Every Day Counts in a Suit or a Hoodie?

I am currently on a hiatus, touring the southern US in an RV and a motorcycle. Check out Nana and Papa Be Trippin if you are interested in that effort to make Every Day Counts (EDC).

EDC is my uncle’s renamed blog and can be found at Every Day Counts where he recently posted about an NYT article that announced that the suit as business attire is outmoded. This reminded me of a few episodes in my early career. My first career job was with Delco Electronics, a division of General Motors. As a starting engineer there was an unwritten dress code of slacks, long sleeve button down white shirt and a business tie. First line supervisors added a jacket, managers on up wore 3 piece suits. Technicians could eliminate the tie and often wore short sleeve shirts, still button down. Casual Fridays had not yet been invented.

The first memory sparked by my uncle’s post was when GM purchased EDS, this was Ross Perot’s software company and was before Perot became famous for spoiling other things. I was part of an integration team which met with participants of EDS to find “synergy” (that is the word that come to mind now, I think we called it something else then). I met with a young femal engineer from EDS and during our talk about different company cultures she told me that before EDS was spawn of IBM and had much the same culture. She was actually chastised on her annual evaluation for wearing polyester instead of a wool blend.

My second memory was after returning from a stint at Motorola in Austin, TX which had a more enlightened dress code, I was sitting in a large conference room with managers at the forward end of the table, supervisors at the back and engineers along the walls of both sides, I was struck by the continuity of dress, position and manner of conduct of each person in the room. At one point I looked down the line of my colleagues and notice that we all had the same shoes, slacks, shirts and even the same crossed leg all the way down the line to 10 plus of us. The Rockets could not have done it better. I started looking for a new environment shortly thereafter.

So the NYT says that this type of clothing tyranny is over and my uncle says that even the lawyers at Facebook where jeans and hoodies. A line from the movie “My Cousing Vinny” comes to mind “you will look lawyerly”

Uncle Bob says watch the network news anchors to tell you when you will no longer need to wear a suit to impress your message. Well I predict the very next generation of talking heads will doff the suit and don the casual and will probably be promoted from a YouTube channel. I also bet that if you go to FB, Apple, Google, Tesla or anywhere else and you know what you are looking for you can still tell the execs from the contributors by the brand and style of the hoodie or at least the way it is worn. Look for the wrinkles and stains if nothing else.

Part 4: Measure, Plan, Track and Adjust

In the first three parts of this series, I outlined my retirement plan and tracked it until 2012. I showed how I measured that the plan was failing and then described how I began an exit from the stock market and based my retirement plan on real estate. As I had projected home values in the Sacramento area have bounced back quickly, 73% since 2012, and continue to rise, 13% projected for 2016. Rents are currently also rising and my portfolio is back on track in just 3 years time. This is in spite of the fact that the value of the part of my portfolio remaining in the stock market performed at a measly 4% gain for two years, and then dropped 15%, during the most recent market corrections. Thanks Greece and China, although I really don’t understand why you get the credit or the blame.


I am now taking all of the remaining money out of the stock market and putting it all into more real estate. That’s right all eggs in one basket, or at least in one neighborhood. The people who most strongly recommend otherwise are the ones who can’t recommend a better alternative other than leaving some in the stagnate stock market.

In order to make the plan work at the current recovered real estate values, I am leveraging my new investments with special non-recourse loans designed for 401k real estate investing. An interesting note is that 3 years ago I could only find one bank offering these kinds of loans and the rate and cost of these loans was exorbitant. So I did not leverage those investments. Had I done so I could have bought almost twice as many and would have made an even bigger gain. Now when I shopped I was able to get term sheets from 8 banks and chose one with a 4% rate and 65% loan to value. These competitive rates tell me I am not the only one investing this way.

Looking forward, I am projecting that the market values will continue to increase at a more conservative 5% and hopefully, continue at that rate, without needing another real estate correction anytime soon. Even with a correction, rents have historically been stable, even during the recent and historical bubble bursts, increasing at about the same rate as inflation. So, the plan is to retire on the net from rental income and still have the properties themselves as backup or legacy.


That slight decline in the actual graph at 2015 is due to the China drop that occurred while I still had some in stocks plus some purchase and rehab costs for the new real estate. The graph to the right of that is projection based on 5% growth and repayment of the loans from rent proceeds.

At retirement the gross value of the real estate will be as much as my original plan, probably more, but I am still going to retire with a bit of reduction in income using just rents. Remember my original plan expected 5% return on the gross value for income. Not something you can count on in bonds, CDs or dividend stocks anymore, nor from rent in buy-and-hold real estate investments. It also may take as much as a year longer than my retirement age goal to eliminate the debt. However, if I take into account my income grew to a larger value than I expected, and I will  no longer need to contribute 15% and I can add in Social Security at 62 I think I can manage on just the rental income.

What this series of blogs all represent is a personal anecdote. The point is not that I recommend real estate over the stock market for everyone. In fact, it may very well make sense for me to liquidate my real estate at some time should sanity return to the stock market or insanity return to real estate.  My main point is to make a plan, track it often and make adjustments. My second point is don’t believe everything “they” say, be proactive, and trust yourself. I could have become a more savvy stock and bond investor or a hard money lender or an angel investor. The point is I quit trying to hire a professional and took charge. Only you can really, always have your best interest as a priority.

For those interested in real estate investing inside a 401k here are some links I found useful




I got a kindle version of this book for free when I contact the bank back in 2012


Part 3: Measure and Adjust

In the first two parts of this series, I outlined my retirement planning which started in 1984 and showed how my plan was on track through to 2007. And then what happened? Complete turmoil, real-estate bubble burst, economic downturn, first broker/manager leaves his firm for violating rules and hands me to a second one, who also leaves his career due to stress, passing me to a third. By 2011, it looks hopeless to get back on plan and I am looking at where I will be if I have to recalculate with the contemporary numbers I outlined in part 1. Thanks to the new normal and the market corrections I am actually behind where I would be, even if I had used today’s bleak numbers when I started in 1984. In other words when you factor in so called market corrections, like 2002 and 2008, today’s normal is the normal and was the normal.


Projecting those bleak numbers out from 2011 it appeared that I was going to have to adjust my plan in a totally new manner. A suggested adjustment I was hearing from money managers, from our government and from many of my friends and colleagues was that the answer to bad retirement planning and performance is to work longer and contribute more. No one should expect to retire at 59.5. Your 60’s is the new 50’s. Nope, not for me it isn’t.


So, in 2012 I started pulling the plug on stock market investing. Since I am essentially self-employed, an employee of my own chapter S corporation, I could create my own 401k plan and in doing so allow investments in other than just stocks and bonds and products made available by Wall Street vendors. Instead I chose to buy an investment I understood and one that was at that time at the lowest I could ever see it go. I took about 60% of my nest egg and bought real estate. Not REITs but actual 3 bedroom homes in the Sacramento area. Homes that I chose, in an area I chose, at a price point I negotiated. I hired a property manager whose decisions I direct and had them rented to tenants I approved at rental rates I determined. This is all inside my tax deferred 401k plan.

And in part 4, the last of this series, I will show how this new plan has performed and where I project to be for retirement and more importantly when.

Part 2: Measure and Track

In part 1 of this series, I outlined my retirement plan from 1984 based on saving 10% of my salary into a 401k and expecting a 12% return on investement(ROI). I also outlined that although these numbers were appropriate for 1984 they are way too optimistic in today’s markets.

So, how did my original plan go? Was it more like the eighty’s or more like the current day? Well of course it went like the ninety’s and the ought’s; In other words, half and half. At the end of 2000 I was actually way ahead. My Salary had grown by an average of over 10% annually. And although I had a late start to fully contributing to the plan, I had caught up because of my salary growth and by contributing an average 15%, instead of 10%, of my salary when I finally did start. I also experienced 18% ROI during the nineties.


Then 2000 brought the dot-com bubble burst and the portfolio dropped 16% each of the first two years of the new millennium. This took away all of my headroom on my original plan. However this was followed by an average of 15% growth the next 5 years. So, my retirement saving was still ahead of plan. During this time and as a result of the dot-com burst my field, my career and my annual income started gyrating. I worked for a start-up for 4 years and then went independent and started my own consulting business. I rolled my 401k out of my prior employer’s plan and hired a broker/manager. I continued to contribute 15% and by 2007, I was still on track. But the salad days were coming to an end. Part 3 of the series, like in a good play, thickens the plot.


Part 1: Measure and Plan

In 1984, I had just started at a new job at a big company and was presented with the benefits package and all of its glossy information booklet and all of the redundant name, address and social security number forms. Inside the package was a gimmicky card board calculator. A series of wheels on a pivot and sandwiched between two more pieces of cardboard with windows exposing numbers on each wheel. I don’t remember exactly how it worked but essentially you rotated each wheel to select parameters in some windows and then read results from other windows.

What I remember was I selected to save 10% of my salary each paycheck into a 401k plan.  I also predicted a modest salary increase every year (3%), a reasonable return on my investments (12%) during growth and a safe rate during my income period at retirement (5%). The result was I could retire comfortably at 59.5, which was the earliest time you could draw on a 401k without penalty. I have since replicated this calculation in a spreadsheet and the results are a retirement net worth which provided an income at retirement that seemed huge in 1984. I would actually get nearly a 20% increase in income on the day of retirement and I would only be living on the interest from my savings.  I would still have the savings itself for emergencies or legacy. Of course that income would erode with inflation unless some of the interest was left invested for growth to compensate.


Remember, that in 1984, all of these assumptions were reasonable for the time but were completely different than they would be today. In 1984 the prime rate was 12%, mutual funds were regularly earning 18% and you could earn 5% to 8% in a bank savings account or a 5 year CD. So my numbers were actually conservative for the time.

The economy was booming and I was in one of the fastest growing fields of automotive electronics. If I was just starting out today and were to do the same calculation with numbers from the last 5 to 10 years it would be a completely different picture.  I would have choose a 6% ROI during the growth period, keeping the 3% annual salary increase and then to achieve a reasonable income at retirement I would have to annuitize the principal at a more conservative 3% growth during retirement for a 40 year life starting from 59.5. To make that plan achieve a reasonable  retirement income,  I would need to contribute 25% of my annual salary and accept a 20% decrease in income at retirement. I would then have to hope I don’t live past 100 or need any lump sums during retirement because at age 100, it would all be gone.


Now the thing is this is still what the financial planners are selling. Their numbers may be somewhere in between these two scenarios to make their product more appealing. The other change in their plans is that you should plan to work longer, eventually that red curve will get up there, but not until your 60’s or your 70’s. Unless of course you can get a government job that still pays a pension. But even these plans are not promising what they used to. No more 20 and out like we used to hear.  No more golden parachutes when your service years and age equals 75. No more gold watches, a party and one way tickets to Florida as soon as the kids graduate.

Retirement Planning Series

One of my favorite engineering sayings is “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” So as an engineer I tend to measure a lot and a favorite tool is spreadsheets. In the next few blogs I am going to share a measurement that started over 30 years ago and is still many years from being complete. I have prepared 4 blogs to outline my experience in retirement planning. I will be posting them over the next few weeks.

The Satisfaction of DIY


I have a great digital work space. Four 24 inch 1080p monitors.  I have had this setup for several years. However, for about a year one of the monitors would have difficulty turning on. It would require repeated assertions of the momentary power button. So, for a long while I quit turning it off. Then sometime around last November I did turn it off and it would then not turn back on.

For a while that black screen haunted me but then my good friend and colleague was visiting and for fun the two of us disassembled the monitor just to see if the issue might be obvious. It was not but some research on the web indicated that when monitors exhibit this behavior it is generally a bad capacitor in the power supply. The recommendation is to just replace all of the capacitors and, according to the networked masses, the monitor might just return to normal operation. In fact, there is a company that sells the capacitors needed to fix my model monitor for $12 delivered.

So, I could order a replacement from Amazon for about $170 delivered in two days, or I could spend $12 and a couple of hours of my time and maybe it would be fixed in a few weeks. The smart choice would of course be to replace it. But where is the personal satisfaction in that. Instead I ordered the repair kit which took 8 weeks to arrive. It should have contained 8 capacitors of various values and instead contained 7 capacitors two of which were incorrect values. i requested a correction from the company and they never responded. So, I ordered the 3 correct capacitors from a different electronic supply company for another $10 which was mostly shipping cost and finally today, 4 months later, I replaced the capacitors and reassembled the monitor and it works. So, $170 – $22 is $148 savings. However, 4 months of missed usage, 2 hours of labor and I still have a fully depreciated, 5 year old monitor. But for now, and as long as it continues to work, its priceless.

A Million Monkeys

Most have heard of the Infinite Monkey Theorem. I used to restate it during code review meetings as “a million monkeys could eventually code anything, but this code looks like it took three monkeys and three days.” The truth is, a lot of products have been poorly coded and although I am a strong believer in coding practices which optimize quality, there is no replacement for thorough verification.

An infinite number of monkeys may eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare but until it has been thoroughly evaluated as such, no one will ever know. The name  J. K. Rowling is familiar with many but does anyone know the team of editors and publishers who corrected the text, assisted in making it more readable and even identified that it was something of value in the first place?

To all you code writers, get out there and thank your verification teams.

Trick or Treat

It is not yet Halloween but its coming. This week I resurrected an old trick for a client and thought I would share it here as a technical/tutorial contribution instead of my usual rhetoric.

A great deal of engineering is capturing a process so that it can be modified and repeated to achieve a desired result. In electronics development, that generally means a series of invocations of various EDA programs of different sorts and from different vendors. Each of these invocations work on what is referred to as “source code” and create some intermediate representation of that code which is then fed into the next EDA invocation in the process and so on.

Along with the source code is generally a tool specific EDA setup file that specifies how the process should be completed. Typical source code might be Verilog, VHDL, C++, System C, System Verilog, etc. The method for capturing the process might be in a scripting language such as tcsh, bash, perl, python, tcl, etc. All of these languages have multiple methods for procedurally configuring the source code or the scripted process to achieve variations on the result from the same source code.

However, in many cases, the setup files for the actual EDA tools do not support variations in their invocation within the same setup file.

In fact, different setup files is often the expected method for achieving variation. So, the scripting language is often called up to choose from a selection of setup files based on the variation that only the script has the ability to understand. By selecting a setup file consistent with the desired configuration, a modification of how the EDA tool interprets the source code is achieved and its contribution to the variation in results is realized.

This often leads to a number of similar and somewhat redundant setup files that need to be maintained. Generally, the difference between two setup files is less than 50% of the content of the file. It could even be just one or two out of hundreds or thousands of lines of setup information.

This leads to a process maintenance nightmare where one desired change in setup that is common to all of the various setup files requires that they all be modified and verified to validate the process.

The trick to simplify the redundant maintenance of setup files is also simple, use one of the methods built into the source code files listed above. This method is the “text preprocessor.”

Specifically, I use the ‘C’ code preprocessor invoked by the command:
cpp -E -P -D<variationMacro1> -D<variationMacro2> … <setupFile> -o <temporarySetupFile>

This allows the use of all of the ‘C’ preprocessor constructs to be used in the setup file. The scripting language can invoke the ‘C’ preprocessor as shown above and then pass the temporarySetupFile to the EDA tool.

The only issue is when ‘C’ preprocessor constructs conflict with the syntax of the tool setup file. There are several ways to get around this but I find that using the ‘sed’ editor before and/or after “cpp” allows for management of ‘cpp’ sensitive characters like ‘#’, ‘/*’, and ‘//’.

For example replacing ‘#’ with ‘##’ in the setup file before ‘cpp’ and then reversing the replacement after preserves the ‘#’ character that might be needed in the setup file. Replacing ‘//’ with ‘%’ or some other special character keeps ‘cpp’ from interpreting what follows ‘//’ in the setup file as a comment. These edits will not work if the original file has ‘##’ or ‘%’ characters that should be preserved but I have found that by understanding the syntax of the setup file and the syntax of ‘cpp’ it is generally not difficult to work around any conflicts by using some innocuous character substitution. And if  ‘cpp’ does not meet your needs have a look at ‘m4’. I have never had to go there but if you do and you can then maybe you can write the next tutorial.

This trick can be used in more processes than just EDA development. It can be used in any textual based setup, source code, template, etc. to create customized variations based on  ‘cpp’ constructs.

So, there is the treat.