stumbling on

March 19th, 2011

This crazy awful week brought Phantom back to her blog, and I guess it’s brought me back, too, although this is going to be a bit of a rambling post.  I heard about the earthquake first reading friends’ Facebook posts last Friday morning, and I feel like I’ve spent much of the past week obsessively hitting the refresh button on my browser, trying to find new news.

I can’t seen to find answers to the questions that I’m most interested in.  The nuclear worries seem to have pushed out the stories about the people in the shelters, and now Libya seems to be pushing the coverage of the reactor off.  But I can’t stop thinking of all those people in shelters — I don’t have a good sense of how many people are still in them, and if they’re getting regular food and water now.  It seems like some of those towns are going to take years to rebuild, if ever.  I didn’t think I’d ever say something good about the response to Katrina, but putting people on buses to Houston did make a lot more sense than putting them up in tent cities in Louisiana.  Is anything like that happening?

Living Social is doing a 1:1 match of $5 donations to the red cross, so I did that, but I haven’t donated otherwise yet.  It’s not clear to me that money is what’s preventing aid groups from doing what’s necessary.  If you can’t get into the devastated areas, what can you do with money?  Haiti may still be the higher need.  I just don’t know.

I’m fascinated by the “there’s no looting in Japan” meme.  Well, for one thing, there’s not much left to loot in the worst hit towns.  But I thought this take on it from Slate was interesting.    At least some of the  versions of the meme have clear racial overtones.  Does anyone remember seeing stories one way or the other about whether there was looting in China after their big earthquake?  I don’t.      (As contrasted with Japan, China is NOT a country that prizes waiting on lines — or at least that ‘s what I gather from reading American Family’s very funny take on Hong Kong Disneyland — does that translate into looting during a crisis?  beats me.)

As it happens, we have tickets to go to China and Japan this summer.  We also have trip insurance.  We’re obviously waiting to see what develops, but at this point unless the radiation and the power shortages get a lot worse, I assume we’ll go ahead.  We weren’t planning on going anywhere north of Tokyo.    Yes, there’s a detectable level of radiation, but my house also has a fan venting the radon out of our basement.  People don’t freak out about having CT scans, which are higher levels of radiation.  (Actually, maybe they should freak out a bit more, especially about the “whole body” scans sold to perfectly healthy people as a precautionary measure.)

So, it’s been a hard news cycle week. And then we all took turns with the stomach flu.  But we’re all better now, and it was a gorgeous sunny warm day today, and we worked on the tree platform in our yard (the lumber for which has been in our garage since October) and N rode his bike without training wheels for the first time.  So, I guess I’m cultivating my garden.  (And Candide was written in response to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which just goes to show that people have been struggling with the question of how do you keep going in the face of horror for an awful long time, and will presumably be doing so in the future unless we actually succeed in blowing ourselves up.)

For WhyMommy

January 28th, 2011

So, I’m a little behind the gang, but I’ve added the “No Princess Fights Alone”  button to the sidebar, in honor of the incomparable Susan (WhyMommy) of Toddler Planet.  Like many of the the others who posted this, I’ll donate to Crickett’s Answer for each comment on this post, say, by the end of February.  Because even as Susan has learned that her cancer has recurred yet again, she’s busy helping others.

It’s not fair that she has to deal with this.  But I was reminded today of Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Angry Candy, where he quotes Norman Spinrad as saying at his lover’s funeral “There is no justice inherent in the universe… except what we put there.  All the justice that exists, is what we make.  So let us show compassion and sense and courage, in Emily’s name.'”

I’m also thinking of Susan today because it’s the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and I love the passion with which she writes about her work for NASA and blogs about Women in Planetary Science.  I wrote my college admissions essay about coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t actually going to be an astronaut, but I still have the Annie Leibovitz poster of Eileen Collins on my office wall.

What does society look like in 2030?

January 18th, 2011

I’ve just been reading a paper that sketches out four possible scenarios for “vulnerability” in 2030. It was written by something called the Institute for Alternative Futures for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and lays out a most likely scenario, a gloom and doom option, and two possible brighter futures (one of which we get to by having a catastrophe that allows for non-incremental improvements).

I’m somewhat chagrined that I think their baseline scenario is overly optimistic, especially with regard to education.  The gloom and doom scenario requires everything to go wrong — a double-dip recession, peak oil,  global climate disruption.  I think the odds of all of these happening in the next 20 years is very low — but it seems quite possible that one — or something not even on our list — could happen.

If you have the time to take a look at the report, I’d love some other reactions.  (There’s also a formal way to comment to the folks who wrote it.)

Books of the year

November 28th, 2010

For several years, I’ve reported on the NY Times list of 100 notable books of the year, and which ones I’ve read.   The first year I did it, I had read (or at least started) eight of the 100, but I’ve never gotten above five since, and this year I’m down to 3:

I don’t think I’m reading less these days, but I’m probably reading less non-fiction (other than for work) and less “literary fiction.”   I’ve been reading more mysteries, more sci-fi, and more young adult novels.

Basic economic security?

October 14th, 2010

This week, Wider Opportunities for Women issued their “Basic Economic Security Tables” for the Washington DC region.   Not unpredictably, the Washington Post coverage led with the finding that a family of four needs $108,000 to be “economically secure” in Fairfax county.  I sometimes work with folks from WOW, and I generally think they do good work, but I have to admit that I winced reading this — I worry that it feeds into the world view where people who earn  six digits feel entitled to whine about how they can’t make ends meet.

And, I make less than $108,000 a year, and I don’t feel like we’re “just getting by.”   So, I thought I’d take a look at their budget for a family of four: two workers, one preschooler, one school-age child, which is the one that is closest to our family type.

  • Housing — $1546.  This is based on HUD’s fair market rent and seems reasonable to me.  I can’t think of where in Fairfax you could rent a three bedroom apartment or house for much less than $1500,.
  • Utilities — $188.  Sure.  We pay a bit more, especially in the winter, but a smaller house would be cheaper.
  • Food — $868.  They get this from the USDA low-cost food plan, which is one step up from the thrifty food plan.   I think we spend somewhat less than this on food, but as I’ve discussed before, we eat less meat and less prepared foods than the budget assumes.  The thrifty food plan definitely means you need to pay attention to what you’re buying — if economic security means being able to buy ice cream and meat without worrying about the cost, the low-cost plan seems reasonable.
  • Transportation — $652.  They assume two cars, and a lot of this cost is depreciation.  I think you could probably get away for less, if you bought used cars and kept them until they fell apart.  It certainly feels like we spend a lot less on transportation, but because we don’t have car payments, but pay insurance 2x a year and repairs at irregular intervals, I may be undercounting the real cost of car ownership.
  • Child care — $2,210.  With two school age kids, I took this out of the budget.  With no other changes, it brings the annual total bill down to$81,540.
  • Personal and Household Items — $702.   This is based on a statistical report that says that renters on average (nationally) spend 27% of a family’s housing, utility and food expenses in these categories.  I think it’s too high — this is a very high cost of housing area, but I don’t think that should drive up personal and household costs correspondingly.   Even with cable and netflix and occasionally eating out or going to the movies, we spend way less than this.
  • Health care — $508 (assuming employer provided health insurance).  This is based on an average of plans in the area — you can definitely spend less if you’re willing to go with a HMO like Kaiser.  (I have Kaiser, and my premium is fully employer paid, so I spend less than $1000 a year on all health care, including glasses, etc.)
  • Emergency savings — $345 and retirement savings — $320.   I’m willing to buy that to be “secure” you should be saving this much.
  • Taxes — $2007, and credits of $334.  I’m sure WOW did the math correctly for their hypothetical family.

So, what do you think?  Do WOW’s numbers seem reasonable to you?  Is my reaction just a version of the recurrent survey finding that the overwhelming majority of Americans think they’re “middle class?”

The Housing Bubble (All Your Worth Revisited)

October 13th, 2010

I was looking for an old link on the site, and I ran across my book review of Elizabeth Warren (yes, that Elizabeth Warren) and Amelia Tyagi’s personal finance book, All Your Worth.  We had a really heated discussion here, with several readers arguing that it just wasn’t possible to follow her guidelines for housing spending and live anywhere acceptable in big cities.  It’s kind of strange reading this again from other side of the housing bubble.

At the time, I wrote “The problem — at least in this area — is that in those 3 years, the same house will go up to $400,000 and you still won’t have your 20% downpayment. Warren and Tyagi’s answer is to say that you shouldn’t be chasing markets like this.”

With hindsight, yes.  clearly, yes.

I’m not sure if any of the folks who commented at the time other than Dave S are still reading here.  If so, I’d love to hear your reactions with the benefit of hindsight.  TCAndreaMoxie?  New voices are also welcome…

the email I just sent to Gerry Connolly

September 23rd, 2010

Dear Rep Connolly

I am writing to express my deep concern about news reports that suggest that you are considering supporting extensions of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans.

In the long term, we can not continue to run large budget deficits.  Therefore, a vote to extend these tax cuts is a vote to cut spending on education, on roads, on health care, on job training.  It is a vote to take away money from child care and from senior centers.  It is a vote to accept the increasing inequality of opportunity in our society and to surrender the hope that government can make things better.

I know, some of your constituents are fortunate to make more than $250,000 a year.  But they benefit from a healthy society, and can afford to contribute.  Our economy grew very well during the 1990s when tax rates were at the levels that they would return to.

Please give me a reason to vote for you next month.


I sent the same letter (w/o the last sentence) to Warner and Webb.


I am really f-ing depressed tonight.   And I don’t see it getting better soon.

Update:  I meant to link to this  Center for American Progress report on what a budget balanced through spending cuts alone would look like.

kids book suggestions

September 20th, 2010

So, my mom is asking for suggestions for books for hanukah presents for the grandchildren — my sons, who will be 7 and 9 (with the 9 year old a very strong reader and the 7 year old just really starting to read on his own), and my nephews, ages 2 and 4.

I futzed around online and came up with the following recommendations, but I thought I’d see what my readers had to add:

For the 2 year old:

The Quiet Book, Deborah Underwood
Can’t Sleep without Sheep by Susanna Leonard Hill

(I don’t know anything about these other than what I found online, but they look pretty good.)

4 year old: City Dog, Country Frog, Mo Willems
Knuffle Bunny Free, Mo Willems

(I love Mo Willems)

7 year old:  The Dinosaur Museum: An Unforgettable, Interactive Virtual Tour Through Dinosaur History, National Geographic Society
Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs: The Definitive Pop-Up, Robert Sabuda
Knuffle Bunny Free, Mo Willems
Rocks and Minerals (Eye Wonder)., DK books

(He’s at an awkward stage, not really into reading himself, but getting old for picture books, although I’ll make an exception for Mo Willems.  We’ve been reading the Narnia books and Paddington out loud.  He says he wants to be an archeologist, and loves rocks.)

9 year old: City of Ice, Laurence Yep  (not yet released)
Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume, Jeff Smith
Warriors: Power of Three Box Set: Volumes 1 to 6 Erin Hunter OR
Warriors Box Set: Volumes 1 to 6 Erin Hunte

(He loved City of Fire, and City of Ice is due out soon.  I have no idea which of the Warriors books he’s read, but he doesn’t mind re-reading, so I think the box sets are a safe pick.  And he liked the volume of Bone that I got out from the library for him.  I’d put the new book by Richard Riordan set in the world of the Percy Jackson books on the list, except that I assume he’ll want to buy it as soon as it comes out.)

So, what should we add to the list?

168 hours

September 13th, 2010

I recently read 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam and was thinking about blogging about it.    Then I saw that she’s running a challenge this week to actually do a time use diary for a week and to share the results.  So I decided to bite the bullet and do it.

Vanderkam says that there’s no point in waiting for a “typical week” because there are no typical weeks.  But here are some of the reasons that this week is not typical:

  • Big event tomorrow night for work.  I almost never have to attend evening events for work.
  • No day this week when it makes sense to work from home, which I try to do once a week.
  • I’m taking Friday off, and we’re heading up to NYC for Yom Kippur.

But, here goes anyway.

So, today’s report:

  • 6:45 hours of sleep (since midnight)
  • 15 minutes of yoga
  • 1:30 hour of personal email and messages, online shopping, social games
  • 1 hour shower/dress/breakfast/pack lunch/try to convince boys not to kill each other while I eat breakfast, or at least to go downstairs if they have to
  • 2 hours of commuting (sigh; but that probably includes at least 30 minutes of walking on a nice day, and listening to a good chunk of NPR and some of this week’s This American Life Podcast)
  • 1 hour of meetings
  • 3:30 hours of responding to work emails and calls, reviewing documents, negotiating times for later meetings, etc.
  • 2 hours of preparing for a couple of a webinars I’m doing — which I always underestimate how long it will take to prep
  • 1 hour of working on a report that is hanging over my head — it really needs more focused attention, and I don’t know when I’m going to find it.
  • 30 minutes of talking to coworkers
  • 15 minutes of eating lunch
  • 15 minutes of walking around the block for some fresh air
  • 1 hour of setting up my new iPod and clearing my settings from my old one so D could buy it from me
  • 20 minutes of walking/running after the boys while they rode their bikes
  • 20 minutes of eating dinner (leftovers, so pretty much zero cook time)
  • 20 minutes of reading to N (The Silver Chair; D is officially not listening, but somewhat managed to drift in while I was reading…)
  • 15 minutes of blogging.

Note that I left work probably 30 minutes earlier than usual, trying to follow Vanderkam’s notion of preserving evening hours for family time even if you have to get back to work after the kids are in bed.  And I did spend 15 minutes or so responding to messages tonight. But I’m too braindead at this point to work on the report, which is what I was hoping to do.  That said, I was pretty fried at 5.15 too, so I wouldn’t have been terribly productive even if I had stayed in the office.

I have to confess that when I picked up 168 Hours, I thought it was by the same person who had written this Washington Post magazine article about time use and how working mothers have more leisure than they admit. A lot boils down to your definition of leisure — I think I officially had almost 4 hours of leisure today.  But it’s broken down into tiny bits, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like leisure.

books and ebooks

August 9th, 2010

Geeky Mom is considering an e-reader, which inspired me to update my Kindle review now that I’ve been using it for 7 months.

  • I’m still doing a lot of work reading on it, and I’ve mostly stopped converting pdfs to Kindle format.  My eyesight is good enough to read the tiny print, although with effort, and it’s worth it not to have the footnote showing up in the middle of a sentence and the tables totally scrambled.
  • I love it for the metro and for traveling light.   The ability to be stuck on the tarmac and buy the next book on your to-do list is definitely worth it.  (As far as I see, this is the only downside of the wifi only version of the Kindle.  I wonder when someone will figure out a way to let you download books onto the kindle using a cell phone.)
  • Most of the books I read are still print, because most of the books I read come from the library.
  • Kindle editions of new hardcovers are a lot cheaper than list price, but typically only a few bucks more than Amazon sells them for.  I think I want to to take Tana French’s new book, Faithful Place, with me on vacation, but am leaning towards buying it in print so I can pass it on to my mother.
  • As I read more fiction on the Kindle, I’m surprised at how annoying I find it not to be able to easily flip back to the previous chapter to remind myself of who a character is.  Ebooks are more like scrolls than books — and there’s a reason no one reads scrolls anymore.