Showing posts with label Individual Responsibility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Individual Responsibility. Show all posts

Monday, October 9, 2017

Has We the People become I the Individual?

I belong to a group of bloggers called Writers Who Kill. It’s not meant literally, of course, but as mystery/suspense/thriller writers our writing includes murder. My books have included mass poisonings, many shootings, attempted suicides, and in my current WIP Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5), a rock becomes a murder weapon.

In the wake of this month’s Las Vegas mass-shooting, I again debated with myself whether writing novels with violence abetted the epidemic of killing in the United States. The easy counter-arguments to those worries include that, given my sales, I’m not even a blip on the collective social conscience. If I removed even that blip, people would read someone else. However, even if something does not matter because it is only a drop in the ocean does not mean the drop is acceptable.

Other countries love murder-mysteries as much as we do in the U.S. They even read many of the same bestsellers as we do, and yet their rates of violence are significantly lower. Something other than reading choices must drive our levels of violence.

The answer might be our heightened sense of individualism and low sense of community responsibility. Unless confronted by incontrovertible evidence, we choose individual freedom over individual or collective safety. We choose individual freedom over individual or collective financial costs.

Evidence, Jim; we need evidence. Our choice to interpret the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as an individual right to buy nearly every kind of gun and ammunition available has led to 1.5 million gun deaths in the last fifty years. In comparison, in the combined U.S. wars starting with the Revolutionary War and including the current conflicts, only 1.2 million Americans have died.[i]

Price of freedom, we say. That price comes to 30,000 people dying each year for fifty years. A huge number, but it means little to us because the chances of it being us are incredibly small (~.01%/year).

Let’s switch to driving habits. Raise your hand if you routinely drive faster than posted speed limits? Me too. Studies have demonstrated that increased speeds lead to more deaths and injuries. Lower speeds use less fuel, save money and the environment, and yet we mostly root for increased limits and don’t obey those that are posted.[ii]

And while I’m on the topic of driving, states have vacillated, but many have removed helmet requirements for motorcyclists. It’s a no-brainer that the chance of death or serious injury are greater without a helmet. I understand the thrill of letting the air blow through your hair (or over a bald pate in my case). I don’t use a helmet when riding my ATV unless I’m traveling where the police are likely to see me.

According to the Center for Disease Control, if every state required motorcyclists to wear helmets it would save $1 billion a year, 740 lives a year (they estimate those states with laws saved 1,772 lives in 2015).[iii] Who pays that $1 billion? Mostly the rest of us through our own vehicle insurance rates, medical premiums (to cover uninsured hospital costs), Medicaid costs, etc. My state of Michigan allows those over age 20 to forego helmets if they have passed a course (or driven for at least two years) and carry at least $20,000 in medical insurance[iv]—as if $20,000 is going to cover the costs of a head injury. Have the legislators paid any attention to the costs of hospital stays?

How about that fundamental right to build your house wherever you want? The seashore? A flood plain? A nice canyon in tinder-dry California? In the middle of the Michigan woods on a nice inland lake? Sitting on top of an earthquake fault zone? Guaranteed: each of those will have a major problem sometime. That’s what insurance is for, right?

Yes, but . . . individuals are often unwilling to pay the true cost to insure their individual decision and instead rely on government funding—i.e. the rest of society—to bail them out. (Full disclosure, I have purchased flood insurance on my Savannah condo.) The National Flood Insurance Program is $25 billion in debt (and that’s before the 2017 hurricane costs). In 2012 Congress raised rates to close the gap between what policyholders paid and the true cost of insurance. In 2014 they fell to pressure from the skyrocketing rates and backed off, instead adding a surcharge to “pay” for the deficit. Current proposals won’t fix the problem either.[v]

It is not impossible to change the way we treat risk and cost. Roughly fifty years ago, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. In 1965 we suffered roughly five deaths for every million miles we drove. Today it is about one death per million miles. That’s an eighty-percent decrease.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring kicked off an environmental movement that brought us back from environmental catastrophe from indiscriminate pesticide use (another example of individual freedom to spray trumping community needs—until legislation changed the balance).

We’re facing a similar crisis regarding the overuse of antibiotics and the creation of superbugs.

The list grows, but I have two conclusions resulting from my ruminations. Relying on each individual to make decisions based on individual needs only works when community costs are factored in, which we have not done with guns, freedom from wearing helmets, flood insurance or antibiotic use. Second, I put my name on my books; if someone thinks my writing is responsible for abetting the unacceptably high level of gun violence, at least you know exactly who I am.

This post first appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/8/17


Monday, March 27, 2017

Remembering Pearl Harbor

War is caused either by an imperialistic stance by an aggressor, a failure of nations to successfully negotiate their differences, or a combination of the two, which is how the United States ended up in World War Two.

When Japan invaded Manchuria (imperialism), the United States reacted by refusing to sell Japan oil. This was no small matter for Japan, who bought 80% of its oil from U.S. companies. When the terms the U.S. required to begin shipping oil to Japan were too high for the Japanese government to accept and still maintain face—a commodity more important to politicians than to the millions of regular people who suffer when nations resort to war—Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on a date that FDR decried would live in infamy.

In two hours, Japan sank most of our battleships, numerous other vessels, and killed 2,400 people. As battles go, the material losses were major (although temporary, as most of the battleships were raised to fight again). In comparison to other battles, the human loss was small. On a single day at the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, MD) nearly 23,000 soldiers died. The atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima killed over 40,000 people that day and 50,000 -100,000 more in the next four months.

I know all those statistics, but what resonated most with me as I toured Pearl Harbor, part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (including the USS Arizona memorial), is the virulent hate so many immediately felt toward those of Japanese heritage living in the United States. In Executive Order 9066, FDR set in motion what would become the mass internment of Americans with Japanese ancestry. In the mainland U.S., over 100,000 were interned. In Hawaii, with a population of over 150,000 individuals with Japanese ancestry, fewer than 2,000 were interned!

Did you know the disparity of treatment of between locations? I did not. This was racism, pure and simple.

Fear allows presidents to take actions that would otherwise be unconstitutional. FDR subjected citizens of Japanese ancestry to the loss of property, freedom, all citizen rights, simply because of fear that they might conspire against their country.

President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus soon after the start of the hostilities now referred to as the Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. The Judiciary determined that the right to suspend habeas corpus resided in Congress, not the President. Lincoln ignored the court order.

Lincoln was wrong to ignore the courts. FDR was wrong to tar all those with Japanese heritage with a single brush. Yet, in surveys, Lincoln and Roosevelt are considered two of our greatest presidents. For example, in the Siena College Research Institute, Presidential Expert Poll of 2010, Lincoln was rated #3, FDR was #1[1].

During the McCarthy era, political persuasion (and sometimes only presumed political persuasion) was cause for citizens to lose their jobs, to be blacklisted by industries regardless of whether they had ever committed any act against the interests of the United States.

This is our past. We should not run away from it. We must remember it to avoid repeating it.

We feared Native Americans and tried to exterminate them, or at least confine them to reservations. We feared Southern sympathizers and allowed presidential power to trump the checks and balances of our three branches of government. We feared the Japanese and illegally interred 100,000 fellow Americans.

Our current president uses fear of race, religion, and national origin to pit U.S. citizen against U.S. citizen. In our society, I am lucky to be privileged: an Anglo-Saxon male with sufficient financial means that I don’t need to rely upon charity to live. From the perspective of those in power, I should be concerned about losing all that I value because of the growing influence of those who are “not our kind.”

They are correct that I am concerned about losing what I most value. However, we have very different concepts about what has greatest value.

If I do not stand with Muslims and Jews and Blacks and Mexicans, if I do not stand with the poor regardless of race or religion; if I don’t object when others’ rights are diminished in response to fear promulgated for political gain; if I allow anyone to trample the inherent worth and dignity of another, I have lost my own soul.

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 3/26/17


Monday, March 13, 2017


As we approach the coming equinox, thoughts turn to spring cleaning. It’s a tradition, is it not: spring cleaning? Not my tradition, mind you. My seasonal thoughts turn to spring peepers and leaves popping on trees and migrating birds, many freshly attired to attract a mate, and <groan> income taxes. I don’t notice the dirt I’ve tracked into the house until it’s pointed out to me. Nor do I notice overfilled closets, file cabinets, or newsletter mailing lists until there is no room for the addition I want to make.

With that introduction, you’ll not be surprised to learn I am a packrat. Aphorisms I grew up with and still repeat include, “Waste not, want not,” and “You never know when you might need it.” It’s a family tradition. When my father died, I “inherited” a ton (figuratively and probably literally) of family papers and such—mainly because I was the child with room to store all the material. I remember hearing about my grandmother joking to my father when my grandparents transferred the papers to him as part of their downsizing, “From our attic to yours.” I assume my children know what that means for their future.

I recognize this proclivity of mine. I often joked that I kept buying bigger (or more) houses because I needed more room to store books. A couple of years ago, I instituted a new practice regarding my personal library. For every new physical book I buy, one must find a new home. Down south, our church’s youth have a book sale to support their going to the denomination’s summer camp. Up north, we donate books to one of the local libraries. I look at it as giving someone else the opportunity of reading words I will not read again (at least in this lifetime). Electronic books are exempt from the physical storage constraint.

The digital age creates both opportunities to eliminate much of the physical records I keep and an almost limitless opportunity to keep more stuff that no one will ever use. For example, I kept in a file cabinet copies of all my tax returns—the earliest was while I was in high school! Legally, it makes sense to keep the most recent seven years; I filed the remainder because you never know who might be interested. Wouldn’t it be cool to see your grandparent’s or even great-grandparents’ taxes? Or my parents’ taxes the year I was born. (Back when we really were making American great again by investing in education and infrastructure. The highest marginal Federal personal income tax rate was 91%, although my parents’ marginal rate was probably only 22%).

So, I converted my historic tax returns to PDFs and stored them on an external hard drive. Now, if someone wants to know how much I made as a camp counselor in 1969, the answer is still available! That project emptied an entire cabinet drawer. And sometime in the future when my children look at a directory of that hard drive, they can clean the whole thing with one command. So easy.

Photographs are something else again. When film and processing cost serious dollars (at least for my budget at the time), I was parsimonious with my picture-taking. With digital cameras, I’ll shoot multiple frames—you never know which shot will be the keeper. This leads to resource problems. I need to spend time going through all the pictures to determine which are best. But can I delete ALL the others?

Are you kidding? This is me, we’re talking about. Sure, I delete the out-of-focus shots and the ones with someone’s elbow taking up half the frame. But the others? Well, you never know when . . . But I haven’t the time or interest in labeling the thousands of photos I electronically keep, so who am I really kidding here about the usefulness of the thousands of stored images. And yet, you never know . . . Not all that long ago one of my WWK blog mates wanted to use a picture of a house finch to illustrate her blog. Of course I had some to share. It’s that random variable positive reinforcement that feeds my hoarding addiction.

So with that as background, you may be surprised that I recently removed about 30% of the names from my author newsletter mailing list. I use MailChimp, which is free for me, provided my list includes fewer than 2,000 addresses. I was about to add another 100+ names gleaned from a contest, which would put me over 2,000. Faced with the choice of paying to email my newsletters or making room in that virtual closet, I made room.

I figured that the chances of someone who had not opened any of my last five newsletters would suddenly become a rabid fan were dismally small. Turns out using that criterion produced almost 600 email addresses. I admit when I saw how large the number was, I hesitated before pulling the trigger and assigning those 600 people to the terrible fate of not giving them the choice to ignore my newsletter for another year.

[There is room in my newsletter if you want to sign up. Here’s a link.]

I used to have a sign in my office that said, SIMPLIFY. It was meant as reminder that if I did not actively simplify, I would fall into the trap of spending inordinate time and energy managing my complications. I know I kept that sign someplace, because you just never know when it would be useful again. Oh wait, I just did a search of my computer’s hard drive and in two seconds it gave me the link to a PowerPoint file titled “Simplify.” See, you just never know . . . 

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 3/12/17

Monday, March 6, 2017

Put Up or Shut Up (An Open Letter to President Trump)

Dear President Trump:

You won the electoral college election and, having been duly sworn into office, are the president of the United States of America.

Act like it.

Presidents represent all the people of the United States. They give up their personal right to voice unproven beliefs to the public as though they are facts because their pronouncements now come from the head of the executive branch of government, not from a private citizen.

Illegal Voters

When you claim to have won the popular vote had illegal votes not been counted, you are saying that at least 2.8 million more illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton than were cast for you. This is massive voter fraud. It means more than one in every 24 votes cast for Clinton was illegal. If true, this is a crisis for democracy in the United States. It is much more serious to address this problem than to fix the tax code or repeal and replace Obamacare or even tackle the problem of an insecure border.

Well over a month after you made the claim, we have heard nothing more about the investigation you planned to order. Why is that, President Trump?

Illegal Wiretaps

This past week you tweeted, Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! and How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy! If true, this is extremely serious.

Either President Obama has broken the law in a truly frightening way (he’s circumvented the process that requires Justice Department officials to obtain a judge’s permission before allowing them to execute a wiretap, or he’s circumvented the FISA court by not obtaining a legal order to surveil with respect to a foreign entity) or the Federal Government has acted legally (implying someone(s) in Trump Tower, or the Trump Organization, or the Trump Campaign acted in such a way as to justify a court ordering the surveillance).

You must have factual evidence to justify accusing a former president of usurping power from the courts and illegally obtaining information about a presidential candidate and his associates. With such a serious charge about the power of the presidency in a democratic country with supposed checks and balances, it is critical that the public understands exactly what has happened and how we can prevent any future president from committing similar nefarious actions.

The time, President Trump, has come for you to PUT UP OR SHUT UP.

Because you have stated that Administrative leaking is a security issue, and you have tweeted that nothing was found on the wiretaps, I must assume no secret material is involved. Please release the verifiable details of the wiretaps. How were they issued? Who carried them out? What was discovered?

And tell us who is performing the critical inquiry into your claim of voting fraud. What specifically is their charge? When is their report due to the American people?

Regarding any further statements you make:

Please provide the proof prior to or simultaneously with your presentation of the issue you choose to address. In the vernacular of the playground, PUT UP or SHUT UP.

~ Jim

Monday, January 2, 2017

Making Your Goals SMART

The beginning of a new year means for many the beginning of new goals. Gyms will be filled with people intent on getting into shape; weight-loss reduction programs will experience a spike in memberships; budgets will be crafted to curb “unneeded” spending and allow more savings for retirement or college or whatever. Flash forward three months and most of the goals are distant memories over which we feel guilty. Gym equipment languishes unused, some of the weight lost in January has returned by April; who knows how we’re doing against budget, but we don’t seem to be saving more.

Why Set Goals Anyway?

Each of us has our own reasons for setting goals, but in general goals provide structure to help modify behavior and improve chances of success. SMART goals make it more likely you can succeed in attaining your goal.

What are SMART goals?

SMART is an acronym to remind us how to construct goals:

S stands for Specific. The best goals are those formed with a specific outcome in mind. Let’s use weight loss for our example. Setting a goal to “lose weight” is less likely to encourage you to meet your objective, than is a goal to “lose 10 pounds,” which has specificity.

M stands for Measurable. Not only should a goal have specificity, it should be quantifiably measurable. A goal such as “lose enough weight until I look good in a bathing suit” may be what you want, but it is subjective. Further, it may have several components to it. Yes, losing weight may be necessary, but so too might be increasing muscle tone. We can measure pounds lost on a scale. We can measure muscles by number of pushups or how long we can hold the plank position.

A and R can have two different meanings depending on whether you are setting your own personal goal or whether a boss/parent/significant other is “helping” you set a goal. If the goal is personal, then A stands for Attainable and R stands for Rewarding. If your goal has a top-down element to it (as in someone else is top and you are down), A stands for Agreed and R stands for Realistic.

The combined meaning of these two letters assures the goal is something you agree is realistic, attainable, and provides some measure of reward. The reward can be anything from personal satisfaction to a corporate bonus, but it must be sufficient to make the challenge of attaining the goal worthwhile.

Your spouse telling you that you will lose 25 pounds in the next six months when you think 15 is more realistic means you have not agreed. Even if your spouse is correct that twenty-five pounds is realistic; this goal is not SMART. Similarly, if you set a goal of 25 pounds, which you would find rewarding, it might not be realistic if you haven’t weighed that since you were in high school—and that was thirty years ago!

T stands for Timely. The goal must have a timeframe attached to it. “I will lose 10 pounds” can meet the SMAR components, but when should this happen. Without a specific date, it is too easy to defer changes in your behavior until maƱana—which never comes. Our SMART goal could be “I will lose 10 pounds by June 30, 2017.”

Helpful Tips on Succeeding with Your SMART Goals

We’ve developed our SMART goal of losing 10 pounds by June 30, 2017. Can we set any intermediate goals to help us stay on track and provide positive feedback along the way to achieving our main goal?

Well, of course we can! We don’t want to be in a position where we haven’t lost any weight for five and a half months and then we need to lose all the weight in two weeks. Even if we starved ourselves and dumped a bunch of water weight, we wouldn’t keep the weight off. That was not the original intention of what we meant by losing the weight.

Many goals require multiple steps to complete them. Each of those steps can be a separate goal. For example, anyone who has dieted knows losing the first pounds are the easiest. Our motivation is often high and simple changes can bring initial success. How about we set an interim goal to lose four pounds in January 2017? Specific—yes; Measurable—yes; Attainable—yes, we believe a pound a week is doable; Rewarding—you bet 40% of the way there; Time-specific—yep.

Nothing succeeds like success. You should reward yourself for attaining your interim goals. However, your reward shouldn’t be something that diminishes the likelihood of attaining your goal. So, treating yourself to a massage after losing the weight could work well. Splurging on a hot fudge sundae with all the trimmings—not so much.

Another reason to set intermediate goals is that they allow you to adjust your plan over time. You succeed with your January goal and lose the four pounds, but you felt hungry the whole month. Perhaps February’s goal is to lose one additional pound. Accomplishing this makes sure you don’t go backward, gets you closer to your goal, etc.

Visualize Success

Sports psychologists have studied the powerful effects of visualizing future success. In our weight loss example, what will change once you have lost the 10 pounds? Close your eyes and imagine how good it feels when that pair of pants you struggle to button no longer crimps your waist. Visualize each step of the process. Think of what it will feel like to slip them on—first one leg and then the other—pull the pants together to button them and the button slips into its hole without the necessity of you sucking in your gut. The zipper pulls up without any strain. The waistband has a little flex and doesn’t pinch.

Perhaps now you can wear a favorite blouse that has been a bit too tight. Mentally watch yourself in a mirror pulling on the blouse, buttoning each button, maybe decorating the outfit with a favorite necklace or lapel pin. Isn’t it great to be wearing that outfit again?

The more specific you can be about visualizing what your success looks like, the more power the effect on you.

What do you think, should SMART goals be in your future?

~ Jim

This Blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 1/1/2017.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Six Steps to Help Prevent Financial Abuse of the Elderly

I have been working on two short stories this month. Although the stories are very different, they share two similarities. Both involve my series character Seamus McCree and crimes against the elderly or mentally diminished.

Fellow Writers Who Kill blogger Tina Whittle and I are writing one of the stories together. That one is for an anthology expected to be titled 50 Shades of Cabernet. The co-authoring thing is a new experience for me, and I am enjoying it. (I hope Tina is, too.) The second story is my planned submission to the fourth Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime anthology titled Fish Out of Water.

This need of mine to write about financial abuse of the elderly is not new. Perhaps it stems from my current responsibility to handle my mother’s finances, and I am more aware of the potential. Maybe it’s because I write about financial crimes. Criminals always follow the money, and today’s retirees as a group have a lot of money. Maybe it’s because news articles have suggested the way we now treat elder abuse is similar to the way we used to treat child abuse: severely underreporting the extent of the crime, blaming victims, allowing institutional practices to remain unchallenged. Whoa! That’s a charge.

Consider these facts:

Much as child abuse often happens within the family, according to AARP, nearly 60 percent of the Adult Protective Services cases of financial abuse nationwide involved an adult child of the elderly person.[1] According to a study sponsored by the Journal of Internal Medicine, friends and neighbors account for another 17%, and paid home aids 15%.[2] In this study, only 10% of the reported cases are perpetrated by strangers.

We don’t know for sure what percentage of total financial abuse is reported. Victims are often unaware. When they do realize they are victims, they are often too embarrassed to report the crime. Sometimes they are afraid to report the crime, fearing physical or psychological abuse from the perpetrator. Those suffering from dementia, depression, or disabilities are most at risk.

Sometimes the abuse is hard to catch, taking the form of “loans” that are never repaid, cheating not only the victim, but others who should have shared in the estate. Often the crime is simple theft, extracting money from an ATM, writing checks to themselves, buying stuff with the victim’s credit cards.

Taking a few simple steps can make it more difficult for perpetrators of elder financial fraud.

(1) As early as possible make sure you (and your parents, if alive) have an estate plan in place, including a will (and/or living trust) and health directives. Discuss your wishes with family so everyone knows what is to happen if you can’t take care of yourself in the future. This may be an uncomfortable conversation with your loved ones, but bright sunshine on your finances helps makes it harder for the mold of later abuse to take hold.

(2) Be wary when “new best friends” enter the life of a loved one. Any hint of “sharing” finances or the new friend “taking care” of finances should shoot off rockets of concern.

(3) Institute checks and balances wherever possible. Only a small percentage of lawyers and financial advisors are crooks, but alarm bells should go off if your lawyer recommends a financial advisor or vice versa. Independently verify referrals. Conversely, you may be able to use a lawyer or financial advisor as a resource to help prevent financial fraud.

(4) Use technology to help monitor spending. Credit card companies provide transaction alerts, which can provide early warning of a stolen number. If you worry about a relative who is still independent but potentially at risk, you can purchase monitoring services to spot unusual activity. An example is EverSafe.[3] (I mention them only as an example of what can be purchased. I have not used them and have no personal knowledge of how well they perform.)

(5) If one family member is responsible for a parent’s assets, make sure a second person has the ability to review transactions, asset statements, etc. I use DropBox to store my mother’s credit card, bank and mutual fund statements so one of my sisters can look over my shoulder. This protects Mom and also allows my sister to easily take over if something happens to me.

(6) If anything seems suspicious, ASK QUESTIONS.

Is financial crime against the elderly a concern for you, either for yourself or a relative? What have you done about minimizing risk of abuse?

~ Jim

This post first appeared on Writers Who Kill 2/21/16


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goals: 2014 Results & 2015 Plans

Let me wish all my readers a spectacularly positive 2015.

I am looking forward to a great year. You may recall from previous blogs and Facebook posts that I used the potential of embarrassing myself as motivation to obtain two of my 2014 goals. I wanted to lose and keep off twelve pounds, and I wanted to maintain a certain level of exercise through the year.

Weight – Mission Accomplished

The chart demonstrates that when I put my mind to it, I can lose weight, although I struggled while we were on the road. By the end of September, I wanted to maintain the fifteen pounds I had lost and so set that as a revised goal for the remainder of the year.

Exercise – Mission Mostly Accomplished

I had set an objective of earning at least 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points” each month. That I did not do. I found it easy to blow off exercise while we were on the road in May, June and July. The good news is that while not consistent, I did average 255 monthly points during the year.

The longer picture

Because I inherited my love of data-retention from my father, I can show 2014 as part of a longer perspective. The picture below suggests my 2015 weight goal.

This chart (looking a lot like the Himalayans) shows the up-down cycle of my weight since the middle of 1989. Long flat stretches on the graph do not mean I enjoyed amazingly stable weight during the period; they indicate I was not weighing myself.

For the entire period, my average weight was 191.4 (red line). The green line shows a running ten-year average weight, currently sitting at 194.2. For 2014 I averaged 186.8.

All of which is to say that my biggest problem with weight is not the ability to lose it, but once lost to keep it off.

My objective for 2015 is to avoid a weight gain. I have not averaged less than 180 pounds for a calendar year since 1994. I have set as the 2015 weight goal to average at most 179 pounds. Would I like to average less than that? Absolutely. The main task, however, is to avoid the bungee cord rise that has followed previous weight losses.

My exercise statistics since I retired do not exactly look robust. If I continue my goal of 250 aerobic points a month, I will be well ahead of the average year. Before I went back to the data and put this chart together, I planned to increase the goal to 300 points a month. Looking at my history, I’ll be fine at the 250 level and much less likely to injure myself.

I will post results periodically during 2015. If things are going well, I’ll bore you quarterly. If they aren’t going well, I’ll fess up monthly.

~ Jim

Friday, November 7, 2014

Protecting Your Identity in a Cyberworld

The headlines continue to shout examples of major retailers, banks and insurance companies whose databases have been hacked, providing the hackers with your personal information. What can you do about these breaches of security?

Short of dying or cutting yourself off from all commerce, you can’t do anything to stop the security breaches, but by preparing you can limit their damage to you when they occur.

It will happen; your credit card information will be stolen.

The most important first step to protect yourself is to assume your credit card information will be stolen.

It is going to happen. It may happen the old-fashioned way and someone steals your wallet and grabs your credit card. Maybe a restaurant worker has a magnetic strip reader and necessary tools to duplicate your card. Maybe the bank is hacked, or the retailer or insurance company. Maybe your computer is stolen or someone snags your userID and password while you are online. Or your “safe” cloud backup is hacked. It doesn’t matter how it happens; what matters is how prepared you are for it.

The best way to limit the damage is to have strong safeguards in place before your information is compromised.

Create Strong Passwords: 

Yes, you’ve heard it a thousand times, but if you haven’t already done it, do it now: create unique, strong passwords for every online account. Strong passwords include at least one capital letter, one small letter, one number, and one symbol and are a minimum of eight characters long. You can use a program that develops long unmemorizable passwords and keep track of them for you. Alternatively, you can develop your own, based on a system that you remember, but that will not be obvious to someone who comes across your written list.

Of course you keep a written list; you’re human, aren’t you?

You can develop a system that you will remember given a password clue. Here’s an example. Your password list has “4T” next to Chase.

Your actual password is aHc16@jmj#X arrived at by taking the first three letters of the company (cha), writing them backwards (ahc), capitalizing the 2nd letter (aHc) adding a standard (to you) 7-digit group (16@jmj#) and then (the code part—4T) which means the letter at the end will be 4 after T and since T is capitalized, so will be X (the 4th letter after T).

If you lose your list of passwords, no one is going to figure out that Chase 4T means aHc16@jmj#X and BOA 2c would convert to aOb16@jmj#e. Yet after just a few days, you’ll know your passwords for almost all websites without having to look them up. With such a coding scheme, you should keep a note detailing your conversion key in your safe deposit box so upon your demise your executor can sort out what your passwords are and access your accounts.

Also note that however a thief/hacker obtains your information for one account, they won’t be able to figure it out for other accounts.

Set up Credit Card Alerts

Most major credit cards and many retail cards allow you to set up alerts so whenever your credit card is used, you get an email. For example, Chase allows alerts for the following transactions:

  • Any charge on the card over a specified amount (I use $1.00, so I see them all.)
  • Any international charge.
  • Any online, telephone or mail charge.
  • Any gas station charge.

They have a number of other alerts available (credit limits, bill paid, etc.) I chose to receive an alert for any balance transfers (since I don’t transfer balances, I’d learn of the fraud immediately.)

The point of these alerts is to catch a problem early. Thieves often put through a small charge to make sure the credit card information is working, and, if successful, follow up with a series of larger charges. If you spot any suspicious activity, immediately contact the credit card company’s fraud group. Usually, they will cancel your card and issue a new one. Once, (years ago with a corporate card) they asked to keep the card active so they could follow the merchandise and attempt to apprehend the criminals. They issued a new card for my purchases.

Utilize a single credit card for automatic payments

Designate one credit card for use in automatic payments: utility bills, cable, newspaper, whatever recurring payments you set up. This isolates your automatic payments from your every day credit card use.

It’s a pain to have to change all your automatic payments. Making this division means that when the card you use for regular purchases is compromised (in my case usually because I left it somewhere), you don’t have to bother with notifying other companies.

Credit Rating Agencies

The three credit rating agencies, Equifax, Experion and TransUnion, have tools to help you protect your credit. You should request your annual free credit report from each as a matter of course. (I suggest spreading them out every four months to give yourself the best coverage.) Should you spot any incorrect or suspicious information, follow-up with the company and make sure to keep all documentation.

The agencies also have methods to limit access to your credit information. Putting them in place will make it much more difficult for you to get new credit and in some cases will make it hard to obtain new services (cable for example) because the provider checks your credit before agreeing to sign you up and that check is blocked. However, if you are concerned about unauthorized persons or companies accessing your credit, a freeze will solve the problem.

If you suspect your personal information has been compromised, you can have the three companies put on a Credit Fraud Alert, which notifies companies to contact you before approving any credit. Experian’s, for example, lasts 90 days – unless you have been a victim of fraud—in  which case they have a seven-year extension with proof of the fraud.

Summary: (1) Recognize your information will be stolen (2) Implement strong passwords (3) Set up credit card transaction alerts for early warning (4) Make sure to utilize free credit rating agency tools.

~ Jim

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Blocking Political Spam

With the midterm elections three weeks away, political “advertising” is heating up. Thankfully I’ve found a way to stymie the system. Note I do not claim to have beaten them; it’s just one battle in a long war.

I have met no one other than a politician who thinks that when you sign your phone up for the “No Call” list that politicians shouldn’t be barred from robocalls and the like. However, since politicians pass the laws, they exempted themselves.

I found an app for my cell phone that now allows me to avoid their robocalls and pitches for contributions. “Mr. Numbers” works on Android phones. I’m sure there are equivalent apps for Windows and Apple operating systems. I’m not even claiming Mr. Numbers is the best Android app. But here is what it allows me to do:

I set the app to block all restricted callers. These are folks who do not display a callback number. My theory is that if they don’t want me calling back, I don’t want them calling in. I originally did this to avoid telemarketers who get around the no-call list because they have some superficial link to a provider I have or had in the distant past. What I discovered is that as a bonus I no longer get political advertising or calls for contributions.

It’s a blessing I am passing on to you, unless you enjoy stringing folks along, in which case I don’t want to ruin your fun.

My only concern is that the politicians will outlaw software that restricts their “first amendment right to harass me” – er –their “free speech.” It’s a war and like any war the instruments of battle will escalate. Right now, I have the advantage and I am enjoying it.

~ Jim

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

2014 Goals Progress

Another month has dashed by, and it is time to fess-up to how I did with my twin goals of exercise and weight. Good news all around. I met my exercise goal for the month and reduced my weight below the 12-pound weight loss goal for the year.

The key for the last quarter of the year is to maintain exercising and keep off the lost weight through the end of the year. Overall on exercising, I now have had more months of success than failure and have the opportunity to end on a solid note.

Keeping weight off after losing it has been a continual problem for me. On average I've gained three pounds in the last three months of the year. If I were to do that this year, I would still technically meet my original goal, but it would not feel like a success. Therefore, I'm mentally resetting that goals so success means that I continue to maintain the current 15-pound weight loss.

Check back in a month and we'll see how I've done.

~ Jim

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Husband’s Secret

My Savannah book club, Bound to Please (don’t you love that name), recently read The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. I stumbled onto the club when they chose Bad Policy as their December 2013 book. Jan and I have continued to go to meetings because it is a good group of people with a variety of ages and interests, and they often choose books we wouldn’t normally read.

I was disappointed in The Husband’s Secret. If you want to know why, contact me off list, because I want to talk about a question I asked the group and the answers people gave. I’m not giving anything away to say that the husband wrote a letter to his wife, sealed it in an envelope, which he labeled with something to the effect of “open upon my death.”

Here’s the question—and answer it for yourself before you read on:

If your still living spouse/significant other left just such an envelope and you found it, would you rip it open?

I was fascinated to see eighty percent of the hands shoot up without hesitation. One participant noted that she wouldn’t rip it open; she’d steam it open. I wished I had thought of that, since I would have ripped it open and then destroyed the evidence of my moral crime.

Ben Franklin supposedly said something like, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Ben may have been an optimist. There is something in human nature that does not like secrets. We can’t keep others’ secrets; we often can’t keep our own; and assuming my book club is a fair representation of Americans, given the opportunity to learn someone else’s secret, we won’t hesitate to break their trust. Of course, owners of the gossip magazines by the grocery checkout have profited from this knowledge for generations.

Somehow we are shocked (shocked, I say) that our government eavesdropped on our allies—as if they weren’t doing the same to us. To those of you old enough to remember party telephone lines, I ask, “Didn’t you listen in on your neighbors?”

We should not be surprised that the NSA oversteps its bounds. Hoover’s FBI certainly did in their day. Today’s tools are exponentially more sophisticated, but that hasn’t changed our human desires to know what others want to hide.

Information wants to be free. We need laws (treason for so-called state secrets, copyright protection for authors, patents for inventors) to prevent it. But you know, once again Mom was right when she said, “Don’t do something you wouldn’t want on the front page of the paper.”

Life can certainly be a lot less stressful if you’re not trying to protect secrets. Now, where did I hide that diary again?

~ Jim
Originally Published on Writers Who Kill (3/9/14)

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]

Monday, April 15, 2013

Saying No to Abusive Behavior

“There is no excuse for it. I was wrong.” So said former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice in his apology speech before cameras.

Most people who have watched the video of Rice abusing his players agree that he was wrong. He was wrong to push players around. He was wrong to throw basketballs at them. He was wrong to use homophobic slurs.

Not everyone agrees. At least one commentator on Fox took the stance that coaches use such physical and emotional violence to toughen up players; no harm was intended or done.

When the Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, saw the videotape he agreed it was wrong and suspended the coach for three games (pay forfeited) and fined Rice an additional $50,000. It was a “first offense” and Rice was to receive counseling during his suspension. Implicit in Pernetti’s decision was that Rice’s behavior was not sufficient to warrant terminating his contract.

The reaction of the players recorded on the videotape to Rice’s abuse was telling. They did not act surprised, angered or cowed at the abuse. Why? My assumption is they were inured to it. This was no first time offense, it was habitual behavior.

Once the video went viral the university fired Rice and a couple of days later fired Pernetti. An assistant basketball coach and university lawyer have also resigned.

Why did the public release of the very same video Rutgers was provided in November 2012 now lead to Rice’s termination in April 2013? Apparently only because that’s when the allegations of misconduct became widely known. Pernetti did not immediately indicate upon its release that he had erred in his earlier judgment to suspend rather than terminate Rice. No, he justified his actions.

Which means he too showed insufficient judgment to represent the university and had to go. According to at least one source, one of the Board of Trustees also saw the video in November. If, as has been reported, an outside director requested the president see the video, and the president decided it was not important enough to spend his precious time, the president too should resign. After all, the entire video is only thirty minutes long and the president was quoted as saying, “it took me five minutes” to decide to fire Mr. Rice.

If the Trustee did not continue to work to have Rice terminated; if he stopped when he met the presidential stone wall, he too should resign. I have no clue who else at the university saw the video before its viral release, but if they had any authority over the situation, they should also resign.

As reported in the New York Times, the university’s legal investigation focused on the technical question of whether there was a “hostile working environment.” They concluded it did not meet the legal definition. The problem with asking lawyers a narrow question is that you get a narrow answer.

The highest priority for any school should be the protection of its students. There should be zero tolerance for the kind of behavior demonstrated on the video and zero tolerance for those who cover it up.

~ Jim

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Class Warfare in the United States

During the Republican presidential primary season, Mitt Romney accused President Obama[i] of class warfare. Then again, when Romney suggested he would be willing to limit tax deductions for mortgages on second homes based on income, Newt Gingrich accused Romney of the same offense as he claims those on the left employ.[ii]

I take it that from Gingrich’s perspective, anything other than a flat tax or sales tax or best yet, a per capita tax, is unfair and promotes class warfare. As with many of Romney’s positions, it’s not clear what he deems class warfare, except that he’s against it and the other side’s policies nurture it.

All of this is a tempest in a teapot because the American people don’t (yet) much believe in class warfare. I think there are three main reasons for this:

1. Our social roots are based on the immigration of our ancestors seeking opportunities to succeed. Even those of us who can trace their ancestors to the Mayflower surely recognize deep down inside that they came because America provided opportunity they did not have in their homeland. What class system existed at the time of their immigration did not prevent perspiration, inspiration and a dollop of luck from allowing the poorest to become the richest, for a worker to become a capitalist. Even if such a rise could not occur in the immigrant’s generation then it was possible in the next or the next.

North American society has always had a top 1% (by definition). Most people know they have very little possibility of attaining that level of income or wealth, but do not begrudge those who have on account of their perspiration, inspiration and luck.

We do, however, have little sympathy for those “born with a silver spoon in their mouth” unless these people serve the public in some manner; then we tend to adore them. Witness the general regard for the Kennedy clan.

What we as a nation have historically begrudged were the most recent wave of immigrants because their hard work and cheap(er) labor threatened those who had recently reached the lower middle classes. Consider as examples the high levels of discrimination against the Irish on the East Coast during the middle 1800s and the Chinese laborers when they flooded our shores to build our western railways. This economic fear drives much of the current angst against illegal immigrants.

2. The burden of our local, state and national governments has always been shouldered disproportionately by those with higher incomes or accumulated wealth. Despite Gingrich’s statements about Romney’s tax policy reeking of class warfare, this differentiation in tax structure has been a part of our social structure from the get go.  We are a country primarily founded on English law, which does have social classes. England (and other feudal societies) developed a system of property taxes, which by their very nature skew the cost of government to those who have wealth.

After the 16th amendment to our constitution was approved, our first income tax structure provided for a 1% rate on income over $3,000 graduating up to a 6% rate for income over $500,000. That was 1913. Adjusting for inflation, the $3,000 would now be about $70,000 and the $500,000 is equivalent to over $11.7 million![iii]

I will grant that the tax rates were not high, but my point is that from its birth, the income tax targeted those well off, and only later were the less well-off included in the tax.

Voters in North Dakota, a state currently flush because of oil and gas revenues, just voted by a 3-1 margin against eliminating the property tax. North Dakota is not exactly a bastion of liberals. They are simply expressing their vision of part of the social contract: those well off have a greater obligation to fund our public goods.

3. Lastly, most members of the US society are themselves among the 1%. To be in the top 1% of earners within the US requires an income in the $400,000 range (it varies from year-to-year because of bonuses, capital gains and so on). However, when we extend our view to the world, most of us are no longer among the 99%; we are the 1%—and at least subconsciously we know it. Depending on whether and how one adjusts for purchasing differences across the world, all it takes is an income of $34,000-$41,000 to be included in the world’s top 1% of earners.

We Americans aren’t drawn to the idea of class warfare because we intuitively understand people in glass houses should not throw stones. However, if those at the top of the income and wealth scales in the US continue to call down the “class warfare” card over each and every proposal that does not actively shrink their financial burden for our public weal, at some point the masses may well decide that in fact class warfare is in operation, except it is the rich warring on the rest of us.

We are in the midst of a great dispute over what public goods should be included in our social contract. That discussion is needed and healthy. Regardless of how that debate is resolved through our democratic processes, we still need to agree on how to pay for government. We have no current agreement.

As a society we are complicit with the malfeasance of political leaders of both parties who have chosen to fund current government expenditures through continual deficit spending, placing the burden on the backs of future taxpayers. Our current predicament is caused by three major factors. (1) We have not recognized the true costs of the social programs we have adopted through bipartisan votes (i.e. Social Security and Medicare). (2) The Bush tax cuts have starved the federal government of cash at a time it is needed. (3) We have engaged in a series of unfunded wars that have dramatically increased expenses without adding a single penny of revenue.

There are people who want to solve all three problems on the backs of the middle class by decreasing government spending that provides them income and adjusting the tax code so the rich will pay less (which implies others will have to pay more.)

Here I will remind everyone of my version of a fair income tax structure [ ]. If we adopt a tax system that is socially fair, we will continue to avoid real class warfare. If, however, the rich continue to shirk their social obligation and entrench their privilege by eliminating estate taxes so that generations of rich enclave themselves as a privileged subset within the US, then perhaps the rich will push the country into true class warfare.

Such a conflict will not be good for anyone in the US. The usual result of such a conflict is that the middle and lower classes suffer a significant decrease in their standard of living as society falters. The rich who do not flee quickly enough lose most of their property and many lose their lives.

It is not the poor who cause class warfare; it is rich. If they keep raising the banner of class warfare to try to gain short-term financial gains at the expense of the masses, they may end up causing that which they most fear, and they will have no one to blame but themselves.

~ Jim

[i] The Boston Globe reported [] that in Iowa Romney indicated that Obama’s policies will substitute envy for ambition and poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare.”
[ii] reported Gingrich to say, “Governor Romney’s proposal to limit certain tax deductions based on income, including the deduction for mortgage interest on second homes, is a surrender to the class warfare rhetoric of the Left."
[iii] The CPI-U [ ] in Jan. 1913 was 9.8. In May 2012 it had increased to 229.815, a ratio of ~23.45.