The thing about having money is, you learn all sorts of things you never wanted to know.
My immediate family has been living off of investments, the proceeds from my father’s wrongful death, for roughly 20 years now, and a second settlement a dozen years ago ensured it would be indefinite. But, despite living this lifestyle for two decades, my mom never bothered to learn the underlying concepts. Her father, who sold his share of a business he co-founded after being crippled by a heart attack, taught her to only live off the interest. Never touch the principal. Play it safe. No risk.
She’s followed his advice for all these years, quizzing her investment manager every so often to make sure she’s living within her means, always staying in her lane. Two years ago, while we were together in Florida, I made a passing reference to the idea of shorting stock, and she asked me to explain what, precisely, that meant. After a two minute explanation, she understood. She clearly had never tried to before.
I was up in the middle of the night last night, thinking about a lost Martian probe.
The story of the Mars Climate Observer is one of a simple mistake leading to cataclysmic results: One piece of code measured force in pounds, while another measured it in newtons, meaning the numbers would be off by more than a factor of four. But nobody found the error, and nobody converted the values. So instead of NASA giving Mars its first climate satellite, instead, it almost literally set $125 million on fire in the skies above our neighboring planet.
It would be easy to blame one lab or another for failing to communicate, but the investigative report afterwards found that NASA’s culture was doomed to make those sort of failures, and after taking good, hard look at itself, the agency more than recovered. While the Mars Polar Lander, the sister project of the Mars Climate Observer, was lost as well, every mission since to the Red Planet has succeeded. Mars remains the only planet populated entirely by robots.
Tuesday night, I was wandering through my neighborhood Safeway after a night of drinking and board games with my friends, when I noticed the loudspeaker was playing a different song, a minor hit, by the same one-hit wonder that had haunted me a few nights earlier. As much as I wanted to run out, I instead continued shopping in silent shame.
Some things, no matter how hard I try, will never completely leave my head.