Thursday, July 21, 2011

One more Fukushima mention

The nuclear "disaster" in Japan seems to have fallen off the radar of late, replaced instead with incensed stories of the US debt ceiling, Rupert Murdoch's questionable business practices, and Sarah Palin's tour bus (if this isn't proof that the media is sensationalist, I don't know what is). Even I have let it go, after three posts (1,2,3) on the topic. But I wanted to share a rather prescient quote from Dr. Bernard L. Cohen, nuclear physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, in his 1990 book The Nuclear Energy Option:
Any system can be destroyed by a sufficiently powerful earthquake, but in an earthquake strong enough to cause a nuclear reactor meltdown, effects of the meltdown would be a relatively minor addition to the consequences of that earthquake.
We knew it then, and we know it now: freak accidents are exactly that. Freak accidents.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stupidly easy ways to save money

There's a lot of discussion going on regarding the federal debt, and most of it - 99.999% of it - ignores the real issue, which is where that debt is being felt. I'm assuming that most of you reading this make enough to get by, maybe paycheck to paycheck but still not having to make those "food or medication?" decisions. I know that, personally, all I want out of money is to be comfortable - to make just enough that I don't have to worry about how much it is, enough to spend a week at the beach every once in a while, enough to buy what I need and a little of what I want. Less than this (I've been there) and finances become too much of a burden; more than this and the extra becomes meaningless.
So here are a few ways to make what money you do have go further. To live a little bit more comfortably. None of this should be surprising... just common sense things that people tend, for one reason or another, not to do.

1) Get rid of cable.
I don't mean "cut back on TV" or "bundle your services" but flat-out get rid of it. I haven't had cable or dish (or even antenna) for several years now, and I'd never go back. The shows are available on hulu or the network's website, and any relevant local news is on the free antenna stations. Netflix is there for the rest. (If there's a series you really want, ask for the DVD box set for your birthday.) Instead of paying $35 upwards for TV ($110 or more for a bundled phone-internet-TV plan... more on this momentarily), I pay $9 a month for Netflix and $40 a month for DSL by itself. Annual savings in that case, not even taking into account the fact that something around $100 per month is an "introductory" price only, is $600.

2) Get rid of your home phone.
This is already true for many people. We have cell phones now. They also work inside houses. So why have a landline? How often do you use it? No reason to pay for both services. Even in a bundle, that landline is costing you money you don't need to be spending. A recent Comcast deal advertised $33 per month for each of three services (home phone, internet, cable) for a year, meaning $99 per month total. But we've already mentioned that getting rid of cable saves some of that, and getting rid of home phone will, too. That leaves you with the internet-only option... and though it may seem scary that internet by itself is $40-$60 per month, remember, that's half of what you were spending when you had the whole thing bundled.

3) Bring your lunch.
Going out to lunch is expensive. Really expensive. At the cafeteria where I work, a sandwich, soda and bag of chips will cost you nearly $7. Even the most expensive "name brand" frozen entrees from the grocery store tend to remain under $3 a piece. That's $980 a year difference! Not only are you saving money by "buying in bulk" and doing the labor yourself, you're avoiding the hassle of procuring food right at the moment you're hungry enough to want it most.

4) You don't need an iPhone.
Not only do you not need the newest, shiniest (and hence buggiest) phone, you don't need the $100 per month service to go with it. I pay $30 per month for my cell phone plan. That's $30 per month for 1000 texts, 1000 minutes, and 1000 MB of internet/data. That's less than half what Verizon charges. My annual cell phone plan savings is nearly $500.

5) Store brands really aren't that bad.
I will concede that there are a few specific things - Dr Pepper being one of them - where store or value brands simply don't cut it. But once it's out of the wrapper, can you tell the difference between Walmart's brand crackers or Ritz? How about other consumables, like toilet paper, fabric softener or shampoo? With a store's coupon card and some ingenuity, you can cut your grocery bills in half (for me, this amounts to maybe $500 a year or more). You can always go back to name brands if you aren't satisfied. (This also goes for clothes. I buy nearly all of my clothing at Kohls and Walmart. I'm not going to pay someone $70 to "pre-stress" my jeans.)

6) There are no taxes on unprepared foods.
Not just taxes, even, but costs incurred by labor. Buy a steak, some peppers and an onion, not the pre-made "stir fry mix" or pre-skewered kebabs. Stores will charge you plenty for the work they've done. A prepared fruit salad will cost far more than the individual ingredients. You can end up saving lots of money by purchasing the "raw materials," if you will.

7) Let's talk about Windows.
Ok, you're not ready to switch to Linux. Fine. But keep in mind, I didn't pay a cent for my computer's operating system, whereas Windows 7 costs anywhere between $80 for an upgrade and $320 for the full license Ultimate version. In addition, I don't need antivirus software for Linux (another $40 per year saved), and all of the programs I use (Open Office, Chrome, Thunderbird mail, games, tools, etc etc etc) were also free. But even if you have Windows, you can get open source software that costs little to nothing and has the same capabilities as the proprietary version. The cheapest version of Microsoft Office is $150. Sun Microsystem's Open Office suite is totally compatible with Microsoft documents, and is completely free.

8) Get refillable containers.
Let's assume that you can't just go without your morning cup of coffee. You can still save money by purchasing a refillable container. Most coffee places, like Starbucks, have cheap refills on drip coffee. While you're at it, get a loyalty card and remember to bring it with you, so that one out of every ten cups is free (or whatever it is). I've earned a lot of free pastries at Panera in my time.

9) Buy a used car.
I've put this lower down on the list because I assume it doesn't (shouldn't) come up that often. But when it does, who wants a car payment? New cars depreciate in value exceptionally quickly - "the minute they drive off the lot," as the saying goes - and yet you're still paying $400 a month. I chose my car carefully and bought it with cash, so now I have no car payment and a very small gas and maintenance cost each year. Used cars are also generally cheaper to insure, and when someone finally does scratch your car door with their shopping cart, it doesn't hurt as much.

10) Put on a sweater.
Energy bills can be horrendous. Keep the thermostat a few degrees above or below where you would normally set it (given the season) - try 75 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It makes a big difference. With a sweatshirt and an electric blanket, I was able to keep my old apartment at 62 degrees all winter, and my electricity bills were on the order of $30. It's harder in the summer when you live somewhere in the southern half of the US, but it's still possible. Hang out downstairs, take cooler showers and sleep without covers.

11) Share costs with others.
Instead of paying $200 a night for a hotel room at the beach, why not find some friends and rent a beach house for $1000 per week? Instead of a Starbucks trip every morning, why not get your officemates to chip in for an inexpensive espresso maker? Instead of a $500 per month studio, why not move into a $700 per month two-bedroom unit and get a roommate?

12) Do the math.
There are tons of ways to save a little money here and there, and we all know them. But all too often, either finances aren't laid out ahead of time or we set far too difficult goals for ourselves. Be realistic, and be proactive. Work out how much it will save you to take one step, and you're more likely to take that step and stick to it. Remember, the average credit card debt is over $10,000... and that's just credit cards. It's worth your time to do the math.

13) One more for a baker's dozen.
If this post seems a bit out of character, you're right, it is. But I witness these things every day, with friends and coworkers and even myself. There's such a mismatch between the myriads of "money tips" websites and stories out there and the staggeringly high amount of the average US citizen's debt that it boggles the mind. I offer this list in the hopes that we can avoid the Orwellian (or Huxley-an) dystopia which awaits us further down this road (it's bad enough that we already have a mind-controlling oligarchy). I want to know that something is being done. What tips would you share?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finding Atlantis

We made it - and despite the traffic, despite the lack of sleep, despite the cost and the heat and the length of travel and the ferocious mosquitoes, we made it. It was all worth it in the end, even the 70% chance of weather delaying the launch... Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Canaveral at 11:29am on July 8th, 2011, and we were on the 528 westbound causeway to watch it. The mood was incredible. People cheered and whistled and applauded, and in the end (I knew I would), I cried.

I can't describe it, I really can't. To be a part of something like that - the local news said up to a million people were expected in the Space Coast area - was phenomenal. To turn around and go home right now would be fine, because I found what I was looking for. I saw it with my own eyes. And it will never happen again.

The traffic, even three hours later, was still utterly insane. Cops directed traffic at intersections. Cars eastbound on the causeway were at a standstill. The cell phone networks were overloaded to the point of allowing only emergency calls. But I can't express how glad I am to be here. How palpably nervous I was before the launch, scared it wouldn't happen, that the weather would be no-go.
We toasted the crew and the Shuttle program at the Cocoa Beach pier afterward. Now, I desperately need a nap, and the sky clouds over again in preparation for afternoon storms. But this morning, the wind was in our favor, the sky cleared just enough, the people gathered by the hundred thousands, and all our hopes and dreams as a nation collectively launched into the air at 11:29am.

In the end, the entire thing was quintessentially American - the Mustang convertible, the Eisenhower Interstate System road trip, the final launch of the 30-year-old NASA Space Shuttle program. Of the Shuttles, it seemed peculiarly appropriate that the last to fly should be Atlantis; the symbolic end of our search for a hidden "city" in the depths of space, now to be washed under the tides of history.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

T-2 days

There is anger floating around the internet.

I know, I know, you may not believe me, but it's out there. Much of it is faceless and aimless, a vague disapproval without direction or cause, crazies ranting about the end of the world or cold fusion or "Nobama" with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes it's righteous anger. And sometimes it hits close to home.

But right now I want to speak about something specific. I want to speak to all of those detractors out there who believe that NASA has run its course, who believe that the Shuttle program is no longer of interest to Americans, who believe that "launching rich people into space" is a waste of taxpayer money... this taxpayer is taking time off of work and spending hours in the car in order to get to Canaveral on Friday for the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Little kids still want to be astronauts when they grow up. Perhaps it's not as prevalent a wish as in the 1960s or 1970s, but it's there. One and a half million people visit Kennedy Space Center every year. People still cry when they watch Shuttle launches (I, in fact, share a birthday with the Shuttles). Baby boomers still remember where they were when, on July 20th, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 first touched the surface of the Moon. Younger generations still remember the tragedy of the Challenger disaster in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 (I know I do). And Americans still need something to galvanize and rally us to greatness, something that embodies the very spirit of who we are.

The Shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station - all of these things still have the potential to evoke feelings of pride and awe. This specific brand of patriotism is not partisan or xenophobic or hateful. Remember this iconic image? Seeing the Earth as the pale blue sphere that it really is has made our patriotism into something more, something tempered and precious. With our pride in the technological achievement of our country comes the humbling understanding that we are all in this together.

I don't intend to simply spout platitudes; as a fan of Alan Watts I am well aware that we are as far into space as we'll ever be already. "So we're going to conquer space. You know we're in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let outside space come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We're as far out in space as we're ever going to get." But he ignores one very important fact - no matter how far out in space we are already here on Earth, we can never really know how far it is until we go further and look back. Perspective is everything.

So to those who are angry, those who call NASA's measly budget a waste of money and who claim that the Shuttle program was a bust, I say this: when Atlantis lifts off, I'll be there.

A wonderful, moving and informative video is here. Photos courtesy of (in order) Orlando News Sentinel, NASA, NASA.

Monday, July 4, 2011

My America

Happy Independence Day, everyone.