Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaving Well Enough Alone

I'm a sucker for music. I listen to just about anything good, and even some stuff that's not so good. I still have a substantial collection of vinyl records in addition to my CDs and my downloaded music, and it ranges from classical to jazz to popular songs from the turn of the last century to rock and roll from my own youth.

And, of course, since I grew up listening to music, I know a lot of traditional children's songs. Like Down By the Station. You know:

Down by the station early in the morning,
See the little pufferbellies all in a row.
See the station master pull the little handle:
"Puff Puff, Toot Toot" off we go.

So I was a little annoyed when I saw this tune in my son's recorder method book with these lyrics:

Down at the station early in the morning,
See the locomotives all in a row.
Hear the station master calling all the engines:
"All aboard!" Off they go.

Okay...why? They didn't even match the meter. Someone I mentioned this to thought they might be trying to make the song more "accessible" to modern youngsters. How? By taking out any reference to steam engines (pufferbellies)? Kids love steam engines. Have these people never heard of Thomas the Tank Engine? I mean, I can forgive singer James Coffey, who replaces the station master with the engine driver, which makes more sense, and goes "Chug Chug" instead of "Puff Puff," which is also a better description. He's keeping the meter perfectly and the adaptation still keeps the spirit of the original.

But there's just no reason for this. Next thing you know we'll see an adaptation of the "Little House On the Prairie" books where the Ingalls family rides across the plains in a car.

Probably a Prius.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't Rush Me!

I use Quicken, a computerized personal bookkeeping program for anyone who doesn't know, to keep track of the family finances. And the other day as I was entering in a receipt from the grocery store, where my wife and I had bought all of two candy bars, I noticed something I had not been aware of when we made the purchase.

A discount. It was there, as a separate line item, right on the receipt. For a moment I couldn't figure it out, and then it dawned on me. It had been a Tuesday. And on Tuesday the store gives a Senior Discount.

A Senior Discount. Do you hear what I'm saying? I said a Senior Discount! A discount for seniors. That means, in this particular store, people who have reached the age of 55. That's not me.

So, okay, I'm getting close, but I'm not there yet.

What's funny is that I might not have gotten the discount had I not been there with my wife. Karen is a little younger than I am, but she looks a lot younger, and I think it makes me look older by comparison. Not that I'm complaining.

And of course, it depends on the age of the cashier as well. If the cashier is a contemporary, he or she is less likely to make me out to be older than I am. But the youngsters, teen to twenty-something, nearly always peg my age above the speed limit. And I don't even have that much gray hair yet.

I'm also less likely to get the discount if my kids are with me. Maybe it's because although I am technically old enough to be a grandfather to either of my youngest boys, it's quite obvious that I'm not Grandpa. I'm definitely Dad. And so I lose the discount. Not that I'm complaining.

I am complaining, however, about being sent mail by AARP. That's the American Association of Retired Persons. Retired persons. I'm not thinking about retiring, I'm trying to start a new career!

So what do I do about this? If asked about the discount I'll say no. If given the discount without being asked, I'll say nothing. And the AARP mailers?

Ripped up and thrown in the trash before I even leave the post office.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Scam Spam. Damn!

Anybody who is out there on the Web for any length of time gets a lot of junk email. But lately, perhaps because of the faltering economy (to put it mildly) I've noticed a lot of messages in my email box that are obvious con games. Not very good ones, and certainly nothing on the scale of what the big financial companies have been doing to us.

But if they did manage to hook me they would make a pretty good chunk of change. Most of them are of the "you have unclaimed money" variety. A cashier's check, or lottery winnings, or some other riches await you if you'll just contact the sender and, oh, put up a little "good faith" cash, or "shipping and handling charges."

Hey, what's a few hundred weighed against a couple million? Where's my checkbook?

After all, most of these people say they are from some kind of bank or another. And we all trust bankers.

Don't we?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

21st Century Disaster Relief

I was listening to a report on NPR Radio this morning talking about people in Haiti who still are living in lean-to shelters on a median strip of a highway, using inadequate portable toilets that they have to cross traffic to use, and that fill up before the day is out.

By an odd coincidence, I am in the middle of listening to an audio book of the novel 1906, set in San Francisco in the days leading up to, during, and following the great quake.

Now, in terms of the actual earthquake and its immediate aftermath, those in power in 1906 San Francisco had far fewer excuses for their lack of preparedness than those controlling the government in 2010 Haiti. After all, San Francisco was less than 40 years past its last major quake, while Haiti's most recent quake had been some 200 years before.

But as far as providing food, shelter, and sanitation, among other things, I think we could be doing better by now. This is not one of those "if we can send a man to the moon" arguments that are, I admit, quite popular with people of my generation (I was twelve when Buzz Armstrong put his footprint in the lunar dust). It is an opinion based on things I have read recently about people who, for reasons other than disaster relief, are doing some rather amazing things in these realms.

Like the company in Malaysia that converts shipping containers to motel rooms. Or the Dutch company Spacebox, who builds stackable module to create housing units. There are companies working on low- or no-water sustainable toilets and water purification systems. And there are a lot of companies and researchers working on the problems of preserving or creating food under harsh conditions.

The problem, I think, is that many of those who control disaster aid, those who are considered "experts," are stuck in a certain mentality. It reminds me of an architect, someone who specializes in very small houses, who wanted to bid on a low-cost housing project. He had many excellent ideas on how to make small spaces liveable and save time, cost, and materials without compromising quality. But when he got the specs, he found that the bid called for minimum 1200 square-foot, three bedroom houses.

Convention can get in the way of real solutions. When you start with the end in mind, trying to think about what's needed instead of the ways things have always been done, you sometimes find that solutions that are faster, better, and cheaper really are available, especially at the level of technical and creative sophistication we find ourselves in right now.

I don't have all the answers; I don't think anybody does. But what is more important for those in charge is much more basic: ask the right questions. And don't just go to your usual experts for answers.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stealth Inflation

I was eating breakfast with my family at a nice little local restaurant on Saturday morning, when saw a headline in the Wall Street Journal proclaiming that inflation was at only one percent. And I had to shake my head.

That's preposterous. Gas prices are up and food prices are, well the same. But, and this may be part of what's missing in the figures, food quantities are down. A half-gallon carton of ice cream is no longer a half gallon, it's 56 ounces, or 12.5% less for about the same money. Burger King still has Chicken Tenders for a buck, but now four instead of five. And the Buck Double is the old Double Cheeseburger, less one slice of cheese.

And it's not just food. I recently bought a bottle of Ivory dish soap, the same height as the bottle I was replacing, and about the same price. But the old bottle was a quart, and the new one is 24 ounces.

Maybe I'm wrong and the powers-that-be have figured this in. Or maybe inflation includes housing prices which have fallen through the floor. But in either case it does not matter. Average folks like us are paying more and getting less.

We just don't always know it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Bite of Sanity

Yesterday I took a big step and got rid of something that has been getting in my way, and weighing on my mind, for quite a long time. I have been driving a van on my 84-miles-a-day commute for about six years, burning up a bunch of gas and, in the last couple of years, worrying about the day when the van would leave me stranded.

I'd like to say that I got smart and took the step boldly, but the fact is that the van made the decision for me and actually did abandon me when the lug bolts on one of the wheels started to shear off.

But I did take bold action after that. I took a day off work, and in that day I located a car, bought it, registered it, and took it home. I still have to get rid of the old one, which is sitting on someone else's property, but that will probably be little more than a phone call to a junk yard or charity; the car is unsafe to drive and its time is up.

I did this without adding debt burden. At first I considered a new car, but then I thought about the financial side of that. First, I just didn't want to add monthly payments in this uncertain life, a move that would have obligated us further and made it harder to be flexible.

Second, I did some simple math. If you buy a car for $14,000 (which is pretty low-end these days once you have an automatic transmission and air conditioning, both of which my family needs), and you manage to keep it running for ten years, then it costs $1,400 each year just to purchase the car. Add interest to that and it's more like $2,000 a year.

I just bought a car for less than $2,000 including the day I had to take off work to get it, and if it only lasts me a year I'm even, without the obligation. And I think that the car will probably go longer.

It's nice, for a change, to be doing something so completely sane.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Of Waste and Water

In a recent entry in the Web site Springwise, a claim is made that 58 billion paper coffee cups are discarded each year, using up 20 million trees and 12 billion gallons of water.

I don't have any facts to dispute that, but I find myself objecting to the notion of using 12 billion gallons of water. Except in rare circumstances, we don't use water. The amount of water existing on the planet is an amazingly stable thing. The water we make use of is still water.

Now, we can pollute water and make it unsuitable for living things, and that is a problem we have to consider as we put water to work. There can also be localized water shortages, as anyone who has lived through a drought can attest. And in certain areas getting clean water for drinking, bathing, and food preparation is a huge problem.

But on a global scale, we don't use water so much as move it around. Let's take a simple example. You wash you hands. Where does the water come from? In my case, in a rural area, it comes from an underground well. It goes down the drain into my septic system, where it leaches back into the ground, and eventually find its way back into the water table, which is also fed by rain and underground streams.

It's different if you live in the city, but the net result is the same. The water goes round and round.

It would help the discussion of water coservation if we avoided meanlingless statistics about so many gallons of water, or millions or billions of gallons, being used, and gave more thought to how the application of water affects the quality of the water.

Because nothing we do on any meaningful scale affects the amount of water in the world.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Enlightenment At Your Fingertips

I recently ran across an ad from the 50s on Facebook, from the Soda Pop Board of America, citing scientific studies and encouraging parents to start their children on cola earlier in life to improve their chances at a normal social life in their teens.

Some commentators see this ad as an indication of how far we've come. Others use it to demonstrate that Corporate America, for too long, has manipulated us with this kind of propaganda. Even Kevin Trudeau, who presents himself as a expert on, well, just about everything, used the ad in a diatribe about dishonest advertising.

Out of all the comments I've seen about this ad, only a couple have come close to the truth: that the ad is a fake.

It is not a hoax, for a hoax is something faked in order to convince others that it is real. Piltdown Man was a hoax. The Balloon Boy was a hoax. This ad was conceived as a joke.

It took me about five minutes to verify this. A Google search for "Soda Pop Board Of America" yielded only references to this ad, and no actual organization. Searching for the terms "soft drink" and "trade association" helped me find the American Beverage Association, which in the 1950s would have been called American Bottlers Of Carbonated Beverages.

Melissa Data quickly brought me to the conclusion that the address listed on the ad does not exist (always a good idea in a fake, to avoid someone at the actual address getting harrassed). And on the way I found a blog entry by the man who actually created the ad in the first place.

Much has been written about the lack of reliability of information found on the Web, but this is nothing new. Plenty of nonsense and misinformation made it into print long before the Internet, or for that matter moveable type. The aforementioned Kevin Trudeau was responsible for plenty of bad information in the pre-Internet era.

It's all a matter of getting back to the basics of research. For any given bit of information you seek, is to answer the question: "Whose business is it to know?" And then, you need a collection of trusted sources, sites where you know the information to be reliable.

With those principles in mind, the Internet is a magnificent resource for seeking the facts. It amazes me that so many will believe so much that is so unbelievable, when just a few minutes and a few keystrokes could get to the heart of the matter.