Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In Their Words

     As a kid, I enjoyed Family Circus comics. The convoluted ways the cartoonist's kids went about carrying out the simplest assignments such as fetching the newspaper or mail as depicted by dashed line routes and diversions—birds nest, garden hose, mud puddle etc.—were some of my favorites as well as when Bill Keane's son supposedly filled in for Dad as cartoonist-for-the-day (even though it was obvious no such thing happened and Dad just wanted to do the strip as if through Billy's eyes). Following his lead, then, here are my kids' writings. (No, joke, they did them themselves and I didn't change a thing except for a few added line spaces for readability.) The only ground rules were minimum word counts of a hundred for Jaren, four hundred for Penelope, and five hundred for Braden. And they had to be works they'd feel proud of and wouldn't later regret for bad spelling, grammar, or punctuation. 
     Braden and Penelope asked, Can we do it on computer? 
     I said, Okay, but you have to touch-type, you can't look at the keys. 
     I caught Braden looking at his hands while typing, so I covered them with a dish cloth. He seemed amused, but continued so I guess he knows the keys well enough. 

Flu + Virus

     Now here's a question: which is better a flu or disease? Any ways, Do you know if there's a new flu and/or virus? Yes or no? I do. If you do than whats the flu? ________________________ If you didn't catch the flu - than your lucky. AND helpful to the hospital workers and medicine-makers. Getting back to the flu question did you answer it? If not, please do. Here's another question: Have you seen the inside of an hospital? Yes, I have No, I didn't. (and please answer this once you see it!) And by heart I find it troubling that a new flu is here and there is no vaccine for the flu.

                                Best wishes for you,

(Penelope essay)
Just Something To Think About

     Living in Honolulu, HI isn't all that's it cracked up to be. As a not-so-typical teenager, it definitely has it's ups and downs. But it isn't necessary to go into that, since that's not what I'm writing about. I want to tell you a story. A story about someone that's maybe a bit like you. 
     You know what drives me crazy? When people act like they can control their life. And maybe they can-to a certain extent. But things won't happen just because you say so. Reality check-in people. For instance, when I was little, I announced to all that cared to listen that I would never have to wear glasses. And now in the year of 2015, here I am with-you guessed it-glasses. Morale of the story? Don't tempt fate that way, people.
     Another thing that drives me nuts are my siblings. I'm writing a little bit about them even though they won't be happy. It's my essay. I'll write what I want about them. And they can't stop me. Hah! But to prove that I'm not totally heartless, I'll stop writing about them.
     I'm a reader at heart. I read and dream and (occasionally) take the pen to the paper and write. I've read tons and tons of books. Books that make you cry and books that'll make you laugh and some very solemn and silly books. But I won't read just any book, just like you won't read anything your parents set before you. I have a criteria for my books. Every time I pick up a book, I run through a mental criteria, as shown below:

My Criteria for Books

  1. Is the book fiction? If no, then I probably won't read it. Refer to #4. If yes, keep going.
  2. Is the book a series? Is the series recent? Keep going if yes or no.
  3. Is the book weird in any way? If yes, then return to shelf. If no, keep going.
  4. Does it have any basis in history? If nonfiction and no to last question, return to shelf.
  5. Does the synopsis scream absurd? If yes, return to shelf and us
     And what I don't like about reading so much is that my teachers keep pestering me to read nonfiction. I despise having to read nonfiction. It's so, so... dull. Like the other week when my English teacher assigned us an article on this website called TeenBiz300. It consists of nonfiction articles that supposedly prepare us for our standardized tests. Do I look like I want to waste my time doing some standardized test?! 
     Anyways, the article I mentioned earlier is about this art collector who bought this relic of a painting and paid some money for it. Then later these guys find a fingerprint and decide that the painting was worth three times as much money than the retail price was. Blah, blah, blah. Incidentally the article was soooo very boring that I nearly fell asleep doing it. I told my teacher that my score is determined by my interest level because she was lamenting the fact that so many of her students did poorly on it. But she scoffed it off. However, I'm positive that its at least a bit true. Back to the article, another reason why I don't like it is because I wasn't the one who was ripped off. I mean, sure I have some sympathy but in the end, I don't care. Bad luck for the retailer. Do you understand what I mean about nonfiction?
     While we're on the topic of school, you might be able to empathize when I say that I detest standardized testing more than nonfiction. I feel that standardized testing is ridiculous. To what extent do colleges check what you got on a test that you did in elementary and middle school? It's a complete waste of time to take those tests, but in the end you still have to take them. Sigh.
     Alright, back to the other things or else I'll just keep on ranting. As you know I like fiction books and dislike nonfiction books. I also like movies, comics and trivia books. When it comes to comics, my family enjoys Peanuts. Really, what's there not to love about Snoopy? He'd make a great person, but a horrible dog. Such is the irony, since Charlie Brown, Snoopy's owner, would make a wonderful dog but a horrible human. 
     When the kids were little we would read Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh and his friends are now the source of countless very naughty jokes, like: Why did Tigger look into the toilet? Answer: He was looking for his friend Pooh. ( Get it? Poo, Pooh) But something interesting I was told by my older brother was that everyone in those books had a human-like trait. Tigger can't sit still, Piglet is always afraid of everything and is timid, Eeyore is constantly depressed, Kanga has OCD, and Rabbit is always upset about something or someone. Go figure.
     I also read trivia books (as mentioned before) that are usually filled with interesting and (pretty useless) facts. So, actually, I do read nonfiction, just not the type of nonfiction my teachers want me to read. I learn quite a few different things. Things like:
  • the secret recipe for Coke isn't so secret
  • all of the numbers share a letter with the numbers that follow (one, two, three, four, etc)
  • there is no speed of sound
  • bulls don't get angry at the sight of the color red
  • camels don't store water in their humps.
Interesting, no?
     My reading has it's ups and downs. I can't tell you who won the football game but I can tell you what is a good book. I can't tell you what my favorite video game is but I can tell you something I think I know about the states. I think. Maybe you should try to read a book. See how far you get. 
     How did you like my story? Perhaps I'll come back another day and tell you more. But for now, I think you have enough to think about. Aloha!

(Braden essay)
The Different Benefits of Computers in School

     Computers are very useful tools. They can be used for an almost endless amount of things, from word processing to sending information across the world in the blink of an eye, to solving equations that can take humans countless days to solve to cracking complex codes. All of these things can prove very useful for students to use. Of course students probably will not be solving super hard equations that they will need a computer to solve nor will they be cracking complex codes.
     However students can use computers for other things, such as accessing a countless amount of useful websites, sending information to each other and even using it to revive information.
     All of these thing can be done with a simple computer. Now, one does not need a top of the line high speed processing computer to do this, a simple basic computer will do that. With that computer they can do all of this and even more. In fact, the usefulness of a computer is only limited by one's imagination and one's open mind.
     Because of all these possible things to do with computers I believe students can greatly benefit from being issued a computer to use for his or her studies. Like I said it does not have to be some top of the line name brand computer, a simple inexpensive laptop will be useful and very helpful as well.
     Other than the educational reasons, computers can be used for other things a well. Taking care of a computer will teach students responsibility. They can also learn other life skills as well such as the ability to use technology effectively and efficiently. Also, with the internet, they can learn about what other common people think about a matter and not just a group of “experts” said in some textbook students can benefit from this by learning to keep an open mind. Other benefits can include, being able to use technology in a way that will keep the interest of a student and by using technology a teacher can teach students in new ways. Also, using a computer can also teach important and necessary skills that people will need to have in the future.
     Of course there are many downsides to using computers, but they can be neutralized. Probably the most common thing that will come up is the fact that the computers can be abused and not used properly. To counteract this all you have to do is to put some tracking program in the computers and insure that the students know about it, to eliminate secrecy issues (you can also set up an firewall to prevent students from accessing inappropriate sites. Another concern would be the security issue but, a good firewall should be able to prevent hackers form making trouble.
     (Another thing to think about is the fact that the exact same thing can be said about the teachers and the computers that they are issued.)
     For all of these reasons a computer should be given to each student to use for educational reasons. I strongly believe that students can and will benefit from using computers for school.

     It's I again. 
     It's my belief that good writing is imprinted with the soul of the writer and like a finger print, can not be replicated by any other. My kids' above writings, though not good—in fact, they repulse me—are fair and indicative samples of their current psyches. 
     My inside observations: All three went about their assignments without complaint and even with marked enthusiasm, which alone made them worthwhile. 
     Jaren speaks and writes sloppily. He can do well when he tries, but seldom bothers. 
     Rather than produce quality, Pene went for quantity.
     Braden at age fourteen knows it all including my error in thinking computers don't make kids smarter. 
     All three did age appropriate work, especially considering I gave them only one afternoon and evening to complete their assignments because I wanted them to enjoy them and not feel burdened, for writings often reflect the author's feelings. And I wanted their essay tones to be fun and light, not serious and heavy. (Based on what came out, perhaps next time I'll tell them to try a lot, lot harder and force them to edit again and again and again! Even though I, at their ages, couldn't have done any better, they, by now, should be able to do lots better considering they're far more studious at their ages than I ever was because of today's foolish academic more-is-always-better attitudes toward student achievement. Deanne blames their poor writing on their schools' deemphasis on writing. I blame it on society's over-emphasis on standardized tests, which forces schools to teach-to-the-stupid-tests as opposed to sticking to the tried and true fundamentals—reading, writing, and arithmetic.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The $735 Popsicle Stick Wound

     The United States health care system is broken largely because of patient fears of cancer and other horrible diseases and practitioner fears of getting sued for missing serious diagnoses.  Such fears then drive seemingly endless series of expensive followup appointments, referrals to specialists, and diagnostic tests for things as simple as wounds that take a bit long to heal, curious lumps, or headaches. 
     For example, after completion of Braden's recent regular dental cleaning the dentist called me in, shone a light on the soft palate toward the back of his mouth, and said, “I don't know what it is,” about a dime-sized whitish-gray lesion with a small poke hole in the middle. He said, It's probably nothing—perhaps a wound from a fork or pizza burn—but I want to see him again in two weeks because if it's not healed by then, I'd like to refer you to an oral surgeon. 
     Normally I blow off such follow-up appointments if I feel the doctor is being overly cautious and instead monitor wounds/sores myself for obvious signs of improvement such as reduced size and improved color. Absent other symptoms such as fever, swelling, puss, loss of appetite, change in sleep patterns, lethargy, pain, etc., with obvious improvement I'll assume its healing and cancel the visit, which is what I did for these very reasons after a week-and-a-half of monitoring. But a few days later, the wound had not improved and looked even worse, with an additional new poke hole beside the original. 
     When we went back to the dentist, he said, It still doesn't look serious, but I'll refer you to an oral surgeon who'll know better what it is and how to proceed. 
     To his credit, he didn't charge us for this follow-up examination. 
     Before the appointment with the oral surgeon, Penelope and Jaren had annual check-ups with our pediatrician, so we asked him to also examine Braden's wound. He said, I'm not sure what it is. To me, it looks like a Popsicle stick wound or something like that. The oral surgeon will know or possibly order a biopsy. If he wants to do more, see an E.N.T. (Ear, Nose, Throat doctor) for a second opinion.  
     The oral surgeon was a bummer because he refused to accept our medical or dental insurance coverages, obviously because he can charge more that way, so we had to pay out-of-pocket and settle for a puny fifty percent reimbursement from our carrier. After taking a look, the doctor said, I don't know what it is, though it's not likely to be cancer as that usually strikes older patients age sixty-five and older who've smoked all their lives. We can either wait two more weeks and see if it heals on its own or do a biopsy now if you prefer. 
     He did point out a new purplish, dime-sized blemish closer to the front of the mouth that concerned him even more as the back one appeared to be a typical wound which sometimes takes months to heal.
     Because of the low likelihood of anything serious with the back wound and because the front wound was recent and looked like a simple bruise to me, I opted to wait and see. 
     Before the appointment, both things looked a lot better, the back one nearly healed, but not quite. However, when the doctor shone his light on it, the back wound obviously had a ways to go. He said, We can wait two more weeks and do a biopsy then if it's not fully healed or do a biopsy now. Since two months have already passed since it was first discovered, time will be of the essence soon, because for serious things, the sooner we act, the better. 
     Because I knew it wouldn't fully heal in two weeks I said, Go ahead and biopsy it now. 
     After the surgery when I looked at the wound I noticed a neat, half-inch incision with a couple stitches, which surprised me as being much larger than what I'd expected given a minimal biopsy sample. Braden said that the doctor said that rather than take a small sample, he decided to take out the whole thing. I felt he should have at least told us of this beforehand, but he did do a good job, so I let it pass.  
     To his credit, the oral surgeon called us at home the following day to see how Braden was doing. 
     In the coming days, the surgical wound opened after the stitches self-dissolved and appeared dime-sized like before, but a lot cleaner, and the holes and purplish blemish which the doctor hadn't touched were gone. 
     At the follow-up visit, the doctor said, Queen's Medical Center's report shows the biopsy is normal. That means something poked or burned it. I'll see Braden again in two months to check its progress. 
     At that point I was relieved, but sick of doctors' visits. As long as the wound continues to improve I have no intention (having already had to pull Braden out of school early twice) to see any more doctors about it. 
     When I was a kid, my dentist would not have made a fuss over such a thing, perhaps only saying avoid aggravating it and call him if it gets painful or looks worse after a few weeks.
     Today, four doctors (including the one that analyzed the biopsy), on six separate occasions, had looks at it before the one that looked at it beneath a microscope finally had the courage to say in essence, It's nothing; don't worry about it.
     A couple years ago, I had a lump on the floor of my mouth looked at by a dentist, an oral surgeon, and an E.N.T. The E.N.T. said it wasn't a tumor, just a trauma wound that would heal on it's own, but ordered a CT scan to check for blockage in a salivary duct which wasn't even a concern of mine. I blew that off and things returned to normal in a couple weeks.
     I had a friend with minor headaches and his doctor ordered a half-hour MRI brain scan. This was a couple decades ago when MRIs were perhaps even more expensive and high demand than now. I knew his headaches were minor—probably tension or diet or lifestyle-related—and the MRI found nothing. 
     In short, our health care system seems to lack common sense judgment because it is obsessed with ruling out the often one-in-ten-thousand worse case scenario lest an error in judgment be made that comes back to bite everyone. And no one wants that to happen. Thus, it's no wonder health care costs continue to rise unabated as doctors milk the system with more and more follow-up visits, expensive procedures, referrals (do they get referral fees? Or reciprocal referrals?), and tests. My doctors are good and responsible, but even for something as simple as a Popsicle stick wound, we and my insurance carrier sure paid a lot.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Kite Flying

     All my life I've enjoyed flying kites. Contrary to Peanuts comics it's something anyone can do and can be as involved as intricate dragon trains with over a dozen matched kites spaced several inches apart, difficult to construct and balance, and nearly impossible to fly in Hawaii's fickle, shifting winds, to a five dollar preassembled sled kite with string included that can be flown with ease in minutes.
     Kapiolani Park is the best place in town to fly kites because of its expansive fields sans telephone lines and reliable winds, though gusts do tend to ebb and flow so that smaller kites on shorter strings will eventually get grounded on most days.
     Our kids have loved it along with me, my goal usually being to string them in a train, the kites spaced at thirty yards or more intervals, to see how high they'll go. The first time I did it was on my birthday over a decade ago with our two most reliable kites at the time: a premade sled, and a conyne (triangular box kite with wings) I constructed from mailing paper and barbeque skewers which happened to be the best flyer I've ever made. 
     Note:  building kites is fun. I've used bamboo barbeque skewers, thin bamboo poles, split bamboo strips, tape, string, and Tyvek paper from envelopes. I've reshaped bamboo strips using a candle flame and constructed lantern, box, and dragon tambourine train kites, none of which flew for lack of sufficient lift and imbalances that caused them to gyrate or dive. My advice is unless you're very motivated to study the craft and hone flying performance, if you want to fly a kite high and well, don't build, buy. Even premade kites vary in flight-worthiness because the physics are just so complicated. Some beautiful hand crafted and prepackaged kites (one shaped like a sailing ship, another like a biplane, and a regular box kite) that I purchased either flew poorly (the last two) or not all (the first). Our best purchased flyers were a sled, a delta, a diamond, and a mini-delta. The first two were expensive nylon “performance” kites received as gifts, the last two were on sale and free from school. In short, expensive or fancy don't assure good flying. 
     For entire family fun, have at least one kite per person, with each person choosing which kite he or she wants to fly, and lots of string that won't easily tangle. All my kids have learned how to get a kite airborne on their own by standing still, letting the wind carry the kite up, and loosening line as the kite pulls high and tight and dances about. The only thing I need to remind them sometimes is, “Let more line out! Don't you want it to go all the way up?” because a high flying kite train is easier and far funner to assemble with their help. 
     I read as a kid in a Guinness Book of World Records that a kite flown in a train will fly far higher than a lone kite on a string. I later reasoned that the weight and drag of a very long string can only be lifted so high by a single kite way at the end. Having multiple kites along the way to help lift the string's dead weight enables the last kite to lift that much higher. A kite book suggested putting the strongest puller at the far end of the train. An experienced kite flyer advised that for each kite added, the string strength should be doubled such that the kite at the end requires only a single string, whereas the string held in hand may need double, quadruple, or more strength depending on how many kites there are. 
     I've always purchased inexpensive cotton or nylon cord or string from drug or hardware stores and never had trouble with breakage or even much tangling. To get the train started, I just tie the end of a cord to the plastic handle of the highest flyer, let it out, then do an overhand knot on a doubled over length of line to crate a loop to attach to the handle of the next kite attached. 
     The most I've flown in train was about four. It was fun and beautiful. The kite book recommended that all kites be of the same variety (i.e. delta or box), but all our kites have always been different and I think it's funner that way—they're all dancing about pulling this way and that, diving and recovering at their own leisure like kids doing their own things, with their unique looks and personalities. 
     I lost our high flying delta years ago when trying to add a kite to start a train while holding at the same time the main line. It slipped my grasp twice. The first time I sprinted and ran down the trailing cord. The next time the kite carried the cord end ten, twenty, then thirty and more feet off the ground as I sprinted to try to catch up, the weight of the string and cord sufficient to keep the kite strained taut against the line's inertia. I stopped and watched like a kid who'd just lost his balloon as it all sped away far beyond the park, above and over nearby hotels, and toward the beach and ocean beyond. It looked beautiful on its way and I just hoped it wouldn't get sucked into a jet engine and cause a crash. (I should have stepped on the line while tying it!) Since there was no aviation disaster that followed, it's a fun and happy memory to recall with the kids as the kite did serve us very well for years and numerous joyful outings and that is about as much as can be hoped for from a cheap, inanimate object.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Retirement and College Savings

     Saving enough for retirement and kids' college expenses are two of the three things (the other being affording long-term health care insurance) virtually impossible for average middle class Americans with multiple children to do.
     For this and other financial topics I draw upon my college and professional training, which has helped us with these impossible tasks. Here's what I've found: 
     Believe the oft stated advice that the earlier you start the better because of the “magic” of compounding. Simply stated, invested money grows more money the longer it is kept invested. Socking away a little at a time is all it takes.
     Have a cash bank account or equivalent emergency fund that will cover at least two months of living expenses. (For me, that's far too little. I keep a disproportionate share of non-retirement and non-college savings in credit union CDs 'cause I hate the thought of losing fifty percent if it's all in stocks come the next stock market crash.)
     Saving for retirement is a far higher priority than saving for kids' college educations. My friend Norm took a huge financial hit by cashing out all his accumulated 401K retirement savings to pay for college tuition (plus other current expenses) to pursue his second career as a nurse. I asked what are your plans to retire (he's almost fifty) and he said I'm in a work-until-you-die plan. His health is less than stellar so in essence he's saying “I don't care right now about my long-term finances, I'll deal with it at a later date.” He's a smart guy and knows the realities of what he might one day face (as he's witnessed in his nurses' training—he's on the verge of graduating), even so, I'm concerned (though comforted about his education, engineering background, and loving, smart, and hard-bitten tough kids and siblings that could help out if necessary).
     Take advantage of employer 401K matches, or even better, employer defined benefit pension plans that guarantee lifetime payments upon retirement (I am blessed with just such a plan with the state). Be sure to first consider life expectancy and expected rates of return to determine reasonableness of cost. Also consider the financial health of the payer—whether employer or annuity insurance company. Some annuities contracts, especially those offered by independent agents, are blatant scams. Ask lots of questions, get everything in writing, and hire a CPA if necessary.
     For middle class Americans with kids, ROTH IRAs are a good alternative if the above are not available or as additional investments 'cause current federal income tax rates are so low and seem likely to me to rise. For such ROTH IRAS (that you contribute to after-tax, but get to withdraw tax-free) it's wise to invest in diversified portfolios such as mutual funds that hold stocks of lots of different companies or bond funds that can substantially lower risk, though current returns are exceedingly low. (Deanne and I both have ROTH IRAs with investments in stocks and bonds mutual funds.) 
     Avoid high fees, loads, and all other trading and holdings costs that'll steal your investments' earnings.  
     Avoid get rich quick schemes that'll steal your investments even faster.
     Avoid trading individual stocks and bonds unless your employer offers great discounts (or employer matches) on company stocks.  
     Avoid derivatives such as futures, options, hedges, swaps, short sales, and other complex instruments. Banks, cities, and tons of “smart” investors have gone broke thinking they knew what they were doing when in fact they didn't. 
     For higher earning tax-payers, invest in tax-deferred 401K plans, regular IRAs, or deferred compensation plans. These may also be attractive to average income tax-payers for lowering current federal and state taxes or because of investment options not available elsewhere. (We have a substantial portion of our retirement savings in our state's deferred compensation plan because of a stable value option that has given us steady returns.) The downside of these is that withdrawals upon retirement are fully taxed at a time when tax rates may be a lot higher (especially if retirement income exceeds working income, which my retired uncle and Mom suggest are quite likely, improbable though it seems to me).
     Select investments based on what you're willing to lose as opposed to what you hope to make. This is a way to stay within your risk tolerance profile. The riskier an investment, the more it's price will tend to bounce around. If such price jumps bother you, find less risky investments. For some, even the S&P 500 is far too nerve wracking. (When I first started saving after college, I put all my funds into bank savings accounts, than CDs. Only slowly after I had a huge cushion did I venture into mutual funds, the minimum thousand dollars investment at a time. I still approach stocks by adding a little at a time and waiting and seeing before making larger moves to, say, rebalance my portfolio. It's served me well through the years with slow, steady gains and no spectacular losses.)
     When an adequate retirement cushion is established so that perhaps forty to sixty percent of retirement needs will likely be met, not counting Social Security benefits, start saving for college right away! (I told you it's impossible, but try we must, I suppose. Maybe our kids will get rich and cover all our retirement needs?) One of the best deals for this (which isn't even that great) is 529 college savings plans offered by all states for residents of any state. (It's weird, it doesn't make much sense, but it's legit and works.) Money goes in after-tax and gets withdrawn tax-free. In essence, tax-free earnings is its main direct financial benefit. Some states (not Hawaii) offer plans that allow before-tax contributions that may be far better deals. Be sure to research and crunch numbers before deciding. 
     When comparing states' 529 plans and investment options (almost unlimited choices in unlimited states may be held—I told you it's weird) consider costs and fees, your risk profile, and expected returns as described above (as saving for college is similar to saving for retirement, only shorter term in outlook meaning we hope to far outlive the day all our kids graduate college, right? If so, college funds ought to be depleted far before retirement funds). 
     Vanguard (I rarely do endorsements) is one company with terrific offerings and ultra low (I especially like their index funds) fees and their funds have done super for all my ROTH IRAs and my kids' 529 college savings plans, though some much better than others. (I own 529 plans in three states (that begin with the letters U, O, and V), each with some of the lowest admin. fees around. Hawaii's 529 plan stinks so they get zilch from me.) 
     My Hawaii State Federal Credit Union is fantastic, by the way, far superior to any of the local banks, so they get virtually all my personal financial banking business. (I don't dare venture to Internet banking because it just feels far too sketchy to me.)
     Impossible though the task to average middle class Americans may seem, saving sufficiently should be approached like exercise whereby in general, the more the better, every little bit helps, and small steps can lead to big gains.