Monday, January 27, 2014

When I was a Crow

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

In the fall of 1957 our family moved to Blacksburg, VA so my father could earn his Ph.D from Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI, aka Va. Tech). I entered the second grade with a northerner’s accent and a reading disability. I had learned to read by rote, which is how they taught us in Rochester, NY where I had spent kindergarten and first grade. I had a good memory and did fine under that system. In Blacksburg they taught reading by phonetics, of which I had not a clue.

In the first day or two of the school year, the teacher gave me a reading test and assigned me to the Crow reading group. I did not want to be a Crow. VPI was at the time an all-male, primarily engineering and agriculture institution. Crows were pests; they stole corn. People shot crows. (A useless fact: In my current home state of Michigan there is still an open season on crows with no bag limit. Other times of the year crows may be legally harvested if they are “pests.”) Crows were black (and we are talking 1956 during segregation with separate drinking fountains, etc. for “colored.”) Crows were obviously stupid, since we were the slow readers.

I do not recall what the intermediate reading group(s) were, but those in the top group were Cardinals—the state bird. (Another useless fact: the Northern Cardinal has the record as the avifauna with the most states (7) calling it “their” state bird. Supposition: I figure that’s because they are relatively abundant and distinctive so people can actually remember their name. The common name is now Northern Cardinal, but at the time it was known as the “Cardinal,” and I suspect if the Northern had been attached at the time state birds were being recognized by legislatures the Cardinal would not have been Virginia, North Carolina or Kentucky’s choice.)

I wanted to be a Cardinal. Cardinals were everything Crows were not: colorful, friendly, didn’t raid cornfields, came to bird feeders one or two or a few at a time. Everyone loves a cardinal.

Geez-o-Pete—when a bunch of crows get together, we call them a murder. How bad can you get?

Human labeling of people and things is often wrong. Cardinals are bird-brained. I’ve watched male cardinals attack their reflection in a car side-view mirror again and again until either someone moves the car or the bird bloodies itself. Another time, in a different place, a cardinal attacked a picture window that reflected light. He repeatedly flung himself at his rival until he finally knocked himself out.

Crows and other members of the corvid family (like the raven above, which I photographed in Yellowstone), on the other hand, are among the smartest birds. They have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (unlike their distant cousins the cardinals) and they use tools. They have been observed using a twig to stir up insect nests and when the insects grab onto the twig, they haul them out and eat the insects. They have learned to crack nuts by dropping them where cars will drive over them. When the coast is clear they swoop in and pick out the nutmeat. A recent YouTube video shows a rook (another corvidsnowboarding down a roof using a lid.

By prejudice the teacher mislabeled the reading classes. We should have progressed from the showy Cardinal to the intelligent Crow. Unfortunately, we humans too frequently allow our biases to misinform our knowledge. Too often we mirror the Cardinal and beat our head against something that we take to be a threat because we don’t understand it.

Alas, I have to report that by the end of the year I had joined the Cardinal reading group. For years now, I have been struggling to be more like the Crows.

~ Jim
(first published on Writers Who Kill blog 1/26/14)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Credit Card Safety

Target managed to divulge credit card information on –oh say, 110 million of their nearest and dearest friends. Upscale Neiman-Marcus allowed a breach in their security as well, showing that there are no gated communities when it comes to credit card data theft.

Other than cancelling all your cards, there is nothing you can do to completely secure your credit card information. So, what can you do to protect yourself?

You could sign up for a service like Abine’s, which promises secure credit card online shopping by setting up a one-time use credit card for you. That way, when the next retailer loses its records, the thieves won’t get useful information. Of course, should Abine itself be hacked…you see my point about nothing being safe.

Here’s the approach I use. I have three credit cards, all of them free reward cards of some sort or the other. I use one, my Everyday Card, for all online and in-store purchases. I have set up alerts to send me an email (I don’t text message, but that is another alternative) whenever they process any online, phone or mail charge. Another alert notifies me of any brick and mortar charge over $25. Any international charge triggers an alert. One credit card would send me alerts for any gas station charge, but I don’t bother with that one.

It takes virtually no time for me to delete the emails when they come in since I’ve just made the transaction. And, if someone else makes a charge on my card, I know quickly and can report it to the credit card company.

I use card two, my Automatic Payments Card, for all the (surprise) automatic monthly payments: phone bill, electric, gas, cable, internet, health care, what have you. If something happens with the Everyday Card, I do not have to go online and change all the credit card details for these automatic payments. This saved me much aggravation a couple of years ago when I was pumping gas and managed to slip the credit card into a nonexistent pocket, thereby leaving it on the ground for someone to recover. Later that day when I discovered I had lost it, I canceled that card, but didn’t have to fool around with my auto-charges.

I also have alerts set up for the Automatic Payments Card, since utilities have also periodically allowed folks to hack their data. For that matter, banks have lost data themselves on their credit cards. If this card is compromised by one of my vendors, I’m stuck with changing all my automatic payments. So far that hasn’t happened.

Card three is my emergency card. When I am local, I keep it at home. If I am traveling, I carry it with me, but don’t keep it in the same place as my Everyday Card in case I lose that card (or my whole wallet, which I’ve managed to do more than once in my life.)

I don’t want to minimize the trauma of credit card theft, let alone identity theft. But with all the electric zeroes and ones running around where all kinds of bad guys can read them, I don’t propose to try to beat them, just make it unprofitable for them to steal my stuff.

Another hazard with credit cards is someone setting up one in your name without your knowledge. Once a year you may request a free credit report from each of the three main credit agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. I’ve set up my calendar to remind me to spread my requests out four months apart. They hold similar, although not exactly the same, information. I review the report primarily to assure no one has posted an unwarranted black mark on my record, but if someone had set up a card in my name, I would find out when the report showed a card I didn’t recognize. You can put holds on the agencies providing credit information to anyone, which will prevent someone establishing credit in your name, but that provides some hassles of its own and I haven’t bothered.

How about you? Any tips you want to share?

~ Jim

Monday, January 13, 2014

To Thine Own Self, Be Kind

No man is an island, entire of himself… John Donne

More than a week has passed in the new year. How is everyone doing on those 2014 goals? Just in case you intended to make some goals, but didn’t get around to it, you have a second chance: the Chinese New Year kicks off on January 31. Just kidding.

Even if you didn’t set goals, you and I know you actually have them. We all do, whether or not we admit them aloud. Whatever they are, I have a few tips to make yours successful.

1. Success breeds success, and generally failure breeds failure. Therefore, it is important to structure your goals in order to generate successes. If you feel good about how you are doing, you are much more likely to succeed than if you are feeling down.

2. You can only meet your goals in the future. The past is past and cannot be changed. If you are like me and in the past you haven’t met all the goals you set for yourself, now is the time to forgive yourself all your past failures. I mean, Right Now! Do it! Nothing good comes from beating yourself up—it’s a negative feedback loop. To thine own self, be kind.

3. Achieving big goals is similar to becoming a marathon runner. You need to start small. Hold onto the vision of yourself running the marathon, but set an initial goal of (say) being able to run three miles without walking.

4. When I was a manager I helped employees make SMART goals: They had to be Specific, Measurable, Agreed (I couldn’t just set them for the employee), Realistic and Timely (i.e. have a specified timeframe). When dealing with yourself, consider Agreed to mean something you want to do, not something you should do. This should not be the Superego dictating goals. Something vague such as “I will become a published author” misses Specificity and Timely. Heck, write a short story and throw it on Facebook and you’ve met that goal, but was that what you really meant?

5. Make a commitment to your goal. If you don’t make a commitment, it’s a wish, not a goal. One approach is to write down the goal. Another way is to announce to others what your goal is. People generally want to help you meet your goals, and letting others know what you want to do allows them the opportunity to help you along the way.

I announced two of my 2014 goals on My Two Cents Worth (Before Inflation) blog. They are modest goals, but will take effort. During 2014 I want to attain and maintain a certain level of exercise every month, and I want to lose twelve pounds and maintain that loss throughout 2014.

By announcing these goals on my blog, and again here, I can now share my progress (or lack thereof). As I succeed—and I will—I can share that success with others. If I hit a rough patch—for example, a weight plateau before my goal—others can provide support, remind me this is common in weight loss. It’s not just me and my goal; it’s now WE and my goal.

Simply having other people paying attention to my goals will help me succeed, because I really do hate embarrassing myself and that provides one more bit of additional motivation that I can transform into positive action.

5. Measure progress frequently. If your real goal is to complete the first draft of the “great American novel” in 2014, you might approach it by (a) estimating how many words that will be (100,000?) (b) setting a smaller goal of 9,000 words in January. And then measure that goal daily. See your writing time produce additional words each time you sit down to write. Congratulate yourself after each sitting—even if you only added two paragraphs and 100 words. And in March, when your son is getting married, back off from the 9,000 words and make your goal only 5,000.

6. Recognize that most goals revolve around developing new habits. Habits take a while to establish and are rarely reached without a minor backslide or two. Every day provides a fresh twenty-four hours. If you slip one day or two, recognize what has happened and get back up on that horse-of-a-new-habit and ride it today.

If you have a goal that you want me to pay attention to, share it in the comments. If you have a technique that works for you in reaching your goals, share that as well.

~ Jim

[Originally published on the Writers Who Kill blog January 12, 2014]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Two of my Goals for the Year

I don’t like to be embarrassed. I’m not sure how many people do, but today’s blog isn’t about them; it’s all about me.

Fact is, last year I wanted to lose some weight and exercise more. I do weigh three pounds less now than I did a year ago. Unfortunately, my idea of “some” was more like fifteen pounds. And I did exercise more than the previous year, but not as much or consistently as I wanted.

I know exercise is linked to my weight. When I exercise more, I generally weigh less than when I don’t. A small part of that link is causal; that is, exercising burns more calories and ergo, I’ll weigh less than I would have without the exercise. But mostly the link is mental. My weight is heavily (you may groan at the word choice) influenced by what and how much I eat, much more so than it is by my exercise.

Which brings me back to embarrassment.

I believe that my desire to not embarrass myself is stronger than my need for a few extra calories, but for this to work I need your help. At the end of each month, I’ll post two charts on my blog. One measures weight (with a goal of reducing and then maintaining my weight twelve pounds less than today). The second illustrates the amount I exercised (with a goal of a minimum of 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points.”)[i] Here are the charts at time zero.

Not very exciting, I admit. But here’s where you, my readers, need to play your part. With this post I am committing to you that I’ll post the revised charts at the end of each month throughout 2014. I won’t need your comments if the charts show appropriate success—but I do want your comments if I backslide on these goals – or even worse, if I stop posting the charts.

I do not want to embarrass myself, but if I do, I need you to let me know you are paying attention, and maybe that will be just the spur I need to refocus and meet these goals.


~ Jim

[i] Cooper Aerobic Points are my name for the method invented by Kenneth Cooper to measure amounts of aerobic activity in this groundbreaking book, Aerobics, published in 1968. Later expanded to recognize that the length of exercise had a cumulative effect, he revamped the chart. He determined that 35-40 points a week is a decent goal for aerobic health. I’ve always found that wasn’t quite enough for me to get the psychological benefit of exercise to kick in, and so I’ve set the monthly goal at 250 points.