they would have been distinguishable from another Republican president.

1) Put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court

It’s true that President Trump put a conservative on the Supreme Court. However, this was a gift delivered to him by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell when we refused, for nearly a year, to give President Obama’s Supreme Court pick a confirmation vote in the Senate.

McConnell could get away with this because the Republicans had a majority before Trump was elected and therefore could (unethically) delay the vote until a new President was sworn in later that year, rolling the dice that it could be a Republican rather than a Democrat. His gamble worked, and a Republican candidate won. Obama’s pick was withdrawn by the new President.

President Trump then was given a list of candidates, provided to him by conservative groups. He then submitted the candidate and in a more-or-less partisan vote, the Senate approved him because Republicans still control the Senate. All the Trump/Pence administration had to do was say “Okay, we’ll take this guy” and that’s what they did.

Thus, rather than crediting the Presidency with this victory, we should be giving it to Senator Mitch McConnell. There is no differentiating factor between Trump/Pence and another, generic Republican candidate. Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Jeb Bush, etc. would have picked the same candidate, or someone ideologically similar.

Of course, McConnell’s lack of foresight has set up precedent for when control of the Senate swings to Democrats. If that happens, and a Supreme Court justice steps down or dies, and it’s the final year of a presidency, then the Democratic Speaker of the House can reasonably say “We don’t nominate Supreme Court judges in the final year of a presidency.”

It’s utter nonsense… but that’s how the political game will be played from here on. Supreme Court judges will start planning their retirement based upon their political leanings, and political trends in the nation. That’s not how it is supposed to work, the judiciary is supposed to be non-political.

2) Repealed the Obamacare Individual Mandate

The Republicans earlier this year tried and failed to repeal Obamacare. But they succeeded in repealing the individual mandate (you have to buy health insurance or pay a tax) by including it as part of the Trump Tax Cut.

Obamacare isn’t that complicated:

  • Insurers have to accept you even if you have a pre-existing condition
    .
  • They can only charge the highest premium of 3x the lowest premium
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  • But that means that they can’t spread out their risk. Insurance have to spread it out over young and old, healthy and sick. Otherwise, if only sick people bought health insurance, then everyone would be using it. Health insurance is only useful when you need it, and sick/old people are the ones who would use it the most.
    .
  • To prevent forcing insurance companies to take on more risk, the Individual Mandate says you have to either have health insurance, or pay a penalty (a tax). This tax is cheaper than what health insurance would be, but still. This means that young and healthy people who don’t think they need health insurance can’t opt-out of the system, they still have to buy health insurance but that means the risk is spread out

By repealing the unpopular part of Obamacare (the individual mandate), the Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are keeping the popular parts (no denying coverage, can’t charge too much more than the lowest premiums, kids can stay on parents plan until they are 26). But all of the good parts require that the bad parts go along with it. It is a fantasy that health insurance companies will not increase premiums, they have to in order to cover their risk. They will not be able to spread out the likelihood of people not getting sick (the young and healthy) and will face increased probability of people making claims (older and sicker). This necessarily means costs will rise.

This so-called accomplishment isn’t much to brag about without a replacement system to keep costs in check.

3) 1.7 million new jobs, and lowest unemployment rate in decades

All politicians love to boast about the economy while they’ve been in office, and President Trump is no different. Even though nobody can point to any policies he’s enacted that has influenced the economy (other than the magical thinking of optimism about the economy), jobs have increased according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the question is not whether or not jobs have increased, the question is are they increasing at a better rate than when Obama (or Bush) was president?

Here’s a chart of the numbers when Bush was president (in red), Obama (in blue), and Trump (in orange). In the chart below (P) means Preliminary but I have taken them as Actual numbers:

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportYou can see that the Pence is correct, 1.7 million new jobs have been created from Feb December. But is that better than under Obama? Here’s the chart again with the last 4 years of the Obama presidency, and removing both January (which Trump was not president for) and December (whose numbers have not come in):

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportLastFourYears

You can see that the numbers under Trump are actually worse than any of the years under Obama.

Here’s an exact year-by-year comparison, along with month-by-month breakdown of whether it’s doing better under Trump vs. Obama. If more jobs were created under Trump for the equivalent time period, the number is in orange. If more were under Obama, the number is in blue.

2017-12-28-BlsJobsReportYearByYear

You can see that most of the time, more jobs were created under Obama than under Trump.

So while Vice-President Mike Pence is correct when he says 1.7 million new jobs were created under the current administration, it lags behind the previous four years. 2016 started slowing down, and 2017 has slowed down even more other than October and November.

4) ISIS on the run

This appears to be referring to the Wikipedia article on territorial claims of ISIL. In 2014, the group controlled up to 110,000 km2 of territory, whereas by October 2017 they controlled about 10,000 km2 of territory in Iraq and Syria, plus whatever they controlled elsewhere (no more than 7000 km2, and at least 75-90% of that has been lost). So, according to various estimates, their territory has decreased.

Yet claiming that they are on the run is irresponsible.

  • In 2003, President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq just as an insurgency was getting underway that would last years.
  • The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban, yet is still there 16 years later still fighting the Taliban.
  • In 2014, President Obama dismissed ISIS as the “JV team”. And the past couple of years, ISIS has inspired
  • There have been numerous ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks this year in western countries and in the middle east

In other words, when terrorist organizations have been defeated, they always disperse-regroup-attack. They look for territory where the central government is weak, or even friendly, and then set up shop from which to conduct future attacks. There are several places in the world where they can move to.

It’s too premature to celebrate the defeat of ISIS because they can always lie low or morph into yet another organization.

5) Largest tax cut in American history

I’ve already written on my blog why the tax cut passed by the Republican congress isn’t as beneficial to the average American (it will lead to cuts in spending, higher inflation, and instead is a gift to the wealthy donor class that doesn’t rely upon spending the way that the general public does). This is a victory for tax-cut puritans, but not for sensible people.

It’s difficult to control for things like individual tax rate reductions, adjustments to brackets, eliminations of some deductions while new allowances are created for others, etc. Thus, the claim that it’s “the largest tax cut in American history” is difficult to verify. It doesn’t appear to be the largest tax cut in terms of rates for individuals, but instead touts the cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, and then the cuts in individual rates thrown in on top of that makes it the biggest tax cut ever.

I went and did some research on the Trump vs Reagan tax cuts and found an analysis on PBS called How the GOP tax overhaul compares to the Reagan-era tax bills. The writer compares the current tax reductions with the tax cut of 1981 by the Reagan administration, and the tax reform by Reagan’s administration in 1987. The 1981 tax cuts were basically just a tax cut with no offsets for additional income, while the 1987 tax cut was revenue neutral – it reduced some rates and raised others; it added some deductions and remove many others.

It then compares the Trump tax cuts to the previous Reagan ones, let me quote:

If the 1986 tax bill was a model of how to do fiscal reform and the 1981 tax cut was a model of how not to do it, the 2017 process emulates the less worthy of the two precedents. … Instead of aiming for revenue neutrality, as the 1986 reform did, current proposals will expand the government’s budget deficit over the next decade, at a time when an aging population will place a growing fiscal burden.

To be sure, the current proposals do not get everything wrong. Reducing the U.S. corporate income tax rate would be good policy, provided the lost revenue could be paid for by eliminating business loopholes that the economy would function better without anyway, such as the corporate interest deduction and the favored treatment of carried interest. But the legislation cuts the corporate tax rate too much and limits these deductions too little to come anywhere near meeting the criterion of revenue neutrality.

The last bolded piece pairs well with another bullet point from the article:

The claim is that reduced tax rates will stimulate GDP so much that overall receipts will stay the same or even rise. When one hears these claims today, one might not guess that the argument, which was made by Presidents Reagan and Bush as well as by their political advisors, has been rejected by many mainstream economists, including the economic advisers to those two presidents. More importantly, when the tax cuts went ahead anyway, the theory failed miserably: Both times, budget deficits increased sharply.

Back in April of this year, the president and some of his advisers were making the claim that the tax cuts would grow the economy and therefore they would pay for themselves. Lately, however, supporters of the cut (like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) have backed off that claim, saying “nobody knows if they will pay for themselves as that’s in the future”.

They’ve put in these caveats so that when the deficit does increase, they can say they never said the tax cuts would pay for themselves, as they seem to be heeding the advice of economists. But if tax receipts do go up, they can claim clairvoyance (“See? We told you it would be a good thing!”). It’s a good position to be in, if you can sell it.

But the reality is that these tax cuts will cause additional fiscal strain, and the “biggest tax cut in American history” is being passed for the sake of cutting taxes regardless of the long term outlook, and not for actual tax reform. In other words, the vice-president’s boast is, once again, nothing to boast about if we’re talking about doing things in the interest of the American public.

If we’re talking about doing things that benefit a narrow slice of special interests, then by all means, yes – this is quite the accomplishment.

I just don’t think it’s something to be proud of.

 

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Disclaimer – If you haven’t read my disclaimer yet, make sure you do so here. TL;DR version – Buyer beware, I am not an expert, I am fumbling my way through this like the rest of you.

Also, I hold a little bit of Bitcoin and Ethereum.


The promise certainly sounds good

Blockchain promises us something absolutely amazing – the decentralization of everything:

  • Whereas all currencies today are run by central governments, Bitcoin is not controlled by anybody because it is decentralized and therefore nobody can manipulate it
    .
  • Whereas platforms are built on private corporations’ servers, Ethereum is not controlled by anybody because it is a decentralized platform that nobody can manipulate
    .
  • Whereas all of our data is controlled by a handful of big companies, files stored on the blockchain are distributed everywhere so nobody can control it

This promise of decentralization is key to the entire value proposition of blockchain.

But tech has touted the benefits of decentralization before, and it didn’t live up to the hype.

The idea behind networks and the network effect is that you have a bunch of nodes that are more-or-less evenly connected, so that everyone can learn from everyone else. This is the grand bargain behind social networks – by sharing information, the best and most correct ideas will bubble to the top while the wrong and worst ideas will fade away. Information wants to be free – and shared – and therefore reason and logic will win the day because of the free flow of information. Good ideas survive (eventually), bad ideas are disproven (eventually) .

That’s what we were promised.

The reality looks way different

But it’s not how it turned out. Social networking, far from having a unifying affect on people, has turned out to have the opposite effect. It’s made us more divided than ever. And, far from weeding out the bad ideas, it turns out that wrong ideas flourish in social networks.

The reason is (partly) because in a social network, nodes are not evenly distributed where information flows freely amongst everyone. Instead, it turns out that there are bottlenecks everywhere. Groups are localized among each other, and connected via super-connectors (pictured in blue in the diagram below). We stay by ourselves in our groups and only occasionally interact with the outside world, and it’s done via the super-connectors.

This ends up suppressing the free flow of information, and reinforcing our own particular points of view, since information depends upon whether or not they can get through the chokepoints.

The tech industry seems baffled about why this occurred. Wasn’t information supposed to be free? Didn’t it want to be free? Wasn’t free expression and debate supposed to sift out the bad ideas? How could this be? [1]

Yet this was entirely foreseeable. The decentralization of information has occurred before, the Internet is not the first time. The most obvious example is the Protestant Reformation. Whereas Christian theology used to be centralized in the Catholic church, the Protestant Reformation’s rallying cry was that all people could be their own priests, and everyone could interpret holy scripture for themselves. The interpretation of divine revelation was meant to be free, not centralized.

While the Reformation succeeded in reforming the Church, it also caused a lot of divisiveness, wars of religion, and tens of thousands of splinter denominations. That’s what happens when you decentralize, anyone can come up with a particular view; and then if you have enough skillz to make a particular outlook popular, you can get people to join along with you and embiggen your group. I suspect Martin Luther did not foresee that people, upon interpreting scripture for themselves, would come up with such different interpretations and would form splinter groups as much as they did.

In the same way, tech did not foresee how the decentralization of information on the Internet would lead to the insulation of people seeking to reinforce their own particular viewpoints and biases, rather than seeking diversity of opinion in a quest for truth. Yes, that exists. I do it, you do it, we all do it. But we also prefer to reinforce our own viewpoints in many areas of our lives.

As a representative of the tech industry who was caught off guard by this, I plead guilty. I don’t know whether or not I should have known better back then… but I certainly do now. The results of decentralization can be mixed [2].

What happens when we apply it to new technology?

Which brings me back to Blockchain. As I said earlier, its biggest premise is decentralization. Yet decentralization is a mixed bag. Will it deliver on its promises? Or will it fall flat? Or worse, will the results be mixed such that we become so dependent on the good that we can’t roll back the bad, lest we simultaneously rollback the good?

Bitcoin has been a roller coaster since its inception. It’s up bigly since it was created but has undergone massive corrections of 30-60% every few months (it recently corrected 45% from its peak this past December 2017, and only took a week to do it). Is this massive volatility a temporary thing until Bitcoin stabilizes as it gets more adoption? Or, is volatility a feature of Bitcoin because of its decentralized nature, where anyone can come in and buy/sell with no financial oversight?

 

All this volatility is not a good thing; between buyers and sellers, if the medium of exchange is likely to fluctuate wildly, then what you pay is likely to be far different than what you agreed upon. That makes it less likely you will want to use it as a medium of exchange which was one of Bitcoin’s original benefits – to act as a decentralized currency (although as I have said before, it behaves more as a store-of-value since the IRS treats the dispersion of your Bitcoins as a taxable event).

Thus, when it comes to using blockchain as a currency, decentralization has the benefits of being a deflationary currency that is resistant to manipulation by central banks, but it’s still potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the millions of end users who have their own ideas of what digital currency is, and what it should be, and then shunt it off from its original purpose.

I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing.

What about decentralized applications? Those act as a currency (sort of) and as a platform to build stuff on. I don’t know about those, maybe they are useful and maybe they aren’t. For sure, blockchain promises to be disruptive. There are some like Ripple and IOTA that solve real problems; Ripple is criticized for being a private implementation of a blockchain, which conceptually it isn’t but in practice it kind of is. But even if Ripple is pseudo-private, is that a bad thing (because it undermines the concept of blockchain as a decentralized application) or a good thing (since it means it can’t be accosted by “do it yourselfers”)?

I think that this is one of the fundamental known-unknowns with blockchain. Decentralization may be awesome.

But then again, it may be yet another false prophet.

 


[1] This blog post is inspired by an article I read in Foreign Affairs magazine (I am a subscriber), see The False Prophecy of Hyperconnection – How to survive in a networked age. It’s behind a paywall, though.

[2] For more on the Reformation, see Majority believe Reformation was divisive, but justified

 

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You know how you’re supposed to drink 8 glasses of water a day, but almost nobody does it?

Well, I do it, and have been for the past several weeks.

Why, you ask?

I was at my massage therapist, getting a massage. I have a lot of crunchiness in my back and shoulder muscles, every time I get a massage the therapist comments on it. And after every massage, they tell me to drink plenty of water. Of course, everybody says that.

But this time, the therapist told me something that made me change my behavior – drinking plenty of water helps with the “crunch, crunch, crunch” of my muscles. Or rather, it helps to make the fascia (the layer of tissue surrounding the muscles) more malleable and less crunchy.

That made me think.

I have back issues, like everybody else in America (okay, only 80%). If drinking more water was going to help fix things, then I would give it a try.

I started by actually measuring how much water I drink per day, and it turns out that on average I was already drinking 7 cups. If I have a cup of water at work at lunch, the paper cups are actually two regular size cups of water (that is, 8 oz + 8 oz = 16 oz). I have a glass of water at dinner, which is another 16 oz (two cups). For breakfast, I was having a cup of coffee (which counts towards your water content) and a smaller glass of water, and that added up to three cups (24 oz). But often that would be all the liquid I would consume during the day.

I decided to bump up my morning glass of water to two cups (16 oz) and a cup of coffee which is 12 oz; so, altogether, on an average day I would be at 7.5 cups of water and would only need to have an additional 1/2 cup (6 oz) to fill up my quota. That’s manageable, so usually at work I’ll have a cup of green tea or in rare cases, another cup of water. That puts me at my daily minimum.

I haven’t noticed any health changes yet, but I haven’t been back to the massage therapist either. I’m curious to see if it helped.

I better not have drank all this water for nothing.

2017-12-26-EightGlassesOfWater

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As I’ve posted before, this past September the wife and I went to New York City where I was invited to participate in a customer panel (that is, the company I work for is a customer of another company, so they flew a bunch of representatives down to NYC for a couple of days). This was right before we went to Toronto for another conference I attended for work.

For many years, I had heard about New York pizza. I was never sure why it was such a big deal. What differentiated it from normal pizza? Sure, I could have Google/Binged it, but I never did. I don’t eat that much pizza anyhow, so it never was a burning issue for me.

But while I was in New York, I had my first New-York-pizza experience (I had pizza in New York in 2007, but I don’t think it was what’s normally thought-of as New York pizza). What makes it so special? Well, assuming what I ate for lunch was representative of New York pizza and not just some particular restaurant’s style:

  • First, the crust is much thicker. Like, a half-inch thick. Most pizza you get from the store or order from a pizza place (Domino’s, Pizza Hut) is thinner that New York pizza. I had a piece of it that was a regular size, and I was basically full (I ate a 1/2 piece more). It was an ordeal eating the slice of pizza, it was so thick.
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  • Second, it was way saucier than a normal pizza. I had to eat it with a fork and knife, it was so saucy and rich.

It’s really not similar to any pizza I normally eat. I’ve had Domino’s or Pizza Hut that people have ordered in; I’ve cooked frozen pizza I’ve gotten from Trader Joe’s; I’ve had cook-at-home pizza that people gotten from Papa John’s; I’ve gone to restaurants after hiking with the wife and ordered pizza. Not a single one of them was similar to New York pizza.

I don’t know that I would want all pizza I ordered to be like New York pizza, it’s just too rich for me.

But I sure am glad I tried it.

2017-12-26-NewYorkPizza

The picture above I got from Google, and would be an example of a thin-crust version of what I had.

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Earlier this year, I took a Masterclass – Steve Martin teaches comedy. It’s a series of 24 lessons, each one between 10 and 15 minutes, about how to become a better comedian. It also has a workbook for you to follow along and do the exercises. I finished the classes in about 4 1/2 weeks, but I never really did the exercises (I’m a bad student, I know). Still, I retained a bunch of the knowledge.

I am not a funny person. Occasionally I will say funny things and people will laugh, but I don’t have the knack for making people laugh. Usually, it’s by accident or because I’ve copied it from someone else.

I don’t have any intention of becoming a comedian, but I thought I could work it into my performances – either when I do magic, or when I give talks/presentations at conferences.

I’ve known that I’m an average performer when it comes to magic; I can hold people’s attention for one trick and perhaps two, but I can’t carry an entire performance on my own. I’m at my best when I do a single trick by itself, and work it in that way. I don’t think people would pay to see me they way they would pay to see a professional comedian.

But that’s okay, I have no desire to be a famous comedian. I just want to be a better performer. I’ve taken some classes on it before, and this would help boost my skills. While I’m not the best performer around, I know I’m better than most of the speakers at conferences I go to.

There’s a few things that stuck with me from the Steve Martin comedy class, but the one that does the most is this – Use Everything. That is, if you look at opera performances they have lighting, and music, and costume, and staging… the whole nine yards. Comedy shows usually don’t. Therefore, as a comedian you should use everything you possibly can. Steve Martin used to use physical comedy in his routines (doing goofy things and making funny faces) and would also incorporate music.

The takeaway I got from that is to use everything I have when I do magic shows and talks at conferences. Or rather, when I give talks at conferences, use everything I have. I had already been doing this (open body position, arm motions, animations, and magic tricks), but now I do them on purpose. In order for me to give a good show, I should be using everything I can possibly use – music, magic, body language, facial expressions, funny voices, etc. So while I may not be able to say funny jokes, I can do funny things that are unique to me. I already have a reputation as someone who moves around a lot on stage, and does a lot of motion.

Looking back on my previous magic performances, I can see I didn’t necessarily do this. I have some magic tricks that are entertaining and can hold a crowd. But a lot of tricks are just… tricks. I am not differentiating them. That makes me a decent magician but not a great performer, only an average one.

So here’s my tip to the performers out there – use everything you have. It’ll make you a better performer.

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A liquid paleo-diet

One of the books I read this year is Antifragile, Nassim Taleb. It’s kind of a hard book to describe, if you haven’t heard of it I suggest you read the reviews on Amazon or do your own Internet search to find out what it’s about (I may write about it later).

2017-12-25-Antifragile

But one of the things that stuck with me is how Taleb has a rule for the things he consumers as food and beverage – I don’t remember the food part, but he says he never drinks anything that hasn’t been around for at least 1000 years. He does this because the human body probably hasn’t had time to adjust to the new-fangled sugary-inventions that have appeared on the consumer market, and are therefore to be treated with suspicion. Our bodies just can’t process the influx of sugar or chemicals that is a regular part of the western diet.

I decided to copy this rule. This means I can drink water, wine, tea, coffee, and beer. I also drink milk but only a couple of tablespoons in my coffee. But if I did drink more than that, it would also be acceptable.

This also means that beverages like Coke, Pepsi (any sugary drink), Red Bull, Iced Tea, milkshakes, iced lattes, anything other than drip coffee from Starbucks, hot chocolate, and even orange juice is out. They are all fairly recent inventions. Orange juice is pretty sugary, so that’s not acceptable despite people saying they need the nutrients (you can get all the vitamins and nutrients you need just by eating fruit). Even Vitamin Water is not acceptable.

I had already been doing this for a couple of years now, but now I am more rigidly enforcing it. It greatly simplifies my dietary choices, and I really like that. Each of the things I can choose from – wine, beer, tea, coffee, and water – I like. I have no problem drinking any of them. And three of them – water, tea, coffee – are either no calories or almost no calories. And over the past year, I’ve gradually swapped out beer for wine, which processes in your body differently.

I took many things away from Antifragile, but this one has stuck with me the most.

 

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In a switch to something I never thought I’d do, I recently added something to my diet: oatmeal.

Growing up, on weekends my family would occasionally have oatmeal for breakfast, although we called it porridge. And I never liked it. In fact, it was my least favorite breakfast food.

In my view, it tasted like goopy glop. It would be spooned into my bowl where it was kind of runny, and then I added milk (the way I would for all cereal – why would porridge be any different?). That made it even more unpalatable (why didn’t I learn?). In order for me to be able to eat it, I’d add several heaping teaspoons of brown sugar.

It kind of looked like this, only much runnier:

2017-12-25-GoopeyOatmeal

I would regularly be asked if I wanted more. There was not a single time I said yes. Not even once, in 20 years. My brother and sister didn’t seem to mind it, and I ate it only because I had to. But I did not like it (a sentiment I share with my aunt). After I moved out, I cut back on it. In fact, the number of times I’ve voluntarily eaten oatmeal in the past ten years is… zero.

However, it turns out that it may not be true that I dislike oatmeal, but perhaps only disliked the texture and mouth feel of the way we used to make it. What if it were made more solid?

I don’t like the feel of goop and glop in my mouth, and that was always my association with oatmeal. But one time in an airport, in the lounge, there was free food for breakfast. I saw that it was oatmeal. Normally I wouldn’t bother eating it, but I peeked in and saw that the oatmeal was semi-solid. That intrigued me.

I took a bowl and put a couple of tablespoons in it, then sat down and ate it. To my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. It was a little chewy, but not at all goopy or gloppy. It kind of resembled this:

2017-12-25-Oatmeal

A few weeks later, I was browsing through Fred Meyer where I got the bright idea of buying some breakfast oatmeal. I know that the wife would buy it sometimes, but I had no idea what version. I just wanted something not too sugary because that would defeat its purpose. I wanted to try oatmeal to switch up from eating toast in the morning, I wanted to diversify some of my grains from wheat to oats.

I read through a few packages and just ended up getting rolled oats. The next morning, I came down for breakfast and heated up a 1/2 cup of water, put in the packet of oatmeal, and let it cook for one minute. I removed from heat and put it into a bowl.

I took it to the kitchen table, ate it, and the verdict was… not bad. I could eat this without sugar. And I also ate it without milk. It was mostly chewy, but not really goopey or gloppy. I considered it an acceptable substitute for a slice of toast, and probably healthier as I usually put butter or honey on my toast whereas I can eat oatmeal plain.

I don’t necessarily eat it every day (sometimes I substitute eggs, or a second slice of toast) so I don’t get tired of eating it.

But it turns out that all this time, I was eating oatmeal the wrong way. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.

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Another one of the changes I’ve done so far in 2017 is try to improve my understanding of foreign affairs. I’ve always been interested in politics, and I understand that blogs and web articles aren’t always the best place to read it since people are frequently biased. The reason I did this is because while some Americans don’t care about expert opinions anymore, this American still does.

So here’s what I did:

First, I get daily emails from Foreign Affairs today.

At first I only wanted to read the free articles or so, but I discovered that I wanted more. I signed up for a subscription which only cost $50/year, and each day I get an article or two in my email inbox. When something sounds interesting, I click the link and read it.

Second, I read the magazine they send me.

Foreign Affairs originally consisted of a magazine and not online articles, and a lot of what appears in their magazine is duplicated from the articles they send me. But, the magazine comes with the $50 annual subscription. It comes once every two months, and it’s typically filled with about 20-30 articles. I read them all.

What I do is every couple of days, I read one, two, or three articles. Then I go back to the front of the magazine with a pen and put a checkmark next to the subject so I can tell which ones I’ve read and which ones I haven’t. I try to make it through all of them before the next issue rolls around.

So far, with the latest two magazines, I’ve been successful.

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Third, I listen to The President’s Inbox podcast

I like listening to podcasts, and one I started listening to this year is The President’s Inbox, which is a roundup of opinions of the international and domestic issues facing the US president. They put out a new article once every couple of weeks, and I think I’ve listened to almost all of them since I started listening to it this past spring.

I find these podcasts informative, it tells me things that I never would have learned otherwise and gives me insights that I previously never would have had.

Heck, even the wife listened to a podcast one time.

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So, those are the changes I made this year. I even thought about joining the US Council on Foreign Relations which is made up of a group of influential people in the US. People like former military leaders, think tank leaders, politicians, newspaper editors, etc. The only problem is you can’t just join. There’s an entry fee (fine) but you also have to be recommended by three or four other members.

I browsed through the list of 1000 people and the number of people I know is … zero. No, scratch that, I know that my Congressman is a member. Maybe I could ask him to recommend me.

But I don’t know anyone else, so that’s a problem I have to solve. I’ll leave that for 2018.

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One the changes that we’ve made this past year is in how we purchase meat. We used to get it from the grocery store, that is, Trader Joe’s or Fred Meyer or the Asian grocery store.

However, for the past few weeks we’ve also started getting it from an actual butcher shop which is close to the Trader Joe’s from where we live.

I’m keenly aware of this quaint practice. Back in the olden days, people would have used to do this all the time. It was normal, you get your meat from the butcher shop. But as America transformed into big box retail, the supermarket became the selection-of-choice for everything you want to buy.

Why go to the butcher shop?

We did it on a whim one day, and were impressed with the selection. Stuff does cost more from there, yes. But it also tastes better, and it might even have a better fresh meat selection than a number of larger stores. And I also feel good about supporting local business.

So that’s one of the changes we’ve made this year.

ButcherShop

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I’m getting a tax cut. Oh, joy!

This past week, President Trump signed into law a tax cut passed by the House and the Senate without a single Democrat vote. The tax cut lowers the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21%, reduces the tax rates on the various income brackets, and repeals the individual mandate part of Obamacare. It also retains a slew of other tax breaks for wealthy individuals.

You might think I’m saying to myself “Oh, boy! I’m getting a tax cut! More money in my paycheck!”

But I’m not. I think that this tax cut is a bad idea. I used to write on this blog about 10 years ago that tax cuts were a good idea since it put more money into the hands of people who were likely to reinvest it in the economy and grow it, resulting in more jobs and prosperity for everyone. I have since reversed my position on that, tax cuts don’t make sense except at certain times. Now is not one of those times.

Why do I say this?

I calculated how much I will save on income tax. It’ll be about $7000. That’s nothing to sneeze at but I am an outlier. The Republicans have tried talking up the fact that the average family will save about $2000, and what working family wouldn’t want to save an additional $2000? Yet this claim is misleading because averages are skewed towards wealthier individuals. I am not wealthy, but you can see that my $7000 skews that average upwards. If there are five families getting an average of $2000, then that means that my $7000 takes up 70% of the break, leaving $3000 for everyone else – about $750 for the other four families. So even though the average is $2000, the reality is that the “average” family gets no where close to that. And the really wealthy individuals skew that much more than I ever could.

In reality, an average American family might get a $1000, or less than $100/month.

Still, you may say “But that’s $1000 they wouldn’t normally have! They should be grateful!”

Should they?

First, the Republican tax cut is going to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, which means that in order to pay for its financial and debt obligations, the government will have to print more money. Printing more money will lead to inflation, which means that extra $1000/year is eaten up because the buying power of a dollar is now less than it otherwise would have been. Inflation is always present, but now it will accelerate.

Second, the individual mandate repeal of Obamacare means that people no longer have to buy health insurance. That means that young people can leave the market place, leaving only less healthy people to buy insurance. That means that health insurance companies have to charge more because whereas they used to be able to spread out the health risk among youth and healthy, sick and old, now they have sick and old and far fewer young and healthy.

This means that health insurance companies will have to charge more, which means that people will have to spend more buying their own health insurance, or employers will have to pay more to provide health insurance for their employees, or employer health plans will not cover as much. In all cases, consumer or employer buying power is reduced because money they normally wouldn’t have had to spend on health insurance now goes towards purchasing the exact same product.

Third, there will be cuts to government programs. This means that the private market has to make up the gap, which means that services that used to cost a certain amount will now cost a little bit more; or, service times will take longer meaning that people will have to wait for those services longer, and the longer we wait the less productive we are. Government spending on large projects – such as public transportation – scale much better than when private enterprise does it because of the economies of large scale. Only government has the ability to invest over a multi-year or decade timeframe, which ends up providing benefits for all of its citizens.

Fourth, eventually the bill will come due. Guess whose generation gets to pay for it down the road?

Yeah, that’s why I’m not that excited for this new tax cut. And I’m not alone, a large majority of American disapprove of it also.

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For the first six years that I’ve lived in the Seattle area, I’ve had to drive to work. It was simply too far to walk as it would have taken 1.5 – 2 hours every day to get in. But in 2013 we moved closer to work and since then I’ve been able to walk. It takes between 20 and 30 minutes depending upon what building I am working in (the company moves us around a lot). I walk almost every day except when (a) it’s pouring rain in the winter (or snowing), or (b) it’s really cold, or (c) I have to go somewhere before or after work. So, basically I’d been walking to work for about 4 years.

However, earlier this year the company temporarily moved my team to downtown Bellevue, a distance of about 5 miles. This is too far to walk, it would take me two hours both ways so I had to drive in.

I was ambivalent about moving to a high rise in downtown Bellevue, but it turned out that I liked it for the most part. I could listen to the radio on the way in and the way home, and I liked being in the middle of all the action in downtown (there are lots of good restaurants around there, as well as being across the street from a shopping mall). I think most people enjoyed working in the downtown office, including myself.

The drawback was that I missed walking into work. I would deliberately park further away while working downtown so I still had to walk about 10 minutes to get to my office (if I took the stairs to the 11th floor). And, if I wanted to walk during the day, I had to motivate myself to do it during a break in the middle of the day, which I didn’t always do.

After moving back to the main campus, I started walking to work again. I realized that I really missed those early and late walks because I would listen to podcasts on the way. I never did that while driving to work, and only once in a while did it when going for a mid-afternoon walk or in the evening when I would try to catch up on my 10,000 steps. Not only that, but walking to work – depending on the building I am in – is a “free” 6000-7500 steps because it’s part of my daily commute of 20-30 minutes. When driving to work, it took 30 minutes but I would only get about 1000 steps each way, so I had to make them up in the evening somehow.

This is now part of the problem of living and working where I am living and working. I like walking to work because it’s decent exercise that I would otherwise struggle to get. It’s close by so if I ever have to drive, it takes less than 10 minutes; if I have to walk, it takes about 30 minutes.

If I want to switch jobs, my commute will increase as I will either have to drive or take the bus (or both). That means it will, once again, be more difficult to get my daily step count. And if I had to commute into Seattle, it would take me more than 30 minutes to get in, probably 45 minutes at a minimum. In rain, it would probably take 60-90 minutes.

I am fortunate that I enjoy doing what I’m doing, but on the other hand I sometimes wonder if I should try something different just for a change of pace. I hear all the time that it’s unusual for someone to stay in the same job for decades, yet that’s what I have done for the past 13.5 years. But I don’t want to extend my commute because a long commute time is one of the biggest causes of life-dissatisfaction. I’ve driven across the bridges in this city during rush hour, and it’s not fun. Even on the bus, it sucks the life out of your day.

But for now, I guess I’ll sit back and enjoy the ride.

I mean walk.

 

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If you’ve ever had a cat, you’ll know that they can be kind of quirky. Our cat Ruby has more quirks than our other cat Zelda (by far). However, Zelda has a couple of quirks of her own.

One of them that she has developed this past year is wanting to stand or lie down in the bathroom sink. For you see, after I eat breakfast, I head up to the bathroom to brush my teeth and all that, and the cats usually follow me up shortly thereafter. Most of the time, they want to jump on the window sill so I’ll open the window and they can look out. That’s one of their favorite activities.

Both cats do that, but lately for some reason Zelda’s goal has simply been to lay down in the sink. What she’ll do is she’ll jump on the toilet and then hop onto the sink (after I’ve gotten to the bathroom, never before) and then start walking around the edge of the sink. And frequently she will stand in the sink, and sometimes she’ll even lie down in the sink!

I say “Uh, Zelda, what are you doing?”

Sometimes she starts trying to drink from the faucet, so I’ll turn it on a little bit, and then she’ll drink. Then, when she lays down in the sink, I’ll turn on the tap so it dribbles on her a little bit, and then I gradually turn it up so she gets more wet.

But it doesn’t bother her that much. She lets it run on her for about 15 seconds before finally getting up and starts sniffing, then pawing, the running water. And this entire time she’s asking for pets on her back and head. Zelda is not normally a cuddly cat, but once in a while she is.

Eventually she gets bored and jumps down. And a good thing, too, because I have to brush my teeth. You might ask “Why don’t you just kick her out of the sink?”

I can’t do that. You’d understand if you had a cat.

2017-12-10-BeanersInTheSink

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Today, I turned 39.

I know a lot of people start freaking out about the passage of time, and getting older and whatnot, especially as 40 years of age approaches. And sometimes, I do too.

But for the most part I don’t.

My birthday was lower-key this year than in years previous. We were a little tight for time. I had to go to church to run the lights, and afterwards the wife and I went to Costco to get groceries (we’re real swingers here, doing responsible things and all).

We came home to put stuff away, and saw that the guy who was doing some work on our bathroom was gone. So, after quickly changing clothes, we headed off for lunch in Seattle to the restaurant of my choice – Cafe Turko!

You may recall that we went there last year for my birthday, although that was a Saturday evening and this was a Sunday afternoon. Since we went last year, we hadn’t returned. It’s not that easy for us to get to due to Seattle traffic, the only exception to this is on weekends.

Just like last year, we started off with the rainbow hummus which has four kinds – regular, sweet potato, beet, and olive (or something green, it may not have been olive). The wife then got a Turkish black tea and some lentil soup, while I got some lamb dish with rice and salad. For dessert, I got a Turkish coffee and some havlah with chocolate on it.

Speaking of havlah, it’s an eastern European powdery-dessert dish that the wife and I really like. But no one else seems to. I’m not sure why that is.

We came home, and an hour or two later I had to head off again to help out with a youth group where I am one of the assistants. Finally, I returned home where we relaxed a little bit while the sun went down on my 39th birthday.

As for next year, my 40th, what will I do? I’m not sure. I was thinking of having a big party but I’ve realized that December is not a good month for a birthday. On weekends, people are either out visiting family, or doing office Christmas parties, or going to friends’ parties, or doing church events. That means they are typically booked up which means that I’d be (probably) out of luck next year with respect to scheduling unless I promised a massively great party (note: I am not a good party planner).

But it doesn’t matter. The fact is I am another year older, and I’ve enjoyed the past 365 days. I discovered I like wine much more than I used to; my neck pain has reduced; and I even got a promotion at work. So it’s not all bad.

And, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year holds.

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