Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

"The celebration of the new year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (actually the first visible cresent) after the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring).

The beginning of spring is a logical time to start a new year. After all, it is the season of rebirth, of planting new crops, and of blossoming. January 1, on the other hand, has no astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary.

The Babylonian new year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own particular mode of celebration, but it is safe to say that modern New Year's Eve festivities pale in comparison."
- from


Friday, December 30, 2011

Out of This World

The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.
-Mark Russell
I'd like to end this year with an amazing image from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. The large moon in front is called Dione. In the background you can see Saturn’s rings on the left, nearly edge-on, and two more moons as well: Epimetheus, only 130 km (70 miles) across, and Pandora, slightly smaller at 104 km across.

Pandora was discovered in 1980 by the Voyager 1 probe, Epimetheus was discovered by astronomers in 1966. Dione was discovered long ago in 1684 by the astronomer Cassini (for whom the space probe is named). At 1122 km in diameter, Dione is the 15th largest moon in the Solar System and is more massive than all known moons smaller than itself combined.

Bottom Line

This so reminds me of covers of Sci-Fi magazines of the 1950's with an imaginary sky of a planet far away but this is real and Cassini is there; seven years imaging Saturn and its moons.

May 2012 bring amazement and wonders and joy to one and all.

Bonus Image

Another excellent photo from Astronomy Picture of the Day. You may recall that a lunar eclipse is caused by the moon passing through the Earth's shadow but this multiple-exposure really makes that shadow visible. (And gives one a feeling for the size of the moon compared to Earth)

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

End of Year Money Checklist

"Money often costs too much."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
The year is almost over and year-end is a great time to give yourself a financial checkup. The website TheDigeratiLife recommends 16 Money Moves For Your Year End Financial Checklist.

1. Check your Credit Report - you can request a FREE report once a year from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The website makes this easy to do. Watch out for sites that claim to offer a free credit check but also sign you up for a fee-based service.

2. Review your expenses for the year - are you over budget? Do you have a budget? Do you know how much you spent?

3. Evaluate your financial plan - do you have a plan for paying off the mortgage and other debts, for building up an emergency savings account? Did you meet the goals of your plan?

4. Get all medical/dental check-ups done before year-end. With most insurance plans, the insurance deductibles reset at the start of the new year, so you'll pay in full for any doctors visits in 2012 until you reach the deductible again.

5. Spend your FSA - if you have a Flexible Spending Plan for medical expenses then you must spend it or lose it. Some plans have a grace period of up to 2 1/2 months. Know your FSA deadline for spending.

6. Review your insurance claims for the year - is everything OK?

7. Add something to an IRA

8. Contribute to 529 plan for your kid's college

9. Give money to your kids - some gifts to kids can be tax deductible up to federal limits. Check out the rules for this.

10. Prepay tax deductible expenses - I'm not a fan of this one. By paying early you're taking from next year's deduction to help this year.

11. Review your investments like stocks, bonds and mutual funds

12. Sell investments for tax purposes. If you sell a losing investment in this tax-year it can help offset the taxes for investments that made money. Think carefully about this. Unless the investment is junk that you want to get rid off, personally I'd hold on to it and hope that it recovers instead of locking in the loss. Or hold on to it and sell in a tax year where I have huge gains elsewhere.

13. Defer buying mutual funds till next year. Mutual fund companies are required by law to pass on any fund capital gains to their investors. If you buy in December you'll get a tax bill for the gains made in 2011 that you missed out on by buying late in the year.

14. Make your annual charitable donations

15. If your 70 1/2 or older be sure to take money out of our IRA to meet minimum distribution requirements

16. Prepare for a year-end bonus. If you're lucky to get a bonus, how will you spend it wisely?

Bottom Line

Read the Digerati article in full because some of the suggestions above are very tricky and can backfire if done wrong or without the help of a financial planner.

One thing I would do differently is check my credit history at three different times of the year from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Why get three reports at the same time when you could get one report in Jan, one in May and one in September instead?

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mama always said, "Eat your Vegetables"

“Green Eggs and Ham was the story of my life. I wouldn't eat a thing when I was a kid, but Dr. Seuss inspired me to try cauliflower.”
-Jim Carrey
Yesterday I discussed how only 56% of Americans are eating the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. I also discussed why it might not be a good idea to address this shortfall by drinking more fruit juice or eating more fruit. An apply a day (as they say) keeps the doctor away but five apples a day may add pounds to the waistline.

What Americans really need to do is eat more vegetables. Fruit gets great commercials and is so easily available but vegetables outperform fruit in many ways. I think of bananas for potassium (467 mg per medium size banana) but an artichoke has more (595 mg). And that's nothing compared to a cup of beet greens with 1309 mg of potassium. Did you know that a cup of cooked broccoli has more vitamin C than an orange (101.2 mg vs 95.8 mg)!

Here are some ideas from for including more vegetables in your diet:
  1. Jazz them up with hummus, low-fat dip, or sauteed with spices
  2. Carry a bag of baby carrots as a quick snack
  3. Stock up at farmer's markets and ask their advice for cooking vegetables that are new to you
  4. At meals, half of your plate should be filled with vegetables so you'll get 2 servings each at lunch and dinner. 
  5. Enjoy veggie soup
  6. Add veggies to items you cook like casseroles, pasta, (carrot) muffins, (zucchini) breads, etc
  7. Wash and eat the skins of fruits and vegetables (Do they really need to add, except for bananas and pineapples?)
  8. Frozen vegetables are very healthy and may be cheaper than fresh
  9. My boss has started using a juice press to make vegetable drinks. My wife used to press wheat grass for her mother but it's an acquired taste (ick!)
  10. Use more salsa!
  11. When eating out, start with a salad instead of a calorie-ridden appetizer.
  12. Try grilling vegetables on your BBQ.
Bottom Line

Vegetables can be fun. Try it!
(after trying a bite)
I like green eggs and ham!
I do!! I like them, Sam-I-am!"
-Dr Seuss

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

You Are The Apple Of My Eye

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
-Martin Luther
Americans have been told to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day but we aren't listening. Only 56% of adults say that they eat five servings or more at least four days of every week. And to make matters worse the advice itself may be flawed or misapplied.

Most (all?) fruits are forbidden on low carb diets. Yes fruits come packed with vitamins and minerals which do the body more good when eaten naturally than when swallowed in pill form. But after thousands of years of cross-breeding, many fruits we eat are now loaded with fruit sugar (fructose). Sweeter fruit tastes "better"; personally I much prefer a sweet Gala apple to a tart Granny Smith. Fruits with a high fructose load include apple, pear, guava, honeydew melon, pawpaw, papaya, quince, star fruit, watermelon, grapes, raisins, figs, dates, and currants. Oranges (to my surprise) get a favorable rating with fructose equal to or less than the glucose.

According to,
"There's a fair amount of evidence that starch-based foods don't cause weight gain like sugar-based foods and don't cause the metabolic syndrome like sugar-based foods," said Dr. Richard Johnson, the senior author of the report, which reviewed several recent studies on fructose and obesity. "Potatoes, pasta, rice may be relatively safe compared to table sugar. A fructose index may be a better way to assess the risk of carbohydrates related to obesity. ...  fructose may have the unique ability to induce insulin resistance and features of the metabolic syndrome that other foods don't do so easily"
Another factor to keep in mind is that fruit (in moderation) should be eaten, not drunk. A serving size of juice is 6 oz, the size of a martini glass or small wine glass. A large dixie cup is 5oz. Many people feel cheated when given such a small glass of juice and receive instead a 10oz or larger sized glass. A coffee mug holds 12-16 oz. It's way too easy to swallow the juice (and calories) of an entire orange in just a few swallows and still want more. Most fruit juice contains no pulp so instead of satisfying hunger, the sugar in the juice spikes hunger and does little to satisfy it. Beware also of "fruit drinks" which are mostly fruit flavored sugar water.

Bottom Line

Advertisers have been quite successful in selling fruit as healthy. But it turns out you can get higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals in vegetables with much less sugar load. Tomorrow I'll look at ways to encourage more vegetables in the diet.

Here's an interesting article on a study about why sugar makes us fat (and sleepy)

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

"Some boys are rich by birth beyond all wants,
Belov'd by uncles, and kind good old aunts;
When time comes round, a Christmas-box they bear,
And one day makes them rich for all the year." -- John Gay, Trivia (1716),
December 26, Boxing Day, is not about the pugilistic sport nor is it about tossing out empty gift boxes, returning gifts, or getting great bargains. Some historians say the holiday got started when servants, who were required to work on Christmas Day, got the following day off to visit their families. The day took its name from the tradition of presenting gifts of cash, food, clothing and other goods wrapped up in boxes to servants on Dec 26. Another theory is that church donation boxes were opened on the Feast of St. Stephen (Dec 26) and the money distributed to the poor. Wikipedia disagrees with both these theories and claims the day is named after clay boxes that served as a collective piggy bank for servants/workers in a shop or home. On Dec 26 the boxes were smashed open and the contents shared as a Christmas bonus.

Boxing Day is a British holiday for giving gifts to everyone who had rendered a service during the previous year: tradesmen, mail carriers, maids, butlers, doormen, porters, etc. It officially began during the reign of Queen Victoria during the middle 19th century.

Boxing Day is celebrated in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, other Commonwealth of Nations, and Greece. It many of these countries it is a bank holiday. If Dec 26 falls on a weekend, the public holiday may be moved to Monday. So in a worst case, as a traveler in a British country, you could find yourself without access to a bank from Dec 24/25 thru Dec 27/28.

Bottom Line

Few people can be 100% self-sufficient. We all rely on others, especially during times of crisis. It is always a good idea to build a social network and to say thank you to those that have helped you during the year.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

"Christmas! The very word brings joy to our hearts. No matter how we may dread the rush, the long Christmas lists for gifts and cards to be bought and given--when Christmas Day comes there is still the same warm feeling we had as children, the same warmth that enfolds our hearts and our homes."
~ Joan Winmill Brown, American author and editor.

"Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree."
~ Charlotte Carpenter.


Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Things Bought in a Bad Economy

“An avowal of poverty is no disgrace to any man; to make no effort to escape it is indeed disgraceful”
-Thucydides (Greek historian, 460-404 BC)
Moneyland at lists 12 items that are selling quite well at present. They call them "recession-proof" products but keep in mind that with some items (like #1) sales were flat before the recession so these might not be "good-times-proof" products.

  1. Romance Novels - sales are up 7% at Harlequin
  2. Junk food - doughnut sales are up, as are chips and other snacks
  3. Nail polish - sales are up 68%. Traditionally lipstick has been the recession-proof cosmetic as a cheap way to look and feel better.
  4. Halloween Costumes - yet another form of escapism from dreary reality
  5. Fast Food - McDonalds is up 5% from last year. Sad in a way because fast food is not so cheap anymore.
  6. Lottery tickets - wishful thinking
  7. Generic Drugs - that makes sense
  8. Chocolate - Hershey up 20%
  9. Vegetable seeds?  - I guess people are hoping to save money by growing their own food. It didn't work for us - we grew two peppers.
  10. Condoms - cheap entertainment yet reluctance to beget children in troubled times?
  11. Yoga??? - inexpensive stress relief?
Bottom Line

When times are tough people find ways to distract themselves with cheap thrills and escapism. Can money buy happiness?

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dark Side of Chicken Soup

“In August it will be so hot
I will become a cooking pot
cooking soup of course. Why not?
Cooking once, cooking twice
cooking chicken soup with rice.”
-Chicken Soup With Rice, by Maurice Sendak
Chicken soup is world renown as healthy and helpful - there's chicken soup when you're sick and chicken soup for the soul. But are you aware that chicken soup also has an evil, dark side? As reported by NPR in the story "Why Burn Doctors Hate Instant Soup", instant soups are a common cause of serious burns and scalds; with noodle soups the worst offender.
"Noodle soup is strangely perfect for delivering a serious burn. The sticky noodles cling to the skin, which leads to deeper, more severe burns, ... hospital stays for upper body noodle-soup burns are more than twice as long as scalds from hot liquids alone."
Part of the problem is allowing a child to cook or eat something that is scalding hot. The heat may come from a microwave or boiling hot water added to the soup. And even if your child is well-trained and super cautious, the problem with some instant soups is their cup shape with a narrow base make them prone to tipping. The soup is accidentally spilled and splashed with the noodles clinging and burning. The Chief of Burns at Shriner's Hospital for Children in Northern California examined several popular brands for the amount of tilt it takes to tip the soup.
The Burn Chief contacted Nissin and manufacturers of the "tippiest" cups with a simple suggesting, turn the cups upside down so they open on the narrow end like Yoplait yogurt. None of the companies responded according to NPR.

Bottom Line

"I don't have them in my house," says Dr. Warren Garner, director of the burn unit at University of Southern California's County Hospital in Los Angeles. "I would say that we see at least two to three patients a week who've been injured by these products."  - NPR story
If you buy instant soup, buy one that is bowl shaped with a wide base to reduce the risk of tipping over and scalding. And write to the makers of the tippy cups to let them know why you won't buy their product again.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Roses are Rutilant?

Twelve highlanders and a bagpipe make a rebellion.
-Scottish Proverb
Yesterday, I encountered the same new word twice. A placemat at a diner asked, "The Scots are more rutilant than any other nation. What does that mean?" Later while reading a geology book it described the rocks of the Triassic period as particularly rutilant.

Rutilant means bright red.

According to Wikipedia, red hair is a recessive trait, you must inherit it from both parents. Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans at 1 to 2% of the world population. It's more common in Western or Northern Europe with 2-6% and most common in Scotland at 13% with another 40% of the Scots carrying the gene recessively. People with red hair usually have fair skin and freckles; the fair skin makes it easier to make vitamin D from weak northern sunlight but increases the risk of skin cancer under intense sun.

The Triassic period gave rise to the dinosaurs and first mammals. It's named after Triad for the three rock layers created during this period. The first layer of rocks formed during the Early Triassic are an intense red all the way through and can be seen throughout the world.

Bottom Line

You're never too old to learn new worlds. Not sure I'll ever use rutilant but it's nice to know what it means.

Here's a bonus word that sounds a bit similar but is very different:

red·o·lent/ˈredl-ənt/ Adjective
1.Strongly reminiscent of something: "names redolent of history and tradition".
2.Strongly smelling of something: "the church was old, dark, and redolent of incense".

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Astrology is geocentric?

When the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars; then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.
-lyrics from "Aquarius" by the 5th dimension
While looking at a list of the top 40 news stories shared in Facebook this year, I noticed that three of the 40 were about the Zodiac signs changing (or not changing). I recall hearing something about the signs being a month off but didn't pay much attention at the time since I do not believe in Astrology. But many Americans do.

The CNN story, "No, your zodiac sign hasn't changed" (#3 on the Facebook list) nicely explains the confusion that occurred. On Jan. 10, 2011 the  Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article in which a Minneapolis astronomer affirmed that due to a wobble in the earth's axis over thousands years, the sun has shifted one whole month in the zodiac. So when the astrology page say it's the "month" of Leo, the Sun is really in Cancer. Some astrology believers refused to accept this,
“I’ve known myself to be a Sagittarius, I believe, since I was born. So to come up now with some new sign? It’s unacceptable!”
The same astronomer also pointed out that there is a 13th constellation, Ophiuchus (Ooh-FEE-yew-kus), the Serpent Bearer, between Scorpio and Sagittarius. The sun in only in Scorpio for 1 week.

Astrologers were flooded with concerned phone calls. Is it true? Is the sun not where it's supposed to be according to the Zodiac calendar? Will everyone have to change?

The answer is ... Yes, the sun is not where you expect it to be AND no, you don't have to change. 


The answer lies in ancient history. The original zodiac, invented by the ancient Babylonians (or ancient Hindus according to wikipedia), is sidereal, meaning based on the sun's position with the stars. So if you were born under the sign of Leo, the sun really was in Leo. But the earth has slowly wobbled under the pull of the moon and the sidereal calendar has shifted by one month.

However, the Astrology tables used by Western cultures today were created in the 2nd century AD by astronomer/astrology Ptolemy. In this tropical zodiac system the start of Aries is fixed to one solar equinox (March 21), and Libra at the other equinox in September. He knew about the sidereal drift and chose to ignore it by basing the calendar on the equinox (when the day is exactly 12 hours light & dark) instead of the sun's position in the sky.

So which system is "better"? Most "Western" astrologers are sticking with the tropical system but some are making money publishing books about the sidereal system or the 13th constellation.

CNN quotes astrologer Jeff Jawer, "When we look at the astrology used in the Western world, the seasonally based astrology has not changed, was never oriented to the constellations, and stands as … has been stated for two millenniums ... Astrology is geocentric. It relates life on Earth to the Earth’s environment, and seasons are the most dramatic effect, which is why we use the tropical zodiac."

Bottom Line

That "Astrology is geocentric" sounds like an oxymoron - a self contradicting phrase. But when you think about it, the statement is true. Astrology is about the position of the sun and planets from the earth's viewpoint. Or at least it used to be 2000 years ago. As an amateur star gazer I find some value in the sidereal calendar but fail to see the astrological value of the tropical calendar based on the earth's seasons with Aries associated with the start of Spring and Libra with the start of Fall regardless of where the sun is.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

How to be more Creative

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
-Thomas A. Edison
I find it difficult to be "creative". I enjoy "improving" upon something created by someone else but when faced with a blank canvas, I have no idea what to paint. With this blog it helps me to see an inspiring topic on the Internet which I can then research and comment upon. Once there's a topic, I can write pages on it.

Where do new ideas and new topics come from? The website MarcAndAngel has some ideas.

1. You need Knowledge. It's hard to be creative in a vacuum or in a state of ignorance. "most creative breakthroughs rest on the shoulders of everything that came before it."  Artists keep scrap books for ideas. Charles Darwin was stumped for years on what "caused" evolution; then while reading Malthus' work on Population and competition for resources, it dawned on him that "survival of the fittest" would explain why some animals prospered while others went extinct. Isaac Newton wrote that he could see further because he "stood on the shoulders of giants". Well today those giants would sue for unsanctioned (and unpaid) use of their ideas under Intellectual Property Rights laws.

2. You need Passion. "Enthusiasm is the lifeblood of creativity." It is hard to be creative when bored. Creativity takes time and lots of effort which you're more likely to do if it's for something you're passionate about.

3. Don't repeat the past. Build upon the past (topic #1) but don't be limited by it. "We must step outside of our comfort zone and attempt unfamiliar activities if we hope to achieve breakthroughs in our future." One graphic designer at said that he shuts down his company every 7 years for a year-long sabbatical. He lifts the company out of the rut it gets into by exposing everyone to new ideas and new experiences and a little fun that will inspire them for the next six years.

4. Don't fear failure. "If you hope to exercise your creativity, you must get over your fear of failure."
I hate editing my own work. I want it, expect it, to be perfect the first time I write it. There's no "passion" for me in deleting my own work. But quality work requires drafts, edits, complete rewrites, tossing out chapters, etc. With artists we remember the "perfect" paintings, like the Mona Lisa, and are unaware of the thousands of faces DaVinci sketched in his note books, and the many other portraits he did that are not remembered today. We forget that DaVinci was always experimenting and has some big failures (one majestic mural he did 'melted' when the new paint mixtures he used failed to set and dry properly)

5. Take a break. You won't be super creative when exhausted (though you might have a breakthrough while dreaming). Some of the biggest discoveries come from the subconscious when you take some time off from the problem.

6. Test your output on someone else. Isaac Newton kept his discoveries on gravity and planetary motion locked in a drawer for decades. He had no clue how rare his insight was until Kepler asked to see his results. On the other hand, some inventors think their invention or art is the best thing in the world and resist any feedback from friends before submitting it to the world as-is with flaws.

7. Don't fence me in. As an opposite to #6, don't let friends or critics tell you what you can NOT do. "They may suggest that your creative ideas are impractical and ridiculous because nobody really cares."  While constructive criticism is healthy, avoid negative criticism about what is impossible or unprofitable. They might be right but they might also be wrong and you'll be the one that shows the world something new.

Bottom Line

As Edison quipped in his famous quote, genius (e.g. invention, creativity) takes a lot perspiration. I'm amazed when I visit art museums around the world and keep seeing the "same" paintings. Just how many haystacks and water lilies did Matisse paint? How many bath scenes by Mary Cassatt? These artists did the same subject over and over again to practice their technique, to discover something new. They worked hard for the fame they achieved.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

IRS has $153 Million in Undelivered Refunds

A university committee was selecting a new dean. They had narrowed the candidates down to a mathematician, an economist and a tax lawyer. Each was asked this question during their interview: “How much is two plus two?”
The mathematician answered immediately, “Four.”
The economist thought for several minutes and finally answered, “Four, plus or minus one.”
Finally the tax lawyer stood up, peered around the room and motioned silently for the committee members to gather close to him. In a hushed, conspiratorial tone, he replied, “How much do you want it to be?”
In an annual reminder to taxpayers, the IRS announced November 30 that it has a total of $153.3 million in undeliverable refund checks for 99,123 taxpayers with mailing address errors. The average undelivered refund check was $1,547 this year.

Taxpayers who are missing a refund should check out the Where’s My Refund? tool on The tool  provides the status of refunds and, in some cases, instructions on how to resolve delivery problems. Taxpayers can also access a telephone version of Where’s My Refund? by calling 1-800-829-1954.

Bottom Line

The IRS recommends e-file and Direct Deposit of refunds to avoid delivery problems (IR-2011-113).


to acompany the joke at the top, here's my favorite involving a mathematician...
An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician share a hotel room. Each falls asleep while smoking.
The engineer wakes up to discover his bed on fire. He grabs a trash can, fills it with water, puts out the fire, and goes back to sleep in a soggy bed.
The physicist wakes up with his bed on fire also. He sees the trash can, makes many calculations in his head, then fills the can with just enough water to perfectly extinguish the fire. He goes back to sleep in a warm, dry bed.
The mathematician wakes up with bed aflame. He sees the trash can and the sink. He concludes, "Ah ha, a solution exists!" and goes back to sleep in the burning bed.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Walt Disney

"I don't make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures."
-Walt Disney
On this day, Dec 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away at age 65. This year also marks the 110th anniversary of Walt's birth on Dec 5, 1901. I was raised on everything Disney with Micky Mouse & friends on the wall, Disney records as Christmas gifts (I still love the soundtracks to Robin Hood and Aristocats), Disney story books, Wonderful World of Disney on TV, watching Jungle Book at the theater, visits to Walt Disney World, etc. This all seemed quite natural at the time but an article on PJ Media points out Disney was quite the innovator and "invented" many of the experiences I took for granted.

1. Animation
Steamboat Willie (1928), starring Mickey Mouse, is credited as the first animation synchronized with sound and music. Watch it on Youtube to see how clever it was and remember - sound was NEW! Four years later Disney produced Flowers And Trees (1932) in Technicolor and won the first Academy Award for animation. The Old Mill in 1937 was the first short film to use a multiplane camera and it also won an Oscar. [Multiplane means the sun/moon is painted an one cell layer, then middle ground, then foreground and then the "actors" on top. They are stacked with space between each layer and filmed together. The advantage is 3-D depth to the film; you can move in for a close up and the moon in the sky remains small while objects in the top cells get larger.]  1937 also saw the release of "Disney's Folly", a full length cartoon called  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To the surprise of everyone (but Disney) it was a smash success and won another Oscar for Walt (along with seven honorary dwarf Oscars presented by Shirley Temple).  Disney never stopped experimenting with Animation. Fantasia (1940) mixed classical music with dinosaurs & dancing hippos; Song of the South (1946) mixed live actors with animation.

2. Education
Disney "had a long history of commitment to artists’ training." He held regular classes taught by masters of various media. Zookeepers brought live animals in for the animators to learn how to replicate natural movement. Many animators that created companies to rival Disney were trained by Disney studios. Walt promoted the creation of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and the school opened on land donated by the studio.
By the way, something to look for in recent Disney films; not content just to copy from the past, each film has a visual theme that motivates the animators. In Hercules look for Greek design with red/black colors, sharp angles, pottery & patterns. Look at the Asian animation style in Mulan, etc.

3. Merchandising
We expect toys from films today but Disney was a trailblazer in merchandising.  The studio earned 2.5 to 5% royalty on every item bearing the image of Mickey Mouse (and they are legion). Some of his movie/TV songs became hits like “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and  Davy Crockett. You would think Hollywood had learned the power of merchandising from Disney but when George Lucas made Starwars, Hollywood saw little profit in it and let Lucas keep all the merchandising rights (big mistake).

4. TV
As early as the 1930's Disney refused to sell the rights to his films to others,
…everybody wanted to buy all our old product. We wouldn’t sell it. We wouldn’t hear of it. We wanted to handle it ourselves, make good use of it.
And indeed he did make "good use" of his films. He discovered he could release the films every 7 years to profitable runs. He made a TV Christmas special in 1950 on NBC and another the following year. In 1954 Disneyland the TV series debuted on ABC with a mix of B&W and color. A few years later he moved to full color back on NBC with  Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.  Walt reused films and created new content for his Wonderful World series. He also started another new hit show, The Mickey Mouse Club. Today we have an entire TV channel owned by and featuring Disney material.

5. Theme Parks
An entire park dedicated to cartoons? Who would have believed it? Since 1955, "Disney theme parks led the industry as the gold standard of excellence in amusement park entertainment."

Bottom Line

PJ Media sums it up nicely,
"Disney filled many roles in his 65 years: artist, husband and father, philanthropist, anti-Communist, filmmaker, and even the original voice of Mickey Mouse. But his greatest role was as an American innovator. From animation to television to theme parks Disney left his mark on our culture and enhanced our lives."

The 1928 release of Steamboat Willie resounds to this very day. It's my personal theory that Disney Studios will do anything to keep the copyright from expiring on Mickey Mouse. In copyright law 1923 is a special date, all books and other works published before 1923 have expired copyrights and are in the public domain. Works from 1923-1963, published with notice and with copyright renewed, are protected for 95 years. In theory Mickey becomes public domain in 2023 but as has happened many times in the past century, US copyright keeps getting extended for longer and longer periods. In 1998 the Sonny Bono Act (also called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act by Lawrence Lessig) added 20 years of copyright protection keeping Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain in 2003.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When is "Free" really Free?

"A fool and his money are soon parted"
- Thomas Tusser, 1524-80
Shoppers love the word "free" and so stores exploit that craving with many creative uses of free. For example,

"We'll send you this CD free plus shipping and handling (S&H)". Then when you discover that S&H is $10, it's not so cheap anymore. I recently encountered an odd variation of this. I was shopping for a used book on and found several copies selling for just one penny (plus S&H). The shipping fee was $5, not pennies, but I had little reason to complain. I was going to get a book I wanted for just $5.01. Perhaps the book was not selling and sellers were just trying to clear space for better inventory? And upon receiving the book I found it filled with yellow underlining and dog eared pages. Not quite the "very good" condition I expected. So I did get what I paid for.

"Buy two, get one free!",  "Half off! (with purchase of similar item)" Sales like this give me glad I studied mathematics. The first sale is 33% off but must buy 3 items.  The second 25% off with purchase of two items. I've seen as high as buy 10 for $X. The problem with sales like this is that you might not want 10 or 3 or even 2 items. Just one. Buying food that will just spoil if unused is no bargain at all. But if the item has a long shelf-life like printer ink or shoes or canned goods, then it might make sense to stock up.

"Free shipping!"  An article at points out the possible flaws of free shipping.
1. Free shipping is not always better. Often the item prices are higher to cover the cost of the "free" shipping. Compare the item price plus S&H to find the best deal.
2. Free shipping may not be your best choice. Some vendors block coupon code discounts if free shipping is selected. Check to see which gives you a better deal; 25% off will likely save more money than free shipping.
3. Expect Delays. Free shipping is low priority for the vendor and typically sent by slowest method.
4. Stores vary widely in the shipping fees they charge. Check out a list of fees at Top 50 Retailers.
5. Consider "Ship to Store". It may be cheaper (or even free) to have an item shipped to the store nearest your where you can pick it up personally.

Bottom Line

Stay smart when shopping and look at the total cost before buying.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Spider Man or Santa? What's the Difference?

"With great power, comes great responsibility"
-Uncle Ben to Peter Parker (Spider Man)

This is very clever....

Bottom Line

What a wicked sense of humor. Spanish Inquistion - wears a red suit and knows if you've been naught or nice. LOL!

As a mathematician I should point out that the chart above is called a Venn diagram, conceived around 1880 by John Venn. Each circle represents a topic, like "Wears a red suit". Where the circles overlap labels are added to indicate items that belong in both circles (or all three circles with Santa).

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The best Christmas Music is old?

Decorations of red
On a green Christmas tree
Won't be the same
If you're not here with me
- Blue Christmas by Elvis
My current commuting lecture series is the History of Rock & Roll (Part 1) and it was just discussing the first song recorded by Elvis on 5 July 1954, That's All Right (Mama), as I arrived at the office. Before that it looked at the Mississippi Delta Blues and the Rhythm & Blues of New Orleans, Chicago and Memphis. I find it frustrating that the lecture CDs do not sample the songs discussed so I'm very appreciative that the old Blues songs can be found on YouTube, e.g. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Lloyd Price.

This has made me aware that I'm not all familiar with the early Rock music of the 1950's. On the other hand I love the crooners and pop singers of the 50's: Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, as well as country's Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins.

So imagine my surprise, as I'm contemplating the 50's, to see the chart below from comic xkcd. Why is it that the 1950's were such an amazing time for Christmas songs?

Bottom Line

I tried finding new Christmas songs but nothing impressed me. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" became a hit in 1989 but uses a melody from 1964's "My Heart Belongs to Only You". Too many of the new songs are about boy-girl love affairs (or lack thereof) like "Last Christmas" (I gave you my heart) from 1982.

"Mary, Did You Know" (1992) is certainly religious and a nice song but does not "feel" like a Christmas song to me.

And what's up with Christmas blues? "Elf's Lament" (2004), "Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues" (2003)

I'm in the generation after the Baby Boomers so why do I love their music so much?

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Fiat Lux LED

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
-Genesis 1:3
I've been very impressed lately with LED flashlights. We have two giant incandescent flashlights that use multiple D-cell batteries and recently, when I needed them at night, the output was useless as the batteries were old (not dead, just old). I got better light from the LED I keep on my keyring. The old flashlights are more useful as a weapon than for lighting the dark.

According to Wikipedia,  in 1999, Lumileds Corporation introduced the Luxeon LED, a high-power white-light emitter which was used in the first LED flashlight, the Arc LS, in 2001. LEDs can be significantly more efficient than incandescent lamps. An LED flashlight will have a longer battery life than a comparable incandescent flashlight and LEDs are also less fragile than conventional glass lamps.

Our two D-cell flashlight produces on the order of 15 to 20 lumens of light. A small LED flashlight operating on an AA cell can emit 100 lumens. 5 times brighter with less power!

Bottom Line

LED flashlights would be a great holiday gift. We saw a gift box of 4 for $20 at Sears. My wife says she'll buy when they are discounted 50%. She got lucky once with a LED flashlight at a Dollar store but has not seen them there since. On there are many LED flashlights for under $20 and some under $10. I don't yet see the value in LEDs selling for $100 or more.

Fiat Lux in the blog title is the Latin often used for Let there be Light, perhaps the most well-known phrase from the Bible. [Wikipedia says Fiat Lux actually means "let light be made" and that "Lux Sit" is a better translation in Latin but C'est la vie.]

γενηθήτω φῶς (or genēthētō phōs) - Greek
יְהִי אוֹר (yehiy 'or) - Hebrew

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's on your Keychain?

What's in your Wallet?
- BankOne comercial
There's a great article at Survival Gear Guru titled Choosing The Gear for Your EDC Keyring. (EDC I learned stands for Every Day Carry). Take advantage of holiday sales on any of the following:

  • Small multi-tools  (the Leatherman Squirt is a good example).

  • Corsair Padlock Secure 8 GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive to keep your important documents secure.

  • A small lighter such as a split pea lighter.

  • A magnesium fire starter.

  • A seat belt/strap cutter.

  • A small flashlight like the Photon Micro-Light.

  • A small pocket knife such as the Victorinox Swiss Army MiniChamp

  • A can opener like the P-38.

  • A Bison container with water purification tablets.

  • A small pry bar such as the Widgy Bar.

  • A True Utility Cashstash Cash Capsule for emergency cash.

  • A SERE Pocket Saw

  • A pen like the True Utility Telepen Telescopic Pen

  • A whistle

  • Fingernail clippers.

  • A compass

  • Bottom Line

    If your keyring looks like the one above you'll have one full pocket or purse. The article suggests wearing it around your neck. Personally I'd attach it to a backpack or similar travel gear. I keep a micro-flashlight on my pocket keyring and use it frequently.

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    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    Death and Taxes

    "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes"
    -Ben Franklin

    Today I'll discuss that very sad time when a family must deal with death AND taxes.

    When a spouse dies it can take time and effort to transfer legal authority over family accounts to the surviving spouse or other heirs. To avoid cutting off all family access to funds during the transition, consider registering some (or all) accounts with both spouses jointly. Brokerage accounts call this JTWROS, Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship. This can also apply to credit cards and utilities which may refuse to cooperate with a spouse unless authorized in advance.

    If you die without a valid will an "Intestate" Administrator may be appointed by a judge to act as Executor to divide up your assets according to the distribution laws of your state. Some "heirs" might not be recognized, such as step-children that you never legally adopted. If you die without heirs, the state will keep your money and property.

    In many families one parent is the treasurer who pays the bills and manages accounts. But if that person dies, will the surviving spouse or heirs know what to pay and where the money is? Be sure both spouses can locate the following: previous year’s Tax Returns (in case audited), Bank/Credit Union statements, Credit/Debit Card statements, Retirement Accounts, Brokerage Accounts, Mortgage or Lease Statement, Utility Bills, Car Payments, and Insurance payments.
    Give the gift of peace of mind to your family by making copies of legal documents and storing them in a safe place outside the home (in case of fire). Birth Certificates/Adoption papers, Marriage/Divorce papers, Insurance coverage, Social Security cards, Passport/Green Card, Naturalization documents, Will, Power of Attorney, Mortgage or Real Estate Deeds of Trust, Car Registration/Ownership Papers, Military ID or Military Discharge papers.
    Bottom Line
    The death of a loved one is trying enough but is often made more stressful from lack of planning. A Will is very important and can help prevent heirs from fighting over and even suing over the family property. My Grandmother preassigned most of her belongings to her two children and six grandchildren so everyone knew who got what. She did not have a rich estate but she did have a LOT of stuff collected over 90 years on an Idaho farm. My portion was a salt & pepper shaker collection which is proudly on display in our home.
    It can take time to "probate" a will and transfer ownership of bank accounts, etc. During this period a family could be blocked from accessing funds needed to pay bills. Hence the importance of sharing Joint Ownership with Right of Suvivorship with a spouse or trustworthy heir.
    Here is what Wikipedia says about Probate:
    "Probate is a process by which a will of a deceased person is proved to be valid, such that their property can in due course be retitled or transferred to beneficiaries of the will.
    • Creditors need to be notified and legal notices published.
    • Executors of the Will need to be guided in how and when to distribute assets and how to take creditors' rights into account.
    • A Petition to appoint a personal representative may need to be filed and Letters of Administration obtained.
    • Homestead property, which follows its own set of unique rules in states like Florida, must be dealt with separately from other assets. In common law jurisdictions jointly owned property will pass automatically to the surviving joint owner separately from any will, unless the equitable title is held as tenants in common.
    • There are time factors involved in filing and objecting to claims against the estate.
    • There may be a lawsuit pending over the decedent's death or there may have been pending suits that are now continuing. There may be separate procedures required in contentious probate cases.
    • Real estate or other property may need to be sold to effect correct distribution of assets pursuant to the will or merely to pay debts.
    • Estate taxes, gift taxes or inheritance taxes must be considered if the estate exceeds certain thresholds.
    • Costs of the administration including ordinary taxation such as income tax on interest and property taxation will be deducted from assets in the estate before distribution by the executors of the will.
    • Other assets may simply need to be transferred from the deceased to his or her beneficiaries."
    This is a sad and painful topic but needs to be bravely faced for the sake of surviving heirs.

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    Tuesday, December 6, 2011

    How to Save Money on a Fresh Christmas Tree

    "Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, where are you?
    We're lost in the woods and so are you."
    -song made-up by daughter when family became lost on a Colorado mountain while searching for a tree.

    Last weekend I saw a few Christmas trees tried to the top of cars as we were out shopping. It's that time of year and the WSJ offers some advice at for 8 Ways to Trim the Christmas Tree Costs.
    1. Compare pricing methods - some price by the foot, others a fixed cost. Call around to find the best deal; "look beyond tree lots to garden centers, supermarkets and home improvement stores."
    2. Compare species of trees - there are over 30 kinds of Christmas trees. The Fraser Fir has strong branches for heavy ornaments while the Blue Spuce has "sharp needles that deter a climbing housecat". Some species are more expensive than others
    3. Shop Online?  Both Target & Sears are selling trees cuts to order online. It may cut more but will be very fresh.
    4. Cut your own. "The U.S. Forest Service sells permits for consumers to cut down their own tree in a national forest. The price: as little as $10." [Just don't become lost while looking for the perfect tree to cut. "It's all woods. You are surrounded by woods until you get up on a ridge, you have no idea where you are going. But then every time we got to the top of a ridge, there was just another ridge,"]
    5. Use Coupons - Groupon, LivingSocial, etc
    6. Check the quality - you want a fresh tree that will last till Christmas. If the leaves are already falling off, walk away.
    7. Wait till last minute - pricing often falls 4 or 5 days before Christmas. You can start a new tradition of decorating the tree Christmas Eve.
    8. Haggle - the seller might have only paid $10 if they cut the tree with a US Forest permit.
    Bottom Line

    Here's some more useful things to know from the WSJ article:
    • Despite weather extremes, "Christmas tree pricing nationwide has remained flat."
    • "shoppers spent an average $36.12 last year for a real tree" but the price can easily be three times higher depending on tree height and type of tree.
    • Christmas is about the people, not the tree which gets tossed out afterwards. Don't overspend on a tree.
    My wife made a lovely table-top tree this year. It has red beads strung on a bare tree frame with red ornaments. We like to be creative.

    Here are some posts from previous years regarding fresh trees

    and tree fires

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    Monday, December 5, 2011

    Side Effects

    “America is the country where you buy a lifetime supply of aspirin for one dollar and use it up in two weeks”
    -John Barrymore
    All medicines can cause side effects. And sometimes one medicine is prescribed over another because of the side effects. For example, I recently saw a doctor about back pain and she recommended an odd (to me) schedule of medicine. Advil at breakfast, Tylenol at lunch, Advil at dinner, and Tylenol before sleeping. Why the two different pain killers I asked? She explained:

    Advil and similar Ibuprofen products can upset the stomach, and according to, cause constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, gas, headache, heartburn, and nausea. Since I have GERD (acid reflux) I have to go easy on the Advil.

    Tylenol is easy on the stomach but there are strict limits on its usage. This is not a drug you want to overdose on, it can be fatal. USA Today reports a study that claims even small overdoses of Tylenol repeated over time can damage the liver.  Many people I know will take extra aspirin or Ibuprofen when the regular dosage did not kill the pain. But few are aware that they should NEVER exceed the recommended dosage Tylenol, no matter how bad the pain is.

    Bottom Line

    Never just assume that if a little medicine is good than more must be better. Always check with a doctor if the recommended dose is not doing the job you want.

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    Friday, December 2, 2011

    (Lack of) Computer Security

    Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don't let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months.
    ~Clifford Stoll
    If you use Google news you can customize it to include specialized topics of interest. One of my news "extras" is Computer Security and recently it was full of depressing news about serious security violations

    Medical Record Theft At Sutter Health
    Information stolen on more than 4 million patients of a major Northern California health care provider. What's unusual about this incident is not some clever hacker but a thief who broke a window with a rock and stole a PC containing patient records.
    "Over the last two years, health care organizations have reported 364 incidents involving the loss or theft of information ranging from names and addresses to Social Security numbers and medical diagnoses on nearly 18 million patients – equivalent to the population of Florida."
    Water utility hackers destroy pump, expert says
    Hackers may have destroyed a pump used by a US water utility after gaining unauthorized access to the industrial control system. Many industrial control systems rely on passwords that are hard-coded and it looks like Russian hackers stole the password from the company that made the equipment. The hackers (after much experimenting) managed to burn out a water pump by rapidly turning it on and off. One expert noted, “These things are connected to the Internet in ways they shouldn't be.”

    This is "a really big deal".

    Hackers attack Norway's oil, gas and defence businessesIndustrial secrets and information about contract negotiations had been stolen from at least 10 firms according to Norway's National Security Agency (NSM). Normally attacks like this would be kept secret but the NSM wants to world to know about these very skillful hackers.
    "The attackers won access to corporate networks using customised emails with viruses attached which did not trigger anti-malware detection systems. ...  the email messages had been sent to specific named individuals in the target firms and had been carefully crafted to look like they had come from legitimate sources."
    Facebook admitted that hackers are breaking into hundreds of thousands of Facebook accounts every day.
    "Don’t use the same password and username combination for multiple websites. Use an online password manager to keep track of your different accounts."

    Bottom Line

    Hacking is not just nerdy teens having fun at your expense. There is money to be made selling identity information and there are government sponsored hackers (Russia, China) seeking weakness for cyber-warfare or corporate espionage.

    Check out this article on the 25 worst passwords

    Recent news is claiming that the Utility pump was a false alarm. No proof that hackers destroyed it. Perhaps. But the risk is real and it is only a matter of time before real damage is done by hackers.

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    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Prey for both criminals and bureaucrats

    "the book To Serve Man,
    it's... it's a cookbook!"
    - from Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man
    Here's a unsettling thought submitted by a perceptive reader to Instapundit,
    Local governments are clearly shifting from chasing criminals to chasing revenue. Which, from the point of view of their own self-interest, makes a lot of sense.
    Let’s say that you are a local government, and you think of your budget as YOUR resources and not those of your constituents. You have a choice of two broad strategies (or a mix thereof): either pursue actual criminals for CRIMINAL OFFENSES, a process which requires the expenditure of resources and can be hard/dangerous work. Or you can pick on generally law-abiding citizens for civil offenses via revenue light cameras, roadside BAC [Blood Alcohol Count] screenings, “driving while talking” laws, seatbelt enforcement, aggressive parking enforcement, laws limiting grass/weed height, etc. While those non-criminals may sometimes show up in court to fight the charge, they typically don’t run or put up much of a fight (physical or otherwise). They pay their fines and get on with working, raising their families, paying their taxes, etc.
    Given the quality of our political class, and given how many bureaucrats and government employees see their job as a birthright rather than a solemn responsibility, it should come as no surprise that taxpayers are getting it from both ends, and are seen as prey for both criminals and bureaucrats.
    It was in reaction to the post, Drunk Driving Enforcement is A Racket.
    The cynic in me says that as long as police officers and municipalities see drinking drivers as cash cows and hide behind the fig leaf of “traffic safety”, arbitrary standards based on BAC will continue even though they may be counterproductive.
    What does he mean by counterproductive?
    Using 2009 data collected by the University of California at Berkeley, California Watch showed that 1,600 sobriety checkpoints yielded 3,200 DWI arrests. A typical checkpoint would yield only two or three drunk driving arrests. ... When you consider how many hundreds of drivers get stopped at each of those checkpoints, it hardly seems productive to catch a tiny number of drivers that are over the legal limit but may or may not be dangerously impaired, while at the same time seriously impaired drivers go unstopped because so much police manpower is devoted to sobriety checkpoints.
    So why have checkpoints if only two people are caught on average?
    a single DUI conviction can mean thousands of dollars of revenue for the jurisdiction that issued the citation. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. While sobriety checkpoints don’t catch many seriously drunk drivers, they do nab folks for equipment infractions or other sorts of minor crimes and they end up generating a huge amount of revenue for those municipalities and police officers that do use checkpoints. That same California Watch story revealed that those 1,600 police checkpoints may have yielded just 3,200 arrests for DWI, but they resulted in $40 million in fines, plus $30 million in overtime pay for cops and a staggering 24,000 vehicle confiscations.
    Bottom Line

    Never forget that government exists to serve the people, not exploit them [or eat them].

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