Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Scouting - fun or survival?

“Her recommendations for a campsite were totally unsuitable. There were no outlets. And there was dirt, and bugs, and ... it rains there. So anyway, we've found a place that's much more us: the Beverly Hills Hotel.” – movie Troop Beverly Hills, 1989

We are a spoiled and pampered generation. My grandparents were used to slaughtering a pig and using all the parts. The bristles become brushes. The blood became “head cheese”. They knew how to “rough it”.

For a while my wife and I enjoyed tent camping. But not backpacking into the rugged wilderness; we traveled by car and stayed at sites with running water & showers. Usually we had a great time. But the thrill of “roughing it” failed in one park when our tent was pitched next to a camper RV with A/C, TV, a kitchen and all the comforts of home.

Many survivalists have noted that Boy Scouts is suffering from the same decline into a suburban lifestyle. There is a belt loop for Computers and one option on the Art Webelos badge is computer-generated graphics. As Den leaders we are afraid to let the 8-10 year-olds handle a knife and our meeting location, a church, has a policy against fires. Hopefully they will learn survival skills as Boy Scouts.

Or maybe not. Survival experts often recommend the Boy Scout handbook as a guide, but only ones published before 1970. Modern Scouts lack the rough mountain man skills of making your own tent and foraging for your food. The edition favored by “preppers” is the 1911 edition that can be download for free at

Popular books for teaching survival skills include:
The Dangerous Book for Boys
The American Boy's Handybook Of Camp Lore And Woodcraft
Boy Scouts Handbook: The First Edition, 1911

Bottom Line

I recommend the movie “Troop Beverly Hills” for a fun look at scouting and what really matters (people). A Den Mother from Beverly Hills is a failure at teaching fire skills, knots, first aid, etc. But she and the girls have a great time when she invents new badges for jewelry appraisal, hair styling, fashion, shopping, and other skills suitable for Beverly Hills. But things get ugly at a Jamboree when her girls have to complete against girls who were taught to win at any cost.

Den Mother – “I may be a beginner at some things, but I've got a black belt in shopping!”

Likewise the Boy Scouts of America has adapted to the times and teaches young boys to live in the modern world, not the wilderness. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view – do you focus on the existing world or focus and worry about what might happen? I suggest an 80/20 spilt. Make the best of this world but spend some time and resources preparing yourself for emergencies and the future.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ghost Ships

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence”- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Although some economists and pundits are declaring the recession over, color me more pessimistic. One website that I keep on eye on is Kiplinger’s Recover Index. They list six leading economic indicators and only two of them are “fully positive”. One of the positives, an increase in existing home sales, says more about the collapse of mortgages and house prices than about the strength of buying power. And harking back to an earlier post, what does “success” mean here? Kiplinger says that just three positive indexes would indicate that the recession is over. I’d set the bar higher and suggest at least 4 out of 6 before declaring victory.

Economics is a complex science with many time-delayed built in interactions. It’s possible for unemployment to decline, yet the newly employed people are still shell-shocked and reluctant to spend for a while. So store sales and profits remain low which slows down future hiring.

A well-written article on the stalled state of the global economy appeared in the UK Daily Mail Online, Revealed: The Ghost Fleet of the Recession. Hundreds of the world’s cargo ships have been parked off the southern shores of Malaysia, near Singapore. A local fisherman says, “We don't understand why they are here. There are so many ships but no one seems to be on board. When we sail past them in our fishing boats we never see anyone. They are like real ghost ships and some people are scared of them.”

The answer is that 12% of the global cargo fleet has nothing to ship (this could climb to 25% before things improve). Business and profits have plummeted, “This time last year, an Aframax tanker capable of carrying 80,000 tons of cargo would cost £31,000 a day ($50,000). Now it is about £3,400 ($5,500).” The ghost ships sit idle waiting for better times ahead.

Bottom Line

Curiously despite the glut in cargo ships, new ones are still being built. It takes three years to build a ship so orders placed when the economy was good in 2006 are ready to hit the water and the delivery bill is due. But now some clients are unable (or unwilling) to pay and the ships are sold instead on the open market for a bargain price. New orders have slowed to a trickle so expect the ship building industry to remain in recession for several years to come.

For another sign of slow sales and unsold inventory, check out these picutues of new unsold cars

Here is another article claiming that the financial crisis is just the first in a series of interlinked crisises as one problem cascades to another.



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Monday, September 28, 2009

Car Theft

“The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it” - Dudley Moore

Today’s gleam of wisdom comes from Consumer Reports, How to prevent car theft.While car thefts in the U.S. continue a five-year trend downwards (2008 was the lowest in 20 years), still nearly one million vehicles are stolen annually.

Here are some tips to discourage car thieves:

  1. NEVER leave your car running unattended and NEVER leave the keys in the car when you get out. Why make life easy for car thieves?
  2. Lock your car. This will slow a thief down.
  3. Keep windows closed when you park. A clothes hanger can reach in through a narrow opening to unlock some doors.
  4. Don’t store expensive electronic devices in plain sight. A thief may smash your window and grab the obvious valuables.
  5. Park in well-lighted, public place. At home a car will be safer in a garage than in a driveway or at a curb.
  6. Use a visual warning device, such as a blinking light, as a deterrent.
    [Personally I hate car alarms and don’t know anyone who responds to them]
  7. Smart keys or a fuel cut-off system are standard on many new cars. Thieves won’t steal a car they cannot start.
  8. Install a GPS tracking system or OnStar in your car to help police find it.

Bottom Line

The three most stolen vehicles for 2008 were the 1994 Honda Accord, 1995 Honda Civic, and 1989 Toyota Camry. Older cars can be quickly sold for their parts and are easier to steal than newer models with anti-theft technologies.

One day in college my driver-side door refused to open. When a mechanic opened up the door panel he found a shim stuck inside (see picture at top). Someone had tried to steal my car but the shim became jammed in the lock. A lucky break for me.

On the other hand, I've locked my keys in my car at least three times in my life that I recall. Each time a professional locksmith or tow truck driver had no difficulty opening my car in seconds.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

When Sand Attacks

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand”- economist Milton Friedman

Today’s blog post will let pictures do most of the talking. On September 23 Sydney, Australia, suffered its worst dust storm in 70 years. Wild winds swept millions of tons of red dust from the continent's drought-ravaged interior and dumped it on coast. Residents woke up to a “hellish” red sky. The thick air cut visibility to less than 100 meters delaying or canceling flights, ferries, and most forms of pubic transportation. Workers and commuters choked on the dust and emergency departments were flooded with calls. Sydney's air is expected to remain choked with particles for up to three days.

Bottom Line

Dust storms were not something on my preparedness radar before. But sand and dust can travel a long ways. The ash from Mt. Saint Helens traveled many hundreds of miles. Fine sand from the Sahara in Africa blows across the Atlantic and endangers coral reefs in the Caribbean.

What to do in a dust storm? Stay at home, seal all windows facing the wind (but allow some fresh air into the house from the sheltered side), and have a supply of face masks on hand. Protect your eyes and ears from sand. Do not travel alone.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Added Sugars 2

“A wise woman puts a grain of sugar into everything she says to a man, and takes a grain of salt with everything he says to her.”- Helen Rowland

The Wall Street Journal reports that the American Heart Association is taking aim at the nation's sweet tooth. In a scientific statement issued Monday, the organization says most women should limit their added sugar intake to 100 calories, or about six teaspoons, a day; for men, the recommendation is 150 calories, or nine teaspoons. The national average is 22 teaspoons a day. Just one 12-ounce can of cola has about 130 calories, or eight teaspoons of added sugar.

These values are based upon the My Pyramid government guidelines. With “My Pyramid” people on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet have 267 discretionary calories. (512 for active young people, 200 for dieters) The AHA decided that allocating half of the discretionary calories for added sugar was a proper course. More than that risks displacing necessary nutrients sugar.

Most foods contain some natural sugar and this is already calculated in the My Pyramid plan. What the AHA is asking us to limit is the extra sugar added to soft drinks, fruit drinks, candy, and desserts like cake and cookies. Also found in sweetened dairy products like ice cream and yogurt. The sugar in alcoholic beverages also counts as added sugar. Consuming added sugar in drinks is particularly problematic because it doesn't make you feel as full as calories in solid food.

The AHA says added sugars "offer no nutritional value other than calories to the diet. … The majority of Americans could reduce their risk of heart disease by achieving healthy weight and the evidence is fairly clear that reducing the amount of sugars can help with that."

Note that the AHA is not banning sugar use. Instead they recommend using the added sugar allotment to make healthier foods more tasty, such as adding sugar to whole-grain cereal, instead of consuming it in candy.

Bottom Line

Trying to figure out how much added sugar is in foods and drinks is challenging. Current food labels don't list sugar content in calories or teaspoons and don't distinguish between natural and added sugars. See Added Sugars for more sugar facts.

Often added sugars are given different names to avoid being listed as the number one ingredient. Check product labels for added sweeteners under these names:

  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Sucrose
  • Honey
  • Sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Molasses
  • Malt syrup
  • Syrup

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Garage Sale Crimes

“Put your hands in the air and step away from the Easy-Bake Oven” - me

The new federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it a crime to resell toys and other products for children that have been recalled by its manufacturer. The Act was signed into law last year over concern of lead in Chinese made toys in 2007. According to McClatchy News, “The crackdown affects sellers ranging from major thrift-store operators such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army to everyday Americans cleaning out their attics for yard sales, church bazaars or — increasingly — digital hawking on eBay, Craigslist and other Web sites.”

An agency spokesperson said they would not be sending Strom Troopers to raid Tag Sales but would focus instead on the big web sites and used item resellers in a campaign called Resale Roundup. To kick off the new campaign, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has identified the top 11 recalls out of thousands it has on file.

Product............................................When recalled
Playskool Travel-Lite Play Yards (portable cribs)..March 10, 1993
Baby Trend Home and Roam.(portable cribs)..........Dec. 19, 1994
Evenflo Happy Camper Play Yards (portable cribs)...June 25, 1997
Baby Express Portable Cribs and Play Yards.........Feb. 28, 2001
Magnetix Magnetic Building Sets....................March 31, 2006
Polly Pocket dolls with magnets....................Nov. 21, 2006
Easy-Bake Ovens....................................July 19, 2007
Simplicity Drop Side Cribs.........................Sept. 21, 2007
Simplicity Bassinets...............................Aug. 27, 2008
Hill Sportswear hooded drawstring sweatshirts......Feb. 12, 2009
Evenflo Envision high chairs.......................April 2, 2009

Bottom Line

For more information see:

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Living Room on Wheels

“When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife.”

In this modern world multi-tasking is a badge of honor and time wasting is a sin. So it comes as no surprise that people can be found eating, shaving, texting, calling, typing, and having sex while driving. (Hopefully not all at the same time.) We think nothing of it but this distracted driving carries a high price.

AAA reports that Distracted Driving - including the use of cell phones - is a major contributor to automobile crashes with 4,000-8,000 distraction related crashes each day in America; one-half of the 6 million U.S. crashes reported annually. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) blames driver inattention for 68% of rear-end crashes. Using a cell phone while driving increases your chance of getting into a crash by 4 times. A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that driving while texting increases crash or near-crash risk by 23 times.

Think of driving as a full contact sport. It requires our full attention to notice little details like a child running onto the street. I listen to books on CDs and have found that either I remember very little of the CD or very little of the drive. The book “Why We Make Mistakes” tells the story of a DC tour bus driver who was angry and venting to his sister on a cell phone while driving a 12’ tall bus. He did not notice the road signs warning of a 10’ tall bridge ahead and did not notice the bridge until he crashed into it at full highway speed tearing off the top of the bus.

Bottom Line

Hands-free phones make dialing safer but the real danger is being distracted by the conversation.

Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers. For an up-to-date list of Distracted Driving laws, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) maintains a state-by-state guide.

The National Safety Council also has a nice website showing state laws.

See Cyber Drive Illinois for more facts about distracted driving.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Family Photographs

“He made me suddenly realize that photographs could reach eternity through the moment.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson (French Photographer)

On Saturday, my church held a "Family History Fair" providing the public with information on Genealogy. I volunteered to put together a handout on preserving family photos. Here is what I learned:

Do's and Don'ts for preserving family photos
  • Fully identify and label all photos so people won’t be forgotten.Use soft pencils like 6B or special ink. Never use ballpoint pens.Do not use rubber cement, glue, magnetic pages, or adhesive tape in albums.

  • Old albums are like diaries; don’t take them apart. The exception is magnetic Vinyl album pages emit harmful fumes that damage photos. (Vinyl smells oily and the pages are sticky.) Use only Mylar or plastic labeled “for archival storage”.

  • Keep photos away from areas that may become hot, damp or bright. Heat, moisture & light are bad for photos and may encourage mildew growth.

  • Keep photos clean. Oils from fingers can damage the film.

  • If you want to display a photo or include it in a child’s scrapbook, use a copy and keep the original safely preserved. When framing a photograph, keep an air space between the photograph and the glass.

  • Copy home movie film and original videos, and use these copies to absorb most of the viewing wear and tear.

  • As insurance against catastrophic loss, store your negatives far away from your prints. Send copies of favorite photographs to friends and family.
  • Even the best color film will fade within 50 years. Black and White photos may last at most 150 years.

  • Digital copies of your special memories won’t fade but computer hard disks will crash. CD discs can fail after just 10 years. Upload images to the Internet for long-term storage. Be mindful of copyright laws on professional images.

Bottom Line

The top recommendation is to label all your photos. One site argued, why save pictures of total stangers? I have that problem with old photos from a hundred years ago. No one knows who is pictured. Is it a relative or an old neighbor? Sometimes the caption is less than helpful, "Uncle Joe" or "Mom's friend".

Don't let your family become forgotten or lost through time.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Safety Mnemonics

“A snake deserves no pity”- Yiddish Proverb

Since the theme this week has been memory, I’ll close with some safety mnemonics.

Green Beret Myke Hawke offers a handy mnemonic for remembering which berries are safe to eat in the wild:

White and yellow, kill a fellow.
Purple and blue, good for you.
Red... could be good, could be dead.

If red berries are growing in little clusters, they're probably not good. If they're growing in little singletons, they probably are good.

First Aid books teach ABCD for responding to someone not breathing:

A = Tilt the head back to open the Airway
B = Check for Breathing
C = Check for Circulation (a pulse or heartbeat). Begin CPR if needed.
D = Use a Deliberator if no pulse

When sailing at night you'll see red lights and green lights but which is port and which is starboard, which is left and which is right?

I think of red as a port wine.
I link port with left because both are spelled with 4 letters.

The following mnemonic identifies the poisonous coral snake of North America from similar looking snakes. I’ve called it to mind a few times when seeing a black snake with color bands (see Bottom Line below):

Red on Yellow Kills a Fellow,
Red on Black, Venom Lack

Bottom Line

The danger of a mnemonic is remembering it wrong! When looking for a picture of a coral snake with Google images I kept seeing yellow bands on black. This did not match my memory:

Yellow on black – poison lack [WRONG!]
Black on white – poison in sight

In preparing for this blog I’ve learned that I’ve been completely wrong all my life about which snake was safe and which was deadly. Good thing I never tried to pick one up! Yellow and white on black are both signs of danger. It can be hard to distinguish yellow from white so treat both as deadly.

Another person had a similar experience - this is from a comment on

Speaking of mnemonics, when I was about 11, my Dad and his buddies called me outside and showed me this pretty snake. "Catch it, Ali!" they said. "Look, the yellow and the black bands are together-yellow and black, friend of Jack!" I chased the snake around for a minute before looking up and saying, "Ummm....Dad-the red and black bands are next to each other, too!" Yeah, my Dad had me chasing around a coral snake!

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Thursday, September 17, 2009


People who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world.
- Barbra Streisand song

One of the hardest things to remember is a person’s name. My wife and I once sent a Christmas card to an old friend and used the wrong first name for her new husband. Research shows that even after 50 years you can remember many of the faces from your High School Year book but the names are a distant memory. The reason is that names have no meaning. You may recall relevant personal facts like a friend’s hometown or job because these are talking points and something you can relate to. But there is rarely any cosmic meaning to whether a person is named Joe or John.

So in order to remember a name you must assign it some meaning. I once knew a fellow train commuter named George. To remember the name I linked it to the cartoon and song “George of the Jungle”. When I saw the person I’d think of the song and the name. Another example. For some reason I kept forgetting the name of musician Jethro Tull whose music I like. So I linked the name to the phrase, “For whom the bell tolls” and that reminds me of Tull and then I can remember Jethro.

Many websites teach that the way to remember names is repetition:

When you are first introduced to someone, use their names several times when you talk to them. “Hi, Jim, nice to meet you. So, what do you do for a living Jim? Do you have any kids, Jim? Jim, it was great to meet you!” If you don’t catch their name when it was originally told to you, ask for it again and then use it.

I’m skeptical. There are many things in school I learned via repetition that are now gone. On the other hand, I do remember things that used memory aids like HOMES for the names of the Great Lakes. Or “A rat in Tom’s house might eat Tom’s ice cream” to spell arithmetic. If Jim mentioned above were slender I might link him to “Slim Jim”. But be careful never to let it slip out and say it aloud!

I have an uncommon last name so when I introduce myself to people I often say, “Kibble, as in Kibbles and Bits”. I hope this helps them to remember me.

Bottom Line

Each of us has different responses to stimuli. I tend to forget what I hear and remember what I see. At meetings I take notes so that I can see the words that must be recalled for later. Likewise names are more meaningful to me when they are written down and spelled. Perhaps I should imagine people wearing their name as a nametag or written on their forehead?

See for more ideas.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to Remember, part 2

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out … It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."- Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

As promised yesterday, there is another memory trick for memorizing a list that does not rely on a story chain. Have you ever wondered why people say, “In the first place” and “in the second place?” The tradition is over 2000 years old.

In ancient Greece, the Athenians (for awhile) had a democracy and any male could speak before the legislative body to propose a law. Those who succeeded in politics were the frequently the best at public speaking. And so in Athens around 300 BC we find the first schools that teach rhetoric and speaking skills. One method taught was to picture your speech laid out in the rooms of your house or at significant stopping points along some route. You picture your first key point in the first room or place. Your second talking point in the second place, etc.

To use yesterday’s grocery list as an example:

I visualize a cabbage as the doorknob of my front door. The hallway is filled with carrots growing. Then I see the kitchen with leeks hanging from the ceiling. The living room is filled to the ceiling with beets. There is a cow in my backyard. The back gate has loaves of bread impaled on it.

It helps to make the pictures outrageous so you’ll remember them. It also helps to have a Greek style house where you can walk through rooms in a circle around the central courtyard. In my house I reached a dead end rather soon and had to step outside.

There is also a variation on this technique that ties a new list to an ordered list you already know. The most common example is the song, “This old man” since the images and numbers are so tightly linked with rhyme:

  1. Thumb
  2. Shoe
  3. Knee
  4. Door
  5. Hive
  6. Sticks
  7. Heaven
  8. Gate
  9. Spine
  10. Over again (or big fat hen?)

Now I would imagine the grocery list as follows:

I stick my thumb in the cabbage. It’s stuck there
My shoe is filled with carrots.
My knee has swollen so it looks like a beet. (I’m moving the leeks to #6)
There is a steak nailed to my door dripping juice
Honey from a hive is pouring onto a slice of bread
The sticks look just like leeks.

If someone asks what is the fourth item on the list, I think: 4 = door. What’s on my door? Oh, yes, a juicy steak.

Bottom Line

This technique of linking items to places or a well-known list is more difficult than story telling but it has advantages. You could recite the list backwards or recall any single item from the list upon request. And forgetting one item won’t break a chain causing you to forget everything following it. The disadvantage comes when trying to memorize more than one list at a time. Having multiple items in your rooms or nailed to a door will get confusing. And how will you separate one list from the other? Rooms in different houses? By some secondary key like color, scent, or sound?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Remember

cam•bist (kam'bist)
1. a dealer in bills of exchange.
2. an expert in foreign exchange.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on why we forget, today I’d like to examine ways to remember. Way back in college, a dorm mate asked fellow residents to take a series of memory tests for his class project. The goal was to remember a list of 10 items with three different methods. I did very well since I had read a book on memory tricks and used them. Another friend of mine, Joe, got 10/10 on the first pass with no “tricks” and did worse on attempts 2 and 3 when asked to use specific memory methods. So while these methods do work, they also require some practice.

The human brain remembers facts poorly but stories and songs quite well. I’m amazed that anyone can remember the entire Iliad or Odyssey but it was passed down orally for generations before being written down. So memory trick #1 is to create a story that unites your list.

When driving in to work today I experienced a flood of ideas for blogs posts and did not want to forget them before reaching my desk to write them down. So I made up this simple story:

“I lost the KEYS to the SCHOOL. It was over a YEAR AGO. So long in fact that I’ve forgotten the NAMES of the people involved. So much THYME gone by.”

This translates as:

  • Lost Keys and why we forget (yesterday’s post)
  • First Day of School advice
  • Retrospective of my first blog topic (Rule of 3’s) from a year ago
  • How to remember Names (which became this post)
  • Substituting dried herbs for fresh

Sometimes a visual story can help to liven up boring items like a shopping list:

The CABBAGE rolled off the table and was impaled upon a CARROT. It LEEKED a red fluid like BEET juice or perhaps blood from a STEAK. I mopped it up with some BREAD.

Who knew a grocery list could be so violent?

Bottom Line

The story method is easy to use (if you’re creative and like making up stories). The drawback is forgetting the start of the story or missing a link somewhere in the middle and losing your train of thought and half the story.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss a different technique that handles items independently and not as one long chain.


The dorm I referenced above was the Honors College floor at Bryan Hall of Michigan State and many of the residents had excellent memory skills. For example, John Paola was the National Spelling Bee Winner of 1977. One day as we passed in the hall I asked, “John, can you spell ‘cambist’?" He immediately stopped and shouted, “How do you know that?” I explained that his name was in “The Book of Lists” along with his winning word. Today Spelling Bee winners can be found on the Internet.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Why We Forget

"Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened thru the ages just like wine,
Memories, memories, sweet memories" - Elvis song

As much as we want to remember things, it appears that the brain is really designed for being forgetful and unobservant. The opposite condition, perfect recall, can in fact be overwhelming and a detriment to survival. Many Idiot Savants have amazing gifts of memory but at the cost of being autistic. And so evolution favors forgetting.

The flaws in our memories and observations are detailed in a book I’m enjoying called, “Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average” by Joseph T. Hallinan. Here are some of the anecdotes from just the first CD:

  • A researcher made a film where a man walked into an empty classroom and sat down. The scene cut to a close-up of him, seated, looking around. What most viewers failed to notice was that a different actor was used for the close-up shot.
  • The human eye has a very small zone on the retina for detailed vision. The vast majority of what we see is peripheral. We are fooled into thinking we have great vision because the eye is rapidly moving about taking three shots a second that get stitched together in the brain as one image.
  • This means that a lot of detail about us is not observed – the brains fills in the gaps with what we expect to see.
  • This trait works against us when it’s our job to find the rare occurrence: a radiologist looking for tumors on an X-ray or an Airport Security guard looking for gun as the luggage is scanned. They miss on average 25-30% of the items they are trained to look for. The brain has a built-in quitting threshold that makes the snap judgment all is normal and there is nothing interesting to see.

It turns out there is a lot we don’t know about memory and recall. My brother-in-law is working with lab mice in an attempt to locate where memories are formed in the brain and to physically detect the brain change where a memory is stored.

Bottom Line

While the facts above may be interesting (and clutter the brain) of what use are they?

It turns out that most of the time, what we do and what we see are subconscious. We walk, drive, eat, etc. on autopilot as we focus on a conversation or a phone call. Those tasks we do under autopilot make a very fleeting imprint on the brain and are soon forgotten.

A common example of this is forgetting where you left your keys. You walk in the house (autopilot) while thinking about the kids or the bathroom and set down your keys on the first empty space you pass. Then you forget about the keys because there are other more important things to think about.

The solution to this is to make your key dropping habit a conscious act.

  1. Try to pick one location you always use.
  2. When you don’t use that location, then pause one second as you set down the keys to visualize yourself where you are standing in the house, look attentively at the surface where you are placing the keys, and make up a story like “I’m putting my keys on the dining table because I need to run to the bathroom.” This should be a deeper impression on the brain and aid in recall.

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Friday, September 11, 2009


"We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us" - Walt Kelly

An interesting article at makes the claim that Healthcare revamp won't cure America. It’s true that we have a problem. “Politicians are trying to revamp a system that spends around twice as much per person on healthcare as most European countries, while getting worse results overall, lagging on measures such as life expectancy at birth and infant mortality.”

But two new studies claim the problem is not the US Healthcare system, but rather with the poor habits of Americans. "One of the main reasons that US healthcare is so expensive is that we are sicker than other people."

One study concludes “that the blame lies largely with high rates of chronic disease caused by poor diet, lack of exercise and the lingering effects of tobacco use from a time when smoking was more prevalent in the US than in Europe.” The other study agrees and also found that “in some respects – screening and treatment of cancer and cardiovascular disease, for example – the US healthcare system is actually performing well.”

Bottom Line

Politicians are claiming that US Healthcare can save big bucks with more “pre-screening” of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But Shannon Brownlee of the New America Foundation in Washington DC says, "[pre-screening is] not going to fix the underlying problems of poverty, poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking, which are the biggest determinants of health."

In the US we drive short distances instead of walking. Just yesterday a colleague from Poland suggested we walk a mile to lunch. That’s crazy, I replied, so we drove instead.

Also in America the great Industrial Food complex makes it cheaper to eat junk food than healthy food. I can get ramen or chips quite cheap. I have to spend real money to buy organic at Whole Foods.

The healthcare system does not insure good health habits. My wife was making real progress meeting with a nutritionist to lose weight until the Insurance Company changed its mind and decided to stop covering the cost.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009


“We are drowning in information and starved for knowledge.” - unknown

Each year, almost 8,000 Americans die from drowning. Of those nearly drowned, 70% recover, 25% die, and 5% have permanent brain damage. Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4 and the second-leading cause of death in children 14 and under. The sooner the rescue and first aid begins, the greater the victim's chance of survival. However do not endanger yourself in rescuing the victim during this process.

A person in the water may be drowning if they show signs of distress, can't stay above water, swims unevenly, signals for help, etc.

How to respond to a Near Drowning

  • Notify a lifeguard. If the swimming area is unsupervised and you’re alone, then call 9-1-1 BEFORE jumping in to rescue. Otherwise you might become the second drowning victim with no one to rescue you.
  • A drowning person is desperate. If you toss a rope or use a stick you might get pulled in the water. If you swim out (a last resort) a panicked victim may grab hold and pull you down. Swim out with a flotation device and approach the person from behind. Grab a piece of the person's clothing. Don’t let them grab you.
  • When getting the person out of the water, support the head and neck. Suspect a neck injury around rocks, water sports, and swimming pool diving areas.

The primary focus of first aid for a near-drowning victim is to get oxygen into the lungs without aggravating any suspected neck or spine injury.

  • Check for a response. (Ask, “Are you OK? May I assist you with first aid?”)
  • No response gives implicit permission to begin first aid. Call 9-1-1 if you haven’t yet. Give Rescue Breaths and CPR, as needed. Strong swimmers with lifeguard training may begin the rescue breaths while still in the water.
  • If the airway is obstructed and rescue breaths are not working, ONLY then perform the Heimlich maneuver. DO NOT perform the Heimlich maneuver just to force “bad” water out. An unneccessary Heimlich maneuver can cause an unconscious person to vomit and choke on the vomit.

Don't assume it's too late to save a life -- even if the person is unresponsive. Continue performing CPR and do not stop until medical professionals take over.

  • If the person is conscious but weak, confused or lethargic, then put them in the Recovery Position. A bloated, water-filled abdomen may lead to vomiting and choking. Clear his or her mouth if necessary. Make sure 9-1-1 is on the way.
  • Another danger sign is blue lips and ears and the skin is cold and pale.
  • If possible remove cold, wet clothes and cover the person with a blanket to prevent hypothermia. This applies to everyone.
  • Stay with the person until medical personnel have arrived or they are taken to a doctor.

Even someone with no symptoms after a near drowning should be observed in the emergency department for 6-12 hours and should follow up with a doctor in 1-3 days. Secondary drowning can occur when a victim appears fine but in reality has a small amount of fluid in their lungs. The person may “drown” several hours later as the fluid damages the interior lung lining. A ten-year-old can die with just four ounces of water in the lungs.

  • After the incident, if the recovered victim develops a fever, cough or muscle pains, take them to an emergency room.

Bottom Line

Did you know a small child can drown in just 2 inches of water? This makes bathtubs, sinks, buckets, toilets and pools unsafe for unsupervised toddlers.


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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Federal Pay Gap

“That government is best which governs least” – attributed to Thomas Paine but unknown

I’d like to thank Cato-at-Liberty for the charts in today’s blog. The numbers come from the annual report of The Bureau of Economic Analysis showing compensation levels by industry (Tables 6.2D, 6.3D, and 6.6D).

At one time federal employees were underpaid. So in order to attract workers they were offered great benefit packages instead. But a funny thing happened. In order to attract top talent and win the votes of federal employees, congress has been steadily increasing the pay for itself and for all government employees. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197. Compare this to an average of only $49,935 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). As the chart below shows this pay gap is increasing.

If we also measure the always-generous federal benefits the size of the gap is astonishing! Federal worker compensation averaged a remarkable $119,982 in 2008, more than double the private sector average of $59,909.

Bottom Line

Government is a necessary creature but it should not be pampered or overfed. George Washington warned in his farewell address as president of the dangers of "big government". Even a democratic government can become a "despot" if it assumes too much power.

"It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position."

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How do you measure success?

"Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you will find success." – Thomas J. Watson, IBM CEO

One of our human failings is that we tend to remember wins and forget losses. We take credit for success and blame chance for failure. For example, a study of “professional” sports gamblers revealed that they took credit when their team won. “I knew it.” But when the team lost, it was a “fluke”, or a bad call, or some other rare occurrence. College students when tested, felt sure that they could predict (better than chance) the results of coin tosses. No way would they settle for just 50%.

Because we favor wins over losses, we often place an artificially high standard for success. Professional golfers were asked how often they sank a 6-foot putt in competition. One guessed he sank 91-92%. Another said no one should be considered a pro unless they sank at least 80%. The average, measured at one Pro tournament, was 54%. The Pros, when told, refused to believe the number.

I was reminded of these stories when a friend wrote in her blog that Washington, while a noble man, “also was a poor military strategist, losing many major battles in the war.” I disagreed and did some research. Of the battles Washington commanded, he won 7 out of 13, an average of 54%. Just as reliable as the professional golfers.

I tried googling for statistics on military generals but couldn’t find anything with win-loss ratios. Does history emphasize the final outcome and not the path along the way?

Consider another sport – baseball. A good battling average is .300 while .400 is now considered impossible. This means the best of the best hitters will only suceed every 1 in 3 times at bat. Most will strike out over 70% of the time. Babe Ruth is remembered as a Home Run King. But he was also the Strike-out King of his day with a terrible batting average. For the Babe it was a home run or nothing.

Bottom Line

How should you meaure success? Two ways come to mind.

  1. Know what the average success rate is for others. Then you can decide what level you want to compete at – average, top 25%, top 10%, etc.
  2. Or forget numbers and consider instead: did you achieve your objective? Washington lost some battles but won the war and earned the respect of leading generals like Napolean. The 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae lost but succeeded in blocking an army of over a million Persians for several days.

What in life would you like to succeed at?

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Monday, September 7, 2009

“Without labor nothing prospers.” – Sophocles, about 450 BC

When a teenager, one of the aspects that I found confusing about D&D was the distinction between Intelligence and Wisdom; magicians used the former, clerics the latter. As a youth I had intelligence in spades but it took marriage and old-age for me to gain an appreciation for wisdom and to begin to develop some for myself (but not much my wife will argue.)

I was reminded of Intelligence vs. Wisdom when researching Labor Day for this post.

One – why had I never learned more about this holiday before?
Two – “Labor” day. Duh. It’s a day to celebrate laborers, guilds, unions, etc. Why didn’t I think of that?

According to Wikipedia, the holiday originated in Canada out of labor disputes (the "Nine-Hour Movement") first in Hamilton, then in Toronto, Canada in the 1870s. American labor leader Peter J. McGuire witnessed one of these labor festivals in Toronto and organized the first American "labor day" on September 5, 1882 in New York City.

In 1894 the Pullman Strike became a national issue when 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads quit work rather than handle Pullman cars in support of striking Pullman plant workers. President Grover Cleveland, in defiance of a court injunction, sent United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops to break the strike in Chicago. 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.

In an attempt to reconcile with Labor, Cleveland urged legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. It was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The US politicians kept Canada’s September timeframe for the holiday in order to avoid association with the communist & international Labor Day of May 1.

Bottom Line

Society needs labor. Food has to be grown, items manufactured, roads built, and so on. This is the foundation of civilization. Without labor there would be no growth. In theory it’s possible to have a 100% service industry –doctors, barbers, librarians, people helping people, by just recirculating the money around. The book/movie “City of Ember” is like this where residents live entirely inside a bomb shelter. But it can’t last forever. Eventually food and supplies run out and the infrastructure breaks down without labor.

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bird-Pig Flu

I’m still taking the weekends off from blogging, but wanted to include a link to this scary development with Swine Flu at a turkey farm in Chile: UN warns over swine flu in birds

Bottom Line

Why is this bad? Swine flu is very contagious but not deadly (not much worse than normal flu). Bird flu is deadly but not contagious. So far the world has avoided a deadly pandemic from both.

But viruses like to exchange DNA with each other when in the same host body. In a worst-case scenario a Bird-Swine super virus could develop that is contagious and deadly.

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Friday, September 4, 2009


"You are always near, 1945" -Kseniya Simonova

Here is an amazing artist from the TV show "Ukraine’s Got Talent". Kseniya Simonova uses backlit sand to recount Germany conquering Ukraine in the second world war. She brings calm, then conflict. A couple on a bench become a woman’s face; a peaceful walkway becomes a conflagration; a weeping widow morphs into an obelisk for an unknown soldier. A mother and child see the ghost of the fallen father as she ends with the words, "You are always near".

Bottom Line

"War is hell" - William Tecumseh Sherman
It is sometimes necessary or unavoidable but never desirable.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009


“In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?”- Saint Augustine

Reader’s Digest has been discovering the tricks that burglars use:

  1. They frequently rob during the day while normally dressed as a census/survey taker, a lawn guy, etc. Or a crook may use a day job like an appliance deliveryman, carpet cleaner or painter to check out the houses they visit.
  2. They may knock at the door, and if no one answers AND the door is unlocked, just let themselves in. Burglars may also check side doors and the garage door (when the garage connects to the house).
  3. They also love open windows.
  4. They are not afraid to break a window to get in. If your typical neighbor hears an odd sound, followed by just silence, he’ll go back to what he was doing. It’s human nature.
  5. The antidote to #4 is loud dogs and nosy neighbors.
  6. Alarm systems won’t deter if they are not turned on.
  7. Windows with open blinds or curtains advertise what you have worth stealing.
  8. There are many ways to let a burglar know you’re away from home
    -You post about your upcoming vacation on your blog or facebook
    -Your mailbox is full
    -Newspapers have not been picked up
    -There are no footprints in day-old snow, or your drive is not plowed.
    -The house is dark between sunset and bedtime.
    -A flyer left in your front door

Bottom Line

Professional burglars are savvy. They’ll look at your landscaping, your cars, views through the window, and so on to determine if you have quality goods worth stealing. They’ll carry out small safes and know all the traditional hiding places like sock drawers, dresser drawers, bedside tables, matresses, and the medicine cabinets.

A good deterrent is putting lights, a TV, or fake tv on a timer so the house does not look empty at night.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poison Ivy

"My girlfriend and I went on a picnic. I don't know how she did it, but she got poison oak on the brain. When it itched, the only way she could scratch it was to think about sandpaper." --Stephen Wright

Every year about this time I break out with poison ivy on my arms. It comes from our cats who wander about outdoors by day and then sleep with us at night. Each year we spray our backyard but the poison ivy keeps coming back. In our family I’m the most sensitive. For me the rash spreads into large patches covered with tiny blisters. My wife is more resistant but when she does catch it, she gets a few large blisters at the points of contact.

A poison ivy rash is the result of the plant oil reacting to surface skin. The skin becomes irritated, blisters up, and creates an intense itching and burning sensation. The top layers of skin will die off and peel away, and it takes time for healthy skin to replace the damaged layers of skin. The rash may remain for up to three weeks without treatment. Blister fluid from scratching doesn't spread the rash, but germs from your fingernails may cause a secondary infection.

There are many recommended treatments but few seem to work on me. Beware of Internet cures! For example, some sites recommend bleach but you should never use this product on your skin under any circumstances.

The ideal treatment for poison ivy is within the first 15 minutes of contact – before the skin is damaged. Wash with water, rubbing alcohol or some OTC medications. Do not use soap at first – soap will spread the oil.

Sadly most of us miss the 15-minute window and have to deal with the rash. Typical treatments for poison ivy rash are directed at controlling the itch, and can include non-steroidal creams, topical (skin) steroids, oral antihistamines (Benadryl), oral steroids (prednisone), or a steroid shot.

The traditional low-cost anti-itch medication is Calamine lotion. Wet dressings, compresses, or soaks with Domeboro Astringent solution (mixed with water) is said to be especially soothing for itchy rashes.

Other examples from include:

•Atarax (hydroxyzine, a prescription oral antihistamine)
•Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream with Natural Colloidal Oatmeal
•Aveeno 1% Hydrocortizone Anti-Itch Cream (OTC topical steroid)
•Band-Aid Anti-Itch Gel
•Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion
•Cortizone 10 (OTC topical steroid)
•Cutivate cream 0.05% (prescription topical steroid)
•Domeboro Astringent Solution Powder Packets
•Gold Bond Maximum Strength Medicated Anti-Itch Cream
•Itch-X Anti-Itch Gel with Soothing Aloe Vera
•Locoid cream 0.1% (prescription topical steroid)
•Triamcinolone acetonide 0.1% (prescription topical steroid)

Newer medications that are supposed to target poison ivy symptoms include:

•Burts's Bees Poison Ivy Soap
•Cortaid Poison Ivy Care Treatment Kit
•Ivarest Medicated Cream
•Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub
•Zanfel Wash For Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Bottom Line

Test your knowledge with the Poison Ivy quiz. My score was 16/20.

When killing poison ivy, be aware that the Urushiol oil can penetrate latex gloves. Use rubber gloves instead. Remember that the oil can remain on gloves, weeders, mowers, clippers, and other tools for a year (longer in dry climates). Wash equipment and shoes with soap and water while wearing protective gloves. Then wash the gloves and toss your clothes in a washing machine.

Never burn any poisonous plant. You might inhale the oils and irritate your lungs and throat.

See a doctor "if the rash is on the face, genitals, or covers more than 30 percent of the body.”

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Comfort Items

“Some parents say it is toy guns that make boys warlike. But give a boy a rubber duck and he will seize its neck like the butt of a pistol and shout "Bang!"”- George F. Will

Today I recommend reading Barter Goods -- A Woman's Perspective on The author points out that most preparedness advice comes “from thoughtful and hardy men” who focus on fire, food, guns, and basic survival. The author doffs her “hard hat” to these men but feels that something is missing, a woman’s touch regarding items that will “improved quality of life”. She then goes on to list useful items for children of various ages and for adults.

Infants & Toddlers: baby formula mix, chew toys (i.e. teething rings), pull toys

Ages 4-9: Crayons and coloring books, hard candies, fluffy-clutch-comfort toys (like a teddy bear)

Ages 10-13: look for brain & drain items for mental stimulation and to use up the tons of energy they have. Brainy books & puzzles & card games; physical toys like Frisbees, boomerangs, Nerf ball, jump rope. Girls may enjoy a simple cosmetic kit or sewing kit.

Ages 14-17: this age group wants to be treated as adults so assign tasks to them that require some thought and/or some physical prowess like foraging or child care. Provide them with some of the trappings of adulthood like a pocketknife, multi-tool, cosmetics or a purse. Teens want privacy that a small tent of their own could provide.

Seniors: Denture cream, magnifying glasses, packets of facial tissues, hand creams, bucket hats, cold packs, heat packs, compact chess and checker sets, large print puzzle books (don’t forget the pencils), over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, Ben-Gay, Vick's Vap-O-Rub, hard candies, and sunglasses.

Bottom Line
Being forced out of your home is stressful regardless of whether you end up at a hotel, the woods or a Red Cross shelter. Kids will be frightened and their discomfort will result in fighting and crying which in turn raises the stress level of the parents. Plan now to have comfort items on hand to keep everyone occupied and entertained. It can still pay to stock up even if you don’t have kids. You can trade comfort items with desperate parents or just gift them something to calm a crying child.

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