"We are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and to be a part of the problem is to be human." -- Anthony Doerr, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Whip Inflation Now

     Remember that old line from President Ford? Actually, I think it was subject to a lot of ridicule, because it seemed so ineffective at the time. And of course it is ineffective as a national policy. But there are some practical ideas -- as well as a particular frame of mind -- that can help us save some money and deal with inflation that's currently running at about 6 percent or so.

     For example, Billionaire Warren Buffett knows a thing or two about saving (as well as earning) money. He famously lives in the house he bought for $31,500 in 1958, now worth about $700,000. He equally famously relied on a $20 flip phone for years before he finally gave in and bought an Apple phone in 2020 -- coincidently at about the same time he also bought a chunk of Apple stock.

     Says Buffett: "I do not save what is left after spending. I spend what's left after saving." He also said, "If you buy things you don't need, you will soon sell things you do need."

The Library: It's not just books
     Of course, that's Buffett, who has a way with money that the rest of us don't have. But I saw a good suggestion from a more normal woman on the internet:  Use your library, she says.

     Ask for a tour of your local library and use everything they have to offer. Free books and DVDs. Free access to a computer. Many libraries also offer free classes, book clubs, movie discussion groups, day trips to local museums and concerts.

     A neighbor of mine has been after me now for a couple of years about changing over to a Medical Advantage plan, instead of traditional Medicare plus supplemental plan. He gets prescription coverage as well as dental and vision coverage . . . all for a lower price. The one caveat is that he has to stay within his medical network, but that doesn't seem to bother him at all. Plus, he gets free admission to a local gym -- and he's over there twice a week for a yoga class.

     It's not for everybody, he says. But it's worth thinking about for the next Medicare open enrollment period in the fall.

     Speaking of medical expenses, a friend of ours recently had his knee replaced, and he told us about a medical library run by our Parks & Recreation department. The town loans out all kinds of medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, etc., to town residents for free. If you're going to need some equipment, it might be worth checking out if your town has a similar program.

     I know many people who have "cut the cord" and dispensed with their cable plan, in favor of streaming Netflix and Amazon. It seems like a smart thing to do if you're not the kind of fan that watches live sports on network TV. But even that is changing as some streaming services are starting to carry live sports.

     Others have switched to cheaper cellphone service. We have Verizon. It's a good service, no problems. But it is expensive. So we're beginning to explore some alternatives offered through AARP. There's another service called Cricket. Don't know much about it; but I've got it on my list of services to check out.

      Shop at thrift stores. My brother-in-law reports that he finds lots of gently used name-brand clothes at Goodwill, the Salvation Army and GreenDrop. It takes a bit of picking through the racks, he admits, but he finds some good stuff that looks brand new once he gets it home and puts it through the laundry.

     I'm sure you might have some other ideas. But they all seem to come down to one basic philosophy, as Will Rogers once said: "Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people that they don't like."

     One last tip, since it's getting to be tax time, and you might be puzzled and frustrated with all the different forms and schedules. Various organizations have volunteers who will do your taxes for free, if you make less than a certain amount of money. In my area it's the Bucks County Opportunity Council. In your area . . . well, check at the library, they probably know where to go.

     Meantime, just a word of sympathy from the smartest person in history. It was Albert Einstein who said, "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax."

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Odd Oscars

     The Academy Awards are bring held on Sunday night, a time when we find out the best actress, best actor and best picture of 2022. I know you're supposed to be breathlessly amazed at how wonderful these movies are. But, at least for the moment, I take a more jaundiced view.

     I read an article the other day reporting that the "Oscar Bump" has not been as big this year as in years past. The Oscar Bump refers to a sudden increase in ticket sales for the nominated movies, since the nominations pique people's interest.

     The article blamed Netflix for the lack of Oscar Bump, because some of the films have already been available for streaming . . . hence, people can watch at home rather than go buy tickets at the theater. There were a few other reasons cited for the lack of interest. Conspicuously absent was the fact that Oscar movies these days are obscure, often confusing, and geared toward the critics not the popular audience.

     It wasn't always so. Titanic was best picture in 1997. The English Patient in 1996. Braveheart in 1995. Forrest Gump in 1994. Schindler's List in 1993.

     But more recently the Oscar people have ignored the popular will, and gone for more artistic Indy films. Last year's winner, Coda, was not a box office winner (although I saw it and liked it). But other nominees like The Power of the Dog, starring the overrated Benedict Cumberbatch, was way, er,  overrated. And Licorice Pizza, which features two not-very-good-looking kids, was way too inside-Hollywood . . . although I must admit, I absolutely fell in love with Alana Haim.

     Anyway, with that in mind -- and tongue firmly planted in cheek -- here are my own personal Award winners for 2023:

     All Quiet on the Western Front. I saw this movie. I love war movies. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out why they made this. Award:  Most Irrelevant.

     Avatar: the Way of Water. Didn't see this movie. But . . . James Cameron? Award:  Most Commercial.

     Banshees of Inisherin. Saw it. I thought it was intriguing, even though I didn't understand it. Award:  Most Pretentious.

     Elvis. Why would I want to see this? Award:  The Retro Award.

     Everything Everywhere All at Once. Didn't see it. But I heard you can't possibly figure out what's going on. Award:  Most Confusing.

     The Fabelmans. I like Steven Spielberg, but not so much that I want to know all about his childhood. Award: The Throwback Award.

     Tar. I saw it. Cate Blanchett is supposed to be a great actress. Okay, so . . . .  Award:  Most Self-Indulgent.

     Top Gun: Maverick. My wife wanted to see this one. I don't know why . . .  Award:  The Fading Sex Symbol Award.

     Triangle of Sadness. I saw this. I do not like throw-up scenes. Award:  Most Disgusting.

     Women Talking. Didn't see it. Award in absentia:  Most Talkative.

     You can see the full list of nominations here. But now it's your turn. You want to nominate your favorite movie for a special award?

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Sea and Sand Festival

      We just got home from our Snowbird trip to Florida and South Carolina. Our last weekend in Charleston -- or at the beach outside of Charleston -- the town held its annual Sand and Sea Festival, which includes a street fair, live music, a sidewalk sale, lots of eating and drinking . . . and among the younger set, more drinking.

     The highlight of the weekend is the sand castle building contest, which started on Sunday surprisingly early in the morning. We sauntered out to the beach a little before noon, thinking we had plenty of time to watch the festivities, only to find that the show was almost over.

     Nevertheless, we got to see a few of the highlights. A several-foot-tall sandcastle.

     A mermaid lying on the beach.

     A hippo and an alligator.

     A sea creature. . . . maybe a giant squid?

     And this one crafted by a person with a macabre sense of humor . . . a man being chased by a shark.

     Then we saw the finale of the show, signaled by an invitation to the kids to jump all over the sand sculptures and kick them apart . . . thus restoring the beach to its natural state.

     Speaking of the macabre . . . well, shiver me timbers, a pirate washed ashore with his wench.

     And then, a couple of days later, as the landlubbers we are, we were forced to lower our Jolly Roger, abandon ship, and walk the plank right back to our regular boring life in the Pennsylvania suburbs, where . . . hey, that's not sand!

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Outsmarted by Artificial Intelligence?

     Have you heard about ChatGPT, a user friendly application of Artificial Intelligence? You're supposed to be able to ask any question, and it will write an essay that gives you a cogent answer that is accurate and reasonably comprehensive. Or as the website says, it "is trained to follow an instruction in a prompt and provide a detailed response."

     So I decided to try it out. I made a simple request:  Explain how the world is different today compared to 1970. Here is the response:

The world today is vastly different from the world in 1970 in several ways. Some of the key differences include:

  1. Technological advancements: One of the most significant differences between the world today and 1970 is the level of technological advancement. Today, we have smartphones, the internet, social media, artificial intelligence, and many other technological innovations that were not even imagined in 1970.

  2. Globalization: The world has become much more connected and interdependent since 1970. This is largely due to globalization, which has led to increased trade, investment, and cultural exchange between countries.

  3. Environmental concerns: In the past 50 years, there has been growing awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment. This has led to efforts to reduce carbon emissions, protect natural resources, and mitigate the effects of climate change.

  4. Demographic changes: The world's population has grown significantly since 1970, from around 3.7 billion to over 7.9 billion. There have also been significant demographic shifts, such as an aging population and increasing cultural diversity.

  5. Social and political changes: The past 50 years have seen significant social and political changes, including the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of China as a global superpower, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the advancement of civil rights for marginalized groups, such as women and the LGBTQ+ community.

  6. Economic changes: The global economy has also undergone significant changes since 1970. Many countries have transitioned from industrial economies to service-based economies, and there has been a rise in the importance of technology and innovation.

  7. Overall, the world today is vastly different from the world in 1970 in terms of technology, globalization, environmental concerns, demographic changes, social and political changes, and economic changes.

     So how do you think it did? I've heard people say that high school and college students have asked ChatGPT to write an essay for them . . . and the teachers can't tell the difference between a student essay and an AI essay. Based on the above essay, do you agree? How would you grade this answer?
     Or . . . what if I asked it to summarize the plot of Great Expectations, or give me a brief history of the American Civil War. But when I asked my wife B about it, she just gave me a look and replied, "Why don't you just look it up on Wikipedia?"

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Longevity Report Card

      How long we live, and how healthy we are, depends partly on the lottery of birth -- how healthy our parents were and how long they lived. We're winners if we drew the longevity card from our parents, not so lucky if we drew the fat card, the alcoholism card, the cancer card, or a predisposition to any other disease. 

     Still, there's a lot we can do to help ourselves live longer and feel better, no matter who our parents were -- or however much we may have mistreated ourselves in our younger years. If a person smoked when they were young, for example, but has not touched a cigarette in 20 years, their lungs look almost the same as someone who never smoked at all.

     We are not complete masters of our fate, but we are not passive victims either. We have a lot of control over our own destiny even if, as often happens, things do not turn out precisely as planned.

     Some people have their own secrets for staying healthy. A fistful of vitamins or glass of wine every day? Yoga three times a week? Here are some of the most obvious ones . . . and how I'm doing. How are you doing?

     Eat a Good Diet. We've seen the fad diets come and go, but the real answer is no secret at all. Healthy people avoid too much meat and dairy. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. They drink lots of water, and maybe some tea or coffee, and perhaps a small amount of alcohol. They consume lots of fruits and vegetables -- any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

     How am I doing? If left to my own devices I would probably get an F. But thanks to my wife, I'm probably around a B+.

     Get Plenty of Sleep. Various studies have demonstrated that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts the immune system, while too little sleep can be linked to an increased risk for stroke and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health.

     I'm a good sleeper. Grade: A.

     Get Some Exercise. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for two and a half hours a week. We should also engage in some moderate strength training, whether it's lifting weights or doing sit-ups, or digging in the garden and practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that we enjoy so we'll keep doing it on a regular basis.

     I do get some exercise. My problem is I don't have a regular routine. I let things slip. But I'm a solid B . . . okay, maybe a B-.

     Drive Safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts and air bags that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death -- some 40,000 Americans a year, according to the National Safety Council. So we should wear our seat belts, put down our cell phones, obey speed limits. Also, be careful about he side effects of any medications you may take. And while you're at it, watch out for accidents at home . . . in the bathroom, on the stairs, in the kitchen.

     Me? I'm not a speeder or a tailgater, and I always hold onto the handrail on the stairs at home. But my attention does sometimes wander. Grade: B+.

     Maintain and Active Social Life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends typically live longer than people who are lonely. Experts say that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of security, promotes healthy behavior, and helps people avoid self-destructive habits like drinking too much.

     On my own, I'd probably get a C; but again, thanks to my wife I'm a solid B.

     Have a Purpose. Death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. Mortality rates for women are similar, though not as pronounced.  Researchers have concluded that it's not the working that makes the difference, but staying involved and engaged in something bigger than our own personal problems.

     I have some activities that keep me focused and engaged, but I should probably have more. Grade:  B.

     Relax. Yes, we need to stay involved. But the experts also say it's important to spend time in silence, and in nature, and not be hounded by constant stimulation. As behavioral geneticist Susan Smalley of UCLA writes: "We need time to do nothing, to be our best selves -- well-rounded and creative human beings. The 'doing' side of our nature needs a 'being' side to be in balance."

     I experience some anxiety from time to time. But I do nothing very well. A-.

     Go to the Doctor. We should all get our recommended vaccines -- the pneumonia vaccine, the shingles vaccine, the Covid booster, and the flu vaccine every fall. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, including the much-dreaded colonoscopy. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. So we all need to check our blood pressure, take our medications -- and make all the other lifestyle changes that will allow us to live long and prosper.

     My overall grade: a solid B. So I'm doing okay, but could do better, which probably explains why I have some arthritis, and I'm on two medications -- but at least I'm still alive!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Where Am I?

     I'm on vacation. Yes, I know, some people ask: How can you be on vacation when you're retired? Well, trust me, pre-retirees and other people still working, and as my fellow retirees can attest . . . you can.

     I was in Florida for a week or so, then met up with my wife for a few more days in Florida, and then we started driving. I won't say how far we drove, because, as a test of your geography skills, you can try to figure out where we are from the directional signs below.

     In case you can't read the sign, we are 619 miles from Cleveland, and 4270 miles from Amsterdam. I have not verified these distances, but I'm pretty sure they are reasonably accurate.

     If it helps, we are also 7369 miles from Tianjin, China, and 8100 miles from Guam. But, for sure, we're still in the U. S.

     Don't ask me why the homeowner chose these landmarks as a reference -- except, as far I've heard, a lot of people from Ohio do like to vacation here.

     If this is not enough to go on, I ran across another house about a mile down the road that has a more comprehensive series of signs. From this next one, you should surely be able to triangulate where I am spending my time.

     We're 765 miles from Toledo -- see, I told you a lot of people from Ohio come here -- and 832 miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan. We're also 382 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee. And for you Anglophiles, we are 6548 miles from London, England. And then a dead giveaway, the arrow points south to Savannah, Georgia, which is 113 miles down the coast.

     So, yes, we're at the beach. But mostly we're here to visit our children and grandchildren. Is there any other reason for us grandparents to go anywhere, anytime?

Saturday, January 28, 2023

What's Interesting About Florida?

     I've been on the road, traveling to and through Florida, for about ten days. For those of you who don't know Florida, I thought I'd tell you what's interesting about the state.

     The beach. There's lots of it. There's so much of it that even though Florida is crowded, the beaches are not. Well, maybe there are a few crowded beaches -- South Beach? Fort Lauderdale? Lido Key? -- but that's only because people want to see and be seen. There are miles and miles of beautiful uncrowded beaches. And the sand is nice too. Where we go in South Carolina the sand is silty, almost muddy. The Florida beaches are made of warm golden sand that feels great between your toes.

     The water. Not the water you drink. In fact, the drinking water in Florida is pretty bad. Stick to bottled water. But the ocean water is blue and clear and usually plenty warm. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are even warmer and bluer, although they occasionally get Red Tide or some other kind of tide -- but that's unusual. For the most part the waters are beautiful.

     Historic downtowns. Really? Am I kidding? For the most part Florida is one giant strip mall, with more muffler shops and pawn shops per square mile (I swear) than any other state in the Union. But, actually, a few towns have made efforts to make a small part of their downtown nice-looking and walkable. On this trip I've been to two of them:  The little settlement of Eau Gallie in Melbourne, and the downtown riverfront in Fort Pierce.

     The weather. It's been sunny and in the 70s every day since I crossed the border into Florida. We had a shower one morning, but it cleared up by noon. And . . . wait. I'm mistaken. On at least one day, maybe two, the temperature got up into the low 80s.

     Fishing. I'm not a fisherman, so I don't know first-hand. But the guy downstairs in my airbnb said he caught two big ones this morning. "Is that your dinner?" I asked. "No, I threw them back," he said. And who am I to doubt him?

     Golf. There are even more golf courses in Florida than there are strip malls . . . and that's saying something. Honestly, the courses are not spectacular -- they're flat and sandy, with lots of water and hardly any trees -- but where else can you meet up with a few friendly strangers who, by the third hole seem just like your old golfing friends at home?

     The food? Well, about 99% of the food in Florida is fast food from the likes of McDonald's, Wendy's and Waffle House. But if you look for it, you can find some great local dishes. I found a super Mexican restaurant in Fort Pierce. And a fellow I played golf with told me about Sharky's out by the beach. The guy lives in Delaware and winters in Vero Beach. He told me Sharky's makes a good Philly cheesesteak, "Not as good as home, but pretty darn good. They also have a fantastic Mahi sandwich." Then his friend chimed in -- "And the shrimp is to die for." I can't stomach Philly cheesesteak. And I'm allergic to shrimp. So I got the Mahi sandwich, which was every bit as good as my new friend promised.

     Family. A lot of people come to Florida to visit parents and grandparents -- and lots of times brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews show up. We used to come to Florida when our kids were small and my parents were still alive, retired in South Florida. It's good to get together with family, especially when it's on vacation and it's sunny and in the 70s outside. I've been traveling alone so far, but in a couple of days I'll be meeting up with B, and then we're visiting my sister, and a few days later -- well, not in Florida, but in South Carolina -- we'll be meeting up with children and grandchildren, and for this old geezer, at this time of life, that's what it's all about.

     So if Florida is so wonderful, why didn't we retire here? For the rest of the story check out my post from last year Why Didn't We Retire to Florida?

Saturday, January 21, 2023

30 Seconds Of . . .

     This is the first time I've been to Florida since before the pandemic. As I sit here staring at the ocean, I don't have much to say. So I thought I'd just share a moment of peace and tranquility -- the kind you get staring across the sand as the waves roll in -- for anyone who can't get to the beach this winter. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Florida ... or Bust?

     I just read that Florida is the most popular state where retired Americans moved in 2022. No surprise there, I guess, although you'd think that the hurricanes might slow things down a bit. Apparently not.

     According to a study that came out in December, Florida was number one. North Carolina took second spot. After that came Michigan (Michigan?!?), Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania?!?), and Washington state.

     Well, I can explain Pennsylvania, if not Michigan.

     Pennsylvania provides a refuge from its high-tax, high-cost neighbors of New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Yet it's still in the Northeast with its cultural, educational and artistic advantages -- and easy access to the major cities like New York and Washington, DC.

     And by the way, Philadelphia has its own advantages with its world-class symphony, museums, universities . . . and this year, anyway, a great football team!

     But this week I'm joining the crowds heading to Florida. Not to live. Just to vacation for a while. Because (ahem, see above) Pennsylvania is in the Northeast where the winters are cold -- not New England cold, but cold enough. Right now the temperature is 32 degrees outside.

     So next week I'll be reporting in as your stereotypical retired Snowbird from hopefully sunny Florida. After that we'll be visiting kids and grandkids in Charleston, SC. (Surprising to me, South Carolina did not make the list.) Stay safe, stay warm, stayed tuned.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

How Has America Changed?

      I was born when Harry Truman was president. I don't remember him. But I do remember Ike and Elvis, and Ann Landers and and Billy Graham, and Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart.

     A lot has changed since those days of the 1950s and '60s. A lot has stayed the same.

     For example, toilet paper today is no different from the toilet paper I grew up with. The house I live in is no different, either. My house was built in 1965, and despite some renovations through its various owners, it remains pretty much the same. My wife and I did redo the kitchen after we moved in. But we still have a refrigerator, a stove, a dishwasher and kitchen sink that aren't much different from what was here in 1965.

     Of course, some things are very different. My phone, for example. My computer, which I have instead of . . . well, I still remember the Smith Corona electric typewriter I got when I was a junior in college. We used to get a daily newspaper delivered to our door. Now we get our news on cable or social media. The news is faster. But is it any better?

     Over Thanksgiving dinner my brother-in-law and his brothers started reminiscing about slide rules. Do you remember them? Haven't seen one of those in about 40 years.

     Other things are the same but different at the same time. For example, my car. It basically works the same way that our family Buick worked back in the 1960s. Except our car now has seatbelts and airbags and automatic headlights and a rear-view camera. It's also Japanese, not American. Our next car might be a hybrid, or fully electric.

     I wonder how much people have changed. When I was growing up people respected their elders and had a good old-fashioned Puritan work ethic. Now people are quiet-quitting, taking time off for paternity leave, retiring early.

     But maybe I'm just misremembering that old-fashioned work ethic. You know . . .  how we walked to school waist-deep in snow, uphill, both ways?

     Nevertheless, we did go to church on Sundays, we said the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and we had dinner as a family every night. And you could go all day without hearing a swear word. Today, perfectly respectable publications use the F-word, and you can hear it on TV as well -- not to mention the near ubiquitous use of lesser curse words that involve bodily functions and familial relationships. But one good thing. We do not hear the racial and religious epithets that were so casually thrown around when we were kids.

     However, we do have more school shootings. Does that mean we have more guns, or more mental health problems? I don't know. But one thing that's about the same now as in the 1960s -- the murder rate. It averaged about 5 murders per 100,000 people in the 1960s. After going up in the 1970s and '80s, the rate is now back down to about 5 again. Would that be considered progress? Something else that hasn't changed: In the 1960s there was no constitutional right to an abortion. Laws were left to the states. Today, again, we're in the same situation.

     We live longer than our parents and grandparents. Because we've given up smoking? But we're also more obese. Chalk up our longevity to advances in our much-maligned health care system. 

     We've certainly made advances in civil rights since the 1960s, for women, gays, people of color, people with disabilities. When James Meredith went to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1962, only about 3% of  African Americans went to college. Today it's 50%. Back in the early 1960s about 10% of women went to college compared to 20% for men. Today, more young women than men go to college -- 70% of women and 62% of men. 

     We now have many more material goods than our families did when we were kids. The 1965 house we currently live in has a one-car garage. Because people back then owned one car. But today a married couple typically drives two cars. Our neighbors across the street, with two grown children at home, owns four cars.

     When I was growing up we had one TV. B and I still have one TV. But my friend Peter has four TVs, all of which get Netflix and various other streaming services. I'd venture to say that we all have more clothes, more books, more recreational equipment, more food, more kitchen gadgets, more knickknacks. (And also more debt?) We travel more than our parents and grandparents ever did. But here's the thing: Are we any happier?