Wednesday, December 15, 2004


I've been getting rid of a bunch of stuff that sits around the house un-used. Over the past 15 years I've accumulated an enormous mound of useless garbage. I received an impetus to start getting rid of major items when I checked out Material World: A Global Family Portrait from my local library. I first heard of this book back in 1998 or so on the documentary Affluenza on PBS - for an excellent website which organizes some of the ideas in those documentaries click here. I had to wait 2 months to get this book as there was a qeue of something like 10 people in Wake County looking for this book! It shows a spectacular disparity of possessions among various peoples around the world - it would have been even more interesting had the authors included many more countries. They were trying to get the "average" family in a given country to display their entire material possessions in front of their residence. I was trying to imagine what my family's possessions would look like displayed in front of our house and it was an ugly scene to imagine. It made me decide to get rid of all the little junky crap my wife and I seem to horde. I set up a seller's account on ebay and promptly sold 8 items over 2 weeks and netted a profit of $688 after paying ebay fees, shipping fees, and paypal fees. It was actually quite fun to sell on ebay and I may resort to this again. One interesting turn of events was that I was forbidden by email from ebay from selling any medical equipment. There is an enormous bureaucracy behind the selling and re-selling of health-care related equipment - an example of government control over a field of activity gone amuck. Meant to protect a patient from bad medical devices which could harm the patient thus resulting in the patient sueing the pants off the manufacturer and the government, this FDA branch prevents someone like me from selling a spirometer or a simple diagnostic equipment to another health care provider - a ridiculous waste of everybody's time and energy. I failed to sell a set of 5 Simpson's plastic dioramas with figures - an immature use of my money on a trendomatic, worthless waste of money and space - I guess everybody else feels the same way about the Simpsons now. In any case these are the 8 items I did manage to sell: old cellphone/PDA device (the kyo 6035) over-complicated multi-battery charging device which I've hardly used
3.a set of 5 Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are plasticine figures (too scary for my kids)
4.a cash register old credit/debit transaction terminal old fountain pen un-used nebulizer machine
8.a time-stamp clock

I also donated items with abandon to various charities in my neighborhood. To Dorcas Thrift Shop (Christian Communities in Action) I gave:
1.My son's 8-piece drum set (received from Santa Claus last year, he played with it 3 times)
2.A Sanyo VCR
3.Lamp Shade
4.A heavy steel trash can
5.A box of about 20 mugs/cups
6.A box of trashy novels/garbage books
Dorcas turned down my offer of several garden hoses and a Xerox XEfx90 all-in-machine

To GoodWill I donated:
1.that Xerox XEfx90 all-in-one machine
2.Component stereo system: Pioneer turntable, Pioneer double-cassette deck, Sony Receiver/amplifier, 2 AIWA speakers - remember these ancient stereo systems every "audiophile" had to have? Who needs them now?

To Guardian Angel Thrift (Alzheimer's research) I donated:
1.30gallon aquarium with top (this leaves me with still 7 more aquaria, a 5g, 10g, 20g, 40g, 55g, and two 75gs, only one 75g and one 40g is in use now)
2.3 Aquamaster 350 aquarium filters nicely cleaned and bleached out
3.Sears 3hp gas-powered edger
4.An abdomenizer (my one and only purchase from a TV-infomercial con-job - 1994)

To Habitat for Humanity I donated:
1.2 clean toilet seats
2.A brass chandelier
3.2 sets of black track lighting

I plan to call back Habitat for Humanity to donate: a large Pappasan and ottoman my wife bought from Pier-1 back in 1994 or so, my wife's old student oak kitchen table for two with 2 oak chairs, 3 black leather and chrome/steel stack-on chairs from Target, 2 butterfly chairs, 2 plastic out-door fold-up chairs, maybe a child's play table with 2 chairs (plastic), maybe 4 heavy office-wall dividers, maybe my wife's old Perception kayak with oar and skirts etc equipment. There is also a beaten up, run-down old ugly wooden rickety office chair and a rusty old metal two-seater porch swing which our former neighbor gave my wife 6 years ago which she absolutely refuses to give away now that he is dead (he was an old man) - I would do almost anything to get rid of these items.

My wife has been fighting me all-the-way to try to keep most of these items as she is a greater pack-rat than I ever was. My son is also a bit of a pack-rat like his mother. Therefore I've had very little luck trying to rid our house of toys. Last Spring I convinced them to sell off many useless large toys at our yardsale, but they are not budgeing on the remaining gargantuan stash of toys. They are actually adding on as I speak. My wife said tonight that my decluttering is creating a vaccuum which makes her want to purchase more stuff to fill in the emptiness. As you can see from the lists above all the junk I'm trying to rid are items I can't imagine us using any time soon. I also sold several dozen of recent sellable books to Edward McKay Used Books and Mr.Mike's Used Books - I got a couple of books in return as well as some money - the danger to trying to sell books for me is that I often end up acquiring even more books simply by going into a used book store. I've made a habit of acquiring vast collections of used books since I began frequenting an Edward McKay Used Book store in Fort Bragg and Fayetteville NC back when I was a middle-schooler. As I went through my book collections, most of them were books which nobody else would ever want - what I've found is that the used book stores in the area no longer want those old 1960s binding books. They all want the recent best-sellers or prize-winners which I'd tend to hold onto for a second reading sometime. I considered selling these books on which seems to sell well, but the thought of such hundreds of nickel-and-dime transactions is just mind-numbing. What I've found is that the thrill of selling and shipping off the items at my local UPS store becomes stale after about 8 transactions.

My greatest hope is to be able to get rid of most of my medical equipment. I own a $4200 EKG machine on a rolling cast-iron cart, a $2900 vital signs monitor on wheels, a $2800 portable spirometer, a $2500 cholesterol screening machine, a $1400 cryosurgery system with 20lb N2O tank, a ?$1000 autoclave, a $650 urinalysis machine, an $800 exam table with vag illumination system, a $700 audiometer, IV pole, instrument table, 2 exam stools, an orthopedic exam bench, exam light, also I own 4 cabinets full of medical supplies such as sutures, needles, syringes, bandages, ace wraps, KY jelly, scalpels, iodine, drapes, tongue depressors & cotton swabs, alcohol wipes, forceps and clamps, some very expensive (and expired) medicines etc. Probably >$16,000 worth of equipment which clutters up the house. I tried to ebay equipment as I mentioned above. I got fast bids on an item before ebay shut down my solicitations. Apparently I forgot to mention that I don't have the original boxes for my equipment - without the original boxes, the FDA forbids resale of the items - quite a silly rule for the type of equipment I was selling. I could try selling the equipment on labX at high cost, or I could just hold onto them as I will never get back the money I paid for them. I've already used these items quite a bit as a favor for family and neighbors believe it or not. How did I end up with this decadent stash of medical equipment? My father retired from practice around 1995 and left me with a bunch of stuff, then I closed my own private practice in 2002 and joined a group as an employee (as a scut monkey). Overall I enjoy being an employee more than being an owner - my personality was not suited to be an owner. As an employee, I can leave my troubles behind when I leave work - a priceless commodity. I believe I have a latent fear that I must one day work again self-employed, therefore I am holding onto all the equipment, but I think more and more that I'm better off as an employee indefinitely. It takes leadership skills and lots of self-motivation to own your business - alas I do not have such qualities. A decent movie, About Schmidt, addresses the pathetic notion of such mediocrity: especially the case with the no-good son of Kathy Bates who has his room wall plastered with "participant awards" from his childhood; not even a 2nd place showing in sight. I'm not quite that pathetic, but could probably sympathize with that kid more than not. There hasn't been a whole hell of a lot I've been "number 1" in - perhaps in my high school class I was not bad, but once in college, I've been simmering ever-since in the cauldron of mediocrity. My 3.2 GPA from my undergrad school, itself a mediocre Ivy-League school (Penn), attests to it, as does my showing in the bottom of the top third of my medschool class, as does my "competent" but not spectacular showing during my residency. Confucius teaches us to strive for the Golden Mean and I believe I have attained that quite well. Another movie (since I'm talking movies) which addresses mediocrity is of course Amadeus seen from the perspective of the mediocre Salieri - and I am Salieri.

In my mind, mediocrity and clutter somehow are entwined, but it's hard for me to articulate this principle precisely. Maybe it has something to do with my mediocrity causing a feeling of emptiness inside me and my attempts at trying to fill the void with something of substance, just as my wife said "to fill the vaccuum with more stuff." In which case then, why am I trying so hard to declutter my house? Maybe I'm trying to get back to the center of my void in order to understand it? Maybe I'm hoping that I can learn to accept and be happy in my mediocrity once I can see it clearly? It reminds me of something by Nietzsche, like his Human, all too Human. I think looking over that Material World book made me think that our possessions are helping us delude ourselves into thinking that we are better than others (or more superior). When once we are stripped of our possessions, we are naked and nothing but humans like any other person in the world, no better, no worse, just a "mediocre man."

Monday, September 20, 2004

The Negatives of TV Viewing
stolen directly from p.125-129, Marie Sherlock's Living Simply with Children (Three Rivers Press, 2003)

1.TV Transforms Our Kids - And Us - Into "Consumer Units"
If there was ever any question about the relationship between TV viewing and kids wanting more "stuff," a study reported in the June 2001 issue of Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics concludes that, yes, indeed, kids who watch more TV bug their parents to buy more toys. The study involved a school-based effort to reduce television. By the end of the school year, those students who'd watched less TV were 70 percent less likely to have requested a toy during the previous week.
TV advertising works on adults too. A survey by economist Juliet Schor concluded that respondents spent an extra $208 annually for each hour of television they watched weekly. Betsy Taylor, Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream, aptly calls the television a "direct I.V. of manufactured want."

2. TV Gives Us inferiority Complexes
The premise of most TV advertising is to make the viewers less-less cool, less attractive, less popular - if we don't buy whatever they're selling. The message is that, by buying these items, we'll be complete, we'll be part of an "in crowd."
And the "in crowd" has changed too. Television shows and movies aren't portraying the Cleaver family anymore but a very upscale Jones family. We essentially need to keep up with ever more affluent reference groups. Consequently, we need ot spend more and more to keep from feeling "out of it."

3.TV Promotes Violence And Other Negative Values
Remember the statistic quoted above about the 200,000 dramatized acts of violence and 40,000 dramatized murders that our children, on average, witness on television before they turn eighteen? According to a variety of sources, there is overwhelming evidence that violence on television - and at the movies and in video and computer games - is one of the causes of violent tendencies among young people.
Any doubt about the cause and effect of violent programming was put to rest by a joint statement in July 2000 by the Amercian Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They said: "The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children. Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life."
It isn't just the violence on TV that is harming our kids. Other negative "values" are reinforced on television, among them disrespect, greed, the notion that looking good and being cool is of paramount importance, and an attitude of entitlement and selfishness.

4. TV Induces An Addictive, Trancelike State
Another reason to be TV-free involves the psychological effects of television viewing. A number of studies conclude that the simple act of watching TV is harmful to children, whether it's "Sesame Street" or "NYPD Blue." Among the many negative effects that television viewing has on children is the trancelike state it produces, the sensory overkill, and its addictive qualities. The pernicious effects of viewing are amplified by the quantity of TV the average American kid watches. A twenty-year longitudinal study conducted at Yale University concluded that children who watch excessive amounts of television tend to be less imaginitive, more restless, more aggressive, and have poorer concentration.
Television's hypnotic, addictive effect is only getting worse. In his book Culture jam: The Uncooling of America, Kalle Lasn explains that television content contains "jolts" that he describes as "any 'technical event' that interrupts the flow of sound or thought or imagery - shift in camera angle, gunshot, cut to commercial." In 1978, television shows contained about ten jolts per minute; by 1998, the number of jolts had doubled. some channels and programs deliver many more of these "technical events," like MTV with sixty events per minute. Lasn and others contend that jolts release hormones that trigger the fight-or-flight response, and that the viewer's attention is riveted by upping the incidence of jolts, inducing essentially an addiction to that release of hormones.
The real world does not work this way, notes down-shifted mom Debbie Newman. She believes that this aspect of television programming may even be the cause of the "epidemic" of kids with ADD and ADHD. "If we were going to take, say, an alien from outer space and train him to have a short attention span, what would we do?" she asks. "Probably we would sit him in front of a screen and flash pictures in front of him that change every fraction of a second." Just park him in front of the tube - instant attention deficit.

5. TV Creates Couch Potatoes
Excessive TV viewing contributes to weight problems in children. According to the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the more children viewed TV, the heavier they were. Children who watched four or more hours of television a day were, on average, 17 percent heavier than those who watched less than two hours per day. A recent study at Tufts University revealed that kids who watch a lot of television end up eating more of the types of foods advertised -- that is, fast foods, convenience foods, candy, and soda - than children who don't watch as much television.

6.TV Inhibits Learning
Too much television also leads to poor academic performance. A number of studies conclude that the less TV a child watches, the better that child will score on achievement tests. Similarly, as TV viewing increases, reading ability decreases.
The negative effects of television on young children are so pronounced that, in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement recommending that pediatricians "urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years."

7.TV Is A Time Vampire
So far the negatives I've listed have, more or less, been related to the programming, advertising, or psychological impacts of viewing television. But there's another, more straightforward and potentially much more negative impact of television viewing: the simple amount of time it takes away from other activities. A 2000 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that kids ages two through seventeen spend an average of 4-1/2 hours each day in front of screens - TV, computer, video game systems.
That it takes away from time spent on physical activity and reading is implied in the last two negatives discussed. But there are many other activities that are lessened and sometimes obliterated because we're zoned out in front of the tube.
Family time together is a huge one! A 2001 study by Professor Barbara Brock of Eastern Washington University revealed that TV-free families spent an average of 385 minutes each week in meaningful conversation with kids, ten times the national average. Families without televisions spend much more time playing, creating, and just "hanging out" together than their TV-immersed peers. TV-free families also have more time to spend getting to know neighbors, helping younger siblings, working around the house, learning to play an instrument, volunteering - in short, virtually any of those activities listed later in this chapter and in Chapter 12. This failure to spend time on pleasurable, relaxing activities could explain why, as a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed, youngsters who watched more TV tended to be less content than their TV-free peers.

...And Yet We Watch
Marie Winn has written extensively on the effects of television on us and our kids. In 1974 she instigated what may have been the first "TV free" experiment in Denver, Colorado. Fifteen families turned their televisions off for a full month and kept diaries on the results. The improvements in family dynamics and happiness seen during that month were impressive. The families reported better communications between children and adults, a more peaceful atmosphere in the home, greater feelings of closeness as a family, more help around the house by the children, more leisurely meals with more interesting mealtime conversations, more reading by both parents and children, and more real play among children. The negatives says Winn, were minor. Some family members missed their favorite TV programs, some kids mentioned experiencing a "weird" feeling (coud it have been withdrawal?), and parents reported a few discipline problems without TV deprivation to use as a threat!
The positives of doing without television are noted over and over again by experts. Family therapist and author Mary Pipher notes that her standard suggestion for families in crisis is that they turn off the TV for a at least a couple of nights a week and, instead, watch the sun set or take a walk.
But here's the rub: Having experienced all of theses benefits - and with knowledge of the many negatives of TV viewing - all fifteen families in Winn's Denver experiment returned to watching TV to some extent after the experience!
With virtually no positives to recommend it and numerous negatives, television continues to hold the country in its viselike grip.
It doesn't have to. Simple living families almost universally have taken one of two actions with regard to television viewing: Either they have no TV in their home or they strict limit TV viewing. Here's a look at each of these alternatives.
...continues on in "Reclaiming Your Kids, Part II"
More on this topic written by others are here, here, and here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

School Is In Session

So I now have a couple extra hours of free time in the daytime. My 7year-old goes to school 8a-3:30p. My 2 year-old takes a 2 hour nap daily. My son just changed schools - from a private Montessori school to a Charter School Montessori. Both he and I like this Charter school much better. Private schools from our 2 years of exploring and interviewing at various ones around town were not at all impressive. Their biggest attraction is that they can expel kids at the drop of a hat for various infractions, so theoretically, you keep all the punks and disruptive kids out of class. What you see in real life however is a class of fairly conservative/conforming, well-to-do white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant kids. You also see a lot of wimps and basket-cases who couldn't cut it in the real world of public schools. Surprisingly, you don't see a lot of smart kids in private schools. I attended private school from grade 5 to 12th grade (graduated from one). I had the same experience as described above - a bunch of spoiled rich stupid kids. I have to admit though that the sheltered environment made for a fairly stable, safe environment with very little fighting or other violence. Our plan is to let our kids attend well-selected public or charter schools at least up through middle school or so. This not only is the frugal way to go, but I think provides the better, more diverse and grounded educational environment.

As many parents who send their kids to Montessori schools do, I read most of the recommended Montessori books. Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method and her the Absorbent Mind are the best of the bunch. Her history, her theories and practical applications and her descriptions of her teaching methods make the Montessori method incredibly attractive. I can't see how any parent would look elsewhere once they read her books. The many books by her disciples and adherents (Lillard, Gettman, Hainstock etc.) similarly make this educational method seem unbeatable. But of course, the reality does not fit the hype. I've seen some classes where the method is closely followed and the children seem to behave in the ways described. But more often, the teachers of the Montessori method do NOT adhere closely to the methods - they take liberties here and there and improvise their own "take" on the Montessori method. The final corrupted product often leads to poor results - you can end up with an unfocused, lazy, overly-concrete and uncreative child who can't take standardized tests well. You have to realize the short-comings of the Montessori method - this method was originally designed to work in a day-care-like setting among kids whose parents were working all day long and unable to bring up their kids well.

As such, the "teachers" use efficient techniques to corral and organize learning activities individually assigned to each child - they minimize their interactions with each child partly because there are too many children and not enough overseers. Therefore a very curious, bright, out-going child might do poorly in this environment where they are unable to obtain maximal attention from their "teacher." Of course the Montessori teachers would say this method of supervision is designed to encourage independence and self-motivation etc. There are kids whose personalities fit the Montessori method absolutely perfectly. I think more often this method comes up somewhat inflexible and more kids than not lose by it if this method is used alone. There is also no evidence that this method works at all beyond the middle elementary years. John Chattin-McNichols describes most of the recent research on the method in his The Montessori Controversy - what you find is that not a lot of research is out there and what there is doesn't reflect too favorably on this method when it comes to actual testing.

Homeschooling is a great option if you as a parent are adequately trained, educated, and motivated. I think ideally you need a deep, broad and solid background in childhood education. You also need to be very proficient in the various mathematic fields, the sciences. You need to know the details of world history, you need to understand, not just appreciate all the great movements in the Arts, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Music. You need to be extremely well-read. If you are not, you are potentially short-changing your own kids. You of course need to have the free time to run a "school" in your home. Also, you need to have the type of sunny disposition and great relationship with your kids that can allow them to tolerate sitting and taking lessons from you for hours a day everyday for years at a time. If your local school district does not have well-trained teachers, then homeschooling might be an acceptable, though not always optimal, solution. From what I've seen many home-schooled kids turn out very well, and the WORST home-schooled example is very likely to turn out better than the WORST public- or privately-schooled kid, and the BEST home-schooled kid is also likely to out-perform the BEST product of the public/private schools. But I think there is quite a bit of selection bias here - the failed cases of homeschooling are likely to go into hiding and not announce what happened. Also the most uneducated, unreasonable, and frankly, most stupid parents often have no insight into their own inadequacies and therefore will inflict their own homeschooling on their unfortunate kids. Conversely, often the most ideally educated and trained parents I've seen often suffer from feelings of self-doubt and will NOT homeschool their kids for this reason and because obviously, the most highly educated parents often can and will earn much more money in the work force rather than staying at home with their kids.

What we've settled on is letting our kids go to public or charter schools, do additonal "homeschooling" at home to reinforce and confirm what they know/don't know. We're going to give Montessori methods more looks before giving up on them.

A new school year is so exciting in so many ways - especially when you change schools like we just did. I changed schools 7 times before I hit 4th grade so changing schools was pretty unremarkable for me. My wife only changed schools at the elementary-middle and middle-high school interfaces so changing schools seems much more traumatic to her. We are also for the first time Car-pooling with 2 other neighborhood families. This is to save on our commuting costs in terms of time and money (no school busing at charter schools currently). It's still early (just 2 days) but it''s working out so far. Overall I think the whole situation fits into our simple living ideologies well. My wife wants to take the results of two recent tests (WoodCock Johnson and Iowa) my son took to his teacher to show her that he is pretty much an "academically gifted" child - I'm worried this is going to only cause troubles for him. I think many teachers don't really enjoy the smarter kids in class - the conforming middle-of-the-road students are so much easier to deal with. I can imagine how a long-time jaded teacher could prefer a class full of mediocre kids who do what they are told and turn in the results expected - punch in, punch out, go home and worry about my own life instead.

I used to fantasize about how I could be a spectacular teacher and have a handful of brilliant and talented students who endlessly stimulated each other and our class. In real life of course, I'm much too reserved, introverted and non-dynamic to be any good as a teacher. When I was a resident I think I did a better than average job as a teacher to medical students and interns on the wards, but I was never the spine-tingling dynamo of a teacher I fantasized about being. Teachers in the Wake County region are paid ok, I've read something in the range of $35,000/year - far better than they used to get, though admittedly they should be able to make much more IF THEY ARE GOOD. Compared to say what a medical resident makes after completing medical school, this is not bad. I made $31,000 as an intern just out of medical school and I thought that was pretty good money at the time (of course I had never made any real money to talk about previously so my perspective on money was skewed downwards). I was looking at various governmental jobs online and what they offered - typically we're talking salaries starting around $20,000 or less right out of college with no job experience. These are for jobs requiring you to forfeit your entire day Monday through Friday - a pitiful sum seen in this light. I know that college professors can make greater than $100,000/year once tenure is earned and their track record is established. From what I've seen from my college years (Univ of Penn), I can't say that many of my professors deserved a six-figure salary. The ones that earned that kind of money really seemed to perform minimal duties and the the hardest workers, usually the graduate students or junior faculty, seemed to do most of the work.
Whenever this time of year comes around I get little tingly feelings of excitement and anticipation, even though I've long finished my schooling. I almost want to start back in 2nd grade like my son and do it all over again. I think I was not like other kids because even as a child, I never hated school - I used to have trouble sleeping at night because I would get so excited thinking about going to school the next day. I had perfect attendance from Kindergarten to 12th grade - I missed the very last day of my Senior year (the Awards Presentation Day) out of some bizarre sense of rebellion and rejection of my perfect attendance record. I actually ENJOYED taking tests and preparing for them! These are all things that I would never confess to my own friends. School was always a wonder for me - the babble of kids and all the clashes of personalities and histrionics, the lessons and tests, and the goal of trying to get "100"s on all the tests - the sheer satisfaction of seeing that "100" with a smiley face on a difficult Pre-Calculus or English or Biology Exam. Later in college, the studying was much more difficult but the satisfaction of seeing an "A" on an Organic Chemistry Exam was so much more exalted. My college years were much harder and while I was doing them, the years were much more miserable than earlier, but in looking back my college years were so much more intense and wonderous. Medical school and residency was mostly fun and really not as challenging as my undergraduate education. I hope I could take some courses at a local college when I'm retired years from now - maybe I can get another degree purely for fun. They say Youth is wasted on the Young. I think School is wasted on the Schooled - if they only knew how rich their school years are.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Contemplating the Passage of Time
Someone asked me whether I remembered when I was in Kampala this weekend. I didn't know how he knew I was there at all, but I've since realized I once spoke about it in small-talk with a gastroenterologist - he must have spread this news. It's funny that the first thing I told him was that I remembered monkeys in the trees - I was between 8 months old and 2-1/2 when I was in Kampala and I don't remember much. But I do remember this and I also remember being inside an automobile going down a rough dirt road and watching the passing trees as I drifted in and out of sleep. I remember some dreams about Africa also. It is peculiar to think that I actually lived in Africa at one time in my life. My father was a surgeon working for a British hospital there - he describes doing C-sections on tribe-women in such huge numbers that it was like working on an assembly line. At some point he had his fill of this type of work and we all came back home.

In fact those earliest of memories stand out for me and seem to be time standing still stretching backwards infinitely. It's like the cliche of time accelerating as we age. My life does seem to be leaping by in large chunks of weeks nowadays. I'm sure time will be humming past in monthly blocks for me within the next score of years.

What struck me about being asked about Africa was that I had recently been reading about how hopeless this continent seems to be in Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, the tome detailing the litany of diseases which have struck and is yet to strike mankind over the past hundred or so years. It describes more than Africa but the most interesting parts of the story is about the "Andromeda Strain"-like viruses endemic to this region particularly. Nowhere else has viruses like the Marburg or Ebola killed so many thousands of people. It makes it seem so inevitable that in the long view, we will be wiped out by a final incarnation of an aerosolized zoonoses developed from a rodent or ape. Last week I read Philip Ziegler's Black Death which is an old 1960s book about the Bubonic plagues which swept through Europe in the mid 1300s wiping out about 33% of the European population - tens of millions of people. It is so interesting how mankind can at one moment be so shocked and outraged over a single murder by a husband of his wife (as with the cases going on in Utah and California currently in the news), yet in another time and space, mankind can become so inured to hundreds of dead bodies littering the streets of his own neighborhood. Philip Gourevitch's haunting description of the events surrounding the Hutu-Tutsi genocides in Rwanda in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: is a perfect example. Not that Africa owns a monopoly on genocide - we all know about the Nazis, and Stalin, maybe we need to talk more about the KimIlSung-KimJongIl regime. Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang recounts the horrors of the current regime's silent genocide. I think it was Stalin who said when you kill one person, it is murder, when you kill thousands, it is a statistic.

6 years ago I applied to work overseas for Medecins Sans Frontieres, an organization which I thought at the time was admirable. I was promptly rejected for lacking foreign language skills required and they urged me to seek further training and re-apply. Since then, my family life has interrupted this mode of behavior. When I was in college I was quite a liberal - I put up posters for Amnesty International. I voted for Dukakis, then Clinton twice. Over the past decade I've taken a More Thomas Hobbesian view of civilization, Maybe a touch of Adam Smith. Was it Turgot who described first the principles of laissez faire? Maybe I've got all my political philosophers all mixed up. In any case, the World's problems seem both more hopeless and less important to me at the same time. Voltaire keeps repeating the phrase "you must cultivate your own garden" in his Candide - I'm coming around to this way of thinking more and more. I think this is why I voted for GW Bush the last election - the first time I voted Republican. As unadmirable as GW is, you have to admit he provides the requested benefits for his constituents. When all the world is falling apart, it can be comforting to pick lint out of your bellybutton. And so I'm now thoroughly domesticated, tending to my suburban bourgeoisie Capitalist life here in NC. Last week while emptying out our safe deposit box, I came across my passport which showed it had recently been renewed. When trying to recall why I had so recently renewed, my wife reminded me in an offended tone that I had planned to skip out on the family by going over to serve with Medecins - it was a jolt to realize that I had actually intended to abandon my way of living in that way so recently. In fact, I was probably under a lot of stress and was looking for an escape hatch; I was probably too apathetic and lazy even then to actually go into a warzone.

When you think about the mass death of humans in the various parts of the world at this time, you must balance this fact with the problems of global warming, global over-population, and the overall inexorable destruction of the Earth from the by-products of human industry (as described perfectly in the film Koyaanisqatsi).

If you believe Adam Smith, there is a guiding hand in all this, but this is magical thinking. I tend to favor a Darwinian view over all this so I don't think humans are any more favored to survive than the Dinosaurs. If you'll detach yourself emotiaonally from it all, it's almost an artistic denouement to imagine that the "cradle of mankind" is where the seeds of mankind's destruction may spring from - this is assuming Garrett's fears outlined in her Coming Plague comes to fruition. With the super-resistant species-jumping superviruses boiling over in Africa and Asia, why do we continue to prescribe antibiotics, anti-virals, and anti-fungals to hopeless vegetative patients in nursing homes to deflect lawsuits or to persistently irritable children to allay whiny parents, or to hordes of animals in stockyards in order to maximize meat profits? But then again, we will lose the war against disease in the end anyway won't we?

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


The early history of tea is shrouded in myth - it is said an emperor/scholar Shen Nung in 2737BC sitting under a Camellia senensis bush was drinking hot water when a sprig of a leaf fell in his cup - Eureka. Kuo P'o first describes the drinking of tea around 350AD and around 780AD Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing - "the Classic of Tea" commissioned by tea merchants of the time. Brick Tea spread via the Silk Road around 618AD into Turkey, India, Russia, and the West. Our current leaf tea steeped in boiling water was developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) - the first teapots were also developed as they are used now during this time also. Around 1644 in the Quing Dynasty, tea makers discovered the secrets of controlled fermentation (oxidation) and the first red and black teas were developed. The Portugese discovered tea around 1516 and the Dutch and the English discovered the pleasures and benefits of tea around 1615. Tea plantations were first established by the British in India by early 1800s.

Tea can only be made using the fresh tips of the Camellia plant - the scarcely opened buds that start to grow in Spring. Once a leaf is fully developed, it becomes too coarse for use. The drying of tea leaves must be done within 24hrs of picking or the juices will begin to oxidize. The main difference between Green Tea and Black Tea is in the lack of oxidation in Green Tea. In the preparation of Green tea, warm (not boiling) water must be used or a bitter taste is developed - ideally around 160degrees Fahrenheit is recommended. With Black tea boiling water should be used in steeping in order to release the flavors.

There are many rituals and traditions which have developed in the Far East with regard to tea preparation, presentation, and consumption, but I prefer the JUST DRINK IT protocols instead. Here's what I do: I put 2 or so heaping teaspoons of my favorite tea leaves in a tea ball - I pump in boiling hot water and set a timer for about 4-5 minutes. I pull out the tea ball (I re-use 2-4 times depending on what type of leaves - you can use green tea leaves 4-6 times), then pour the tea through a Kensington strainer into my tea cup - I'll sometimes add a teaspoon of sugar. I begin with pure water - I have a reverse osmosis/deionization water filtration system in my basement which produces water of 0 conductivity (distilled quality) at 200gallons/perday rate when I need it. I keep a water cooler in the kitchen filled with this water at all times. This is the water my family uses to drink and cook with also:

Simply put, you can't trust anybody including Spring Water peddlers, your municipal water supply, etc. Here is a test I ran a year ago after I went to my local grocery store and purchased a sample of every water brand they were selling:

..........Chlorine(ppm)..Ammonia(ppm)..Nitrates (ppm)...Conductivity(μS/cm)*
“Spring Waters”
“Filtered Waters”
My RO/Deionized.0.........0.............0...............0
Tap Waters
Cary(Aug 2002)..2.6.......1.0..........2.5.............313
Cary Jan 2003)..5.........1.0..........0...............194
Sink Carbfilt...1.0.......0.25.........0...............193
source: JordanLake (CapeFearRiverBasin)
Holly Springs...<0.2......trace........5...............279
source: Cape Fear River & Falls of Neuse Lake
source:Falls of Neuse Lake
source: groundwater, well

Back to Tea again...What are the Properties of Tea?
The primary beneficial aspect of Tea is in the antioxidant activities of the Camellia sinensis plant leaf. This activity can be measured using cumene hydroperoxide/hemoglobin methylene blue method - this measures the activity of the various polyphenols present in tea. A King's College study in 10/2002 documents several of these polyphenols found in teas: EGCG, 4 different Theaflavins, epicatechin gallate, alpha-theagallin, quercetin-3-rutinoside, 4-caffeoylquinic acid, flavon-3-ols, flavonols, gallic accids, hydroxycinnamates, etc. According to a report in the Japanese Journal of Clinical Pathology [51(9):859-63,2003Sept],
here are the antioxidant activities of:
heated Green Tea = 207 nmols/ml
non-heated Green Tea = 280 nmols/ml
powdered green Tea = 481 nmols/ml
black Tea = 215 nmols/ml

Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemisty [51(15):4427-35,2003Jul16] documents in 45 samples of various teas how green tea has higher contents of catechins than black or Oolong teas also. They show that the oxidation process reduces the levels of the catechins but actually elevates the levels of gallic acids. In general polyphenol levels were less in oxidized (black) teas.

What is the in-vitro and in-vivo effects of tea? There are several polyphenols in tea of which epigallocatechins (EGCG) are the most studied. Tea has been shown to cause a ~2mmHg lowering of systolic blood pressure in women, to inhibit bladder tumor growth, to inhibit the growth of prostate and breast cancer, and cause anti-leukemic effects on leukemic cell lines.

According to Antiviral Research {58(2):167-73,2003Apr], EGCG has anti-adenoviral activity via several mechanisms both inside and outside the cell.

EGCG has been shown to inhibit platelet aggregation in an Austrian study in 2002 following women using black teas for greater than 1 month.

An Indian study in April 2003 on the hot water extract of black tea seems to demonstrate an antidiarrheal effect on all models used.

A Case Western study from 10/2002 showed EGCG inhibits the cartilage resorption in arthritis suggesting possible benefits for arthritis sufferers.

An NYU study in 1/2003 using Black Tea on teeth showed the exposure to regular black tea reduced caries 57% on subjects with regular diet, and reduced caries by 64% on a cariogenic Diet - so tea may work as well as brushing with fluoride.

Archives of Internal Medicine [163(12):1448-53.2203Jun23] reported in a Vanderbilt Univ study that with use of a capsule of theaflavin-enriched green tea extract (375mg) vs placebo for 12wks, levels of LDL fell 16 mg/dL, total cholesterol fell 11mg/dL, and levels of the "good" HDL actually rose 23mg/dL. These results are comparable to low doses of the hundreds of dollars a month HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors like Lipitor, Pravachol, Zocor etc.

A recent Asian study demonstrated that Tea increases the 24hour energy expenditure and thereby helps in weight reduction. Anti-aflatoxinogenic properties were noted in coffee and teas due to the their levels of tannins. Regular consumption of Green Teas have been shown to reduce chronic halitosis significantly, mainly by anti-bacteriogenic properties. In-vitro studies have shown an insulin-potentiating effect of tea's EGCG, tannins, and theaflavins. Interestingly the addition of milk (5g of 2%), non-dairy creamers, and soy milk decreased this potentiating effect by 33%. Therefore to obtain maximal anti-diabetogenic benefits of tea, you should drink it black (or green).

Several mechanisms have been proposed as the basis of all of these activities:
1.epicatechin may bind and activate an allosteric site that enhances P-glycoproteins overall function and efficiency. P-glycoproteins transfer a wide variety of compounds from the cell interior across the lipid bilayer membranes. This includes drugs, toxins, xenobiotics, carcinogens.
2.GTE or EGCG interferes with signal transduction and activities of avarious protein kinases are thereby inhibited. The expression of nuclear proto-oncogenes declines thereby and the activity of ornithine decarboxylase is reduced. Ornithine decarboxylase catalyzes the rate-limiting step in the biosynthesis of polyamines and is closely linked to cell proliferation and carcinogenesis.
3.Increased polyamine depletion bhe the polyphenol activity of tea extracts could also be the mechanism.

What are the Potential Negatives?
Tea is a fairly strong stimulant. A Mayo Clinic Trial in 2003 in patients with metastatic prostate CA tried Green Tea in large doses (6 cups/day) - this tended to reduce the PSA levels over 2 months possibly but toxicities were noted including Insomnia, Nausea, Diarrhea, mental status changes.

If you thought tea might reduce the risk of colo-rectal cancer, there was a trial published in the US follwing tea consumption and colo-rectal cancer incidence over time. There was no association in this large study - neither a slight + nor a slight - effect.

Green tea extracts used in large doses have raised concerns over binding non-heme iron and thereby possibly worsening anemia in people who may have this problem. The Am. J. Clin. Nutr. [2001 Mar;73(3):607-612] article that raised this concern did not study black teas.

There have been concerns over organo-phosphate pesticide levels in the old-fashioned "brick teas" (levels 1000mg/kg), but levels as high as 500mg/kig have been measured in some green teas as well. More studies will need to be performed but in general, pesticide use has been reduced and regulated for most large tea plantations.

The caffeine content (the stimulation effect) of tea is viewed both positively and negatively by people. Using Fourier transformation infrared spectrometry, the caffeine levels of various tea samples can be determined easily as published by Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry [374(3):56-5,2002Oct]. In general the levels will vary with tea leaf brand, preparation method, concentration used etc. But using the general "One heaping teaspoon of tea leaves per 6 ounce cup in fresh boiling Spring Water" instructions most use,
The Caffeine Content of TEA/COFFEE Comparison (per 177ml = 6oz cup):
milligrams of caffeine.....Beverage
60-90......................Espresso coffee
60-180.....................Drip coffee
6-16.......................Green Tea
12-55......................Oolong Tea (Semi-black)
25-110.....................Black Tea

The beauty of tea is that you can easily "decaffeinate" your product. 90% of the caffeine content of tea is infused out of the tea leaves in the first 30 seconds of steeping. So if you pour off this first infusion after about 30seconds, you have a 90% "de-caffeinated" product - this removes 35mg of caffeine and as a bioproduct you lose 4-10% of the flavor of tea. I found this information from the website of a tea connoisseur.

So What Type of Tea is Good?
There is as much connoisseurship when it comes to tea as there is with wines and beers. The primary producers of tea in the world are in India (28% of world's tea), followed by China (23%), Sri Lanka (10.4%), Kenya (8%), Turkey (5.8%), Indonesia (5%), Japan (3%), Argentina (2%), Malawi, Zimbabwe, etc.

The undisputed highest quality teas are produced in Japan - the "Matcha" produced in the Nishio region in Aichi (on Honshu Island) Japan and regulated by the government in terms of standards/quality is a shade-grown green tea consumed in powder form and used in the Chado (tea ceremony). In Japan and Korea, only green tea is used even today. In China, green and Oolong Teas are favored.

The highest quality black teas, the type of tea preferred by the British, Europeans, and Americans, are probably produced in India - the Darjeeling Teas produced in the foothills of the Himalayas is a very refined black tea with light oxidation and high polyphenol activity. The Nilgiri teas are produced in the southern hilly regions also resulting in lighter oxidation. The "Ceylon Teas" of Sri Lanka are also famed for their refined flavors - the Kenilworth, St.James, Nuwara Eliya, Galaboda, and of course America's favorite Lipton Teas. China is famous for the delicate Keemun tea which also makes a good ice tea, smoky Lapsang Souchong, and the old standy "Gunpowder" Teas so-called for their balled tea-leaves.

We currently have vaccuum jars of Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and Japanese Sencha Green Tea sitting on our kitchen counter. I used to drink a lot of Keemun tea but I prefer to spend the money on Nilgiri or Darjeeling teas instead. My wife and mother notices that when I drink a lot of green tea, my breath smells fresh and good. We own a 8cup capacity "Brown Betty" earthenware teapot produced in England which we use to infuse all our tea. I never wash it according to directions, simply rinse out quickly in tap water and let dry. The antibacterial anti-oxidant activity of tea elixirs prevents any mold or bacteriosis in this pot.

A good convenience, though blasphemy according to tea connoisseurs is using a "hot pot" on standby:

Mine is a "Tiger" Brand made in Japan and has been in service for over 3 years. Zojirushi produces the most famous of these.

I've read maybe 6 or so books about tea, I heartily recommend Okakura's Book of Tea which can be purchased, but borrowing from your library is recommended. John Blofeld's Chinese Art of Tea is a good book as is Jane Pettigrew's the Tea Companion.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004


According the website for lightbulbs 90% of the electricity used by standard incandescent lightbulbs is lost as heat. Standard light bulbs (incandescent) burn about 750-2000 hours whereas compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs tend to burn about 10000 hours - i.e. 10 times longer than standard bulbs. The light output of a 60Watt regular incandescent bulb yields about 855lumens; a 15Watt CF bulb yields about 900 lumens (brighter at 1/4 the watts used). The upshot: "The benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs are clear: lower operating costs, longer operating life and more efficient use of energy." The ftc website estimates that a 15W CF bulb would cost you $1.20/year to operate versus $4.80/year for a standard bulb when you factor in the cost of electricity. The downsides of the CF bulbs: 1. the expense (they can be very expensive especially compared to the cheap standard bulbs) 2. CF bulbs contain a trace of mercury (Hg), so special disposal is recommended - take to hazardous waste disposal sites in your town/county 3.CF bulbs have a slight "delay to full brightness" effect, though much less than standard fluorescents (those long tubes used in most schools and offices) 4.Some CF bulbs have a tendency to buzz slightly - usually defective ones.

With the summer coming on, I was thinking that replacing all the incandescent bulbs with CF bulbs may also reduce the amount of heat generated within a room, especially if enclosed, and also reduce the fire hazard of hot burning bulbs. It might even potentially reduce the air-conditioner usage (?!) by not generating additional heat in the house? Who knows. I had always tried a few CF bulbs in various fixtures, and I always used CF bulbs to light aquariums with plants and I found these CF bulbs lasted years and years - decades in fact, though the light output would very gradually diminish over time. While perusing various lighting websites, I came upon a Kansas store called lightbulbs etc. or lightbulbs direct and found a decent deal for mini-spiral 60watt bulbs - $11.98 for 4. I impulsively decided to go for the gusto and buy a CF bulb for every damn fixture in my house. It turns out that did not have a good deal for candelabra bulbs (as compared to my local hardware store I'm saying), but I went ahead and purchased all of them from this one store It took a good 10 days for them to deliver the bulbs and the shipping charges were fairly high. My total cost for all the bulbs were $361.30 to replace every damn bulb in my house.

Here's how the bulbs came:

And here's a comparison of a mini-spiral 4Watt next to a 60W standard bulb, and a "torpedo" candelabra base 4Watt CF bulb next to a standard 25W candelabra base bulb:

Another thing I worried about was that for some of the decorative fixtures in the house, the CF bulbs might ruin the "decorative" aspects of the lighting. I think overall you tend not to notice it unless you are really watching for it. Here are two examples. One is a ceiling fan light, another is a candelabra fixture, both with the CF bulbs installed on them:

Though I ordered about 75 CF bulbs total, I found only 1 defective light bulb in the whole lot. And only that one defective one "sang" with the rumored buzzing before burning out within a month. I'd say a decent quality control overall for generic CF bulbs.

Here's how the costs sorted out for my house. Using's own prices (to be fair in comparison), though I think prices can be higher for both standard and CF bulbs at my local home depot or Lowe's, I found:
Standard Incandescent set-up:
60watt bulbs - 31 bulbs x $.30 = $9.30
25watt candelabras - 31 x .47 = $14.57
100watt 3yr bulbs - 4 x 1.85 = $7.40
40watt Globe bulbs - 4 x 1.05 =$4.20
25watt miniGlobes - 2 x .79 = $1.58
150watt floodlight - 1 x 3.49 = $3.49
50/150/250w 3way bulb - 1x2.99 = $2.99
50/75/150w 3way bulb -1x1.79 = $1.79
75watt bulbs - 3 x .30 = $0.90
40watt bulbs - 1 x .30 = $0.30
total wattage: 3885watts total cost of these bulbs: $46.52

Whole-House Compact Fluorescent set-up:
Like I said, I spent $361.30 including shipping for 48 mini-spiral 15watt bulbs, 24 mini-torpedo candelabra 4watt bulbs, and 1 75watt reflector bulb. Total wattage as installed in the house: 879watts total. So the immediate painful drawback is in spending an extra $314.78 which included a bunch of shipping and handling charges. The immediate payoff is in a brighter house overall and in the knowledge that I am using 3006 fewer watts potentially throughout the house.

Fortunately, my electric company (Progress Energy) allows me to follow my usage and billing history online. This will help me better judge in real time the difference in my kilowatt-hour per month from when I was all incandescent to now that I am all compact-fluorescent. This comparison is complicated by the fact that until this past December or so, I and my family were spendthrifts not only in terms of eating out and recreational shopping, but also in how we used electricity for air-conditioning, lighting, etc. Since we made a concerted effort to be more frugal and simple, we've been trying to reduce our lighting, we've been shutting off the oven or stove a couple minutes before cooking is "complete," we've gone out and taped extra insulation around our outdoor air-conditioning unit's tubing and our indoor water-heater tubing, we've dialed up our AC thermostat from our previous 72-75F to our current 81F (and plan to dial down our winter heating thermostat from our previous 75F to about 65-68F), we've been dialing our dishwasher to rinse in cold water, we've been trying to take lukewarm to room-temperature showers instead of hot showers, we've set our hot-water heater to heat at 122F. All these efforts have made a notice-able difference in our KWH usage, but has made a smaller difference in our monthly charges due to the rising cost of electricity in the past year. So as you can see, the comparisons are going to take some fine discerning and counter-compensating.

In any case here are the raw data for a 4 month period last year (when we were all incandescent and all spend-thrift), versus a 4 month period this year (when we are all-CF and more frugal):

We were Spendthrifts, We were Incandescent:
Month ..KWH/month usage..electricity bill..avg climatic temp
April 2003........1794...........$144.30......53F
May 2003..........1843...........$148.03......58F
June 2003.........2065...........$165.05......66F
July 2003.........1912...........$173.03......74F

We are Frugal, We are Compact-Fluorescent:
April 2004........991............$83.36......52F
May 2004..........936............$79.11......61F
June 2004.........1515...........$123.75.....74F
July 2004.........1526...........$140.32.....76F

These comparisons will need to be charted out for the next year and I'll have to come up with some reasonable way to factor out our additional frugality measures and also to factor in the rising cost of electricity along with temperature patterns (this is actually done for me by Progress Energy on their website). I think I see real savings in the utility bill already but it'll take a few more months of comparing and figuring/factoring to determine a ballpark "percentage figure" of savings per month, per year, and per life of CF bulb.

Hey, this is just one of the "frugality measures" I'm trying out - whether it turns out to be a failure or not, I don't know. Some frugality measures don't really give you a good bang for the buck. My wife and I have always calculated gas mileage whenever we fill-up our cars by dividing our odometer reading since last fill-up by the total gasoline filled(used). I've found that I can add about 2 miles-per-gallon to my usual weekly work commute by NOT using any air-conditioning during the drive - actually a borderline trivial difference in terms of cost even with gasoline in our area at about $1.919/gallon, especially considering the sweaty misery you pay for in exchange for the higher gas mileage.

The loose ends to this story is this:

That is, what do I do with the 74 standard incandescent light-bulbs I have left after changing out all the lighting in the house? Here are some possibilities: 1.Try selling them at the next yardsale (?who would buy used bulbs? How to price them?) 2.donate them (?who would accept used bulbs in donation? How much should I deduct for tax purposes?) 3.keep them around to use as emergency replacements 4.Use them to stop traffic (Spanky did this on one of those old 1930s "Our Gang" movies - here's how it works: you throw down a light bulb and it makes a popping sound and makes everyone on the road stop and get out to see if their tires popped - problem is modern tires don't pop that easily and modern drivers couldn't hear such outside noise in their hermetically sealed driving environments).

which makes me wonder why those old Little Rascals comedy shorts are no longer to be found anywhere on TV. I was thinking that the politically-correct-police made all networks forego airing those episodes, just as theatres and video outlets no longer will show Disney's Song of the South, or many of those old Looney Tunes cartoons, or the old 1940s Superman cartoons, or any more Benny Hill masterpieces etc. A great loss for us all.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

We've Been On Vacation

Though not the one I was thinking we would go on. When I started posting these weblogs, I had mentioned that we planned a long 2 week West trip but several factors interceded to make us change our minds. 1. We have a 23 month old baby who absolutely hates taking trips longer than 20 minutes in a car - she whines, bawls, screams without giving it up for up to 3 hours at a time before she will collapse from fatigue. 2. With the recent upsurge in gasoline prices, several hundred dollars would have been added on to an already costly trip if you take into consideration that those weeks I do not work amounts to so much loss in pay. 3. Taking long, self-indulgent, extravagant voyages do not fit appropriately into the simple lifestyle and is discordant with our changed (hopefully) outlook on our life.

So instead of driving out west toward the Dakotas to visit Roosevelt Natl Park in N.Dakota, we went instead to a place which ironically is an absolute den of affluenza - Myrtle Beach, SC. We did this because it is within a few hours drive from our house and we hoped to be able to stay there relatively conveniently and be "fun" for our 7 year-old and 2 year-old. Driving through I-95 you see one of the most dastardly self-evident tourist-traps on the East-coast:

When I was a kid back in the mid-1970s, my family stopped here and we purchased dozens of over-priced souvenir items for no good reason. My parents weren't doing it for comic effect or out of sardonic glee as many who frequent "Roadside Kitsch" do nowadays. They were simply naive and were honestly impressed with the roadside billboards set-up for hundreds of miles along I-95 proclaiming the importance of this monument - when we finally arrived, we all jumped out of our car to exult in this promised land of Kitsch. As Kitsch goes nationwide, South of the Border is unusually low-quality Kitsch - by this statement, I'm comparing SotB to other Hall-of-Fame Kitsch sites nationwide I've visited: The House On The Rock in Wisconsin (near Madison), Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota and the Crazy-Horse monument in Western South Dakota, Niagara Falls area near Buffalo NY. Each site of Kitsch I've visited I can claim honestly I entered without the slightest clue that I was about to be bombarded by kitsch. I've been very naive about such things throughout my life and I came to realize that people throughout the world are prone to erect monuments to bad taste only after visiting dozens of such sites, all in good faith. Last year I discovered and perusing this site, I decided to re-visit many of these sites again, this time with a more appreciative eye for kitsch. This was part of the reason for the grand Western trip I had planned, but decided that it really was a waste of time and effort, and would have been exhausting and obnoxious for my kids.

So we went for Myrtle Beach. Driving through Conway, the run-down little town attached to this tourist mecca, you can't help but notice how hopeless the South Carolina economy seems to be. They do attract the occasional large car-factories etc. but in general, this is a state which is unable to drum up any of its own business very well. The economically depressed, semi-rural, failing strip-mall towns dotting South Carolina is very typical of the deep South. You some of these in Eastern and Mountain-region North Carolina and Virginia also, but not nearly in the quantity you see in SC, TN, GA, AL, WVa, MS.

Once we were at the beach I'm afraid to say we indulged in the decadence of a "Resort hotel" - though I partially blame this on catering to my kids. The "resort hotel" however was not of the 4 diamond variety, but rather a seedy set-up along the raucous South Myrtle Beach streets (The Yachtsman Hotel). South Myrtle is a haven for teenagers and as such offer relatively cheaper lodgings. The strip along the "Grand Strand" is full of low rent stores such as tattoo and piercing parlors, bars, chintzy amusement parks, Ripley's believe it or not tourist traps, etc. We avoided all of these places and stayed around the beach and our hotel pool. One interesting thing - my son and I were just absent-mindedly putting together a modest sand castle using a couple of buckets and our hands - it may have taken us 30-40 minutes to do it and the product was rather mediocre, though a marvel for my 7-yr-old son. Well, within minutes this thing attracted several (5-6) groups of people passing by and they felt the need to gawk at it and compliment us as if it were one of those masterpieces you see produced by artists at beach festivals. It made me wonder if one were to sit down near Washington Square in NYC or at that Piazza San Marco in Venice and started drawing little childish stick figures whether you could attract a crowd to gawk at your (absence-of-)talent.

This is the actual thing that seemed to draw passersby.

The Special Forces Museum

On the way back from the beach we stopped by the dreadful city of Fayetteville NC where I spent a large part of my childhood. We did this because my wife and son wanted to see the Special Forces Museum which is located in the downtown area. I warned them that the Fayetteville area is not a great place for kids - and to bear me out, on our way out of the parking lot a Schizophrenic army vet bicycled up to us and frantically started showing us a stained & ripped piece of museum brochure. I reminded my wife again that Michael Jordan's dad was shot and killed near Fayetteville NC. In any case, the Special Forces Musuem was FREE and probably worth a visit, though strewn with much propaganda. The museum is large, very clean and well-set-up. Here's a close-up of a parachute frozen in deployment:

Here's a shot of the underside of an actual C47 in the Normandy, D-Day exhibit:


One of the other things my wife and I have been hooked-on recently is the idea of tracing one's genealogy the best you can. My wife's lines we thought would be relatively easy since her family on all four lines were all in North Carolina since the 1700s and many of their graves were nearby. It turns out nothing is very simple. When we visited the NC State Archives, we were disappointed to realize that once you go back to pre-1900s and before, all census data, marriage records, death records, land deeds, wills, etc. were written in long-hand, usually cursive, with a fountain-pen or quill-pen. In fact, even blown-up on microfilm, it can be very difficult to decipher with certainty what you are reading. It takes a lot of detective work and much corroborative and redundant pieces of evidence to convince yourself that something such as a birth or marriage date is an absolute fact. Many times the dates are off by a year, or by a day, purely by the vagaries of the person entering the data. It would turn out that some scribe re-copying information collected during a census would read "Sarah" written by an individual in the field as a "Mary" and confidently write it as such on the official records - exasperating. What we found to be the source of greatest certainty is often the family Bible. Here is a copy of my wife's maternal grandfather's:

It seems old folks used to write in birth, marriage, and death dates into the middle of these bibles on pages duly meant for such purposes. Again an ancestor's bad penmanship ruins any efforts at properly confirming these records also, but fortunately these were much more legible.

Besides communicating with many of the older members of the family, an exciting aspect of genealogy tracing is visiting old cemetaries. It takes a lot of good research to locate the place of burial of a long-lost ancestor - we were able to track several down by reading a newsletter written by one of my wife's great-aunts. It actually took a trip into a local (county) library where we thought the cemetary was located to ascertain the actual location.

This is the Randolph Library in Asheboro, NC.

We found that there were two churches with identical names located within 30 miles of each other, Tabernacle United Methodist Church - by happenstance, we had wasted an afternoon rooting through the wrong church cemetary. By looking through the cemetary rolls at the county library, we discovered that there are ladies who go around every 50 or so years or and read tombstones and record what they read - by looking through these readings, my wife finally located a cemetary where several of her direct ancestors were buried (not in Randolph, but in Guilford County, NC). Once we arrived, we were shocked to find the condition some of these 200+ year-old tombstones were in:

We were gratified to be able to read (via tracing on paper over the markings) some of them and confirming the birth/death dates we had researched from family bibles and state and county archive records. It turns out that doing "tombstone rubbings" is bad for the delicate old tombstones - there are better ways to read it using tangential lighting at night, or with water, etc. Here is an impressively well preserved tombstone of a great(5)grandfather of my wife who was born 1775:

His wife Hanna Fields buried next to him was grand-daughter of a Christopher Vickery who fought with George Washington in Valley Forge. It seemed like none of the tombstones much older than this, and many of the tombstones even a hundred years younger were easily legible. I guess limestone was used for some of the worst ones because it was cheaper than granite or marble. It looks like really tracing out one's genealogy and keeping up with all 4 grandparents lines with all the children in all branches will be a nearly lifelong endeavor. We'll be writing it into a genealogy software program and hopefully publish it onto our websites to share with family if we ever get on with it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Swan Chicks

We've been busy thus far this Spring, hiking, doing school projects, working, etc. Above is a picture I took hiking around our neighborhood - there is a group of Swans which hatched out some young around a lake - these young chicks looked very hardy but within a week only a couple were left and all were gone within 3 weeks - I wonder if neighborhood cats might have eaten them.

Our Very First Yard Sale
Last month, one of our neighbors suggested they were thinking about yardsaling and we jumped on-board (actually my wife did). Someone else in our neighborhood had taken out a newspaper ad in the local papers to run a yardsale in our neighborhood, so we took advantage of this fortuitous free advertising to go for it. We gathered up a whole bunch of junk we thought might be sale-able and tagged them as to price (this took all day).

Here are some photos of the junk we were setting out in our garage the night before the yardsale:

It took 3-4 good truck-fuls to drive down the hill to our neighbors house for storage overnight. Apparently the yard-sale went from about 07:30 to about noon-time. This was our very first attempt at a yard sale and we didn't know that most yard-salers were looking for items in the 25cents to $3 range. We tried to unload our Sears power edger, our push-reel-mower, and things like that and they didn't sell at all. We got rid of a lot of my kids' junking plastic toys though as well as a huge plastic toy boat/sand-pit monstrosity (this huge item sold for $6). In the end, she ended up bringing back about 2-3 truckfuls of stuff which didn't sell. We were surprised at what did and didn't sell. For instance, nobody would buy the highest quality items like new-appearing Gymboree toys or furniture, but would buy the junkiest junk (like an ancient Pentax camera with scratched lenses). My wife was very stressed out over this yard sale so I don't know how often or if we'll do this again. I unfortunately work most weekends so I couldn't help much. She made about $184 for all this effort - the biggest benefit of it was actually in freeing up some free space in our attic and garage. We still have a basement and attic full of junk to get rid of. We're thinking of donating some of our inappropriate furniture to Habitat for Humanity later this year.

Changing Schools for Next Year

Good news is our son was accepted into a local Charter Montessori school for next year. Our son has been going to a private Montessori school over the past 2 years. Though he enjoys his school and has become quite attached to his classmates, we couldn't justify the thousands of dollars a year in tuition and expenses for a school which frankly we didn't think gave us good value for the money. We had our son tested recently by a neighbor who is an academically-gifted programs instructor for our local county school system. We had him tested because we were honestly worried that he was lazy, unmotivated, and slow to respond to questions about math and reading comprehension. However, he was always a quick study on various matters and usually remembered things well. We were concerned that he needed a more "standard" and goal-oriented program of study, including more testing and competition than a Montessori education could offer. I've read several Montessori books including all of Maria Montessori's fabulous original works and the system seems almost too good to be true. I'm convinced now however that the drawbacks of the system is in the lack of teaching to the real-world of test-driven education. It would be great to be able to get into a good college or high-school without having to submit standardized test scores, but this is not how the world works anymore. Well the good news was that our son tests so well on the 3rd grade level tests (though he is only a first grader), that our neighbor tells us that these IQ and achievement tests are unable to measure his skills adequately. Hopefully he'll be a good test-taker in the future as he seemed to genuinely enjoy taking these batteries of tests. Speaking of testing, I don't know why the College Board folks wanted to change the SATs now into a completely different format - if I were on an elite college admissions board, I'd want some kind of test to show me how intrinsically smart a kid was as well as how active and well-rounded he has been throughout his school years. With this politically-correctoid change in the system, it looks like most college boards might have to resort to a standardized IQ test like the Wechsler test to get this information - what a waste of resources. I saw that Frontline show on the SAT a couple years ago and I can see the problems inherent in the test, but you're not going to be able to ever create the perfect test and the SATs have been in place for so many decades now that it has created its own history and culture. Everybody knows what you mean when you say "my girl scored 1580 on the SATs" or "my son scored 1100" - you automatically start thinking various subsets of colleges when you couple their scores with their high-school grades and activities profiles. Now with this standardized test score totally tabula rasa, it's going to be very difficult for everybody to figure a kid's near-term future out.

The best news for us in the change to a charter school is that this school is free, and thus fits into our new goals to live a frugal lifestyle. It will also free up money we could invest into a college/private high-school fund for both our kids. I'm either going to go ahead and call up a Schwab broker to set something up myself in the near future or maybe call up an old friend of ours who is a successful lawyer/financial advisor to help us.

I read some books recently which I wanted to comment on:

1. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich

2. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, by Barbara Ehrenreich

3. The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton

4. Frugal Families: Making the Most of Your Hard-Earned Money, by Jonni McCoy

Barbara Ehrenreich is a liberal sociologist who writes mostly about American culture. She makes some very interesting observations and meta-analyses political movements and media behaviors. Her approach is sympathetic to left-wing causes and her Fear of Falling is I think a very good book to read alongside Bernard Goldberg's very provocative Bias : A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. I enjoyed her Nickel and Dimed book the most as it was mostly a voyeuristic recounting of her experiences as a minimum-wage worker. I couldn't help but think that most of these minimum wage-earners ought to read Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad books and Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life to help themselves to a better life.

The only thing I have to say about the Wealthy Barber and Frugal Families is that these are two fairly inferior publications. I think if you know nothing about managing your money the Wealthy Barber is something you could pick up, though there are many better books of its type. Jonni McCoy's Frugal Families, like her Miserly Moms book is a copy-cat frugal lifestyle book in the tradition of Heloise or the Tightwad Gazettes.

Our Food Bill is Getting Better

By trying to copy many of the tips and tricks from all these frugality books, we've been having some good results with our grocery bills.
Here are our grocery bills from 2003:
Jan - $742
Feb - $732.90
Mar - $742.98
April - $621.20

Here are our grocery totals from 2004:
Jan - $330.97
Feb - $459.47
Mar - $491.93
April - $316.43

In addition, our dining out bills for 2003 were, as I've said before, astronomical - we never kept up with all our receipts and never counted the stray can of ice tea from a vending machine for sure. I'm estimating from our past receipts that we might have spent $500 to $1000 per month on dining out last year. Check out our dining out totals for this year thus far:
Jan - $137.65
Feb - $33.06
Mar - $75.80
April - $54.17

These figures do include every penny spent - including our son's weekly "pizza day" at school and meals we paid for to celebrate birthdays and for when friends or family came over and wanted to order out pizza (i.e. things which would have been nearly impossible to avoid without an ugly scene). I think practically ~$30/month is as good as we're probably going to do, though we'll keep trying to do better.

Here are two big expenses for us this May: our son's taekwondo program costs about $150/month if paid monthly, $119/month if paid annually, $109/month if paid 2 years at a time, and $99/month if paid 3 years in advance. We've decided to go for the 3-year program after talking at length with our son. Our son's taekwondo is advantageous not only for its fitness promotion and acculturation to his ancestry, but we feel could become an asset in term of self-defense, self-confidence, and future admissions to competitive schools. He has already won a medal and two trophies from local competitions. He is very eager to continue it even though I have suggested to him to quit if he is losing interest (said in a moment of "simple/frugal life" ethos excess). This is going to cost us around $3600 but we happen to have some extra cash in our accounts and though this is clearly not a frugal move, we believe it is a good investment in our son's education and future.

The other big expense is that we are going to pay off our 2nd car (the Honda Pilot) - about $3000 left on the purchase from last January 2003. This behemoth cost us about $36,000 with all its fittings and options. By paying off this car, we will deplete our savings over the past year, but we will be able to re-set our expenses to exclude the "car loan" line which has been between $658 to $1200 monthly. This will get rid of our 4th largest monthly expenditure (after mortgage, kid's education fund, and retirement). In the future, I've vowed to never purchase a car with financing every again. Also, we are never going to purchase a gas guzzler ever again. Our Honda CRV guzzles gas at the rate of between 20 and 25 mpg (all-around usage). Our Honda Pilot guzzles gas at the rate of between 17 and 21 mpg (all around usage). With gas prices around 1.72/gal at our local warehouse clubs' gas pumps, that figures out to a couple hundred dollars a month on gas! Gas at our corner station is being sold at a criminal $1.96/gallon. We are monitoring with great hopes to the future of hybrid cars like the Toyotal Prius If only their Consumer Reports repair records, NHTSA/NCAP crash records, insurance institute crash tests, and reports within the next coming years come out favorably disposed toward these vehicles, we hope to make them our next automobile purchases. When our kids are grown and out of the house, I think my wife and I could easily get by on one small automobile (for long trips), and maybe a scooter - kind of like the one Jim Carrey used on Dumb and Dumber.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Stepping Off the Consumerist Track

A couple of books which everyone from teens onward need to read before entering into our Society today:

1.Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

2.The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn

3.The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

4.Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin

5.Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf

De Graaf and Elgin approach the consumerism of our American society with a left-wing liberal stance while Amy Dacyczyn approaches it from a very pragmatic and conservative perspective. Joe Dominguez is probably somewhere in the middle in his approach, but more conservative than liberal. No matter what your ideology may be, these books carry the common thread that WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF cluttering our lives - that we have let ourselves become puppets in a game played by Marketers. Why do we need to upgrade the Microsoft Windows program every 2 years? Why do we need 100 television channels (all garbage)? Why do we need a 52" plasma-screen TV? Why do we need new clothes every year? Just a cursory review of one's values and a moment's thought will convince any reasonable person that he needs none of that garbage.

There is a very brief and trendy book written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter (The Two-Income Trap...) which tries to enable the modern consumerist behavior of Americans by providing several lame excuses. In typical liberal fashion, the Warrens point the blame for such behavior on everybody and everything except on the perpetrators themselves. According to them, we have already done the best we can - shopping and overspending are all justified in the name of our own well-being. According to them Banks, large Corporations, and governments have led us ignorant pawns into debt traps - we must change the laws instead of our own behavior in order to help ourselves. This is all drivel - I'm certain anyone who decides to purchase something they can't afford realizes they are making a mistake. This type of over-spending is a disease, a pathological behavior, not an inevitable series of decisions made for justifiable reasons as the Warrens claim.

Of all these books, probably the most life-transforming book is Joe Dominguez's unfortunately & kitschily-titled book (Your Money or Your Life) - this books looks very much like one of those self-help-pop-psycho-babble financial-gurued-Ponzi-schemoid-looking rags and its appearance and title might be off-putting to people who believe themselves to be too good for this sort of advice. This book nevertheless distills in very concise and simple terms the essential philosophies and actions one must take to transform oneself from a mindless automaton who shops recreationally and spends his life energy away into a person living with common old-fashioned sense. Some of the advice in this book is a bit too simple, maybe too inflexible, but the essential points in the book are worth millions of dollars to anyone: that one must keep track of every penny one spends, that one must live with near-term and long-term financial goals in mind, that there is more to life than making money, that one must live with frugality and wisdom.

My favorite book of the above however is Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette - her approach is so revolutionary and her example is so inspiring that this book has caused my wife and me to make spectacular changes in our lifestyle. Last year at this time, our typical day began with deciding where to eat for lunch - typically someplace like Quizno's subs where we gobbled down about $15 worth of fast-food with sodas. We'd then drive around our local mega-shopping conglomerations, touring Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, BJ's Warehouse, Best-Buy, Home-Depot, and maybe our local mega-mall as well. We might have a specific item we would consider purchasing such as a $600 set of All-Clad cookware and look at some prices at various places, but not buy them and so consider ourselves good shoppers. Yet we'd along the way pick up a stray $10 toy here, and some unnecessary $18 stationary items there, and maybe some baby clothes here, some toiletries there, etc. By the end of the day we'd rack up $50-$100 in meaningless purchases. After picking up our son from school, we'd discuss where to eat supper and typically dine at maybe an Italian restaurant where we'd ring up another $35 meal before heading home tired and inexplicably frustrated. Since reading those books above, and especially Amy Dacyczyn's books, we make our own meals (~98% of the time anyway), we have found an ALDI Foods store in Raleigh where we can purchase an all-generic high-quality super-cheap groceries. We've shopped alternatively at a bread outlet store. We've decided to forego our nearest Harris-Teeter (our erstwhile favorite high-priced grocery chain). Yes, we've put together a grocery "PriceBook" per Dacyczyn's advice (I had 5 - that's right FIVE - managers at one grocery store accost me angrily while I madly scribbled the price of almost every item on their shelves). My wife even went to a yardsale last weekend where she purchased a half-dozen outfits for our 2 year-old at 25cents each. These behaviors are unheard of for us - we were inveterate brand-name and label readers. Our favorite phrase used to be "you get what you pay for." But on further investigation and experimentation, we found that many of Dacyczyn's advice rang true - just as with most pharmaceuticals, many generic products perform just as well as their brand-name brethren costing much more. As an example a generic Aldi vanilla wafer costing less than half Nabisco's Nilla wafers taste just as good. A slice of 55cent per loaf honey-wheat bread taste just as good as Nature's Own Honey Wheat slice costing $2.39 per loaf! There are certain items where a specific flavor may be so imprinted into my chemoreceptor-memories such as Heinz's ketchup or Tabasco sauce, that a generic will not suffice. But these items are few. I've calculated that we could possibly cut into our monthly food bill by another 33-50% if we followed many of Dacyczyn's techniques (such as "shopping to stock your pantry" rather than shopping to fulfill certain meals). We used to spend about $1000 per month dining out on top of another $500-$600 on groceries. We were able to cut our monthly grocery and dining bill to $400-$500 thus far, and can project that we could eat happily and comfortably on between $250-$300 per month - Amy Dacyczyn would scoff at such numbers since she has fed her family of 8 on $180 per month. But for us, this is tremendous. I've placed an order for TVP (texturized vegetable protein) - a dry soybean by-product substitutable for meat in many dishes, cheaper than tofu and all meats. My local small health-food store is letting me have a 25lb bag of this stuff at 10% off their $1.09/lb price.

We went to the Wake County Libraries annual booksale last week - it was quite an extravaganza. There were literally hundreds of people lined up around the block waiting for the warehouse to open - camera crews from our local WRAL newsteam were there filming hundreds of tightwad nerds near-rioting over used books. Hardbacks were going for $4 each (no bargain), paperbacks for $1 each (ok deal) the first night. The weekend promised BOXFULS of books for $5 or bagfuls for $2. Needless to say, we got ourselves a buttload of books this weekend. We actually spent $25 total in books, but got a load of books - What Color is Your Parachute 2001 edition, Motley Fools' Investment Guide, The Frugal Gourmet, Betty Crocker's Cookbook, about a dozen children's books, several medical books, etc. including an entire set (I,II,III) of Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette books! (we read from library copies and didn't have our own copy til now). We plan to eventually resell most of these books to our local used bookstores for credit or cash. Since we didn't really need any of these books, I guess this was a very consumerist thing to do and only added to our clutter and affluenza, but this was a hell of a good time and served as good entertainment as well.

My near-term goal is to participate in a yard-sale where we actually are selling our own stuff instead of buying other people's junk. We have so much junk in our house that I believe yard-salers would salivate over some of our stuff. According to the Millionaire Next Door book's research, physicians are horrendous spendthrifts and are almost always "Under Accumulators of Wealth" for many reasons enumerated in that book. The reason that most rings true is that we are expected to live in a certain lifestyle and behave and appear at a certain level toward our public and our patients. Just as Realtors must "look successful" in order to be successful, doctors must appear affluent and successful. As a result, as described in that book, a surgeon earning $700,000 a year, might have $300,000 in annual basal expenses and so after taxes end up with the "Big Hat, No Cattle" syndrome. Well, we are determined to break the mould - neither my wife nor I give a shit about what others think about us, including most of our patients honestly. Both my wife and I dress like we did when we were in college - typically in T-shirts and sneakers. We will honestly never purchase a luxury car. We will try to avoid cavorting with our physician friends and colleagues. In fact, we try to avoid letting anyone know we are physicians because we know that doctors get crapped on everywhere they go. For example, at a typical Medical Conference, our medical societies would tip us off that we will get cheap rates at the hotel if we tell them we are with them - of course when we fall for this sucker-bait, we are indeed offered the "Special Rate for Doctors Only" - gee thanks for the special deal guys! Physicians are one of the most likely to get audited by the IRS, we get one of the highest automobile insurance rates, we are the most likely to get sued (I've been sued already once and had to endure a grueling 2 week trial last year - more about this later), and this book shows us that physicians are one of the people least likely to become millionaires. Despite this, the public believes all doctors are rich and live like Orthopedic and Plastic surgeons to the Hollywood stars. After finally climbing out of debt 18 years after highschool, this poor physician couple (both primary care) are happy to be living paycheck to paycheck. Sure we could have done better had we lived frugally like Amy Dacyczyn, but we are surrounded by Affluenza-stricken, consumerist spend-thrifts, bad advisors, and most importantly, "the inner desire for More" within us which we kept caged within during our poor college years and medical-school years, through our overworked-yet-still-poor-as-hell residency years (while our friends who began work out of college were socking away thousands in their 401ks and making big bucks during the boom/bust cycle). The mantra of "delayed gratification" which keeps many student-physicians going through residencies and fellowships lasting decades will often lead to a burst of wild spending upon landing their first jobs. This self-destructive spending post-education often entrenches young doctors into the under-accumulator-of-wealth track - we are one of the thousands of examples. Upon careful calculation, I have determined that my wife and I will never be rich, but we also will never be destitute, and we are happy enough for that. My long-term goals: to stay married (never divorce), to reasonably fund my two babies' college education using the 529 college savings plan, to try to pay off my mortgage as soon as possible (before 14 years), to sock away as much into retirement as possible before I turn 60 years old - so as to generate an amount providing financial independence as defined by the late Joe Dominguez.