Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hamburger Recall

“What good does it do to sit at the counter when you cannot afford a hamburger?"
- Martin Luther King, Jr
I'm dismayed by the number of recalls I see for unsafe products and food. The latest to catch my eye is tons of hamburger meat processed in Pennsylvania. Consumerist.com has the details:
A few tons of ground beef from a meat processor in Pennsylvania have been recalled over fear of possible E. coli contamination. As of early Monday morning, the only retail outlets identified as possibly having received the ground beef were BJ's Wholesale clubs in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
Since the recalled beef has been repackaged and rebranded it will be tricky to identify. Hopefully the repackaging included the "use/freeze by" date of "07/01/10," and the product code "W69032." Although the use by date has passed, the USDA is concerned that some customers may still have the tainted meat sitting in their freezer.

Bottom Line

See the Consumerist article for a list of stores impacted.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Hurricane Katrina - 5 years later

Last week was the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and there have been many retrospectives of the good and bad that occurred. I particularly liked this one from Instapundit of lessons learned two weeks after the event.

1. Don’t build your city below sea level: Sooner or later it will flood.

2. Order evacuations early: even 48 hours advance notice is too late if you want to get everyone out.

3. Have — and use — a plan for evacuating people who can’t get out on their own: New Orleans apparently had a plan, but didn’t use it.

4. Have an emergency relocation plan: designated places far enough away to be safe, but close enough to evacuate people to.

5. Make critical infrastructure survivable: one of the key failures of Katrina was the collapse of the New Orleans Police Department’s radio system - they could not communicate after the hurricane.

6. Stock supplies and prepare facilities: The Superdome didn’t have adequate food, water, and toilet facilities, even though everybody knew it was going to be a shelter of last resort.

7. Be realistic: In the event of a major disaster, streets may be impassable and public services could be interrupted or taxed beyond their limits. Therefore, everyone must know how to provide for their own needs for an extended period of time.

8. Put somebody in charge: Right now it’s mostly state governors, but this needs to be made inescapably plain to everyone.

The webpage has more details and wonderful comments from readers.

Bottom Line

The media (and Democrats) love to blame Bush for the failures after Katrina. But look at the list above. None of these topics are Federal in scope. They are failures at the city, regional, and state level. That is where preparedness begins and where it will succeed or fail.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

DIY Dunces

“It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project.” - Napoleon Hill
The Daily Mail of London had discovered that our latest generation is unskilled. "Do it yourself? Not likely if you're under 35. More than half are DIY dunces who can't even rewire a plug and have to rely on parents"

"More than half of young people lack the skills they need to maintain their homes, with many relying on their parents to carry out basic tasks, a survey suggested today.

Around 50 per cent of people aged under 35 admitted they did not know how to rewire a plug, while 54 per cent did not know how to bleed a radiator and 63 per cent said they would not attempt to put up wallpaper, according to Halifax Home Insurance.

Other basic jobs, such as putting up shelves, were beyond 45 per cent of those questioned, while 36 per cent said they would not even attempt to do gardening themselves."
Bottom Line

It's important to teach basic life skills and involve youth in house project. Boy Scouts can also help with teaching skills. My wife is more handy than I. She was quite unimpressed when I managed to break a copper pipe joint in our plumbing by trying to remove an outdoor faucet incorrectly. We are both dreading calling a plumber to fix it.
 "The study also found that when the under-35s do attempt to do a job themselves and it goes wrong, it costs nearly three times as much to fix as problems caused by other age groups."

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Google Earth

The letter A
"I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company."
-Coca Cola ad song from 1971
If you like maps, you'll love the web application, Google Earth. It allows you a bird's eye view of much of the planet from various heights (some regions are more detailed than others.) The app has been put to many uses.
  • Searching the earth for items that look like letters of the alphabet (so you can spell with geography?)
    (in Australia) (Netherlands) (British hedgerows)
  • A cousin of my commented on Facebook about using Google Earth flight simulator to "fly" through canyons. Not easy, he said.
  • The town of Riverhead in Long Island uses Google Earth to locate residents who have pools but have not paid for a pool permit. They have collected $75,000 in fees so far.
  • Looking for undiscovered meteor craters (like deep in the Sahara Desert).
Bottom Line

As with all technology, it can be used for good or evil. Security officials fear that terrorists will use Google Earth to scout out a location and plan an attack with accurate images. For this reason some locations on Earth are deliberately blurred by Google Earth.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Food Storage, part 2

"Many more people could ride out the storm-tossed waves in their economic lives if they had their … supply of food … and were debt-free. Today we find that many have followed this counsel in reverse: they have at least a year’s supply of debt and are food-free.” - Thomas S. Monson
After promoting a one-year supply of food storage for decades, in 2007 the Mormon church lowered the bar and now recommends acquiring a 3-month supply instead. The one-year target was just too difficult and many Latter-Day Saints never even tried to reach it. Now the advice is to build slow and steady over time and within budget. For those that reach 3-months, they are encouraged to keep stockpiling for "long-term" but long-term is not specified as to how long.

Shortly after I was married, my wife and I were able to build up a 3-month supply using pasta, canned foods and other easy to buy items. We talked about 1-year but didn't seriously try for it until the Y2K scare when bulk food became readily avaiable. I don't know if we still have a one-year supply or not. We have not updated the inventory in quite a while.

Planning for 3-months or 90 days is so much easier.
  1. Pick 9 favorite recipes each for breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner that can be made from food storage. See http://preparedldsfamily.blogspot.com/2009/06/3-month-food-storage-90-menu-ideas.html for ideas.
  2. Figure out the amount of ingredients for each recipe to feed your family.
  3. Multiply by 10. (This means adding a zero after the amounts.)
  4. Add up the total ingredients and figure out what you need to buy. For example if you need 1000 tsp of salt, how many salt containers will that be? A tsp of salt is typically 6g according to Google. The common 26 oz salt container is 737 grams which means 737 / 6 = 122 tsp of salt per container. So 1000 tsp / 122 = 8 full containers and a little extra. I'd buy nine to allow for wastage and spillage.
  5. Begin stocking up on supplies until you have have enough to make each of the 27 recipes 10 times.
  6. Use the supplies and replace them to keep them fresh.
  7. Don't forget to include water for the recipes and beverages for the family.

Bottom Line
Don't be scared off by the math above. It only gets complicated if you use real recipes from scratch.
If the math and adding up ingredients is too much, work out a plan based upon boxes and cans instead. Say one box of cereal per person for 9 days. Will every breakfast be cereal? Then each family person will need 10 boxes of their favorite cereal (and don't forget water and powered milk for it.)  If you alternate cereal with breakfasts of pancakes or muffins or oatmeal then buy only half as much for 45 days of cereal, 5 boxes per person.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food Storage, part 1

“Begin with a one week’s food supply and gradually build it to a month, and then to three months.” - Gordon B. Hinckley
Creating a food storage takes time and effort. Is it worth it?

When I was unemployed I was asked if I would need financial assistance. No, I replied. I had some money saved away, no debt, and a good food storage. My family could cut spending to the bone, eat from the food storage, and pay taxes and utilities from the rainy-day fund.

Medical Emergency: If your family "chef" became seriously ill, do you have foods, and menus, that other family members could easily prepare?

Power Outages: Do you have easy-to-prepare foods to keep you fed through several days or more of power outage?

Major Natural Disaster: If you had to evacuate your home, do you have foods you could prepare outdoors? And do you have enough fuel for days or weeks of outdoor cooking?

Tomorrow I'll talk about how much food to store and some ideas to get you started.
Bottom Line

Since Hurricane Katrina, emergency professionals know that 72-hours is not enough of a preparedness buffer while waiting for help to arrive. The recommended minimum food and water storage is now one week. So why store more? What if you have company staying and they become trapped in your house also? What if your neighbor is desperate with hungry kids and asks if you have anything to spare? What if you find half of your storage has spoiled, gone stale, or become infested by bugs? It's wise to have extra.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The hidden costs of employment

“The best minds in government? If any were, business would hire them away.” - Ronald Reagan

I highly recommend reading Why I'm Not Hiring by the president of a small company in NJ with 83 employees. In the article he breaks down the taxes and fees for his "median" employee, the one exactly in the middle of the payscale.

She makes $59,000 a year but before that money hits her bank, it is reduced by
-$2,376 for medical and dental insurance,
-   $126 for state unemployment insurance,
-   $149 for disability insurance and
-   $856 for Medicare.
-$1,893 in NJ income taxes. The federal government gets
-$3,661 for Social Security and 
-$6,250 for income tax withholding.
That's roughly $15,000 or 26% of her pay going to the government. [The math has been corrected. The article mistakenly says $13,000] Her take home pay is $44,000.

There are additional costs paid by the employer that don't appear in the paycheck:
-$9,561 for employee/spouse medical and dental,
-   $153 for life and other insurance,
-     $56 for federal unemployment coverage,
-   $149 for disability insurance,
-   $300 for workers' comp and
-   $505 for state unemployment insurance.
-   $856 for Medicare (employer's share) and
-$3,661 for Social Security (employer's share).
"When you add it all up, it costs $74,000 to put $44,000 in Sally's pocket and to give her $12,000 in benefits. ... Governments impose a 33% surtax on Sally's job each year."
Bottom Line
"Because my company has been conscripted by the government and forced to serve as a tax collector [and insurance provider], we have lost control of a big chunk of our cost structure. Tax increases, whether cloaked as changes in unemployment or disability insurance, Medicare increases or in any other form can dramatically alter our financial situation."
The article goes on to explain that this year his insurance company is charging %28 more for a new plan with less coverage. That's the biggest increase ever and the NJ company will need to increase sales or increase prices to cover the cost. But neither option is likely during a recession.
"Only governments can raise prices repeatedly and pretend there will be no consequences."
So the only option for paying higher taxes and higher insurance rates is cost cutting where possible and cost control with a hiring freeze.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Presidential Landslides

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." - Thomas Jefferson
French cartographer, Frédéric Salmon, has collected/created voting maps of all US presidential elections. The collage below was assembled from Salmon's maps by RealClearPolitics.com. It shows the county voting patterns of presidential landslides for Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson in 1964, Reagan in 1980, and Obama in 2008. Democrats are yellow/brown; Republicans are blue. The color darkens as the win margin increases.

There are many interesting points that I see.

1. In past landslides, when you won the election most of the land area of America supported you. Look at the majority of yellow/brown for Roosevelt and Johnson, the vast amounts of blue for Eisenhower and Regan.

2. The Obama victory is quite different. A naive look at the map would make blue the winner. But compare 2008 to 1980. Obama won the large cities on both coasts and the greater Chicago area. He lost the rural vote.

3. Take a look at the Bush 2004 win which evenly split the country. The map looks amazing similar to the 2008 "landslide". It takes few moments to see the differences. Obama took a few extra counties in California but the real difference is the Rust Belt, the Great Lakes region that remains seriously depressed with the failure of the US automotive industry and steel industry. During bad economic times, people will switch their vote in hope of "Change". Obama was very clever to use "Change" as his theme.

4. On a historical note: note the erosion of the Dixie Land Democrats. The south is VERY Democrat in 1932 and 1936, starting to drift away in 1952 and divided in 1964. From the 2008 map it's hard to tell if Obama won or lost the south. Did he win enough city votes to take the southern states?

Bottom Line

Today's political division is not North-South, regional or state based. It's rural vs city.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

License Plates and Language

CheeseWiz (or Chez using French)
Environmentalists have a very conflicted relationship with their cars.-Tom Arnold
To help keep me awake when driving long distances I like to make words from license plates I see. The rules are this: keep the letters in the order you see and add the fewest additional letters to make a word.

Here are some examples from this morning:

A truck plate had just two letters. Easy!, I thought. But the letters CJ made me think a bit until I came up with cajole. Later I thought of cajun.

Some plates are hopeless - what can you do with XNK?

Some plates are easy like EER. Sadly my first thought was beer, then deer and then I wondered, just how common is this pattern? Sometimes in the license plate game I discover a letter pattern that is rare in the English language like CJ; other times I find popular letter combinations.

Allowing for spelling variations, the <ir> sound is very common indeed:
Kir (a French cocktail made with blackcurrant liqueur)
Kirsh (Swedish Cherry liqueur used in fondue)
pier, peer
seer, sear
tier, Tir (Norse god), tear
weir (a river dam)
The only simple consonant + <ir> combination that is missing is <z><ir>. I Googled "Zir" and found that some have proposed this unused word as a gender-neutral pronoun so we can stop saying him/her in writing.

Bottom Line

I love linguistics, the study of language. This was my minor in graduate school while I majored in mathematics. You might think the <ir> list above is "obvious". Any simple vowel + consonant will have a long list of words. Consider <ar> (car, mar, jar) or <at> (cat, mat, rat). But <ir> is not a simple sound. We usually think of it as one syllable but it really has two parts smeared together.

Say "tear". The mouth starts with TE like tea then shifts to (e)R like the sound in jerk.
With a  simple vowel you can make the sound continuously until you run out of breath.
Ditto for some asperants like <sssssssssssssssssssssssss>

With "tear" I can stretch it out as
The 'i' is a funny two part vowel E(eh). Complex but apparently quite natural to the English tongue. It reminds me of the two part sound of "yu" in yuck; feel your tongue move as you it.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Avoid College?

“You have four years to be irresponsible here. Relax. Work is for people with jobs. You'll never remember class time, but you'll remember time you wasted hanging out with your friends. So, stay out late. Go out on a Tuesday with your friends when you have a paper due Wednesday. Spend money you don't have. Drink 'til sunrise. The work never ends, but college does..."” - Guitarist Tom Petty
DailyFinance.com has an interesting article titled, Seven Reasons Not to Send Your Kids to College. I was recently talking with my wife about the NY state HS exams in which 30% more students failed under new grading rules. It's horrible, she said, that so many HS graduates are not prepared for college. I countered that perhaps not everyone should be expected to be college ready. Before WWII, college attendance was mostly for the very rich or those on professional tracks like law and medicine. Everything changed with the GI Bill that paid WWII veterans to get a BA degree. By the next generation it became normal, even expected, for children to go to college and a college degree (of any type) became required for many jobs.

So is college worth the cost? The Seven Reasons article says no.

1. More than 60% of students require more than 4 years to graduate so the cost may be higher than you expect. I wonder if this includes summer classes to makeup low grades?

2. The rate of inflation for college expenses is 10% a year! Since 1976 tuition has increased 9-fold versus 7-fold for health case and three-fold for general inflation. There is fear amongst university administrators that the tuition bubble is about to burst. College is no longer affordable, especially in this great recession.

3. A college graduate can expect to earn $800,000 more over a 45 year career. But if you invest $200,000 at 3% instead of spending it on tuition, room & board, and text books, you'll earn $851,000 over 49 years (45 working + 4 college). So if you put your money in a trust for your child, they may come out ahead.

4. The average debt burden of a graduate is $23,000, up from $13,000 ten years ago. Debt for a professional degree (graduate work) can exceed $200,000. That's a horrible way to start your career.

Not paying for college does not mean encouraging stupidity or idleness. Here are options to consider:

- Send them to a trade school or apprenticeship for profitable work in plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.

- Allow them to enlist in the military and let it teach your child a trade and pay future college bills.

- Have them apply for a union job. Auto union workers and government union workers are doing quite well financially without college degrees. I know Iraq war veteran who is second generation garbage collector for NYC and is quite happy with the salary and benefits.

- Invest in your child's business venture(s); but require them to present a business plan first. Most attempts will fail - that's normal and they'll learn from the school of hard knocks. Thomas Edison was famous for his many failures but when he succeeded it was big. Ditto for Babe Ruth - he was the strike-out king but when he connected he was also the home run king.

- Give your child money to travel the world or hike through Europe. They'll learn much more about the world than they would from a book or lecture.

- Encourage them to get a blue collar job. They'll learn the value of honest work and the value of money. After a few years they may decide that they want to attend college for a business or management degree - but now they have a goal with experience to back it up. I know a mature TV studio technician who has decided he wants to be lawyer so he can sue his former bosses. He's just completed his BA and will begin work on the law degree. I also know a legal secretary who was sponsored by the law firm she worked at to get a law degree.

- Encourage them to volunteer full-time or go on a mission. The Peace Corp and foreign missions are other ways to see the world.

- Encourage them to educate themself! College level text books can be checked out from the library or purchased used online. There are many excellent online university courses for free. With computer programming there are free code compilers and many free tutorials online. You can teach yourself coding and have all the tools you need for free (except for the computer).

Bottom Line

There's nothing wrong with delaying college until a person is mature enough to appreciate the value of what he/she is getting for the vast amount of money spent. For the self-starter, create a business or product; but be sure to do some reading on business principles or hire good managers. The computer industry is filled with stories of startups who created a great product in their garage, achieved national success, and then failed or were forced out of the company because they had no experience running a large company.

Here's a book on the same topic:
Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It

And a related story I just read:

For-Profit Colleges Caught On Video Encouraging Financial Aid Fraud
Investigators found that all 15 colleges investigated "made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements to GAO's undercover applicants," and four of them "encouraged fraudulent practices."
The investigation also found that for-profit colleges are often a waste of money because the same associate's degrees and certificates are usually available at nearby public colleges and community colleges for significantly less. For example:
“A student interested in a massage therapy certificate costing $14,000 at a for-profit college was told that the program was a good value. However the same certificate from a local community college cost $520.”

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ice with Class

Diamonds! Diamonds!
I don't mean rhinestones!
But diamonds are a girl's best friend.
Many years ago I heard a news story on the radio of a company planning to sell ice from glaciers. It would melt more slowly and be slightly bluish. (The slow melting is not from extra hardness like I thought but rather from larger ice crystals in glacial ice.)  But this was back in 1988 based upon the only Google story I could find; there was nothing recent. I suppose the idea failed.

So where can you turn for really cool ice cubes? How about a diamond shaped "cube" (pictured above). The mold for a single diamond is $6.95 (plus shipping, etc.) A large chuck of ice will melt more slowly compared to many smaller cubes of equivalent volume. The rate of ice meltage is based on the surface area; smaller cubes have more surface relative to volume. This explains why I don't like the reusable ice cubes we have at home. They are plastic one inch cubes with water inside. Freeze them; drop them in a drink; and as they melt the water stays inside the plastic cube and does not dilute the drink. They can be washed and refrozen but they melt very quickly.

There are many specialty ice cube trays to be found online. For example 20 Unusual and Creative Ice Cube Trays include Lego's, the Titanic and iceberg, a set of false teeth, and dinosaurs.
CoolStuffExpress has Easter Island heads and penguins.
MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) sells a mold for spherical ice "cubes".

Bottom Line

Ice does not have to be boring; it can be fun. Or try non-ice alternatives like putting frozen grapes in a drink to cool it down. I also like using frozen limes that have been washed and cut in half.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stolen Checks

"I don't have a bank account, because I don't know my mother's maiden name". - Paula Poundstone 

My wife has discovered the joy of online payments and online banking but a story from the Consumerist make me nervous. Some banking sites scan your checks and allow you to view the images online. These images may be stored on a 3rd party server by an independent image storage company whose security rules are not quite as strict as your bank's.

Russian crooks have broken into three sites that store archival check images, stolen the account information, and written over $9 million in phony checks against over 1,200 accounts. The security company that discovered this attack has notified the affected sites but it is not making their names public.

To avoid getting caught, the Russian crooks used "money mules".  Here's the story of an unwitting money mule:
A man found her "work wanted" ad online and contracted her to become a virtual assistant. He said that he was associated with the reputable international fashion marketing firm Mandi Lennard. The jobs started simple: buy this exact kind of ink and paper and perform various tasks. Soon he had her sending money for him to help one of the "photographers" purchase some alcohol. When she asked why he needed her to send the funds, he said "because i am very busy and you are my assistant."

Then she was instructed to print out a check for $1,300, deposit it in her account, and write a check off her account and mail it to her handler.

But when she did, the bank said it would be held for seven days while they investigated it for fraud. She soon received a call from a woman in Atlanta. It was her account the $1,300 check was drawn from, and the caller she was pissed and ready to press felony charges against her!
Bottom Line

Never, never agree to cash a check to your account and then offer some or all of the funds from your account (by check, cash, or wire service) to the person supplying the check. This is a very common scan and you're the one breaking the law by cashing a check that will bounce or one that is using stolen account information.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Pollyannaish Economic Prognostications

"At some point, someone is going to have to level with the American people about just how bad things really are and why, despite all the ministrations from Washington over the past two years, they don't seem to be getting much better."
- John Merline, Opinion Editor, AOLnews.com, Aug 13, 2010
I'm amazed at people who believe that the government knows best and can be trusted to control the economy. Centralized planning has never worked, in any country, ever. History is full of examples of failed socialist states, failed attempts at price controls in "free" states, and failed attempts at government controlled utilities (eg. British coal mines). In a free market economy the penalty for being wrong can be the loss of your job or the bankruptcy of the company. Mistakes are weeded out. This is not the case in government - "What our stimulus of a trillion dollars failed?! Why that must mean we did not spend enough and must keep doing more of what failed before." The penalty of failure is an important component of free markets and why the concept of "too big to fail" is such a dangerously wrong idea.

The opinion editor at AOLnews.com has published an article entitled, "Opinion: Where Did All Those 'Green Shoots' Go?" The article includes this chart of "Pollyannaish Economic Prognostications" from the Obama administration over the past two years. It maps government statements to the unemployment rate. From the chart you can conclude one of two things:

1. The government economists are totally clueless
2. The administration is lying and not reporting the real predictions of the economists

A) Obama budget predicts that the unemployment rate for 2009 will be 8.1 percent (actual rate is 9.3 percent), and says it will be 7.9 percent in 2010 (average so far: 9.7 percent). -- Feb. 26, 2009

B) Fed Chairman Bernanke says he sees "green shoots" of U.S. recovery, which, he said, would "pick up steam" next year. -- March 15, 2009

C) Obama says, "We are beginning to see glimmers of hope." -- April 14, 2009

D) CNN reports that "Job Recovery May Be on the Way." -- May 18, 2009

E) Jeffrey Kling of the Brookings Institution says, "It seems clear the U.S. economy has turned a corner." -- June 5, 2009

F) Bernanke says recovery is under way and "prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good." -- Sept. 16, 2009

G) Obama says, "We are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again." -- Feb. 7, 2010

H) Obama says, "The worst of the storm is over. ... We are beginning to turn the corner." -- April 3, 2010

I) Obama says, "The economy is getting stronger by the day." -- June 4, 2010

I) Vice President Joe Biden dubs the months ahead "Recovery Summer," and David Axelrod adds that "this summer will be the most active Recovery Act season yet." -- June 17, 2010

I) Obama declares the economic recovery is "well under way." -- June 29, 2010

J) White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says, "The economy is getting stronger." -- July 8, 2010
Bottom Line
What's the truth? Aug 10 the Federal Reserve issued a report saying the "pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months." Jobless claims have hit a nearly six-month high. There is talk in the media about a possible "double-dip" recession.
Check out the article "The Cabinet From Another World" by IBD Editorials.
"America is wising up to this administration's incompetence. Only minutes after [the labor] department reported that payrolls had shed another 131,000 positions in July, there was Secretary [of Labor] Hilda Solis speaking brazenly of the "strong and immediate action" the White House had taken to save or create "more than 2.5 million American jobs." But as the market action showed [the Dow fell 100 points in seconds], investors could see she didn't know what she was talking about."
"...There's never been an administration led by so few people with any experience in the private sector — including the president, the vice president and even the treasury secretary, who last week wrongly called it a "myth" that raising taxes on high-income Americans would hurt small business."

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pencil Art

A weekend bonus...

Many artists use a pencil while creating art. But for Brazilian born, Connecticut based, Dalton Ghetti, the pencil is the art. He carves the graphite at the pencil tip into mini sculptures.

Bottom Line

Check out kronikle.kidrobot.com for more photos.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Did the Coast Guard worsen the Gulf oil spill?

“The quicker we get about the business of reducing our reliance on oil the better.”- Condoleezza Rice

Now here is an interesting story about lack of preparedness at the Federal level. Columnist Ed Morrissey writes, Did the government cause the Gulf spill?
The generally accepted view of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has focused on the blowout preventer and the non-standard procedures BP conducted just before the explosion and fire. However, most of the damage and the main source of the spill came from the collapse and sinking of the DH platform [i.e. the biggest leak was from a break in the pipe that connected the platform to the ocean floor] ... A new report by the Center for Public Integrity, based on testimony from people on scene and Coast Guard logs, contains evidence that the platform sunk because of a botched response from the Coast Guard, which failed to coordinate firefighting efforts and to get the proper resources to fight the fire.
Here's what the CPI report, Haphazard Firefighting Might Have Sunk BP Oil Rig, has to say,
The Coast Guard has gathered evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating whether the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the ill-fated oil rig. ... Coast Guard officials told the Center for Public Integrity that the service does not have the expertise to fight an oil rig fire and that its response to the April 20 explosion may have broken the service’s own rules by failing to ensure a firefighting expert supervised the half-dozen private boats that answered the Deepwater Horizon’s distress call to fight the blaze.
... The Coast Guard’s official maritime rescue manual — updated just seven months before the BP accident — recommends Guard personnel avoid participating in firefighting aboard a rig. Instead, the manual requires Coast Guard responders to set up an “Incident Command System” and assign an expert, such as a fire marshal, to lead the efforts to extinguish the blaze.
The Coast Guard failed to obtain an independent rig fire expert but instead deferred to firefighting experts aboard the rig. Witnesses say there was no attempt by the Coast Guard Command Center in New Orleans to designate any fire marshal to take charge. The Coast Guard focused on crew rescue and allowed any boat that showed up to spray sea water on the rig. This may have flooded the damaged ballast tanks causing the rig to list, become unbalanced, and sink. The sinking broke the oil pipeline, making the oil spill much worse. Experts say the proper procedure is to use foam on oil fires but neither the Coast Guard nor the rig fire team requested foam. The rig team itself put out an SOS for ships to spray the rig with water.

Rob Bluey of the Washington Examiner writes,
These new details raise serious questions for the White House, which has repeatedly pinned the blame on BP. If it turns out the Coast Guard is at fault -- either because it didn't follow proper procedures or couldn't respond adequately because of a lack of resources -- the public has a right to know why we're just now learning this information 100 days after the disaster began.

The crippling budget cuts President Obama proposed for the Coast Guard also deserve a closer examination. Obama's spending plan reduced the blue water fleet by a full one-third, slashed 1,000 personnel, five cutters, and several aircraft, including helicopters. ... Adm. Thad Allen warned the budget cuts threatened to turn the Coast Guard into a "hollow force."
Bottom Line

Unfortunately this is typical for federal government rescue efforts. As with FEMA, the federal government says its role is NOT do the actual rescue work but rather to organize the effort through the Incident Command Structure. In theory the government brings value with expert, knowledgeable leadership and coordination. In fact neither occur. With the oil rig, no outside expert was appointed to lead and the Coast Guard let the rig team run the show. This was perhaps not wise - you don't fight a fire with your HQ inside the burning building and staff fleeing for their lives. 

It does seem that the Coast Guard is already a "hollow force" when dealing with maritime fires. If you can not rely on the Coast Guard to properly manage a fire at sea, who can you trust?

For a different story on "everything we know about the oil spill is wrong" see Time magazine's, "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?". President Obama has called the BP oil spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" but so far the number of birds killed is 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Only three dead mammals (dolphins, etc) have been found. Assessment teams have found 350 acres of oiled marshes, but Louisiana loses 15,000 acres of wetlands every year from erosion caused by "flood control" re-engineering efforts on the Mississippi.
Yes, every oil spill is bad, but it serves the public little good to have the press and government exaggerate the damage, destroy a company (BP) and ban all future drilling.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Politicians, Money, and the Ruling Class

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy." - Earnest Benn
The media likes to portray the Republicans as the Party of the Rich but there are many wealthy democrats also, some obscenely wealthy. Perhaps this is a reflection that it takes money to be elected? We like to think of politicians as representatives of the people but today they appear to only represent themselves and rule over the people.

First two recent examples of extreme wealth:

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry "voluntarily" pays $500,000 in Massachusetts on his $7 Million yacht which he may have tried to avoid by docking it at Rhode Island.

Hillary Clinton still begging supporters to retire Presidential campaign debt as Clintons spend $3-$5 million on daughter’s wedding.  Why spend your own money to run for office when others will pay it for you?  At times Hillary's campaign has "borrowed" money from the Clinton's personal funds. Should a politician be allowed to borrow from themselves and have the public contribute towards the interest?
According to an FEC report filed Wednesday, Clinton’s debt as of the end of July [2008] stood at just under $24 million .... More than $13 million of that total is owed to the New York senator herself, while close to $11 million is owed to individual vendors. Clinton has suggested she is not seeking to pay back the money she owes herself.  http://hotair.com/archives/2008/08/22/one-reason-its-not-hillary-debt-load/
Under campaign finance law, a candidate must make a good faith effort to pay back all campaign loans. If a business just "writes off" the money then the loan could be reclassified by the FEC as a campaign contribution which is subject to different laws and limits.

Then there are stories of politicians being petty and cheap:

NY Representative Charles Rangel was charged by the House Ethics Committee with 13 violations. One charge was for owning multiple rent-control apartments, one of which was used as his campaign headquarters. (NY law allows one apartment and only for residential use.)  It takes a special hubris to flaunt the law in such a noticable way to save a few thousand bucks a month.

Even more petty - drama and anger over $1:
70-year-old Representative Barney Frank, (D-MA) was heading out to New York’s Fire Island. The New York Post reported that the Massachusetts congressman failed to contain his exasperation when a ticket clerk at the local dock rejected his request for a $1 discount ferry fare to the island. Frank did not possess the necessary Suffolk County Senior Citizens ID to take part. ... a witness claimed that, ”Frank made such a drama over the senior rate that I contemplated offering him the dollar to cool down the situation.” http://dailycaller.com/2010/07/28/barney-franks-one-dollar-fare-conundrum-and-the-ruling-class/
Bottom Line
From the dailycaller opinion article quoted above,
As Angelo M. Codevilla described in his stunning essay, America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution, Barney Frank’s actions are emblematic of the ruling class mentality. Frank would not have objected more if the Sayville, New York dock clerk had shorted him $5 or even five cents. Either would have signaled a failure to recognize the congressman’s ruling class authority and the power that thus brings over the public at large. It is through this prism of elitist thought that the ruling class and thus those like Frank, gaze upon the masses.
Here's more from Angelo's Ruling Class essay...
Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. ... Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all. So was "social engineering." Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.

Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. ...
What really distinguishes these privileged people demographically is that, whether in government power directly or as officers in companies, their careers and fortunes depend on government. ...
Professional prominence or position will not secure a place in the [ruling] class any more than mere money. ... Like a fraternity, this class requires above all comity -- being in with the right people, giving the required signs that one is on the right side, and joining in despising the Outs. [ ... And having the right attitude: ]  that "we" are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained. 
Much less does membership in the ruling class depend on high academic achievement. [In France] people get into and advance in that bureaucracy strictly by competitive exams. Hence for good or ill, France's ruling class are bright people -- certifiably. Not ours. But didn't ours go to Harvard and Princeton and Stanford? Didn't most of them get good grades? Yes. ...[but] getting into America's "top schools" is less a matter of passing exams than of showing up with acceptable grades and an attractive social profile. ... Since the 1970s, it has been virtually impossible to flunk out of American colleges.
It's a long essay but well worth reading.

Another worthwhile article is Brooding on ChicagoBoyz.net. The author wonders,
"Why does the Ruling Class ... have such strong cultural confidence?  And what can we do to undermine it?"
In other words, why do the ruling Democrats think so highly of themselves (and so lowly of Republicans, e.g "Bush is stupid")?
 "Why does an elite that is actually not admirable in what it does, and not effective or productive, that has added little or nothing of value to the civilizational stock, that cannot possibly do the things it claims it can do, that services rent-seekers and the well-connected, that believes in an incoherent mishmash of politically correct platitudes, that is parasitic, have such an elevated view of itself?"
Here's two related stories from Instapundit:

INSIDER TRADING inside the Beltway. “A 2004 study of the results of stock trading by United States Senators during the 1990s found that that Senators on average beat the market by 12% a year. In sharp contrast, U.S. households on average underperformed the market by 1.4% a year and even corporate insiders on average beat the market by only about 6% a year during that period. A reasonable inference is that some Senators had access to – and were using – material nonpublic information about the companies in whose stock they trade.”

MARK TAPSCOTT: Gulf widening between ‘Political Class’ and most Americans. “That the gulf between these two Americas is growing wider is seen most disturbingly in Rasmussen’s finding that less than a quarter of Mainstream America now believe the government has the consent of the governed. Washington has a profound credibility crisis.”


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

International Cell Phone Costs

“To be happy in this world, first you need a cell phone and then you need an airplane. Then you're truly wireless.” - millionaire Ted Turner

Warning - Cell phone companies are only too happy to take your money when you make mistake and are quite unwilling to write off the error.

For example, the first cell phone my wife & I owned was open face, meaning the number keys are always exposed. We did not lock down the phone and the 0 key must have been accidentally hit while the phone was in my wife's purse. We were charged for 60 minutes of operator assistance time. Not cheap. We objected - if an operator had picked up, clearly they would detect the mistake and terminate the call - total time of 1 minute. Why leave a "dead" line open for 60 minutes? 
No dice - we had to pay and now we only use clam shell style phones.

The first time I called by sister in Canada I used my cell phone and discovered afterwards that the rate is 60-80 cents a minute. That adds up fast!

The Consumerist tells a story of a college student who says she checked Facebook for 5 minutes a day for a week via her phone while on family vacation in Cancun. The bill is $11,667.73 for 600MB of data services to a foreign country.

Bottom Line

Unlike a credit card, the phone companies give no warning when huge charges are piling up. A commenter on the Consumerist story has the following suggestions:

This is why when I took my phone to Canada I shut it off 10 miles from the border. So many application on your phone can transmit data without your knowledge these days it's just easier to leave it off. Facebook may not have transferred 600mb worth of data, but there are other applications which can. Many of the applications I've downloaded on my Droid X talk to the Internet in the background, the app tells me it's going to do this, I just have to keep track of them.
My recommendation: Turns your smart phone off when going on a trip and buy a pay-as-you go phone when you reach your destination. Coasts about a hundred for phone and minutes, but you have a phone when you get where you're going.
Speaking of cell phone costs. I visited the AT&T store after losing my cell phone. I'm not eligible for a free replacement (with new contract) until November. But I can get $75 off a phone with an early contract extension. However I was shocked to find that the cost of the "free" phones is $200 and up when purchased separately so I'd have to pay $125 to replace my phone. When I declined the AT&T rep suggested they could reactive an old AT&T phone if I still had one from prior contracts. I'll give that a try.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bad Habits

I don't believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.- T.S. Eliot

Prevention magazine has published 9 "Harmless" Habits That Age You. These are:

1. Lack of Sleep
2. Too much sugar in the diet
3. Too much stress
4. Lack of regular exercise
5. Playing iPod too loud
6. Not socializing with friends
7. Not eating vegetables daily
8. Eating too little fat
9. Not enough sex

Bottom Line

As we age we need sleep and a good diet. The body is just not as tolerant of abuse as when we were young. We also need to stay active both physically and socially. In fact a recent study claims too much sitting can be deadly.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Lost Cell Phone

(sung to the tune of "Do you hear what I hear")
Said the people at the grocery store,
Do you hear what I hear,
While we are waiting to check out?
Some lady on a cell phone,
I have never met her, I don't think,
But I've learned her bedroom is pink,
And today she'll visit her shrink.

Last week I lost my cellphone - still no clue where it might be. I called the phone company to lock down the number so it can not be used and abused if found by someone unscrupulous.

I've been wonder what I could have done differently to help someone return the phone.

1. Keep it fully charged. Before the lock down calls to the phone went direct to voice mail indicating that the phone was out of power.

2. Lack of charge will also prevent someone from looking at my phone settings or caller list to find the owner of the phone.

3. Could I have put my home number on the phone? Where? There is not much unused space on the inside and anything attached to the outside will likely wear off. Perhaps I should engrave my home # on the outside of the phone?

Bottom Line

Any other thoughts for helping a lost phone find its way home in the future?

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Friday, August 6, 2010


Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn't be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn't know it so it goes on flying anyway. - Mary Kay Ash

Do you hate the seat belt sign on airplanes? Why do they force passengers to stay in their seats? Well a recent United Flight from DC to LA demonstrates why.

A plane with 255 passengers hit severe turbulence and 4 crew and 21 persons were seriously hurt. The plane was diverted to Denver where a medical triage center was set up at the airport and the injured sent to Denver hospitals. Injuries included bruises, sprains, whiplash and strains.

"It was a bit of a blur. People were screaming and yelling," recalled one passenger on board the flight. She also described watching as the woman in the seat next to hear "slammed into the side of the cabin, leaving a crack above the window, and a girl across the aisle flew into the air and hit the ceiling."

Bottom Line

When flying, keep your seat belt on. Turbulence can occur at any time.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Long Term Unemployment

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

A new graph shows the severity of the present recession/depression.

The average unemployed person has now been unemployed for 25 weeks, just over 6 months. This is twice a high as anytime in the past 50 years.

When the results are this extreme it's hard to argue that it would have been worse without the stimulus. Instead some claim that unemployment was made worse by the actions taken by Obama and the Democrats in the past two years. Unemployment only ends when people are hired. Now the government has been hiring but private business has not. Private business is scared. The law has changed on health care and the rules for insuring employees. The law has changed on banking and loans. There may be climate change laws coming. And so on.

A friend had a sign on her desk at work, "Change is good, you go first." While some entrepreneurs can use a time of change for profit, for most companies change means uncertainty - what's the new law going to cost us in paperwork, regulation, and fees? Do we have to change how we do business or how we document our business? Few are willing to risk expansion or growth in a time of high uncertainty. So companies are sitting pat until the regulatory climate settles down and they have a chance to figure out what's what.

Bottom Line

America is better served when the Congress and President are in different parties. Law then require compromise and negotiation. At present any crazy idea can be passed into law if just three people support it - Pelosi, Reid and Obama.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zinc for Colds?

“A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold”-Ogden Nash

According to the Archives of Otolaryngology (try saying that 3 times fast) a recent clinical trial has found that zinc nasal gels and sprays were ineffective in preventing or reducing the duration of the common cold. Moreover zinc applied to the nasal cavity can lead to a loss of smell, possibly permanent.

An earlier study that showed that zinc therapies reduce the severity of a cold was funded by the makers of the medicine used in the study. So perhaps there was a bit of bias?

It's important to know that homeopathic products that treat less serious illness, such as the common cold, can be sold over the counter and are exempt from "the rigorous premarket approval process" of the FDA.

Bottom Line

Be very careful of any "herbal medicine" or homeopathic drug sold over the counter. See my blog from last year about Dangerous Diet Pills.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010


"Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you"-J. Reuben Clark Jr., 1938

If you have credit card debt and are unable to pay the full amount each month, then I highly recommend visiting the web site, The Real Damage

Enter in a amount of money for something you'd like to buy, click the "What's the Damage button?" and see how much you'll actually be spending by the time the debt is paid off. Not so obvious is that you should customize the parameters behind the calculation by clicking on the "Credit Cards" bar to the right. This allows you to enter your actual interest rates, outstanding balance, and amount you pay off each month. There is also an "Additional Payments" bar so you can see how paying a little extra can go a long way to reducing the total cost of debt.

The site does not ask for email or any personal info.

Bottom Line

Never pay just the minimum amount on a credit card bill. This will keep you in debt for years and cost you big time. With the default settings on Real Damage, a $75 purchase cost a total of $168 after all the interest payments.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Tax the Rich! Fails again.

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

What a topic today - I get to discuss government, sports and mathematics!

Since April, foreign sports stars competing in Britain have been liable for a top income tax rate of 50%. Now this is unpleasant but it gets even worse. Controversially, the tax is charged not just on the money they earn in Britain but on a proportion of their worldwide sponsorship income.

Many sports stars are voting with their feet and refusing to complete in Britain. The impact is being felt in Olympic type sports like track and field as well as tennis and golf. The organizers of UK sports are asking the government to repeal this tax.

A year ago I wrote about the unintended consequences of raising taxes on the rich,
Actions have consequences. The rich either move or declare a house in another state as their primary residence and the net tax revenue collected declines! The Financial Times reports that the number of Americans giving up their citizenship to protect their families from America’s tax system has jumped rapidly.

The idea that people flee from high taxes is captured in the Laffer Curve; a key part of Reganomics and much criticised by opponents who claim it has been discredited. Actually the stories above show exactly the opposite. It is politicians who are discredited by not understanding the Laffer Curve and negatively impacting the revenue collected with over taxation.

The theory goes like this. When the tax rate is 0%, the tax revenue is zero. Now consider the other extreme; when the tax rate is 100% what happens? Why would anyone work when all the money goes to the government? They'll opt out, collect unemployment, work off the books, use barter, leave the country, or find tax shelters. The end result is very few, if any, will choose to work for non-existent pay and the revenue collected is again zero (or very small).

From calculus you learn that a curve that crosses zero at two points must have a high point, a maximum value. (see image above) To the left of the max, raising taxes increases revenue to the government; but on the right side of the max, raising taxes results in less total revenue.

Bottom Line

Sadly the Laffer Curve is much misunderstood. It does not promise that revenue will always go up when the tax rate falls. It depends on which side of the maximum the current tax rate is. And unfortunately the Laffer Curve does not tell us where that max revenue value is. You have to find it by trial and error to get the perfect tax rate - neither too high nor too low.


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