Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Where are you and where are you going?
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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Sat Feb 03, 2018 5:04 am

Thank you all for your well-thought-out replies.

@Wannabe: "A representative, weithted study of the correlation between dumpster-eating and high net worth" would be a great thesis for social studies ;) Although from my personal experience, my fellow container-munchers are rather of the anti-capitalist type, unlikely to build portfolios. But time will tell, perhaps in a few decades they'll all be millionares!

I read a subchapter in the ERE book last week relating to the topic of social isolation, about finding different circles to connect to: not mentioning to your simple living friends that you also happen to manage a six-figure portfolio, and not mentioning to your investment friends that you only have one bedroom. (quoting off the top of my head, don't have the book with me right now to look it up)

I get that. Struggling with the implementation. Most of my current friends belong to neither camp, we are mostly friends over common interests (Metal, sicence, bikes). Plus I have the annoying habit of being fiercely honest when directly asked about income/wealth - I can't lie, but I don't want to tell the truth, but deflecting feels bad because I'm usually very direct. Also, meeting a new person out of context, I have to gauge which camp they belong to, meanwhile guarding all my bases. Tricky.

I have a good friend who is very into simple living - he bikes everywhere, even with two small kids, freecycles household items and always brings lunch from home. We sneak into random events when there's a free buffet. He's also a bit of a polymath and has great baltic humor. I'll miss him when he moves away in the summer. I've been thinking he could be open to ERE philosophy, maybe I'll get the book for him as a present.

I have this other friend who is a banker and I like to discuss investment strategy with. He lives in a loft, drives a BMW and wears expensive suits. He recently sprung 1,5k for a ski weekend in the alps with his wife. He asked me why I hoard all my money, instead of enjoying what life has to offer. He sais if I drop dead tomorrow, all my pennypinching was in vein, and the state will inherit my wealth. I wonder, is the prospect of death really the reason why people don't save?

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Fri Feb 09, 2018 10:24 am

(Beware, another mega-post incomming!)

The original polymath

My grandfather was a jack of all trades and my greatest influence when it comes to lifestyle and philosophy. My grandfather's choices were influenced by his path through life, and although he never talked much, his story tells some valuable lessons.

He was born in the early 1930ies as the youngest of 7 brothers on a farm close to a lake. His father died when he was still young, but his mother fought fiercely to keep all her kids and the farm under her care – which was quite a feat for a woman back then. The war and economy made times rough, all boys learned to work the fields and tend to the animals from a very young age, and help raise their younger brothers. When the older brothers went off to apprenticeships and the military, they kept in touch with frequent postcards and letters home (which I still have in a box). My grandfather got an apprenticeship as a machinist, which presented a leg up from rural society and the chance to work in towns. A popular choice was to spend a year abroad to learn French, which my grandfather spent working at a confectioner and learned baking. He also spent some time in French Switzerland, where his oldest brother oversaw an apple orchard and learned to prune trees, harvest fruit and process apples.

He found a machinist job close to home and rented a small attic room, from where he walked to the factory every day. He met and fell in love with my grandmother (working as a nurse at the time). Him being from a Protestant family and her from a Catholic one, they married secret at a small chapel with nobody present but another couple, serving as their mutual witnesses. They drove off together a small Vespa, spending their honeymoon on the French Cote d’Azur with nothing but a tent, the clothes on their back and some cooking gear. They lived in a tiny town apartment, both continuing to work until the birth of their 3 kids. Being a savvy saver, my grandfather managed to get a plot of land in a nearby village and a small bank loan. He started planning and building his house: building materials were sourced from sales, scrap yards or renovations, equipment rented or lent from small businesses, help employed from friends on weekends and holidays. He taught himself how to design building plans, set up heating or install sanitation from technical handbooks. The only thing he didn’t do was the electrical wiring: a friend from work came and installed it on a few weekends. As soon as the shell of the building was up, the family moved in, their youngest son was still a toddler. Our family pictures show the tree kids playing on gravel heaps and in wheelbarrows. My grandfather was able to design a home perfectly suited for their life and for the future. While I’m not sure this would still be possible today due to all the regulations, I am still in awe of the man that built his family house with his own hands.

He continued to work as a machinist in a watch factory until retirement (the regular kind). Along the way, he picked up watchmaking and beekeeping as a hobby. He was the guy who could salvage three broken radios from the dump and make one working one. He was the guy who drove his car for 20 years, never bringing it to a garage for service. He was the guy waiting besides uprooted trees after a storm, waiting to take the firewood off the cleanup crew’s hands. He cultivated the land around his house with veggies and fruit trees, providing his family with food throughout the year (there was even a greenhouse made entirely from old windows). Retirement was simply a transition from salaried work to more work around the home, in the garden, in the workshop and with the bees.

I spent my weekends with my grandparents and was even allowed to live with them for some time. As a kid, I had unsupervised adventures in the forest or drove to the dump with my grandpa to hunt treasures. I worked on little projects with him in the ever-growing workshop. I rummaged the massive collections of material in the attic and the sheds. I learned cooking and sewing from my grandma, and welding, beekeeping and handiwork from my grandpa. When I got older, we collaborated on different projects, house-sitted a farm together or he asked for my help on tasks he could not do himself. Being with him was enjoyable because we did not have to talk much. We could easily spend hours without verbal communication, just being at peace in each other’s presence. He never told me “I love you”, or any of his children. But when I had to move to University, he went to the attic and brought me an entire apartment’s worth of kitchen equipment (complete with a 30-year old pressure cooker I still use today), desk and study lamp. And he was so proud when I finished High School as the first person in my family. So he cared about me a lot.

I never talked much about finances with my grandpa. He obviously was a saver, and from I young age I emulated his behavior, saving my allowance and money gifts in a candy box. Still he must have had some knack for investing, and he always did his own taxes. He also bought my grandma’s parents’ house when they died, restored it and rented it out. But most of his money was in stocks and bonds. I remember talking investment once, during the market crash of 2008. He said he barely lost anything, because he never invested in things he did not understand (=subprime American real estate hedge funds). I guess he could have retired early if he wanted, but being from the post-war generation, that was just not something you’d consider. Perhaps he also enjoyed his work, it was at a very friendly company – they sent him a deli food basket every Christmas, even after he retired. On the other hand he obviously had enough projects to keep himself busy without the work.

My grandma was in some respect the polar opposite of him. She was a lively, loud woman, liked to phone everybody she knew and had a global network of friends from traveling and working as a nurse for Doctors without borders. She traveled to America, Australia and all over Europe. She was open to new technology, learned to text and e-mail and surf the internet. A weaker woman would have suffered under my grandfather’s penny-pinching miserliness, but my grandma went along with it, taking the liberty to splurge on the luxuries she didn’t want to miss (clothes and shoes, coffee and cake, holidays). It helped that she had her own money.

After a full life, my grandpa died in the summer of 2011. He suffered a brain hemorrhage while working in the summer heat with his bees. He was flown to the hospital, but there was little to be done and he never woke up. While his sudden death – especially in light of his great health – was a shock to us all, it was good for him to go quickly and with little suffering while still active and doing the things he loved. Being bedridden and frail for a long time before his death would have been terrible for him. My grandma followed him soon after.

My grandfather was by childhood hero, but having grown up and having seen how other people live, I can see his lifestyle in a more critical light too. While it was nice to have a stash of random stuff for fixing houses, electronics, cars, etc around, the yard, attic and shed really looked like something out of “Hoarders” – to the constant annoyance of my grandma and the neighbors. Someone’s trash may be another ones treasure, but perhaps my grandfather took it a bit far. He apparently also did some semi-legal stuff with his taxes, which only came out after his death. He never went on holiday except for once, when my grandma enforced a family vacation on the Balearic Isles: he went along, but his luggage was filled with 2 weeks’ worth of homemade granola. He never adopted the internet or even the use of a simple cellphone. He barely had any friends, never went to community events, rarely traveled out of his county. His main contacts were his brothers and sons, who have adopted very similar lifestyles, and a few guys he met over common interests.

TLDR version: My grandfather chose to live a simple, self-reliant life, away from consumerism. I try to keep the downsides in mind and not put my him on a pedestal, however I still think there are many positive lessons to be learned from the lives of my grandfather and grandmother. Here are a few:

Lessons to be learned from my grandpa
  • Live significantly below your means, save and invest in what you understand
  • Learn to DIY as much as possible, never outsource services you could possibly learn yourself
  • Continue to learn new skills and challenge yourself
  • Think critically about advertised products
  • Don't spend a fortune on your wedding and honeymoon - all you need is love!
  • Reach out to likeminded people for help and expertise (instead of “buying” a solution)
  • Travel light while working and see the world when you’re young, then settle down where you feel most comfortable and build a self-reliant life
  • Don’t give a F about appearances (clothes, car, house), but do what serves you and is practical
  • Only spend time with people that appreciate you (for being a penny-pinching polymath)
  • Master the 30s phone call
  • Show your love by providing actual help (with projects, supplies, moving)
  • Cultivate your hobbies until they provide a side income (repair, beekeeping)
  • Be humble

Lessons to be learned from my grandma
  • What you have in abundance, give freely (veggies + fruit, flowers, time, sage advice…)
  • Don’t forget to enjoy life, and spend money on the things that are important to you
  • Establish and uphold good relationships with your neighbors and friends, and you will never lack a helpful hand or ear
  • Show your love by home cooked meals and personal talks
  • Have friends all over the globe, so you can travel!
  • Learn to preserve by pickling, freezing, pasteurizing, storing
  • Embrace new things (technology, innovations, cuisine)

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Sat Feb 10, 2018 6:44 am

Something interesting happened yesterday. My BF and I were in the kitchen cooking dinner and he suddenly said he would very much like to leave his job, buy a plot of land somewhere and live a simple life. This took me a bit by surprise – he never showed any interest in FI matters. We took some time elaborating on this dream of his. Then I sprung the “this is not impossible, you know”, and gave him a brief rundown of the Frugalwoods journey (dream of a homestead in the woods, living frugal and saving up to make it happen). I fear ERE might be a bit too high-concept for him. He does not think FIRE is possible for him though – common arguments include 1) salary to low and 2) is afraid of missing out on life while he saves up. He has a health condition, which might make it very difficult to enjoy retirement after some point (but then again also working life). We argued a bit about what’s the point of saving and being miserly when you could drop dead tomorrow (never a fruitful discussion, it inevitably leads to bleak nihilism). He is convinced both home/land ownership and not needing a job are unattainable for him, and even if so it would take 20+ years of saving, so there is no point in trying.

I’ve been thinking – and also reading the thread here on the forum – about how to introduce him to ERE concepts to him. I’ve gotten really into it over the past few months, but kept myself covered. With some topics we are very much on the same page since we met: consumerism, needing a new phone/car/gadget every few years, TV, sustainable living, quality over quantity, reducing waste, buying secondhand, homemaking and cooking. Other topics he is fairly disinclined to: he loathes all things related to budget, spreadsheets, investing, tax reports or numbers in general. He sometimes also gets into the famous “I deserve this because I work hard” mindset – especially when it comes to food items. He has no budget or tracking spending, his salary just kinda vanishes somewhere, and he’s always struggling to keep up with bills - even though he earns more than me. At least he has a strong aversion to getting in dept. As opposed to me, he really does not like his job. He really suffers having to work sometimes. Thinking about the will to change pyramid (ERE book Figure 1.1), his dissatisfaction with the current situation is very high, and while he has the vision but the practicality to get there is very low. So what he needs is a plan to get to that future and a lower perceived cost of that plan.

Please don't judge him - he's just a wonderful guy who was cast into a shitty job and was never shown any alternative to the cookie cutter plan of work, sleep, eat, shit, pay taxes. He asked me a few times: is this it? Is this all life has to offer? I think he's more ready for FIRE concepts that anyone I know.

As I mentioned before, I am probably the worst ambassador for ERE, having already accumulated a large stash without much of a plan or vision of the future. I’m pondering what I can do to help him along his mental journey to FI, without scaring him off. Here are a few thoughts:
  • Get him to read a book or blog. This is my solution to everything, but he's a different person. Unfortunately reading in general and English too is not his strongest suit. Most literature on ER is in English. The ERE book might be too “academic” for his taste. Frugalwoods and MMM might hit the right tone, but again both in English. YMYL I’m not really familiar with. I think something with a low language barrier might help until he gets “hooked”. Any of the German speakers here know of resources in German?
  • Live by example by saving a part of my paycheck and showing him how I budget. He loathes numbers, but maybe I can show him how I basically get free money by DIY, forgoing unimportant luxuries and investing. I can show off the cool stuff I get for free or cheap and perhaps convince him not everything has to cost a fortune.
  • Encourage free or cheap activities and entertainment. I’m already sort of on this, planning some game nights, visiting free theater shows or getting new movies through the swap network. Metal concerts don’t come cheap though, and we like to go to the cinema every 2 months. Perhaps we can reduce these.
  • Generally encouraging thrifty behavior and frugality. This sorta goes into dangerous territory of “conditioning your SO to change his behavior to your liking”. On the other hand, he always says he wants to save.
I think I’ll just ask him tonight what I can do to help him with his journey.

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by wolf » Sat Feb 10, 2018 12:36 pm

Astra wrote:
Sat Feb 10, 2018 6:44 am
I’m pondering what I can do to help him along his mental journey to FI, without scaring him off.
German speaker here :) What I would consider is his personality, e.g. motivation, personality type, virtues, beliefs, etc. IMO, it is important that he establishes an intrinsic motivation about FIRE / ERE. Each person is different and therefore has different motivational factors. I therefore would consider some questions about money. How does he think about money overall? In addition to that, knowing what his interests, hobbies, etc. are is a huge help. Is he more introvert or extravert? What are his dreams? What would he do / work, if money is no hindrance? I would consider the context and his personality and try to understand his view. Try to build connections btw his current lifestyle and FIRE /ERE, in order give him ideas about possible future lifestyles. You said it already very good, that you wanted to ask him how you could help him on this journey.

And here some book ideas:
"Der Weg zur finanziellen Freiheit: Die erste Million" by Bodo Schäfer (a bit too money centred, but it teaches some good principles)
"Der reichste Mann von Babylon: Erfolgsgeheimnisse der Antike - Der erste Schritt in die finanzielle Freiheit" (it teaches also really good principles)
Well, but neither of those two books teach motivation.

Try it like this quote says:
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote:If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Good luck, take care and be patient.

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Family father » Mon Feb 12, 2018 5:52 am

@Astra: I like how you summarized those "lessons": I'll steal some, if you don't mind.. :) (I find your journal very interesting!!)

@Wolf: very wise and relevant quote: I'll steal that too.. :D

I just had a conversation with my SO this weekend about the criteria to dismiss clothes..

Isn't it in the end a matter of priorities: we must accept the decissions of priority nº1, and adapt/adjust the rest of priorities to it.. ?? (being SO and ERE two of those priorities)

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Fri Apr 13, 2018 10:20 am

G’day maties, despite my prolonged silence, I’m still alive. Here’s what’s been going on.

Free fun: Found out I can get free tickets from my Uni to various events. Now I go to concerts and theater plays for free about twice a month (some of the tickets are 40+ Euros…). Enjoying my love of live theater productions. More outside, taking walks etc. Haven’t played a computer game since November. Been to a few game nights – lots of fun, wish this was more regular. Also swapping DVDs and CDs with friends and internet-strangers for free entertainment, and visiting the library every 2 weeks. I found that you can request books (they hide this option very well, lol). Should I request the ERE book, so others can get access? I will ask if they take donations. I never thought I could get over my addiction to buying books, but I haven’t paid for a book since ordering the ERE book from Amazon. Mild success, but room for improvement. Still have a pile of books I bought and still want to read, can’t get rid of them until I’m through. Everything else is currently for sale/swap!

Science: Exploring some new-to-me sub-fields, including (in no particular order) extremely radiation-resistant organisms (and the mechanisms behind), principles of mass spectroscopy, ribosome modification, in vitro evolution (SELEX) and oxidative stress, as it is naturally generated by oxidative phosphorylation. While these may seemingly have little to do with each other, I’m forming connections here and there. Currently just absorbing information, spending whole days immersed in papers and databases. Things pop out. I’m starting to enjoy this aspect of science: literature research, thinking about how to test things, planning experiments, writing to experts in the field for their advice. I may become a principal investigator yet.

Life and Career: Good news everyone! I’m going to the United States of America! I was invited to work in a lab there while still in my PhD – six months plus, all expenses and living cost sponsored. Of course, incredible opportunity in terms of the experiments I can do. The prof is great and the group seems very competent. But also, I’m excited to experience life in the USA first-hand. I’ve never lived abroad, not even an exchange semester (was too expensive then). We Europeans have our stereotypes about Americans – let’s see if they hold true. I’m going to a larger city in the Midwest, so it should be middle of the spectrum in terms of left/right, urban/country, I guess? Maybe I’ll even be able to understand how the current President got elected… ehem. I’m excited!

Simple living: I’m taking this opportunity to further reduce my possessions – revisited Jacob’s “Living out of a suitcase” article and that’s my ideal for this half-year in the USA (I’m still far from it). I’ll try to get a room in a shared flat with a kitchen, within biking distance of the lab. Get a cheap secondhand bike for the time. Not accumulate more than necessary stuff while there. Live simply, so I have enough time for work, my new colleagues and to experience the culture. My hope is once I survive 6 months on barebones possessions (and reap the benefits), it will help me get rid of all the clutter which I’m leaving behind at home (my partner stays behind and keeps the apartment full of stuff).
Unfortunately it also means some restructuring in my banking. My current banks do not allow customers with US-ties. So I’ll have to move everything (checking, 401-K, stocks) to a bank/broker that will. Not so dramatic, I’d have done this anyway in a few years, now it just moved up earlier. Also, a good opportunity for a little “spring cleaning” in my finances: automating payments, cancelling services and superfluous accounts, insurance, getting rid of some stocks/bonds and buying others. Let’s just hope my government doesn’t think I’m trying to evade taxes by moving all my money to a foreign bank ;)

Possible purchase: I’ve been thinking for 2+ months whether I should get a laptop. I currently work from a desktop PC at my lab. Going abroad it would be nice to have a laptop with all my work on it, so I can write/research/keep records in a mobile way. I could also use it privately, for movies, skyping, paying bills… but I am conflicted about buying something. Not that I can’t afford it. Recently saw a documentary about how quickly electronics get trashed, and “planned obsolescence” in these products. Perhaps I can get a secondhand one? But I can’t really judge how well a secondhand unit is preserved and what a fair price is. Decisions, decisions.

Reading: Made it through the ERE book. Far less un-agreeable than anticipated. I’m glad I haven’t made it to the hyper-consumerist, outsourcing-everything, drive-giant-car-to-my-eternally-miserable-job, consolidate-myself-with-spending state yet, which Jacob aptly describes. I’ll give it some time, then return to the book again. Or should I pass it on? Other reads: Satanic Bible (Anton LaVey), Mind Over Money: the psychology of money and how to use it better (Claudia Hammond), How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie), Powder mage trilogy (Brian McClellan), Southern Reach Trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer), Haunted (Chuck Palaniuk), Cosmétique de l’ennemi (Amelie Nothomb), Walk in the woods (Bill Bryson).

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Chris » Fri Apr 13, 2018 12:31 pm

Astra wrote:
Fri Apr 13, 2018 10:20 am
Good news everyone! I’m going to the United States of America!
I’m excited to experience life in the USA first-hand. I’ve never lived abroad, not even an exchange semester (was too expensive then). We Europeans have our stereotypes about Americans – let’s see if they hold true.
Congratulations! That is excellent news. Prepare to be surrounded by fat, dumb people who are constantly shooting each other (-;

Traveling somewhere with a mission -- especially when someone else pays for it -- is a great opportunity. At least in my own experience, trips with a mission have often been more meaningful than straight vacations. And not only will you learn about Americans, but you will also be an ambassador of your homeland. Are you prepared for such a duty?

You should plan an ERE meetup while you're over here too.
Astra wrote:
Fri Apr 13, 2018 10:20 am
My current banks do not allow customers with US-ties. So I’ll have to move everything (checking, 401-K, stocks) to a bank/broker that will.
Would it be less bothersome to maintain your original accounts and open additional new accounts?

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Tue Apr 24, 2018 10:46 am

Chris wrote:
Fri Apr 13, 2018 12:31 pm
Traveling somewhere with a mission -- especially when someone else pays for it -- is a great opportunity.
I completely agree!

Not buying stuff: Going ok, it has been months since I bought anything but food and household things. Most importantly, I haven’t bought any new books or clothes. However, I got invited to a wedding, the flight will be quite expensive, plus I’ll need a very traditional, formal dress (we’re talking evening-gown levels here, a simple cotton dress won’t do). I was told I CANNOT wear black, which sucks, since my formal wear and almost all my other clothes are black. I’m unwilling to just buy a dress for +100 € which I’m gonna wear a handful of times. It’s not even about the money - I just can’t be part of this one-off culture. So I’m looking into non-market solution: ideally I could borrow a dress from a friend with my size (these things usually just hang in the closet after 1-2 uses, right?). I looked on secondhand sites online, but people are still asking horrendous prices, because they spent so much themselves.

Adventure time: I was able to take a long weekend for a city trip to Marseille (France). Transportation was free, since I won one free round-trip of my choice in a contest. Accommodation was free because I visited some students I met at a conference. Very nice hosts, talked a lot and had dinner together. I spent some money on visiting a museum, but no tours or other tourist stuff. Mostly alone walking around the city, looking at architecture, historic sites and enjoying the sun. Almost mini-summer vacation feeling, trying to speak French, the piazza culture, although the water was still very cold. I like how people are outside in the evenings, sharing public spaces, playing boule and music. This means you need smaller apartment/private space.

USA: Building some basic knowledge about US geography and history, so I don’t look like an idiot over there. I’m a bit worried, I hear form everyone you can’t talk about politics, religion, anything too intellectual (philosophy, science), money, sex, controversial issues or make jokes that are not politically correct (my stance is that you can joke about anything. Fight me!). What else is there to talk about? The weather, the series you’re watching and hobbies? I hope not everyone is that way.

Bank issues: The issue is that my current banks (and any other local bank) do not want any customers that spend time in the US for 180+ days, because that opens them up to the tax system. According to FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), foreign banks have to send all the info on their client to the IRA, or be punished with severe fines. This lead almost all banks to outright ban US customers, or if you are a local, you must tell your bank if going to the US for work and they will expel you. There are some banks still accepting US persons, but for outrageous fees. I have found a solution with a broker from the Netherlands for my stocks, and a small local bank, where I can only keep my checking account. I will also open a bank account in the USA for my day-to-day operations, but I prefer my stash to stay in Europe. I am reading up on this whole credit score thing that’s going on in the US. Is it worth taking over a statement from your previous bank saying you are credit-worthy? Should I follow some of the strategies published online to get a good score? Some cards offer pretty neat benefits, but I guess you need a high score to get them. Or is all the hubbub about credit not worth the effort?

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Smashter » Tue Apr 24, 2018 11:21 am

You will have no problem finding people to talk about all those topics, but (as I assume is the case worldwide?) you can't just waltz up to people on the street and start talking about sex and money. If you get to know someone, the sky's the limit. I would not be scared at all. I too live by the motto that you should be able to joke about anything, and I've yet to get in any fights :)

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by TheWanderingScholar » Tue Apr 24, 2018 12:50 pm


Smashster hit it on the nose. Random people is not something you can talk about. Associates some things. Friends, you can talk about anything. Well most things.

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by DutchGirl » Tue Apr 24, 2018 3:25 pm

As for a book for your boyfriend to read... Perhaps the book "Geld oder Leben". It is the German "translation", more or less, from the English "Your money or your life". It was translated by a Dutch couple; they also wrote a Dutch book on this. By now, the book is twenty years old or so, so some details are different now. (For example the Dutch version has a topic about the interest rates of savings accounts being 5% or higher, and thus putting some of your money in long-term savings account is promoted - this is currently not very fruitful/useful).

Enjoy your time in the US! My sister had a wonderful time there some 15 years ago now, also as an exchange PhD student. Lots of interesting people to talk to, lots of sports to do and lots of nature to explore. Hopefully it's the same where you go. And anyway, it's an adventure. (PS, I stayed closer to home and did a couple of months in the UK, I loved it, too).

In the old days, scientists often were people "of independent means", who didn't have to work for a living and who instead used their brains, time and hands to explore the world. Maybe you can be such a gentlewoman scholar :-) . But only when and as long as you enjoy it!

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Mon May 14, 2018 5:07 am

Shock- I tallied up my net worth to compare; the last and only time I did this was Dec 2017. To my surprise, in these 5 months it has gone up just over 5%, even after excluding pay-ins in that time. I can’t explain it – I would have thought most of my assets are still in the red from that small market fall in February, plus paying a big tax bill, jet they are not. Since I have been heavily restructuring my portfolio and shuffling between accounts, it’s nearly impossible to track down where that increase came from without more data points (I should track my Networth much closer, like monthly, but I’m laaazyyy). I suspect it has something to do with the Euro growing stronger. I usually have a “feel” how my portfolio is doing based on my current assets – just shows me how wrong this feeling can be. Strange, but also not a terrible drama in this instance.

Planning for my USA stay is still in progress. Visa application is being processed; I have to go through one or several interviews at the embassy. My guess is that they mostly want to know that I’m a). not a terrorist that wants to let loose a flesh-eating bacterium on the American population and b). not seeking to outstay my visa illegally (because who wound not want to stay in the GEATEST country on earth, right?). I heard some horror stories from friends and acquaintances about these interviews… trying to explain your basic research to a scientifically illiterate bureaucrat who thinks you’re an undercover agent plotting to destroy his beloved nation. Hilarious. Let’s see how it goes.

My grant was also approved, meaning I bring my own money for research, living expenses and conference travel to the States. Being my own boss, I don’t have to take crap from anyone and can’t be forced into weird contract obligations. My hope is that I can keep a more European work-life balance and actually see something of the city on weekends instead of slaving away. Let’s see how I’ll be able to stick with it and not succumb to peer pressure to live in the Lab.

Because of this set amount of money (I’m getting it all in one big pile up front), I’m planning keep tight track of all my expenses in the USA. Some of that is required for my grant (research costs, travel), other is just for my own amusement (living expenses). I’m looking at some rooms in shared apartments, furnished if possible, between 400-450$/mo, in walking or biking distance to the Lab. I would have taken shared dorm rooms too, but I was informed these are only for students taking courses. Then again, living off-campus is probably cheaper anyway. International health insurance is a lot cheaper and I will save a couple hundreds compared to home. Cost for food and household remain to be seen: I cook almost every meal myself now, but USA has a strong going-out to eat culture. I may join my workmates sometimes and that will inflate my food budget. I’m wondering how much of my current in-sourcing lifestyle I’ll be able to uphold over there, especially when I hear how much the Americans tend to work. Stay tuned for packing-list, monthly budget and first impressions of American culture (as seen by a pasty privileged European girl).

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by ira_kart » Mon May 14, 2018 6:38 am

Astra wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 5:07 am
I heard some horror stories from friends and acquaintances about these interviews… trying to explain your basic research to a scientifically illiterate bureaucrat
Been there thrice/four times and know a bit or two about it. Do not worry too much over it. Keep your head high and respond with your intended purpose of visit "seeing" the Visa officer. For the scientifically illiterate bureaucrat, when they do not understand anything we speak, Body language plays a big part which they are trained to check and will quickly come to a conclusion on each case. Their job is interviewing candidates, so every day, in and out, they have perfected this skill and fishing out those who do not qualify. Never see down or up or sideways while speaking to them (I did this once and was denied the first time and later learnt from a movie that each of this signifies something (lie, etc.,.) about what we speak). We do not notice it, but thats how our eyes move when we start telling our intent (unfortunately stories for them) to someone who does not understand the head/tail of it. Being from another world power, you should not be going through a tough interview and obviously the current administration wants more people like you than the shit**** countries. hope you get the drift. so take it easy mate.
Astra wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 5:07 am
Stay tuned for packing-list, monthly budget and first impressions of American culture (as seen by a pasty privileged European girl).
Please keep us posted on your first impressions of the States. Chad has already noted above, but do not be surprised to see cart sized lanes for "people" in billing counters while shopping at a super market (I heard this comment from a Polish colleague/visitor to States). Being German, you can relate to many people of German origin. This is the list I received from a colleague when I started my first overseas trip to US in 2011. I have removed items which may not be applicable to you. I am sure you will have your own list, but sharing it to not loose it anywhere. I have this list email saved from 2011 :) for nostalgia.

1. Get all the approvals from corporate
2. Time is very short….. so plan with immigration and find the flight that they have blocked….. based on that prepare you luggage.. in last min you wont know how much luggage u r carrying
3. Know your port of entry
4. Is there any other flight after your port of entry? In that case,.. u have to pull out your baggage and re-check in..
5. What is your transit airport? If you know that early.. make sure.. you have some coins and currency for that country. (if you wish you phone you mom)
6. Make sure.. u have a credit card.. which is valid across globe… because.. .US is card country very few would be using cash… so.. u should have a backup always (Edit- India is cash country - Cash is king, though cards are being used everywhere nowadays, hence this point)
7. Make sure…. U have some $ in coins.. and you have some 1$ 5$ 10$ denomination
8. Where are you going to stay? In friend house? If yes.. how you are going to pickedup? Will someone come there?
9. If none is picking you… u have to book a taxi… check in google.. and see.. that is the distance from the airport to your location.. make sure u have that much currency
12. Make sure u have 2 sets of specs (Edit - specs for spectacles or vision-glasses in case you wear one; in US, these are called eye-glasses)
13. You should carry atleast 7 sets of Dress. If you are going to put laundry once a week.. u should be able to manage every thing
14. If you are carrying any electronics items like Iron box etc.. make sure it works with 110 volts…
15. buy a travel adapter
16. Before going.. find out the nearest Walmart to your location…. u can find anything and everything… which you missed out.
18. Sox (Edit: Socks)and shoes.. more important.. buy atleast 5 sets of sox…. Daily wear one…..wash in the weekend
19. Sports shoes..
21. Right from 2nd week take some amount for going around..
22. Visit – Losangeles, Sanfrancisco mostly every one would have gone to this place… so none will accompany you…. Never mind…. U go alone..(Edit - I was moving to SF, hence the emphasis on West Coast cities)
25. All the best!!! Enjoi every moment!!!

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Mon May 28, 2018 4:21 am

American Impressions (prejudices)
I'm definitely looking forward to my first impressions of American life and the people. Almost feeling a little Safari-Excitement, as if going to experience a fabled animal in it's natural habitat, after seeing it for years through the biased lens of documentaries. Hollywood and US-TV productions are going strong where I live, making us feel very familiar with American culture without having ever lived there. I realize some of these stereotypes are hugely hyped and generalizing, and on purpose set into contrast to some traditional European values. To illustrate this cliché extremely: the vapidly superficial Millenials and middle class are hooked on consumer electronics and social media, everyone lives in a financed McMansion and has two cars, wears their shoes indoors and can't cook, so must sustain a varied diet of burgers, pizza and gallon-sized vats of high-fructose corn syrup. Nobody reads books, speaks a second language, or uses anything other than a car of transportation, oh, and of course, everyone owns a gun and is super religious in a painfully backwards way.
It's funny how many of my friends and relatives share this image, despite being fairly worldly individuals. Maybe it's because media and entertainment constantly reinforce that stereotype, maybe it's because the predominantly negative news coverage just fits so well with this image (POTUS, school shootings, reproductive rights and equality issues, health system, debt crisis...). I'm very open to have all of these stereotypes shattered by forward-thinking, engaging individuals that defy the negative aspects of the “American way of life” - but I fear as so often there might still be a kernel of truth at every cliché. Anyway, open to being proven wrong.

Packing list
Considering I'll be in the Midwestern climate from summer till winter, and I'm not planning to buy anything there nor spend all my time in climate-controlled environments, I'll probably end up taking quite a few clothes with me, spanning everything from lightweight linen and sportswear for up to 40°C to winter coat and boots for long walks through snow and rain. I'm very happy to walk or bike anywhere if I'm suitably clothed. I'm looking at a fully furnished room in a shared house with equipped kitchen, so I should be set on bedding and cooking supplies? Still thinking about buying a laptop, both for work and private purposes, for my time in the lab and after PhD traveling and taking a Post-doc position. Still a bit hesitant to buy something and break my no-buy streak (going strong since November 2017).

Progress on bureaucracy
Visa application is moving forward, albeit slowly. Hate to be dependent on other people to push papers for me, to be waiting for documents. At least I have my financial certification ($$$) and signed health insurance, it's only costing me 1035 € for 8 months, holy $h*t, so cheap! (got a small discount for paying up front in one lump sum, one less monthly bill to think about). This is less than half of what health insurance cost me so far, plus I'm getting to drop a few insurances and services I don't need anymore (household, vehicle) because I'm moving away. I'm also scanning or otherwise digitally archiving most of my important documents, so I'm not tied to a paper folder when on the move.

Interview techniques
Thanks ira_kart for your insight on how to not look suspiciously terrorist-y at the Visa interview – I had no clue non-verbal communication had such a high priority, but I guess it makes sense if they cannot comprehend the scientific stuff. I must remember to not make stupid jokes or remarks, this is probably not the time to be clever. I read about the “eye movement indicating lies/what you're thinking about” thing a few times, but it always seemed a bit pseudo-scientific. Is this backed up by experimentation? Should be fairly easy to test by filming people in different situations. Reminds me of the whole lie detector thing: terribly unreliable, yet still many people think it's accurate. Nevertheless, if the interviewer thinks it's real, then I better behave like a person who's not lying, or planning to bomb a sold-out Justin Bieber concert ;)

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by jacob » Mon May 28, 2018 1:11 pm

In terms of stereotypes (which are largely true, otherwise they wouldn't be stereotypes), I think most Europeans (and perhaps also many Americans who haven't moved out of the state they grew up in) assume that America and Americans are a uniform quantity whereas in reality, say, SoCal (where you get most of your TV-based stereotype from) and, say, Indiana are as different from each other along some dimensions and as similar to each other along other dimensions as, say, France and Germany in that they might as well be different countries. A way of grokking that would be to think of the US as EU if the latter had actually worked out as planned with people thinking of themselves of Europeans first and their nationality second and not the other way around. In the US it did work, thus the reason why flag waving, anthems, allegiance pledges, language, and other displays of nationalism are so valued by Americans in contrast to Europeans who for historical reasons take a dim view to such behavior.

Add: This is really not different than when Americans go to visit "Europe" as if it was all the same country. Both areas are huge. You can spend decades trying to understand the details of the local cultures and how they all interact.

I recommend reading American Nations to get an idea of the different "nations" within the US. Random link: ... u-live-in/ ... Other people have taken a stab at this kind of cultural anthropology as well.

When I went into my [J-1] visa-interview in 2004 I was expecting something like the third degree in a window-less room but in reality it was similar to the quick questions when going through US immigration in the airport talking to some bored clerk through a glass window across from the open waiting room: Did you bring forms X, Y, Z? Yes, here you go. *Stamp Stamp*. "So what are you doing in the United States?" "I'm going to work on neutron stars at the U of XYZ". "Oh, I think I read something about neutron stars in a magazine". "Uh huh, yeah?". Then he stamped something again and sent me on my merry way. Interviewing took less than a minute. Waiting took hours. My eyes probably conveyed the appropriate combination---to verify/confirm me as a young and socially immature member of the physics community--- of being surprised that another human had used the word "neutron" in a sentence and the arrogant and condescending expectation that all other humans should know at least what a neutron is insofar they wanted to continue that conversation whereas in reality they almost never do. It's something I'm still working on [hiding], but maybe I shouldn't 8-)

More importantly than watching the natives will be to gain a new perspective on your own country/culture from the outside looking in. In practice you'll probably see little of that since America, being a large country, rarely bothers to look outside its own borders. That's in contrast to smaller European countries. As such, looking from the outside, you might define the US based on its foreign politics, whereas you'll find that most Americans don't really know or care much about what the US does in terms of its foreign policy. More interesting, I think, are the little things (like whether you take your shoes off inside, where you walk/drive, and how you buy/eat food). For example, today I learned that what I've always considered the best design for a can opener is actually almost uniquely Danish. More accurately, it's a Swedish design based off of the US-military P-51 can opener but now only sold in Denmark. Kinda illustrates how my arrogant ignorance of what can-openers should look like is no different than Americans having asked me whether Danes have pizza; if I know what a microwave oven is; or whether I've ever seen a carrot before.

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Seppia » Mon May 28, 2018 4:07 pm

I did an H1b visa twice and both times it was exactly as Jacob described.

With American LEOs in general:

- don’t make jokes/play smartass
- make sure you don’t make jokes / play smartass
- really, don’t make jokes nor be a smartass
- look at them in the eyes
- give short, to the point answers

You’re good to go.

This is really the same approach you need to have when at CBP (a process which I’ve gone through around 100 times for work) when entering the states.
Example of a successful interview

you Hello Sir
Leo Hello, what is the purpose of your trip?
You I’m here to do business
Leo What kind of business?
You I work for an Italian company selling foodstuff to American importers and retail chains
Leo What kind of food?
You Pasta
Leo What’s the name of the pasta you sell
You De Cecco
Leo Oh, De Cecco pasta, I know that
You It’s a great pasta
Leo Where are you staying?
You Hyatt Grand Central
Leo How many days are you staying in the country?
You I’m flying back in around two weeks, on June 10th.
Leo Four fingers right hand on the scanner
Leo right thumb on the scanner
Leo please stand closed for a picture
Leo Have a good day
You You too sir thanks a lot


Don’t divert from the questions, don’t speak too long, be simple, clear and to the point

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Thu May 31, 2018 9:03 am

Thank you guys for calming my nerves on the whole interview thing - I'll prepare to put up a boring and trustworthy appearance and hopefully get all my stamps! Still waiting for some forms to arrive by my Host Uni, this is taking way longer than anticipated, and I fear with all the visa application procedure I might not make my intended starting date of July 1st. It's not dramatic if I miss it, just another delay due to inefficient paper pushing, when I'd rather be doing experiments. And I'd really like to experience July 4th in America ;)

Scientifically, preparations are going well. I'm assembling a large sample library that will serve as raw material to set up the method and as samples for the actual measurements. Important to secure all documentation and have plenty of raw material - already thinking about the publication here. I have some other, unrelated projects, which I'll either hand off to (hopefully) capable colleagues or hibernate for my time in the US. Time will tell which projects I can finish till my dissertation in summer 2019. One thing is for sure: I have no shortage of ideas to pursue, just not enough hours in the day to work through everything on the bench!

In other news, my grant application was officially accepted on a full budget, meaning I get some research funding plus 23k $ / 6 months in "living expenses" - should prove more than enough to survive in America. My goal is to spend less than half of that and pocket the rest (I don't need to show what I spent on living, as they assume "normal" expense levels).
jacob wrote:
Mon May 28, 2018 1:11 pm
More importantly than watching the natives will be to gain a new perspective on your own country/culture from the outside looking in.
Indeed. While backpacking all over Europe and Southeast Asia, I never experienced culture shock per se; perhaps this is me being generally open and non-judgemental and also excited to discover new mentalities. However, upon returning home, I could not help being overwhelmed by the utter "Germaness" of the Germans (or the "Swissness" of the Swiss). All the annoying habits and unwritten scripts are called into question by contrasting with a different culture.

@Seppia: Bringing De Cecco pasta to the people and staying in the Hyatt Grand Central. You are living the dream ;)
@Jacob: Let's agree to disagree about the best design for a can opener

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Astra » Fri Jun 08, 2018 9:48 am

Scored a cheap flight from Europe to Cincinnati (388$). However, it takes 23h in total, with a long layover in Reykjavik, and it's executed by discounter airline Easyjet, so I'm prepared for pain! Ideal opportunity for an exercise in suffering! (Hella stoic!) No, I'm actually fine with long transits as long as I have a good book and don't need to buy airport food...

Preliminary packing List
I’ve been thinking what to bring on my 6-month exchange to the USA, keeping in mind that I am there for summer, fall and winter in a seasonal climate in the Midwest and I am making zero trips back home to exchange inventory. The goal here is to not take too much, yet I also avoid having to re-buy things that I would have at home (waste!). Due to airline restrictions, I am limited to 15 kg in the check-in baggage – but I can move some to the carry-on, or wear some of the heavier items for the flight. I am staying in a shared house with a furnished room and equipped kitchen (remains to be seen what exactly that means in the States).

Check-in (suitcase, 15kg max)
• Underwear and socks (two week’s worth, plus 3 pairs of woolen ski socks)
• Gym/cozy clothes, thermal underwear, tights
• Undershirts/Long sleeves (wear under T-shirts in winter)
• Short sleeve shirts
• Blouse/Flannel shirts
• Hoodie, warm sweater, blazer
• Pants + Shorts, two belts (hip, waist)
• Dresses
• Swimsuit
• Winter Longcoat, Softshell, Rainjacket
• 2 outfits for formal occasions
• Sandals/Sneakers/ dress shoes/ hiking boots (winter)
• Winter gloves, hat, scarf
• Shampoo bar, hairbrush
• For travel: toothbrush/toothpaste, deodorant, makeup
• Mooncup, safety razor (take razorblade out?)
• Prescription medicine (bring doctors note!)
• First aid kit
• Utility knife, REX potato peeler
• Travel towel
• Cotton shopping bag
• Indoor sleeping bag (?)
• Lab coat + shoes, badge lanyard
• External hard drive with data and libraries, scans of all paperwork
• Some jewelry, photographs
• Chocolate to bribe everyone into liking me

Carry-on (in day backpack, 10 kg max)
• Wallet, $300 in cash (ask for small bills), credit and debit cards
• Document folder (passport, visa documents, travel itinerary, plane tickets, student card, address list, Uni paperwork…)
• Sunglasses/extra eye glasses
• Cellphone with charger, powerbank, mp3 player, headphones
• 1 book (which one will it be?)
• 1 change of clothes if they lose my suitcase
• Science notebook, personal journal
• Pen, graphic pencil, marker
• World Outlet adapter
• Drinking bottle, snacks (dry fruit, crackers, nut mix)

Things to possibly get/swap there: bicycle?, clothes line, shoewax/shoestrings, soap, loofa sponge, more towels?, scissors, glue, tape, coffee mug, lunch box/containers, laundry detergent, laptop, books (swap/library)

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by Kriegsspiel » Fri Jun 08, 2018 12:42 pm

I like Cincinnati, a lot of that area is very European (especially right across the river in Kentucky).

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Re: Ad Astra per Aspera [Journal]

Post by jacob » Fri Jun 08, 2018 1:29 pm ... itcas.html --- is exactly what I brought for what was initially going to be a 3 year stay in the US. I think I had a higher weight limit than 15kg .. in fact I'm sure of it. I don't even think my vastly oversized suitcase is within the cargo limits anymore.

I was quite set on not buying much of anything beyond that. I had recently spent half a year moving a book collection from Switzerland to Denmark one backpack full at a time, so I swore not to repeat that mistake. That vow lasted almost a year. When DW and I moved together (after 6 months), all I brought was my suitcase and a small box of new acquisition. After that, I stupidly began to buy books.

Don't buy books!

Don't buy books!!

Don't buy books!!!

PS: Bring more cash if you can. When I arrived, I only brought about $150 or so (I forget, but it wasn't much). For my rental, I needed a $600 deposit, so I withdrew $500 from my old Swiss account and used my cash for the rest. Unbeknownst to me, there was a $500 monthly limit on my Swiss visa card for foreign transactions. I did not know that! This basically meant that I ran out of money completely about a week before my first pay day and thus had to eat rice and only rice for the final few days.

PPS: If you come to the meetup, we can probably donate some cups, plates, ..., dish towel, and other annoying "essentials" to you. You could also try to see if the in your destination city is any good. Most households have way more of this stuff than they want and are generally happy to give some away.

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