Friday, February 26, 2010

Restaurant Tricks

The disparity between a restaurant's price and food quality rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill.”-Bryan Miller

Check out the article, Recipe for Survival: 23 Ways Restaurants Save Money, at How many of the price reducing techniques have you experienced? Examples:

1. Shrinking portion sizes
Not a bad thing really, most meals have way too much food.

2. Eliminating the extras
I miss the days of jam at every table at diners. Now I’m served one mini-tub of jam on my plate for each slice of bread and have to ask for more or a different flavor than grape and strawberry. Recently I was charged for lettuce as extra on my hamburger.

3. Mystery Meat
Watch out for meat reconstituted from parts or a cheaper meat substitute. Some dishonest places may serve a pork cutlet as veal Parmesan or a cheaper fish in place of the expensive one you asked for.

4. Watered down drinks
My grandfather always ordered his soda “without ice” to get full value.

5. Smaller plates
A small plate fools the eye into thinking there is more food. And it’s a good diet trick too.

Bottom Line

See the full article for all 23 tricks. Most of these are fair and understandable. Some are gross or illegal like recycling leftover bread or soda pitchers.
When carried to extremes these “cost saving” measures may drive away loyal customers who remember the good ole days. One of the comments on the article describes how profits fell when customers stopped returning so the boss switched back to bigger portions.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

No True Scotsman

“I am not an Englishman, I was never an Englishman, and I don't ever want to be one. I am a Scotsman! I was a Scotsman and I will always be one.”-Sean Connery (James Bond)

While I “almost” have a PhD in mathematical logic (all but dissertation), I lack training in rhetorical logic. Since ancient Greece, rhetoricians have studied the ways we can lie or dissemble or deceive with speech and writing. Collectively these are called logical fallacies. I’m aware of some of the techniques; for instance:

Poisoning the Well: oppose a position by discrediting the opposing advocate.
“My opponent was once wrong about X, so how can we trust him on Y?”

A Straw man Argument: exaggerating or distorting or misquoting the subject to something that is easily dismissed.
Person A: We should liberalize the laws on beer.
Person B: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.
(Here the argument has been extended from beer to all "intoxicants" thereby creating a straw man to attack.).

Today I came across a new one called “No true Scotsman”. According to Wikipedia is goes like this:

Teacher: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.
Student: But my Scottish uncle Scotty McScottscott doesn't like haggis!
Teacher: Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.

When faced with a counterexample to a claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy is employed to modify the original claim to something that is “true” by definition. Think about it, what is a “true” Scotsman? It’s a tautological phrase which is self-fulling. A true Scotsman is one who eats hagis. Who eats hagis? All true Scotsmen.

Today you might see a “True Scotsman” claim in regards to Obama Healthcare. As it starts to unravel, some of the centralist Democrats are distancing themselves from it. But rather than recognize division in the party, one might counter that no “true” Democrat opposes Obama care. Or with Global Warming: no true scientist doubts global warming.

This is solidarity by dismissing the exceptions as irrelevant.

Here is a recent example of changing a label to save the argument: "Avoid the term 'global warming'," Thomas Friedman says. "I prefer the term global weirding.'”
How does one disprove Global Weirding? How can one measure and claim that the world is more weird this year than last!

Bottom Line

Here is Wikipedia’s list of Fallacies:

And a few related articles:

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The State of the Internet

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”-Eric Schmidt, Google CEO has published a beautiful series of graphs called the State of the Internet. Here is a summary of the results

- An equal number of men and women use the Internet (74%)

- Age matters. 93% of young adults 18-29 use the Internet while only 38% of senior citizens do.

- Income matters. Those with more money have faster Internet access.

- Education matters. Users without a high school education: only 39% while 94% of college graduates use the Internet.

- The most surprising graphic to me was the frequency of Internet use, pictured above. Only 38% of those surveyed say they use the Internet several times a day. %21 once a day. The majority are infrequent users. This explains my sister who does not check her email very often.

- Laptops are now in 46% of all homes.

- Scandinavia has the best Internet penetration into homes. Nothing else to do in the dark, cold, winter perhaps? The US is #5 after Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Netherlands.

- The US is horribly behind in Internet speed. Appx 5 mbps vs 61 mbps in Japan. (mbps = megabits per second)

Bottom Line

I’ve been an Internet user since the 1980’s when my college, Michigan State, gave everyone access. Then AOL in the early 1990’s, then Netscape and now mostly IE. I consider it one of humankind’s greatest inventions.

I used to buy reference books or seek out information at reference sections of libraries. But informational books can quickly become dated. Now I take for granted the easy access to global information on any subject – for example, yesterday I was looking for vendors of Pinewood Derby tracks for Cub Scouts and the costs. Did you know tracks come in wood, plastic and metal with laser controlled times on the finish line?

For more interesting Internet facts check out which describes 15 firsts like the first email, first spam, first web site, etc.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What are your neighbors buying?

"Some couples go over their budgets very carefully every month; others just go over them."-Sally Poplin

If you have a family budget (and you really, really should have a family budget), then you’ll appreciate a new web site that allows you to see what your “neighbors” are spending (in aggregate). The site is at and is called EverybodysMoney. The photo at right is a screen shot of the site looking at spending for Stamford, CT, where I work. The values show monthly spending for the “average” neighbor.

$1,668 Family & Health (Pets, Insurance, Healthcare, School, Charity)
$1,139 Shopping (General, Hobbies, Office Supplies, Clothing, Electronics)
$1,022 Food & Drink (Dining out, Groceries)
$ 892 House & Home (Utilities, Phone, Home Improvement, Home Maintenance)
$ 659 Getting Around (Gas, Auto expenses)
$ 455 Travel & Leisure (Commuting trains, air fare, hotels, entertainment & cable TV)

Curiously Rent/Mortgage is not included anywhere.

In each bubble you can hover the mouse and click “Go deep” to get subcategories. Hover over the subcats and you can “See Stats” for greater detail. For example the top Merchant under Dining Out in Stamford is Starbucks! You also have the option of changing the location, looking only at homes with X kids, or only at homes in a particular income bracket.

This site is marked Beta and the data set is skimpy in places. I tried to look at Ossining, NY and could only get results for all of Westchester county.

Bottom Line

A tool like this can help you to discover that your spending is higher than average for your region. If yes, you may want to cut back. But don’t get too smug if all your expenses are “average”. I added $1000 per month to the Stamford numbers above for rent and got $6,835 spent per month. Multiply by 12 and this means $82,000 per year in EXPENSES. Assume 30% for taxes and you have to earn $120,000 per year to be “average” in Stamford.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Bad Science

“While human-induced global warming is not going to turn present-day Earth into present-day Mars, global warming is dire enough that our most distinguished scientists recently concluded that as many as 1 million species on the planet could be extinct by 2050 if affairs do not change.”- Jay Inslee

When Former VP Al Gore Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, he shared the prize with the “distinguished scientists” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their published reports have been filled with stories of the Himalayan glaciers melting, African farm lands drying up, rain forests disappearing, polar bears without ice, and so on. Now it appears that much of the evidence for this is of low quality or non-existent. Though ignored by the U.S. Mainstream Media, the papers in London have daily front-page news of IPCC scandals. See The Great IPCC Meltdown Continues.

1. The IPCC has claimed that global warming could cut rain-fed north African crop production by up to 50% by 2020. Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, have repeated this in speeches. Now Professor Chris Field, the lead author of the IPCC’s climate impact team, tells reporters that he can find “no evidence” to support the claim.

2. IPCC officials admit mistake over melting Himalayan glaciers ...The claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was based upon a flimsy chain of events. The source was not peer-reviewed scientific literature – but a media interview with a scientist conducted in 1999. An offhand quote by a scientist was picked up the World Wildlife Conservancy and then became “common knowledge”. India is so upset that it has set up it’s own scientific group to study the glaciers since it has lost all faith in the IPCC.

3. The Dutch government has demanded that the IPCC correct its erroneous assertion that half of the Netherlands is below sea level. Actually, it’s only about a quarter.

4. An IPCC prediction about the impact of sea level increases on people living in the Nile Delta was taken from an unpublished student dissertation.

5. The IPCC report contained inaccurate data about generating energy from waves and about the cost of nuclear power (this information was apparently taken without being checked directly from a website supported by the nuclear power industry).

Now scientists make mistakes, sometimes really big mistakes (like seeing canals on Mars). But the purpose of the IPCC is to peer-review other scientists and separate the wheat from the chaff. To identify climate claims that are accurate and true so the United Nations can act upon facts instead of opinions. They have failed miserably in this job.

Bottom Line

I’m not opposed to the idea of global warming. I am opposed to bad science. When you ask nations to change the global way of life and spend billions or even trillions of dollars, you had better have your facts right. You must accountable and completely open to scrutiny and verification. Instead we’ve seen refusal to release data in FOI requests, data deletion, loss of original data sets, loss of verifying documentation, and so on.

I fear we are not seeing science but rather scientists with an advocacy agenda. Some may have the best of motives at heart, but others have profited greatly with millions in dollars of research grants to “save the glaciers”. Either way, the climate scientists have crossed a line and their unscrupulous behavior may weaken public respect for science for a generation.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

What’s in your First Aid kit?

“It would be terrible if the Red Cross Bloodmobile got into an accident. No, wait. That would be good because if anyone needed it, the blood would be right there.”-unknown

For the Cub Scout Readyman activity, boys are required to inspect a First Aid kit and explain the contents. So what exactly should they expect to find inside? If you buy a First Aid kit with “100 pieces”, you can bet 80-90% of the content is just generic “Band-Aids” in various sizes. A kit should contain so much more.

First, a short digression. Do you know the difference between a dressing and a bandage? A dressing covers the wound – typically an absorbent gauze. A bandage holds the dressing on the wound and keeps it from falling off. It could be tape or an elastic wrap. A Band-Aid is a product by Johnson and Johnson that combines a dressing with an adhesive bandage.

So yes, item #1 in a kit needs to be several sizes of adhesive bandages to cover your basic cuts and scratches. These can be bought cheaply in bulk at dollar stores or drug stores.

For large wounds, buy several packets of sterile gauze (four inch squares are best). Again buy a large package and share with friends. You’ll also need medical adhesive tape or elastic bandages to hold down the gauze. I favor elastic bandages since these can also be used as wraps for a sprained foot or knee or hand or elbow. You might need to include a small pair of scissors if your bandage roll resists tearing strips off.

Before applying the dressing, you’ll want to clean small wounds with triple-antibiotic ointment. Don’t try to clean or wash large gaping or profusely bleeding wounds. Cover large wounds immediately, apply pressure to stop the bleeding, and see a doctor.

Clean your hands with an antiseptic hand cleaner before (and after) applying First Aid. For First Aid kits in your car or other situations where you might be aiding a stranger, wear rubber gloves to prevent blood borne disease contamination. Include a plastic bag or garbage bag to safely dispose of blood soaked items.

If you’re trained in CPR, add a barrier mask to your public kit to block germs (and vomit) when doing mouth-to-mouth.

Don’t forget to include items for pain relief like insect bite swabs (Hydrocortisone to prevent itching) and child-safe acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Aspirin is discouraged for children under 19 as it can cause Reye’s Syndrome. Chewable aspirin is encouraged for adults who may be suffering a heart attack.

Tweezers are essential for removing splinters but potentially harmful for insect bite/stings. Scrape away, never tweeze, a bee stringer. Tweezing will push more venom into the body. Likewise use tweezers with care when pulling away a tick. Pull gently and slowly to avoid breaking off the tick’s head and leaving that embedded in the skin to cause an infection. Never squeeze the tick's body when it's attached as this will push more tick germs into the bloodstream increasing the chance of Lyme disease.

Include one or more large triangular bandages (like the Scout neckerchief) as a splint for injuries. You can make these yourself out of old sheets.

For extra credit, include an instant cold pack. These can reduce swelling with sprains.

In cold climates, an instant heat pack might save you from frostbite. Stuff it in your shoes or between layers of gloves. Do not apply directly to skin.

For kits outside the house, add a space blanket. Keep victims warm and covered after trauma to prevent shock.

If you have the space, add some Calamine lotion for Poison Ivy.

Last but not least, include a good First Aid book (or booklet) that you like and can understand.

Bottom Line

Your need at least one well equipped First Aid kit in your house. Another for each car. Your workplace should have a kit (required by law?) - do you know where it is?

Customize your kits for your activities. If you camp or hike or play sports you'll want more protection from insects, poison ivy, sprains, broken bones, etc.


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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where the People Live

"An election cannot give a country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as two peas in the same pod"-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Years ago I worked with an Irish programmer who could not see the difference between the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties. You're crazy I told him and then pointed out the differences as I saw them. Now a decade later I'm less sure that he was wrong. Regardless of who's in office we see the same behavior of graft, corruption, lobbying, and business as usual. Not much changes.

But that is not what I wanted to talk about today. The site has published a map for Electoral College reform to avoid the "bucket effect"; i.e. if you win California by just one vote you get all 55 electoral votes of the state. The reform map creates 50 new electoral districts of equal population (5.6 million) - if you win the district, you get that one vote. I do not see this happening. A much easier system is percentage distribution- if you get 55% of the vote you get 55% of the electoral votes. Of course if this happens then there is not much point to the electoral college and you can just use the popular vote to elect.

But once again, I'm off topic. What impressed me about the map is the population distribution within America. Look at how much land is needed to gather 5 million people in the mid-west and mountain west. While California is chopped into 6 zones . It's hard to see on the map, but cities like LA, and San Francisco are huge population zones onto themselves. FakeIsTheNewReal has another graphic comparing relative populations of states - but with a twist. Metropolitan regions are pulled out of each state and included in the comparison on their own merit. The top three US population areas are NY metro, LA metro, and Chicago metro, with the state of Texas taking fourth (after Houston, Dallas, etc are removed). California is fifth and to my surprise, North Carolina is sixth. There must be a lot of people in NC outside of large cities. Sounds pleasantly bucolic.

Bottom Line

While I live in a crowded region of a blue state (NY metro), my roots come from an uncrowded red state (Idaho), so my conservative views are in the minority here. Ironically my father, who has retired to his Idaho home, has become very liberal - making him a minority view there. I believe the reality of the blue-red political maps (metro areas vote liberal, "country" regions vote conservative). I'm just not convinced that either political party is actually representing the views of either red or blue. I also fear that our electoral college system is biased in favor of metropolitan zones. The upper half of NY state is red/conservative/country but is nearly always overwhelmed in votes by the blue NY city region. So blue takes all and the votes from upstate NY have no influence at all at the national level.


The Amazon book review for "In Search of Self-Governance" by Scott W. Rasmussen shares the notion about our two political parties acting too much alike:

"Today, Americans are united. United in the belief that our political system is broken, that politicians are corrupt, and that neither major political party has the answers. Add to this the growing disdain for the unholy alliance between the largest corporations and our government, and there's a lot of frustration festering in our country."

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bottled Water?

“Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”-Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Hungarian Biochemist, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine)

When creating food storage, the 800-pound gorilla is not the 800 lbs of wheat. That is fairly easy to buy and maintain. The real difficulty is the 800+ pounds of water you’ll need. The bare minimum amount of water for survival is one quart or liter per day. This is clean drinking water and does not include teeth brushing, washing, toilet flushing, etc. Many sites recommend 2 quarts per day per person. FEMA recommends a gallon a day per person – rightly assuming that most of us are not used to strict water rationing.

Assume a family of 4 and FEMA guidelines – so 4 gallons a day for the family. A one week supply, 28 gallons, would weigh 28 * 8.35 lbs = 234 lbs. A water supply for one month is just over 1000 lbs.

How can you store this much water? A friend of ours had a clever idea. Just like the song, “99 bottles of beer on the wall”, the wall of their garage was filled with 2-liter soda bottles that had been emptied, cleaned and filled with water. The plastic in these bottles is extremely durable, unlike gallon milk jugs that start to degrade and leak within a year. Keep the bottle out of direct sunlight and discourage bacteria growth by adding a few drops of bleach; 2-3 drops per liter so 4-6 drops in a soda bottle.

Another obvious solution is buying bottled water. But you’re actually better off saving tap water as described above. Bottled water costs four times as much as gasoline and is just as safe as spinach, hamburger, peanut butter, and other foods “regulated” by the FDA. There has been safely recalls of bottled water in the past. Your local drinking water is frequently tested and heavily regulated by stake and federal regulations.

Bottom Line

Here are some resources for more information on water storage.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010


"I don't excercise. If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor." - Joan Rivers

For Cub Scouts tonight I'll need to discuss stretching exercises. It's been ages since I've done any stretching (to my body's dismay) so I did some research. Here's what I found.

Year's ago my wife & I attended a fun class called the Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. He recommends A Complete Four-Minute Fitness Routine every morning to get one revved up for the day. One part I remember fondly is a full body shakedown with random wiggling to loosen joints and muscles.

The site Corporate Yoga has pictures of stretches you can do in your cubicle and at your computer.

Fairview Health has pictures of classic stretches for the major muscles. I have unusually tight calf muscles and should be doing the hamstring and calf stretch more often. Standing on my toes is no problem but pulling my toes up, or leg lifts, not so easy.

Bottom Line

When should you stretch? As a child I was taught to stretch or pull the muscles (like Fairview above) before exercising. Modern medicine says this can tear "cold" muscle and cause injury and worsen athletic performance. Instead perform dynamic warmup like Arm circles and Trunk rotations to "warm" up muscles and increase the blood flow and oxygenation. Exercise. Then do "static" pulling stretches afterwards to prevent cramping.

A SportsInjury site allows for cold stretching but start slow, NO BOUNCING, 30 seconds max per stretch, and build up gently to harder muscle pulls.


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Monday, February 15, 2010

The New Ruling Class

“People who are supposed to serve the public have become a privileged elite that exploits political power for financial gain and special perks. Because of its political power, this interest group has rigged the game so there are few meaningful checks on its demands. Government employees now receive far higher pay, benefits, and pensions than the vast majority of Americans working in the private sector. Even when they are incompetent or abusive, they can be fired only after a long process and only for the most grievous offenses.” - Steven Greenhut

When people speak of "the ruling class" they usually refer to wealthy CEOs or other private individuals. But in the article, Class War: How public servants became our masters, published on, Steven Greenhut describes how public servants are now "the ruling class" with little hope of change. They give themselves perks, top pay, great pensions, and keep hiring more staff. For example, if Obama Healthcare is passed, there will be 183 new government boards mandated by law. Greenhut explains,

Bigger government means more government employees. Those employees then become a permanent lobby for continual government growth. The nation may have reached critical mass; the number of government employees at every level may have gotten so high that it is politically impossible to roll back the bureaucracy, rein in the costs, and restore lost freedoms.


The United States had 2.3 state and local government employees per 100 citizens in 1946 and has 6.5 state and local government employees per 100 citizens now. In 1947, Hodges writes, 78 percent of the national income went to the private sector, 16 percent to the federal sector, and 6 percent to the state and local government sector. Now 54 percent of the economy is private, 28 percent goes to the feds, and 18 percent goes to state and local governments.

Since 1946 the population of the US has increased by 115%. The number of state and federal workers has increased 492% over the same time period. A large government is not sustainable as California and Illinois have learned. Both states are bankrupt and unable to pay its bills. A significant portion of the bill is pensions to public servants. See the article for examples of pension abuses.

Bottom Line

“It’s a two-tier system in which the rulers are making steady gains at the expense of the ruled. The predictable results: Higher taxes, eroded public services, unsustainable levels of debt, and massive roadblocks to reforming even the poorest performing agencies and school systems. If this system is left to grow unchecked, we will end up with a pale imitation of the free society envisioned by the Founders.”


Here's a chart showing the increase in Federal spending, not in total dollars, or inflation adjusted dollars, but as a % of the National Gross Domestic Product. In 1960 the government spent 17-18% of all dollars created through private industry. The percentage now is 25-26%.

Related Stories

MICHAEL BARONE: Public-sector Unions Bleed Taxpayers.
Recession Chugs On, Except In Government.

CHANGE: Unionized Rhode Island Teachers Refuse To Work 25 Minutes More Per Day, So Town Fires All Of Them. “The teachers at the high school make $70,000-$78,000, as compared to a median income in the town of $22,000. This exemplifies a nationwide trend in which public sector workers make far more than their private-sector counterparts (with better benefits).”

UPDATE: Public Workers Feel No Pain In Recession.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A lesson from Greece

"Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts" - regarding the Trojan Horse from the Iliad

The nation of Greece is teetering on bankruptcy and Europe is wondering what to do. Bail them out or cut the strings that bind so Greece does not pull down the entire European Union.

Three articles today caught my eye:

Super-wealthy investors move billions out of Greece

One way to "balance" the budget is to raise taxes, and in particular to tax the wealthy. The rich are no fools and are pulling their money out of the country while they can.

Greece ‘Dress Rehearsal’ for U.S., Deutsche Bank Says

What is happening in Greece is similar to California and soon perhaps the US itself.

Maybe Greece Should Go Bankrupt

I like this article. Capitalism is based upon survival of the fittest. When there is no penalty for failure there is no incentive for progress and efficiency. Everyone gets fat and lazy.

"Bailing out Greece will reward over-spending politicians and make future fiscal crises more likely. In a four-year period between 2005 and 2009, Greek politicians expanded the burden of government spending from an already excessive level of 43.8 percent of GDP to an even more excessive level of 51.3 percent of GDP. Subsidies are rampant, the public sector is bloated, civil service pay is way too high, and entitlements are wildly unsustainable. A fiscal crisis – with no escape options – is probably the only hope of reversing these disastrous policies. So why, then, would it make sense for Germany and other nations to provide an escape option?"
"Bailing out Greece will reward greedy and short-sighted interest groups, particularly overpaid government workers. Greece is in trouble because the the people riding in society’s wagon assumed that there would always be enough chumps to pull the wagon. In reality, Greece is turning into a real-world version of Atlas Shrugged. Government has become such a burden that the job creators and wealth generators have given up and/or moved their money out of the country. Should taxpayers in other nations reward the greed and narcissism of Greece’s interest groups by being forced to pull the wagon instead?"
Bottom Line

Maybe Greece Should Go Bankrupt provides an apt conclusion:

I have sometimes warned audiences of what will happen when a majority of voters in a country or a state become dependent on government. In such an environment, it obviously becomes much more difficult to put together an electoral coalition that will lead to fiscal changes that shrink the burden of government and curtail the predatory state. This is what has happened to Greece, and what is soon going to happen in other European nations (and, barring reform, what will eventually happen in the United States).

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cells phones In Haiti

What we have to do is deliver to people the best and freshest most relevant information possible. We think of Twitter as it's not a social network, but it's an information network. It tells people what they care about as it is happening in the world.—Evan Williams, CEO and founder of Twitter notes that two weeks after the Haiti earthquake, food and water were in short supply in Port au Prince, BUT it was possible to recharge your cellphone. Enterprising individuals hooked up car batteries to power strips and were selling phone recharges for 40 cents. This is a vital service since most electrical lines and phone lines are still out of order. A cell phone lets you call for help, find out the status of others and find out what's open or available after a disaster.

Amazingly the cell phone network was partially restored within two days of the earthquake. Voice does not always get through but text messaging usually works. Hence the large volume of Tweets coming out of Haiti. Texting uses less bandwidth than voice and often works even when voice lines are overloaded.

Bottom Line

It looks like I'll need to learn how to use Twitter.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Flash Crowds

"Four short words sum up what has lifted most successful individuals above the crowd: a little bit more. They did all that was expected of them and a little bit more."- A. Lou Vickery (American business author)

Have you ever been stuck in traffic only to learn that it was caused by rubber-neckers slowing to observe an accident in traffic going the other way? People love to gawk.

In 1973, Larry Niven wrote a novella called "Flash Crowd" that describes the impact of having free and instantaneous teleport machines. When something novel occurs, say a skyscraper building fire, tens of thousands of gawkers would appear from around the world to watch. Criminal pickpockets, taking advantage of a crowd, would join them. Naturally authorities were not amused as the instant crowd hampers rescue efforts and causes additional problems.

In the real world we may lack star-trek transporters but we do have the Internet. If you are a small blog (like mine) and get linked to by one of the “big guys”, the effects of an instant crowd can be overwhelming. Being Slashdotted may cause an Instalanche on your Web server or put you into higher fees with your service provider for exceeding a volume limit.

Interestingly the effects of Flash Crowds are no longer limited to imaginary worlds and virtual worlds. With the Social Networking of Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberries, instant events can be announced and hordes appear at the designated site. This idea was used on TV to conceal a murder in CSI: Miami "Murder in a Flash".

The Flash Crowd effect was also observed recently in Big Bear Valley of Highland, California. Roads to this ski resort area were closed for days by a big snowfall. No deliveries were possible and residents & guests got by with stocks on hand. When the roads reopened, supply trucks were hampered by thousands of skiers and snowboarders clogging the roads, hoping to be first on the virgin snow. When resorts ran dangerously low on fuel and food, officials took the unusual step of closing the roads to tourists, allowing only delivery trucks and emergency vehicles until the resorts were restocked.

Bottom Line

Crowds can be exhilarating but they can also be dangerous. I recommend keeping a safe distance away. When driving for example, my wife & I try to avoid driving within a cluster of cars. We’ll pull ahead or drop behind to avoid the pack.

On the other hand, a crowd may be responding to something you’re not aware of. Find out the reason for the crowd. Cartoonist/author James Thurber wrote a story called “The Day the Dam Broke”. A man is running and muttering, “damn, damn.” Someone overhears and begins running also. When asked why, this second person responds, “I’m running for my life. The dam has broke.” So others start running, spreading the rumor and soon the whole town is running in panic from a non-existent tidal wave.

On a more serious note, on 9/11 in New York City, my workplace at Rockefeller Center was evacuated as a possible target site and everyone was told to go home. On my way to Grand Central train station, I’m the only person walking south. Hundreds of people are walking north. Despite feeling like a salmon going upstream, I never stopped to ask why so many people were headed north. Later I learned that the Mayor declared a mandatory evacuation of lower Manhattan. Some 300,000-500,000 people moved themselves to safer locations.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Two Charts

Today I have two items with nothing in common except both struck me as interesting statistics.

1. Which adult American film actress was the highest paid movie star of the year four times?





Did you guess Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff?





Better known as Doris Day, this actress was a top-ten movie earner in years 1951-1952 and from 1961-1966. She was the highest paid movie star in 1960, 62, 63 and 64. This puts her 6th place overall, tied with John Wayne and Shirley Temple who were also were the top star for four years.

Who's #1 on the list? Another surprise, at least to me. Tom Cruise has 7 years at the top of the pay scale. There is a four-way tie for 2nd place with 5 years as #1: Bing Crosby, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, & Tom Hanks

'I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.'- actor Oscar Levant

2. The second statistic is an unusual graph at Axiis (go to the source to see the chart key). It shows the percentage market share of the major Web Browsers from 2002 to 2009. Normally one would show this as a bar graph or multiple pie charts. While this chart is clever I'm leaning towards not liking it. I find it very difficult to "see" the relative size of each browser and it's hard to "see" if a given percentage is 30% or 40%? The original image at Axiis is interactive; as you hover over a band, the percentage is shown.

Bottom Line

I love numbers. This weekend I met a man who does actuary science, the statistics of accidents and mortality. I explained I had a great admiration for statisticians but also a wariness that it was easy to mislead with stats. You can make convincing false arguments by manipulating the data.

For example, the Doris Day numbers cited above are a bit of fluke. She may have been #1 some year by just $1 over the next star or missed being #1 by the same amount. The yearly rankings don't tell us how much she won (or lost) by. It's a classic winner take all scenario much like the electoral college in US presidential elections. A President might have just 50.001% of the vote but take 49 of the 50 states (losing only the home state of his opponent).

How could star power be more accurately measured? Two ideas come to mind.

1. Measure their total earnings in inflation adjusted dollars. Possible problem? Have stars always earned the same percentage of a movie's gross? Like modern free-agent sports stars, did salaries at some point leap upwards (way above inflation) so that modern stars demand a higher share of ticket sales and hence skew the statistics?

2. Assign weights to the top ten rankings. Top Ten is absolute and immune to the salary scale spikes describe above. To avoid the arbitrariness of counting only #1, assign ten points for #1, nine points for #2, and so on down to 1 point for #10. Then add the points and see who comes out on top. This gives 2nd placers a chance to come out on top.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Looting OK?

“The truth is, a terrible tragedy like this brings out the best in most people, brings out the worst in some people. We're trying to deal with looters as ruthlessly as we can get our hands on them.”- Haley Barbour, Mississippi Governor

There is an opinion piece by Author Rebecca Solnit that I have mixed feelings about. Her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster describes how charity prevails and people mostly cooperate during natural disasters. In a recent opinion article entitled, When the Media is the Disaster, she lambastes the media for focusing on the negative human events during disasters, looking for crime and abuses and making things sound much worse than they are for publicity’s sake. Think back on Hurricane Katrina the horror stories of murders, gangs, rapes, etc published by the media; now known to be false.

I’ll agree that the media will do anything for profit and making mountains out of molehills is their common stock and trade. But the gist of her article focuses upon “looting”, a word Solnit would like to see banned. She points to “looters” carrying dehydrated milk or bolts of cloth, who are trying to help their families under extreme circumstances. Fair enough. But she chooses not to see the looters who are grabbing TV sets and other high-priced items from stores.

Years ago when I was a teenager, I decided to go on a hike up a “mountain” on the spur of the moment, completely unprepared. When I reached a building at the top I was extremely thirsty and desperate for water. I did not see any people, or a water facet, but I did see a glass of bottled water. I knew I had to have that water but stealing is wrong. So I compromised and left some money behind in place of the water.

It would be nice if looters returned after a disaster to recompense shopkeepers. I hope this has happened but I’ve never heard of such a thing. Lack of preparedness (i.e. no food storage) can force one to take extreme steps. But where does one draw the line? If it’s ok to steal from a store to feed my family, how about stealing from another family? Would you kill another to save your family? What price will you pay for survival?

Bottom Line

I’m reminded of Les Misérables where Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison: five for stealing bread for his starving sister and his family, and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts. The author, Victor Hugo, wants us to see the injustice of this, to have pity on the looter (who is afterall a very good man). But can we condone any crime done by the poor just because they are poor?

What are the alternatives? Food kitchens & homeless shelters? These are often shunned by the poor themselves as too dirty and dangerous, filled with drug users, alcoholics, etc who really do not want to take care of themselves. They feed the starving but don’t cure the problem.

I favor free education and training programs – the “teach a man to fish” philosophy. Also workfare projects like Goodwill or Deseret where the unskilled are fed and taught basic workskills.

This meshes with my uneasiness over the relief efforts in Haiti. Yes they need food & water now but what happens next year and the year after? People can feel virtuous that they gave clothes (which are not wanted by the way – too expensive to transport) but ignore the long-term poverty that has existed for years and will be even worse now. An entire infrastructure needs to be built in a country that was too poor or too corrupt to build one for itself in the past. I’d like to hear and see more attention paid to long-term recovery efforts for the country. Or will the world walk away after the Haitians are fed and leave them in their poverty?

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Friday, February 5, 2010

A Late Turkey Dinner

"Most turkeys taste better the day after, my mother's tasted better the day before"-Rita Rudner

Now this is an unusual story, “Wife who went to buy Christmas turkey and got stuck in the snow returns home... a month later”. Kay Ure left her home in Cape Wrath, Scotland (the most northwesterly point of the UK) to buy a Christmas turkey in Inverness 11 miles away. But she was unable to return when snow & freezing winds made the roads too icy for travel. Mrs Ure lived with a friend for a month before her husband managed to bring her home by boat.

And curiously it was the husband who seems to have suffered the worst for this. He had to live on the contents of his cupboards, baked beans and pasta, for a month. [ASIDE – see why food storage is important!]

Two weeks into his isolation, he ran out of heat and power when his coal fueled electricity generator blew up. Fortunately he had a battery powered radio for weather reports and logs and fireplace for heat.

Bottom Line

You never know when an “emergency” incident will occur. Ice storms are common the world round though usually not as severe as what the Ures encountered. How well could you get buy if stranded in your house for a week?

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crayola's Law

“We could learn a lot from crayons; some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull, while others bright, some have weird names, but they all have learned to live together in the same box.”-unknown

I couldn't resist this charming chart of crayon colors over the years from Wonderfully done!

Bottom Line

Crayola's Law: The number of colors doubles every 28 years.

Corollary: The taste however remains the same.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Financial Advice for Baby Boomers

“The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off.”-Abe Lemons

The financial advice you should follow changes as you age. When you're young and single you can afford to take risks. When you're married with children you want you be more conservative with the family savings. When you reach 50 it's time to be ultra safe so you don't destroy the nest egg that has to last you another 40 years. smartSpending has these tips for Baby Boomers over the age of 50.

  1. Get out of debt.
    Good advice at any age but you really, really want to be debt free by the time you retire. What option will you have if you lose your house because you can not pay the mortgage at age 60? Good luck finding a new job.

  2. Maximize retirement savings
    At age 50 you're in the final inning for building up your retirement.

  3. Beware of big expenses that might drain your savings
    Do you still have kids in college or a child not yet married?

  4. Seek career freedom
    Look for a job you'll be happy to work part time, on your terms, as an alternative to retiring. Most of the tour guides my wife works with are post-retirement and do the job for fun and spare cash.

  5. Think about where you will retire
    Pick a state and look at the tax impact. For example, Florida is popular because there is no state income tax.

Bottom Line

Don't wait until the last minute to plan your retirement. Begin early.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's your data

"God heals and the doctor takes the fee" - Benjamin Franklin

CNN has a must-read story "Patients demand: 'Give us our damned data'". It describes how individuals suffer while hospitals dither or refuse to transfer patient data to another hospital.

CNN recommends these tips.

  1. Know your rights
    The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, gives hospitals and doctors 30 days to respond to a request for medical records, although some state laws provide for a shorter time frame. In urgent situations, such as a transfer to another hospital, it's customary for hospitals to move more quickly.
  2. Be prepared to make your request in writing.
  3. Confirm that the hospital receives your request.
  4. If you have a choice, select a medical provider who uses electronic medical records. These can be emailed to you or accessed via a secure web site.
  5. Get the new hospital or doctor to help you by having them make the request.
  6. Remember the limits of the law
    Your doctor doesn't have to give you access to to information he or she thinks might cause you or someone else substantial harm. Some states allow even more information to be kept from a patient. For example, the New York Department of Health Web site says doctors may deny you access to "personal notes and observations" they've made in your record.
  7. Get angry - be firm, don't accept no.
    You may need to bring in an attorney.
  8. File a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bottom Line

It's your data. You paid for it.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Geologic Change

"I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down."
-song lyrics, Carole King

When Charles Darwin was a naturalist, scientists were just starting to think in "geologic" time of million and later billions of years. Prior to that "church" time held sway with the idea that theh Earth was created ex-nihilo (out of nothing) by God for Adam about 4004 BC. It was a classic battle of Church vs Science and it would be nice to say that science won. Geologic time is the modern standard but there is still a very active Creationist movement that still believes the earth is only 6000 years old.

But a century after Darwin a funny thing happened. Science became closed minded and refused to accept any claim of "catestrophic" events- insisting only upon gradual change. But one geologist thought otherwise. In the Eastern half of Washington state is the channeled scablands, a region with valleys, ripples, potholes and other features not consistent with gradual river action nor glaciers. Geologist J Harlen Bretz hypothesized that a giant lake, created by melting glaciers after the last ice age, burst open and emptied in one massize flood creating the scablands. His fellow geologists thought he was nuts and a debate raged for over 30 years. Finally he as vindicated in the 1970's as being right and awarded the Penrose Medal in 1979, the highest honor in Earth Science.

Another example of fast change is the volcano Paricutin in Mexico. In 1943 a farmer noticed a glowing crack in his corn field. Within a week there was a volcanic cone 5 stories tall. By the end of a year the volcano was over 1o00 feet high and had destroyed several nearby villages.

In 2005 a volcano in Ethiopia created a 35 mile long crack in the earth in just as few days. If the crack continues to grow towards the Ethiopian Sea, one day we may witness an amazing flood as the Indian Ocean pours into this new rift.

Bottom Line

Many of us are fooled into thinking that change is something that occurs slowly. But a house fire can go from a spark to raging in just a minute with the right (wrong?) materials. A tornado or earthquake can strike without warning. There is no way to avoid these disasters but you can prepare for the aftermath with backup plans and offsite storage.

72-hour Kits
Offsite Storage
All your eggs in one basket
Which phone to use after a storm?
September Is National Preparedness Month

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