Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Is the Town Library Outdated?

     My Internet friend Brad Szollose recently posted the picture below, asking with some astonishment:  Did you know you can still get a bachelor's degree in library science?

      Actually, I did know that. And I know you can still also get a master's degree in library science, because B has her MLS. She went back to school at age 52, got the degree, and now goes to work every day at the library in our community. The fact is, if you want to get hired as a librarian, at least around where I live, you must have an MLS.

     Her son, a 20-something hipster who works for an Internet marketing company in Brooklyn, NY, thinks along the same lines as Brad (much to his mother's consternation). He thinks libraries are outmoded technology. What do you need a library for when you've got a smartphone in your hand, giving you direct access to most of the world's knowledge?

Young Americans for Liberty's photo.
Maybe he has a point ... but not about librarians!
     And, when somebody pointed out to Brad that there still are plenty of libraries, he responded: Yes, that's true. They still have horses and buggies, too.

     So with a little help from B, I thought I'd outline what libraries do for us, and why they're still an important part of our communities -- despite the fact that a great deal of the world's knowledge is right there in front of us on the Internet. I know I'll never convince B's son; but maybe I can change Brad's mind.

     For one thing, you can borrow books from the library. For free. That's a bargain even if you can download the latest $25 bestseller from amazon for only $7. It's true, you might have to put the book "on hold" and wait a few weeks. But at many libraries you can also download the book onto your e-reader. Again, for free.

     You can also borrow music and movies from the library. Yes, I know they are delivered on those old-fashioned DVDs. But the library has a lot of good movies, classic movies, offbeat indie movies that Netflix doesn't offer.

     B is a children's librarian. She hosts three different book clubs for kids of different ages. The library also offers a number of other programs. Teenagers read books aloud to young children. Younger children read aloud to dogs -- the idea is that it helps kids develop their reading skills in a completely nonjudgmental atmosphere. The library hosts a sleepover for middle school kids once or twice a year.

     But of course it's not just kids. People still come to the library to browse the bookshelves, looking for something good to read. They ask librarians for recommendations. People spend time in the periodical room perusing newspapers and magazines. And they still do occasionally come in looking for reference material.

     There are jigsaw puzzles out on the tables. There are displays featuring various subjects -- Irish history for St. Patrick's day, memoirs about mothers for Mother's Day; thrillers for Halloween. The library features paintings and drawings of local artists in the hallways. And of course there's a bank of computers for the public to use -- if people don't have a computer at home, or their computer is broken, or they need some help, or they just want to get out of the house.

     The library also offers adult programs, bringing in guest speakers to give lessons in basic computer skills. Other experts offer financial advice, literary insights, historical perspectives. There's a dancing class for seniors once a week. There's an adult book club sponsored by the library -- and the library coordinates with several private book clubs in town to help make books available to people.

     In fact, about the only people you usually don't see in the library are the 20-somethings. They're too busy getting their lives started. But kids and families and seniors all come into the library. They spend time there, meet other people, strengthen community ties and enrich their own lives.

Friday, March 20, 2015

I Almost Died

     At the risk of being macabre . . . do you ever wonder how you're going to die? I have a friend who's been walking around with a pacemaker for a couple of years. I wonder if he thinks that one day the thing will short out, and he'll just fall over. I've never talked to him about it.

     People in my family have strong hearts. I don't worry about my heart. But there's a history of cancer in my family. So I figure when my time comes, I'll get cancer and die.

     Unless I die in a fiery plane crash first. I have a fear of flying, and every time I get strapped into an airplane seat, I imagine I'll going down with the plane, plummeting to earth in a screaming chaos -- although this is pretty unlikely, since I only fly when I have to, once every two or three years.

     Maybe it will be a car accident. Didn't you ever have a close call with a truck at a busy intersection, or a racecar wannabe on the highway, and think, Oh god, I almost bought the farm.

     Also, I admit, I am a little bit clumsy. And all my life I've lived with people who are kind of messy, who have a lot of stuff lying around the house. I'm always banging into something, or falling over something, or tripping over a pile of clothes or a piece of furniture that wasn't supposed to be there. I fell in the shower a couple of years ago, pulling the soapdish out of the wall and taking down the shower curtain and shower rod in the process. Not too long before that I tripped over the open door of the dishwasher. I didn't hurt myself. But I had to buy a new dishwasher. Did you know -- when the door of the dishwasher gets broken off, two big metal springs come jetting out at about 80 miles an hour?

     But here's what happened the other night. B and I like to read in bed before we go to sleep. Actually, she went up early and was asleep by the time I got to the bedroom. I undressed, brushed my teeth, climbed into bed.

     B had given me a candle for Christmas, and we've been lighting it on these cold winter nights. It smells nice, and seems to make the bedroom just a little warmer. So I sat on the bed, reached for my book and my glasses. Then I remembered the candle. So I picked up the candle with my other hand, fumbled for the matches and tried to light one. But my hands were too full, and I was having a hard time. So I tucked the book under my arm, and struck the match towards me, since that was the only way my arm would go at that point.

     The match lit up, and a millisecond later a ball of fire flashed up my arm and across my chest. It just exploded in front of me, flying up my arm toward my shoulder. I dropped everything and slapped at the flame. It went out as quickly as it started.

     I sat there for a minute, stunned. That was close. I almost immolated myself, going out in my own little firestorm. B had slept through the whole thing; and I realized, if the fire had "caught" I might have taken her with me.

     How could a shirt burst into flames? I changed the shirt because it smelled like it had been scorched. I went into the bathroom and ran some cold water over my arm. I looked for burns, but didn't see any.

     I came back to bed. My pillow smelled, so I changed the pillowcase. Needless to say, I didn't try to light the candle again. I read for a bit, then went to sleep.

     I told B all about it the next morning. We looked at my shirt -- actually, it's the top of a set of long underwear. I thought maybe it was made of polyester -- a petroleum product, right? Maybe that would explain the sudden flash of flame. But the shirt was made of cotton. Maybe it has some coating sprayed onto it -- to make it wash-and-wear? I don't know.

     The shirt still smelled in the morning, and B identified a slight brown patch where it had been singed. We never could explain what happened, really, although I resolved to be more careful in the future. As my mother used to tell me -- never play with matches.

     And I realized, it's never what we worry about that gets us in the end. It's always something unexpected, something we never thought was coming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Happens When Social Security Goes Bankrupt?

     Social Security is a program that's near and dear to our hearts. I think we all know there are some issues with the system. Maybe some of us figure we'll be long gone before Social Security runs into real trouble, so it doesn't really affect us. Others think everything is just okay the way it is, and their only concern is how to squeeze the most money they can out of the system. Still others are sure there's a government conspiracy, or a right-wing conspiracy, or a corporate conspiracy -- or some kind of conspiracy -- to deprive us working men and women of the benefits we've earned and deserve.

     I don't pretend that my own views can stand up as an authoritative voice on Social Security. So instead, I've gone to my financial consigliere, Jeremy Kisner of Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ. He is a Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retired Plans Specialist, with a degree in economics from UC Santa Barbara.

     I have no financial connection to Kisner (although I might be a little more flush if I did!) But last year he helped me out by penning a post for Sightings Over Sixty called Is Long-Term Care Insurance for You? Recently, I saw on his Weekly Insight a very clear, concise and straightforward analysis of how to "fix" Social Security. And so with his permission I have reproduced it here:

What Happens When Social Security Goes Bankrupt
Jeremy Kisner

     It’s a trick question. Social Security will not go bankrupt. However, if no changes are made to the current system, the “trust fund,” which was built up by collecting more payroll taxes than it paid out, will be depleted. Benefits would need to be reduced at that point to match the payroll taxes being collected. That would happen sometime between 2033 and 2037 if we do nothing. Once the trust fund is depleted, benefits would be cut to approximately 75% of their current level to keep the system solvent through 2087. The reality is this “do nothing” approach is unlikely as there is growing pressure to “fix” the system.

     So, let’s fix the system. The options are:

     1) Increase payroll taxes. This is the simplest and most effective. The current payroll tax collects 6.2% from employees (and another 6.2% from employers). This would need to be increased to 7.6% to keep Social Security benefits fully paid for another 75 years, according to a study by the National Academy of Social Insurance. It will take some cash out of workers’ pockets, which is never popular and will hurt economic growth. Imagine that…if we put more away for the future, we have less to spend today.

     2) Eliminate the cap on taxable earnings. The cap currently limits the 6.2% payroll tax to the first $118,500 of earnings. We could close approximately 70% of the Social Security funding gap if the cap were eliminated entirely. This would only affect about 5% of the workforce, who have wages above $118,500. These people may be a bit perturbed because they already have the worst return on their Social Security contributions.

     3) Raise the retirement age. This seems logical since people are living so much longer than they did in 1935 when Social Security began. Unfortunately, this solution is surprisingly ineffective. A three-year increase in the full retirement age from 67 to age 70 for people born after 1960 would only cut the funding gap by 25%.

     4) Means-testing for beneficiaries. This would mean that high income retirees would have their benefits reduced or eliminated since presumably they don’t need the benefit. Polls found this option to be highly unpopular with voters who thought it was unfair.

     The likely scenario is some combination of these options. While Congress is figuring out all of this, I encourage you to save as much as you can. After all, the maximum Social Security you can collect at full retirement age in 2015 is only $2,663 per month and I have a feeling most people reading this article will want to spend more than that.

*       *       *
     I don't know what your preferences are, but as a person who works for himself, part time, and therefore pays the full amount of the Social Security tax himself -- which is basically 15% on top of everything else -- raising the tax would be pretty punishing, a real disincentive to work at all. (Plus, remember, even if you work for someone else, the "employer's" half of the payroll tax really comes out of your pocket, not their pocket.)

     Also, the payroll tax is a regressive tax. If you make minimum wage, it takes 15% from your paycheck. If you make $50,000 a year, it takes 15% from your paycheck. If you make $250,000 a year, it takes about 7% from your paycheck. If you make more than that, it takes even less.

     So to me, the obvious solution is #2 -- eliminate the cap on taxable earnings, so everyone pays at the same rate. But like I said, I'm no authority. Maybe you have some other ideas.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Who Is Older?

     As many of you know, I'm fond of quizzes. (If you don't know, take a look over to the column on the right where you can test yourself on retirement, Baby Boomers, and several other topics.) The idea is that a quiz can offer up some information, and do it in a fun kind of way.

     This quiz is mostly for fun. The answers are below. So, do you know . . . who is older?

     1.  Judi Dench or Maggie Smith?

     2.  Arnold Schwarzenegger or Henry Winkler?

     3.  Angelina Jolie or Amy Adams?

     4.  Joe Biden or Joe Pesci?

     5.  Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter?

     6.  Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush?

     7.  Johnny Depp or Jon Stewart?

     8.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Sen John McCain?

     9.  Matt Damon or Ben Affleck?

     10. Jan of D-Janity or Bob Lowry of Satisfying Retirement?



1.  They both star in the Marigold Hotel movies, they're both from England, and they're both the same age. But Judi Dench, born on Dec. 9, 1934, is 19 days older.

2.  Henry Winkler, the former Fonz, is 69, two years older than the former Governator.

3.  Fresh-faced actress Amy Adams, 40, is actually one year older than the strong-willed Angelina Jolie.

4.  Both are 72; but Biden is two months older.

5.  Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter is retired at 40; Tiger is struggling through injuries at age 39.

6.  Hillary Clinton is 67; Jeb Bush a still wet-behind-the-ears 62.

7.  Jon Stewart, at 52, edges out 51-year-old Johnny Depp.

8.  Sen. Feinstein, 81, is one of five senators in their 80s. McCain, three years younger, still makes the grade as one of the 23 U. S. Senators over age 70.

9.  Matt Damon, 44, from Cambridge, Mass., is two years older than the Berkeley, Calif.-born Ben Affleck.

10. Honestly, I don't know (I'd guess Bob Lowry); but anyway, they're both stars in my book!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

We're All Wet

     Well, there is the fact that the snow is melting in my backyard, producing a river raging down my driveway, and scores of lakes and streams that I have to navigate to get from the parking lot into the library.

     But I wanted to report back about the Finger Lakes. I thought there were five Finger Lakes, like the fingers on your hand. And there are five main lakes: Cayuga Lake is the longest finger, with Ithaca and Cornell University sitting at the base of the lake. Seneca Lake, considered the middle finger, is the deepest lake. Then there is Skaneateles Lake to the east, and Keuka and Canandaigua to the west.

     But I discovered that there are actually 11 or 12 Finger Lakes, depending on how you count them -- all long, thin lakes running north and south, spread out like fingers across central New York State. The region is known for its wineries and breweries, as well as hiking and fishing and boating. If you really want to know more about the area, including the names of the other six or seven lakes, you can check out the Finger Lakes website.

     Meanwhile, to answer Dianne's question, the large lake near New Orleans is Lake Pontchartrain. But in fact (I had to look this up, too) Pontchartrain is not technically a lake. It is an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico through several other waterways including the Rigolets strait.

     Anyway, speaking of "all wet," I read in Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise, that the weather reports you see in the newspaper or on the internet have what he calls a "wet bias," meaning they exaggerate the chance of rain. Why? Because meteorologists know if they say it's not going to rain, and it does, then the audience will get mad at them. But if they forecast rain, and it doesn't rain, then the audience considers this a bonus -- and doesn't blame the forecaster for being wrong.

     This "wet bias" will typically predict a 20 percent chance of rain when there is really only a 5 - 10 percent chance of rain. But TV weather people are the worst. One study showed that when the TV meteorologists said there was a 100 percent chance of rain, it actually rained less than 70 percent of the time.

     Still, according to Silver, weather models have actually improved over the years and are pretty accurate, at least with their five-day forecasts. They miss the average daily high temperature three days in advance by an average of only 3.5 degrees. But when forecasts go out eight days, they are virtually useless, and at nine or more days in advance, they are worse than what you would guess just from looking at average seasonal precipitation and temperatures.

     U. S. forecasters have also made significant improvements in predicting both hurricanes and earthquakes in recent decades. It may not be news to you that your chances of being in an earthquake are higher in Anchorage, San Francisco or Los Angeles, than they are in Miami, Dallas or Houston. But did you know that Charleston, SC, is seismically active? There was a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1886, and Charleston is likely to get another earthquake long before there's a significant tremor in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Denver.

     And finally, largely because of better weather forecasting, it turns out your chances of getting hit by lightning are much less than they used to be. The chance of an American getting hit by lightning in 1940 was about 1 in 400,000. Today, in 2015, it's just one chance in 11 million.

     Which reminds me of an old golfing joke: What should you do if you're caught out on the golf course during a thunder and lightning storm?

     Grab your 2 iron and hold it up as high as you can. Why? Because even God can't hit a 2 iron!