Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ready for Crisis website

“You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” - William S. Burroughs
The Canadian Red Cross has created a new Ready for Crisis website for voluntary organizations that provide important social services.
“We found millions of vulnerable Canadians depend on voluntary sector services for their daily survival, but many of those organizations [40%] have no disaster plans in place to protect their service delivery in times of crisis." says Don Shropshire, National Director of Disaster Management at the Canadian Red Cross. "Our research indicated the voluntary sector is a large part of the solution but
it needs help."
Imagine a senior citizen who is dependent on “Meals on Wheels” for their daily bread. But without warning, for many days, no food will be delivered while the roads are closed due to a blizzard, flood, collapsed bridge, etc. It is wishful thinking to believe the Red Cross will come to their rescue without any notification.

- The Red Cross may not know this person is starving because others in the same neighborhood evacuated or are self-sustaining.

And even if notified, there may be nothing the Red Cross can do.

- Road closures impact the Red Cross also. The Red Cross Emergency Vehicles have strict rules AGAINST entering flooded or hazardous areas.

Hence the Red Cross is asking organizations like Meals on Wheels to draw up advance plans for emergency scenarios. Who will the org call for help? Who can fill the gap? Which clients are at the greatest risk?

Consider the impact of a prolonged power outage.

- Food in refrigerators must be tossed out. Can a food bank, soup kitchen, Meals on Wheels, continue to feed its clients with non-perishable foods?
- Will these meal orgs have a working kitchen without power? Anyone got a manual can opener to open those #10 size cans? Is there back up lighting so the workers can assemble meals?
- The computers are down so no google maps or calling up the client case files. Are there print copies of maps and addresses of where the food must be delivered?

Bottom Line

I hope organizations in all countries take advantage of the Ready for Crisis website to become better prepared. As was seen with Katrina, many community emergency plans forget to account for those who cannot save themselves. It’s easy for a mayor to broadcast TV and radio warnings to evacuate but what if you’re too poor to own a car or too weak and frail to drive one? Who will save these people after their caseworkers, the bus drivers, taxi drivers, and everyone else able-bodied has fled? When a hospital must evaucate, who will move the patients?

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Living Off the Beaten Path

“I feel the earth move under my feet,I feel the sky tumbling down” – song lyrics by Carole King
Are humans rational? We’d like to think we are but consider this. When a DISASTER occurs, many people expect that someone will quickly rescue them. (After all – that is what police and firemen do.) But if humans really were rational, they might think about what the word DISASTER means and the consequences thereof. A Disaster is a situation that disrupts everything normal; lines of communication are lost, access routes are blocked, and just moving about can be dangerous.

I was reminded of the consequences of disasters in The Buzz: Quakes, squalls and the Snake which outlines what would happen during a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in the Jackson Hole ski resort area.

The problem with major disasters like an earthquake [or avalanche or snowstorm], is that it could take a few days for large-scale help to arrive because passes, bridges and communication could be shut down, and people might have to hack it for a few days on limited supplies – without any way of communicating with friends and family.
If the mountain roads are blocked then the only way in is by air via small planes and helicopters; neither of which can carry large loads and which may be grounded by foul weather conditions.

Bottom Line

Consider how far off the beaten path you live. If you live remotely, or in the mountains, across a bridge, or anywhere restricted by a single road to your neighborhood, THEN expect a long time between a disaster and rescue workers arriving. The old recommendation of 3-days of supplies is NOT for you. You should have at least a week of supplies, preferable more.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Healthy Body

“I went on a diet, swore off drinking and heavy eating, and in fourteen days I lost two weeks” - Joe E. Lewis
"In an emergency situation or during a natural disaster, it will be of the utmost importance that you maintain your body’s health and well being. This will allow you to have the necessary strength for any tasks that may need to be performed."

So begin the blog post, Long Term Food Storage - The Importance of Nutrition on StealthSurvival.blogspot.com. Since food loses vitamins and nutrients over time, any food in old cans in your food storage may be filling but not doing much for your overall health. In our food store we include a year’s supply of daily vitamin supplements just in case.

During a prolonged emergency your health is likely to decline. Stress, lack of sleep, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate food all take a toll on the body and your immune system. You’ll get tired faster and sick more easily. So it is very important to be in the best of health and fitness during the good times so you will have a health buffer or cushion against the bad times. Think of it as the Old Testament story of Pharaoh and the 7 good years followed by 7 lean years but applied to your own body.

Bottom Line

The secret to health is no secret:
  • Eat “real” foods (i.e. limit snack and junk foods)
  • Watch your calories. Despite diet wars over fats vs Carbs, science keeps returning to the discovery that calories matter.
  • Exercise – just three minutes a day, seven minutes a week, will help according to a recent study, Want to get healthy? Exercise 7 minutes a week

Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto sums up a healthy diet as, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

What Causes Famine?

"Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a
Lifetime" - Lao Tzu

Starvation is a horrible way to die. It tugs at our hearts to see people suffer and frequently we are asked to donate money to help those starving in Ethiopia and other regions of the world. But sometimes you need to step back and ask – Why are these people starving?

Drought & lack of rain is an easy answer for famines. But when droughts historically reoccur, as in Ethiopia, and nothing changes, then one needs to look at the bigger picture. In the informative article, Uprooting the Root Causes of Famine in Ethiopia, by Ghelawdewos Araia (founder and president of the Institute of Development and Education for Africa), Araia points out that Egypt receives nearly no rain but exports foods by using irrigation from the Nile River. Ethiopia has “the blessings of hundreds of major rivers and thousands of streams” but fails to use them. While hundreds of thousands starve, scientists debate the irrigation side effects salinity and silt and the local government lacks the means or the will to finance an irrigation infrastructure.

Some activists blame the Ethiopian government for deliberating starving 15% of the population. The article, The Real Cause Of Famine In Ethiopia, claims that Ethiopia in 2000 had 20% more grain than required for the needs of the country but 17% of the people were locked into “famine zones” and denied access to this local grain (or are too poor to buy it). There are stories of the Ethiopian government seizing the UN supplied famine relief grain and selling it for profit rather than allowing it to go to the famine zones for free.

Interestingly Ghelawdewos Araia doesn’t blame an evil government. He sites many problems (such as government bureaucracy) but also problems with local traditions. The drought regions are dependent on a single water dependent grain. Araia says the locals need to break with tradition and plant many kinds of crops, including some that are more drought resistant. Another cultural problem is sited on Wikipedia, “Due to a number of causes, the peasants lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess harvest; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest.”

Bottom Line
Famines rarely have simple answers. Giving food (i.e. sacks of grain) is simple but won’t solve the underlying problems. The BBC asked, Famine in Ethiopia: How should the world react?, and got dozens of different answers. Some blame the locals for having too many babies, some blame the world for spending money on wars instead of people, some blame the country for a failure to learn from and correct past mistakes, etc. As one respondent put it, “Why is this happening again? I thought the point of Live Aid, etc was not just to feed people but to improve infrastructure to ensure that this wouldn't happen again.” I agree! What happened to past donations to stop this from happening again?

For a related story on famine and politics check out, Remember the Holodomor The Soviet starvation of Ukraine, 75 years later.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Lost Skills

“Surely the churning of milk bringeth forth butter,” – Bible, Proverbs 30:33

If you’ve been reading this blog the past few days, you may be tired of rhetoric and politics and the economy. When will Gary ever go back to traditional preparedness advice? How about now?

I was looking at the blog article Storing Food Without Refrigeration and noticing the many items that could be kept for weeks or months at room temperature if you lose power: Condiments & Spreads, some Dairy products, some meat & eggs, bread & yeast. I had to do a double take - Dairy, meat? What gives here? Even inside my fridge I’ve had milk spoil.

Taking a closer look at the products I noticed the dairy items were cheese, butter and yogurt; the meat products were mostly salami and other dried meats. Then a light bulb lit over my head. Ah ha! Our medieval and pioneer ancestors invented these very products because they lacked refrigerators. Cheese, butter, salami, etc, (in addition to being tasty) were invented to extend the life of milk & meat.

Today we take these room-temperature products for granted and sometimes abuse them (hmm…yummy). Cheese & butter are concentrated milk fat. Many sausages are packed with salt or other preservatives that should not be overindulged in. However if you treat them as treats, part of food storage to treasure and dole out in limited quantities, your body will be thankful.

Speaking of food storage, would you know how to preserve meat and milk if faced with a long-term power outage? You could be like friends of ours who, after a hurricane in Puerto Rico, hosted a giant BBQ for the neighborhood; sharing their frozen steaks before they went bad. Or you could practice pioneer recipes.

Let’s start with butter. Nothing is easier.

  1. Put heavy cream inside a clean jar. (Sorry skim milk won’t do. You need the milk fats)
  2. Close the lid tightly.
  3. Shake.

That’s it. Now you may get sore arms (or a great workout) before all the milk converts to butter but it will happen. Keep shaking, rolling, etc. An alternative to shaking is using a butter churn. These devices use a paddle with fins to agitate the milk as you move the handle up and down.

If you’d like to try something more ambitious, here is a site for making yogurt:

Bottom Line

Most of us were never taught the many skills that kept our ancestors alive.
In Why a Depression Today Would be worse than in the 1930s, the author, a museum curator, notes that rural Depression era families could make butter, smoke meat, grow a garden, raise chickens, pull a tooth, draw well water, do basic medicine, ride a horse or bike, etc. They had the skills to survive independently with little to no money. Today we are like the fat space-cruiser passengers in the movie Wall*E. Totally dependent on others (like technology or government) to fulfill our basic needs.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Logical Fallacies & Rhetorical Tricks

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
While I enjoyed my previous two blogs based upon the lecture series, Way with Words, what I really wanted to write about (so I don’t forget) is the list of rhetorical devices that the lecturer presents.

Here are common tricks made in persuasive arguments:

Asserting the Consequent
If X implies Y, then it is NOT necessarily true that Y implies X.
This can be very subtle and easy to miss. Suppose we agree that, “Witches must be burned.” By Asserting the Consequent one can justify burning anyone by saying “Since she was burnable, she must have been a witch.”

Denying the Antecedent
If X implies Y, then it is NOT necessarily true that NOT X implies NOT Y.
Example: We agree that if you play by rules you will succeed. However this does not mean that if you don’t play by the rules, you won’t succeed. It is possible to cheat and win.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc
“It follows therefore it was caused” Politicians love this one. “Since I was elected four years ago, the crime rate has fallen, smog has gone away, and people are happier.” The politician may have done NOTHING about crime, smog or happiness. He was just lucky that these things improved while he was in office.

Petitio Principii (Begging the Question)
This trick causes your opponent to lose the debate with a seemingly innocent question. Take abortion for example. One could ask, “Wouldn’t you agree that people have a right to control what happens inside their own body?” If you say yes, the debate is over. On the flip side, anti-abortion advocates try to counter with “Wouldn’t you agree that killing is wrong?” This counter-rhetoric is less effective because you can be anti-murder but, by refusing to recognize a fetus as life, make the question moot.
Petitio Principii is also used when a politician makes an agreeable/popular statement that is meaningless. “I am opposed to wasteful spending”. (Is anyone in favor of wasteful spending?) The thing to ask the speaker is, “what do you consider wasteful”? Is volcano research wasteful? Is Military spending wasteful? NASA and space exploration? You might not agree with his/her interpretation of wasteful once the details are discovered.

Attacking the Messenger: ad Hominem
I discussed this a few weeks ago in Insults & Logical Fallacies
A popular modern variant of the ad Hominem attack is comparing the opponent to Hitler. (In the 19th century Napoleon was the villain of choice). According to Godwin’s Law, any debate on the Internet will eventually include a comparison to Hitler. A bylaw of Godwin says the first person to mention Hitler loses the debate. Ironically, I'll mention Hitler at the end of this blog posting (but I hope in a valid context).

Tu Quoque (the hypocrite fallacy)
Another variant of ad Hominem when the speaker is made to look like a hypocrite. We see this today used against Al Gore – “He can’t be serious about global warming, just look at the carbon footprint of his huge house!”

Red Herring (Ignoratio Elenchi – Irrelevant Thesis)
I'll shift your attention away from this one by mentioning that I covered it in my posting Insults & Logical Fallacies as the Strawman Attack.

Appeal to Popularity (Ad Populum) also called the Bandwagon effect
Very common in advertising – “Everybody loves Jiff!” (Implied, You will too!) Note that parents rarely fall for this, “But mom, everyone is doing it!”

Hasty Generalization
News media does this all the time by turning events into trends. By saying “The President’s falling popularity rating hit X% today…” one implies the rating will continue to fall. It is more honest to say the rate “fell” or “has fallen” to X% without predicting where it might go next. Lookout for “ing” participles in news copy, “the worsening economy”, “the rising deficit”, etc.

Sweeping Generalization
When you say, “Everyone agrees with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” you are making a broad categorical claim without merit. Just one counter example makes the statement false. It is more honest to say “Most everyone agrees…” or “Nearly everyone agrees …” (but even with this you are now using Ad Populum to sway opinion).

Exaggerating your claim (often falsely) for effect. “This is the best weight loss diet ever!” “This is the worst recession in American history.”

Appeal to Ignorance
This is attempt by sway opinion by saying your point has NOT been disproved. “No one has proved that aliens don’t exist”

Plurium Interrogationum (Badgering the Witness)
When a debater attacks with a long list of questions, Isn’t is true that X and Y and Z and ..., this is a form of badgering your way to victory. Can the defender be expected to remember each question and will he/she be allowed sufficient time to respond to each? Afterwards an accuser might claim, I asked 20 damaging questions but my opponent had answers for only three.

Apophasis and Paralipsis
Making your point by claiming you are NOT saying it.
“Since I’m not a mudslinger, I won’t tell you about my opponent’s drinking problem.” “We haven’t the time (or it’s not relevant) to discuss rumors that my opponent is a wife-beater.”

Passive Voice
The passive voice can be used to avoid disclosing information. “Mistakes were made” is a nice example that avoids saying WHO made the mistake.

Bottom Line
When Plato and other philosophers wrote about government, they were very fearful of democracies. “The People” can be easily led by effective public speakers into voting for the noose that hangs them. Hitler (via amazing speeches) was democratically elected in Germany and, via legal means, transformed his role into dictator. Today Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is doing the same thing with legal changes to the constitution allowing him to be President for Life.
The cure for this is teaching “The People” the tricks of rhetoric so they won’t be fooled by silver-tongued politicians.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Public Speaking

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” - Mark Twain
More concepts from the lecture series, Way with Words: the Medieval Sermon and the five-part essay. One of most tested forms of public speaking is the church sermon. Did you know that Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale were founded for the express purpose of training clergymen to give effective sermons? Over a thousand years of sermons, one pattern emerged as the “optimal” structure for addressing an audience and getting your message across. It contains six parts:
  1. Theme (describe the topic of this talk)
  2. Protheme (introduce the theme with a reference to scripture or other authoritative source)
  3. Dilation (explain the reference you just cited)
  4. Exemplum (provide an example or story)
  5. Peroration (apply the story, what is the moral?)
  6. Closing (request for action)
Here’s a brief example
  1. Today I'd like to talk to you about Go-Kits.
  2. According to the FEMA website, AreYouReady, “You may need to survive on your own after a disaster. This means having your own food, water, and other supplies in sufficient quantity to last for at least three days. Local officials and relief workers will be on the scene after a disaster, but they cannot reach everyone immediately.”
  3. FEMA goes on to explain that, following a disaster, you might get help in hours or it might take days. This is NOT due to negligence or ill will on behalf of the government but rather this is just a fact of logistics. There could be millions of people in need of rescue and only a few hundred or at best thousands of emergency vehicles. It just takes time to clear the roads of debris and reach everyone.
  4. During the great Kentucky Ice Storm of 2009, FEMA had "plenty of folks ready to go, but [were] are some limitations with roads closed and icy conditions." In effect the roads were too dangerous for the Emergency Teams to use! According to newspaper reports, “Some in rural Kentucky ran short of food and bottled water, and resorted to dipping buckets in a creek. … Rural communities feared it could be days or even weeks before [power company] workers got to areas littered with downed power lines.
  5. Someday this might happen to you! No power, no water, and no rescue. You have no choice but to be resilient and survive on your own for at least three days.
  6. I urge each and everyone one of you to go home today and build a three-day cache of food, water, flashlights, blankets, medicine and anything else you think you’ll need to survive while waiting for disaster responders to knock on your door.
Bottom Line

Many people are frustated when asked to give a talk. Where do I start? The formula above is the answer to this question. Just fill in the blanks.

Today college English courses teach a simplified version of the six-part sermon. It’s called the five-part essay. You have an opening introduction and a closing conclusion. The meat of your talk fills a three-part body. Why three? Because the human mind likes the number three and starts to become confused when asked to remember four things. To turn the six-part sermon into a five-part essay try merging parts 1 and 2 as the introduction or merging parts 5 and 6 into the conclusion.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Speech-Act Theory

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny”
A few days ago I mentioned the lecture series, Way with Words, that I’ve been listening to during my commute. Today I’ll stretch the meaning of “preparedness” to include public speaking and list some of the interesting things I’ve learned.

Speech-Act Theory
Sometimes words are just words (You’re married!?) and sometimes words change the world (I now pronounce you man and wife). The difference is called non-performative vs performative speech. The difference in wording may be very slight, “I think the Yankees will lose” (an opinion) vs “I bet you the Yankees will lose” (an action). Sometimes the distinction is blurry, misunderstood or deliberately abused. King Henry II once said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” (i.e. Thomas Beckett). Henry's statement might have been a rhetorical question but, being the words of a King, his knights took this as a command and beheaded Beckett. A President might abuse this by saying, “If only Castro were dead” (opinion or command?) and then disclaim responsibility when the CIA tries to assassinate Castro.

I bet you’ve experienced the situation where someone misinterprets your words. “That’s not what I said!” or “That’s not what I meant!” Speech-Act breaks communication into three parts:

Locutionary – what you said
Illocutionary – what you are alluding to, the message your listener hears
Perlocutionary – what you hope to persuade your listener to do
Suppose you say, “There is a large rock on my foot!”

Locutionary – stating a fact (rock on foot)
Illocutionary – I’m uncomfortable, this hurts
Perlocutionary – Please move this rock off my foot.
Communication can break down when we pack our words with a lot of implied meaning and the Locutionary is very different from the Perlocutionary. When a parent says, “go to bed”, this is short hand for “brush your teeth, put on PJs, and go to sleep.” If the child jumps into bed fully clothed and reads a book they are following the Locutionary (literal meaning) while ignoring the Illocutionary and implied Perlocutionary.

Bottom Line

In emergency situations it is critical to say exactly what you mean and not assume that people will fill in any blanks. An example of this is, “Someone call 9-1-1!” People standing around understand your intent but most are unlikely or unwilling to apply it to themselves and make the call. The correct thing to do is point to a person at the scene and say, “You. Call 9-1-1!” Now the required action and actor are very clear – the words and the action match. The selected person might object in which case you pick another person until one agrees to make the call.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

How do you Pay Your Bills?

“Bank failures are caused by depositors who don't deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement” – Vice President Dan Quayle
Although I’m a computer programmer (or perhaps because I’m a computer programmer) I don’t trust modern technology 100%. In some ways my wife and I are Luddites, resisting (though not necessarily opposed to) new technology. We embraced cell phones only after many years and still lament the high cost. Another technology that we’ve put off adopting is automatic bill paying.

In the story, Energy Company Debits $1.28 Million From Your Bank Account, a Colorado restaurant owner had arranged for auto-pay from her bank account with the Xcel Energy Company. This worked well for many months. But recently her rent check for the restaurant bounced. She called the bank and discovered she was overdrawn by over 1 Million dollars. A billing error at the Xcel Company had charged her $1.28 Million and Auto-Pay never objected.

Fortunately this story ends happily. Xcel corrected the bill and promised to pay any overdraft charges. But if you’re caught in a similar situation with one company accidentally draining your account, you may have a dozen other checks bounce before the problem is discovered. Each bounced check could leave a black-mark on your credit history, late fees, raised interest rates, and hours of phone calls to straighten out.

Bottom Line

If you use Auto-Pay, always read your bills and double check the amount deducted. This also applies to credit cards. I’ve been doubled charged by gas stations and overcharged and falsely charged. It’s rare but you need to watch for it.

All forms of payments have drawbacks. Last year a check payment for our Discover Card got lost in the mail. Fortunately my wife keeps an eye on our balance online and noticed that our account had not been credited with payment. She arranged to pay by phone before late fees were applied.

If you elect to pay your bills with cash don’t go to this extreme: Upset With $350 Electrical Bill, Man Pays In Pennies. 170 pounds of pennies in two large duffel bags!

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

How to Create New Jobs

“One of the consequences of such notions as "entitlements" is that people who have contributed nothing to society feel that society owes them something, apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.” - Thomas Sowell (American Writer and Economist, b.1930)
When Capitalism (US) is compared to Socialism (Russia/China) we think of factory owners and managers versus the “workers”. But I just read a fascinating story from Knoxville, Tennessee, where unemployed workers and managers worked together to convince companies to open new factories to hire the workers!

Knoxville Sign Workers Respond Creatively to Company Closing

When the sign making company, Image Point, abruptly closed down in Knoxville, the 270 laid off workers didn’t say goodbye and drift apart. They created a Facebook account to share tips on navigating through the unemployment benefits system, how to fight depression, and how to find another job. Managers shared contact lists to find out the unmet needs of Image Point customers. They discovered that "literally, dozens of supply companies in the area would be affected if we did nothing."

Realizing that Knoxville "had become the sign industry capital of the country," the laid-off managers and regional economic developers were able to obtain promises of industry contracts for local work. The local Chamber of Commerce called up other sign companies and invited them to take tours of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley and hire the local talent to fulfill the promised contracts. Five companies opened shop in the “Innovation Valley” and five more have committed. Nearly half of the ex-Image Point employees have been rehired.

This is an amazing win-win-win story. The workers are happy to be working, the regional planners are happy to have more local industry, and the other signage companies “appreciate the proactive, economic development effort.”

Bottom Line
A few years back Hillary Clinton publish the book, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”. The story told here could have been titled, “It Takes a Village to Support an Industry”. This sounds rather Socialistic: more power to the village of workers but note that there was no mention in this story of federal or state government intervention or bailouts. No mention of the workers unionizing or opening a factory of their own. Rather local business developers discovered a need for new signs by local businesses and then won the support of distant sign makers by appealing to their profit motive. Capitalism, not Socialism, created new jobs for these workers.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cognitive Biases

“Hell is paved with good intentions.” – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153)

This week my commuting time “book” is “Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion” by Michael Drout of Wheaton College. He is an entertaining speaker and I’ve been enjoying his explanations of logical fallacies and the ways we are fooled by words and false arguments.

In addition to being fooled by others, sometimes we also fool ourselves. This is called Cognitive Bias and is the topic of the blog Putting Obama on the Couch by James Pethokoukis. He states, “Team Obama is filled with dedicated, hard-working folks trying to do the best job they can. But how to explain a series of puzzling economic decisions”?

Pethokoukis lists five psychological pitfalls that might explain the White House’s actions.

1 Anchoring Bias
This means relying too much on past results and choices. Mutual Funds are required by law to remind you “past performance is no indicator of future results.” In Obama’s case Pethokoukis thinks the White House is “hewing” to the original campaign agenda -- healthcare reform, green technology, when the looming global depression trumps alls. Old plans should be set aside to focus on the most urgent problem – the economy.

2. Attention Bias
This means ignoring the facts and data that do NOT support what you already believe in. How often has a spouse or friend accused you of not listening to news you don’t want to hear? Pethokoukis points out that Obama is cherry picking facts in order to argue against tax cuts. A broader look at historical data shows that tax cuts do stimulate the economy.

3. Overconfidence
Sometimes we can be just too full of ourselves. In Obama’s case his team was 100% certain of the impact of various spending multipliers or the exact number of jobs that will be saved or created by the “stimulus” before the exact details of the stimulus were actually determined by congress. In essence they were arguing that it really didn’t matter how we spent the $800 billion; the economy would be saved by the sheer size of the bailout.

4. Wishful Thinking
This is closely related to items 2 and 3. We convince ourselves that what we want must be true (overconfidence) and then looks for facts to back it up (Attention Bias). Pethokoukis accuses the White House of wishful thinking by projecting very optimistic growth and recovery from the stimulus package. There is no contingency planning for the stimulus failing or having only a modest impact on the economy.

5. Planning Fallacy
This means underestimating the difficulty or length of time for some task. It is extremely common during project planning and the frequent curse of computer software (and Politicians). When asked for an estimate a programmer sees in his or her head the “best case” scenario (Wishful Thinking). They don’t envision incompatibility issues across different web browsers, a bug in a vendor’s software library, a bug in Microsoft’s operating systems, security restrictions, late hardware delivery, disk crash, etc.
I attended a class in Estimation Techniques by Construx Software which taught that one should ask for a best case and worst case estimate on each task and use the average. Some tasks will work first time and others go way over time budget so expect a balance in the middle. The first time I used this a programmer was insulted. “I’m a professional,” he said and “knew how to estimate correctly.” Still he complied and I planned the project deliverables by averaging the best and worst times. In the end this programmer had to work overtime to meet the deadlines as obstacles pushed many tasks into the worst case estimates.

Bottom Line
As thinking human beings we are each subject to the Cognitive Biases listed above. Sometimes our mental blind spots can be deadly. Suppose your car breaks down in a remote area. Would you stay with the car or hike to civilization? Experts recommend you stay in or near your car. When the car is found you will be rescued. But if you are Wishful in thinking a town might be nearby and Overconfident in your hiking and wilderness skills, you might leave the car and become lost in the woods or incapacitated with a sprained ankle, snake bite, hypothermia, heat stroke, or dehydration. Now rescuers must search hundreds of miles of wilderness to locate you before you die.
When making life impacting decisions, be humble in your abilities, look at opposing facts, consider the worst cases, and think about what might happen if you are wrong.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Disaster Animal Response Team

“I never married because there was no need. I have three pets at home which answer the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog which growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon, and a cat that comes home late at night.” - Marie Corelli

If ordered to evacuate your home, would you/could you leave your pets behind? Because most emergency shelters and hotels have a no pet policy, the standard procedure for disasters requires that pet owners leave their loved ones behind. However as Hurricane Katrina clearly showed, when given a choice between their own personal safety or abandoning their household pets, a significant number of people will choose to risk their lives in order to remain with their pets.

In recognition of this, congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, Public Law 109–308 (2006). The PETS Act requires that State and local emergency preparedness authorities include how they will accommodate households with pets or service animals when presenting disaster preparedness plans to the FEMA. (A city or state is required to submit a plan in order to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.)

Unfortunately, since the passage of the PETS Act of 2006, little has changed. Bureaucracies are slow to change. Under existing liability laws, a shelter could face a damaging lawsuit when someone is bitten by another person’s cute pet. And I suspect this law is not well known; I just learned of it, three years after its passage. It has never been mentioned in my training with the Red Cross or CERT.

Bottom Line

What can you do?

First- write to your mayor and governor and ask them, do they know about this law and what have they done to include pets in the emergency planning.

Second- follow the example of the Lamorinda area in Northern California (Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda in Contra Costa County). They have created a Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) to rescue pets and farm animals during Wildfires. Lamorinda DART consists of CERT graduates who have received additional animal sheltering and rescue training and are able to provide disaster response to humans and animals.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Light Pollution

When you are put into the [Total Perspective] Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here." - the ultimate torture device described in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
From yesterday's Astronomy Picture of the Day (one of my favorite web sites):
How many stars can you see? Through next week, the GLOBE at Night project invites people from all over the world to go outside at night, look up, and see! Specifically, people are invited to go out an hour after sunset and look for the constellation Orion toward the west. Rather than count Orion's stars directly,
however, the GLOBE at Night website has made things easier by providing several star charts to which you can compare your view of Orion. Possible matches extend from a bright sky where only a few Orion stars are visible, to a very dark sky where over 100 Orion stars are visible. ... By participating in this easy and fun activity, you are helping humanity to better understand how light pollution is changing across the Earth.


Star gazing is one of the great blessings in life and can help give a sense of perspective on how much bigger the universe is than the momentary problems we face.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wildfire Policies

“Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy.” – anon
An interesting article in USBerkelyNews asks the question, Should California consider Australia's wildfire policy?

The policy in Australia is “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early”.
The policy in California is “evacuate (often last minute) and let the government protect your house”.

Neither policy is perfect. The California mandatory evacuation plan has not reduced property loss and may in fact increase the number of deaths. Evidence from 71 Australian fire deaths in 1983 showed that “late evacuation is dangerous; while deaths did occur inside houses, twice as many deaths occurred in vehicles or out in the open. This evidence has led to the Australasian Fire Authorities Council catch-phrase, ‘houses protect people, and people protect houses.’”

The Australian plan has worked well for 60 years but failed this February when a massive wildfire grew too big for people who stayed in their homes. 210 people died, 1,800 homes were destroyed, and 1,500 square miles of land scorched. Experts are studying the situation to learn what went wrong with an otherwise sensible and successful policy.

“The key element of Australia’s policy is to train willing home-owners to protect their homes in an active wildfire; what the Australian strategy does is actively engage and help home-owners to become part of the solution rather than just needing to be evacuated.”

“The Australian approach is different from what many call ‘shelter-in-place.’ There is active participation from the homeowners before and possibly during a fire… Residents are involved in reducing the vulnerability of their homes through such activities as clearing dangerous vegetation around their property or installing ember-blocking screens for their attic vents … In the process, they become more aware of the risks of living in an urban-wildland interface, and both homes and people are better prepared to handle fires when they inevitably occur.”

The Australian plan is not for everybody and is dangerous if embraced without training. It would not work well in areas with a high number of part-year vacation homes. “Giving homeowners the option of staying home during a wildfire can be deadly if done incorrectly and without adequate preparation. It would take just one terrible instance of a family getting killed because they were trying to save their homes for the policy to be abandoned.”

Australians get special annual training to protect their house and are equipped with appropriate supplies such as hoses, radios, and protective clothing. “The noise alone of a wildfire front is phenomenal. Then the sun goes away, and the sky goes dark. It’s haunting, and people need to understand that before they sign up for this.”


If the front of the wildfire reaches the home, residents are instructed to shelter inside as the flames burn past. This is a smart strategy even for those who may intend to evacuate early but can’t because of the speed of the fire’s advance, the researchers say. “Chances of survival are significantly greater inside the home than outside in a car when the fire’s front is upon you.”

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Financial Pyramids

“I've got all the money I'll ever need; if I die by four O'clock” - Henry Youngman
During yesterday’s blog I was tempted to talk more about our emergency fund but didn’t want to get too far off track from CD ladders. So this blog will be dedicated to my family’s theory for investing. With the recent Madoff ponzi-scheme fraud you hear of people who put their entire savings into one Hedge fund and lost everything. This violates the second law of investing:

2. NEVER put all your money in one basket

No matter if it were your mattress, a bank, a CD, a great stock or a hedge fund, DO NOT put all your money in one place. Smart thieves will check for money in your mattress; your bank might fail; your hedge might be a fraud. But unless you are the world’s most unlucky person, it is unlikely that all these will happen together to wipe out everything. Diversify so a loss in one place is buffered by money kept elsewhere.

Side note: while mutual funds are a great way to diversify amongst stocks, you are still invested in the stock market itself and when it tanks (like now) nearly all stocks go down. It is safer to spread money across multiple markets like bonds and foreign stocks as well as domestic stocks. It is also important to keep in mind that your mutual funds may be less diversified than you think. You can buy 20 different funds but discover that they all invest in the same “top” 20 stocks. Or you may discover that your mutual funds are heavily tilted toward some favored sector. My funds were “bank heavy”, i.e. overly invested in the stocks of banks when the bank crisis hit and wiped out value; e.g. Citibank has fallen from $50 per share to $1. To find out how diversified you are, check out Vanguard.com. You fill out an online form with your mutual fund accounts and their Portfolio X-Ray will look inside the funds to tell you what stocks and market sectors you are weighted in.

So if Diversify is Rule #2, what is the First Law of Investing? It is:

1. NEVER invest what you can NOT afford to lose
The mathematical “laws” of the marketplace reward higher rates for higher risk. When you chase high rates you are “accepting” a greater risk of a total wipe out. We are in the current financial crisis because banks and investors thought they had found an exception to the rule, Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs). The high paying CMO “tranches” bundled together the mortgage payments of high default-risk homes. The risk of mortgage default was waved away in two ways:
  • With many homes bundled together it was unlikely that the majority of them would all default at the same time. (This proved false when the housing bubble burst).
  • The mortgage payments were insured by AIG. If homes defaulted, AIG would bail out the CMO funds. (The default crisis proved so big that AIG ran out of money. They lost $64 BILLION (with a B) last quarter and the US government has given them over $150 Billion to keep AIG out of bankruptcy.)

There is no magical investment. High rate = high risk.


So are high rates always bad? No.
No one will ever get wealthy with rates paid by banks and CDs. In times of high inflation your money actually loses value in the bank if the interest rate is below the inflation rate.

So what do I do? I diversify and build a financial security net before investing. Keep in mind that I am not a financial planner and that this is just my family policy. We establish investment tiers, a financial pyramid with a firm (but low rate) foundation to a high and risky (but great rates) peak.

  • First we keep enough money in our checking account to pay the month’s bills. Any money in excess of this goes to our emergency fund savings account, which pays some interest (but not much).
  • The emergency fund is capped at a value that would keep us afloat for about 3-6 months. When this grows too big we move the money to CDs or investment funds.
  • The CDs are our buffer to last us for a few years of bill paying. The rates are OK and the money is safe. The size of the buffer should vary based upon circumstances. Since I’m employed in a good job and retirement is far way, our buffer is about 5 years. When retirement gets near, I will start moving money out of risky investments and into safe CDs or equivalents.
  • Lastly, after we’ve filled out the immediate, short-term, and long-term tiers, anything left over is invested in the markets for a long-term return. This is the tier that has taken a huge hit this past year. Our near-term security is safe but I’ll have to rethink dreams of early retirement.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

CD Ladders

“There's a way of transferring funds that is even faster than electronic banking. It's called marriage.” – anon
During normal economic times (of which this isn’t) you earn more money on a CD with a longer maturity period. For example a 1-year CD should give you a higher interest rate than a 6-month CD. Even better rates can be found a 2-year, 5-year or 10-year CD. However the problem with long term CDs is that your money is locked up. Yes you can cash in early but you pay a “substantial penalty for early withdrawal.”

The ability to access your money when you want and need it is called cash flow and liquidity. Long term CDs are a great investment but bad for your liquidity. Fortunately there is a trick called CD Ladders for getting better rates while preserving some cash flow. It works like this:
Suppose you have $10,000 to invest. You put $2500 into four CDs with different maturity dates: 3-month, 6-month, 9-month, and 1-year. But wait, there is more. At the end of 3 months, reinvest that money in a 1-year CD. Likewise as each CD matures, put the money back in as a 1-year CD. What you will have after 9 months is 4 CDs, each with a 1-year maturity but scattered in time. You will never more than 3 months away from a CD maturing.


Does this work? Yes if you stick to 1-year CDs or some other fixed rollover period.
In my case, my wife created a nicely spaced ladder but when each CD expires, she renews at the best current short-term rate. This is sometimes 6-months or 9-months or a year. We lose the nice rung spacing in the ladder and somehow our four separate CDs always seem to converge and mature very close to one another. We could stick the to 1-year plan but instead we value the best rate over the best CD liquidity. For cash flow we keep an emergency fund in a savings account that could pay our bills for 3 months. The rate is lousy but the cash is always there should be need it. It would take a huge emergency for us to spend through the entire nest egg and become reliant upon the cash locked up in the CDs.

Also keep in mind that any plan you follow must be adjusted for life changes. If you have a big wedding or other known expense coming up, you might switch all your CDs to mature just before the big event so you’ll have the cash you need. When I was laid off last year and our CDs matured, we renewed them at 3 or 6 months so that they would be within reach if needed. Now that I’m employed again, we will extend out the maturity periods one more.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Funeral Costs

“You should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours.” -Yogi Berra

The Consumerist has an excellent article called Save Money On A Funeral. Did you know, for example, that there is an FTC regulation called the Funeral Rule that gives you the following rights?

  • Funeral directors must give you itemized prices in person. They must also supply itemized prices over the phone (but you must request it).
  • If you ask, they must give you itemized prices for any other services like caskets, burial containers, etc.
  • No funeral director or home can force you to buy a package. You can buy only what you want. In fact, you can bring your own casket and there will be no "handling fee” by law.
  • If a state or local law requires that you buy a particular item, the funeral director must state that next to the item on the price list, and reference the specific law.
  • If you choose cremation, the funeral provider must offer alternative containers to an expensive casket for the actual cremation.
  • The funeral director must show you a list of caskets for sale, including descriptions and prices, before showing you the actual caskets. Studies show most people will buy one of the first three caskets they are shown. Prior to this law, directors exploited human nature by showing the three expensive models first.
  • There is no technology, embalming chemical, coffin, liner, or vault that will preserve a body indefinitely. Funeral directors can't promise or insinuate otherwise. Don’t buy the extra seals or liners in a vain attempt to keep the body preserved longer after burial.

For more details check out the full story at Save Money On A Funeral.

Bottom Line

Additional suggestions from the story include:

  • Consider a direct burial with a memorial service
  • You mighty not have to worry about embalming if you cremate or bury shortly after death
  • Shop around for the casket. It may be cheaper online. You might even be able to rent a casket
  • If the deceased is a veteran or spouse, a military funeral could save money
  • Ask your minister or rabbi for advice on funeral cost savings.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sticky Ideas

“Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky.” - Fran Lebowitz

I just finished a great book, listening to the CDs while commuting to work. It’s called “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. These brothers studied urban legends, advertising, and successful teachers, scientists, and leaders to find out what makes ideas click with people. Why do you forget your cousin’s phone number but remember word for word a funny story she told you?

The authors found that successful ideas that “worked” often used several of six techniques:
  1. Simplicity
    Stick to one core message in plain language. Avoid the “curse of knowledge” and technical jargon.
  2. Unexpectedness
    People will quickly forget something that is “common sense” or just plain common. Use uncommon sense and the unexpected instead.
  3. Concreteness
    People remember concrete things, not abstract things. Use physical nouns and hit as many senses as you can.
  4. Credibility
    Why should people trust your message?
  5. Emotions
    Emotions grab the attention and bypasses the analytical brain filters.
  6. Stories
    People love, remember and will retell a good story.

One of the many examples used in the book is Kennedy’s statement, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Simple? The message in plain language with common words.
Unexpected? It was a shock. No one had done this before and he’s started the clock ticking
Concrete – definitely! “man” to “moon” before the end of “this decade”
Credible? This is the US president setting the goal.
Emotional? Yep – it had “wow” appeal
A story? – in miniature. He’d didn’t just say a man to the moon, but included a safe return to describe a complete journey.

Did this idea stick? Certainly and even beyond Kennedy’s death. It inspired a nation and the goal was met in 1969.

Bottom Line

You might not be a Madison Avenue advertiser but if you are a parent, teacher, coach, team leader at work, etc, then there are times when you need to make a point and want that point to be remembered and followed. This book is filled with great stories and examples of how to make your point successfully.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Five Laws of Firearms Safety

“Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” - Mae West
Today's blog message was first published on CodeNameInsight as The Four Commandments of Firearms Safety Explained.

There is no excuse for the "accidental" discharge of a firearm (which mostly has
fatal results). Every time there is a news report of someone involved in an
accidental shooting, you can be sure that they broke one (or more) of the Four
Commandments of Firearms Safety.
  1. "Treat all firearms as though they are loaded. "
    Whenever you touch a firearm and don't plan to shoot immediately, your first task must be to clear the weapon and make sure it is not loaded. Never trust someone else's word that the gun is safe.
  2. Never point the muzzle "at something you are not willing to destroy."
    It only takes a faction of a second for a gun to accidentally "target" someone while being moved about and in that unfortunate moment it fires and kills. AWAYS know and pay attention to where the gun is pointing.
  3. "Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until your sights are on the target and you are ready to fire. "
    "When I see a shooter with their finger on the trigger when they are carrying
    the weapon, picking up their weapon, or holding their weapon, I know this is a
    sign of a very inexperienced shooter." - CodeNameInsight
  4. KNOW your target
    Never shoot at a sudden movement or a shape in the dark. The thing that moved might be your hunting partner instead of the dear. The dark shape could be your neighbor instead of a burglar. Don't shoot unless you are certain you have identified the target.
  5. Know what is next to and behind your target
    If you miss your target, where will the bullet go? Bullets don't just stop because you missed. What unintended target will be hit if you miss? If you hit your target but the bullet goes completely through, what will it hit next?

Bottom Line

These five simple rules, if followed at ALL times, can reduce the number of "accidental" firearm deaths to almost nil.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Preparing your Feet for Disasters

“A radical is a person with both feet firmly planted in the air.” - anon
Today I recommend the article Preparing Your Feet for TEOTWAWKI, by The Surgeon. It has too many excellent details about foot care to summarize here so go read it (you’ll have to scroll down past the annoying ad that fills the screen).

Bottom Line
We take our feet and ankles for granted until they fail us. While it’s possible to put an arm in a sling and let it heal, it is MUCH harder to heal a leg injury in the knee, ankle or foot. Even with a crutch you’ll find yourself putting weight on the injury and slowing the healing process.
When 9-11 hit NYC many people walked out of the city to friends or to home; a distance of many miles. I was working on 50th street at the time and when our company closed for the day and everyone told to go home (evacuate), I was amazed as I walked south to Grand Central Station to catch a train. I felt like a salmon going upstream as 5th Ave and Madison Ave were filled with thousands of people all walking north. I learned afterwards that the mayor had ordered a complete evacuation of lower Manhattan. With subways closed or overwhelmed, that left walking.
The lesson I learned from this was to keep a pair of sneakers in my desk drawer at work just in case. I once walked a few miles in dress shoes and got terrible blisters.

P.S. TEOTWAWKI = The End of The World As We Know It.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What’s Important in Your Wallet?

“The trouble with being punctual is that people think you have nothing more important to do.” - anon
Here’s an old posting from Code Name Insight that I’ve been saving for a rainy day.
Poll: What's The Most Important Thing You Carry With You?
Our last poll about the most important thing that you carry with you on a daily basis turned up some interesting information. People's most important item--a pocket knife (15 people), was followed by a cell phone (11 people), a firearm (7 people), money/credit card (3 people), and lastly "other" (2 people).
I think it’s important to remember that this poll asked for items of “Every day” importance. I do have a mini-knife and pocket tool-kit in my carrying case but I’ve used it maybe once to open up the plastic shell of something I had bought. There are other things I carry every day in my business “bag” that get used far more often:

1. Cell phone – definitely useful every day and for emergencies. Consider a prepaid phone if the cost of a monthly plan is outside your budget.
2. Subway maps of NYC (when I worked in NYC)
3. A breath spray (when I was interviewing)
4. Antacids (for my stomach), substitute here any medication that is vital to you
5. A first aid kit (rarely used but important to have); I also carry one pair of rubber gloves and a CPR mask so I can give 1st Aid and not catch Aids.
6. An eye-glass repair kit.

What do you carry that you consider essential?

Bottom Line

Preparation should cover everyday life, not just possible emergencies.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Common Sense applied to saving cents

“Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality, nothing will do, and with them everything.” - Benjamin Franklin
I saw two articles today that described situations where a person loses money while trying to be thrifty and save.

In the blog post, Jeep Incapable Of Selling To Man With $24,000 In Cash, a car salesman tries to convince a buyer with loads of cash to finance the car instead to get $1,500 back. Trouble is the loan will cost $31,732, an extra $7,132 over the cash price. Would you spend $7,132 to save $1,500? No Deal!

In another blog post, Shopping For Low Gas Prices Is A Losing Proposition, the author, Len Penzo, points out that driving to the next town to buy cheaper gas will actually cost you money. Here are the numbers. You drive 5 miles out of town to save 4 cents per gallon. You buy 12 gallons of gas, so you save .04 * 12 = 48 cents.
BUT you drove a total of 10 wasted miles to get the gas. At $4 a gallon and a car with 20 mpg this means 10/20 * 4 = $2.00 for the cost of the trip.
So if this case study describes you, you just spent $2 to save 48 cents.

Even at $2.00 a gallon, the cost of the trip is $1; still more than you save. My recommendation: buy cheap but only along routes you normally travel. Don't make a special side trip just for gas.

Bottom Line

You have to use common sense and consider the total cost when trying to save money. You might get a great deal on something at 75%-off but the money is wasted if you don’t use what you bought.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

A Frugal Life

“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.” - Lao Tzu (Chinese Taoist Philosopher)
If you need help cutting expenses and living within your means, check out the recent Festival of Frugality at Green Panda Tree House. You’ll find dozens of links to money saving advice like:

And many, many more.

Bottom Line

There is no one simple answer to saving money (other than don’t spend!). Because money is spent on so many different things, you have to look at each thing independently. Sometimes you can buy cheaper, sometimes buy less, and sometimes stop buying completely.


(Cheaper) Pet food – will your pet eat a cheaper generic brand?

(Less Often) Unable to give up expensive Starbucks coffee? Then save it for a special treat once a day or, better yet, once a week.

(Stop) Lunch out everyday? – Eat at work instead; most places have a microwave. I now pack dinner leftovers into Tupperware and have great meals at lunch – today was meatloaf and mashed potatoes made at home. Watch out for the cost of buying frozen pre-made meals to eat at work.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Atlas Shrugged

“Sales of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ have almost tripled over the first seven weeks of this year [2009] compared with sales for the same period in 2008. This continues a strong trend after bookstore sales reached an all-time annual high in 2008 of about 200,000 copies sold.” – the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights

In the words of the director of the Ayn Rand Center,
“There are uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day. Americans are rightfully concerned about the economic crisis and government’s increasing intervention and attempts to control the economy. Ayn Rand understood and identified the deeper causes of the crisis we’re facing, and she offered, in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ a principled and practical solution consistent with American values."

‘Atlas Shrugged’ was published in 1957 by Russian-American author Ayn Rand. She was age 12 during the Russian Revolution, attended a Soviet University, and at age 21, while visiting relatives in America, decided never to go back. Her works reflect the struggle of creative individuals versus corporate and government bureaucracies. Of those who are productive versus “second-handers” who live off the work of others.

The plot of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ shows the sometimes fatal impact of stupid policy decisions made by politicians and managers. Eventually the hero, John Galt, says enough, and calls for a strike of entrepreneurs to stop supporting a dystopian United States. The “creative people” retreat to a mountainous hideaway where they build a Utopian free economy. Without "the men of the mind," the US economy collapses and society falls apart. The title is an allusion to the titan Atlas who, according to Greek mythology, carried the Earth on his shoulders. What would happen if Atlas (like John Galt) decided to "shrug" and stop carrying the weight of the Earth?

In the past few months, there has been increased blog traffic about going “John Galt”. To escape the US laws and regulations that have become hostile to creativity and individual capitalism by retreating from civilization to some private utopia like a cabin in the woods or Walden’s Pond. However if you were a true John Galt you’d establish a colony or compound of like-minded individualists.

Personally I’d be reluctant to join a compound given the many bad examples:
- the Jonestown cult who committed suicide via purple kool-aid
- the "God Salvation Church" flying saucer cult
- break-away polygamy sects in Utah
- the FBI assault on the Branch Davidians cult in Texas

Still there are some positive examples of people living by their own rules:
- the Amish & Mennonites
- the Amana Colonies

Bottom Line
I like Ayn Rand's writings for her support of “individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the constitutional protection of the right to life, liberty, and property.” For her fierce opposition to “all forms of collectivism and statism, including fascism, communism, and the welfare state.”

Since the time of FDR and his depression era programs, US law and government focus has switched from protection of property right to protection of personal welfare. In the ‘World is Flat’, Thomas Friedman points out that it was strong property rights laws that made America a world power. The ability to own land, mortgage it, use the money to start a business, and hire/fire who you want and run it as you deem fit, has allowed for the flourishing of American creativity.

Yes some government regulation is needed as was pointed out of the meat industry in “the Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. But rules should be limited to prevent the worst cases instead of micro-managing the majority. Many think that when regulation fails, the answer is yet more rules. After a century of FDA rules, a bad apple like the Peanut Corp of America factory in Georgia never registered itself with State and Federal regulators and so avoided all the rules. It is similar to gun restriction laws that prevent “good” law-abiding citizens from owning a gun while criminals have no problem buying weapons on the black market. Criminals don’t follow rules and the result of extreme regulation is less productivity for everyone else.


A recent quote by Congressional Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.)

“People are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in ‘Atlas Shrugged, The achievers, the people who create all the things that benefit rest of us, are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs, the people who create wealth, who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them.”

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Eyeglass Repair

“Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” – proverb
“People who live in glass houses don't have much of a sex life” - Tom Best
As a person who wears glasses, I liked the article Simple Survival Tools - Eyeglass Repair Kit. If my glasses broke I would be blind as a bat and very useless in a disaster.

My recommendation
Buy one or more eyeglass repair kits. These sell for a buck or two and are often sold at checkout registers at grocery stores, Wal-Mart, etc. Keep one in your go kit, one in your car glove compartment, one in your purse, etc. Make sure a kit is always available. It will supply you with rubber bands and screws to hold your glasses together.
The article also gives ideas for using safety pins, duct tape, glue and other emergency measures.

Bottom Line
Since some eyeglass problems may be “unfixable”, like a broken or badly scratched lens, it is a good idea to have an emergency backup pair. It could be your old prescription that may be blurry but better than nothing. My wife & I take advantage of sales at Sears when they sell glasses and frames for $100 total. You won’t get anything fancy, no tinting, no progressives, but they will work. I got a pair of bifocals this way and am wearing them now. My progressive lens got scratched while I was unemployed so I switched to the emergency backup pair instead of spending money for a new pair at $300 or so. It took me several days to get used to the bifocal lines but now I never notice the lines. Now that I have a job again I’ll buy progressives but I can wait for another sale.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Insults & Logical Fallacies

“A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.” - Oscar Wilde quotes
This past month we’ve seen a rare event, the White House attacking the integrity and character of an American Citizen.

"It would be charitable to say he doubled down on what he said in January in ... wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country” – White House spokesman Robert Gibbs speaking about Rush Limbaugh

"This notion that I want the president to fail, folks -- this shows you a sign of the problem we've got. ... That's nothing more than common sense. And to not be able to say it? Why in the world do I want what we just described -- rampant government growth, indebtedness? ... What possibly is in this that any of us want to succeed?" – Rush Limbaugh

I bring this up not because of the politics but because of the “spin” at work here. In college I spent six years studying aspects of logic and the verbal exchanges with Rush demonstate two common logical fallicies.

The White House comments could be classifed as a straw-man argument. “One that misrepresents a position in order to make it appear weaker than it actually is, refutes this misrepresentation of the position, and then concludes that the real position has been refuted.” In this case, Rush is saying he disagrees with the President’s policy on the economic recovery and hopes that the policy fails. The White House interprets this as equivalent to ”hoping for economic failure in this country” because in minds of the White House staff, their policy and economic recovery are one and the same. They overlook the possibility that the country might recover without (or even despite) the changes they propose.

The White House statement also distorts Rush’s statement in a second way by saying he desires “economic failure”. This overlooks the fact that we are already in a state of “economic failure”. I suspect Rush is saying that he hopes the economy does not improve under the Obama plan, because if it does, the Obama policy changes will become set in concrete for decades to come much like the changes made by FDR.

"We're not quitting. We are not giving up. The country is too important.
[Applause] There are certain realities. We don't have the votes in Capitol Hill
to stop what's going to happen. What we can do is slow it down, procedure,
parliamentary procedures, slow it down and do the best we can to inform the
American people of what's really on the horizon. I know it's going to be
tough." - Rush

If you believe that the cure is worse than the disease then you might sympathize with the opinion that,

"President Obama, your agenda is not new. It's not change, and it's not hope. Spending a nation into generational debt is not an act of compassion." -Rush

To avoid an honest discussion on the long-term side effects of the economic cure, the White House and even “conservative” politicians like the Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele have resorted to a second common logical fallacy, the ad hominem attack. This works as follows:

Source A makes claim X
There is something objectionable about Source A
Therefore claim X is false
When Michael Steele called Limbaugh an "entertainer" whose show is "incendiary" and "ugly" he was trying to shoot the messenger. By discrediting the speaker, one hopes to sweep what was said under the rug, to bury it as unworthy of consideration because the speaker is unworthy in some way. Attacking Rush the “entertainer” does not falsify his beliefs. Those need to be addressed directly if one wishes to refute them.

Bottom Line

I generally try to avoid speeches made by politicians today of any party. There is so much “spin”, so much deception, fact distortion, red herrings, straw-men, etc that there is rarely any real factual content left to digest. Try to get a copy of a SciFi book from 1988 call David’s Sling by Marc Stiegler. The opening chapters of the book describe an institute dedicated to training people to see past the lies in advertising, political speeches, etc. If only this were true.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Living off the Land

"Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery quotes (Author of 'The Little Prince')
Eventually most discussions on preparedness end up with moving to the country side and living off the land once you've lost all faith in the government or civilization to sustain you. I'm not that extreme but it remains the "holy grail" of preparedness. Here is an alleged first-hand account of a family who learned how to farm the hard way.

Perspectives on Prepping on a Very Low Income, by Kuraly

...I was forced to take very low-paying jobs and survive on a low-income.With our savings we were able to buy a small rural house and 7.5 acres in the southeast. We were able to pay cash, I wanted it to be ours with no strings attached, regardless of what the future held. I figured that at the very least we would have a roof and some plantable land.

...My first priority was for two weeks worth of provisions. ...

... We also invested in chickens, and watched some of them die, some of them be eaten by neighbor's dogs, some get eaten by our dogs, and the hardy survivors begin to lay eggs. We watched them eat their own eggs and learned to give them calcium.

...We had zero experience at any of this, and no one around that we knew to advise us. We had to learn everything from scratch. We bought a goat and promptly saw it attacked and killed by a stray dog. That hurt, financially as well as emotionally. After sending the dog to join the goat "on the other side", I bought another goat. and then another. These have survived. We have learned to care for them.

Bottom Line

Read the whole story. How would you do in a similar situation?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Excerise your Brain

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”
- Woodrow Wilson, US president

From Scientific American, Six Ways to Boost Brainpower,

  1. Physical exercise boosts blood flow and brain growth. Exercise also improves sleep that is essential to the brain.
  2. Diet: Although the brain is mostly made of fat, eating the wrong kind of fat will slow you down. Saturated fats = bad, Omega-3 fats (nuts, fish) = good. Too many calories may also make the brain sluggish. Suggested brain foods include walnuts, blueberries and spinach.
  3. Stimulants: substances that boost the body will also give move energy to the brain. Caffeine is the drug of choice by millions to wake up the brain. Use in moderation please; too much caffeine will cause jitters, anxiety and insomnia. 100 cups of coffee in one day can be fatal.
  4. Video games: improve mental dexterity, while boosting hand-eye coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition.
  5. Music: It can treat anxiety and insomnia, lower blood pressure, soothe patients with dementia, and help premature babies to gain weight and leave the hospital sooner. The motor cortex, cerebellum and corpus callosum (which connects the brain’s two sides) are all bigger in musicians than in non-musicians.
  6. Meditation: Although the brain’s cells typically fire at all different times, during meditation they fire in synchrony. Expert meditators also show spikes of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has generally been associated with positive emotions and big boosts in immune system functioning.

Bottom Line
Despite what you learned in school during the Stone Age, adult brains can grow new neurons. Not as fast of course as during youth but an old dog can learn new tricks.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The true Mortgage Crisis

"We must stem the spread of foreclosures and falling home values for all Americans" - President Obama
In response to this quote the New York Post points out that there is no national market for homes and no national price for homes. Instead, most of the United States will pay for the folly of a few misguided individuals in mostly just five states, California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Michigan. In Nevada, 1 in 76 homes are in foreclosure and 47% of the mortgages are "under water" (i.e. the mortgage exceeds the value of the home). The national median for foreclosures in 1 in 949 homes; just 1 tenth of 1 percent, hardly a National crisis. NY is 1 in 2,271, Vermont 1 in 51,906 .

So what is unique about the 5 states with high rates of foreclosures? They had the most extreme housing pricing bubble. Even though California home prices fell 20.8% last year, they were still 50% higher than they were just five years ago. Eventually bubbles must burst and extreme prices brought back to reality.
So what's happening now? By looking at sales, you can see the free market is
working very well... Falling home prices are not the problem, they're the solution... If something becomes too expensive, cut the price. Or move.
Bottom Line
Most subsidized homeowners are NOT poor but they took on too much debt, often by refinancing in risky ways to "cash out" thousands more than the original loan. Nearly all subprime loans were for refinancing, not buying a home.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Hard times in China

"Farming is really hard. It needs a lot of hard labor. None of the young
people want to farm nowadays. The income is extremely low." - 22-year-old Tang
Hui, who lost his manufacturing job in China four months ago
From CNN,
Tang Hui and his family prospered as migrant workers during China's economic boom, earning $10,000 a year: enough to build a house, send a cousin to school and pay for his grandmother's medical bills.
Wow, I'm amazed at what 10K can buy in China. But now the bad news...

But those good days are over. The family's cash earnings have evaporated, snatched away by a manufacturing crash cascading across China caused by falling global demand for its goods. The nine people in the Tang family are facing an income of zero; their best hope to survive is to grow rice and raise pigs at home in the Sichuan Mountains.

...In the past months, about 70,000 factories nationwide have closed. Beijing official Chen Xiwen estimates about 20 million migrant workers have lost jobs.

Bottom Line

The current economic crisis is not just a US problem, it is a global problem. According to Senator Bob Corker, the world is in the grips of an "unbelievable recession."

And so far nations have been "playing nice", no embargoes, no new tariffs, no currency wars. Let's hope the nations of the world continue to work cooperatively.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Coming Collapse?

[My] theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil, … a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. … Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality. - Reinventing Collapse, by Dmitry Orlov
Author Dmitry Orlov compares the collapse of the Soviet Union with events he sees happening in the USA today. In Feb 2009 he provided some Social Collapse Best Practices:

We [Americans have built] a brave new world where the Chinese made things out of plastic for us, the Indians provided customer support when these Chinese-made things broke, and we paid for it all just by flipping houses, pretending that they were worth a lot of money … And now it turns out that … the last five or so years of economic growth was more or less a hallucination, based on various debt pyramids, a "whole house of cards"…

When the Soviet system went away, many people lost their jobs, everyone lost their savings, wages and pensions were held back for months, their value was wiped out by hyperinflation, there shortages of food, gasoline, medicine, consumer goods, there was a large increase in crime and violence, and yet Russian society did not collapse. Somehow, the Russians found ways to muddle through…

Here is the key insight: you might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That’s just not the case…

Forget “growth,” forget “jobs,” forget “financial stability.” What should [the US government] realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless. If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified.

Bottom Line
I’ll summarize Orlov’s big four concerns:

Food - The food industry in America is highly subsidized and very dependent on oil. This is a good time to practice gardening so you know how to raise some food as a supplement to high food prices and shortages.

Shelter – if you lose your job, can you afford to make the rental or mortgage payments where you live now? Downsize now if you can’t afford your current lifestyle. If you don’t have a home, look for an opportunity to be a caretaker where you live rent-free for an absent owner while you maintain the property.

Transportation – if or when the price of gas skyrockets again, will you be able to afford your commute? If there is a gasoline shortage (like the 70’s), what will you do?

"Security is very important. … people must be ready to come to each other’s defense, take responsibility for each other, and do what’s right. Right now, security is provided by a number of bloated, bureaucratic, ineffectual institutions, which inspire more anger and despondency than discipline, and dispense not so much violence as ill treatment."

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