Monday, August 31, 2009

The Amazing Banana

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”-Groucho Marx

I love bananas. When I worked in NYC I’d buy one from sidewalk vendors each morning. Now that I work in Connecticut I bring a banana in my lunch bag each day. So I’m pleased to read in, “A Banana a Day?”, that this fruit is even more amazing than I knew:

Compared to an apple, it has four times the protein, twice the carbohydrate, three times the phosphorus, five times the vitamin A and iron, and twice the other vitamins and minerals. It is also rich in potassium (second only to the avocado).

With three natural sugars (sucrose, fructose and glucose) just two bananas provide enough energy for a strenuous, 90-minute workout. [On the flip side, don’t gorge on the yellow fruit. A single banana contains 170-190 calories. Twice the calories of a medium sized apple.]

The “A Banana a Day?” article also cites health benefits for the following:

  • Reducing Depression & SAS (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
  • Ease PMS
  • Lower Blood Pressure & the risk of Stroke
  • Calm the Nerves & Stress
  • Increase Brain Power
  • Ease Constipation
  • Prevent Hangovers
  • Lessen Heartburn & Ulcers (a natural antacid)
  • Reduce Morning Sickness
  • Remove the itch from Mosquito Bites (rub the bite with the inside part of the peel)

Bottom Line

The banana is unique amongst fruit because it does not come from a tree but rather from a giant tree-like herb related to the lily and orchid family. Bananas are easy to digest with no fat and are often the first solid food given to infants.

The texture, color, and sweetness of bananas will change as they ripen. Green tipped bananas are firmest and ideal for cooking, yellow ones are for eating, and brown-specked ones are great for baking breads, muffins and cookies. You can add yellow bananas to your cereals, salads, yogurt, salsa, smoothie or shakes.

Store bananas at room temperature until they reach the ripeness you want; then move them to the refrigerator. The peel will turn black in the fridge but the banana inside will remain firm. To speed up ripening, store bananas in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Modern Farming

“As the farmer who won the lottery said when asked what he was going to do with his winnings "Keep farming until it's all gone” - unknown

Farming is a dirty business. Not dirty as in illegal but muddy, messy, hot, stinky, etc.

My paternal grandmother was raised on a farm and hated it. She couldn’t wait to leave. My maternal grandparents were dairy farmers and their son (my uncle) carried on the family tradition. (My mother married a serviceman and left farming forever.) My cousins all fled the farm as soon as they could and got city jobs. But not so long ago one cousin returned and bought my grandparents farm after they had passed away. Now her husband raises hogs and the kids are in 4-H.

So why the history? Years ago I read and loved Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore's Dilemma about the horrible things done to mass-produce food. Recently I learned about a rebuttal by a working farmer, The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals. I recommend it highly, also.

One shot fired against modern farmers is the claim that over crowding and “unhealthy” conditions have led to an increase in food illnesses like the tainted spinach last year. But one writer disagrees with A Food Elitist Strikes Back. He writes,

So how big a problem is foodborne illness? In 2000, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that "foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." That sounds pretty bad. But let's give those numbers a bit of context. In 1900, six years before Upton Sinclair wrote his great muckraking book, The Jungle, about the filthy conditions in the meatpacking industry, the death rate from gastritis, duodentitis, enteritis, and colitis was 142.7 people per 100,000 [this equals nearly 110,000 deaths with a 1900 population of 76 million]. It is likely that most people experienced bouts of intestinal distress several times a year. Today, accepting CDC calculations of 5000 deaths per year implies a hundred-fold reduction, to just 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Additional good news is that the incidence of many foodborne illnesses continues to decline according to the CDC's FoodNet surveillance network established in 1996. In its 2005 report, the CDC found that the incidence of O157:H76 infections had fallen by 29 percent from the 1996-98 level.

… Also during the 20th century, the rise of national and regional grocery chains and industrial food processors saw dramatic improvements in overall food safety.

Bottom Line

It can be very difficult to know the truth based on news headlines. I saw two odd statements on the web today – “Pigs kill more people than sharks” and “Diarrhea kills more people in India than Swine flu”. Neither is what you’d expect based on news, TV, movies, etc. In India there was a riot caused by the first Swine flu death there. But no one is rioting over diarrhea.

Likewise food recalls make for good news stories. “Watch our report or you may die.” One gets the impression that bad food is everywhere – peanut butter, spinach, hamburger, etc. So it’s nice to have an historical perspective and learn that food deaths are down by a factor of 100 since 1900. We are doing something right! Yet TV news shows senators and the president calling the FDA a failure that must be changed. But perhaps they just don’t know the all the facts.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009


“Money in the bank is like toothpaste in the tube. Easy to take out, hard to put back.”- Earl Wilson

I love the Google auto-complete feature. When you start typing a search, Google shows you similar searches that others have entered. And I’m often amazed to find that others have searched for some of the odd topics I think up like “Alternative Uses for Toothpaste”.

About this time of year I get Poison Ivy rashes on my arms. Since I’m not the outdoors type, I suspect it comes from my cat that sleeps next to me. The cat wanders around our backyard jungle and oil from Poison Ivy plants stick to his fur and rubs onto my bed sheet or arm. So today my wrist breaks out at work and I’m super-itchy. I look at my desk drawer and see only aspirin and toothpaste. So what the heck, I tried rubbing some toothpaste on my skin. And it worked. No itch and it held up well even with my watch band rubbing against it.

So, back to Google. What else can be done with toothpaste?

  • Remove scuff marks from your favorite pair of leather shoes
  • Clean Piano Keys (they used to be ivory teeth after all)
  • Clean the rubber part of sneakers
  • Clean sinks
  • Clean your iron (does anyone iron anymore?)
  • Remove crayon marks from walls
  • Make your diamond ring sparkle (not just for sparking smiles?)
  • Shine chrome or silver
  • Shine your nails
  • Clean your metal watchband with toothbrush and paste. Be careful not to get the watch wet.
  • Defog mirrors, goggles and glasses with a toothpaste rub
  • Stick posters on walls (instead of tape apply a bit of paste to each corner)
  • Fill nails holes in walls
  • Remove the itch from insect bites and bee strings (yes, I was right! Stops the itch by drying out the skin)
  • Remove odors from hands (wash your hands in a little paste)
  • Remove stains from clothes (like ink or lipstick)
  • Remove pimples (use a little dab at night for acne. But only once a week to avoid leathery skin)
  • Fill scratches on CDs (??? – this one I’ve got to try. We often get CDs from the libraries that are too scratched to play. Perhaps this is just an urban legend?)

Bottom Line

I’ve not tried these so I can only pass on what I’ve found on the Internet. Use common sense. Also use cheap, white, simple toothpaste. It is the fine grit you want for cleaning which you won’t get in a gel paste.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Exotic Foods - part 2

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me”-C.S. Lewis

Today’s post continues the article on The Best Foods You’ve Never Heard Of.

  • Kamut – the ancient wheat of the pharaohs. Kamut has higher levels of vitamin E and heart-healthy fatty acids than most grains. You can use Kamut in bread or substitute it for brown rice by boiling it in water for an hour or until the grains are tender.
  • Kefir – similar to yogurt, this tasty beverage is made by fermenting dairy with Kefir grains. Because kefir contains gut-friendly bacteria, it’s been shown to lower cholesterol, improve lactose digestion, enhance the immune system, and satisfy hunger.
  • Lemongrass - loaded with antioxidants. I wouldn’t eat this tough, fibrous grass. Instead pound it, break it, so the juices can leak out and add it to a soup or stir fry for flavoring. Sort of like a bay leaf.
  • Mung Beans – these sprouts are high in potassium, iron, fiber, and protein. When bought dried, boil them until tender add to salads.
  • Nori - nori also contains a triple dose of cancer fighters, including phytonutrients called lignans, which have been shown to help prevent tumor growth. This is the seaweed used to wrap sushi rolls and added to miso soup. You can also add it chopped in salads.
  • Peppadew Peppers - packs heart-protecting vitamin B6, cancer-fighting lycopene, and vitamin C. This sweet-and-spicy fruit looks like a cross between a cherry tomato and a red –pepper and is great in salads and pasta or eaten plain with some cheese.
  • Rooibos Tea – the new alternative to herbal teas. This African red leaf tea is caffeine-free and naturally sweet. My family loves it.
  • Sardines – this is new (or exotic?) My wife lived on sardines and cheese in college. This oily fish is a top source of omega-3 fats. And while I’ve avoided eating the tiny fish in a can, I was pleasantly surprised by giant sardines (6 inches long) served at a Portuguese festival.
  • Sunchokes – also called Jerusalem artichokes but they are not chokes at all. Instead they look and cook like potatoes with a nutty taste.
  • Sunflower Greens – actually the young sprouts of sunflowers. Eat straight or in salads or on sandwiches.
  • Sweet-Potato Leaves – one of the world’s richest sources of disease-fighting antioxidants. Cook them like spinach or any other leafy green.
  • Watercress – looks like a two-leaf clover but really a member of the cabbage family. It has a light, peppery flavor and is great in salads and sandwiches
  • Yerba Mate – this tea has half the caffeine of coffee with more health punch than green tea. Not for the herbal drinkers.

Bottom Line

I’m pleased to note that I’ve tried most of the items on the list today. Rooibos tea is great and a new flavor for anyone bored of the generic herbal teas. When we visit a teashop and say we want a non-caffeinated mix, the salesperson will often push Yerba Mate or similar as low in caffeine. But ½ strength is not really so low so you have to stay alert and know your teas. We recently enjoyed a chocolate-Rooibos mix and a peach-Rooibos mix.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Exotic Foods

“Human beings, vegetables, or comic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player” - Albert Einstein

Perhaps it no surprise that only 20 percent of Americans eat the recommended five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And it doesn’t help that the top vegetable consumed is potatoes in the form of French fries.

In an effort to encourage Americas to try new foods, has published The Best Foods You’ve Never Heard Of. With 25 exotic flavors, I’ll cover half here and complete the list in my next post.

  • Acai – the (ah-SIGH-ee) berry is the size of a grape, tastes like a chocolate blueberry, and packs more antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates. While the berries may be hard to find, Acai juice is sold in many grocery stores as a health drink.
  • Aioli - (eye-OH-lee) is a light sauce from southern France made of olive oil, eggs, and garlic that is a healthy alternative to mayonnaise. It is traditionally served with seafood, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables.
  • Alligator – combines the best of surf and turf with omega-3 fatty acids and muscle-building protein. I’ve tried it twice and it tasted like fishy chicken.
  • Amaranth – this mild, nutty taste was beloved by the Incas and you’ll love it too. It cooks like rice or wheat berries but has more fiber and protein.
  • Aronia Berry – also known as the chokeberry, perhaps for its bitter, tart taste? Like the acai this is a purple berry packed with antioxidants. Find it in a mixed juice called Oki.
  • Celeriac - loaded with bone-building vitamin K, and vitamin C and potassium. It can be shredded with cole slaw. My family likes it mixed 50/50 with mashed potatoes. This winter root vegetable has a celery taste.
  • Fenugreek - a component of most curry powders. Can be used to spice up soups and stews.
  • Ginger – a staple of Asian cooking that is known to aid digestion. My wife loves sugared ginger candy.
  • Goldenberries- a great source of vitamin A and disease--fighting antioxidants. They look like yellow tomatoes wrapped in a Japanese paper lantern.
  • Hemp Seed Nuts - Similar in taste to sunflower seeds (and no, you won’t get high.) Packs more protein per gram than beef or fish.
  • Holy Basil - popular Indian herb, also known as tulsi, is best used fresh for its cancer fighting properties. Can’t find it? Try fresh sweet basil instead.
  • Jicama – this root vegetable looks like a turnip but is juicy and slightly sweet. It reminds me of licorice. It can be sliced for salads or cooked like a baked potato.

Bottom Line

Fruits and vegetables can be fun. Search the Internet for unusual salads that mix some of the items above. I get many ideas by Googling “recipe salad” + an ingredient.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Dangerous Medication

Lady Nancy Astor:
“Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea.”
Winston Churchill:
“Nancy, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.”

Remember Mr. Yuk and the danger of toddlers drinking the chemicals stored under your sink? New reports indicate that parents have forgotten that prescription medicines left at bedsides and in unlocked medicine cabinets can be just as deadly. When we visited my sister in July, one of my nieces (age 7) asked me to reach the Flintstone vitamin pills from a high kitchen shelf. I said, “No way”. I was not about to administer any medicine without approval of her mother. The niece thought it perfectly safe and saw nothing wrong with helping herself to vitamins.

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control, “poisoning” has overtaken firearms as the second leading cause of death from injuries, and it’s not far behind the number one killer- motor vehicle accidents. From 1979 to 2006 the rate for poisoning more than doubled whereas firearm and car accidents have declined.

The CDC defines a poison as "any substance that is harmful to your body when ingested (eaten), inhaled (breathed), injected, or absorbed through the skin. Most deaths from “poison” are unintentional and caused by overdosing on medications or adverse interactions between medications.

A second CDC report revealed that prescription and over-the-counter medications account for almost 7 out of 10 emergency room visits for childhood poisonings. Each year more than 71,000 children ages 18 and younger visit hospital emergency rooms for unintentional medication overdoses. Most of the ingestions are among toddlers. Over 80 percent of the medicine over-ingestions were unsupervised (i.e. not administered by an adult).

The medications children most often over-consumed included acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), aspirin, ibuprofen, opioids (such as Percodan), benzodiazepines (such as Valium and Xanax), cough & cold medicines, and antidepressants.

Bottom Line

Put your medications in a locked medicine cabinet or box and be sure to always replace child-resistant caps. When parents of small children visit other people's homes, they should make sure the homeowner's medications are also out of reach.

When I was age 13, I babysat for a neighbor and thought all was well. When the parents came home they found a white substance around the mouth of their sleeping toddler. Somehow he had found an asprin bottle and eaten the contents. To this day I have no clue how he did that.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

GPS Saves the Day!

“There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”
– TV cartoon show

My wife & I are late technology adopters. We are not luddites (i.e. anti-technology) but we are often the last amongst our friends to buy a cell phone, use the internet, buy Cable services, buy a large flat screen TV, etc. The chief reason is cost. We wait until technology becomes cheap.

This year we finally purchased a GPS. And after a two-week road trip to Winnipeg, Canada and back we are so glad we have it. At one point in North Dakota we had 40 miles of driving range left before we ran out of gas. The GPS told us where to find the nearest gas station. During the trip we visited lots of oddball attractions recommended by The GPS helped us find them. If a major road had delays, the GPS plotted a detour. And while our route was predetermined, we were never sure just how far we would travel on any given day. The GPS helped us find motels each night.

If you are an active hiker or camper, consider buying a portable GPS. The article, 10 Ways That Your GPS Can Save Your Life, has several stories of someone lost or stranded but able to call rescuers and give an exact location using their GPS.

Some clever uses of GPS from the article include:

  • A GPS tracking device (shot at the fleeing vehicle) for police car chases
  • A GPS tracker in the shoes of Alzheimer patients
  • Cargo smart airdrops using GPS
  • GPS tracking bracelet for children

The story, Car Horns Warn Against Natural Disasters, describes the eCall emergency system, which will be required in new European cars after September 2010. The eCall system consists of a GPS sensor and a mobile phone component, which is automatically activated in case of an accident (i.e. when the airbags are triggered) and transmits data (e.g. accident time and coordinates) to an emergency call center.

Bottom Line

A basic model GPS will cost from $70 to $200. You can spend more if you want Blue Tooth, traffic reports, music uploads, games, etc. We got lucky and purchased a discontinued deluxe model at 70% off. One advantage of the deluxe model was multi-point trip planning. During our road trip I was able to enter in all the stops we wanted to make that day and find the best route.

Do keep in mind that GPS is not perfect. While it may know road speeds (usually), ours was clueless about stop signs and traffic lights. It might divert us from a main road to a residential road where the speed limit was similar but we had to stop every block for stop signs. In Amish country it sent us along many dirt roads. And sometimes an error in the address like W vs. E or Lane vs. Drive could send us on a wild goose chase. And the data may be out of date. When we were low on gas in North Dakota, the first station it sent us to had gone out of business.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Home Repair

“The process of competitively selecting contractors to perform work is based on a system of rewards and penalties, all distributed randomly.” - Norman R. Augustine

Home repairs are always a hassle. We have two leaky showers that we’ve been ignoring because we don’t want to deal with the cost and mess of ripping open walls and ceilings to repair them.

Often the hardest part of home repair is finding an honest and talented contractor. Here word of mouth is valuable. Ask your neighbors whom they used and liked.

Here are some tips on how to Avoid Being Scammed By Shady Contractors from the Warning signs of a bad or shady contractor include:

  • Uninvited Visits – good contractors are too busy doing real work to knock on your door to gin up business.

  • Evasive Answers: Make sure the contractor answers ALL your questions with real dates and real dollars and real materials.

  • Paid under the table: be very wary if the contractor wants you to make a check out to him or to cash instead of a company.

  • Out of State Plates/Lapsed License: make sure the contractor is licensed and insured in your state.

  • Pushy Deadlines: Good contractors don't need to cut special deals or offer prices only good today.

  • Selected References: ask for references from the last three jobs (and confirm the dates). Otherwise you are only hearing from the most satisfied customers that the contractor selects.

  • Blank Contract: we were shocked when a car dealer wanted us to sign a blank form. Do they think we are stupid?

  • Shady Financing: do your own financing loan. Do not trust the contractor to get you the best loan terms.

  • Demands full payment up front: you will have to pay something for materials upfront but never pay the whole bill until the job is done and you are satisfied.

Bottom Line

Contractor horror stories are a dime a dozen. Never negotiate alone. If you don’t have a spouse (or your spouse is lame at salesmanship), ask a friend to be with you when talking to a contractor and negotiating the deal.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Budget Vacations

“Vacation is what you take when you can't take what you've been taking any longer.”

A friend and frequent reader of this blog, “SwedishMom”, has her own blog called “A Stranger Here”. Her family, with several young children, has traveled on some impressive vacations this summer while on a shoestring budget. She shares her tips for Vacations on a budget.

  1. Plan & Prioritize
  2. Take advantage of free attractions
  3. Stay at hotels with continental breakfasts
  4. Use the internet to find the best bargains for hotels and tickets
  5. In big cities, consider leaving your car at the hotel and using public transportation. Find a hotel close to a subway/metro stop.
  6. Look for specials and deals online (like free days or package deals)
  7. Try a walking tour
  8. Take advantage of recriprocal memberships at zoos and museums.
  9. Look for interesting attractions close to home.

Bottom Line

I can personally confirm may of these tips. My wife & I recently joined friends for a Sunday brunch and spent just over $10 a person for a disappointing breakfast. That adds up fast on a trip. My wife works as a docent so many musuems will let us in for free when we ask. It never hurts to ask if a place will recognize your membership cards.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sports Drinks

“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
-John Wooden

Are Sports Drinks helpful for children? Perhaps.

According to a story in the New York Times, the University of Connecticut’s Department of Kinesiology examined youth at summer soccer and football camps. They found that the young athletes, aged 9-16, didn’t drink enough water. While the campers thought they were drinking enough, by the end of the camp between 50 and 75 percent of the 128 kids studied were at least “significantly” dehydrated.

In a Canadian laboratory cycling study, kids voluntarily drank 45% more when offered grape-flavored water instead of plain water. When offered a sports drink (6 percent carbohydrates and electrolytes) they downed 91% more than water alone.

Since sports drinks are not cheap, the Times provides this recipe:

Sports drink recipe from “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook”

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups cold water

In a quart pitcher, dissolve the sugar and salt in the hot water. Add the remaining ingredients and the cold water. The drink contains about 50 calories and 110 mg of sodium per 8 ounces, approximately the same as for most sports drinks.

Bottom Line

Sugary water, juice, and sports drinks may encourage more drinking and prevent dehydration but they also pack on calories. Sports drinks are intended only for active individuals who are sweating from sports or exercise. If you’re a couch potato or glued to a computer screen, these drinks will only make you fat.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Team Work

All married couples should learn the art of battle as they should learn the art of making love. Good battle is objective and honest--never vicious or cruel. Good battle is healthy and constructive, and brings to a marriage the principle of equal partnership.
-Ann Landers, “Says Truth Is Stranger...”, 1968

I’m fortunate that my wife shares a passion for preparedness. She was very involved during Y2K in purchasing a wheat grinder, water filters, and building up our food store. She learned to make bread from scratch and has been trying to grow a vegetable garden.

However not all homes are so like-minded. I enjoyed reading the story, A Prepper Husband and a Stubborn Wife, at The husband, a Marine, wants to prepare. His wife is not interested. So he tries to prepare stealthily by encouraging family campouts, a vegetable garden, and so on. But the plan backfires when his wife finds his secret preparedness check-off list. As he puts it, “I won't go into detail about how terrible that night was when I got home, but it's safe to say that my plans for being ready were placed on hold.”

Fortunately the story has a happy ending. The wife’s eyes are later opened to the risks of modern society and she agrees to prepare. In Part 4 of the story, JRM describes the actions they take together like trimming the budget, establishing action plans (SOP or Standard Operation Procedures) for different emergencies, organizing supplies, and mapping out evacuation routes and evacuation destinations. JRM states, “I feel that at this stage we would be ahead of the hordes of people trying to evacuate the east coast.”

Bottom Line

The author concludes with this advice:

  • You have work as a team with your spouse
  • You have to prepare spiritually to stay motivated
  • Avoid becoming overwhelmed by doing a little something every single day to prepare
  • Find like minded friends or a preparedness support group.
  • You have to have a plan (but expect it to fail).
    “It is easier to adjust a plan or fall back on a contingency than it is to shoot from the hip.”

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Friday, August 14, 2009

8 Tools and Gadgets to Prepare Your Home

"A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams."

Today’s recommended reading is Popular Mechanics, “8 Tools and Gadgets to Prepare Your Home For Any Disaster

The tools are:

  1. Power Generator
  2. Fire Extinguisher
  3. First Aid Kit
  4. Hand crank radio with NOAA weather alerts
  5. Power converter to plug appliances into the car’s cigarette lighter
  6. Water bladder
  7. Water Filter
  8. 4-in-1 Emergency Emergency Wrench

Bottom Line

Since the cost of these items is not cheap, don’t rush out and buy all of them at top dollar right now. Buy one at a time as holiday gifts. Or look for sales.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Artificial Ingredients

"I appreciate the additional additives and preservatives that help sell a project, but I'm sticking to what works best for me. I gotta sell the album live on stage and make people believe in the songs.”-Busta Rhymes

Have you ever looked at the ingredients list of a food product and wondered why it contained so many unpronounceable chemicals? They are there for color, for texture, for artificial flavor, or for extending the lifespan of the product. Reasons that help company sell the food and make money. These chemicals are rarely there for your health.

For a description of 35 common additives, check out The Ultimate Food Additive Glossary at Eat This, Not That.

Bottom Line

Avoid products with dozens of ingredients. Simple is healthier. However this does mean that your food will have a shorter shelf life and/or require refrigeration. Or that oil may separate and need to be stirred back in (like natural peanut butter). But this is a small price to pay to avoid chemical additives.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't Share Personal Information

“Money isn't everything - there's also credit cards, money orders, and travelers' checks”

A few nights about I called my credit card companies and each one required that I answer the official security questions. What is your zip code? What is your card number? What is the mother’s maiden name for the primary cardholder? This last one is kind of tricky since I can never remember if the primary cardholder is me or my wife.

Sadly as security goes, the official questions are quite lame. Any store employee can steal your card number. Zip codes can be found via Google with person lookups. Mother’s maiden name could be found on or through a friend of the family.

What can your do?

  1. Ask for different security questions. Some sites let you choose your question or write your own like, “You’re first pet’s name”, or “Your first friend”.
  2. Make up an imaginary maiden name. You do not have to use your real mother’s name but you do have to remember the alternative you give.

Bottom Line

When teens, children (even adults) surf the Internet they should be taught that there is some information that is never shared on facebook, blogs, etc.

  • credit card number

  • social security number

  • mother's maiden name

  • debit card number and PIN

  • bank passwords and logins

  • internet account passwords

The end of my post Espionage has details on creating strong passwords.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Food Photography

“Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”-Doug Larson

Here’s another clever story from the, Store Brand Mixed Vegetables: Not Quite As Mixed As You Would Think

A consumer, annoyed at inaccurate depictions of food on labels, decided to sort, count, and weigh the vegetables in his can of store brand mixed vegetables. The results were:

  • 109 carrots, 146 grams
  • 99 potatoes, 149 grams
  • 13 corn, 3 grams
  • 6 peas, 3 grams
  • 6 green beans, 2.5 grams
  • 2 lima beans, 1.5 grams
  • 1 celery, .25 grams

Not exactly the mix shown on the can’s label above.

Bottom Line

A lot could be said about the “art” of taking food pictures. By law the photo must show actual food, no vasoline, paint or other external modifiers. But the photographer can search through hundreds of items looking for the perfect version. Or mix and match – say the bun from one hamburger and the meat from another.

Or the food artist may tweak the product a bit. For example, changing the air to dairy ratio before making a tub of butter to be photographed. Yes real food but nothing like you can buy. Or carefully removing then reattaching sesame seeds on a bun for a perfect look.
Don’t be fooled by pictures. And don’t refrain from complaining if reality does not match your expectations.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Geeky Spouse

"If at first you don't succeed; call it version 1.0" - unknown

As a follow-up to my Personal Day post last month, I thought I’d share The Endearing Habits of a Geeky Spouse.

  • Romantic in unusual ways – LED valentine heart?
  • Finding the best deals in grocery stores – Calculating the best unit price with mental math
  • Offbeat quotes – the author mentions quoting the Muppets but geeks will also memorize Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other classics
  • Not addicted to TV sports – more time for love
  • Lots of cool gadgets – the author mentions getting techy hand-me-downs as the spouse constantly upgrades
  • Owning lots of interesting books – Lord of the Rings anyone?
  • Finding lost items – this goes both ways. I can find something I can visualize well like my wife’s cell phone. But the other day I could not see a clock radio that was in plain sight because it did not match my mental memory.
  • Providing computer support to friends and family – my dad calls me with computer questions
  • Love to Cook – “it’s like doing scientific experiments where you get to eat the results!”

To be fair, let’s also examine the Annoying Habits of a Geeky Spouse

  • Punning – my dad (not a geek) loved this. We were exchanging puns while picking raspberries and I’d made a putdown pun that I don’t recall. My dad immediately responded, “Respect your Elderberries.”
  • Avoiding swear words or using substitute like “frak” - is this a problem?
  • Over-the-top holidays or events – I like my costume collection and silly hats and ties! We also like our tradition of finding a new game meat to try every Christmas in place of turkey or ham.
  • Dissecting movies, books, etc – my wife does get annoyed when I comment upon what we’re watching together
  • Wearing geeky T-shirts to “normal” places – I love my star trek shirt (though it seems to have shrunk a bit since college)
  • Filling rooms with geeky supplies – but my comic collection only fills part of the attic.
  • Geeky house decorations that are hard to explain – doesn’t everyone have a scythe hanging on their living room wall?
  • Looking up information in the middle of a discussion/argument – isn’t the point of the debate to find the truth?
  • Needing to watch TV shows ASAP to avoid spoilers – as per the dissecting above, geeks love to twitter, facebook, and blog about the newest TV shows giving away the ending
  • Projects that take over house and whole weekends – I’d add to this an obsession with new games or a new book. My wife knows I’ll be out of touch for a few days until the game or book is finished.

Bottom Line

"I would love to change the world, but they won't give me the source code"

For more great geek quotes check out

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Time Off

"Some things Man was never meant to know. For everything else, there's Google."

As discussed in my one year anniversary blog, I'll be taking some time off from blogging. Lately the topics have been numerous so instead of M-W-F, it looks like I can do Monday to Friday with weekends off. We'll see how that works out.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Rest Stops

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” - George Carlin

In an effort to save money, the WSJ reports that states are closing some roadside rest stops (i.e. Virginia, Louisiana, Maine, Vermont, and Colorado. Others like Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Arizona are considering it.) This is bad for motorists. According to a German study from 2007, “driver fatigue (sleepiness, tiredness) is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of road accidents worldwide, accounting for approximately 15-20 percent of all accidents.”

Fatigue can occur at any time of day. I’m sometimes sleepy behind the wheel during my morning commutes as I’m still waking up. During a vacation back in college I was so exhausted after midnight while trying to reach my reserved motel room that I had to take a roadside nap so I could continue driving. If you need a sudden nap, do NOT pull off onto the highway shoulder or the top of an off-exit ramp. You may get rear-ended at high speed by a drunk diver who is lane weaving.

Besides night driving, the AAA identifies 2-4pm as a danger time for fatigue. Lunch digestion kicks in and the body gets sleepy. The siesta cultures are on to something here.

States maintain 2,500 rest areas along the interstates. There are no federal rules for their spacing, but the recommended distance is no more than one hour's drive apart. If there is no rest area or it’s closed, look for an exit if you’re feeling tired or need a break. A national directory lists nearly 2,500 privately owned truck stops located at interstate extis. Wal-Mart permits overnight stays by recreational vehicles at most of its 4,000 locations.

Bottom Line

Consumer Reports has these suggestions to avoid fatigue:

  • Get adequate sleep before you drive
  • Take breaks. If feeling tired, pull off the road and nap for 15-20 minutes.
  • Arrange for a travel companion to swap driving duties
  • Avoid alcohol and/or medications that can cause drowsiness
  • Caffeine may help, but it takes times to activate and when it wears off it can leave you even more tired.
  • Drinking water helps as it prevents dehydration that can cause drowsiness. It also requires you to pull over regularly for a bathroom break.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Government Spending

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”-Patrick Henry

With the financial collapse of California there is a lot of finger pointing and shouting about whether California is spending too much (Republicans) or not collecting enough taxes (Democrats). The spenders claim that there will be hardships for the people if deep cuts are made. Personally I think the public has become too dependent on government handouts and support.

For example we think that government spending is essential for free education and yet for many decades the quality of US public schools has been very low. (In 2000, only 12 percent of graduating seniors were rated "proficient" in science, and international surveys rank our graduating seniors 19th overall out of 21 nations.) Those with money gladly pay for private education while still being taxed for public schools. Some economists have argued that we would be better off privatizing the school system with subsidies or vouchers to low income families. As it stands now we subsidize a huge bureaucracy of teachers and administrators and school boards with no penalties for poor performance and no incentives for good performance. See “A World without Public Schools” for more details.

Out of the blue, I decided to figure out how much the Federal Government costs the American people. Are we getting our money’s worth? The Federal Budget for 2009 (not counting TAARP and the Stimulus which are extra) is 3.1 trillion dollars. The official US population is 306 million. So we could say the cost of government is a little over $10,000 for every resident. That does not sound too bad.

But where does that money come from? Taxes on working adults. Let’s exempt 27.7% of the population who are under age 20 and 12.6% who are 65 and older. If we tax every person aged 20 to 64 (183 million persons) then each would contribute almost $17,000 annually.
Sadly not every adult is employed. Some are taking funds from the government via the many health and welfare programs instead of contributing. Also for this exercise, I’d like to exclude the 22 million persons who are directly employed by Federal and State governments (Military, Civil Servants) and those indirectly employed via government grants and programs. Any taxes they pay just return the government’s money to itself.

This leaves us with 109 million persons employed in the private sector and a tax burden of $28,440 each. (Interestingly if look at the number of total households, we get a similar figure of $27,433 per household. But let’s stick with actual private wage earners.)

Is $28,400 per earner reasonable or is it too much? Let’s look again at the median wage, $25,737. “Median” means that 50% of working Americans earn less than $25,737. So the cost of the Federal government (if evenly distributed) would consume the entire wage of over half the working population. This figure gets even worse if we include state and local taxes.

So how does the government stay afloat? Two ways: taxing the rich and taxing companies. Since the average worker does not have the funds the government needs, the federal budget must rely on taxes from high income earners, let’s say the top 25% to cover the other 75%. However top earners who are over taxed (e.g. 50% rate) may “go John Galt” and opt out of taxes by leaving the country, finding tax shelters, or cheating on their taxes thus reducing revenue collection.

What about taxing companies? In a phrase popularized by Robert Heinlein, “There Is No Just Thing As A Free Lunch.” Companies create products and services that are sold for a profit. Companies must generate the taxes paid by either reducing expenses (like wages) or charging more for their product. So corporate taxes eventually mean less income for workers or customers. I’m not saying corporate tax is bad but it helps to think of it as a hidden sales tax.

Bottom Line

After examining the numbers I’ve concluded that the Federal Government spends too much. No government should consume per capita more than the earnings of over half its privately employed population.

The Obsolete New York Model, Where a tax-eating majority votes itself a permanent income
The True Size of Government (1999 but still interesting)
US Households Census
Bureau of Labor and Statistics
Average & Median Wages


Tax Burden of Top 1% Now Exceeds That of Bottom 95%. “Newly released data from the IRS clearly debunks the conventional Beltway rhetoric that the ‘rich’ are not paying their fair share of taxes. Indeed, the IRS data shows that in 2007—the most recent data available—the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid 40.4 percent of the total income taxes collected by the federal government. This is the highest percentage in modern history. By contrast, the top 1 percent paid 24.8 percent of the income tax burden in 1987, the year following the 1986 tax reform act.”

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009


From Monty Python’s movie,
Life of Brian

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

Brian: You're all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Single Man in crowd: I'm not...

The Crowd: Ssh!

Bottom Line

Are you an individual or just one of the crowd?

The cartoon is from

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Luggage Thieves

“Did you ever notice that the first piece of luggage on the carousel never belongs to anyone? -Erma Bombeck

Here’s a travel warning from the NY Daily News: Sting nabs sticky-fingered JFK airport workers going through Luggage.

"When air travelers check their luggage with an airline, there is an implicit trust that their bags and their contents will meet them at their destination," said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

[…But] an officer with the Transportation Security Administration [TSA], was videotaped July 7 pilfering through the Miami-bound suitcase in an airport screening room while a baggage handler looked on.

He stole a laptop and cell phone from the decoy luggage as it moved through Kennedy Airport.

Bottom Line

Never pack valuables in a suitcase. Keep them with your carry-on and watch them as they pass through security.

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Monday, August 3, 2009


“My father told me all about the birds and the bees, the liar - I went steady with a woodpecker till I was twenty-one.”-Bob Hope

While at a farmer’s market today, my wife was stung by a bee. No problem I thought, I’ve written a blog post on stings. But could I remember it? No. All that I remembered was to use a credit card to scrape the stinger out, never squeeze it. Then what?

Fortunately my wife had more presence of mind. She went to a fish mongers stall to get some ice and asked me to look through our first aid kit in the trunk. First I found our kit still wrapped in plastic, it had never been used. So time is lost as I try to remove the shrink wrap. Second, once open, I find it a jumbled mess. The kit is a box with no dividers so the contents have been well tossed and mixed over the years. Third, as I sort through the kit, I find the contents are very old. The gloves are melted and useless. The antibiotic cream has an expiration date of 1997. I wonder if the instant cold pack still works? Fourth, when all else fails, read the manual. The kit contains a very thin first aid book. I found bee stings and it suggested soap, water, and cornstarch! There was no mention of using any of the supplies from the first aid kit.

As you can guess, the first aid kit in our car was a bust. My wife did get ice and it helped but we could see the sting point as a white bump and slowly swelling. She was not having an allergic reaction but the site was painful and sensitive. So my next thought was CVS. Let’s see what a pharmacist suggests. It was a 10 minute drive and a few more minutes waiting our turn; then the pharmacist recommends some product called “Bee Kill” but she doesn’t know where it is in the store. Another worker in the pharmacy suggests “Aisle 7” which we find is very long and packed with products. We never did find “Bee Kill” but did find the insect bite/sting section and bought a spray product containing Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient used in Benadryl. We used to keep Benadryl capsules in the car for stings and bites but couldn’t find one today. Diphenhydramine is a histamine-blocker and reduces allergic reaction and itchiness. Within minutes of being sprayed, the white bump on the arm had disappeared.

Bottom Line

Practice what you preach. There is a reason for yearly renewal of CPR training. Since it’s so very easy to forget first aid training that is rarely used, buy a good first-aid book for the car and house. And it is equally important to be familiar with your supplies and keep them up to date.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009


“There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.”- Alfred Korzybski has an interesting story, Inflatable accidents are up, up and away. Inflatable structures like moonwalker and bounce houses are popular at fairs and parties but are not governed by any safety regulations. Few states other than New Jersey have set any standards for safe operation.

Broken bones and teeth arise when too many kids are jammed together jumping on top of each other. Or when the air fan abruptly stops and the structure collapses (one woman died when an inflatable rock climbing wall deflated.) In Ohio a boy was carried away (pictured above) as the inflatable slide took off in a strong breeze. There are report of broken necks from flips and somersaults.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission found 4,900 injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms from inflatables in 2005.

Bottom Line

Before letting your child use an inflatable at a carnival or festival, check to see if it is properly anchored and that children are supervised.

If you are renting one for a backyard event,

  • Limit the number of users on the device
  • Make sure the inflatable isn't overloaded or unstable
  • Securely anchor the inflatable to the ground with pegs
  • Place the blower so it can't accidentally be unplugged

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Saturday, August 1, 2009


“The young always have the same problem - how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”~Quentin Crisp

A parent writes to the Consumerist about his teenage daughter…

My lectures about financial responsibility appear to have failed: yesterday she charged $23,148,855,308,184,500.00 at the drug store. That's 2,000 times more than the national debt, which is a paltry 11 trillion.
The ever-vigilant folks at VISA added a $20 "negative balance fee," and have
suspended the card. When I called, they said that there was a "system
problem," and that the "help desk was working on it."

Bottom Line

Always check the receipt when you purchase something and keep it until you see the correct charge appear on your bank statement. In an odd case like that above, the company should waive the “negative balance fee” once their error is fixed. (Followup stories reveal that many people were hit with a 28 Quadrillion charge from Visa Buxx on the same day. The Visa computer used spaces to pad the value instead of zeros. The spaces were translated as a numeric amount.)

Kudos to the father above for teaching his child about finance through a parent controlled debit card. It’s good to learn that spending has limits and that everything must be paid for.

It is never easy teaching life skills to teens and getting them to listen. I just learned that my younger cousin (a professional social worker for troubled teens) is now a grandmother thanks to her 15-year-old daughter. Personally I’d arrange a shotgun wedding but my cousin wants the marriage to wait until her daughter finishes high school. Since the boyfriend is older and about to enter the military, I’d recommend marriage (for the health coverage) and a GED degree (General Education Development). What do you think?

More than 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, and about 445,000 give birth.
10 Tips for Parents to Help Their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy

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