Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him. [...] His rage passes description - the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted. His fire belched forth, the hall smoked, he shook the mountain-roots. [...] He issued from the Gate, the waters rose in fierce whistling steam, and up he soared blazing into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame." J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit

May all your pumpkins be this amazing for Halloween!

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Amazing Halloween Pumpkins

An amazing carved pumpkin...

Happy Halloween!

A tutorial from artist Ray Villafane on how to carve like this.
Villafane has worked for DC Comics from 2006, sculpting countless action figures and collectible statues over the years--and works around the world, creating masterpiece sand sculptures. Since 2007, Villafane has won the Food Network pumpkin carving challenge contest and remains defender of the top title.

When my wife & I visited Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth recently, I noticed the "pilgrims" referred to pumpkins as "pumpions". That's odd I thought so I did some research and found this interesting site on the history of pumpkin pie,

The name pumpkin originated from the Greek word for "large melon" which is "pepon." "Pepon" was changed by the French into "pompon."  In the 1600's the English termed it "pumpion" or "pompion."

In a 1796 cookbook it is called pompkin.  I'm not sure how the -kin got added. One dictionary mentions -kin meaning little, as in devilkin, so perhaps colonialists thought of this as a little melon? Ironic given the giant pump"kins" that are grown today.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

A Safe Halloween

Hold on, man.  We don't go anywhere with "scary," "spooky," "haunted," or "forbidden" in the title.  ~From Scooby-Doo
Halloween can be fun and spooky but it can also be dangerous. While the "Razor in an Apple" story is an urban myth there are other dangers that careful parents should be aware of such as tripping, costumes catching on fire, being hit by a car on a dark street, etc. 

Bottom Line

Please see my post from last year on safety tips for a Happy Halloween.

Or this poster from the Red Cross of Westchester county, NY

Stay Safe but don't be Paranoid
“STRANGER DANGER” AND THE DECLINE OF HALLOWEEN: No child has ever been killed by poisoned candy. Ever.
Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they’re willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child’s vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, “dangerous.”

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Thursday, October 28, 2010


"The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it."
-George Kimble, Geographer
In a post last year I looked at different ways to flatten the globe onto a flat map in World Maps. The standard Mercator maps that everyone uses exaggerates the size of the Northern Hemisphere so America and Europe look much larger than they really are. So ingrained is the Mercator map in our mental image of the world that we fail to recognize how large Africa is. Here is a great graphic showing Africa's true size - bigger than the US, China, India and Europe combined.

Bottom Line

The full size of the graphic can be found at

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voices from the Past

"But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy."
- House Leader Nacny Pelosi on the Health Care Bill
I've not mentioned for awhile the lectures I've been listening to while commuting to work. There hasn't been a subject (until today) that prompted a post. This morning The History of Literary Journalism by William McKeen opened with examples of citizen "journalists" covering the US westward migration in the mid-1800's and pointed out that some of these individuals were quite perceptive and well informed despite the lack of mass media and mass communication. There was a colorful but accurate description of the California Gold Rush and another written by an American Indian who eerily predicted the future of his people and their treatment by the US government.

This theme of accurate voices from the past was repeated when I read If You Want To Understand What Makes This Recession Continue from Clayton Cramer's Blog. I like Clayton's byline for his blog, "Conservative. Idaho. Software engineer. Historian." Sounds like a kindred soul since I'm Idahoan by birth for three generations, conservative, a software engineer and love history.

Clayton posts several quotes that perfectly describe present conditions...
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements.
To this I'll add another quote from the same source
It is a misfortune incident to republican government, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust. ... [There is a] propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.
What is the source of these quotes? Some modern conservative pundit with a thesaurus? Nope. The writer was James Madison in a 1788 NY newspaper editorial. Even within his own lifetime James Madison was overshadowed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; we forget that Madison was the "Father of the Constitution", "Father of the Bill of Rights", negotiated the Louisana Purchase as Jeffersons' Secretary of State, was the fourth President of the United States in 1809, and defended the country during the War of 1812. Today the name Madison lives on as Madison Square Garden in NYC and in Dolly Madison snacks (his wife Dolly was famous as First Lady hostesss).

The editorial above became Federalist 62 and is part of the Federalist Papers which are unfortunately little discussed in public schools today - too advanced (?) for grade school and too "conservative" for today's college professors. In 1788 Madison defended the newly drafted US Constitution against opposition to convince States to ratify it to replace the Articles of Confederation. This Constitution was full of radical ideas for government that had never been tried before. Madison, Alexander Hamilton & John Jay wrote 85 editorials explaining why they made the choices they did during the Constitutional Convention. This collection of essays were collected in 1788 and published as "The Federalist; or, the New Constitution" and is priceless for explaining the original intent of the founding fathers.

In Federalist 62 Madison explains the purpose of the Senate. Conservatives feared that the people (and their reps in the House of Congress) would be reckless and pass bad laws that favored current fads over good governance. The Senate was created to add wisdom to the process of law. It was a smaller body of older leaders with a higher age requirement than the House. Senators would have legal experience as compared to the House that "lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation." Madison expected a high turn-over rate in the House with amateur pundits elected by the people - he did not foresee district gerrymandering and career Congressmen.

The Senators were appointed by the States for a longer term (6 years vs 2) to shield them from public whims. We lost an important check on Federal government when we switched to public elections of Senators:
Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people [the House], and then, of a majority of the States [meaning the Senate].
Today Senators represent the people of their state instead of the government of their state, As a result States have been losing their rights as the Federal government assumes ever greater power.
Bottom Line

Madison ends Federalist 62 by explaining what will happen if the government persists in passing arbitrary and incomprehensible law,
But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Save Money this Winter

"Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to" - John Ed Pearce
This week temperatures plummeted and we had to throw some quilts on our bed to keep warm at night. So this is a good time to start thinking about heating the house for the winter. What can be done to lower heating bills?

1. Microsoft Holm,, offers advice. I entered my address and it popped up a satellite image of my house with guesses at the number of rooms, types of heating, age of home, etc, and estimates my energy bill. Spooky. I'll have to work with this more to see if it will be useful or not.

2. There are tax credits for home improvement that will expire Dec 31. Check out

3. Trees are said to be good for your house - they provide shade in summer and a wind break in the winter. I'm not sure I agree. We have many trees, a forest, around our house. What we might gain in temperature control is surely lost in tree maintenance, roof/car repair from fallen branches, no sunlight for backyard garden, poor TV/satellite reception, and paying someone to rake the leaves in the fall.

4. Use a programmable thermostat that changes the house temperature based upon rules that you set up. We keep the house cold at night, warm it up to get us out of bed, cool down during work hours, warm up for our return and back to cool for sleeping again.  Modern high-end  thermostats can be remotely controlled via your cell phone or iPhone.

5. A lot of heat is lost through single-pane windows. Sadly Energy Star windows are expensive, an estimate for just one wall of our house was $18,000. So each winter we cover our windows with a layer of transparent plastic sheeting.

6. Plug the leaks in your house. Caulk around windows and any cracks you find. Thermal images (above) can show you the hot spots in your house.

7. Cover hot water pipes with insulation.

8. Insulate your attic and basement.

9. Open the drapes by day to let in the sun and close them at night.

10. Dress in sweaters. Don't try to heat the house to summer temperature.

Bottom Line

Heating oil and natural gas are expensive! Make your house as energy efficient as you can. But don't go crazy. If we purchase the $18,000 windows we would never make back the money in energy savings.

More ideas at

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Email Etiquette

"Diamonds are forever. E-mail comes close." - June Kronholz

Website takes a humorous look at email etiquette.  My only fear is that the message is too subtle - some people may have no clue what is wrong with each example.

The title is "If you do this in email, I hate you." Here's a summary of the errors displayed.

1. Clinging to old technology and not using the power of the Internet. Why fax anything anymore? At my company we each sign (and fax to HR) a one page document agreeing that our email signature will be legally binding. Now no more faxes, our email response is sufficient.

2. Asking for a resend of information instead of searching your own email archives.

3. Chain letters to dozens of friends. Personally I find it very sad when persons forward a chain mail and don't clean it up - instead leaving the history of every previous person it was ever sent to.

4. Super long automatic email signatures or using graphics in your signature. This make the email unnecessary large and takes up space.

5. Besides a fax response (see cartoon #1) the 5th cartoon seems to be more a dig at non-disclosure agreements in general.

6. Email != FTP (File Transfer Protocol) - don't send giant files by email. They are slow to download and fill up the mail box space.

7. Email != Collaborative Editing Software. Note all the Re: Re: ... in the title showing how many times this email has been bounced back and forth. I would be guilty of using email this way since I've never worked with collaborative editing software. The closest I suppose is using source control software and Change Tracking to see who edited what. Source control are programs that let you "check out" a file, modify it, then check it back in. A checked-out file is locked and no one else can change it while you own it.

8. Unsubscribe - just like the cartoonist, I hate it when I have to sign in to unsubscribe because I may have no clue what my account ID and password are. A good unsubscribe knows who you are.

9. Don't overly decorate your email with background wall paper, and added art elements, etc. Again this added to the size of the email file.

Bottom Line

Email etiquette is interesting. Should it be as formal as snail mail or as informal as twitter? Should you use abbreviations like LOL, FYI, etc? Is it OK to spam your friends? What do you think?

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Death by Crocodile

"See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile."
- Bill Haley

There are many odd ways to die. Being killed by a crocodile is unusual. Dieing in a plane crash is actually quite rare. (You are over 2000 times more likely to die in a car crash). Now combine the two, killed by a crocodile on an airplane, and you have a type of death that may be unique.

In August a small plane crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo killing 21 people aboard. It was obvious that the crash was caused by a loss of balance in the small aircraft while landing. Why unbalanced? The passengers where stampeding into the cockpit. Why the stampede? That was not so obvious until the lone survivor explained what happened.

A crocodile had escaped from a duffel bag that a passenger was smuggling it in. The terrified passengers and crew were trying to get away from the crocodile. (I wonder how big it was? I suppose even small crocs have big teeth.)  Ironically the croc survived the crash (but was killed afterwards.)

Bottom Line

Sometimes our response to a threat is more dangerous than the threat itself. Long ago I was driving the family car with my mother on board when a bee flew in the window. I started to panic and was watching the bee. My mother admonished me to keep my eyes on the road. A car crash would be far worse than a bee sting.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fire Drill

"Since the house is on fire let us warm ourselves." ~Italian Proverb

This week the fire alarm went off at the office. The first thought was, oh, not another drill. Then I remembered, I don't work in NYC anymore where drills are mandatory twice a year. Here in Stamford, CT, the alarm has only gone off once before in two years while it was being tested.

So I decided to treat this alarm as real. (My first mistake, don't delay! Always treat alarms as real!) My next thought was, what will I take with me? I should have taken my entire work bag which includes a first aid kit but I thought that would look silly. (That was my second mistake, never worry about appearances during an emergency or drill). As it turns out many other employees took their purses or work bags with them.

After a pause for thinking, I took a hat for warmth (my coat is in the car outdoors) and my reading glasses, and followed the crowd down the stairs and out the building.

My third mistake was to stop with the crowd just a few feet outside the building door. Someone wiser had to remind us to move farther away so that the entrance would be clear for emergency personnel.

Fortunately this was a drill (or false alarm) and we were allowed back in the office after a few minutes.

Bottom Line

Don't underestimate the importance of drills. After you evacuate, imagine the office or house is a total loss to fire. What is gone that you wish you had saved? Everyone makes mistakes and a drill is the best time to learn and correct one's actions.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

When GPS goes Bad

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson

I love GPS; my wife does not. She does not trust it and would rather use a paper map. And she's right. GPS is a great tool but never trust it 100%.

When we drove from NY to Winnipeg, Canada, last summer, the GPS led us to a bridge that no longer exists. We could see that there was once a bridge but it had been torn down and replaced by a new bridge perhaps a mile away. This was a case where we had to trust our eyes and overrule the GPS.

A similar event occurred to a man in Spain but with tragic result. Man Drowns After GPS Guides Him Into a Lake. "The driver was following the GPS directions when the car fell into the water, sinking in just a few minutes. Apparently, it was a very dark night in a bad rural road. The man was a foreigner who didn't know the area. When he saw the end of the road, it was too late. He didn't have time to stop the car."

The day before in Switzerland, a van became stuck on a "glorified goat trail" while following GPS instructions (pictured above). The van was air-lifted out.

A friend of ours said no one would believe that her GPS sent her on to dirt roads during a trip. We replied that we understood perfectly. The same happened to us last summer as we experience many dirt roads in the farm country of Wisconsin.  Many new GPS have a travel setting to exclude dirt roads from trip routes.

Another thing to keep in mind is that GPS positioning is not 100% accurate. We often find our GPS is about 100 yds off in predicting when to turn. Once I was on an access road adjacent to and parallelling a highway and the GPS thought I was on the highway and was not helping us in finding an on-ramp.
Bottom Line

Trust your eyes, not the GPS.

If you speed on strange roads at night or in fog you might not be able to brake or stop if the road suddenly curves or ends. I recall two such incidents. Once in the fog I was cruising down an empty road I'd never driven before when suddenly there was a barrier and the road ended without warning. (maybe I missed the warning?) Another time I drove nearly the entire North-South length of Idaho on a mountain highway. I thought the speed signs on curves were mostly for trucks and that I could safely do 10 mph higher than the suggested speed in my car. And I could, usually, except once. There was one very sharp curve that got my adrenaline pumping as I had to fight for control to keep my car within my lane and not drifting in to oncoming traffic. Lesson learned - don't speed on unfamiliar roads.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Delayed Gratification

“Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.” - Reynold's Law

The following quote from Instapundit is very insightful and worth considering...,
"The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them."
This the second time in a week I've seen a reference to the importance of delayed gratification to success in life. You may be familiar with the famous Marshmallow Study. In the 1960's Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return (about 15 minutes), they could have two marshmallows. The results were quite mixed and recreations of the test are fun to watch on YouTube (search for marshmallow study). A third of the kids devour the marshmallow the moment the researcher leaves the room. Another third are undecided - they stare at it, lick it, touch it, put it in and out of their mouth before giving in to temptation. A final third are able to wait the 15 minutes.

What makes the study famous is the follow-up after the test subjects graduated high school. The differences were dramatic:
"The resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.
Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratifciation This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsucessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives."
The failure of delayed gratification can be seen everywhere and is a leading cause of family poverty. About 65% of young people have sex by the time they finish high school. (This is same 2/3 who can not wait for marshmallows.) Clinton domestic policy advisor William Galston famously said “Avoiding family poverty requires three things: 1) finish high-school, 2) marry before having children and 3) marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor, while 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor."

See Ten Things Teens Should Know About Marriage.

Note that all three goals cited by Galston required delayed gratification and discipline. Ditto for the secret of staying out of debt, "Spend less than you earn".

Bottom Line

Charity handouts and government subsidies are life-savers as a one time thing when a family is in dire straits. But when subsidies are freely given to all (or worse yet given only to those who spend themselves into poverty), then the good intentions backfire and discourge discipline, hard-work, and savings.

Some studies are showing that a many as one million unemployed workers are choosing to stay unemployed so long the unemployment benefits keep coming. Why work when you don't have too? Likewise Welfare is a life choice for some. Through the Red Cross I met one family that was third generation Welfare living together; pooling their Welfare checks to live a decent life without working.

I'm reminded of the difference between cats and dogs. Dogs gulp all the food given them. Cats eat only what they want and come back later to finish it. Dogs are utterly loyal to and dependent upon the food giver. Cats are more independent. Our cats often catch their own food outdoors even though we provide moist food twice a day and plenty of dry food. 

Governments (old and new) rely on the "dogs" to keep them in power; loyalty and votes are "bought" with hand outs to people who "want it now" . Though this may be good for the rulers, it is bad policy for a nation.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bottled Water

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

Bottom Line

Should a wise man drink bottled water?

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rotating Food Storage

"If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith"
- 1 Timothy 5:8 (KJV)

If you build a food storage (and you should :-) it's important to rotate the food. By this I don't mean spinning cans or turning them upside down but rather establishing a system whereby you eat the oldest food first. This is not rocket science but it's not trivial either.

If your food package comes with a use-by date, wonderful! It is becoming much more common to see this. For dood without a date my wife uses a permanent marker to write the purchase month and year on the packaging. Even if the food comes with a expiration date you might want to lable the top or front with big easy to see numbers. It can be a chore tying to find and decipher dates on items.

Once you know the age of your food, you need to organize it. Back-to-front is popular, especially with cans. Put the new can in the back and take from the front. Moving the cans forward manually is a pain so there are many clever inventions online that put cans on a ramp so they automatically roll forward.
The picture at top shows a home made solution from
You can buy can organizes starting at $27 and going up to hundreds of dollars at sites like
Or checkout this 500 can system (homemade) hidden behind the family couch,

What about boxes? We use a left-to-right system, place new on left, take from the right. You will have to physically push the boxes to the right as you use them unless you use a "ring buffer". In computer programming a ring buffer is a list that loops back up itself to make a circle. Huh? you say. How can you tell where a circle starts and stops? For that you need a pointer or marker that moves.

Here's an example. Assume you have space for three items. The oldest item will be marked with a color sticker or rock or whatever. Items are purchased in alphabet ordering , a, b, c, d, ....
b a
c b a
c b d  (we use 'a' and mark the item to its left a the oldest. 'd' fills the gap left from 'a')
c e d  (use 'b' and fill gap with 'e'. Oldest is now 'c')
f e d   (can not move left from 'c' so we loop back to the start for the oldest item)

This system can be tricky to get used to but has the advantage that only the marker moves; no boxes need be pushed around.

Bottom Line

What food storage system works for you?

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Are You Rich?

"Being rich is having money; being wealthy is having time"
-Margaret Bonnano

During the .COM bubble I recall a young .COM startup entrepreneur lamenting that although he was rich, he was not super rich. What's the difference asked a reporter? The rich, the young man replied, can afford to fly on private jets, the super rich can buy private jets.

I was reminded of this while reading a follow-up story on called Now, More Criticism of the Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor. It began with the "Whiny Law Professor" whose family makes more than $250,000 a year and was worried how he will make ends meets if Obama raises taxes for the "wealthy". $250,000 can quickly disappear when paying for private schools, elite private universities, multiple mortgages for large homes, several expensive cars, and loans for graduate schools.

Whether you are rich or poor can depend on your point of view. I loved this comment on theAtlantic story,
My mom insisted "we weren't rich". I've been in the financial business for 30 years and I have learned a few things about where, exactly, someone making a quarter of a million dollars a year actually fits in the economic pecking order. So I laughed and said, "mom, seriously, dad was a physician. That had to put us in the top 5% of all families in the country, and the top 1% for downriver Detroit! Why do you think you're not wealthy?"

The answer was perfect. According to my mom, all of her friends, the women she played bridge and golfed with, were married to specialists. My dad was a GP. And their husbands all made a lot more money than, in my father's famous phrase, a "dumb GP". They were the rich. We were not. Like the professor, it's all about your frame of reference.
Bottom Line

Wealth is a state of mind. You can be unhappy and feel poor with piles of money or richly blessed with a loving family living on a shoestring budget.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

World War I is finally over!

"He Kept us Out of War."
– 1916 Democratic slogan for President Wilson during the election.
The US joined WWI under Wilson in 1917.

Here's an odd fact you're not likely to find in History Books. The final act of WWI occurred on September 26, 2010 — 92 years after the WWI officially ended. Last month Germany made its final payment of $94 million in war reparations “to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles.” Who knew Germany was still paying a 90-year-old war debt? I thought Hitler torn up the Treaty of Versailles when he started WWII.

Interestingly while WWI has an "official" ending date with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, no single date works for WWII. The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, V-E Day. Fighting in Asia continued until the announcement of Japan's surrender on 14 August 1945,  V-J Day; in Japan the date was 15 August due to time zone differences. Armistice was formalized on 2 September 1945 when Japan signed a document of surrender. However the official Treaty of Peace with Japan was not signed until 1951.

Bottom Line

Debt has consequences. The German wartime debt from WWI led to hyperinflation and loss in faith in the government which gave Hitler an opportunity to gain power. Today some fear that the US is at risk for hyperinflation given our record amount of debt and generous printing of money to "stimulate" the economy.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Leading causes of Death

“Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” -Robert Cody
A commenter on yesterday's post about heat deaths offered a link to a Cato-at-liberty story that cites a paper (Goklany) on the leading causes of death. What stood out for me was this quote,
"Note that despite the hoopla about natural weather disasters, they contribute less than 0.06% to the annual U.S. death toll!"
In other words, extreme heat & cold, floods, tornadoes, lightning and hurricanes, COMBINED, account for less than 1 in 1000 of all deaths in the US.

So what are people dieing of (besides old age)? The Goklany report based on World Health Organization data shows that in 2002, globally people died as follows:

59% Non-communicable illness (cancer 12%, heart attack 29%, lung diseases 7%, and other)

32% Communicable Diseases (including AIDS 5%, Tuberculosis 3%, Diarrhea 3%, parasites 6%, starvation 1%, childbirth 5%)

09% Injury (Traffic accidents 2%, Murder 1%, War 0.3%)

00.03%  Extreme Weather

Now consider, which deaths get all the media attention?

Bottom Line

There is a huge disconnect between the dangers we fear and the dangers we will actually face. Exercise and diet are more likely to prolong your life than hurricane preparation. But weight control is a life style change while disaster prep is a quick fix that we can do once and feel safer afterwards.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's Hot, Hot, Hot

“Some people change their ways when they see the light;
others when they feel the heat”
- Caroline Schoeder
What is the deadliest type of natural disaster? A supernova as pictured yesterday would top the list by frying the entire planet but we should be safe from that for several billion years. Other obvious candidates include hurricanes, massive earthquakes, and tidal waves. Hurricane Katrina may have killed 1700 people directly with a total of 4000 deaths if you include secondary causes. And yet according to a new book called "Hot Time in the Old Town" by professor Edward P. Kohn, the deadliest type of natural disaster in America is heat waves.
"We all enjoyed pictures of children playing in fountains and eating ice cream.  To the media, a heat wave means a holiday.  This obscures the sinister fact that heat waves are this country’s number one natural disaster killer. On average, heat kills more Americans than floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes combined. "
This summer Russian had a terrible heat wave that caused forest fires and burned wheat fields. American TV showed pictures of a smoke-choked Moscow but news agencies failed to mention the death count. The Moscow city government reported a doubling of deaths during the heat wave; every day three hundred additional people died over a period of  several weeks. This quickly adds up to a catastrophe.

The 1896 heat wave in New York City killed as many as thirteen hundred people who literally roasted to death in brick buildings. The media and the government basically ignored the emergency. The one person who took action was a young Theodore Roosevelt, President of the Board of Police Commissioners, who distributed free ice to the poor. No one learned anything from this and history continued to repeat itself. In 1972 as many as nine hundred people died during a New York heat wave.  The 1995 Chicago heat wave killed seven hundred, while a 2003 European heat wave killed over 50,000.

Bottom Line

Perhaps it was the 2003 European disaster that finally convinced cities to take heat waves seriously.
Today, most cities have heat wave response plans in place even before summer arrives.  Emergency cooling centers are set up in local community centers, and officials check on the elderly and chronically ill through phone calls and home visits. 
For more information on the risks of extreme heat check out these prior blog posts:

2008/08/hyperthermia   (note: hyper not hypo)

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"Space: the final frontier" - Star Trek

Check out this YouTube clip of a supernova filmed by the Hubble Space telescope over a period of two years.

Bottom Line

When I look at this I think, "it must be an artist rendering or a computer simulation." But we really have come a long way in our ability to see astronomical events.


Happy Anniversary to my wonderful wife!

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Change is Good - You Go First

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes
One truth that doesn't change it is that change is always opposed. In 15th-century Netherlands it is said that workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the new textile looms to break the cogs to stop the loss of older-style weaving jobs. Hence the word "sabotage". While this story may be fictional there is a long history of textile workers rebelling against new technology. Textile artisans in 19th century England followed the example of Ned Ludd and protested against the changing of their way of life by destroying mechanised looms. In modern usage a "Luddite" is anyone who opposes new technologies in general.

Examples of opposition to change are easy to find. The newspaper industry was terrified of radio when it was invented and for a decade refused to allow the Associated Press to sell news to radio. The AP only changed it mind after seeing the profit UPI was making from radio news. Likewise the media industry has predicted that each new technology would destroy it through pirating - VCRs, cassette tape, CDs, DVDs, iTunes, song sharing websites, etc. looks at a new law, "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act," (COICA) proposed by Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch. The bill would give the Justice Department the ability to avoid due process in shutting down or blocking access to sites deemed "dedicated to infringing activities." Techdirt looks at history for examples of infringement that might have been stopped if this law was applied.

  • Hollywood itself: Hollywood was set up on the distant west coast to avoid Thomas Edison's control of the movie making business with various patents. 

  • The recording industry: Modern US copyright law (1906) came out of fears by musicians that "recorded" music would destroy the market for real live musicians. Sheet music producers claimed that piano rolls for player pianos were infringing. 

  • Radio: Early radio was accused of being "dedicated to infringing activities" by paying free music.

  • Cable TV: Early cable companies offered network television to customers without paying the networks for it. What was "open air" was "free." Charlton Heston denounced cable as "depriving actors of compensation."

  • Photocopying machines: Xerox machines terrified the publishing industry in the 1950's. They denounced it as being dedicated to infringing activities. Some say the 1976 Copyright Act was in response to the Xerox machine. 

  • The VCR:  Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America,  famously said, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." 

  • Cassette tapes: "Home taping is killing music." - slogan of a 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

  • The MP3 player:  The Recording Industry Association of America tried to stop MP3 players with a lawsuit because it "stymies the market for . . . works and frustrates the development of legitimate digitally downloadable music."

  • The DVR: In 2001, TV companies sued, claiming that the Replay TV DVR was an "unlawful scheme" that "attacks the fundamental economic underpinnings of free television and basic nonbroadcast services"

  • Bottom Line

    There are some studies that claim change is essential for Capitalism; they call it "destructive" capitalism. The theory is that businesses want their products to wear out or be replaced by newer, "improved" versions so that consumers will buy the product again. Remember the ads for the lonely Maytag repairman? Our Maytag washer/dryer is over 20 years-old and going fine after a recent tune-up and belt change. But they don't make them like that anymore. There's no profit in it. I'm shocked when I buy a vacuum and the warranty is only good for one year.

    The media industry is conflicted when it comes to change. They actively promote new media players because you'll have to buy everything from them again. Think about owning your favorite song and rebuying it for a 76 LP, 45 LP, 8-track tape, cassette tape, CD, and now iTunes and ring tone. The song is the same but you keep putting out the money to keep up with technology to the profit of the music industry. What the media industry fears is any technology that allows you to make your own private copy of songs without paying them again. Why buy the cassette or CD from them when you can record it yourself from the album you already own?

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    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Please don't eat the polar bear

    "Millions of Americans take vitamins safely every day, including me. Vitamins and mineral supplements taken in recommended doses are safe. It's the designer supplements that are worrisome."
    - Dick Durbin, US Senator.  

    Today I learned an odd bit of trivia - twice - from two different sources. The first source is the Teaching Company lecture series, Nutrition Made Clear. The other source is, Providing Crucial Fats and Oils in Your Diet. Apparently Polar Bear liver is dangerous. "A quarter-pound of polar bear liver contains about 2,250,000 units of vitamin A. That is roughly 450 times the recommended daily dose for an adult weighing 175 pounds.)" - Eating more than a quarter ounce of polar bear liver per month can cause vitamin A poisoning.

    Vitamin A, along with D, E and K, are fat soluble meaning they are absorbed into the body's fat and stay there until the body needs them. A massive overdose of these vitamins can be fatal. It's also dangerous to greatly exceed the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) every day (without a Dr's OK). The excess is stored in the body and may reach toxic levels over time.

    So how about the water soluble vitamins like the B's and C? Everyone knows these are safe in large doses. Wrong. The lecture series Nutrition Made Clear tells the story of a gymnast who was given a massive dose of B6 for an energy boost. Unknown to the coach, a B6 overdose causes numbness in hands and/or feet (and can be fatal). The gymnast fell from the parallel bars and suffered a spinal injury that ended her career.

    Vitamin C is popular in mega-doses to fight colds but there is little medical evidence that this is effective. At best C will end a cold sooner but not prevent it. Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, kidney stones, hot flashes, headache, insomnia and tiredness.

    Bottom Line

    I often hear people say, it's natural so it must be healthy. They forget belladonna is 100% natural but very deadly. So are some wild mushrooms and puffer fish. I would not want to eat Poison Ivy or inhale it.

    Also you'll hear, "if a little is good, more is better" when it comes to minerals and vitamins. Here's a short list of vitamin overdose symptoms.

  • Vitamin A overdose:
    Blurred vision, dizziness, ringing in the ears, headache, insomnia, irritability, apathy, stupor, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, joint pain, menstrual irregularities, fatigue, liver damage, abnormal bone growth, damage to the nervous system.

  • D vitamin overdose:
    Calcium deposits, deafness, nausea, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, kidney stones, weak bones, hypertension, high cholesterol

  • E vitamin overdose:
    Pulmonary embolism, hypertension, muscular weakness, severe fatigue, breast tenderness, slow wound healing

  • Niacin vitamin overdose:
    Acute flushing, peptic ulcers, liver dysfunction, gout, faintness, dizziness, tingling of fingertips, arrhythmia's, hyperglycemia

  • B6 vitamin overdose:
    Problems with sense of position and vibration, reduced tendon reflexes, numbness in hands and feet, problems walking, problems with memory, depression, headache and tiredness

  • C vitamin overdose:
    Taking mega doses for too long may lead to scurvy when mega doses are discontinued, kidney stones, hot flashes, headache, insomnia and tiredness.

  • Calcium overdose:
    Depresses nerve function, can cause drowsiness, calcium deposits, and kidney stones

  • Iron overdose:
    Damages liver, heart, and pancreas

  • Zinc overdose:
    Fixed facial expression, difficulty walking, slurred speech, hand tremor, involuntary laughter

  • Cobalt overdose:
    Goiter, heart damage

  • Selenium overdose:
    Nausea, vomiting, fatigue, irritability, loss of fingernails and toenail.
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    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Riding the Brakes

    “When you step on the brakes your life is in your foot's hands”
    -George Carlin

    “I couldn't repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder”
    -Steven Wright (?)

    Today I'd like to further investigate automotive braking. Proper braking is a skill that can be specific to your car. The rules for dealing with a skid is different for front-drive and rear-drive cars. Do you turn into the skid or away from it? How about the rule of "pumping" the brakes for an emergency stop to avoid skidding? Today this is the wrong thing to do in cars with Anti-Lock Brakes; you need to push the pedal to the floor and let the brakes automatically pump themselves.

    There are many bad habits of braking. The most common is "riding the brakes." This means constantly or frequently applying the brake with many light taps. The worst case is two foot drivers with a foot on each the brake and gas. Don't do this! Hitting the gas and brake at the same time can damage your car.

    The opposite of brake riding is a "brake check." This means hitting the brake very abruptly with a lot of force. "Brake checks" can cause serious accidents when the driver behind you is unable to respond quickly enough and rear-ends your car. Brake checks should be used only for emergencies when you're about to hit something or someone in front of you.

    Do you brake while turning a corner? This can actually cause loss of control on a curve. The best practice 90% of the time is to apply the brakes before the curve or corner, make the turn, than apply the accelerator.

    The properly amount of brake pressure may be more art than science. Or a bit like Goldilocks. Not too light (riding) but not too heavy either. You have to discover the amount of pressure that is just right for the situation. The most brake pressure is needed when you first brake because the inertia is greatest; you can and should lighten your touch on the brake as you slow down. Many people drive the opposite - start with a light touch on the brake and stop hard at the end.

    Bottom Line

    Like any skill you ought to practice braking. Just about everyone underestimates the distance required to come to a full stop. Visit an empty parking lot (e.g. a church and school that is closed), pick a line in the middle of lot that is clear of obstacles like light poles or curbs, and practise stopping before crossing that line. Try this on dry pavement, wet pavement after a storm and on icy pavement.


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    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    When Brakes go Bad

    “When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife.”
    Last week I took my car to a mechanic to examine why the maintenance light had come on. I figured it was just a routine warning for a check-up at 75,000 miles and had driven the car for several weeks, over 1000 miles, since the light had come on since everything seemed fine to me. Imagine my surprise learning that one of the front brakes had warped and locked-up. Now I knew braking was funny and I had to exert more force than normal but I thought it was the tires going bald. No clue that I was driving with just one working brake in front.
    It can be argued that brakes are the most important safety feature on a car; seat belts and airbags are important but brakes are the first line of defense in NOT hitting something. Brakes wear out with use, but they do so slowly, meaning you may not notice they need attention until it's too late.
    The most obvious indicator of brake wear is an incredibly high pitched squeal when you come to a stop; like fingernails on a chalkboard. Brake pads include a little piece of metal that rubs against the metal rotor when the pad wears down to ¼ inch or less. When you hear this sound, under normal driving, the brake needs to be replaced within the month. If you wait too long, the metal indicator in the pad will cut a groove and the rotor will have to be smoothed or replaced. Occasionally, the indicator falls off and the pad wears with no warning noise. If it takes longer to stop than it used to, or if the brake pedal travels farther down than it used to, get your brakes checked.
    Rotors should last through two or three pad replacements. However if your steering wheel wiggles in your hands when you come to a stop, your rotors are probably "warped." A warped rotor causes braking vibration or pulsation. This is what happened to my car.
My mechanic attempted to "turn" my rotors by shaving off enough metal to make them smooth again but they were too warped and had to be replaced. Interestingly the “warp” can be very, very small; the faces of a disc brake rotor must be parallel (within .0005 inch on most cars) and flat (no more than about .002 to .005 inches of variance.)
    One site described the rotor as the white center of an Oreo cookie being squeezed by the two dark cookie brake pads. The brake rotor can become "warped" due to normal wear and tear; most newer cars have very thin rotors which warp easily. Rotors can also warp by throwing cold water on a hot brake; for example driving through a puddle of water on the exit ramp after a long freeway trip and then applying the brakes.
    Your brakes will last longer if you…
    •Avoid "riding" your brakes.  Slow down with brief moderate pressure and release the brake to cool instead of keeping a long steady pressure on the brakes and overheating them. I’m guilty of riding my brakes – I like a smooth stop.
    •On steep downgrades downshift your engine gear (but only do this when road traction conditions are good to avoid skidding.)  Downshifting lets your engine do some of the braking instead of your brakes.
    Bottom Line
    Top Ten Signs of Brake Wear:
    1.   High pitched squealing
    2.   Vibration in the steering wheel when stopping
    3.   Grinding noises when stopping
    4.   Increased braking distances
    5.   Longer pedal travel
    6.   Feeling the car "pull" to the left or right when stopping
    7.   A weak emergency brake
    8.   A bad smell after coming to a hard stop
    9.   Pedal "fade"
    10. Not stopping

    Web Links

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    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Fire Safety

    "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington

    I'm reminded by the Red Cross that this is Fire Safety Week. I recommend printing out this Red Cross page and having each family member read it.

    The Red Cross knows about fires. When my wife & I were active disaster responders, every event but one that we assisted was a fire (the one exception was a regional flood). Here are some highlights from the fact sheet.

    1. Sixty-five percent of home fire deaths occur in homes with no working smoke alarms.
    2. Smoke alarms are worse than useless if the battery is dead. Check the alarm monthly and change batteries twice a year.
    3. The most common causes of home fires are: kitchen fires starting in the oven/stove, space heaters igniting something nearby, falling asleep while smoking a cigarette, children playing with matches.

    I was surprised by the Red Cross statement on fire extinguishers, "Use a portable fire extinguisher ONLY if you have been trained by the fire department and ..." This seems overly restrictive to me but it does drive home a few points:
    a. you MUST practice with fire extinguisher. They run out quickly and many people will use them incorrectly (for example spraying the flames when they need to spray the base of the fire instead).
    b. a typical home extinguisher is limited to fires up to the size of a basketball or small trash can. It will not extinguish a burning couch or bed or Christmas tree that is completely aflame.
    c. Safety first - before you play the hero with the extinguisher and die of smoke inhalation, get the family out first and make sure 9-1-1 is called.

    Bottom Line

    Here are some earlier posts I've written on fires...





    fire!  (the speed and intensity of fires)



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    Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    Fruits of Obamacare

    “Insurance: An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.”
    - Ambrose Bierce
    The Washington Post reports that, "Some of the country's most prominent health insurance companies have decided to stop offering new child-only plans, rather than comply with rules in the new health-care law that will require such plans to start accepting children with preexisting medical conditions after Sept. 23." Existing policies will be honored but no new child-only polices. An industry spokesman points out that with no right of refusal, parents can "wait until their child becomes very sick before purchasing coverage." Under Obamacare, child-only plans could rapidly skew towards mostly children with expensive medical bills, either bankrupting the plans or forcing insurers to make up their losses by increasing premiums for all customers.

    The skewing of insurance to the very sick is already happening in Massachusetts where anyone can buy health insurance last second. Many individuals buy when sick and cancel after treatment. In Massachusetts it is cheaper to pay the uninsured penalty than pay for coverage when not needed. Health care advocates can yell and scream, "[It] is immoral, and to blame their appalling behavior on the new law is patently dishonest." But it is the advocates who are dishonest. The Health Insurance is a for profit business, not a charity, and the advocates conveniently forget how Insurance companies work.

    The theory behind insurance is simple: spread the risks of a few amongst the many. The sick are subsidized by the many healthy who are paying in. Just like Social Security for retirement is covered by the many employed paying in. Imagine that the aging population reaches the point where 50% of all adults in America are retired seniors. Then every person on Social Security would be funded by one working person. A working person would have to earn enough for his/her own family plus taxes plus enough to give a retiree a living income plus the overhead cost of a government bureaucracy managing the money. That just not feasible. Likewise with heath insurance, the system collapses if mostly the sick are the only ones making payments since each sick person is receiving back more than they are paying in.

    A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services says, "We expect [insurance companies] to honor that commitment. Insurers shouldn't break their promise and turn their backs on some of our most vulnerable Americans." This is just absurd. There is no promise, no commitment, there is only business and the new law allows families to "game" the system and violate the priciple of insurance with a large pool where many contribute but only a few collect.

    People may think the insurance model is "unfair". But it is no different than lottery systems or any gambling business. Many pay a small amount with the hope of a big payout. The size of the payout and the odds of winning are carefully balanced against the number of people paying. The lottery system would collaspe if there were "high risk" individuals who were super lucky and frequently picked winning numbers. The lottery would want to ban these individuals just like Casinos ban card counters from Black Jack or anyone else they think is having above average luck at winning. Obamacare is equivalent to telling the Lottery and Casinos that they must accept all players no matter how "lucky" they are. In response I would expect Casinos to stop playing Black Jack to prevent losses from card counters.

    Bottom Line

    The Washington Post article ends by pointing out that "most poor children with preexisting conditions already qualify for insurance through programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. And those who are not poor will be able to apply to new high-risk pools established by the law."  Also the insurers who will stop child-only policies will still accept children with pre-existing conditions with new family plans. The healthy family members help cover the costs of the sick child.

    The idea that insurers "turn their backs" on sick children is just spin. What has happened is that government has changed the law in such a way that child-only policies may become unprofitable. Insurers are jumping ship before they get stuck with a loss for these specialized policies. Families may still buy family policies.

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    Monday, October 4, 2010

    Best Way to Dry Your Hands

    "Wouldn't you give your hand to a friend"
    - lyrics to Midnight Blue has a brief health notice on drying your hands.  Common sense would say that air dryers are cleanest but a medical study has found that For clean hands, don't rub, scrub with a paper towel.
    "When you rub your hands, you bring a lot of bacteria to the surface from the pores of your skin," says Anna Snelling of the University of Bradford, UK.
    In the study bacteria counts on the hands changed as follows after washing:

    Air Dry with hand rubbing - bacteria up 18%
    Air Dry without hand rubbing - bacteria down 37%
    Drying hands with a paper towel - bacteria down 50%

    Bottom Line

    Towels work best because they actually scrape off bacteria from the skin.

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    Friday, October 1, 2010

    What did TARP accomplish?

    "If some banks are thought to be too big to fail, then, in the words of a distinguished American economist, they are too big. It is not sensible to allow large banks to combine high street retail banking with risky investment banking or funding strategies, and then provide an implicit state guarantee against failure."
    Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England
    Matt Welch at looks at TARP (the big government Troubled Asset Relief Program to save our nations banks and US car makers) and asks, what did it accomplish? There are some who claim it was a big success - but measured against what criteria? That things could be worse? That the economy did not completely and utterly collapse?

    Here is what President Bush said would happen if the US Congress failed to take "immediate action" to spend $356 billion to save the banks...
    More banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. And if you own a business or a farm, you would find it harder and more expensive to get credit. More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs. Even if you have good credit history, it would be more difficult for you to get the loans you need to buy a car or send your children to college. And ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession.
    Keep in mind this was said towards the end of 2008. What has happened since? Money was given to Banks, two US car companies purchased, a huge Stimulus bill approved, and still every single item in this list has occurred.

    Bottom Line

    The Government (Republican and Democrat) simply has no clue how to fix an ailing economy. The government can feed people via welfare & unemployment insurance, it can provide some limited number of temporary jobs outside of civil service, but it can not, by itself, prevent a recession or turn it around. In fact government intervention just makes recessions worse by creating uncertainty and propping up failed businesses to complete with successful businesses. Money is spent to "save jobs" because this makes voters happy but in the long run they are upsetting maket forces that reward the talented companies and punish the inefficient under the flag "Too Big to Fail". Many of these businesses are failing for a reason - throwing money at them just postpones the inevitable.

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