Donald Trump’s presidency is an indicator of deep disorder and fear. One of the most shocking aspects of living in America these days is that roughly four out of ten Americans tolerate or actively support him. The man is an illiterate malignant narcissist with dangerous fascistic and racist traits. He infuriates more than half the country, including me. For the past few years, I have wondered why there aren’t more powerful countervailing powers against abusive and criminally-inept leadership. I think those forces exist (witness the testimony of Fiona Hill), but they are diminished in the face of dark tides.

In my opinion, Trump’s power indicates a few problems:

  • The rise of shameless media celebrities who have eclipsed accountable community-based figures (Paris Hilton goes to Washington)
  • The unshackling of sinister forces in politics through dark money and the tools of cyberwar
  • An unsustainable rise in income and wealth inequality which further undermines community and stokes fear-based thinking among all social groups
  • A sense of profound loss and alienation among those with the most to lose–older Americans with property and savings

If America is going to survive, these forces need to recede. Perhaps this will happen when we are fully confronted by a great common foe such as climate change when its impacts become undeniable. I think that day is coming. Although we are a phenomenally wasteful nation, we are also an ingenious one.

Trump to me is an unfortunate indicator. Though I support his impeachment, I think his removal won’t remove the dark forces I’ve listed above. In a future blog post, I hope to write about some positive ways that each person can make their own small to large push against this tide that will drown us all if we do not use our creative intelligence.


From Low Cost to No Cost–the Index Fund Has Won

This month, the investment giant Fidelity began to offer two broad-based index mutual funds with zero purchase and management fees and no minimum investment.

This is the latest salvo in a healthy competition between mass-market investment giants Vanguard (which started the index fund revolution under the leadership of Jack Bogle), Charles Schwab, and Fidelity. The result of the competition is a victory for main street investors, who traditionally have played the role of peasants forced to pay lordly fees.

As the Wall Street Journal quipped in their coverage of the story, “the race to zero in the investing world has finally reached bottom.”


The two funds in question are variations on very broad indexes. One is US domestic (Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund aka FZROX) and resembles the Russell 3000 index–a proxy for the total US market. The other is international (Fidelity ZERO International Index Fund aka FZILX), which buys the top 90 percent of stocks in terms of market capitalization in every market outside the US).

Fidelity also slashed the cost of most of its other index funds, which is great for folks like me with Fidelity retirement accounts.

Looking at their SEC filing to open these funds is kind of thrilling. Zeros all the way down. I got the filing from the message board Bogleheads, where there is a lively discussion about this development. If it were just marketing hype, these diehard index investors would be pointing it out, but the consensus seems to be that this is real, not smoke and mirrors.

An old chestnut on Wall Street, the title of a humorous book by Fred Schwed, is a rhetorical question: Where are All the Customers’ Yachts?

Nowhere. The customers got skinned. Their pelts where hung on the wall.Michael Lewis and others wrote some amusing books about this.

A businessman named Jack Bogle started Vanguard in the 70s with a counter intuitive idea: stop buying yachts and instead return the profits to shareholders. The company would function as a quasi nonprofit, where the shareholders functioned as owners. This structure allowed any profits to go toward making it cheaper to invest. For many years, Vanguard stood alone as the low-cost, investor-first option.

Within the past decade massive amounts of money have flowed into index (or “passive,” since they passively track market indices) funds for good reason. Here is some data from CNBC:

Flows out of actively managed U.S. equity mutual funds leaped to $264.5 billion in 2016, while flows into passive index funds and ETFs were $236.1 billion, according to data provided by the Vanguard Group and Morningstar. That was the greatest calendar-year asset change in the last decade, during which more than $1 trillion has shifted from active to passive U.S. equity funds.

This makes sense. Index funds usually reflect the best deal for a retirement investors and other casual market participants. Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and others such as Black Rock started to compete with Vanguard in order to capture as much of this avalanche of money as possible.

The big difference between Vanguard and these companies is that that they have a more limited ownership structure. Much of Fidelity’s owership is the private property of the Johnson family.

When a family-owned private company — one that built its reputation on active money management a la Peter Lynch — starts to offer market access without cost, that is a breathtaking development in my book.

So where will the competition go from here? Likely further in the everyday investor’s interest.A lot of the talk on Bogleheads was about how technically Fidelity’s move makes the cost of their funds comparable to Vanguard’s since Fidelity makes profit loaning stocks, whereas Vanguard returns these profits to shareholders. Yet Vanguard, which is massive, may move to match lower costs.

Of course many investors may retreat from index funds during the next protracted bear market. But for folks who can hold on throughout the cycles, no fee index funds are a gold mine.

Book Review: Flow by Csikszentmihalyi


One hallmark of good philosophy is timelessness. The observations of Plato and Aristotle are relevant today. Much has changed since the dawn of Western civilization, but the best philosophy survives and thrives. People have been reading Lord Montaigne since the sixteenth century, though his stature as a lucid and wise thinker continues to grow.

Most people would probably use the word psychology rather than philosophy to describe Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published in 1990. Cracking it open, I fully expected to read a typical psychology book: A few narrative vignettes with clunky references to research studies. This, in my opinion, is often the weak point of books that strive to give the impression of scientific rigor. I’m all for scientific rigor, but the emphasis on detailing experimental process rather than meaningful synthesis is, in a word, boring.

On the contrary, to my surprise, Flow is one of the most elegant, succinct, well-written, and persuasive philosophical works I’ve encountered. It has almost instantly become one of my favorite books–one to which I hope to return over and over. It’s that good. Instead of experimental weeds, the book delivers a landscape of human potential. It navigates this landscape with the hypothesis that climbing the highest heights requires the practice of flow.

What is flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s composing this book undoubtedly exemplifies flow, which he describes as follows:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy–or attention–is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in a consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual. (p. 6)

Flow is thus a kind of trance in which one’s best work is done. It is the state in which a person can reach their highest potential. It can involve creative intelligence as easily as bodily strength, and my guess is that it typically involves both.

What follows from this description of flow is Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant synthesis of how flow can be generated and controlled, how positive meaning can be discovered in life, and how this discovery process within each individual has bearing on the future of humanity. Sounds philosophical, right? I thought so too. I believe that with this book, Csikszentmihalyi fully became the extraordinary individual he describes.

Flow was published a few years before the internet became commonplace (manual typewriters were still used) and just as the collapse of the Iron Curtain gave rise to new geopolitical realities. To return to the observation that good philosophy is timeless, reading this book helps me better understand today’s dilemmas. The author spends a good deal of time discussing the human tendencies and actions that tend to prevent flow: things like retreating to the television set at the end of the day and allowing perception to be pushed around by profit-oriented mass media. Csikszentmihalyi thinks that the natural state of the human mind is chaotic, and that ordinary life is characterized by entropy. Flow is the ability to overcome the chaos and temporarily hold entropy in abeyance.

How does this relate to today’s issues? I think the reactionary politics we have in 2018 is fueled by people not becoming citizens, which requires education and effort. Instead of being citizens, they consume ideas marketed to them online and on TV. Trump shaped a popular perception through reality TV. The ads worked, but they masked the man’s chaotic nature. In the future it may be someone of more progressive persuasion that does the same. We live in a time characterized by a sense of increasing chaos. Entropy is no fun. Those who can master the art of flow have an opportunity to help change this reality, at least for a time, and lead the way to less chaos.

In short, this is an inspiring book–one of the best I have ever read–and I highly recommend it to anyone.





No, I’m not talking about the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide. I’m talking about the trippy acronym I just put together while running:



Day with




Distances as a


Means of



LSD is not my creation (it’s a common term in the running community), nor is RAD entirely original.  However this entire long acronym might just be original. In any case, it’s a nice & groovy mantra for a natural high.



Fly fishing

Fly fishing on the Rose River in Virginia

Last year I took up fly fishing. The photo above is me and Duber Winters, a guide and Orvis store manager, casting into the Rose River. Duber helped me catch a rainbow trout on that chilly day in March–my first fish caught on a fly.

Though I shouldn’t say “my,” since I got so much help that day.

Another reason not to say “my” is a dawning realization that probably comes early in most angling careers: fly fishing is a vehicle for stepping outside of oneself and melding with nature.

The rush of water against the waders, the interplay of insects, branches, and rocks, and the imperative to mimic the dance of river life — in each of these ways, fly fishing brings the angler into a focused yet transcendent state of mind. It’s a practice that combines sport, artistry, and meditation.

No wonder fly-fishers have the reputation as being good ecological stewards while also being secretive and territorial. Cold and clean water + solitude = good. Global warming + too many anglers on the river = bad. For this reason, conscientious anglers possess an ethical code that helps nature and respects others.

In my day fishing with Duber, I got the strong sense that he guides and fishes with these values in mind.



State of the Union: No Sale

I watched the State of the Union address last night. The talk was dumb. Serves me right for watching television, that old-school tool of social control.

Of course the address was a sales pitch for Donald Trump’s administration. Although pundits may credit the president for not spending the entire time talking about himself, he did spend a lot of the time clapping at his own lines and goosing the crowd to give him more ovations.

There were some genuinely touching moments featuring extraordinary human bravery, suffering, and compassion. We saw the North Koren defector/amputee raising his crutches in the air, the police officer whose family adopted the unborn child of a woman hooked on heroin pleading to give that child a better life, and the family whose daughters were killed by MS-13 gang members.

These stories, however compelling, reminded me of the ubiquitous technique of showing happy people to sell products. There is no real connection between the story or image and the product. One exists to foster an emotional association about the other. All of these stories could have appeared in an Obama State of the Union address. Which is to say that none of this is new with Trump. The technique is likely as ancient as civilization — or at least as old as Methuselah.

Beyond the gambit of emotionally associating Trump and his administration with heroes and those who struggle. What else was he trying to sell? To me the big sale he tried to make is the tax bill. He said it would be good for the middle class and small business, that the new standard deduction eliminates federal taxation for the poorest Americans whose incomes are $24,000 or less per year.

Sounds good, right? And the points are true in a limited sense. But I think the larger picture is troubling. Completely unmentioned is the fact that families like Trump’s receive the lion’s share of benefits: lower “pass-through” rates of taxation than the middle class for partners as opposed to employees, a new tax deduction for private school, and a curtailment of the estate tax meant to prevent the American equivalent of dynastic wealth. Despite all the talk of closing the “carried-interest” loophole that lets certain financial professionals, such as private equity managers, skate by only paying around 23% of income, it survived tax reform. The upshot of all of this is that economic inequality will likely increase, which will be bad for almost everyone. I believe it will also be bad for the rich. Most spiritual traditions warn against greed.

So why would anyone buy it? Same question could be asked about why would anyone buy anything? They’ve been persuaded. The marketing worked.

For me: no sale, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

The rechargeable battery theory of running

So much in life comes down to a simple principle: use it or lose it. This principle applies to the mind as well as the body. Our muscles and neurons are like rechargeable batteries which can have a remarkably long life if they are consistently utilized. I perceive this principle quite strongly when it comes to running: the more I run, the easier it gets to run, and the healthier I feel. Running is like charging up a battery in a car by driving for a half an hour on any icy cold day. It helps ensure that the battery will start up again the next day, and the day after that.

A few observations help validate this principle:

Getting started in running can be as frustrating as trying to turn on a car with a dead battery. Many people need a jump start in the form of a coach, a friend, a goal, or a challenge. The main obstacle in the beginning is the desire to quit. But with some persistence the energy level in the battery starts to rise. For this reason, I think beginner runners should limit the number of expectations they have on themselves (speed, etc.) and simply concentrate on building up mileage. Once the battery is brimming with a full charge, new goals can set that go beyond simply getting out there.

Running is also immensely popular among those in middle age. It’s entirely possible to peak as a marathon runner in one’s 50s, and I see it a lot in the runners I follow on Strava. These elders are real road warriors who tend to stack up miles in a methodical way. Their training level makes most of their workouts practically effortless unless they are throwing a speed workout into the mix, which they do strategically when training for races. A lot of folks qualify for Boston when they hit their 50s. This is in part due to the easier qualification time limit, which is a bit more lenient, but not much. You still have to finish a qualifying marathon in 3h 30 min until the age of 55. Yet I’ve seen this awesome feat, which only a small portion of all runners can achieve, completed by people I know. They are not superhuman. They are just very motivated to keep at it. I get the sense that rather than becoming more tired, running makes them more energized. This makes me think that our battery life can extend into old age, and following the use it or lose it principle, improve the quality of old age.

Too bad so much of contemporary life conspires against us filling up our batteries. The rat race keeps us sitting (or standing, for the clever) at a desk, and the built infrastructure keeps us driving around in a “clown car lifestyle” to quote Mister Money Mustache. I keep waiting for the day when my beloved running trails in the DC area are flooded all the time with people who know how to live the good life. But no, even in a super running and bicycling-friendly region, the trails remain remain tranquil except during peak weekend hours.

My prediction for the future, perhaps in my daughter’s generation (she is now in elementary school), most people will have a much clearer picture of their battery condition. She and her peers will have a wealth of data about how healthy they are for their stage of life, how healthy they could be, and hopefully they will set their goals accordingly. If I were a city planner, I would be building more trails for all generations so everyone can have a place to recharge.

Eventually our batteries wear down so they don’t fill up as well, and life continues after that. But I’m inspired by people I’ve met who are bullish on their battery, who take the time to stoke it.




On MLK, Jr. Day: Time Out from noxious news

Count me among the chorus of disapproval of President Trump’s reference to Nigeria and Haiti as “shithole countries,” and a preference for Norwegian immigrants-just a few days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day no less.

When I think of Trump, I think there’s no hope. His racism and economic ignorance makes my blood pressure go up. Yet futile anger empowers no-one.

So I think a good way to celebrate MLK Day today is to take a time out from noxious news, tune out the distraction of the day, and start to visualize a better future as Dr. King would do.

All weekend I’ve been doing this. After looking at one too many news article on Friday, I’ve gone on a three day news fast. It’s been a great way to clear my head, which I believe more American citizens need to do more often.

An interesting thing happens on a news fast: other productive things to do start to come to mind. A couple of examples: this is the second blog post I’ve posted this weekend and over the past three days I’ve logged 28.2 miles. This morning I went over to Home Depot and bought some potting soil. My wife, daughter, and I then replanted two plants, breaking one of them up into two pots to make three plants. And so on..

Don’t get me wrong. As a former reporter, I am a strong proponent of a free and fierce journalistic estate capable of conducting in-depth investigations and informing public opinion. I pay for subscriptions to the Economist and The New York Times and other publications. Yet in a “resistance” type situation such as the one that currently grips the United States, we all need to pace ourselves, keep our minds healthy since there is a long slog ahead. What matters to me is seeing that democracy can ultimately correct itself with a clear view about who our leaders really are. I came to a conclusion about Trump long ago, and looking at more news about him just makes me sick.

So what would Dr. King do? I’m not sure. In fact, I must admit that there’s a lot more I could know about the rhetorical genius and organizational mastermind who did so much to advance racial equality in America. I mostly know him through his writing, which is on par with Abraham Lincoln for its poetry and moral power.

So there’s another thing I can do while not looking at the bogus commander in chief and his gang of pilferers: go to a library and check out a book on Dr. King. I’ll write more about it here when I do.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day! Respect to the man and his memory.


Support for renaming Unitarian Universalism

-This is just an individual view, and only a tentative one-

For the past few years, I have belonged to a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in the DC suburbs of Maryland. My level of participation has been quite low, almost non-existent, for the past year. If anyone were to ask me my religion, I’d probably answer ‘running!’

First off, let me say that Unitarian Universalism in its current form is a great thing: non-dogmatic, a place to build and serve community, and a place to find fellowship and higher purpose regardless of background religion.

So here’s my argument for renaming the movement: the name contains nothing but dogma and archaic religious background.

The word Unitarian means belief in one God rather than the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. On this issue, I say: I don’t know! But perhaps we can at least extend to most Christians a form of Pascal’s wager and give them the benefit of the doubt (which is how UUs treat most religious traditions).

In fact, I’m quite fond of many aspects of the Christian tradition. That’s why the name kind of rankles me.

Univeralism refers to the notion of universal salvation (or, put negatively, the non-existence of damnation). Again, I say, I don’t know! Yet there are certain US public figures today who add merit to the idea of damnation.

Philosopher James Park has written a clear and thoughtful outline of why and how the name might be changed. Perhaps it makes sense that an existentialist philosopher (who happens to also be a UU) wrote this outline. Words are meaningful. When the words are entirely besides the point, or even counterproductive, clearer and more meaningful words should be used.

Why hold on to old heresies? Well, I understand the argument that its important to honor your ancestors. The original Unitarian heresy of not believing in the Trinity is an off-shoot of the larger Protestant revolution. It’s similar to Martin Luther’s heresy against the church in which he was a priest. Universalism is a similar iteration of an evolving faith. Thus the name is a compact history lesson that refers to the UU movement’s original basis.

To a degree, most religions face similar issues when it comes to issues of dogma. But the thing that is good about UU is that it isn’t very dogmatic. It revolves around seven principles with which I think most thoughtful people (including religious people) can agree.

Thus I think that simpler, clearer words make more sense. My suggestion is to call it “liberal religion.” I realize this name has its own historical baggage (in some places liberal means left-winger and in others it means capitalist) and opens itself to cultural mockery, but I am just learning that mockery is a great test of whether something is true. The English philosopher Shaftesbury argued for the positive aspects of ridicule/comedy as a means of discovering what’s true since what is true stands up quite well to mockery. What do contemporary UUs stand for? To me liberal region is closer to the mark.

To me the name “Unitarian Universalist” just doesn’t ring true, but that’s just one man’s perspective. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop going to my UU congregation. I rather think this piece is in the spirit of the place. If anything, the name still means a capacity for creative skepticism and freedom of belief, so I can live with it even if I would change the name were I king.