Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

All the jobs I ever had

Today my daughter asked me what jobs I have had. I think it's
been 20 years since I actually tried to list all my jobs. Normally
when I've written a resume, I've just put the positions that are
relevant to the one I'm applying for.

Anyway, this was a fascinating exercise and I'd love to hear each of
you list out all your jobs too. A few of these I didn't get paid for,
but I was at least expecting some compensation, like at the Hollywood
Bowl I got concert tickets in return for helping seat people.

K-12 Student Jobs

1974 Paper Delivery, Orange County Register, Santa Ana CA (3 months, $1/hr)
1975 Bruno the Clown, Presto Magic Shows, Santa Ana (2 years $1/hr)
1977 Babysitter, Parents & Friends, Tustin CA (2 years, $1/hr)
1979 Weed Puller, Uncle Jim's Garden, Blackfoot ID (3 months, $.50/hr)
1980 Piano Teacher, LoKnoPla Institute, Santa Ana (4 years, $5/hr)
1982 Window Washer, Sunshine Window Washing, Santa Ana (2 months, $6/hr)
1982 Gas Station Attendant,Union 76 Gas Station, Santa Ana (3 months, $4/hr)
1983 Usher/Sweeper, Edwards Cinemas, Costa Mesa & Westminster CA (1 year, $4/hr)

College/Gradschool Jobs

1984 Archivist, Loyola Marymount University Library, Los Angeles (2
years, $4/hr)
1985 Sales Clerk, Radio Shack, Tustin (2 months, $4/hr)
1986 Burger Cook, Del Taco, Santa Ana (2 weeks, $4/hr)
1986 Sales Rep, Telemarketing Co, Irvine CA (2 hours, $0)
1986 Programmer - Music Synthesizers, Digital Media Systems, Lake
Forest CA (3 months, $6/hr)
1987 Math/Physics Tutor, LMU Learning Center, Los Angeles (1 year, $5/hr)
1987 Research Assistant, UCLA Classics Dept, Los Angeles (1 year, $9/hr)
1988 Usher, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood CA (3 months, $20/hr in Concert Tickets)
1988 Hardware Specialist, Home Depot, Santa Clara CA (3 months, $7/hr)
1988 Computer Operator, LifeScan, Mountain View CA (3 months, $11/hr)
1988 Partner, Elipsis Media Services, Santa Clara CA (3 months, $0)
1989 President, MetaVerbal Technologies, Evanston IL (1 year, $3/hr) *
1989 Apprentice Electrician, Gerhard Electric, El Toro CA (3 months, $7/hr)
1990 Teaching Assistant, Northwestern University Linguistics Dept,
Evanston IL (1 year, $10/hr)

"Think & Grow Rich" Period

1990 Computer Programmer, LifeScan, Milpitas CA (6 months,, $16/hr)
1990 Systems Analyst, LifeScan, Milpitas (6 months, $23/hr)
1991 Partner, MetaVerbal Media, Fremont CA (1 year, $4/hr) *
1992 Investment Manager, COBY Investments, Fremont (6 months, $20/hr)
1993 Customer Services Systems Manager, LifeScan, Milpitas (3 years,
in Milpitas, $32/hr) *
1995 Multimedia Edutainment Producer, LifeScan, Milpitas (1 year, $36/hr) *
1995 Investor & Property Manager, Self, Oakland CA (4 years, $90/hr) *
1997 IT Help Desk Manager, Tandem Computers, Cupertino CA (1 year, $38/hr)
1998 IT Project Manager/Webmaster, Tandem Computers, Cupertino (1 year, $38/hr)


1999 Sheet Music Specialist, Tupper & Reed, Berkeley CA (6 months, $7/hr) *
2000 English Teacher, Berlitz School of Languages, Mainz Germany (6
months, 22DM = $11/hr) *
2001 Investment Manager, Real Estate Partnerships, Long Beach CA (2
years, $95/hr) *
2003 Investment Manager, Affinity Properties, Compton CA (2 years, $100/hr) *
2004 CEO, Affinity Neighborhoods, Los Angeles (3 years, -$100/hr, yes
I made MINUS $100 for every hour I worked)
2005 VP Research & Development, New Affinity, Greenwich CT (8 months, $58/hr)
2006 VP Research & Development, Key2Own Real Estate, Phoenix (9 months, $9/hr)
2007 Partner, Springport Properties, Atlanta (1 year, $4/hr)

What's Next


If I had my druthers, my next job would be organic farmer, or maybe
inventor, music composer, or installing solar panels or something like
that. Many interesting opportunities have come up recently, and I have
applied for a bunch of jobs, but the process has been so impersonal
that it gets me all depressed to work really hard on one application
after another and hear nothing back. So I've been thinking, maybe the
thing to do is make a universal resume, describing what I learned from
each of these jobs, and then submit that to any position that looks
interesting to me. I'm sure most HR people would toss such a resume
into the waste basket without reading it, but at least I won't have
spent much time on it, I will just do it once and then submit it to
lots of jobs. It's an idea, anyway.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

How to live sustainably

There are lots of sites out there which tell you how not to live sustainably. But I haven't seen one that tells you how to do it.

First of all, "sustainable" has to include the "what" (the activity) and also the "how many" (6.6 billion people) and finally the "how long" (say, 10,000 years, starting now).

So, for example, driving a gasoline car to work each morning -- we need to imagine 6.6 billion people doing that. I think we'd run out of oil in a few years, if we didn't die from the smog or get run over first. Not sustainable. And so on for pretty much everything we consume in the USA.

The flip side is reusing discarded stuff, growing food to eat without clearing any more land or adding any products from anywhere except your own neighborhood (moved around with hand carts), and harnessing energy locally, using local materials, such as are found in discarded buildings, junked cars, and dead appliances.

Not buying anything or using any "utilities", unless you can really verify where every bit of it comes from, and it's a sustainable source (good luck). We all wish someone really trustworthy would do all that research for us and certify stuff as sustainable, but about a million documented cases in history have taught us that you have to verify it yourself if you want to be sure. I might begin to trust such a certification agency if every employee of that agency lived completely sustainably, for starters, and was compensated only when they reported that something Wasn't sustainable.

OK, now this is probably sounding about as fun as living without running water. Yeah, that's because it is exactly that! However, something nearly everyone has learned at some point and forgotten again: Fun has nothing to do with products and services -- fun is all about attitude.

To me, trying to save the planet and get everyone to live sustainably sounds fun, believe it or not. Starting with me. So far, in the past few years, I have taken the following steps:

1. Switched all my lightbulbs from incandescent to flourescent. Also became very vigilant about turning off the lights when not in use. Have only one or two 13 watt bulbs in each fixture (instead of four, or however many the fixture holds, like eight in my bathroom).
2. Stopped buying disposable batteries, use rechargeables instead.
3. No Christmas or Birthday presents that the person wouldn't have bought anyway (like one of my favorite presents is organic locally grown fruit).
4. I will never own a car newer than 1999. No commuting to work or school by car. Keep tires inflated and car tuned up. Use smallest car available (3 cylinder Geo Metro). Never buy gas from Exxon/Mobile or Chevron/Texaco.
5. Limit airplane trips to once every 12 months (and counting).
6. Live in a townhome rather than single family detached.
7. No lawns. Converted dozens of lawns to low maintenance (wood chips, rocks, drought tolerant plants) or fruit & vegetable gardens.
8. Plant lots of trees (hundreds per year).
9. Buy recycled toilet paper and give it away (so others will use less virgin-fibre paper -- thousands of rolls).
10. Buy lots of compact flourescent bulbs and give them away (about 250 so far). Also gave away about 100 used incandescent bulbs, to help reduce the demand for them.
11. Eat only 100% organically grown food.
12. Reduced my milk intake to 1 glass daily. Eliminated butter and margarine. Reduced cheese intake not sure how much).
13. Eliminated candy, chocolate, cake, cookies, ice cream and other sweets from my diet. No soft drinks, beer, coffee, energy drinks, or bottled water. Limit organic wine to two glasses a week.
14. Buy most things in large quantities with less packaging. No more cereal boxes, raisin or nut containers, flour or rice bags, oatmeal cannisters, etc.
15. Eat only homegrown eggs, from foraging chickens.
16. Eat no meat, except occasional fish.
17. Flush toilet once per day. Usually pee outside in the woods.
18. Eat at restaurants less than once a month.
19. Downsized computer from desktop to shared (5 year old) laptop with shared internet service.
20. Switched my home page to www.blackle.com.
21. Recycle all paper, plastic, glass, and metal.
22. Removed dozens of ceiling fans, and instead provided tiny 6 volt fans that do the same job.
23. Experimenting with much more energy efficient air conditioning system.
24. Never buy or use toxic pesticides, herbicides, cleaning products, personal products, etc.
25. Use a plunger or drain snake instead of draino.
26. Stop junk mail, put it back in the mailbox with return to sender on it. Cancel all paper catalogs, magazine & newspaper subscriptions.
27. Pay nearly all bills online. Use credit or debit card instead of cash or check.
28. Use almost exclusively hand gardening tools. Occasionally I use electric powered tools for one-time jobs, no gas powered tools.
29. Rescue stuff on its way to the landfill.
30. Do not landfill any food items. Chickens and worms get all of our kitchen waste.
31. Do not waste food, or much of anything.
32. Buy less stuff. Collect other people's cast-offs. Buy used stuff instead of new. Never buy clothing (there are plenty of extras out there).
33. Buy stuff that lasts a long time, and take care of it.
34. Use heat sparingly in winter, and A/C sparingly in summer. We keep our thermostat for A/C at 81F, except occasionally turning it down to 79 or 78F. In winter we keep it at 65 normally and dress warmly. Insulate the coldest walls and rooms -- I add an extra layer of insulation inside and outside the walls.
35. No pets, besides chickens and an occasional goldfish. Maybe will spring for a hamster or rabbit someday, if we can feed it kitchen scraps.
36. Never buy pressure treated wood. Buy only wood certified from managed forests, no redwood or exotic woods.
37. Never use primer (isn't necessary). Reduce paint usage. Never use paint sprayer.
38. Almost never buy carpet. Reduce rug usage.
39. Don't wear underwear.
40. Never buy furniture or cabinets made from pressboard (wears out too fast and is sent to landfill).

OK, that's enough for now. These are things I am already doing. I feel like I am about 25% of the way there, given where I was as a starting point, living like a "normal" American yuppie, sort of. "Earthbonk" is a term that refers to your total pollution and ecological destruction. Mine was very high, even for an American. :/

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Girlcott project (as opposed to Boycott)

(Written November 10, 2007)

I am committed to transforming the paper industry.

I was wondering what one person could do, in the face of such a monster. I thought and thought about this and talked to many people. And then one day in the Summer of 2006, I had an idea.

Stores that sell paper are very sensitive to demand. They tend to give more shelf space to the products that do more volume. And they put the high volume products in better, more visible, positions.

So I did an experiment on Toilet Paper at a particular Safeway store in Phoenix AZ (the one at 47th St and Indian School Road). When I started, they had only one non-virgin-fibre brand, it was buried at the very back of the section, and it had only 6 rolls wide of shelf space, with no extra boxes up on top or in the warehouse. Several store employees told me that was their least popular TP brand.

I started going there every couple days and buying all but one of their stock (generally 0-8 packs of 12 rolls were in stock, they replenished on a somewhat random schedule), and then I would ask them to order more, and then I'd go put a package on each neighbor's doorstep, starting with the residents closest to that store (the ones most likely to shop there, I reasoned). I kept track of where I had delivered packages by putting green dots on a map (see above picture).

After a couple weeks, I noticed the first change. Up above the shelves, there started to appear overstock boxes of the tree-free brand (called "Earth First", by Royal Paper). I continued to buy their entire stock, minus one or two packages (I didn't want other customers to come in and find no tree-free TP). So now I was buying between 0-16 packs every 2 or 3 days, and delivering them out to the neighborhood.

This has three effects: First, the store and the manufacturer are loving it, of course. They see the tree-free stuff flying out the door. Second, many of the neighbors had probably never considered buying tree-free TP. I left a little note on each package, explaining what I was doing. So this probably converted a few people. Third, even for the majority who probably didn't convert, they still almost certainly used the free product, delaying their next purchase of virgin fibre TP. Because all these purchase delays were concentrated around that Safeway, the store was likely to notice a slowing of sales of the virgin fibre TP.

The second effect I saw was a few weeks later. Nearly all the virgin fibre TP went on sale. Really deep discounts. Ha! I thought. I just increased the marketing costs of virgin fibre TP! The tree-free TP didn't go on sale. But I kept buying it up.

The third effect, a few weeks later, was the one I was aiming for. The tree-free TP got moved from the back to the FRONT of the aisle! I am told by retail specialists that this is very difficult to achieve. And yet, I did it! Without any meetings or events or campaigns or convincing the management to be greener.

And then there was a fourth effect I had never expected, they actually introduced another tree-free TP brand, and put it next to the Earth First brand. This other brand was made from cotton, which unfortunately is probably just as bad for the environment as virgin tree fibre, but I think they meant well. I think they were trying to respond to the obvious increased demand for tree-free products. And of course, when the store pushes products like that, they move.

After all was said and done, this project cost me about $3000 and took about 3 months. I checked back periodically, and 1 year later the tree-free TP was still in front, even though I had stopped buying it for a year. I am doing this again here in Atlanta, with 4-pack rolls instead of 12-pack rolls, so it should cost closer to $1000 to cause the same shift this time. If I can find 10 other people to join me, for $100 each we can move a retailer.

I am also doing it now with recycled copier paper from Staples. The thing I like about TP though is that it's unlikely people will use more just from having more. You only poop and sneeze a certain amount. Whereas with paper towels, for instance, there's a good chance people would use more if they were given a free pack, and this would reduce the positive impacts outlined above.
I dubbed this process a "girlcott", as opposed to a "boycott".

If anyone is interested in looking at how to spread this to more stores, and maybe even take on an entire retail chain, let me know. I am committed to transforming the paper industry. If I can cause that effect working alone, imagine what a team of people working together could do...

Thanks for listening, :)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Environmental Activism Idea

Today I had a new idea (at least new to me :).

There is a site that shows which toilet paper to buy to have the least damaging impact on the environment.


Toilet paper is a great product to start with because it's use is almost exclusively determined by "need", there is very little danger of excess consumption, no matter how much is available. And to my knowledge there is no viable reusable alternative.

Here's my plan. Find a store that sells a "good" brand of toilet paper. Make sure this store is also a strong store overall, i.e. not overshadowed by much larger and more popular supermarkets nearby. Draw a 1 mile radius on the map, around that store. Find all other grocery stores in that same area, and make an official photographic record of what brands of toilet paper they sell and how much shelf space they give them. (This will be our baseline).

Ask the manager of each store in the area to add more good brands of toilet paper, and increase the ratio of good/bad brand shelf space. Explain to them if they decline, that you are going to promote their competitors to the local community.

Then call the manufacturers of the good brand and ask them to donate 10,000 rolls of toilet paper for this promotion, designed to increase their sales and market share, and raise awareness for their particular brand's key advantages. If they won't donate it then buy 10,000 rolls (this should cost less than $3000 wholesale, which we can easily raise).

Next we call the local newspapers, radio programs, environmental newsletters, and other media that might be interested in this groundswell effort, and tell them our plan.

Then we go door to door in a spiraling path around our target store, delivering to each resident a roll (or 4-pack) of good toilet paper along with a card (printed on recycled paper) that has a brief explanation along with the list of good and bad toilet paper brands on one side, and a map of the target store on the other side, along with the phone numbers of all the store managers in the area, and instructions to call them and request that they carry more good brands.

We then go back to all the stores each week for the next 4 weeks (while people are using the toilet paper we distributed, there should be a drop in sales of competitive brands), ask the managers if they noticed anything different, measure their good/bad shelf space ratio again, and report the results to the media.

If we succeed in having any measurable impact, I believe the good toilet paper manufacturers and environmentalists will be all over it, reproducing our results in thousands of markets. I bet a point of market share is worth millions of dollars in that industry.

The bad brands will have to respond, at least by pretending to make progress, but possibly also by making actual progress in producing a less destructive product.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The World We Want

Universal Declaration of What We Want For Everyone

Whereas, all human beings have certain desires in common, and there is a universal tendency to strive toward these goods when they are lacking;

We hereby declare our intention to acquire for all humanity permanent access to the following rights and freedoms, thereby furthering the cause of peace and universal prosperity.

Freedom from violence or threats of violence.
Right to live under rule of law. Not to be arbitrarily deprived of property or privileges.
The ability to put aside wealth for future use.

Sufficient food, including a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Availability of natural, locally grown food free of undesirable additives or contaminants. Access to list of ingredients in processed or packaged foods.
Clean water for drinking and washing.
Sufficient exercise to maintain healthy muscles, bone, and cardiovascular system, and to prevent obesity.
Sufficient rest, medicines, first aid, psychotherapy, and other items required to maintain health and ensure speedy recovery from any readily curable illness or injury.

Clean land, air, and water, freedom from toxins and pollutants.
Preservation of natural resources and restoration of habitats which have been destroyed. Maintainance of healthy forests, rivers, lakes, wetlands, oceans, atmospheric layers, and local and global biodiversity.
Pleasant surroundings, conducive to productive lifestyles. Freedom from eyesores, visually offensive scenery, noise pollution, foul odors.

Weather-proofing, heating, cooling, lighting, air circulation, and waste disposal systems sufficient to maintain the occupants' comfort, cleanliness, privacy, and safety, including during Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Droughts, Floods, and other predictable natural events.
The ability to secure one's dwelling against unwanted entry.

Ownership of Property.
The ability to put something down, go away, and have it still be there when one returns.
The ability to safely store valuables.

Freedom to leave any place, city, country, or region, and to return. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age and those not wanted for criminal prosecution or suspected of promoting criminal activity.)

Freedom to choose with whom one associates, and to live together in mutually consensual relationships. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)
Freedom to leave a relationship with an individual or group and seek new associations. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)
The ability to meet and get acquainted with a wide variety of new people.

Freedom to express and publish one’s opinions, beliefs, values, and religion.
A sphere within which one can act free from the awareness or intervention of others.
Protection from outside surveillance.

A broad selection of productive, sustainable occupations, such that each person can match their job to their personality, talents, and inclinations. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)
The ability to earn sufficient income to allow regular saving. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)

Access to efficient and effective education and training in at least the following subjects:
First Language Literacy
Health Education, Biology, Birth Control
Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Logic
History, Civics, Law, Social Studies, Geography
Foreign Language Instruction
Psychology, Interpersonal Relationships, Negotiating, Conflict Resolution
How to Grow Food, How to Survive in the Wilderness, How to Build, Maintain, and Repair One's Home
How to Start and Run a Successful Business, How to Get a Job, How to Advance and Succeed in a Career
Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture
Music, Rhythm, Creative Writing, Dance
Techniques & Strategies in a wide variety of Sports and Games
Preparation for a wide variety of entry-level and advanced occupations
Philosophy, Critical Thinking, Self Reflection & Transformation
Science, Information Technology, Computer Applications

Access to wide variety of personalities, cultures, philosophies, ideologies, lifestyles, languages, landscapes, cuisines, art, literature, and opinions.

Freedom to participate fully in society and be evaluated based on performance, regardless of arbitrary personal features or group membership.

Right to vote, or otherwise participate in directing government. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)
Right to voice suggestions and concerns to the governing authorities, and to be listened and responded to. (This right may be restricted to persons of full age.)

Access to public records, libraries, the internet, personal and family medical records (except where this violates individual privacy).
To know the names of and to contact one's birth parents and other relatives.

Any Persons Who Are Not Able To Care For Themselves Have the Following Additional Rights

The right to be cared for, supervised, and protected at all times by at least one adult who voluntarily takes full responsibility for the person in need of care, and is accountable for their well-being.

Adolescents Ages 13+ Have The Following Additional Rights

To meet and interact with others in their age group in the context of friendship building and companionship.

To meet and interact with others in their age group in the context of dating. (Dating may be restricted to people of full age.)

Children Ages 0-13 Have The Following Additional Rights

Daily loving embraces and caresses by a parent or guardian.
Freedom from sexual molestation.

Time to play alone and with other children.
Access to a variety of child-safe toys and play experiences.
Freedom from overburdensome work responsibilities.

Gentle but firm training and guidance aimed at developing good character and encouraging felicitous social interactions.
Clear explanation of rules governing behavior.

The Not Yet Born Have The Following Additional Rights

Prenatal Care
Freedom from diseases, disabilities, and defects caused by malnutrition, substance abuse, or other unhealthy behaviors or conditions affecting fetal development.

Non-Human Lifeforms Have The Following Rights

Pain Relief
Freedom from torture, arbitrarily induced pain, or senseless killing.

Right to continue one's species. Freedom from extinction.

Conflicts arising between various rights are to be dealt with and resolved by impartial adjudication, applied evenly across all of humanity.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A biographical note

I am an INTP. Before I could talk, I was playing with numbers. I sorted all the books in our house by the number of pages, and at age 3 I learned the order of frequency of initial letters in English from counting encyclopedia and dictionary pages. My favorite toy was these triangles you could make just about any shape out of.

I studied electrical engineering for 4 years and then switched my major to Latin. I applied to three graduate schools (in German, Classics, and Linguistics) and was offered fellowships to all three. I picked Linguistics at Northwestern University, mainly because it was the farthest away. I drove my 1964 VW bug (nickname "suicidomobile") from Los Angeles, over Vail Pass, to Chicago, towing a tiny trailer with all my worldly possessions. (My adventures in that car, whose every part I had rebuilt or replaced several times, make up a very exciting chapter of my life.)

My first successful company (after window washing, magic shows, and such) was the world's first online Latin-English dictionary, which I sold to university Classics departments and made about $800 after paying my typists and proofreaders. My next successful company was an online CD wholesaler, in the days before amazon.com.

In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time working out formulas to find inefficiencies in the stock options market, and did a bunch of successful trades in a row. I started pooling money from friends and family, but stopped when I couldn't figure out how to peg the value at any given time (some difficult math is involved, if you want to be fair and take different people's money at different times).

I then turned to real estate and discovered some major inefficiencies in that market. I preferred real estate over other investments because I could see and directly control where my money was ACTUALLY going. I started buying properties and helping others buy properties in Oakland CA. I was doing really well, so well, in fact, that I was able to retire from my computer job. At the same time, the neighborhood I and my partners invested in underwent an amazing transformation that took me by surprise. I realised then that I had way more power than I thought.

But my main goal was to be a composer of music, so I wandered around Mexico and Europe for a few years looking for people to collaborate with on operas and chamber music. I was content to live on about $10,000/year, which meant I would never have to work again.

Then I met my wife and I'm not sure she said this explicitly but somehow I felt like I should make a little more money for her, maybe $30,000/year. I could have gotten a cool computer linguistics job in Switzerland but thought, well I know how to do this real estate thing and I could just do it again and then retire again.

So I went back to the USA and picked another neighborhood (I analyse gigabytes of data on thousands of cities in order to do this). This time I was smarter, because I had seen how things worked in Oakland. I and my partners bought 22 properties in a neighborhood in Long Beach CA, and repeated the same process.

One of my other goals in life is to get a massage every day, but I didn't want to pay $50/day, so I put an ad on craigslist for a massage therapist that would give massages in exchange for rent (I had lots of places available). One of the massage therapists that took me up on this deal invited me to an introduction to the Landmark Forum -- she told me about it while I was getting a massage. My experiences with Landmark are another amazing chapter of my life; I discovered so much about myself and about how relationships work that I don't even know what to compare it to.

Perhaps to the Britannica Great Books (another goal of mine was to read them all in the original languages, which is why I taught myself Latin, Greek, German, Italian, and Spanish, and have nibbled at the edges of Russian, French, Japanese, Turkish, Sanskrit, and Mandarin).

Or I could compare Landmark to Classical Music, which also had that sort of impact on my life, which is why I taught myself piano, harpsichord, organ, recorder (SATB), trombone, voice, and guitar. I also dabbled in violin, cello, hammer dulcimer, and clarinet. I have written about 100 songs, mostly variations on nursery rhyme tunes for piano or small ensemble. Biologist and author Lewis Thomas and I share our predilection for Bach above all other composers.

Two of my real estate partners took the Landmark Forum too and we all got really excited about the potential and created a company, pooled $1.6 million from friends and family, and bought, renovated, rented, and sold 35 homes in and around Compton CA (the investors got 27% annualised returns, over 2 years).

We were doing such cool stuff in distressed neighborhoods that the Los Angeles Times plastered us all over the front page of the Sunday real estate section. Then we started getting calls from all over the place. We raised another $2 million and bought dozens more houses. We were on CNN, we were in Fortune, they did a documentary on us on HD.net.

Now we are raising $50 million to do it bigger. When we show that it works at this level, I expect we will do it again even bigger. My ultimate goal is to transform all the distressed neighborhoods in the world. I believe this will have a major impact on sustainability and peace.

Whether this ends up solving any major global problems or not, I hope to be remembered as someone who cared about the poor and designed win-win investments that create wealth for the community as well as for investors.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another solution to poverty

I had a vision the other day of a new solution to poverty. First, list all the governments and groups that are donating money to help the poor, including welfare in rich countries, and sort them by how much money they are giving.

Start with the biggest one, perhaps it's the US government's assistance to Brazil or whatever it is. Maybe it's our own welfare programs. Anyway, instead of money, give solar panels.

Use the money to buy solar panels, and then donate the solar panels directly to the people we were giving some other kind of assistance to. Publicise this fact, so that anyone who wants solar panels will know that these poor people now have them, and will probably want to sell them in order to buy stuff they need.

A small number of the solar panels might end up on poor people's roofs or leaned up against their tents powering radios or electric fans. But most will get sold.
Keep doing that. The beauty of it is that the only way a solar panel has any value is (1) it has to be out in the sunlight, and (2) you have to have a use for the electricity generated. So the panels will quickly find themselves in the hands of either people with electricity needs or entrepreneurs who want to sell electricity to others.

Solar panels that don't satisfy (1) and (2) are worthless and yet can be sold for real money. The point is that a large electric generation capacity will grow up overnight. This infrastructure will enable other industries to develop, particularly in useful electronic devices.

You can monitor the street price of solar panels, and if it ever drops too low (unlikely, if everyone knows about this, on ebay solar panels don't sell for any discount at all, there are way more buyers than sellers) then you switch momentarily to something else, like bicycles.

The assets you donate instead of money all have to have the same traits, they are worthless unless used to create wealth, and (unlike food or clothing) they last a long time without depreciating in value, and there is a resale market, or one could arise instantly.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The ultimate goal of socially conscious business

>I, for one, am very interested in the intersection of business and social improvement.<

This is an interesting statement, because on the face of it all business seems to be about social improvement. No one is forced to buy anything, in spite of the stories we tell. Since transactions are freely entered into, both buyer and seller must believe they are benefiting.

I guess there are two problems which socially conscious investing has arisen to address.

First, the free market allows people to repeatedly make choices which lead to financial ruin. For instance, spending too much on alcohol or gambling can lead to loss of your home and job. Kind of like a mountain road with no railings or lane markers.

We see the smashed cars below and think, we should make that road safer. Then we lobby and campaign to convince everyone to agree to put up railings. That's an uphill struggle in the case of products and services; freedom is such an important value to us.

Society has outlawed a few things like cocaine and asbestos, which arguably lead people to ruin. It has put some restrictions on tobacco, guns, sex, loan sharks, and gambling, presumably to protect individuals from their own free choices.

Socially conscious investing has this protection built into it, as part of the goal of the business. That is, a business which is designed to consistently and reliably improve its customers' (and employees', suppliers', owners', and neighbors') quality of life, and which succeeds at it, is socially conscious.

The other problem is that some things are really profitable which end up being bad for everyone, like strip mining, or tobacco growing, rhinoceros hunting, or feeding sheep brains to cattle. This is often an even more difficult struggle to restrict, because there is so much money coming out of the enterprise before anyone complains, that all the politicians are in debt to these bad boys, kind of like Chicago's court system under Al Capone.

Socially conscious business ought to leave the world at least as nice as we found it. Currently it is enough to simply do less damage than all the other companies providing the same product, as is the case with Seventh Generation disposable diapers, or organically grown vegetables that are shipped to us in diesel powered trucks.

What seems apparent in looking at this situation is that socially conscious businesses have arisen to fill a gap in government's stewardship of the common good. We are doing the government's job, because the government is being paid not to do it.

So the ultimate goal of socially conscious business has to be to transform the government. I never thought of it that way before.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Vaccine for Poverty (part 4)

If you have been following this multi-part essay on solving poverty, by now you know my rule #1: Take on the easiest cases first.

I want to say a bit more about what makes a case "easy". As you can imagine, for example, it is easier to help someone get a job if they are disciplined, qualified, and have a "good attitude", and the only thing they are lacking is some coaching on how to apply and what to say in an interview.

I am not saying that we shouldn't help poor and desperate people. I am saying that if we focus our efforts on comforting the desperate cases and ignore the marginal cases, we risk never getting there. I want to end poverty, not die trying!

I am also not saying we shouldn't seek sweeping improvements to the tax system and other aspects of government and economy. I am saying that unless you've got a track record of winning big political battles, I suggest starting with something smaller. Reform the taxes of one small town in a repeatable way (i.e. such that your influence and resources grow, not shrink, in the process), and I will join you in taking on the next easiest target.

Another way to construe what makes a case "easy" is to look at the "bang per buck". When we spend time, effort, and money on something we expect something back. Sometimes we get back less than we gave, for instance when we buy a lottery ticket and we get the fun of scratching it but it's not a winner.

Other times our effort pays off more than we put in, like I recently spent $58 on a bicycle and I've ridden it to work dozens of times so far, which is fun for me, keeps me healthy, and gets me to work, where I make money and write long essays on o/net. The kicker is that after reaping all those benefits, I still have the bicycle, which is basically still worth $58! So that investment is paying off pretty amazingly.

Buying real estate (if you know how to do it safely, and consistently) is even better. You get a place to live (or you get to provide someone else with a place to live), a tax deferral, a source of really cheap financing, and then thousands of dollars in profit when you rent or sell.

One might argue that prenatal care is an even better investment than that, the child might enjoy better health for their entire lives. Ten dollars in multivitamins might yield millions of dollars in value later.

Those are the kinds of investments we want to make! The stories I have heard about microfinance are exciting, a $50 loan transforms a person's life and provides them with the means to dig their way out of poverty, and they even pay it back! What's more, that person doesn't just impact their own family. By working and improving their lot, they inspire everyone around them.

People are incredibly sensitive to the behavior of those around them. Think about how you feel when you are in a noisy crowd. And then imagine the crowd suddenly gets quiet. Peer pressure is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It is the wave we surf on, in all our self-actualisation.

Think of how people behave in a church or temple or a museum. Even gang members are quiet and respectful in those situations. Think of how you feel when you see people dressed in business suits rushing for a cab. Or when you see people strolling in the park. Or lurking in an alley. Why do new clothing fashions catch on so fast? Do our individual preferences actually change every season, and all in the same direction?

Most crimes are committed when no one is looking, but the blatant exceptions to this, e.g. people being mugged on a crowded street or in the subway, really prove the rule -- the mode of behavior in these places is to avoid touching others, remain aloof and separate, as if there were an invisible bubble around each person. Helping someone fend off a mugger would break the bubble, and enmesh you in their affairs. You would then stick out in the crowd as a bubble breaker.

Malcolm Gladwell discussed the power of the environment to influence our behavior in "The Tipping Point", and many books have been written on the subject of peer pressure. The bottom line is that people are profoundly influenced by their surroundings, and in particular, the behavior of the people around them.

Consider the most expensive real estate in the world. There are three general categories of places on this list, (1) religious, historical, or artistic landmarks, e.g. Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty; (2) natural resources or beautiful landscapes, e.g. a gold mine or Niagra Falls; and (3) places where people behave in a highly sought-after manner, e.g. Oxford University, Wall Street, Beverly Hills. This behavior includes the kinds of buildings they build and how they maintain them.

The amazing thing about these three causes of high real estate value is that on closer examination, they all boil down to human behavior. Religious significance exists by agreement, as does the value of gold or the beauty of a particular landscape feature. If gold went out of fashion, it's value would drop, just like Beverly Hills.

Our behavior has a huge impact on the quality of life of the people around us. And their behavior has a huge impact on ours. But all behaviors, just like all fashions, and all religions, are not created equal. Some are more contagious than others.
In designing the Active Ingredient for the Poverty Vaccine, we are looking for a behavior with the following characteristics:

a) It enriches the person doing it.

b) It is easy, legal, safe, and FUN to do, and not at all embarrassing, scary, or controversial.

c) It is done out in the open, in full view of the public.

d) Rich people can do it in places where poor people live.

e) Poor people can do it too.

Part (a) ensures that it will reduce poverty, when engaged in. Part (b) ensures that once they start, people will continue doing it. Parts (c),(d),(e) allow for an effective delivery mechanism.

There may be many behaviors that fit these criteria. The one that I know intimately is buying real estate and fixing it up, and beautifying the whole neighborhood in simple, inexpensive ways, enriching the community and creating opportunities for the most enterprising poor people to quickly work their way out of poverty and inspire their less enterprising neighbors in the process.

Real estate values depend on the behavior of people in the community, and we can influence that behavior, improving the quality of life and the desirability of the real estate, which in turn rewards the community, and us.
Now the question is, "Which properties should we buy?" This is my favorite part. :)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Poverty Vaccine, Part 3

Let's face it, solving poverty is a huge task. Huge tasks behave a little differently than small or medium sized tasks.

For example, consider weeding your vegetable garden. All the vegetable gardens I have weeded have been small enough so that I could finish weeding them in less than 2 full days. This is shorter than the reproductive cycle of a weed, so I always finish weeding before the existing weeds reproduce.

Now imagine weeding a 100 acre farm, using the same technique (pulling out each weed by hand). I imagine that would take me at least 2 days per acre, or 200 days. I'm no botanist, but I know weeds grow and spread faster than that. The point is I'd never get done.

Weeding a 100 acre garden cannot be done using techniques that work fine on a 100 sqft garden. Think about that.

I have done a fair amount of experimentation with all sorts of landscaping, and I have prided myself on never using power tools, whose noise would lower the quality of life for my neighbors. At my first major investment property (back in 1994), 22607 Valley View Dr, Hayward CA, I spent a solid week from dawn to dusk frantically digging out a retaining wall with a shovel, and literally running 20 yards uphill with my wheelbarrow full of dirt, and dumping it at the top, to terrace my steeply sloping yard. When I set my mind to something, I really give it my all.

But I bit off more than I could chew in that job, and ended up completing only one terrace (I had planned for five). See, here's another example of using a technique that is too slow. The mortgage was burdensome; I spent a full year fixing the place up before I could rent it, and I ended up selling the property before I could finish.

The most avid John Kerry supporters can probably understand my feelings. Sure, there is satisfaction in working hard on something you believe in, but a lot of satisfaction comes from succeeding, too. I have learned the hard way to pick my battles carefully.

Life is too short to screw around with slow poverty solutions. We need THE FASTEST solution possible!

Here it is.

1. Solve the easiest cases first. Starting with the easiest country, the easiest state, the easiest city, the easiest neighborhood, the easiest street, the easiest house, the easiest room in that house, and the easiest part of that room.

Remember, our failure to solve poverty in the easiest place works on our brains like psychological proof that we cannot solve it in harder places. Poverty in Los Angeles destroys any hope of ending poverty in Calcutta.

2. Solve the profitable cases first. It makes no sense to pay to accomplish something when you can just as easily get paid to accomplish the same thing.

A large portion of the poverty problem arises due to people spending too much money on things that depreciate in value rapidly (e.g. ice cream, carpet, automobiles). We aren't going to solve it by engaging in that same behavior. Every dollar we spend should come back to us bigger.

3. Solve the cases that yield the most support first. Why start conflicts? I am still alive partly because I have spent the past 10 years figuring out ways of accomplishing the result I want such that not only does no one object, but people spontaneously help me. There is no need to boss anyone around or make anyone uncomfortable.

It might not seem like such a sure thing that this will work, if there weren't soooooo many incredibly wealthy, energetic, talented, outspoken, passionate people who want this result so bad we can taste it. This is the fastest, cheapest, easiest, most sustainable way to get there.

Now I just need to get this idea across to people in a way that sticks.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Vaccine for Poverty Part 2

The Vaccine for Poverty, continued... (part 2)

Many priests and nuns take a "Vow of Poverty" which means they do not amass personal wealth or put a lot of energy into collecting luxuries. But even the poorest priest is actually on the right side of the Poverty Line, because they are "taken care of". They don't generally starve, and the Church takes in more wealth than it needs to keep its priests healthy & comfortable, so their future is secure.

The ones that concern us have no safety net. On average, they consume all the wealth they create each day (or more), and there is no wealthy organisation committed to taking care of them.

We have defined poverty in terms of wealth, but we have not yet defined "wealth", so let us take a moment to do that now. For the purposes of this discussion, wealth refers to everything which contributes to a high quality of life.

Money is the first thing that comes to mind, because we use it to surround ourselves with security, beauty, comfort, and creative outlets. Money and everything it buys is one of three aspects of wealth -- the part that relates primarily to our immediate environment.

Most of us have experienced an acute lack of correlation between money and quality of life at some point or other. Once we have plenty of money, our quality of life still depends on intangibles like loyal friends, harmonious relationships, integrity, courage, and feeling challenged in our careers. This second aspect of wealth includes relationship and character traits required for high quality of life.

Relationship and character traits are attainable in some degree through openness, persistence, and determination, and are therefore available to anyone who chooses to pursue them. However, we can all remember times when it was the advice or encouragement of a friend, parent, teacher, or other role model that motivated us to strive for and achieve these virtues. It is difficult to say by exactly how much, but it is clear that our quality of life would have suffered if we had lacked that support in those moments.

The third aspect of wealth consists of factors requiring the cooperation of others; items ranging from the simple politeness of neighbors to things like common language and currency, institutions of education and health care, rule of law and protections of a national constitution, world peace, environmental preservation, and biodiversity. The wealthiest person on the planet is impoverished if victimised by war or environmental destruction.

Recall my formulation of the Poverty Line, being the distinction between people whose situation we felt called for humanitarian intervention and those who we felt were going to be OK regardless. Under this three part definition of wealth it is possible to imagine people to the left of the line on any one aspect, or two, or all three.

That is, a person can lack money, possessions, supplies, and commodities, and independently of that, a person can lack courage, integrity, wisdom, and role models to inspire and bring out the best in them. And finally, the person's family, neighborhood, city, or society can lack cooperative values and institutions such as freedom of speech or safe drinking water.

Recognising this complexity sheds light on the often puzzling failure of so many well funded anti-poverty programs. To take an obvious example, giving money to people who lack discipline or integrity is not going to accomplish anything meaningful. Giving education, training, and equipment to people whose communities do not support rule of law may have even led to the attacks of 9/11. What a dismal return on investment!

We begin to get a clearer picture of what the people just to the left of that line look like. They probably do not live in a country currently engulfed in civil war, for instance. Their families and communities and cities and nations probably have all the cooperative values and institutions one could wish for, and they are probably reliable, trustworthy, intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate people, who, given all those virtues, most likely also already have enough money.

Perhaps the only thing lacking is some good advice and encouragement to inspire them to take a few simple actions and step over the line, rather than remain in a situation that will tend to get more difficult the longer they stay there.

I am clearly not saying these are the people most in need of our help -- they are not. I am merely describing the situation that is the precursor to the end of poverty, similar to the strategy of injecting dead or weak smallpox virus in order to stimulate the immune system to develop an effective defense against a live, full strength smallpox virus that might be encountered at a later date.

More on this later.


Let's return to individuals for a moment, and consider the case of an unemployed U.S. citizen living in Long Beach, California. Every day I bicycle to work past a group of poor looking people waiting on the sidewalk outside a church where I assume they receive food or clothing or some other assistance. Which side of the line are they on?

It depends on why they are there. Some of them may actually be doing fine, and using some charity just to supplement an already decent standard of living. Some may be there primarily to socialise. However (if my own experience is any guide), it seems likely that many of them are to the left of the Poverty Line.

They are being taken care of to some extent. Many of them receive other assistance as well. If they are freely choosing to seek out those services, because they prefer it to other also-good options, then that would put them on the right side of the line, in my opinion. But if they feel like they NEED that assistance, because all other options available to them involve serious health risks (like not bathing, or not eating a balanced diet), then I'd say their quality of life is unacceptable. I would not want my brother waiting there feeling that he NEEDED that assistance to prevent personal disaster. (And I feel I am related to everyone, so I don't want your brother there either, in that condition.)

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Vaccine For Poverty Part 1

I have been working on a solution to global poverty for the past 10 years and I have come up with one that I think will work, and I am in the process of implementing it. I will describe it to you.

First of all, consider the problem of smallpox, before the invention of the microscope. People came up with all sorts of imaginary causes and (very expensive) solutions, but none of them worked because they didn't have a working model of the disease. Once they saw the little germs under the microscope, and the white blood cells, they started manipulating them with chemicals, etc.

Then someone invented the vaccine, and convinced the government that it worked, and then the government made everyone take it. Problem solved. All the other "solutions" went poof.

Poverty is like smallpox, or hiv. What we need is to invent an effective vaccine, and then for everyone to take it. I have invented a vaccine. The reason I say it like this is that to understand what I'm talking about it helps to realise that (nearly) all the noise out there about "poverty" is just that, noise. Just look at the results produced, and then you will know how effective all the solutions that have been tried are.

Now I will describe my "microscope" which allows us to see the actual cause of poverty and address it.

Imagine we were to sort all the people in the world at this moment, by how affluent or economically successful they are. It would go from the wealthiest most successful person alive, all the way down to the person who when I finish this sentence will immediately die of starvation or thirst or suffocation or bleeding.

Somewhere in the middle of that sorted list is the Poverty Line. That is, the people to the right of that line are "OK" by our standard. Just barely, but we look at their lives and think, they may have lots of serious problems, but overall, they are doing ok, we can pretty much leave them to take care of themselves, they are going to be alright.

But the people just to the left of the line, we think, just barely, are not ok. Some (tiny) essential thing is missing from their lives. We want to help them, and get them over to the right side of the line, so we can sleep better. That's the definition of the line, it separates the cases we feel a desire to act on from the ones we feel (healthy) apathy about.

Of course, as we go farther left toward the more extreme cases, we start to feel more like Mother Teresa, like oh my god these people are in dire situations. We see those kids with distended bellies and flies on their faces and we are strongly moved to do something. People whip out their checkbooks and send $30 to FeedTheWorld and then do their best to forget about the fact that they have no idea where that $30 is going or what the ultimate effect of this action is. In the back of their mind, they are in a panic because they are worried if they spend too much time thinking about those kids they will end up going to Africa or India and giving up their lives like Mother Teresa did.

Mother Teresa was an amazing person and thousands of other amazing people followed her and did whatever she told them. Millions of people sent millions of dollars to her. And yet Calcutta still has dire poverty but no smallpox. Her work, while noble and admirable and directly beneficial to thousands, was not a vaccine for poverty.

So we have the list of people sorted by wealth. If we take the 0.0001% who are just left of the line, we are looking at the 6500 very easiest cases, requiring the least effort to get them over the line. If it were just about money, and we had $6500, each these people would require only $1, so we could redeem all of them. Wow, that'd be a big bang for the buck. Compared with the most desperate cases all the way left, which perhaps require $10,000 each to save from imminent torture and death, and another $10,000 each week thereafter in medical attention and care. We couldn't even save a single one with our $6500. That's depressing.

However, it isn't just about money. Everyone is in a different situation. A few of these people do just need a little money, others need advice, others need a workout partner, others need some encouragement to take a risk and go for an opportunity they otherwise are going to pass up.

This is why giving $6500 isn't the vaccine for poverty. Extra money only helps a few people, and just confuses the issue with all the rest. So only $10 of that $6500 was used efficiently to help someone, and people get tired of spending $6500 to get $10 worth of benefit. This is how welfare works, except that there are other disincentivising side effects so along with the $10 of benefit we also get $500 of extra problems.

And neither are job placement programs the vaccine for poverty, because they help a few people and everyone else is not in the position to really take advantage of them. Same with soup kitchens, homeless shelters, rent control, affordable housing, section 8 housing assistance, food stamps, habitat for humanity, literacy programs, etc. Each one of these strategies provides something specific for people in need. The problem is what they are providing is only useful to a few people, and it is actually harmful to many others, and they aren't careful about picking out which is which. So they do some good, but not enough, and it tends to get cancelled out. Ultimately people get frustrated because the dream isn't materialising and they go back to their day jobs.

This is how all the cures for smallpox looked, before the vaccine. Some people got the disease and survived, because they got plenty of rest. Others survived because they ate lots of food. Other survived because they kept a positive attitude. But each of these techniques worked on only a small percentage of the people, and it's depressing to keep trying "cures" and having 95 out of 100 of your patients die.

To be continued...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Suggestion For Environmentalists

Today I had an amazing insight about environmentalism (and other such causes). Environmental groups often talk about why Exxon or Dow Chemical or Philip Morris are bad. Of course if any such group begins to pose a real threat, the companies under attack will retaliate, working to discredit or otherwise neutralise the environmental group, just like the group is working to neutralise them. So it's a kind of mini-war.

What if we looked at it another way. Let's say the people in charge of Exxon are not bad people, they are just doing what to them seems the most fun and profitable thing they can think of, given their situation. They have many options, and they have chosen what they think is the best one for them, at the moment.

Now, what if we could present to them something better, I mean something THEY perceive as more fun and more profitable to do, rather than what they are doing. This involves a strange reversal, instead of trying to hurt them, we are trying to make them even more successful and happy (not just from our point of view, but from theirs). Once it became clear this was our agenda, they might even invite us into their office and tell us some of their challenges. Suddenly it would be in their obvious self-interest to work closely with us.

It seems like there is already critical mass in the environmental movement to make big things happen. The problem seems to be the individuals in the movement can't agree on what to accomplish, what is step 1. Otherwise I can't imagine we would still be watching fuel efficiency drop, deforestation accelerate, and air & water pollution continue to increase.

I suggest this as step 1, a very big victory we could all go for and win. List all the people who are directly causing the most environmental harm. Then try to figure out why, from THEIR point of view, are they doing that. What problem does that solve for them? Next, brainstorm alternative solutions to THEIR problem, and present those ideas to these people in a spirit of friendly cooperation. Open a dialogue, with the goal being to come up with something more fun and profitable than what those people are now doing.

Note that this step doesn't cost anything at all. It will have been worth it, even if it fails.

Solving Poverty

I think differently than (most) other people. The solution to poverty which I have developed is a paradigm shift, and most people do not believe it is possible when they first hear about it. I know it works because I have done it over and over and over again (and I am a skeptical guy).

It was a hypothesis but now it's a law, based on the same concept as Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point", the same methodology behind "Guns, Germs, and Steel", or "Think & Grow Rich". None of those things make sense under the "normal" paradigm. (Who would've thought sleeping with animals was a good strategy for ultimately conquering the world?) My methodology is like a microscope, it allows you to see things that are otherwise invisible, and because they were invisible, people don't believe they exist.

What if poverty were really easy to solve? That poses the bizarre problem of why haven't we done it. You've heard conspiracy theories, you've heard Democrats blame corporations, Republicans blame immigrants, Greens blame capitalism, Christians blame Muslims, Whites blame Blacks, Rich blame Poor, and on and on. Those were the kinds of explanations people had of smallpox before the microscope.

The answer that appears under the microscope is -- brace yourself -- that we don't care. Sometimes we do care, and some people care a whole lot, but the amount of time we spend caring about people we don't know is way less, on average, than the amount of time we spend caring about hub caps, or spiders.

This might sound like a criticism of humanity, but it really isn't. The microscope was not a criticism of the germ world, just a tool for describing it. Once we saw those little microbes we began coming up with ways of manipulating them for our benefit.

So, in a nutshell, the trick is coming up with ways to make it easier and more fun to care about people you don't know. That is what I have been working on for the past 15 years. And, by George, I think I've got it. :)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Suggestion for Wikipedia

It seems to me Wikipedia ought to be able to handle multiple points of view.

There shouldn't just be one entry on George Bush, for instance, there should be one Republican version, one Democrat version, a Libertarian version, a Green version, a Muslim version, a Jewish version, etc.

Users should be able to select which version of history they want to read, including fictional ones. There isn't, after all, any "true, unbiased" version. The one you have now sounds like a high school teacher wrote it. Why present that one as official? Other people's points of view are just as valid.

Offering multiple versions of the same article would make the resource vastly more useful, and would limit vandalism to posing as a member of an opinion group when in fact you belonged to an opposing group, which would be easy to nip in the bud if posters had to identify themselves with at least a screen name, because authentic members of the group would see through it immediately and expose that screen name's dastardly schemes.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Filtering is the key

We are bombarded by information and choices all the time. The richer you are and the more successful and the more you get out there and meet people and see places and buy things, the more choices you are faced with.

The key to taking productivity and success to the next level is learning to filter out less productive options and less critical features. This is not to say that we should do this all the time. There is a time to brainstorm, and a time to focus in like a laser on the best available option.

Following is an article I found on www.digg.com

November 29, 2005
Are smarter people better at ignoring things?

People frequently complain that they can't remember things -- and they wish their brains had more storage capacity, like today's ever-expanding computer hard drives and RAM. If we could just improve the sheer size of our memory, we'd be able to retain and manipulate more data, and we'd become smarter and smarter -- right?

Not according to an intriguing new experiment by brain scientists at the University of Oregon. Edward Vogel and a team of students took a handful of volunteers and tested their "visual working memory" -- their ability to maintain awareness of events and objects around them. The test asked them to pay attention to red or blue bricks in a visual picture.

Now, visual working memory is highly correlated to intelligence: People with a bigger VWM tend to score much better on an array of cognitive challenges. For years, scientists have assumed that VWM is roughly analogous to cramming info into your head: The more you can fit in there, the smarter you are.

But when Vogel mapped the brain-wave activity of the volunteers, he noticed something much weirder. The people with the largest capacity in their VWM weren't retaining tons of information. No, they were being quite selective. Their genius lay in being able to strip out inessential information: To pay attention only to the red bricks -- to hold only those "in mind" -- and to ignore the blue ones. The upshot, as the editors at Nature summarize, is that ...

... this also implies that an individual's effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk. It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity.
That chart above shows this relationship: The more efficiently the subjects' brain worked, the bigger their memory capacity. This is not to say that people who can't screen out stimuli are dumber. As Vogel noted, "Being a bit scattered tends to be a trait of highly imaginative people." The more you rattle the marbles around in your brain, the more creative new connections you make, as it were -- connections that might be lost on those focusing intently on just the red ones.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Give away the stuff you aren't using

You know how if you buy bananas and don't eat them they turn brown and then black and eventually get really mushy and fruit flies seem to come out of nowhere and devour them?

With fruit it's really obvious when you aren't using it. Now think about all the other stuff in your house and garage, and office, and storage space. What if everything rotted after a month of disuse?

As a matter of fact, something is constantly rotting, something we can't quite see, but it is the time value of all these unused things. And it is huge. Probably bigger than the national debt and gross domestic product combined.

How can we tap into that unused wealth? First we need a website like ebay, but for free stuff (freebay.com or freebay.org would be the perfect name, but they are taken).

Next, we need to establish a culture of passing things on quickly. Remember when you could fit everything you owned in a VW bug? Let's bring those days back. Why have tons of stuff stored that we aren't actually using? Are we afraid that we won't be able to get that stuff again, if we really wanted it? If we could get people to reduce their stored goods by 10% it would have a giant positive impact on the real economy, improving quality of life not only for the recipients but also for the donors of all that stuff.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

What gets people off the couch and into the world?


This is part of our human machinery that is always running. We constantly become aware of things we want, and actions we could take, and then reasons why we shouldn't.

It's an ongoing conversation that never stops. I want X, so I could do Y, but then Z might happen.

There are gazillions of examples where we say "What the heck, I don't care about Z," and do it anyway. That's all the stuff that gets done in the world. All of it.
And of course there are gazillions more examples where we say "Oh, dear, if Z happens that'd be simply awful, so I won't do Y." Sometimes we go on to think, "But Y is not the only way to get X. Perhaps I could do A, or B, or C." This is just another iteration of the same process. We either do something or we listen to our reasons not to.

I have found it enlightening to actually pay attention to that conversation in myself, and become aware of my common reasons for not doing things I want to do. I have noticed that THE MAIN REASON that keeps coming up over and over for me is "Someone might criticise me, or get mad at me."

That is so funny to realise, because I would have insisted that I don't care what other people think. Most of my friends and family think of me as something of a social daredevil who does his own thing in spite of other people's opinions. This reminds me of the movie Batman Begins, where he grows defiantly in the direction of his greatest fear (bats).

Anyway, that is the most common thing that stops me (keeps me on the couch). What gets me going again is seeing someone do something or hearing about something that inspires me. Inspiration calls forth the behavior of taking risks and working hard to achieve something we want.

I noticed another common reason that stops me is "It won't be fun." Someone in there thinks I'm supposed to only do fun things. Another is "It won't work." Yes, possibility of failure, even without criticism, is another great reason for me to stay on the couch.

Will increased prosperity result in environmental degradation?

One difficulty with scaling my solution is the potential for environmental degradation, as millions of poor people with a relatively small environmental footprint suddenly become wealthier and start buying Hummers.

My solution to that is to build into the process a footprint-minimizing aspect. I will explain.

The primary economic driver I am focusing on is the value of real estate, and its ability to serve as collateral for loans. The borderline people targeted by the program will purchase and renovate houses, apartments, and offices, according to a system that yields a consistent profit.

Integrated into this system is the mandate to increase the energy efficiency of the house, and reduce its pollution impact, taking advantage of natural light, solar heating and electricity, etc. The program also calls exclusively for renovation of existing buildings, lowering the impact of urban sprawl, and drastically reducing the total resources spent per habitable dwelling.

We also focus on places with public transit and much lower commute times (i.e. high density residential near high density office space). This reduces the future transportation burden. And finally, we insist on planting local native trees, shrubs, and ground cover.

As we grow, we can add elements such as grey water systems, organic grocery stores and fruit cooperatives, commute free lifestyles, and other waste reduction programs.
Because these behaviors can be encouraged proportionately to the wealth created by the program, we can effectively address and offset any potential rise in pollution and environmental degradation due to increased prosperity.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Make Poverty History


There are three groups of people in this world. The Well-to-do, the Destitute, and the ones on the fence who could go either way. The quickest, easiest, and surest way to sustainably help the destitute is to prevent the ones on the fence from joining their ranks. We can shrink the problem down to something readily solvable by a handful of activists without requiring government cooperation, if we tip the mass of borderline cases to become sustainable wealth producers.

Global injustices such as poverty, AIDS, malnutrition, conflict and illiteracy stem from the ongoing behaviors of billions of people. Reducing their severity requires changing behaviors.

World leaders are elected by their own citizens and have no mandate to help foreigners. It is foolish to rely on their leadership in reducing global poverty, disease, or environmental degradation. By the same token, a small, well-organized group of dedicated individuals can successfully lead the world out of this situation.

World poverty is sustained by a combination of behaviors resulting in certain groups producing and keeping less wealth than they consume, on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. If borderline cases were tipped to the positive side, there would be more wealth to go around, and more examples for poor people to follow for bettering their situation.

Governments around the world do a tremendous amount of good, along with a fair amount of harm, making and enforcing trade policies and other economic decisions. The same goes for corporations, small business owners, and individuals. It is good to point out where things are broken, but it is also important to actually implement improvements that don’t depend on the agreement of people who may never agree until it is too late.

2006 offers an exceptional series of opportunities for us to take a lead internationally, to start turning things around.

A sea change is needed. By mobilising popular support across a unique string of events and actions, we will obviate government conservativism and create the conditions under which the problems will begin to solve themselves. This requires rethinking some long-held assumptions.

We urge humanitarians, environmentalists, business owners, and all who are concerned about the future of life on this planet to rise to the challenge of 2006. We are calling for urgent and meaningful action on seven critical and inextricably linked areas: housing, employment, food, energy, pollution, transportation, and education.

•Publish an international standard for decent human living conditions and measure all neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities against the standard.
•Where residents do not own their living quarters, force landlords to upgrade the properties to meet the minimum standards. Offer low interest loans and loan guarantees to encourage renters to become owners.
•Where residents own their own home and it does not meet the standards for decent living conditions, fund educational programs in trades and offer financial assistance to upgrade properties to meet standards.
•Implement policies which discourage commuting long distances to work, phasing in a requirement that employers provide sufficient local housing for their employees.
•Purchase and renovate, or cause to be purchased and renovated, all unused buildings that could provide decent housing.

The first hallmark of poverty is inadequate housing, and inadequate housing has an ongoing negative impact on residents, tending to trap them in a downward economic spiral.

•Provide results oriented employment assistance centers online and within walking distance of communities with high unemployment. Pay commissions to recruitment agents based on how many people they successfully place in jobs and how long these clients remain in their position. They should also be incentivized to assist workers in switching jobs where the switch results in higher job satisfaction and longevity.
•Provide incentives to businesses for opening stores and offices in communities with high unemployment, hiring local residents.
•Provide free entrepreneurship training and mentoring in communities with high unemployment.

Until one is independently wealthy, steady employment supplies the cashflow required to participate fully in society while developing and improving one’s skills and abilities.

•A variety of healthy and appealing food choices must be available to all people. Nutritional labels should be redesigned along the lines of hazardous waste insignia, to immediately hilite for the consumer the fat, sugar, sodium, cholesterol, and dubious chemical content, as well as the vitamin, mineral, protein, complex carbohydrate, and fiber content.
•Grocery stores and restaurants should be given a grade (similar to the health department’s grade for cleanliness) for how much prominent shelf space they devote to healthy food products vs unhealthy, and this score should be posted prominently at the entrance.
•Organic, and locally grown products should be made available to all, and the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals used in the processing of conventional foods should be disclosed prominently on the packaging and labeling.
•Fruit and vegetable coops should be instituted in all neighborhoods, starting with the most economically disadvantaged.
•The ratio of packaging material to food contents should be posted prominently on every product.

As one of the essentials of human existence, food plays a major role in everyone’s quality of life. To eliminate poverty we need to change is the way food is grown, processed, packaged, marketed, distributed, and stored, to enhance the ratio between wealth created and destroyed in this process.

•A combination of photovoltaic cells and solar water heating should be installed on the roof and south facing (in the northern hemisphere) side of every building.
•Wind powered generators should be installed wherever practical.
•Biodiesel and vegetable oil powered vehicles should be subsidized to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
•In dry places, roof water runoff should be collected and used to irrigate landscaping.
•In hot places, shade trees should be planted to reduce building cooling needs.
•Smart ventilation systems should intake cool air (e.g. from floor crawl spaces) in summer, and warm air (e.g. from attic) in winter, reducing energy usage for heating and cooling.

Energy is key to increasing wealth on a global scale. It is used to improve on our environment (e.g. a network of public transportation and communication systems increasing the reach of the individual), and also to convert waste materials back into useful products (e.g. water purification, aluminum recycling).

•All consumer products should be graded on the total emissions and dumping involved in their manufacture and distribution, and this grade should be prominently displayed on the packaging.
•All businesses should be graded according to the environmental destruction they cause.
•Gasoline cars should be converted to electric, where possible.
•Recycling, organic farming, bicycling, walking, buying nonperishables in larger packages, skylights, composting toilets, and other earth-friendly behaviors should be encouraged.
•All dumping of toxic or otherwise hazardous substances into the air or water must stop. Waste materials should be sent to processing centers to be broken down or combined into benign compounds.

Pollution degrades our environment and lowers our standard of life. It’s primary cause is laziness, and the short term solution is constant oversight and publicity. Longer term, we need to develop a culture of sustainability and respect for other people we have not met (something missing in the practice of most religions, which should be added).

•Traffic laws prohibiting tailgating should be strengthened (minimum 5 car lengths at all speeds, including stopped) and aggressively enforced, allowing cars to pass and continue moving regardless of congestion.
•All dense urban areas should become pedestrian only zones.
•Multiple forms of clean public transportation should be encouraged and subsidized.
•Areas around train stations should be zoned for mixed use high-rise where practical.
•Large employers should be forced to phase in shuttle service for their local employees.
•Shopping centers, amusement parks, airports and other popular destinations should have frequent shuttle services to rail transit hubs if direct rail service is not feasible.

Transportation systems increase our quality of life by connecting us with more options for work, shopping, education, and entertainment activities than we could achieve by walking. Most existing transportation systems have not been well thought out and could easily be improved, reducing travel time, fuel consumption, accidents, and pollution, and raising quality of life.

•Results based advanced learning systems should be made available to all (e.g. Pimsleur Language System, Hooked on Phonics, Tony Robbins).
•Curricula should be expanded to include useful things adults wished they had learned, including how to start a business, how to negotiate your salary, how to find a suitable marriage partner and how to have good relationships, how to get a good deal on airfare and hotel, how to play bridge, etc.
•Schools should be responsible for finding out what each child is best at and encouraging them in especially that area, while helping them to become well rounded by results based coaching in areas of weakness.
•Teachers should be rated (and compensated) on how well their students do in the following year, compared with how well they did in the previous one.

Childhood education is routinely given more credit than it deserves for the success of adults (studies show that children’s success levels correlate with those of their parents, not those of their school), but the opportunity remains to have a major positive impact on a child’s future quality of life, and that of the whole community, if we effectively teach and encourage cooperative wealth producing behavior.

Comments on further points in the original

Poverty can be eradicated without any increase in international aid.
The money flowing from rich countries to poor countries does not tend to significantly and sustainably change behavior.

All countries are rich. All poor countries were subsumed by rich countries and no longer exist as separate entities. Certain people are poor because they are not given the opportunities or tools with which to succeed, or the environment which encourages them to do so.

More successful countries providing a fixed percentage of their national income in aid to struggling economies does not make sense. People must mobilize around the desire to achieve a lasting goal, and invest in a process that works. The same problems we spend money on today will reappear later on an even grander scale, unless their root behavioral causes are addressed.

MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY was created by an alliance of organizations in the UK, but this document has been rewritten to be a manifesto capable of unifying people interested in dramatically reducing world poverty. To read the original document or learn about the original organization, use the following link:


Essentials of Organizing

In my experience, there are 3 factors which distinguish an organized (and therefore powerful) group from an amorphous one.

1. Leadership. Everyone knows who makes the decisions, and how.

The challenge here is legitimacy, i.e. people agreeing to follow the leader, and actually doing it. There are three common ways to achieve this: (a) election, (b) hiring people to work for you, (c) being charismatic and inspirational. We should use all three of these tactics.

2. Communication. Members know how to voice their opinions and where to find out what is going on.

Web sites, newsletters, and yahoo groups work great for this part. When many conversations are going on at once, user-friendly indexing is very important, to allow users to contribute where they are best able and not waste time in other areas.

3. Action. The group does something, and tells everyone that it did it.

The key is designing an algorithm for a string of constant ongoing successes. I have developed a methodology for doing this in real estate, following the doctrine: never lose money and always beat the market (while increasing quality of life for those affected).

We need to do the same thing for all sustainability issues. Some easy goals would be for instance to increase the use of solar and wind power by a specific amount greater than the current projected growth rate in a particular state. Or to increase the proportion of food grown organically in a particular region. Or to reduce the crime rate, or increase the literacy rate in a selected city. Or increase the proportion of native plants in a neighborhood.

Our first meeting should be to brainstorm projects that answer the question, "How can we measurably increase the sustainability of our high quality of life on this planet?" and then each project should be rated for cost, time, and chance of success, given the talents and level of commitment of people on our team.

The ones that cost the least (or make money, like Affinity), take the least time (best would be under 3 months), and have the highest chance of success would be scheduled first. The point is to tell the group we are going to accomplish this one project, do it and measure the results, take credit for it and tell the press, and then start the process over for the next quickest, cheapest, surest win.

People will rally behind a winner, so as we get a string of successes it will be easier to take on larger projects, and easier to get more media attention, attract powerful partners, etc.

What I have learned working with the media is that it is very important to stay on message, and keep your elevator pitch short.

"We want to measurably increase the sustainability of our high standard of living. Then we want to do it again, and inspire other people to do it too."

Saturday, December 31, 2005


There are at least 6 million people (0.1%) on the planet who are dedicated to keeping the earth healthy and habitable and who are willing to spend significant time energy and money toward this end. There are thousands of nonprofits and foundations focusing on the environment and spending billions of dollars each year.

A much smaller group could take over the world. The largest international corporations could be fully taken over by this group in 1 day (do the math). So why are the rainforests still vanishing, why are oil companies still predicting growth, why are we degrading nearly every aspect of our environment faster than ever before?

The answer is simple, lack of organization. Organization means people get behind a common set of goals and a common action plan. They then do what every successful conqueror does, look for an easy target, and take it over. Then look for the next easiest target, and take that over. and so on. The leverage from each victory makes bigger targets feasible.

Now, what goal could everyone rally behind? this is the key. I would love to see the end of pesticide use, destructive farming and herding practices, war, poverty, race discrimination, fossil fuel burning, etc. but in many cases these goals conflict (at least regarding the next step to take), and it is tricky to come up with a strategy that gets us from A to B intact. So environmentalists end up fighting each other (often without realizing it, like when someone is against petroleum so they buy a diesel car and run it on soybean oil, which is grown using pesticides.)

Upon reflection of many alternatives, I believe the proper goal has three parts:

1) Maximise the earth's carrying capacity
2) Ensure a minimum standard of living for all humans
3) Improve the median standard of living

Guided by broad agreement on these commandments, we could map out a strategy for accomplishing them.

Or we can continue to fritter away billions of hours trading recycling strategies, alternative fuel toys, and ecosafe packaging solutions, shaking our heads while we watch millions of species go extinct.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

This post gets its title from a fascinating 1974 book by anthropologist Marvin Harris. I will summarise his main points in my next few posts.

Cows: In India there are people who are starving, while apparently useless cows wander around causing a public nuisance. It seems like the Hindu doctrine of the sacred cow is costing the country billions of dollars, using up scarce agricultural resources, and effectively causing large-scale human suffering and death.

On closer look (including analysis of artificially induced gender imbalances in cow populations, differential treatment of cows by different castes, and the various ways in which cows are fed and used in different situations) it turns out the cows are integrated into the economy rather more efficiently than the farm animals and machines found in more developed nations. The practical reason behind the ban on cow killing is similar to the practical reason behind the bans on lying, cheating, and stealing: it counteracts the temptation to reap short-term personal gain at higher long-term societal costs.

It's easy to assume that the people with the highest standard of living are doing things right, and the people with the lowest standard of living are doing things wrong. Whereas in some cases the latter may actually be doing better, if we were to control for the diverse starting points and environmental factors.

The solution to poverty is not to get all the poor people to act the way rich people are now acting. The solution involves getting all people to act a little differently than they are acting now.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Messages To Outer Space

Ever since the first time I saw a satelite photo, I have wanted to write a message that could be seen from space.

For a while I researched buying land in Nevada or Wyoming, and by planting different kinds of grass and trees, I figured I could spell out words at a resolution of about 1 pixel = 1 acre.

But recently, flying over Phoenix, I got a better idea. Many suburbs are built on a square grid, and so the rooftops actually line up like pixels on a computer screen. If we could rent those rooftops we could spell out words extremely clearly.

The owners of the roofs wouldn't necessarily be affected, either, because using the same technology used to make those giant movie posters, comprised of thousands of tiny scenes from the movie, with just small changes to the tone of the roof, barely noticeable on the ground, we could paint clearly legible words using contrast.

What would we spell? Of course, advertisers like Coca Cola and Exxon would have an idea. But I think cities like Phoenix could also differentiate themselves with aerial signage, the way Hollywood does with its hillside placard.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Rent Control

Rent control is intended to solve the problem of people getting priced out of their homes and communities. The idea is that if you already live somewhere, even if you are renting, you have a right to stay there, as long as you pay your rent on time and follow the rules. The landlord has the right to raise the rent, but only at a "reasonable" rate.

In Los Angeles and many other cities, the "reasonable" rate is something like 3% per year. On the other hand, housing in Los Angeles has been appreciating at many times that rate, for the past 5 years. The data understates the discrepancy, because when a duplex is sold with tenants, the price is going to reflect the current rents, because the tenants usually can't be evicted.

To give an example, a client of ours owns a classic old 4-plex on a nice residential street near the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The previous owner was a slumlord who neglected the property for about 20 years. It shows. He didn't raise the rent, either, so the tenants are paying around $280/month for each 1 bedroom apartment. Since my client has owned the property for a year, he gets to raise the rents 3%, or $8.40 per month.

You might be thinking, "Hooray for the tenants!" But this is really a lose-lose situation. The landlord figures, with annual rents at $13,843, the place is worth around $200K (about 15 times the annual rent). Hmm, but vacant? The apartments across the street rent for $1500/month. It would take $20,000 to renovate these units, but then they would easily go for $1500/month too, and using the same math the place would be worth over $1 million (a more conservative estimate is around $800K).

So, if the tenants move out, and the Landlord puts $20K into the property, he makes a quick $600K. OK, but the tenants aren't going to move out. So the landlord isn't going to put $20K into the property, and the place remains an eyesore.

I got a bright idea. Since the tenants have the power to make or break this deal, why not split the profit with them? Sell the property to the tenants for $500K, making a profit of $300K, and the tenants get a property with $300K instant equity, or they could sell it an pocket the $300K profit. I actually proposed this to the tenants (I had to explain it about 20 times to all the different family members, in English and Spanish) and gave them a written contract which included $20K for renovations, but they turned it down.

So the landlord is simply watching their every move and hoping they make a mistake. One of the tenants is planning to go to college, and I assume another one (they are all related) plans to use her room while she is away, but this will violate the guest provisions of the lease, and she could be evicted.

This is not a good situation for anyone.

How could rent control be made more neighborhood-friendly? Well, for one, there should be a time limit -- I propose 5 years per tenant per property, after which the rent can be reset to market rate. There is nothing wrong with renting, but it is supposed to be cheaper than owning in the short run and more expensive in the long run. When it becomes cheaper in the long run, it sets up reverse incentives for creating wealth. We want people to invest in their future, and in the future of the neighborhood. Tenants paying decade old prices are not doing that.

Another idea would be to apply it in phases. After 1 year the rent can be raised 3%, after two years it can be raised 4%, and so on, until the cap no longer has any impact. This would give the tenant a predictable below market rent pattern and allow for planning, but would not be so severe as to disincentivise them from ultimately buying, or disincentivise the landlord from improving the property.

The first objection to this would likely concern the elderly or disabled on fixed incomes with no assets. This is a minority of the urban population (or we are in big trouble), and it would be much less expensive to simply pay these qualified needy people some monthly amount to offset rises in the cost of living.

In the context of wealth being created by behavior, I want to take a moment to extol migration. The richest nation in the world is a nation of immigrants. All the richest cities in the world are teeming with people who come from somewhere else, and who migrated to improve their lot. In all the neighborhoods that declined in the past decades, the people who left were better educated and earned more than the people who remained. Moving to a new place is a wealth-creating behavior.

We should encourage this, especially for people who are currently economically below average. Every time real estate prices have doubled in a particular place, nearly all my friends and relatives who lived in that place have left. They go to another place, less desireable on the surface -- that's why it's cheaper -- but more desireable in the sense that they will have a better life there, because it's cheaper and poised to grow faster.

This is how people get wealthier, by constantly taking steps to improve their lot. It is counterproductive to incentivise people to stay in a place where they are less economically successful than they would be somewhere else.

So, my alternative to rent control is to allow the markets to work, and spend some more time effort and money helping people take advantage of the best opportunities available for them right now. That means looking at housing and jobs across the whole country (or why stop there, why not the world?), and picking the best ones for each individual.