Categories
housing

A Basic Necessity – Part 4

Why did we return to America after ten years in Japan? Our primary goal was to expose our kids to American culture, to give them alternatives to the Japanese education system’s conveyor belt to forty years of corporate servitude. Next, we wanted to be close to my family. That goal was quickly satisfied, and didn’t seem so important now. We also wanted to enjoy some of the unique things America had to offer (for example, National Parks), and to give me the opportunity to work from home. Most of all, we craved a sense of permanency (as much as anything could be permanent in life), after having rented and moved from place to place around Japan’s Shonan Coast for ten years. We wanted a home of our own.

But the economy wasn’t cooperating. For the two years since returning from Japan, my mind was imprisoned in a hellish vortex of agony, depression, and rage over the insane rise of housing costs in America that just happened to coincide with our return.

In A Basic Necessity – Part 1, I established a bit of context by looking at the house-price-to-household-income ratio over time, which rose from about 2:1 in 1970 to 10:1 in 2020 (in our area).

In A Basic Necessity – Part 2, I cursed our bad luck at returning to America at the peak of such an unprecedented rise in housing costs, and tracked housing prices as they shot up another 50% while interest rates doubled – in a span of two years. I concluded that paying off a house was an impossible long-term goal for almost all would-be, first-time home-buyers (which included us, as we hadn’t owned residential real estate in America for seven years or more).

In A Basic Necessity – Part 3, I took a look at the American debt culture that made this shocking phenomenon invisible to existing home-owners (low interest meant low monthly payments), and I did some math to conclude that the throw-away money on rent in our area was actually less than the throw-away money involved in buying a house, even considering the rise in equity over time.

Fast-forwarding to the present, I needed to escape this spinning vortex of self-inflicted mental pain, and settle our housing situation once and for all. For two years we had been renting a small duplex on a shabby, low-income street – a depressing stretch of junk-covered lawns, lowlifes, and broken-down cars. Our boys were growing fast, and this place felt smaller with every passing month. I cursed every time I prepared food in our tiny, one-person kitchen. Our living conditions were a significant downgrade compared to the places we had lived in Japan, or compared to anywhere I had lived since college.

In this latest installment of A Basic Necessity, I would commit to overcoming our particular housing problem and help my family realize their dreams in the upcoming year.

The first step to solving any problem was defining it. What was the problem we faced, exactly? Or, to be more precise, how did I perceive the problem? Were things really as bad as they seemed?

When we first moved here at the end of 2020 the problem was low supply, extreme demand. Competition among buyers was like the opening round of Hunger Games, with people tearing each other’s eyes out in terrible death matches that would award a blood-soaked winner the privilege of paying 20% or more above an already super-inflated price (plus sexual favors for life to the seller, and the sacrifice of a child or two). By the summer of 2021 this FOMO frenzy had reached such levels of insanity that I abandoned any hope of finding us a suitable house.

Today, the first day of 2023, the seller’s market did not exist, thanks to high interest rates. In the last half of 2022, housing sales plummeted and house prices fell a few percentage points month over month. We were potential cash buyers, so high interest rates gave us an edge.

On the other hand, a buyer’s market did not exist either, at least not yet. Everyone was staying put. Around two-thirds of so-called homeowners in America were not owners in the true sense of the word. They paid rent to a bank in the form of a mortgage, and very few of these folks now had the financial chops to give up their low-interest loans and buy a new house – especially in a year when everything screamed “recession,” mass-layoffs, and foreclosures further down the road.

There were two other problems remaining now that the prices had leveled off. Supply was still an issue, but this situation would only get better next year.

Our other remaining problem was the risk of putting a massive stack of cash down on a house, when every economic indicator suggested that there could be a crash. This was the same reason the loathsome, big-scale investors had backed out of the market. We’d only be in America for another decade or so, which wasn’t long enough to recoup losses on a massive drop in value of a house. This problem had buried me in doubt and despair for a year or more.

But was my perception correct? Were things as hopeless as they had seemed? The reality was: if the housing market did crash after we bought a house, it wouldn’t break us. And there was no scenario in which we would lose all our money on a house. Houses were a basic necessity. Everyone needed a place to live.

Over the holidays I spoke to a few people who gently suggested that I let go of my anger over this situation, accept the new reality, and get a house.

Things might have been hopeless for future first-time, would-be home-buyers, but it was time for me to recognize that we weren’t in this group. I may have felt like the poorest person in the world in our current living conditions. I may have surrendered my lucrative job in Japan and accepted a fifty percent pay cut (as housing prices rose fifty percent). But recently I was reminded that we had more options, at least compared to 90% of the U.S.

Over the holidays a friend sent me an article on “signs of financial fitness”. It was astonishing to see such pathetic standards for “financial fitness,” and to remember how poor America really was. The debt culture had disguised the poverty of the masses, with the mentality of “how much debt can I sustain?” instead of “should I maintain debt at all?”

In sharp contrast to almost all Americans, we had always maintained zero debt, and we lived far below our means. We were sitting on a mountain of slowly-deflating U.S. dollars, just begging to be spent. Losing US$200K in a housing crash would hurt, but it would not be a life-changing event.

With that mental barrier out of the way, what were our options now? We wanted a home of our own, but what did that mean? Or, as my wife liked to ask, what was the plan?

We had checked off the box of “being close to family,” and it didn’t seem such a high priority now. My mom had originally planned to move to SLC, but then changed her mind. My brother and his family lived nearby, but they’d likely move away when their daughter graduated high school in a couple of years. Salt Lake had a lot to offer, but there was nothing keeping us here. We could go anywhere that offered a better quality of life.

In the coming year, flexibility was our friend. We would monitor the housing market in our current community, while evaluating the possibility of moving to another state. We’d spend another summer in Japan, with a loose goal of moving to a new house in the fall. It could happen before then if conditions were right.

Most of all, I vowed to maintain optimism about housing. The FOMO frenzy was over. Economic disaster for most would only mean opportunity for us. In any event, 2023 promised to be a much better year.

Categories
crafting

Adventures In 3D Printing

A couple months ago I bought a 3D printer to satisfy my interest in the technology, and for the more exact purpose of creating miniatures for tabletop gaming. Years earlier I had researched 3D printing for my novel Tokyo Green, and now I was excited to explore the technology first-hand.

My excitement abated somewhat as I struggled to overcome a steep learning curve and understand why some prints failed. 3D printers had improved in price and performance in recent years, but they weren’t exactly like a microwave oven you could just plug in and use countless times without problems.

I was always okay with a learning curve as long as it involved expanding my creative output, and it was a good thing I liked learning, because this new hobby would require an extra dose of dedication to launch.

Stereolithography (SLA) printers functioned on a simple principle: there was a vat of photosensitive liquid polymer resin that was cured and hardened with precise blasts of ultraviolet light. The bottom of the goo vat was a thin, durable, clear plastic screen called the FEP (acronym meaning?), and below the FEP was the thin LCD screen that coordinated the ultraviolet light show to cure the resin. Above the vat was a metal build plate that squished down into the goo until there was only a thin layer between the plate and FEP. This layer was cured by the UV light in the precise pattern of the digital model, designed by “slicer” software (referring to the model being designed in layers, or slices). During a print, the plate lifted, and the process repeated until the model was created, layer by layer. A simple model 30 mm (a little more than an inch) in height could require a thousand layers and take hours to print. But the detail was impressive and it was fun to create.

For the first month or so the printer operated very well. It was humming along, churning out mobs of heroes and monsters for our gaming sessions. At the end of October we stayed a couple nights at a U.S. National Park in southern Utah, and when we returned the weather had changed. It was cold, getting down to near freezing in the garage where I had set up my little printing lab. At this point the 3D prints began to fail. I contacted vendor support for advice, but meanwhile I also bought an insulated enclosure, heater, and thermostat to keep the printer within the recommended range of 20-35 C. Based on my research, I was betting temperature was the problem.

As it turned out, temperature was not the problem, or at least it was not the only problem. The print failures kept happening even with the appropriate heat. Working with support, I upgraded the firmware, reattached motherboard ribbon cables, and ran diagnostics on the UV output. Based on the results, Support judged it was a faulty LCD screen. They sent a replacement kit to me on a slow boat from China. It took almost three weeks to arrive.

Meanwhile I also bought a new resin tray, as the FEP on the original tray had become cloudy and scratched, with some deep divots in it. At that time I didn’t realize it was possible to replace only the film on the tray and thereby save some money.

The LCD screen arrived in a nice plastic carrying case. It was a huge pain to remove the original screen, as it was firmly cemented to the frame. It took a half hour or so of dissolving the glue with isopropyl alcohol and gently pressing from underneath with my hand lodged in the chassis. I wanted to avoid shattering the glass screen and sending the shards into the UV light. The new screen was very easy to mount and plug into the motherboard. The diagnostics looked good after the install. I tried printing the default model and … success! I was back in business.

The Terrain Problem

A few weeks later I got the idea to print some terrain – dungeon walls and floor tiles – to bring to life a major encounter area I had designed for an upcoming D&D adventure. The floor tiles turned out great, though the last one was warped on one corner, reminiscent of the problem I saw before the LCD screen went out.

(I also spent an insane amount of time one week printing and assembling magnet clips to hold the floor tiles together, but that was another story.)

The first wall piece turned out perfectly, so I tried four wall pieces at once, making three duplicates of the original wall piece in the “slicer” design. Normally supports were used to print the model at an angle, but walls printed pretty well vertically because there was no overhang or edges jutting out. From a design point of view it was just a thousand or so rectangular layers stacked on top of each other.

Still, the batch of four walls failed. They stuck to the plate, but the bases on one side were warped. I tried the single wall again. It printed perfectly. I didn’t do anything special in between these prints, just scraped the models off the build plate, and cleaned with IPA and paper towels. This wasn’t really necessary, but I liked to confirm there were no bits of cured resin on the plate that might fall into the vat and mess up a print. I tried printing four walls again but they turned into an inexplicable gooey mess on the build plate and a thin rectangle of cured resin stuck to the bottom of the vat, with the first few layers of the base of each wall embedded in it. It was a huge, time-consuming hassle to scrape semi-cured resin off the bottom of the vat without damaging the FEP!

I tried the single wall again and it also failed, with the same thin rectangle stuck to the FEP, and a bizarre short wall stuck to one edge of the build plate (I had centered the model on the plate in the design). There was also an thin vertical monolith hanging off the build plate.

Befuddled, I stepped away from the printer and returned to the drawing board to evaluate what had gone wrong. What had I learned so far that might explain why prints warped and-or fell off the build plate? These two types of failures seemed to share most of the same possible causes.

  1. Temperature: lower temperatures required longer exposure times; but the enclosure seemed to do a good job of keeping the resin well within the recommended range of 20-35 C, and I wasn’t sure how to dial in the settings to match a given temperature.
  2. Print settings: if there was nothing stuck to the build plate and the first few layers of the model were sinking to the bottom of the resin vat, then modifying the below settings by 10-20% could possibly help with adhesion. Increase the bottom layer exposure time. Increase the amount of bottom layers. Increase the wait time before lift on bottom layers. Increase UV power (this was a setting available for my printer for which I was not yet sure how or when to use). Decrease the lift & retract speed of bottom layers. Decrease the lift & retract speed of bottom layers.
  3. Build plate calibration: if the print failed and there was only a thin layer that sunk to the bottom of the resin vat, then the build plate might’ve not been aligned correctly.
  4. Tilt: using the slicer software to design a model tilted at an angle between 30-45 degrees, with supports, helped alleviate a lot of pressure between the build plate and FEP, allowing the build plate to win the tug-o-war contest of holding onto the model, especially during the initial layers of the print.
  5. Damaged FEP: if the clear plastic sheet on the bottom of the resin vat is scratched, dented, cloudy, or (worse) punctured then this could cause prints to fail because the build plate wouldn’t have a flat surface on which to land. It was unclear how much scratching and cloudiness necessitated a FEP swap, but one source suggested that a FEP film typically needed to be changed after every twenty prints.
  6. Hardware failure, for example, a faulty LCD screen or light source. This would be the last to replace, after all other possible causes were eliminated, but from what I read (and experienced first-hand) it was one possible culprit if nothing sticks to the plate at all.

How would I troubleshoot my failure to print the terrain? I’d stick with the constants: the same STL file that succeeded initially for the single wall, and the same slicer settings.

Hardware failure was beyond my control, so I’d eliminate all other possible problems before contacting support again.

Printer settings were important. I’d explore these later, but since the printer settings remained a constant throughout all prints, it didn’t seem the most logical place to start.

I also had faith the build plate was properly calibrated.

I would try tilting the model on supports later.

First I’d try replacing the FEP. Changing the FEP was a colossal pain in the ass, taking about an hour. All those little screws, getting the tension of the plastic strung with such precision over the resin vat frame. A couple of the videos I saw online even suggested getting an audio diagnostics app to register the exact pitch the film made when tapping it. Good grief, did I need to be a percussion technician now, too?? All I hoped (and prayed) was that I had secured the FEP onto the resin vat in a way that was not too loose nor too tight. The worst possible scenario would’ve been a leaky resin tray pouring uncured resin into the chassis of the printer.

I re-leveled the build plate, secured the resin tray, poured in the resin, heated the enclosure for an hour to ensure the resin was at the right temperature, and printed the same single wall design. How did it turn out?

Well, the results were mixed. Technically the print failed, but it failed in a way that suggested the new FEP had helped. The good news was there was no resin leak, meaning I had actually installed the new FEP properly; and the base of the wall model printed fine and remained attached to the build plate. The bad news was that it stopped printing on the normal layers, about half way through the wall. There was the same rectangle stuck to the FEP, and the same thin vertical monolith in the same position as before, so the FEP appeared to help, but there problem was clearly somewhere else.

What could have caused the print quality to deteriorate, when all other variables remained the same?

I tried printing the same single wall at an angle next, using medium supports to hold up the model. It failed, resulting in the same rectangle of cured resin stuck to the FEP, a thin rectangle stuck to the build plate at the same angle as the model, and the same thin vertical monolith as before.

It was time to step back once more and consider everything that had happened since the LCD screen had been replaced. Typically I cleaned and recalibrated the build plate between prints, regardless of success or failure. Temperature and printer settings remained constant. Model design remained constant, with the exception of a couple attempts at modifying tilt angle and supports that didn’t make any noticeable difference.

  • Replaced LCD screen.
  • Successful print of default Anycubic model.
  • 4 consecutive successful prints (custom models).
  • Partial success of one print, with warped edges.
  • Successful print of 1 custom model.
  • Failed print, with rectangle of cured resin stuck to FEP, and a thin vertical monolith of cured resin stuck to build plate.
  • Failed print, with same results as above.
  • Replaced FEP.
  • Failed print, with distorted yet slightly better results.
  • Failed print (after modifying supports and tilt angle of model).

I posted the above info along with my printer setting on the Reddit forum for Anycubic Photon printers, but twenty-four hours later there were no significant replies.

I commented on a Youtuber’s video about struggles he had experienced with the same printer. The Youtuber replied to me, explaining he had given up on this model of printer, and had instead purchased a smaller, cheaper printer from another manufacturer, the Elegoo Mars 3, and it was kicking ass.

With no more apparent troubleshooting options, I opened another ticket with Anycubic support. I stepped through the same routine as before, updating the firmware, checking the hardware connections, running the UV exposure diagnostics. The support guy concluded it was yet another bad LCD screen, and had one sent to me. I figured it would be delivered on another slow boat from China, arriving in three or four weeks.

Meanwhile, I still had model terrain to print before our next, so I decided to gamble on another printer, the Elegoo Mars Pro 3 that the Youtuber had recommended. By some odd coincidence the new printer and the replacement LCD screen for the original printer arrived on the same day. This time the replacement part had arrived in less than a week! But I wasn’t in the mood for more repair and troubleshooting. I had stuff to print. The new printer was up and running quickly, completing its first test print within hours of its arrival on my doorstep. The first print was a success!

I tried printing the single wall again, with the addition of a raft and supports. The new slicer software was not as intuitive as the previous app I had used, but it was easy enough to figure out. It resulted in another successful print!

Next, I duplicated the single wall and printed three walls. Success! I churned through another two prints of the same three-wall model to get the wall pieces I needed. All turned out perfectly.

The 3D print shop was back in business, producing all the prints I needed to enhance our gaming experience and to satisfy my curiosity with the tech. It had been a tough learning curve, but to me this creative endeavor had been well worth the time.

Categories
life

There Are No Sides

No title could be more ironic on the day of U.S. mid-term elections of 2022, but it’s true. There are no sides. Americans have been duped into hating each other to a degree not seen since the Civil War in the 1860’s, and as an American who has recently lived outside of this country for a decade, things seemed impossibly strange.

This inexplicable division was by far the most jarring facet of culture shock I experienced upon returning to America in 2020 after a decade in Japan. A lot happened in America during those ten years, but as horrible as some of those things seemed for both supposed sides, they weren’t so bad when viewing the situation from afar.

“But you just don’t get it! Have you seen what the other side has done?!” It’s weird how people who identify with one side or another are as taken aback by a non-sider like me as they are by enemy they presume to exist. Sometimes they assume I am the enemy, maybe because not being on a side is too hard to comprehend.

A few things might help to explain how my audacious worldview came to be:

  1. I do not belong to a political tribe.
  2. I lived outside of America for a very long time.
  3. I do not use social media of any sort (since 2007).
  4. I have worked in Tech for thirty years.
  5. I have a natural tendency toward balance over conflict.
  6. I love individuals of all sorts, but avoid groups.
  7. I am highly critical and skeptical of everything.
  8. I enjoy reading political science from one extreme to the other.
  9. I have a degree in political science (1993).

Item 1 came from item 2. It just didn’t make sense to belong to an American political tribe when seeing the whole dynamic from outside the fishbowl for so long. It wasn’t so much the geographic separation that allowed this perspective, but rather a separation from the daily brain droppings that people receive without thinking much about it, little thoughts here and there that form into opinions held by a particular “side”. Item 9, my university degree, is irrelevant at this point, but it helps to explain item 8, my continued interest in political ideas.

I can’t overstate how awesome it was to have a conversation about politics in Japan with American and British ex-pats from all walks of life, because none of them were afflicted by this mental virus of division. There was always a broader understanding, tolerance, and acceptance that doesn’t seem to happen anymore at “home”.

America has always been a Coke or Pepsi nation. In the mid-20th century, our commercialism cranked binary thinking up a notch. “What beverage do you prefer?” The only possible answers are “Coke” or “Pepsi”. You can’t say that you don’t like cola at all, or you mix the two together, or you drink one on Saturday’s and the other on Monday’s. It’s either Coke, Pepsi, or fuck you. That’s how we roll. More to the point, it’s how we sell ideas.

There are color-coded signals to help us Americans define where we stand. As much as this might seem like kindergarten, it’s true. There has never been much room for nuance in this country, only red and blue. Coke is red. Pepsi is blue. CNN and Fox, one red, one blue. Republicans and Democrats, red and blue.

America has an infinite number of breakfast cereals from which to choose, as George Carlin once pointed out, but when it comes to the most important things the choice is always binary, this or that, red or blue. This is by design. It’s the most efficient way to get people to buy things, whether it’s a carbonated beverage or political ideas.

Then social media happened. Giving America social media in the early 21st century was like giving cocaine to someone already struggling with mental health. Social media is Coke versus Pepsi on speed, with its thumbs-up / thumbs-down, binary take on the world. It started with the goofy sales pitch of “bring people together,” but it achieved the exact opposite. As a set of technologies, it became the biggest and most sophisticated advertising (mind control) machine the world had ever seen.

Social media thrives on division, because that’s where the money is. There is no Dr. Pepper in this equation. Only this or that.

This artificially-induced mass-neuroticism seeped out into the greater culture, to those who didn’t use social media at all. Mainstream media bowed down to their new social media masters, and became Downstream Media instead. Real investigative journalism disappeared. There once was one truth, but now there were two: either red or blue. Pre-existing tribalism deepened, and social media companies doubled down. They engineered their technologies for more divisiveness, more outrage, deepening the tribalism even more. As a result, these companies became some of the richest and most powerful organizations on earth.

The U.S. president elected in 2020 was a product of this insanity, not the cause (though he would succeed in making the divisions much worse).

To complicate matters further, there are foreign powers who aggressively seek to undermine America at every turn, and they know how to use our technologies to social-engineer us on a mass scale.

America is still portrayed as being red versus blue. There are the traditional conservatives who are typically religious. I am not a religious conservative, but I support their freedom of religion 100% (as long as they’re not telling me what to do).

Then there are the Obama Democrats, who believe America can be united, that as a country we share a common dream. For the most part I put myself in this camp, but I tend to take it issue by issue, like the ancient Romans did, back when there were no sides.

There emerged two new camps in the ten years I was gone: MAGA and Woke, though I view them both as part of the same phenomenon. The MAGA / Woke dragon is forever chasing its own tail. This horrific monster was summoned from a wicked brew, the final ingredient of which was Social Media. For now I’ll describe the dragon and its tail as if they’re separate because that’s how they’re known. It’s the best I can do in a two-truth world.

MAGA types have pledged allegiance to an obnoxious, would-be dictator who rejects the legitimacy of the current presidential administration (not to mention the legitimacy of the government itself). They don’t seem too fond of Democracy, though in my opinion the labels of “fascist” and “racist” are often used too loosely to define them. They seem to think anyone who opposes them are baby-eaters and pedophiles. (I still don’t know if this is a real belief shared by MAGA types, or some kind of joke.) They ended a 246-year tradition of peaceful transference of power in America. Whatever “making America great again” might mean, this is not it. They believe America is under threat by its own tail. Whether or not this perception is accurate does not matter. It’s how they see things, and I empathize with some of their concerns.

Then there is the new left, generally known as Woke. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to make America great for the first time. This camp sees America through the lens of oppressor versus oppressed, where those with the most grievances are most revered.

(Hey, wait a minute, this sounds suspiciously like the Marxist hierarchy of oppression described by to me by a self-proclaimed communist professor I had in my political science studies of the early 90’s. Coincidence? Uh, yes?)

These days, Woke culture dominates American entertainment, media outlets, higher education (and by extension, science), and the corporate world. It is divisive because it seems tailor-made to infuriate the people it ostensibly wants to protect.

Woke reminds me of the religious conservatives I grew up with in Texas, the finger-wagging, Bible-banging Southern Baptists who just might let a Catholic boy into heaven (if I’m lucky). Woke is just another religion to me, except without the spirituality. If I virtue-signal enough in front of Wokesters (many of whom are rich white people) then this male of European descent just might make it into Woke Heaven (if I’m lucky). I don’t know what Woke Heaven looks like, but I’m sure it’s equally as horrible as spending eternity in a Southern Baptist church.

From a practical point of view, Woke is a catastrophe for Liberalism and for the Democrats’ efforts to win. It is impossible to convince those who would bring you to power by insulting them and calling them idiots for not understanding your ideas. And no one can understand their ideas. By design. This is not a good approach.

In order for Liberalism to work it must be tolerant, patient and wise, in the tradition of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. It must rise above everything and call for unity, as Obama did. If it included EVERYONE in the working class then the Democrats would never lose another election again. The left must never cancel people who express different ideas. This kind of anti-liberal approach is the biggest irony ever, as it leaves conservatives as the only defenders of traditional liberal ideals.

It’s possible I’m not seeing any of this clearly. I’m back in the fishbowl now, so it’s hard to tell. How many Woke / MAGA are out there? I’ve seen numbers that vary widely, depending on what source you check. Some numbers cannot be true. At the end of the day reality is based on perception, even if the perception is delusional and artificially formed. Whatever the case, the perception that there are inconsolable sides is the MAINSTREAM view. And none of us are mainstream, are we?

The issues that supposedly divide America aren’t any more severe than in times when Red and Blue got along, and in many ways things are just plain better today.

There are differences in America. This is good. But there are no sides.

Categories
crafting

The Demon Inside

There was a demon inside of me that had to be exorcised every so often before it devoured me from the inside out. The demon’s name was Creativity, or, in more poetic terms, The Muse. The demon was a fallen angel, of course. My greatest challenge had always been including this pesky bastard in my daily routine where work and family came first.

My favored means of exorcism was writing. It was the creative skill I had developed the most. But for over a year I had been too shell-shocked from the big trans-Pacific move (The Great Return) to write much beyond journal entries and a blog post here and there. This did not satisfy The Muse, so other things happened instead.

Aside from being a writer, I was also a maker, which seemed like a trendy way of saying “hobbyist,” someone who made stuff in his spare time. There was a fine line between vocation and avocation, and that line was money. If at some point a hobby paid the bills, then its status was elevated to “job”. None of my hobbies paid the bills, but they did exorcise the creative demon inside.

One activity that helped me recover from The Great Return was chopping wood. There was something meditative about splitting logs. I spent many a snowy afternoon in the mountains swinging an axe, and then using a skill saw to cut the pieces in half to fit a small fire pit.

I did this so often last winter that it became ceremonious, and every ceremony required a ritual instrument. That was where creativity came into play. I bought a pyrography kit and decorated an axe. Then I decorated another, and it became a regular thing. I bought more axes, burned in my own designs, and gave them away to friends.

I got into woodworking, making shelves for the garage, and other odd items like a nice little cabinet to organize the kids’ Nintendo stuff and surge protector on the floor below the TV.

These hobbies kept the demon docile. Regular exorcisms became part of my routine.

At some point in the previous year my kids had given me the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit. They had asked me to learn the rules so we could play, but I had skimmed through the books and then put it on a shelf.

By the spring of 2022 the regular exorcisms had strengthened my creative musculature to the point I was ready to geek out. I took the D&D Starter Kit off the shelf and learned the rules. It had been over twenty years since I had played D&D, so for me 5th edition was new.

I spent a month or so reading the Players Handbook and play-testing combat and spells. At some point I became ready to ref the game. My boys loved it. Together we exercised (not exorcised) our collective creativity to have fun and create an imaginary world.

I also bought miniatures and gained inspiration to paint them during a visit with a game-enthusiast friend in Japan. The minis were used to play D&D, but painting them was a separate hobby from the game itself. Eventually the whole family got into painting them. It was good, creative fun.

Dungeons & Dragons got me in the mood to write again, so I came full circle back into the fold. How had I ever come to think of my creative gifts and talents as a demon that needed to be exorcised? The demon was a fallen angel, a product of my own flawed view of the world.

At times I had assumed to live a dual life: on the one hand the person who I was, and on the other, the person who I had to be for monetary income in the world. Creativity became the enemy to the things I had to do in life. But obligations had nothing to do with who I really was.

Often people attempt to live their lives backward: They try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.

Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain

When it came to work, I was an artist first and everything else second. I remembered who I was, did the things I was meant to do, and in that way came to have what I was grateful to have.

Categories
housing

A Basic Necessity – Part 3

“What can we buy?” This was what most prospective home-buyers asked. It was the wrong question. The right question to ask was “what should we buy?” Or, “should we buy at all?”

For us it didn’t make any sense to buy, even though we had zero debt, enough cash, and liquid assets. “Cash” sounded great in years when the markets were down, but it was the worst possible situation during times of super-inflation and every equity market at record highs.

So we needed a place to put our cash to protect it from inflation. Was an expensive house the right place? My instinct told me no, at least for where we had chosen to live.

The featured image showed Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) on the median sale price of a house over time, as of 2020. It would shoot up another 25% to around US$600K by the end of 2021. This was the median price for all Salt Lake City. In communities where people actually wanted to live, it was closer to US$800K.

So was it cheaper to dump our cash into an eight hundred thousand dollar house, or was it cheaper to rent a house worth that much? As it would happen, my brother’s friend owned a house valued at US$800K around the corner from us, and he wanted us to rent it. We were probably in the top 5% of most reliable renters in America, but when I spoke to the landlord it felt less like a renters’ market and more like a prospective tenant’s market.

They wanted US$3000 per month for the place, and they were giving us a discount over what they’d charge strangers. We were a single income household (sacrificing a second income for parental childcare), so this rent would put us in the “distressed” housing category, paying more than 50% of our pre-tax income on a place to live. However, it was nothing unusual around here and it kept us in the neighborhood where the kids went to school and our friends lived. Plus, we had cash that was burning up due to inflation, and we had to spend it somewhere. Was it better to pay a landlord’s mortgage, or our own?

Rent versus buy on a US$800K house, monthly expense.

Rent: $3K. This included the water bill.

Buy: there were a couple ways to go here. Buy it all or pay the minimum. For now, I’d go with the minimum, 20% down on a fifteen-year mortgage, as we were not staying in the U.S. more than fifteen years.

20% of $800K was $160K down, so we’d take out a $640K loan. According to an amortization calculator I found online, this would be around $1800 interest per month, plus $2700 toward the principal. So, $4500 per month. (This payment alone was more than our total after-tax, after retirement investment, monthly income.)

$1800 interest per month was throw-away money. So was an estimated $500 per month maintenance, $500 per month property tax, and $100 per month property insurance.

Not to mention there would be at least $25K in closing fees, amounting to an extra $140 per month for FIFTEEN YEARS!

Total throw-away money to buy: $3040 per month.

Total throw-away money to rent: $3000 per month.

And these calculations assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, which seemed like an unsustainable economic situation.

It wasn’t very often that equity markets shot up 50% in two years. I was betting on a crash, and so was everyone else.

Everyone we knew who wasn’t a current home-owner was in the exact same situation. They preferred to rent over own. One family we knew finally gave up settling here permanently, and moved back to Japan. Some other friends of ours moved to rural Vermont. These was anecdotal examples, but a good sign of what was to come. Housing price had outpaced household income for decades, the gap between what people earned and the cost of living continuing to rise. In Salt Lake, it median home price to median household income was around 10:1.

It was no surprise to see American household debt was at an all-time high as of early 2022.

The last time household debt was this high was in 2007, and around that time I visited my dad in Las Vegas. He had lived there many years, and was looking for a house to buy. We went around with a realtor together, and she made a statement that would stick with me forever: “I don’t know how people are avoiding these prices. I guess they’ll just have to make more money. That’s how the economy works!”

I was no economist, but the real estate agent’s comment was jarring. Sure enough, a year later the housing market crashed through the floor nationwide. There would still be houses in Las Vegas underwater fourteen years later, worth less than the original price. The Las Vegas realtor was nice, but I would always remember her as one of the biggest idiots I had ever met.

In early 2022 the atmosphere in Salt Lake City felt the same.

We had done the math. It was still cheaper to rent, even considering skyrocketing rental rates. Why pay someone else’s mortgage when you could pay your own? Paying rent was throwing money away? These old adages no longer applied. So yeah, we were happy to pay someone else’s mortgage until the bottom fell out of the market, or for as long as it made sense.

Categories
housing

A Basic Necessity – Part 2

Housing is not a right…

The other day I went to the local hardware store to buy a 1’ x 6’ board to make some shelving. At the register I was shocked to find this single plank of wood cost US$65. I took it back to the lumber section and asked them to cut it in half. Three feet would do. Back at the register, I remarked to the cashier, “Holy crap, wood is expensive! Good thing I’m not building a house.”

“You can thank the president for that, honey,” she replied.

At first I thought she meant the president of the hardware store company, but then realized she meant the President of the United States. For a moment I couldn’t even remember who the president was. Did it matter? I had lived overseas for a decade and had never given it a second thought.

I disregarded the cashier’s comment as typical American political polarity, but decided to research it when I got home.

As it turned out, the cashier lady was not incorrect. According to an article on NPR, the previous president had jacked up tariffs on Canadian lumber, America’s number one source of foreign wood, to about 9%; but the current president had double-downed on this move, raising the tax on Canadian wood to almost 20%. This gave the American lumber industry a virtual monopoly, so they could sell it at any price. And if an industry could sell something at any price, well, then things got expensive, and the hardware store could charge sixty-five freaking dollars for a single board of wood.

The NPR article related these facts in an apologetic kind of way, because, presumably, even to a news outlet that could be expected to support a Democratic administration this seemed insane.

We were in the middle of a full-blown housing affordability crisis in America. Housing prices in many American cities (including the one to which we had decided to move) had tripled in the past decade (TRIPLED!), mainly due to low supply, and supply would not increase if building costs were high.

The current level of housing inflation was unprecedented in all of American history. Was this really the best time to jack up tariffs on foreign lumber? The U.S. lumber industry must’ve had some damned good lobbyists, was all I could conclude.

The apologetic NPR article attempted to end on a positive note, stating that at least the current administration was pushing the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better Plan,” whatever that was. How were they were going to build anything back better with lumber prices through the roof?

For me, this topic hit much deeper than the price of a single board of wood. I was on a twenty-seven-year employment streak. Every weekday for the past quarter century I had done the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. For ten years straight I had dragged my physical meat mass through a two-hour round-trip commute aboard the trains of Tokyo metro to serve my daily sentence as a wage slave. Every day for a decade I had grit my teeth, gazed down at the tracks as the train approached, understanding why some chose to end it all. But I got through it.

Two prevailing ideas had kept me off the tracks and repeating this routine for five hundred consecutive weeks: one, my extra “hardship” pay allowed my family to enjoy a unique life in one of the best communities in Japan; and two, I was saving enough to buy a house in America when we finally moved to the States.

Housing was a basic necessity, but it was not a right.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel I deserved the opportunity to buy a house for my family at a price that would not jeopardize our financial future. I was probably in the top one percentile of most financially responsible people in America, having maintained steady income for three decades and provided for my family without incurring a single penny of debt. Hadn’t I earned my way into decent housing at a fair price?

It was entirely possible that my sense of entitlement came from a financial worldview that was no longer the norm. In my world, debt was bad. In the real world, debt was good. Everyone was in debt. Low-interest debt allowed financially average people to “own” a big house. So what if the loan was eight times what your household made in a year, if monthly payments were low?

Even cold, hard math favored debt. In a lot of cases it was just cheaper to maintain massive debt than it was to pay off a house in cash. But life wasn’t all about math. Sometimes it was worth paying more to have the feeling of actually owning something (as opposed to claiming you “own” when you were really paying rent to a bank). Actual ownership also massively lowered monthly expenses, allowing for more financially flexibility and opportunity in life.

For a long time there was this old adage, probably started and propogated by real estate agents, that used to be true in most cases: renting was throwing money away. In early 2022, even with elevated rents, this was clearly no longer true.

I did the math on a few rental houses in our neighborhood, each listed at about US$800K, and determined the throw-away money in buying a house was actually more than the throw-away money of renting the house. There was the maintenance cost, the property tax, the insurance, and all interest stacked in the first decade of a thirty-year loan.

Not to mention that we were at the peak of a titanic housing bubble. It was one thing to buy now with the funny money of inflated housing equity on the sale of your old house, but we were basically first-time home-buyers again. A 20% drop in the housing market seemed an imminent (and perhaps conservative) occurance, which for us would mean kissing that cash down payment goodbye. That was the equivalent of a college education for one of our kids that would take a decade or more to recover. We may have had the money to buy, but we also had brains.

In most cases, “owning” a “home” was fundamentally the same thing as renting anyway, except more expensive and less flexible. Banks owned two-thirds of American homes, so in most cases renting was like paying a middleman, a landlord who skimmed a few percentage points off our rental payment before giving the rest to the bank. In exchange, we renters enjoyed a tax-free, insurance-free, maintenance-free, hassle-free living experience.

These were the kinds of things I told myself during the biggest housing bubble in all of American history. Things were changing fast, and I believed they were changing to favor first-time home-buyers like us. Interest rates were going up, and residential real estate sales were going down. Soon the prices would go down, too.

In a year things would look much different indeed!

Categories
life

2021 Year-End Reprieve

I spent my time off working on personal projects, or, to use the pejorative phrase, exploring hobbies, pursuing endeavors of the creative sort.

Vacations with the family were good, too, but if I never travelled anywhere again then I’d be fine with that.

A few weeks ago it was brought to my attention that I had some time off that had to be burned by year-end, so I scheduled five-day weekends for the last few weeks of the year.

My family and I decorated the house for the holidays, and for a few weeks we enjoyed more than the usual number of family nights, ate good food, and generally had good times.

My first week of free time coincided with the last week of school before Christmas break, so for a few sweet days I was at home alone during school hours without the wife and kids, basking in beautiful silence, free to engage in whatever work I wanted to do.

I loved spending time with the family, but for me, alone time was a mandatory mental health requirement that almost always went unfulfilled.

What did I do on my holiday break?

As noted in a previous post, I reset and refreshed my PC. I also modified some code I had written to help back up and organize our data.

Outside, I shoveled thousands of pounds of snow, and in the process created a sledding hill for the boys. It snowed over a foot one night in early December, and the snow continued throughout the month.

Most days were sunny and bright, in typical Utah fashion.

Despite the snow I took the usual walks in the foothills, and around parks.

We skied.

One day, I drove up the canyon and skied alone. There were a few moments of awe in nature, among frosty mountaintop pines.

I reorganized the garage and cleared the work bench.

I bought an axe, chopped wood, lit camp fires in the back yard fireplace. This brought deep comfort on a level I couldn’t quite explain.

I began teaching myself the art of pyrography, burning engravings into wood (see featured image, my new year totem for 2022).

I prepared several masterful breakfasts for the family. The kids were fond of pancakes, but I prefered omlettes and such.

I wrote, which still felt like an activity someone else used to do.

Bottom line: in these precious moments alone the true “me” emerged, and I was drawn toward creative work. In the future, there would be no lazy retirement for me. I didn’t need anyone to keep me busy. I was naturally motivated to get stuff done.

Unfortunately, like most people, the kind of work I was drawn to do happened to not pay well, and I had a family to support for the next decade and a half. So I stuck with the day job that left little time, energy, or mental space to do what I was intended to do with my one shot at life. And as a result, my muse burned with fury, every moment of my life.

A few months ago I wrote something cheesy about the magic of writing, about how everything I wrote – everything that became the object of my focus – eventually came to pass.

What would be my focus for the next year? What would I write? How could I frame my perspective in a way that would result in a better quality of life for my family?

At times it was impossible to see beyond this all-encompassing employment thing I was obligated to continue. The final week of 2021 would be the 1,391st consecutive workweek I had punched the clock and collected a paycheck. It had all started in June of 1995, over a quarter century ago. People in my life have suggested this was a positive thing, something from which pride must emerge. Was it? Still, after twenty-five years, no clue.

At times I was too deep in the well of total work to shake the money slave impression of my existence, but these little holiday breaks of freedom helped. I remembered who I was, and I had the mental space to imagine who I might become.

Life was more than a series of workweeks ending in death. Or was it? Going forward, I’d need a set of goals to advance me through the next year, to remind me there was more to my existence than the obligatory routine. But what were these goals? How did I fit into the world, aside from money slave? What would I write?

Categories
tech

Slacker Reset

I was psyched to get my first PC in the autumn of 1992. It was what they used to call an “IBM clone,” as IBM was the only Intel-based PC back then and there was no Dell or big name home computer resellers. There was no real internet yet either, but to me this offline PC was 33MHz of pure joy. It was my senior year at Colorado State and I logged more hours playing games on the computer than writing papers for school. Thus the PC earned the name “Slacker,” and this name would be passed down to future incarnations of my primary gamer rig in the decades to come.

Now, almost thirty years later, the current incarnation of Slacker ran a quad-core 3,300 MHz Intel CPU with a decent graphics card. It was a modest rig by contemporary gamer standards, but still enough to run the games I played.

Last weekend I got the idea that wanted to wipe and reload Slacker. There were no glaring technical issues, no malware or spyware known to me (the PC had never seen a single bit of downloaded data from nefarious web sites and I was ultra-paranoid about PC and browser security). It was just that I had been using the same build of Windows for a really long time.

During the move from Japan, I had disassembled Slacker and stored the parts in static-free bags, wrapped in tape and neatly packed into a suitcase. Upon arriving in the States I assembled all the parts in a new case, and by some miracle everything booted up and worked fine. (See featured image for Slacker resurrection in November of 2019).

Slacker remained functional, but I was still using the same OS and some stuff was a bit quirky, like the fact that it took at least ten minutes to load one of my favorite games, Total War Shogun 2. This was an older game that should’ve loaded in seconds. There was also a persistent problem with a mouse driver that aroused my fury when it spun out of control and randomly scrolled through my choice of weapons during a critical moment in a first person shooter game.

Plus, I just wanted a clean slate, the feeling of having the disks wiped and the underlying OS fresh and trim, which was perhaps the same emotion as loving that smell of new car interior.

Bottom line: Slacker needed a fresh start.

Windows included an option to “reset this PC,” with a choice of keeping data and reloading the OS, or nuking everything from orbit. My choice was the latter, of course, because what idiot would keep personal data on the system drive? I maintained a few elaborate scripts that kept my data secure and squared away, but there were a couple things to consider before blowing away the system, mainly regarding licensing. Licensing wasn’t the most exciting topic in the world. Most people threw money at it to make the problem go away (i.e., the software subscription route).

Me, I was still holding on to the more economical option of using the same Windows license I had been using for more than a decade (that had started with a FREE copy of Windows 7 snagged off Technet before Microsoft shut the doors on that program, and had been carried over through subsequent upgrades). Would my ancient licensing legitimacy get dropped in the reset? Microsoft wasn’t very forthcoming about what went on under the hood in this reset (as usual). So, to be safe I backed up the system disk to a USB drive using a great tool called Windows 7 Backup, still included in Windows 10.

There was also the issue of Microsoft Office. I was still using the last purely desktop-based version of Office (2013) because I didn’t care for the idea of paying Microsoft a minimum of $100 per year for the rest of my life, just for the privilege of occasionally opening a spreadsheet or using Word. Plus, Office hadn’t improved in a decade or so. It didn’t need improvements. It was done a long time ago. Microsoft Office used to be desktop software that seemed a bit pricey even twenty years ago, like $300 or more. Now, with a subscription to Office 365, it was at least $3,000 over time, considering I’d be paying for at least another 30 years. So, I double-checked my ISO library to confirm I had Office 2013 and the license key handy. (I had also grabbed this off Technet … for free!)

And because I’m a super-paranoid neat freak when it comes to everything, especially computers, I also decided to take this opportunity to zero-out and triple-wipe (by DoD standards, of course) EVERY DISK in use, including (3) half-terabyte SSD disks in the PC, and (3) two-terabyte external USB drives. Two of these external USB drives were a mirrored, secondary copy of all my digital keepsakes, making the operation a tricky juggling act. (The primary copy was in the cloud, a private and secure solution offered by a Swiss company that matched my level of paranoia.) But despite its trickiness this kind of activity was nothing for any decent IT person, and I had been in the game for a while.

It went like this:

  1. Backed up the system disk to USB drive 0, and noted the size was around 90 GB used space. (This backup would not be needed, thankfully.)
  2. Uninstalled all games from Steam that were no longer played by me or my boys.
  3. Backed up local saved game files for games we still cared about. (This turned out to be not needed, of course, as Steam saved games to the cloud; but I wanted to be 100% sure not to lose anything.)
  4. Uninstalled Steam.
  5. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  6. Uninstalled cloud storage service agent.
  7. Confirmed backups to Swiss cloud and USB.
  8. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  9. Ran the Windows reset with nuke-from-orbit option. It did wipe the OS partition on SSD disk 0, but did not wipe the two tiny reserved partitions. This was probably how it retained Slacker’s core consciousness … and the license key, too?
  10. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 again.
  11. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 again.
  12. Set up new Windows environment, which didn’t seem as much of a hassle as in years past. Really it was just installing Windows updates, Firefox, the video card driver, Steam, and the Swiss cloud storage agent. Later I’d install Office 2013.
  13. Created Steam library on internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  14. Started synch of cloud data to designated vaults on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  15. Made backup of USB drive 1 to temporary location on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  16. Triple-wiped USB drive 1.
  17. Mirrored the designated data vaults on internal SSD disk 2 to USB drive 1.
  18. Triple-wiped USB drive 2.
  19. Mirrored USB drive 1 to USB drive 2.
  20. Triple-wiped USB drive 0 when it was confirmed the new Windows install was functional and was confirmed that I did not need a new Windows license key!

All this took a couple hours, but as mentioned, it wasn’t too bad. I was loving that fresh, new PC smell.

As an added bonus, Total War Shogun 2 now loaded in ten seconds instead of ten minutes, and that infuriating mouse problem went away.

Categories
housing

A Basic Necessity – Part 1

Eighty years ago, on December 7th, 1941, the median house price in America was ~US$7K, or around US$130K in 2021 dollars. Median, annual household income in 1941 was about US$2,500. That’s a ratio of 3.5:1, house price to household income.

In the 50’s the ratio evened out at around 2:1 in favor of buyers, and stayed that way for a couple decades, until it started ramping up in the 70’s, culminating at 4:1 in 2020 nationwide. However, in many American cities the ratio is more like 8:1 or above, even in the so-called fly-over states.

My family and I live in a fly-over state, and our house-to-income ratio is around 6:1, at least for houses we’re willing to consider a home. And even those houses aren’t that great, compared to the house I bought in Dallas in 2003 (which happened to be in line 1941 median house prices, around US$130K, as compared to the median price of $400K today).

Bottom line: housing is expensive as hell.

Welcome to the new normal. It’s probably not going down. My instinct tells me the whole market is rigged, but it’s hard to get solid facts on what’s happening because there’s high-dollar incentive to obscure the facts.

One thing’s for sure: we’re entering uncharted territory for the price of one of three basic necessities, a house.

Equity-poor, first-time house-buyers are screwed. (Including me, as I haven’t bought a house in the U.S. in over three years).

Note that I will never use real estate lingo like “home”. A cardboard box can be a home, as George Carlin once pointed out.

Residential real estate is property and a structure that supports living. If you pack emotion into what will most likely be the most expensive thing you ever buy, then you are a fool.

Like most people, I don’t want to be a fool. I want to understand the trends and new realities, because we are entering a new reality, for sure.

Is owning still a thing? In real estate lingo, “owning” means paying another landlord, the bank, with many more expenses tacked on (insurance, tax, maintenance, time). So how do these expenses compare to rent?

This is the first of a series of residential real estate explorations. At this point, I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll find out.

Oh, and December 7th, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, as one of our greatest presidents phrased it. Having dedicated a decade of my life working with forward-deployed Navy in the Pacific (in Japan, no less), the day resonates with me. In those days people had resilience. I will, too.

Categories
career

Ever Onward

These three interrelated thoughts could’ve been separate posts but they make more sense when read in sequential, ascending order.

The Magic of Writing

Everything I have ever written has come to pass, more or less, although not necessarily how I expected. In general, the process of converting thoughts, dreams, and ideas into written words forges my reality, for better or worse.

This may sound like suspicious nonsense, akin to “The Secret,” the so-called “law of attraction,” or some other form of wistful woo; but no doubt visualization makes real things happen, and for me the first step to visualizing something is crafting thoughts into written words.

A long time ago I had a writing teacher who claimed that she had shaped all of her success in life through writing. At the time I thought she meant that she had written some amazing stuff. Maybe she had, but now I understand this was not what she meant. Putting thoughts on paper, so to speak, has a very powerful effect.

This magic works both ways. Like most people, I spend too much time retelling inaccurate, obsolete stories about myself, and visualizing the wrong things. Writing keeps me in check.

If there’s one thing that separates my approach from wistful woo it’s this: I do the work. But the questions remain: what work shall I do, and why?

Work Week #1,354

It is the morning of the day before the work week begins and already I’m feeling blue. If my calculations are correct, this is work week number 1,354.

Two weeks ago marked the 26th anniversary of the start of my so-called career. That’s 1,354 weeks in a row of dreading Monday, but I also had that many weekends off, too.

I’ve been working some kind of job almost continuously since the 1980’s, when I began laboring away at my dad’s paint and body shop in Dallas, Texas, at the age of twelve; but I got my first post-college, office job in August of ’95, and that change 1,354 weeks ago was the start of what became a career.

The boring office job led to working in Information Technology, and as of now, twenty-six years of uninterrupted employment. Don’t let anyone tell you it goes by quickly. (It didn’t, at least for me.) I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who think working for a corporation is the best thing there is. For me, it was (and remains) the easiest way to keep the money rolling in, and to keep everyone off my back.

In high school I saw what was coming. I used to refer to myself as the “future slave to commerce,” or “money slave” for short. Did I fulfill my own prophesy? Or (dare I wonder) was I the luckiest guy in the world?

In ’95 I wrote a lot about how I wanted to get into working on computers. I visualized working in a shop like a craftsman (or like Mr. Robot, for anyone who has seen the TV series). This would have minimized my exposure to groups of people. Socially, I was fine one-on-one. This was what I wanted to do.

Then lightning struck. A random, miraculous opportunity appeared. On a personal level, the past twenty-six years of working Monday through Friday may have at times crept along like a prison sentence, but in macroeconomic terms it was like surfing one big wave.

How I Surfed Through Two and a Half Decades of a Career

The Great Information Technology Wave came to a peak in ’95 for everyone, though I wouldn’t catch the wave until the end of ’96. It was a colossal wave, the kind an economy sees once every hundred years. It brought with it all kinds of opportunity. My weird, masochistic hobby of breaking and fixing my old IBM 33MHz computer was now a viable economic skill!

(1996-1998) WAVE STAGE 1: Lightning struck, and by come stunning coincidence I scored my first IT job at the CompUSA call center in Dallas, Texas, and pursued it with vigor, navigating the wave with a series of beginner moves: bottom turns and awkward cuts that allowed me to carve out enough experience and credentials to advance to the next stage of the wave. I joined CompUSA at its peak and left during its decline. Within a few more years the company would cease to exist.

(1999-2009) WAVE STAGE 2: My time at Nortel Networks was one big tube ride as the crest of the Great IT Wave began to curl, although there was plenty of subtle navigation necessary to stay topside during the tumultuous 2000’s. First there was 911, then the great tech bubble burst of 2001, and (for me) the outsourcing to Computer Science Corporation (CSC), numerous rounds of layoffs, reorgs, an in-source from CSC back to Nortel, Nortel’s declaration of bankruptcy, and the final outsourcing to CSC India during the economic collapse of 2009.

I endured a few miserable months at CSC India, and wrote a lot about what I’d rather be doing, and my future direction in life. Then, another random, miraculous opportunity appeared, taking me across the Pacific to work in Japan. This unexpected and dramatic professional opportunity opened the door to life-changing personal events. Meanwhile, Nortel would be divested and non-existent within a year of when I left.

(2010-2020) WAVE STAGE 3: I transferred to the CSC Federal division and ended up working ten years with the U.S. Navy in Japan. This change required what surfers would call a severe “cutback,” taking me from the shoulder of the wave back into the energy of the pocket. This ended up being another lucky tube ride through tumultuous waters, during which time I kept my feet firmly planted on the board. In ten years I switched from CSC to CSGOV to CSRA to GDIT, all without ever changing jobs. The first three organizations would all cease to exist during my decade overseas, and the GDIT contract terminated within a year of my return to the States.

(2021-????) WAVE STAGE 4: My current employment situation is an awesome professional opportunity. In the greater macroeconomic view I am the luckiest guy in the world. Throughout the years I imagined what I wanted (the easiest way to beat back the financial requirements to exist in the world), I wrote it out, and watched it come to pass. But still, it’s a means to an end. If money had not been a factor, then what would I have done instead? More to the point, what should I do now?