Thursday, March 31, 2011

30-day Challenges

Matt Cutts
"30 days is enough time to build a habit"
- Matt Cutts
About a month ago on one of my favorite blogs I read about a recent TED talk regarding self-improvement through 30-day challenges. I showed it to my wife who thought it was a great idea. Then a few days later we tried to find the post and could not find it. We tried Google and searched the archives of blogs we frequent but no luck. Today I tried Google again and found it. When an idea becomes popular it will rise in Google ranking so it pays to retry.

The talk was by Matt Cutts, who heads Google’s Webspam team, at TED University. The presentation is not online yet but Matt keeps a blog on the topic at

The first entry is June 2009,
30 days is enough time to build a habit. Last month, I started trying to walk 10,000 steps a day for 30 days. I didn’t walk 10K steps every day, but I did keep at it until I’d walked over 10K steps for at least 30 days. In the process, I discovered that walking to the grocery store can be a relaxing way to unwind and get some exercise. I’m just now wrapping up an effort to not watch any television for 30 days.
Each month Matt sets a new personal challenge. They have included:

- Biking to work
- Reading 15 books in 30 days (he managed 12). His wife tries to read 50 pages every days and loves it.
- Not using Microsoft software (find alternatives to everything MS, can you tell he works for Google?)
- A digital cleanse, no twitter, no facebook, no email outside of work
- No iPhone
- Write a novel in 30 days
- meditate 10-15 minutes every day
- 30 days with no caffeine
- 30 days with no sugar. Matt says, "That was hard. My wife and I did this one together and it was the roughest."
- get my finances in order
- Take a picture every day
- A new word a day

Future ideas include:

- 30 days as a vegetarian.
- read the Bible (or the Qur’an) in 30 days
- 30 days of trying to learn to play guitar.
- try one new thing a day for 30 days.
- draw something everyday for 30 days.
- try polyphasic sleep for 30 days.
- go 30 days spending as little money as possible.
- learn as much of a new language as possible in 30 days.
- no complaining
- learn to sing

Bottom Line

We're going to try this at my home. For April we have picked home improvement. A task everyday to clean-up or straighten the house and prepare the garden for spring planting. We recently had some interior rooms repainted which led to changing the furniture arrangement, different items hung on the walls, and disorder in all the other rooms where stuff was put while the living room was painted. We hope that the house will sparkle by the end of April.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lateral Thinking

Vizzini: He didn't fall? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
- from the book/movie The Princess Bride
Have you every noticed how different puzzles test different skills? I'm pretty good at jig-saw puzzles (pattern matching) and logical puzzles like Sudoku (math/logic). I don't like Rubiks's cube (memorization of sequences?).  Then there's a type of puzzle I love for it's cleverness, a way of thinking that is so different than my math/computer skills. These are out-of-the-box or "Lateral" thinking puzzles.

I often find that I over calculate and over complicate when the solution is actually quite simple. In college I got a C on a math assignment where I turned in 5 or 6 pages of work. A friend got an A. I asked to see his solutions which turned out to be a single page, front and back. I realized then that I was missing the big picture (and that more was not better).

Recently I volunteered to help move a collection of canned food that was piled up on a table at church. I grabbed serveal cans and recruited others to help carry. Someone more clever than I teamed up with a second person to carry the entire table with food to where it needed to go.

How are you at finding simple solutions? Here are some examples of Lateral Thinking puzzles from

1.  There is a man who lives on the top floor of a very tall building. Everyday he gets the elevator down to the ground floor to leave the building to go to work. Upon returning from work though, he can only travel half way up in the lift and has to walk the rest of the way unless it's raining!

2. A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies on the scene, but the child is rushed to the hospital. When he arrives the surgeon says, "I can't operate on this boy, he is my son! " How can this be?

3. A man is wearing black. Black shoes, socks, trousers, coat, gloves and ski mask. He is walking down a back street with all the street lamps off. A black car is coming towards him with its light off but somehow manages to stop in time. How did the driver see the man?

6. A man went to a party and drank some of the punch. He then left early. Everyone else at the party who drank the punch subsequently died of poisoning. Why did the man not die?

7. A man died and went to Heaven. There were thousands of other people there. They were all naked and all looked as they did at the age of 21. He looked around to see if there was anyone he recognized. He saw a couple and he knew immediately that they were Adam and Eve. How did he know?

8. A woman had two sons who were born on the same hour of the same day of the same year. But they were not twins. How could this be so?

9. A man walks into a bar and asks the barman for a glass of water. The barman pulls out a gun and points it at the man. The man says 'Thank you' and walks out.

10. A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven't eaten in 3 years. Which room is safest for him?

11. A woman shoots her husband. Then she holds him under water for over 5 minutes. Finally, she hangs him. But 5 minutes later they both go out together and enjoy a wonderful dinner together. How can this be?

12. There are two plastic jugs filled with water. How could you put all of this water into a barrel, without using the jugs or any dividers, and still tell which water came from which jug?

14. Can you name three consecutive days without using the words Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? (or day names in any other language)

15. This is an unusual paragraph. I'm curious how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so plain you would think nothing was wrong with it. In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is unusual though. Study it, and think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. But if you work at it a bit, you might find out.

Bottom Line

The answers can be found at
But don't peak until you've given it some thought!

The Princess Bride is a delightful book/movie full of witty quotes that make you think.

Westley: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well... you were dead.


[In the sail boat]
Inigo Montoya: He's right on top of us. I wonder if he is using the same wind we are using.


Inigo Montoya: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.
Man in Black: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.


[On entering the fire swamp of inescable death]
Buttercup: We'll never survive.
Westley: Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has.


Fezzik: Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid, or something like that?
Man in Black: Oh no, it's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Odds of Dying

"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
- Benjamin Franklin, 1789
When we prioritize emergency planning there are two factors at odds with each other. One is the risk of death. The other is the disruption to our daily life, well being, belongings, etc. Too often we focus on the second because a burning house or massive flood is much flashier, more "news worthy" than one person dying.

Here are two excellent graphs on everyone's odds of dying with circles or squares drawn to scale.

Look at the size of Heart Disease, Cancer & Stroke before we reach the first "accident" type death, Motor Vehicle Accident. For emergency preparedness I have blogged about Floods, Earthquakes, and Lightning but notice how unlikely these are to kill someone.

Over the next few weeks I'll try to work in stories about the top Killers:
  • What to do for Heart Attack and Strokes?
  • Cancer Awareness - self examinations, protection from the sun and Tanning booths
  • Motor Vehicle Safety (seat belts, driving while texting or cell phone, driving while sleepy, hydropaning, inspecting your tires for wear, worn brakes, etc)
  • What to do when Poisoned (not much to say actually except call the poison hotline, different poisons require different responses)
  • Trips & Falls Hazards
Bottom Line

Keep in mind that preparedness has two roles. One is avoidance & prevention. The other is mitigation to lessen the impact or promote a more rapid recovery.

With Prevention we try to keep accidents from happening - removing fire and tripping hazards from the home, better diet & exercise, pruning that big tree limb next to the house, keeping your car's tires and brakes in good repair, etc.

With Mitigation we take action now to lessen the impact of a future disaster. This can include buying insurance, boarding the windows before a storm, backing up important computer files and legal paperwork, fire drills, having a family contact plan.

Both can be applied to death. We want to prevent accidents and avoid lifestyles that lead to early death with some of the actions described above. For death mitigation you need a Will and also Estate Planning. Have you purchased a grave site? Does your family have access to or even know about the banks and brokerages where your money is stored? Do you have life insurance?

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Warehouse Psychological Tricks has discovered 7 Ways Warehouse Clubs Get You Hooked on Buying in Bulk
I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist. 
~Tammy Faye Bakker

1. Low prices
Low priced items attract shoppers. A warehouse can sell at prices near cost and still make a profit from the annual membership fees.

2. No music
There’s no fast music to make you shop faster.

3. Large sizes that look like deals
We are taught that bigger is better so Warehouses often supply huge sizes and quantities of products that are not what we are used to. You have to look at the unit prices to see you are actually getting a deal. And even a great unit price will be a poor buy if some of the food spoils before you can use it.

4. Product placement
Tech equipment like computers provide little profit margin, so stores put these in front to encourage rapid turnover. The Hot Spot for buying is the ends of aisles, or "end caps" as they’re known. Signage will claim the featured end caps are great bargains but check twice before grabbing the product.

5. A treasure hunt
Warehouses are designed to make you walk through as much as possible, hunting for items, in the hopes something will catch your eye for an impulse purchase. Some people enjoy the Treasure Hunt of finding "hidden" bargains.

6. Survival of the fittest
Warehouses can be a pain with parking, lines, self carting, etc. "It’s not an easy trip, so once there, you might as well make the best of it and buy as much as you can so that you don’t have to do another trip soon."

7. Customized deals
The Sam’s Club program, which requires an extra annual fee, uses predictive analytics on past purchases to determine which items would be attractive specifically to you, and then offers you discounts on those items.

Bottom Line

Buy only what you need. Don't be fooled into buying more than you need.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Unclaimed Property

“Well, you know, I was a human being before I became a businessman.”
- George Soros
The Consumerist recommends, a free non-profit site that's a convenient portal for searching for unclaimed property state by state. You pick a state and opens the official state website for unclaimed property searches.

Here's some info from's Q&A page:

What is unclaimed property?"Unclaimed property (sometimes referred to as abandoned) refers to accounts in financial institutions and companies that have had no activity generated or contact with the owner for one year or a longer period. Common forms of unclaimed property include savings or checking accounts, stocks, uncashed dividends or payroll checks, refunds, traveler's checks, trust distributions, unredeemed money orders or gift certificates (in some states), insurance payments or refunds and life insurance policies, annuities, certificates of deposit, customer overpayments, utility security deposits, mineral royalty payments, and contents of safe deposit boxes."

What happens to accounts that have no activity?"Companies are required by law to send funds from lost accounts to the state of the owner's last known address. "
"Most states hold lost funds until you are found, returning them to you at no cost or for a nominal handling fee upon filing a claim form and verification of your identity. Since it is impossible to store and maintain all of the contents that are turned over from safe deposit boxes, most states hold periodic auctions and hold the funds obtained from the sale of the items for the owner. Some states also sell stocks and bonds and return the proceeds to the owner in the same manner."

There are "Finder" companines that will charge you to search or notify you of money found in exchange for a finder's fee. But they don't have any more information than is available free to the public, so why pay them when you can find it yourself?

Bottom Line

How do I keep my property from becoming lost in the future?"Property becomes lost due to a company having no communication with the owner. You should contact institutions that hold your money or property every year and especially when there is an address change or change in marital status. For security reasons, most financial institutions do not forward mail. Keep accurate financial records and record all insurance policies, bank account numbers with bank names and addresses, types of accounts, stock certificates, and rent and utility deposits."
  • Cash all checks for dividends, wages, and insurance settlements without delay.
  • Respond to requests for confirmation of account balances and stockholder proxies.
  • If you have a safe deposit box, record its number, bank name and address, and give the extra key to a trusted person.
  • Finally, prepare and file a will detailing the disposition of your assets.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

No Cook Meal Ideas

"Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we're in the mood
Cold jelly and custard!"
- from the musical "Oliver"

In case of prolonged power outages, major snow storms, massive flooding, chemical spill, terrorist attack, etc. you may need to shelter inside your house for several days. The old rule-of-thumb was 3 days of supplies (72-hour kit) but since Hurricane Katrina that rule has been increased to 5 to 7 days of food and water and back-up power/light/heat.

When I visit a grocery store I'm amazed at the variety of ready-to-serve meals that require just a little time in a microwave, oven or boiling water. But suppose you did not have any of those options? What can you store and eat that does not require cooking?
  • Protein/Granola Bars
  • Trail Mix/Cereal/Dried Fruit/Seeds  (not premixed since this goes stale quickly. We keep boxes of cereal, nuts, raisins, etc. and can mix them when needed)
  • Crackers (use in place of bread for sandwiches. We like Matzoh bread. You can buy 5 lb box very cheaply after Passover and they last forever - if they go stale, who can tell the difference?)
  • Peanut butter  (Jelly works too but buy small jars because you won't be able to refrigerate the jelly/jam after opening)
  • Canned meats like Tuna, Turkey, Beef, Vienna Sausages, etc.
  • Beef Jerky
  • Canned Fruit, Applesauce
  • Pickles
  • Canned Juice, Boxed Juice, V-8 Juice
  • Canned Vegetables (these are precooked and could be eaten raw if you had too. Or mix them into Tuna for a cracker spread)
  • Candy/Gum (watch out for soft candies that can melt like Jolly Ranchers or chocolate)
Consider also keeping in stock these perisable items that will last a few days without power:
  • Pita bread, flatbread or tortillas
  • Bag of carrots
  • Hard Cheeses & individually packaged sticks of mozzarella string cheese
  • Fresh fruit
  • Summer sausage or hard salami-- cans of german-style potato salad (it's made with a vinegary dressing and bacon bits, add cut-up summer sausage and diced sun-dried tomatoes and it's a tasty and filling casserole "salad") Be sure and bring a can opener if this isn't pop-top
  • Cookies
  • Hard-boiled eggs (eat them within the first day or two)
Bottom Line

Some people like to fill #10 cans with non-perishable emergency rations from the list above. But if you mix foods beware of strong odors. Mint candy, Teriyaki Jerky, Irish Springs soap, etc., can flavor all the other foods when packaged together.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wilderness Medicine

“The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness”
-John Muir
Today I'll send you to a lecture on Emergency First Aid for the Wilderness. It's a hour-long lecture which begin at 2:20 on the YouTube video.

The lecturer begins with the ABC's, Airway, Breathing, Circulation, but gives far more details than I have ever heard from the Red Cross training.

Bottom Line

This could save a life.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Smart-phone Apps

"O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"
Shakespeare's, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1
I love the information explosion that modern technology makes possible. Twenty years ago I bought reference works, maps, etc to gather facts. Now it's all at my fingertips on the Internet.

On the flip side, I hate spending lots of money on technology. So I wait for prices to come down which can mean waiting several years. For example, my phone is NOT a smart phone. They look fun and perhaps will be within my budget soon. My cellphone contract expires this month so who knows what I'll get as the upgrade.

If you have a smart-phone you may appreciate this article by the Christian Science Monitor,
"The current generation of iPhones and Android phones have processors that are about 500 times faster than the computer onboard the Apollo Lunar Module (with the added benefit of not weighing 70 pounds). All this computing power can be used to tackle ... humanity's most vexing problems:"
10. Solving a Rubik’s Cube

9. Creating fine art (the May 2009 cover of the New Yorker was made on a smart phone)

8. Avoiding police speed traps

7. Performing live music on the subway

6. Piloting an augmented-reality drone quadricopter

5. Monitoring earthquakes
"Researchers at Berkeley have developed an app that uses the accelerometer in your phone to measure the intensity of an earthquake."
4. Solving Sudoku puzzles

3. Annoying teenagers
 An iPhone app named "Annoy-a-Teen" emits frequencies above 16 kHz that only children can hear.

2. Piloting a satellite
British researchers have developed an 8-pound satellite with a smartphone as its brain: The STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator).

1. Blowing out a candle
 The app "Blower" uses the smart phone speaker to create a very weak fan effect.

Bottom Line

What new uses have you discovered for a smart phone?

Check out!5781077/the-apps-you-need-to-prepare-yourself-for-a-disaster for low cost apps that give emergency & First Aid advice.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Radiation Exposure

“The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”
- Albert Einstein
With nuclear meltdowns in Japan, there's a lot of talk about Radiation Exposure. And it's very confusing. While researching I came across measurements in millisieverts, mircosieverts, Grays, and millirems so just dealing with units was tricky. And then there's the question, what level of radiation is "normal" or "safe"?

Let's start with units. Radiation dosages are measured in sieverts. A Sievert represents an effective radiation dose so one Sievert "produces the same biological effect" regardless of the type or size of the radiation particle. Since Sieverts are so large you'll normally see mSv (millisieverts).
1000 mSv = 1 Sievert.
You'll also see microsieverts for hourly measurements (for example Tokyo was experiencing 1.0 to  0.6 microsieverts per hour last week).
1,000,000 micorsievert = 1000 mSv = 1 Sievert

And then there are Rems.  1 Sievert is 100 Rems.

Less confused yet? Let's look at radiation exposure. According to
Radiation is emitted from all sorts of sources. Cosmic rays, radon, x-rays, brazil nuts, granite. Just living in a high-elevation city like Denver gets you a higher dose because there’s less atmosphere to block radiation. The granite in Grand Central Station and the uranium-laced stone used to build the U.S. Capitol Building supposedly give off enough radiation that if they were nuclear power plants they wouldn’t pass licensing.
Here are some radiation comparisons using millisieverts, mSv:

.001 = extra hourly exposure in Tokyo last week (equal to radiation from one cigarette)
.01 = Dental x-ray
.036 = eating one banana
.04 = one chest x-ray
.4 = one Mammogram
2 = natural radiation exposure every year (.24 from comic rays)
9 = extra yearly exposure for airline crew (increased cosmic rays)
13 = yearly dose from smoking 1.5 packs a day
16 = one CT scan for heart, abdomen or pelvis
100 = yearly dose at which the increase in cancer risk is clearly evident
100 = recommended limit over 5 years for Nuclear Plant workers
400 = hourly level at Fukushima plant that forced workers to withdraw
1,000 = not fatal in a single dosage but will cause radiation sickness
6,000 = level for Chernobyl workers who died within a month
10,000 = fatal within weeks

Bottom Line

It's hard to grasp the range of values in the chart above (a factor of 10,000,000 from lowest to highest). One site compared exposure to cigarettes which are slightly radioactive (.001 mSv). Others use Banana Equivalent Dosage (BED) where one banana is (.036 mSv).  So the increased risk in Tokyo is equal to eating an extra banana every day and a half.

This helps put things into perspective.

Additional Resource (Idaho State University - amazing amount of information about relative risks)

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Food Storage is Important

‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste’ -  Rahm Emanuel
The tragic events in Japan show why Food Storage is so important. Everyone needs to be able to care for their own family's needs for at least one week. And longer is better. See my post from last year for recommendations on a 3-month supply.

Despite being one of the best prepared nations on Earth, the AP reports That there are millions of persons in their fourth day without electricity or power. The government is overwhelmed and can not take care of everyone days after the event.

No nation can support millions of survivors overnight. In Westchester county with a population of nearly 1 million we would be lucky to find 3000 cots for the Red Cross to shelter families. It takes a lot of time to fly or ship supplies on this scale. And the conditions are less than favorable with local roads, bridges, airports & ports damaged or destroyed.

Japan is demonstrating every possible disaster scenario.

1. Those on the coast have suffered total devastation and loss. Their entire house may be gone, washed away. They must rely on the government, International Red Cross, or friends/family/church for food and shelter. Families who live on higher ground with more than a week supply will have something to share with those who have nothing.

2.  185,000 persons living near the Fukushima nuclear reactors have been ordered to evacuate. Did they have go-kits to grab? How much time did they have to pack? If a plant melts down, will they ever be allowed to return?

3. Persons within 12 miles of the nuclear plants (but outside the evac zone) have been ordered to stay inside their homes. This is where you absolutely need a week supply of food for the family. Do you really want to risk exposure to radiation because your cupboards are bare?

4. Families further away must repair earthquake damage and get by without water & power. Again a small food store will be a major blessing because local stores are quickly emptied and may be slow to restock after a disaster. See my post, Out of Stock.

Bottom Line

There are claims of 10,000 dead in Japan. This could have been tens times worse but for the earthquake drills and preparedness of the residents.

Our prayers go out to all the families affected.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Google Crisis Support

"I used to sleep nude - until the earthquake."
Alyssa Milano (American Actress)
Back in 2008 (Hide and Seek) I blogged about ways to find missing persons and/or let others know that you are alive after a disaster. For example there is a people finding service run by the Red Cross at

Today I learned that Google also supports a people finding service just for major disasters like
Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake, and
Japan's earthquake and tsunami

Google has also a great resource site for the Japanese quake at Google Crisis Response

(The resource page for Christchurch is

The creator of the website wrote this,
As someone who experienced the Kobe earthquake 16 years ago when I was at university, I cannot forget the immediate desire for information. There was no way to find out where people's family and friends were, if transportation would be available to get us home, and most importantly, whether we would be able to find shelter.

This experience helped me remember that during a crisis, information about shelters can become increasingly muddled. Together with our Google Crisis Response team, we decided to organize existing public information from local governments about the concerned areas. Because of the very high volume of web traffic yesterday, this proved difficult to access. Collaborating with the Google Maps engineering team in Tokyo, we rapidly put together a page of information on Google Maps for our Crisis Response page.

And thanks to our colleagues in California and around the globe, within one hour of the earthquake we launched Google Person Finder, a tool to help locate missing people, in Japanese, Chinese and English. We published sites in Japanese and English with maps, news updates, videos, and resources. We also posted tsunami alerts on the Google homepage for appropriate domains to make sure as many people as possible saw the warning.
You can find a list of Crisises that Google has covered at 

and a list of web tools for presenting information at

Bottom Line

Hats off to Google for using its technical resources to make information available to the public during disasters.

I recall after the East Coast Blackout in the 90's listening two days from my NYC office for word that the metro trains were running again. On day 2 my wife called and said a friend could see the commuter train letting off passengers so ignore the official radio announcements and just go to Grand Central Terminal (GCT) and get on any train leaving the city. GCT was a spooky place with no lights, just the sun shining through the giant windows in the main hall. Men with megaphones announced trains departing and I got home.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Democracy or Mob Rule

Recent events in Wisconsin have me very worried.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
- Winston Churchill
When our founding fathers created our system of government, they knew they did not want a king (monarchy). But they also did not want a true democracy like ancient Greece where all eligible voters (white-free-males in Greece) could debate and vote directly on the law.

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
- Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”
- Oscar Wilde
The people can be fickle or selfish, swayed by demagogues, swept away with the passion of the moment, etc. The founding fathers did not trust the people to govern wisely.

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
- Winston Churchill (not a founding father but a great quote anyhow)
So the founding fathers created a compromise - a Representative Democracy where the people elect the legislature that makes the laws. If a lawmaker make bad choices he/she can be replaced in a few years. If the people are really displeased they can hold a recall to fire the lawmaker if a majority agrees.

What the protesters are doing in Wisconsin is NOT democracy. It is mob rule, it is anarchy. A small group (even 50,000 protesters is just 1% of the population of Wisconsin) is trying to block their elected representatives from doing the job the majority elected them to do.
The true test of a representative democracy comes not in an election, but in the aftermath of an election. If the losing party or parties recognize their loss and continue to participate in the process of governance, then representative democracy works. When the losing side refuses to participate and boycotts governance, especially in such a manner that vital legislative work is obstructed, then representative democracy itself is threatened.
- Edward Morrissey
It is shameful that teachers would claim they are practicing democracy when they lock the capital door with handcuffs, block and intimidate lawmakers from entering the capitol, make death threats, etc. Instead what they are saying by their actions is that what they want is more important than elections, more important than the state Constitution and the practice of law, more important than majority Will.

If they want to practice democracy, start a recall petition. Then elect someone to overturn the law they oppose. That is how representative democracy works in America.

(P.S. Both sides of the conflict have started recall efforts. It will be interesting to see the results.)

Bottom Line

Even if you favor the Union position and hate what Governor Walker is doing, please recognize that the protesters have gone too far. As Americans we have the freedom to criticize our leaders and to march and organize protests. We have the freedom to fire our leaders if we can get majority support in a recall. But we do not have the right to block lawmakers from the lawful execution of their duties or to threaten their lives. We do not have the right to "take over" the government because our side is losing. Those who do so are making a mockery of democracy and putting themselves above it.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

American Red Cross Month

WWII Poster
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

- Shakespeare's Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2.
Caesar is killed on March 15
The month of March may be halfway over at the Ides but it's not too late to mention that March is Red Cross Month. The American Red Cross (ARC) responds to disasters, helps members of the military, provides blood for those in need and teaches lifesaving skills.
  • Every year the Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disastersincluding approximately 150 home fires every day.
  • About 11 million Americans turn to the ARC to learn first aid, CPR, swimming, and other health and safety skills. Last year, more than 158,000 people volunteered to teach those courses.
  • Half the nation's blood supply six million pints annuallyis collected by more than 155,000 Red Cross volunteers .
  • Among the emergency services for the men and women of the armed forces is the delivery of urgent family messages—around the clock and around the globe.
Here's how you can help...

The Red Cross Depends on Volunteers
Volunteers constitute 96 percent of the total work force to carry on ARC's humanitarian work. You can search for volunteer opportunities at
More than 30,900 volunteers serve as chairs, members of boards of directors, or on advisory boards for local Red Cross units - chapters, Blood Services regions, and military stations.

Donate to the Red Cross
A hot meal delivered to victims after a disaster, blood when it is needed most, shelter when there is nowhere else to turn, an emergency message delivered to a member of the Armed Forces from their family -- these are just some of the ways that gifts are put to work through the American Red Cross. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the American Red Cross is empowering people to perform extraordinary acts in the face of emergencies.
Find out how to donate online or by mail.

Give Blood
See to find a blood drive near you.
See to see if your are eligible to donate blood.

Bottom Line

During Red Cross Month, the ARC asks that you support your community by making a donation, volunteering, taking a class, or giving blood.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Comparing Apples to Oranges

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
- John F. Kennedy
I've been closely following events in Wisconsin regarding Governor Walker vs the Public Sector Unions (notably Teachers) but have resisted blogging about it because it's a hot button topic for many people. What did catch my eye that I would like to share is the battle over statistics. Both sides have their talking points and "facts" to back them up. And when "facts" are challenged, neither side is eager to cede the point and admit error. So bad "facts" persist and keep being used in arguments.

A blog post by IowaHawk takes to task Paul Krugman, Nobel Winning Economist, who writes for The New York Times. Krugman wrote,
Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:
South Carolina – 50th
North Carolina – 49th
Georgia – 48th
Texas – 47th
Virginia – 44th
This is very damming evidence and a popular statistic used by pro-Union teachers. But IowaHawk dives deeper into the numbers. He notes that a student's race is a bigger factor on SAT scores than teacher performance.
A state's "average ACT/SAT" is, for all intents and purposes, a proxy for the percent of white people who live there.
Statistically, on average, white students get higher ACT/SAT scores.This has nothing to do with innate ability or genetics or aptitude of individuals. Instead economic differences (poverty), racism, family environment, and other society biases are to blame.

Wisconsin is 4% Black and 4% Hispanic. Texas is 12% black and 30% Hispanic. Since race influences average ACT/SAT scores, to make a fair comparison, students in the two states should be compared by race.

Here are numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an annual standardized test given to 4th and 8th graders around the country to measure proficiency in math, science, and reading.

2009 8th Grade Math
White students: Texas 301, Wisconsin 294 (national 294)
Black students: Texas 272, Wisconsin 254 (national 260)
Hispanic students: Texas 277, Wisconsin 268 (national 260)

There are more stats at IowaHawk for 4th grade & 8th grade Math, Reading and Science but the numbers displayed here are typical. Within racial groups, all Texas students are above the national average and score better than Wisconsin. In Wisconsin the White students perform at or slightly above the national average, Hispanics above the average, and Black students below the average.

So instead of showing that Union Teachers are better, a nationalized 4th/8th grade test shows that Wisconsin produces average White students and poorly scoring Black students. Is this the final answer? Perhaps not. Perhaps a better Statistician will analyze the scores a different way to show something new and revealing.

For example other blogs point out another interesting difference in the SAT scores for Wisconsin vs Texas.
In 2010 Wisconsin placed 3rd in the nation on SAT scores. But only 4% of Wisconsin students took the SAT. This is known as selection bias. When only the best take a test, of course they perform better. 67% of Wisconsin students took the ACT and this dropped Wisconsin to 13th place. Still very, very good but it shows the difference that can occur in ranking depending on which students are tested.  In Texas 53% of all students took the SAT and 30% took the ACT.

Katherine Levin, a College Board spokeswoman for SAT calls comparisons between states "invalid" since the students taking the test are self-selected.
Levin, Feb. 25: Media and others often rank states, districts and schools on the basis of SAT scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are invalid. The SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population, but it should never be used alone for such comparisons because demographics and other nonschool factors can have a strong effect on scores. If ranked, schools and states that encourage students to apply to college may be penalized because scores tend to decline with a rise in percentage of test-takers.
Yet another factor to consider is poverty. Texas ranks 8th in most residents living below the poverty line. Wisconsin is 38th. So instead of saying Union teachers produce better college scores, we could use WI vs TX to prove that rich kids score better than poor kids.

Bottom Line

Beware of any argument based upon comparing "averages" without knowing the population mix behind the average. For example I could compare two colleges and show that students at A are on average shorter than B; so B must be biased against short people. What I don't reveal is that A is an all-girl school and B is not. Since girls are shorter on average than boys, this will pull down the total height average for school A.

Suppose the Ivy League schools argued that they had the most talented professors because their students (on average) get more of the most prestigious and well-paying jobs. The professors would be ignoring the fact that many of the brightest students, and students from the richest and best socially connected families, attend Harvard & Yale. So teaching ability could be just average and yet selection bias and social advantages give the students a preference in hiring. Some Wall Street firms hire ONLY from the Ivy League and look what resulted - a near collapse of the Financial System in 2008.


A report showing it's the student, not the college, that determines success.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Back-up Power

"Marriage has no guarantees. If that's what you're looking for, go live with a car battery."
-Erma Bombeck
One of the items on my to-do list is to get a backup power generator. But there are so many issues and questions. What size, how does it work? And there are dangers: it must be used outdoors, gasoline must be stored, etc.

A good starting point is an How Emergency Power Systems Work from There are 6+ pages in the series so be sure to read each:

  1. Introduction to How Emergency Power Systems Work
  2. Emergency Power Options and Goals
  3. Understanding Your Power Needs
  4. Choosing Between an Inverter and a Generator
  5. Hooking the Power into Your House
  6. Lots More Information
Some of the things I learned:
- add a gas stabilizer for gas stored more than one month
- know the peak pull of an appliance. A fridge may not pull much juice while idling but when the compressor turns out, power pull will spike. Many sites on efficient energy usage only report the average power used.
- consider alternating appliances. Run the fridge to cool it down, then unplug it and let the well pump increase the water pressure. Both won't work at the same time but you can stagger usage.

Bottom Line

There's an alternative to gas powered generators now, power inverters. Inverters attach to large batteries (like a car battery) and convert the direct current to alternating current for appliances. There are quiet and safe and affordable in small sizes. Sadly not so cheap for 5000 watt sizes and they may only last for a few hours to a day at best.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Confusing Credit Terminology

The creditor hath a better memory than the debtor.
James Howell
John Ulzheimer, President of Consumer Education at, explains seven pairs of confusing credit terms at

I'll paraphrase and elaborate and try not to make any mistakes.

Credit Report vs Credit Score

A credit score is a financial "grade" based upon an interpretation of your current credit report by a credit agency. (See FICO score below)

Credit Report vs Credit File

A credit file is all the information about you that is floating around a credit bureau’s database waiting to be compiled into an official credit report. No one outside a credit bureau should see your credit file while your credit report can be purchased by banks, auto dealers, etc.

Credit Reporting Agency vs Consumer Reporting Agency
“Consumer reporting agency” is a legal term describing any organization that regularly compiles information about consumers for the purposes of selling it to a 3rd party. 

A credit reporting agency is just one example of a consumer reporting agency. A non-credit example is LexisNexis; they collect personal data and create consumer reports for employment screening, resident screening, insurance underwriting, and volunteer background checks.

Credit Score vs FICO Score

FICO is an acronym for the Fair Isaac Corporation, the creators of the very popular FICO credit score. There are other credit scores like NextGen and VantageScore but hardly anyone uses them. It is important to know which type of score you have because the ranges are different: A FICO score is between 300 and 850. A VantageScore score ranges from 501-990.

Home Equity Loan vs Home Equity Line

A home equity loan is a loan with a fixed payment for a fixed number of months. (Ignoring for simplicity variable rate loans.)

A home equity line is a revolving line of credit, just like a credit card. You can borrow against it, pay it back, and borrow again.

In both cases the loan/line is secured by your home, which means if you default on your payments you could lose your house.

Credit Card vs Charge Card

A credit card is a revolving account, which means you have a variable payment depending on your outstanding balance for the month. 

A charge card (like American Express) requires payment in full each and every month. There is no minimum payment and no rolling the rest over with interest to be paid in the future.

Chapter 7 vs Chapter 13

Both are types of consumer bankruptcies.  Under Chapter 7, “liquidation”, any "statutorily dischargeable debt" is eliminated. 

Under Chapter 13 the debt is "adjusted." The consumer pays to a trustee who then distributes the money to the consumer’s creditors.

Bottom Line

When my wife got a home mortgage she had a great lawyer. He made her read the entire contract with the bank. She said, but that's your job.

He replied, no. It's your money and your home. You must understand what you are signing. His job was to make sure the contract was fair and to help her to understand the language of the contract she would have to live with for the next 20 or 30 years.

Always read and understand any financial document you sign.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Five things worth haggling over

Connie Mack

"After all my years, there are two things I've never got used to - haggling with a player over his contract and telling a boy he's got to go back."
- Connie Mack (1862-1956) longest-serving manager in Major League Baseball history suggests 5 things worth haggling over

1. Home repairs

There is a lot of competition out there for home repairs like snaking your drain, painting, or electrical work. Know what your limit is and stick too it. You don't have the hire the first person who gives you a quote. We got four quotes to fix a leaking shower and nearly a dozen quotes for new windows. We still have not yet done the windows because the price is too high.
"Ultimately, being able to say no gives you a lot of leverage when you haggle. People who can walk away from the negotiating process often get called back with a better deal than those who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have no other option. It's also important not to accept the first discount offered if it isn't what you want -- silence, waiting or just saying no can produce a better deal."
You can also get better prices in the winter when contractors are idle and need work.

Don't forget to check references, license and insurance. Sometimes the lowest bid is not worth the damage done by an unskilled contractor.

2. Auto repairs
"Finding a mechanic you can trust is a key ingredient to keeping your car well-maintained and reliable. But that doesn't mean you have to pay whatever the mechanic wants to charge."
If it's a big job get competing bids and ask your favorite mechanic if he/she will match.

3. Medical bills
"If you're low-income and have a hospital bill, you should ask to speak to the hospital's financial counselor. Many hospitals and other medical providers have charity programs that provide discounts for people making up to 300% of the federal poverty level. Since that level is about $14,000 for a family of two, a couple making up to $42,000 might qualify for some kind of break.
Another option is to ask for the same discounts the medical provider gives major health insurers"
4. Mattresses

Manufacturers and retailers deliberately obscure the information you'd need to compare mattresses by giving unique names to their product lines. So you have to find what you like by feel and dicker over the price. Walk out if the price is not what you want - you can always go to another retail store of the same company. We had one salesman get angry because he "called his manager" for a discount on our behalf and we still would not buy.

5. Jewelry

Jewelry markup is huge so don't be afraid to ask for 70% off.  Even 50% off may be over paying! Don't become attached to the piece - you must show that you can walk away and not buy. A smart salesperson will have you put on the jewelry because once you touch something, you're more likely to buy it.

Bottom Line

Don't be afraid to ask for a discount. If they say no, go somewhere else.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Value of Free Goods

"We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we will always be free."
Ronald Reagan
Today I came across several instances of the value of "Free" at,  a website offering "insight into news stories about changes in government policy, technology and legal issues that affect companies ability to innovate and grow."  The site itself is an example of what it preaches. The blog is free, with no registration required, and an interesting daily read. The owner of the site hopes that you'll recognize his analytic skills and hire his company for personalized news and advice.

Google is another example of free (but with a twist). Originally Google hoped you'd be impressed by their free search engine and hire them to provide searches on your company documents and email. Now I wonder if they don't make more money from the ads shown while you google. Also Google's algorithms watch what you search for and what you pick from the list and they use this to improve future searches. So in essence you're doing work for google for free.

Anyhow, the first Techdirt story was about the TED Conference. The annual meetings on Technology, Entertainment and Design used to be by invite only and very secretive with non-disclosures signed by attendees. Only the rich and famous and powerful knew about it. Now you can watch past presentations for free at Instead of weakening the product this has created a HUGE surge in attendance, higher prices for seats, and sister conferences around the world.

The second story is about a Swedish truck company that discovered knock-offs of their trucks being made in China. They knew a lawsuit would be pointless so instead they worked with the Chinese company to help it find a truck design of their own that would sell and not be a knock-off. This is a classic Covey Win-Win story where free advice helped everyone.

Bottom Line

Free samples at stores. A free test drive of a car. A free download of trial software. A small free giveaway can lead to read dollar purchases of something larger.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Pink Slipped

“The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness, whether it be to make baskets, or broad swords, or canals, or statues, or songs”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today I recommend a delightful blog at by a Journalist/editor who was recently "downsized" and joined the unemployed. It's called Pink Slipped.

She offers these tips on finding a new job:

1. Men help. Women don't.
Male friends provided job leads. Female friends provided emotional support.

2. Be flexible, or die.
She has offered a part-time job as a copywriter but had no idea what that meant. After looking it up she accepted despite having no experience at copywriting. It pays well.

3. Getting downsized is good for you.
It can lead to new opportunities like her new blog, Pink Slipped, and the copywriting gig.
Bottom Line

Let everyone know you are looking for work and be willing to try new things. The job I currently have I had rejected when I first saw it advertised. The job description did not fit my expectations in the early period of unemployment. Several months later a different recruiter got me an interview and a job offer. Only afterwards did I realize I had rejected the job before.

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Friday, March 4, 2011


Kilometers are shorter than miles.  Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers. 
~George Carlin
For the past ten years my wife has been a tour guide at Kykuit, the summer home of J.D Rockefeller. Perhaps you know that by most accounts, JDR is the wealthiest man in modern history. His fortune at his death (1937) was equal to nearly 2% of all the wealth in the nation. And you may recall that he made his money in Oil and created the Standard Oil Company (the world's first and largest multinational corporation until it was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911.)

What you may not know is that Standard Oil's initial wealth was built not upon gasoline but kerosene which was used in oil lamps before the invention of the light bulb (1879) and the availability of electricity in homes (1905-1925). Before 1900, gasoline was considered a waste byproduct of oil refinement. JDR was very lucky. While the market for kerosene vanished in the early 20th century, a new market for gasoline powered cars was created and flourished and kept Standard Oil in business.

If you're like me, you may be clueless on what the difference is between kerosene and gasoline. So here's what I found...

Crude oil pumped out­ of the ground is a black liquid called petroleum which is composed of hydrocarbon molecules of different lengths. The length affects the molecular properties. The shortest chains are gases: CH4 (methane), C2H6 (ethane), C3H8 (propane) and C4H10 (butane). The chains above C19 are solid at room temperature while the chains in the middle are liquids. If you deduce from this that molecule length changes the boiling temperature, you're right!

According to,
The chains from C7H16 through C11H24 are blended together and used for gasoline. All of them vaporize at temperatures below the boiling point of water. That's why if you spill gasoline on the ground it evaporates very quickly.
Next is kerosene, in the C12 to C15 range, followed by diesel fuel and heavier fuel oils (like heating oil for houses).
Next come the lubricating oils. These oils no longer vaporize in any way at normal temperatures. For example, engine oil can run all day at 250 degrees F (121 degrees C) without vaporizing at all. Oils go from very light (like 3-in-1 oil) through various thicknesses of motor oil through very thick gear oils and then semi-solid greases. Vasoline falls in there as well.
Chains above the C20 range form solids, starting with paraffin wax, then tar and finally asphaltic bitumen, which is used to make asphalt roads.
The boiling point of hydrocarbons also impacts its flammability. A lit match tossed onto gasoline will burn aggressively. If you drop a match into diesel or kerosene, the match will go out. For this reason kerosene is safer than gasoline in the home and Diesel fuel is safer for trucks with giant gas tanks and for military vehicles. It takes a very high pressure for Diesel to burn. 

Bottom Line

Kerosene is typically (and in some jurisdictions legally required to be) stored in a blue container in order to avoid it getting confused with the much more flammable gasoline, which is typically kept in a red container. Diesel fuel is generally stored in yellow containers.

Today kerosene is used as a cooking fuel in less developed countries and for portable stoves for backpackers. There are also kerosene space heaters for use during power failures. (Not recommended for closed indoor areas without a chimney due to the danger of build-up of carbon monoxide gas.)

The Amish, who abstain from electricity, still rely on kerosene for lighting at night.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011


Up, up and away [in my] my beautiful, my beautiful balloon
-lyrics by the Fifth Dimension
In recent years the U.S went through an odd economic period where some price indexes actually fell (deflation). Last year inflation was officially just 1.6%. But the times they are a'changing. Inflation is on the rise around the globe and may soon hit our shores. See Can the U.S. Sidestep Growing Global Inflation?,
"Inflation in Britain hits 4%, double the official government target. China reports prices accelerating at 4.9% in January. And Spain says its inflation measure shot up 3% last month. ... the inflation scourge [is] now sweeping countries as far away as Brazil, India and the U.K."
From, America, poised for a hyperinflationary event?

At, "I'm going to wish I'd listened to Glenn Beck and bought a lot of gold."

To which an Instapundit reader responded, "You’re going to wish you had some food storage first before you wish you had gold. In Weimar Germany there were people in the cities that starved because they had no food. [Could not afford to buy it with hyperinflation] Sure you can buy food with gold, but gold denominations (even the 1/10 oz American Gold Eagle) are not practical for buying groceries or a sack of potatoes."

The same point is made at, "What would a full ounce of gold buy?  That Corvette that we saw advertised?  A half a dozen cows?  Maybe.  It certainly wouldn't do much good for someone trying to buy day-to-day necessities. "

Bottom Line

For protection against simple inflation, build a food storage now. To learn more about hyper-inflation see this post I wrote in 2009: HyperInflation

My post, Five unusual items for your emergency supplies, talks about stocking items for trade or barter in your food storage. Alcohol and cigarettes are valuable during difficult time but not something I would personally stockpile.  Consider items like diapers, aspirin & medical supplies, and nails which can be better than gold under the right circumstances.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meal vs Flour

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
- Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
This morning I had almond-meal pancakes for the first time. The flavor was OK but the texture was quite different from my expectations for pancakes - grainy instead of light and fluffy. It reminded me of corn bread in texture. So this got me to wondering - what is the difference between meal (as in corn-meal) vs flour?

Not surprisingly, meal is coarsely ground and flour is ground to a fine powder. The website,, also refers to bolted and unbolted meal. Bolting is another word for sifting through a sieve or screen. Bolted meal is passed through a 16-18 mesh screen to remove the gluten, the grits, and bran. Four is bolted with a 32 mesh screen so the particles are twice as small.

The website notes that people often confuse meal and flour since it's the same substance, just a matter of particle size. And to confuse matters further, in the UK the term corn flour is used to describe corn starch.

[Aside: I found another US-UK food confusion recently. Is winter squash allowed on a low-carb diet? The US commenters said no. But a dieter in Australia pointed out that in her country, winter squash is called pumpkin and pumpkin is allowed so she includes winter squash in her diet. But I fear that is just word games. Changing the name does not change the amount of starch.]

Bottom Line

What can I do to make my almond pancakes fluffier?

  • Coarse almond meal can be pulsed in a food processor or coffee mill, (don’t leave it running or you’ll get almond butter). Or sift out the larger particles and crush them in a mortar and pestle.

  • Try adding a bit of some other starch such as tapioca, corn starch, or arrowroot powder. This adds more surface area and absorption potential.
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    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    What to Shred

    "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."
    - I am the Walrus, lyrics
    Identity Theft is a terrible crime. A person can not just steal all your money, but leave you deep in debt and destroy your credit rating. As a Consumerist article notes,
    "Leaving a building with a file folder with documents in it is a lot more innocuous if a third party sees them than if they're walking out of an apartment holding a TV or a DVD player. And the long-term payoff is a lot more"
    At home we shred any junk mail or junk mail envelope that has our name on it. Especially shred credit card unwanted. applications. Shred old bills from doctors and documents outlining medical benefits to prevent others from using your insurance.

    If you lose your wallet, call your insurer and let them know. Also call the police, your bank, every credit card, and the credit history companies. Without your wallet, how quickly can you find out what credit cards you carry and your ID number for each?  Never carry your Social Security card in a wallet or purse.

    Beware also of high tech ID theft. If you do online banking at a public Wi-Fi spot, you could have your account and password stolen. Password protect your smart phone.

    Bottom Line

    Here are two sites for what to do if your identity is stolen.

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