Monday, February 28, 2011

How and why we should change our pocket change (Nov. 29, 2006)

Today's headlines contain the story that changes are planned for U.S. paper money so that the visually impaired can tell different denominations apart. Good idea, but not good enough. What's really needed is a wholesale revamping of our coins and paper money.

Cut to the quick: Every denomination below $10 should be modified or retired.

Inflation is the main culprit. Fifty years ago, a nickel and dime could buy you what you pay a dollar for today, and 100 years ago, you'd only need the nickel. Working from that single fact alone, we could eliminate not only the cent, but also the nickel and dime, but I won't go that far.

The problem is in the lack of truly useful coin denominations. Cents and nickels, and to a lesser extent, dimes, make up the bulk of the coins in our pockets, both in terms of count and weight. We have two larger denominations theoretically in circulation, the 50-cent and one-dollar coins, but few people use them. Similarly, I contend that the cent and nickel do not circulate, either. You get them, pocket them, and put them in jars, but rarely spend them. Most cents and nickels in circulation today grade at least XF-40 on the 1 to 70 scale of coin wear, which means they're just not getting used. A coin can be as low as 50 on that scale and still have some of its original shine.

A second problem is that we Americans don't like anything to change. We're still using the same denominations we had in 1796, excepting the half-cent piece, which was discontinued in the 1850s, and paper money replacing gold coins. To give an idea where silver stopped and gold began, the $2.50 gold coin, our smallest, long-running denomination, had the buying power in 1906 that a $50 bill does today. (As an aside, outside of western states, the silver dollar coin never did get a lot of use, similar to the 50-cent coin today.)

Silver (and gold) dollars themselves were not all that common back then, but 50-cent silver coins got the snot beaten out of them. A century-old 50-cent piece will be typically found worn almost flat from use. Now, think of the use a $10 bill sees today -- back and forth and on and on, in constant motion. It's that "20x" factor again.

So here is my proposal:
  • One-cent coin: Discontinue now.
  • Five-cent coin: Discontinue after further changes are made.
  • Ten cent coin: No changes at all.
  • 25-cent coin: Discontinue after further changes are made.
  • 50-cent coin: Shrink in size, make octagonal.
  • $1 bill: Discontinue now.
  • $1 coin: No changes at all.
  • $2 bill: Discontinue after $2 coin is in place.
  • $2 coin: Introduce along with $1 bill discontinuance.
  • $5 bill: Discontinue once $5 coin is in place.
  • $5 coin: Introduce along with $1 bill discontinuance.
This would give us coin denominations of 10, 50, 100, 200 and 500 cents; and bills of $10, 20, 50 and 100. This would make things quite similar to 1906, when we had circulating coin denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents, and bills of $1, 2, 5, and 10. Higher denominations of each existed, of course, but were little used by the general public.

Unstated so far is rounding, so let's tackle that straight on: We round to the nearest ten cents for every cash transaction. We didn't need the half-cent 100 years ago; we didn't need it 150 years ago, either. It was discontinued after 1857. Today's dime functions as the 1850s half cent. Really we could dispense with the dime altogether, too, but that's going to be too much of a leap for now. But we no more need the one-cent or five-cent denomination than we needed to make the one-mil (one-tenth of one cent) coin in 1793. It now takes two one-cent coins to comprise the value of the 1793 mil. We are far beyond time to trash the cent, so far beyond that the five should go, too, and as I said, even the 10. But for political reasons, I advocate just rounding to a dime, at least to deal with at this end of the 21st century.

What of the nickel and quarter? The quarter is the only coin that sees true circulation today, and so cannot just be discontinued. Similarly, the nickel is needed to make even change for the quarter. But with 10- and 50-cent coins doing the work of small change, the quarter will eventually become unneeded. With it will also go the five-cent. Properly, they should both be eliminated now, but the quarter's entrenchment will make that difficult.

Well, that's enough for one argument.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

To eliminate abortion, eliminate its need (written 1/1985)

I wrote the following essay in early 1985, age 26, after I was married but long before I had kids. I tweaked the wording from time to time over the next couple of years, but really haven't touched it since 1990. I still think it holds up well, over 26 years later.




Several letters, articles, surveys, syndicated editorials, and papal pronouncements have appeared in the news over the last few months concerning abortion, pregnancy, and teen-age sexual activity. Pro-life people quote the statistic of millions of murdered fetuses per year, while pro-choice people say it's none of anyone's business what they do with their bodies. Still others are upset over teen-agers' use of The Pill. Nobody agrees on anything, it seems, though everyone has an opinion. We need fewer opinions and more serious discussion.

In all the melee and furor of marches, protests, letter-writing campaigns and abortion clinic bombings, an important point is being missed entirely. There were millions of unwanted pregnancies last year to teen-agers and non-teens alike, and untold millions more which were not aborted. America, let's address the REAL problem: pregnancy prevention.

While many will say that the answer to that is simple, that not enough couples are using the word "No", it is not that simple. "No" is definitely a viable way of dealing with pregnancy prevention, but first it must become more widely used and effective. I intend to shed some light on why "No" doesn't seem to be as effective in 1990 as some would like it to be, and what should be done about it.

Avoidance of pregnancy is a difficult, three-step process for most American adolescents and adults. First, there is the decision to engage in sexual activity -- the initial loss of virginity. At this point, common sense and the word "No" work pretty well, which is good. The biggest problem here lies in the couple's ability (or lack of it) to realize what all is involved with being sexually active if they say "Yes". This calls for good judgment and maturity, traits not commonly associated with teenagers (and some adults, too). Parents, take note: If you don't want kids to get started, the aforementioned traits must be fully developed before the onset of potential sexual activity, and by that I don't mean programming them to say "No" all the time. They have to understand WHY they should say "No". They have to know how to gather information from reliable sources and make decisions.

Teens must also be able to recite and understand all the ramifications of having a sexual relationship. Just for starters, they take more time, use more thought energies and result in more emotional anguish than non-sexual ones, and saying "No" becomes more difficult with each successive "Yes". This subject requires a discussion unto itself.

Once sexual activity has begun, at whatever age, prevention of pregnancy must be handled on a situation-by-situation basis. Simply put, "Should we or shouldn't we do it?" I used the word "we" here; often "I" is the proper word for the situation. In a given situation, if only one half of the couple is thinking about pregnancy prevention, there is only half as good a chance, at best, for achieving it.

Don't look for much common sense and clear-minded thinking with a couple just minutes away from potentially making a baby. Temptation and impulsiveness are the rule here. Human resistance to the temptation of the sexual urge is every bit as difficult as (if not more than) a hungry dieter's resistance to the temptation of a chocolate bar within arm's reach. It's the same thing. If you don't think it's difficult, just ask anyone who's gained back lost weight. Some can resist it, some can't, and some don't care. But they certainly do worry when a period is overdue!

Impulsiveness is a little easier to handle. It is related to time. The closer time gets to the moment of impregnation, the more impulsive the couple tends to be. Conversely, an hour before making a baby, it is more likely that one or the other could mention that pregnancy, and resultant parenthood or abortion, are not wanted, and intelligent discussion about that, sex, and contraceptives would take place. This conversation will practically never occur when they are less than a minute away -- they're too busy! This is where a "No" decision could be made, but it isn't happening much in 1990. One measure of maturity is being able to recognize such a situation with enough time beforehand and starting the conversation. Teens, are you listening?

The third step in the prevention of pregnancy comes into play when couples decide to go ahead (or just go ahead) with sexual intercourse. In order to prevent it here, education in advance is needed about the methods and proper use of contraceptives. Regardless of your feelings about sex education, contraception and abortion, the bottom line is that your feelings mean absolutely nothing to couples at this point, no matter who you are.

Sex education in some form should begin at birth and go on continually in some form until the time of death. It certainly should not be restricted merely to one class in high school and a little talk by one parent around age 10 or 12. Open, frank, non-hostile and informed, two-way discussion about it should take place regularly at home and at school, and by this I don't mean the one-way outpouring of beliefs and opinions. I mean facts -- facts about how the human reproductive system works (mature, informed members of both sexes know in detail how both sexes' systems work), how contraception works (regardless of beliefs and preferences), and about all the feelings and emotions involved with sexual awareness.

Parents, please talk with your kids (not TO them or AT them), and for their own sake, listen to what they have to say without anger, criticism or judgment. If you can't do this, please get help. They're not only your kids, but you're their closest friends -- I hope. Teens, if you can't get any straight answers from your parents, please get your information or counseling from someone reliable. You'll do well by teen hotline numbers. They're in the phone book.

Of foremost importance is the information. Every adolescent and adult in this nation who ever expects to experience sexual intercourse any more than one time more than he or she will have children, must study about contraceptive methods, make a choice, and then make the arrangements to have that choice on-hand for when the time comes. (This CAN BE the so-called "rhythm method".) Why is it that such a rational, reasonable concept as this gets so much debate, especially when the Sex Ed curriculum in the schools is undergoing an update? The only debate that should occur is how to fit it all into 13 years of formal schooling in such a manner that the children can understand it, handle it emotionally, and discuss it rationally with parents and friends, and later on, their mates -- and eventually their own children. I should know -- I was a teen-ager myself ten years ago and I know what my own attitudes were back then. I know that I've developed a more mature attitude toward the subject through information and rational discussion.

If it sounds like I'm overstating it, just keep in mind that the pro-life people consider this a life-and-death matter. Elimination of abortion via legislation is not a viable goal, given the current situation: Some people think abortion is murder, but many people do not. There is just too much controversy. Whether it is murder or not is irrelevant to the problem I am addressing here, the termination of pregnancies that can be prevented. Pregnancy prevention is the key, but a wholesale change in people's beliefs on many subjects is necessary in order to resolve this problem, let alone that of abortion itself.

By the mid-1990s, the children born after 1980 will be of reproductive age; hence, the time to educate them about the processes of fact-gathering and decision-making is now. For each of our own family members, the time to discuss these subjects is now. If you have teen-age family members, have them read this, for a start. The sooner we get started with such teaching and changes, the sooner that unwanted pregnancies can be avoided, and as a result, the sooner abortion can be eliminated.

Stuart M. Strickland

Original draft: March 1985

Last modification to this text: 1990

Four of the five final paragraphs appeared in the Greensburg Tribune-Review in April 1987.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Email that says "You've received a greeting from a family member!" (Nov. 17, 2006)

Current mood: aggravated

I pride myself on never having been seriously affected by PC viruses. Add to that things like spyware, trojan horses, tracking cookies, popups, and other subversive "malware" that somehow finds its way onto many people's computers. Not that I never have been infected, just that I have never been laid low by them.

I run a pretty tight ship:
* Up-to-date anti-virus software
* Up-to-date operating system service packs and weekly fixes
* Three different anti-spyware packages
* Daily (overnight) automated scans of my entire computer by some combination of these

Beyond that, I avoid Microsoft products in favor of Mozilla for my browser (Firefox, v2.0 just released) and email system (Thunderbird), since they are less likely to be piggybacked-upon by such malware, and more likely to catch it in the first place. They're also free, and run on anything.

Still, beyond all the protection software available, it all comes down to how vigilant one is about recognizing and avoiding malware. This past week, one of them fooled me, so I'll share my newfound wealth of knowledge.

It came as an email to my wife, arriving the morning of her birthday a few days ago. The title was "You've received a greeting from a family member!", and landed in our generic Inbox. (I have a collection of filters to redirect incoming mail to any of several subfolders.) Since she receives emailed postcards from various friends and family on a consistent basis, I just manually moved it, unopened and unpreviewed, to one of her folders, and didn't give it another thought.

Fortunately, she picked up on its potential for scam, scum and spyware.
* It was not clear that it was sent by any identifiable person, known or otherwise
* It was not clear that it was to her in particular
* It was not clear exactly what company it was emanting from (not Hallmark, etc.)
* It was not clear that it had anything to do with her birthday, or any other occasion
* Thunderbird identified it as a potential scam

What it contained was a link. This part almost fooled me. What it appeared to be was not what it was. If clicked, it would try to download and execute a program. Furthermore, the text of the link -- the part that showed in the email -- did not match what actually got run. If you have your status bar turned on (click View on the top menu, and see if Status Bar is checked), and hover over the link, you should see what the link really does.

As an example, try this one. This link, if clicked, will not take you to Playboy magazine: Go ahead; click it! You won't be sorry! Or, instead, hover over it, and look at your status bar. You should see, the English home page for The Holy See (i.e., The Vatican). The email contained a similar underhanded switcheroo.

So you see, on the Internet, unless you're very careful, what you see might not be what you get!

How I figured out that the email was a scam was to do a Google search on the name of the program it was trying to run, "postcards.exe", as well as a search on "virtual postcard from a family member", a key phrase in the email. Both of these returned several hits which explained the scam.

What the thing would have done, had I bit, is to install a program, without my knowledge or permission, which would converse with some server somewhere, accepting commands from that server to do who-knows-what on my computer. Details, go here:

Consider yourself warned. caveat clicktor

* * * * *


Stuart Strickland
Stuart Strickland This must have been the beginning of a trend. Since this post, hundreds of "You've received" spam emails have come my way. Rarely a day goes by that I don't get 10 or more! Argh!!

4 years ago

Friday, February 25, 2011

buying a 78 (Nov. 6, 2006)

Current mood: surprised

My son has taken to playing "We'll Meet Again" on the ukulele incessantly for the past few days. The song was a huge hit for Benny Goodman in the 1940s. Since my daughter is also very much into the clarinet at the moment, I thought it would be trés cool if I could play for them the original 78 rpm record featuring Benny, with vocals by a very young Peggy ("Is That All There Is?" and "[Gimme] Fever") Lee.

Alas, my extensive 78s collection was missing that precious recording! Horrors! (Doesn't everyone have thousands of 78s in the house, with a 78rpm-capable phonograph or two sitting at the ready?)

Armed with knowledge of that void, and finding myself in my local used record shop this morning, I decided I'd get them a "just because" present and see if I could find that 78.

I stroll in and make a beeline to the 78s department. The shop used to be a nightclub, and the 78s occupy what was once the stage. The lights are normally off, since so few people peruse 78s. They're arranged in no order at all -- literally stacks of disks, easily 10,000 -- not separated by genre, artist, decade, or even size of disk. Most don't have envelopes, though usually the labels are readable. Yes, you can turn the lights on. I didn't bother.

I hadn't a hope of finding that record, let alone expectation that I might get out of there in less than three hours. Imagine trying to find a friend's house "somewhere within 10 miles" without address, directions, or a description of the house. (I was on foot, and every 78 weighs half a pound, so that somewhat limited what I could carry out of there.)

Nevertheless, I started flipping through a stack of 10" shellac disks. I doubt I touched 75 records, maybe not even 50. Bingo, there it was! It couldn't have taken me two minutes.

Fifty cents.

I bought a Peggy Lee LP to go along with it. (Do I really have to explain what an LP is?)

[Side note to MySpace: The "Tell us what you're ... listening to" does not very well accommodate those of us who listen to 65-year-old records on 50-year-old equipment.]

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In God We Still Trust, by Diamond Rio (Nov 4, 2006)

Current mood: irritated

First, either read the lyrics or see the video.

There's something in this song/video that just doesn't sit well with me. At best, it's irritating. At worst, it's scary.

Here's what I see in it: This clip invokes feelings of pride, of patriotism, of love of country -- all of which are good things. But it also assumes that everyone who sees it believes a certain way, and that anyone who doesn't believe that way is somehow evil or ungrateful or anti-country.

Um, no.

Fundamental question: What does this country exist for, anyway? Do you remember why it was created? Answer: To provide the world's peoples a nation based on acceptance -- accepting everyone of every faith, every creed, every nationality. We are here to give everyone an equal chance at making a decent living. We are here to give everyone the freedom to think and say and worship and befriend anyone else. Further, it is unlawful for anyone to prevent anyone else from having the freedom to think and say and worship and befriend anyone else.

To paraphrase Christian comedian Brad Stine, since more people want in than want out, we must be doing something right.

But what this video does is promote intolerance -- for ideas, for people of certain (non-specified) faiths or nationalities, for intolerance generally. It does this by pandering to the shock of the 9/11/2001 attacks. It does this by making the viewer think that some single-ideology ideas are universally accepted -- and must be so -- such as Christian mottoes on money, such as that it takes military intervention to achieve peace, such as that one has to be a worshipping Christian to be an American. Worse, it makes the viewer think that if one does not adhere to these ideas, that that makes him or her less of a person, less welcome, less of a patriot, perhaps even contemptible.

I find that irritating. That's not American.

Perhaps I'm wrong, though. Perhaps the idea of what an American is or should be has changed. I find that scary.

Go ahead, though, and send this around, for I would not condone censoring it, as that's not American, either. Please try to remember that freedom of speech also requires the responsibility to respect others' free speech, even if you disagree with it. Not to do that is not only to be un-American, it is un-Christian, as well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

banned books (Oct 4, 2006)

Current mood: determined

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me personally that I hate the concept of censorship. Sure, you may find something objectionable, and you have every right to voice your opinion about its being objectionable, but you have no right to prevent anyone else from reading something.

This especially applies in schools, to my way of thinking. I'll even go so far as to say that the more objectionable something is, the more it needs discussion in schools.

This being Banned Books Week, my local library set out a small collection of titles very commonly found on someone's no-no list. Of the 10 or so, I had personally read six, so of course I had to pick up one I was not familiar with, just to help rectify the situation.

That book, Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, has proven to be an absolutely wonderful story. It was so good, I decided to read it out loud to my two teens. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is told first-person by a multi-ethnic teenager in a bigoted, all-white town in the Pacific NW. Briefly, the guy's an athlete, but until now has vowed never to be affiliated with any organized school sport, since the school and community take sports far too seriously for anyone's good. When a couple of football stars gang up on a mentally retarded kid for wearing the jacket his big brother (who died in an accident) earned playing football a couple of years before, T.J., the main character, defends him, and vows that the kid, as sorry a case as there ever was, will someday earn his own such jacket. In so doing, T.J. fights racism, holier-than-thou-ness, raging hormones, raging stupidity, stalkers, abusers, unmitigated greed, and sexism that doesn't shy away from rape.

The book routinely gets savaged by so-called-Christians who object to a lot of words they deem offensive. Most of it is plain old swear words everyone knows, and which most people use to some extent. The book really is full of such words, and beyond that, conveys a large amount of human nastiness using slang and minor vulgarisms. OK, yeah, it's there (yawn) so what? So what, is that the book is so often lambasted, the author, Chris Crutcher, devotes a section of his website to the matter of censorship, that book in particular.

Here's what I don't get: The so-called-Christians get so uppity over profanity, but they somehow have little to say about the topics that the book was designed to highlight, namely in this case dealing with real life problems caused by racism, and the plight of the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. It should also be noted that Crutcher is a therapist in private practice, and on his website makes quite clear that much of the story's substance came from real life situations.

In one scene, in a therapist's office, a very young child, maybe five, acts out some of the hatred she lives with, throwing African-American dolls across the room with fury, swearing up a streak that would catch even a drunken longshoreman's attention.

Side note: My own kids could not bring themselves to read this part of the book aloud. They're not taken to cursing openly. I see this as different, that they are reading the text of a book of fiction; they are not being asked to curse someone or to add said words to their routine vocabulary. Does that make me want to change my mind about reading it in schools? Not one bit.

Still, I do not see this as grounds to ban a book! Note, again, that I made sure that my kids read the book. We read a lot of books aloud. This one, though, since I am comfortable using such language, and since I know I do read aloud very well (not bragging, just reporting the news), I am doing most of the out-loud reading. My job as a parent, then, is to make sure the kids know what's going on, can handle discussing it, and have a way to deal with it themselves personally should the same or a similar situation happen to them.

So here is my challenge to those who object to the book: First, read it. Second, read it again for content, for tone, for making sure you know what all the swear words and vulgarities mean in the context they are used. Third, read it yet again, making sure you know the significance of each paragraph, each sentence, each word in the book, as applied to the story therein. Live this book; get it under your fingernails; make it part of you; make it so that you are T.J. and can see where he and everyone else is coming from at all times.

Thus informed, now try to rewrite just that one scene with the girl, midway through Chapter 5, using language that you find appropriate. Do so, but make painfully clear all of the following:
* How Heidi distinguishes white dolls from African-American dolls
* How Heidi treats the African-American dolls
* Why Heidi treats the African-American dolls in this way
* Why it is that Heidi feels it necessary to make this distinction
* Why it is that T.J.'s terminology to describe the dolls -- which does use words you can say in church -- is not sufficient in Heidi's eyes
* And remember, you are re-telling the story here, you are the author, trying to convey real angst, real racism, from the eyes of a five-year-old who has known nothing but that since birth. You may not change the story, just re-tell it in words that you find acceptable.

I say it cannot be done. I further say that even if it can be done at all, that the result will be not worth reading. Revisit the situation T.J. is in, and make sure that all emotional bases are covered, that T.J. gets Heidi's messages about the dolls, all without watering down the impact that the message has on him.

But back to reality: Stop trying! Stop trying to censor books! Get used to the idea that bad language does not make a story bad! Get used to the idea that real life has bad language in it. I am not asking you to use profanity, but at least tolerate it when someone else does use it. More importantly -- far more importantly -- listen to the substance of what is going on, not the words. We read these stories, we have our children read these stories, so that they do not end up like Mike or Rich or any of the others whose racism, prejudices and other preconceived ideas make life so miserable for the people around them.

So, yes, I feel that Whale Talk should be at least permissible reading on a wide scale in every school in the land.


Footnote: My daughter [Note: then in grade 7], in a hallway conversation with a teacher, mentioned that she's reading this book. "Isn't that one of the banned books?" the teacher asked. "Oh yes! Those are always the best stories!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

paying bills ahead (Oct 3, 2006)

Current mood: thoughtful

The following paragraphs were written back in August on a day when I wanted to pay my bills (which I do online) but one of the kids was using the PC, and anyway I had misplaced one of the bills I wanted to pay so didn't know the exact amount I owed. Then it occurred to me: I almost never need to know exactly what I owe on a bill.


Here is how I avoid two problems at once. Problem one is that I misplace utility bills. Problem two is that my income, while sufficient, is sporadic, so when a utility bill comes I might not have sufficient funds on hand to pay it on time.

The solution is to get a month ahead on each monthly bill -- telephone, electricity, natural gas, maybe even the quarterlies like water and sewer. Of course it's next to impossible for most people to make two months' payments on all utilities all at once. The trick? Throw in another few bucks or so each month until you're a month ahead.

They will not mind getting the extra money -- nor will you mind paying it, really -- as usage of any such utility is fairly continuous, even if the exact amount varies a bit from one bill to the next. They just want to make sure you pay your bill. You can always pay ahead. It's behind that you don't want to be. It's only if you get three or four months ahead that they might call you and inquire why you've sent them so much.

This is not the same as paying credit cards ahead. With credit, you already do owe everything on that "Balance" line. If you bought $1,000 of furniture, you owe the $1,000 all right now, and they're happy as punch if you take 10 years to pay it off, provided you make the minimum payments -- and still happy if you send them a check for the whole $1,000. Yeah they'd like their interest, since that's how they make their money, but there's nothing to lose by paying off credit cards in full every month.

Utility companies, though, get mad if you don't pay in full or if you don't pay on time. Commonly they'll tack on a Late Payment Fee, often a couple of bucks or a percentage of the bill. Do this more than a time or two and it shows up on your credit record, too. You really don't want that to happen.

Let's take a look at how I deal with one bill that is not a credit card bill, my phone bill.

Telephone Bill-At-A-Glance

Previous Balance $30.84
Payments -$75.00
Balance Before New Charges -$44.16
New Charges $68.44
New Balance $24.28

In prior months, I've paid ahead several dollars. The actual bill -- what I used -- what anyone else would have to pay -- is $68.44.

So here are the relevant numbers:

New Charges $68.44
Rounded to next 5 $70.00
Plus $5 more $75.00 <--pay them this

Doing what I did last month reduced by $6.56 the amount the phone company demands that I pay them. That's $1.56, the difference between the $68.44 new charges and the $70.00 rounded-up-to-the-next-five-dollar increment. That assures I get a negative balance the next month. To that, add $5.00 more in payments, to get that much further ahead.

So next month, assuming my phone usage is identical, my bill will be:

Previous Balance $24.28
Payments -$75.00
Balance Before New Charges -$50.72
New Charges $68.44
New Balance $17.72

At this rate, I will have a zero balance in about four or five more bills. Working from when I started, with a typical bill about $75, it would take about 15 months (75/5=15) to get a month ahead.

What getting a full month ahead means is this: If I misplace the phone bill and do not get it paid on time, that it will not matter. In essence I have an extra month to pay the bill. Of course I *do* pay it on time, and I *do* pay the full amount. Under no circumstances do I merely pay the "New Balance", or else I am right back where I was.

Once I do attain that "New Balance: $0.00", I *keep* it there simply by taking the next bill and rounding up to the next $5.00. In the examples above, I would send them $70 instead of $75.

This simplifies bill paying quite a bit. In my typical usage, the actual amount of calls I make may vary a bit, but the amount I need to send them rarely changes more than $5 in either direction.

Let's say I do misplace a bill, and cannot remember the exact amount. So long as I send them my usual $70 or $75, even if my actual usage would have required me to send a buck or three or four beyond that, I'm still OK because I am already ahead. If the usage was $77.61 and I send them $75, they're still happy. The next month I'd get a New Balance of $2.39. I just send them this month's probably-$75-used, plus the $2.39, plus the $5-round-up, write a check for $85, and then I've restored my buffer.

Of course, this has nothing to do with being behind on bills, or having $2,000 of payments each month to squeeze out of $1,000 in paychecks. It's simply a way to remove a potential headache or two.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

the trouble you go to to recharge a laptop (Oct 1, 2006)

Current mood: aggravated

A couple of days ago I renewed my PA driver's license at one of the state photo ID sites. As usual, I took a bus to get to and from. From my point of view, I get a sardonic sort of snicker out of riding a bus to the driver's license center. It's also the fourth consecutive time I've done so -- 1994, 1998, 2002 and now 2006.

Also as usual, I had my trusty laptop with me. The batteries in this probably eight-year-old beast are getting a bit tired, so I only get maybe a half hour of useful work done on it between Point A and Point B, then I have to plug it in before I leave on the next leg of my journey.

Upon entering the license place, I ask if there's a seat in the waiting area near a 120-volt plug. There is; it was right there in plain sight next to the first chair. The guy at the desk, however, says "You can't recharge your laptop here. Those plugs are just for our use."

Say WHAT? It's a simple outlet! What's the problem here? Am I going to burn the place down? Am I going to plug in my bomb and destroy us all? Am I going to use $1,000 worth of electricity? Am I really in the way of the vacuum cleaner they're going to plug in there in about seven hours?

Note #1: I was not in the way. Fully 23 of the 25 chairs along the wall were not in use at that hour.
Note #2: Even if I'd plugged in for the entire time I was in the place, at 10 watts for 20 minutes and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, that would be less than one-half cent of electricity. I ran up their utility bill more by drying my hands after using the toilet.

As it turned out, I got my photo taken before I could even think about locating a second plug. At least their service is quick there. However, since it was going to take five or more minutes to produce the actual license, I did what any other right-minded citizen with a healthy disrespect for chickenshit rules would do -- I found the next plug on the same wall, just far enough away that Mr. Rule Creator had a harder time seeing what I was doing, what with the big sweater and all the papers I was carrying. It was a cinch getting the thing plugged in, even w/o taking it out of the case.

So even though I only got maybe six minutes of plug-in time, I was able to get enough of a recharge that I could finish what I was doing on the bus ride home.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

186 ways to live with only one car (Sept. 28, 2006)

Current mood: hopeful

I may change the title of this later; I only picked "186" out of the air; the initial post has only two. My point is, SO many people HAVE to have two, three, four, more cars in their possession. And for 12 or more years, my family of four in the middle to outer suburbs has lived with just one car.

The bone I wish to pick is that people bad-mouth public transportation, and would gladly fork over $5,000 a year (per car) or more to keep the additional car(s) on the road, while the cost of buying monthly passes (in Pittsburgh) runs well under $1,000 a year. I don't deny you need one car, especially in the suburbs, but if I can make do with only one, I don't see the necessity of having three or more. And I myself used to have four, for a three-year period, and three for over a decade.

So, here is a running list of methods I use to get along just fine with only one car. Note, the number an item has may change, as I add to or modify entries in the list; i.e., the numbering is automatic.

  1. Use the telephone. For example, rather than drive to the hardware store to buy a new mop head, first find out if the store actually has that style of mop head.

  2. Walk to the store. Sure, go to the store, but do so under your own power. Yes, even if it's a mile away. Every Point A (starting point) and Point B (ending point) is different, and not every A-B combination will work this way, but a lot would work better than you might think.

  3. Spouse taxi. You don't have to get *all* the way home. Call a family member just before you get on the bus & say "I'll be at Such & Such Plaza at 7:50. Can you meet me there?" Better still, set this up in advance (e.g., "I'm not sure when I'm leaving, but it'll be somewhere around 7 or 8. I'll call you, OK?").

  4. The shopping trip. Let's say Dad works, Mom has to make a grocery run, Dad takes the bus to work, Mom has the car, Mom doesn't have time to go shopping. Solution: Mom calls Dad at work, gives him the shopping list, Dad takes bus to grocery store, does the shopping, and Mom shows up with car and checkbook. It gives both some flexibility in travel time, and lets them both decompress a little in a neutral space. (Added 2006-09-18)

  5. Half a taxi run. Junior needs to go to play practice or some such thing. Parent drives him there, to get him there on time. He takes a bus home since he doesn't know when he'll get done.

  6. Halfway home with friend. Let's say that where you're going to or coming from has virtually no bus service, but there's decent service near a friend's house. Take bus to or from the friend's house (esp. if friend is going to the same activity), and ride with friend in friend's car to/from the activity's location.

  7. The other half a taxi run. As above, Junior needs to go to play practice or some such thing. Parent is not available to drive him there, so he takes a bus. Parent has a pretty good idea when he'll get done, and is then available so can go to pick him up.

  8. Park & Ride. This one may seem obvious to some, since Park & Ride lots exist in many communities, but for those for whom this is an unknown term, it works like this: You drive from your home (presumably with poor transit service) to a parking lot nearer to your destination (presumably with good transit service), and use the public transit system the rest of the way to your destination.

  9. Get to know and like your neighbors. Not exactly a "duhhh", as a large number of my neighbors don't know a large number of the others nearby. But if you're going up and down the street on your way to/from a bus all the time, you get to be a familiar face. From time to time you strike up a conversation. You may even (I hope) get to know and like them, and they will do likewise. (Added 2006-09-22)

  10. Reciprocal favors. Working from that, offer to run errands for them. They in turn may be able and willing to run errands for you.

  11. The dual-departure time problem. It's "open house" night at the kid's school, but one spouse has to leave the school at a different time. One can take a bus from school, the other one drives. Or the non-driving spouse catches a ride from another parent in the same neighborhood.

  12. Two commuters, one destination, two commute times. Granted, this one requires creativity. Spouses "A" and "B" work in the same place but different shifts. The short answer is that "A" buses to work and drives home, while "B" drives to work and buses home. Of course it's rarely that simple, and the specifics of each case make it maddeningly difficult to make any general suggestions useful, but you have to consider it try-able, and just make it work. (Added 2006-09-28)

  13. Two commuters, one destination, slightly differing commute times. Again, spouses "A" and "B" work in the same place but their shifts overlap, so the previous suggestion is not workable. Absent other major factors (such as one having to get kids off to school), and dealing with just the commuter issues, the car's best use is to move the person where the transit service is the slowest or poorest, and let transit handle movement of the person where transit does the most general good due to parking costs or congestion delays. Probably this means some sort of mid-commute handoff.

  14. OK, that's thirteen. I will add to this as time goes on.

Of course, as a final item, it is not acceptable to use the thought "I don't know when the buses run or where to get on/off" as an excuse not to use the bus. Learn!

Friday, February 18, 2011

the eagle in the yard (Sept. 11, 2006)

Current mood: excited

This isn't some patriotic, 9/11-related blather. It's about the huge bird in the yard. I have never seen a bird this big anywhere, let alone my front yard.

Sarah saw it first, Friday mid-morning as we were headed out. It had landed in the pine tree next to the street, causing the branch to droop easily two feet. A nearby squirrel was screaming in alarm -- not clucking and barking and scolding as if the cat were visible. For all I know it was becoming lunch. Anyway, Sarah yelled "My God, it's huge!!" I got outside in time to see it fly off the branch. Two flaps, and it was over and past the across-the-street neighbor's roof. With a couple of quick circles, it left the immediate vicinity, but not before I got a good look at it.

Being a frequent pedestrian, I often see crows, which are of a pretty good size, and other large birds at close range. There are a few turkeys that roost within a radius of a few hundred meters. Buzzards are also huge, with wingspans of five or six feet. I saw a live one up close at the Hinckley Ohio buzzard festival a couple of years ago.

Red-tailed hawks are a daily sight, too, both on lightposts along major highways and right here in 15237-land. I've even waited for a bus while a hawk was on the pole next to me, farther away vertically than horizontally (shudder).

And believe me, this was no hawk. It was not a turkey. It was not a buzzard. It was bigger. It had to be an eagle. I saw it from less than 75 feet away. Those wings would measure seven, maybe eight feet, tip to tip.

It made a brief appearance Saturday afternoon, flying by. But it was the Sunday night appearance that made believers out of the rest of the family. As with Saturday, I was just walking through the yard (burying compost, actually), when I saw it fly to the top of a tree across the street and perch in perfect profile. I dashed into the house, whereupon everyone dropped everything, chased outside, and followed my arm. They all saw it, too.

I even had time to grab my telescope and set it up, but it flew before I could get a proper fix on it.

A bit later, I called my sister and described it to her. She has a degree in forestry, and is no stranger to identifying wildlife. Her guess is that it is an immature bald eagle, not the golden eagle I was guessing it is.

From what I've gleaned over the years, eagles are rare. And to find one in a residential area is rare indeed. Granted my area isn't a clear-cut, heavily built-up development, and in fact there are at least three trees on my little quarter acre that stand 60 or more feet in height. I'm guessing that two of them, both oaks, are original forest canopy, and chances are good that maybe five or six of them would classify as such.

So if it's big, old trees that have brought this eagle into my midst, then I feel both proud and justified that I didn't take them down. Every other one of my neighbors has felled a large, live tree; I've only taken down little scrubby ones or large, dangerous dead ones. And I have an eagle in mine.

What a neat way to run up to September 11!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lose the idea of a new Arena. Lose the Penguins, too. (Sept. 9, 2006)

Current mood:bitchy

I have no use for a new Mellon Arena. Keep what's there and renovate it.

More to the point, I have no use for the Penguins. And no, I'm not kidding. And no, I'm not worried about pissing off a horde of fans. Basically, too bad.

I lived through the demise of one sports franchise (Buffalo Bisons baseball, 1970), and guess what -- the town got not one, but TWO major league franchises in the next couple of years (Sabres NHL hockey, Braves NBA basketball). It was fun to lose a sports team! Even better, hardly 10 years later, they came back. By then, we'd also lost the NBA team, and lived through that debacle, too.

So, lose the Penguins. See what else we can come up with. Let me give you a couple of for-instances:
* An NBA team (we're close, with the Xplosion) [footnote: folded, 2008]
* A WNBA team [mentions a potential Pittsburgh expansion]
* How 'bout them Riverhounds, anyway? (they play soccer)
* Our already-here professional women's football team, the Pittsburgh Passion
* Didn't we have a lacrosse team in town at one time, too?
* Professional tennis, anyone?

Then we have all the many and varied non-sports things to do in town already. If we weren't dumping an eight-digit figure a year on one sports business, maybe we could drop a couple of dollars into the till at our symphony, our theatre troupes, our ballet, our shows and clubs and cabarets, any number of civic organizations ... Geez, just pick up the paper and look at the lineup of activities in the area.

The last time I saw a Pens game one ticket cost $38, and that was 1992, I think. Just in inflation that's over $50 today. How many seats to your kid's high school musical would that buy you? Back at the Igloo, the priciest Xplosion seat right now is only $25; the cheapest is $6.25.

But let's just say we somehow found yet another nine-digit sum to spend to build a new sports venue right here in town. Only not to spend on a new igloo. I have another idea.

A golf course. Yes, right here, right next to Downtown. A full-size, fully equipped, professional quality 18-hole golf course. And where do I propose putting most of a square mile of green space, pray tell? I thought you'd never ask. Answer: Directly over the Parkway North, between North Avenue and Milroy Street, maybe even up as far as the East Street overpass.

I can hear the hubbub in the room already (because I've proposed this before, in a couple of venues). So, let me take them one at a time:

* Can't do it; it's against the law to build over a highway. Laws are ink and paper. We hire legislators to write and change laws. It took a law change to allow Port Authority to have roof-mounted fuel tanks for its natural gas buses a few years ago. So, yes, it can be done.

* It'd slow down the Parkway and make traffic a nightmare. The road's already there; it's not like we're squeezing it into the side of a hill like we do east and west of town each day. We're just sticking a roof over it. Done properly, there would be no impact. None.

* Construction would make the road impassable. A valid question, one that would be a lot more difficult to answer were there not streets on both sides of 279 most of that distance already -- East Street on the east, Howard Street on the west. But once the supports are in, all the work is overhead.

* Not worth it. Who'd use it? Um, duhhh, name one golf course around here that doesn't attract a crowd. And name even one city in North America with a world-class golf course five minutes from Downtown.

* Noplace to park. Duhhh again, we're creating usable space. It's a blank slate. Plus, there's zillions of existing bus routes that go right past the place, and since they're so close to town, they'd (a) pay for themselves, and (b) be an easy ride for anyone coming from town. You wouldn't need a second square mile just to park cars.

* What about accidents on 279? What indeed? Accidents don't already happen in enclosed spaces? So you fireproof the underside of the structure, and ensure that ladder trucks can work if they need to. Not a problem!

* Technically too difficult. Bull. My original motivation for this was in 2000 when, from my desk at 200 Hightower on Steubenville Pike in Robinson Township I watched The Mall At Robinson be constructed. It took them over a year, but they took a hill, shoved it in a valley, flattened the whole thing out, and constructed a large building on it. Separately, I used to work in the Expo Mart in Monroeville, essentially a large building on stilts. (The parking lot is at ground level, below. Much of CCAC Boyce Campus is on stilts, too. Granted there'd be some engineering involved, but it's not impossible. Heck, just look at any skyscraper. This would just be wide instead of tall.

It's also not that new an idea. One of the 1968-era proposals for what became Three Rivers Stadium had the entire structure positioned above the Allegheny River, near where PNC Park is now.

So, say we actually do build the thing. Think what else could go along with it. There used to be several thousand homes in the valley where I-279 now sits. While constructing the roof, we could just as well add a couple of floors of residential to the mix. There's all kinds of vertical space available. This could be money-making real estate. Parts of it could even be a public park. Wouldn't that be a cool idea? Live right under the golf course!

We also wouldn't have to plow or salt that part of the big road when it snows. It would also help with storm runoff.

Public money should be spent on public projects. A new igloo primarily benefits one sports franchise. If we have a quarter-billion that we can spend, it should be to enhance our infrastructure, not merely trade up.

The existing building already does anything that its replacement would. Yank out the fancy scoreboard, and then maybe we can use that opening dome again -- which hasn't moved since a 1979 Olivia Newton-John concert. That is a truly cool device, which we'd trash simply because we don't know what we already have. And that's plain stupid.

So, back to business. Yeah, Penguins, go to Kansas or Tucson or whatever town that would have you. We lived without you somehow for most of a season just a couple of years ago. We can do it again -- and for most, we would neither notice the difference, nor care.