Monday, December 28, 2009

The Khan Academy – One guy making a difference

If someone pinned me into naming a personal hero for 2009, I’d probably pick Salman Khan, though I only heard of him in December. He is the creator of The Khan Academy.

I came to know of Salman’s work, while volunteering at NPTEL. This guy has single-handedly created more 1000 short educational videos, and made them all available for free on the net.

He first started out with a few videos intended for his nephews. They were so well received and satisfying to him that he just kept going and has never looked back.

What is particularly impressive to me is how he has taken the simplest of tools (MS Paint and free web-casting software) to do all of this. And, he’s managed all of this while holding a full time job! (In September of 2009 he quit his job to devote his full time to The Khan Academy.)

He has a great FAQ which is well worth reading. His reply about why he didn't try to make money from this venture really resonated with me:
I've been approached several times, but it just didn't feel right. When I'm 80, I want to feel that I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world. [...] I already have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, two hondas and a decent house. What else does a man need?
Because of his background in banking and finance, he even has a few short videos on the government bailout and the Geithner Plan.

Do check out a video or two. Salman is an example of one person making a difference. Do pass on the link (www.khanacademy.org) to any students and learners who you think might benefit.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Volunteering assignment at NPTEL

When I got this non-paying assignment I was just as excited as I was when I landed my job years ago.

Around 3 months ago I heard about a program called NPTEL, being run in my alma mater. Very briefly, NPTEL is an effort by the Indian Government to develop web- and video-based courses for all engineering disciplines and make them available to the public for free. In Chennai, I am volunteering my time and abilities to the effort.

For the past three months we are working on creating awareness (mainly among engineering faculty in the numerous Engineering colleges that have come up in South India) and in trying to reach out to students. I am helping coordinate workshops with these faculty members – they tell us what’s working and what needs to be tweaked in these web courses.

Volunteering for NPTEL provides me with two things I was hoping for: Scalability and no requirement about me having to spend long durations at any particular office.

For the past 6 months, my wife and I have been talking to a number of people in the public service domain, looking at different volunteering opportunities. Most of the suggestions we received were very generic or they were targeted at very small groups of individuals. As a matter of personal preference, I wanted something that had a larger scope.

For me, NPTEL fits the bill nicely. I fully realize that huge hurdles exist to learning difficult engineering concepts from the Web. This project falls under the HRD Ministry’s very ambitious National Mission for Education (NME) effort. The vision in NME is to expand the NPTEL effort to have courses developed for students of all ages, right from kindergarten to post-graduate courses in all disciplines, not just for engineering.

I will definitely post more about NPTEL later. Meanwhile, if you have acquaintances who are currently enrolled in an engineering degree, direct them to NPTEL’s Official Website.

Over 250 full courses (~40 lectures of 1 hour duration each per course) can be viewed via Youtube’s iit channel. If you have heard of MIT’s OpenCourseWare, this is very similar in the Indian context, and is based strongly on a commonly agreed-upon curriculum.

I don’t have an official designation in the NPTEL office. My initial goal is to just help build awareness. Effectiveness will take time, but will eventually follow after a number of iterations.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Puzzle: Loop the Loop aka Fences

Several weeks ago, I started to doodle on the newspaper (The Times of India) whenever I saw the “Loop The Loop” puzzle. I liked it enough to research it a bit more.

It is really a logic puzzle, and can vary in difficulty from very easy to very difficult. The rules are simple: You are given a grid of squares, with several cells having a number in them. You have to draw lines such that they form one loop. The number in each cell indicates the number of edges that the loop touches in that cell. There should only be one overall loop.

I found an online version here in http://www.puzzle-loop.com/. (You can choose the degree of difficulty from the left panel). Try it out.

For those of you who want the game to your PC (to play even when you are not connected to the Web) you can download) Loopy.

If you have tried it a few times, like the puzzles and are mathematically or logically inclined, then read on.

Preprocessing: Also, there is lots of preprocessing that is possible. It is pure pattern recognition. Two 3’s together mean something. A 0 next to a 3 is a fairly big hint. Also, by dividing the squares into corner squares, edge squares and interior squares, you can gain some additional insights to help you solve the problem.

Integer Program: This whole problem lends itself very nicely to be modeled as an integer program, with each edge being a 0/1 binary variable. It is a very good IP modeling exercise in itself. Since multiple loops are not allowed, the sub-tour elimination constraints make the model a little unwieldy.)

Composing: To compose one of these problems can be a fun challenge. (Think of it as the dual to solving the puzzle.) The fact that there is only one solution makes it a very challenging puzzle to compose: For a given loop, how to go about revealing only the least number of numbers in cells?

Related Post:
Flood-It

Saturday, November 7, 2009

David Foster Wallace on True Freedom

Back in 2005, writer David Foster Wallace gave a convocation address to Keyon High School. I have come across excerpts in a number of blogs, including in Justine Musk’s.

Excerpted below are bits that really resonated:
[…]
There is no such thing as not worshipping.
[…]
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship...
[…]
If you worship money and things-- if they are where you tap real meaning in life-- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth.
[…]
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you...
[…]
Worship power-- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.
[…]
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on...
[…]
The really important freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

That is real freedom.
-- David Foster Wallace's convocation address to Kenyon College

The full address is well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Essential for Early Retirement – A Networth File

Yes, there are no short-cuts, no easy one-size-fits-all solutions. But for anyone even remotely considering early retirement, I don’t know how it would be possible without a Networth File.

Your networth is simply the sum total of all your assets minus any liabilities (debts) you have. When I am discussing with people, I find that most are well aware of the concept of Networth. But when I pointedly ask them if they have a networth.xls file and whether they track it regularly, the answer is almost always No.

I don’t understand this reluctance given how essential and easy it is to track.

It could be tracked in a notebook, I suppose. Though tracking it in a spreadsheet (Excel) would be a lot easier. If tracked once a month it definitely won’t take more than 15 minutes to update. (There are automated web tools available, but I am old school enough to think that typing each number by hand helps you think about them.)

If your total networth is not growing steadily at the rate you want it to, that will force the right set of actions – increased savings, rebalancing to the right asset allocation mix for your age/circumstance, and perhaps even a job change.

If early retirement is a real goal, I cannot think of a more worthwhile activity than tracking networth regularly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pecha Kucha Night – Mumbai

A few nights ago, we attended a program in a very different format. It was called a Pecha Kucha Night (PKN). I hadn’t known of its existence until I saw a poster for it in Mumbai’s JnanaPravaha.

Pecha-Kucha originated in 2003 in Dytham-Klein, an architecture firm in Tokyo. It is now run in over 200 cities. The goal is to provide a forum for architects, artists, photographers and even academics to showcase their work and ideas in a rapid-fire mode. The format mentioned in the poster is what caught my eye – people had to present 20 slides with 20-seconds-per-slide.

We went not knowing what to expect. The auditorium was absolutely packed, with people standing at the back and also sitting on the floor. The Mumbai version had a big architecture focus -- 5 of the 8 presentation related to architecture. The other presentations that night were by an aspiring musician/singer, and one by an artist-videographer and one with ideas for more effective management & leadership.

The creativity of the presenters was very impressive. The first presentation was about lighting the entryway to the Paddington Station in London, on how many factors go into making sure that there is a smooth transition of lighting from outside to inside. The next presentation was a very rapid survey of “Mud architecture” – featuring a few very impressive constructions in Mali and Yemen.

One entire presentation was in the form of movie characters speaking through cartoon bubbles – illustrating the idiosyncrasies of people who build a house presented from an architect’s point of view.

One person used his 20 slides in a presentation titled “7 Colors” in which he proposed several principles to make Management in general more effective.

An architecture professor bemoaned the state of their discipline, using data, humor and sarcasm in his 20 slides titled “A2F.” An architecture student presented a call to action from his fellow students by presenting work that he had done in South Africa. His 20 slides hinged on the premise that one person can make a difference.

I particularly liked the fact that in this format all 20 (PowerPoint) slides were set to auto-transition after 20 seconds each. Once the SlideShow started, this ensured that in 400 seconds, the entire show would get over. There was no going back to elaborate on any slide. Some participants struggled to keep up, but the time limit forced them to keep going. (I now wish that more of my work/business presentations had this sort of a time control imposed on them. We have all attended too many conferences where the earlier presenters consume way more than their allotted time, belaboring points.)

Overall, I was very impressed Pecha Kucha –in terms of the scope and breadth of its content, and especially the format. I will make it a point to see if I can catch Pecha Kucha Nights in other cities.

To find one near you, check out Pecha-Kucha.org.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Economics committee can't go wrong

Economist Alex Tabarrok has identified an interesting situation and points it out. Even as opinions are divided on the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s decision this year, Prof. Tabarrok says that the Nobel Economics Prize committee can't go wrong this year.

We need to know a couple of things before we can appreciate why he is saying that.

In the betting market for the Economics Nobel prize this year, Eugene Fama is the leading candidate. He has the best odds.

Fama is best known for his Efficient Market Theory (EMT) which might be Nobel-worthy. To oversimplify, EMT states that markets are always "informationally efficient" and all known facts are instantly factored into the price of an equity/entity.

So here’s why this year’s Nobel committee’s decision will be self-fulfilling. Let’s say that they do give it to Fama. Then he deserved it because even the betting markets demonstrate an instance of EMT at work. All is well.

Let’s say they give it to someone else. Then the betting markets were wrong, and the EMT didn’t hold true at least in this one instance. (The odds for the eventual winner should have been better in a very efficient market.) The prize shouldn’t be given to the theory since the EMT doesn't always hold. (Aside: Many are now arguing that EMT doesn’t always hold true.)

Therefore, either way the Nobel committee can’t go wrong this year.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe

Katrina Firlik, a brain surgeon has written a book about her profession, aimed at the lay person. It is a very easy read and I can’t recommend it enough. Books such as these are the closest that most of us will ever get to understanding a neurosurgeon’s life and thinking.

Dr. is smart, witty, has a very wry sense of humor and is disarmingly down to earth.

Dr. Firlik could have assumed one of several tones as the author: she could have come across as authoritative (“I am a brain surgeon, and you’re not”) or been didactic, or she could have taken a chummy tone. She doesn’t do any of this. With a well poised sense of balance, she comes across as a very capable and smart person, who is confident enough about sharing her vulnerabilities when warranted. She is able to convey the complexities involved in decision-making around different procedures regarding the brain, showing us that there are no black-and-white solutions

The book is structured to roughly parallel her life, taking us along as she chooses neurosurgery, goes through the seven years of residency and becomes a full-fledged practicing surgeon. There are numerous real-life anecdotes –funny ones as well as heart-rending ones.

I found Dr. Firlik’s way of giving advice, with a very light touch to be really effective. She has many examples of how huge personal catastrophes (and lives) could have been saved simply by the use of a helmet or a seat-belt. She is also not above adding “Nice” after a horrifying 2am drunk driving, no seat-belt disaster. I wish some of my college friends who still smoke would read this book. She casually mentions the havoc that the smoking habit unleashes on the brain in later years.

From time to time, she shares with us some of the black humor that the doctors, residents and nurses resort to about the patients. Dr. Firlik manages to pull these off, without ever giving the impression that any of the doctors are being callous. It is simply a coping mechanism for those who work long hours in grim circumstances.

There is a great line in the book which I know I will be quoting soon. When patients ask “Why me?” one of Dr. Firlik’s mentors says, “There are three possibilities. It could be bad genes, bad habits or just bad luck.”

I am very glad that I took the time to get hold of the book and read it. For those of you who just don’t have the time, I’d still recommend that you borrow the book from your local library and at least read the chapters titled ‘Scientist and Mechanic,’ ‘Traces of Thought,’ and the final chapter ‘Brainlifts,’ in which she speculates about what the future in her profession holds for enhancing brain and memory power.

Every profession should be fortunate enough to have someone write about it in an accessible and smart manner. For neurosurgery, it is Katrina Firlik. Don’t miss this book.

A Few Random Excerpts from the book that I jotted down: [On the fact that 15,000 people are affected every year] In short, a brain tumor is the fault of no person or thing. As with a deadly hurricane, nature is often both powerful and indifferent.

[Lesson learned as a junior resident] A lesson learned early on is that a sin of commission is better than a sin of omission. Better to do too much than too little. If you appear weak or indecisive, people will walk all over you.

[On why doctors are forced to be extremely cautious about possible litigation] At $106,000 per year, my malpractice premium is already high enough.

[One preventative idea] An idea I’ve had off and on during late-night treks to the ER. Everyone past a certain age – it’s hard to be exact here and I’m not being ageist, really – should consider sleeping on a traditional Japanese-style futon, the real kind, frameless, right on the floor. I can’t tell you how many ER visits for injuries to fragile parts – heads, necks, backs, limbs – could be prevented if simple falls out of bed were curtailed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Taking Time Out

In my dozen years of living in Chicago, I didn’t pay much attention to Time Out magazine. That, I think was a mistake. I would see copies lying around, but with full time work and staying in the suburbs it was difficult to carve out time for the myriad activities that Chicago had to offer.

Here in India, I am finding the magazine extremely useful. It comes out in 3 cities – Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. Each issue contains a long list of cultural and entertainment events for 15 days - Short films, documentary screenings, art presentations, open-air concerts and book launches with author talks.

If you live in a metro anywhere in the world, and are interested in attending these types events, subscribing makes sense. Most can also be found in their website.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reference Anxiety

Reference Anxiety” is basically the compulsion to keep up with the Joneses.

I came across this term a few years ago, in Lee Eisenberg’s book The Number. Lee mentions this as one big obstacle that keep people from attaining their “Number” – which is the estimated dollar amount in their nest egg so that they can retire comfortably.

Though I wasn’t aware of the term for it, I had experienced reference anxiety numerous times. I think most of us have.

I used to be a little proud of the fact that I drove a relatively old car to work. But that only lasted until my wife pointed out that Larry Summers, the director of Obama's National Economic Council still drives a 1995 Protege. Now there’s a man who is completely free of reference anxiety.

What struck me (and the reason I am posting this at all) is a side comment that Lee Eisenberg makes in his book. He mentions research that shows that it is not the Joneses who are raising the bar. Instead, he says, “we feel a great deal of pressure to keep up with ourselves.”

This, I find to be particularly insightful. There is no dearth of better things to acquire and enjoy. I know from first hand experience. I have many friends who are very successful in their chosen fields and not surprisingly, they live the good life. None of these friends would suggest that I go and buy or subscribe to the same things that they do. And yet it takes a lot of energy (if not courage) to consciously stay away from trying to keep up.

When it comes to reference anxiety perhaps I can fight it better if I realize that I am my own enemy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can be hazardous, together

Being home all day means spending lots and lots of time with my wife. And sometimes, she makes statements that I couldn’t disagree with more, forcing me to speak up.

“One should never mix oily food with curd,” she said one day when we were having lunch.
“Which idiot said that?” I asked.
“My father.”

Being married can sometimes be positively hazardous.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Service Apartments – A possibility for short term rentals

We are finding that “service apartments” are actually a very good option for people like us who aren’t looking to sign a long term rental lease.

Before we actually occupied one, I hadn’t paid much attention to Service Apartments. I knew that when consultants went out to different cities for long assignments, they sometimes stayed in corporate apartments as opposed to hotels.

When we looked around for apartment rentals we found that all of them wanted us to sign a twelve month lease right away. Eventually, we stumbled upon Serviced Apartments.

These are basically fully furnished apartments where you can pay a daily or a monthly rate. “Bring just your clothes” is an oft-repeated ad phrase. Typically, it will be a 2-3 bedroom apartment with: Bed, sofa, dining table, cooking range/gas stove, Microwave oven, fridge, and a TV. The upscale ones have a lot of other extras (maid service, breakfast).

Taken on a day to day basis these apartments are quite expensive. But we’ve found that some owners would let us rent for substantially lower rates, if their property was sitting idle, especially if we agreed to move on short notice. This worked out for our needs. Also, there are always weekly or monthly discounts.

There seems to be a market for those who want to rent for weeks or for a month or two. It takes some searching on the internet and calling around. Sometimes, you can find that a friend or an acquaintance of a friend has a furnished apartment that is vacant and you can offer to rent it from them. This was the case for us in Mumbai.

Whether you want to try different cities (or neighborhoods) before settling down in one, or simply want a “home” in a different place, Service Apartments are worth considering.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To head for the mountains

It seems to be a very common fantasy among Indians working in the US – to chuck their corporate jobs and head off to the Himalayas. I have heard it from so many that it is practically a cliché.

And so when we planned our first trip within India, we chose the Himalayas. My wife wanted to spend much longer there, but I was the one who limited it to two weeks. I wanted to start small.

The part of the Himalayas we visited (Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mussoorie, Yamunotri, Gangotri) is mostly in the Garhwal region in Uttarakhand. Not snow-clad peaks this time of the year, but very scenic. The Ganges (Bhagirathi) gushes right along the roads wherever we went. The food was hearty, accommodations decent. Some of the bus and jeep journeys were scary due to the narrow roads and the sheer drop.

We took two weeks to make the trip that others routinely finish in 5 days. We overnighted in villages that weren’t even marked in the tourist maps. I consciously stayed away from the Internet for the entire 2 weeks.

The Himalayas, to many who dream of heading there, is an idealized version of a place where you can shed all your worldly worries and get away from it all. Garhwal came close.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Interspersing "retirement" into your working years

Daniel Pink, after just returning from TED Global 2009 says:

One of the talks that really stuck with me came from the amazing designer Stefan Sagmeister. He described a typical life timeline: The first 25 or so years are devoted to learning, the next 40 or so to working, and the final 25 to retirement.

Then he asked: Why not cut off 5 years from retirement and intersperse them into your working years?

So every seven years, Sagmeister closes his design shop, tells his clients he won’t be back for a year, and then goes off on a 365-day sabbatical. It sounds costly, I know. But he says the ideas he comes up with during the year “off” are often what provide the income for next seven years.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Corporations Dangling Carrots

In our company an internal client of mine, a lady whose work ethic I respected, was promoted to a VP. Ours being a Fortune 500 company, this was a pretty big deal. Since she always worked late, that evening just before leaving work, I walked over to her office to congratulate her. I asked her if she would be moving to the corner office, the one previously held by the person who had the job.
“No, I am not allowed to occupy that office, Ram” she said. “It has two windows. Only Senior VPs can have an office with two windows. I am only being made a VP, not a senior VP. That office is being converted into a conference room. And they will be building me a new office adjacent to it for me, with one window.”
I was surprised that she didn’t see what all corporations are trying to do. They are forever dangling new carrots (a pay raise, a better title, a better office), anything to get their employees to put in more time.
It was like one of Pavlov’s lab dogs figuring out that it was being programmed to salivate. I think I lost quite a bit of my appetite for corporate carrots after that evening.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Giving up income for personal freedom -- Tyler Cowen

There is a wonderful jolt of recognition in reading something that echoes and validates our own thinking, and does so far more eloquently than we ever could.

How is it that someone like me, coming from a strictly middle-class background, with no inheritance, after working in middle management for just a dozen years can even consider myself as possibly financially independent? I have often wondered this in the last year.

Several clues to the answer come from Tyler Cowen, whose thinking and pointers I respect enormously. He's recently written a book called "Create Your Own Economy" (great reviews) and says the following in Newsweek Q&A about his book:

The wealthier we get, the more we are seeing people give up income for personal freedom or for a more interesting job.
...
Human welfare is becoming less attached to wealth than it used to be. It’s quite plausible, for instance, that an upper-middle-class person can be happier than Bill Gates or some other billionaire. You wouldn’t have said the same back in the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller.
...
The widespread presence of free fun on the Internet has made it very easy for a lot of consumers to limit or postpone their spending. Just stay at home and cruise the Web.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cryptic Crosswords: Step by Step

A lot of people end up not trying cryptic crosswords at all. You don’t need to be proficient in general knowledge to solve the clues, but you have to spend some time to learn the rules. Cryptic crosswords involve a lot of signaling and misdirection. Unlike the straight crosswords, which are really popular in the US, cryptic crosswords are more like English-language puzzles.

I have an uncle who is really, really good at cryptic crosswords. Not only does he solve several a day, he has also started taking the time (every Sunday) to hand-create the grid, include all the clues and provide progressively easier hints for others to give it a try.

Here are 3 that he's created:
21st June, 28th June 2009 and 5th July 2009 including a page with links of lessons about cryptic crosswords.

Cryptic crosswords take time and perseverance to get good at. I am not very good at solving them, but thanks to my uncle’s liberal hints, I am able to solve a good number of the clues in these Sunday crosswords.

Do give them a try. And if you would like to get future grids directly in your inbox, you can email him.

Monday, July 13, 2009

5 Myths about not having a job

It’s been one year since I succumbed to the idea of not having a job at all. Like everyone, I had hopes and preconceived notions of what it would be like to not go to work at all. Here are 5 things I have learned in the ensuing year are not really true.

Myth #1: You will have vast stretches of unlimited free time
This is the primary reason to give up a regular job, but it is surprising how little extra time one really gets. Not having to set out for office daily is when you realize how many of our day to day activities have to get done anyway. If you manage your time well, you can get a few extra hours every day, but it not even close to whole days.

Myth #2: With no routine to adhere to, you can do whatever you want, whenever you feel like it
It has been a shock to me how quickly new routines get formed. Yes, it is possible to be rebellious and try to shun routines. But for me, not having a routine worked out to be really counter-productive. I have made peace with the fact that routines to a certain degree are inevitable, and that the structure is actually helpful for me to function better.

Myth #3: You can forget about Work and earning Money
Your ex-colleagues and friends will come up with suggestions for what else you could be doing with your time, even if you don’t want to work 9 to 5. From time to time, I myself come up with schemes which I feel are ways to earn extra money. That kind of thinking lasts until I realize that it simply doesn’t make any sense to venture out on dubious propositions that have a remote chance of succeeding. And that I would be earning one tenth of my annual salary even if they did pan out. But it takes conscious effort to stay clear of work and money-related thinking.

Myth #4: You can’t live without a regular paycheck
Actually, employees get a lot more than just their paycheck, if you also consider the perks and benefits that go with being employed. So there is a big fear in letting go of what feels like life support. In my case, after a few necessary adaptations, it didn’t at all feel that bad. I don’t want to make it seem easy. Just that with enough planning, careful saving and living within set budgets it is possible to attain freedom from our dependence on regular paychecks.

Myth #5: You will get terribly bored
This is perhaps the biggest myth of them all. Those who say this really don’t know what they are talking about. When was the last time you got bored of a 4-day weekend, or your 2-week vacation? With all the events, movies, books and so much of the Web to discover, if anyone gets bored it is really their own fault. I am just as pressed for time as I was when I was working, and haven’t yet gotten bored.

In all, I am happy with my decision to leave the workforce. (Otherwise I’d be out looking for a job right now.) Just that things don’t always turn out as you think they will. If you know of friends or colleagues who mention their urge to shove their job, you might consider forwarding these myths to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wanting to belong, wanting no attachments

Sometimes I want to belong, to be part of vibrant communities. At other times, I want to have no attachments whatsoever, to be free to keep moving. I am often conflicted about harboring these seemingly mutually incompatible desires simultaneously. Which is why I find the following passage by Anne Lindbergh reassuring:
"Perhaps a first step, is in simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions. But how? Total retirement is not possible, I cannot shed my responsibilities. I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island. I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be. The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return. In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking time out for some personal indulgence

If you asked people who have left their paying corporate jobs why they did so, the reasons will typically have two components: the universal and the individual. Both sets of reasons will be centered around having a lot more time and the autonomy to pursue things that holding down a regular job doesn’t easily allow.

The universal reasons involve spending more time with family, hoping to do good and give back to the world, and to be the boss of one’s own time. The individual reasons vary. Each of us has had hobbies and pursuits which we believe will nourish our soul, but we have subdued into dormancy for years because of other priorities. In my case I seem to never get enough of books and movies, and to a smaller extent travel.

But there is also a third set of reasons, which folks usually won’t talk about.

The third set of reasons is that they simply want to indulge in things that they enjoy, even if it doesn’t do the world any good whatsoever.

Again, in my case I’ve long missed having the time to watch lots of sports on TV, the way I used to before high school, before the pressure to perform academically was impressed upon me. And after a gap of around 25 years, I’ve had a chance to do just that. In the last month, I have had my fill of cricket (IPL and now T-20 World cup) and tennis (the French Open.)

This is one small item in my long list of things-to-do-when-I-have-the-time that I can check off for now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pico Iyer: The Joy of Less

Thanks to Arvind N. for sending me the pointer to this Pico Iyer article.

Under the title of "The Joy of Less" Iyer writes about his almost monastic life in the suburbs of Kyoto. He writes:
But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.
I also found it very insightful that Iyer refers to absorption as the closest he's come to understanding happiness. In other places, I have seen this referred to as 'being in the zone.' Be sure to read the article, though not all of us will agree with its points.

NYT has also published people's reactions to Pico Iyer's article, and I found that equally interesting.

Related Posts Keylessness

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Article: The quest for an Endless Vacation

Even after all these months, I am unable to succinctly explain myself, when people want to know why I am not working, and why I am not settling down in any one place. The reasons are varied, nuanced and to an extent I don’t know them all myself, at least not clearly enough to elucidate to others.

This article in Frommers.com does a very good job of explaining several aspects of it. You can tell a lot about a person by who they respect, admire and want to be like. In that sense, the global nomads mentioned in this article are all people I admire very much. While I don’t necessarily want to do exactly what they are doing, they have captured and explained a lot of what I am seeking myself.

Thanks to Rupal for sending me the article. Do check it out.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tell me your XYZ coordinates

In many places around the world, but especially in India, people will typically try to ascertain three things about you and mentally assign you a certain rank and position. This rank is often deemed to be a measure of how successful you are, and whether you have “made it.” How they interact with you from then on depends on the rank or score that they assign you.

The three things are: your job (company, profession and title), your house (location and size) and your car (make, model and year). Here in India, I’ve had numerous people ask me directly or obliquely in an attempt to assign me a status-rank.

When these people find out that I have none of the three they are at a bit of a loss, unable to slot me into their coordinate system.

This takes them out of the scripted conversation that they are used to, because they’ve done this dozens of times before with others. But it sure makes for interesting conversations.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Is Keylessness an aspect of Bliss?

For several days this past month I didn’t have any keys in my pockets. The place we were staying at didn’t give us keys – we just knocked on the door and they let us in. With no car keys, no office keys to carry around, it was the first time in a very long time that I didn’t have any physical key with me. But now I am back to carrying a couple of them.

This got me wondering if being without any physical keys was somehow indicative of having achieved some level of personal freedom. Could it be that those who carry around very few keys have also simplified other aspects in their life?

If any of you reading this are able to get by on a daily basis with just 2 keys or fewer, then I’d like to hear from you. Please consider sharing how you manage that by leaving a comment.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Paul Theroux's "Lesson of my life" - Conde Nast

Here's an article by Paul Theroux looking back on his life journey. Definitely worth reading.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

2 in, 2 out

If this was fiction, I’d been critical of the writer for reaching too far for symmetry. But the truth is that many years ago I came to the US with two suitcases, and this week I headed back to India, also with two suitcases.

Almost two decades ago, fresh with my Bachelor’s degree I headed off to the US for grad studies. In my two suitcases were some clothes, cooking utensils, Indian music audio cassettes which I thought might be difficult to get in the US, and several textbooks and notes for my studies. In equal parts there was anticipation of what awaited and a sense of loss at all that I was leaving behind.

Fast forward two decades. This time, in my two suitcases again there are clothes. One sleek device holds more than a 100 times the music that those audio-cassettes had. And an external hard drive memory, the size of a cigarette packet (our most prized possession) all of our photos, notes and documents with room to spare.

This symmetry is somewhat disingenuous, since we have left boxes of stuff in long term storage. But those are mostly things like extra clothes, vacuum cleaner and microwave oven, things to help jump-start our stay in the US when we get back there. It has nothing that we can’t afford to lose.

Meanwhile, here I am in India (with two suitcases) eager to experience this vast country, and to reacquaint myself with its quirks and ways.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another source of data

We went to the I-90 toll way Oasis to return our I-pass transponder. This was just one of the dozens of small things that have to be taken care of when you are moving. The guy at the booth there was processing our refund to give us our deposit back.
“Did it already deduct the tolls that we just paid?” we asked him. We had just crossed the toll point at O’Hare minutes ago.
He said yes and added, "Don’t worry, they are not going to come after you in India for 40 cents,” he said.
“How did you know that we are going back to India?” I asked him.
“Why else would you be returning the transponder?” he asked. “Just last week, I had 5 returns from Indians. Three of them are going back to New Delhi. The economy here is not so good. I think the Indian economy must be doing okay. People are going back.”

I was surprised at how, from his vantage point, he was piecing things together. Yes, it is all anecdotal and the sample size is tiny. But it was another small reminder to me that if you are willing to look, there are always unexpected sources to learn what’s going on.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A “marketplace” for Volunteers - VolunteerInfo.Net

This post is just to share information about a website that I recently found and have personally used. Extremely impressive service.

This is yet another case of me coming up with what I thought was a good idea, only to find out that it already existed. I've always felt the need for a web-based organization – an EBay- or Craigslist-like marketplace for volunteers. It would be a place where volunteers could indicate their time commitment willingness, their skills and task preferences; and where organizations looking for volunteers could list what exactly they are looking for.

In the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, VolunteerInfo does exactly that – with a neat web application that does all this and a lot more besides. It is quite likely that there are similar organizations in your area too. It is a shame that I find out about Volunteerinfo just as I am leaving the area.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Freecycle

Things had gone awry and we didn’t even know it. My wife and I, reasonably proud that we hadn’t acquired too many things were, it seemed, quite deluded. We live in a 2-bedroom apartment, and only as we get ready to move are we realizing the sheer volume of things we have squirreled away. (This is what happens when you can’t throw away things in working condition.) But we are moving countries, and so pretty much everything needs to be disposed off one way or another.

One very efficient resource, it turns out, is freecycle.org. One example: A few years back, I bought a good amount of art materials (acrylic paints, watercolors, papers, sketch pads and brushes) but I hadn’t used them in years. They were very much usable, and rather than throwing them away, my wife decided to offer it on Freecycle.

One night the posting went out past 11.30pm, and within an hour there were 2 takers. All in all, we had close to a dozen people asking for it. Many genuinely needed it, but we could only give it to one. We ended up giving it to an arts program that a local hospital ran.

Freecyle truly leverages the power of the Web in getting demand and supply met, with the variation that there is no money exchanged. If you have things you want to give away, definitely consider posting it on this site in your area and watch the demand rush. Or maybe you can pick up something that is on offer. But be careful. You don’t want to end up with stuff that you didn’t really need. Check it out, though.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hedonic Adaptation in Retirement

“Ram, are you thinking of coming back to work?” “Are you doing the things you wanted to do?” These are the questions that I regularly get asked via email or phone calls with friends and ex-colleagues.

What they are really asking is this: So now that you left work, are you really, really happy? Since most of us dream of not having to go to work, I know that my answer could be a valuable data point for them.

I really am very happy, but the reason I can’t be gaga ecstatic in my response is because I am aware of hedonic adaptation.

At its simplest, hedonic adaptation is the theory that humans rapidly adapt to their current situation, becoming habituated to the good or the bad. As a mnemonic for this phrase I think of hedonism – the pursuit of pleasure – and then link ‘adapting to it.’

(For the sake of completeness I should also mention that there are many who make nuanced arguments and try to refute or caveat the theory of hedonic adaptation.)

I first came across this term a few years ago in Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book “Stumbling on Happiness.” (I am a happiness literature junkie.)

Lottery winners are almost always mentioned as the textbook example of hedonic adaptation. Every study of lottery winners shows that after around 18 months or so, they are no happier than they were before winning the lottery.

I have seen a variation of it in my own case. Whether I am working or not working, I seem to feel equally busy. When I was working, it was fairly common for my list of to-do’s to have 15-20 items or more. I would knock off as many as I could, and roll over the remaining tasks for the next day. These days, I have much fewer items, but it still feels like I am just as busy. (Witness hedonic adaptation.)

Hedonic adaptation can be a very good thing when things go bad for us. We learn to adapt to it, to return quickly to our ‘set point.’ The flip side is that even when very good things happen to us, we get used to them very quickly too. (Can you remember the very first search you did on Google? It seemed like a great thing had happened to us -- the Web coupled with Google seemed to open up possibilities like never before. But today, we have so thoroughly adapted to the existence of Google in our lives that we just are not as thrilled about it as we once were.)

Knowing that hedonic adaptation exists, I have to constantly remind myself of how fortunate I really am, of how much I value my free time and that I should be using that time for things I think are worth doing, for things that make me happy.

These psychologists (who seem to have a metaphor for everything) are now dubbing this as being on the hedonic treadmill – no matter what speed, you end up in the same place.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Apply before you leave your job

Rupal wanted me to pass this along to anyone considering early retirement or a hiatus from employment:
Make a list of the places where you will be applying for anything financial (Credit cards, loans, leases and the like) and apply before you leave your job.

We learned this the hard way. It didn’t occur to either of us until we had already left our jobs. Here are a couple of real examples.

After years of not having time to spend on my portfolio, I decided that I would look into selling covered calls. I own a few ETF’s (SPY, QQQQ). I understand the theory and the risks and rewards of selling covered calls well. But I found out that my brokerage account wasn’t approved for Options trading. So I logged on to my brokerage and applied for it online. But in the application, I had to state that I was unemployed and had no income to speak of. Sure enough, I got rejected. (No complaints, I would have done the same thing if I had been the one reviewing my application.)

Second example: My wife and I are now applying for a new credit card because it has no foreign fees for transactions abroad. (That would save us 2-3% on each transaction in India.) But I won’t be too surprised if we get rejected.

Maybe I should try claiming that I am self-employed. I know if I had applied when I had my corporate job, I’d have gotten the approvals fairly easily.

Lesson: Before leaving your job, take the time to think about (and make a list of) the various places that you would be applying for anything financial. If you are planning to move to a different town after quitting your job, you should seriously consider getting your leases, loans etc. done while you are still employed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Free" Real Estate Seminars


Call it journalism, or call it joblessness or just plain curiosity, but in the past two weeks, I went to two free "workshops" on Real Estate investing – one by the Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki’s team, and one by Donald Trump’s team. Having time in the middle of the day means that I can attend programs that I wouldn’t be able to, if I was busy at work.

I claim it was journalistic purposes because I have no interest in being a real estate investor whatsoever. I don’t even own a primary residence. But I went because I was very curious about the people who attend these seminars (in the middle of weekdays) and I wanted to study the presenters and hey, it was free.

These were both 90 minute sessions, and as I learned the main intent of these workshops was to get people to sign up for 2 and 3 day advanced seminars, where they teach you lots of Real Estate techniques in great detail.

Here are some of my impressions and notes from the free pre-class:
  • Behold the power of Branding. Thanks to the popularity of TV shows (The Apprentice) and books, people like Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki have become household names. They are able to capitalize on that by essentially franchising themselves. Trump’s is called Trump U., and Kiyosaki markets it as “Rich Dad Education."
  • Though it is not the intent, you can learn a lot about good presentation techniques by studying these presenters. Their task is to take disbelievers (who are most likely not economically well off and quite possibly unemployed) and try to sell them expensive course packages. The presenters were without exception great sales people.
  • One clever technique I saw was to ask everyone to hold all the questions till the end. This is because they don’t want disbelievers disrupting the sales pitch, casting doubts.
  • They will repeatedly make fun of anyone who has any doubts whatsoever.
  • These folks must have all gone to the same NLP techniques class, because they all use it. Programming the audience first and then repeatedly making them shout out the same words and phrases over and over again. “Because I am going to help you make what?” and the real estate market has been really going where? and so on. (Correct responses: “Lots of money” and “Down”)
  • They will pretend to get very angry when the audience doesn’t respond to moronic questions. “So does working for only 4 hours a week sound good to you?” “Would you like to make $20,000 on your very first deal?” (Hint: You are supposed to scream your Yes very loudly.)
  • They make fun of books and CD’s that you see on late-night TV infomericals, and yet they try to tempt you with books that you absolutely must own and will get only if you attend the 3 day seminar.
I am really not knocking these multi-day seminars. They might be just the thing for people who have the willingness, but not the know-how. I approve of a lot of what they say – yes Knowledge is very important, and yes everyone has to take action if they are serious about improving their lot in life. I know that these Real Estate techniques (pre-foreclosure, short sales etc.) do work for some, and that the fees for these 2 and 3 day classes will pay for themselves for some people.

I just don’t approve of how easy they make it sound.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Retirement -- Do you get on each other’s nerves?

Just the other day, my friend Srini posed a question that his wife had wanted to ask. Now that my wife and I are spending all our time at home, she wanted to know if we get on each other’s nerves?

I was concerned about exactly this aspect as I was leaving my job last year. In many ways, I feel that this is an even more pertinent retirement question than the questions about finance, which is what most people first think of.

In our case, for the most part, we are handling all this extra time together fine, though this is really more than a yes-or-no question. The fact that both of us left our jobs at around the same time has worked in our favor. In several retirement books, I have read that the second spouse (one who retires later) ends up disrupting the rhythm and the free time that the first spouse has gotten used to. This causes some resentment and leads to arguments.

Over the first few weeks of being home-bound, we re-divvied up the chores in ways that seem fair. We’ve fallen into a pattern of activities that we end up doing together (movies, TV, library visits and even grocery shopping) and there are times when we just do our own things.

From time to time, I will relocate to a different room just to get some space. I zealously carve out time to read books alone. I meet friends for coffee and have occasionally headed off alone to events, bookstores or to a coffee-shop to be by myself.

Lesson: Before you retire, have a discussion with your spouse on what you expect to be doing together and agree on having some time alone for each of you alone (if that’s important to you.) The biggest trick (I think) is to be able to catch the trigger points that lead to repeated arguments.

So to answer the original question, overall we’ve worked to reach an equilibrium without getting on each other's nerves. And I have actually been surprised that it has turned out better than I expected it to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Flood-It! game strategy

Note: If you came to this post looking for Flood-It strategies, welcome! Some links can be found in the comments section below the original post. (Ram)


An innocuous little message showed up on my iGoogle page a few weeks ago. A colorful icon with the accompanying message that said, "Recommended for you." It was a game. (Wonder why it was recommended since I didn't have anything to do with games on my page.)

Being curious, I checked it out. The goal is to "fill" the board with one color by clicking on different colors to flood the board in 25 moves or less. After you have played a few games, you start to develop neat little strategies.

Like many of my "consuming interests," I expected to grow out of it within the week. Meanwhile, I felt it was good mental training and kept playing.

But my interest didn't fade. Instead, myself (and a couple of like-minded friends) have been spending unhealthy gobs of time trying to 'solve' the game with optimal strategies. (That is, trying to finish each board with the theoretical minimum possible clicks.) If you too end up spending lots of time devising algorithms, send me a note or leave a comment and we can discuss offline.

Meanwhile, check out the game. (If you use iGoogle, you can add it to your page.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Blog Spotlight - Early Retirement Extreme

I have wanted to "spotlight" a few early retirement blogs that I follow. One of the earliest ones I found was Jacob's ERE -- Early Retirement Extreme Blog. His own subtitle reads: Financial independence, frugality, self-sufficiency, ecology, capitalism, and voluntary simplicity.

One thing is clear - the word "extreme" is very apt. Jacob's mission seems to be to shake people up a little, sometimes by throwing out numbers and statements which at first glance seem preposterous ("You can get by on $6000 per year per person in the Bay Area" is a favorite claim of his.) But he then backs up his statements and claims by describing how he does it.

I was intrigued and impressed enough to interview him and below are his responses to my questions.

Ram: Tell us a little about your own retirement story. (Why does Early Retirement interest you? How do you plan to get to it?

Jacob: When I started my blog, one of the first things I did was to write a series of posts on how I went about it, starting with this one. It is really quite simple: Spend very little and save the rest. The trick then becomes how to live as well as possible while spending very little. In the beginning I was not that good at it as could be expected having been your typical middle class consumer. Today, it would be hard to tell from appearances that I only spend about $6000 a year (in the Bay area).

Lots of people seem to be unable to wrap their minds around a number like that. However, there are many people in the country that lives on that amount and even less; however, their problem is that they lack the skills, desire, or opportunities to earn much more than that. In general, however, everybody seems to spend all they earn and that is what prevents them from a life of leisure, and so the problem is that we have been conditioned to spend all that earn. I mean, most personal finance blogs out there tell you to save 15% of your income. Most people here would consider that pretty good, but 15% is so negligible that it would take a good three decades of work to become financially independent. Some think that 30% or 50% is a lot. It is, but only relative to the paltry 15%. In China, the average is 50%. If you want to retire in your 30s, you need save even more than that, closer to 75%. This means that if you can live on $6000 and you can earn a little more than $24,000, you can make it. Conversely, if one lacks the competence to live on anything less than, say, $30,000, one would need a six figure income and not that many earn that right out of school.


2. What are some of the things you plan to do while retired?

Jacob: Even while working I have several balls in their air. What do I do for relaxation? Well I work or rather I do things. I'm not sure I should call it working because "work" usually implies something you do because you have to. In fact, aside from a few jobs, I have never really felt like I was working insofar that I would still be doing what I did/do even if I didn't get paid. I think that's a great situation to be in. I think I have been lucky not having to have considered work "work" for most of my career.

Anyway, since I was 25 or so I used my spare time doing various forms of non-profit work setting up web pages and writing articles and books about the world's problems. In fact, the blog is one such project. I would like to dedicate more time to this. Currently, my main focus is on global warming, resource depletion, and overpopulation. This is essentially about humanity learning that it lives in a finite world and that it/we/our economy can not keep growing forever, lest we self-destruct.

Solving this problem will be to our generation what avoiding global nuclear war was to our parents and grandparents. Somehow they agreed that saving the planet from destruction was worth it. Now our generation has to do the same, so this is what I want to work on doing.


3. Do have any Early Retirement fears? That is, things that might disrupt your plan for enjoying early retirement?

Jacob: Other than running out of money one way or the other (hyperinflation, say), my biggest fear is the "What if"-monster, e.g. how my life could have turned out otherwise. For any human, there are probably only a handful a really important decisions to be made during a lifetime, which can be said to have a single cause. I'm not talking about eating unhealthy or healthy or working hard or being lazy. Those behaviors merely contribute to a trend. What I'm thinking about are decisions that are almost singular in time such as who to marry, whether to have children or move to another country. Those are defining moments and retirement is certainly a defining moment. Two things should be considered: What will happen if I retire and what will happen if I do not retire. Both are uncertain. In particular I wonder whether solving the three problems mentioned above can be more effectively done within the confines of regular employment.


4. What advice/suggestions do you have to those who want to retire (early)?

Jacob: My advise is to learn how to spend less and still live well. It is far easier to learn to spend 5 times less than it is to learn to earn 5 times more. Most consumers seem to think there's a direct correlation between how much one spends and how well one lives. It's an idea that is continuously reinforced by society, so it is hard to let go off. However, letting go of that and "daring to be different" is practically all that is required. Some "get" that right away, while others seem to be very stuck in their ways.


5. What is your blog about?

Jacob: Well, it could be described as the "The way of Jacob" :-D It is idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, and often contrarian as well. It's like Fight Club without the fight or The Matrix without the matrix or Idiocracy without the idiots. The funny thing is that for those who "get it", the posts actually make sense. The rest probably think I'm crazy :-)


Please be sure to check out Jacob's blog.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Refusing help can upset acquaintances

This is something that I learned from experience.

Once people learned that I wasn’t working, I got a number of emails from friends, colleagues and even from minor acquaintances offering to help me find another job. A full time job is such an integral part of who we are that for many it is unthinkable that someone may not want one.

They would often ask for a copy of my resume to pass along, and also suggest job openings that they felt I would be suitable for. (This reminded me of matchmakers who are pressuring their single friends to pair up.)

However, my plan was to try out a lot of other things that I had been unable to pursue when working full time. So I thanked these friends, but I didn’t send them my resume.
Because I didn't respond in the way they expected me to, the phone calls and the emails stopped. I quickly realized that I had unintentionally offended many of these people who had only wanted to help me.

Lesson: So here’s something to keep in mind when you drop out of work. Prepare a well formulated response (just 2 or 3 lines) to send back to those who offer to send your resume around. In your response be extremely tactful, acknowledge and express your appreciation of their desire to help and ask for time rather than refusing the help outright. This is how I would do it, knowing what I know now.

There is also something very positive that I noticed as this unfolded: I was very heartened by the fact that people have such an innate desire to help others.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How Bill Gates is trying to change the world -- TED Talks 2009

We live in wonderful times. This year's TED conference just ended. It would have cost $6000 to attend, if our application was even accepted. But thanks to the Web, we get to listen and watch fantastic presentations by the best and the brightest for free.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. They hold an annual conference (invitation-only) where the absolute best in these three fields get to present, mingle and discuss ideas. Al Gore presented in 2006. The recent conferences have focused on collectively solving some of the world's toughest problems.

I started to pay more attention to TED ever since our local PBS channel started broadcasting some of the TED presentations and slide shows. They are unfailingly thought-provoking. A friend, Kalyan, swears by their podcasts.

I recently learned that many people start their workday by watching one TED video as a way to stay inspired.

I have included below Bill Gates' presentation this year. Don't miss the bit he does with the mosquitoes. Plus, it is gratifying to see data about the impact that great teachers can have on a whole class. (Makes me wonder if I ever took the time to thank my teachers.)

Check this out.



You can find many more TED videos here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Early Retirement – So are you bored?

“Do you get bored?” In various gatherings, I hear people ask Rupal some variation of that question. They are asking her because it’s been close to one year of not working for her.

The simple answer is no. I watch her verbal gyrations as she gives diplomatic answers. Not bored, she tells them because there is lots to do, things to take care of, new things to research.

In the seven months that I haven’t gone to work there has not been a single day that I’ve had problems spending time. No matter how much free time one has there are books, movies, podcasts, blogs and new and interesting websites competing for that time.

In a recent issue of Kiplinger’s finance magazine, I read the last editorial by Fred Frailey just prior to his retirement. He writes of his predecessor telling him that “there will come a morning when you'll wake up and realize that every day is a Saturday."

Yes, there are many reasons to go back to work after dabbling with retirement. Financial reasons, or maybe one’s career ambitions resurfaces, or one’s feeling of self-worth is tied to how productive one is in society. These are all good reasons but boredom shouldn’t be one of them.

New Yorkers, never ones to hold back are fond of saying about their beloved city. "If you are in New York City and you are bored, it's your own fault."

That exact sentiment, I suspect, applies to early retirement.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

There is no escaping the daily structure

This one is tough for me to admit. After all these years of dreaming about and rebelling against the daily structure that going to work imposed on me, I now find that I need a daily structure.

Yes it is wonderful not to have any schedule whatsoever. It is fun to while away time alternating between reading, browsing and eating. But after a good amount of those, I am left with this feeling of dissatisfaction.

What I am also realizing is that very quickly, a structure gets imposed. One minor example: I am a fan of the TV quiz show Jeopardy! It airs at 3.30pm in my area. After a few days of regular viewing, I now find that I have pre-Jeopardy and post-Jeopardy things that I do. Even viewing a 30 minute show lends a bit of structure to my day.

I know that it would be a lot cooler to tell everyone that I have no schedule whatsoever. But the fact is that without at least a few daily rituals, I am left a little disoriented, feeling that I am not in control. So I actually seek some regularity and structure in my days.

There is no escaping the circadian rhythm, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Retired CEO, yet very productive

Rupal asked me to read this article in Fortune magazine. There's a CEO who is worthy of being a role model for everyone. If people can attempt such things with their time, then early retirement becomes more than justified.

The article's last thought was on target.
Second, as we leave the season of giving and enter a challenging new year, we're reminded that the most valuable thing each of us has to give isn't money. Barnevik has given about $17 million to Hand in Hand, but that isn't what has made it so effective. For him and for the rest of us, the most serious gift - arguably the only serious one - is our knowledge, abilities, and passions.
Read the full article here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Retirement inspiration from Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs : "The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it."

The “work” that Jobs refers to may or may not be our day jobs. One reason to ‘retire’ is so that we can seek whatever it is that we were meant for.

There are 10 more of these ‘insights’ from Steve Jobs in Rajesh Shetty’s ever-upbeat blog, Life Beyond Code.

A friend of mine pointed out that the second one in that list, the one about Socrates, was rather odd. Does anyone know the story behind Steve Job’s fascination with Socrates?

Be sure to check it out the post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

50 Ways to Improve Your Life In 2009 - US News

My wife showed me this list of '50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2009' in the paper version of the U.S News and World Report magazine. I can’t imagine anyone reading this list and not finding at least 5 things to consider doing in 2009.

In my case the following were intriguing or relevant:
  1. Watch TV online
  2. Keeping a ‘clothes-hanger’ journal
  3. Use glass to store food
  4. the concept of hyper-miling
  5. Starting a Nonprofit
Do check it out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is Excel like bicycle riding?

To phrase the question more accurately: Do we remember and retain the MS Excel things we learned all our lives, the way we are supposed to be able to ride a bike forever, once we have learned it?

I started thinking about this while updating some year-end finance spreadsheets. Back when I was working, until six months ago, I used Excel regularly every day. I was not an expert by any means, but I worked with people who were very good at VB and I learned from them. In the last six months I haven’t used VLOOKUP, haven't created any new macros, haven't even used 'AutoFilter'.

All the retirement books seem to obsess about the money outlasting the person. I feel that for someone who is taking a sabbatical the biggest fear is not about money. If my financial net-worth dwindles, I can offset that by getting a paying job. But if my cerebral net-worth starts to diminish, I am done for.

To stay cerebrally fit means to be able to use tools. And for number-crunching that means Excel. And since I don’t want to take any chances regarding the amount that I will retain, I signed up to receive Excel Tips daily by email. It is short and I scan the email tip quickly. I am not aiming to become an expert, just want to stay familiar with all that Excel has to offer.

My bicycle riding won’t be anything fancy, but I want to be able to get home.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reasons to take up 'retirement' mid-career - Take 2

Last year, I picked up and read Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love.' In one year, the author lives for 4 months each in 3 countries (Italy, India and Indonesia) and writes about her experiences. The time structure and the idea intrigued me very much. Gilbert writes with charm and wit, and often offers up interesting little insights. As an aside, the book has been especially popular with women.

I jotted down 3 sentences from the book, which seem to also articulate my reasons for leaving my corporate job in search for something else that is at the moment intangible.
"The Bhagavad Gita – that ancient Indian Yogic text – says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection."

"I will say that the same thing which has helped generations of Sicilians hold their dignity has helped me begin to recover mine – namely, the idea that the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity."

"You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you’ve given up."
All three are from various parts of Eat, Pray, Love.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Trading-In Money for Time

Every week, in my emails and phone calls, I find myself defending my decision to walk away from my job. With each variation of my response, I now realize that I am also articulating it for myself.

The underlying question is a tough one: If I am not independently wealthy, and I loved my job, why did I give it up mid-career? Every version of the answer involves time. I craved time-freedom so much that I gladly paid for it with my future earnings.

The succinct response, with apologies to the bard:
Not that I loved money less, but time more.


Related Posts:

  1. What they think of time
  2. Financial Self-help via T-shirts slogans

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Empty Bowl Meditation

I apologize if this sounds New-Agey, but it is plain old gratitude. I am pretty sure it didn’t happen before but these days, every time I sit down at the table before a meal I feel that I should be expressing gratitude.

This might be because when I was working I felt that I had somehow ‘earned’ my daily food. These days, in stark contrast, after having been very self-indulgent – reading & browsing -- I still get my food. Meanwhile, there are a billion people who are toiling hard and still going hungry.

Perhaps that’s why when I came across this simple ‘mealtime meditation’ practice by Thich Nhat Hanh, it resonated. (I found this when I was browsing the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine at my local library.)


My bowl, empty now, will soon be filled with precious food. Beings all over the Earth are struggling to live. How fortunate I am to have enough to eat.


Aside: In the same magazine, I found the following quote by Mandela.
“It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

Friday, January 9, 2009

Your Dopamine, Your Retirement

There is a simple experiment with very significant consequences mentioned in Tim Harford’s ‘The Logic of Life,’ the book I am currently reading.

The Experiment In one case, experimenters offered a group of subjects a choice of a snack: fruit or chocolate. Seven in ten wanted the chocolate. A different group of subjects was offered the same choice, but with one small variation. They were told that they’d be given the snack one week after the question was posed to them. 75% of the subjects chose fruit.

What is happening here? The impatient part (the dopamine system) of our brain craves the chocolate right now, but the more sedate cognitive side opts for the healthier fruit because it is good in the long run. Harford very aptly dubs this ongoing tussle between the cognitive system and the dopamine system a ‘mental civil war’ that’s going on in all our brains.

The Relevance I first came across the various implications of the dopamine system in Jason Zweig’s excellent book Your Money & Your Brain (read it!). The book covers several interesting discussions around dopamine and the role it plays in the financial decisions we end up making and how we feel about them.

For me, personally, the cognitive side is able to assert itself over the dopamine side. When my dopamine side starts salivating at something, the cognitive side is quick to chide it saying things like “Don’t you remember? When you bought that other gizmo you used it for all of two times?” or “You know that in just two weeks you will outgrow it.” Consequently (most of the time) I am able to quell the instant-gratification urge. I will also try and wait six months to see if I am still interested in something.

This one aspect of my genetic lottery ticket has, I really believe, played a significant part in my being able to resist frivolous purchases, save up some money and be able to go with zero income for some time.

Though I haven’t seen it mentioned explicitly in the retirement context assertiveness over the dopamine system has to play a huge role in who is able financially to retire early. (Whether they choose to do so or not is a different matter.)

So if you are itching to give up your job and your current financial situation is the one thing that is stopping you, then start getting that dopamine system of yours under control.