Thursday, December 18, 2014

the practice of philosophy

Finished my reading of Letters from a Stoic, a collection of letters written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca written somewhere around 60 AD.

The editor ends the collection with letter CXXIII, which has some excellent passages in it, including this one:

How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honourable finally become for you, the same. And we can achieve this if we realize that there are two classes of things attracting or repelling us. We are attracted to wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing propsects: weare repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave the former and not be afraid of the latter. Let us fight the battle the other way round - retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.
Reading Seneca, I feel like I reconnected with an old friend. I first read Plato when I was a senior in high school. The focus on virtue and leading a worthy life became something of an obsession for me. I majored in philosophy in college because I thought the things I would study would continue in that same vein. Unfortunately, modern philosophy has largely lost interest in such mundane things "the good life". By the time I hit Marx, I had had enough of philosophy (but especially once I encountered living, breathing Marxist philosophers). But maybe I just needed a break, because when I was introduced to Adam Smith by Dan Klein at George Mason, I found myself coming full circle. Reading Smith reignited my interest in the good life again in a way that I had not considered it in many years. And it was just in time for the phase of my life I was in. I needed a kick in the pants to get my thinking straightened out again. It was Smith's fondness for the Stoics that lead me back to Seneca, though Smith liked Marcus Aurelius better, I believe.  I'm reading Aurelius now as well, and Cato, too, but Seneca spoke to me so much more than Aurelius or Epictetus.

Life is a project. We are all making something by our choices every day. The choices we make speak for our character; it is the way we let our life speak.

One last line from Seneca:
No man's good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sword and the Brush video

I asked my boss to let me give a farewell lecture in lieu of a formal retirement ceremony. So we did an informal retirement ceremony, and I gave the below lecture. For those of you who would have liked to be there, you can check this out.

link in case the embed fails:

Here is a link to the text:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

rainbow cake!

My daughter wanted to make a rainbow cake today

so we picked up a white cake mix, some food coloring, and baked us one. Four layers. It was an interesting little experiment. We tried to make the layers even, but I think there might have been a little miscalculation somewhere in there.

That's pretty much SOOC - it was that electric colored, but it tasted just like white cake.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Sword and the Brush: Toward a Worthy Life

As I mentioned in a previous post, some of my colleagues and students indulged me in one last lecture as a farewell. I have uploaded the lecture as well as the associated power point images into one PDF file here:

I am hoping to continue to develop this document, as it has the core of my ideas on the topic, but it still needs to be expanded further.

I would welcome constructive comments and suggestions on how to improve it.

The school recorded the lecture, so I will hopefully have a link to the video presentation soon.

tree of risk

The other day I gave a talk that included a good deal about self-reliance. I am fairly conservative, and I believe in the idea that we should be responsible, within reason, for our own financial and economic lives.

I want to expand a bit on that theme, because I don't want it construed that I don't think people should take chances - I just don't think they should willingly take chances that could lead to economic ruin.

A part of doing a proper risk evaluation is to examine where you are in your life, and to consider potential earnings as an asset.

An older person has less time left to work, and therefore less potential earnings (present value of future cash flows). But a young person has most of their potential earnings in front of them.

It is possible that a young person could be much wealthier than an older person who happens to have a nice nest egg already built up.

A young person who risks their life savings on a venture with some possibility of economic success therefore may be risking far less than an older person. The difference being that the young person has many years of potential earnings ahead. Lessons from failure can be used to redirect and refine future attempts. While success is always preferable to failure, failures can be valuable for the feedback they provide us. We have to be able to appropriately integrate the lessons of failures, and thereby gain from them.

I started a mail order business in late 1994. I knew nothing about running a business, nothing about retail other than having been a clerk in a clothing store when I was in high school, and certainly nothing about direct mail marketing. After 18 months, I shut down the business. Financially, it was a complete failure. I lost about $8,000 - or at that time what about 2/3 of what it would cost to buy a low end Honda Civic over those 18 months (just to anchor the loss to something, to allow for inflation). I had a great time learning on the fly. I really did learn a lot from the experience. And despite the fairly significant hit to my life savings at that time, I survived. No real long term harm - Kandie and I had steady jobs and we kept on working. We were young, and most of our financial wealth was in the future. I look back on that experience now as a semester of business school.

These are the risks we should take. Risks that have the potential for large gains, and small losses. But the size of the loss has to be considered in proportion to a complete understanding of our financial selves. We don't want to risk our self-reliance.

A colleague I used to work with used to use the metaphor of a tree for risk: a tree has leaves, branches, and a trunk. Leaf-level risks can be taken all day. These are the risks that have little cost and if they fail, will be hardly noticed. Branch-level risks should be evaluated more carefully. A branch risk won't kill the tree, but it's loss will be palpable (this was my business venture). A trunk-level risk that fails will kill the tree. These risks have catastrophic consequences if they fail and should only be undertaken after the most careful consideration. Financially, a trunk-level risk would throw us into a circumstances that would be difficult to ever recover from. An older person who risks his life-savings on a business venture with uncertain potential is taking a trunk risk. A young person is not.

So risks should be taken - but one should consider whether the risk is leaf, branch, or trunk. Risking your life savings may or may not be a trunk risk. It depends.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Can't let this one go

I should have been able to sign out on retirement leave yesterday. But there was a snafu. A problem with the proverbial little old ladies in tennis shoes. When you're in the Army (or any other service, you learn to live in fear of the little old ladies in tennis shoes).

As anyone who has ever been in the service knows, when you go to leave a post, whether for a normal transfer, or end of service, you have to go through the ritual of "clearing". Clearing is best thought of as a massive scavenger hunt. You are given a laundry list (or lists, in my case) of offices you have to find, and then you have to find someone to "clear" you. The action the person takes to clear you is usually to grunt at you, pull out a stamp and stamp you paper, and then sign next to the stamp. Sometimes there is a cursory question associated with the "clearing" process, such as "Are you a left handed right wing cob tosser?" and when you say, "Huh?" (and you think "WTF?") they grunt and stamp your form.

So I had about 30 of those offices to find. I was sure I had found them all. Now I had arrived at about 10:00 AM to do my final clearing, thinking that gave me the whole day. What, WHAT was I thinking? I waited in the hall, all smug that I was almost done, for an hour. So 11:00 I get called back and I find out I had only found 29 of them. There was one where there were two signatures on the same block, and the offices were in the same building around the corner from each other, but I had only gotten one of them in my eagerness to be done.

Could she just sign off that last one? It was for property book - i.e., did I have any HMMWVs in my back pocket, or perhaps crew served weapon system? Ah, no. I'm a professor.

Do you remember that line from The Wall - "You can't have any pudding if you don't eat your meat. How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?!"

Yeah, that's the look I got.

But of course it was 11:30 by then and the property book section was closed for lunch. I go off and do some stuff, get some bad pizza at the PX one last time, and then find the little old man in tennis shoes who signs my clearing papers without even looking to see if I have any property and gives it back to me. I trundle back to the personnel office. All set now. Congratulations.

Except the transition office, where you get your final permission to leave and your DD214 that proves you actually were in the Army, is closed for training. You know, because it's Thursday afternoon.


How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

So I had to wait until today to finalize my clearing papers and go on leave. Not a big deal. And actually the little old ladies with tennis shoes are usually really nice people, but they are constrained by the bureaucracy they are embedded in. It's the bureaucracy that aggravates and frightens the average soldier and reduces us to coming hat in hand, begging for what we are entitled to. When people are puzzled by the fact that I am a libertarian and want a minimal government, despite the fact that I have been part of the government for two and a half decades, this is what I try to explain. 

Living inside a bureaucracy is frustrating and humiliating. Imagine extending this experience to everything in your life. A for profit company would not close down every Thursday for "training". What training could a human resources office need every week? 

I'll miss the Army for the great people I have worked with, for the values those people strive for, and for the familiarity I have with the the culure. But I won't miss the little old ladies in tennis shoes. Not for a minute. Not even on a Thursday afternoon. 

that's a wrap

I officially signed out on retirement leave from the Army this morning. I have several months of leave banked, so I will be on active duty until the late spring, but pretty much this morning was it. Unless I am recalled, I won't be putting the uniform on again. (except for a couple of dental appointments I have over the next couple of weeks - but that's not work)

When I stopped by the company, the first sergeant and commander were there. The first sergeant called the company to attention when I left (it was just a couple of trainees standing in the hall), but it had a remarkable sense of finality to it.

So that's it. That's a career. Almost my entire adult life has been spent in service (I enlisted when I was just shy of 19, so there were a few months as an "adult" that I was not in service).

Excited for the next chapter to begin.