Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Credit Cards

I teach science, but every now and then I do a short lesson on credit and credit cards. I may have mentioned that I'm a bit of an Excel geek, I like to mess around with spreadsheets and what I do is set up a simple spreadsheet for my kids showing them what happens when they obtain and use a credit card.

I usually start with $1000 purchased and then show them what happens with 18.9% interest and minimum payments. When I do this it becomes glaringly apparent why so many people have credit issues (myself included). If you compound 18.9% interest monthly on a $1000 purchase, your monthly interest is roughly $15.75. So the credit card company charges you a minimum payment of, say, $16. In a year of $16/month payments you pay $192 to pay off a whole $3 of principle. At that rate it will take you 333 years to pay off the original $1000. Worse, you will have paid $64000 for that TV.

Ridiculous you say. Yes it is. But the bottom line is that young people don't think in the long term. They see a $1000 color TV for $15/month FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIFE as a good deal.
And the credit card companies make money at usurious interest rates. It's a racket, and one that the government doesn't seem interested in doing anything about.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Birding in Kansas

Well not really. I had an hour or so to kill while my daughter was at softball practice, so I walked around Atchison High School's football field.... and found LOTS of birds. I added 3 to my list, one I'm pretty sure of; an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), pictured here, a Swamp Sparrow (60%-40% sure of the ID) and a Common Yellowthroat, a common enough wood warbler, but still I'm only abuot 25% sure of the ID. I also spotted bluebirds, tree sparrows, chipping sparrows, and of course robins, starlings, and grackels.

My life list approaches 75 birds. I hope to reach 100 and higher this summer... but I've got most of the easy ones. From here on out, it will take some real knowledge and perserverance. And being in places where birds hang out. Around high school football fields I guess.

The Royals & the Chiefs

After a bad stretch, 7 losses in a row to two struggling teams (Oakland and Cleveland), the boys in blue rebounded over the weekend and took two out of three from Toronto. Pitching isn't the problem so much as timely hitting and smart 'heads-up' baseball. A couple of mental mistakes cost them a shot at a sweep on Sunday... Guillen swinging at a first-pitch ball after the pitcher had just walked two in a row, Guillen throwing through to second allowing a runner to score from first on a single, Pena and Guillen leting a popup drop. Wow, I seem to be calling Guillen's name a lot. He's suffering from the 12 million dollar price tag. For 12 mil, you gotta perform every day to appear worth it... and nobody can do that in the game of professional baseball. See Barry Zito.

That's why no player is worth 12 million. Especially in a small market like Kansas City. The expectations are too great.

On to the 2008 NFL draft. The Chiefs, through bad management (4-12 record in 2007) and questionable trades (Jared Allen to the Vikings), ended up with 2 first round picks, a second round, and 3 third round picks. Die-hard fans were about evenly split amongst two opinions.

1) Carl Peterson, a notorious draft botcher, would find a way to botch even this bountiful draft

and 2) Not even Carl Peterson, a notorious draft botcher, could completely botch this bountiful draft.

I lean towards 2) and feel somewhat optimistic after the Chiefs took two pretty much can't miss players in the first round. Glenn Dorsey and Branden Albert are, by nearly all accounts, two pro-bowl franchise anchor type players. Of course injury and poor handling (something else Peterson has a rep for) can always occur...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Quandary

I belong to Audible.com. I will download and listen to maybe a book a month depending on how much long-distance driving I do.

The quandary is whether or not I get to count these books as books I've read. I'm polling the readers in my classes... and so far the answer seems to be a resounding NO.

I've found that sometimes I will lose the thread when listening rather than reading. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in particular. I couldn't keep track at all... maybe it was all the footnotes. And I've also noticed that the reader can actually 'improve' a book. An example would be the Bartimaeous Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud read by Simon Jones. Jones turned an otherwise somewhat ho-hum juvenile fantasy series into a series that my family and I could hardly wait to get the next installment. We listened on long drives, and believe me, it helped with boredom, kids fighting etc.

Books I've listened to (but not read...and thus NOT counted):

- The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem's Eye by Jonathon Stroud
- The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks; I plan to actually reread (read) this excellent first novel. Twelve Hawks (and here) claims to live "off the grid" and has combined fantasy and conspiracy theory into a believable Matrix-like world. I'm halfway through listening to the sequel, Dark River and will post more when I finish.
- Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
- Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
- Twelve Sharp and Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich; another example of how a reader can really make the experience more enjoyable. Lorelei King's characterizations are nothing short of hilarious.
- The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
- The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bits and Pieces

First of all, I found this article by Michael Shermer about doping in sports, specifically in cycling. After reading this, it seems nearly certain that Lance Armstrong was using some sort of performance enhancing drugs during his incredible Tour de France run. The bigger question is... Do I care?

After some soul searching, I'm not sure I do. My antipathy towards Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire seem to stem more from general dislike of their character than any stigma associated with drug use. If Armstrong had beaten the field seven times running using EPO while the others were clean... it would be different. That's not the case. More on this later as my thoughts progress.

On to baseball. The Royals seem to be coming back to earth. A 2-5 west coast road trip exposed several weaknesses. I predicted the starting pitching to falter first... but it was the hitting. Butler, Gordon, Teahen, all have tremendous potential... but hitting singles all the time isn't going to get it done. The Royals are last in the league in run production. Perhaps Jose Guillen will give them the spark they need as he has shown some signs of life on this trip.

Yes it's Earth Day 2008. What does this mean? Well, I remember celebrating Earth Day back in the 70's while in college (University of Missouri-Coumbia). It mostly meant a lot of drinking while sitting around in Peace Park listening to different activists rant and rave about the damage we were doing to the Earth. hmph. Now I seem to be one of those activists. As an Environmental Science teacher I try very hard not to dwell constantly on the negative in my classes. Yet I find that, invariably, topics discussed always tend towards the negative. Humans are inherantly wasteful, dirty and seemingly careless about the environment. None more so than teenagers... and yet, occasionally there is a ray of light. A student who does care, who does volunteer, who "listens" to The Lorax. As I am so quickly passing through middle age, it is all too easy to be pessimistic about these things...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Words guaranteed to cause multiple millons of people to lose sleep and start sweating profusely. Not me. Due to having children, and being careful with deductions, we hardly ever have to pay much, and more often get a refund. Thanks to GW, this year we're getting a super refund... $1200 or $1600, I'm not sure, but ... my wife knows. Heh.

Anyway, we're big fans of Dave Ramsey and his method of budgeting and getting out of debt. We'll be sitting down over the next day or two and planning how to best spend this windfall.

I'm a bit geeky when it comes to playing around with spreadsheets and making elaborate budgets and plans, but I'm always reminded of the old military proverb "no plan survives contact with the enemy". The enemy of course being the desire to buy something that comes with having an extra $100 in your pocket. Ramsey uses an envelope system... put cash in the envelope and when it's gone, it's gone, no more Starbucks this month.

It works. But it takes effort and discipline, something that we consumers aren't very good at.

Books in April

Starting to catch up a bit on my reading. I grabbed Cell by Stephen King from the library Saturday, and managed to finish it Sunday afternoon.

My initial impression is that it is simply a bad rewrite of The Stand. Something bad happens, lots of people die gruesomely, the survivors gather into two camps, good and evil. Most of the story centers on a journey. Good finds a way to blow up evil, some of your favorite characters die, but the rest live happily ever after.

I won't recommend this book. I much prefer Duma Key which I blogged about earlier. And that's kind of the way it goes with me and King. I'll really like one book and really not like another.

Changing tracks... finally got around to reading the dramatic conclusion of the Twilight series (Eclipse) in which Bella discovers that she actually does love two monsters. Well duh! Saw that coming quite a few pages back. Meyers does a nice job of wrapping the series up. I was really wondering about how she could possibly turn it into a happy ending... but I don't want to spoil it for anyone chancing to read this. The movie (due out Dec 08) will make a lot of money, I may even go see it.

However, upon further research it appears that this may NOT be the last book in the series after all. Sigh. Since I'm in this far, I will have to see what else is in store for our ill-fated ménage à trois, and continue reading.

What else? Nearly finished with the next installment of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin saga; Desolation Island. What a great title for a naval story! Also working through The Tombs of Atuan by LeGuin, and am simultaneously reading Dale Carnegie's wonderful books on worry and influencing people. More on them later.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Just finished It's Not About the Bike; My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong.

I just want to say that I've long been a Lance Armstrong fan. His story; surviving cancer to come back and win the Tour De France, not once but seven times? Legend.

Thanks to steroids, Barry Bonds/Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa, and Floyd Landis, I've been hesitant to embrace Armstrong as a true American sports hero. I didn't want to be disappointed...again. I barely paid attention to the 2007 Tour, the first time in years that I didn't watch a single stage.

After reading this autobiography, published in 2000, the year after Armstrong won his first Tour, I've decided to get off the fence. Lance Armstrong may have used some sort of performance enhancing drugs to win those races, but I would find it hard to believe. The guy survived cancer. Why would he chance injecting drugs into his body merely to win a race? Armstrong makes it pretty clear that the fear of cancer reoccuring was actually one of the most difficult stages of his recovery.
I doubt that he will ever be able to completely convince everyone of his innocence. I'm sure there will always be a lingering doubt. But I'm going with the guy. Here's a link to his Livestrong Foundation, a foundation set up for cancer patients and survivors. He's considered politics. I'd vote for him.

And I'll watch the Tour de France this summer. We can't go on forever assuming that all of our heros are cheaters.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Congratulations to the Kansas Jayhawks and the Tennessee Lady Vols, 2008 NCAA Basketball National Champions.

KU demolished North Carolina in the semi, something I never thought I would see, and gutted out a win in the championship over Memphis, a team very much like Kansas in style and talent. Tennessee was simply dominant, as so often before, overpowering a good Stanford team with sheer talent and determination.

So there we are...basketball wrapped up for another year and now on to baseball and softball.

As I write, the Royals are 5-2, coming off a win over the Yankees in their home opener. So far, we like what we see out of the Royals, good starting pitching, solid defense, timely hitting, and a lights-out bullpen. Which of these parts falters first, or what combination, is what all loyal fans are anticipating. My prediction is the starting pitching. Meche has always been somewhat a middle of the pack pitcher, until last year when he became the ace for the Royals; Bannister and Greinke are young and talented, and due for arm problems... and after that the cupboard gets thin.

Eternally optimistic, I'll enjoy it while it lasts, and continue to root and follow when it starts to come apart. Other clubs (Colorado, Arizona, Oakland) can manage decent teams and playoff runs with similar payrolls... I see no reason Kansas City can't do the same.

What else? Books and reading is kind of slow right now. I've finished up a couple of easy read mysteries, working on Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer (the conclusion to the love-triangle trilogy...human-vampire-werewolf) and the second book in The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin. I'll have more to say later on these...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Women play basketball?

Doh! Of course they do, and often I enjoy watching them play more than the guys. It's a 'purer' game, depending more on shooting, rebounding and defense than on size, or raw athleticism.

At any rate, the women's game has come a long way in the last 15 years or so. I went to a few Big 12 (8) games at Missouri in the early 90's. Maybe 500 people in attendance. Now they get 5,000 or more routinely and even sell out on many campuses (Tennesee, UConn, Texas). The NCAA tournament gets quite a bit of attention, and the baseketball can be phenomenal.

The one drawback I see is that it's almost always the same teams vying for the championship. Tennessee and UConn have dominated the sport, with occasional runs by North Carolina, Stanford, and a very few others. An underdog once in a while would be nice, a Davidson or SIU even making it to the elite 8 would attract more interest. It will come, I'm sure...

My pick this year is for Pat Summitt to win her 8th National Championship at Tennessee. What a great coach and role model she is and has been. So GO VOLS!!!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Rites of Spring 3-31-2008

What could be better? An opening day win on the road in extra innings against the vaunted Tigers. Ah sweet bliss. Now, they can't, as they say, lose them all.

Pictured is my favorite new Royal, Tony Pena Jr. getting the winning hit in the top of the 11th.... a bloop single into center which scored John Buck from second. Son of a childhood favorite player, 4-time Gold-Glover & 5-time All-Star Tony Pena, who caught for the Pirates & Cardinals (and who managed the Royals for one brilliant shining season and several dismal ones), TPJ is a scrappy shortstop who, if he hits .280 will be a solid 8-9 hitter and an often-times spectacular defensive player. He was one of the earliest moves made by new GM Dayton Moore who, being a part of the Atlanta Braves organization, spotted Pena in the Braves system, and also recognizing the failure of sticking with Angel Berroa (rookie of the year in 2003 but absolutely nothing after), brought him over, gave him the job.... and let us, the long suffering Royals fans, enjoy.

Young talent along with the best pitching the Royals have started with in years breed a new optimism for Royal fans. Unfortunately, they play in arguably the toughest division in baseball... so a .500 record would be an outstanding achievement.

For now, however, the boys in blue are UNDEFEATED!