Outside The Classroom

My Thoughts On Life

This is my current personal blog, which I update from time to time.  It covers subjects relating to economics, cities, politics and policy, history, physics, and anything else that is going on in my brain.  I wish I could update it more frequently than I do, but I have several other projects that have priority.  I will try as much as possible to relate the blogs to what I am learning in class as well as current events.

 

Bethlehem By Foot

Check out my previous blog, which I maintained while living in and wandering the old, beautiful streets of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Bethlehem is a failed industrial town, home to the defunct Bethlehem Steel.  When the mill shut down, so did the entire tri-county area.  It was a static economy built entirely around the success of the mill and its headquarters, similar to what happened in Detroit, Flint, Gary, and a slew of other factory towns, though on a smaller scale.  However, unlike its larger neighbor to the west, Allentown, Bethlehem had built up a tight-knit community and vibrant culture which sustained it through the worst times.  The result: Bethlehem is charming, diverse, and a draw for tourists, while Allentown is struggling just to stay solvent.  My blog largely analyzed the urban design and politics of the area from that vantage point.

 

Other Projects I’m Working On

Insurance Pre-licensing Manuals

A few years back, I was doing some teaching work for an insurance education business.  They required that I obtain insurance licenses to sell a variety of insurance products, even though I would never sell a policy.  Getting a license in Utah requires taking an exam, and while pre-licensing courses aren’t required, it is really difficult to know what needs to be known without them.  While taking courses from a few different organizations (just to see how they differed) and studying for the exams, I realized that I was perpetually falling asleep with my eyes open.  It couldn’t have been more boring.  Insurance as a subject of learning isn’t exactly the most exciting subject on earth, but I knew I could do a better job if I tried.  So, eventually, I did.

I have finished the Life Insurance book, and I am on schedule to finish the Accident & Health Insurance book this summer.  I will then begin trying to sell those and teaching the subjects online while finishing the Property & Casualty Insurance book.  I have organized the books in such as way so that once I am finished with the Utah books, I will only have to re-write portions of a couple of chapters in each to expand into other states.  A prototype of the first few pages of Chapter 1 can be found here.

Memoir

I’m only 34 years old, but I’ve certainly lived an unusually eventful life!  Any addict can say that, but only a recovering addict can say it and look back on it with clarity.  As such, I think my story has value and needs to be told, if for no other reason than to make sense of it all for my own peace of mind.  I currently have more than 100 pages written, but it is very disjointed and needs a lot of work, which will require a lot of time… which I don’t have right now.  But it is my next major writing project once I get the Utah insurance books done.

Book of Wisdom

As a pseudo-companion to the memoir, I have been writing bits and pieces of a manuscript that will more-or-less sum up the lessons that I have learned in my life.  I don’t think a memoir is an appropriate place to conspicuously impart wisdom.  I think it would take away from the power of the story.  The Book of Wisdom will be organized as a life lesson per chapter.  I hope to not make it too soap-boxy.  I want it to be philosophical, not really self-help-ish, but practical enough so that other people can easily see how it might apply to their lives.

 

Hobbies

Running

I am a mediocre but passionate runner.  I ran track and cross country in high school, continued running to stay in shape in college and afterward… and hated every step of it!  But as I recovered from addiction, I found running to be a solace, a time of peace in which I could think, meditate, and challenge myself.  I began to experience the mythical “runner’s high” for the first time.  It has become a part of who I am.  I have a half-dozen books and countless magazines giving me the latest research and techniques to improve my running.  I am currently trying a program that increases my intensity while decreasing my weekly miles in attempt to relieve some of the nagging knee pain I have had since suffering a basketball injury in 2005.  I don’t feel the need to race.  I don’t feel the desire to run 26.2 miles, or 50 miles, or 100 miles.  I am more than happy with running my weekly sprints and ten-milers alone and under no pressure.  It is possible that I’ll enter a race or two this year, but I don’t need them to stay motivated.  The ability to run is reward enough for me.

“You don’t stop running when you get old; you get old when you stop running.” ~ Anonymous

Baking

Once again, here I am mediocre yet passionate.  I try to make something new each month.  Recently, I tried my hand at pumpkin donuts (they came out more like donut-shaped pumpkin cakes) and blueberry coffee cake (too thick to cook all the way through).  But I have tried-and-true staples that get my friends and family salivating: chocolate chip cookies (plump, soft, and professional-looking); pesto bread (moist and an aroma right out of the oven to die for); zucchini and pumpkin breads; peanut butter cup cheesecake (very thick and very rich); and (although not baked), the best pancakes from scratch I’ve ever had.  I don’t bake for fun or stress-relief or any of those types of reasons.  I bake because I like to eat breads and desserts.  Good thing I’m a runner.

 

Book(s) I Currently Have My Nose In

RiseofIndustrialAmerica   The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era (Vol. 6) ~ by Page Smith

Genome   Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chromosomes ~ by Matt Ridley

 

Books That Have Highly Influenced How I Think

MansSearchforMeaning   Man’s Search For Meaning ~ by Viktor E. Frankl

If this dude – a concentration camp survivor who lost everything and everyone he loved – can find meaning and purpose in life, anyone can.  It is impossible to feel worthless and downtrodden after reading this.

InnovatorsDilemma   The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail ~ by Clayton M. Christensen

What is the innovator’s dilemma?  Innovators are behind many of the companies that have grown from nothing to take down the giants.  Think Apple.  Think Netflix.  Think foreign automakers.  It almost always begins the same way: the new guys offer a far inferior product presented in a new way that appeals to a niche market that has been overshot by the technological advances of the major players.  Soon, though, the new technology advances, enticing more and more of the old guard’s customers until only the most upscale hold-outs remain.  By the time this becomes clear to the big boys, it’s already too late.  Despite their expertise in the market, they often can’t come in with competing products late in the game and do well.  They either adjust their focus and appeal to their own niche market, or they die.  Ironically, once the innovator has taken down the giant, it now is in danger of falling victim to the next innovator.  This book is one of the many that have developed my philosophy of over-success: it is often the very things that make us great that eventually take us down.

SteveJobs   Steve Jobs ~ by Walter Isaacson

Best…Biography…Ever!  I’m not sure Jobs was someone people really wanted to be around much, but Isaacson presented him in a way that didn’t deny his shortcomings but made him seem almost appealing in the sense that he had perhaps the most interesting mind to occupy a skull in the past 100 years.  The book also allowed me to geek out on economics and innovation, which I loved.

OriginofWealth   The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics ~ by Eric D. Beinhocker

This is sort of my Bible of economic thought, which would make me a bit of an odd duck in economic circles, because this is almost heretical in the view of classical economics.  Where does wealth come from?  Gold and other extracted elements?  No.  Wealth is produced out of an evolutionary process in which people decide what has value and what doesn’t.  Industries and products diversify (economic development), the environment and people select what is most fit, and those things get replicated (economic growth).  Finally, the process starts over again when those replicated winners begin to evolve and diversify.  What does this mean?  If we don’t adequately fund research and development (economic development), we may end up skipping that whole growth part.  How heretical is this?  Try walking into the University of Chicago economics department and suggest that the root of wealth is diversity.  You may be forcibly removed from the premises.

DeathandLife   The Death and Life of Great American Cities ~ by Jane Jacobs

The problem with city planning and other large-scale projects is that the people conducting the projects seem to focus more on how things ought to work rather than how things actually do work.  Jacobs came along in the 1960s and, in her first book, completely demolished the conventional wisdom of planning.  Now she is considered the patron saint of American city planning.  Her prose is beautiful, an oddity in the planning literature, and her intelligence and capacity for argument is unmatched.  The interesting thing to me is to see her working out her later economic ideas as she explored the intricacies of how cities work.  This is the pivotal source of my own ideas about cities (rather than states and nations) being the basic macroeconomic units of modern society.

EconomyofCities   The Economy of Cities ~ by Jane Jacobs

Yet another canon work in my economic library… and yet another heretical one.  Jacobs starts the book by lobbing a grenade at the entire underpinnings of the study of anthropology and economics by making a very strong case for cities birthing agriculture instead of the other way around.  The she proceeds by telling the story of how the first city (and then first farmers) could have begun and how it could have birthed other cities as trade partners.  This was a direct follow-up to Death and Life, and you can see her economic mind developing between the lines as you read the first installment.  We have to remember that she was not trained in either city planning nor economics.  She was a writer.  I think that is precisely why she was so adept at turning conventional wisdom on its head.  She had not been trained to think in the “right” ways.  She wasn’t beholden to the theories and how things ought to work.  She actually opened her eyes, paid attention, and tried to work out – from the bottom up – how things actually work.

GunsGermsSteel   Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies ~ by Jared Diamond

BlankSlate   The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature ~ by Steven Pinker

Silmarillion   The Silmarillion ~ by J.R.R. Tolkien

Quite simply the best piece of literature I have ever read.  And read.  And read again.  Tolkien aspired to create a mythology for England in the spirit of the ancient Norse, Romans, Greeks, and many eastern cultures.  Having read many of those sources, I can say without hesitation that he outdid them all.  If you know The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, this story has much in it that explains the vague references in those books.  But its enduring quality is the fact that he managed to tell a coherent, connected story of the culture of heroes of Middle Earth over a span of several thousand years.  Only Star Wars and its fan fiction installments comes close in breadth, though it cannot compete for a second in quality.  And, oh yeah, Tolkien was just one guy.  Every other fantasy story since has tried – some valiantly – to better Tolkien’s imagination, but all of them have come up short in one way or another.  They can’t match his language skills, knowledge of ancient mythological literature, and ability to tell an epic story all at the same time.  Some may be able to inch by him in one of those categories, but he was unique in being superior at all three.  By the way, at risk of being struck down by lightning or fire, I do have to say that Tolkien’s creation story puts the Bible’s version to shame.

BorntoRun   Born to Run ~ by Christopher McDougall

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