Hopeful about our democracy

After being briefly disappointed that the blue wave didn’t materialize as strongly as I’d hoped, I find that I am nevertheless rather hopeful about the future of our democracy.

This hopefulness springs from two causes. First, there are already more Democratic voters than there are Republican. Second, the Fifteenth Amendment is already part of the constitution.

We’re a majority

The number of votes cast for a Democratic House candidate exceeded the number cast for a Republican House candidate by well in excess of 4 million votes. We’re already in the majority by several percentage points.

The reasons don’t already control the levers of power are well understood. The Constitution, through the Senate and the Electoral College, give excess power to small states which currently lean Republican. The Republicans have been more shameless about gerrymandering. Voter suppression efforts targeted at ethnic minorities and at the young have been effective at reducing votes for Democrats.

Even if all of those things stay the same, we’re still a majority, and over time that will win out.

We will probably take control even before time (and demographic changes) bring us to that point. All it will take is a leader charismatic enough to produce some modest coattails, and we’ll once again have a Democratic government.

Once that happens, I very much hope, the Democrats will seize the opportunity to put an end to the gerrymandering and the voter suppression. That will put and end to the power of the racist wing of the Republican party, even if the Senate and the Electoral College remain unreformed.

How can that be done? Through the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth amendment exists

Under the Fifteenth amendment, Congress has the power to enact appropriate legislation to ensure that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Supreme Court struck down some of the rules enacted to do that, thereby enabling the recent spike in voter suppression. But the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of voter suppression. Rather, its decision turned rather narrowly on the “appropriate” part of the Congress’s power to legislate on the topic.

Supposedly, once the law had been in force for decades, it got too easy for Congress to just extend it, without doing the analysis to justify its appropriateness. Along those lines, the fact that the law treated some states (those that tried to suppress minority votes) differently from other states (those that did not) “despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty” was something the court objected to.

These things can be easily fixed. Congress can do the analysis to justify a long list of required and prohibited practices, and can apply those rules to all the states equally.

If we were a minority, the way the Republicans are, I’d be very worried. If we lacked a Fifteenth amendment, and had to fix this state-by-state, I’d be modestly worried.

As it is, I’m not so much worried as I am annoyed by what we’re having to go through at the moment.

Of course, I felt many of the same hopes back in 2012, and look where we ended up. No wonder some people think I’m a hopeless optimist.

Make my phone more like email

I used to love email. I still do, except so few people use it any more.

I used to use email almost like people use text messages now. I’d write little, one-topic messages and send them to one (or a few) people. Most of the people I exchanged email with had their email on for most of the day, so they’d get the message in just a few minutes and then be able to respond (or not, if they didn’t want to). If they (or I) didn’t want to be available to be contacted for a period of time, it was easy to put the computer to sleep, or turn off email notifications.

It was also easy to get a little more fancy than that. For example, I often set my email client to check email every hour or every half-hour, instead of the default of every few minutes. I was still able to be responsive to people who sent me email, but I wasn’t constantly interrupted by random notifications from random sources.

That’s half of what I’d like to be able to get my phone to do—batch up alerts, and then give them to me on a schedule that I pick.

The other half is to shut up about telling anybody else about what I’m doing. My email didn’t send any information back to people, except the information I told it to send back. (Sure, my mail server knew when I was connecting and from what IP address, but it kept that information to itself.)

If I was going batch up notifications so that I’d only get them every hour anyway, I’d like my phone to disconnect from the network for the 59 minutes in between. There’s no need for anybody, including Verizon and Google, to know where I am in between.

(Of course if I get my phone out to check something I’d like it to quickly connect to the network so it can do so, but that technology works just fine.)

I could almost do that by just turning my phone off for 59 minutes and then turning it back on, except that obviously doesn’t do the trick unless I carry around another timing device to remind me every hour that I want to turn the phone back on. Plus it’s a lot of fiddling around for the hours in which I don’t receive any notifications (not that there are very many of those).

Admittedly, all kinds of things are made easier by being always connected, such as the ability to prioritize a handful of alerts to come immediately—phone calls, text messages from intimates, tornado warnings, etc. But for me, the mental model of email was vastly preferable to the stupid array of alerts I’ve got now.

Ignorance about retiring early

It’s been eleven years since I retired, at age forty-eight.

I hesitated at first to call it “retiring early,” even though in my head that’s exactly what I was doing. Partially that was because I hadn’t decided to take the plunge. I had been intending to retire early, doing the planning, doing the saving. But part of a proper early retirement is deciding that you’re ready, based on having established an income stream that covers your expenses.

I hadn’t done that. What I did was learn that my employer was closing down the site where I worked, and then wing it. I counted my money; I did some figuring. I secretly figured that I could retire, but I didn’t tell people that. What I told people was that, “Although I couldn’t retire, I had reached the point where I didn’t need to work a regular job any more.”

I’d meant to celebrate the 10-year anniversary with a post about how things had gone, but haven’t gotten around to it. And I guess this isn’t going to be that post either, because I’ve gotten so annoyed by an ignorant article  by Jared Dillian in Bloomberg Opinion, The ‘Radical Saving’ Trend Is Based on Fantasy—which manages to both be wrong about the facts, and (more fundamentally) miss the whole point—that I’m compelled to write a response.

Dillian’s item number one manages to be both wrong on the facts and miss the point in roughly equal measure:

Most people save now because they want to consume later. But the FIRE folks don’t want people to consume. For the FIRE folks, the point of saving is simply not to have to work. To give you the freedom to do whatever you desire over the last 50 years of your life. Trouble is, the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.

First of all, the “financial independence/retire early” (FIRE) folks do want to consume. It’s just that they’ve figured out that, at some point, just consuming more doesn’t make your life better. Rather, they’ve thought deeply about what they need to consume to make themselves happy, they consume that, and then they stop consuming.

I think of it as drawing a line under the stuff that’s worth paying up to get all I want of exactly what I want, and then paying zero for the things that don’t make the cut. (Most people don’t do this. Instead of a cutoff they have a gradual trickle off, spending smaller and smaller amounts as they work their way down the list of things they want. This is no way to be happy. The money they’re spending on stuff they only kinda want eats into the money they could be spending on the stuff they really, really want.)

Second, the whole point of FIRE is not to “simply not have to work.” Rather, the point is to free yourself to do whatever work you want, instead of whatever work pays best. Everybody I know who’s retired early still works at something.

This point is made very clearly by literally everybody I know of who has written about FIRE. To miss it suggests either that Jared Dillian was very careless indeed in doing his research, or that he is willfully missing the point.

Third, it’s simply false to say that “the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.” Rather, the freedom to do anything you want enables you to do the most important thing you can think of.

Maybe the most important thing you can think of is really expensive (in which case you’d have saved a lot of money to fund your retirement). But very likely the most important thing you can think of is free, or cheap, or even modestly remunerative. (The list is endless—crafting musical instruments, researching obscure topics in your field you didn’t have time for while working full time, helping care for a family member, documenting the history of your ethnic group, researching the natural history of your region, working for a candidate or a political party or a non-profit that’s trying to stop global warming or child trafficking or hunger or poverty…)

Finally, who says your budget has to be microscopic? Rather, your budget should fund your planned expenses. If the most important thing you can think of is to take a round-the-world cruise every year, you’ll want to save more money than someone whose most important work is to study the local mosses.

I’m going to skip over his second item, because he just makes the same mistake again, imagining a purpose of being able to “consume more later” is a better justification for saving than being able to live exactly the life you want to live and do your most important work.

His third item manages both to make the same mistake yet again, and to insult everybody who understands the difference between the most important work you could do and the work that pays the most:

What is wrong with working? Why do the FIRE people dislike working so much that they want to quit at age 35? Working gives people purpose… I have had unpleasant jobs, and even working an unpleasant job is preferable to not working at all. I am one of these people who thinks there is dignity in working, that every job is important no matter how small.

(I left out a random swipe against basic income.)

I don’t know any FIRE people who dislike working. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working at regular jobs. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working for psycho bosses, bosses who take inappropriate advantage of them, and stupid bosses who don’t know how to do their job well. I know a lot of FIRE people who think there is great dignity in choosing to do whatever they think their most important work is, regardless of whether it pays enough to live on.

I’ve worked at bad jobs now and then. Not unpleasant jobs, which are okay as long as the work is worth doing. But some jobs are not worth doing.

One example: a manager one place I used to work put huge pressure on employees to finish a task, despite knowing that the project the task was for had been canceled —because completing the project on-time was required for the manager to get a big bonus. That is work that was not worth doing. (Literally. It produced nothing of value to the company, while keeping the employees from doing something that would be valuable.) That sort of situation, which is more common that you might think, is what FIRE people are trying to escape.

Finally, Dillian suggests:

The biggest issue with the FIRE movement is that it’s the ultimate bull market phenomenon. FIRE seems to work because the stock market has gone straight up. A bear market will change that. Even if stocks do return 8 percent to 12 percent over time, it’s not going to be any fun living on a shoestring budget and watching your nest egg decline in value by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Here I have actual first-hand experience. My early retirement started in the summer of 2007, and pretty much right after that came the financial crisis in which my stock portfolio lost about 40% of its value.

I engaged in some pretty dark humor during those first two years, joking about how I wouldn’t want to be retiring early in that kind of market.

In fact, I was just fine. I did the obvious things: I found a way to earn a little money (in my case by writing, which was what I wanted to do anyway), and I got a little extra frugal (on a temporary basis, to preserve my capital).

So, yes, I did live on a “shoestring budget” for a few years while watching my nest egg decline—although not by as much as 30%, even though the stock portion lost 40%, because the bond portion soared and the cash portion remained stable (although the income it produced declined).

Contrary to Dillian’s concerns, it was actually great fun. I was writing full time—fiction in the mornings and articles about personal finance and frugality for Wise Bread in the afternoons—which was exactly what I wanted to do. We didn’t travel much, and we didn’t buy much in the way of new clothes, but we were very happy.

Since then my portfolio has more than recovered. Part of that was just the bull market. Part of it was basic portfolio re-balancing, which automatically had me sell bonds near the peak and buy stocks near the bottom.

After all, the 4% rule (which I assume is what Dillian is implicitly rejecting) was never a law of nature. It’s always been just an empirical guideline. The FIRE people all understand that you can’t just “set and forget” your spending. Instead you need to pay attention, and adjust as needed. Maybe you need to spend less. Maybe you need to find a way to earn a little money. I did both those things, although not very much of either one.

For eleven years now I’ve spent every day doing exactly what I chose to do.

What I chose to do has varied, of course. At first it was all writing. When I realized that I wasn’t taking full advantage of not needing to be at my desk during working hours, I rearranged my schedule so I could spend more of the daylight hours engaged in outdoor exercise. I took a taiji class, discovered that I really enjoyed the practice, and persisted with it. Now I teach taiji, and it has become one of those modestly remunerative things I was talking about.

But for eleven years, it’s always been whatever I most wanted to do.

I’m strongly considering setting a lychee instance. …

In fact, I’ve gone ahead and set up a Lychee instance at my site. I’ve just started populating it, but there’s a few recent photos there:

https://images.philipbrewer.net/

I’d be very interested to hear if people can see it when they’re not logged in as me….

Sad about Flickr

In a couple of months the new owners of Flickr are going to delete most of my pictures there, if I don’t pay up for a pro account.

That makes me sad. I’ve used Flickr as my main photo-sharing site since 2004. It was arguably the first social media site, and even though its various owners managed to waste its potential over and over again, it was the best photo-sharing site around—better in every way than Instagram, for example.

I haven’t decided what to do yet.

I could share my photos elsewhere.

I’ve been using the Flickr app to auto-upload my photos to Flickr, which has been very convenient—when a photo doesn’t need much editing, I could just share the photo straight from that auto-upload.

There are two other places that already get my photos auto-uploaded: Google Photo, and (via Syncthing) my home server. Neither of those is a perfect choice.

I’m already more dependent on Google than I’m entirely happy about. (I quit trusting them after they broke Google Reader’s sharing functionality, even before they eliminated the tool completely. Even before that I tried to make sure that I’d be ready to go Google-free at any time if necessary.)

My home server is currently behind some overly restrictive firewall rules that keep it from being useful as a sharing site, although that’s supposed to get fixed. Even then it’ll be a single point of failure, rather under-powered machine with the photos on a single consumer-grade hard drive. It’s just not ready to serve as a production photo-sharing machine, even for a single user.

The most obvious place to share photos from is here at philipbrewer.net, because it’s where I share everything else. The downside is that my photos don’t get auto-uploaded here, and I probably don’t want them to be auto-uploaded here. I can manually upload each picture that I want to share and share it, but it’s not nearly as quick or easy a process as sharing something that’s been auto-uploaded to Flickr.

It works okay, though. Here’s a picture I did that with:


Zenaida Dove cocktail

I tweeted this recipe a month ago, and today had to spend 10 minutes tracking it down—a good reminder that anything original I do should be posted here on my blog first and then tweeted, not just posted to twitter.

Here the recipe:

1 oz Roses Lime 
1 oz Campari
1 oz bottled pineapple juice
1 oz Cruzan blackstrap rum

Basically, it’s a Jungle Bird, but without fresh juice.

I’d had it in mind to make it for cocktail hour this evening, but sadly we just finished the pineapple juice. I guess it’s a Boulevardier for this evening. (Hence, no picture. Sorry.)

Big chicken

Jackie and I went to the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room, aka the Meat Lab, to buy eggs. On the way in, I noticed a sign on the window saying that they had fresh chickens available for $1.75/lb.

I had just been saying on twitter that, with USDA changing the rules to allow chicken to be shipped to China to be cut up into pieces and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold as “Product of USA” with no further inspection, it was perhaps time to just switch to only eating local chickens. These chickens, produced by the university’s agriculture department as part of their educational mission, certainly qualify—the Poultry Research Farm is only about 2 miles away from our house.

So, once we got in line with our eggs, I told the woman at the fresh case that I wanted one chicken. And I got one.

It weighs 8.26 lbs.

Basically, it’s the size of a small turkey.

I have never seen a chicken this size. It outweighs the next biggest chicken I’ve ever bought by a solid 50%.

Jackie has undertaken to cook this enormous chicken, which will no doubt provide leftovers for days.

Minimally processed food

Eating low-carb has been a useful tactic for me—when I watch my carbs, my allergy symptoms are greatly eased—but that doesn’t change the more fundamental truth of Michael Pollan’s basic rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That first rule is the most important, and would be very nearly enough all by itself, if followed strictly. Probably the way in which “low-carb” helps me as a tactic is that it eliminates whole categories of “foods” which fall short of being food, but which were in my diet for so long, and which I enjoy so much, that I’m otherwise inclined to eat them anyway.

By “food,” I’m referring to industrially produced food-like substances. And, of course, it’s not so simple as that. Twinkies and Doritos are out at the far end of the “ultra-processed” spectrum, but what about the near end? I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals—which with all the fiber removed and large amounts of sugar added are clearly ultra-processed. But what about more grown up breakfast cereals—processed, but made from whole grains, maybe with a bit of fruit or nuts added? What about granola?

Really it’s just about impossible to eat food without processing. A green salad is pretty minimally processed, but I like my lettuce picked, washed, cut or shredded into bite-sized pieces, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and vinegar (each of those latter two somewhat processed in its own right). Maybe if you get down on the ground and chomp down on a live lettuce plant you could say you were eating unprocessed food.

I started thinking about this when I saw a pair of lists—processed foods and unprocessed foods—in “Nutrition Action,” a publication which aims to be evidence-based, but which has some striking idées fixes, particularly as relates to low-fat, as illustrated in these lists: generally unremarkable, except that they bizarrely included 2% milk as an “unprocessed” food.

Now, raw milk from a single cow is arguably unprocessed. Mix it with the milk of another hundred cows, pasteurize it, and homogenize it and I think it’s already a bit of a stretch to call it just minimally processed. But to then remove half the milk fat and call that “unprocessed” to me is a bridge too far.

With ragweed season in full swing, my allergy symptoms have clicked into high gear. I’ve belatedly gotten back on very low-carb diet and am already (after just one day) feeling much better.

This time I’m trying to keep more of an “eat food” perspective on the whole thing. I don’t want to fear fruits, just because they’ve got carbs. (I am staying away from fruit juice, at least until I’m sure I’ve got the inflammation fully back under control.) I’m being even more cautious of grains, but not hesitating to include a little rice. I haven’t eaten any lentils yet, but I won’t hesitate to include them either.

I don’t want to say it’s not the carbs, because it is. But with a very few exceptions (like honey and potatoes) it’s only with ultra processing that it becomes at all appealing to eat excess carbs. If I eat food, I’m not going to have to worry about the carbs.

Here’s a photo of Jackie minimally processing some okra for the gumbo pictured at the top of this post

Stuff from PR flacks

At some point in the last few years, presumably related to my writing for Wise Bread, a whole bunch of PR flacks started sending me their press releases—mostly  about money stuff, with a little writing stuff and journalism stuff thrown in.

It has been very tedious, but I have hesitated to mark these messages as spam, because the topics are things that interest me (even if the actually email messages are almost never of any interest whatsoever).

After spending a year or two just deleting all that crap manually, I’ve spent a few minutes today making a filter that grabs that stuff and puts it in a folder called “Lame PR” so I don’t have it cluttering up my inbox.

So far I’m sorting by sender, because I think there are only about a dozen senders behind the majority of this crap. Maybe I’m mistaken. There may be too many senders. But I doubt if they’re doing the spammer tricks to make this stuff hard to filter. (They’re hoping that I find their “content” so useful, I’ll be using filters to make sure I do see their content!)

Once I get them filtered out, my inbox will be much more useful than it has been.