Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

On Hallowe'en the thing
you must do
Is pretend that nothing
can frighten you
An' if somethin' scares you
and you want to run
Jus' let on like
it's Hallowe'en fun.
- - - from an Early Nineteenth Century Halloween Postcard
Bottom Line
For Halloween Safety Advice see yesterday's post or


Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Safety Advice

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
- H. P. Lovecraft
Here's some last minute Halloween Safety Advice
  • Choose costumes that allow kids to move and see clearly.
  • Watch out for sheets or long cloaks that might result in trips and falls. Try on costumes before Halloween to allow time for altering.
  • Flame-resistant does not mean fireproof. Keep trick-or-treaters away from flames.
  • Make sure your Halloween costume is colorfast so the color doesn't run onto your other clothes if it rains.
  • Wear comfortable, practical shoes with shoelaces double tied to prevent tripping.
  • Make-up should be hypoallergenic and non-toxic.
  • Any weapons wielded should be obviously fake and not cause injury. Kids WILL play with swords. Don’t even think of dressing like a gang member and carrying a realistic looking gun or knife.
  • Add reflective tape to a costume or candy bag so motorists can see you clearly. A flashlight or glow stick is also a good idea.
  • Designate a route before your kids begin trick-or-treating, and make sure they stick to it.
  • Don’t allow short-cuts through dark alleys, parking lots, or other areas out of sight.
  • Plan the trick-or-treat route involving only known homes and NEVER trick-or-treat alone.
  • Carry a cell phone so you can call for help.
  • Never enter a house to get candy. Don't approach unfamiliar pets and animals.
  • Follow pedestrian safety rules (use crosswalks, obey traffic lights, don’t talk to strangers or get into their car, etc.) Don't trample through flower beds and gardens.
  • Kids should not sample the candy until an adult has inspected it. Toss out unwrapped goodies. When back at home offer a scary dinner or healthy snacks to discourage an orgy of candy eating. Ration the treats to ward off bellyaches and future cavities.
  • Keep your pets locked up and away from the front door on Halloween. Do not give candy to pets; chocolate can make dogs sick.
  • If you are handing out candy, make sure the porch is well lit without any tripping hazards. If you set jack-o-lanterns with candles in them, make sure that they are far enough out of the way so that kids costumes won't accidentally be set on fire. Wet leaves should be swept from sidewalks and steps.
Here is an online quiz/game to help your kids learn the Halloween rules,

Bottom Line


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

When to take a pay cut

"No success in public life can compensate for failure in the home."
-Benjamin Disraeli
There's a interesting article at Penelope Trunk Blog about the times in your life when it's OK to take a pay cut.
  1. For emotional Independence. Yes you could make more with a large firm but you want to be your own boss and run your own business.
  2. When changing careers. You're doing something new for you, why should you still get the big bucks.
  3. When you're over 40 years old. Salary peaks at age 40! (that's a rude shock to learn). There are exceptions - lawyers, surgeons(?), and those who succeed in climbing the corporate ladder.
  4. If unemployed for six months.  You'll most like need to take a pay cut to get hired again.
  5. If changing jobs to be close to family. Relationships trump money.
  6. If you get a great boss.
  7. If you can not cope with the stress of not working.
  8. If you need better insurance.
Bottom Line

Penelope has an excellent conclusion,
You are not your salary. You are not worth less in the world because you are paid less in your job. Get your self-worth from a wide range of things and a pay cut won't matter to you. Focus on the components of a good job: learning, personal growth, friends at work, and a good family life. All those things are worth a lot more than a pay cut.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Free Preparedness Training

If you don't know where you are going, how can you expect to get there?
-Basil S. Walsh

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
-Proverbs 29:18
I recently got an e-mail from a person asking about Preparedness training.

Where to begin? There are so many different things to consider and it all depends on what you are Preparing for.

The FEMA site covering preparation for natural disasters is at
See also for a list of emergency prep documents by disaster type.

The LDS church has an excellent introduction to the basics at

If you're worried about TEOTWAWKI (The end of the world as we know it) see which covers surviving on your own - raising your own food, caring for medical needs, protecting yourself, etc.

You can receive free training by volunteering for the American Red Cross or a local CERT team:  (drill down to Preparing & Training, then Preparedness Fast Facts).

FEMA offers free online training which are required for emergency workers, in particular IS100 and IS700:

To learn more about 72-hour kits see my blog, 72-hour Kits, with links to resources.

Bottom Line

There is no shortage of information online. The hard part is knowing where to begin. Both the Red Cross and FEMA endorse:
Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Informed.
Which translates to

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If it weren't for bad news, I'd have no news at all

"Gloom, despair and agony on me-e!
Deep dark depression, excessive misery-y!
If it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all!
Gloom, despair and agony on me-e-e!" - Hee Haw TV show
Yesterday, while looking at, it seemed that every news item was more bad news caused by poor government planning and regulations...

Rhode Island Is Broke

Rising gas prices have pretty much wiped out the whole cash value of the stimulus to families.

Obama’s Failed Stimulus Cost More than 9 Year Iraq War.

Chicago: 2 teacher's union lobbyists teach for a day to qualify for hefty pensions

Obama’s efforts to aid homeowners, boost housing market fall far short of goals.

“The Occupiers have the wrong address. The subprime crisis was designed in Washington, not New York.”

How Can Spending 30 Percent More Be “Austerity?”

Afghanistan would back Pakistan in war with US, claims Hamid Karzai.

NYT: Iraq withdrawal outcome of Obama negotiating failure.

New Libyan Leader To Introduce “Radical” Islamic Law.

$1 trillion in student loan debt sparks furor.

Chinese Rare Earth Company Strokes Mustache, Cuts Off World’s Access to Rare Earths to Inflate Prices.

Mall Vacancies Hit All-Time Record.

Bottom Line

The point of this blog is not just to pick on Obama. Government is broken at all levels with bankrupt states and cities. A company that keeps raising prices to pay for poor management decisions loses customers and will go bankrupt (e.g. US automotive companies). But poorly managed government is not forced out of business, instead it keeps raising taxes. People are rarely fired from government jobs for poor performance. The only way to change government is with the ballot box, through your vote. Send a message - vote out incumbents.

Update - here's a great summary of the problem included in today's Instapundit

Democracy, Denied; Republic, Lost. “Does this government represent you? 78% of us say that America is on the wrong track. Only 15%, near an historic low, feel America is headed in the right direction. This implies that a supermajority says that their intention, their well being, and their very dignity are being violated. . . . Complaints about the unresponsiveness to popular will have been emerging with greater and greater clarity and force from the populace. They were called “uprisings” by progressive journalist David Sirota, and the “Middle America Rebellion” by conservative journalist Mark Tapscott. Citizen actions by disaffected people are crescendoing from their first (and still most effective) manifestation,, to the Tea Parties, to — worldwide — the still nascent Occupy movement. These outpourings might not agree on the solution, but all agree on the problem. The permanent government isn’t listening to the citizens.”


Monday, October 24, 2011

Needs vs Wants when Unemployed

“What this country needs are more unemployed politicians”
-Edward Langley
There's a clever blog at "Fabulously Broke in the City" about the conflict over wants versus needs.
A couple I know is in dire straits. They just simply can’t find a job. He’s applied everywhere, and there are no takers, even for being a waiter or a delivery guy. However, when you hear about their budget ... they have:
  • 1 landline telephone
  • 1 basic cellphone
  • 1 full-plan Blackberry cellphone
  • Fully-loaded cable TV
  • Fully-loaded internet service
  • 2 cars
  • going to Pizza Hut weekly
The blogger then corrects the "budget" as follows:
  • 1 landline telephone
  • 1 basic cellphone
  • 1 full-plan Blackberry cellphone
  • Fully-loaded basic cable TV (if at all)
  • Fully-loaded basic internet service (if at all)
  • 2 1 cars
  • going to Pizza Hut weekly
Bottom Line

Hard times call for hard choices. Yes the internet is so useful, especially for job searches, but there's free internet at some libraries. Go with open air digital TV, not cable. Sacrifice the comfort items so there's still money for the essentials like food and rent. When the money returns with a new job, then bring the comfort items back.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Mole Day!

The Speed of Light = 670,616,629 mph: It's not just a good idea, it's the law!
Unless you're a very early riser you have already missed the celebration of Mole Day at 6:02 am on Oct 23. What the heck?

Mole Day is an unofficial chemistry holiday celebrated on a date that relates to Avogadro's number, which is approximately 6.02 x 1023. Avogadro's number is the number of particles in a mole of a substance.

Mole Day traces its origins to an article that appeared in The Science Teacher magazine in the early 1980s about a high school chemistry teacher's reasons for celebrating the day. The idea for Mole Day took root and the National Mole Day Foundation was formed in 1991. The American Chemical Society plans National Chemistry Week so that Mole Day falls within chemistry week each year.

So what exactly is a mole? (Not the one's digging holes in our yard.)  A mole is a quantity of any substance where the number of particles match the number of atoms in 12 grams of pure carbon-12, approximately 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. What so special about Avogadro's number of 6.02 x 1023? It's just the right amount so that the mass of one mole of a substance, expressed in grams, is exactly equal to the substance's mean molecular weight. For example, the mean molecular weight of water is about 18.016, so one mole of water is about 18.016 grams. This property considerably simplifies many chemical and physical computations.

For example: mix 4 moles of Hydrogen gas (H) with 1 mole of  oxygen gas (O2) to get exactly 2 moles of water H2O. This would mean 4 * 1.008 grams of H and 32 grams of O2 (atomic weight of O is 16) to get 36.032 grams of water (2 * 18.016).

Bottom Line

Too much math? I'll digress with a story about the fuzzy moles. We have a cat who loves to sit next to mole and chipmunk tunnels and play wack-a-mole. My wife recently saw him playing with a chipmunk by repeatedly tossing it into the air.

Update  10/26

The General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in Paris, France, has unanimously agreed on a proposal that would lead to reform of the mole, kilogram, kelvin and ampere, according to the international system of units (SI).

The first sign that the SI was flawed was noticed in 1949 in a check on a lump of metal kept inside a vault at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris. By definition, it is the only object in existence with a mass of exactly 1 kilogram – one of the seven SI base units – so metrologists were unsettled to discover that this mass had changed.

For the kilogram, the proposal is to use the Planck constant, which relates the energy of electromagnetic radiation to its frequency. The Planck constant can also be used to define the Avogadro constant, the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12, which in turn can be used to obtain the mole.

The decision will not be binding without another vote in four years' time.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Time for Flu Shots

“Chain letters are the postal equivalent of intestinal flu: you get it and pass it along to your friends”
-Bob Garfield
A friendly reminder, get your flu shot! Many health plans cover the cost and some pharmacies like CVS will have low cost flu shoot events. Having the flu is nothing to sneeze at. During a typical year in the United States, 20,000 to 50,000 persons die as a result of influenza viral infection. About 5-10% of hospitalizations for influenza lead to fatal outcome in adults.

The flu is like a super-bully of a cold. There is extreme exhaustion and total misery. I came down with the flu at a Square Dance Convention in Vermont. Then my wife and a traveling companion got it the next day. Fortunately his wife did not get sick and drove us all home. There is no way those of us who were sick were in any condition to drive.

Bottom Line

If you're still not sure if you have the flu, here's a comparison of symptoms with the common cold.

Cold Symptoms
Slow onset.
No prostration.
Fever Headache is rare.
Runny nose, Sneezing.
Mild Fatigue.
Cough, chest discomfort.
Sore Throat.

Flu Symptoms
Swift, severe onset.
Prominent Prostration.
Flushed, hot moist skin.
102-104 degree temp.
Chills, body aches.
Extreme fatigue,
can last 2-3 weeks.
Cough, sore throat.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't touch my vegetables!

Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar
with few, friend to one, enemy to none.
--Benjamin Franklin (1706—1790)
In recent months I described how the poor economy has increased the incidents of metal theft - stealing air conditioners, trash cans, etc. for their scrap metal value. End Bold thieves steal bridge in North Beaver, Pennsylvania.

Well here's a new sign of the times, Vegetable stealing! As reported by WLS radio of Indianapolis,
gardeners of the Grassroots Community Farm were nearly in tears over the latest insult. .... Who would steal their hard-won tomatoes right off the vine? Who cut the collard greens and swiped their sweet potatoes? ... it was the work of vegetable thieves who came equipped with shovels and plastic bags. ...
Indianapolis is not alone with stories of garden thievery. The New York Times reported recently that veggie thefts this summer that have disheartened gardeners in New York's network of more than 700 community plots.
Bottom Line

Think about the word Civilization. It begins with the word "Civil". When civility and respect are lost, then civilization too will be lost. Robert Heinlein in his novel Friday addresses this point,
Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms as you have named…  But a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.
This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength.
I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course – but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking way at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down…

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When a loved one dies...

And when I die, and when I'm gone
There'll be, one child born, in this world
To carry on.
- lyrics from "And When I Die" by Laura Nyro, sung by Blood, Sweat & Tears

When a loved one dies, there's many lose ends that need to be resolved. Most of them are not fun but they are necessary. The Consumerist recommends the following step to Close Up Loved One's Accounts After They Pass Away

1. Immediately request a credit report for the deceased. This will tell you about most accounts and credit cards.

2. Get many "Letters of Testamentary", a court document showing that you are the executor of the estate. [The deceased did leave a will naming an executor, right?]

3. Get a death certificate for every utility and every financial account and then get at least a dozen more. With my mother-in-law, one bank asked for 3 death certs because different departments did not share or they were too lazy to search their files.

4. File a request to close every account as soon as possible.

5. File an obituary with a newspaper that also publishes online. This can help "prove" someone is really dead. Just point them to the URL of the obituary.

6. If the deceased have voice mail through their phone company, politely ask that the message be changed. Some find it disturbing to hear the voice of the recently departed.

7. Debts live on after death. But debts to NOT get inherited by the children. All debt is paid out of the estate. This does not mean the kids can take the money and leave nothing for debts, the debtors will sue and win; debt payment comes first and what remains of the estate (if anything) can then be distributed.

8. If the estate has sizable assets, get a lawyer. Lawyers are also useful if debtors or other companies give you a difficult time closing accounts.

Bottom Line

9. Keep calm. The paperwork will be tedious and sometimes maddening. Keep your humor.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wall Street Protests

“Wall Street indices predicted nine out of the last five recessions!”
-Paul A. Samuelson
Spengler at notes that America household's and bankers got rich from the housing bubble and that they have forgotten that bubbles are the exception, not the norm.

Wall Street Protestors Have Met the Enemy and It Is They

That is why the Wall Street protesters are foolish and petulant. American households levered a $6 trillion net inflow of foreign savings during the decade 1998 through 2007 into a bubble that benefited them far more than it did Wall Street. The impact of the bubble on the household balance sheet exceeds the growth in real-estate assets, moreover, because most small business expansion followed the housing bubble.

For fifteen years we rode a tsunami of foreign capital pouring into American markets. We didn’t save a penny. Why should we? Our home equity was our retirement account. Our smartest kids got MBAs and went to Wall Street derivatives desks. Engineering was for dummies. Home prices rose so fast that local governments swam with tax revenues and hired with abandon. Everybody went to the party. Now everybody has a hangover, especially the bankers. We thought we were geniuses because we won the lottery. Now we actually have to produce and export things, and we have to play catch-up. Our kids are competing with Asian kids who go to cram school and practice the violin in the afternoon. This isn’t going to be easy, and the sooner we decide to roll up our sleeves and get back to work instead of looking for bankers to blame, the better our chances of coming back.
Bottom Line

Whom did the housing bubble help the most? According to Spengler, it was households, not banks,
Household real estate wealth remains 70% higher than it was in 1998, even after the crash in home prices. Bank stocks, by contrast, are worth half of what they were in 1998. Many of the big banks are much worse off. Bank of America is trading at less than a third of its 1998 price, and Citigroup is at barely a tenth of its 1998 level.
I recall about 3 years ago that Citigroup stock was hovering around the $1 mark. People forget that Wall Street is really a lottery. There are some big winners but many losers. We see the big winners and give them credit for being smart when really it's mostly luck. What is pathetic is the big bucks paid to investment bankers for playing with other's people money when studies show they rarely, if ever, do better than the market average.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Peanut Butter price excepted to rise 30%-40%

(To The Tune Of: Clementine)
Found a peanut, found a peanut,
Found a peanut just now,
Just now I found a peanut,
Found a peanut just now.
The Wall Street Journal reports that prices for Jif, Peter Pan, and other peanut butter jars will be going up as much as 40% starting in a couple of weeks. The problem is poor peanut crop with all the rain and flooding we've seen this year. The wholesale price of peanuts has already jumped from $450 a ton to $1,150 a ton.

Stock up now before the price hike. Peanut butter is a great item for home storage as it has a long shelf life, is ready to eat, and nutritious.

When buying your peanut butter, or any other item, don't purchase it at a drug store. An article at reports a Consumer World study that found that average drug store prices were 36% higher than average grocery store prices. For example, Ben & Jerry ice cream at CVS, $6.29. Same container at Stop & Show, $3.99.  Rite Aid had the distinction of having the most expensive basket of items at $107.46, while CVS was the least expensive at $98.12.

Bottom Line

Drug stores can beat grocery store prices on the loss leader items. These are advertised goods on sale at an extremely good price to lure you into the store with the hope that you'll buy other over priced items while there. Your best bet is too buy just the bargains you want and get out with wallet intact. However I've noticed many stores are fighting back against people buying only the loss leader items by changing saying: Sale price X with additional $20 purchase. So the sale is void if you don't buy other stuff.

If you need $20 of groceries, great. But don't buy $20 of stuff you don'd need just to save $5 on one item.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

If you Rent, get Renters insurance

“I installed a skylight in my apartment... The people who live above me are furious!”
- Stephen Wright
A co-worker recently experienced a fire in the apartment he rents. He did not have renter's insurance and must pay out of his own pocket the expense of a hotel room while looking for a new place to live and out-of-pocket to replace his belongings.

You might be thinking you could afford that if your belongings are few and/or modest. But there is another important component of Renters Insurance that no renter should be without - Liability protection. If a fire starts in your apartment and it looks like your fault (smoking in bed, a candle, a stove fire, etc) the landlord can sue you for damages and the cost to repair the entire building AND other residents can sue you for the damage they incurred from smoke, fire, and water.

Here are two examples I found on the Internet.

1. Insurance company for the apartment complex just had a law firm send a letter addressed to my sister-in-law and niece. It stated they were deemed at fault for the fire by the insurance company's fire investigator. [The bill is ] $180,000.

2. I am aware that i have to pay for the damages of the fire in my apartment that i caused accidentally. Now i get a bill & they're making me responsible for the buildings under me since i am on the 3rd floor. I don't have rentals insurance, so am i responsible for paying their damages as well? ...
[Answer] You are liable for all of the structural damage you caused ... You caused the damage, this is your puppy.

Bottom Line

There is just no excuse for not having renter's insurance, it can cost as little as $10/month!

Apartment fires are very common; most of the events I respond to as a Red Cross volunteer are apartment fires.

See also What to Do after an Apartment Fire

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Obama by the numbers

"If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition." - Barack Obama, 2009
There is an excellent Infographic at Flicker called The Obama Presidency, By the Numbers.  In each case below I'll list the before Obama # i and then the  current # under our President - each has a great quote by Obama which I'll paraphrase here:

War on Poverty - "led him to a life of service" 
Povert Rate: 13.2% (2008),  14.3% (2010)

"We have to have a president who understands that the essence of the american dream is a good job" - Obama 2008
U-6 Unemployment 14% (Jan 2009), 16.2% (Aug 2011)
Avg Weeks Unemployed  19.9 (Jan '09), 40.3 (Aug '11)
Jobs 142,201,000 (Jan '09), 139, 627,000 (Aug '11)
Families on Food Stamps:  31.9 million (Jan '09), 45.2 million (May '11)

"America families, since George Bush has been in office, have seen average family incomes go down $2000." - Obama 2008
Ditto for Obama: $52,029 (2008),  $49,445 (2010)

After the great ObamaCare,
Average Family Health Plan:  $12,680 (2008), $15,073 (2011)

There's more at the link above. It's interesting to contrast Obama's words with his accomplishments.

Bottom Line

The President's defense is, it would have been worse without me. That is not a provable statement and also highly unlikely. In a typical recession, the economy rebounds after 18 months and employment picks up. No so now. A trillion dollars was spent and after three years the economy has not recovered. The excuse given, we did not spend enough, again an unprovable statement.

What if we spent too much already? Or spent it on the wrong things? That's the Tea Party position.

Solyndra makes a good example. Over $500,000,000 spent on a company with a bad business plan (Their current cost of manufacturing solar panels was greater than the current market price. They had hoped by ramping up production with a new plant they could lower their cost and make a profit. The plan failed when China lowered the global cost for solar panels by building even cheaper than Solyndra could ever hope to achieve.) In the government there is no downside for supporting losers or making bad bets with the public's money. No one in government is losing their job over this and the tax payer picks up the bill.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hurricane Stages

XKCD is a clever "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." The drawings are simple stick people but the ideas or puns can be quite intelligent. In the cartoon above the artist substitutes a Piaget Stage with a Hurricane Category 5.

Hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale of Categories 1 to 5:
ONE: Winds 74-95 mph: Damage primarily to unanchored mobile homes, shrubbery, and trees. Some coastal road flooding and minor pier damage.
TWO: Winds 96-110 mph: Some roofing material, door, and window damage to buildings. Considerable damage to vegetation, mobile homes, and piers. Small craft in unprotected anchorages break moorings.
THREE: Winds 111-130 mph: Some structural damage to small residences. Mobile homes are destroyed. Terrain may be flooded well inland.
FOUR: Winds 131-155 mph: Some complete roof structure failure on small residences. Major erosion of beach areas. Major damage to lower floors of structures near the shore by flooding.
FIVE: Winds greater than 155 mph: Complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings. Some complete building failures with small utility buildings blown over or away. Major damage to lower floors of all structures located near the shoreline. Massive evacuation of residential areas may be required.

The Piaget Scale measures child development in four stages:
  1. Sensorimotor: (birth to about age 2) child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. 
  2. Preoperational: (begins about the time the child starts to talk to about age 7) child begins to use symbols to represent objects and learns to pretend.
  3. Concrete: (about first grade to early adolescence) child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgements.
  4. Formal Operations: (adolescence) Child is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning.. 
Wikipedia which mentions a stage 5, "The fifth stage occurs from 12 months old to 18 months old. During this stage infants explore new possibilities of objects; they try different things to get different results", but this is a sub-stage of the Sensorimotor stage. I wonder how Piaget adherents distinguish between the 4 primary stages and the 6 sub-stages of infants.

Bottom Line
To learn more about hurricanes see the excellent booklet by NOAA at

P.S. Happy Anniversary to my wife. Twenty years married today.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Fatal Cantaloupe?

"Acting in 'Star Wars' I felt like a raisin in a giant fruit salad, and I didn't even know who the cantaloupes were."
- Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker)
Who knew that cantaloupes could be deadly? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says 72 people across 18 states have fallen ill with listeriosis, traced back to contaminated cantaloupes. The fruits come from Colorado's Rocky Ford region and were shipped between July 29 and Sept. 10. Thirteen people have died.

The illness and death were caused by the bacteria listeria which causes diarrhea, muscle aches and fever. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Listeria monocytogenes is found in soil and water. Animals can carry the bacterium without appearing ill and can contaminate meats and dairy products. When Listeria bacteria get into a food processing factory (like the cantaloupe factory), they can live there for years.

Listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking so you're most likely to catch it from ready-to-eat foods like hot dogs and deli meats which were contaminated after factory cooking but before packaging. Unlike most bacteria, Listeria bacteria can grow and multiply in some foods in the refrigerator so it's recommended that you eat your sliced deli meats within a few days of purchasing - old meat could make you sick.

Bottom Line

How can you protect yourself from listeria?
  • Thoroughly cook raw food, such as beef, pork, or poultry to a safe internal temperature. See
  • Rinse raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running tap water before eating.
  • Keep uncooked meats separate from cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods. Avoid cross-contamination by washing hands, knives, counter tops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk.
  • Consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible. Don't assume the fridge will keep it safe for weeks.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

A Very Knotty Post

"Aye, new yew wood knot"
- Answer to the question, is that a new wood carving? Also an example of the flexibility of the English language - the exact same spoken sentence but with totally different meaning called be spelled "I knew you would not".

Boy Scouts and knot lovers alike should check out Andy's Most Useful Knots at Andy begins with
"For a long time, I wished I knew a set of knots that would be the knot equivalent of a Swiss army knife. I knew a few good knots, but every once in a while I'd try to do something like lashing two pieces of wood together and I'd grunt at the end because I didn't know a satisfying way to stop the rope."
I had the same experience recently while assisting our local Boy Scout Troop. They were lashing logs to make a tent and I realized I had no clue what to do. I know many knots but not lashing.

Since Andy's Knot page includes great knot tying pictures I won't every try to summarize it here. I will note something important that I learned.

When I teach Cub Scouts I point out that yes the Square Knot is wonderful. Easy to tie, a symbol of Webelos and Scouting friendship, etc. But I would not trust my life to it. People often tie it incorrectly and make a granny knot instead of a square knot with right over left, then left over right to get the classic intertwined loop look. The granny knot is not as secure and could come unbound under stress. Even when the square knot is properly made, it does NOT bind two ropes together well if the ropes are different widths or different materials. Instead I teach a sheet bend to connect two ropes.

A knot that I really like is the bowline which can be used for nearly everything. But Andy's page pointed that that the bowline suffers from the same flaw as the square knot. It is very easy to make a mistake. Hopefully you will recall the rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back down the hole for making the bowline. But what I and others have trouble remembering is the correct making of the hole itself. Does the loop for the hole cross on top or underneath the binding end of the rope? (Answer is on top) According to Andy, rock climbers now prefer the "threaded figure-eight" knot. 

Bottom Line

Every Knot has a purpose and limitations. Get to know the knot families and a good knot for each purpose:

1. Attaching a rope to boat, post, climber, etc.
2. A fixed loop in a rope
3. A sliding loop
4. A tension loop (grips under stress but can be adjusted)
5. Tie two ropes together (Bends)
6. Constricting knots (closing the mouth of a bag or tieing objects together)
7. Stopper knots  (making a kink to stop a rope from slipping out a hole)
8. Lashing

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Friday, October 7, 2011

I'll be Watching You

Every step you take,
I'll be watching you
-lyrics by Sting
My wife has frequently said that our next car should have "OnStar" becuase it sounds so useful and appropriate for emergency preparedness. But Wired Magazine reports something unsettling about OnStar, even if you unsubscribe and stop paying the monthly fee of $19-$29, they may still continue to track your vehicle. OnStar claims this is to make it “easier to re-enroll” in the program if you decide to come back. But more likely OnStar wants your travel history so they can make money selling it. A new privacy policy from OnStar makes it clear that they have the right to sell GPS-derived data in an anonymized format.

A spokesman for the General Motors subsidiary, said OnStar does not currently sell customer data, but it reserves that right. He said both the new and old privacy policies allow OnStar to chronicle a vehicle’s every movement and its speed. “We hear from organizations periodically requesting our information,” he said.
An example would be for the Michigan Department of Transportation “to get a feel for traffic usage on a specific section of freeway.”

Bottom Line
OnStar can be a life saver. But it should leave you alone if you cancel. Canceling customers must explicitly opt out of the continued surveillance monitoring program. If you don't trust OnStar to honor your opting out, the Consumerist recommends checking your user manual for the location of the OnStar fuse and removing it.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Selection Bias

A story from WWII has been making the rounds on the Internet...

During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armor to their bombers to make them more robust. He examined the records of planes that had returned to base and noted where the bullet holes were. He recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage.

What? Wouldn't you want more armor where the bullets hit? No.

Wald reasoned that gunfire was not fired by snipers and that bullets were equally likely to hit anywhere on a plane. So what could explain why some locations on the planes showed damage and other areas nothing at all? It's an example of selection bias. Since only planes that were able to fly back after being hit were examined, the damaged areas indicated locations that were already strong enough to take a hit and keep flying. The areas that were serious enough to bring down the plane when hit were not recorded because the plane was lost. 

Selection bias is a sneaky error that can creep in to any study. Suppose you test a diet on 1000 people. 700 drop out and never finish. But you get great results with the 300 who stick with it and publish your diet as very successful when followed faithfully. But what about the drop-outs? Why did they drop out? Perhaps the diet made them ill, or failed to work, or made them gain weight. By including the drop-outs in the final results the results change from wildly successful to a 70% chance of failure.

Suppose you call random homes between 9-5 on a weekday for a survey. Is this a random sample? No. You're won't get families with two working parents. Instead the study will bias the unemployed, stay-at-home moms/caretakers, the self-employed, and others who might be at home instead of an office during working hours. To overcome the bias of the home/hours selected, the surveyors need to call back at later hours the homes not reached so that every home is accounted for in the survey with few to no drop-outs.

Or consider that many psychology studies are made with college student subjects who get paid for participating. This is a case of self-selection bias. Those who select themselves are likely to be 18-25, a college student, willing to do odd things for money, etc. Again not a random sample and a difficult problem to fix. Even if you advertise the study in the paper and radio for a broader population, you'll not see successful CEO's & lawyers sign up for minimal wage.  And the study is still haunted by self-selection, the extremely shy or introveted are not likely to apply.

Bottom Line

Always be extra cautious when a study or survey says it used a "random sample". How was the randomness generated? Was there hidden bias in the selection method?

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Are Dollar Store Items Worth a Buck?

“I wish I had a dollar for every time I spent a dollar, because then, Yahoo!, I'd have all my money back.”
-Jack Handy, Saturday Night Live
Dollar Stores used to be fun to visit. You could buy many items and still get change from a $20. But with the rise in oil price and inflation most stores have raised prices - sometimes posted, sometimes not - so I'm no longer sure just what "dollar store" items will cost anymore.

Michael Z. Williamson at  notes another change at dollar stores:
At one time, dollar stores (former called "five and dime" stores) sold closeouts, leftovers, seconds and special deals.  Increasingly, though, they're selling purpose-made, second-rate, third world junk made just for that purpose.  I would never trust any tool from such a store--they're of pot metal and guaranteed to fail.  They are not, in my opinion, "better than nothing", because they cost money, give you a false sense of security, and don't accomplish anything.
For example: a 2nd rate dollar-store hammer might take a few hits and break. And there's no lifetime replacement guarantee. I've noticed the same problem with brand-name Outlet stores. They used to sell left-over items and items with minor imperfections that failed to sell at the parent stores. You could find bargains on "real" merchandise. But now Outlet malls have sprung up all over America and there's no way there's enough remainder items to fill these stores. So instead the brand-names make their own cheaper knock-offs to sell at Outlets.

Check out an old post of mine about the importance of buying for quality, not price.
Bottom Line

Michael Z Williamson offers this advice,
I would recommend finding both actual overstock and closeout stores, and thrift stores, as well as frequenting garage sales.  At the latter two, older tools without the shine and modern high-tech shaping are perfectly functional, usually better made, and often available even cheaper than at dollar stores.  You can often find kits missing one or two pieces, pick them up separately for a mismatched but complete kit, and have name brand quality for pennies on the dollar.
For me old tools are often the best - enduring quality that just needs some polishing and perhaps sharpening.  Be sure when shopping at flea markets that you're paying for "used" goods, not antique value. I don't want an antique hammer to put on a display shelf; I want one I can use. 

My wife loves finding bargains at garage sales and thrift stores. Last week at a flea market we saw the price on old LP records vary quite a bit from vendor to vendor. The highest was $3 per album. We "scored" with 12 records for a buck which we'll use in craft projects with cub scouts. We're going to melt them and turn them into bowls in the oven.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Who said it? God or Shakespeare?

Instead of one quote today I offer 17 quotes. Your task is to decide the source for each - the Bible or Shakespeare?

1.) Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
2.) Eat, drink and be merry.
3.) Nothing but skin and bones.
4.) To thine own self be true.
5.) Practice what you preach.
6.) The apple of my eye.
7.) You have to be cruel to be kind.
8.) Wear your heart on your sleeve.
9.) The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
10.) By the sweat of your brow
11.) How the mighty have fallen!
12.) Forgive and forget.
13.) You can’t have too much of a good thing.
14.) He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
15.) Forever and a day.
16.) I escaped by the skin of my teeth.
17.) Like mother, like daughter.
Answers below.

Yesterday I mentioned things learned in High School like Cooking and Typing. But what high school student has not had to suffer Shakespeare; usually a different play each year: Romeo & Juliette, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc. Why do we spend so much time on Shakespeare? A 20-year-old girl named Becky from London offers a clue. She posted a page from her notebook on Tumblr which got featured on the English Muse blog, and went viral....

Shakespeare not only wrote great stories that are performed 400 years later, but he had a flair for inventing phrases that remain popular and in common usage. Few English authors can make this claim. (See Erasmus of Rotterdam and John Heywood for two other profligate quote makes who are not as well known as they should be.)

Bottom Line


1.) Shakespeare. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Hamlet. Act i. Sc. 3.

2.) Bible. "Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry" Luke 12:19

3.) Bible. "All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones." Job 19:19-20

4.) Shakespeare. "This above all: to thine own self be true" Hamlet. Act i. Sc. 3.

5.) Bible. "They do not practice what they preach" Matthew 23:3

6.) Bible. "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings" Psalm 17:8

7.) Shakespeare. "I must be cruel, only to be kind" Hamlet. Act iii. Sc. 4.

8.) Shakespeare. "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve" Othello. Act i. Sc. 1.

9.) Bible. "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret." Matthew 6:3

10.) Bible. "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. Genesis 3:19

11.) Bible. "How the mighty have fallen!" 2 Samuel 1:19

12.) Shakespeare. "Pray you now, forget and forgive." King Lear, Act iv. Sc. 7

13.) Shakespeare. "Can one desire too much of a good thing?" As You Like It. Act iv. Sc. 1.

14.) Bible. Watch out for false prophets. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Matthew 7:15

15.) Shakespeare. "For ever and a day." As You Like It. Act iv. Sc. 1.

16.) Bible. "All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped with only the skin of my teeth." Job 19:19-20

17.) Bible. "'Everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb about you: 'Like mother, like daughter.' " Ezekiel 16:4

Heather at "HeresWhatsLeft" provided the answers and offers this conclusion:
"So, how did you do? Not so good? If it makes you feel any better, the King James version of the Bible came out about 7 years after Shakespeare died. So they're basically written in the same vernacular, meaning that for phrases with words like "thine" it can be easy to get confused."

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Monday, October 3, 2011

You're Burning the Chow

Little John: You're burning the chow!
Robin Hood: Sorry, Johnny. I guess I was thinking about Maid Marian again
- Disney's movie, Robin Hood
When one thinks of school the obvious subjects are Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. But the two high school classes that I have most benefited from are Typing and Cooking which I use everyday. Cooking class was fun - our teacher acquired bags and bags of apples that fell on a nearby golf course so for weeks we explored many possible ways to cook or bake with apples (yum!)

It is often said that cooking is an art while baking is a science. Cooking follows formulas and requires technique but the flavoring should be done by taste because the seasonings used may be stale and require extra amounts. Baking requires exact measurements and precise cooking time and temperature. Baking uses ingredients that are rather basic but must be combined in the right way - butter, eggs, salt, flour, water, milk, sugar, etc.

For example, if you're making sugary candle like caramel, you'll want to buy a candy thermometer. Sugar is very particular and changes its color and consistency with different temperatures that is well documented in cookbooks.  Because of this I thought the chemistry of sugar was well understood. Imagine my surprise to find out that University of Illinois scientists learn startling new truth about sugar.
"In the literature, the melting point for sucrose varies widely, but scientists have always blamed these differences on impurities and instrumentation differences."
When the Illinois scientists could not get sugar to melt at a fixed temperature, they decided to investigate and learned that the melting point of sugar was heating-rate dependent.
"We saw different results depending on how quickly we heated the sucrose. That led us to believe that molecules were beginning to break down as part of a kinetic process."
When a compound has a fixed melting point, the compound changes phase-state (i.e. from solid to liquid) and that change is reversible because the chemical composition of the compound is unchanged. But some substances (organic ones like milk and now sugar) "melt" by decomposing, by breaking up in to different chemicals in a process that is NOT reversible by merely cooling the temperature. At high heat sugar will decompose rapidly and appear to "melt" at a lower temperature. This is exactly the same as heating milk - if you heat it too quickly it "scalds" and burns. You must heat milk (and sugar) slowly to avoid decomposition.

Bottom Line

What does this mean for cooks? The temperature setting on your stove matters. You can not just set the burner to High to cook something faster. Butter will burn, milk scald, and sugars break down when the heating is too fast.

Experienced cooks also learn that more heat does NOT boiling pasta faster-  the water will stay at boiling temperature (100 C or 212 F) and go no higher. You can use High to get the water to boiling quickly, but once there, you're wasting energy if you don't turn it back to Low. All high heat does during boiling is turn more water to steam - it won't make the water any hotter.

Nine women can not produce a baby in one month
- The Mythical Man-Month

"all things come to those who wait"

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