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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Generational tax loophole

It's interesting that Obama is spending so much time this week on tax proposals that would seem to be completely dead in a Republican congress, regardless of their merits.

I'll let economists debate the effects of increasing the capital gains rate, and let them not come to a conclusion. 

Instead, I want to consider the generational loophole -- the fact that, at death, the basis for the heirs becomes the death date, NOT when the asset was originally purchased.

Of the three ways of which capital gains are given favored tax status, this one is the least defensible.

The others are (1) the lower rate for capital gains, which has some defense on economic grounds, (2) the fact that taxes aren't paid until the asset is sold, and so the taxes are deferred -- which avoids the need to inventory the value of your assets each year before you do your 1040, which would be a nightmare for hard to value assets and exaggerate the effect of the business cycle on tax collections.

A simple example.  When my father died in 2011, the five of us kids each inherited 20% of his Chevron stock.  The basis for the capital gains wasn't when the stock was purchased, but when he died.  The tax on any capital gains just disappeared. 

Now, there are some practical reasons for this, which would demand a phase in.  My father didn't actually buy that Chevron stock.  My grandparents owned it at least as far back as the 1950s, because I remember them mentioning the dividend (because, as a kid, I had to ask what a dividend was).  My father inherited 20% of that stock, along with his four siblings.

But did my grandparents buy it, or did they also inherit it?  That's quite likely, since they were truck farmers, not financial wizards. 

Truth is, it would be difficult if not impossible to find out who originally purchased how much Standard Oil of Kentucky stock (which was acquired by Standard Oil of California, which eventually became Chevron). But that doesn't mean that in this modern era of record keeping we couldn't require records to start being kept, and set some arbitrary current start date for older assets, and phase out this loophole.

On a pure fairness basis (always a tough argument with the tax code) it's hard to defend this disappearance of capital gains the living have to pay, and this should go.

By the way, it would be lovely to report this Chevron stock had made me fabulously wealthy, but if you did the math above you can see that this was 1/25th of the amount of stock my grandparents owned. They weren't dirt poor, but they didn't get indoor plumbing until 1953.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 2015

2014 was my first full year of retirement, since I retired June 1, 2013.

I was one of those retirees who stayed somewhat busier than they anticipated.  I anticipated being able to do more cycling, but that turned out not to be the case. It was wonderful to see my grandson grow during the year right in front of my eyes as we took care of him about 3 days a week.

Teaching 3 college courses this fall proved to be more than I really want to do, so I'm cutting back next year, maybe entirely.  I knew it was going to be a busy fall, but due to unforeseen circumstances it turned out to be a lot busier than anticipated.

What's up for 2015?

The key thing to get done this year is to move to more suitable housing for the long term.  We've been in this house since 1981, and moving will not be easy or straightforward.

My grandson will be walking within days, and this spring can be put in the bike trailer, so I see a lot of trips to playgrounds and the Botanic Gardens in my future, and I'm looking forward to that a lot.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The blogger returns: are 15 damaging myths really myths?

Has it really been six months since I made my last blog entry?  Apparently yes.  I've been busy. Too busy.  This was easy to get out of the habit of writing, particularly since the extra stuff that made me so busy wasn't stuff I was able to write about.

But back to the show. Let's once again look at web advice and see if we agree with it.  This one is from the Hufffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elyse-gorman/15-damaging-myths-about-l_b_6324636.html , titled 15 Damaging Myths About Life We Should All Stop Believing, by Elyse Gorman.  And who is Miss Gorman? "Writer and founder of NotesOnBliss.com, your guidebook to happiness and creating a beautiful life."

So, let's see how many of these 15 we agree with.

1. There is a single definition of success.

Yes, that's a myth. There are lots of ways to succeed.  But Gorman undercuts her own argument by ending with "Live, work, date, play, create, travel, eat, drink, move, laugh and sing in ways that feel right with your soul. That is true success."  No, Elyse, you were right the first time.

2. Life is meant to be hard work.

Not a myth.  Actually, I don't claim to know the meaning of life, so I can't say what life is meant to be.  But I do know that there's a lot of hard work involved.

3. Life happens to us.

Partly a myth.  Lots of things we can control. Lots of things we can't.  Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer sums it up well:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

4. There is such a thing as normal, and we should measure ourselves against it.

A myth.  There are lots of normals, just as there are lots of definitions of success.  We should measure ourselves against our standards.  Am I being a good enough parent? How could I improve as a spouse?

5. There is an "us" and a "them."

A myth. There are just varying degrees of "us".

6. We have to compete for limited resources.

Gorman writes, "Life is meant to be abundant and limitless. We create scarcity by believing in it".  No. It's an economic world.

7. Happiness comes from external things.

A myth if you are middle income or better, but not in general.  Studies show that up to a point, money does buy happiness -- principally because it can buy food and shelter.  But fairly rapidly the connection between income/wealth and happiness becomes unimportant.  But there are a lot of people at the low end of the income/wealth scale, and they would be happier if they were more secure.

8. Holding grudges is a natural part of life.

I agree with Gorman here, who writes:
The Buddha once said, "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."
Make forgiveness your new motto and see how much freer and lighter your soul feels.

9. There is something wrong with us.

Not a myth. Of course there's something wrong with each of us.  But let's not forget that there is also the spark of the divine in us, and each of us has worth.

10. It matters what other people think of us.

Not a myth. We shouldn't obsess about it, but it does matter to us.

11. We see things how they really are.

A myth.  As Paul notes: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known." (1 Cor 13:12)

12. Meditation is something people do on a cushion at sunrise.

Yes, a myth. But Gorman says it's a myth because you can meditate anywhere, anytime.  I think it's a myth because most people don't meditate at all.
13. When we give something, we lose something.

A myth. Most of the time we gain.

14. We have to logically figure everything out.

Not a myth.  We can't logically figure everything out, because we don't have the information, we don't have the time and we're not that logical.  Still, we might as well try to do the best we can.

15. We need to be more realistic.

Not a myth. Illusion is the enemy of self-knowledge.

Scoreof Gorman's 15 myths, I agree that 7 are myths.  I disagree that 8 are myths.  So we're about halfway in agreement.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What's the point to this spoiler?

Looking through the TV listings tonight to see if there's anything worth procrastinating over.

I see this listing on the Big Ten network. They are showing classic basketball games, which itself is a sign that I don't want to stay on target and do something useful. But look at the listing:

They identify the game (which is helpful). From the fact that it's "classic basketball" it seems likely that this is a competitive game.  But then they tell you the score.

What's the point to that? If I wanted to watch the game 9 years later, I either
(a) remember who won because I'm a rabid fan of Illinois, or
(b) don't want to know who won because I'd like to watch the game as it develops with a sense of suspense.

So for all of us in group (b), we've just been talked out of watching the game.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Oddest scatterplot I've seen

A basic tool of statisticians is the scatterplot.  You have two variables (let's call them x and y) and put them on a graph with each observation being a dot.  You then look at the pattern of dots.

Typically, one might see a positive pattern, a negative pattern, or no pattern at all. A well behaved scatterplot of each type might look like this:

Of course, not all data follow such a simple pattern.  But I don't think I've seen any scatterplot quite as odd as this one.  The x axis is the monthly unemployment rate.  The y axis is the monthly Case-Schiller index of housing prices. The data are from the Chicago market, from January 1990 to October, 2013.

This looks more like a ninja throwing star than a data pattern.

If  we do a time series graph of these series, we can get a bit more insight. The unemployment rate is following the business cycle (some would argue it IS the business cycle, particularly if you are unemployed).

from 1990 to mid-2007 the housing price index isn't following the business cycle; it's just going up into a bubble.  Even now, it's at a considerably higher level than it was in 1990.

So now we can see what's generating the unusual scatterplot. There are periods of time in which the relationship seems positive, seems negative, or just seems unrelated.  If we replace the dots in the scatterplot with the month numbers (1=Jan 1990, 2=Feb 1990 and so on) we can get the general pattern of time in this scatterplot:

In the early months, there seems to be the expected negative correlaiton. Then the correlation is positive for a while (when unemployment is rising, but so is the price index).  Finally, we return to the negative relationship, but at a higher price level than before (110-170 rather than the earlier 70-100).

Naively, we would expect a stronger negative correlation, but perhaps this mainly illustrates that bubble psychology overrides normal economic connections ... for a while.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Illinois pension fix -- not really

As more details about Illinois' pension "fix" come out, it doesn't look like such a fix after all.

What's known is that it has to clear constitutional hurdles. I don't think it will, but I could be wrong.

What's not really known because the details of the bill, and a detailed actuarial study, were not done before the bill was passed -- yep, that's right -- is that the bill itself it a bit of a sham.

These details come from David McSweeney at Reboot Illinois.He's channeling a report by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), which is a state agency. 

The savings aren't $160 billion, but only $137 billion.

The savings are backloaded -- only 6% occur in the first 10 years. There are no savings at all until 2016. 82% of the savings occur from 2035 to 2045.  That's partly due to compounding effects, but also partly because these legislators will no longer be around by then.  Because the savings are small in the next few years, this won't help Illinois' short term fiscal situation much.

Because those savings are backloaded, the present value of those savings isn't $160 billion, or $137 billion, but $23.8 billion.  This isn't chicken feed, but not quite what we were led to believe, either -- particularly since the legislature has a long history of not living up to its pension funding promises, and this is yet another promise.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hobby Lobby and corporate medical insurance

Hobby Lobby is arguing that the Affordable Care Act should not require the company to cover birth-control in its employer-provided health insurance because it conflicts with the Christian owners' religious beliefs.

Most of the coverage has looked at this as a religious rights issue, or treated it as an opportunity for satire (the Daily Show being a prime example).

I seems to me that the real issue is a lot different.  Why are corporate employers involved with health care in the first place? And what’s the path to getting them out.

How they go there is no mystery. During the post-WWII labor shortages, health insurance got added as an employee benefit by large corporations in order to compete.  Medical costs were a lot lower, and group coverage was cheaper (because of the low sales costs), so this seemed like a win-win-win for the corporation, the health insurer, and the employee.  The amount of coverage varied widely from employer to employer. For example,  some covered maternity and some didn’t.

As health care costs rose all out of proportion to the rest of the economy, these costs became a burden to everyone (except the insurance industry and the health care corporations themselves). But due to the tax laws it didn’t make sense for the employer to just give the money to the employee and let them buy health care on their own.

The Affordable Care Act then took this relationship farther – legislating what employees needed to be covered and legislating a high set of minimum benefit.  Now, with all that governmental intervention, health care doesn’t look so much like a fringe benefit being provided by an employer and more like any other tax – money that goes out, where the government determines how it will be spent on what (Consider: would I have wanted to pay for the second Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan with MY tax money?)

And the group rates issue can be handled by the ACA exchange function (OK, pause for laughter here. But they are supposed to serve this function for those who aren’t covered by an employer.)

So, given this, why do we need to have the employers involved at all?

Should we not, instead, just change the tax status of health care so an employer could just provide money toward health care, but let the employee make the decision on how to be covered?  If they want a policy that covers acupuncture, let them buy it. If they don’t, let them buy a policy without it.  If the government (unwisely) decides acupuncture must be covered, at least the employer isn’t involved.

This, of course, avoids the whole Hobby Lobby can of worms with employers’ beliefs and attitudes. It’s easy to make fun of the particular beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby because I don’t agree with them (and, in fact, wonder if they are sincere or just agreeing to serve as a test case).  But no matter, let’s avoid the whole issue and get my employer out of my health care.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Illinois pension crisis: a prediction

I’ve blogged several times on the financial crisis around the state of Illinois’s long-term tendency to promise pension benefits but not fund them.

So, a few months ago, they passed a pension reform bill. Shouldn’t I be happy now?

No. I think there’s a good chance this is just more theatre.

1. I haven’t seen an actuarial study that indicates this reform will actually solve the problem.  The reform was pushed through in almost a star-chamber manner with little information about it ahead of the vote – even for legislators – and certainly not enough time for careful study. So they didn’t know it would work when then voted for it.

2. After several months, I haven’t seen such an actuarial study.

3. There are, of course, lawsuits filed by interested parties. The reform bill seems unconstitutional on its face, since the Illinois constitution states:

Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an
enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

4. About the only thing working in favor of the judges ignoring the clear language of the constitution is (1) as Madigan noted, many of the judges are his political allies, and (2) the pension reform deliberately does not cut the benefits of judges.

Madigan … believes "at least four members of the Illinois Supreme Court that will approve the bill." Snickering, arrogant Madigan said this about not including judges in the bill: "That's a practical judgment that was made. No further comment."

5. The court does not have to rule with any particular timing; the law is scheduled to take effect in June, 2014, but they could easily defer that until the case is settled.  So they can wait until after the November elections to rule, and probably would want to avoid such a hot button issue in what will probably be a very dirty campaign for governor.

6. So, my prediction is that they will rule against the pension reform bill after the November, 2014 gubernatorial election – putting us back where we were years ago, but with the financing problem having compounded since then.

Thought for the day: parsimony

“parsimonious” is the sound of someone shaving with Occam’s razor.

-James Harbeck

The search for “life” outside the earth

I’ve been watching “Cosmos”, and so the idea of life on other world is something I’ve been thinking about.

Titan, for example, might have methane-based life, rather than water-based life. And that life might look very different. Most “life” on earth is pretty similar – e.g. the DNA for handling the digestion of sugars is evidently the same in oak trees as in humans.

Raising the interesting question: if we found “life”, would it be “life”, or something so different than “life” wouldn’t make sense?

For example, we aren’t that far from having machines that can replicate themselves (e.g. print new copies of themselves, and have robots assemble the parts.  So it’s possible to imagine a community of machines  self-sustaining community of machines without human intervention. (I know, we still have to mine, refine, etc.)  Would we consider this community of machines “living” in any sense resembling our own?

And how about self-replicating molecules, such as proteins outside of living cells?

It is likely that when we find something, it will be stranger than we can now imagine.

Plasma as an example

When I was in school – and even when They Might be Giants did that science song – there were three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas.  Surprise, there are four – we need to add plasma to that list.  And there’s a lot of plasma. The sun is plasma, and it’s larger than all the planets put together. The sun isn’t a ball of hot gasses, but a ball of plasma.

We could not even has imagined plasma until the 20th century. We needed to understand ionization and to be able to technologically produce plasma in the lab for study.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Maybe I’m giving too much money to public radio



The results aren't surprising. What is surprising is that the Planet Money team investigated 74,476 pizzas from 3,678 pizza places around the country. That sounds like overkill. Maybe I'm giving too much my public ratio station.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Monday, February 24, 2014

Academic SPAM? or Academic Scam?

This appeared in my in-box at the university today:


Yes, that’s it. This is an organization I’ve never heard of, and certainly the alphabet soup in the email isn’t much help.  My guess is that this is some form of scam; this makes me curious about how this scam might work, but not curious enough to reply!

Monday, February 17, 2014

It’s February and the days are getting longer!


That’s not a live link; I’m not shilling for Ace (although my local Ace on Waukegan Rd in Glenview has been a big factor in enabling me to maintain my >100 year old house over the last 30 years).

It seems so wrong to have a four-day National Battery Day.  Why not make it National Battery Week? Maybe the batteries don’t last that long?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

If we persecuted the 1%

[Tom] Perkins, a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in January wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he said the public's turn against the rich represents a "dangerous rift" in America and compares such progressive radicalism to the German Kristallnacht.

"I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its '1 percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the 'rich,'" he wrote.


To which Sam Zell added:

"The 1 percent are getting pummeled because it's politically convenient to do so," Zell said, an interview Wednesday on Bloomberg Television’s "In the Loop" with Betty Liu.

People "should not talk about envy of the 1 percent, they should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder, the 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society."

Do the 1% work harder? Well, probably the ones who made a substantial amount of that money themselves, as Zell did. Zell probably works harder than most people.

But are the 1% getting pummeled?

  • If they were getting pummeled, wouldn’t we at least know who they were so we could be sure they were pummeled? But there’s no list of the 1% anywhere (unlike the Jews, who had to wear identifiable clothing).  The IRS doesn’t even keep a list, let alone publish it.If the rich wear special clothing, it’s because they want to stay in fashion. Persecuted groups don’t generally wear special clothing by choice.


  • If they were getting pummeled, wouldn’t their taxes have risen? Yet the highest tax brackets are lower than they were when I was a kid.

from http://www.ntu.org/tax-basics/history-of-federal-individual-1.html 

The top federal tax bracket is 35%.

It was about 40% in the 1990s.

It was about 50% in the 1980s.

It was about 70% in the 1960s.

It was 92% in 1952.

It’s hard to say that a long term trend of mostly lowering the top tax brackets means the top 1% is being pummeled.

  • If they were getting pummeled, then their share of the national wealth would be decreasing. But it’s increasing.
  • If they were getting pummeled, then they would commonly be convicted of minor white collar crimes and sent to prison. But sending the 1% is so rare that the very few cases of it become national news stories (and often involve fraud involving many millions of dollars, such as Bernie Madoff). For just making money, you don’t get put away.
  • If they were getting pummeled, they would have their freedoms restricted. They might be limited to only one yacht (per ocean, of course). Or only so many vehicles. Or the amount of land they could own would be limited. Or they might be allowed to have only one child. Or they would have to send their children to public schools. No such limitations exist.
  • If they were getting pummeled, their access to the political process would be limited. But it’s less limited all the time as campaign finance limitations are lifted and we decide corporations are people and money can be donated anonymously to “educational” PACs.

Not much evidence of pummeling anywhere that I can see.

Whining, yet. Pummeling, no.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Spring memories at Charrette Creek, North Fork


I’m not in this picture; this was taken a couple of years before I started high school. I knew some of these boys as seniors when I was a freshman. But it brings back memories.

The memories are somewhat of a forbidden fruit variety. This fork has surface water only occasionally in the spring. The broken limestone of Missouri otherwise allows the creek to have flow largely below the surface. There’s only a couple of spots where enough water accumulates to make a swimming hole. This was the closest one, and about a 45 minute to an hour hike away, depending on how much mud you had to hike through (because if it hadn’t been raining heavily, there’d not be enough water).

And you had to hike in. Even now, 50 years later, there’s only a gravel road into this state forest, and it’s nowhere near this location. So this was something you might do once or twice, when all the conditions were right on a Sunday afternoon when there wasn’t school or chores.

There’s the iconic rock. There’s the notion of wading and swimming where you really weren’t supposed to. There’s tadpoles everywhere in the water. There’s the idea that you’d been in civilization, and were going to hike back to it, but right here it was just you and the other guys with a bunch of water, rocks, trees and mud.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Target Department Stores Incredible Chutzpah

I got a letter from target. Dozens of millions of people are getting the same letter, but in case you didn’t get it I enclose it below.

The chutzpah part is highlighted.  Target has a lot of nerve lecturing me on identity security, after being irresponsible for one of the largest breaches of personal information security in history.

This is in the same league with Catholic bishops preaching morality, after their immoral actions in the pedophilia scandal have led to much human misery (and a large wasting of the assets of the church).

In addition, the generic advice given is of no value. Anyone who’s been paying attention the last 20 years already knows this stuff. It’s the informational equivalent of slipping on the ice and then having someone say “Careful, it’s slick.”  If you don’t already know those 3 bullet points, one form letter from Target isn’t going to have any impact.


Friday, January 03, 2014

Something to file … um … away

Today’s amazing scientific fact comes from a Scientific American blog:

The entire group of organisms known as Rhombozoa—or Dicyemida—compose a full phylum of animals (as Chordata is the phylum for all vertebrates) unto themselves. Nevertheless they have only been found in the kidneys of cephalopods. Chew on that for a second; if we were to lose a little class of (albeit it really cool) animals, the cephalopods, along with it might also vanish an entire phylum of dependent critters.

This, of course, leads to many questions I don’t know the answer to, such as:

1. How many more phyla are out there that we haven’t noticed yet?

2. How did these evolve? Were they once more widespread and ended up in this locational dead end, or …?

3. How many similar phyla might there have been, which disappeared when their host went extinct?


Courtesy of Wikipedia, I have this information, and a picture:

Adult dicyemids range in length from 0.5 to 7 millimetres (0.020 to 0.28 in), and they can be easily viewed through a light microscope.[6] They display eutely, a condition in which each adult individual of a given species has the same number of cells, making cell number a useful identifying character.

The organism's structure is simple: a single axial cell is surrounded by a jacket of twenty to thirty ciliated cells. The anterior region of the organism is termed a calotte and functions to attach the parasite to folds on the surface of its host's renal appendages

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

You have the right not to take it personally

This post began when I read Randy Cassingham’s post:

“Why is it that anyone thinks they’re entitled to go through life without ever being offended?”…

Anyone who is offended by someone wishing them a “Merry Christmas” needs to chill — just like anyone offended by wishes of “Happy Hanukkah” or “Fabulous Festivus” or whatever. And certainly no one should be offended by “Happy Holidays” as somehow being “anti-religious” since surely everyone knows what the origin of the word “holiday” is, right?! All of these wishes are someone saying something nice, so for someone to take offense and insist they “should” say something different is just being a jerk. …

…Saturday night I was wished Happy Solstice. Thank you! I’ve been wished Happy Hanukkah (thanks!), Merry Christmas (you too!), Merry Secularmas (heh! Thanks!), and more. Why should I be offended by someone being polite? I’ll go so far as to say those who choose to be offended by others being polite have a problem, not the people doing the greeting. The world would be a better place if we chose to appreciate differences, rather than be offended by them. What a boring world it would be if we were all the same.

During the holidays there is an increased ability to hear things that are well meaning inquiries into the state of your life “How’s your dissertation coming?” or inquiries into important, but embarrassing issues: “How’s the job search coming?”  In many cases (probably not all) these are attempts to connect with friends and family they don’t see often on some level beyond asking about sports and the weather. Hard as it may be, they should probably be taken as expressions of interest (but not answered if you don’t want to).

So just chill. It’s –1 degrees out now in Chicago, so it should be easy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Milk Review

This is from an Amazon review of Tuscan brand whole milk, 1 gallon, $9.99
I don't know who Edgar is; his profile picture is a picture of Edgar Allan Poe and his city is Baltimore, of course.  Such a fine parody deserves an audience.

Most of us would stop with the idea of ordering a gallon of milk for $10 (plus shipping) from Amazon. But not Edgar.

Make this your only stock and storeJuly 8, 2008
This review is from: Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon, 128 fl oz (Misc.)
Once upon a mid-day sunny, while I savored Nuts 'N Honey,
With my Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gal, 128 fl. oz., I swore
As I went on with my lapping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at the icebox door.
'Bad condensor, that,' I muttered, 'vibrating the icebox door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Not to sound like a complainer, but, in an inept half-gainer,
I provoked my bowl to tip and spill its contents on the floor.
Stupefied, I came to muddle over that increasing puddle,
Burgeoning deluge of that which I at present do adore -
Snowy Tuscan wholesomeness exclusively produced offshore -
Purg'ed here for evermore.

And the pool so white and silky, filled me with a sense of milky
Ardor of the type fantastic of a loss not known before,
So that now, to still the throbbing of my heart, while gently sobbing,
I retreated, heading straightway for the tempting icebox door -
Heedless of that pitter-patter tapping at the icebox door -
I resolved to have some more.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
'This,' said I, 'requires an extra dram of milk, my favorite pour.'
To the icebox I aspired, motivated to admire
How its avocado pigment complemented my decor.
Then I grasped its woodgrain handle - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams of Tuscans I had known before
But the light inside was broken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only words there spoken were my whispered words, 'No more!'
Coke and beer, some ketchup I set eyes on, and an apple core -
Merely this and nothing more.

Back toward the table turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
'Surely,' said I, 'surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

From the window came a stirring, then, with an incessant purring,
Inside stepped a kitten; mannerlessly did she me ignore.
Not the least obeisance made she; not a minute stopped or stayed she;
But, with mien of lord or lady, withdrew to my dining floor -
Pounced upon the pool of Tuscan spreading o'er my dining floor -
Licked, and lapped, and supped some more.

Then this tiny cat beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grand enthusiasm of the countenance she wore,
Toward the mess she showed no pity, 'til I said, 'Well, hello, kitty!'
Sought she me with pretty eyes that seemed to open some rapport.
So I pleaded, 'Tell me, tell me what it is that you implore!'
Quoth the kitten, 'Get some more.'

Friday, December 20, 2013

Journal editor spam

Sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out the angle on spam. Take this one.

It was sent to my business email, not my academic one.

I’m not a chemist or chemical engineer. I’ve never published in a chemical journal. I’m not even in a close field. I’m not Indian, and don’t have a name that sounds remotely Indian. I’m not on the editorial board of any journal.

The journal says it is “devoted to rapid publication”, which I think often means paying to publish and editorial standards that are a bit lax, but I’m unfamiliar with this particular journal. 

So what’s the angle here? If you apply to be editor, do you have to submit a large “application fee”?



“Describe your patent”

The company I retired from (but still consult for) had a low-key Christmas party in the company cafeteria yesterday: some beer and wine and snacks, a cover band – and then a few words from the CEO.

Those who had a patent approved this year were warned that there would be some patent recognition during the CEO’s talk, and I did have a patent approved this year. So I was ready for that. It was one of the reasons I came in on Thursday this week.

As CEOs do, he went on a bit too long for the audience – which was drinking eating and socializing prior to the CEOs talk, and wanted to get back to doing just that. So the audience seemed to hope the patent recognition would go quickly. 

A plaque was ready for the first recipient.  “Alberto A____”.

“He’s in Italy”. And, indeed, Alberto is always in Italy, He’s Italian and works for the division in Italy.

“Andrea B____”

“He’s in Italy, too.”

This was not going well. Two recipients, two no-shows.

“Cheryl B____”

“She’s on vacation. In Cleveland”. The audience found the notion of going on vacation to Cleveland mildly amusing.

“Craig C___”

“He’s on vacation.” 

By now, the CEO was wondering about this, but kept going. “Brad G____”

Brad wasn’t there, either. Now it was my turn. “Mike K___”

I has positioned myself near the front, so it wouldn’t take long to get up there.  And they gave me a plaque for the patent. The plaque had Craig C___’s name on it because mine hadn’t arrived yet, but having found somebody who was actually there meant they certainly were going to hand out a plaque.  I posed so they could take a picture – but then I realized the photographer was elsewhere.

The CEO then handed me a microphone asked me to explain the patent to the audience. Actually explaining the patent would have been long and tedious. Explaining it was part of “project X” would just bring up sore wounds, since our new owners turned down the funding to implement “project X”. And turned it down three times. And so I said:

“You know what they say. If I could explain it, it wouldn’t be patentable.”  -- which was short and got a laugh.

When the next recipient came up, the CEO said “after that last explanation, I’m not going to ask for any more patent explanations.”  Which was just as well – the bar re-opened sooner that way.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Children’s book series

Why be consistent? Having just bashed advice lists, I’m now prepared to plug a list of book series to read aloud with your kids.  But reading to my children at bedtime was one of the best investments in time I made as a father, and I recommend it heartily.


10 Book Series to Read Aloud with Your Kids

Ramona: I read to them.

The Mysterious Benedict Society: never heard of it.

Little House on the Prairie: they read them in school.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket): read one, wasn’t impressed.

Percy Jackson: never heard of it; them seem to be new.

A Wrinkle in Time: I read it to them.

Infinite Ring: never heard of it

Chronicles of Narnia: read some of these to them, not all.

Harry Potter: I didn’t read these to them; I know Abby read the entire set; not sure how many Beth read.

Lord of the Rings trilogy: this was the culmination of bedtime reading to my kids. I read this to my youngest daughter, about 4 pages a night. We started when the first movie came out, but didn’t finish until it came out on tape and we could put it in the VCR. We finished the second book just in time to see it in the theatre. We finished the third book, and then had to wait for the movie. This was really a massive undertaking for bedtime reading and not a project for the faint of heart.

But there are series I would add

Just top of mind, here are a few series I’d add:

Beatrix Potter books, for one. These are books to read preschoolers / early readers. The stories hold up and the illustrations are wonderful.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: Are two books a series? Tom Sawyer is a definite for 2nd grade or higher; Huck Finn maybe middle school.

Maus. These graphic novels of the Holocaust are an introduction to the darkness of some of human history.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Amelia Bedelia


Curious George

Update: My daughter writes,

how did Calvin and Hobbes not make the reading list? This seems wrong on so many levels!

Indeed, how did I forget that? Highly recommended!

More terrible advice from lists

Most lists are made for amusement value, the most famous of which is probably the David Letterman Show’s “Top Ten” lists, or maybe “The Book of Lists”.

And then there’s the self help / management advice lists, such as “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.

But while some of the advice can be good, often the advice is just a bunch of clichés thrown together. And it’s often the case that for each cliché, there’s an equal and opposite cliché.

So let’s take one of these lists and see if we can make a case for the opposite being true. I’m going to pick on

8 Things Happy, Successful People Never Say


a post by Mark Chernhofff, who has a book called “1,000+ Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently”.  I don’t intend to read that book, and at any event taking on 1,000+ things is just too many. Let’s try 8, and see why good human beings might occasionally need to say these things.

#1: “My goals and dreams can wait.”

Yes, if you put your goals and dreams on hold forever, they will never be achieved. But sometimes others are more important than you are. You may have to put at least some of your goals and dreams on the back burner, or you will be a terrible father to your small children.

#2.  “I don’t have a choice.”

Sometimes you don’t. Suck it up.

3.  “They are probably right, so I must be wrong.”

Yes, you should listen to what other people say. If everyone disagrees with you, it’s quite possible they are right. If you have a car full of people and a Garmin GPS unit all telling you that you need to turn right at the next intersection, you should consider the possibility that they might be correct.

4.  “This sucks.”

Sometimes things do suck. Recognizing that fact can give you the motivation to change.

5.  “I hate you.”

I’m with Chernhoff on this one. No argument. Negative emotions about others fester and ultimately are destructive to your own happiness – sometimes without affecting the other person much at all. Forgive. You will be a better person for it.

6.  “I can’t.”

Sometimes you can’t. Recognizing what you can do, what you can’t do, and what you might be able to do if you tried hard and had some luck is important to perspective.

7.  “I missed my chance.”

Yes, maybe you did. Realize you missed that bus, stop wasting energy trying to chase it down, and try to make the next bus. One of the wonderful things about America is that there are second chances for people.

8.  “Never mind… it’s not important…”

Sometimes it’s not important. If you missed that bus because you helped an old woman get her packages to her car and she says “but I made you miss your bus” – saying “Never mind … it’s not important…” is exactly the right thing to say.

The score: for 7 out of 8 it’s not hard to see where successful, happy people would sometimes say these things – and be more successful and happier for saying them.

“Best Values” in education

So we’ve come to this. You can charge $13,000 (in-state) for a year’s tuition and get labeled a “best value”.  $40,000 out of state.

My graduate alma mater is a fine place, but



To put these numbers in perspective, consider the average wealth (net worth) of American households. Here’s a table from http://www.nasdaq.com/article/americans-have-relatively-poor-net-wealth-cm257517 , which conveniently provides international comparisons.


About a third of US households have very little wealth (<$10,000). Another third have less than $100,000, meaning their wealth would be wiped out by two kids and in-state tuition.

But, you say, what about that financial aid? Well, loans are financial aid, but as we are increasingly seeing, the loan payback is a drag on young people for years, particularly if they are spending their 20s in underemployment hoping the economy improves.

So I find the notion that UM would be called a “best value” depressing.