JCL Blog

Servants to the Old Stuff

I was recently fortunate to visit a beautiful log cabin on the Olympic peninsula.  The 100 year old structure was a great place to hide out in a nasty winter storm, and I can only imagine how much more safe it would have seemed before cars and cell phones.  While talking with the owners I was reminded of how owners of old stuff are both masters of and servants to their passion.  Masters in the sense that their name is on the title, servants in the sense that they are entrusted to preserve it for the next generation. 

So I asked them how often guests offer to buy the place and I was not surprised to learn that there has not been a single offer in over a decade.  I was not surprised because I have experienced the same thing with the Maris Pearl.  People come on board and marvel at the 68 year old machinery, and the extent to which we as its caretakers go to preserve it for the next generation.  Not a single person has ever suggested that they would like to be next in line for the responsibility.

When I tell people that old tugs are not hard to find or buy, no one ever takes the bait.  Here is a sistership of the Maris Pearl that is currently for sale in San Francisco.

Moats Walls and Protection Money

Castles had moats and walls to protect themselves from attacking enemies.  In the times of castles, precious resources were diverted from more productive uses for the building of these defenses because without them there was no point acquiring property when the bad guys could just come in and take it.  As the rule of law advanced, the need for the walls and moats decreased and eventually disappeared.   Resources were still diverted from productive uses because the rule of law was provided by the state and the state levied taxes to pay for defense.  Once the walls and the moats were extended to the borders of the state, the governance of the state became the biggest threat to property rights.  A successful state could stop the marauders at the border, but another citizen could get the blessing of the government to acquire property.  This could be on a small scale: thugs paying off the police to look the other way, or on a larger scale: Goldman Sachs draining the treasury for its own benefit.

Some communities have their own way of protecting property as we saw in The Godfather.  Once again the property owner had to divert resources (pay) for protection instead of more productive uses.  Even though the thought of the mafia seems like something quaint from the past, the dynamic is alive and well today.  Instead of tommy guns however, the current set of bandits wear suits and carry briefcases full of insurance policies and law suits.  And just as the mob mostly protected itself while putting on a good show of protecting its friends, lawyers and insurance companies protect themselves while pretending to protect their clients. 

Even though we like to think that we are safer today than back in the times of the castles, the murderous hoard is just as menacing today and the state is just as ill equipped to protect its citizens.  Having thought a fair amount about this kind of thing lately, I have come up with three potential strategies for our current times:

1)      Have Nothing to Protect:  I think this is the best strategy.  I do believe that people with nothing or very little to protect are the happiest.  In addition to the obvious negativity associated with time and energy spent on your defenses, it can be difficult to know who to trust. 

2)      Security Through Obscurity:  Just like guy said on the fishing trip about the attacking bear:  “I don’t have to outrun the bear, just my buddies!”  Applied to protecting property, the goal is to be a less attractive target than those around you.  This has one obvious weakness.  If you are attacked – you are pretty much dead.

3)      Become a Lawyer or Insurance Person:  If you can’t beat them… join ‘em.  If you are going to have property to protect, this is really the only way to do it.  It does have karmic consequences that could bring you back as a weasel or worse next time – so consider the consequences before going through door number 3.

Maybe that thing about the meek is right.  Just putting food on the table, a roof overhead, spending time with your family, and having friends you can trust – is riches enough.

Let's Get Started - You Know, Now!

I just had the pleasure of attending the Audacious Philanthropy conference in Portland.  It was an electric collection of 300 people getting jacked up about being changemakers.  With a limitless supply of things that need changing there was a whole lot to talk about.

Education is my big issue and many people at the conference shared my desire to improve education in the US of A.  Some people wanted to change the current educators, some wanted supplement them, and some wanted to replace them all together.  I didn't do any kind of survey, but three quarters of the people at the conference seemed to be on the education track.  Next most prevalent was talk about SVP itself, how to get the message out, how to grow it, and how to increase effectiveness.   Finally, there was a fair amount of discussion about the way many organizations pursue their missions and at the same time work together towards a common goal -- otherwise know as collective impact.

My favorite line was from Matt Flannery, Founder of Kiva when he said that he learned more on the first day after he decided to start Kiva than he did in the entire year he spent writing the business plan.  Imagine how much more we could have done if we started a year earlier. (not a direct quote, but more or less)

Dan Pallotta did a great job presenting his ideas about how philanthropy is broken in our country.  As with many great speakers he had a way of boiling down big thoughts into easy to remember sentences.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • If we DON'T want to solve problems, we have a system that works remarkably well.
  • Non profits is where we do our penance for making money.
  • Never underestimate the ability of humans to not think about something.
  • It took us 50 years to put wheels on suitcases.
Here are a few other items from my notes:
  • Read "Charity Case" by Dan Pallotta
  • Look into the National Student Clearinghouse for effectiveness data
  • Teachers are surprised and inspired to change when they see the effectiveness data
  • All schools can track student performance and all schools say they cannot
  • Schools hate data because they have been shamed by it (over and over)
  • Check out HomeKeeper and the involvement of Salesforce.com
  • Check out The Learning Accelerator and Scott Ellis and Innosite.

It was a great event.  I will go again next year without a doubt.



Optimism is good for your health

A friend read me the Optimists Creed this morning and it was a good reminder of how being positive undeniably lowers my stress level.  Lower stress equals better health.  Here it is:

The Optimist Creed

Promise Yourself

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.

To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.

To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

It turns out that there is an organization called Optimist International that works to instil the values of optimism in kids through optimists clubs.  Pretty cool.

Quality Propels Itself on KickStarter

It seems that everyone has an opinion on crowdsourcing.  Some say it is going to liberate the artists, others say that scammers will ruin it.  

My observation is that the crowd has the ability to recognize quality and that good projects get funded.

Here are two examples:

Chris Jordan's Midway Project

Chris is a very talented and successful photographer who has launched an incredible project featuring the albatrosses on Midway in the north pacific ocean.  You can learn more about Chris here. You can see the a video treatment of the idea here. And you can contribute on KickStarter here.  In two days he is already at 238 backers and nearly $15,000 of his $100,000 goal.  

Neal Stepheneson's Clang

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors.  Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books of all time and I liked Reamde quite a bit too.  He wants to revolutionize swordplay in video games and has launched an effort called Clang.  Check it out here.  In two days he has over 3,000 contributors and is about to push past $200,000 on the way to his $500,000 goal.  

It is hard to watch either of these pitches and resist getting involved.  And getting involved has never been easier.  

Making Victims As Opportunity Slips Away

Imagine a father and son talking about a poor report card.  The son says the teacher doesn't like him.  The father says that is just not fair.  So the son doesn't learn and improve from the report card experience and the next report card is worse.  The teacher or the system is blamed again and soon the son drops out.  

This scenario is repeated many times in our education system.  In our state about 1 in 4 students that start high school never finish.  I propose that a meaningful number don't finish because of this negative reinforcement loop.  Clearly, even if the father is right and the teacher has treated the student unfairly, the victim is the student.  We cannot blame this failure on the student.  By the time we get done with that he has already dropped out and is well on his way to a low income future.

Michael Lewis wrote a book a few years back about how this can happen at the other end of the economic spectrum.  He went back to his privileged New Orleans high school to interview the baseball coach, because, like many coaches, this one was tough on the kids.  In the 70's, when Michael Lewis was there, that was how it worked, these days, the parents were trying to have the coach removed.

If they could not get the coach removed, these lawyers and doctors wanted to intimidate the coach into telling their sons that they were better athletes than they were.  They wanted the coach to give more playing time, not run the guys so hard, you know the drill.

Those student athletes are the victims just like the high school drop outs.  Sure those rich kids are probably going to be just fine, but think of the missed opportunity for life shaping lessons.

Lawyers are particularly good at making victims like this.  In the now famous McDonald's vs Liebeck case, where Liebeck was awarded over $3 million to compensate for burns she suffered when she spilled her coffee in her lap.  I think it is a shame that she was burned by her coffee spill.  However, the real damage came later when she was persuaded to sue McDonalds.  The case went on for two and a half years, and then was negotiated down after the award to something less than $600,000.  Sure that is a lot of money, but Leibeck was 79 years old at the time of the incident.  She came to believe that she was a victim and she turned two or three years of her life over to that way of thinking.  

Imagine all of the people that choose to enter into the aggravation of such a fight and lose years of their lives and in the end, many don't even win any money!

Next lawyers will be telling their sons not to worry about their schoolwork because they can just sue the school instead.  

Here is the book Coach by Michael Lewis should you be interested in reading it.

Under the Cover of Darkness


People will do the darndest things when they think no one is watching.  Just think Tom Cruise in that scene from Risky Business.  Michael Lewis wrote a whole book about the crazy antics of people when ushered unsupervised into a dark room full of money (Boomerang).  

Operating in the light of day however is a whole different thing as we found out with all of those cables exposed by Bradley Manning and Wikileaks.  What a surprise it must have been for all of those people that thought they could do whatever they wanted and no one would find out.  I think it is safe to say that no matter your politics, those cables cut deeply into the public opinion of the people sending them.

Under the cover of darkness, people convince themselves that they are right even while pursuing the most evil schemes.  I think this contributes to the negative opinion of lawyers -- who are always trying to make things even darker with confidential deals.  This is getting harder and harder to do in the age of the web and the resulting free flow of information.  Just look at the hole AT&T is digging for itself on the whole unlimited bandwidth business.

I admit that evil is a strong word for anything having to do with AT&T's billing practices.  Unnecessary too because there are so many examples of people behaving in truly evil ways.  The governments of North Korea, China, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, and just about all of the rest of the middle east, most of Africa, and Russia depend heavily on the cover of darkness when they do what they do to the people they oppress.

Whether or not you agree with the intentions of the Kony 2012 campaign, anyone shining a light on bad behavior is doing good work.  (here is a post about Bono's reaction to Kony 2012).

When I was in middle school, my family hosted two young men that had escaped from Uganda.  They lived with us for a while as they were getting back on their feet after having run for their lives from Idi Amin's police.  Ironically, they escaped under the cover of darkness.


Choosing Happiness

One of the most difficult things about being a generally happy person is deciding what to do when encountering unhappy people.  This is not to be confused with encountering unfortunate people, because I have met many unfortunate people that are happy.  I do not believe that happiness is the result of good fortune.

It does not help that happy people often say they are lucky.  Which makes everyone else think that those people became happy because they had good fortune.  I submit that those people are happy because they choose to be happy.  I bet they made that choice long before encountered their good fortune.

Once someone has chosen to be unhappy, everything else flows from that decision, and all of their energy is invested in making others unhappy too.  The only way to help an unhappy person is to convince them that their happiness is their own responsibility.  Frankly, I have really never succeeded in doing so.  So I do what I can to be around unhappy people as little as possilbe.

I spend a significant amount of my time and whatever money I can afford helping unfortunate people.  It is very rewarding.  I have to conciously work to make sure I don't mix up the unfortunate and the unhappy, because it is only natural to want to help the unhappy people too.  It just cannot be done and it takes energy away from what good I can do for the unfortunate.

10 Reasons to Listen to This American Life 9/10/2010

Sorry to be tardy to the party, but I just today listened to the 9/10/2010 episode of This American Life, titled Right to Remain Silent.  Here are 10 reasons you should listen too.


  1. If you have ever had a bad customer experience at an Apple store.
  2. If you are looking for real life examples of the impact of the Patriot Act on average Americans.
  3. If you are wondering if you can be arrested for posting a joke on Facebook (that you thought was private).
  4. If you want to know if you should fear the police.
  5. If you need some good examples on how performance measures induce the wrong behavior.
  6. If you are wondering if there is anyone left that is trying to do the right thing.
  7. If you think crime is really going up in NYC -- despite the "statistics".
  8. If you think the decline in investigative reporting is important.
  9. If you want to restore your faith in America (because WBEZ and Ira Glass were able to produce this show without fear of going to jail).
  10. If you are looking for a reason to support public radio.


I could go on and on, just listen to it and let me know what you think.

Make A Difference

The other day I was talking to a hedge fund friend and he said he was doing his part to efficiently allocate capital in the biggest and most vital economy in the world.  Not surprising really because this is often the value statement I hear from Wall Street types.  Someone has to kill the inefficient market participants and fund their replacements.  I suppose the comment struck me this time because I had just come from a lunch where two women were being recognized: one for her work stopping the cycle of domestic violence and the other for her work on a cure for cervical cancer.  

Pretty hard not to think about the value I contribute to the world when presented with these bookends in close succession.  In the 25 years since I graduated from school, when the entries in the ledger started to be written in ink, I have spent a decade brokering real estate deals and the rest running an outsourced sales and marketing firm.  I have done my best to try to live up to the incredible example set by my dad, who is retired now, but in his career as a Presbyterian Pastor built four thriving church communities and changed thousands of lives.  I have volunteered for some worthy organizations, tried not to waste the money the universe trusted to me, put my heart into my wife and my kids, and been the best friend I know how to be.

Sure, that is nice, but how do I know if I am making a difference at work which is the biggest chunk of time that I spend?  If I was to back up a bit for some perspective could I honestly say that what I do for a living makes a difference?  With any luck I have some time before the final measurement.  Until then my plan is to do the very best I can possibly do every day, ask myself the hardest questions I can think of, find the best possible people to work beside me, and hold my colleagues to high standards.  I have a friend that likes to say "hey its not like we are curing cancer!"  Nevertheless, I have to believe that by living this way I will make a difference in the world.

So that is it?  Just those four things?  Actually no.  I think it is really just the first one.  I am going to get up every morning, look myself in the mirror and when it is just me and my reflection I am going to figure out how to do the very best I can possibly do -- right then, that day, all day.  The rest will take care of itself.