Compensating for Post-45 Erosion

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I was attending my high school’s 25-year reunion. I was in the lobby when a young woman asked me — why, I don’t know — what I was doing there. I told her I was at my year 25 high school reunion. “What’s it like?” she asked. Into my head popped this: “It’s an exercise in comparative rot.” She laughed. I am old enough to know what Molly would have said to Fibber: “Tain’t funny, McGee.”

An athlete begins to fade at age 30. He has to find ways to compensate if he wants to stay in the game, to quote Mike Ditka in another context only somewhat related. He has to overcome the steady erosion. Race car drivers seem to stay in the game beyond age 30, but when they leave the game at 220 miles per hour, they really do leave the game. Between that and Mike Ditka’s suggestion, I’m with Mike.

Think of the gunfighter in the old West. What could he do to compensate? This is not a hypothetical question for a few people. I was trained, 24 years ago, in the narrow field of combat handgunning. Usually, only police officers are eligible to get this training, but I was able to take the course. The teacher was Col. Jeff Cooper. He was as close to an old time lawman as anyone I’ve ever met. He was fast. He trained us to be able to draw, fire, and hit a target at 21 feet in three seconds or less (usually less). Why three seconds? Because, he said, a man who has pulled a gun on you doesn’t want to shoot you yet; otherwise, he would have shot you. He is probably not a trained handgunner. It will take three seconds for him to recognize the threat, overcome his reluctance to pull the trigger, and shoot straight.

He also left something unsaid to us, at least not directly. You have to be willing to die. He once said that his personal edge in any crisis situation was his willingness to die. He really did want to go out with his boots on. He had a warrior’s mentality. He said a younger man might be faster, but he wants to live. That gave Cooper an edge.

Cooper was a scholar. He and I were in the same graduate program in history in the mid-1960s. His library was filled with the same sorts of books that mine was, though with an edge in military history. He saw himself as an heir to the Western military tradition. Anyone facing him, one on one, at 21 feet would probably lack that willingness to go down fighting.


The athlete had better get smarter as he gets beyond age 30, because he’s getting slower. He has to recognize situations as they are forming in front of him. He has to spot his opponent’s weakness earlier in the game and take advantage of it.

The old man praises experience over innate ability. If he is a mathematician or a theoretical physicist, he’s bluffing. In these fields, you get very good by age 18 or 19. You’re over the hill by age 35. Your mind may be beautiful, but it’s not creative to the same degree that it was at 25. You must content yourself with making marginal contributions. The breakthroughs are not likely to come.

In the liberal arts, you get until 45. Then your brain starts working against you. Your memory fades. It’s not as quick. You can’t recall the date or name of some event that would have been familiar to you at age 44 or earlier. You need compensation. You also need to know when a situation is dangerous.

I used to be very fast on the mental draw. I could get myself out of a jam. Let me give an example. About 35 years ago, I was earning my living in grad school by substitute teaching. I can hold any audience, so the kids didn’t scare me. At the lunch break, I got to talking with a teacher whose name I recognized. Robert had been a champion high school athlete, winning the 110-meter high hurdles at the state finals several years earlier. He ran it in 13.9 seconds. (I was going by memory here, then as now. I just checked this on the web. My memory was correct.)

I mentioned to him, “you guys have the advantage.” I had in mind his membership in the sprinter’s guild, i.e., his West African roots. He shot back, “What do you mean, ‘you guys’?” Oops! I had to think fast. It came to me in less than 13.9 seconds. “Bonds.” “Oh,” he said. “Yeah.” I had escaped!

His sister Rosie had gone to the Olympics. His younger brother Bobby was playing for the San Francisco Giants. In his first major league game, he hit a bases-loaded home run. Bobby’s young son Barry turned out to be quite athletic, too, although none of us knew that back then. But it came as no surprise to any of us, I suspect.

My point is, today I probably would not have gotten out so easily. I find that when giving a speech, I sometimes forget names. I have to fudge. At other times, the circuits work. I was talking with a friend recently who said he had bought a bunch of DVDs with Fifties-era TV shows on them. He mentioned “Racket Squad.” My mind went back trying to identify the narrator. I couldn’t quite get it. Then, five minutes later, it came to me: “Reed Hadley.” He looked it up. It was. Why it came to me, I don’t know. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

I use the old man’s trick: running through the alphabet. Sometimes that helps. My brain recognizes the starting letter. The name pops up. I did not have to use this trick until age 45. I hate relying on it, but it’s better than nothing.

What has saved me is the World Wide Web. It is a gigantic encyclopedia. If I can come close to a name or date, I can usually find most of what I’m looking for.

Let me give you an example. I wrote an essay Monday on the NCAA basketball finals before there was March madness. The game was technically the same, but the sport was not the phenomenon that it is today. I was trying to make a point about how Americans, as fans, have changed so much since 1959 that there must be a culture-wide phenomenon at work.

I remembered the basics. I knew Cal had beaten Jerry West’s West Virginia team by one point in 1959. I did not recall the score. I knew that Cincinnati had beaten Ohio State in 1961 by a close score. I did not recall that it was in overtime. I knew that Loyola of Chicago had beaten Cincinnati two years later in overtime. I did not remember the score. The web lets us verify things like this. But the thing that I really did want to verify, I could not. Was the Cal/West Virginia game the last time that two teams played in the finals with all-white starters? I think it was, but I could not find a photo. My point was that in that era, college basketball was a white man’s game. This is hard for modern fans to imagine. (There is a great movie on this, the true story of Pete Maravich’s first year in high school basketball: 1959. It’s called “The Pistol,” and I highly recommend it. The kid who plays Maravich is amazing.)


I have been waiting for two computer programs for almost a quarter of a century. They are obvious. They both exist in rudimentary stages, but I wanted both from the day I used my first computer in 1980: a dictation program and a free form database that allows me to retrieve my notes, verbally entered.

I type with two fingers. My right index finger hits the keys. My left index finger hits the shift key to capitalize words. It’s not efficient. I probably cannot compose much faster than I type, so ingrained are my bad habits.

What slows me is note-taking. I don’t touch type, and I don’t type fast. So, when I read a book, I use a highlighter (yellow, of course). Then, if the book is really important, I re-read the highlighted parts and make notes in the margin or at the top. Then, if it’s super important, I make notes in the rear. I copied my father-in-law, who marked up 15,000+ books this way over a 60-year period. He wrote, late in life, that it depressed him that he had not done this with every book. He went looking for some fact in a book he was sure it was in, but he could not locate it. He had not marked up that book.

If I could dictate notes into a portable shirt pocket recorder and then play back the tape into a computer, whose program would convert this to text, that would be fabulous. It’s almost here: Dragon’s Naturally Speaking Preferred edition, version 7. I was using it last night. You train it to recognize your speech patterns by reading selected materials into it. It’s accurate enough in transcribing verbal notes so that I think I can rely on it.

Then I will need a free-form database that lets me search all of my notes, including downloaded web documents, to find the passage I’m looking for. I don’t want a 30-page article; I want the actual page. I will need a program with key word insertion and searching. I am told that Microsoft’s new One Note database program comes close. I shall see soon, I hope.

It has taken a long time for the software industry to begin to approach the fulfilling of my needs as a researcher. I would have imagined that programs like these, especially the database, would have become popular two decades ago. There was Nota Bene, a DOS-based word processing program, that had note-taking and retrieval abilities, but I never met anyone who used it.

But, step by step, computer technology is beginning to deliver products that enable people on the far side of 45 to compensate for their declining mental abilities. In some fields, those that rely on huge quantities of information, young people can make up for lost time, and old people can make up for lost capacities. This is positive.

It still helps to recall the outline. It’s easier to recall something and verify it on-line than it is to put the many pieces together from scratch. The well-read older person, or the observant older person, has the advantage.


You read e-mail. This is not a burden on you. If you can ever find a program that retrieves that lost e-mail, you will be in a much better position. Maybe One Note is what we all need. I hope so.

Richard Russell is the most successful financial newsletter writer I know. He never advertises, charges $250/year, and has a subscriber base (the grapevine says) of 10,000 people. It’s all profit. He is 80 years old. His subscribers stay with him, so they are older. He basically shamed them into converting to e-mail delivery. What were they going to say? “I’m just too old to learn e-mail!” He is older than they are, and he is the writer-publisher.

This is why you need to stay up with developments. I’m not saying that you need to be on the cutting edge. But I like the business slogan of Joe Reinhart, who sells used video equipment: “Trailing-edge technology.” If the price is low, the early glitches are gone, and you can buy it on eBay, then buy it. The high price is the learning curve to master it. Pay it.

In your own field, there are tools of the trade. If you are unwilling to keep abreast of what is happening, you will get overtaken. You must learn new programs, or new applications of old programs, if you expect to retain your income. Technology is leveling the playing field between old and young. It’s not a one-way street. Oldsters can gain technological advantages in overcoming physical deterioration that oldsters in an earlier era would have found impossible to overcome. We really can stay in the game.

A man like Russell brings 50 years of following markets to bear on contemporary markets. No youngster can match him. He was a stock market bull, 1980—1999. He is now a bear. When he writes, a wise man pays attention. But he writes by using a computer. He mails by using a computer. He has made the technological transition.

Consumers don’t stand pat. They keep looking for sellers who meet their requirements at lower prices. They are insatiable. They want a better deal. “What have you done for me lately?” is on their minds and their lips. If you turn your back on a semi-new technology just because it doesn’t seem to meet your requirements today, look ahead five years. If you have to climb that learning curve then, where will you be?

I am a great believer in mastering one technology and staying with it. I compose on a 22-year-old keyboard (I have five in reserve), using a 14-year-old piece of DOS software that is an upgrade from the 1980 word processor I learned on. That 1980 program cost $7,500 and ran on a $25,000 used computer. It doubled my output in two weeks. Was it worth the price? Yes! But one year later, I could buy an improved technology package for $3,500. I should have waited a year. But who knew that IBM would introduce the PC or that S.S.I. would become WordPerfect?

I use this ancient technology with a modem, the web, and Google. I have learned to add tools. I hope Naturally Speaking will solve my note-taking problems. I think it will. For $100, was this worth it? Even if I must wait for version 8, yes. I am climbing the learning curve.

Now, if DocuPen just upgrades with a rechargeable battery, I will solve the page-scanning problem in libraries. It’s a pen-sized scanner that allows you to scan up to 200 pages of text and download it to a computer. Just run the pen top to bottom in one swipe! It sells for $200 now. It will get cheaper.


Step by step, product by product, tools are making our work easier. He who refuses to keep up is walking away from one of life’s greatest gifts: improved productivity. Who wants to retire when work keeps getting more productive?

The athlete has to retire. Few of them ever gain the glory that was theirs as players. A few do. John Wooden became more famous as a coach than he was as a 3-time All American in college. But how many men like Wooden are there?

We who live by our ability to read, think, and take action can still keep up with the competition when our peers are in rocking chairs, hoping that Medicare won’t go bust, or worse, unaware that Medicare will surely go bust. We have the advantage.

Let’s not lose it.

April 7, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

Copyright © 2004