Friday, April 29, 2011

What mailing method should you use?

“Mondays are the potholes in the road of life.”
- Tom Wilson
If you are involved in a dispute and you want to make sure that your letter is received, what type of mail should you use to counter the other party when they claim they never saw the letter?

According to, registered mail is not necessary, "that's just for shipping valuables that you want insurance on if they get lost."
"Instead send it by certified mail, which guarantees and tracks delivery, including date and time it was delivered. You can check on the status online and the post office keeps a record. Request an additional return receipt to get a signature back from the recipient"
Bottom Line

Return receipt is great way to prove that your mail was received and by whom.  Or you can show that delivery was refused.

Many years ago the radio had a story about lawyers trying to sue NYC for damage done to cars by potholes. NYC responded that they would only accept responsibility for negligence for not fixing holes in a timely manner that they were aware of, i.e. for potholes that they were "formally" told about.  So lawyers en mass began mailing the DPW with return receipt notices of every big pothole they saw. The city refused to sign the receipts or accept the letters.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Heart Disease

“Follow your heart, but be quiet for a while first. Ask questions, then feel the answer. Learn to trust your heart.”
Yesterday I talked about cancer, the #2 killer in America with 559,888 deaths in 2006. The first place award goes to Heart Disease (more formerly known as Cardiovascular Disease or CVD) with 831,272 deaths in 2006 (34.3 percent of all deaths or 1 of every 2.9 deaths). What exactly is Heart Disease?
  • Coronary heart disease: caused by atherosclerosis (ath"er-o-skleh-RO'sis), the narrowing of the coronary arteries due to fatty build ups. Partial blockage results in chest pain and total blockage cuts off blood to the heart muscle and results in a heart attack.
  • Stroke: blood to a portion of the brain is cut off by a blood clot or a burst blood vessel.
  • Heart Failure: occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to support other organs. The heart may still be beating but with insufficient strength.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes the following risk factors for Heart Disease:
* high cholesterol
* high blood pressure - It's called the "silent killer" and greatly increases the likelihood of heart attack or stroke. 90–95% of the time the cause of high blood pressure isn't known but it is often treatable.
* smoking
* being overweight
* lack of exercise (people who are sedentary are almost twice as likely to suffer heart attacks as are people who exercise regularly.)
* African American women have the highest risk for death from heart disease
* Male pattern baldness, hair in the ear canals, and creased earlobes are associated with a higher risk for heart disease in white males.

On the positive side:

* People who eat beans at least four times a week have a lower level of heart disease (19% lower) than people who eat beans less than once a week.

Bottom Line

Heart attack and strokes can strike suddenly with no warning. They either kill outright or leave a person confused as to what just happened. Many don't recognize the symptoms. See:  (Stroke) (Heart Attack)

Heart failure is often a gradual process and does have symptoms which include—
  • Shortness of breath during daily activities.
  • Having trouble breathing when lying down.
  • Weight gain with swelling in the legs, ankles, or lower back.
  • General fatigue and weakness.
See (Edema)
and (Congestive Heart Failure)

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cancer Self-Exams

"But when I first got cancer, after the initial shock and the fear and paranoia and crying and all that goes with cancer - that word means to most people ultimate death - I decided to see what I could do to take that negative and use it in a positive way."
-Herbie Mann, Jazz muscian who died at age 73 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
The second highest cause of death in America is Cancer which is often treatable IF detected early. At Stage 1 a cancer is located in just one part of the body. In Stages 2 & 3 it spreads locally and by Stage 4 it has spread throughout the body.

My wife was fortunate to have a cancer discovered by chance in Stage 1 and it was removed with surgery. My mother had the same experience but what happened afterwards made a difference. A year after the surgery the doctor said Mom was "cured" and there were no further follow-ups. Seven years later she felt bumps on her neck and another doctor diagnosed it as stage 4 cancer. The original cancer had come back and spread everywhere. Mom has lived four years with chemo and other agressive treatments but these just slow down a cancer in stage 4; there is no cure. The family gathered last week for her 70th birthday that none expected she would live to see.

In my wife's case she has a excellent doctor who insists on a check-up every six months and she has been cancer free for five years.

Cancer inspection is very imporant and one reason that every adult should have an annual physical. I've seen two Dermitologists for minor items and each made me strip to my shorts as they examined all my skin for signs of cancer. This seems to be standard for a first time visit. The first one didn't like a spot on my back and cut out a dime-sized "biopsy" which turned out to be fine. Skin cancer is something that everyone can and should do self-exams for. See for details. Also check out for photos of suspicious "moles."

Look for:
  • A skin growth that increases in size and appears pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black, or multicolored
  • A mole, birthmark, beauty mark, or any brown spot that:
    • changes color
    • increases in size or thickness
    • changes in texture
    • is irregular in outline
    • is bigger than 6mm or 1/4”, the size of a pencil eraser
    • appears after age 21
  • A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab, erode, or bleed
  • An open sore that does not heal within three weeks
Women are encouraged to do a breast self-exam monthly. Nearly 70% of all breast cancers are found through self-exams and with early detection the 5-year survival rate is 98%.

New to me is the idea of monthly Testicular self-exam:.

Smokers and tobacco chewers should perform Oral self-exams:  Though the site does point out that regular vistits to a dentist should catch oral cancer.

Bottom Line

Cancer won't be detected early if no one is looking for it.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Health Supplements

"Faith and prayer are the vitamins of the soul; man cannot live in health without them."
- Mahalia Jackson

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that 53% of all Americans use dietary supplements such as multivitamins, minerals and herbs. Sadly the 27 billion dollar supplement industry is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so supplement makers are not required to prove safety or effectiveness.

While many people think supplements make up for a poor diet, most doctors say there is no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Research has show that some daily vitamin supplements just pass through the body and are barely absorbed, if at all. The body is more likely to retain vitamins and minerals when eaten in real food. There is also evidence that the body benefits from nutrients like lycopene, quercetin and indoles that give fruit and vegetables their bright colors and are not found in supplements (yet). Other health professionals disagree and argue that a daily multi-vitamin can help with trace minerals that your eating habits do not cover.

Be doubly careful when using herbal supplements. Many come from foreign countries and might not contain what they claim or in the dosage they claim. Always consult with a doctor first because herbs (and even multi-vitamins) may block or enhance medicines that you taking. Also ask your doctor about a safe dose level because sometimes more of a good thing (like vitamin D) can be deadly.

Bottom Line

A recent survey of parents by the YMCA found that only 14% of kids eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day. Even though 89% of parents rate themselves good or excellent in providing a healthy home environment, about a third of children in the USA are overweight. Only 16% say their kids are playing outside daily.


12 Supplements to Avoid

Vitamin D

Healthy Foods

Vitamin Pills: A False Hope?

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Where in the world is ....?

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything”
-Albert Einstein quotes
Each year the TED conference hands out TED prizes to individuals with an idea that can change the world. One winner talked about tracking disease epidemics world-wide with data from Google and other sources. Now it appears that that dream is alive and well.

Check out HealthMap at
"HealthMap brings together disparate data sources to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. This freely available Web site integrates outbreak data of varying reliability, ranging from news sources (such as Google News) to curated personal accounts (such as ProMED) to validated official alerts (such as World Health Organization)."
The home page is a bit overwhelming with all outbreaks from the past three days. Hover the mouse over any pin to see the name of the disease.

I find the display more interesting when a single disease is searched. The default is the past 3-days but you can change this up to one month with the Advanced search options. I selected Typhoid in the past month and found cases in Algeria, China and Kyrgyzstan.

Bottom Line

This is a great resource for keeping an eye on swine flu or any other illness that you are concerned about.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

A Blessed and Joyous Easter to All!

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Friday, April 22, 2011

New Ideas for the Grill

“Kids are wonderful, but I like mine barbecued.”
- Bob Hope
I love BBQ. There's something primitive and satisfying about food grilled or roasted over a flame. And I thought I knew a thing or two about grilling technique. But has some ideas that never occurred to me. Supposedly the article is about how healthy grilled foods can be but I'm enjoying the pictures and recipes.

1. Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken Breast
What a simple idea for the grill. Add some cheese and you have an inside-out chicken-cordon-bleu. My fear would be burning the prosciutto while waiting for the chicken to cook completely through.

2. There are several ideas for grilled fruit. Cubed Watermelon served with feta cheese. Grilled apricots halves served with yogurt, grilled pineapple slices with ice cream. There was also strawberry shortcake where the shortcake was grilled.

3. Grilled cheese. I've never heard of Haloumi cheese but this I want to try.

4. Grilled pizza!

Bottom Line

What's your favorite recipe for the grill?

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

7 Money Moves to Make Now

"The art is not in making money, but in keeping it”
My wife sent me a link from Ladies' Home Journal about Financial Spring Cleaning: 7 Money Moves to Make Now.

1. Review your Insurance
"We bundle our policies with one provider for a lower overall cost; we keep deductibles high to keep premiums low; and we take advantage of discounts." 
Are you over insured? If your car is old, drop everything but liability (subject to state laws). Collision and Comprehensive won't pay much to repair a clunker.

Is the value of your house over appraised? For $7.95, assesses your home's value using the same data insurers use.

2. Pay Off Credit Cards ASAP
If you have a lot of credit card debt consider this, "Take out a three-year personal loan from a credit union. You lock in the rate, which can be about the same as a transfer fee, and it's better for your credit score."

Bonus Resources: has info on credit offers and deciphering fine print. gives you a "soft" estimate of your credit rating without the request registering with credit agencies.

3. Roll Over an Old 401(k)
If you change companies consider rolling an old 401(k) into a new one. This can protect you from your old company going out of business. "You can also roll it into an IRA, which may give you more investment options. (Look for a low-cost provider like Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, or USAA.)"

In my case I left my 401(k) with my prior company. It's stable (150+ yrs old) and offers a different mix of mutual funds than my new 401(k).

4. Get a Home Energy Audit
Look for free or low cost Energy Audits on how to save money heating your house. Some states and energy companies will cover the costs.
Bonus resources: The Department of Energy website ( offers a DIY guide to energy audits and a list of upgrades that qualify for federal rebates. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency ( has a state-by-state guide to rebate programs.

5. Open a Higher-Yield Checking Account
Look online for banks that will offer you a better deal on checking. But watch out for the rules and penalties. Also beware - last decade Iceland was famous for its high rates until the country's banking industry collapsed.
Struggling banks sometimes offer high interest rates as a way to try to boost their funds, so be sure to type the bank's name into's "Safe & Sound" engine. Look for a rating of at least three stars.

6. Look for Cheaper Cable and Internet.

7. Consolidate Vital Records
"Dealing with all this money stuff showed me how balkanized our finances are: I take care of some things, Rob takes care of others. If something happened to either of us, the other could not necessarily jump right in. We needed an overall map, a worst-case-scenario guide, to our financial affairs."
Google "Merrill Lynch" and "Organizing your financial life. Critical information at your fingertips" for a useful form and checklist to get you started. The form documents all accounts and recommends you locate and properly store important records such as property deeds and passports.

Bonus resource: The legal website gives free access to all sorts of legal templates, including a "child emergency health form" that would be useful for babysitters or daycare facilities to have.

Bottom Line

One easy way to save money is not to spend it in the first place. The ideas above will help you cut cost and expenses.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Retirement Savings

The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off.
~Abe Lemons
How much retirement savings do you need? Probably more than you think. I read one column about a couple that thought 1 million dollars would be enough. But the children needed help with their mortgages and the money was greatly depleted.

Megan McArdle at says, You Need More Retirement Savings. The old school thinking was that your expenses will be less during retirement. The house is paid off. (Maybe? Did you get a second mortgage or treat the house as an ATM with repeated home equity loans?) The kids have graduated college. Your house is furnished and you're not planning any major changes. Only a car loan remains.

In retirement the work expenses of commuting driving or train, business lunches, business clothes, etc are a thing of the past. But there'll be new expenses for health care - especially once you're off the Cadillac quality health plan and facing higher copays and deductions.
"Medicare does not cover everything--Medigap insurance is costly, and may still leave you with considerable out-of-pocket expenses."
You may also find that you'll need to hire a maid service to keep the house clean, or someone to mow the lawn, shovel the snow, etc. Not that you're lazy or lack the time but you might be physically unable to do the labor like you used to.

But I've thought of that you say. I'm planning to sell the house, buy a cheaper condo or assisted living apartment and pocket the difference. But suppose you're trapped in a terrible housing market like we have now where no one is buy or you get half of what your home used to be worth? Or you're competing with the other baby boomers for decent retirement space and prices for "retiree" homes shoot up.

Bottom Line

McArdle concludes that you retirement spending habits will be "about the same amount as I need now ... Even assuming that Social Security continues as promised, most people don't have nearly enough saved to make up their current incomes."

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Information is Beautiful

Everything is beautiful
In its' own way
- lyrics, Ray Stevens

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know I love graphs and visual representation of data. Today I "discovered" which collects excellent examples of visual displays.

For example:

Which health supplements are backed by scientific evidence?

A color wheel of emotions

Plants that grow well together

This one I've posted before, The True Size of Africa
but this version also shows the US compared to Europe and US compared to Antarctica.

Bottom Line

Numbers by themselves don't say much. A picture makes a huge difference.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Bovine Menace

"Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are good is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian."
~Dennis Wholey
According to Popular Mechanics, "Statistically speaking, you are much more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark." But Hollywood makes films about sharks like Jaws and Soul Surfer. When did you ever see a movie titled, "Cud, the Killer"?
Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the CDC. During the same years, only four people were killed by sharks in the U.S. Does this mean you should scream and run in panic when you see a cow? No. A third of the victims were working in enclosed spaces with cattle. The majority of deaths involved older men who had worked with the animals for years.
Cows may look docile and dumb (which they are I'm told), but they are massive and can do serious damage when angered. My uncle had his knee smashed by a kicking cow and my grandfather was kicked in the head.
Here are some bovine safety tips:
 Avoid getting into a confined space with cows. People are killed when cows smashed them against the sides of gates, fences and barns. My mother said she carried a long pin when she walked in fields amongst cattle. She would use it if two cows started leaning in and squashing her in the middle.
 When facing an angry cow, get away immediately (but remember they run faster than you!) "Don't be afraid to kick, yell, punch, whatever," your life could be at risk and it's unlikely you'll hit hard enough to hurt a 1,400-pound cow.

If a cow or bull is pawing or snorting, "Get something between you and her," like nearby "trees, feed bunk, or other cows as long as they're chill."
Bottom Line

A calf may be cute but not so its angry mother. Treat cows with respect.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Tax Day!

"There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein
Jacob Sullum at has a thought provoking article entitled, Let He Who Is Without Error Conduct the First Audit.
I came across a 2010 report (PDF) from the National Taxpayers Union that summarizes various experiments showing that professional tax preparers disagree about the proper way to file returns for hypothetical families. Worse, the people conducting the experiments—including the Government Accountability Office, which consulted with experts at the Joint Committee on Taxation—could not definitively say who was right and who was wrong.
In a 1998 study by Money magazine:
All 46 tested tax professionals got a different answer, and none got it right. The professional who directed the test admitted "that his computation is not the only possible correct answer" since the tax law is so murky. The tax computed by these professionals "ranged from $34,240 to $68,912." The closest answer still erred in the government's favor by $610.
In his Reason column, Jacob Sullum notes:
The federal tax code, which in 1913 could be published as a single 400-page book, today occupies some 72,000 pages. In the last 10 years alone, [...] "there have been approximately 4,428 changes to the tax code." The instructions for filling out Form 1040, which took up two pages 75 years ago, are 179 pages long this year.
This is a serious problem because the average taxpayer "can be jailed, or fined, or otherwise punished if you get an answer that is deemed 'wrong,'" according to Instapundit. How can we punish amateurs for tax mistakes when the professionals can not agree what is correct?

Bottom Line

Why is the tax code so complicated? Sullum offers this insight,
politicians [think that they] can improve our decisions by using tax preferences to encourage officially approved behavior, whether it's giving to charity, going to college, adopting children, investing in research, converting corn into fuel, or buying a house, a hybrid car, or a health insurance policy. It's bad enough that the government forcibly extracts a share of our income; it should not presume to direct the spending of the rest.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Who is Jeff Cooper?

Jeff Cooper
"Owning a handgun doesn't make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician."
- Jeff Cooper

If you're a curious sort, browsing Internet links can lead to interesting discoveries. A link that read, Don't Try to Catch a Falling Gun caught my eye. That story mentioned, Jeff Cooper’s four rules of firearms safety. Jeff who? That is answered by Wikipedia with a detailed entry on the Father of "the Modern Technique" of handgun shooting, and one of the 20th century's foremost international experts on the use and history of small arms.

Jeff Cooper taught pragmatic use of the pistol for personal protection in the 1960's. His technique emphasized two-handed shooting using the Weaver stance, replacing the once-prevalent one-handed shooting. The five elements of the modern technique are:
  • A large caliber pistol, preferably a semi-automatic
  • The Weaver stance
  • The presentation (how to unholster and point the handgun)
  • The flash sight picture (how to shoot immediately with no time to aim)
  • The compressed surprise trigger break (how to pull the trigger properly)
The "flash sight picture" regards a scenario where an enemy is 7-yards away (21 feet). The FBI says an aggressor could reach you in a second and a half  — about the time it takes to "present" a pistol and "flash sight" fire immediately.

Cooper is also famous for his 4 Rules of Firearm Safety:
  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60 percent of inadvertent discharges.
  4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.
Lastly Wikipedia describes the Cooper Color Code. This is not the Homeland Security Threat Level Colors of danger but rather a personal level of threat awareness.

White - Unaware and unprepared. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be "This can't be happening to me."

Yellow - Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation but you're aware that "today could be the day I may have to defend myself." You use your eyes and ears, and periodically scan your surroundings. This is the default if you're carrying a gun.

Orange - Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has gotten your attention. Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state but you remain on watchful alert. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.

Red - Time to Respond. Your mental trigger from Condition Orange has been tripped and there is clear danger present.

Bottom Line

I have no experience with guns. I knew there are gun magazines and clubs, etc but I always supposed they talked about the best kind of gun and bullets, how to store them and keep them clean. And they do discuss this (a lot). I never realized there was so much thought given to how to stand and how to pull the trigger. Makes sense in hindsight.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

9 Ways to Save Money on Food

“I went back to work because someone had to pay for the groceries.”
-Bette Davis (actress)
Back in February I blogged about rising food prices. Nearly every day now I see stories on this topic. For example, a site named offers 9 Ways to Prepare for Food Inflation. Here's my comments on his suggestions.

1. Only shop every other week instead of weekly
Every visit to the grocery is a chance to be tempted into buying something you don't really need.

2. Buy in-season produce
Maybe. Everyone seems to think that produce from foreign countries will be more expensive than local produce. But shipping by sea or air freight is VERY cheap. I read of a company who flew their chickens to China to be hand cut and flown back - AND this was cheaper then cutting them in the US. For many items the production cost is far greater than the shipping cost.

So, take advantage of specials when produce is in season. But my advice is don't worry if the season is local or on the other side of the equator.

3. Eat Less
Our parent's lesson of eating everything on our plate is making us fat when plate size and portion size has grown tremendously. Pay attention to portion sizes on packages. Some of the frozen meals I bring to work serve 2. So I'm learning to cook it half-way, cut it in half, put half in Tupperware for the next day and continue cooking the remaining half. Note cooking time may be less when you do this since smaller portions cook faster.

4. Grow your own vegetables
My wife keeps trying but little luck so far.

5.  Compare unit costs and keep a price history
Don't be fooled by special deals that are not so special after all. The Frugal Dad writes, " I recently stocked up on a few items included in a 10/$10 sale and the next week the store returned the item to their normal price…$0.88."

6. Eat less meat and more eggs, beans, and vegetables
Omelettes are great for dinner. So is meatless chili. We find summer squash and mushrooms can substitute for meat in some dishes. But again keep an eye out for the unit price per pound. My wife has been buying chicken this past week at $0.49/lb while zucchini was selling for 10 times a much at $4 per pound. Shop the specials.

7. Avoid the Junk Food aisle
There's nothing there you really want to eat is there? Next time look at the cost per pound for your favorite junk food.

8. Eat leftovers
This was a no-brainer when I grew up but we have a friend whose husband refuses to eat leftovers. He insists that every night she prepare a fresh meal from scratch.
I love leftovers - these become future lunches for the office.

9. Freeze the extras
Freeze leftovers - they'll be more fun when you're forgotten the first time around. Take advantage of store specials and freeze what you can not use within a few days. Buy bulk, break it into smaller/family-sized packages and freeze those.

Bottom Line

You may have noticed that none of the items above address food inflation directly. It looks like Frugal Dad was using a hot topic headline to repost common-sense ideas. Let's re-examine the advice with inflation in mind:

Food prices naturally fluctuate over the course of a year. Just like the stock market you want to buy low so you can enjoy owning the goods when prices are high. "Buying in season" and shopping the specials and freezing the extras are all ways to take advantage of low price swings.

For true inflation you either need to stock up now or opt out.  Eating smaller portions, avoiding junk food, eating less meat, and growing your own are ways to opt out. You can also use the food you have more efficiently by using leftovers and freezing. My family is learning to use leftover bones. A ham bone gives great flavor when added to a pot of beans or rice. A chick carcass can make a stock for soup.  A famous chef said he kept vegetable scraps over many days then used them to make a vegetable broth stock.

When certain food items become too expensive, look for alternatives. In my lifetime I have observed the "good" fish (like salmon) become over harvested and expensive so grocers started selling "trash" fish that were never considered food fifty years ago. These include Talapia and Chilean Sea Bass. Personally I like these cheap white fish but think back on how the contents of the fish counter has changed over thirty years. Be open to discovering new foods.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yuri's Night

"I saw for the first time the earth's shape. I could easily see the shores of continents, islands, great rivers, folds of the terrain, large bodies of water. The horizon is dark blue, smoothly turning to black. . . the feelings which filled me I can express with one word—joy."
— Yuri A. Gagarin
Today, April 12, is the 50 anniversary of mankind entering the space-age and according to MSNBC the "whole world" will be celebrating Yuri's Night. That was news to me and who the heck is Yuri? The answer is Yuri Gagarin (Ю́рий Алексе́евич Гага́рин), the first human in space by completing one orbit around the Earth.  After re-entry, Gagarin ejected from the craft and landed safely by parachute. Yuri Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad with visits to Italy, Germany, Canada, Japan, Finland, and the United Kingdom to promote the Soviet coup of being the first country to put a human in space with Vostok 1. [What? No US tour? :-) ]
In a 2010 Space Foundation survey, Gagarin was ranked as the #6 most popular space hero, tied with Star Trek's fictional Capt. James T. Kirk.

Bottom Line

Coincidentally (?) April 12 is also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle mission. In a way that's depressing. We've accomplished so little in space in 50 years (or even the past 30). The exploits of science fiction like 2001, A Space Odyssey or Star Trek seem so very far away.

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Monday, April 11, 2011


Tai Chi
Help me, I think I'm falling
- Joni Mitchell, lyrics from "Help Me"
Ask an average person, "What is the most likely dangerous thing that may happen to you?" You may get answers like hit by lightning, hit by a car, shot by a gun, etc. What you are not likely to hear is "falling."

The Dept. of Health for New York State writes,
In NYS fall-related injuries are the leading cause of injury hospitalizations among children ages 0-14 and adults 25 years and older. Falls are the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for those 45 years and older. Falls can result in serious injuries such as traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or fractures. There is also a heavy financial burden to fall-related injuries with a yearly cost of $1.3 billion in New York State for hospitalizations alone.
My father's aunt had an amazing memory and was a great story teller well into her 90's. But one night she fell in her assisted living apartment and was never the same again mentally. The Dept of Health is spot on with, "Fall-related injuries in older adults often lead to hospitalizations beginning the downward spiral that can result in long-term disability or death." In a fall the brain can be bruised and damaged when it hits the skull with a smack. Nearly twenty years ago my brother-in-law's job was to hit lab rats on the head and then measure the resulting brain damage using a MRI. The goal was to discover how well brain damage could be seen in an MRI because you really don't want to open up the skull to find out the status of the brain after an injury.

Fortunately there are measures you can take to make falls less likely.

For Children:
  • Use child safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs
  • Never leave an infant unattended on a table, bed or other elevated surface
  • Use safety straps to secure your child in strollers, shopping carts and infant carriers
  • Place your child in a stationary play-station rather than a mobile walker
  • Playground surfaces should consist of shredded rubber, fiber mulch, or fine sand and extend 12 inches deep and 6 feet around equipment to reduce the severity of falls.
For Adults:
  • Install handrails on stairways and remove loose rugs or other clutter
  • Use ample lighting throughout the home. Install illuminated light switches at the top and bottom of stairs, and night lights in the bathrooms.
  • Use a step-stool and grab bar to reach objects on high shelves. Don't stand on stairs, buckets, or other objects to reach something!
  • Use non-slip bath mats in the shower and tub
  • Wear shoes with non-slip soles
  • Talk to your health care provider about gait, balance, and strength training.
Bottom Line

The last item in the list is interesting. I found that Tai Chi greatly improved my sense of balance and has saved me from some slip and falls. Perhaps Yoga can do the same to make you more in tune with your body and strengthen it for balance. Try standing on one foot for 30 seconds. (But be careful how and where you do this - you will fall eventually.) Learn how to fall safely. Do squats to strengthen the legs and improve balance as your body changes position.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

DIY Mistakes

"All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes."
-Winston Churchill
Popular Mechanics has a delightful article titled, 20 DIY Mistakes We've Made (So You Don't Have To). Here are some of the lessons learned...

1. Do not drill 3" screws into a wall to hold heavy frames. You might puncture a pipe or wire. Use hollow-wall anchors instead.

2. It may be illegal to relocate wild animals that move into your yard. And if you try, take the animal several miles away (5+).

3. Don't drop a sheet of plywood on your foot! It weighs 50 pounds.

4. Just because your remodeling plan is approved by the building department, does not mean the plan satisfies all building codes. Have the work inspected early.

5. Don't be embarrassed to ask for help (especially with heavy items).

6. 1-year-olds think latex paint is delicious!

7. Don't change your own car oil?  (There are several stories of oil change mishaps)

8. Pressure washers can remove paint AND damage walls if too much pressure is used.

9. Lay down plywood if you're working in an unfinished attic. Else one wrong step can put a hole through a ceiling.

Bottom Line

Mistakes are part of the learning experience.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jobless Recovery

“An "acceptable" level of unemployment means that the government economist to whom it is acceptable still has a job.”
While officially the Great Recession is over, we are still in a jobless recovery phase where companies are doing more with fewer employees. Here's a news article cited by Instapundit:
“A Massachusetts employment organization has canceled its annual job fair because not enough companies have come forward to offer jobs. Richard Shafer, chairman of the Taunton Employment Task Force, says 20 to 25 employers are needed for the fair scheduled for April 6, but just 10 tables had been reserved. One table was reserved by a nonprofit that offers human services to job seekers, and three by temporary employment agencies.”
Why are companies afraid to hire? For one, sales are down with so many unemployed. There's just fewer dollars out there. Second, it's expensive to hire someone, see my post The hidden costs of employment. With taxes, social security, and other federal fees, it costs a company $74,000 to put $44,000 in Sally's pocket.

Third, some are afraid to hire the unemployed. The odds of hiring a "bad" employee is higher with the unemployed - who can tell if they were laid-off by dumb luck or for good cause. There are increasingly bold companies that say in their want ads that they will NOT hire anyone unemployed. Ouch!

Some effects on employment are counter-intuitive. In The World Is Flat Thomas Friedman argues that one reason for past economic success in America is that it's relatively easy to fire someone. In Europe it is practically impossible to fire someone for any reason, as a result many firms are very cautious in hiring. We're seeing some of that in America now with companies using more part-time or contractors instead of new hires.

Sometimes Federals laws damper hiring. In SuperFreakonomics the authors state that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has discourage hiring of the disabled. Employers are afraid they will be subject to lawsuit if they fire someone who is disabled because of the law.

Another law that dampers hiring? The new Healthcare law which increases the cost that companies must pay to provide health insurance.

Bottom Line

How bad is unemployment? Unemployment Insurance is supposed to last for just 26 weeks. But given the state of the economy it's been extended and extended and extended to a present value of 99 weeks. And there are persons who have exceeded even that. One site claims a million people in the 99er club. People who have exhausted all four tiers of unemployment benefits, are no longer are eligible for any more money, and will no longer be considered unemployed in the official statistics.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Potassium Iodide

"Primum non nocerum. (First do no harm)"
— attributed to Hippocrates
With Nuclear radiation leaks in Japan, bottles of Potassium Iodide have flown off the shelves of stores around the world. Recently a friend recommended that I encourage others to buy Potassium iodide. I disagreed.

In the late 70's under President Ford, Swine Flu first became a public concern and there was a push to have everyone inoculated against it. However the 1970's swine flu shot caused serious allergic reactions in rare cases. It turned out more people died from the shot than from that occurrence of Swine flu. [This is not the case today where the shot is safer and the flu deadlier.]

Potassium Iodide is similar. Yes its benefits are amazing under certain conditions. But it has side effects and can be dangerous to infants and the elderly.

Let's start with why take Potassium Iodide and what does it do?

Dangerous levels of radiation drop off quickly with distance from the accident. In Tokyo the exposure after 36 hours was equal to eating one banana (banana are high in potassium.) We get radiation all the time from the sky, from granite, from medical X-rays, etc. Fortunately, humans can tolerate a lot of low level radiation spread evenly throughout the body. But radioactive Iodine is different - it is not spread out evenly but concentrates in one spot.

The human Thyroid collects and hoards all Iodine that enters the body. If that Iodine is radioactive, it can kill the thyroid or cause thyroid cancer. [In America the cure for hyper-thyroidism is a large does of radioactive Iodine in a pill to kill the thyroid. The patient then lives on an artificial hormone to replace the thyroid secretions.] Often in the years after nuclear accidents, the only cancer to spike or become epidemic is Thyroid cancer. 

A Potassium Iodide pill blocks radioactive Iodine for 24 hours. The pill must be taken BEFORE radiation exposure to fill up the Thyroid so it has no room to absorb the bad Iodine, allowing the bad Iodine to be excreted from the body. It is VERY effective at preventing Thyroid cancer if taken immediately.

So why not pop a Potassium Iodide pill every day, just in case? The pill also shuts the Thyroid down temporarily. In the very young (under one month) this can affect brain development. Potassium Iodide can reach infants in the womb and newborns through mother's milk.

Adults can be affected in two ways. First - unlikely but serious side effects include: burning mouth/throat, sore teeth/gums, swelling inside the mouth, increased saliva, eye irritation/swollen eyelids, severe headache, swelling of the front of the neck/throat (goiter), confusion, numbness/tingling/pain/weakness of the hands/feet. Rare but very serious side effects include: chest pain, black stools, vomit that looks like coffee grounds, bloody diarrhea.

Second - a Potassium Iodide pill is good for 24 hours and is only meant to be taken once (or at most a few days if advised by emergency authorities). It's a buffer of protection as you evacuate a contaminated area. It is not meant for long term protection. When used repeatedly signs of decreased thyroid gland function include weight gain, cold intolerance, slow/irregular heartbeat, constipation, and unusual tiredness.

Bottom Line

While Potassium Iodide (KI) is very useful when properly used I have many objections to recommending that everyone buy it.

1. The news media is terrible at reporting radiation and loves to scare the public with stories like, "Radiation found in Milk in Massachusetts." This causes panic and results in people taking the KI pills when the risks of the pills outweigh the risks of radiation. You should only take the pills when public health authorities (not the media) recommend it.

2 The pill only works prior to exposure and is dangerous if used long term.

3. The dosage of KI is age dependent. Read the bottle carefully. Taking extra dosage does NOT help and can be dangerous. Adults older than 40 years should not take KI unless public health or emergency management officials say that contamination with a very large dose of radioactive iodine is expected.

4. Ask your doctor before buying to see if you or a family member has a condition that puts you in danger from Potassium Iodide. Also talk to a doctor if you are pregnant or nursing.

5. Lastly - KI is not 100% protection from radiation. It protects only the Thyroid and does nothing for high levels of ration which destroy the entire body. It protect only against radioactive Iodine found in Nuclear accidents. It does not against alpha/beta/gamma radiation of dirty bombs, or nuclear explosions.

If you live near (say 100 miles as the wind blows) a Nuclear Plant, AND you understand the risks of Potassium Iodide AND when to use it, then buy a bottle. Otherwise don't.


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Tuesday, April 5, 2011


"It ain't necessarily so"
- song from Porgy & Bess

Last week I attended a kickoff meeting for a Science Book Club at the local library. What book was selected as our first read?  SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics. In both books the authors apply numbers to our daily life and come up with some surprising results.

For example, did you know it is 5 to 8 times more dangerous to WALK while drunk than DRIVE while drunk? Yes, there are far more deaths caused by drunk drivers but when you look at the odds of dying per mile traveled, it's much worse for drunk walkers who fall asleep on roads, reckless attempt to cross busy streets, etc.

Another statistic that surprised me was this: in the 1980's during peacetime up to twice as many soldiers died than in the late 2000's with the Iraq war.  How can this be? One obvious reason is:
1. There were more soldiers in the 1980's because Clinton reduced the size of the military by 30% or so.
2. Service men (& women) don't just die in combat.

If you dig deeper into the data you'll discover that the combined military death rate for 1980 and 2007 (peak of Iraq)  are quite similar but that soldiers died for different reasons. The rate of accidental deaths was MUCH higher in the 80's; from a high of 72 soldiers out of 100,000 to a low of 22.5 per 100K in 2010.

In 1980 a soldier was more likely to die of an accident (72/100K) vs the worst of combat (52.7/100K in 2007). In 1980 the death rates for illness and homicide (murdered outside of combat) were also higher than at present. Apparently the discipline of War teaches safety first!

How deadly is modern combat to US soldiers? This is hard to say because most comparisons are not apples to apples. The top killers in the general population, heart attack 204/100K, cancer 187/100K, stroke 45/100K and lung disease 40/100K typically affect people later in life. Most soldier are young and healthy and are less likely to die of illness (10 to 20 out of 100K). So what else kills young adults?  Suicide at 10-17 per 100K. But even worse - traffic accidents (drunk driving & motorcycles) with a crude death rate of 30/100K from ages 15 to 25.

We could conclude that the war in Iraq was, at its worst, 50% more dangerous for young men/women than traveling in a car. Does this mean that war causalities are not so horrific or that young-adult driving is MUCH worse than imagined. No wonder rental car companies are reluctant to rent to college students.

Bottom Line

Life is complicated. Schools and the media do a terrible job of looking at the big picture and sorting fact from fallacy. While many are opposed to war, who do you know that is raising an alarm over teenage and young adult driving? I have to give MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) credit. They may save more lives than War protesters.

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Monday, April 4, 2011


"Health food may be good for the conscience but Oreos taste a hell of a lot better."
-Robert Redford
As a child and young adult I enjoyed Ramen. It's a quick and easy meal. Later while working in Manhattan I was introduced to Noodle Houses which serve delightfully flavored bowls of noodles with your choice of toppings. Now I can bring these two experiences together thanks to Ramen Hacks: 30+ Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Instant Noodles.

The article describes many (30?) excellent ideas for enhancing ramen. One secret is having a great broth base. I ordered noodle soup at a Japanese fusion bistro and was shocked to find it had zero flavor. Perhaps a clean, simple taste is popular in Japan but I like my broth to be complexly flavored. Here's some things to add instead of the highly salted packets that come with Ramen.
  • Miso paste
  • Chili bean sauce
  • Thai curry paste
  • Japanese curry powder
  • Fish sauce or Oyster sauce
  • Harrisa (a Tunisian hot chilli sauce common in North African cooking)
  • Vinegar (especially flavored vinegars)
  • Ponzu (a Japanese citrus-based sauce)
And ...
  • Spices like white pepper, sichuan pepper, or chili flakes added to the finished dish, or a cinnamon stick, star anise, and coriander seeds added to the simmering broth (remove 'em before serving!)
  • Fats like toasted sesame oil, chili oil, or an animal fat like pork, chicken, or duck.
  • Citrus juices—a quick squeeze of lemon or lime right before serving brightens flavors.
A great broth will excite all 5 flavors - sweet, sour (vinegar), bitter (citrus), salty and umame (meat protein) as well as having a bit of heat (chilli).

And ... don't forget to add toppings like eggs, meat and vegetables.

The article concludes with ideas for using Ramen as a noodle base (or topping) for other dishes. With care you can make stir-fried and cold noodle dishes. Stop cooking the ramen just before it's completely done, then drain it. It'll continue to soften from the residual heat, as well as cooking further when you stir-fry it.
* Create Pad Thai by stir-frying semi-cooked ramen with fish sauce, peanuts, vegetables, and a touch of lime and tamarind paste

Other ideas include ramen salad, ramen spaghetti, ramen tacos, and much more.

Bottom Line

Ramen is a great emergency food. It keeps "forever" if you can keep it safe from bugs and mice by storing it in airtight containers. And it just needs hot water to cook.

But please don't think of Ramen as a health food. There's 400 calories if you eat a whole bag and nearly a day's worth of salt in the seasoning packet.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Foolish Myths

For April Fool's I'll bring back a post from two years ago about Disaster Prep Myths...

The first of April, some do say
Is set apart for All Fool's Day;
But why the people call it so
Nor I, nor they themselves, do know,
But on this day are people sent
On purpose for pure merriment.
- Anonymous
MYTH: “Disasters are Random Killers”
FACT:  Disasters are more likely to kill those living in substandard housing and the uninformed. Japan with strict building codes survived the earthquaking (the Tsunami caused most damage). While in Haiti an earthquake caused massive damage with cheaply made building. – Pan American Health Organization

MYTH: “If something happens all I have to do is call 911.”
FACT: “Security, like charity, begins at home and the responsibility for your family’s safety rests on your shoulders.” – Paul Purcell, security analyst and preparedness consultant. 911 will be overwhelmed (if functioning at all). There are not enough rescue workers to rescue everyone immediately.

MYTH: “All I need is a 72-hour kit with a flashlight, first aid kit, some food and water and a radio to hear further instruction.”
FACT: You need to be self-sufficient for a minimum of one week.

MYTH: I don’t need to prepare because when “big one” hits, I’m dead anyway
FACT: “Mass Destruction” does NOT mean “Total Destruction.” When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Eizo Nomura survived in a basement just 100m from ground zero. Akiko Takakura survived 300m from the blast center inside a solidly built bank.

MYTH: I don’t need to prepare because nothing like that could ever happen here.
FACT: Each part of the world has its own unique disaster potential. I wrote earlier about a preparedness specialist in the Chicago suburbs who knew he was unlikely to ever experience earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Imagine his surprise when ordered to evacuate his home because an abandoned train car had caught fire and potentially deadly fumes were drifting through his neighborhood.

MYTH: “Food shortages are inevitable after every disaster”
FACT: Food is usually available but frequently not accessible. (Hence the need for family supplies until roads are clear.) The real shortage after most disasters is clean drinking water. - Jean Luc Poncelet, MD

MYTH: “I received money for another disaster or from another agency or I make too much money, so there’s no point in applying for aid”
FACT: Every disaster is considered separately. And while FEMA will not duplicate insurance benefits, you may be eligible for help with losses not covered or with damages in excess of your coverage ("under-insured"). Most federal and state disaster assistance programs are available to ALL who suffered damages regardless of your income. - FEMA

MYTH: “I gave my information to a local emergency manager (or the Red Cross) so FEMA already has my case details.”
FACT: To be eligible for federal and state disaster assistance, you must apply online at or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) (TTY 1-800-462-7585).

MYTH: “When a foreign disaster occurs, send ASAP every available volunteer (especially doctors) and send supplies of everything as quickly as possible.”
FACT: “The myth that the affected local population is helplessly waiting for the Western world to save it is also false, especially in countries with a large – but unevenly distributed – medical population. In fact, only a handful of survivors owe their lives to foreign teams. Most survivors owe their lives to neighbors and local authorities.” - Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet. Unplanned and unorganized humanitarian aid supplies can be useless and clog distribution sites from receiving supplies that are critical. It is best to ASK what is needed before leaping to conclusions.

MYTH: “Life will be back to normal in a few weeks”
FACT: Long after the media cameras have moved onto the next big story, people will be rebuilding homes and local infrastructure. “The greatest need for assistance appears several weeks and months after the event. It takes several years to rebuild a badly damaged area.” - Pan American Health Organization


Don't be caught looking foolish. Read the articles linked to above. There’s a lot to learn about preparing your home and what NOT to do when helping others.

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