Random Thoughts 20220625

It’s been an ugly week in the United States watching all these Supreme Court decisions come down. And it’s going to get uglier. I’m not a lawyer so I’m not up on all the nitty gritty details but there’s at least one more decision that I believe will be released next week that could have brutal consequences for this country. On top of the ones this week that already did.

Some of the decisions that will be truly impactful were barely commented on in my social circles, but of course the overturning of Roe v. Wade hit hard and was all over the place yesterday. Including what that decision hints at for the future. Overturning the right to contraception, for example. Gay marriage. Interracial marriage. All potentially gone if you follow this decision to its inevitable conclusion.

Of course this is a court that’s shown that its members are not actually following some coherent interpretation of precedent but are instead just picking and choosing what they need to make the decisions they want to make.

I’ll leave it to the legal scholars to delve in on that. Suffice it to say if you’re citing back to England for precedent I think you missed the whole fucking part of history where we formed our own country with our own laws because we didn’t like the way they did things over there.

But honestly there is no reasoned debate with someone determined to implement their worldview at the expense of all others. They may put some words on paper to look legitimate, but that’s all they are is random words on paper that pretend to justify a decision that was already made.

So, some random thoughts on and around this sort of thing…

December 2020 I actually started to write a book I was going to publish anonymously that was going to be called something like The Centrist Agenda. (I did not and will not do so.) It was trying to set out what a Centrist party in the United States might look like.

Personally, even if a party were to represent all of my views exactly I still wouldn’t join it. Because as we’ve seen here in the United States when you stake your identity on group membership you stop making individual decisions.

Party membership means voting for what you’re told to vote for and that’s never going to be who I am. I wouldn’t even join a party if I was the leader of that party.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of how our political system is structured party membership is also the only true means of having power. (Although how someone hasn’t noticed that being an independent right now in the Senate would make them incredibly influential I don’t know. If I were an unhappy Republican, that’s where I’d be, just waiting for the Democrats to come negotiate with me on my pet projects.)

Anyway. I wanted to write a book that talked about how to pull in the middle of both parties. Even today I know people who vote Republican simply because they can’t see themselves voting Democrat. So give them a third party that’s strong enough to make a difference.

But what would that central party look like? What would they believe? That’s what I wanted to figure out in that book.

I wrote the first chapter.

It was called something like “Pro Active Not Pro Choice or Pro Life.” Because I firmly believe that if the only time you think about someone’s choice to carry a child to term is when they’re walking through the doors of a clinic or when they’re having that difficult conversation with their doctor then you really don’t care about the issue at all. It’s political theater for you.

And then I tried to think about what it would mean to be Pro Active.

It would mean universal healthcare so that anyone who was pregnant was more able to carry a child to term and had better access to prenatal care so that there were less risks to the baby that might result in the need for an abortion. Also, care for the infant after it was born and for the parent who was going to need to raise that child.

It would mean better access to contraception so that all individuals who wanted to have sex without the risk of conceiving a child could do so.

It would mean earlier and more thorough sex education so that children knew how babies are made before they could make them themselves.

It would mean consent training for children so that they were better prepared to say and accept a no answer when it came to sex. And so that children who don’t have the language for it would know that the sexual abuse they’re suffering is not okay and would know there was help available.

It would mean better support for parents and children after the birth of the child. Often the decision about having a child or another child is a financial one. If society were actually there to support having a child so that the parent knew they and their child would be housed and fed, they’d more likely to have that child.

I’m sure there was more. And that it would not end all abortions, but it would I think reduce them significantly.

(For the record, I support abortion and I don’t think it’s my business why a person needs one. Furthermore, I support abortion throughout the term of a pregnancy. I had a friend who desperately wanted a child and miscarried later in her pregnancy. She had to miscarry for a full month because she didn’t want to be seen as having an abortion. That decision was hers to make, but no one should be forced to go through something like that against their will.)

After writing that one chapter I put the book aside. Because that list? It’s a complete rewrite of where we are as a society right now. Or at least where those in power are. And it depressed me so much to realize that I didn’t even want to continue down the line with things like property ownership and energy and diplomacy and all the rest of it.

(For example, I think we should have a federally funded mortgage program for anyone who has rented successfully for 2+ years to be able to buy a home with a mortgage payment equivalent to their rent payment. I also think if someone owns a home that they should be able to refinance that mortgage without the need to requalify if they’ve been making their payments on time for the last two years. And I think there should be limits on how many single-family homes can be owned as rentals. But that’s an entirely different chapter of that book I didn’t write.)

Anyway.

It’s a sickness we have that we think that more and better are always the right answer. More growth, more profit, bigger cars, bigger homes, more, better, richer…

What if that’s the absolute wrong direction to be headed?

We’re destroying our world for more, more, more. Every time we stop growing or constantly moving upward there’s some panicked headline about it.

What if steady state is actually better? What if we have all we need right now and we just need to be better at distributing it around and maintaining our lives?

Because we’re stuck in this mindset that it always has to be better, we’re burning the world down around us. And destroying so so many lives in the process. Everyone hoards as much as they can for…what?

Another thing that crossed my mind lately was how sometimes you hear people justify all of this telling others what to do with the notion that “they’re going to go to hell” if they don’t accept God or if they have an abortion or if they…whatever.

And lately my reaction to that is, “Then let me go to hell. What business is it of yours if I burn for eternity. Save yourself and write me off as a lost cause.”

I don’t know these people. They’re not my grandma. Why the fuck do they care if I go to hell or not? (And, yes, I know that certain branches of Christianity lean very heavily on the need to proselytize and be a witness for their faith. Trust me, I’ve had the awkward Sunday dinner conversation that came with it. But maybe, you know, do that without being an absolute asshole who ruins other people’s lives?)

Sigh.

I wonder sometimes how much all of this would register for me if I hadn’t stepped off my corporate path. Because that path is so consuming in terms of time and energy that there really isn’t a lot of time to dig deep on things. I can’t imagine I would’ve completely missed everything that’s happening…but I think I might have missed a lot of it. Or just been willing to go along with what the people around me said about it.

Which is why I wonder if the overwork culture in America is actually part of the scam. Make people work so hard they can barely breathe and you can do anything to them.

Maybe that’s why we’re so relentlessly sold on this dream of fancy homes and fancy cars and fancy water. (I say fancy water because for a while there I knew someone who was struggling financially who still thought they needed that Voss water in the glass bottle.)

In the attempt to have what we think we’re supposed to have we all buy into the system so hard we can’t see that it’s a bunch of needless bullshit.

I’m ready for the day when someone announces that a sports jersey was sold at auction for $3 million and instead of that being covered like an interesting tidbit it’s covered as “what is wrong with us that it’s okay to spend that kind of money on a piece of clothing instead of something useful that will make the world better?”

Seriously, dude, take 10% of that amount and pay off some school lunch bills would you? I’m not going to tell you you’re going to hell, I’m just going to say that makes you a really shitty and selfish human being.

Sigh.

But I’m just some rando on the internet, so what do I know.

(Not enough I’m sure. I have no doubt I got some things wrong here and someone could come and argue them with me, but I really don’t need to have that argument. All first time posters on this site have to go through post moderation and I tend not to approve a lot of them. Like the one who posted on a post about the use of an outdated offensive term and managed to use a different outdated offensive term or the one who told me that they don’t actually use the product I’d written a book about on a post about that book. So if what I said here sparked some thoughts or reaction for you, probably best to put that on your own site where you have full control.)

Updating Your Cover on Goodreads

This came up in a group I’m in on FB so I thought I’d just write a quick blog post with screenshots for anyone who needs it. This is for authors who want to update their cover on Goodreads and have it be the cover that shows by default.

First, I’m going to assume that you’ve already set yourself up as an author on Goodreads. If you haven’t you need to submit to them to be listed as an author and go through some sort of process where I think you give them a link to your website.

Once you’re set up as an author, when you log in you should have access to the Author Dashboard. It’s under the dropdown on the right-hand side that usually has your author photo. (I don’t have a photo on my account so it’s just a little circle with a person reading a book for me.)

Click on Author Dashboard. That’s going to take you to a stats page that shows all your books:

If you ever want to manually add one of your books, this is where you can do that. Click on the small “Add A Book” option above the title listing. (I have to do this with every M.L. Humphrey release because there’s another M.L. Humphrey on Goodreads and titles default to that author’s profile instead of mine unless I add them first. My listing actually has two spaces between the L and the Humphrey part of the name since I was the second M.L. Humphrey to be listed on Goodreads.)

If what you want to do instead is update a cover, click on that book’s name to bring up the book page:

Down by the Other Editions section there should be an option to “Add An Alternate Cover Edition”. Click on that.

This will result in a pop up that tells you the identifier information is going to move to the new version. Click OK.

If you get an error message about it not being able to create a new version then click on the other existing thumbnails for that book until you find the one that has the ASIN/ISBN currently assigned to it and try again. (I’ve only run into this once.)

Once you say OK, that should bring up the Edit Book page for that title. On the right-hand side there’s a place to upload the new cover. Click on Browse, find your cover, click on it, and then click on Upload Photo.

You should now see a thumbnail of the updated cover on the right-hand side. Click on “Set This Book As The Primary Edition For This Work” to make that the cover that will show for all users.

Scroll to the bottom and Save Changes.

And that should be it. If you exit Goodreads and just go to the main page and do a search for your book it should come up with your updated book cover as the image.

Free Ebooks

It’s summer. It’s hot. I have to move. I don’t want to. Because it’s hot. So I put a few books to free to make myself feel better.

Which is your gain. Haha.

Until the end of July (unless something drastic happens and I change my mind), you can get the ebook version of either Excel for Beginners or Word for Beginners for free on all major retailers.

If you already have the print versions it’s a great time to pick up the portable, color versions. If you don’t have one or the other yet, great time to check ’em out, because, free.

Now, keep in mind, Amazon sometimes has a mind of its own so it may fall off of free there unexpectedly. So if you click to Amazon and it shows as $4.99, try one of the other stores before you give up.

Enjoy!

Excel for Beginners: Amazon, Apple, Google, Nook, Kobo, Universal Link
Word for Beginners: Amazon, Apple, Google, Nook, Kobo, Universal Link

Word of Mouth and Social Media

Have you ever heard of the band Guster? I hadn’t. I have a lot of music in my iTunes account (over 3,600 songs), but I hadn’t run across them before.

There’s lots of great music out there like that. It makes a creator a living but they’re not someone you’d recognize.

But this morning on Twitter one of the people I follow on there shared a post by the drummer for that band. This one. https://twitter.com/Bowl_of_Worcel/status/1536929339274584064

It’s a good post. About putting in the work and how it can be hard sometimes when you have to get out there and perform when it’s hot and there’s no audience and no one who knows your music. (Or at least not many do.)

(I can’t imagine being a performing artist with a low turnout, at least as a writer I can sit in the comfort of my home and feel sad and question my life choices without having to be on for an audience or have anyone else see just how low those numbers can sometimes be.)

But the thread ends on an upbeat note. Because after the concert he had that one fan who he was able to connect with and be reminded that what he does touches someone. And that lifted him back up.

The tweet thread connected for me as a creator.

But I’m also always on the lookout for new-to-me music that I might like. So I went and checked them out on iTunes. And I liked them enough to buy one of their albums. If I listen to it and like it enough I’ll buy their other albums.

Which also makes this a great example of how being on social media and word of mouth work.

A lot had to happen for that one little sale that will probably earn them $2.

First, this guy had to be on Twitter. And active enough that people follow him. He’s been on there since 2015 and has 8K followers.

Second, he had to say something someone else found worth sharing. Because I don’t follow him, I follow a pediatric palliative care doctor who follows him.

(And I say follow but I don’t have a Twitter account. I just peek at certain accounts on a regular basis while avoiding the Twitter pop-ups that urge me to create an account.)

Third, I had to like what the person I follow shared enough to get curious, click through, and read the thread. The guy I follow called it powerful and beautiful. The tweet he shared started with “crappy night”. So that drew me in. What was powerful and beautiful about a crappy night?

(Why, yes, I am a writer who sucks up human experiences like a vampire.)

Fourth, I had to like what the drummer said enough to think, “these guys deserve some support” and go check out their music.

Fifth, I had to actually like the music.

A few times in the last year I’ve seen an artist make the news in some way where I thought, “I should support them, let me see what they have” but I bounced off the music.

One, for example, was a heavy metal band (?) who stopped a concert because the mosh pit was getting out of control and so the lead singer was like, “that’s not how we do this, guys”. This was shortly after there’d been some trampling deaths at another concert. And I thought, “Yeah, good for you.”

But their music was a little too heavy for me. I listen to a lot of things, but I stay towards the middle in most genres. I did find one song of theirs I liked and I did buy it, but I didn’t buy their album.

Another was someone standing up I think against Spotify maybe? And I checked out their music but it wasn’t for me.

So a lot of things have to fall into place to generate a word of mouth, social media sale. And most are not tweets or posts about “buy my book” (or “buy my song” in this case).

It’s about being present. Being interesting enough to have an audience. Saying something real or interesting that others want to share. And then when someone connects with that, having a product that appeals to that person.

It’s a lot that doesn’t directly result in a sale.

I would argue this is also why it’s good to be genuine across the board. In your social media, in your product descriptions, and in the product itself.

First, that takes less effort. I mean, I guess you could fake it all, but look at this example here, right. Who wants to fake who they are for seven years?

Second, when someone resonates with what you say in one setting you want them to also resonate with what you do in your other settings.

You don’t have to have it that way, you can pay someone to do your social media and pay someone else to do your blurbs and pay someone else to edit your work to the perceived popular style, but you lose oomph if everything doesn’t feed back on itself.

Which can be hard even when you’re doing it all yourself.

It’s why I’m not on Twitter. Because Twitter brought out my angry, snarky side and that’s not what I put in my books. Snark, yes. Commentary, oh yeah. But not the negative, angry, this world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going down thing that Twitter brought out for me.

Hell, even blogging sometimes is a danger zone for me in that respect.

I sometimes liken my personality to a 30-sided dice because I have that many facets to who I am.

For some authors, no matter what they write at the core they are who they are. So their blog posts and mysteries and sci fi and fantasy all have that same personality and appeal.

For others, like myself, it’s more like having six distinct personalities in the room who appeal to very varied groups of readers. It’s why I like pen names.

Anyway. I am now blathering on past the point. So social media. Word of mouth. Out of your control, but it happens. Usually by showing up, putting in the work forever and not worrying about doing anything to “sell” yourself other than be a genuine human being who says things people can connect to.

Collections Are Great

I love publishing collections because the material already exists, it’s just a matter of putting it into a new package. And since some people prefer a collection over individual titles (especially on the fiction side where it’s usually called a box set even in ebook format) it reaches a new potential audience.

So, having said that…I just published the collections for the Affinity Publisher titles. The first, book formatting, combines fiction layouts and non-fiction into one title. The second, ads and covers, combines ad creatives and basic book covers.

And I published my first bright yellow cover, which was fun, too. In ebook there’s no price difference between buying the titles separate or buying the collection, but buying the print collection does add up to some savings.

Oh, Amazon…

Since I just had a new release I’ve been all up in Amazon’s business this week. And figured I’d mention a few things I’d run into while I was there.

First, if you publish in print they’ve added new markets for the Netherlands, Sweden, and Poland. I think the Netherlands one has been there for a bit and was actually announced but the Sweden and Poland were new to me.

I mention this because if you care about pretty-looking prices you’ll probably want to go in and update those prices. If you don’t they default to Amazon’s conversion of your USD price to that currency.

Which, I should note, also occurs with ebook prices where you don’t set the price yourself. Even if it looks pretty when you publish the book, if you want that price to stay fixed, then you need to manually change it so that it is not based on the USD price or it may adjust on you later with no notice.

(I believe. This based on going in a few times and thinking, “where did that price come from” and then realizing that the price was one that was based on my USD price and they must’ve updated their exchange rates.)

This is also a good time to note that the default exchange rate they use for some countries is not a dollar to dollar exchange rate. In India, for example, when they convert your USD price to INR they do it so that it’s much cheaper in INR than a straight conversion rate would give you.

Which, maybe that’s good in that market? Maybe it results in more sales?

For me, I like to keep it close to even across countries. So that someone pays the same here as they would elsewhere and vice versa. Only exception to that is New Zealand where I use the AUD price so price cheaper there.

So today, for example, $4.99 USD is 4.05 GBP which I would list as 3.99 GBP.

Of course, Amazon artificially caps the pricing in Canada and Australia these days if you’re at the upper end of their 70% payout range ($9.99 USD) so at that price point it’s impossible to get them equivalent anyway.

I do what I can and then I remember the serenity prayer and move on.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that I finally saw the Quality Issues Dashboard. I’d heard people mention it, but never seen it before.

This time when I logged into my account there was a little message asking if I wanted to see it. I thought, “Oh no, I have a quality issue” and clicked on the link.

Here’s where it gets absurd.

While I was re-reading the cozies I found a place where I had said “zip code” instead of “area code” and I corrected that mistake when I uploaded my new files.

The quality dashboard showed me that the issue had been resolved.

Never told me it existed in the first place, but told me it was now resolved.

Which means at some point a reader reported that error, Amazon never told me about it, I caught it myself and updated the file, and then Amazon let me see the quality dashboard and the fact that I’d addressed it.

Sigh.

No other quality issues showing. But who knows? Maybe I have to find and correct them and then magically Amazon will reveal to me that they were already reported two years ago? Although it doesn’t actually tell you when the issue was reported, so no way to know how long that was hiding away unbeknownst to me.

Which is why, really, it’s best to shoot an email to the author if you want an error addressed.

Although…Make sure it is an error and not just “I would like you to phrase this my way” which I have heard of authors receiving in the past.

(Also, understand that for trade-published authors it may never get fixed. And for my books published through IngramSpark, unless it’s a life-threatening error of some sort or half the book is missing, those won’t get fixed either.)

This was in fact a legit error that I was happy to correct when I saw it.

I just never knew about it until now. And when I did find it I was like, “Well, no one has pointed it out to me yet, so must not have been that big a deal to anyone.”

Except…They had, I just didn’t know.

Oh well. Better that than the “we will shut down your account if you don’t address this error that’s not an error” message some have received.

The joys.

Wrapping Up A Series

Yesterday I did the final editing pass on the last book in my cozy mystery series. It was book 9 in the series. And while there were individual mysteries to solve in each book, six with murders, three without, there were also overarching personal stories as well.

Which meant that I wasn’t just wrapping up the mystery in that particular book, I also had to give a satisfying ending to the entire series. (I’m pretty sure I also did this with book six which was supposed to be the original end to the series.)

And while it’s true that writing in series can be better than writing standalone novels in terms of reader retention, promotion, and sales, it’s also much harder to do well.

(If you have nine books in a series that all follow the same cast of characters, are in the same setting, and have the same general feel to them putting book 1 to free will get you much better results than putting one of nine unrelated novels with different characters and themes and settings to free.)

This novel required an extra editing pass for me because of that need to nail the landing not just for the current book but for the whole series.

And I should note here that there are certain types of series where the main character never really changes and so there is no evolution of the character that needs to be addressed in the final book.

It’s just Adventurer A has adventures and they have adventures for as many books as the author wants to write. It’s been forty years since I read them, but I’m pretty sure the Oz books were that way after the first one. Kid goes back to Oz, meets cool people, maybe runs into some old friends, and then goes back home.

I, unfortunately, am incapable of writing that sort of series. I’m a very character-driven writer which means my characters react and grow with every personal interaction they have. They aren’t the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They’re always learning. And, in my case, bringing new people into their w0rld.

And in a series where the character is learning and growing and evolving you have to leave them at a good spot that’s satisfying to the reader at the end of the series.

So each mystery can end with the mystery solved. That’s easy enough. That’s the novel-level denouement. For adventure fantasy you end that leg of the adventure. For romance you give that couple their HEA or HFN.

I should also note here that there are some fantasy series, like GRRM’s, that aren’t meant to be that way. He views his series as one big gigantic story that happens to sprawl across a number of books. The type of series I’m thinking of here for fantasy is more like David Eddings’ Belgariad where each stage of the adventure is covered in one book. (Been a while since I read those, too, but that’s how I seem to remember they worked.)

So.

I’m talking here about series where each book has a predictable way to end it (mystery solved, special object found, couple gets their HEA) but where there’s more to the overall story.

And with a series like that, you have to answer in that last book, “Why did we go on this journey and why does it end here?”

Nora Roberts has fantasy romance trilogies that do this well. Each book ends with one part of the quest finished and one couple getting their HEA, but the whole series ends when the ultimate goal is reached.

I also think you have to give some impression to the reader of where those characters go from that moment and that where they’re headed has to be satisfying for the type of story told.

I personally don’t believe in the “ten years later” sort of ending that one very popular series used. (I saw it in the movies before I read it and was thinking, “Why did they add this crap at the end?”, only to find out later it was in the books.)

So for me personally it has to be an ending that wraps up the big arc of the series, maybe even brings things together in a new way that I couldn’t see until that ending, is satisfying in that moment, and hints at a future for those characters that leaves me satisfied.

Which is a lot.

And you have to weave it around the ending of that particular book. Because there’s also a thing with readers (at least me as a reader) where they only want to stay with you for so long after the big conflict is finished.

As a reader I reach a moment where I’m like, “Hey, we defeated the big baddie like five chapters ago, why are we still here?”

(Which just reminded me why I didn’t like the ending of a very famous fantasy series that I won’t mention because it’s fans will tell me it’s the best series ever written and how dare I criticize it. But that thing dragged at the end.)

Now, you might be wondering why does getting a solid ending to the series matter so much? Readers have bought the books and stuck through to the end, why is how it ends such a big deal?

First, there’s the peak-end rule where people judge the overall experience by the peak moment and the end. So your series will ultimately be judged based on the best or worst moment in the series and by how it felt at the end. End poorly and it won’t matter how well you wrote the rest of the series, readers will be unhappy.

Second, if you want future sales of other books you write, those sales are going to be driven by the experience a reader had with the last book they read by you.

And moving between series is the most likely time to lose a reader. A reader may stick with a so-so series just to see how it ends. But then they’re done.

If you’re offering a reader a new series with new characters and setting and premise, they have to have been satisfied enough with the experience of reading the first series to follow you to the new one.

(You’ll notice that a lot of long-term best-selling authors stick to at least the same world or general type of story. It makes that leap to a new series with new characters easier because at least readers know they already liked the world and the type of story. I’m not going to say that all of them do so deliberately, but I will say that it’s a successful strategy if you can do it deliberately.)

The fact that the end of a series is when you’re most likely to lose readers is why getting that series ending right matters so much.

So how do you make sure it lands well?

I’m not going to claim to be the expert on that. What I did is I wrote my last book in the series, cleaned it up so that it was mostly there as a standalone story, and then I went back and re-read the entire series before continuing on through my final draft of the final book. That let me tease out a final story arc that I hadn’t been quite aware of until that moment.

(Essentially the overall arc to that series is that my MC starts out all alone but is joining a community. Over the first six books she finds personal happiness. Over the next three she finds that she’s built a community and shifts her mindset from being self-focused to group-focused. But I had to see the whole journey in one piece to parse that last little bit out.)

Whether it worked for my series, time will tell. But it is something to keep in mind for anyone coming up on the end of a series.

Cap T

I’m thinking I may get to a point where I have to stop blogging because all it feels like I’m doing is making the world worse with my angers, fears, and frustrations but we’re not there yet. Sorry.

The good thing about a blog is I can’t share and amplify the negativity the way I’d be able to on a platform like, say, Twitter, so it’s a slower slide here than it was there.

But I can screenshot. So here is a funny/sigh of depression tweet I saw today:

[Alt text for anyone who needs it. The tweet is from John Rogers (@jonrog1) and it says “Yet another evening I close my eyes, pinch the bridge of my nose, take two short sharp breaths and remind myself millions of people led satisfying, meaningful lives during the fall of the Roman Empire.”]

I think this tweet highlights a very important issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is Cap T.

I can’t find a resource on the internet that explains it, so it’s possible it was some sort of fevered not-real memory of mine, but I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back row of one of my econ classes during my MBA program and having the professor describe lifetime spending behavior and mentioning that it was all about the Cap T.

It stuck with me because for some reason I and those around me found the way he said it-he was a pretty droll guy-funny.

The basic concept is this: That we spend over our lifetimes based upon our lifetime earnings.

So it’s reasonable to go into debt for, say, college, if you believe that you have fifty years of earnings that will pay that off. Which is why so many people have this spending/earning pattern of going negative early on and then having a surplus later in life until they ultimately even out at the end.

Now, one could dig in on that and debate how much it holds up because I know my mom, for example, is fully determined to never pay off her student loans and just die with that debt and have it be written off. But for this post, let’s just run with it.

Because I’ve found myself applying this concept-or my weird understanding of this concept-to life decisions in general.

For example, do I stop the writing and go get a “real” job that pays more because I have 45 years I need to be planning for and this field probably isn’t stable enough to support me for that long?

Or do I carry on as is because the world as I know it right now may not exist in ten years so why build towards a future that won’t be there? Might as well enjoy what I can while I can and then pick a new future up out of the rubble when it all goes to hell.

Those questions are both asking what decision to make based upon the Cap T for our current societal system as well as for my career field and for me personally.

Let’s talk that through because it probably makes better sense if I explain it more. (And even then, well. Sometimes what makes sense in my head does not make sense to anyone else.)

So.

I was brought up at a time when the American way of life seemed very stable. This was also at a point where college was basically expected for most careers.

(My dad was an accountant for a while during a period of time where you didn’t need a college degree or certification to be one. But by the time I was 18, that had changed and he’d had to switch careers. I think that was probably true for a lot of fields. My stepdad was employed as an engineer while he got his degree at night school. Not something as likely to be an option by the time I was 18.)

And for me, standing there at 18 looking forward, the world felt like it would continue as-is until I reached old age and retirement.

Which made things like going to college and buying a home and saving for retirement and all of those other things that are common recommendations today make sense as a solid life path.

But for that path to work over the course of 70 years, there are things that have to be true now and that have to remain true over that entire time period.

A stable currency, for example.

We fail to acknowledge on a regular basis that currency and its value is actually just a social construct. The US dollar (or any currency) has the value it does because we all agree that it has that value. (And generally there’s a government working hard behind the scenes to make that true.)

A dollar bill without that agreement is just a piece of paper. Electronic records of money are just bits of data.

It is the government and the individuals that make up a society that give currency its value.

There are multiple countries where the physical currency of that country basically became worthless at some point because that system failed.

I have some Cambodian money in a box somewhere. Its worth? Nothing. Even when I was there people who lived there wanted to be paid in USD not Cambodian money.

If you own physical goods, you still have those goods when a currency collapses. But any savings you have? Gone. Worthless.

Another thing that has to remain stable is property rights and the stability of the property you own.

If part of the life plan is to own a large home in X location you have to believe that X location is going to exist 70 years from now. And that it will be livable.

A couple weeks ago (?) there was that video going around of a house on stilts in North Carolina being washed away into the ocean. Homes have been lost to tornadoes and hurricanes and fires, too. I had a friend in NM just last month who almost lost their retirement home to a wildfire.

Right now insurance will cover the cost of replacing a home that’s lost to something like that. But for how long will that be reasonable? And you can’t rebuild on an eroded shoreline or in a flooded marsh.

You also need to believe that the government won’t change your right to own your property. I know of people who have seven homes spread across the world, but they aren’t physically in those homes. They can’t be.

Which means they require property law and respect of property law in order to maintain their ownership. That requires a stable government and a stable society.

It also requires a government that doesn’t decide that you aren’t allowed to own that property because you are of the wrong religion, skin color, or gender.

And what about resource availability?

If you’re going to build a life in one place for seventy years you have to assume that water and electricity and all of those things are going to be available to you in that location for that period of time.

This week there were schools on the east coast that were dismissed because of high temperatures and a lack of air conditioning causing health risks. If you live in an area that requires air conditioning or heat to be livable but you don’t have the right power grid to run that air conditioning or heat, what then?

There are others factors that we could discuss, but I hope those three examples at least give you an idea of all the factors that come into play when considering the Cap T of the current dominant life plan most of us follow.

Someone like my grandma who is now in her 90’s did well following that plan.

The problem is, I think we are in a transition period right now where the old model is still a viable model for a short-term Cap T but it isn’t for the long-term.

And the thing I personally struggle with is when that’s going to switch over. Is it five years? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty?

Where is the inflection point? Because that inflection point impacts how to act now.

For example. I sold my house last summer and I can definitely see right now in this moment that renting in a market that’s in demand is not ideal. Rents are twice what they were a decade ago and rising. Also, if you own a home you have property appreciation in a market like this.

(You also have maintenance and all those other costs, so home ownership is not the perfect choice for every person, but it’s a good one in general if you’re staying in one location and definitely a good one in a world of rapidly rising prices.)

But.

In a world of potential instability, is acquiring physical assets, like a house, and locking yourself to a singular location actually a good idea?

I personally think there will come a point where the better strategy is to own say four condos in vastly different countries/regions/states and to only own a limited number of physical personal mementos that can be easily transported. Everything else would be virtual and not location-dependent.

This as opposed to one large home in one fixed location with a large amount of physical property.

So better to own four thousand-foot furnished condos versus one four-thousand-foot home. (Assuming you have the wealth to make that choice.)

But, the question is, have we reached that point yet? And if not, how fast is that instability going to develop?

Maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe it’s something I personally don’t need to worry about. Maybe the old model will hold long enough for someone my age to be fine.

I don’t think that’s the case, though.

I’m not good at climate change, it’s not my area, but from what I’ve glimpsed I think we’re more in the 20-year range for these changes rather than the 50-year range.

My grandma has been able to live a full life that worked under the old model. I don’t think I or my peers will be able to. And I absolutely don’t think someone who is 18 now will.

So what different choices should someone who is 18 today make than I did when I was 18 or than she did when she was 18?

Should they still go to college? Should they still aim for homeownership and a job in a physical office space?

What about someone like me who is theoretically halfway through?

Because on top of the society Cap T, we have to look at our own. How long will you personally live? If it’s a year or two, look around and act accordingly. If it’s decades, though? You have to factor in so much more.

As of a week ago or so I have now outlived my dad. He died about a month before his 46th birthday and that’s the one that’s right around the corner for me.

Because he was ill he never had an expectation of living to 90. He was always operating on a Cap T plan that was the next two to five years with hopes of more but no expectation of more.

That meant no 401(k) contributions. He wasn’t saving for retirement. Or making those sacrifices now to work his way up the ladder to be rewarded in thirty years. He knew he’d be dead before he got to the top or to retirement.

(It made him a good father. He wanted to earn enough to keep us fed and housed, but because there was no professional ambition beyond that, his energy and his time went into being there for us while he could be.)

So what about me? Obviously I made it past where he did. But what is my Cap T? Am I planning for 90? Am I planning for 50?

Also, I skipped the industry Cap T. What does publishing look like in five, ten, twenty years? Does self-publishing as I know it right now have a Cap T that matters to my planning?

I think it does. But is its Cap T longer or shorter than the current societal Cap T? Which will go down first?

That I don’t know.

And for the most part this all ends up being an intellectual exercise, because there are so many moving parts one person can’t possibly account for all of them.

I can’t even see what’s going to be impactful in six months. There are things percolating below the surface right now that will emerge and flip all of this on its head in ways I can’t anticipate.

A year ago some analyst somewhere knew that Russia invading Ukraine was a possibility. And they even probably knew some of the downstream impacts. But I couldn’t see that coming.

Or when COVID emerged. Some people knew something was going to emerge because that was their field. I even knew that the US expected some sort of pandemic at some point because we’d done emergency planning on it 15 years before that. But did I know what would emerge and when? No.

So in a sense you have to go higher-level.

I can’t tell you what is coming or how fast the change will be or in what direction it will be. But my instinct is that there is absolutely going to be an inflection point that flips a lot of things on their head at least on a local level, most certainly on a regional level, and probably on a national level.

And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. For some on the local level it’s probably already here.

But I don’t know the exact timeline. I know it makes me more short-term in my thinking, but not fatalistically so. Maybe that’s the wrong mindset. Maybe I should be BAU (business as usual) because Cap T is long enough I won’t be impacted.

It’s hard to know.

A while back someone asked me why I didn’t start up a business to run AMS ads for people. They told me how much money they’d made doing so based off of what they’d learned in my book (and from other sources) and it was sizable.

But to me doing that as a business was an unstable path that could crumble underneath me at any moment. One algo change and suddenly I’m losing people money when I told them I’d make them money.

Five years on (?), though, it’s held up better than I would’ve expected. And I probably would’ve been able to deliver results for people. (shrug)

So sometimes I’m over here wide-eyed, chewing on my thumbnail anticipating an imminent collapse and instead it takes ten, twenty years before it actually materializes.

Cap T is not actually easy to calculate. The real world is much messier than a graph on a chalkboard. But it is kind of fun to think about.

Taxes and Fires

I saw someone link today to an article about a family whose house burned down because the fire crew wouldn’t put the fire out because they hadn’t paid the annual fire fee of $75 for their address to be covered by the fire service. Even when the guy offered to now pay that fee.

It was shared in the context of “Oh my god, how cruel can you be to let someone’s house burn down when you could put the fire out. I’ve lost all faith in humanity.”

And I get that point of view. I do. Most people want to help others in trouble. You want to rush in and put that fire out if you can.

I mean, I just went through a massive fire that destroyed a thousand homes in my area and the only reason it wasn’t ten thousand is because those fire crews jumped in there and worked their asses off to save every property they could.

There was no picking and choosing. You quite frankly could not pick and choose in that situation. We were all in it together.

But my reaction to that article was far more cynical.

Because the scenario reminds me too much of all of the people who don’t want to contribute to society, who don’t want to do their part to pay for things like fire departments and infrastructure and social security and medicare and all the other public services we need to function as a society, but who then turn around and expect to have all those things available when they need them.

I don’t know the particulars of this situation. Maybe that family had been paying into the fire fund for decades and really did just forget to pay this one year. In which case, you know, make an exception.

But I have met more than my share of people who would not pay that fee year after year after year because they don’t want to pay money to anything that doesn’t directly benefit them, but who would then turn around and be outraged that the service wasn’t given to them when they did need it.

One of the things I hate most about some of the folks I met through Wharton is this notion that you’re a sucker if you actually pay taxes in the United States.

There is a certain type of wealthy older man (and it is usually older white men, at least in my experience) who believes it is proof of his intelligence and savvy to find the loopholes that mean he can avoid paying taxes.

I find that so messed up. You benefit from all the things that taxes provide and yet you want to shirk your share. (And before someone mentions welfare, etc. I’m pretty sure millionaires benefit far more from financial regulation and the Fed and monetary policy and diplomacy than a random homeless person does.)

It’s very much a product of how we’ve structured our tax system in the United States.

Because there are these games that can be played. The people who don’t want to pay into the system have filled our tax system with tricks and carve outs that benefit that savvy type of wealthy asshole. Many of the carve outs only benefit the wealthy.

So of course anyone who can see that unfairness built into the system will strive to take advantage of those tricks. Why shouldn’t you, right? Why should you be the sucker?

My answer: Because I’ve benefited from everything taxes pay for and if I can now pay that back, I will. It’s also why I give to certain charities when I can. They helped my family 40 years ago so I give back to them now that I can afford to do so.

This bullshit avoidance these guys practice only works because somewhere someone is actually paying into the system to provide the paved roads and stoplights and clean water and food safety and financial regulation and airport and business subsidies and everything else that we all need.

Hell, it’s the financial regulation that these guys don’t want to fund (or even have apply to them in many instances) that protects the frickin’ money they got to keep by playing those games.

But the whole thing falls apart if too many people cheat. If no one pays that $75 fee for fire protection every year, there’s no one around to put out the fires when they come.

So when I saw that story my reaction was, “Oh, hey, fuck around, find out.”

And again, I don’t know the specifics of that situation. If that family had been paying in for years or ran into hard times where they couldn’t afford the fee, then that’s a different scenario.

It just for me brought up the multiple conversations I have had with older white men who were ranting about taxes and how they had to pay them while standing at a country club drinking an expensive drink after talking about their real estate portfolio and before driving away in their Mercedes.

We’ve built a world that’s largely without consequences for that type of person because the rest of us accept their freeloading in order to have the things we know we need. But in that situation, it was specifically structured to not let that happen and so the house burned down. You didn’t pool your money with the rest of us, oh well.

It’s not the ideal solution. To stand there with the resources to help and not do so. Which is why we generally don’t structure things that way. We don’t say, “You paid in X, so you get to participate. You didn’t put in enough, so you don’t.” We just suck it up and cover everyone.

But allowing people to not pay in when they can do so and still get everything anyway is shitty.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I’m a random person on the internet.

In my dictator alternate reality we’d all pay a flat percent of our income in taxes with no carve outs or cut outs. I would de-couple individual contribution from the benefits received.

So you earn $10, you pay $1. You earn $100,000, you pay $10,000. You earn $1 million, you pay $100,000.

It would be like tithing at church. We all put in the same percent. We all no matter how little or how much we have acknowledge that we’re contributing to building a society together.

All the needed social supports would still be there, they’d just be separate. We’d all understand that we were all putting in to the same degree and then collectively deciding where best those funds could be used.

It wouldn’t solve the bigger issues we have. Those who put in more total money would still want their needs addressed above others and would resent giving too much to those they deemed unworthy.

And of course, even a flat tax rate like that is not ideal because there’d then be copious amounts of debate about what constitutes income and someone would come up with strategies for delaying income or hiding income or saying that income from X is not really income.

(But again, my dictatorship so I’d be the final judge and they’d only play that sleight of hand with me once.)

On the other end someone would be complaining that you can’t make a person pay in $1 or $100 or $1000 when they need to pay for groceries and rent, etc. which would completely miss the whole purpose of paying in which is showing that we all participate to the extent we can.

So, really, outside of my imaginary dictatorship it would never work. But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Anyway. Yes, horrible to stand by and let someone’s house burn down. But maybe understandable if it was a person who refused to pool their resources for something that’s best handled at the community level who only finally cared when they were personally impacted.

(Same as healthcare, really. No one wants to put in when they’re perfectly healthy because they don’t need it themselves but if we had universal healthcare with everyone contributing a set amount then when something did go bad for an individual the cost wouldn’t be ruinous.)