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 BLOG >> March 2014

What is Wabi-Sabi? [Design
Posted on March 27, 2014 @ 05:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday I first encountered the Japanese aesthetic concept of Wabi-Sabi. It seems like a word that North American's should have in their vocabulary for a variety of reasons so I thought I would blog a bit on it today.

Wikipedia defines Wabi-Sabi as a "comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection... Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes".

According to Richard Powell, Wabi-Sabi "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect".

The concept of Wabi-Sabi was introduced to North Americans by Leonard Koren in 1994 in the small monograph "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers" published by Stone Bridge Press. You can also read a recent article by Koren entitled The Beauty of Wabi-Sabi. Since Koren introduced the concept, it has started to take root in North America but seems to be becoming more popular in recent times.

The idea of seeing beauty in the flawed, the worn out, and the unfinished contrasts with the Western ideal of beauty which often embraces perfection as a central aspect. Because Wabi-Sabi finds beauty in the old and rusted, it has sometimes been called a poverty aesthetic, an aesthetic which is democratic and which everyone can partake of if they have the proper frame of mind to appreciate it. It is not a beauty which inheres in the object itself. It is a form of mindful appreciation of objects and what makes them authentic.

Everyone from Martha Stewart to Environmentalists wants us to embrace the old, worn, and imperfect without really having a useful aesthetic vocabulary to justify why. The idea of Wabi-Sabi can help provide a vocabulary and conceptual underpinning.

The purpose of this blog is not to sound like an authority on the concept of Wabi-Sabi as I've been aware of it for exactly one day. My research, however, leads me to believe that it is an important idea worth exploring; one that can serve a variety of useful roles in designing objects, appreciating objects, people, and projects, and in dealing with life. This is an invitation to do your own research and to develop your own conception of what Wabi-Sabi means.

The beauty of Wabi-Sabi is different than our predominant North American conception of beauty as perfection typified, for example, in a range of Apple products. If our concept of beauty were to shift in the direction of Wabi-Sabi, this could potentially have profound consequences for western consumer culture - perhaps slowing consumerism down and changing our consumer preferences.

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
- John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn.

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Slow Money Investments [Investing
Posted on March 21, 2014 @ 04:42:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday was the first day of spring, the day when the center of the sun crosses the Equator creating a condition where day and night are equal in length. Because I live north of the equator, my daylight hours are already a bit longer than my night hours. The first day of spring for me was closer to the 18th of March. At any rate, we are now moving into the spring and summer season again and the economic engines are moving into a new gear. The agricultural sector in North America will start to kick into high gear again as will many other seasonally affected businesses.

The first day of spring is a good reference point to start planning what you might want to grow this year. Today I put in my order for the following trees and shrubs:

  • 25 Honeycrisp Apple Trees (2 yr bare root)
  • 10 Empire Apple Trees (1 yr bare root)
  • 5 Sweet Sixteen Apple Trees (1 yr bare root)
  • 5 Alexander Apple Trees (2 yr bare root)
  • 5 William's Pride Apple trees (2 yr bare root)
  • 10 Bluecrop Highbush Blueberries (2 yr bare root)
  • 10 Patriot Highbush Blueberries (2 yr bare root)
  • 1 Twisty Baby Black Locust (150 cm)

I've been purchasing about $1000 worth of apple trees, pear trees, and blueberries for the last 3 years and planting them out on a farm property me and my wife hope to eventually retire to. Some people invest in stocks and bonds for retirement, I invest in apple trees, pear trees, blueberries, and grape vines (there is no cost for grape vine propagation material as I can pick up cuttings for free). So far, my return on investment has been in the negative because I only have expenses and no income to show yet; however, we'll see how these investments perform in the long term.

The term "slow money" is often used to characterize agriculture investing. Often you cannot expect a fast return on an agricultural investment unless you are few steps removed investing in agricultural derivatives of one type or another. I'm content, however, to wait for my investments to mature and bear fruit. In the long run, these "slow money" investments may result in a better return than "fast money" investments in stocks. Angel investors and venture capitals generally like to see a quick return on their investments, but sometimes it is the investor's with patience who come out ahead in the long run. It is also worth considering whether investment diversification can also happen via timing, not just across industries, by making a mixture of "slow money" and "fast money" investments.

To learn more about slow money investing you can go to the slowmoney.org website.

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Defining Startup Hardiness [Startups
Posted on March 18, 2014 @ 05:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In yesterday's blog I discussed the idea of "hardiness zones" for plants and suggested that startups might be more or less hardy which would determine what types of economic zones they might be able to survive and thrive in. I didn't offer up any account of what startup hardiness might consist of because I frankly didn't know how to tackle defining it in a plausible way. I now think I have a method that might be used; namely, to examine failed startups or businesses, figure out what factors caused them to fail, and thereby identify the factors that contribute to startup hardiness. The companies that fail lack these factors and are less hardy; the companies that succeed have the factors and are more hardy. The assignment of a startup hardiness score is not the result of measuring some single underlying factor but the outcome of multiple underlying factors that determine the hardiness of a business relative to an economically defined "hardiness zone". Just as plants have many adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive in tough climate conditions, business have adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive in economic zones that are more or less difficult to survive and thrive in.

In my daily newspaper, they reported on the closure of a bakery & cafe business that was well known in my home town and very popular. They were in business for 7 years all told, but had to recently declare bankruptcy and close their two locations. The cause of the failure was well documented. They did very well at their first location, decided to expand into another location at the prompting of a local successful businessman, but the startup costs ($265,000 loan for renovations), loan financing costs (%18.5), monthly utilities ($2000 per month) and monthly rent (undisclosed except to say it was "high") put an untenable financial burden on their complete enterprise. The businessman was lured into the second location because he thought it would be a better economic zone to do business in because it was growing again and had a larger potential customer base than his first location; however, he arguably got into bed with the wrong businessman whose success may have blinded him to the poor financial deal he was getting into. The businessman owned the building so stood to make large profits off the startup if he could make it work, but the startup couldn't and it sunk his whole enterprise.

So what can we learn about business hardiness from this case? We should keep in mind that the business did well for 6 years prior to their failure in a very tough economic zone that required considerable hardiness to survive. They had overflowing parking lots and had to expand their first building to handle the volume of customers. This in an area with a sparse local population base and below-average to average incomes. The quality and uniqueness of the product they were offering drew people in from far outside of their local population base and it became a destination point in a popular tourism route. So having a quality product delivered in a quality manner is a factor that made them a hardy business. The business may have done very well in an economic zone that required less hardiness, but they wanted to live where they were and try to make a go of it there. The owner was a nice guy and got along with many people in the community including local farmers and fisherman who he sourced product from. They returned the favor and frequented his business and promoted it. Goodwill and reciprocity are important hardiness factors in small rural communities because local negative gossip can easily kill a business. This is a factor that is important to some degree in more urbanized businesses with a larger population base, but it is arguably critical to survival in depressed rural zone where only the hardiest of businesses can survive.

The downfall of the business could be summed up as poor financial acumen. So a hardy business needs to be good with finances not just in the initial stages of opening and operating a business, but also when you decide to grow your business. Once you achieve initial success operating on a shoe string, it might be easy to overestimate your growth potential and make unwise financial commitments when entering into a second phase of growth. So another factor that is important in determining the hardiness of a business is the ability of the business to manage their finances during the startup phase and during growth phases.

The concept of startup hardiness can be fleshed out via a comparative examination of businesses that have failed and succeeded in your economic zone and in other economic zones. Through this process you can come up with a list of factors that it takes to survive and thrive in your economic zone as a startup or as an expanding business that may be entering a similar or different economic zone. My analysis suggested that there are at least three factors involved in determining startup hardiness - the level of good will and reciprocity towards the startup, the quality of the product and/or service being offered, and the ability to manage finances during startup and growth. The hardiness of the startup might be evaluated according to how many factors are present, to what degree, and according to a factor weighting that is determined by the type of economic zone the startup is operating in.

The concept of startup hardiness may offer a framework you can use to organize and understand why some startups fail or succeed. The metaphor of plant hardiness and hardiness zones can stimulate productive thinking about what startup hardiness consists of.

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Startup Hardiness [Startups
Posted on March 17, 2014 @ 05:29:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I went down to the farm during march break. My main productive activity was to move three loads of hay bales from the mow of my barn onto a trailer for sale to a vet/farmer who was going to use them to feed various animals. A local 4H group is involved in the venture. I'm glad the hay is being used to raise animals and teach kids. Other than that, I was not able to engage in much productive work because the farm is still in the grips of cold icy snow making it difficult to do much without falling on your back (which I did 3 times). Such is life. Things will get busy soon enough.

We've had a colder than normal winter this year which makes me wonder how my grape vines and apple trees will do this year. Watching the cold icy blasts of snow, rain, and wind make me wonder if I'm crazy to try to grow grapes in this open ridge-top location. The vines, however, are supposed to be hardy to USDA 4 and 5 zones so, theoretically, they should survive another winter as I'm at around zone 5.

I was intrigued to learn more about hardiness zones when my permaculture book (Permaculture: The Design Manual) suggested each hardiness zone was simply a division of the farenheit temperature scale into 10 degree F zones. This seemed pretty arbitrary to me so I investigated further. As far as I can tell this is true as evidenced by this USDA hardiness zone map:

So the USDA hardiness zone map is basically a color-coded temperature map that maps minimum average annual temperatures to a set of colors corresponding to zones 1 to 11 where each zone corresponds to a 5 or 10 degree F range. There is no apparent science behind this particular division of the F temperature scale; it is just a useful device we use to guage whether a plant might be able to adapt to the minimum temperatures present in a particular location. The color patterning is largely determined by latitude of the location and nearness to large bodies of water.

So when you buy a plant you should only buy plants that have a hardiness zone that is appropriate to your location. You can buy a plant that is hardier than your zone (e.g., hardiness 3 or 4 when you live in hardiness zone 5), but you shouldn't buy a plant that is not hardy in your zone (e.g., hardiness 6 when you live in hardiness zone 5). This is just a general rule and there are many exceptions depending on natural or artificial microclimate effects.

Which leads me to wonder whether startups might be more or less hardy? Just like there is a wide variation in plants and the conditions under which they can live, perhaps there is variation among startups and the conditions under which they exist. Some hardy startups might be viable under a large range of conditions including inhospitable conditions where only a very hardy startup might survive, all the way up to pleasant conditions where a variety of startups with different hardiness levels can survive. Depopulated rural areas with depressed economies might represent zone 0 with populated urban areas with vibrant economies might represent zone 11. Startups exist in different socio-economic hardiness zones and a startup has to be more or less hardy to survive in the zone in which it chooses to live. Sometimes a startup that is not hardy enough to survive in the zone it has chosen to live in can survive if it moves to a zone where it is less difficult to survive. One lesson for startups that might be gleaned from the hardiness concept is that hardiness is not simply a feature of the startup, it is also a feature of the socio-economic landscape, and success comes about when the hardiness of the startup matches or exceeds the hardiness-requirements of the socio-economic zone the startup is competing in. Startups, unlike plants, have mobility and can move to markets where conditions are less severe in order to remain viable or thrive.

One question that remains unanswered in this discussion is what factors determine the hardiness of a plant, and by extension, the hardiness of a startup?

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New Dealflow Sites [Site News
Posted on March 7, 2014 @ 08:07:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I've added 4 new dealflow sites to the Dealflow Investment Network. These dealflow sites serve the US states of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan:

I will not have the time to manage these new sites myself (I manage 3 already and manage the servers and software development as well) and will eventually be looking for partners located in these particular markets to manage these sites. I'm still working on the sales package but I can tell you the startup costs will be very low to help ensure that the sites can start paying for themselves within the first 6 months. The sites are all part of the Dealflow Investment Network which means that any proposals submitted to a site gets exposure on all these sites (over 1800 screened investors and growing). These startup sites can therefore be used to help entrepreneurs from these states find potential investors right from the start.

Each of these sites serves a large population of US entrepreneurs and investors and the job of any partner will be to encourage the entrepreneur and investors communities in that state to join their site. I'll provide ideas, training, and support to help you succeed should you chose to pursue this opportunity. Contact me if you wish to discuss this potential business opportunity further.

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Aquaponics is Growing [Agriculture
Posted on March 5, 2014 @ 07:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In the Permaculture course I am taking online, I recently covered the section on "Water" in which Max Meyer from NorCal Aquaponics discussed a variety of types and scales of aquaponic systems (systems that grow vegetables and fish at the same time). His discussion opened my eyes to some of the potential and opportunities in this industry. While aquaponics has been practiced in eastern countries since a long time, it is a currently a growth industry because new approaches and technologies are rapidly being assimilated into newer aquaponics growing systems. It is also a growth industry because it is arguably one of the most efficient ways to produce food and the quality of that food can be very high. Vegetables are not subject to many of the conditions that produce blemishes and can be produced organically under the right conditions. Demand for seafood is also high and increasing around the world, but the ability of the oceans to supply that food is become less likely as stocks are over harvested. Aquaponics therefore has a bright future as a method of producing plant and animal-based food for the future.

A couple of young entrepreneurs have decided to try to cash in on this emerging market by developing a small-scale aquaponics system that integrates with a traditional home aquarium. Their video below also gives a basic idea on how aquaponics works as well as how these young entrepreneurs hope to grow their AquaSprouts business.

Many of the aquaponics systems being developed now are at a larger scale than this aquarium system but the aquarium system is a good starting point for raising awareness of the potential of aquaponics growing systems. Keep in mind, however, that in most aquaponics system you are growing fish to eat as well, whereas in this system they are mostly concerned with growing plants. I don't think they are going to eat the fish in the aquarium although that might be possible as well.

Below is an example of a well-known outdoor (versus in a greenhouse) closed-loop (versus open-loop) aquaponics system developed at the University of the Virgin Islands which is a leader in aquaponics research and design.

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Investing in Hay Production [Agriculture
Posted on March 3, 2014 @ 04:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Me and my wife purchased a 62 acre farmstead property in our home town about 4 years ago. Much of the land consisted of hay fields. Up until last year, the hay fields were just an expense for me. I had to hire someone to come in once a year and drop the hay just to keep the hay fields in good condition. I had started accumulating second-hand farm equipment since we purchased the place. Last year I needed a second hand hay rake and baler to round out the equipment I would need to make square bales of hay myself. I decided to go for it and partnered 50/50 with my brother-in-law to make and sell the hay (he also had the full compliment of square-bale hay making equipment so we had two mowers and balers going as we were making it). The farmstead came with a big old barn whose massive roof I had reshingled the previous year so it was being underutilized. We decided we would make the hay and store it in the barn until we got sale for it. Here is us filling up the barn with hay bales.

I'm videoing the event. My brother-in-law is the guy at the top of the mow throwing the hay to the back of the barn. Because I don't live at the farmstead now (mostly a spring/summer/fall residence) my brother-in-law, who lives in the area, is handling the calls for hay. We sold some hay to date but were starting to get concerned that we would have quite a bit left in the barn by spring (which would make it harder to sell and create storage issues for any new hay I would make this year). I was just informed this morning that we now have sale for 1400 bales. My brother-in-law ended his email with "We should have made more". I'm quite emboldened by the success of this hay making venture. I'll recoup my machinery investments, labor investments, and make a small profit. The hay was money in the bank as far as I was concerned. I had already paid out all my expenses to make it. When it was sold it would be like I was cashing out my investment. Cha-ching!

The moral of the story for me was that I was correct to recognize the opportunity and to make the necessary machinery investments to realize that opportunity. Farming is a hard business to make money at, and many farmers go broke buying too much equipment, or equipment that is too expensive, but the reality is that I couldn't make a sellable product, hay bales, without buying a rake and baler last year. I could have lost a good amount of money in this venture if the hay did not sell, but I'd never know if I would or not if I did not make the investment. The barn would have also been a useless asset if I did not start using it for it's intended purpose - to store hay. I'm not going to get rich making hay, but it is an important stream of income for the farm that can be used to fund other farm projects. Maybe the farm will show up as source of revenue rather than a tax deduction on next year's tax return. For that to happen, I may have to ramp up hay production this year while some of my other farm product investments (1600 grape vines and 180 apple trees so far) mature enough to become additional sources of farm revenue. My long term plan is for around 6 streams of income from the farm, two of which are now being realized (hay production, farm vacation accommodations).

In my theory of entrepreneurship I discuss the importance of developing multiple lines of business. This is what I'm doing with my farming venture. I'm not necessarily looking for the next big innovative idea, I'm looking for the next revenue stream that might pan out. For me, hay production is one new revenue stream that appears to be panning out. It is also good productive physical exercise to counteract the effects of too much time spent indoors in front of a computer monitor. On the farm, I also use sheafs of hay for thick mulch around my grape vines (to suppress weeds and winterize), as a growing medium for potatoes (embed seed potato between sheafs), and when it rots out it is a source of soil fertility for the grape vines and my garden. The square bale format is ideal for these purposes and is another reason to make them beyond any direct income they might generate.


Hay Production Investments For My Farm Startup

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Explanation of Recent Downtime [Site News
Posted on March 1, 2014 @ 08:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

On Friday evening the servers rebooted and the main server didn't reboot normally. Something in the startup process got corrupted and only left me with a very basic level of access to the server. The decision was made to reinstall a minimal operating system on another hard drive and to rebuild the web server from there. We slaved the old hard drive into the main server box so I could mount the old server hard drive using the server hard drive I was rebuilding. The fix involved installing and configuring numerous pieces of server software, copying data from the old server to the new server, and testing that everything was working as it should again. The process took around 14 hours and mostly happened overnight and into Saturday morning. I apologize for the downtime.

I've had to do two disaster recoveries in the last 3 weeks and I suspect it isn't a coincidence. The first disaster involved a failing hard disk and recovery from a raid disk that still appeared to function normally. We never lost any data from that disaster and were able to copy the raid array to a new disk and rebuild the raid array with around 6 hours of downtime. I'm suspicious that some corrupted initialization software may have found its way into the rebuilt raid array. It probably would have been better to rebuild the server at that point and copy the data over to it so I could be assured that the basic initialization/kernel software was not corrupted in any way when it was installed onto a new hard disk. This is the situation now, however, as I have a new operating system and new server software on my rebuilt server and the next step will be to create a raid array from this next week at some point so I have full redundancy again. The creation of the raid system will be done without any downtime sometime this week.

So that was how I spent the last 14 hours from Friday night into Saturday morning. It was pretty tense at first but once I figured out how to mount the old hard drive and saw that I had all my data it was a matter of going through all the motions to rebuild the server, copy data over, and test. I had other backups of my data but it is easier to recover if you can access the contents of your original hard drive to do the recovery from. Hopefully, I won't have any more potential disasters to deal with for awhile. I'm used to running my linux-based servers for half a year to a year without rebooting so this is not the norm. I learned quite a bit about the fdisk, mdadm, and mount commands and the idea of creating a virtual device to mount the old disk saved my bacon:

How to mount software RAID1 member using mdadm.

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