Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pay it Forward

"Uh, thanks! That's awfully kind of you. I'll pay it back, first chance."
"[No,] Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it."
-from the book Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein
If you saw the movie, Pay It Forward, in 2000, then you already know the concept behind the phrase. For those who didn’t see it, Ben Franklin, explains it as follows…
I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.
The idea can be applied to any favor (not just monetary loans). For examples and inspiration check out the Pay It Forward Foundation.

Bottom Line

I was reminded of “Pay It Forward” today by an odd coincidence. The weather is wonderful so I decided to go out for a walk instead of eating lunch. As I was walking out the building I saw someone trying to come in with two pizza boxes so I opened the door for him. When I returned twenty minutes later and passed by our company kitchenette, I saw the same two pizza boxes sitting on the lunch table in an empty room. I walked over and saw a sign attached to a pizza box, “Help yourself.” The pizzas were completely untouched after 20 minutes, not a slice missing.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

National Indolence

"A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have." – US President Gerald Ford

"Left-wing politicians take away your liberty in the name of children and of fighting poverty, while right-wing politicians do it in the name of family values and fighting drugs. Either way, government gets bigger and you become less free."- Harry Browne

While I’m a big fan of the Tea Party movement, one thing that it lacks is a clear vision and purpose. What are they opposed to and why? A simple answer is an opposition to a huge government debt (Obama has added more to the national debt than all prior presidents combined!) and the long-term effects this debt will have. But a better answer can be found in a lecture given by Canadian author/journalist Mark Steyn to Hillsdale College in New Hampshire in March 2009. It is titled “Live Free or Die”.

"The President [Obama] wants Europeanized health care, Europeanized daycare, Europeanized education, and, as the Europeans have discovered, even with Europeanized tax rates you can't make that math add up. In Sweden, state spending accounts for 54% of GDP. In America, it was 34%—ten years ago. Today, it's about 40%. In four years' time, that number will be trending very Swede-like."

European-style Big Government is not cheap and or even mathematically possible in the long run. It consists of “unsustainable entitlements that turns the entire nation into a giant Ponzi scheme.” But Mark goes beyond the rhetoric of the Tea Parties to show that the real problem is NOT cost but rather the very nature of the entitlements:

They're wrong because they deform the relationship between the citizen and the state. Even if there were no financial consequences, the moral and even spiritual consequences would still be fatal. … When governments annex a huge chunk of the economy, they also annex a huge chunk of individual liberty. You fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state into something closer to that of junkie and pusher—and you make it very difficult ever to change back.
Mark Steyn describes five stages on the path to Indolence and loss of liberty.

Stage 1: "The benign paternalist state promises to make all those worries about mortgages, debt, and health care disappear."
This is the fun and easy stage. Everybody wins!

Stage 2: "The state as guarantor of all your basic needs becomes increasingly comfortable with regulating your behavior."
As AIG, Chrysler, and bank TARP recipients have learned, government handouts come with strings.

“If you're a business, when government gives you 2% of your income, it has a veto on 100% of what you do. If you're an individual, the impact is even starker. … Under Britain's [free] National Health Service, for example, smokers in Manchester have been denied treatment for heart disease, and the obese in Suffolk are refused hip and knee replacements.”

But instead of fearing the new rules, citizens of every Western nation are eagerly dumping freedom for government ‘security.’ Sacrificing “the freedom to make your own decisions about health care, education, property rights, and a ton of other stuff.”

It's ridiculous for grown men and women to say: I want to be able to choose from hundreds of cereals at the supermarket, thousands of movies from Netflix, millions of songs to play on my iPod—but I want the government to choose for me when it comes to my health care.

Stage 3: "When the populace has agreed to become wards of the state, it's a mere difference of degree to start regulating their thoughts."

[Today] too many of the institutions healthy societies traditionally look to as outposts of independent thought—churches, private schools, literature, the arts, the media—either have an ambiguous relationship with government or are downright dependent on it.

Stage 4: "dissenting ideas and even words are labeled as ‘hatred.’ In effect, the language itself becomes a means of control."
In American the rights of Free Speech are being eroded as anything controversial is labeled as ‘hate speech.’ Consider the furor over Miss California for publicly saying she is opposed Gay Marriage.

Stage 5: Stupor - "Give people plenty and security, and they will fall into spiritual torpor,"

"When life becomes an extended picnic, with nothing of importance to do, ideas
of greatness become an irritant. Such is the nature of the Europe syndrome." -
Charles Murray in In Our Hands.

"In most of the developed world, the state has gradually annexed all the responsibilities of adulthood—health care, child care, care of the elderly—to the point where it's effectively severed its citizens from humanity's primal instincts, not least the survival instinct." - Mark Steyn

Bottom Line

Mark Steyn summarizes the five stages of Indolence as:

  1. Stimulus or bailout

  2. Comes with quid pro quo strings attached

  3. You’re told what to do

  4. You told what you’re forbidden from doing or saying

  5. Results in the infantilization of a population with no responsibilities or cares

The results can be demonstrated by a Dutchman commenting upon the accelerating Islamification of Holland,

"I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it."

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Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Budget

“It's time we reduced the federal budget and left the family budget alone.” - Ronald Reagan

If you’re not a federal government and able to print your money then you must learn to spend less than you make. This is called budgeting. It’s important for every day life so you know your daily spending limits. It’s also vital for special events like how much can we afford on a vacation, new car, or new house? The current so-called mortgage crisis was partly caused by people buying more house than they could afford. Other mortgage disasters resulted from people who spent more than they earned by using the home equity of their house as an open loan that never came due while prices climbed upwards. (For a well-written story of a NYT economic reporter with mortgage problems, see

It is easy to spend: Starbucks coffee, cell phones, cable TV package, bar drinks, cigarettes, meals eaten out. These things add up quickly. My wife had to point out to me how much money I was spending on breakfast and lunch in NYC every workday. It was never a lot at one time but it added up to a lot in total. Last weekend we visited some craft fairs and farm markets and afterwards were amazed how quickly we had spent the cash taken from an ATM at the start of our travels.

A documented budget and spending plan can also help with lifestyle changes. When my wife wanted to quit her job, we looked at our spending habits and found ways to cut back so we could live on just my income. Years later when I was laid off, we added up our fixed expenses plus some modest discretionary spending to determine the minimum salary I could earn to support our lifestyle. When calculating earnings don’t forget to include taxes and other items that reduce income. There is a huge difference between salary and your take home pay. Suppose for example that state plus federal taxes are 30% of your income, you give 10% to your church and you give 10% to a 401K or other retirement savings. Then there is a 50% reduction in your net earnings and in order to live on $40,000 per year you would have to earn $80,000.

You also have to be realistic when estimating earnings. Don’t spend assuming this year will have a huge bonus equal to last year. Don’t spend assuming you have a high-salary job that will always be there. Don’t spend assuming you can work lots of overtime to make up the difference. Don't spend assuming you can pay it back "someday" with a lottery winning, inheritance, or other windfall event.

Bottom Line
If you’ve never done a budget before, check out the Consumerist's 9-Step Beginner's Budget plan. It provides a getting started spreadsheet and instructions on how to use it. has some advice on starting a budget.

Here’s an online site for creating a budget which claims it “is private and accessible only to you”,

Kiplinger offers the following as traditional spending levels. Actual results may vary but if they differ by a lot then ask yourself why you’re a high spender in some category:

  • 30% Housing
  • 10% Utilities and other housing expenditures (including renters insurance)
  • 15% Food (at-home and away)
  • 10% Transportation (including car loan)
  • 10% Debt repayment (student loans and credit cards)
  • 10% Saving
  • 5% Clothing
  • 5% Entertainment
  • 5% Car insurance and miscellaneous personal expenses

For a detailed history of one hundred years of government programs to encourage "everyone" to own a home (with disastrous results every time) see Obsessive Housing Disorder.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Affordable Toys

“I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, toys not included.”
- comedian Bernard Manning
I’m amazed at the prices parents are willing to pay for children’s toys. Here are some examples from

Fisher-Price Power Wheels Ultimate Terrain Traction Jeep - $825.00
Inflatable Jump 'N Double Slide $650.00
Educational Insights Math Shark Class Pack - $579.99
PlanToys Kitchen Center - $449.97

Now consider the alternatives. Instead of a powered kid-sized jeep, how about helping your son or daughter build his or her own go-cart? This teaches tool use and engineering skills. Instead of a plastic mini-kitchen with plastic equipment, give your child your old kitchen items and a sand box to play in. My grandparents had a one-room shack on their farm that the grandkids called the mud pie house. Inside were a table, old cracked bowls, rusted muffin tins, and lots of kitchen implements for making mud pies. My grandparents also included a “cash box” with play money so we could sell our creations to the adults who would drop by to check our wares. I spent a lot of time there with my siblings and cousins and it was great fun.

If mud is too dirty, consider “play dough.” There are many expensive variants on this today with play foam and quick drying sculpey and dough “factories” but you can have all the fun with little cost by making your own dough. Combine:
1 cup Flour
1 cup Water
1/2 cup Salt
2 tablespoon Cream of tartar
1 tablespoon Oil
Cook until ingredients start to clump together. Turn out the lump onto a plate or piece of wax paper. Knead in food coloring if you wish (the kids might enjoy this part and learn something about colors). Make more balls if you want other colors. Pull out some old kitchen utensils and have fun “baking” and making with your new dough! When it dries out, knead in a splash of water or make a new batch.

Bottom Line
There is nothing wrong with cheap toys, especially with young children. Who hasn’t heard the story of a child having more fun with the box than with the expensive toy that was inside? In my church bag I keep the cardboard center from a used large roll of tape. Young kids love to roll it about. At home we have a wooden block set that gets lot of playtime. Simple works.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Are Forzen Meals Safe?

Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that I am a friend to the creatures of the earth when I am not busy eating them or wearing them. — John Hodgman
From the, Food Companies: Our Food Probably Isn't Safe Enough For Your Microwave. Good Luck!

As the food supply chain gets longer and harder to control — food companies are Basically giving up and placing the responsibility for food safety on you, the consumer. In fact, one food giant, General Mills, has essentially conceded that cooking their food in a microwave isn't good enough.

According to the New York Times,

General Mills, which recalled about five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak, now advises consumers to avoid microwaves and cook only with conventional ovens. … [The problem is that] the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods - from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables - is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede."

In 2007 over 15,000 people became sick eating ConAgra frozen chicken pot pies. ConAgra was never able to determine which of the many ingredients caused the outbreak.

Bottom Line

In our brave new world of global sluppy and distribution, one thing we've lost is the food safety Americas used to enjoy in the 20th century. I'll have to begin seriously again washing apples and treating all foods as "dangerous" until cleaned or cooked thoroughly.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hotdog Kid

“Can we eat these at home?” - young girl asking her vegetarian parents after discovering hotdogs at a church event
Years ago, when I met with a nutritionist to lose weight, one food that was banned from my diet was hotdogs. A starchy roll with processed meat & chemicals that supplies one-third of your daily fat, and nearly half your daily sugar/carbs. [] Yet there is no denying that Americans, especially children, love them. My older sister, (HAPPY BIRTHDAY!) went through a phase where she refused to eat anything but hotdogs and earned the nickname “Hotdog Kid” from our grandfather.

Nearly every meat-eating culture in the world has invented some form of sausage to use meat scraps. So, while it is no easy task discovering the origin of hotdogs, it may be safe to give credit to the Germans/Austrians. The city of Vienna claims the Wienerwurst or Viennese sausage, the city of Frankfurt takes credit for the Frankfurter Wurst (1480), and a Bavarian butcher is said to have invented the "dachshund" or "little-dog" sausage. German immigrant, Charles Feltman, began selling sausages in rolls on Coney Island around 1870. [Wikipedia]

To my surprise, the top vendor of hot dogs is 7-Eleven with 100 million sold annually in North America. Or you can go upscale and find turkey dogs, chicken dogs, tofu dogs, wild boar sausages, etc. Last weekend we purchased some hotdog shaped venison & garlic sausages in sheep casing. On the rare event we do buy “hotdogs” for our home, my wife prefers the flavor and quality of kosher all-beef franks from Hebrew National. I still love their commercial of Uncle Sam looking at a hot dog with filler and then looking upwards when the announcer states that Hebrew National answers to “a higher authority”.

Bottom Line

Most hotdogs (as opposed to sausages) are precooked and can be eaten cold if not spoiled. Many doctors recommend that pregnant women heat hot dogs (and other pre-cooked, pre-packaged foods) to 160-170°F (70-77°C) for at least two minutes before consuming to reduce the chance of contracting Listeriosis (caused by a rare bacterium that can thrive at refrigerator temperatures) which can affect unborn children or even cause miscarriage or still birth. [Wikipedia]

For fun facts and fun places to eat hotdogs, check out the PBS documentary, A Hot Dog Program.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Why does Flu Look Like?

A severe influenza pandemic would constitute a major disaster unlike anything experienced in the modern world, where we are almost totally reliant on … ‘just in time’ delivery of food and goods … to function in our every day lives. A pandemic will disrupt every aspect of our lives, from access to health care to availability of food and water, and result in an increase in death and disease in our communities. Even our disaster assistance and recovery plans have been based on ‘mutual aid’ – a system where resources and ‘first responders’ from an unaffected area can leap into action to help people in the area of an earthquake, hurricane, or terror attack. But in a pandemic, no such unaffected areas are likely to exist. You now understand that it is up to each individual to care for him- or herself and loved ones. – from the InSTEDD Pandemic Influenza Citizen’s Guide
Yesterday I gave some of the background on the origin of InSTEDD and its Citizen’s Guide to Pandemic Influenza. Today I’d like to include other interesting facts from the guide.

What does the seasonal flu look like?

Normal influenza can encompass any or all of the following symptoms:
• Begins abruptly
• Symptoms include fever, chills, body aches, loss of appetite, headache, and fatigue
• Fever (>100.4ºF) – usually lasts 2-3 days
• Respiratory tract symptoms include cough without phlegm, sore throat, and congestion
• Temperature greater than 100.4 ºF
• Stomach and intestinal issues, such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

Pandemic flu may look very different from seasonal flu symptoms
• Sluggishness or alterations in mental state (seen most often in the elderly and infants)
• The 1918 Spanish strain was unusual for killing many young adults and otherwise
healthy people. People were sometimes struck suddenly with illness and within hours were too feeble to walk; many died the next day. Symptoms included a blue tint to the face (due to
insufficient oxygen from lungs filled with fluid) and coughing up blood.

Children and adults may develop sinus problems and ear infections from the flu. In rare cases complications from bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes may be fatal.

Bottom Line
According to the Center for Disease Control, CDC, “It is very difficult to distinguish the flu from other infections on the basis of symptoms alone. A doctor's exam may be needed to tell whether you have developed the flu.” Healthy adults may be able to infect others 1 day before getting symptoms and up to 5 days after getting sick. Therefore, it is possible to give someone the flu before you know you are sick as well as while you are sick.

The InSTEDD guide recommends seeing a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:

Adults & Children
• Blue discoloration skin, lips or nail beds
• Coughing up blood or foul-smelling sputum
• Bleeding from nose that cannot be stopped easily through pressure
• Bloody diarrhea
• Chest pain
• Difficulty or pain in breathing
• Shortness of breath when at rest
• Persistent vomiting or severe diarrhea not managed by standard measures
• Symptoms of severe dehydration, e.g., a significant reduction in urine output
• High fever for 3 or more days without improvement
• Sudden high fever with recurrence of symptoms
• Extreme drowsiness and difficulty waking
• Disorientation or confusion
• Seizures
• Severe earache
• A severe change in the ability to function, especially if elderly
• Flu-like symptoms with a pre-existing chronic condition like heart failure, asthma or diabetes
• Flu-like symptoms while under immuno-suppressive therapy

Additional Symptoms to Watch for in Children
• Flu-like symptoms or fever in any child less than 3-months old
• Flu-like symptoms with child taking aspirin regularly (could be Reye's Syndrome)
• Excessive irritability or listlessness
• Has a full or sunken fontanel (soft area on the top of a young child’s head)
• Is limp or unable to move

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Impact of a flu pandemic

"I wish that you would help build a global system to detect each new disease or disaster as quickly as it emerges or occurs." – Larry Brilliant’s TED Prize wish

One of my favorite web sites is, “Ideas worth spreading”. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” and holds an annual conference where fifty of the most creative minds in the world are given a brief chance (18 minutes) to present their beliefs or works. Over 400 of these talks can be freely viewed at

In addition, each year three “exceptional individuals” are awared a TED Prize of $100,000 plus "One Wish to Change the World." Each recipient presents their World Changing Wish at the conference and TED helps organize companies and participants to bring the wish to life. For example, the 2006 TED Prize winner, Larry Brilliant, wished to build a global system for early disease and disaster detection.

Larry was one of the team leaders from WHO that helped eradicate Smallpox from the world. In response to his wish, Google donated $14 million to Larry and five other organizations trying to prevent pandemics. With his TED Prize and Google money, Larry created, InSTEDD, to serve as a free data collection and information organization for the current status of and best response to global infectious diseases. Whereas WHO collects data only from official (i.e slow) government sources, InsTEDD searches the Internet for live outbreaks of disease. The first hint of an outbreak may reveal itself with a spike in Google searches in a region for headaches, nausea, bleeding, etc.

Bottom Line

Everything above was a long introduction to the ideas I really wanted to present. In 2007 InSTEDD published a booklet called, Pandemic Influenza, Preparation and Response: A Citizen’s Guide which I recommend reading. It was updated this month to include Swine flu.

Here is what the guide says about the impact of a flu pandemic.

Communities will be affected simultaneously
• At least 30% of the overall population may become infected in a severe pandemic
• Absenteeism could be upward of 50% in a severe pandemic
• A pandemic is likely to last for 12 to 18 months
• Communities could be affected by several waves lasting 6 to 8 weeks each
• Vaccines and antiviral drugs for pandemic influenza will be in short supply, may be of limited effectiveness, and will likely not be available to most communities
• Most of the ill may wish to seek medical care [BUT ] All healthcare systems will be overwhelmed
• Health facilities … may be inadvisable to enter owing to increased chances of exposure to the virus
• People and communities will likely be on their own without the help of mutual aid from other communities, hospitals, or other public services

Routine services may be disrupted
• Hospitals, schools, government offices, and the post office may be disrupted
• Telephone service, the Internet, commercial radio and TV broadcasts could also be interrupted if the electric power grid falters or fails
• Stores and businesses may be closed and/or will have limited supplies
• Local ATMs and banks may be shut down, and cash will be in short supply
• Public transportation services and communication may be disrupted
• Gasoline supplies may be limited or unavailable
• Travel could be restricted by fear, quarantine or curfew
• Public gatherings may be canceled

Note that there is nothing said here about dying. If you’ve had a bad case of flu you’ll recall that you were sick as a dog for days and unable to work or do much of anything. Even a non-lethal flu can bring a country to its knees if enough people are sick. A pandemic means widespread sickness, not necessarily widespread death. (Altough at times I wised I was dead the last time I had the flu. Ugh!)

UPDATE on Swine Flu:
A new study suggests that Swine flu has a basic reproductive rate between 2.2 and 3.1 others. This means that every sick person will on average infect 2 or 3 other people. Normal flu has a rate of 1.2 and the Spanish flu of 1918 had a rate of 2-3. (Interestingly measles has a rate of 12-18! Very infectious!)
The death rate for Swine flu is now estimated at 0.4%. The Spanish flu US death rate was 0.64% but as high as 2.0% worldwide.

For the US we are not talking about huge differences here. By my calculation, Swine flu is equally as contagious and two-thirds as deadly as the great 1918 pandemic in America. This does not make it “safe”. And yet nations are asking WHO to downgrade the alert, Scale for Flu Warnings Overly Simplistic, Countries Tell WHO.

Some Elderly Immune to Swine Flu? It seems that a close variant of this flu may have spread in the early half of the 20th century. Many seniors have antibodies to Swine Flu by surviving it decades ago.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Insect Bites

Itchy itchy scratchy scratchy, ooh I got one down my backy! – camp song

When our Cub Pack needed to enter a woody area to search for insects, the boys objected, “We can’t go in the woods. We might get ticks.” Scouting was founded over a hundred years ago to teach wilderness survival skills to clueless young boys from the cities. Now it seems the youth have gone from clueless to terrified of the great outdoors.

With picnic season resuming, families will venture (timidly?) outdoors once more and may, quite likely, encounter insects bites and stings. The advice used to be that you had nothing to worry about if you weren’t allergic to bee stings, etc. Today with West Nile Virus and Lyme disease the story is more complicated.

  • West Nile Virus killed 44 people in 2008 (mostly adults over 50, rarely children) with some 2000 reported infections. A person is 1000 times more likely to die from the flu (36,000 deaths). So while “safe”, it’s no fun being bitten by a mosquito. Simple precautions include long pants and shirt sleeves and the use of insect repellant like DEET. The FDA recommends keeping kids' nails short so they don’t break the skin when scratching bug bites. A scratch with dirty nails could lead to a bacterial infection that will require treatment with antibiotics.
  • Lyme disease is more common with 27,000 cases reported in 2007. Death is “rare” and I could find no numbers online for anyone killed. Lyme disease is easily treated with antibiotics if caught in the early stages but untreated can lead to extreme fatigue, joint or muscle pain, facial paralysis, heart damage, psychological disturbances, stomach problems, neurological disorders, blindness, and deafness. My wife and I and our dogs have all had Lyme. We spotted the bulls-eye shaped rash around the bite and took the antibiotics. We also ask for Lyme testing along with the traditional blood tests when we get a physical.

Lyme can also be prevented by daily full body tick checks. Early removal of a tick is important because a tick generally has to be on the skin for 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. The ticks are very small and tricky to spot when not filled with blood. See How to Remove a Tick for more information.

Bottom Line
The most likely insect problem at a picnic will be a bee sting. Don’t use tweezers!. A bee will leave behind a stinger attached to a venom sac. Try to remove it as quickly as possible by scraping the skin with a credit card. If you pull with tweezers you might squeeze all the venom into the person you are trying to help. Wash the sting and apply an ice pack. Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain (never aspirin with children.) No medical attention is needed UNLESS one of the following occurs:

  • The person has a known bee allergy or has these symptoms:
    • wheezing or difficulty breathing
    • tightness in throat or chest
    • swelling of the lips, tongue, or face
    • dizziness or faintingnausea or vomiting
  • The mouth region was stung. Oral swelling may block airways

  • A large skin rash or swelling or pain persists from more than three days around the sting site. This could indicate an infection.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Picnic Food Safety

When left unrefrigerated, many foods can become contaminated with bacteria that produce the dangerous toxins that cause food poisoning. These bacteria are indetectable by sight, smell or taste and thrive on foods that are left out for very long, especially at warmer, summer temperatures. Foodborne illness symptoms are much like those of the flu, which include headache, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever. These signs may not appear until several hours to several days after eating a contaminated food. –
With the Memorial Day weekend coming up, the season of picnicking officially begins. But beware: picnic foods can be hazardous!

  • Picnic foods -- such as potato or macaroni salads, sandwich fillings, hamburger patties and cut watermelon -- require a lot of manual preparation. Handling increases the risk of contamination with harmful bacteria from unclean hands.

  • Some common picnic foods are cooked or prepared in large quantities and kept unrefrigerated for hours. Warm temperatures promote bacterial growth.

Here are some guidelines for a safe picnic from NCSU and the FDA.

  • Wash hands before handling food and use only clean utensils and containers. Wash all cooking surfaces and equipment.

  • Over 67% of reported cases of foodborne illness are due to improper cooling. If not served immediately, cooked foods need to be rapidly cooled in shallow pans.

  • Food illness bacteria, such as Salmonella and Shigella are often present on the rinds of watermelons. Wash watermelons before cutting them. Better yet, wash all fruits and vegetables.

  • Keep cold food cold in a well-packed cooler. Mix the ice amongst the food – never just place the food on top of ice (cold air sinks, heat rises). Meat, poultry, and seafood may be packed while still frozen. When traveling keep your cooler on a car seat since the trunk can reach 150 F. While picnicking cover the cooler with a blanket and keep in a shaded spot. Keep all food in the cooler until needed. Anything left outside the cooler after one hour should be tossed.

  • Pack pop cans in a separate cooler from food items. Since the soda cooler will constantly be reopened, the ice will melt faster and the temperature will be warmer.

  • Keep hot food hot. Take-out foods (like KFC) or foods just cooked at home must be kept hot by wrapping them in insulation like towels, then newspaper, and then placing inside a box or heavy paper bag. Hot food should not be allowed to sit out for more than one hour.

  • Never mix raw and cooked meat. Use separate utensils and dishes so bacteria from raw meat cannot jump to cooked meat.

  • Cook food completely. No pink spots or blood in the juices.

  • Toss out any leftovers from a picnic. The only safe food to keep is cold food that never left the cooler IF the cooler still has ice.

Bottom Line

The one hour and toss rule is for hot summer days above 90 F. Below that the FDA says two hours is the time limit before tossing.

The CDC has a cute site (kid friendly?) called Grillin' and Chillin' Keeping food safe during summer cookouts and picnics

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

What does $775 Billion buy?

"Of all the aspects of social misery nothing is so heartbreaking as unemployment" ~Jane Addams, 1910

Under the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll be brief and let the graph below do the talking. The bottom line is the unemployment predicted by government if the budget busting stimulus package were adopted to save the day. The top line is the "doomsday" scenario that would occur without the "stimulus".

And the reality is....

the taxpayers have paid $775 billion and the results are WORSE than doomsday!

Bottom Line

Post-Stimulus Results:

May 20: Fed's economic forecast worsens
"Central bank now expects unemployment to rise to a range of 9.2% to 9.6% this year. Fed also predicts a sharper decline in GDP than it had forecast in January."

Stocks, dollar, treasuries fall on concerns over U.S. creditworthiness!!

Was The Bank Bailout Even Necessary?

Bank of England Makes 1 Billion Pound Profit Off of Financial Crisis
Worst financial crisis in modern history = biggest profit in BofE's 300-Year History

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Story Ideas

survival pack for $25,

campfire making

camp cooking

fishing - how to





Emergency Home Supplies

Overheard while camping…
1. I'm sure that's not poison ivy
2. Who brought the bug repellant?
3. I thought you packed the toilet paper!
4. The salesperson said this tent was super easy to set up.
5. I'm sure these mushrooms are edible...
As a follow-up to my earlier post on 72-hour kits, the following is based upon a list for emergency home supplies provided by J.R. Pullum on the Amazon Survival Community forum:

(1) Food: At least thirty days of canned food. Buy low salt soup/veggies so you don’t get overly thirsty. (If you use packaged foods instead, you’ll need extra water to prepare them)

(2) Stored Water: At least thirty days of bottled water

(3) Found Water: Water Purification tablets and chlorine, Buckets

(4) Light & Fire: Flashlights with extra Batteries, Candles, Kerosene lanterns, Matches, Bic lighters

(5) Medical: Complete First Aid Kit including Potassium Iodide tablets for radiation exposure, surgical masks & rubber gloves, anti-bacterial soaps, mouth wash (Listerine) as a disinfectant, personal medicines, aspirins, Tylenol, antibiotics, deodorants, blood Pressure / diabetes, etc. Don’t forget to buy a First aid manual with great how-to pictures.

(6) News: Radio and batteries

(7) Repairs & Misc: Duct tape, Rope or twine

(8) Eating: Disposable utensils (Paper plates, Plastic spoons, Knives and forks)

(9) Hygiene: Toilet paper, Pre-moist washcloths, Toothbrush and paste, Portable camp toilet

(10) Money or an alternate form of trade (Gold).

(11) Boredom: Games, playing Cards, scriptures or other books

(12) Basic tools: Pliers, Screwdrivers, Hammer, Pry bar, Saw, Shovels to bury waste

(13) Shelter: Blankets or Sleeping bags, tent for shelter (In the event of sudden home evacuation)

(14) Cooking: Sterno stove with canned fuels. Grill or Propane stove

(15) Information: Buy a survival guide and a survival cookbook

(16) Everyday Clothes: Socks, Underwear, Extra pants and shirts

(17) Extreme weather gear: Raincoats, winter coats, Boots or heavy footwear

(18) Hunting: Fishing poles and/or Harpoons, Bow and Arrows or Spears to gather extra food.

(19) Defense: Consider guns and ammunition, a club, hunting or survival knives, etc. for home or campsite defense weapons

(20) Nice to have: Geiger counter.

Bottom Line

If you buy these items on sale, individually, it need not cost much. Don’t just buy these items, put them in a bag or closet and forget about them. Keep the tools and equipment accessible and use them as appropriate. Practice camping and cooking indoors or out. [Warning: some camp stoves require LOTS of ventilation for your safety]

Just remember to put back or restock the items you use.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nuclear War

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room." - from the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I've recently read two books about life after a nuclear war. The first was a classic called Alas, Babylon, written in 1959 by Pat Frank. The second was One Second After written by William R. Forstchen this year. Both follow the efforts of a former soldier to rally his town and pull people together to survive the coming hard times after America is hit by nukes. In both cases the town is outside the fallout zone so radiation is not a primary concern. Instead the enemy is roving bands of bandits and the harshness of nature when people are deprived of electricity and modern devices like cars, refrigeration, and medicine.

But beyond the common background, these books are as different as the island adventure/survival stories of Robinson Crusoe vs Lord of the Flies. In Alas, Babylon (like Crusoe), American ingenuity and virtue wins the day as people work together and rebuild civilization. In "One Second After" like "Lord of the Flies" the baser side of man is seen when push comes to shove. It's dog eat dog (or literally man eat man).

Author William Forstchen wrote a darker book to show how overly dependent Americans have become upon technology. In his book three EMPs (Electromagnetic Pulse bombs) are exploded high over America by persons unknown and everything electronic is fried. Every plane in the air crashes. Every car after 1988 or so is useless (the onboard computer chip is dead). There is no refrigeration and soon no food. Near the end the hero of the book is told he did well with his town's survival ratio of 20% after one year of starvation.

Bottom Line
One thing that stood out from me in these books is how local civilization became with no cars, no radio, no TV, no phone, no computers or Internet. Your world contracts to where you can walk to. Each town becomes an island of independent survival. It reminded me of American in the 1700's. In a history of the American Revolution lecture I'm listening to, the professor constantly talks about the role towns and town legislatures played. The states held a lessor degree of authority and federal government was non-existent until about 1787. Quite a reversal of today's world.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Everyday Emergencies

“One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem
before it becomes an emergency.” - Arnold H. Glasgow

Today my wife & I were visiting the local boat club and I kept thinking:
  • The sun on the water sure is bright; if only I had a hat
  • This wind that blew in quite chilly; if only I had a jacket
  • I can't find any matches in the boat club, how will I start the BBQ?

It wasn't until I got back to my car that it dawned on me, I have a 72-hour kit in my car trunk. It has matches, hat, warm clothes, etc, that I'm saving for an emergency. It's sitting there waiting for a crisis while I get a sunburn or hypothermia or go hungry.

Bottom Line

Don't let your 72-hour kit go to waste. The same supplies that you're saving for a natural disaster might also make your life more comfortable during minor everyday emergencies.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Approaching Danger

Curiosity killed the cat - proverb
As described in the story Citizen journalism: 1, evolutionary instincts for survival: 0,

There was a massive gas explosion in Moscow that led to an inferno that injured
five people, raising questions about Russia’s ageing energy infrastructure and
the sanity of Russian civilians. … [In the embedded YouTube] notice how people
are not all running from the explosion; many are walking towards it, recording
the scene on their mobile phones
Humans are funny animals. They will panic over a disease that killed people in another country yet walk straight towards a local disaster. And I’m no different. I’ve always wanted to see a tornado so my inclination in college during a tornado alert was to go outside and look instead of sheltering instead and missing it. I still have not seen one.

When my wife and I visited Yellowstone National Park and the Canadian Rockies, we were warned about wildlife and “Bear Jams”. A bear jam occurs when someone sites a bear and everyone parks their car on the road shoulder and gets out to look. Now-a-days the bear is typically far away so in one case we watched as some foolhardy young visitors decided to hike closer to the bears. When a Park Ranger arrived, she was furious. She yelled at the hikers, chased after them and we could see her asking for their driver licenses (giving them a park ticket I suppose).

People appear to think of Yellowstone as a giant petting zoo. We watched photographers approach a mother moose and her child. Other tourists must have thought that the boarded walkways were a safe zone and would walk within feet of a wild bison while staying on the path.
Most animals in real zoos are not tame either. One extreme danger program on TV showed video of a woman who climbed two walls to get a better picture of a polar bear. The bear grabbed her leg through the cage bars with his teeth and wouldn’t let go. The zookeepers were pulling on the woman and trying to distract the bear. Fortunately her shoe came off and the bear let go to check it out. She was lucky to keep her leg.

Bottom Line

An important survival skill is to show proper respect for danger. We forget about risk when trying to get a better photograph or when rushing in to save a person. In a Red Cross First Aid/CPR class I just attended, the first step was always to evaluate the scene to determine if it was safe for you to approach an injured person. No point in you also being electrified, bitten by a rattlesnake, poisoned by gas or burned by a chemical and becoming another victim. The second step was to put on rubber gloves (to protect yourself) before touching the victim. You may save life but acquire HIV or Hepatitis.

Think before you leap towards danger.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Water Storage

“Water is the only drink for a wise man.” - Henry David Thoreau

As discussed in the blog Insufficient Water Storage, water is often the Achille's heel in any preparedness plan. A person needs a gallon a day to drink plus extra water for washing clothes, dishes, teeth, body, etc. If your food storage consists of dehydrated foods, then you'll need water to rehydrate the foods. A gallon is about two 2-liter soda bottles. For a family of 4 you'll need 24 "soda" bottles of drinking water for a 72-hour "kit" push optional water for washing. That's a bit much to carry in back packs.

In our kits we pack iodine and water filters to purify any water we might find. We also have fire making supplies (matches, flint/steel) and a metal cup to boil water. We carry perhaps a liter a person and hope to find the rest.

As the blog Insufficient Water Storage points out, you can use some clever tricks to store water at home. For example the liquid in canned food counts as drinking water and can be used for cooking. Canned soups (no extra liquid required) are useful. And why not stock up on actual sodas, juice drinks and other beverages that you like to drink.

Bottom Line

Plan ahead to have adequate water. Stock what you can and purify the rest.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Majority Opinion

"Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain

Home Remedies

“My doctor gave me six months to live, but when I couldn't pay the bill he gave
me six months more.” - Walter Matthau
Check out the interesting list of home remedies at Home Remedies That Work. I'm not a doctor and can not vouch for the list but the ideas look reasonable and many I've read about elsewhere.

Here are some that I'd be willing to try:
  • Milk of Magnesia to stop the itch from mosquito bites, poison ivy and poison oak
  • Cover a cut with a dab of honey (anti-bacterial) and place a band-aid over it
  • Coca-cola to remove rust
  • Remove a small splinter with a dab of Elmer's glue. Let it try and pull off.

Bottom Line

During a crisis medicine could be hard to obtain. In addition to a well stocked first aid cabinet at home, a list like Home Remedies That Work can help when supplies are low and you need to be creative.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cedit Card Chargebacks

"Money isn't everything - there's credit cards, money orders, and travelers' checks" - anon
One advantage of using credit cards for purchases is the option of a Chargeback. When you feel that you have been defrauded by a vendor and the vendor is unwilling to refund your money or replace damaged goods, then you can ask your credit card to cancel the charge off your card.

However a chargeback is not a sure thing. Check out the Consumerist article, Top 10 Reasons Your Chargeback Will Be Denied.
  1. You are lying. The vendor will present their evidence.
  2. You waited too long. Most cards have a 60 day limit on chargebacks.
  3. Not getting independent proof of damage/fraud for chargebacks over $100
  4. You bought it overseas. (Chargebacks are only valid on US goods.)
  5. You stayed in the hotel room. (No chargeback for a room, no matter how bad, if you spent the night there.)
  6. No proof that you mailed back the goods. (Use registered mail.)
  7. You don't remember the date or details. (Be as specific as possible. At the first hint of trouble, write down all details do you don't forget)
  8. You did not allow the vendor a chance to fix the problem
  9. You are disputing the wrong things (Don't try to use legal language you might get wrong)
  10. You used Mastercard. With Mastercard (MC) the burden of proof lies on you.

Bottom Line

For more details, check out This site lists four general code categories for chargebacks:

Technical - Expired authorization, non-sufficient funds, or bank processing error.
Clerical - Duplicate billing, incorrect amount billed, or refund never issued.
Quality - Consumer claims to have never received the goods as promised at the time of purchase.
Fraud - Consumer claims they did not authorize the purchase, or identity theft.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stay or Go?

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know!
- lyrics by The Clash
Whenever I have the opportunity to watch BBC news, I’m always impressed by the extensive coverage of world news. American news networks rarely talk about world events unless there is a presidential visit or bad news in a US overseas war. That may explain how I failed to learn about the huge impact of an earthquake in China one year ago.

According to, on May 12, 2008, at 2:28 p.m., Sichuan province was hit by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. The quake could be felt over 1000 miles from the epicenter. It killed at least 68,712 people, with 17,921 missing, and more than 374,000 injured. More than 15 million people where displaced from their homes. CNN notes that, “One year after the quake struck, China is still counting the toll. “

One scandal following the quake is the Chinese government’s attempt to block any investigation of shoddy construction of school buildings. It took an entire year for the government to be shamed into releasing the student death toll. Only a few days ago did the government acknowledge that , “Thousands of schools collapsed in the earthquake, trapping students under the debris. Among the victims, 5,335 students died or are missing.” – CNN. Protesting parents and investigative reporters have been harassed and accused of prying into "state secrets."

Chinese officials claim that post-quake reconstruction is progressing well and point to 1 million new houses built in rural areas and 33,000 new apartments in cities with hundreds of thousands of more housing units are under construction. The government says it has helped nearly 1.3 million quake victims find new jobs. But if 15 million people were displaced and if each family has exactly one child (Chinese law), then only 1 in 5 of the affected families have new housing. Were 4 million families able to move and buy homes elsewhere? Or are they living in “prefabricated housing camps.”

Bottom Line

The effects of massive disasters like the Sichuan earthquake or Hurricane Katrina persist long after the media and rescue workers have gone. Homes, businesses, schools, and infrastructure must be rebuilt before lives can return to a level of normalcy. This can take years.

Don’t wait for government to “make things right.” Sometimes the best option is to move away and start a new life in a region not impacted by disaster. Of course millions of others may have the same idea but still the competition for jobs and homes should be less the further away you get from the disaster zone. House insurance may help you afford buying a new home elsewhere – BUT check your policy now. Are earthquakes covered? Most policies exclude flood and require an additional flood rider. Insurers are notorious for finding ways to avoid paying you, especially during large scale devastation when the cost to them is quite high.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Global Food Shortages?

'Each month is gay, each season nice, when eating chicken soup with rice.' -Maurice Sendak
The April edition of Scientific America asks the question, Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization? The author states:
For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions. ... Yet I have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization. I can no longer ignore that risk. ... As demand for food rises faster than supplies are growing, the resulting food-price inflation puts severe stress on the governments of countries already teetering on the edge of chaos. Unable to buy grain or grow their own, hungry people take to the streets.
In the past century, spikes in grain prices were event driven and temporary. For example, in 1972 the Soviets quietly cornered the world wheat market before the rest of the world learned about their poor harvest. Wheat prices doubled that year but returned to normal with the next harvest. Other event-driven price increases included drought in the Soviet Union, a monsoon failure in India, and crop-shrinking heat in the U.S. Corn Belt.

But Scientific American believes the price increase in grains from 2007 and 2008 are different. These are caused by trends that are not likely to change:
  • Ongoing addition of more than 70 million new people a year to feed. Yield gains in the 60s and 70s were amazing (+2% annually) but the "Green Revolution" has run its course. Global crop yields are now increasing at 1% a year while population grows at 1.2%.
  • More money in China & India is allowing people to move up the food chain from a grain diet to a meat diet. It takes more grain to raise cows or pigs or chickens then to feed people directly.
  • Massive diversion of grain to ethanol-fuel distilleries. The price for lower US fuel costs is more expensive global grain costs.
  • Irrigation, which consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater, in many countries is now pumping water out of underground sources faster than rainfall can recharge them. Half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up.
  • Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil forms on perhaps a third of the world’s cropland. The UN predicts that the African nation of "Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation and the decline in soil fertility.”
Bottom Line
We don't see much said in the news but there is a growing global panic over food shortages.
- In 2007 leading wheat-exporting countries such as Russia and Argentina limited or banned their exports. Vietnam, the world’s second-biggest rice exporter, stopped exporting for several months.
- In response, nations like the Philippines are signing multi-year contracts for rice from Vietnam to ensure delivery.
-In Thailand villagers must guard their rice fields at night with loaded shotguns from “rice rustlers”.
-In Pakistan an armed soldier escorts each grain truck.
-In the first half of 2008, 83 trucks carrying grain in Sudan were hijacked before reaching the Darfur relief camps.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Economic News

The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy. ~ President Woodrow Wilson

Today's posting is recent US economic stories that caught my eye.

Criminal Abuse of the Federal bailout!
There are now nearly 20 criminal investigations concerning "public corruption; corporate, stock and tax fraud; insider trading; and mortgage fraud" relating to bailout money.

Bailout Money being used to Lobby for More Money!
The biggest recipients are using taxpayer bailout money lobby Congress for more. According to the Associated Press, "The top 10 recipients of the government's $700 billion financial bailout spent about $9.5 million on federal lobbying during the first three months of the year." Lead among them is GM, which burned through $2.8 million in lobbying in the first quarter alone.

Happy Debt Day!
On Sunday, April 26, the federal government had spent all the money it will raise in taxes for the current fiscal year. From now until the end of the fiscal year in the fall, the government will be spending money that it will borrow from the Chinese and others, which will be repaid by our children and grandchildren. With interest. This is the earliest Debt Day in modern history.

States with Highest Unemployment Also Have High Income Taxes or High Unionization or Both
Perhaps employment requires successful businesses that are not oppressively taxed or unionized? Many states & the US are digging a deep hole . They borrow money to "help" the economy, then raise taxes to pay for the budget gap, which forces some businesses to layoff or close thus dragging down the economy further.

Florida county declares state of economic emergency
Declaring a state of emergency from a natural disaster is normal nowadays. But this is believed to be the first economic declared disaster.

Bottom Line

The US is spending money at new levels beyond the Great Depression, beyond the cost of WWII, beyond going to the moon. And yet as recessions go, this one is not so bad (yet). The economy that Reagan inherited from Carter was far worse. But don't dismiss this one. The Federal government may spend our way into a Great Depression.

The warns The worst thing for the world economy would be to assume the worst is over

Action on the current scale has never been tried before and nobody knows ... how much difference it will make. ... it would be a mistake to confuse the twitches of an economy on life-support with a lasting recovery. A real recovery depends on government demand being supplanted by sustainable sources of private spending. ... Growth, when it comes, will [initially] be too feeble to stop unemployment rising and idle capacity swelling. And for years most of the world’s economies will depend on their governments.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Student Loans

“It's easy to get a loan unless you need it.” - Norman R. Augustine
On I learned some things about student loans that I did not know.

“They’re the worst debt you can get — huge, at unattractive interest rates, and non-bankruptable.” –
The New York Times reports

“Thousands of recent graduates have been unable to find jobs or are earning too little to cover the payments for loans that are sometimes as high as $50,000 … as many borrowers have learned, student loans are among the most ironclad debts, on par with child support, alimony and overdue taxes. They stick with you no matter what … Even death isn’t a good enough excuse for discharging some private loan debts. And the government can wield a heavy hand to collect what it is due: If you fail to repay your federal loans, it can garnish up to 15 percent of your wages or take your tax refund or part of your Social Security benefits.”
About two-thirds of graduating students will have a loan to pay off (typical size is $22,500 but the NYT describes one student who managed to get $150,000 into debt.). Sadly, loans are unavoidable for most students due to outrageous fees. When I was in college tuition rates rose much faster than the rate of inflation and my school still had record enrollment and overcrowded dorm rooms. Families were willing to pay any price for college degrees.

Here are some options to reduce the debt:
  • Invest early in a 529 Investment plan – it’s like a 401K for college. With favorable tax incentives, you put away money when your child is young and can only spend it when they reach college age. When college investment plans were first advertised I recall that you were locked into a single college (i.e send money to MIT when your child is born.) But claims that with a 529 plan, “you can be a CA resident, invest in a VT plan and send your student to college in NC.”
  • Earn a National Merit Scholarship via the PSAT test. Of the 1.5 million entrants, some 50,000 with the highest PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index scores qualify for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program. Whether you get any money is up to the colleges you apply to and their standards. I was offered a 4-year Merit Scholarship from Michigan State University that covered most tuition costs but no merit scholarship for Cornell University. When Cornell called me to ask why I had rejected their acceptance, the answer was simple - I couldn’t afford them.
  • Apply for the “needs” based Federal Pell Grant. If you can prove to the government that you are poor enough, you might get a Pell Grant.
  • Check with the Financial Aid department of the colleges you apply to for any unusual funds that you’re eligible for. Alumni may leave scholarship money for American Indian applicants, children of Rotary members, etc. Check also with local organizations and local companies, like Lions Club, for scholarships.
  • Students should get a summer job. When I graduated, Harris Corporation offered “scholarship” internships to top students from local high schools. I ended up working for Harris for five summers. To maximize the paycheck I worked 2nd and 3rd shifts for the extra pay differential.
  • Students can work at college. I worked in the dorm cafeteria my freshman year. The following year I returned to campus too late and all cafeteria positions were already assigned. I walked directly to the office of the head of my department (mathematics) and asked for a job. He said yes and that began nearly 10 years of teaching starting as assistant and leading to class instructor and course coordinator. A dorm friend of mine, an engineering student, got a job at college soldering electronics and said the hands on experience was great.
  • Live cheap - buy used books and avoid spending money on frills. Cheap can also mean choosing a state school were you live to get a lower resident rate, living with your parents, and or going to a community college for your first two years. Yes there are some snobbish jobs that prefer Ivy League graduates but in the long run the name of the school won’t matter so long as the education was good. I’ve looked at resumes of job applicants from Russia, India, Canada, etc. I know nothing about the reputation of the schools they attended so instead I look at past job history and their ability to answer questions during the interview.

Bottom Line

If you have a Student Loan and are unable to make payments, read the complete NYT story, Student Loans. There is detailed advice on steps you can take with different lenders to get a deferment and forbearance.

For more information on 529 plans check out

Avoiding a loan is NOT easy. I managed to cover expenses without one but only by working summers at Harris Corp, working the rest of the year at college, living very cheap and having a Merit Scholarship. I was very lucky.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Paul Principle

I don't usually duplicate an entire blog posting from another author but in this case, the writing is so on topic, so appropriate that I hope I can be forgiven.

Paul Wilmott is a British financial analyst who has long been critical of the overly abstract risk models used by Banks and Investment firms. The following posting can be found at

The Peter Principle (named after Dr Lawrence Peter) is the idea that people “rise to the level of their own incompetence.” Originally it was proposed in a humorous book published in 1968 but has since become accepted as giving genuine insight into how humans interact. According to Wikipedia “It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their ‘level of incompetence’), and there they remain. Peter’s Corollary states that ‘in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties’ and adds that ‘work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.’” This is related to the concept that everything interesting happens at the margins.

The same is now clearly true of larger organisms, and I am obviously thinking of western society as a whole. The evidence is unambiguous: Bonus-bewitched bankers destroy institutions that had been around for centuries, politicians rescue their rich friends and ensure they get handsomely rewarded for their catastrophic failures, then people protest peacefully at the G20 summit where the police are the aggressors.

This has been made possible by ‘progress’ thanks to technology, the Ponzi scheme that is the world economy, the lawyer-led victim culture, the abandonment of common sense because of political correctness, the advance of globalization so that we are all tied together in one giant global-village/shopping-mall and the ubiquitous career politicians having no productive real-world experience but who know how to crawl their way to the top, lining their pockets all the way, over the bodies of the hard working and what are now called the ‘coping class.’

Senior management being paid in inverse proportion to their achievements; Personal Identification Numbers everywhere so that we are forced to use the same one every time therefore increasing the security risks they were meant to reduce; Health and safety rules that mean we are not permitted to experience the small pains that stop us from suffering from the deadly; There being so much new legislation that most people commit a petty, trivial crime each day, while real criminals go unpunished; No one being allowed to fail, all students must be given an A grade so it is impossible to tell who is fit for a job, while simultaneously lying on CVs is encouraged; The BBC being unable to spell its news announcements correctly, they happen so quickly; Over-paid professors proposing that spelling be relaxed because children find it too hard; Children unable to play in the streets because of hysteria over paedophilia; Children unable to learn contact sports properly because teachers are not allowed to touch them; People allowed to drown because ‘rescuers’ didn’t have the right ‘certificates’; People vying to be in minorities so as to get special treatment; Bins too heavy for binmen; Fines for not sorting rubbish; Homeopathy; Creationism;…

On my street recently a man was deliberately run into by a car and carried around the neighbourhood on the bonnet. The man suffers from MS. The police did nothing, even though they have a CCTV camera in the spot and it recorded the whole incident including the car’s number plate. But they manage to use the same CCTV on the same road to record parking violations and issue tickets without any problem. The reason is obvious, fining people for parking is profitable, solving crimes is not. And according to en vogue theories every part of society must be a self-sufficient, profit center, mustn’t it? Utter madness.

Society has risen to the level of its own incompetence and at the same time the means to return to a more sensible world has been legislated out of existence. The above we all know. But only some of us really care. If you are one of us, you will already know the solution, but you are perhaps understandably afraid to carry it out. The solution is this…I ask please do your best to bring back freedom of speech and expression; Please be politically incorrect at every opportunity; Tell jokes that are in bad taste; Travel on trains without a ticket, and then for your court appearance hire Cherie Blair as your barrister. Laugh in the faces of health and safety personnel! Edmund Burke, the political philosopher, is attributed with the saying “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I’m not worried about evil, it’s stupidity that is soon going to be victorious. But the world can only continue its descent into madness if you let it.

- Paul Wilmott,

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Universal Mysteries

“There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
- Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5
It seems at least once a century, the public comes to a consensus that science has solved all the big questions. This occurred in the early 1900s (pre-Einstein and Relativity) and I recently saw a new claim online that there is nothing “big” left to discover. I disagree and was delighted to find the article 13 things that do not make sense in New Scientist magazine.* The odd things can be divided into two types – cracks in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe and mysteries about life. I’ll summarize the life issues here since there is little application of physical constants of the Universe on a Preparedness blog.
  • The placebo effect – a saline solution can block pain or reduce Parkinson tremors IF the patient believes that the medicine is real. Clearly the mind is more powerful than we know. Will this change the future of medicine? Think and be well?
  • Homeopathy – a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, wanted to disprove the effects of Homeopathy (chemical solutions super diluted with water) but ended up proving that somehow the “water” is acting like the original chemical. Interestingly, homeopathy fails in large randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials (i.e. double-blind studies where the tester does not know which solution is real and which is fake.) Could homeopathy be some quantum-human effect where reality is impacted by our knowledge or expectations?
  • Life on Mars? Test results from Viking were mixed. Martian soil exposed to a nutrient rich solution produced methane gas (a sign of life) but no organic molecules were found in a separate test. Years later other researchers announced they saw microbe fossils in a Martian meteorite. But other scientists think the fossils can be duplicated geologically without life.
  • For 37 seconds on 15 August 1977 the “Big Ear” radio telescope at Ohio State University recorded a signal from the direction of Sagittarius that no one has been able to explain. The astronomer who first heard it scrawled “Wow!” on the signal printout. SETI says it was noise pollution, not aliens, but the debate continues.

Bottom Line

"It is those niggling scientific anomalies, which seem to make no sense, that most often give rise to scientific revolutions, changing the way we think about the universe and our place in it." - New Scientist book review

1. What if mind/intelligence can control matter? Would we become like gods and control the universe if we could master this mental energy?

2. It took the Copernican revolution to prove that the universe does not physically revolve around the Earth. However we still have the hubris to think that this entire universe exists for us alone. What will be the effect on philosophy and religion if we learn that we are not alone?

* The original New Scientist arcticle was published in 2005 and one of their most popular ever. It was recently updated with new links and again rose to the top of reader popularity. The author published a book on 13 Things That Don't Make Sense in 2008.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

False Alert with Swine Flu?

“With Mexico saying the worst may be over and the new H1N1 virus starting to look more like a seasonal flu strain in the United States and elsewhere, critics are going to start asking if public health officials overreacted to the outbreak.” – Reuters news
Again I hate to bash the media but it seems that most TV/Radio/Newspaper coverage has only two modes: “full coverage emergency” and “not worth discussing”. In just over a week swine flu has gone from “The End of the World as We Know It” to “never mind, just a normal flu, nothing to worry about”.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Was this a false alert like the Swine Flu of 1976?
No. The President Ford swine flu was found on one military base in NJ and did not spread. In contrast, the swine flu of 2009 is very contagious. Thousands of cases in Mexico and within a few weeks it had spread to over a dozen countries around the world. The World Health Organization rightly classified this as phase 5 (Pandemic Imminent).

Is this swine flu dangerous?
Yes. One thing I’ve learned from this emergency “drill” is that “normal” flu is dangerous. How did it happen that 2000 yearly flu deaths in NYC and 36,000 deaths annually in the US are considered “normal”? Consider the mothers protesting against the Iraq War and the deaths of their sons. In six years since 2003 the numbers of US casualties has been 4284. During the same period there were 216,000 flu deaths, 50 times the number of soldiers killed. Why don’t we see mothers protesting for better flu drugs?

Was it wrong to close schools, etc?
No. Consider the game of Russian roulette. Is it safe because 5 times out of six, nothing happens? When this flu appeared it spread fast and its potential was unknown. Suppose we treated it as “normal” and allowed it to spread and THEN discovered it was a killer. By that point the horse is out of the barn and there is no going back. The right time to stop a potential pandemic is at the beginning.

Is this swine flu just a “normal” flu?
Unknown. The death toll in Mexico was overstated with many sicknesses related deaths misclassified as swine flu. Scientists now think this is NOT a “killer” flu but it may be stronger than your average flu. The medical studies are still being done to exactly classify this flu strain.

Won’t my flu shot protect me? What about the drug Tamiflu?
No. Flu shots work by giving you a small sample of dead flu viruses so your body can learn the shape and create antibodies before the live virus invades. The Mexican swine flu is a new variant that no one is yet protected against. There are also some reports from Mexico of doctors & nurses who had taken Tamiflu but still caught the flu. For swine flu Tamiflu may be better at relieving symptoms than in prevention.

Bottom Line

Is the danger over?
As stated in the article, Scientists dig for lessons from past pandemics, “In each of the four major pandemics since 1889, a spring wave of relatively mild illness was followed by a second wave, a few months later, of a much more virulent disease. This was true in 1889, 1957, 1968 and in the catastrophic flu outbreak of 1918”.

Flu viruses are constantly evolving and changing – hence the need for a new flu shot each year. A global killer virus needs two things – the ability to spread and the ability to kill. The current swine flu shows it has the ability to spread quickly. As thousands or millions or even billions of people become infected, the likelihood of mutations increase. Most mutations will be harmless. But it takes just one bad roll of the cosmic dice to change swine flu into a deadly & contagious virus. We can hope this won’t happen but we should prepare now in case it does.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

72-hour Kits

“I've got a little list — I've got a little list”
– lyric from Gilbert & Sullivan’s, The Mikado
A friend and regular reader asked me recently about lists for making 72-hour kits. There are many sites online with check off lists and I’ve listed some of the best in my blog posting Survival Kits. The Red Cross has recommendations; see Red Cross - Get A Kit. However I’m not comfortable with the idea a master list – everyone’s situation is different (e.g. see Eyeglass Repair) and there are many purposes to which a kit may be applied.

Do you want a kit for every day home emergencies? (First Aid) A car kit for emergencies when traveling? (Stocking your car for Winter) A home kit to wait out a flood, tornado, etc until emergency personnel arrive? (Waiting for the Cavalry, Waiting to Be Rescued). A kit to grab when fleeing the house with little or no notice and heading to a shelter, hotel or friends house? (Fire at Night) Or a kit for surviving on your own in the wilderness? (Principals behind a good Survival Kit and You call that a knife?).

My favorite book for making a survival emergency kit is "Build the Perfect Survival Kit" by John D. McCann. He starts with the basics – what do I need to survive and how much space do I have to pack? With answers to those questions he can recommend items to include (Multipurpose Supplies). He describes kits ranging from wallet/purse sized (What’s Important in Your Wallet?) to a big box in the back of your pickup truck or boat.

It is also important to ask, “What emergency am I preparing for?” Beyond the basic first aid supplies, each emergency type requires different tools. See Right tool for the Right Job for more details.

A well-packed "bug out" kit goes beyond clothes, first aid and food (Meals Ready to Eat and other Options). Don’t forget emergency cash & papers (What's in Your Go Kit). When packing family kits do you make them the same or unique? (All your eggs in one basket)

Bottom Line

So what do I recommend?
  1. Start with a complete survival kit for every car. This is where you’re most likely to be stranded without help or supplies due to a flat tire, dead engine or stuck in snow. You need food, water, warmth, rain gear, trash bags, and books/games. Stored water will freeze and may break open in cold winter areas so don’t pack “full” bottles. Also if you are forced to flee your home, odds are you’ll take the car. So the car kit can serve as your “flee the house” kit also.
  2. Next are Home supplies. Build a well-stocked medicine cabinet for first aid. Establish an emergency cupboard with flashlights, facemasks, work gloves, tool kit, and other misc. supplies to deal with power outages, frozen pipes and other home emergencies. Build a three-month food & water storage so your family can shelter in place. (72 hours is too short. One week is the minimal recommended.)
  3. Then maintain your kits. See Protecting your Go-Kit Contents and Don't forget to follow-up

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Samuel Adams

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death - Patrick Henry
Another lesson that I failed to learn in school about the American Revolution was the central role played by Samuel Adams and the state of Massachusetts in “causing” the revolution. And just like Forrest Gump who appeared at every historical event in the movie, at every major event prior to the Revolution one will find Samuel Adams. In a previous blog I showed how the road to revolution was paved by taxes to pay off the British debt from the French & Indian War. I’d like to retrace some of those steps and point out the ‘where’ and the ‘who’ behind the events.

Samuel Adams was elected to his first political office at age 25 (1747) and made politics his life. In 1764 Adams wrote an objection to the Sugar Act (“no taxation without representation”) that was ratified by the Boston Town Meeting, making it "the first political body in America to go on record stating Parliament could not constitutionally tax the colonists”-Wikipedia. Adam’s belief that the colonies should present a unified defense of their rights was published widely in newspapers and pamphlets.

When the Stamp Act tax was passed in 1765, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a widely reprinted set of resolves against the Stamp Act that resembled Adams's arguments against the Sugar Act. But it was Massachusetts again that led the way with House Member, James Otis, Jr., calling for a Stamp Act Congress to coordinate colonial resistance. Nine of the colonies sent delegates (which included Sam Adams) to the Stamp Act Congress in New York City. They adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances which was sent to England (and rejected). It was also in Massachusetts that Stamp Act protests turned violent with the destruction of the lieutenant governor’s house and the home and office of the Boston Stamp Official. The governor blamed Adams for organizing the trouble makers.

In 1767 England approved the Townshend Acts, this time trying to collect taxes via custom agents. Adams used the Boston Town Meeting to organize an economic boycott, and called for other towns to do the same. By February 1768, towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had joined the boycott. Also in February of 1768, Samuel Adams wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter which was approved by the Massachusetts House and sent to the legislatures of the other colonies. It stated that only Colonial Legislatures had the authority to tax local citizens under the Colony Charters and British Constitutional Law. The British Parliament disagreed and when Massachusetts refused to revoke the Letter, the Massachusetts House was dissolved. This led to an outbreak of mob violence from colonists who no longer had any legal way to deal with their grievances. They attacked customs officials, making it impossible for them to perform their duties. In response England sent four regiments of British soldiers to occupy Boston. Adams wrote numerous letters and essays in opposition to the occupation, which he considered a violation of the 1689 Bill of Rights. Increasing tensions culminating in March 1770 with the Boston Massacre, a milestone that turned colonial sentiment against King George III and British acts and taxes. Once again Adams pops up. Not wanting Boston to appear “lawless”, he asks his cousin John Adams (future president) to defend the soldiers.

In 1773 a new Massachusetts governor unwisely stated that support for British Parliament was all or nothing, "I know of no line that can be drawn, between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies." Adams and the House disagreed and the dispute was widely published as the "Boston Pamphlet".

Also in 1773, Parliament tried to help the East India Company with the Tea Act. Seven ships full of tea sailed to America, four of them to Boston. Adams promoted opposition to the Tea Act and in every colony except Massachusetts, protesters were able to force tea merchants in the US to refuse delivery and return the tea to England. In Boston, two of the tea merchants were sons of the governor and would not to back down. When the first ship arrived in Boston, Adams called for a mass meeting. Thousands of people attended. They passed a resolution urging the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back without paying the import duty and assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded. The governor refused to allow the Dartmouth to leave without paying the tax. The stalemate lasted several weeks and two more tea ships arrived. On the twentieth day, the dispute had reached a crisis point – under British law, after 20 days, customs agents could seize any unloaded cargo with unpaid taxes. Governor Hutchinson had again refused to let the ships leave, and Adams announced that "This meeting [of now 7000 citizens] can do nothing further to save the country." That night 30-130 men dumped the tea overboard.

The British responded to the Boston Tea Party with the Coercive Acts of 1774. This closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. It rewrote the Massachusetts Charter and allowed colonists charged with crimes to be transported and tried in England. Great Britain hoped to isolate radicals in Massachusetts but the harshness of the Acts backfired and unintentionally promoted sympathy for Massachusetts from the other colonies. Adams was successful in organizing a First Continental Congress in Philadelphia for all colonies to attend in September of 1774. This Continental Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and created the Continental Association, an agreement to boycott British goods and, if that did not get the Coercive Acts reversed after a year, to stop exporting goods to Great Britain as well. The Congress also pledged to support Massachusetts in case of attack, which meant that all of the colonies would become involved when the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord.

When Adams returned to Massachusetts in November of 1774, he served in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, an extralegal legislative body indepedent of British control and helped form the first minutemen companies.

A Second Continental Congress was scheduled to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1775. The British issued orders to arrest any men trying to attend this meeting. Sam Adams and John Hancock went into hiding at Hancock’s childhood home in Lexington. When British soldiers triggered “the shot heard round the world” the official purpose of the expedition was to seize and destroy military supplies in Concord but according to many historical accounts, General Gage was also attempting to arrest Hancock and Adams in Lexington. After the battle, General Gage offered a pardon to all men who would surrender their arms, EXCEPT for Hancock and Adams.

Adam participated in the Second Continental Congress and was a signer of the resulting Declaration of Independence. He praised Thomas Paine's popular pamphlet Common Sense. During the revolution Adams served on military committees to help organize and fund the war. He was the Massachusetts delegate appointed to the committee to draft the Articles of Confederation. Adams was appointed to a three-man drafting committee with his cousin John Adams and James Bowdoin to write the Massachusetts Constitution.

After the war, Hancock and then Adams served as Governors to the new State of Massachusetts. Adams opposed the “Federal” powers of the new US Constitution and helped bring about the Bill of Rights in 1791.

Bottom Line

Adams died in 1803 and a Boston paper eulogized him as the "Father of the American Revolution." Thomas Jefferson characterized as Adams "truly the Man of the Revolution." When John Adams traveled to France during the Revolution, he had to explain that he was not Samuel, "the famous Adams".

Today most people know Sam Adams only as the face on Samuel Adams Boston Lager. And while I have personally waked the Boston Freedom trail, visited Concord and Lexington, see the Minuteman memorial, etc, I always imagined that other states like Pennsylvania must have similar prewar historical sites. It somehow never dawned on me how central Massachusetts and Sam Adams were to events that escalated disagreements over “rights” with England. And while "Father of our Country" George Washington won the war, it was Adams that played a leading role in uniting the colonies before the war.

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