Reading is My Refuge

My last two years at Stanford were two of the hardest years of my life. I had decided to triple major–which included a major I didn’t even start until my junior year–and I was also working more than full time to pay for room and board. So 19 or 20 units each quarter plus 50 hours of work a week. Oh, and I was commuting from Sunnyvale my junior year so add in a real drive each day as well.

It may seem strange, but what got me through it was reading. Mostly fiction books, but some non-fiction too. (That was when Guns, Germs, and Steel came out and I absolutely loved that book.) That first finals week I think I read three fantasy novels while studying for and taking all of my exams.

I was lucky to work in a bookstore and so have free access to books. (It was a company program, I wasn’t cheating in any way.) But even if I hadn’t, I would’ve worked an extra hour a week to be able to buy books, they were that important to me.

Which is why yesterday I dropped the ebook prices on about a dozen different titles. Since I know there are people like me out there who are desperately in need of a distraction right now, I thought I’d help out a bit.

We’re all going to need to get away and disconnect to make it through this. For some that will be video games or TV shows or movies. For others it will be books.

So…If you’re a book person, here’s what I’ve put on sale. It’s a very eclectic mix as you’ll see. Hopefully there’s something in there for everyone:

Just click on the image to be taken to the Books2Read page which should have links for all retailers. Or you can just go to your favorite retailer and look the titles up. All except for Erelia are available everywhere and most libraries should also be able to get them.

Non-Fiction ($2.99 USD each)

Excel for Beginners open sans boldv2

Excel for Beginners: A guide to Microsoft Excel for those who need to master the basics.

 

 

Budgeting for Beginners open sans

Budgeting for Beginners: A book that will teach you how to figure out where you are financially, judge what that means, and give tips for how to improve. Especially helpful right now for those who are finding themselves without a steady paycheck, because it covers how to approach irregular income like that. (Also available in audio as the Juggling Your Finances Starter Kit.)

Quick--Easy-Cooking-for-One-KindleQuick & Easy Cooking for One: Exactly what it says. A guide to cooking for yourself for the absolute beginner. More concept-based than step-by-step, but it does include recipes.

 

 

Writing for Beginners open sans

Writing for Beginners: An overview of what a beginning writer should know to get started. Includes discussions of point of view, tense, as well as agents and publishing paths. (Also available in audio under the title The Beginning Writer’s Guide to What You Should Know.)

 

Dont Be a Douchebag PC version 20160803v10Don’t Be a Douchebag: Online Dating Advice I Wish Men Would Take: A snarky guide to online dating for men who aren’t doing so well at it. (Also available in audio. Some retailers may have a different cover.)

 

 

Fiction:

Riders-Revenge-The-Complete-Trilogy-GenericThe Rider’s Revenge Trilogy: ($4.99 USD) A feminist YA fantasy adventure trilogy about a young girl who sets out to avenge her father and finds herself caught up in much bigger issues.

 

 

Erelia blue flame 20151222v5Erelia: (Available on Amazon Only, $2.99 USD and in KU) A dystopian utopia. Life seems perfect on the surface, but the reader sees just what horrible actions create that perfection. Also has a pandemic subplot. (I had unpublished this one just because I thought it needed a sequel and I wasn’t sure when I’d write that sequel, so be forewarned.)

 

A-Dead-Man-and-Doggie-Delights-KindleA Dead Man and Doggie Delights: (99 cents) First in what will soon be a six-book cozy mystery series set in the Colorado mountains. For lovers of Newfoundland dogs, Colorado, and quirky characters who like a little murder on the side. (Book 2, A Crazy Cat Lady and Canine Crunchies is also reduced to $2.99 USD.)

 

Something-Worth-Having-KindleSomething Worth Having ($2.99 USD): Contemporary romance bordering on women’s fiction. About a woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis who goes on a road trip with a man she is absolutely not allowed to fall in love with. (A related but standalone title, Something Gained, is also just $2.99 right now.

 

Let’s Talk Markets

It’s an ugly day on the U.S. stock market today. Again. And there can be a temptation to want to call your broker up and say, “Put it all in cash. Get me out of this mess.” But unless you need that money in the short-term (in which case you were gambling anyway), you shouldn’t do that.

Let me give you an analogy. I used to fly a lot for work. Sometimes I’d be on a flight and we’d get a lot of turbulence. To the point where you’d wonder, “Is this it? Are we going down?”

But I didn’t panic in those moments. Because I would ask myself: “Do I really think this plane is going to crash? Am I about to plummet into the earth from 30,000 feet and go up in a ball of flame?”

There was only one time in all those many times I flew where my answer was, “Maybe?” The rest of the time my answer was, “No. I think it’s going to be rough and I’ll keep an eye on the overhead bins and hope that big guy stays in his seat, but I’m going to survive this just fine.”

That one time I thought “maybe” I asked myself what freaking out would do for me. Would my screaming or hyperventilating or repeating “we’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re going to die” change that outcome?

My answer was “No”. If we were going down, nothing I could do at that point was going to change it.

So I forced myself to take a couple of deep breaths (yoga breathing is good for this) and I gritted it out and we landed just fine.

That’s what most investors need to do with the markets right now. If you’re looking at your savings or your retirement fund and you’re thinking, “oh my god, I’m about to lose it all,” I want you to step back and ask yourself, “Do I believe the United States economy is going to fail? Do I believe that our currency is going to become worthless? Do I believe that five years from now we won’t exist as a thriving economy?”

I would hope for most of you that the answer would be No, the U.S. economy is not going to fail. The world economy is not going to fail.

Is the U.S. facing a recession? Yeah. Are some people going to go bankrupt as a result of this current situation? Yes. Will some companies go bankrupt as well? Yes. But the entire U.S. economy? I don’t think so.

Which means that if you sell now when the markets are down all you are doing is locking in your losses. You will guarantee that the bad outcome happens to you. It’s like jumping out of that plane that’s having some turbulence. It’s going to land fine (assuming your hasty opening of the emergency exit didn’t just kill everyone), but your jumping from the plane will have guaranteed the bad outcome happens to you.

Keep this in mind: For every single person who is selling right now, there is someone buying. (Now the reason we’re seeing such a drop is because the people willing to buy are only willing to buy at a lower price than they would’ve bought at a month or two ago. But still, the point remains. For every single person bailing out of the market, there is someone buying.)

The long-term trend of markets is to recover and move upward. So if you have ten years? Twenty? Thirty? Hold steady. Keep your investments.

If you’ve figured out that stock market investing isn’t for you because this raises your blood pressure and you can’t stop hitting refresh, that’s okay. But wait to get out of the markets. Let them recover some first. Don’t lock in your losses.

And if you think this is it? That the end of the U.S. economy has come, then ask yourself the next question. “What does selling now do for you?”

Because if you’re right, converting those holdings into cash that won’t have any value anyway isn’t going to help you. We’ll be back to “Hey, buddy, can I trade you this rabbit I just caught in my backyard for some of those carrots you grew?” at which point it all becomes moot.

So hold on. Hold the course. Don’t panic if you have the time to sit this one out.

 

Walking The Line

I have to say that I admire Dr. Fauci because he does something I couldn’t possibly manage. He somehow doesn’t directly contradict the man who can fire him while still trying to get out the “truth” while also keeping it dialed back enough to not throw the entire country into a panic. (Although the empty grocery store shelves in parts of the U.S. may indicate that we’re a little out of balance on that one.)

I’m struggling with how to walk that line myself right now.

I actually logged onto my one remaining Twitter account (which has been on hiatus for something like two years because that place amplifies negativity for me) to tweet at my governor this morning to please for the sake of sanity close bars and restaurants before St. Patty’s Day becomes Kill A Grandparent day, but then I just couldn’t do it.

I wholeheartedly believe that in the Denver area where we have community spread that letting bars and restaurants remain open tomorrow will mean overwhelmed hospitals in two to four weeks, if we’re not already there by then.

But…

I think there’s only so much angst and outrage you can feel before you just stop. I have a friend on FB who has been posting about the current administration for the last three years. And while I don’t disagree with her, I’ve had her on mute for most of that time. Because I just can’t live in that emotional space for any period of time.

So then I was going to post a picture of my dog on Twitter instead. Like, here, have some joy. But it turns out they don’t take JPG files? So now I’m here.

Have a picture of a dog. Feel a moment of joy. Stay home. Read a book. Watch a movie. Binge a TV series. Be safe. I’m off to disconnect and edit a book.

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Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

Freedom vs. Responsibility: The US Conundrum

Sorry, folks, another post related to the current coronavirus outbreak in the US.

As of my writing this post Emerald City Comic Con is scheduled to continue in Seattle, Washington next week. This is an event that gathers together 100,000 people or thereabouts each year and crams them into a concentrated area where they are most definitely less than six feet apart.

It’s a bad situation for spreading germs in the best of years. There’s a reason the term “con crud” exists. But when you pair that with the fact that Seattle is a current location where COVID-19 is currently circulating in the population, you have a recipe for disaster.

Because all of those people have homes they’re coming from. They aren’t all Seattle residents. They will attend this conference and then they will return to their homes all across the country and perhaps across the world and, if they are exposed to coronavirus while in Seattle, will effectively and quickly spread coronavirus all across the U.S.

I don’t say this to be alarmist. It is what it is. And it’s already happening in the U.S., we just aren’t testing enough to acknowledge it.

But what this situation highlights is the fundamental conflict we face here in the United States. It’s the issue of personal freedom versus community responsibility.

On Twitter I’ve seen a number of people announcing that they’re cancelling their appearance at the ECCC. Almost all of them have cited personal health, family members with health issues, or, the latest, a young child at home. Those who’ve posted about continuing to attend have talked about their own relative health and giving their team members a choice to attend. None that I recall seeing have talked about their community.

Okay, great, they personally are young and healthy and if they are exposed they’ll probably get over it in a couple weeks. (Probably.) But what about their co-worker? What about the flight attendant who has to be in a plane with them? What about their Uber driver? What about the person who fills their prescription at the pharmacy? What about the waitress at their favorite restaurant? What about the old lady who takes the bus with them to her medical appointments? What about…anyone else other than that individual making their individual decision?

China was successful in mitigating this outbreak because they shut everything down. They are a society where that is possible. (And, no, I’m not advocating for us being that type of society. I’m just pointing out the difference.)

The U.S is so concerned with personal financial cost and personal liberties that we have failed to contain this illness. And that failure will kill people. And if we continue down this path, we will kill more people. Not just in the U.S., by the way, but around the world. Our failure to properly contain this spread will impact every other country in the world.

Now maybe those people attending ECCC won’t be the ones who suffer the consequences, but people in their communities will. And people around the world will.

You know, it’s weird how uncomfortable it makes me feel to call this out. It is so ingrained in me that we respect individual rights in this country that a part of me wants to defend the creators who are still choosing to attend ECCC. Don’t they have the right to make a living? To survive? To be paid for their work?

But this is the bind our country places us in. Because we as a country do not provide social safety nets for our citizens we have put these people in a position to choose between attending this conference, perhaps gettting a little sick, hopefully staying in business, and maybe killing a stranger somewhere down the line and, perhaps, bankruptcy.

A clear personal financial consequence versus a vague societal one. You know what choice the average individual will make in that situation each and every time. That’s why we have regulations and rules and government. Because sometimes the optimal personal decision is the worst societal decision.

Do I have solutions (other than a very strong belief that they need to cancel that damned conference and start actually fucking testing enough people in this country to get their hands on the actual scope of the issue)? No. But I think this situation highlights the central dilemma we need to confront in the United States. How do you allow people those individual freedoms while still encouraging the best social decisions? Because, as we’re about to find out, we’re all in this together.

(And, hey, if I’m being over the top and paranoid about this and it all fizzles into nothing, well, okay. I’d rather look stupid by being too concerned than see the other outcome.)

News Coverage Disappoints Me

This is what cnn.com is showing right now related to the current coronavirus outbreak.

CNN Headline

And I have to tell you it frustrates the hell out of me. Because pretty much any expert or frontline individual handling this in the U.S. would tell you that the headline should be “there are now 158 CONFIRMED cases of novel coronavirus in US”.

That distinction between actual number of cases and reported number of cases is vital for getting people to understand what is actually going on in the US right now with respect to this illness.

See, the thing is, if you don’t test for something you can’t find it, right? And that’s what’s happening in the US right now.

Last week there were news reports that the care facility in Kirkland, WA that has been the source of the majority of the fatalities reported in the US so far had another 50+ individuals showing potential symptoms and another 150 people that were patients or staff of that facility in addition to those fifty. And yet, those people have not been tested. As of 20 minutes ago, CNN is just now reporting on that fact.

So right there, in one small location, you very likely have at least 50 more cases.

On top of that are all the stories coming out of people with travel history and symptoms who’ve tried to get tested and were refused. One in New York was told to go home via the subway and go back to work if he wanted. Think about that from a disease transmission perspective. How many times has that happened in the last six weeks? How many cases are there that we simply don’t know about because no one is testing aggressively?

If you only look at the fatality number of 11 and use a 2% fatality rate, at a minimum there are 550 cases. But we’ve already seen that some fatalities that occurred previously were only retroactively identified as fatalities related to this virus. So how many more were there that were chalked up as pneumonia or the seasonal flu? And that fatality number is a lagging indicator. This infection takes weeks to reach the point where someone dies from it. (Per the WHO report on China.) So that’s 550 as of a month ago.

It really frustrates me that I get more accurate information on what’s going on from Twitter than I can from my local news or from CNN who I had previously considered a trusted source. (Their coverage of the stock market the other day when it dropped a 1,000+ points in a day was also almost non-existent as it was happening. I had to go to Yahoo Finance to track that.)

I understand the desire to not be sensational and to not cause a panic. Especially with respect to stock market trading which in the short term can be very emotion-driven. And I get that we have a bunch of stupid people in this country who will react to bad news in stupid ways. And that the news very often gets accused of an “it if bleeds it leads” mentality.

But I have a 90-year-old grandma with COPD and a mother who is almost seventy and has needed emergency treatment on multiple occasions for breathing issues. Based on what I’m seeing I think they should both be limiting their public activities for the next couple of weeks.

There are no REPORTED cases in my state right now, but to think that a virus could be circulating freely in Washington state and not have made it to Colorado is wishful thinking. (My last full-time job I traveled every single week from Colorado or DC to New York or Miami or the UK or Germany. There are people whose jobs routinely have them on planes traveling all over this country–and this world–on a weekly basis. And flu transmission on planes is incredibly high.)

I told both my mother and my grandmother this over the weekend, but they looked at the local news coverage which says, “Hey, no big deal, small numbers, small risk” and they ignored me. My mom went to a casino which is a germ breeding ground on the best of days, and my grandma went to church, the store, and the doctor this week.

Hopefully I’m being alarmist about the current situation and the people I love will be fine.

But there has to be a way to provide news in an objective fashion while still applying critical thinking. Not just, “Hey, we’re being told this” but “Hey, we’re being told this and here’s the context in which that information should be evaluated.” Because far too many people in this country just listen to the news that airs at four on the local television station or just read the headlines of their chosen news site without engaging with that content and applying outside knowledge to it.

Anyway. It’s frustrating.

 

 

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…