Basics of Money Management, Round 1 (i.e. Where Do I Keep My Money?)

I think perhaps the biggest challenge that people face when staring down the idea of managing their money is simply the question of where to start. Since no one teaches us anything in school (usually) about money management, it feels impossible to know all the ins and outs of simple things like checking accounts, savings accounts, CDs, etc., and that’s not even touching anything having to do with investing (more on that later)! Furthermore, it seems like there are endless options for just keeping track of it all, including good old pen and paper (as we’ll see, this is really inefficient and boring).

For this series, we’ll focus on the specific tools of money management, i.e. the whats and the hows. If you’re looking for a good philosophical rundown of the whys and an even bigger picture, I commend you to the excellent (so far) Personal Finance Series by Richard Reis.

We’re going to make the an assumption as well that you have a source of income, i.e. that you have money coming in to you somehow. There are a lot of resources out there for finding a job or starting a business, but this topic is outside of our scope here. Knowing then that you have a job, where do you start with money management?

For this first post, let’s start with where you’ll keep your money. The simplest and easiest place to understand is the underside of your mattress. Who doesn’t want to make a big pile of money and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck?

It’s probably obvious to you that there are a couple of problems with this approach, and it might seem stupid to even seriously discuss this option. However, it’s worth breaking it down according to pros and cons, because that will define some fancy financial terminology right away that you might not know. Let’s have at it!

Strategy: Hiding money under a mattress

Pros:
– maximum liquidity
– low to moderate risk
– easy to see roughly how much you have (just look at it!)

Cons:
– no return on investment
– higher than normal risk of loss or theft
– hard to record when and where you spend it

Okay, that’s our pro/con list. Let’s break some of these terms down. First, liquidity. This is a fancy word for how easy it is to get and use your money. For our mattress scenario, we can reach under the mattress, get some cash, and spend it somewhere – it doesn’t get more liquid than that! The flip side of this is on our con list, though; if we lose the cash (due to fire, theft, misplacing it, etc.), the cash is gone. This is very insecure.

Speaking of risk, that’s the next term to discuss. Risk is the uncertainty of an investment’s return. “But Josh!” I hear you saying, “We’re just talking about simple stuff, not investments!” I hear you and agree. Put another way, risk is an assessment of how wildly the value of your money can swing, up or down. Since we’re talking about a big mattress stash, there’s not a lot of risk to it (a dollar is a dollar). There’s definitely the chance that the cash could be lost or stolen, which wouldn’t be good. There’s something else, though, and this gets at the first item on our con list.

The other risk lurking in a big stack of cash, and it’s a bigger risk than you think, is inflation. That’s the word we use to describe the fact that our money is worth less over time. A $20 bill in 1917 would buy a good bicycle, while the same bill in 2017 wouldn’t get even close to that. If someone had kept that $20 under their mattress for the last 100 years, it would be a super raw deal! We’re going to take one key lesson from this for now:

Every dollar you have is an investment.

I don’t mean this in a philosophical way either. I mean it in a direct, financial way. Trust me on this for now, and we’ll come back to it in the future. Back to the pro/con list!

The last thing is how easy or hard it is to see what you have and track where it’s going. It’s easy to see when your big cash pile gets bigger or smaller, but it’s hard to tell when and where you’ve spent it unless you’re recording each and every transaction by hand. You would also have to occasionally count what’s left by hand. There are better ways, starting with where we store the cash. Let’s move on to a better way to go.

Strategy: Use a bank account (or two!)

Pros:
– nearly maximum liquidity
– very low risk
– paychecks can deposit straight into it
– easy to record when and where you spend

Cons:
– return on investment doesn’t beat inflation
– some accounts involve fees of various kinds

It’s easy to see why this option is so much better than our mattress strategy. First, the liquidity is almost the same, especially when one of the accounts is a checking account. Using this tool, you can get cash from a bank branch, or from an ATM using a debit card. The debit card or (decreasingly common) checks can also be used to pay directly. Even though you don’t have the cash in your hand, the risk is still very low as well. Bank regulation requires that the bank have the cash to give you when you want it, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures the cash in case the bank has financial trouble (there is an equivalent insurer for credit unions as well). Also, the bank will give you a nice list of all of your transactions right on their website, making it easy for you to track what you buy.

The cons to bank accounts really are fees and the return on investment (or lack thereof).

First, some advice: if your bank account is charging you any type of fees just for having the account, close it immediately and open an account somewhere else. There are plenty of banks and credit unions that want your business and won’t charge you fees. Don’t worry about how long your parents have used the same bank as you; if they’re charging you fees, ditch ’em! Banks make money by lending money to each other and to other consumers, and by investing their assets. They’re already making money from your money just by having it; they don’t need to be charging you fees. Seriously, I hate bank fees. Same thing goes for ATM fees (we’ll talk in a future post about how using cash at all isn’t always the best idea anyway).

Right, that takes care of fees. The other con to having all of your money in a bank account is that pesky inflation thing again. The cool thing about giving your money to a bank for safekeeping is that they pay you for giving it to them (definitely in a savings account, only rarely in a checking account). This is what we mean by interest. However, the interest that you’re getting from the bank doesn’t make up for how fast your money loses value to inflation (at least, not in normal times). So, we need to decide if a bank account is still worth it.

I say yes. A bank account is usually the only thing that you can direct deposit your paychecks into. The ability to quickly access your cash, both to pay bills but also especially in an emergency, is too big of an advantage to pass up. For this reason, we’ll say that having a checking account and a savings account is the best first step for managing your money. The checking account will get you a debit card and a place to direct deposit, and the savings account will give you a place to store emergency money and earn interest.

One last tip: to level up your game in terms of bank accounts, consider using an online only bank instead of or in addition to your local bank or credit union. An online bank like Capital One 360 or Ally doesn’t have to pay rent for buildings or the salaries of tellers, so they can give you more interest. Still not enough to beat inflation, but the best that you’re going to get. Also, the debit card that you’ll get will probably be part of a big network of ATMs where you’ll pay no fees (I hate fees, as you recall). This is a strategy I use myself.

Hopefully, this post hasn’t been too long winded. It’s my attempt at explaining personal finance from the beginning, and there is still plenty more to go. In the next post, we’ll talk about better ways to track income and expenses (because “balancing” a “checkbook” is very 90s). For now, though, let me know if you have any feedback!

What We All Want On the Fourth

In this great country today, we celebrate the heroic actions of our nation’s birth. We celebrate the words and deeds of the great Founders of liberal democracy. Along with the other luminaries of the Enlightenment, they saw the path forward out of regressive, authoritarian monarchy. They saw a world governed by autocrats and said, “No more”.

Leaders of both of our political parties sometimes forget that they’re answerable to the people. The people, no matter who they’ve recently voted for, all seem to be aligned around some pretty basic things:

  • We all want to not go bankrupt paying medical bills, and to pay as little as possible for medical care.
  • We all want to be able to save for our own retirements in addition to our children’s educations.
  • We all want to be able to have the time we need with our newborn children when they are born without worrying about running out of money.
  • We all want to get raises in good times, and in fact in all times, just like CEOs do.
  • We all want to welcome anyone who comes to our country and works hard to get ahead, take care of themselves, and help make our country great.
  • We all want good jobs in places where the good jobs have left, and for the government to help bring them in.
  • We all want stable, loving communities free of the threats of violence, drugs, depravation, and fear.

Right now, there is a health care bill floating around out there that either works against or doesn’t address these common wants. We recently elected a President who said in some way or another that he supported all these things. Politicians who support these cruel bills that don’t drive us towards our mutual goals should be told, “No more.”

Go here to contact your Senator. Happy Fourth of July.

On the Strange Split Between the Normalcy of Our Individual Lives and the Vicissitudes of Our Collective Situation

The last six weeks have been so full of dramatic news that, bizarrely, it feels like nothing at all has happened. The mind, perhaps in an effort to protect itself from whiplashing change, seems to stop processing huge news of great impact after enough of it happens. Or, maybe it’s just that no news is big news when everything is big news.

The only way I have to even discuss thoughts about the last couple of months is to compare the things that have happened with the story of my own life during the same period. Comparing things in this way has felt even more disconcerting, as my own life feels normal against the backdrop of national turmoil. I am disturbingly reminded of everything that I’ve ever read that’s written by those who live in burgeoning autocracies.

One of my brothers got married about five weeks ago. I remember my brother Adam and I playing when we were really little, usually pretending to be Sonic the Hedgehog or something like that (we were a Genesis family; back off, Nintendo philistines). As we grew up, we grew apart a bit. I went into band, technology jobs, and a humanities degree. Adam went into most sports that I can think of, and eventually science degrees. Seeing and talking to each other as adults, though, we’ve always been able to have great conversations about politics, science, or just talking in movie lines. Seeing him married to the love of his life was a really emotional experience. Likewise was the opportunity to see so many family members and friends at the wedding.

Likewise, I have something new going on at work as well. I’ve moved from the position that I’ve been in for the past two and a half years, into a new area. In my case, it’s a move back to an area that I’ve been in before, but in a new role that’s never existed before. I’m very excited about the opportunity that I’ve been afforded to help define a new role and to have an even greater impact on my team. So, even in my own individual sphere, life continues as normal, with career moves and growth happening.

Oh, and there’s that one other thing too…

BabyBAnnouncement - 23

The feelings about this could fill up their own post, and maybe at some point soon I will try. In brief, it’s early, so it still feels a little unreal somehow. I’m also excited and scared in equal measure, knowing that a lot of life changes are coming. At the same time, it’s both joyous and normal. I’m 31, she’s 30, and it’s time; yet another milestone cast upon such a strange backdrop.

Meanwhile…

Of course, now we have to turn to that backdrop itself, with its whole cast of characters. In the last six weeks:

  • The President went on a foreign trip during which he deliberately didn’t commit to defend our allies if they were attacked.
  • The United States has withdrawn from a huge international agreement on climate change and traded our leadership for China’s in renewable energy.
  • The former director of the FBI, after being fired by the sitting President, testified under oath that that sitting President is a liar.
  • The Attorney General of the United States testified under oath that he could not answer questions that in fact he had no legal basis to not answer.
  • The Senate majority leader, having previously derided Democrats for allegedly crafting bills behind closed doors, crafted a health care bill behind closed doors that could cause utter chaos in the country’s health care system.

In any other era of American history, any one of these things would be major news, and in many cases a major scandal. In our case today, these are just the five most outrageous things that I could think of; I’ve probably forgotten a half dozen other crazy events that have long since been buried by the constant avalanche of news.

I can honestly say that I am fatigued, because the barrage every day is fatiguing. You can’t look away, though, once you’ve started paying attention. I don’t necessarily have a larger point to make; I can’t claim that the normal good things in our lives totally cancel out the wider turmoil, and I will never argue that our own everyday pleasures absolve us from caring about the threats that others face.

The best approach, perhaps, is to allow the great precious things that happen in our individual lives to give us hope and fortitude for the darker, more frustrating things that we have to encounter in the broader world. The best approach for all of us as a collective would be to likewise remember that we’re all just vulnerable people living precious moments, and to share in each other’s joys instead of engaging in ideological fights. Our politics needs to shift from politicians talking to us, to us talking to each other.

Krugman on Freedom

Paul Krugman, writing at the New York Times:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

Thus goes, tacitly, one side of the debate over the meaning of freedom. It’s more slippery of a word than we might think, simply because first of all, it doesn’t actually exist materially in the world. The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind explores in its early chapters the idea that language is the main thing that separates human beings from other animals, because it allows us to work in very large and disparate groups. Key to our language its ability to describe ideas that do not physically exist, like freedom or human rights. We use these ideas as motivators toward group action, but defining them is harder than, say, defining a banana or a lion or fire. The truths of the Declaration of Independence are not actually self-evident, but we talk about them as though they are so that we can motivate each other to different actions.

To some, freedom means freedom from coercion. That is, freedom from someone telling you what to do. No one should be able to tell you that you must pay this tax, buy this product, etc. To others, freedom means freedom to live up to one’s potential, or the ability to act on one’s wishes. You should have all you need to start your business, to receive medical care, etc.

The competing echo chambers of our country are trapped in many cases, unable to think about or give credence to another conception of freedom. There is room for both, even in the same person, across different issues. Hypocrisy and cynicism well up when the balance is off.

The balance is definitely off when politicians are saying that what matters is access to purchase health care, rather than ability to afford healthcare.

Daily Ways to Pick Up the Pieces

 

We’ve already discussed how the world is changed. For the past eight years, we’ve been reminded of the change in slow, smoldering ways. Seeing the creeping change, much of our society had slipped into a nagging, edgy fear. Now, what was smoldering embers is now a raging fire of change.

Indeed, when I started drafting this post, I had a short diatribe here decrying some of the things that were happening. Then I deleted it because all new things are happening now and it sounded pointless.

Since we’re all feeling like everything in the world is unhinged, I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing to stay alert, informed, and engaged. My mom suggested right after the election that we’d all just have to pick up the pieces. These things are my way of doing that.


First, take care of yourself. This post from last August details the tools that I like to use for fitness, if you need a hand. Even the day after the election, I went for a run. Whatever you do to center yourself and care for your body, you should keep being attentive to it, whether that’s working out or simply meditating.

Next, staying informed. There is a lot going on in the world, even beyond the indescribable situation that we find ourselves in in the United States. To gain a solid sense of what’s happening, with good writing that will help explain the nuances of complex topics, I strongly suggest a newspaper subscription. I woefully underestimated the value of paid journalism before the election, to my great regret. I understand now that seeking the truth and reporting it to others absolutely rely on a free press, and that the best journalists cannot work for free. I’ve very much enjoyed my New York Times subscription since the day after the election. I start every morning when I wake up with the Morning Briefing, in their (excellent) iPhone app, and follow it up on weekdays with the morning’s episode of The Daily. I’ll have more on podcasts that I listen to in a later post.

Try also to read books, as opposed to the news. This is extremely difficult for me, as plugged into the news cycle as I am. Lately, I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. However, I’ve been taking so long that I’ve got to return it to the library and check it out again later. My daily regimen should really include more dedicated reading time for just books, and I’m still working on it. Perhaps I’ll drop a Goodreads widget or something here on the site to help track my progress.

One last thing that has really stuck as a ritual for me in the last 8 months or so is writing up a journal entry once daily. I use an iPhone/Mac app called Day One for this. I have the iPhone app set to prompt me automatically at 11 PM each night. When I tap on the notification, the app loads a preloaded template for me to fill out some of the basics of the day, including podcasts listened, TV shows watched, games played, whether I worked out, etc. I fill these in, and add my own commentary on the day. Regularly reviewing these entries is a bit challenging, but my current system is to have OmniFocus remind me to conduct a seasonal review whenever the seasons change. During this review, I’ll read the whole season’s worth of entries, and compile larger themes into a new entry.

The last year has seen me return more regularly to writing on the web as well, instead of just in my journal. I’m hoping this is a habit that I’ll be able to build on and find value in as well.

There you have it: my everyday basics for staying centered, for picking up the pieces.

 

My New Home

This is a brief post to simply announce my move over to a new home on the web. I’ve owned this domain for a short while, figuring that it was a good idea for me to finally acquire it. More importantly, setting up WordPress on it means that I can consolidate all the writing that I’ve done on the web for the last 11 years or so in one place.

Needless to say, it had been a while since I had read the earliest posts that I had done, back in the early years of college. I remember myself being a lot more conservative, and having a lot more free time. My apologies if any of it is poor writing.

Anyway, Medium did not give me enough control over my own identity compared to my own domain and WordPress. So, here I am. More posts coming soon.

On the Degradation of the Formerly Stable and Well-Understood Pillars of the World

“The world has changed.
I see it in the water.
I feel it in the Earth.
I smell it in the air.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Like many around the country, and indeed around the world, I feel as though something has come undone. To all outward appearances, the world continues as it always has. We all go shopping, watch movies, do our taxes, chortle at politicians, and laugh at memes. And yet, the continuation of the everyday routines seems somehow empty now, doesn’t it? Those routines are a bromide, a salve covering over wounds.

Of course, if you’re fairly liberal, you’re thinking about the President, his actions since the Inauguration, and the bitter election campaign. You’re thinking about the Electoral College, the popular vote, bogus email stories, pussy grabbing, tax returns, Muslim bans, border walls, and on and on. It’s deeper than that, though. If you’re a supporter of the President, you voted for him because of this feeling that things aren’t right. You’re thinking about liberal disdain, your lost job(s), maybe the fact that your parents made more money than you, your friends and family with drug addictions, and all the other groups who seem to get all the help that you never get. All of us together are feeling it. Unfortunately, we’re all treating the symptoms of a profound disease.

There are foundational assumptions that we all have about our place in the world, and about how the world works. The last fifteen or twenty years or so of modern life have fundamentally assaulted at least two of these assumptions. I have the image of strong pillars; pillars of our inner life. Unbeknownst to us, these pillars of our own lives are also pillars of the world, supporting our relationships with each other and the right functioning of our society. Many of these pillars are crumbling, but I want to talk about two of them.


“Rage! Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles…”

— Homer, The Illiad

The Internet: wonder of wonders, font of knowledge, beacon of the modern world. And, perhaps inevitably, engine of our rage.

When we’re children, our social circles are small. We find groups of friends, and establish our place in them. Whether one is the funny one, the talkative one, the popular one, or whatever traits one becomes known for, one always finds a place. We become important and influential in our own ways in our own groups, and this continues into adulthood. This ability to find belonging in a group is that first pillar of the world.

The Internet gave us a way to turbocharge this ability. Indeed, it deserves greatest praise for giving all of us unparalleled ability to communicate and connect. However, it has also forced us to come into direct and constant contact with groups and individuals that are different. Indeed, not just different, but so different as to repulse us. Every single day, we’re assaulted by the horror of someone being wrong (in our eyes) on the Internet. Even with all the best lessons of our parents, we are not prepared to meet the true diversity of human thought. Moreover, we’re not prepared to face our own potential insignificance within it. Our opinions cease to matter when they can be replaced by literally any other opinion with the flick of an app, and we rage. We call out on Twitter and Facebook, fuming into our self-constructed groups (which agree with us already) about the wrongness of it all. We also delight in the confusion and anger of the other side when things go our way. Liberals shout the facts about climate change not to make change, but to belittle rubes. Conservatives gleefully mock “liberal tears” and “social justice warriors” not to enlighten, but to degrade and enrage “cucks”. It feels good.

Is this really a problem? Well, we see the results in our public life. Being a janitor polls better as a career with high school students right now than running for office. Neighbors all too frequently don’t know each other. Formerly bustling forms of community involvement, whether it’s the Church, the Legion, the lodge, or the temple, now seem quieter. Students demand to be shielded from opinions that challenge their own at a time when that challenge is so desperately needed. We’ve all found our groups to belong to, we gather into them online, and we rage into our phones at the teaming hordes of others all around us.

This has all set the stage for two political parties who literally talk past one another, talking instead at the cameras who will feed their words into the Internet rage machine almost instantly.

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

— Yoda

None of this is to say that truth is relative (I don’t believe it is), or that both political poles are contributing equally to the discord (one clearly dominates). Truth is not what you decide it is, and the things that offend you are not “fake news”. However, we can’t allow the profession of truth to be one more thing that allows us to retreat into our own tribes. Once we’ve started down the dark path of rage against all the Others, the more truth acts as a knife that cuts instead of a light that guides. I don’t know what solution there is, aside from awareness, but the rage is dominating our destiny even when we’re in the right. I feel it every day myself.

It is not just the Internet that pits us against another, though. It is but the self-reinforcing amplifier of a gnawing fear that hacks at another pillar of our minds.


Liberals and conservatives are becoming consumed by the same fear. Liberals respond to it by continuing to push for single payer universal health insurance, more generous benefits from employers and governments, and even universal basic income. Conservatives respond to it by pushing for protectionist trade policies to safeguard jobs that will not come back easily (if ever), laws reducing immigration, and stricter and more punitive policing.

The fear is that our jobs, the basis of self identity, and arguably of self worth in our country, are leaving or even being taken from us. People on both sides cast about for who to blame, but the answer is clear (though conservatives right now are having trouble seeing it). It relates to the force eroding the first pillar that we mentioned. Except in this case, the Internet is but a harbinger.

Even if I wanted to explain the relationship between modern technology and jobs in my own words, I would never be able to do as good a job as CGP Grey has. Behold, the shape of things to come:

Grey is right: this is a huge problem. The problem, however, is not that automation is coming for most of the paying jobs out there. Given a long enough time scale, that is inevitable. The issue is that we, liberals and conservatives both, repeatedly assert that our work and jobs are the thing that give us meaning and purpose. This thinking has massively deleterious effects on how we think about and treat the unemployed and homeless. It also makes us cower in fear (and anger) that one day, something will take our jobs and livelihoods away from us.

That something is coming. It might not be tomorrow, but it will be sooner than we think. Those of us who assign all value to specific jobs and livelihoods, and who rage against the Others who are capriciously stealing it all, are assigning value to sand falling through their fingers. We all forget one of the oldest truths there is: memento mori. Everyone is enraged over protecting things that you can’t take with you even if you could protect them.

“…for you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

— Genesis 3:19

Many have a hard time with the idea that the high performer, the rich man, the entrepreneur, the CEO, and the president are actually no better than the refugee or the homeless. Nearly every religion reminds us constantly that we are equal. Machines will eventually remind us all that we are not only equal, but are equally incompetent at both driving cars and picking investments, both the blue collar and the white collar. Furthermore, how can there be a meaningful difference between capital and labor when the labor is done by machines and the capital is moved around and invested… by machines? What will happen when our own creation robs us of the jobs that give the majority of us our self-worth (and indeed a key criterion by which we judge others)?

Does all of this mean that we stop having pride in what we do? Do we stop trying to contribute (and thus earn) as much as we can? I say no. It is indeed important to feel the sense of purpose that comes with good work. But, if we forget the foundational truth of our equality, the rage will spread as our creations take more and more employment from us. Machines built to make our lives easier will make it easier… to get on the Internet and rage at one another.


I won’t pretend that everyone will see and ponder our circumstances as deeply as the current situation would suggest is necessary. For some, people who can’t find jobs and money have no virtue and don’t deserve any help. For others, no corporation or capitalist will ever be anything but a rapacious buccaneer. For still others, nothing other than their own lives matter and no politics is relevant to them (these I fear the most).

What I do know is this: these twin forces of our own making have begun to put us to the test. As the pillars of the world crumble, will we be able to put aside our natural tendencies and build new ones?

I believe there is a better world waiting for us, but that we have to build it, brick by brick. Let us begin.

One Year Review of Wellness Stuff

Those who know me closely know that I’ve lost a fair bit of weight in the past year. Truthfully, the motivation for doing this didn’t initially come from within, and I didn’t expect that donating almost all of my clothes would be the end result. Rather, I have a few simple tools (both hardware and software) to thank. This is a short review of those couple of things that made the biggest difference, in order of importance.

Apple Watch

First and foremost, my Watch.

The Apple Watch is easily my favorite product that I’ve gotten in the last couple of years, and it’s what started me down the path of running more. Since I got the stainless steel Apple Watch, I wanted to make sure that I took maximum advantage of as many features as I could. I like getting my money’s worth from things.

I had had fitness trackers in the preceding years (several Jawbone ones), but none of them were ever as motivating as the Apple Watch. Something about having the three activity rings right on my Watch face just made me want to fill them every day. It helps you summarize your day like the photo below. More details here: http://brez.link/2bBIiAY

The Activity app on Apple Watch

I’m now at the point where I’m taking brisk walks every time I have a break at work, and telling my Watch to start an walk in the Workout app beforehand.

I didn’t expect the wellness features of the Apple Watch to be my favorite thing about it, but that’s how it ended up. I’m excited about the Activity watch faces and the new Breathe app coming in watchOS 3 this fall.

If you’ve been on the fence about an Apple Watch, consider this my recommendation.

Withings Body Scale

As it turns out, there is an entire ecosystem of health devices that can feed data to an iPhone, all communicating with the phone using a framework called HealthKit. Withings makes a whole slew of them, but the most important one for me is their scale. They make a few models, and I actually have an older one, but that’s okay. The main thing that it does is transmit my weight every morning over to the Health app on my iPhone.

The Withings body scale and its app

Since getting the scale in January, I’ve got a graph of my weight that gets updated every day that I’m at home. It also measures my body fat percentage through my feet via some voodoo whose explanation I haven’t researched, and records my body mass index.

Smart scales are absurdly expensive compared to the $35 scale from Amazon, but heck if they’re not useful. Once you have one, you can’t go back. Recommended.

A Treadmill

The treadmills in my apartment’s clubhouse are my exercise command center. Due to having been treated for melanoma in the past, my dermatologist would hit me with a brick if I regularly went running outside. Or at least, I’d have to do a whole bunch of prep work with mineral sunscreen, find a hat appropriate to working out, and trust that the armband I have for my enormous iPhone 6s Plus will actually keep my phone on me. And then in the winter I would, you know, do nothing.

The treadmill has grown on me to the point that I like it though. I can control my exact pace and time on it (I run for 30 minutes, or about 4 miles, a few times a week). I also have a workout playlist (which I change only very infrequently) that I have timed to the exact points when I typically increase my pace.

My cavemen ancestors ran from freaking leopards and stuff every other day to stay fit. I run on a machine in an air conditioned basement. Modern living.

Lose It!

The last tool is a software based one. I have a bit of a problem with an app centering itself (and even naming itself) primarily around the concept of weight loss specifically instead of wellness generally. That said, my workplace periodically does wellness challenges in which we have to record things, and this is the app we use. I also have almost a year’s worth of food habits built up in it, and don’t want to change.


This app lets me track what I eat. I now do this so habitually that almost everything I even semi-regularly eat has an entry that I can add almost instantly. There is also a bar code scanner in the app, so I can add many new foods quickly. I use this information mainly to keep myself more honest than I was in the past about portion sizes. I think it’s the least scientific part of my setup in terms of real data, but setting a weight goal in here and then eating fewer calories than it suggested seemed to help.

I usually skip days when we travel or have some kind of family celebration. A billion kinds of food set up buffet style is a pain to track. My scale usually tells me that I’ve temporarily gained 2 pounds after days like this, but it always goes down again, so I don’t mind.

Wrapping it up

One doesn’t necessarily need all of these things to lose weight, or maintain weight, or even to exercise. It’s funny that in the developed world, staying fit is more easily done when we construct an environment around ourselves to do so. That said, these are the tools that have helped me get into the best shape I’ve been in in years, probably since high school, and I recommended any one of them.

Remember, remember

People in rich countries like the United Kingdom and the United States seem to have forgotten what the majority of human history has been. That is, the history of ceaseless conflict, war, and death. Sure, there were periods of relative peace, given grand names like Pax Romana and Pax Mongolica. However, the spread of humanity around the globe generally led to the spread of human conflict.

One hundred years ago, after centuries of conflict, civilizations had built themselves up to become immensely powerful and wealthy empires. They did this not just via the fine accomplishments of their arts, their learning, and their exploration, but also via colonialism, invasion, and exploitation. Rich, modern civilization had emerged, but it was sustained by yet more human conflict. Empires built in this way, all based on the same Continent, inevitably came into conflict themselves, and the Great War bloodied the world. We have forgotten.

People were sure at the time that World War I would end war. Surely humanity had just learned a great lesson, and the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Meanwhile, the victors of that war imposed great penalty on the losers, and the stage was set for more conflict.

Seventy years ago, one of those losing nations was led by a sociopathic demagogue into believing that one group of people was particularly responsible for their troubles. “This group is not like us, and they are undermining and destroying us and our society,” they thought. To further “protect” themselves, they invaded and subjugated their neighbors, rather than joining with them in peace. We have forgotten.

The United Kingdom was all alone. They looked across the Channel, and saw nothing but invaded lands, controlled by the enemy. They could have asserted their own independence, and sued for peace with Germany. Sure, Hitler probably would have passed on that, but Britain could have tried to make a deal to remain free. Instead, Churchill said:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

They fought, and we fought with them. And they bent the great arc of human history away from conflict and towards enduring peace. I’m overly glorifying the victory, I know. Things haven’t been perfect since that time; conflict has still happened. However, we are now in an era of unprecedented peace, where fewer and fewer people per decade die by war, terrorism, or violence of any kind, despite what the media would have you believe. Those people who fought on the beaches and the landing grounds gave their lives so that we could have such peace. Our present world is the greatest achievement in human history so far, and it was built by Allies making a common cause. We have forgotten.

Institutions built since the War (especially the EU) have not just immeasurably enriched their country and most others as well. They have also stood as a bulwark against the senseless urges that led to the deaths of countless millions; not just in the last World War, but in all the long centuries of the past. The people of the UK have not just simply rejected a political arrangement. They have looked their forebears straight in the eye, and spit in their faces. It’s made even worse by the fact that many of those who voted this way are older voters. Their parents fought and continued fighting against all odds not just for themselves, but for free people everywhere who were not British.

These voters cast all of this aside, just because they’re afraid that someone with a different skin color is going to come and take their job. They have forgotten.

Cowards.

We must walk without fear

I only wish I could understand those who say that the solution to all of our problems is to close ourselves off from the world. Or, rather, to close the rest of the world out from us. I don’t rightly know where I first developed the aversion to such thinking. Perhaps during my Catholic education growing up, or perhaps realizing in college that there are so many valid philosophical viewpoints. Perhaps it came from traveling to another country for a time and really appreciating another culture.

Should we slip so easily into abject fear, even in the midst of loss? Surely our great society, and all sympathetic societies, are immune to collapse due to the crazed actions of fanatic zealots. They are the weak, the simple minded who cannot tolerate the idea that the world is not black and white. They lash out at us with their simple minded tools, their guns and bullets. These things cannot destroy the society built by Washington, Lincoln, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Roosevelt, Kennedy. Why should we react in a way that suggests that they have any real power?

The frightened in our midst want to close our borders, not realizing that the answer is not to reject others, but to embrace them. Foreigners do not pollute our culture; they enrich it. Every Syrian refugee who dreams of getting to America should be able to dream of becoming American. The more who come to add to and share in our culture, the stronger that culture becomes and the weaker the culture of the zealots. Together, we are complete. Edward R. Murrow said that “we will not walk in fear, one of another”. It is more true now than ever.

The burden of a free society with liberty and justice for all is heavy. It’s heavier than just a strong national defense. It includes a burden of spirit, of optimism, that we all must share even in the face of all of our society’s flaws and problems. It has to include a belief that no darkness can overcome the light. Do we have cold slime in our veins, or hot red blood? Do we believe the words on the Statue in the harbor?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

When the towers burned and fell, the Statue remained there with her words, defiant, a symbol of us all. She is only as brave as all of us.