Thursday, May 14, 2015

When is Your Behavior My Problem?

When is Your Behavior My Problem?

We have an odd idea that if everyone would just “mind his own business” then we would all get along just fine.  It ignores the fact that my actions and your actions intersect in numerous ways.  Think about two people passing each other on a busy street.   How close you decide to walk by me can be a concern.  How loud you are can impact me.  Your body odor or even just the sight of you can change my day.  A man in a bathrobe swinging a sword and carrying an  AK-47 could smell great and walk silently all the way over on the other side of the street, but I would be impacted.  The swordsman might be perfectly content and not the least interested in my behavior.  So what gives me the right to be troubled by his?  He is legally clothed and open carry laws for swords and rifles give him the right to carry such weapons in most parts of the U.S.  However, if I didn’t call 911, I could be pretty sure that someone else would.  Take away the sword and the rifle, but imagine the fellow shouting at an invisible antagonist.   That’s a more common sight (well maybe not in a bathrobe) on many city streets.  We learn to look the other way and hope for minimal engagement with the guy, but we probably don’t call the cops.  Put a clean pressed suit on him and add a bluetooth phone headset to his ensemble and we probably will barely glance his way.

On business trips to Japan, it was common for school children to walk up to me and say “Hello, how are you.”  They were taking an opportunity to practice their English.  Once I was wearing western boots and a Stetson.  Grown men called out to me, “Hey Texas.” or “Cowboy, John Wayne.”  and so forth.  I wasn’t alarmed, I knew I stood out.  But when a lovely young woman walks the street in a simple skirt and blouse, she may be constantly assaulted by whistles, catcalls, and unwanted invitations of various sorts.  She stands out only in being female and perhaps more attractive than most of the folks around her.  I think she has every right to be disappointed, even alarmed, by the behavior of those who accost her.

“Minding our own business” presumes observance of a modicum of social niceties.  Violate the expectations for such behavior and you quickly find that you have attracted the attention and possibly the ire of those who observe you.  You needn’t even be physically close.  Post a mocking cartoon of Mohammed and you may forfeit your life due to anger in a distant country.

Navigating the expectations of those around us can be difficult when our thinking is clear and our education is extensive.  Years ago as I sat at at a sushi bar in Tokyo, a man next to me engaged me in conversation.  His english was good and I was interested in his story.  I signified that interest with a periodic “hmmf” sound.  After a couple of those interjections, he stopped speaking suddenly and glared at me.  “No hmmf” ,he said.  He demonstrated much more soothing “mmmmm” sound.   My German American roots served me poorly as a basis for politely listening to a Japanese man tell a story.   In fact, they served me poorly in many interactions in Tokyo.  Where I sat around a table, how I crossed my legs, pouring my own beer into my glass, and wearing the slippers (much less my shoes!) in the wrong part of an Inn amounted to rude behavior.  I had done some homework on proper etiquette, but it needed far more study than I devoted to it.  And even when I knew the right thing to do, it was all too easy to slip into old habits.

Mental illness, alcohol, and drugs can all fog a mind and make it very difficult to properly observe social norms.   The transgressions run the gamut from mildly annoying to truly alarming.   Each of us exhibits varying degrees of tolerance for unusual behavior.  Small amounts of background information may allow us to maintain equanimity that would elude us otherwise.  For example, knowing that Jimmy is developmentally disabled may enable me to ignore loud outbursts of childish glee or sudden fits of anger.   Understand that the man accosting me is suffering from dementia will likely cause me to overlook repetitive questions.   Knowing that someone is drunk may allow me to ignore slurred curses.

Minding our own business is not adequate.  Overlooking or tolerating the actions of others is also required.  Seeking to educate ourselves about afflictions that may cause others to behave oddly is helpful.  It also helps if we do our best to avoid making assumptions about why others act as they do.  In addition, even knowing that another’s behavior is intentionally rude or disruptive, we can make a choice to grant a degree of grace.

I don’t mean for a second that we can simply tolerate all behaviors in others.  It is wise to develop a clear set of boundaries that we insist upon in our interactions with others.  It is necessary to know what our options are when those boundaries are breached.  It may mean walking away, we may need to call for help, or we may have to employ some sort of self defense along a spectrum from speaking sternly to making use of whatever weaponry we have at hand.   If someone is coming uncomfortably close to boundaries we have set, it is better to respond sooner than later in hopes that a milder response will be adequate if it is timely.   Neither do we have to determine whether a law has been broken or whether the offense is the result of ignorance or malice on the part of our respondent.  Knowing such things may be useful, but they are not required for us to take action.  

Courage may be required to inform others that they have violated boundaries that we insist upon.  We may fear the reaction to our admonition.  But a failure of nerve is unlikely to relieve us of an unpleasant interaction.  We may seek to work up courage by drawing upon our anger and indignation, but I believe that is unlikely to mitigate a given situation.  It is better to make a measured, factual statement of what the problem is.  It is appropriate to raise our voice or be emphatic in a measure appropriate to the nature of the interaction as it unfolds.  An overly controlled response can actually be seen as insulting or provocative when the other has already expressed a lot of emotion.   But even a vigorous response can be a de escalation in a highly charged environment.

When is your behavior my problem?  It is when I decide it is.  However, in addressing the problem my obligation is to do what I can to be a peacemaker, to give grace, and to be ready to turn the other cheek if necessary.   

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

How Sick is Sick?

How Sick is Sick

Sick is pretty obvious some of the time.  The coughing, sneezing, miserable looking person is sick and probably very aware of it.  Other times sick is stealthy.  A friend of mine became very thirsty, day and night.  His favorite drink was Coca Cola, but he just couldn’t drink enough to quench his thirst.  A friend suggested he get his blood sugar checked.  She was a dietitian and knew the symptoms of type I diabetes.  Sure enough, my thirsty friend needed to start insulin shots right away.  

Sick can be tricky as well. Is my throat scratchy, and am I feeling tired because I’ve been socializing too much, or because I have the first symptoms of a viral infection.  Is that ache in my chest a heart attack, or is it just a bit of soreness from weightlifting earlier that week.  Worse yet, is that sharp pain in my back a pulled muscle or is it related to the misaligned vertebrae that a CAT scan reveals.  I have a tendency to hypochondria.  On the other hand, one night a few years back when my chest ached so much that I had trouble catching my breath, the doctor chastised me for waiting around until the next morning to get it checked.  I was rushed in for a CAT scan with dye injected into my heart.  That test was clear, but blood tests showed a high level of some sort of inflammation, and I had been having intense aches in my shoulders, back, and hips for weeks.  More tests and a trip to a rheumatologist gave me a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis: my immune system attacking my joints, also known as bamboo spine due to its unfortunate tendency to cause the vertebrae to fuse together and become brittle.    He was ready to put me on some very expensive and intense drugs to suppress my immune response (I was already taking a whopping dose of prednisone to damp down the inflammation and resultant pain).   “Wouldn’t something show on an x-ray?”, I asked.  The doctor seemed amused that I would suggest a test, but agreed to order it.  No damage at all related to ankylosing spondylitis, but badly misaligned vertebrae, as mentioned above.  Good news, that might be why my back hurts sometimes, but it’s unlikely to result in a severed spinal cord.

Kids get sick, but most of the time they think of it as a random, temporary inconvenience.  The  older I get, the more I tend to think of ailments as part of a growing collection of maladies.  Get a couple of oldsters in the right mood and they will sit and swap tales of a medical nature for hours on end.  Sick and old, seems obvious right?  But the same two oldsters may be running miles a day, swimming circles around youngsters, or biking mountain passes that might overheat the old family sedan.  

Is a kid with the flu sicker than a geezer with two joint replacements and a pacemaker?   The kid may be lying inert in bed for days and the geezer may be hiking the Pyrenees.

As hard as it is to set criteria for physical sickness, mental illness can be all the more difficult.  And the two can be confused or even entwined.  When I was severely depressed in my fifties, I lacked the energy to make it up a couple of flights of stairs without really working at it.  Physically I was a bit overweight, but otherwise as healthy as the proverbial horse.  Conversely, an engineer I worked with would sometimes feel so energized that he stayed all night long at work cranking out his usual work plus loads of patent applications.  He seemed far more healthy than me until his bipolar disorder took a swing south and landed him in a psych ward with severe depression.  Meanwhile, I was plugging along dragging my ass up and down the stairs at work, wondering what the heck was wrong with me.  Another friend realized that he was a new incarnation of the Christ.  God spoke directly to him on a very regular basis, and he was quite certain that God had revealed deep secrets to him.  He might have gone on functioning well enough except that at least one of the revelations involved a young woman who was deeply in love with my friend, according to his conversations with God.  All attempts to convince him otherwise, including a restraining order acquired by the woman, did nothing to change his mind or stop his attempts to contact the young lady.  It was pretty clear to everyone else that he was very sick, but he could not be convinced.

My bipolar coworker, my smitten friend, and I all had trouble realizing that we were sick, much less having insight into what the nature of the illness was.  These situations make me wonder about the oft quoted statistic that about one in five Americans are suffering from mental illness.  What if I were to say that one in five Americans were suffering from physical illness?  How could I have any credibility give the number of possible illnesses and the range of disability that any given illness might confer?  Of course, one might counter that we could carefully record all the diagnoses given by the various medical doctors for a given population.  But a few problems crop up.  When I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, but the diagnosis didn’t stick, how would we count that.  Not to mention that the same constellations of symptoms had also been diagnosed as pericarditis and polymyalgia rheumatica.   Would that count as three illnesses, or none since all the symptoms disappeared after a few months?  In less than a year I cycled through the emotions of thinking I had a life long progressive disease,  a serious illness that would only resolve after many months of treatment, a possible life threatening ailment, and ultimately nothing at all.  I suffered anxiety and depression as I considered the various futures posed by each diagnosis.  But I had already suffered anxiety and depression for decades at that point. Was I any worse off than when I had anguished over the various rounds of layoffs that loomed prior to me successful retirement.  And now that I was retired and stable on a regimen of medications, exercise, and relaxation methods, was I no longer sick or just in a sort of remission with side effects?

Sometimes we know we are sick, but others don’t believe us.  Other times we think we are well, but others don’t believe us.  Or we may be feeling sick and receive full support in our thoughts on the matter from friends, family, and the medical establishment.  And we could all be wrong.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom

Part of my engineering education was to learn that objects can be described as having various degrees of freedom.  An ant crawling along a straight wire could be described as having one degree of freedom.  Crawling on a flat surface would give him two degrees of freedom.  And crawling around on a basketball gives him three degrees.  For further degrees of freedom the math gets a lot more complicated, as does our ability to develop a picture of what’s going on.

When we talk about political, economic, or social freedom, things also get pretty complicated.  My grandson asked me, “Why don’t we just give everyone all the stuff they want?”  I think he  was trying to figure out a way to prevent people from stealing.  Sadly, even assuming we had the means to give someone unlimited amounts of money, objects, or resources,  we might find that what they really wanted was to steal something.  I’ve seen stories of very wealthy shoplifters.  It is likely that saving money was not their primary objective, even if they thought it was.

Of course we have laws that we hope will make it clear when someone is free to take something and when they aren’t.  We have other laws to communicate what other sorts of behaviors are o.k. and what aren’t.   I saw a police officer tell a demonstrator that if she blew a soap bubble and it floated over and hit him, that he could arrest her for assault.  Of course it is true that you cannot send projectiles towards police without having a pretty darn good reason.  However, blowing him a kiss instead of blowing him a bubble would be on the safer side of the boundary set by that law.  Tossing a knife could clearly land you in jail.  As for the soap bubble, well the criminal justice system would have to sort out if it was a valid arrest and an offense worth a penalty.  Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."   I don’t want to nit pick what Justice Holmes had to say, but I am pretty sure that if I swing my fist within a millimeter of a policeman’s nose, I will have consequences to contend with, especially if the context is a confrontation.   Judgment would be required for soap bubbles, near miss punches, or even for a knife that slipped out of my hand while I was slicing a piece of pie for the officer.  That is precisely why we have judges.  It is also why video tapes or credible eye witnesses are nice to have, but don’t necessarily end an argument about what happened and how it should be dealt with.

Unfortunately, simple assault is often one of the easier offenses to judge.   We can up the ante quickly by changing the charge to assault with a deadly weapon (baseball bat, walking stick, hat pin?) or assault with intent to do serious bodily harm ( cracked skull, black eye, or bruised rib?).   Most of us can walk around feeling confident that we are operating well within our freedoms.  Even so, stuff happens.  I changed lanes and passed a police car, well within the speed limit.  However, in the officer’s mind I “cut him off”.  I guess he had intended to change lanes just as I passed him.  Too bad I didn’t guess his intent ahead of time, because he gave me a long, loud earful after pulling me over.  Then he told me I was such a loser that it wasn’t worth his time to write a ticket.  I didn’t follow his logic, but I just kept quiet anyway.

When police yell at you to stop, it is generally a good idea to stop.  However, you might be forgiven if you continued to move out of the way of an oncoming bus, and then stopped.  Beyond that we move into the realm of civil disobedience.  The cop says move, but  you are on public property, like the seat of a bus in the segregated south.  Rosa Parks decided she should not have to give up her seat (in the “colored section” of the bus) to a white passenger who had to stand. That’s civil disobedience. It had a lot of consequences.  These days she is seen far more as saint than sinner.  Sadly, I grew up in a time and place where the reverse was true.

Rosa probably knew she was pushing the limit when she said no to the bus driver that first asked her to move.  She surely knew she was in for a hard time when the bus driver got a cop.  Believe it or not, she was arrested and convicted.  The appeal process dragged on for over a year until  the U.S. supreme court decided that the segregation law she had broken was unconstitutional.  History has been defined as that which happened before you were born.  So for me, this is a current event (I was 5 years old), while for you it might be history.

Going back to my grandson, he might surmise that were we to eliminate all laws, we would eliminate all crime.  I suppose in a sense he is right.  However, crime free and peaceful aren’t necessarily the same thing.  One of my pet peeves is the saying “you can’t legislate morality”.  On the contrary, it is the only thing you can legislate.  What other reason could there be for a law besides an attempt to promote moral behavior?   Not only can you legislate morality, you ought to think long and hard about what is moral before legislating against it.  Passing a law  that black people must give up their seats to white people when the bus is full  would be an example of legislating immorality.  At least by standards these days in the U.S.  I can go along with the idea that one need not always legislate morality.  The problem is that morals change from person to person, but the law is intended to be the same for everyone.  So we need to be pretty choosy about what we commit to law.

Fortunately there are plenty of things that we can agree on as being both immoral and illegal.  Rape, murder, robbery, and a host of others.  Unfortunately, passing a law doesn’t mean that people will stop doing those things.  It only means that they can be arrested and given a penalty for doing them.  Agreeing on suitable penalties seems to be even harder than deciding on what should be against the law.  And again, judgment is required.  No law can spell things out so clearly that the exact same penalty would be suitable for every transgression of a given law.

So back to degrees of freedom.  We have lots of degrees of freedom when we operate way inside boundaries of law, morality, and customs.   How big that space is that we can easily operate within depend a great deal on the time and place where we live.   Fortunately, most of us can discern the safe space most of the time.  But for those who transgress, whether knowingly or not, big trouble can result.  There are a number of things that can interfere with a person’s ability to judge whether their behavior is acceptable.  Simple ignorance of local custom can be a problem.  Having a beer in Saudi Arabia might seem innocent enough to those with little knowledge geography.  Walking around naked is pretty common stuff in some parts of the world, not so much in others.   Even the country may not be the issue. I can get by with a Speedo at the pool, but not in a courtroom.

Degrees of freedom is too simple a descriptor for human behavior.  We are judged on direction, distance, intent, and more.  Americans in particular seem to think in terms of more freedom as better.  However, they are pretty quick to change their mind when the direction, distance, or intent of someone else’s actions annoy them.  A curmudgeon in my neighborhood legally discharges a firearm from time to time (I live in the country).  However, lately it seems that he is much more likely to pop one off when his neighbors walk closer to his property line than he likes.  This is a real, ongoing issue.  Not easily resolved.  And it is only one of many such things that come to mind when I think about people getting annoyed with one another.

I am a big fan of freedom.  But as they say, it comes at a price.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are we afraid of?

What Are We Afraid Of?

I know of a young couple and their child who were killed recently when a chunk of concrete fell off of a bridge and onto their car.  I will probably think about that the next few times I go through an underpass or tunnel, but it sure would be a waste of time to spend much energy on it.  I am going to die, and that might be how it happens, but it pretty clearly isn’t the most likely scenario.  But therein lies the rub, there is no most likely scenario for an individual. Probability only works for populations, not individuals.  The probability of 65 year old men dying of heart disease or cancer is way higher than the probability of being hit by concrete.  Nonetheless, for any single 65 year old man, just about anything might happen.  Accidents, murder, diseases, suicide, and snake bites each take their toll, and that is a very short sample of the available means for snuffing out a life.

So should we walk around afraid that something is going to happen?  I do.  And not just deadly stuff, also pretty minor stuff like losing my keys or getting lost during a trip.  Or I might worry that I will run out of money before I run out of life (that’s a pretty common one for us retired guys).   Will I die first, or will my wife.  There will be pain in each case, and no big bonus that I can see in either.

Looking a little deeper, I am basically afraid of being uncomfortable, especially if it is to the point of real suffering.  And yet, suffering is pretty much guaranteed in this life.  I am afraid of something that will almost certainly happen.   How does that help me?  I suppose it helps motivate me to take some precautions against some of the things that might contribute to a bad outcome. I could choose to drive like a maniac, drink heavily, eat until I am grossly obese, and make a habit of taunting people with bad tempers and a history of violence.  I might still get a chunk of concrete dropped on me before any of those foolish behaviors bore bitter fruit.   At age 19 I was very nearly eviscerated by a large plate of steel that I was attempting to drill a large hole in.  Another even larger chunk of steel slipped free of a clamp I was using to hoist it with a crane.  I made an instinctive motion to catch it, despite the fact it weighed a ton or more and would have squashed me like a bug.  Fortunately my second thoughts on the matter came to me very quickly.

We could say that we are afraid of things that could hurt us, but wouldn’t that be a pretty complete list of everything around us from drinking glasses to black holes?  In Singapore I was very nearly crushed by a bus simply because they drive on the left side of the road and I looked the wrong way before stepping off a curb.  A friend pulled me back just in time.  I was already pretty cautious about stepping in front of large, moving vehicles.  Habit mislead me that time, despite all those childhood admonitions to look both ways before crossing the street.

Since preemptive fear doesn’t seem to be much use, maybe we need to move toward what might be called mindful fear.  As we are in the moment and have a heightened awareness of all that is around us, we can quite rightly decide to be afraid of a charging grizzly bear or a careening drunk driver.  Hopefully the fear will prompt us to effective evasive action, although sometimes our choices may be few.   Perhaps what we call worry, anxiety, or fear of the future is really just a case of our minds devoting far too much energy trying to imagine appropriate responses to dangers that have not yet appeared, but might.   How much planning and preparation is enough?  When are we foolishly careless, and when are we absurdly cautious?

One measure I can think of is analogous to investing money.   I spend some time researching and deciding on the best move to make, and then I forget about it.  If the amount of time I spend doing that makes me too uncomfortable, I decide to spend less.  If I start having financial disasters or near misses, perhaps I should put a bit more energy into prevention.  Maybe not.  Even the experts didn’t see the financial crash of 2008 coming our way.

Of course I should trust God to work all things to good.  However, I am in for an ugly surprise if I take that to mean that he will keep me safe from all harm and exempt from all suffering.  I think  it is more a reassurance that no matter how bad things get, they will get better eventually.  Eventually is a pretty slippery word, but it is much better than never or maybe.

What am I afraid of?  Well, unfortunately, lots of things.  Way too many things.  And learning more about the world around me seems to open up even more opportunities to be afraid.  Clearly I need to devote adequate time to learn to effectively manage my fears.  I am asking God to help me.  I am making a real effort to use the brain he gave me to think through this stuff.  And I can see some choice irony  in being afraid that I am not doing enough to deal with fear.  So I think I will stop right here.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


They say it only knocks once.  I don't believe that.  In fact I encounter so many opportunities so many times that I can let it paralyze me with indecision unless I find the will to take one and run with it.  The most important opportunities are those to be more like Christ.  Every time I speak, write, interact, buy, sell, speculate, cogitate, pick up or put down,   I have an opportunity to look for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and an opportunity to give heed to that guidance.  Every moment of every day of my life, both now and the hereafter, I have the opportunity to give glory to God and the opportunity to turn away from Him.  I don't need more opportunities.  I need the strength to make good choices.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Once I have a purpose, I want to make progress in fulfilling that purpose.  If my purpose were merely accumulating things or completing rituals, I would be able to track my progress rather easily.  Since my purpose is to love others, how can I know whether I am making progress?  One measure I use is this: love more.  Whatever I am doing in love, do some more.  Whether my efforts are really more or not seems to become clear when it gets harder to make the effort.  The bad stuff comes pretty easy: complaining, envying, grasping, lusting, and many more.   But when I am challenged to find new ways to show my love for someone, or when I am challenged to love someone that I find difficult, then I can be pretty sure I am making progress.  And it will only ever be progress, not culmination, in this life.  God can give me guidance when I hear him rightly.  God can convict me of sin when I am off track.  God can give me the courage to do harder stuff.  All I have to do is ask him, and have the faith that he can help me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


 I want purpose.  I have purpose.  How can I serve my purpose?

When I say I want a purpose, I am thinking primarily of a reason for me to go on living, or perhaps, why am I alive at all?  I am not content with self gratification as a reason for living. Were I more comfortable than I typically am, perhaps I could be seduced into thinking that comfort was enough.  But I am not.  I live each day and most hours as a struggle.

As God's creation, I have purpose.  I am instructed to love God and to love my neighbor as myself.  I have gradually attained some understanding of what it means to love another person.  Listening to them.  Acknowledging them.  Giving to them.  Serving them.  Waiting for them.  Forgiving them.  Encouraging them.

I have gifts, skills, and time.  How much of these do I use to further my purpose, and how much do I squander on a foolish attempt to gratify my self?  Using 100% of my gifts, skills, and time is the goal.  I suspect that I use far less than that.  I ask God to help me move ahead, to improve, to grow, and to be at peace.

Help me Lord.  I am doomed to failure without you.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Six Decades and Counting

As a seven year old, one of my greatest ambitions was to own a pocket knife. My mom told me that I would have to wait until I was 10 to have that responsibility. I very clearly remember how I anguished over having to wait so long.

Today, I am sixty.

I tend to think in decades: I started work at HP in my twenties,, I was in my thirties when I first believed in Jesus, I was in my fifties when I finally found a psychiatrist who could help me.

What will I think of my sixties if I live to be 70 or 80?

- More and more I realize how important God, friends, and family are. All else seems to pale.
- I am at the start of a new career working as a peer specialist with folks who have struggled with mental health issues.
- I am finally beginning to understand what it means to "eat healthy".
- I rejoice in having a new knee that works so much better than my natural one did during my fifties.
- I love being a grandpa.
- I marvel at how my children are blossoming.
- Barbara and I love each other more and more. There seems to be no limit to how our love can grow.

Of course, this is also a season of loss. Skin continues to lose it's elasticity. Testosterone appears to be on the wane. It seems a bit harder to hear, and it takes just the right corrective lenses to see things right in front of my face. My thirst for adventure is greatly diminished. Comfort beckons seductively.

I have finally learned enough to understand how small my store of knowledge is and how vast is the potential to learn more.

As much as I love knowledge, I have come to prize wisdom even more.

I am delightfully near the end of my life on earth. As always, the day of my death may be today, or it may be decades in the future. However, the end is more plainly in view than ever before.

I am here as planned by God. But this is not my home.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The $100 computer for $100

So far the one hundred dollar computer intiative is stuck making two hundred dollar computers with a black and white screen.

However, $20 cell phones are all over the developing world. They aren't capable of doing a lot of the things that would be useful in education. But how much might it cost to upgrade them instead of creating a whole new creature.

Smart phones seem to do most of what a teacher would want for the class. Probably more.

Were one to shrink the memory some, make it a 1.5 pixel camera instead of five, and use a keyboard only instead of a touch screen, and a few other cost reduction measures, one could be within spitting distance of the $100 computer. Follow display and memory costs down the cost curve in 2011 and 2012 and I'm guessing that one would not even have to spit very far.

Volume is also a big factor. Here the third world model could piggyback of the sort of volumes that smartphones are enjoying.

We need to break the paradigm of phone vs computer and realize that what we have are less capable computers and more capable computers. All networked via LAN, WiFi, or cell signal.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ponzi and the Pyramids

We are flawed.  Those flaws result in a variety of aberrations that recur over the centuries.  Specifics may differ but the fundamentals are the same.  Greed drives certain investment schemes that are doomed  from their inception.  It is greed that enables us to overlook the clear evidence of the coming collapse.  It is also greed that motivates us to do our best to saddle someone else with the losses when the collapse does occur.

Decades ago, a friend,.  Jane*, asked my opinion of a proposal made to her.  At a gathering in Bob's home, a group of friends, acquaintances, and strangers listened to a speaker who offered them the opportunity to rapidly turn a $1000 investment into $64,000.  The speaker made it clear  that the 6400% return on investment could be theirs in a few months if they were spend a few hours each week simply sharing the good news about this investment with friends, family, co-workers, and others.

With some effort, I was able to convince Jane that the scheme was impossible.  She decided not to invest.  At least one of Jane's friends stopped speaking to her. She was frustrated that Jane would not participate. Other friends railed at her for being foolish to pass up such an opportunity.

To convince Jane that the scheme wouldn't work (for most of the participants).  I drew a graphic similar to this pyramid.

Illustration credit:  public domain, created by U.S. goverment

The pyramid shows that if each participant is able to find six new investors,  the total number of investors will soon exceed the total population of the world  Of course the number of willing investors would have been exceeded long before that.  Once no new investors can be recruited, the participants who joined in the last few levels of the pyramid all lose their money.  More than 90% of the participants will lose their money.

Jane was no math whiz, but she got the general idea. However, I was shocked to learn that among my coworkers, folks like Jim were participating. Jim has an advanced degree in engineering.  At that time he was the manager for a group of dozens of professionals.  He was responsible for budget management and profit and loss for an entire product line at a major electronics corporation.  Only God knows Jim's heart, but from what I knew of him, he was an honest man.  Yet somehow, he was helping to build the pyramid when a few simple calculations could reveal that it was doomed to failure.

I don't know if Jim  lost money.  Once a pyramid collapses, virtually none of the participants will talk about it.  The minority who actually made money fear the wrath of those who did not.  Those who lost are embarrassed by their gullibility.  There is an additional incentive to stay quiet: the entire scheme is illegal.

There are a many variants of the basic pyramid.  They have a few things in common.  Only the very earliest participants have a shot at making a profit.  New recruits are always told that they are "getting in early".  The fact that most participants will lose their money is denied, ignored, or said to be irrelevant because "we are getting in early".

Pyramid schemes are illegal.  To circumvent that difficulty, the scam is presented as a "multilevel marketing opportunity".  As with the pyramid, there an initial investment is required.  The participants are told to sell a product or service and keep a small profit from each sale.  If it stopped there, the opportunity to make money would vary depending on the skill of each new sales person, the desirability of the product or service, the size of the market and so on.  It is the multilevel aspect that should raise suspicion. In addition to selling products or services, each participant is exhorted to recruit a next level of participants who will also sell.  The person who successfully recruits some number of participants in the next level, receives either a cash bonus or a cash flow created from a small percentage of that next level's sales.  Every level is expected to recruit the members of a next level.  As with the pure pyramid, the number of participants soon swells beyond anything sustainable.
The majority of players lose their investment.  There are attempts to make multilevel marketing illegal in case where it is clear that the major incentive is recruiting new members.  However, the gray zone is large enough to house any number of such schemes. Long distance phone cards. Household products.  Dietary supplements.  Those are but a few of the items pushed in multilevel marketing.

Ponzi schemes are a variant where a small number of people benefit a lot by convincing many other folks to trust them with their money.  The return on investment offered ranges from very high to just consistently better than that available from legitimate investments.  Participants are allowed to withdraw earnings on their investment.  But the supposed earnings are simply cash extracted from new participants. Eventually the folks running the Ponzi scheme are unable to attract enough new investors to sustain the sham.  A spectacular recent example was the investment firm run by Bernie Madoff. Madoff's scam cost investors tens of billions of dollars. The phony investment firm existed for decades and brought great wealth to Madoff and a few others. The majority of investors lost all that they had invested as well as large illusory gains.

For most of us, earning money is arduous.  Saving requires discipline.  Investments entail risk.  Any offer that purports to eliminate even one of those barriers to wealth should be highly suspect.  You can bank on that.

*All names fictitious with the exception of Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.