Thursday, April 30, 2009

WHO can you trust?

Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
- lyrics by The Who

The flurry of stories over Swine Flu has certainly been educational; almost like a global safety drill with a chance to evaluate the key players. There has been a wide range of public and official reactions from “head to the hills” to “nothing to worry about”. So whom can you trust?

Many studies have shown that people are a poor judge at putting risks into proper perspective. My current commuting book on CD, “Predictably Irrational”, details the many ways people are wired to act in ways that defy “rational” behavior. For example, use the word “free” and people will mob and sometimes riot to get something they don’t really need. When it comes to diseases, the word “death” triggers similar irrational behavior.

Yesterday it was announced that the first person (an infant) had died of Swine Flu in the US. Panic!!!! Well, no. Since the majority of US cases are in New York City (Queens), mayor Bloomberg held a press conference and told the public that 2000 New Yorkers die every year from flu. Death from flu is normal and part of everyday life that no one usually thinks twice about.

So why the hyper-reaction over Swine Flu?

  • We are past the normal flu season so deaths from this strain stand out as unusual.
  • The media has given it a name and made it their top story for ratings.
  • This flu (Mexico only so far) has killed healthy adults. This is serious news and makes this strain different than “normal flu”.

Once reliable source for judging the danger of influenza is the World Health Organization (WHO). They publish a global risk level for a pandemic (from all known flues) on a scale of 1 to 6.
Phases 1-3 represent flu in animals (like Bird Flu) that spread poorly to people.
Phase 4 means there is verified human-to-human transmission of an influenza virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” There is a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.
Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries. Declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent.
Phase 6 means the disease is a pandemic affecting many countries.

Bottom Line
On April 28 WHO raised the pandemic risk level from 3 to 4. On April 29 the threat level was raised to 5. WHO advises preparing for a pandemic but oddly does not yet recommend closing boarders or canceling travel plans. Personally I think that is under-responding and favoring the interests of business over people. So far most US cases have been traced back to someone visiting Mexico so it seems prudent to stay away until the flu is under control. Why visit a country that has declared itself a National Health Emergency?

Prepare, take precautions, and odds are you'll be OK. During the Spanish Flu of 1918 40 million people died which sounds like a lot. But 73% of Canadians and Americans NEVER contracted the Spanish flu. 97.5% of those who were infected, managed to survive and recover. With modern medicine the rate of surviving is higher today. WHO estimates that a modern pandemic would kill 5 million globally instead of 40-50 million.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dangerous Diet Pills

“The second day of a diet is always easier than the first. By the second day you're off it.” - Jackie Gleason

I know a friend who thinks anything labeled “natural” or “herbal” must be safe. But there are “natural” mushrooms that will kill you. A drink of “herbal” hemlock killed the philosopher Socrates. Snake venom is “natural”. So is grapefruit that can cause dangerous side effects with some medicines. For some reason people forget these things when shopping for health and diet supplements.

Worse yet, the labels on health store products may be lying about ingredients. The FDA doesn't screen supplements for safety pre-market — let alone effectiveness. So you have only the “reputation” of the supplier from China or India to go by; the same suppliers that killed children and pets with dangerous additives to milk and pet food.

According to recent tests by the Food and Drug Administration, 69 weight-loss supplements manufactured in the U.S. and abroad contain undeclared pharmaceuticals. For example, nearly all the supplements that tested positive contain the appetite suppressant sibutramine (Meridia), which is illegal to distribute without a prescription. Meridia elevates blood pressure and heart rate and can cause stroke and heart attack. In some supplements, the FDA detected Meridia at four times the highest level that doctors are allowed to prescribe. Without knowing it you may be ingesting drugs at potentially deadly doses.

Many dieters are not aware of the side effects and fail to mention diet pills to their doctor when they experience heart palpitations. Other risks that the FDA discovered in diet pills are an appetite suppressant (rimonabant) that was never approved in the U.S. because of a potential link to depression and suicide, and a laxative (phenolphthalein) linked to cancer in 1999.

Bottom Line

"There is, sadly, a business model," says Marc Ullman, a food-and-drug lawyer in New York. "A company will make insane claims, put a pharmaceutical ingredient in their product, and shut down and start another business if they get caught. What's the worst thing that will happen? A warning letter from the FDA?"


Beware also of "natural" medicines to protect you from Swine Flu. The "cure" can be more dangerous than the disease or even make the flu worse.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Proper Ways to Handle Swine Flu

“Panic is quite rare. What's quite common is denial; denial is why panic is rare. We are organized such that, when we're about to panic, we trip a circuit breaker instead and go into denial.” - Peter Sandman, Risk Communication Specialist

My column yesterday could be viewed as a form of denial. I suggested ignoring the media-hype and twitter panic on swine flu and calming preparing for a possible pandemic that was unlikely to happen. Since then I’ve done more reading from the opposing view point of “don’t risk your life, respond now.”

The NYT Health section this week includes a well-written article on Assessing the Danger of New Flu. It discusses the complications in judging how dangerous flu might be and then looks at Hong Kong as a model for proper government response.

Contagion and virulence
Two measurements describe flu or any disease. Contagion = how easily does the disease spread from person to person? Virulence = how deadly is it? (i.e. what percentage of people die from catching the disease?)
- The Spanish influenza of 1918 had a mortality rate of ONLY 2.5% but was very contagious and killed tens of millions.
- Bird Flu (global/current) kills 61% of those afflicted but so far infects mostly birds, rarely people. The total number of fatalities is 257.
- SARS (Hong Kong 2003) was virulent (17%) and spreadable. But it killed only 299.
It is not easy to figure out which flu bugs will be pandemics and which ones won’t before it is too late.

Lessons Learned
Hong Kong (HK) learned much from SARS about how to respond to an epidemic:
- By weeks end, HK will have six laboratories studying the genetic markers for Swine Flu to allow for rapid detection and diagnosis of new cases
- HK has tens of thousands of doctors and nurses, including retirees, on standby and ready to be mobilized. (The US has a similar program called the Medical Reserve Corps created under President Bush.)
- HK has contingency plans to keep public transport, electricity, food supplies, telecommunications and other vital services running if large numbers of people fall ill.
- Since SARS Hong Kong has added 1,400 respiratory isolation unit beds to hospitals.
- HK with a population of seven million people has stockpiled 20 million treatment courses of Tamiflu. The US with 300 million people has 50 million courses of Tamiflu.
- HK is quickly passing a law to require all health professionals to notify authorities of any suspected cases of Swine Flu. This allows the disease to be accurately tracked.
- HK has broad and detailed legal powers to quarantine possible cases. The US (after six years) is still debating how to handle legal issues during a possible pandemic.

Bottom Line
Several articles today have suggested that a little panic is good for public health. As discussed above it is very hard to know which flu bugs will fade quickly and which ones will be deadly killers. By the time authorities do know, the bug may have already spread widely making quarantines useless. The safest course for individuals and the public is to follow the example set in Mexico at the first hint of a new flu virus. Order the public to stay home and close the schools, non-essential business and all public events. If you must go out, wear a facemask.

Staying home and sitting out the flu will save lives but at terrible economic cost in lost business, lost jobs, etc. While you and I may value our life over money, not so for governments which feed on tax revenues. Since governments exist to prevent panic and to promote business, they will placate, lie, under report illnesses & deaths, over promote actions & cures, etc, to keep the peace. So Mexico deserves credit for putting the people first by declaring a National Emergency and quarantine.

WHO Raises Swine Flu Alert Level but stopped short of declaring a global emergency.
The suspected number of deaths rose to 149 in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with nearly 2,000 people believed to be infected. The number of U.S. cases rose to 48, the result of further testing at a New York City school, although none was fatal.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu

How quickly can Swine Flu make you sick? About 90 minutes of CNN should do it. -American Digest

There is nothing better for a news company than FEAR. When they can sell the idea of "Watch our news or you might die", ratings improve and they make money. Too bad if the alarm was false or too extreme and you ended up wasting your time and your money.

Last night I was watching some conference talks from online. (Highly recommended!) One speaker from Africa described how his team put together a text messaging emergency alert system to cover riots, government-police actions, etc. It worked very well. In fact too well. The amount of public created "emergency" traffic from tweet and texting far exceeded the ability of responders to read it. In version 2 of the system they had to install ratings to judge the accuracy and reliability of senders to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Now Swine Flu is real and it is back. It is not yet a pandemic but people are acting as if it were. shows how The Virus Does Not Travel at the Speed of Tweet, But the Tweet of the Virus Does. Panicked Tweeters were publishing "breaking news" from the CDC (Center of Disease Control) claiming that the virus was spreading and "could not be contained." USA Today reports Swine flu spreads panic in Mexico City. With 81 possible deaths in all of Mexico since April 13, health officials ordered some 500 cultural and sporting events cancelled. According to, the Mexican President declared an emergency April 25 and canceled school at all levels in Mexico City and the state of Mexico until further notice.

Precaution and preparation is important - for example Mexicans are urged to wear face masks in public. But keep a sense of perspective. In the US (2001 data) 2525 people died every day from heart attacks and 120 died every day from auto accidents. Why don't we see panics and government emergencies over butter and cars as agents of death? Every year the CDC estimates that 36,000 people in America die of "normal" flu but people still refuse to get "normal" flu shots. Blogger Ryan Sager writes

Our brains are pretty bad at assessing risk — we worry about flying (which is safe), while we love driving (which kills far more people); we worry about terrorism (which kills virtually no one), while we die of heart disease (No. 1 killer in the United States) — and so we vastly overestimate the chances that we, personally, might get swine flu.

In the article, Risk Communication Before and During Epidemics the author notes that there is a very low correlation between risk/harm and outrage/perceived risk.

Whatever your measure of harm, across a wide range of risks, the correlation between how much harm [a risk is] going to do and how upset people are going to get is this absurdly low 0.2 correlation.

Swine flu may get worse but right now driving your car is 40 to 100 times more deadly.

Bottom Line
Swine flu is serious but the 20 known cases in the US appear to be a mild strain. Watch the blogs and Internet for news but filter it for truth vs bias and rumors. Prepare but don't panic. If you have flu symptoms see a doctor and get tested for Swine flu, don't go to work or school and share the virus with others. Avoid people who are coughing or sneezing and wash your hand frequently. If you are very concerned: avoid crowds or wear a face mask (very common on Japan!)

Don't rely totally on the US government for information (and never rely on evening news casts). Governments will under AND over react. The Washington Post reports that U.S. public health officials did not know about a growing outbreak of swine flu in Mexico until nearly a week after that country started invoking protective measures, and didn't learn that the deaths were caused by a rare strain of the influenza until after Canadian officials did. (This despite our huge Department of Homeland Security!) Now with 20 mild cases of Swine flu in NY and CA and TX the US Department of Health declared "a public health emergency" on April 26. According to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napilotano, the emergency declaration is standard operating procedure and enables 12 million doses of the drug Tamiflu to be distributed from Federal stockpiles to states that need to deal with a flu outbreak. The terminology here is terrible! An "emergency declaration" is standard operating procedure? What will the goverment call a real pandemic and crisis?


US government claims it is prepared to handle Swine Flu despite the fact that after Obama's first 100 days we have no Surgeon General, no Secretary of Health and Human Services, and no appointees in any of the department’s 19 key posts.

NYT Story - To quarantine or not? Lesson from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

The CDC Swine Flu website is
CDC Health Advisory, April 25,
CDC Travel Advisories:
World Health Organization (WHO) Epidemic News:
Health Map:
Swine Flu News:

Google Alerts: create an email alert of "Swine Flu" news as soon as it hits the internet.
Amazon has a site for a Bird Flu survival kit

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Triangle of Life Video

Duck & Cover! - Nuclear War advice from the 40's and 50's
A new earthquake safety video is making the rounds of preparedness sites. It is called the Triangle of Life by Doug Copp of American Rescue Team International of San Francisco.

Doug Copp wants people to know that duck and cover is deadly for earthquakes. If you hide under something, you may be squeezed to death when something heavy falls on your cover object. His recommendation is to get down low NEXT to a strong object. When a ceiling falls the desk or cabinet or car that you are next to will pancake but it won't squeeze down to nothing. There will be a gap (a triangle) of space and THAT is where you want to be!
pX\ p=person, X=object

According to Copp, here are the 15 safest places to be during an earthquake based on survival statistics:
1) Outside in the middle of a field where nothing can fall on top of you.
2) Outside in the middle of the street where falling glass can't reach you.
3) On a seismic resistant platform such as a boat.
4) On the top floor of a wooden building.
5) On the top floor of a concrete building
6) in the space between 2 large objects (between twin beds, between 2 cars, between 2 rows of desks).
7) Next to an office bank vault or stack of paper.
8) Next to a squashed vehicle
9) At the foot of a bed
10) In front of a hotel lobby counter or bar counter.
11) In front of a sofa.
12) Next to Kitchen Cabinets
13) Next to a big bulky object like a piece of machinery, fridge, stove.
14) Next to a large carrying beam
15) In the subterranean exterior perimeter of a building.

Where are the 15 deadliest places to be in an earthquake? (The places where most dead victims are recovered from)
1) Under an object that gets squashed (like a desk, car, bed)
2) Inside of an object that gets squashed (like a car)
3) On top of an object that gets squashed (like a bed or sofa)
4) Inside of an elevator
5) On stairs.
6) More than 10 ft away from the outside of a building and on the ground floor
7) In a brick building less than 10 ft from the outside wall.
8) In a doorway of a collapsed building.
10) On the ground floor of any building or center of a basement
11) Under a carrying beam.
12) Under an object with a high center of gravity that fell over in the earthquake (like a fridge.)
13) The middle decks of highway overpasses.
14) Places that catch fire after collapsing.
15) Places with toxins, chemicals and gases that collapse.

Bottom Line
Surviving a quake is just the start. You also need to escape.
If you're inside a building and can move - WAIT. DO NOT GO TO THE STAIRS! Copp recommends waiting until all the panicked people have fled down the stairs. If the stairs haven't collapsed under the combined weight of panicked, fleeing people then you'll know that the stairs will be safe for you.
If you are trapped- RELAX! Yelling and heavy breathing will use up your air faster. (And your voice will go raw). Instead repeatedly TAP or BANG a wall so rescuers can find you. It does not have to be loud - professional rescuers will use sensitive listening devices (or dogs). But you do have to keep tapping for hours (perhaps even days). If you get bored try tapping out songs you love.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Early Modern English

Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?
Queen: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
- Hamlet Act 3
The language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible are now called Early Modern English. It begins in 1470 with the Chancery Standard and extends to 1650 when Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in the English Civil War.

You may recall from yesterday’s post that during the French occupation, English was “unregulated” and dialects flourished. But slowly English became respectable again and by the late 1300s leading writers like Chaucer published in the native tongue (with many French & Latin imported words). During the reign of King Henry V (1413 to 1422) the chancery (government officials) were commanded to use English rather than Anglo-Norman or Latin. An official printer of government documents, William Caxton, selected the London dialect as the standard and he also standardized spellings for the first time. Prior to this (and even as late as the 1600-1700s) most people spelled phonetically; House was “Hus” in Old English and “Hows” in Middle English.

Sadly some official word spellings were based upon presumed etymological origins instead of actual usage. “Doutt” became “doubt” based upon the Latin ‘dubitare’. “dett” became “debt” from the Latin ‘debitum’. The french “voir dit” and “parfait” were changed to ‘verdict’ and ‘perfect’ to look more Latin. Early Modern also included some spelling confusion as the alphabet was still in flux: u and v were considered the same (‘v’ to start words, ‘u’ used inside words), ‘i’ and ‘j’ were interchangeable, silent ‘e’ could be added anywhere (“manne” for “man”), “Th” and “Y” were interchangeable at the start of words (giving us “Ye Olde Shoppe”).

The 1400’s also saw the start of a linguistic mystery – The Great Vowel Shift. If an English speaker tries to spell words for a Spanish speaker (or any other Latin based language) confusion abounds. What we call “A” (as in hay) is spelled “e” in Spanish. What we call “E” (as in bee) is spelled “i” in Spanish. There were changes also in the O and U sounds. Theories abound but no one knows exactly why this happened or why some words were immune. The “ea” family of break, steak, great, and yea did not shift. Nor did the word “father”.

Foreign words aside, the oddity of English spelling is a combination of the Chancery Standard and the Great Vowel Shift. The Chancery Standard locked down official spelling regardless of how the words were actually spoken. As local pronunciation shifted and spelling remained the same, English was forced to assign new pronunciation to old vowels. Hence “be” is now “bee” not “bay”, “feet” was once pronounced as “fate”, and “wipe” was once spoken as “weep”.

The pronouns in Early Modern were much the same as today with three exceptions.
  • “Thee” and “thou” was used as the informal, personal “you.” (‘You’ was the formal version.) Over centuries the informal “thee” declined in usage and now survives only in religious discourse. (Ironically “thee” is now considered formal usage!)
  • ‘My’ and ‘thy’ became ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ before vowels just as ‘a’ becomes ‘an’; so “mine eyes” and “thine uncle”.
  • The “arbitrary” gender of words began to be replaced with a practical gender. In Old English (and modern German) a wife “wif” was the neuter (it) gender, a young maiden was feminine. With Early Modern ‘he’ and ‘her’ more accurately reflected the gender of people and objects became “it”. The term “its” was being used for the first time (it appears once in the KJV Bible). But the old system faded slowly; in “The Merchant of Venice” Shakespeare wrote “How far that little candle throws his light”. Even today we still refer to ships as “she” and sometimes personify objects.

The word order of Early Modern settled into the patterns we use today. In Old English you could put words in any order since noun endings indicated the subject from the object from the dative (possessive). When the case endings started disappearing, Middle English adopted the subject/verb/object order like “I hit the ball” for declarative sentences. But Middle English question sentences were different, “Hit I the ball?” This changed during Early Modern when the Old English verb ‘do’ (I did this) was given extra work:

  • Changing the way we phrase questions, “Do I hit the ball?”
  • As an answer shortcut for verbs used in a question, “Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”, “I do” (or “I will”) instead of “I do take”.
Early Modern also saw the transition of modal verbs, “shall”, “may”, “will”, etc. In Middle English (and modern German) the modals are transitive: “I can music” meant I have skill/learning/knowledge in music, “I will it” meant I want it or I shall use my force of will to make it so. Today the modals are intransitive (I can play music) and provide yet more ways to form question sentences, “Will you sit?”, “Shall I pay?.” The modals were co-opted to represent the subjunctive (counterfactural) case from Latin: “I only she would love me.”
Another verb change is a new way to indicate perfect tenses, “I have been waiting”, “I had been waiting” and “I am going to be waiting”. The “-ing” of verbs was firmly established in Early Modern. It started in the south in Middle English and spread north to replace “ende” and “ande” endings: lovande vs loving.

The most recognized verb difference in Early Modern is the usage of –(e)st for second person informal singular verbs and –(e)th for third person singular. So “I take” but “thou takest” and “he taketh”. You may also see some strong verbs that have not yet completed the Great Vowel Shift as in “Jesus spake unto the people.”

In the last posting I touched upon the growth of the English vocabulary via French and Latin. In Early Modern the language was on steroids. Some writers invented new words from Greek and Latin roots for poetic or scholarly effect. These are called “inkhorn terms” having sprung from the ink well of the writer. Examples include allurement, anachronism, dexterous, and mediate. Another source of new words was thru global trade, war, and New World exploration as England became a world class sea power. New words include:
  • French: (New World) tomato, (war) alloy, duel, equip, volunteer, bombast, explore
  • Spain: (New World) anchovy, banana, cannibal, cocoa, maize, potato, tobacco, (war) embargo, armada
  • Italy: (Trade & Travel) balcony, granite, stanza, violin, volcano
  • Dutch: (Sea Trade) smuggler, jib, schooner, reef, walrus, blunderbuss, tattoo, knapsack
  • Arabic: sash, hashish, sherbet, sofa
  • Turkish: coffee, kiosk, caftan
  • Chinese: ketchup
  • African: zebra
  • North American Indians: raccoon, moose, skunk, hickory, totem, canoe

Early Modern was a Scientific Golden Age and new words were needed for discoveries in Natural Science, Match, and Philosophy: vertebra, torpor, specimen, lens, cylinder, prism, calculus, dogma, critic, propaganda. It was also a Golden Age of English poetry and plays – the meaning of many words were tweaked. “Ardent” and “flagrant” meant “on fire” (literally) but poets could imagine the heart on fire with ardent passion. Shakespeare described harts (i.e. deer) spanieling the hunter (i.e. following like a Spaniel dog).

Bottom Line

It is to English’s credit that we allow the flexibility of turning verbs into nouns, nouns into adjectives, etc; that we are rich in tenses and verb cases; that we can invent words on the fly.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Middle English

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
the droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote”
– opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
This is part 2 of 3 from my current commuting CD, History of the English Language by Professor Seth Lerer for the Teaching Company.

In 1066 AD England was defeated by the Norman (French) William the Conqueror. For the next 300-400 years French was the official language of British politics and the court. During this same period the language of scholarship was Latin. So an educated Englishman needed to be trilingual in English, French and Latin. Today we call this time period “Middle English” with an end date of 1470 when the Chancery established an English standard for political documents.

The trilingual Middle Ages has made English rich in synonyms:
  • kingly (Old English)
  • royal (French)
  • regal (Latin)

The impact of French and Latin upon modern English is immense. As one example consider the grammatical rule against split infinitives. Some English teachers would require Star Trek to rephrase “To boldly go” as “To go boldly.” The rule was an attempt by Renaissance scholars to impose Latin grammar on English. Latin infinitive verbs, like “to go”, are one word and so impossible to split with an adverb.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language surveyed 10,000 words taken from several thousand business-letters and produced these statistics for the origins of our words:

  • French: 41%
  • "Native" English: 33%
  • Latin: 15%
  • Old Norse: 2%
  • Dutch: 1%
  • Other: 10%

Some studies show the influence of Latin as high as 29%. For centuries, when scientists added new words to English, they often used Latin and Greek roots like “telescope”. Modern examples include telephone and television.

The Middle English period established some interesting word patterns dividing the rich and poor. When we eat meat, the name of the animal (raised by peasants) is Old English while the name of the meat (eaten by the noble) is of Norman origin: pig/pork, cow/beef, deer/venison and sheep/mutton. The peasants lived in a English “hus” (house) while the nobles lived in a French “mansion”. Our words for government and law are mostly from the French: attorney, bailiff, baron, city, conservative, countess, county, damage, duchess, duke, empire, executive, felony, govern, judicial, jury, justice, legislative, liberal, marriage, nobility, parliament, perjury, petty, prince, prison, regal, representative, republic, royal, senator, sovereign, state, traitor, viscount.

Originally all vowels and consonants were pronounced ('knight' was pronounced /kniçt/) but by Chaucer's time (late 1300s) the final 'e' had become silent in normal speech but could optionally be pronounced in verse as the meter required. The rise of “silent” letters and elimination of the complex system of inflected endings from Old English has led some to call Middle English a "creole" language. When speakers of two different languages (English/French) need to communicate with one another, fancy inflections are ignored and rules simplified.

Another interesting aspect of Middle English is the diversity and extremity of dialects. During late Old English, the West Saxony dialect was made the “standard” by royalty. In 1470 the government printing office, the Chancery, established London English as the standard. But in between during the Middle English period, royalty ignored English and no standards were set. Dialects separated the people. The Northumbrians (with a Norse dialect) were viewed by the south as ill-educated peasants while the Northumbrians considered the Londoners as pompous French imitators.

Bottom Line

Scholars in the 1500s and 1600s would rant about the loss of purity in the English native tongue but by that time the battle was lost. Three plus centuries of French and Latin had made Middle English a polyglot that continues to the present. Unlike France, neither the UK nor the US have language officials to control and restrict new additions to the language. Shakespeare alone may have added 6000 words to our language.

Linguists argue over the “size” of the English language. How do you count the words? Do we count “fiancé” which is clearly French? Do we count cat and cats as one word family or two words? Eat/ate, walk/walked, etc? One study counted 54,000 word families in the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1963). Claims of individual word-counts range from 400,000 to two million.

Regardless of its size, English is richer for its diversity of word origins.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Old English

"Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonumSi þin nama gehalgod" - Old English for "Our
Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed by Thy Name"

My latest commuting CD has been the History of the English Language by Professor Seth Lerer for the Teaching Company. I’ve always been interested in words – my MS in Mathematics included a minor in Linguistics. So I’ll take a pause from end of the world doomsday scenarios, moden warfare, disturbing political trends, a depressed economy, and emergency preparedness to discuss the English language we know and love.

As early as 1583 scholars noticed that India and Europe shared some common sounding words: devah/dio "God", sarpah/serpe "serpent", sapta/sette "seven", asta/otto "eight", nava/nove "nine"). Since that time linguists have traced 449 languages and dialects from Europe, the Iranian plateau, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent to a theoretical ancestor language called Indo-European used by people who lived around the Black Sea before 2500 BC.
Perhaps you’ve wondered who invented the irregular (strong) verbs we use like run/ran, bring/brought, sing/sang, etc? Credit goes to the ancient Indo-Europeans who indicated the tense of verbs (future/past/other) by changing the root vowel of the verb. All new verbs added to English have been “weak” verbs that take and “ed” for past tense like talk/talked.

Consider another oddity of English – the overlap of the letters k, c, and s. Sometimes c is pronounced like k and sometimes like the soft s. Around 2500 BC migrations split the future Europeans (West) from the Slavs/Indians/Asians (East). This resulted in a language split called the Satem-Centum Isogloss after the East-West words for 100. Eastern speakers used “soft” sounds for c (Satem=100). Western speakers used the “hard” c (Centum=100, pronounced Kentum). Today we say, “Hail Cesear” with a soft c but the Romans actually pronounced it more like Kaser. The German word for emperor, Kaiser, is close to the original Latin.

Around 1000 BC the Celts arrived in England. Their language is sometimes called Brythonic->Brittonic->British. In 449 AD, the Anglo-Saxons-Jutes invaded England and gave the island their name (Angles -> Aenglaland -> England). The Angles were a Germanic tribe from the "angle" or corner of land in present-day Schleswig-Holstein. These German/Danes replaced the Celtic people quite ruthlessly and established what we call “Old English” as read in Beowulf. Few Celtic words survived into English; e.g. Avon (river), hubbub, peat, bucket, and crock. Scholars think Celtic had a bigger lexigraphical impact giving English two verb formations not found in Europe.

1. Use of auxiliary verbs like “do” and “be”: in German the only way to say “I love” is “Ich liebe” while English allows variants like “I am loving” and “I do love”.
2. Europeans have fixed expressions for asking if one can contradict the truth of a statement, namely “nicht wahr?” (German) and “n'est-ce pas?” (French). English is more flexible with “won’t he?”, “isn’t she?”, “cann’t they”, “aren’t I?” and so on.

Before we say goodbye to the Germanic tribes and Danes, there are a few more contributions to note. Old English quickly broke up into regional dialects with the Jutes in Kent, the Angles in Northumbria and the Saxons in the south. During the 9th century AD, Northumbria was devestated by frequent Viking invasions. Some raiders decided to stay and contributed words with hard g’s to the northern dialect: muggy, ugly, anger, get, give, leg, soggy, and egg. A tale is told in the late 1400’s of two Northumbrian merchants stopping in Kent to buy “eggs” and the famer’s wife had no idea what they meant.

Other Old Norse words include sky, cake, skin, window, husband, fellow, skill, flat, odd, take, raise, call, and die. We can thank the Danes for our personal pronouns of they, their, and them. We can also credit the Norse Gods for naming many days of week: Odin’s Day = Wodin = Wednesday, Thor’s Day = Thursday, Freya’s Day = Friday, Tyr’s Day = Tuesday. (Of the remaining days, one is Latin, Saturn’s Day = Saturday, and the other two are named for the Sun=Sunday and Moon=Monday.)

Many Old English words and their Old Norse counterparts competed vigorously with each other for supremacy in the language. In some cases both words survived: anger/wrath, nay/no, fro/from, raise/rear, bask/bathe, skill/craft, skin/hide, dike/ditch, skirt/shirt, scatter/shatter, and skip/shift. The Danes favored a hard “sk” while the English preferred a soft “sh” or “ch”. Ironically a later language shift would reverse the drift and push soft “ch” words in English to hard ‘k” like Church > Kirk.

Another influence on Old English was Latin. Latin reached Britannia in two ways – via the Roman occupation AD 43 to 410 and via the Catholic Church. Romans brought new foods and new engineering skills and the words to describe them: street, fort, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, pea, peach and wine. Christian missionaries introduced religious words like angel, bishop, abbot, martyr, and candle.

Bottom Line
While fewer than 5,000 Old English words remain unchanged and in common use today, these constitute the basic building blocks of our language. They include the everyday household words, most parts of the body, as well as the numerous pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs that hold the language together. Most of our “dirty” & profane words date back to Old English. After France conquered England in 1066, the nobility spoke primarily French and Latin for several centuries. King Henry IV, who ascended the throne in 1399, was the first King since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English. So from 1066 thru the 1300s English was looked down upon as the language of the coarse and “vulgar” peasant.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


“Buttercups and daisies,
Oh, the pretty flowers;
Coming ere the Springtime,
To tell of sunny hours.”
- Mary Howitt
The snow is gone and we've experienced the lion roaring winds of March and the showers of April. I'm ready now for the May flowers. My wife & I do OK with indoor plants and herbs and outdoor flowers but we have had little success with outdoor crop gardening due to poor soil, too much shade and lack of skill.

This year we will try something new. My wife has been rereading the classic book, Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. We have some large planters and are buying soil, peat moss, manure and vermiculite to fill them with. We'll see how it goes.

A raised garden is a nice idea if you have poor soil or want a productive garden of modest size. You can build your own raised beds with some lumber or premade kits. You can use used tires or even an old kid's wading pool.

Bottom Line

The internet is full of advice for raised bed gardening, for example But even better is to find a nearby neighbor who gardens and ask them about what works for your climate zone. What seeds grow best? What soil mix do they use and how much watering? What should you do about bugs and pesticides (natural or organic)? Will you need protection from deer (they ate our tulips) or rabbits (they ate our hostas) or birds (they ate our berries)? Good luck and get started soon.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Modern Warfare

“War is Hell” – General Sherman, US Civil War

I suspect that when most of us picture “warfare” we imagine movie scenes from WWII or Vietnam with soldiers in the fields dodging artillery shells and bullets and land mines. But war has many faces, some modern/some ancient, including espionage, biological, financial and morale attacks.

Two days ago I discussed a WSJ article claiming that the CIA has found sleeping “time-bombs” in US utility computer systems. The concern is that Russians or Chinese could shut down our power grid or water systems via Internet espionage.

Most people would guess that biological/chemical warfare is something new with germs & DNA experiments and Anthrax in the mail. But think back to WWI and mustard gas attacks. Two centuries ago US pioneers gave Indians blankets from smallpox victims in an early attempt at viral warfare. I suspect bio/chemical war goes even further back.

A recent article in describes how the Pentagon preps for economic warfare. In the first every financial war-game simulation, five teams representing The United States, Russia, China, East Asia and “all others” battled for supremacy with the world economy as the battleground. China won by taking advantage of damage that the US and Russia inflicted upon each.

Lastly there is the concept of demoralizing your enemy in the hope of encouraging an easy surrender. Sadly I see the US doing this to itself. Universities and the media love to portray the US as the cause of the world’s problem; or as an especially evil or unjust nation. Our own President apologizied for past US actions during his European Tour. I’m reminded of Pogo saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Bottom Line
The principles of warfare have not changed – soldiers, arms, espionage, spying, finance, morale, etc. But what has changed is the technology of warfare. Modern weapons in the arsenal of death allow individuals to kill millions with a computer virus, a biological virus, a suitcase nuclear bomb, and so on. Few people realize how dangerous this truly is. In the past it took the resources of a nation to start a war resulting in massive death. Now a millionaire, like Osama Bin Laden or George Soros, can fund a private war against America or a President they dislike. So far, we have been extremely lucky that physical terrorist attacks have been small scale. We have not been so lucky against morale attacks. Example:

"At the recent meeting of G-20 nations in London, officials from many nations agreed on one thing -- that the United States is to blame for the world recession. [AND] President Obama agreed." But in realitiy IT DIDN'T START HERE

"America, to hear President Obama tell it, is an occasionally arrogant nation struggling with shameful legacies of racism and discrimination, one that bears a large share of the blame for the world's economic and climate crises. Oh, and our train service is lousy." - Obama tries out role as apologizer-in-chief


Speaking of one-man espionage, "PHONE SABOTAGE IN SAN JOSE." One man climbed 10 feet down a manhole and clipped five or so fiber optic phone lines cutting off phone service, ATMs, and 911 for Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. “It’s kind of like an earthquake” said one victim.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Emergency Sirens

"It's a twister! It's a twister!" - Zeke in Wizard of Oz
Do you know the sound of the emergency sirens in your town? Do you know the town policy for using them? A week ago several people in Mena, Arkansas were killed by a tornado. Some could not hear the town siren, some ignored it, some thought the emergency was over when the killer tornado struck.

Tornadoes (like earthquakes) can strike more than once. People often leave their safeyzone after the first strike and are surprised and injured by a second touch down or after-quake. The best advice is to stay put until you hear an all clear signal. Only evacuate if your "safe spot" has become unsafe because of fire, bad air or it might fall on you.

The situation in Mena was particularly confusing. The tornado sirens sounded three times and three times "harmless" funnel clouds passed over the town. After a half hour of this people either assumed the worst was over or clearly nothing bad was going to happen. "The siren was going off in plenty of time, I just didn't take it serious enough," said one resident.

Then the siren sounded for a fourth time and within minutes a killer tornado hit. 600 homes were damaged or destroyed. Another resident who ignored the siren said, "I didn't have time to go nowhere, I just grabbed a hold of the wall and held on."

Many residents were confused by the sirens going on and off, did "off" mean the danger was over? "We heard the siren two or three times. It would sound off and it would quit. We were getting ready to get out of the building when it hit."

Even the local weather caster wasn't exactly sure why the siren sounded multiple times. He suggested that some communities cannot run their sirens continuously because their motors will burn up.

Bottom Line
Find out the siren policy for your town. Will the motor burn up or will the sirens continue to sound so long as the danger will last?

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Espionage & Passwords

“Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody” - Mark Twain
Here is an unsettling story published in the Wall Street Journal, Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated By Spies.

Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and
former national-security officials. The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven't sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.
As a computer programmer I understand that hackers would try to break into our infrastructure systems. But what concerns me is that they succeeded and could leave behind sleeping programs waiting for activation. “Many of the intrusions were detected not by the companies in charge of the infrastructure but by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said.”

The WSJ reports, “Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilities, a nuclear power plant or financial networks via the Internet.” I cannot for the life of me understand why a nuclear power plant should be accessible via the Internet. Perhaps workers want to push buttons from far away in case the plant starts to meltdown? I’ve worked at several companies with restricted Internet access. At one, there was no access, period. At two others they used VPN (Virtual Private Networks) to restrict access. VPN uses a token that displays a new “random” number every minute. To login I need my password and the current number on the token registered to me.

Sadly in many secure systems the weakest link is the human element. At one of my internships, the top executives (with the most data access) hated to memorize long passwords and asked for an exception so they could use two letter passwords. One hacker trick I’ve read about includes getting inside a company and then sitting down at computers where workers have left for lunch but left the PC logged on and connected to the company network. (Screen savers with passwords help protect against this). Another clever hacker passed out a survey to workers asking for names of pets, children, spouse, etc. He then checked to see if any worker had used a family name as their password; very common unfortunately. (A solution to this is requiring numbers and or special symbols in the password.)

Now it would be nice to think espionage would never happened but the WSJ describes two recent cases outside the US:
  • In 2000, a disgruntled employee rigged a computerized control system at a water-treatment plant in Australia, releasing more than 200,000 gallons of sewage into parks and rivers.
  • Last year the CIA told utility company representatives that a cyberattack had taken out power equipment in multiple regions outside the U.S. The outage was followed with extortion demands.
Bottom LineTwo points I’d like to emphasize here.
1. Water or electricity could fail at a moments notice with a hostile attack. Do you have backup water and a power generator or means to cook/light without electricity? ABC News did a follow-up story called What if Russia or China Cut Off Your Electricity? It goes through a typical day showing how pervasive electricity is...
  • Your alarm clock
  • Your laptop (when the batter dies) & wireless router
  • Your landline phone perhaps work but not VOIP
  • Your hot water heater (if not gas)
  • Your gas oven (most have an electric starter instead of a pilot light)
  • Traffic lights
  • Gas station pumps
  • Frozen/refrigerated food at the grocery store
  • Cash Registers, Credit Cards
2. Always use a strong password. Studies have shown that longer is better. Password hackers are well aware of L33T, the trick of substituting letters with symbols like 9ary or G@ry for Gary. So don’t think you are safe with a short but clever password. One easy password method is to use the letters from a favorite hymn, bible verse, poem, etc. For example “tbontbtitq” for “To be or not to be, that is the question” (but please choose something less obvious). You can strengthen this by creating a personal pattern where you always capitalize the same letters (say 2nd and 3rd) “tBOntbtitq”

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Self Control

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” - Helen Keller

"The health of a nation is inversely proportional to the number of laws needed to govern it." — Thomas Frey

In the classic treatise, “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mills tried to discover the proper limits for government jurisdiction. How does one determine if a law is tyranny? Mill’s solution was the concept of “Self-Regarding Acts.”

"As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interest of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding.)" - On Liberty

The youth of American culture has embraced this philosophy. Who hasn’t heard, “Hey man, back off! I’m not hurting anyone (but myself).” This principle pops up in many arenas – private sex between consenting adults, books or images you view at home, smoking, drugs, alcohol, etc.

I have to admit that while the theory sounds good, like many things, “the devil is in the details.” Over time some actions that used to be considered “self-regarding” have been discovered to ‘prejudicially [affect] the interest of others.” Take smoking for example. Everyone now knows about “second-hand smoke” which may in fact be more dangerous for others than for the smoker (who is inhaling through filters). Many state laws now prohibit smoking in restaurants and work places where the public is exposed.

Now another “Self-Regarding” activity, Alcohol Consumption, is coming under the microscope. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, wants the public to recognize the dangers of “passive drinking.”

"In his 2008 annual report, launched on 16 March and entitled On The State of Public Health, Donaldson lays bare the shocking toll from passive drinking in England. The list includes 125,000 instances of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence; 2 million victims of alcohol-related violence; 39,000 sexual assaults; 1.3 million children adversely affected by family drinking; 6000 babies born annually with fetal alcohol syndrome; 660 children killed or injured in alcohol-linked road crashes; 7000 non-drinkers injured by drink-drivers; and 560 fatalities due to drink-driving. There were also 1.25 million recorded instances of alcohol-related vandalism. Binge drinking has made city centres no-go areas for many. A survey of 30,000 adults in the north of England found that 45 per cent avoided town centres at night for fear of meeting drunks." – New

Very few so-called “self-regarding” acts are in fact limited to the self. Drug addicts rob banks and mug people to pay for their habit. Pornography increases rape and sexual attacks.

Bottom Line

Although I’m against “big government”, I’m not an anarchist either. There is a legitimate role for government as Mill’s notes, to protect against an act that “affects prejudicially the interest of others.” This includes the obvious like assault, theft, and murder. The government errs when it tries to protect people and companies from acts that harm themselves like over-extending oneself on a mortgage or selling loans to high-risk individuals. The boundaries become less clear where there is a cause and effect relationship to harm. Government becomes a nanny state when it tries to “protect us” from the cause our own excesses. To discourage drinking by heavily taxing alcohol is an attempt to enforce good behavior through the wallet and is a penalty applied to the just and the unjust. Instead I prefer the blood alcohol level method used for driving. A line is draw – below the line you are “self-regarding”, but above the line you become a danger to society and subject to fines and jail time.

Sadly too little social stigmata are assigned to being intoxicated. It should be recognized by all as a crime against society where you have exceeding the limits of self-control. Society exists because of self-imposed self-restraint. Those who refuse to restrain themselves have violated the social contract. How is it right to penalize everyone (including those who drink responsibly) through taxes instead of increasing efforts to apprehend the few who act irresponsibly? Could it be because taxes make money for the government bureaucracy while law enforcement costs money?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Things You Pay Too Much For

“Living on Earth may be expensive, but it includes an annual free trip around the Sun.” – unknown
The Lansing State Journal,, (home of my alma-mater, MSU) has an article on the Top 5 retail mark-ups. These are items with huge profit margins for the marketers and bad economics for you the consumer.

Americans pay $16 billion every year for filtered tap water in fancy bottles. With “a single bottle of Evian bottled water, you could pay for 1,000 gallons of municipal tap water.” You’re paying good money for that glass or plastic bottle.
Soda is one of the highest profit margin items at restaurants. The $1 or $2 cup of pop costs only pennies to provide a cup, ice, syrup, and carbonated water. Coca Cola spends more per bottle on advertising then it does on the ingredients. The Amazon page for a Soda Vending Machine claims the common markup for canned soda is 50% and the vending machine will pay for itself in six months.
Restaurants make good money on coffee and wine also. Quality coffee can be made for 50 cents a cup and sold for $3. Wine is frequently sold at 300% markup.

Diamond Rings
The diamond wedding ring is a huge marketing success for De Beers, which set the standard of 2-3 months salary for the ring. “The year of the advertising campaign was 1939. That's right, the tradition of diamonds as THE engagement the only correct option, started slightly over 60 years ago and was the main result of an advertising campaign. While the diamond did enjoy periods of popularity in times prior to this (Victorian era for example), this was the factor that made the diamond engagement ring the ONLY choice that was acceptable.” –
Today retailers mark up diamonds between 50 and 200 percent and 100 to 400 percent for gold. I once sold an engagement ring to a jeweler and received only 10% of what I paid for it. Diamonds are NOT a good investment.

Organic Food and Pre-cut Produce
“It's estimated that the average price of organic produce is 50 percent more than regular supermarket fruits and vegetables.” – (100% for meat and milk).
But the big money today is made with pre-cut fruits and vegetables. You will pay 75 cents more per apple to have it sliced and skinned.

Brand Name Clothing
“A study of French clothing franchises found that the average markup on clothing was 250 percent and 350 percent for accessories.” – While the $21.99 pair of jeans from Kohl's might have a 100 percent markup over wholesale, a $300 pair of designer jeans may hide a 300 percent markup over cost.

Some opticians charge 1,000 percent over wholesale for designer frames.

Concession food at movies & events
A captive consumer at an event will pay dearly for food. How about $6 or more for a sandwich? At the movie theater, people pay popcorn premiums of 1,300%. Profit margins for common concession foods include:
» Corn dogs: 82-89 percent
» Ice cream in waffle cones: 84-90 percent
» Snow cones: 92-97 percent

Bottom Line
Convenience comes at a price. You pay 70 cents for 3 cents of popcorn kernels in a prepackaged microwavable bag. Perhaps you can afford it. Perhaps the extra fee is worth your savings in time. But let it be a conscious choice. Don’t pay high markups out of ignorance.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Taxation with representation ain't so hot either. ~Gerald Barzan

Would you like to save money on your 2009 taxes? Then check out the new US Government tax credits for environmental (green) home improvements. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed in February, allows homeowners to claim tax credits for up to 30 percent, up to $1500, of the cost of energy-efficient upgrades like windows, doors, roofs and insulation. Tax credits are better than tax deductions. They directly reduce the taxes you owe ($ per $) as opposed to reducing your taxable income.

Because of the double cap, you would have to spend $5000 so that 30% of your cost hits the credit limit of $1500. Now $5000 won’t buy much in home improvement but it could replace some doors or some old windows. Be aware that the work must be completed by Dec. 31, 2010. According to Popular Mechanics,

"Taking advantage of it can be tricky. For example, not all Energy Star–certified doors and windows qualify for the program's strict standards ... Homeowners should keep the Manufacturer's Certification Statement saying the item qualifies for the tax credit"
  • Window and door replacement must have a U-factor and solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) of .30 or less, which is more stringent than Energy Star. See for which garage doors qualify for credit.
  • All Energy Star metal and asphalt roofs qualify. Download "Find A Product" from Energy Star's "Roof Products" page for more info. Synthetic roofs are not covered.
  • Insulation installations must last five years or have a two-year warranty. Insulated siding and cladding won't help you with a tax break, but vapor retarders will. It's not clear yet if spray foam and air sealing are covered, according to the EPA.
  • See the Consortium for Energy Efficiency product directory for qualified types of central Air Conditioners and air source heat pumps. Consult the Gas Appliance Manufacturing Association for natural gas and oil-using heating products. Check for information on biomass stoves.
  • See "Residential Water Heaters Key Product Criteria" under Energy Star's "Products'" tab for qualifying Water-heater replacements.

If you have money to spend the following “big projects” are not limited by the $1500 cap. You get credit for %30 of the cost through 2016 but not to exceed your tax liabilities (i.e. no tax refunds via credits).

  • Geothermal heat pump
  • Solar water heater for home use (not pools or hot tubs)
  • Solar/photovoltaic panels
  • Small wind energy systems.

Bottom Line

This is a great way to save money. These home improvements will reduce your energy bill and you get a tax credit. How can you lose?

See for more information.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tax Day!

Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
- Taxman lyrics by the Beatles
Today, April 15, is the deadline for the payment of US taxes. The National Bureau of Economic Research has concluded that the combined federal, state, and local government average marginal tax rate for most workers to be about 40% of income. This means that if you have fixed expenses of $60K per year, you need to earn $100K in order to afford the taxes. Another way to look at this is that all the money you make from January thru most of May goes to the government. You get to keep your earnings of June through December.

One reaction to this (currently seen in Washington) is to complain that it’s the fault of the rich for not paying their fair share of taxes. No one ever blames the government for spending too much. But the truth is that while the top 1% of US earners makes 19% of the money, they also pay 28% of all US taxes. The rich already pay a penalty. Consider the Beatles who were in the 95% British tax bracket. (“One for you, nineteen for me.”) They learned the hard way that in order to spend $100,000 pounds (a modest amount for rock stars), they had to earn 2 million pounds to cover the taxes. Outrageous tax levels discourage success and encourage the wealthy to flee the county. John Lennon moved to America.

Bottom Line

Punishing the wealthy is never a good idea. Consider the new US tax laws targeting executives who earn $250,000 or more per year. There are doctors and lawyers near that limit who say they will respond by working less. They will cut back on staff, reduce services, layoff workers, whatever it takes to keep their wages just below that limit. That is not the path to economic recovery. This is the opposite of stimulus.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Soap Making

“Soap and water and common sense are the best disinfectants.” - William Osler
We have a friend who makes decorative soap for fun and as gifts. The bar she made for us has lasted a surprisingly long time. Prior to 1916 much of the soap used was made at home using fats from cooking and butchering. This changed with World War I which created a national "fat" shortage. Enterprising companies stepped in and developed the first synthetic soaps.

The following information on soap was found at

There are 3 keys to successful soap making:

1. Accurately weighed ingredients.
2. A good formula.
3. Proper technique.

Chemically speaking, soap is a salt. An acid (fats) and a base (Lye) react with one another to form a salt or soap. Natural hand-made soap is not difficult to make; you can make a batch of soap in as little as one hour, depending on the formula.

The oil or fat is heated gently. Lye and water are combined separately. When both ingredients reach the required temperature, they are combined. When the mixture becomes the desired consistency, it is poured into a mould. The bars are removed from the mould after approximately 24 to 48 hours. They are restacked and allowed to “cure” or dry until hard (3 to 8 weeks).

Interestingly, the web site is less enthusiastic about soap making...

There are only two ingredients required to make soap, yet soap making can be a very time consuming and difficult project. In the old days, soap was made a couple of times per year, sometimes once a year. One of the reasons for not making soap more often was because it was a long-drawn out process.
Bottom Line
Check out the web links above for details on soap making. I suspect like many things that soap making is simple in theory but takes skill to do just right. Note the importance of precise measuring, "right" temperature, "right" consistency, etc. Also note that soap making is NOT a craft for children. Lye is a dangerous chemical. It can burn the skin and if inhaled will burn the lungs. If swallowed it can be fatal.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Right tool for the Right Job

“We shall neither fail nor falter; we shall not weaken or tire...give us the tools and we will finish the job.” - Winston Churchill
The Survivalist Blog has an interesting article that covers emergency preparedness two ways:
  • Generic recommendations
  • Specific equipment for Specific disasters

The generic preparation includes the usual suspects: water, food, and clothes plus planning, training and compassion.

Equipment preparation for specific disasters include:

  • Biological attack/epidemic
  • Chemical accident/attack
  • Civil disorder/riot
  • Financial collapse
  • Nuclear war
  • Radiological accident
  • Transportation accident

Bottom Line
As the Survivalist points out, some of these disasters may be more common than you think. Is there a radioactive facility of some kind close to you? Do you live less than 20 miles from a chemical plant, railroad tracks, commercial freeway, an agricultural storage facility, or a manufacturing plant that uses poisonous chemicals?
One way to find out the nearby chemical risks it to ask your local fire department to let you read their “Hazardous Material Management Plan.” It lists all the hazardous materials being used by industries within the district.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

a la carte Fees

“I hate banks. They do nothing positive for anybody except take care of
themselves. They're first in with their fees and first out when there's
trouble.” - (abt 1960) Earl Warren, Supreme Court Justice
The AP reports that “Consumers spend billions each year on fees and add-on charges, many of which are unnecessary, and often because they're just not paying attention.” Avoidable costs include late fees on credit cards and bills, overdraft charges, cell phone fees, etc.

The article Aim that rage against the corporate fee machine lists 20 fees that you can eliminate with some advance planning. Here are a few examples:
1. Manual Billing Fees: some companies now charge for sending you a paper bill. Sign up for e-billing and save money. Just be sure to check your email frequently to avoid a late charge.
2. Spread Payments: my town allows me the option of paying my taxes in two payments instead of one – but at the cost of a $2 fee. If you have the money, pay bills in full and avoid the fee which greatly exceeds the interest that money would earn sitting in the bank.
3. If you have a cell phone and a landline phone, make the cell phone your main number and use the landline only for emergencies. Reduce the cost of the landline by canceling options for voice mail, caller ID, etc.

Bottom Line
Corporations love these add on fees; they are a big profit maker. For example my $60 cell phone plan has $10 in extra “fees” that I have no control over. The AP article notes that:
Consumer advocates see such charges, which they call "a la carte" fees, as misleading. "The trend is to deceive consumers into thinking the price is still the same, by adding fees and extracting services that used to be included," said Edmund Mierzwinski, a senior fellow at the advocacy group U.S. PIRG ...
"A la carte pricing is really not good for consumers, because it essentially prohibits them from doing legitimate comparison shopping," said Jack Gillis of the Consumer Federation of America.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lessons from being Poor

“Poverty consist in feeling poor.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Reuters reports that one in 10 Americans (32.2 Million) are now receiving food stamps. An all time high. For many people this will be a new experience – coping with being poor. Sadly it’s much easier to become poor than it is to become rich.

Spending is easy! I knew one family with an adult daughter who had no intention of ever paying off her credit cards. It was free money to her. Another person once told me that "poor people" need budgets. My retort was that without a budget even the rich will become poor. It is not uncommon for lottery winners, celebrities (Michael Jackson), and sports stars to spend their way into bankruptcy.

What happens when the money runs out? I’ve written before about how the poor times of the Great Depression affected my grandparents. My Mother’s parents became pack rats. Nothing was ever wasted or thrown away. My Father’s parents became minimalists; living a simple, uncluttered life with long-lasting, quality belongings.

Successful SciFi author, John Scalzi, recently wrote about how Having Been Poor impacts his buying habits today even when he has money.
  1. “I tend to save a lot more of my income than most people I know, so that if the bottom drops out of my life, I have a cushion.” Scalzi saves 20% vs the average of 4%.
  2. “I’m notably debt-adverse. Having seen first-hand how debt screws with people.” He uses primarily an American Express card that requires full payment each month.
  3. “We don’t get fancy with the debt we do have, namely our mortgages.” He has a simple 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.
  4. “I buy for value over flash.” Scalzi expects his car to last 12 years. After purchasing a new computer, the old one goes to his daughter. He’s annoyed that a cell phone or blackberry will only last 2 years.
  5. “You’re also not going to be seeing me spend conspicuously.” Before buying something he asks himself, “why are you spending money on that?” If there is no better answer than “it looks pretty,” he tends not to buy it.

Bottom Line
Scalzi sums up what he learned from being poor as “Don’t buy what you can’t afford, don’t buy what you don’t have use for and have enough on hand for when life whacks you upside the head.”

PBS Celebrity & Financial Advisor Suze Orman is also urging people to SAVE money. "If you have an unpaid credit card balance [and] not much saved up in emergency savings, I need you to listen up. My advice has changed. I want you to only pay the minimum due on your credit card balance, and instead, make it your top priority to build as much of an emergency cash fund as you can," Orman said on the Oprah show.

Yes debt is bad. It should be avoided when possible or paid off ASAP. But in today's economy you might lose your job tomorrow and you will need an emergency nest egg to cover 8 months of bills. Don't count on your credit cards to carry you through unemployment. You might max them out and then what have you got?

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Data Rot

“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” - Steven Wright
Although we live in an information age, the information we take for granted is surprising fragile. Sometimes data erasure is deliberate as when Enron is shredding documents & erasing email. Sometimes data is changed to influence public opinion as is frequent on Wikipedia (see Sometimes data just rots.

What is data rot? Over time, things like temperature, humidity, exposure to light, being stored in poor locations like moldy basements, make physical media very difficult to read. Do you recall when machines ate cassette tapes and videotapes? Vinyl albums that became scratched over time with hiss, crackles and track jumping? Old scratchy home movies on reels? Today’s kids laugh at the old technology and take pride in the “permanence” of CDs and DVDs.

My wife and I save money by watching movies on DVDs borrowed from the library. About one in five of these DVDs have been scratched badly enough that the player locks up. Sometimes we can skip past the bad region, sometimes not. We never saw most of “Bee Movie”; the DVD was in such poor shape.

Suppose you take great care of your DVD; how long will it last? Perhaps 100 years but also perhaps as little as Ten to Twenty years. If you have images you want to keep forever (like home movies and photos), experts recommend you make a copy of your DVD every 10 years. Unlike vinyl records, you don’t want to use the copy and keep the original unused for future copies. Cosmic rays can alter digital data and heat can warp the disc. That pristine but old DVD may become unreadable. So with DVDs use the old disc and keep the new copy in a safe place.

Bottom Line
To date there is no perfect long-term storage medium. Can you still play 8-track tapes? Does your PC have a floppy disc drive? Some have suggested the Internet as the ultimate backup. But data hosting companies go out of business or change policies. Kodak used to host photos for free but now wants to charge $5 per month. The best you can hope for a shell game where you keep moving your data to the newest technologies, trying to stay ahead of obsolescence and rot. And just like your money – DO NOT trust all your precious memories to a single storage medium. Use DVDs and multiple free websites.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Top Seven Preparedness Books

“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” - Mark Twain
Check out The Survivalist Blog for descriptions of the best Preparedness Books according to Arthur Bradley, author of “Process of Elimination"

Book 1: Crisis Preparedness by Jack A. Spigarelli
Book 2: Preparedness Now! By Aton Edwards
Book 3: Disaster Preparedness for Dummies (DVD video)
Book 4: Emergency Food Storage and Survival Handbook by Peggy Layton
Book 5: Organize for Disaster by Judith Kolberg
Book 6: Making the Best of Basics, Family Preparedness Handbook by James Talmage Stevens
Book 7: No Such Thing as Doomsday, by Philip L. Hoag, revised in 2001

Bottom Line

Arthur Bradley suggests that if you can only purchase three books, buy Book 5, Book 6, and either Book 1, 2 or 7. With those three, you should have a balanced look at common sense organizing, food storage, and emergency items to have on hand. If you can buy only one book, get Book 1.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Time for a Tea Party?

“In the 20th century, the Soviet Union made the state’s role absolute … In the long run, this made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive. This lesson cost us dearly. I am sure nobody wants to see it repeated.” – advice from Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin to US President Obama at recent World Economic Forum

How topsy-turvy is the world when the leader of Russia must warn the leader of the US to avoid “excessive intervention in economic activity and blind faith in the state’s omnipotence.” How ironic that Putin is promoting capitalism when the West is vilifying it! “Nor should we turn a blind eye to the fact that the spirit of free enterprise, including the principle of personal responsibility of businesspeople, investors, and shareholders for their decisions, is being eroded in the last few months. There is no reason to believe that we can achieve better results by shifting responsibility onto the state.” - Putin

Bottom Line

I fail to understand why anyone would ever trust the government to do things better. Consider the DMV for licensing, the abuses of the welfare system, FEMA, regulation failures at the FDA, airport security, bad Freddie Mac loans, and other government bureaucracies. Is there even one government organization that is a model of efficiency and effectiveness?

Consider the new NY State budget. In a time of massive unemployment the state is “only” raising the budget a “modest” 9%. State employees won’t feel the pain. No salary freeze, no layoffs. The rest of us will pay with higher taxes.

If you agree that bigger government and deficit spending is wrong, join the Tea Party protests that are springing up everywhere. There is a nationwide protest scheduled for April 15, tax day.

Party Invite by Newt Gingrich

Listing of events:

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Great Depression

“The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.” - Milton Friedman, economist
Today I recommend reading a NYT story called Making Ends Meet in the Great Depression. It's nice to see the media reporting something factual instead of exaggerating the economic recession into a depression.

The NYT article contains first person accounts of individuals who experienced the Great Depression. Some stories surprised me
  • The gizzard of a chicken is good eating?
  • Possum meat is unappealing?
  • You can pluck a live goose
  • You can not darn synthetic socks?

Bottom Line

A common theme of the accounts is waste nothing, recycle & reuse.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Safe Easter Eggs

“What is my loftiest ambition? I've always wanted to throw an egg at an electric fan.”-Oliver Herford
With Easter nearby, you may be dying, hiding and eating lots of eggs. Here is some egg handling advice from the Alaskan Food Safety Division.
  • Keep fresh eggs refrigerated until it's time to cook them. Warm eggs are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria just like meat, poultry, fish, and milk.
  • The American Egg Board (AEB) recommends this method for boiling the perfect Easter egg: Place eggs in single layer in saucepan. Add enough tap water to come at least 1 inch above eggs. A tablespoon of vinegar can be added to allow better dye coverage after cooking. Cover pan and quickly bring just to boiling. Turn off heat. If necessary, remove pan from burner to prevent further boiling. Let eggs stand, covered, in the hot water for 15 minutes. Immediately run cold water over eggs or place them in ice water until completely cooled.
  • Refrigerate all hard cooked eggs.Whatever the style of preparation, eggs should always be cooked well. The Food and Drug Administration recommends cooking eggs until both the yolk and the white are firm, not runny. This way any Salmonella or other harmful bacteria that may be in the eggs will be destroyed.
  • Do not handle eggs excessively, and wash your hands thoroughly when you do handle them, whether in cooking, cooling, dyeing or hiding. The shell of an egg is very porous and will permit bacteria to penetrate.
  • Hard cooked eggs actually have a shorter shelf life than raw eggs. Most commercial egg producers lightly coat their eggs with a thin spray coating of mineral oil to close the pores against contamination. Cooking the egg in the shell, however, removes that barrier so that your hard cooked eggs are again prone to outside contamination. Hard cooked eggs may also have small cracks allowing bacteria to enter.
  • When hiding Easter eggs, avoid areas where the eggs might come into contact with pets, wild animals, birds, reptiles, insects or lawn chemicals.

Bottom Line
Visit the these websites for more information on eggs!
American Egg Board
USDA Egg Safety
FDA Egg Safety

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Community Preparedness

"True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.” - Baltasar Gracian
Preparedness works on many levels. There is personal preparedness; family preparedness; workplace preparedness, neighborhood preparedness, and local/state/federal preparedness. This posting will look at neighborhood preparedness.

Do you belong to a neighborhood organization such as a homeowners association or crime watch group? If not can you join one or start one?

Has your organization thought about the way it would respond to a disaster? Has it trained the members and held drills? Here are some topics to consider:
  • Host a preparedness fair
  • Help neighbors to prepare Family Disaster Plans and keep them up to date
  • Encourage or help residents to create Disaster Supplies Kits and keep them up to date
  • Create a plan for working together until help arrives. Consider ways to cooperate with each other during recovery.
  • Invite your local fire department or emergency management office to hold training classes
  • Create a neighborhood map with names and home and cell phone numbers next to each address so neighbors can contact each other in an emergency
  • Find out your neighbors' special skills (for example, medical, technical) and consider how they could help in a disaster situation
  • Identify elderly and disabled people in the neighborhood, single parents with young children, or others who might need extra help
  • Make plans with neighbors for child care in case parents cannot get home in an emergency situation.
There is an old adage: many hands make light work. Consider for example trying to lift fallen debris off a family member - you'll very likely need extra hands. Moving an injured person is something you should NOT do by yourself except under extreme conditions.

Bottom Line

Work with your neighbors but don't become dependent on them like the grasshopper in Aesop's fable - doing nothing to prepare yourself and begging from others when winter arrives. Be a generous ant instead with extra supplies so you can assist your neighbor who is a grasshopper.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Nuclear Fallout

“Everybody's a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We're all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” - David Cronenberg
The definitive guide to surviving nuclear fallout appears to be Nuclear War Survival Skills by Kresson H Kearny. Chapter 1 is devoted to debunking the many myths that there is no chance of survival. Tens of thousands of people did survive the atom bombs dropped in WWII and went on to live "normal" lives with non-mutant children.

Yet if you're not convinced that Nuclear War is survivable (for some), then consider two other scenarios where knowledge of radiation skills could save your life: dirty bombs and nuclear power plants. A dirty bomb uses a normal explosion (like TNT) to spread radioactive dust. The result is radiation poisoning but without the mushroom cloud. It is far easier for terrorist to build a dirty bomb than a nuclear bomb.

Another radiation risk is nuclear power. With the exception of 3-mile island, the US has an excellent safety history for nuclear power. But as plants age and old fuel rods pile up there is a growing possibility of a nuclear accident. Here in NY, a leak was found in the holding pond for old fuel rods at the Indian Point reactors. The authorities claim the radiation leaked into the Hudson River was within safety guidelines (this time).

Bottom Line

Old nuclear fuel is a security and safety risk ignored by many. After much debate the "best" solution found was to bury old fuel rods inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Billions of dollars were spent building tunnels but Nevada has never liked the idea of being the dumping site for nuclear trash and has tried many times to kill the project. With the current DC administration, Nevada appears to have succeeded. This means dozens of sites across America will continue to store radioactive rods in places were never meant to be long term. These sites are also at risk for attack by anyone wanting to collect radioactive materials to make a dirty bomb.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Self Reliance

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of the muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents- Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
The less you can do for yourself, the more you have to pay others to do it for you. As the posting Self-Reliance puts it, "Plumbers know that you’re reliant on them for your life to continue as normal, so they can charge exorbitant rates and take their sweet time solving the problem. This costs you money." At CodeNameInsight, the author was inspired by this idea and created a list of ways we have become reliant on others:
  • Cooking - we eat out or buy ready to eat meals at the grocery
  • Growing food - we buy it
  • Catching/Killing food - we buy it and it comes pre-cut and cleaned.
  • Coffee - Starbucks does this for you
  • Washing clothes - what would you do with a washer/dryer or laundromat?
  • Child raising - nannies, day-care
  • Car repair - mechanics
  • Plumbing - plumbers
  • Electrical - electricians
  • First Aid - emergency rooms
  • Make clothes - we buy them
  • ... and so on

Bottom Line

The more you can learn and do on your own the cheaper you can live. You'll have greater self confidence and survivability during emergencies.

See also:

Lost Skills
Wildfire Policies
Living off the Land
Learning to Fish
Practical Survival Skills
The Value of Cooking
The Survivalist series

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Car Fires

It took just under 10 minutes from the time we first heard a strange clicking noise in the engine whenever my sister accelerated above 50mph, to the three of us standing in shock and disbelief watching as our car turned into a fireball and its windows shattered out on to the tarmac. - Tasmin Hemingray
Two weeks ago while commuting home, I passed a car that was on fire. Now I've seen a few accidents in my time but this was the first time in real life (not TV) that I've seen a car on fire on a busy road.

If you smell smoke while driving your car pull over to a shoulder ASAP, turn off the car and get out. If you see flames get out of your car immediately no matter where it is (don't try to reach the shoulder). As you flee the car, try not to get killed by passing traffic. A small flame can become a fireball when it reaches the gasoline in your engine and the car becomes a death trap. See or

Don't stand near the car. If it explodes you want to be far away. Don't run back to the car to rescue a purse, ipod, etc. It's not worth your life.

In rare cases a quick escape is hampered by a stuck seatbelt (you are following the law and good safety advice and wearing a seatbelt, right?) Or the fire has shorted the electrical system and your door won't open and the window won't roll down. For these rare events it is useful to have a lifehammer (knife/hammer, $15-$30) safety device available at auto stores, Wal-Mart and the like. It can smash the window and cut through a seat belt.

Bottom Line
Car fires are extremely serious. Get far away, fast!

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