Sunday, January 29, 2017

How I Retired

Last January, I wrote a post on this blog about Why I Retired. A year later seemed like a good time to address the "how" portion, as in "how did I afford this?"
Here's one of those completely accurate yet almost entirely useless "easy steps" lists that you see in self-help books everywhere.

1. Make lots of money.
2. Don't spend much of it.
3. Invest the remainder wisely.

Simple, right? Obviously not, but it's a useful outline.

Step 1: Making money involves being both skilled and fortunate. Thanks in large part to good genes and upbringing, I had the aptitude needed to succeed in school and work with technology. Choosing computer science as a field of study meant that I had no lack of job opportunities, and I put in the work needed to be at the top of that field. Across my 15 years as a consultant and systems architect, I averaged around $100,000 a year.

Certainly the hard work was important to my success, but I think luck played a big part as well. If hadn't enjoyed working with technology and chosen a less lucrative field of study, or been born into different circumstances and never had the educational opportunities, I'd have had a much more difficult time making good money.

I also had several chances to take bigger risks - joining start-up firms, jumping to other career paths - but I chose to play the odds and stay on the less risky path. Could those risks have paid off with greater rewards? Sure, but it likely would have taken longer, and there's a chance I'd have ended up with much less.

Step 2: People spend money on all sorts of things, most of which never appealed to me. I don't really care for fancy cars, a huge wardrobe, a giant house, the fanciest home theater system, and so on. I do like travel and good food, but my choice of career meant that much of that was provided for me in the form of business trips. Keeping expenses down by buying economical cars, a small condo, used TV/stereo, etc was pretty easy for me. I'll admit that I did splurge on some high-end computers on occasion, but even there I'd usually build my own.

The biggest way that I kept my expenditures low, though, is by not marrying or having kids. Those are pretty important things to most people, but I'm just not built that way. I actually like living alone and I'm not particularly concerned about leaving a legacy (my brother's kids have the next generation covered anyway). Being single and unattached means that just about every line item in my budget is smaller than the average family: I need less space in my home, smaller car, less food, pay less for insurance, and so on.

It's also important to mention that even if you keep your regular expenses down, it's important to allow some slack in your budget. Everyone makes the occasional impulse purchase, or goes for a spur-of-the-moment dinner out with friends. (In my case, I tend to buy books and games that catch my eye, and make unplanned visits to brewpubs.) Have a miscellaneous line item in the budget that allows for such things.

Step 3: Investing wisely means setting up a plan for yourself, then avoiding two things: shortcuts and panic. The plan part is pretty easy since it's well-documented by just about every financial institution on the face of the planet. Take full advantage of tax-advantaged and/or employer-supported options such as 401(k) accounts. Create an emergency fund that you can access easily if needed. Split your remaining investments between long-term growth (usually stock index funds) and low-risk (bonds), starting with lots of the former and slowly moving to a more even split over time.

Avoiding the pitfalls isn't necessarily hard, but it does require discipline. By "shortcuts" I mean extremely risky methods like day trading. Sure, you can make a lot of money, but you can also lose a ton, to the point where it's basically gambling. You can also include actively managed funds in this category, which almost always under-perform index funds while charging higher fees. (I'll admit that I've fallen into that trap occasionally myself, but I've since learned my lesson.) By "panic" I mean deviating from the plan due to outside circumstances: a fall in the stock market, political upheaval, dire warnings from talking heads on finance cable shows, etc.

All of the above is what gave me the means to live my current lifestyle indefinitely. It wouldn't work for everyone, but in my case it gets the job done. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Any number of disasters could poke a hole in my plan, but I have enough safeguards that in the worst case I should have plenty of time to get back into the work force. Hopefully, disaster can be avoided and I can stay with the plan as long as I like.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Week in the Warm

I recently returned from a week's vacation in the Dominican Republic. January is a great time to get out of Michigan's winter and enjoy some Caribbean weather. (Here's some more pictures, besides those you see here.)
The beach in Costambar.
A group of guys I know make this trip nearly every year, and this is the third time I've joined them over the last decade or so. We spent a few days in each of three different areas: Costambar, Puerto Plata, and Sosua. Going with a group that's used to the trip makes things easy. I'm able to mostly leave the trip planning to others and enjoy the ride. Nice to have insider knowledge about good places to visit.
Food on the beach in Costambar.
Costambar is mostly an ex-pat community. There's a nice beach area that's not too crowded, since most of the tourists are elsewhere. Several local restaurants are run by folks from places like Germany and Italy. For the golf-inclined there's a local course, not that I made any use of it, but the paths around the outside of it made for a nice jogging route.
Big Lee's on the Malecon.
Puerto Plata and Sosua are much more tourist destinations. There are several all-inclusive resorts in the area. We weren't staying at those, but you see a lot of groups from them wandering around. In Puerto Plata, we took tours of a couple of local factories, Del Oro chocolate and Brugal rum. More good food, too. I particularly enjoyed visiting Big Lee's Beach Bar on the Malecon (roughly, "road along the ocean") - great fish and chips, and my friends knew Lee from years past so we hung out for a while and talked with him. And the main beach in Sosua is a big tourist attraction with a ton of small shops and food stalls, though I spent more time at the smaller Alicia Beach where it's not so crowded.
Ugly tourist by a beach sign in Sosua.
Streets and buildings are noticeably more run-down in most places in the Dominican Republic than we're used to here in the United States, and you have to be careful to drink bottled water. The traffic is pretty crazy - I certainly wouldn't want to drive myself around, so it's a good idea to make friends with a local cab driver. But those are fairly minor things to deal with, and it's pretty safe as long as you stay with a few friends and don't go wandering around in the dead of night or anything. And the cost is very reasonable - I spent less than $200 per day overall, including all the flight and lodging expenses. In a lot of places, you'll spend that on hotel alone.
Alicia Beach in Sosua.
Taking a trip down to the Caribbean makes a fine mid-winter break from the cold and snow. I'm not sure I'd ever want to move down there full-time like some of the ex-pats I met, but as a vacation spot the Dominican Republic is a fun place to visit.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Netflix's Travelers

Travelers is a Netflix sci-fi series based on the concept of limited time travel from a future dystopia to the present day. I recently watched the first season.
I've watched and read a lot of time-travel-based science fiction in my time. One thing I've learned is that the fewer restrictions placed on the ability to time-travel, the harder it is to take the story seriously. Travelers addresses this problem by giving the five main characters no control over their travel through time. Nothing physical has moved through time, just their personalities and memories. Each traveler takes over the body of a person seconds before they died, taking immediate action to save themselves, then continuing that person's life. Other travelers and orders from the future show up on a regular basis, but various restrictions in the process require travelers to appear in sequential order, so no going back multiple times to influence the same events.

The show follows a team of five travelers who arrive together in present-day Seattle. They're each expected to maintain their host bodies' previous lives as well as carry out missions from the future, which leads to all the problems that you'd expect from trying to lead two separate lives. It doesn't help that each of those hosts had their own problems to deal with, from addiction to disabilities to relationship issues. The conflicts that arise as the story unfolds are split pretty evenly between dealing with strictly 21st century issues and trying to obey instructions from the future.

The best part of Travelers is the conflicts within the characters themselves, in my opinion. Supposedly they're all dedicated first and foremost to completing missions for the future, at any cost, as well as leaving behind everything about their future lives other than the mission. It doesn't take long to realize that neither of those is really the case. No matter how much lip service is paid to that ideal, the choices they make repeatedly show that they have other priorities. Several supporting characters play a large role in this - wives, friends, parents, children, etc. In theory the travelers should be willing to sacrifice any of their relationships for the sake of the future, but it's never that simple.

Travelers has its fair share of shortcomings, largely related to what I consider to be unimaginative writing. After watching the first three episodes, I already had a pretty good idea where the overall story arc was headed. Indeed, in terms of broad strokes, the season end was pretty much exactly what I'd expected. Also, there are several instances (most notably in the big mid-season climax of episode six) where the characters strictly obey the future's rules of conduct in situations where it makes no sense. That would be fine if they always did so, but most of the time they're more than willing to bend the rules, so those situations come across as the writers relying using those future rules as a crutch to increase suspense. For me (and several other people I know) it had the opposite effect.

This first season of Travelers was good enough that I'll watch another, if Netflix decides to continue the series. And it's worth recommending to fans of the sci-fi time-travel genre. Just be aware that you're likely come across some cringe-worthy moments where the writing doesn't make a lot of sense.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Among Others by Jo Walton

After I'd read The Just City, I thought I'd look up some other books by Jo Walton. Among Others is a stand-alone novel that won several awards a few years ago, so it seemed like a good place to start.
The book is set in Great Britain around 1980. It follows about a year in the life of Mor, a girl raised in Wales who is now going to school in England, after running away from her mother and being sent to stay with her father. She's partially crippled from the same accident that killed her twin sister and the smartest in her class in everything but math, in addition to being an outsider - not a good formula for fitting in at a new school. On top of that, Mor also can see fairies and do magic, unlike almost everyone else around her.

The magic in Among Others isn't flashy or ritualized. Mor isn't throwing fireballs around or creating enchanted swords. She mostly follows the advice of the fairies at first, but over time learns to do things on her own. Magic is a matter of taking specific small actions - scattering leaves at a particular time and place, carrying certain sticks and stones, even acupuncture. The results change the world, but not in any way that's obviously connected to the original actions. Mor mostly avoids using magic except defensively, in fear of unexpected consequences.

She needs that magical defense against her mother, who uses magic liberally and is constantly chasing more power. Her daughters have stopped her before, which caused the accident that killed one and crippled the other. Mor's aunts try to control her as well. A good amount of Mor's energy is spent simply trying to avoid being caught in the machinations of her relatives.

The entire book is written from Mor's viewpoint, as entries in a journal. It works well to give the reader a deep understanding of Mor's character, and how she grows and changes over time. However, the single viewpoint also made me wonder how the story might have sounded from another perspective - say, her mother. Perhaps things wouldn't be quite as black-and-white as they appear.

A major coping mechanism for Mor is reading science fiction and fantasy novels. There are references to all kinds of books from The Lord of the Rings to the Pern series to Zelazny's Amber series, and many more besides. I've read probably two-thirds of the books mentioned, so there was a good amount of nostalgic impact. When I ran across a reference that I didn't know, I felt a bit of a loss of connection to the story and Mor's character. I suspect that anyone who hasn't read a lot of pre-1980 SF/F will find it hard to be immersed in Among Others, due to wondering about the constant unfamiliar references.

There's not really a lot going on in Among Others in terms of plot. "Girl goes to unfamiliar school, grows up a bit, settles some personal demons" is a fair summary, but of course that's not the point of the book. Don't expect to see much in the way of action, mundane or magical. Mor's growth and how she copes with changes in her life drives the story.

I enjoyed reading Among Others, though I'm not sure how much of that was due to the story itself and how much was about nostalgia from all the book references. Either way, I'm happy to have had the chance.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Opposition, not Obstruction

I read a blog post by Robert Reich the other day calling for resistance to Donald Trump's agenda as President. It's disappointing that none of it included trying to work with the new administration.
Some of the points in that blog post are basically obstruction of government. Call your senator and representative and ask them not to cooperate with the administration. Make it difficult for immigration authorities to do their job. Is this really what being an opposition party is about now? Yes, I realize Republicans have done similar things during the Obama presidency, but that doesn't make it the right way to conduct the affairs of government.

I agree with very little of Trump's agenda, or the way he does business. So I understand why Reich and other liberal voices are calling for opposition. That blog post also includes some good opposition concepts, like (peacefully) protesting or expressing your views through letters and social media. But obstruction tactics are just a way to keep anything from being done, and the more they're used, the more likely they'll continue to be used when the balance of power shifts back.

What the political opposition voices need to be calling for is looking for ways to positively influence the Trump administration via compromise. There will be policies and legislation enacted that we don't agree with, that's a given. There will be a repeal of at least part of Obamacare, and there will be tax cuts that favor the rich. With Republican control of both Congress and the Presidency, those kind of changes aren't avoidable.

However, the Republicans are no more united now than the Democrats were back when they had control of Congress and the Presidency. If the leaders aren't willing to make compromises, then they won't get far since their own party isn't united. Democrats willing to work with the administration and congressional leadership will be able to find ways to include compromise positions. It won't be easy - nothing in politics is - but I'd rather see something done over trying to simply block everything.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pastrix and Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I happened to catch an episode of Fresh Air on NPR as I was out driving one day which featured an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber. It was so interesting that I tracked down a copy of a couple of her books, Pastrix and Accidental Saints, at the library.
Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran minister, though not a stereotypical one. She says in the interview that she's never once had a stranger guess that she was a minister, probably because she's 6'1" and heavily tattooed. She started her own church because she felt that she would have to "culturally commute" to attend existing churches, and wanted there to be a place that others feeling the same would feel welcome.

That church is called the House for All Sinners and Saints. Its founding theme (beyond the gospel itself) is "welcoming the stranger." Drug addicts, homeless, LGBT folks, recovering alcoholics - the kind of people that don't feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. When more "normal" church-goers began attending, Bolz-Weber says that it was a difficult to accept them in the congregation at first...until she realized they also were strangers in a way. The combination of all types of members strengthened the whole.

Pastrix is something of a memoir, but not like others that I've read. The book jumps around in Bolz-Weber's life, rather than telling the story straight through. I didn't feel like she was writing so much the story of her life as describing her own shortcomings, and how her friends and faith and God help her to overcome them. I can absolutely relate to that, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Another part of Bolz-Weber's story that I closely relate to is her life journey from growing up in a Christian family, to rejecting that establishment, to eventually finding her own beliefs. Judging from the stories in the books, she went a lot further away from the church and faith of her childhood than I did, but I still relate to the general direction. When she says that being a good Christian in her early life felt like little more than following a list of "don'ts" - don't drink, don't swear, don't have sex, etc - I knew exactly what she was talking about. And I especially empathize with how she describes coming to realize how many of those rules didn't make sense in light of her own relationship with God, and had to make up her own mind instead of blindly following church teachings.

Accidental Saints is written as a series of stories, mostly from later in Bolz-Weber's life than the first book. Much of it involves the people in her church, but there are also various encounters from outside the House. A major theme is people making mistakes, but finding ways to move forward anyway, through the love of God and their friends and family. There are many descriptions of people loving God and one another, often in ways that fall outside Christian tradition.

One of Bolz-Weber's themes in these books that really resonates with me is that it's not necessary for Christians and their church to police the world's behavior. God's grace covers everything, and as Christians we should be just as accepting. Any time we go out of our way to avoid or restrict a "sinner" or "heretic" or "unbeliever," we're missing a chance to show the grace of God through our actions. Showing our beliefs in our own lives is fine - pushing them on others isn't, and neither is refusing to associate with, recognize the rights of, love, or serve those we don't agree with.

I really enjoyed the stories in these books and from the interview. Bolz-Weber is a fine writer, easy to read as well as being insightful and thought-provoking. Both books are great reads that I can wholeheartedly recommend.