Momu Mobile Studio Setup (MOMU-MSS): Making Electronic Music on the Road

Momu's Mayakoba mobile studio setup.

Momu’s Mayakoba mobile studio setup.

I recently had the opportunity to enjoy an all-expenses-paid resort trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico with Mark Musselman (the other half of Momu). While I’d written plenty of music on the road with an ultra-minimal laptop + headphones setup, this was the first time attempting to travel with a “mini-studio” that would make collaborative beat-making easy and fun and not involve additional checked luggage. The vacation (or “creative sabbatical”) happened to coincide with the release of Momu’s new album The Mission (now available on Beatport, also presale until April 8 on iTunes and Amazon).

When planning our gear we knew we needed the following:

  • two headphone jacks
  • great external powered sound (no amp needed) with sub
  • MIDI keyboard
  • laptop with music production software (and required dongles)
  • XLR microphone input (powered)

For sounds we would rely on “in the box” synths and samplers, including all our staples from Native Instruments (Battery 4, Massive, Kontact) as well Halion 4 from Steinberg. Our main sequencer/DAW is Cubase (also from Steinberg), though we sometimes use Ableton Live as well. For FX we use quite a few from Togu Audio Line.

From our existing equipment we brought the following:

  • MacBook Pro with music software and dongles (13″ 2011 model)
  • Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard
  • M-Audio Firewire 1814
  • AKG C3000 microphone
  • headphones
  • external keyboard and mouse
  • power strip (luckily Mexico and US power voltage and plugs are completely compatible)

All of the equipment is a bit older, and most of it is very light (both ideal attributes for travel). I was concerned about the small laptop screen but since we worked exclusively on new material it turned out not to be an issue. More developed tracks in later production phases often bloat to 100+ separate tracks (including MIDI, audio, FX, and control channels), but we were simply working on new beats, basslines, chord progressions, and melodies (no more than a dozen tracks per sketch).

We considered buying a new external “lightweight” sound interface, but very few feature more than a single headphone output (I’ve tried using headphone splitters in the past, but most of them are unpowered or underpowered and the sound comes out tinny and shitty). M-Audio’s M-Track 8 looks nice (and I’ll probably upgrade to it eventually because Firewire is discontinued on the newer Macs) but it’s bigger and bulkier than the Firewire 1814. So no purchase needed.

For external sound we ended up going with the extremely reasonably priced (about $50) iKross BlueLED Satellite Speaker Stereo Sound System. Despite the cheesy blue lighting these things sound great, and with the bass set at about the halfway mark for hotel room compositions, our sketches sounded remarkably balanced when I brought them home and played them back on the room-tuned JBL studio monitors.

I also brought an external QWERTY keyboard and mouse for the Mac, but ended up not using them. The trackpad and built-in keyboard turned out to be more comfortable for our particular setup, but USB ports were also in limited supply. I should have brought my Belkin 7 port USB hub. Anti-piracy dongles took up two USB ports, which is a pain. As an aside, I think Steinberg’s use of dongles is short-sighted. Sure — it prevents privacy and raises revenue in the short-term, but in the long-term it annoys professional producers like myself (who will pay for software even if it isn’t protected) and excludes broke young producers who just can’t afford expensive music software. Those innovative, time-rich/money poor producers end up using free, cheap, or more easily pirated software like Fruity Loops, and then go on to create entire new genres (like trap) that are based on the particular quirks of that software. Cubase is a powerful, well-designed application that can do anything you can think of (and more) but people aren’t inventing new genres with it.

One of the Fairmont Mayakoba's dozen or so pools.

One of the Fairmont Mayakoba’s dozen or so pools.

Hotel Beats

The compact iKross (only 7lbs) speakers plus sub are plenty loud. With the amount of noise we made I’m surprised nobody complained. The mobile setup worked great. If I’d remembered a few minor additions (USB hub, a dual 1/4″ to stereo miniphone cable) it would have been perfect. As it was there was some cable switching involved when we wanted to switch from headphones to external sound, and we had to unplug one of the FX dongles to use the MIDI keyboard. But overall it worked! We probably got in about 20 hours of studio time over five days (the rest of the time we were biking around, swimming in the ocean, or drinking at the pool bar).

Our next single will be remixes of Sixth & Mission featuring Missa Hawk (with remixes from Issac, Jose Vizcaino, Marshall Watson, Schoolboy Crush, and our own “Momu’s Mayakoba Dub”). Look for that on Loöq Records.

Momu wishes you a fan-f*cking-tastic day!

Momu wishes you a fan-f*cking-tastic day!

Pre-Order Contest for Momu – The Mission

Momu - The Mission out April 8 (March 25 on Beatport)

Momu – The Mission out April 8 (March 25 on Beatport)

Loöq Records is sponsoring a pre-order contest for my new album with Mark Mark Musselman: Momu – The Mission. First prize is US$808 and lossless audio versions of all four Momu albums to date.

So who is Momu? Why is almost every track named after a location in San Francisco? What unique sound from a viral video was sampled and used in the track Google Bus? Why spend the entire promotional budget on a pre-order contest instead of a publicist or ad campaign or music video?

Who Is Momu?

Mark and I started making music around 2000 and put out our first single “This Is Momu” in 2001. Through 2005 we produced an enormous amount of music and were credited with co-inventing the “progressive breaks” genre, with releases on Bedrock, Global Underground, and half a dozen smaller labels. Since then we’ve opened up our sound to influences from almost every kind of “broken beat” (jazz, hip-hop, dubstep, trap) and the new album reflects that.

These days we’re both dads and in our forties and I don’t go clubbing much. But we keep making beats. Our most recent album Rising hit the #3 album spot in Beatport’s Chill-out genre. We’ve licensed tracks to TV shows including CSI and had some big videogame and advertising placements (including a Pandora ad). We’ll stay in the game until someone kicks us out!

Like all producers Mark and I are addicted to that moment when the sketch you’re working on “clicks” and you look at each other and realize that there might be something there. It’s a good feeling but also a strange one … you never know when it’s going to happen (and it doesn’t always happen). There’s usually some amount of chaos that precedes that moment: a mess of audio tracks and MIDI tracks and weird effects and too many sounds. Then you strip a few things away, move a bit here and there, add a layer, and suddenly, sometimes, the sketch takes on a life of its own and starts to tell you what it wants to be.

The New Album “The Mission”

The first tracks we wrote for the album were very dubby (as opposed to aggro) dubstep, influenced in equal parts by Seven Lions and Snoop Lion. Golden Stargate is an example. While some of my music inspiration comes from trying to create music that I want to hear that doesn’t yet exist, an equal part is listening to other artists and thinking “oh yeah, that!”

Quite of few of the album sounds came from riffing with Kontact‘s samples, especially various pianos. I’m a huge fan of Native Instruments; in addition to Kontact we use Massive, Battery 4, and even the discontinued Kore.

After writing a number of darker piano-based downtempo tracks like Good Morning Alcatraz we both felt the album needed some more energy, and maybe some lighter material. A sample from the video below became the basis of Google Bus. We wrote the just as silly track Make Yo Mama Dance directly afterwards.

Somewhere in the composition process we started to name tracks after various locations in San Francisco. I’ve been witnessing the radical transformation of SF from across the Bay with mixed feelings. The tech explosion is exciting and it’s fun to be close to a hub of energy, innovation, and disruption, but all the fast money also draws hordes of materialistic assholes to San Francisco and kicks out the artsy and working-class locals. We named the album “The Mission” as that neighborhood seems to be ground zero for cultural conflict, as is epitomized by the now famous “DropBox bros vs. locals soccer field video“.

The track names are as much a celebration of SF’s history as they are political commentary, but personally (I’m just speaking for myself here, not Mark) I think there are very specific things politicians in the Bay Area can do to mitigate some of the suffering caused by the “boomtime” economic transformation that is overtaking the Bay Area:

Why a Contest?

I’ve been co-running an independent label for more than fifteen years, and I’ve yet to find the perfect formula for promoting music. Usually when a track or an album does well, it’s completely unexpected. On the other hand, if you don’t give the release that first little push, it might never find its first fans who give the track the big push it needs through word of mouth, playing it out, etc. The ideal promotional strategy is cost-effective: a large number of ears and minds are reached for every dollar spent.

The least cost-effective promotional strategies, in my own experience, are publicists and expensive music videos. Publicists are very expensive and usually result in a few music reviews (that might be good or might be bad, and even though all press is good press, bad reviews still suck). As for music videos, dropping thousands of dollars into producing a great-looking music video might pay off, or it might not. The music video for The Dive (directed by my incredibly talented wife Kia Simon) involved hand-painting hundreds of frames in Photoshop. It won awards at film festivals but only netted a few thousand views online. Same for Momu – Window and Momu – Rising. Even when a music video is produced on a tight budget does get enough views to significantly boost sales, it’s rare to break even. Of the two (publicist or music videos) the latter are more fun and create something of potentially lasting value, but music video production is not easy and not cheap.

So why a contest? Mostly because we hadn’t tried it before, and we figured that even if it wasn’t a great success we’d be able to give our promotional budget directly to a Momu fan! If the contest succeeds in generating a large number of pre-orders, the album will appear in Amazon’s Top Electronic and Dance Albums on release day, giving it a further boost. We could have gone with iTunes but I couldn’t figure out how to verify an iTunes purchase … Apple doesn’t immediately send you a receipt for a specific purchase.

Honestly we haven’t yet received that many entries. Maybe a contest is considered too gimmicky. I wouldn’t want anybody to purchase the album if they didn’t like the music, but those who enter have a very good chance of winning, at least as it stands now. We’ve committed and somebody is going to win $808! Here are the contest rules.

If any of the tracks connect with you, please spread the word. Nothing helps a release more than word of mouth. You will have Momu’s undying gratitude.

Comments and questions welcome, as always. Keep listening to the good stuff!

Extra credit: please tweet or share on Facebook if you enter the contest. Thanks!

Investing Mistakes I Have Made

My first mistake: investing in bulk Scrabble tiles.

My first mistake: investing in bulk Scrabble tiles.

This post is difficult to write — I’ve been putting it off. It’s embarrassing to talk about mistakes I’ve made that have lost me 20%, 50%, or 100% of my principal. But I feel a sense of responsibility to share the gory details of my own foolish, greedy, and sometimes reckless attempts to grow money.

Here’s what I hope to accomplish by writing this post:

  • better understand the nature of these mistakes, so I don’t make them again in the future
  • help at least a few of my readers avoid making these same mistakes themselves
  • provide a little inspiration to younger people who are just starting off their careers and investment plans

I’ve been fascinated by investing since the day I learned at a young age that a bank would give you money (interest) for your deposits.

Since then I’ve made a some good financial decisions and some bad ones. The bad ones mostly all fall into the “classic” mistakes that inexperienced investors make, though a few of my mistakes required ingenuity and above-average foolhardiness.

Without further ado here’s my list of “greatest hits” investment mistakes, for your edification and entertainment. Maybe you can avoid some of the traps I waltzed into!

Mistake #1: High Risk, Low Reward Business Ventures

Back in the late nineties I was a party promoter in San Francisco, organizing dance music events with my crew. Qoöl at 111 Minna (which we happen to be relaunching as a monthly next week) was our most successful event, running as a weekly for fifteen years, often with a line out the door. But we also threw some real stinkers — expensive events that were attended by almost nobody.

Planning for one particular event, one of our DJ co-promoters came up with an idea for a promotional flyer so audacious and elaborate that it would require six kinds of ink (including a metallic silver) and a custom die cut to produce. In addition to the expensive flyer, the venue wanted a bar guarantee (our patrons would order a minimum amount of alcoholic beverages, or we would pay the difference to the venue).

When we ran various profit/loss projections for the event we quickly realized that we would only make money under the most optimistic, best-case scenario. Even breaking even would be a stretch.

Still, I signed off on production, believing the “no risk, no reward” mantra. While this is technically true — it’s hard to make money without taking any risk at all — the ideal approach is to minimize risk while maximizing potential rewards. This business venture did the opposite. We stood to make only a little money even if everything went great, but the potential downside was quite large.

Predictably, the event was not well attended. Despite our luxurious flyer (which came out beautifully — I still have one somewhere), our regular crowd treated the new venue like the plague (it was not a popular club at the time). This disappointment was followed by a dispute with the venue regarding the bar guarantee amount (which nobody bothered to put down in writing).

At the time, the loss stung. We (myself and my business partner) invested about half of our business savings into the event, and lost all of it.

The upside was learning to minimize risk. Never again did we ignore the potential downside when planning an event or product or service. This idea — setting affordable loss — is a key principle of the effectuation system (which I plan to discuss in more detail in a future approach — it’s my current approach for all business ventures).

This mistake is particularly common among people who come into large amounts of money. Professional athletes are notorious for making high risk, low potential reward investments (investing in new restaurants, independent films, or ill-conceived start-ups).

In hindsight this one could have been a lot worse. All the friendships involved survived (even to this day) and the lesson was invaluable.

Mistake #2: “Fake” Diversification

Through the 90’s I did pretty well financially, saving money and regularly investing in mutual funds (I had internalized the “a part of all you earn is yours to keep” line from The Richest Man in Babylon). Of course I was getting dinged by high mutual fund fees, but the stock market was going up and I did better than I would have if I stayed in cash.

After the stock market crash of 2000 I realized that I needed to start allocating my assets into different “buckets” to provide more protection against volatility. No problem. Over the course of a year or so I diversified into various emerging market ETFs, the SPY ETF which tracks the S&P 500, a popular small-cap ETF, and even some gold coins.

I was now feeling pretty smug. I was paying much lower fees than when I had owned mutual funds, and my allocation strategy would protect me against market volatility. I was only in my mid-thirties, so I wasn’t worried about not owning any bonds.

So do you think I was protected during the 2008 crash? Ha!

What I quickly learned was that “diversification” within equities is pretty much meaningless. When U.S. stocks go down, so do all stocks, globally.

Over the course of a year my portfolio value was cut in half. I did well with the gold (and also buying house in Oakland, which happened around the same time), but otherwise I was way down.

Despite the pain, I had the sense not to sell. I even bought more SPY on the way down, which ultimately turned out to be a good decision. But I was shaken so badly, it led to my next biggest mistake (mistake #5 below).

The takeaway is that diversification needs to be across asset classes (stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, gold, cash, etc.) and not simply within a single class. I knew this before the crash of 2008, but I didn’t follow the advice (except for buying a house — but that was because we needed a place to live and at the time it was cheaper than renting; I never thought of the house purchase as an investment). I was greedy, putting almost all of my money into the asset class that I thought would make the most gains, and vastly overestimating my emotional ability to tolerate loss. As it turned out, it wasn’t the loss itself that hurt me — the stock market eventually came back. It was getting shaken by the loss that really hurt me, because it prevented me from investing on a regular basis.

I’ll explain why this was my biggest mistake, but first I’ll go over two “sidebar” mistakes that highlight my youthful hubris.

Mistake #3: Smart People Don’t Make Smart Financial Decisions

In the mid-2000’s I had the brilliant idea of starting an investment group. I would invite the smartest people I knew, and with our combined brainpower we would beat the stock market and all become millionaires.

Well, it started off pretty well. We drank wine, ate cheese, and planned our financial conquest. We called ourselves the “Bling Trade Collective” and even made it official with a partnership agreement and a joint investment account. Everyone contributed a couple grand and we were off.

The first thing I learned is that getting a bunch of smart people to do anything is like herding cats. Everyone had a strongly held opinion, and they were all different. We had a well-defined investment philosophy to guide our decisions. In fact, we had twelve of them: one for each group member.

Our general format was that one person would research a stock, present their findings to the group, and then we would all discuss the pros and cons of investing in the company, and then invest (or not). Of all the group members I was the best at presenting and convincing the group to buy the stocks I suggested (I guess that Rhetoric degree came in handy). Unfortunately the companies I suggested usually depreciated 50% or more in value soon after we bought in. Our bottom line was saved by the three women in the group who managed to pick only winners.

Ultimately enthusiasm in the group flagged — we weren’t making money and we never managed to agree on a single coherent investment strategy. Attendance dropped off, we sold everything, and the cash languished in our joint account. This inertia (not our collective smartness) saved us during the 2008 crash — we were almost entirely divested by that point. I got tired of filing the tax forms and we closed the group, returning everyone pretty much the exact amount of their initial investment.

I don’t regret starting Bling Trade Collective. We had a great time, new friendships were formed, and many of us remain friends to this day. I learned that specialized knowledge trumps general intelligence, at least when it comes to playing the stock market.

Mistake #4: Just Invest Like Warren Buffett

Soon after the demise of Bling Trade Collective, I reworked my own investment strategy. My new idea was to just copy what Warren Buffett did. After all, he is one of the most successful investors of all time, and his investment strategy is not a secret.

What I soon learned is that to invest like Warren Buffett, you need to put in a great deal of time into researching public companies. One of the first things Buffett does when researching a company is look at the last ten years of ROE (return on earnings). This kind of information isn’t that easy to get. Yes, it’s public, but it’s not the kind of thing you can plug into a spreadsheet algorithm and instantaneously pull from an internet database (like you can with stock price, or even the last reported price-to-earnings ratio).

Even when I was able to find the information that Buffett usually collects, I didn’t fully understand it. One of the most basic skills you need as a value investor is the ability to read a balance sheet. I don’t have this skill (at least not on any kind of sophisticated level).

Often I would spend half a day or even a full day researching a company in the Warren Buffett style, and 95% of the time decide not to buy. This just wasn’t a cost effective investment method — there was a huge opportunity cost in terms of time sink. I could be using that time to earn money doing consulting work, write music, or do things more fun that look at balance sheets. I can only assume that Warren Buffett loves to read balance sheets. I don’t. I’m not Warren Buffet, nor should I try to be.

There are ways to get good returns over time, with minimum risk, while only spending a few hours a month managing your investments. Many aspects of your investment system can be automated. I’ll go into more details in a follow-up post, but my main takeaway from this mistake was that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time researching company fundamentals. Even if I could find good deals that way and make potentially make a good return in the long-run, I didn’t enjoy the process.

Mistake #5: Staying on the Sidelines/Not Investing Regularly

After the 2008 crash I held steady, bought in a little more, and then pretty much ignored the stock market for the next seven years. This seven year period happened to coincide with one of the largest bull markets in history! Because I was disillusioned with investing, I missed out big.

I didn’t have much cash to invest after 2008 — I was very heavy in stocks. Over the next seven years I earned well and saved over 15% of my income. While I did regularly transfer money into my regular IRA and Roth IRA, I didn’t buy anything during that time, not stocks, not bonds, not gold … nothing. Everything looked like it was priced too high, and I was spooked. I also felt disillusioned regarding investing in individual stocks; I had blown too much time in my attempts to emulate Warren Buffet, and I just didn’t want to deal.

When I was in my thirties I could keep cash in a high interest savings account and it would grow with a 5-10% interest rate. Crazy times! But as you know, interest rates in savings accounts and money markets are all less than .05% these days, and have been this low for years. While I still held many of my older investments, my new hard-earned savings were doing a whole lot of nothing. I realized that I was never going to reach my savings goals if my money wasn’t growing at all, but the higher the stock market rose, the more nervous I became about investing.

I’ll explain what I ended up doing in a later post, but for now I’ll just say that I missed a huge opportunity. I should have been investing on a monthly basis according to a predefined allocation strategy across multiple asset classes. I would have ended up with much better returns.

I don’t feel sorry for myself — I’m probably better off than 90% of people in the world, and like most U.S. citizens I live in a completely different universe than people who subsist on $1-2/day. But it is important for me to share these mistakes, to help others (working class, middle class, or rich) formulate and stick to an intelligent savings and investment plan. It’s the only way to hold your own against the ultrarich who inherit huge sums of money, use sophisticated tools, and play by different rules.

Anyone can grow a sizeable nest egg — even if you only earn minimum wage. The key is coming up with an intelligent system and sticking to it.

Mistake #6: Selling

Rebalancing is one thing — it makes sense to rebalance your portfolio when your percentages get out of whack. But more and more I’m thinking that if you don’t think it’s a good idea to hold a company forever, it’s probably not a good idea to buy it in the first place.

I’ve tried momentum trading, and while I’ve gotten lucky, I’ve also been burned. Worst of all, when I made money, I made far less money than I would have had I just bought and held.

I bought AAPL at 20, sold at 30. Good deal, right? If I’d held, I would have increased my initial investment forty times (remember that Apple did a 7-1 reverse split in 2014). Ouch. That’s a house down-payment I left on the table, just from one trade.

Mistake #7: Trying to Short the Market

Around 2010 there was a wave of panic as various Euro-member countries got into financial trouble. Many experts were predicting a giant market crash (many of the same experts who had been correct about the 2008 crash). I didn’t want to get out of the market entirely, but I wanted to reduce my risk exposure. I invested a significant amount of money in an EFT (VXX) that I thought would provide a hedge against a broad decline in equities.

The problem? VXX only provides a short-term hedge. Because of the way the fund is structured, it’s almost guaranteed to go down in the long run.

I lost thousands of dollars with this attempted hedge. The lesson? Don’t invest in financial instruments that I don’t fully understand!

Mistake #8: Currency Trading Idiocy

Soon after the VXX debacle I had another clever idea. Searching for any kind of interest rate, I noticed that one of my banks was offering foreign currency CDs, some with rates that looked pretty good. However I didn’t want to buy a foreign currency that was an all time high against the U.S. dollar. I wanted to buy-low, sell-high, not the opposite!

I did my due diligence, researching the historical relationship between the U.S. dollar and the New Zealand dollar (USDNZD=X). The New Zealand dollar looked like a good deal — it was at a historical low vs. the U.S. dollar! I bought the CD and patted myself on the back.

Only one problem: I should have been looking at NZDUSD=X … I’d reversed the charts! The New Zealand dollar was actually close to an all-time high vs. the dollar at the time. Oops. No wonder they were offering such an attractive interest rate. The U.S. promptly rose, greatly devaluing my investment in NZ dollars.

Lesson: spend an extra couple minutes making sure the chart means what I think it means.

But I’ve Done a Few Things Right …

I could go on. Really, I could! But it would be too embarrassing.

Despite all these mistakes, I’m doing pretty well these days. I’ve made a few good financial decisions too. For example:

  • I accumulate as little debt as possible and pay it off quickly.
  • I live well below my means.
  • I married well (when I met my wife she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, but now she runs a thriving business and currently earns more than I do).
  • I maximize the amount of pleasure I can get from small luxuries (and skip most of the big ones, thus saving money).
  • I save at least 15% of what I earn.
  • I keep investing and trying to come up with a good slow-growth system (despite previous mistakes I stay in the game).
  • I have learned skills that allow me to charge a high rate for my time.
  • I have created businesses and intellectual property that generate passive income (music royalties).
  • I’ve developed an investment system that takes very little time to manage, protects against market volatility, and will (hopefully) generate the slow compounded returns I need to meet my/our ultimate “nest egg” goal (an amount big enough to generate investment income to support my family’s lifestyle preferences, without using the principle). I can take you through the steps to do the same, provided you’re willing to put aside at least a few dollars a day for investment purposes.

I don’t “have it all figured out” but I will share the details of my personal investment system in a future post.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my history of investment mistakes, missteps, and foolishness!

Making Good Habits Easier — What Is Most Effective?

Brain training!

Brain training!

I’m fascinated by the science of habit formation. Habits are a gray area where we don’t exert free will directly, but we have some choice in terms of how our habits are shaped. We can set up cues to trigger behaviors in ourselves and others, and reward desirable behaviors to condition and reinforce specific neurological pathways.

I’ve been experimenting with modifying some of my own habits over the past year or two. Here’s a short list of habits I’ve successfully implemented:

  • writing fiction every weekday, around 1000 words/day (or working on world-building, outlining, or revisions for about 2 hours), and keeping a work log
  • strength exercise every weekday (dumbbells or body weight exercises)
  • walking about twenty minutes a day
  • implementing a new dental health routine
  • upping my billable consulting hours from about 65 hours a month to about 80 hours a month (to cover increased costs helping a family member, but also increasing own expendable income and savings rate)

In terms of starting new habits and keeping them going, the two most effective techniques for me have been emotional commitment and tracking.

Other habit change methods, such as manipulating cues, understanding intrinsic rewards, and adding extrinsic rewards have been helpful, but not as instrumental as the former two.

Let’s Get Real. What Works?

The purpose of this post is to be clear about what the core of habit change is, and what is fluff or window dressing.

In my experience the single most important factor is the emotional intensity with which you commit to the change.

I’m not sure if this commitment can be rushed. For myself, sometimes I know that I’m going to need to change something in the future, but for whatever reasons I’m just not ready to commit. Maybe it’s because of fear, or a feeling that I don’t have enough time or energy to make the required changes, or just that changing will be too hard.

It’s often negative feelings that finally galvanize the change. Maybe I’m fed up with the old way of life, or tired of the poor results I’m getting from my current way of doing things.

I do know that it’s a very different feeling to consider doing something, or to dip a toe in a “see how it goes,” than to commit 100% to a new set of behaviors.

For me it helps to focus on both immediate rewards (the inherent pleasures of the new behavior) as well as future rewards (improved health, income, status — whatever it may be). At the same time, maintain a vivid picture of the pain and suffering involved with the “old way of doing things.”

The other most effective practice, in my experience, is tracking progress.

“What gets measured, gets managed.”
– Peter Drucker

When I’m trying to implement a new behavior, spreadsheets are my friend. For fiction writing, I use a daily writing log. For tracking my consulting hours and billable time, I use a spreadsheet that not only calculates how close I am to my monthly goal, but also generates other helpful numbers like remaining workdays.

If you are serious about changing your behavior, write down what you do and what the results are. This applies even to simple counts like “how many days without smoking.”

Everything Else

Everything else is fluff. Of course there can be value in motivational “tricks” like giving yourself rewards, or analyzing a behavior to see if the “bad part” of the behavior can be removed while still holding to part of the psychological reward (if you take outside smoke breaks, don’t forget to take breaks and go outside after you stop smoking).

Go ahead and make that public bet on the internet that you won’t drink for 30 days, or whatever. It can’t hurt, and might even help. Put your running shoes by the door so they remind you and are easy to locate and put on. That will probably help out a bit.

But for long-term change in your life systems, emotional commitment and behavioral tracking are the most effective habit change techniques.

Please share your thoughts (including disagreements, if you have had a different experience) below.

OUSD Teacher Contract Negotiations (and Cronyism at the Top?)

As a parent of a child enrolled in an Oakland public school, I’ve been paying close attention to the ongoing teacher contract negotiations. Next week will be the 2nd week of teachers at my daughter’s school (Emerson Elementary) using “work-to-rule” as a means to protest the low salaries Oakland teachers receive as compared to neighboring districts.

OUSD (Oakland Unified School District) teachers have been working without a negotiated contract since 2008. From OUSD’s Collective Bargaining Agreements and Salary Schedules page, you can view the last full contract as well as the imposed contract implemented by the school board in April 2010 after several rounds of failed negotiations.

OUSD is offering teachers a 10% raise over three years (letter from current superintendent Antwan Wilson). The current average OUSD teacher salary is around $55K (starting teachers make around $40K). This may seem high to people outside of the Bay Area, but average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Oakland is around $4,000 a month. In other words average apartment rent in Oakland is approximately equal to 100% of average OUSD teacher after-tax income. Clearly Oakland teachers are underpaid. The statewide average is approximately $68K, while the neighboring city of Alameda pays an average of $65K.

[Correction: upon closer examination the link to Oakland rents includes neighborhoods with 10 miles of Oakland, which includes San Francisco. Oakland average rent is probably closer to $2500 — still very high for OUSD average teacher income]

To both attract and retain qualified, experienced, and talented teachers, Oakland needs to offer teachers higher salaries.

Negotiation Status

As of today OUSD and OEA (Oakland Eduation Association — the teacher’s union) have failed to reach an agreement. Here is the statement from the OEA. At issue are not only teacher raises but also Special Education class size caps and caseloads, student to counselor ratios, and benefits. The same page includes links to latest proposals from both OUSD and OEA.

Especially contentious is Article 12, which governs the rules for filling vacancies and assigning teachers. The district is pushing for changes that would reduce teacher job security and remove the role of seniority in placement and transfer rights.

Accusations of Cronyism

Jack Gerson of has accused OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson of hiring his pals from Denver with bloated salaries (including a husband-wife team), creating unnecessary new administrative positions, and giving all administrators pay raises that far exceed what OUSD is proposing for teacher raises. Reading Gerson’s post severely undermined my confidence in Wilson, and also the board that hired him.

Wilson states that he plans to “trim Central Office” but that does not seem to include the salaries of top administrators. What does this style of “pad the top, chop from the bottom” budgeting style really mean? According to Gerson:

So if Wilson is cutting the central administration budget, much of the cuts are likely coming from the lower paid administrative support. This would be a repetition of what Randy Ward did in 2003 – 6 when the state came in. He brought in all kinds of Broad Foundation graduates and residents at the high end (Troy Christmas; Jonathan Klein; and many others) and promoted some ambitious locals, while laying waste to central services — eliminating central copy services, almost annihilating maintenance (electricians, painters, window repair, etc.) and thus forcing schools to buy services from the likes of Kinko’s. Randy Ward made other cuts “away from the classroom” — of clerical, cafeteria, custodial, and other essential school classified staff positions.

Even if there is some central office fat to trim, and even if Wilson and his Denver team are a completely qualified and necessary team of brilliant administrators and deserve every penny of their sky-high salaries, Wilson should have deferred his own raise and the new top brass hires until a fair contract with the teachers was secured. It just looks bad.

I’d like to invite Oakland School Board members James Harris (President), Jody London (Vice President), Roseann Torres, Aimee Eng, Nina Senn, Shanthi Gonzales, Jumoke Hinton Hodge, and Antwan Wilson himself to respond to Gerson’s accusations, and either justify the administrative pay raises and new positions, or roll them back.

My Own Position

Originally I was sympathetic to points on both sides of the negotiations. Obviously teachers deserve a contract and a significant raise, but I can also understand the desire of the district to push for more flexibility in hiring and transfers, even if this comes at the cost of some job security for some teachers.

However in light of revelations regarding salary padding and fat new (and potentially unnecessary) administrative positions at the top, I believe the school board and the superintendent have lost all moral authority.

I don’t pretend to understand all the intricacies of the complex OUSD budget, but from what I can tell the teachers have put forward a reasonable proposal, which as a parent I fully support (I’ll be at Emerson later today to join an after-school protest supporting the teachers) .

The fault doesn’t lie entirely with the district; the district budget is closely tied with the state budget, and California lawmakers leave money on the table every year with absurdly low oil extraction taxes. Still, the district should move quickly to reach an agreement with OEA, and forget about changes to Article 12 for now.

Get the teachers the raise they deserve, and do it soon.

Let The Board Know

If you are an OUSD family member and you’d like to support the teachers in their negotiations, you may wish to send a “valentine” to the school board and the superintendent. A sample email and the board member’s addresses are below:

“Dear school board member: This Valentine’s Day we are asking you to show our teachers that you love them by giving them the modest raise they are asking for – without contingencies. As an OUSD parent/member of the OUSD community, we want to attract and keep the best teachers, and we think the teacher’s request for a contingency-free raise makes good sense. Happy Valentine’s Day!”