Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Miscellany from Seattle

I arrived back in Seattle yesterday morning after a long ride over from Amsterdam. 115,000 miles for 2012, a bit scary in aggregate cost, time, and hassle.  I slept for 12 hours on arrival, only partly due to jet lag: ‘been burning the candle at both ends into the year-end.

Some good news: KPN finally arrived.  To recap: My cable / internet has been down since October and the utility has been claiming that bad building wiring is the cause: take it up with the landlord.  I have run power to the downstairs utility closet, placed the mode in direct connection with the street connection at the junction box, and nothing works.  For a week, I’ve hammered KPN on Customer Care and Twitter. 

The tech took a look, made a measurement, and said that he couldn’t understand why 5 earlier techs in the neighborhood had said there was no problem.  He needed a second person and a few hours, but everything is now connected and running.

Now to get the 2 months billing reversed.

I had a year-end health screening yesterday just to keep on top of things (my European friend say this is *never* done on the Continent).  It was conducted in a nursing home: a sobering reminder that I’m no longer a generation removed from its residents.

All of the blood chemistry, circulatory, bones, and blood pressures were good (although they couldn’t find my Abdominal Artery on the ultrasound).  Given life’s stresses and lack of time to exercise recently, I’m mildly amazed its looking so good.

I need to work on life balance, social connection, and relaxation in the new year.  There have been too many late flights and tiny hotel rooms recently.

Someone suggested including both “Game Changers” and “Mood Changers” in my future goals.  It’s not enough to tumble over the goal line with a business exit or a language score: along the way, I should  also include symbolic moments that recognize position and reward progress.

It’s an interesting idea: Christmas break should be a good time to wind things down and get perspective again.

The.Amazing.Race.S21E09The Amazing Race 21 came to an end last week – they went through Amsterdam and it was fun to see them searching past familiar spots.  There was a tied Haring Eating challenge, a choice of “arranging actors to replicate the Night Watch” or “Organ grinding to collect 30 euros”, followed by pole vaulting a dike. 

They got the traditional Dutch Hallo and Tot Ziens at the pit stop, which they needed to remember for the final challenge in New York.  As it turns out, the couple in the lead could not match Tot ziens to the Dutch flag and lost.

TAR21ep9-520x292Good fun: I’d love to do this Race some day – my daughter and I have discussed it.

‘Now to catch up with Masterchef Pro and Episodes.

And, since it’s 12/21/12, the 2012 marathon movie evening to celebrate the Mayan Apocalypse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fyra and the Grand Place

 

I’m doing some frantic oscillation across the Channel, as though getting ready to slingshot to Seattle.  Three Eurostar trips, two Fyra trips, keeping costs and the carbon footprint down a little.  I like the train this time of year, more certain, cheaper, my luggage stays with me. 

Especially a 100-year-old teapot  that I am hand-carrying to Denver for a neighbor in England.

The prosaic reason for all the travel is the UK Border Agency.  I’m in Tier 1 Renewal Hell:  my counselors are rejecting every attempt to document proof of income.  We put together a P&L with original bank statements and the signed Dutch accountants audit letter, only to find that the British don’t recognize the Dutch firms legitimacy.  Barclays again proved unable to produce a simple signed letter stating the monies in the account.  They want my original doctoral diploma from the US.

And this is just a *renewal*!

I linked trains in Brussels, which gave me an opportunity to sample both the city Christmas Markets and the new Hi-Speed train connecting to Amsterdam, the Fyra (pronounced fi-ra).

  

The train is great: clean and new, unbelievably fast and smooth.  250 km/hr across the Dutch landscape with no more than a gentle sway.  2 hours, center to center, for 25 euros.

There have been glitches, and I caught one of them, about ten minutes south of Schiphol.  The train suddenly decelerated and stopped it a jolt.  The conductor announced a technical problem.  Then he announced that the driver had to reboot the train: the lights and air would go out (sounds like restarting the fences in Jurassic park).  Everyone waved phones in the darkness.  After a few minutes, back to normal and off we went.

Still, very recommended (even when the alternative is 10 gbp each way Stansted to Maastricht on Ryanair  nest month)

  

The controversy in Brussels is over the Xmas 3, the ‘christmas tree’ at the Grand Place.  It’s an 82-foot high construction of illuminated cubes vaguely in the shape  of a tree.  It’s not very appealing: fewer lights on the city hall, less music in the square, and this framework and fabric construction.  Critics argue that, together with calling the Market a “Winter Festival”, it is intended to make the event less offensive to non-Christians.  Where’s O’Reilly (actually, it turns out that he did pick this up on Dec 10 for his “War on Christmas” shtick)?

The huts were good, though: 2 euro Gluhwijn, Alsace platters of potatoes and sausage, lots of waffles and chocolates, and a good crowd enjoying the evening together.

The ‘tree’ needs to be consigned to the same circle of hell as the UKBA.   The same Border agency who grilled me today about why I needed to go to Amsterdam for original documentation for my visa renewal. 

And who then searched all of my bags on re-entry to the UK.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Thoughts on economic inequality

The Economist published a survey of the World Economy last fall, For Richer, For Poorer, analyzing trends and cases in income inequality.  It’s interesting (airplane) reading, and I agree with their remedies:

  • Curb cronyism and enhance competition,
  • Remove subsidies for too-big-to-fail financial institutions,
  • Shift government spending, from transfers to education, and from older and richer people to younger and poorer ones,
  • Reform taxes, making them more efficient and fairer
  • Invest in education, beginning with pre-school and including retraining for the less skilled.

I would add to that Reform immigration laws, and Challenge the sense of entitlement.

1-  Immigration policy and residence processes for expats are a mess in both Europe and the US,  punitive and skewed against stated pro-growth policies. 

Populist movements are pushing for ever-lower quotas, punishing long-term residents with established lives and businesses.  The resulting trials I’m suffering with UKBA for a simple renewal are a typical of the consequences.

Efforts to be evenhanded with both unskilled and skilled migrants have led to emphasis on integration skills and financial maintenance to the exclusion of economic contribution or achievement.  No points are given for stating a business, importing capital, exporting goods, or creating jobs, perverse when growth is the mantra.

It’s impossible to take a long-term perspective in a hostile and changing immigration environment, where I have no assurance that I can stay more than a year at a time.

2- Governments and media promote accumulation of wealth, not creation of innovation, jobs, and markets.

There was a lot of debate about Makers vs. Takers in the recent elections.  The current debates about the Fiscal Cliff turns on whether to raise tax rates on the highest 0.1% of incomes and equalize tax rates for investment income and wage income.  Republican arguments still focus on not punishing success and the trickle-down benefit of having a high-net-worth cohort who buys and invests.

Politicians point to small business is a source of innovation and job creation. Government should, therefore, be supporting and incentivizing creative, energetic people who become entrepreneurs. They could scale regulations and fees, facilitate access to capital and resources, provide grants and tax incentives to those who take the risks and work to succeed.

But policies that benefit established wealth do not help those trying to create new wealth.  We suffer high health insurance costs, restricted access to funding, and anti-competitive practices in market access.  It takes 15% of my time to satisfy legal, financial, and tax reporting requirements every month; my tax rate is double that of Mitt Romney.

And it goes beyond that.

People in the top 5% of the US income distribution earn at least $150,000; the top 1% earn more than $340,000 a year.  0.1% of the population make at least $1.5m, and the top 0.01%, earn $8m or more (average income $24m).  The correlation of wealth with achievement, educational attainment or business success, is strong up to the 1%, but weakens rapidly above that.  The top .01% is dominated by inherited wealth, celebrities, real estate fortunes, hedge fund managers, and large-company CEOs (Economist). 

Not smarter or harder working, more right-place, right time.

I put long hours into the business for little reward at this point: there are a lot of lonely trains and grubby hotel rooms along the road to success.  I hope that one day I’ll market my product, improve patient care, generate of revenue, achieve a 30x exit, please my investors, and retire to St. Maartens.  But it’s fantastically hard work amidst high risk: I give my investors my very best, every day.

And in return?  I got this question yesterday:

The Articles provide first and second distributions to the Founding Members. These members received stock promotion and usually are the last to receive distributions after successful operations and return of capital plus preferential return to investors. It doesn’t look like the founding members have any investment ( skin) in the company but still receive early distributions and strong promotions. We need to examine the capital structure and valuation issues.

This attitude, the primacy of capital investment over sweat investment, really needs to change   We are each contributing a lot of value, taking a lot of risk, and the financier's argument that I’m the only one with something to lose get’s worn after my sixth consecutive 12-hour day. We both suffer opportunity costs, reputation risk, and there are mutual financial consequences.

I walked away from  job paying 250K/yr to work for less than a quarter of that.  If I don’t exit with at least 2M, it wasn’t worth it for me no for my investors.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Meer Magisch

I was out with American expat friends last night, catching up on family and community events and exchanging ideas for improving the world.  We’re polar opposites politically, so there are different perspectives on almost any agreed fact, enriched by their foreign service background.  It’s still gospel in right-wing circles that Obama will socialize the country, that Takers are defeating the Makers, that high-quality health care is over, that personal taxes will reach Dutch levels, that debt will rival the Greeks.

But scratch the surface, and we can agree that there needs to be a better balance between revenue and spending,  that Strivers need to be encouraged, that Mitt should pay more than 14% tax, that healthcare insurance rates are too high, that everyone should have health insurance, that debt should be reduced, and that the parties need to avoid extremist candidates.

And, left and right, we share some wine and some food and we argue late into the evening about whether there is such a thing as Soft Power and where the best Christmas Markets are located.  (No, small countries can’t influence world events by exporting media and philosophy; Liege is good for eten but Koln has the best markt.)

Magisch indeed.

We failed to notice that the food hadn’t come after almost two hours.  We agree that we’re all tired of negligent service at restaurants and hotels, of late, expensive trains and slow, inconsistent internet providers, from cost-shaving doctors and price-gouging landlords.  This will be the year that we quietly, politely insist that things improve.

And, with that, we took our wine and our leave and decamped to another restaurant.

Taking pictures of the lights along the way.

Meer Magisch.