29 December 2010

New Years Resolutions

Wow, has it ever been a busy holiday season!  Without my calendar in front of me to confirm, I would still guess that I averaged an event per day.  Fortunately, I managed to do well enough on my homework to make an A in my latest class.  Yay!

Since then I've caught up on some reading and articles.  Of all those I read, the one I want to point out is this one: Women and Money.  The first financial book I read was Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach, which I feel is better than most books on female finances, but could certainly be improved with the information that the article's author suggests.

On the topic of scheduling, this is the point where I need to admit that I did too much in the last six weeks.  I'm working on that with my New Year's resolutions.  It's a mistake to make too many, though; I read a great article today about ways to help you keep your resolutions.  So here are my goals for 2011:
  • Financial Improvement: paying down debt, increasing income, reducing expenses.  My husband and I are doing our annual financial update next month, so I'm likely to blog about this a lot in the near future. I also intend to write a post soon about our financial journey.
  • Physical Improvement: I lost 16 pounds last year, but have gained back around 6.  Planning to drop that 6 again and then finish with the last 7 I was originally planning to be rid of.
  • Personal Improvement: Less agreeing/volunteering to do things, more reading, sewing, cross-stitching, and personal time, and no guilt about it.  Also, more having friends over and less going out (conveniently helping with the financial goals).
Is there something you're working on in the new year?  Do we have complementary goals or are you working on something uniquely yours?

21 December 2010

Lunar Eclipse

Tonight, all across the country, thousands if not millions of people are staying up late to watch the only total lunar eclipse of this year.  There's clear viewing across most of the country and this eclipse will have a totality of around 70 minutes, which makes for great viewing.  As I write this, the Earth's shadow is already creeping across the Moon's surface.

Historically, lunar eclipses are thought to be harbingers of evil and misfortune.  A quick survey of lunar eclipse and cultural significance reveals numerous cultures that told stories of Luna being swallowed by a dragon, a snake, a puma, or some other animal.  But tonight, all that is changing in a way that only 21st technology can bring about.

Tonight, people are not watching in solitude or isolated bunches.  As I'm writing this, I have dozens of friends whose Facebook statuses reflect their interest in this phenomenon.  They're staying up late and we're all watching the eclipse together, in a way that only 21st century technology makes possible.  Even those with no clear view of their own can watch via NASA's live feed on the web.

Tonight, I'd give a lot to have a decent telescope or pair of binoculars.  Rest assured, my digital camera is taking great pictures (to be shared tomorrow) but nothing beats a telescope for astronomical observation.

Pictures coming soon.  Happy viewing, everyone!  And Happy Winter Solstice!

15 December 2010

Impossible Things are Happening Every Day

It's a big, wide, interesting world.  Every day, my RSS feed on Google Reader brings me something strange and fun... often, several things that are strange and fun.  I have a huge backlog of TEDTalks to watch, but in the mean time I've been reading up on all sorts of other interesting topics.

These articles are all about how the world is improving:

  • A History of Violence: All about the changing realities of mortality in every day life and how violence has decreased in the last hundred years.  Yes, with two world wars, decreased.  Fascinating stuff by an author whose books are rising on my "to read" list.
  • Genetic tests for fetuses: A new, safer method that uses very sensitive maternal blood tests to check for genetic factors.  This article gives me serious Gattaca flashbacks, but modern medical science still amazes me.  I also feel obligated to point out that the writer does a very responsible job of explaining the time needed for commercial viability and the systematic drawbacks to diagnostics that reveal so much information.
  • MRI of baby being born: The title sort of speaks for itself, but the image is amazing.  It apparently required a whole new set up for an MRI scanner, but this sort of imaging can provide a wealth of information never previously available.
  • History of Life Expectancy and Wealth: I've seen this graph in a TEDTalk previously, but the 5 minute video and mini-lecture is a better explanation of the data itself.  A cool look at how life really is getting better for most people, dramatically so in the last 150 years.
  • Recognizing Women in Science: A long article that I'm still working through, but so far it's fascinating and well worth the time.  The Royal Society of Britain is celebrating its 350th birthday this year, but women were not allowed to join until 1945.  The article takes a look at what the RS and other scientific societies lost by excluding women (who were already winning international prizes for their work!).
And these articles are about things we could be doing better:
  • Creative Groups: A short list of things to do with groups of people to inspire creativity.  I think his points about group size are incredibly important.  And of course, it all runs back to my devout wish to run a 21st century Parisian salon or British coffee house...
  • Building Your Own Personal Finance Manual: A cool idea, which would never have occurred to me because I'm innately horrified of writing in books.  I would use Smart Couples Finish Rich, if I were to do this.  What would you use?
  • Terry Pratchett on Alzheimer's: An article that reminds us that there are still demons to slay.  If there were ever a reason to encourage your children to become thinkers and researchers and scientists, this is it.
  • Science in the Public's View: I don't necessarily endorse everything this article says, but the overall point is a great one, as shown by the pathetic coverage of NASA's newly discovered arsenic-using life form.  The second bullet point in the article is the scariest to me: 44% of people surveyed could not name a scientist role model; the top three choices of the remainder were not scientists (Bill Gates & Al Gore) or not alive (Albert Einstein).  Stephen Hawking, anyone?  Neil deGrasse Tyson?  Brian Cox?  Brian Greene?  All of whom are regularly featured on news programs and TV specials.  And those are just physicists, for crying out loud...
And last but not least, for sheet entertainment value, this clip about a family dinner date (complete with the man who would go on to play Ward Cleaver), with commentary brought to you by Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Not for the easily offended (i.e. those without a working definition of sarcasm), but very funny for the rest of us.

What about you?  Discovered anything lately that just amazes you beyond words?

06 December 2010

Holiday Charity

I posted a link to this before, but it got lost in the shuffle of a different post: Worldbuilders

Authors are becoming increasingly connected directly to their fans these days.  This is an attempt by an author to harness that power and do some good in the world.  It's hard to call Patrick Rothfuss a favorite author of mine, although I very much enjoyed his fantasy novel, because it's a small statistical sample.  But let's say that his book is awesome (because it is) and that he deserves adulation for setting this up year after year (because it's a huge undertaking and he does).

So what is Worldbuilders?  It's a drive to raise money for Heifer International, a global charity that is predicated on teaching poor and rural people responsible agricultural practices.  They have lots of great info about that on their site, so I won't repeat it here, but suffice to say that this is a charity with a strong systematic outlook.

But!  Worldbuilders is not just about "hand over the cash"!  There are prizes!  Good ones!  Specifically, a lot of rare and/or signed books, plus some miscellaneous items.  These are donated by publishers, authors, readers, and bookstores; the prizes can be seen on the blog linked above.  Most items are put in a lottery; a $10 donation gets you one lottery entry.  Some items are sold directly in their online store.  A few rare items (such as getting your manuscript professionally edited or a signed Brett Favre jersey) are put up for auction on Ebay.  And, thanks to the generosity of Rothfuss and some corporate sponsors, all donations are matched $0.50 on the dollar.  Last year, the final total was over $125,000, which was $190,000+ after sponsor matching, a mind blowing amount for such a distributed group of readers.

In any case, I think this sort of effort deserves a plug.  The lottery fundraiser portion is done on December 13th, but some of the auctions extend beyond that.  If you haven't decided where to put your holiday charity money yet, consider Worldbuilders, where your money is worth 50% more.  The latest blog entry by Patrick Rothfuss gives your odds of winning with a $20 donation at 1 in 8, which are good odds for such cool stuff!

02 December 2010

Gift Lists

After my last post, a friend asked an interesting question:
As far as gifting goes, I'm curious what your thoughts are on that. I've been having the worst time building christmas lists these past few years. Maybe next year, when we're not a DINK household (dual income, no kids), I'll have more wants. Right now, and with our current financial choices, it's difficult to generate a christmas list of reasonably priced items that we haven't already bought for ourselves.
We were a DINK household, too, and it does make a difference.  When I write my Christmas list, it's for me, not for my family, as my husband is quite capable of writing his own list.  Two solid incomes meant we could buy anything we needed while still meeting our financial goals.  Right now, even though I'm doing online tutoring, I still consider us a single income household (my income is wiggle room in the budget).  That does make a huge difference in what we can afford, but as you probably know, we are very careful with our money and are sure to use it where we need it.  Being budget conscious, we also strive to put reasonably priced items on our lists, although we generally include one or two "big" items as well.  I'm not sure how well this thought process will work for everyone, but here's what I did this year.

I mentally and physically break my list into categories.  Yes, I organize my lists.  You're shocked, right?  First, I include the basics: clothes, anything I need, and stores I shop at for gift cards.  Most people that I know hate giving gift cards, but I love receiving them.  It's a great feeling when I do want to go shopping (rare, but it does happen!) and I can do it for free!

The next thing to go on the list is what I think the household/family could use. For instance, this year I have a large "kitchen goods" section.  None of the things on that list are really necessary (hence why I haven't bought them for myself), but they would make my kitchen easier or more fun to use.  The current list includes things like tea spoons, a milk frother, and a recipe box.

After that, it's all individual taste.  I used to ask for tons of stuff but only use a small portion, leading to tremendous clutter.  Now, I try to pay attention to what I actually use in my house and how that could be improved.  For instance, this year I spent a lot of time cooking & baking, exercising, sewing & cross-stitching, drinking tea, and reading.  Hence, there are kitchen & tea accessories, exercise equipment, sewing paraphernalia, and crafting supplies on my list.  For the first time since I was very young, the list only included one video game and three DVDs.  I just don't spend much time playing video games or watching movies any more.

And then of course, there are the books.  *evil grin*  Okay, I actually wasn't that bad.  The list was mostly books in series I've already started or new titles by authors I love.

I'm also trying something new.  Get Rich Slowly had a great post last year about a study showing that good experiences lead to happiness more consistently than good Stuff does.  Based on my experience, especially in the last year, that felt very true to me.  So this year, I also included some "experience" requests, like tickets to the local symphony orchestra.

If that sounds like a lot, remember that this list goes to six different households, all of whom buy gifts separately, and all of whom like to have options, making me sympathize with the need to be creative when writing!

Does your family influence how you write your gift list?  Did you give that up when you got married or reached a certain age?  Do you request them from others or use a different method to choose gifts?  How do you handle gift giving during the holidays?