LED Light Bulbs, the numbers

I recently picked up a couple of LED light bulbs that are starting to become more popular in Japan. After comparing a few different options from various major manufacturers, I settled on the “40 Watt” (450 lumen) bulbs made by Panasonic. The main draws for me were the relatively high efficiency (more lumens per watt) compared to other LED bulbs, and the fact that they emit a warmer orange color rather than the harsh bluish light typical in CFLs. Another draw was the fact that these bulbs are rated to last 40000 hours, or about 5x as long as CFL bulbs, which could reduce waste.

On the other hand, at around $30 a pop (2380JPY, to be exact), they’re pretty expensive as far as light bulbs go. Are they worth it? I decided to run some numbers, comparing the LED bulb I got to a traditional incandescent 40w light bulb, as well as “40W”, “60W” and “100W” CFL bulbs. The results are in this spreadsheet below (see the original document on Google Docs).

Notes:

  • klmh – “klmh” stands for “kilo lumen hours”, and can be thought of as the total amount of light emitted, if it were possible to gather light over time and put it in a box. One klmh equals the amount of light emitted by a 1000 lumen lamp over 1 hour, or a 1 lumen lamp over 1000 hours. Technically, a lux is a better unit with which to measure total light emission, but that information wasn’t available (while lumens were) so I used Kilo-Lumen-Hours to compare bulbs of different brightnesses.
  • Power costs – I used $0.15 per kWh. Actual energy costs vary from around $0.10 to $0.20 in the US. See prices for September 2010. Calculating the cost of energy for off-grid systems is much, much harder, and would vary widely from system to system, so that is left as an exercise for another day.
  • Annual usage – To calculate “costs over 5 years”, I assumed an average 5 hours of usage per day, or 9125 total hours of usage.
  • Total costs – The “total cost” calculations combine the amortized cost of the bulb with estimated energy costs (again, at $0.15/kWh).

I tried to compare the bulbs from a wide range of perspectives, and ended up with all sorts of numbers. I’ve highlighted the ones that I think are relatively informative, but, as you can see, some bulbs do better in some comparisons, and do worse in others. In other words, there’s no clear all-around winner.

Efficiency – In terms of efficiency, the “40W” LED bulb (65.22lm/W) was bested only by the “100W” CFL bulb (67.33lm/W). In reality, the LED might perform a little worse, because LED lamps have more directed lighting patterns, so despite what the lumen rating is, the actual total amount emitted may be less than CFL bulbs. As a side note, it was also interesting to see that the efficiency of CFL bulbs improved with increase in wattage. I think this is because fluorescent lights become more efficient the longer they are, and higher wattage CFLs simply have longer tubes.

Cost – If all you care about is having a light bulb –any light bulb regardless of brightness– in a socket, LED is by far the cheapest option. Even though the upfront cost of the bulb is considerably higher than the alternatives, the additional expense is offset by the bulb’s long lifespan and low energy usage.

On the other hand, LED bulbs are relatively dim compared to the brightest CFLs, and if you must have lots of light, CFLs are cheaper for the amount of light you get. This last point is important. Even though a 26W CFL bulb has 1/10 the cost of a 6.9W LED for the same amount of light, the simple fact that it uses more than 3.5 times as much electricity can not be overcome. Having a 26W (“100W”) CFL in that socket will cost you more than twice as much as using a 6.9W (“40W”) LED bulb. But if you must have that much light, it is cheaper to use one “100W” CFL bulb than to use multiple “40W” LED bulbs.

More is more, less is less
Retailers often try to get consumers to buy more stuff by offering lower per-unit costs when purchased in bulk. While buying in bulk may lead to real savings, such deals can also be a pitfall that leads to excessive consumption and spending. The question to ask is, “Do I have to alter my behavior, in order to take advantage of this deal?” If the answer is “yes”, it is best to stay away from bulk purchases. For example, let’s say a grocery store has a deal on ice cream, such that if you buy 2, you get 1 free. The question is “Would I eat more ice cream if I bought 3?” If the answer is “yes” (and let’s be honest now), just buy one, because one is still cheaper than two, in absolute terms. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with something like toilet paper where abundance probably won’t lead to higher consumption, buying in bulk might actually save you money.

The same applies for lighting. If you can get away with less lighting, it will save power and money. Don’t let the illusion of better “value” trick you into consuming more unless that is really what you want, because you will pay more for it. Using one “100W” CFL bulb for 5 hours a day over 5 years will cost an estimated $38.18, while a “40W” LED bulb used for the same duration will only cost $16.29, even when factoring in the cost of the bulbs. Yes, you get less lighting, but you get less for less, while more costs more.

Lighting accounts for 12% of domestic electricity consumption in the US, and I would argue that that makes it a ripe target for reduction. While current trends are towards improving efficiency, Jevon’s paradox warns us that efficiency may in fact increase consumption. If that is true, it seems to me that the true path to reduction is, well, to reduce. That is, rather than merely swapping 60W incandescent bulbs with “60W” CFL bulbs, consider using “40W” bulbs. Instead of having area lighting consisting of 5 or 6 bulbs, consider having 5 or 6 individual lamps located strategically, so that only localized areas that actually need lighting are lit at any given time. Or, for that matter, turn those lights off entirely, and go to bed early. Artificial lighting can interrupt our natural circadian rhythm, leading to sleeping disorders and other maladies. So going to bed early and getting some extra sleep can save your health and the planet. Now that’s what I call a good deal.

The Cost of Convenience

21.42. That’s how many pounds of propane I’ve burned in the last year or so. I know because I’ve kept every single one of the 1.02lb propane canisters I’ve used. I’ve thought about switching to the bigger 20lb tanks, to save money and reduce waste, but the one thing I like about the little canisters is that it helps me internalize how much gas I’m burning.

Internalizing quantities is something we have a hard time with, yet, if we are to have any hopes of reducing emissions, it’s something we’re going to have to get better at. Unfortunately, in modern society, most of our energy consumption is abstracted away from us. When you pump gas into a car, all you see is a number on the screen, and you probably don’t even know how big, physically, your gas tank is. At home, the power and gas meters are conveniently hidden away. So, understandably, it’s difficult for us to even realize how much energy we’re using even in an abstract sense, much less in any tangible way.

I remember one time while I was pumping gas, I tried to visualize the quantity of that volatile liquid I was going to burn, by picturing all the gas being in 1 gallon milk jugs. Then, I pictured 12 of those jugs and imagined lighting it all on fire. In my mind’s eye I saw a giant ball of flame, and thought for a second that blowing up 12 gallons of gasoline might actually be more fun than using it to drive about 300 miles.

A rechargeable AA battery, at 1.2V, might contain about 1.5 Amp-hours, or a theoretical 3.3 Watt-hours of power. In practice, the voltage would drop too low to be usable after a while, so let’s say, generously, that you’d get 2 Watt-hours. An “efficient” CFL bulb might use 13 Watts, so if you left it on, you’d be using enough energy to drain more than 6 rechargeable AA batteries every hour. Fortunately, if you live in the city, all that power gets delivered to you with the flick of a switch. But next time you do, pretend you’re draining an AA battery every 10 minutes, and it might help you remember to turn lights off when you don’t need them.

In any case, I’m trying to reduce propane usage on my property. Right now, I use propane for my cooking stove (at a rate of about 1lb per week), and my lamp, which also doubles as a heater (which burns about 2lb a week). So far, I’ve had two separate offers from readers to buy me a propane shower, but I’ve resisted. Once Hut 2.1 is done, I’d like to switch to electrical lighting (charged by solar, and perhaps also wind), burn wood for heating and some cooking, and only use propane for the kind of cooking that can’t be done on my wood stove.

Some people argue that wood stoves aren’t so “green.” Burning wood can be rather dirty, especially in old stoves that are inefficient and don’t have catalytic converters. This is true. But, I don’t think it’s realistic to treat all wood burning equally. First of all, when you burn fossil fuels (which include “natural” gas and propane, as well as coal), you’re burning carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, and then re-releasing it into the atmosphere now, when, if left in the ground, it may not have been re-released anytime soon. When you burn wood, you’re releasing carbon that was absorbed in the last hundred years or so. And –here’s the important part– around here, if I don’t burn the dry tinder, it would eventually be burning anyway in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t true everywhere. As far as I know, forest fires aren’t part of the natural ecosystem in rain forests, and so felling and burning those trees artificially adds emissions. But, around here, it is almost a guarantee that, if left to nature, any patch of forest would burn once every hundred years or so. So, when I pick up some dead dried branches from the woods around me and burn it, I am releasing the carbon trapped in it the way it would’ve anyway. Granted, some of it may have eventually rotted away, or otherwise have gotten broken down biologically (via termites, and other organisms), so I may be boosting emissions slightly, but not by much. On the other hand, if I can clear the forest and minimize the risk of uncontrolled natural forest fires, I may help reduce emissions that way, thus balancing my footprint (though, perhaps not, because the way to clear forests is to –surprise surprise!– do controlled burns).

Of course, CO2 is CO2, regardless of whether it comes from burning wood or burning propane. So, arguably, the two may be considered to be comparable. The difference, though, is that propane is so much more convenient, and so much denser in energy, that it’s much easier to burn in excess when compared to wood, which, by virtue of being less energy dense than propane, takes more effort to move, even if you don’t do the chopping and splitting yourself. A 20lb canister of propane contains roughly the same amount of energy as 60 to 80lb of seasoned firewood. But which would you rather move? Which would you be more willing to go buy more of? When less is more (or better), taking the less convenient route can allow us to be more conscious of our consumption habits, and in turn, moderate such behaviors. If I rely on wood for heat, I’ll need to exert more effort into gathering fuel than if I burned propane. So, I’ll naturally want to burn less of it, and therefore reduce my overall emissions.

Moral to the story? Convenience has a cost, usually in financial terms, but also in environmental terms and even health. Cooking your own meals might be less convenient than eating out, but may be cheaper and healthier. Walking or biking to work may be less convenient than driving, but will be cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally healthy. In typical modern lifestyles, it’s not difficult to find ways to do good, by enduring –nay, by enjoying— just a little bit of inconvenience. So, next time you have a chance to chose inconvenience over convenience, give inconvenience a shot. Your wallet, your body, and your environment will thank you for it.

Fork in the Road

The day of reckoning came sooner than expected. I ran out of money. My checking account was practically empty, and my credit cards maxed out. It was a day I knew was coming, but it happened a little sooner than I’d anticipated due to some sudden and unexpected expenditures. So, I activated my backup plan, which was to jail-break some funds I’d locked away in a CD, but things got complicated when the banker gave me misleading information, then flat-out wrong information, then explained that to get my money, I’d have to run around in a circle eleven times, bark thrice, do a 350 degree back flip, and cough up $6000 first.

Anyway, with the help of some friends, it looks like I’m going to be able to get my money out, but only enough to last me a couple of months. Which is to say, I got a two month extension on my day of reckoning. But it’ll come back, and hopefully I’ll have a better plan the next time I come to this juncture.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about this problem. In fact, I’ve put a lot of thought into my next steps, but I simply haven’t been able to make a decision. This is a new phenomenon for me. My life has always been guided one way or another, and whenever I came to a fork in the road, I somehow always knew what the next step should be. Sure, I’ve had some tough decisions to make, like in 2005 when I had those two enticing job offers, one from this big company called Yahoo, and another from this pimple-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerburg who wanted me to come work on this little website called TheFacebook.com. But, as difficult as that was, I knew in my heart which option I wanted to take.

Now, I’ve got options, and I’m not entirely sure where my heart is. So, let’s turn my life into a little Choose-Your-Adventure game, shall we? What, dear readers, do you think should happen next in my life, and by extension, to this blog?

Here are the options (in no particular order):

  • Adventure A: Go back to work full time. Part of the problem right now is that my expenses are way too high. I’m still making monthly payments on my land, as well as my car, then there’s health insurance, car insurance, phone bills, credit card bills, etc, etc. All told, I need over $1200 per month just to keep up with my bills, and that’s not including food and gas. Yes, it’s a sad state of affairs, especially for someone living a fairly frugal lifestyle in the woods, but that is the truth. However, I could make enough as a software engineer, so that if I went back to work full-time, I’d be able to pay off all my debt and save up some, in just a year or two. Once my recurring expenditures have come down to something more reasonable, I can come back to the woods, and spend a year or two without worrying about money. Of course, that would still only be a temporary option. Though not impossible in Silicon Valley, it’s highly unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to last me a life time, which means I’d eventually need to find some way to make money again. I also left Silicon Valley cube farms for a reason, and I don’t know if I can stand going back for a year or two of office life without losing my soul.
  • Adventure B: Stay on my property for the winter. When I first started thinking about my land-ventures, my plan was to buy land, spend a year on it, then write a book about my experiences. I’ve been up here now for the better part of this year since late-Spring. If I could stay the winter, that would constitute more or less a year, and I might have enough material for a book. At the very least, I’ll have more material for this blog, which I won’t have if I left again for the winter.

    As far as adventures go, staying here for the winter seems like a pretty good one. It’ll be quite a challenge, and it seems like the odds are pretty good that I’ll be miserable for the better part of the colder months, but it’ll be an interesting experience nonetheless. Besides, it’s the only way to get a realistic view of conditions during the winter, and unquestionably, there is much to be learned. There’s also the satisfaction of being able to say “I live on my property for a year.” As it stands, I can only claim to have spent the nice warmer months here, and that’s pretty lame.

    The problem, of course, is that I’m out of money. Or will be out of money again probably around December. Additionally, I’d need to buy more gear to survive the winter reasonably comfortably, so I’d need even more money. One option is to try and find some contract work that I can do while on my property, but that’s a little iffy. While I can get decent internet up here through Verizon’s wireless network, I’m not sure how much power I’ll have over the winter. The days will be short and sunny days will be far and few between, so I won’t be able to generate as much solar power. I’d probably also get a wind generator, but those obviously only work if there’s good wind. Most contract jobs also require some face-time with the clients, but I could conceivably get snowed in for weeks at a time. The paved road will be kept plowed, but I have no idea what kind of condition the dirt road that leads from my camp to the paved road will be in.

    One possibility is to do some contract work full-time for a month or two. With the rates I get, I can probably earn enough to last me several months that way, and if the timing works out, I can still spend most of the colder months here. Naturally, this option depends on finding the right gig, and has the same problem as Adventure A, in that I’ll come back to where I am now in a matter of months. While I may be able to write a book, it would be foolish of me to assume that I’d find a publisher, much less that I’d make any money off of it.

  • Adventure C: Enlist in the Air National Guard, followed by career change. Now for something completely different, as Monty Python would say. I started looking into the Air Guard a year ago, when I was in a somewhat similar situation as I find myself in now, and saw a recruitment billboard for the 129th Rescue Wing while driving up Highway 101. I must’ve driven past that billboard hundreds of times when I lived and worked in Silicon Valley. In fact, I’d noticed the sign before, too, though I’d always been happily and gainfully employed, and so never gave it much attention. This time, it was different.

    Having never outgrown my boyish fascination with things military, I’ve always been interested in the armed forces. But being something of a pacifist, I’d never considered a career in uniform, especially not with an organization embroiled in two conflicts I don’t agree with. Besides, I was massively obese for most of my adolescent years, then I became a computer nerd and spent a decade sitting on my ass in front of the computer screen, and it just didn’t seem like I’d have the brawn to get through military training. But as I passed that sign, one late Autumn day last year, something felt different.

    For starters, the billboard depicts an HH-60G PaveHawk helicopter plucking someone out of the water. Rescue. Rescue is good, even for pacifists. Then another part of my brain piped up saying “You always did love helicopters.” I drove on in silence. “Wasn’t doing aircraft maintenance one of your childhood dreams?” Quipped my brain, suggestively. “You just spent months in the woods. You’re pretty fit. Probably about as fit as you’d ever be.” My brain had a point. I was intrigued.

    I did a little research online, and learned that the Air Guard works very differently to the regular Air Force. For starters, National Guard units belong to individual states, unless loaned to the federal government. With the Air Guard, you get to choose your unit and occupation when enlisting, so I’d be reasonably sure that I wouldn’t end up a door gunner in Alabama, for instance. Guardsmen (and -women) serve one weekend a month, plus two weeks a year, and can lead mostly normal civilian lives the rest of the time. The 129th had an opening in helicopter maintenance. The job came with a $20k bonus.

    So one warm day in December last year, I walked into their nondescript recruitment office located just a couple of blocks from the restaurants and cafes in downtown Mountain View bustling with Silicon Valley tech workers on lunch break. The recruiters were happy to see me. For starters, I wasn’t obese (“it’s rare these days” they explained), I had a college degree (two pay-ranks’ promotion off the bat), and no known medical conditions (they suggested I keep quiet about the braces behind my lower teeth). But, ultimately, I didn’t continue with the process then because the helicopter maintenance job I’d wanted had just been filled. They had an opening in engine maintenance, and though I find aircraft engines to be fascinating and can explain the difference between turbojet, turbofan and turboshaft engines, I ultimately didn’t want to be an engine geek; I like helicopters, and I want to learn all about them, not just the engines.

    Over the past year, I’ve continued to think about this option. It’s compelling in a lot of ways. If nothing else, it’s something completely different, and I think it could be a challenging but interesting experience. If I time things right, I could let Uncle Sam feed, shelter and clothe me during the colder months while I’m in training. If they’re still giving $20k bonuses, that’d go a long ways towards paying off my debt, and once I’m out of training I’d also secure 4 days pay a month (they pay double-time) thereafter. I could also use the education benefits to go back to school, and retrain for a career change in my civilian life. Military training might also teach me skills that could help me get a job as a seasonal firefighter near my property, since that’s basically the only well paying job around here (besides, who wouldn’t want to be a firefighter?).

    So, why haven’t I enlisted yet? The short answer is, fear. And it’s not the fear of being deployed, which is what my friends seem to worry about. Rather, it’s fear of the unknown. The fear of being thrust into a foreign culture. The fear of commitment. There’s also the fear of losing my individual freedom, especially during the 5-6 months of training. Then there’s the fear of failure and ridicule — that I’d show up and they’d laugh at me and say I’m too short, old and weak… and worse, that they’d be right. But then, I hate the feeling of succumbing to my fears, of letting my unfounded worries prevent me from living. And while less of a consideration, the thought that enlisting would be looked upon unfavorably by those around me also weighs on me. I don’t generally let my friends and family tell me how to live, but it still takes an extra ounce of conviction to do something without the support of the people who are important to me. And on this one, I’m not sure I have that extra ounce.

When I quit my job at Google a year and a half ago, I thought, or wanted to think, that I’d return after a break. But as the months ticked by, it’s become clear to me that, as a software engineer, I’m like a racehorse with a broken leg; I may never race again. Sure, I can run in short stints, but a full-blown comeback with any chance of success is starting to seem less and less likely. Ironically, that makes any plan that involves making money as a software engineer unsustainable in the long run. Of the three options above, the one that may seem the most brash –enlisting– seems like the best option in the long run because, in addition to providing short term employment, it also has the potential to fund, or otherwise prepare me for, what I probably need: a career change. But, no doubt, it’s also the scariest and most controversial option, hence the indecision.

Any thoughts?

Journal: June 21st, 2010


Friday was a down day. I have those every now and then up here. Maybe it was the weather (partly cloudy, and humid). Maybe it was the isolation (absolutely no human contact for a few days). Maybe it was both. Either way, I spent half the day reading and dozing, and eventually got restless and decided to go into town without any clear idea what for. I tried to get online at the usual place in town, but the internet connection wasn’t working. I then went to the hardware store, where the garden section lady recognized me, which was nice. Not wanting to walk out empty handed, I bought a water sprayer (for watering carrot seeds) and some more seeds (okra, which does well in heat, and beets, which are good companions for corn). Still wanting to get online, I headed to the next town over, another 20 minutes’ drive away (so over 45 minutes’ drive from my property). The only reliable internet I could find was at a McDonalds, so McDonalds it was. I couldn’t remember the last time I stepped foot in a McDonalds, but, well, that’s where the internet was, so that’s where I went.

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
–May Sarton

Solitude and loneliness seem like flip sides of the same coin. I enjoy solitude, but sometimes I can’t escape loneliness. Ideally, I’d like solitude, without the loneliness. Can the two be separated? This is a process I am still struggling with, and probably will for some time. I know I can’t go for long completely disconnected from the world, but I also know I’m happier being mostly disconnected. I don’t want internet on my property. I’m happier when I’m not distracted by Facebook and Twitter and Google Reader and email and everything on the internet that demands my attention. But I’m thinking of getting a cheap Verizon phone, which should work on my property, so that I can text and call people if I get lonely. We’ll see how that goes.

I spent the better part of Saturday clearing brush around my camp. I do this partially for aesthetics (less brown and more green looks nicer), but mostly I do it for fire prevention. Or rather, I should say, to improve the odds that my stuff can survive a forest fire. There hasn’t been a fire in the woods around my property in a long while, and it’s ripe for one; there’s plenty of fuel waiting for a spark. In my admittedly amateur assessment, though, the area around my hut seems relatively safe. There’s a nice wide dirt road to the immediate North and West of my camp, and it’ll be difficult for a fire to jump that, especially considering that there’s only low brush to the North, and that prevailing winds are from the South. To the West of my property is well cleared BLM or NFS land, so it’s relatively unlikely a fire will come from that direction. Unfortunately, the South and East sides of my camp aren’t as well protected, so I’ve been clearing that area as much as possible. I’m pulling or cutting dead branches off the trees and pulling out dead brush, so that even if the ground litter burns, there won’t be much fuel to ignite bigger stuff. My garden is also to the South-East of my hut, and that clearing will hopefully act as a firebreak, if need be. Ultimately, I’m comforted in the knowledge that a forest fire is good for the forest, and the worst that can happen is that I lose some stuff, most of which can be replaced. Unlike a house, when a forest burns, it actually heals itself over time, and usually ends up healthier than it was.

On Sunday, I finished planting the last few plants, and sowed more bean seeds since the bag of seeds I’d left out got wet in unexpected rain during the night. I also busted out my power tools to build a couple of things. I first built a planter box for my anti-social tomato plants, using mostly scrap wood I had lying around. Then I made a target frame for my 100yd shooting range, using some two-by-twos and one-by-threes that I’d brought up a while ago, then faced it with tar paper I’d bought for roofing.

I had this moment of great satisfaction, when I realized that I had everything I needed. I had lumber. I had screws. I had power tools, and solar panels to charge their batteries. I craved fruit, so I rummaged through my bins and found some canned fruit. For a moment, I could pretend like the world had ended and that I was living off of my stockpile, and that I was all self-sufficient. Of course, that’s just an illusion. I have trees, but I can’t mill my own lumber. I can’t make my own nails or tools. I don’t grow nearly enough food to be self-sufficient, and my stockpile would only last me a few of months, at most. But it felt like a step in the right direction, and it felt good.

On Guns

When I started this blog, I assumed that the few people who would read it would be my friends. My friends know me for who I am first, and for them, the part of me who is a gun-owner and a woods-dweller is only a relatively small part of a larger whole. While I consider myself fortunate to have picked up a few readers who haven’t met me in person, I suspect that those of you who don’t know me well may make assumptions about who I am based on what little you see and read on this blog. For instance, a few of you picked up on that short scene in the last video where I was loading shells into my shotgun, and commented on the potential use of force on my land. While you’re free to think of me as you wish, as a gun-owner-blogger, I feel a certain responsibility to articulate my views on guns as clearly as I can. So, here we go…

Unlike many of my city-dwelling friends, I grew up around guns. My father was an avid marksman, and shot competitively for as long as I can remember. There were guns in our house when we lived in Los Angeles in the 80s, and my dad shot air guns competitively when we lived in Germany in the 90s. We even had a 10m indoor “shooting range” setup in our basement, where I often shot air guns as well. I didn’t get into shooting competitively myself until I moved to the Bay Area after college and joined a local club, where we shoot matches similar to NRA Highpower matches (and CMP Service Rifle matches). I started off shooting about 40% of maximum points, and have gotten to the point where I can score about 90%. So I’m not great at it, but it’s something I take seriously.

Though I primarily consider myself to be first and foremost a competitive marksman, gun owners are actually a pretty diverse group. Even within competitive shooters, there are various disciplines that are very different. Some are more “practical” and simulate the challenges of tactical scenarios, while “benchrest” shooters clamp down their guns and compete based on their ability to tune their guns and ammunition and read wind accurately. However, there are tens of millions of gun owners in the US, and most of them don’t even compete at all. Many of them have guns tucked away in the closet “just in case” and rarely actually shoot. Some shoot casually at shooting ranges. Many hunt, for food or leisure. Some have permits to carry concealed handguns. And while the stereotypical gun owner might be a white conservative man living in a small town, some are like me; well-educated, young, socially liberal, reasonably affluent, and/or living in the suburbs or cities. Even in the San Francisco area, known for its liberal population, there’s a thriving community of gun owners, gun shops, and shooting ranges if you know where to look. So, while the label “gun owner” has a certain stigma (and set of assumptions) attached to it these days, stereotyping us is as misleading as stereotyping any other group of people in this diverse country.

Now, with that aside, let me talk a little bit about why I carry a gun on my property. First of all, I’m not certain that there aren’t bears or wild pigs around, and both can be quite dangerous. If a pig were to charge at me, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot it (mmm… free pork). But when it comes to humans, the short answer is, deterrence. Out there, there’s a good chance that anyone who is illegally on my property is also armed. Maybe they are illegal loggers or hunters. Maybe they are illegal marijuana growers. Whoever they may be, by being on my land illegally, I would consider them to be people of questionable moral character. And the reality is, if someone wanted to shoot me and leave me for dead, they could. They’d be far, far away before anyone even noticed I was missing. I carry a gun not because I think I can win in a gun fight, but because it’ll hopefully make someone think twice before shooting at me. If I am unarmed, the equation is simple: if they shoot me, they can get away free. Even if they miss and I call the sheriffs (which I currently can’t since my phone doesn’t work up there), it’ll be an hour before they show up. In fact, there may be more incentive to actually just kill me to avoid the hassle of potentially being identified later (since there won’t be any other witnesses). But, if I am armed, there is more uncertainty: if they try to shoot me, I might shoot back. It’s very, very unlikely I’ll ever get shot at, but anything that makes it even less likely for me to get shot at is a good thing.

Now, I’m a pretty chill dude and do not wish to do anyone harm unless they threaten me with imminent danger. That’s fortunate for me because state law prohibits me from using force in pretty much any other circumstance. I can’t shoot someone for merely trespassing (nor would I wish to). I can’t shoot someone even if I catch them in the act of burning down my hut (nor would I wish to). I can’t shoot them even if they are armed and shoot a hole into my solar panels with a shotgun (nor would I wish to). In fact, I won’t point my gun at another person unless they’ve shot at me or I feel they are about to, and even then, only if I think they can actually hit me (most people can’t shoot worth a damn), and only if I don’t think I can safely retreat.

If I came across someone vandalizing my property, how can I be sure that in my rage I won’t shoot them even though I have no legal basis to do so? I can’t. But I have faith in myself. I believe I am a good person, and that I won’t cause unnecessary bodily harm in another person. Like I said, I’m a pretty chill dude. While we’re on the topic of safety, I should also note that I exercise extreme caution with my firearms. When I carry guns on my property, I leave the chamber empty. That means I can disengage the safety and pull the trigger and nothing will happen. I have to load a round into the chamber, which is a clear and deliberate act that gives me an additional moment to reflect on what I am doing, or about to do.

For me, gun ownership is about more than what the 2nd Amendment says or doesn’t say. It’s about freedom, individual accountability, and faith in humanity. It’s about what kind of society I want to live in. Personally, I want to live in a society where people can do whatever the hell they want, as long as they don’t harm others. And if they do do harm, then they should be held accountable. But as long as I don’t actually do harm, it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business what I might do. I also want to believe that most people are good, and want others to believe that I am good too. I’d like to live in a society where I’m not assumed to be violent or dangerous just because I own a device that could conceivably be used for violent and destructive purposes. In other words, judge me by what I do, not by what I own. And trust me, for I am good.

I hope this clarifies my view on guns, gun ownership, and the use of force. As always, leave a comment if you have any questions or thoughts…

My Path to Happiness

I used the word “happiness” in the title because it’s catchy, but happiness is an elusive concept. Instead, I’ll talk about contentment, which I think of as one kind of happiness. Specifically, to me, contentment is the general feeling of being well, for no particular reason. Unlike the kind of happiness that comes from being given a shiny gift, contentment can, and does, last a longer time, and has fewer dependencies on the external world. Recently, I’ve been feeling content more often and for long durations than ever in my life, despite the numerous challenges I face in being mostly homeless, unemployed and single, so I’d like to share some realizations that have helped me get there.

  • The path to contentment is subtractive, not additive. I believe that the state of contentment is achieved when we are free of all negative feelings, whether it be pain, anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, etc. As such, the path to contentment isn’t to add things to our lives, but rather to eliminate the sources of unhappiness. In some rare cases, you may need to add to your life to eliminate negative feelings. For instance, if the main cause of your pain is hunger, you need food. But, I believe there are only relatively few things that we truly need: water, food, warmth, hope and arguably, human contact. Everything else is icing on the cake, and like icing, might be as harmful as it is good, if not more so. If I am unhappy, I examine my life and my surroundings to identify the sources of my unhappiness. Then, I find ways to resolve the unhappiness, usually by addressing the issue at its source. The next step, of course, is to learn ways to resolve those issues. While there’s no single solution that’ll work in all cases, I found the next few points to be very helpful…
  • Accept the world, yourself, and others as is, without expectation. I found that frustration and anger often arise when there is a gap between the universe as is, and as one believes it ought to be. I used to get mad at myself, because I felt like I wasn’t who I ought to be. This stopped when I learned to accept myself for who I am. I used to get mad or frustrated at other people, because I wanted or expected them to be or behave a certain way. This stopped when I learned to accept people for who they are, or at least came to accept that people are infinitely complex, are unique in ways that I may not even understand, and have better things to do than to behave as I expect them to.
  • You can always walk away. Don’t like your job? You can walk away. Don’t like your boy/girlfriend? You can walk away. Is someone being annoying or hurtful? You can walk away. Does your apartment suck? You can walk away. Of course, walking away may have consequences, and should be a last resort. But it’s an option nonetheless, and simply knowing that that’s an option might help you feel better.
  • Nobody can give you something you can’t give yourself. I used to look to others to give me love and validation. I needed those around me to tell me that I deserved to live, and that I was a good person. And if I was feeling particularly low, I needed someone right then and there. Of course, this lead to a lot of unhappiness because none of my friends or girlfriends have the time or inclination to be my 24×7 Ryo Support Service. So, instead, I learned to love and accept myself. This happened, for me, at least, when I realized that…
  • Everybody deserves to live and be in this world. Yes, even me. And you. I used to think that I was only worth as much as my contribution to society, and that I had to do something great to be a worthy person. I have since rejected that notion. Even the CEO in a shiny suit and the star athlete on TV deserve to live, just as much as the stinky bum on the street.
  • It is ok to feel bad sometimes. Life isn’t always good. In fact, it sucks a lot of times, or at least, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. I used to get depressed simply because I wasn’t happy. I felt like something was wrong with me or my life, and that made me sad. But then, I thought about my life, and realized that it was ok to feel a little sad. I’d just gotten out of a relationship. I didn’t know where I was sleeping that night. Of course I was a little sad! Ironically, just realizing that made me feel much, much better.
  • It’ll be ok. If you find yourself or others worrying about some intractable life problem, and you don’t know the answer, just tell them (or yourself) that it’ll be ok. Life’s hard, but in most cases, it still some how works out. The only time life doesn’t work out is when you die, and well, then you’ll be too dead to worry.
  • You have to want to be happy to be happy. If you read the above points and went “bah, humbug”, ask yourself, do you actually want to be happy? I didn’t. I used to think that I could become a better person if I punished myself. I didn’t think I deserved to be happy. Then, I realized it wasn’t working. I was still making the same mistakes, and feeling bad about it. So I decided to try something different, and treat myself with love and compassion instead. I think that worked better. And even if it didn’t and I’m the same flawed person I used to be, I might as well be a flawed person who feels good rather than one who doesn’t.

Giving Thanks

In the course of my journeys over the past several months, I’ve come to see how blessed I am. That word, blessed, is one that is not often used by my friends, for it often implies the hand of a divine entity, whose existence most of my friends do not acknowledge, preferring instead to use a more neutral word like “lucky”, which merely implies chance. I too, am not religious, and do not claim to know whether God does, or does not, exist. But I feel the word blessed is appropriate for how I feel, because it reminds me that life often is influenced by circumstances other than random chance, and while these circumstances may not have divine sources, they still deserve gratitude nonetheless.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, I would like to say thanks to all that I am grateful for.

For starters, I am grateful for my parents, for having me and raising me in this world, and whether by intent or accident, shaping me into who I am today.

I am also grateful for my few, but supportive friends who have provided me with incredible emotional and logistical support over these past several months. Specifically, I’m grateful to Nikki, for encouraging me to follow my dreams and passions. I am grateful to Harold, for collecting my mail all these months, and for lending me a couch on numerous occasions. I am grateful to Joyce, for letting me use her home as a giant mailbox and accepting a small mountain of materiél on my behalf. I am grateful to Josh, for his couch, for his advice, and also for his help raising my hut. I am grateful to Keith and Stephanie, for opening up their home to me, and offering me a home away from home. I am also tremendously grateful to my broader network of friends, who I have relied upon for emotional support during some of my darker moments in recent months.

Though it is easy to forget, living on vacant undeveloped land made me grateful for all the technology that we have available. I am grateful for the fact that I can own a vehicle that has allowed me to affordably travel tens of thousands of miles in several months. I am grateful for affordable solar power, for refrigeration, and for efficient battery-powered tools and appliances. I am grateful for the internet, which has allowed me to stay connected with friends and family, and for giving me a medium through which to share my story with a much bigger audience than I could in person.

Last but not least, I am grateful to this country, and to all the men and women who made this country what it is. While admittedly not without its faults, few countries, past or present, have ever offered the individual so many opportunities and freedoms. Close to 9 years ago, I landed at LAX, with nothing more than a couple of bags, a laptop, and less than $10,000 in cash. I started taking classes at a community college, then worked my way up to eventually get a degree from a world class institution, and a job at one of the most coveted companies in the industry, if not the world. This is a country where people come to fulfill their dreams. I came. I did.

While there is much to be grateful for, it is also important to acknowledge that there are many who are less fortunate, and that there is more work to do. Today, there are countless millions who suffer from lack of food, lack of shelter, lack opportunities and freedoms. We are closing our borders to those who wish to join our ranks of dreamers. Budget cuts affecting public education are increasingly closing doors to those who aspire for a better future. Lack of adequate health care threaten the well-being of many. Our disregard for the environment damages the world in which our children and grandchildren will live. So while we say thanks for all that we have, I hope we can take a moment to reflect on our obligations to our friends, our neighbors and our children, to help create a world in which they, too, can share in all that we are grateful for.