Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Time Travellers

I often get a chuckle from the goofy searches that drive people to this blog. I feel a little sorry for the person who ended up here searching for "How to stop the horse from jumping the fence" - a problem I've never really solved. I don't know what a "Soviet era sewing machine" is but the person searching for that must have ended up here. People searching for "How to sharpen a bow saw" may come out there or here. Among the most common searches are China's one child policy, ice candles, woodpeckers and homemade mayonnaise. That's nice. Those are among my favorite posts.

But in the past week or two there's been an amazing rash of searches for "Time Traveller's Wife fivewells." They're not just searching for the book. They're searching for my mention of the book. And I have to tell you, it's not that good. I can only assume it's some kind of class assignment. I'm a little worried about what kind of class might be interested in this mundane little post.

So, if any of you Time Traveller searchers end up here on the front page (and now that I've mentioned Time Traveller several times, you probably will), leave a note about why you're interested in that post.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Faith and Reason

I'm reading two oddly conflicting things today. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. I agree with Natalie Angier, New York Times reviewer, who says, "The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood." Author, Sam Harris, acknowledges the importance of spiritual experiences, while strongly denouncing the irrational aspects of organized religion. I find myself saying, "Yes!" "Right!" "I'm so glad to hear someone saying this out loud." Face it. The Bible and the Koran were not written by the creator of the Universe.

"There is, of course, much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books. But words of wisdom and consolation and beauty abound in the pages of Shakespeare, Virgil and Homer as well, and no one ever murdered strangers by the thousands because of the inspiration he found there. The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict..."

You know me. I'm the guy who deeply believes that logic and facts will prevail. But I picked up last week's issue of Time with its cover article, "The New Map Of The Brain." Turns out our rational process aren't all we think they are.
"Another startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after
the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along."
It turn out all parts of our brains interact as much as they can and all our perceptions are filtered through prior experiences. One of the few things I can say for sure about this is that in a hundred years, we'll be laughing about how primitive our understanding of consciousness was in 2006.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Senator Brownback

Senator Brownback is announcing his intent to run for president live on CSPAN. Honestly, I'm an open minded kind of guy. And, awkward though it is for a Democrat, I agree wholeheartedly with Republicans that "we need stronger families." But Brownback says that depends on a commitment to "marriage between one man and one woman for life[emphasis added]." Do you think this means that in addition to opposing same-gender marriage (not to mention polygamy), we should be looking at a constitutional amendment to prohibit divorce? Should we, furthermore, institute a policy to find replacement spouses for parents, or even single people, who've lost a partner through death or abandonment?

Marriage is a wonderful institution giving certain benefits to people who commit legally to care for each other. This is a good thing. We should encourage people to care for each other in every way we can. The way to support stronger families is not through narrowly defining marriage.

How about economic policies that make it possible for one partner to earn enough money to support the family, enabling the other to provide physical care for the family or volunteer service to the community? How about vacation, sick leave, family leave policies that enable the family to spend more time together?

How about stronger neighborhoods that make it possible for families to work and shop in the neighborhood where they live? How about support for neighborhood child care facilities to help children in families with two working parents?

How about agriculture policies that promote production and processing of healthful foods? Housing policies that make safe housing affordable for everyone? Education policies that focus on providing what every child needs rather than just bringing the most disadvantaged children up to average?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Compound Interest

In the midst of my annual re-examination of my retirement plan, I'm prepared to accept the unconfirmed rumor that Einstein once said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. For more than three years, I've been in the unenviable position of using my savings for living expenses. I'm also in the, perhaps enviable, position of having a very modest lifestyle and consequently no long term debt whatsoever. That is to say, I have only one credit card with a balance I pay off every month, no car loan, no mortgage, no student loan, etc. I really can't afford to pay someone else to buy my car for me. Even if I could, I'm not sure I'd want to.

When I decided to stop looking for a full time job, I wasn't sure I could pull it off. But this year, for the first time, it seems that, barring a global cataclysm, it will work. Apparently, given current conditions (12% return on investment and 4% inflation) I can live forever and still (Maggy, stop reading here!) leave my daughter a million dollars or more. Let me hasten to add, I don't have anything like a million dollars now. My assumptions in past years made it look like I could only afford to live to age 82. But conditions in the past three years have been better than I expected. Now, with just a little tweaking, my plans can even accommodate conditions much worse than the current 12% ROI and 4% inflation.

One interesting aspect is the effect of Social Security Insurance. For most people, the later you begin collecting Social Security payments, and assuming you live at least six years after that point, the more money you get in total over your life from Social Security Insurance. For me, since I'm using savings to cover living expenses, the sooner I start collecting Social Security payments, the longer my savings remain above the point where investment results exceed my modest budget.

So, it looks like I can afford that roof repair after all. And maybe eventually the garage and back porch I've been thinking about. I'm telling you, it's a very modest lifestyle.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Toyota Tundra

I got an email from Toyota promoting their new truck, the Toyota Tundra. I drive a eight year old Toyota Corolla with standard transmission. It's a great car and it helps me understand why Toyota is poised to become the leading car manufacturer in the world. The Corolla is the top rated car in its class for mileage and emissions short of a hybrid. Mine, designed and engineered in 1998, gets more than 40 MPG on the highway.

I'm a staunch supporter of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the last pristine ecological system in the world. And the name Tundra evokes a certain warm fuzzy feeling for me. But I wonder how appealing the name will be to people looking for a 14-20 MPG vehicle. These are the people who are thinking, "I don't care how much gas I use. There's plenty of oil in ANWR."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Today is the birthday of Muhammad Ali and the House is debating a bill to honor him.
Debating may not be the right word since no one seems to be against it. They're just talking about it.

It happens, also, to be my father's birthday which is why I know it's Benjamin Franklin's birthday. I don't recall how many times my father had to mention that before it took on greater proportions than my father's birthday itself.

According to Birthdays in History, it's also the birthday of Betty White, Sheri Lewis, Vidal Sassoon, Maury Povich, Paul Revere (the musician, not the patriot), Eartha Kitt, James Earl Jones, Rock Hudson and an incredible number of other people I've never heard of.

My friend, Bill, shares a birthday with Adolph Hitler, Stephen Colbert, Pat Roberts and Lee Hamilton. Bill was born in 1923 so I can't help wondering what the daily horoscope was on April 7, 1943 as Hitler and Mussolini met in Salzburg and Bill prepared to ship out to the Pacific.

[Fabulous photo to be entered whenever Blogger allows it. Grr...]

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Winter Motivation

Daily KAZ has started blogging! This is going to be fun. Dave and KAZ and Simon are managing daily posts that put me to shame. Maybe that will help motivate me.

Here in the north, in the natural scheme of things, we would not be expected to accomplish a lot: tend the livestock, sharpen the tools, keep the homefires burning... But these are not natural times. I'm keeping up with the livestock and fires, but I haven't sharpened any tools yet.

I'm drawn to the computer screen as an artificial light source. But it doesn't energize me to actually work. So, now I've got a cute little "portable light therapy goLITE" which promises me "Get an energy boost. Naturally." Nothing electric really meets my criteria for natural. But it probably is better than drugs. We'll see.

[Oh, dear. Looking for that link showed me the price of the light. It was a gift. Now I'm seriously committed to using it to best advantage.]

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New York

What a gorgeous weekend in New York. It was in the 70s when we started out for South Street Seaport on Saturday. The 1 train is only running to 96th Street. So, we boldly decided to walk the 37 blocks to catch the train there. Funny I never noticed before how uphill it is. So by the time we got to South Street, we were glad to settle down for a nice lunch outdoors at the Heartland Brewery. The weather was so nice we decided to skip the Bodies Exhibit. The Seaport area is more of a mall than a seaport lately. But we enjoyed browsing and looking at the water. (Photo to follow when I reinstall some software and/or figure out how to use my new network.) Nerd that I am, my favorite souvenier is purse size notebook from the Metropolitan Museum gift shop.

For dinner we went back to a place we'd noticed on our long morning walk. At Henry's, on Broadway and 105th, we had melt-in-your-mouth crabcakes, homey roast chicken and fine braised lamb shank. Not to mention Tiramisu and Blueberry cheesecake.

On Sunday we sucessfully navigated a trip to Target in the Bronx and Whole Foods in Edgewater. I now have a much better idea of the Whole Foods vs Wegman's competition. Back at my sister's house, Maggy made a delicious chicken picata that rivaled our terrific dinner of the night before.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Search for "Average"

The Average American describes Kevin O'Keefe's search to understand, well, the average American. Starting with census bureau data and spending months interviewing people around the country, O'Keefe arrived at a list of 140 criteria and began his search for a single person meeting those criteria. In addition to his factual search, this is a spiritual quest for O'Keefe. He counts himself among many who have consciously avoided any tendency toward average.
"Whenever I had a choice between settling or struggling, I chose B. A, of course, stood for average."
Sound familiar? Turns out there's another whole set of people who view average as ideal. The thinking goes as follows: the reason certain traits become so common is that they work. The more of such traits that an individual accumulates, the more successful his/she is likely to be.

It's a fun trip as O'Keefe uncovers one criterion after another and he (and I) can't help comparing ourselves to the hypothetical average person: I live in the state where I was born; have lived in the same house for more than five years; am a high school graduate; believe in God - oops, no. I have a car, but no garage, I wear my seat belt and have a pet, but I don't live with "two to four people." And so it goes.

I may buy a copy of this book 'cause I think in twenty years it will be comical to look at things we now consider normal, or at least average: eats at MacDonalds and shops at WalMart at least once a year; lives within 100 miles of the ocean. Hmmm... Has a porch or deck and a grill; eats meat and ice cream; has a kitchen, at least one bathroom, a washer, a dryer and a dishwasher; showers and brushes teeth daily.

O'Keefe begins with a Norman Rockwell quote:
"Commonplace never became tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative. It is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint."
Spoiler follows. O'Keefe is disappointed and edified when his quest leads to his hometown and a person he'd known in high school.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

What is it about the tabula rasa, the blank page, the "I'm going to do better from now on..."? There are several dates that can mark that starting point. I'm lucky enough to have a summer birthday which can function as the first day of my new year. Even though it's been many, many years since I was in school, the first day of school still feels like the first day of a new year. There is, of course, January 1. But my favorite is the entire season from Winter Solstice to Spring Equinox. This is the season we plan for the new year. In fact, depending on how you feel about numbers, every single day is the first day of a new year.

I have some of the same resolutions most people have: exercise more, smoke less, eat better... But the biggie for me is planning. I don't have enough time or money to waste much. And there are sooooo many things I want to do (and quite a few that I don't want to do but have to)

I'm off to make a list...

Watch this space...

"It is not enough to be busy... The question is what are we busy about?"
– Henry David Thoreau