Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Story

Many an' many a Christmas ago, things were not going well at the North Pole. Santa Claus had a miserable cold. The elves had walked out. Rudolph's nose wouldn't light up. The sleigh had broken runner. Even Mrs. Claus was being {ahem} difficult. Into the middle of all that walked the Littlest Angel, dragging an enormous Christmas tree.

He tugged on Santa's sleeve and said, "Thanta Clauth? THANTA CLAUTH! What shall I do with thith Christmas tree?"

Well, Santa told him what to do with the Christmas tree, and ever since that long-ago Christmas there's been a little angel on top of the Christmas tree.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Instant Chicken Kebabs

I really like grilled chicken kebabs, where chicken breasts have been cut into chunks, marinated in Italian dressing, then grilled.  The grilling takes only 12 minutes, but the preparation is long and messy, so I didn't do this very often.  Another problem is that a modern chicken breast is larger than one serving.  It was that problem that brought me to this "instant" solution.

Buy chicken.  I generally get skinless chicken breasts.  Trim the fat from all of them and cut them into cubes.  You'll get about 1-1/2 pounds of chicken cubes.  Plop the cubes into freezer bags, one serving per bag.  You'll get five servings of just under five ounces, or four six ounce servings.  Squirt a generous amount of Italian dressing into each bag and mostly close the seal.  Squeeze the air out of the bag and seal completely.  Moosh the chicken and marinade around until the chicken is completely coated and refrigerate for a couple of days.  This whole prep operation will take less than 15 minutes.  It's the marinating that makes things "long."

When the chicken is thoroughly marinated, move the bags to the freezer.  The marinating action will stop, and the chicken will keep for several weeks.

When you want grilled chicken kebabs, take out as many servings as you need and thaw them in warm water, right in the bag.  Empty the bags into a shallow bowl, one at a time, and put the chicken cubes on  skewers, one serving each.  Save the marinade in the bowl to pour over the chicken as it grills.

Grill the chicken for about 12 minutes in four three-minute turns.  Pour about half of the the marinade over the chicken after the first turn and the rest after the second turn.  (The marinade contains raw chicken juice, so only use it during the first half of the cooking time.)

If you've prepped and frozen the chicken in advance, you can have grilled chicken kebabs within half an hour of deciding that's what you want for dinner, and with very little mess.

A Rant About Weight

The last package of chicken breasts I bought was stamped 1.86 pounds.  That's 29.76 ounces.  I got 23.6 ounces of chicken cubes out of that, and paid chicken prices for six ounces of water.  I won't name the chain where I bought this because I think it happens everywhere, but know that, unless you buy chicken from a real meat market, 20% of what you're paying for is water!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Books Every College Student Should Have

My people have no tradition of proofreading.  —Ken White

In just a few weeks, thousands of high school graduates will be off to college.  There are five books every college student should have, and you won't find them on any college book list.  If your child, your niece or nephew, your godchild, or the child of a friend is headed for college this fall, you can do the kid a great favor by making a gift of one or more of these books.  If you're feeling expansive, the whole set, including shipping, will cost far less than the cost of a single college textbook

How To Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method G. Polya.  This isn't a "math book."  It's a book about how to think about problems in a way that leads to solutions. To paraphrase the author, if you want to learn to swim, you have to get wet; if you want to learn to solve problems, you have to solve problems.  This book guides the reader through solving problems in a step-by-step fashion.  The goal isn't to solve the particular problems given, but to learn the general approaches. (The Princeton Science Library edition of this book is less expensive than the edition in the link, if you can find it.)

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed Karen Elizabeth Gordon.  The most important ideas that college students – and college graduates – have will be presented in writing.  This book, and the next two, have to do with writing and the use of the English language.  It's a crucial skill because bad writing kills good ideas.  College writing courses often assume that students have learned the basics in elementary and high school.  That isn't always the case, and even when it is, sometimes a refresher is If this is love, I've made a terrible mistake. needed.  If I were asked the difference the future progressive tense and the future perfect progressive, I'd have to turn to my copy of Transitive Vampire.  (Future perfect progressive implies completion at a time in the future.)  This isn't a book about learning the rules, though; it's about using the language effectively.

The examples and accompanying illustrations are ever so slightly risqué.The section on dependent clauses has an engraving of a Victorian maiden holding the paw of a bear and saying, "If  this is love, I've made a terrible mistake."

The Elements of Style (4th Edition) William Strunk and E. B. White.  While Transitive Vampire is about writing correct English, Strunk and White is about writing English with style. It's about how to put words into sentences that convey one's ideas effectively.  The first part of the book consists of 22 rules for effective writing: rules like omit needless words and use the proper case of pronoun.  (If you need a refresher about case, see Transitive Vampire.)  There's a short section on form, followed by a few pages of advice on commonly misused words.  The book concludes with 21 more rules.  This time, they're about style rather than effective writing.  The student should skim this book early on, then refer to it when she has questions.

A Handbook for Scholars Mary-Claire VanLeunen.  This one may be hard to find, but it's worth looking for.  The two books listed above are about writing well, but there are rules for scholarly writing that are different from writing other types of prose.  Sometimes professors assume that students know the rules, and often that's not the case.  The publisher says, "Custom, propriety, and a quest for certainty hem the scholar in on all sides. But while it is necessarily formal, allusive, and accurate, scholarly writing does not have to be – nor should it be – wooden, pedantic, and cryptic."  Van Leunen will help students stay within the rules and avoid the mistakes.

There's a section at the back about preparing manuscripts for publication.  It's out of date in the age of computers and laser printers.  Just ignore it; the rest of the book is worth the price.

The Impoverished Students' Book Of Cookery Drinkery And Housekeepery Jay F. Rosenberg.  I've saved the best for last.  College students do not live on problem solving and writing alone, and the author of this little book realized that early on.  This book was written over fifty years ago when the late Dr. Rosenberg was an undergraduate at Reed College.  Do not let "impoverished" in the title put you off.  The book says, "We may provisionally define an Impoverished Student as an individual who loves to eat, hates to cook, and cannot really afford to do either. It is important to distinguish between the merely Impoverished Student and the really Impoverished Student. The really Impoverished Student is poor!"

This book contains solid advice for the merely Impoverished:  "You cannot afford to buy top quality food, so buy top quality spices.  No one will know the difference."  The recipes can be prepared by a college student with no experience in cookery, are made from inexpensive ingredients like chicken, are at least mostly healthy, and taste good!  There's a sample recipe here.  You will, however, have to caution your Impoverished Student that the prices given in the book are from a half century ago.  At 47 pages, this is the shortest of the books I've recommended; it's really more of a pamphlet than a book.  That may make the $10 price seem high.  Buy it anyway, and take comfort in the fact that 40% of the price goes to the Reed College scholarship fund.



Copyright © 2013 by Bob Brown

Creative Commons License
Books Every College Student Should Have by Bob Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Full disclosure: Some of the links above go to Amazon.  If you buy using those links, I earn a few pennies.  If that bothers you, just go direct to Amazon and search by title or author.  To put this into perspective, my total earnings from the Amazon Associates program over the last five years are one dollar and seventy-six cents.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Rash

A little while ago I came across an insipid little poem, The Dash, by Linda Ellis.  The title refers to the dash between the birth and death dates of someone who is, um, dead, and the theme is that what happens between birth and death is what's important.  Well, duh!  A little poking around turned up the fact that Ellis is, in my opinion, a nasty piece of work who has apparently hired an "Intellectual Property Coordinator" to track down instances of her work and send demands for payment of thousands of dollars for the unauthorized use of that insipid little poem under threat of lawsuit for copyright infringement.

To be sure, the owner of a literary work has the right to prevent others from copying it and to profit from its use.  The usual mechanism of redress is a cease-and-desist letter.  Someone who wanted to make money from a literary work might even offer to license it for a fee commensurate with its worth.  Sending a threat of lawsuit and a demand for thousands in "damages" to the recently bereaved strikes me as legal thuggery.  Ellis reportedly claims copyright in her threatening letters, too, and threatens people who might want to call her out by posting the letters on line.  She reportedly attempts to make a confidentiality agreement part of any settlement, possibly to keep word of her thuggery from getting around.  If this has gotten you steamed up and you want to know more, you can find it here and here and here.  In any case, you should never, ever use The Dash for anything.

With that introduction, I present a different poem, The Rash, by The Poet Laurie Atknott and reproduced here by permission of the author.

The Rash

For it matters not, if this verse rhymes
Or whether the metre fits
Simply by perusing these lines
You'll soon be in the shit

Your loved one's dead; you waved goodbye
With verses that seemed right
Please pay the invoice I'll supply
All legal and polite

After all, we've just one life
And I really need the cash
The problem causing me some strife
Is a nasty little rash...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Be Careful Buying on eBay

First, you already know that saying "be careful buying on eBay" is like saying. "be careful jumping out of airplanes."  Of course you should be careful buying on eBay.  This week I learned about Yet Another thing to be careful of, and it's one that eBay could stop, and would stop if they wanted to protect buyers.  At least as of now, they haven't.  I'm surprised because, without buyers, there'd be no eBay, and I'm sure they're smart enough to know it. If you buy on eBay, and you think this looks too long to read or you already know all about this matter, skip down to Why This is eBay's Fault.

It all started with something I read on the Popehat blog.  Before I get into the details, it is only fair to warn you that Popehat is like crack cocaine; once you try it, you won't be able to stop.

Tale of an eBay Bully

Earlier in the week I read, on Popehat, the tale of Richard A. Radey. Mr. Radey sells used medical equipment on eBay under the name med_express_sales.  Radey and Med Express Sales have very high feedback scores.  The reason is that Radey sues people who have the temerity to leave negative, or even neutral feedback, even if the feedback is clearly truthful.  There's a summary in the Popehat article linked above.  If you want the gory details, you can go the to Clerk of Courts page for Medina County.  After you agree to their terms, type "Med Express" into the business name block and click the search button.  You will likely very quickly form the opinion, as I did, that Radey, in the name of his company, Med Express Sales, is a thug and legal bully.  I'll leave it for you to decide whether Radey made, in his words, "alot" of honest mistakes with postage, or whether he was chiseling the Postal Service out of a buck or so on some packages and letting his customers take the consequences.  You can gauge Radey's truthfulness like this: Read one of the suits he has filed.  It, like the others he has filed, contains a signed statement, made under oath and notarized, stating that he had read the allegations in the suit and believes them to be true. (It's on the fourth page of the PDF document.)  Radey got called out after (accidentally) picking on someone his own size and published a not-pology on Paul Alan Levy's blog in which he attempts to throw his lawyer under a bus by claiming he, Radey, hadn't read the lawsuit.  Both statements cannot be true.

Radey and Med Express Sales are (mis)using the law to silence truthful criticism.  They've gotten away with it many times in the past (see the Medina County court records for the definition of "many") because even someone who is clearly right must defend against bogus suits like Radey's or face a default judgement by the court.  "Defend" means hiring or otherwise arranging for a lawyer in Ohio, having the lawyer file responses to the suit, and potentially traveling to Ohio to testify at a trial.  "Default judgement" means the person who filed the suit wins, only because you didn't defend yourself.  The court can make a monetary award that the defendant is (probably; I am not a lawyer) legally required to pay.  Many of the people who buy on eBay cannot afford to hire lawyers in other states or take the time and money to travel there.  So, the bullies win.

The Bully Meets Someone His Own Size

In the case written about on Popehat, Richard Radey and Med Express Sales picked on someone who could defend herself.  They sued Amy Nicholls of South Carolina.  Doubtless Radey thought he was safe; it's a full day's drive from South Carolina to northern Ohio.  He may have thought somebody from the South wouldn't know what to do about such a suit anyway.  (Full disclosure: I'm a Southerner.)

Surprise! Nicholls knew not to ignore Radey's meritless suit and knew how to get effective legal representation. She's now represented by three very public-spirited attorneys.   Nicholls' lawyers have filed an answer and counterclaim to Radey's meritless suit.  The counterclaim asks Radey and Med Express Sales to pay Nicholls' lawyers and also asks for punitive or exemplary damages.  Radey, in his not-pology, wrote, "I am instructing our attorneys to drop the lawsuit."  Double-surprise! Because of the counterclaim, Radey and his lawyer can't just ask the court to dismiss the case and make everything go away unless Nicholls gives permission.  Without her consent, Radey is going to have to explain his conduct to a judge and explain why he should not be required to pay Nicholls' lawyers and also pay punitive and exemplary  damages.

Beyond that, Richard A. Radey and Med Express sales have discovered the Streisand Effect.  I am probably the hundredth (or more) and possibly the least influential person to write about this case.

That's where things stand on the beautiful spring Saturday on which I'm writing this.  Ken White at Popehat is certainly keeping an eye on things and, if you weren't hooked before you clicked the Popehat link, you are now, so you'll know how it comes out before I do.

Why this is eBay's Fault

So far, this is an interesting story of a bully and someone who stood up to him.  The real story is that this abuse of eBay buyers is eBay's fault. You can read eBay's User Agreement here: http://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/user-agreement.html.  It's long and legalistic, but the fourth major heading, Abusing eBay, gives eBay the right to terminate the account of anyone who violates the user agreement.

EBay also has a policy on feedback extortion.  It is less legalistic, and to my non-legal mind, less clear, but it seems pretty obvious that eBay doesn't want either buyers or sellers threatening each other in order to get positive feedback.  And that seems like a good thing to me.

My first thought on reading the saga of Richard Radey was, "Good.  Now eBay will find out about his behavior and kick him out for feedback extortion."  Didn't happen, at least not yet.

Astonishing as it may seem Radey sued eBay as well as the people leaving negative or neutral feedback. When you sue someone, you must serve them with notice of the lawsuit, and there are legal requirements that describe what "serve notice" means  One cannot just plop the notice of suit "in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, ‘Beware of the Leopard.’

Lawyers who have written about this case have said that eBay almost certainly could not lose such a suit because of the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  In at least one case Radey dropped eBay from the suit after filing.  It doesn't matter.  The point is that eBay had to know that Radey was behaving this way, and they failed to act to protect their buyers. All the blame for the first such suit falls on Radey.  EBay could have acted, within the User Agreement, to protect the rest of the buyers, and they didn't.

Bottom line: as things stand today, eBay has not protected buyers from at least one bullying and litigious seller.

Protecting Yourself

Partial screen shot showing revised feedback line.If eBay won't protect you from bullying, you will have to protect yourself.  Look at the eBay feedback report for med_express_sales. At the right side of the screen, under the tabs for "Feedback as Seller," etc. and just above the pulldown for setting the search period, there's the line, "Revised feedback" followed by a number.  I had never noticed it before, but I now realize that if it is greater than zero or maybe one, it literally screams Danger!  People may make mistakes in feedback, and maybe a negative feedback has caused a seller to reconsider a disputed point.  So, the number might be greater than zero even for an honest seller doing a good job.  However, as things stand today, that number is at least as important as the negative and neutral feedback numbers, maybe more important.

I do not know whether the revised feedback number for Richard Radey includes people he sued and whose feedback eBay removed under court order, or only people whom he bullied into changing their feedback without suing them.  The real number might be greater than eight.

While I am on the subject of advice, my general advice to eBay buyers is to shun any seller with a feedback score of less than 99%.  I now realize that's even more important than I previously thought because feedback scores can be inflated through bullying.

My other bit of advice is to read the negative feedback.  Some buyers are just cranky or spiteful and their feedback should be discounted.  If you actually read the negative feedback and the seller's responses, it will usually be pretty easy to decide whether that feedback is truly an important consideration.

Finally, if you are served with notice of a suit against you, you need a lawyer.  You cannot make that kind of problem go away by ignoring it.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Don't Lend Money to the IRS; Cut Refund Fraud Risk

If you're getting a tax refund, you have given Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. Use the IRS withholding calculator to adjust your withholding so that you expect a refund of less than $100. The calculator is here: http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/IRS-Withholding-Calculator

Now open a savings account at your bank and set up an automatic transfer for the day after every payday in an amount equal to what you cut off your withholding. Your "take-home pay" will be exactly what it was before, it's just that you keep the money, not the IRS. You gain three things from doing this: 1) You start building up a cushion of cash that's available any time, not just at tax refund time. 2) You will earn a tiny bit of interest on the money you are saving. Interest rates are at historic lows, but I still earned enough to buy some tacos and a margarita. 3) You will start to consider that money as "savings," not as a windfall, and you'll be less likely to blow it on something you don't really need.


There's another reason, possibly even more important, to minimize your refund: identity theft refund fraud. The crooks get one's name and Social Security number, file an authentic-looking tax return with a bogus address, and steal your refund.  Worst of all, when you file your own, authentic refund, it's rejected.  You might even incur late filing or late payment penalties if you haven't documented carefully!  If you're getting a small refund, you've dodged any late payment penalty, and perhaps late filing penalties.  And the crooks won't get more than that hundred or so dollars.  Refund fraud through identity theft is a real threat.  The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2013, p. A-15) says this type of fraud is up 650% since 2008.  There were over 650,000 cases outstanding in 2012, and such a case often takes six or more months to resolve.

Early every October, use the withholding calculator again to be sure you're going to get about $100 back when you file. Getting a small refund sets up a "safe harbor" in case you come into some extra money next year that causes you to have to pay Uncle instead of the reverse. (I'm not a tax lawyer, and this isn't tax advice; just common sense.)

Best of all, you can blow that $100 refund on a memorable dinner or an outstanding bottle of wine guilt-free, because most of what you would have lent Uncle interest-free is safely in your bank.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Web Hosting

Fifteen years ago I worked for an employer that allowed me to have a server in their data center and use one of their IP addresses for my personal web pages. I got uninterruptible power, air conditioning, and my own IP address. I had uptime of nearly 100%.

I retired to become a college teacher, which is altogether more personally satisfying, but I lost my "free" data center. Paid-for co-location was out of my price range, especially as a teacher in a state university, and more horsepower than I needed anyway. I tried a couple of shared hosting services, and found a good one, but they sold the business and both reliability and support went down the tubes. I was griping gently to a friend about that and he told me about Rose Hosting. Thinking that it couldn't be worse than what I had, I set up a virtual private server account with them. That was nearly ten years ago. A decade later, the price is the same, and they increased the amount of included disk space for me last year.

It isn't all light and happiness. There's been downtime of up to a couple of hours (but usually much less) several times over the past decade. There was one incident where my server had to be restored from backup, which lost two days of data, in spite of the server having RAID disks. That wasn't a problem for me because I develop on my PC and upload changes, so I just uploaded the changes again. It might have been a problem for others. Considering that I'm paying $20.00 per month, I think what I'm getting is a fantastic value.

Rose Hosting celebrated their eleventh anniversary recently. That means I've been with them almost the whole time they've been in business. I'm likely to stick with them for as long as I need a web server, which is probably another ten years. (I'm getting old, you see...)

They have hosting plans from $4.00 per month on up, so there's likely to be one to suit everybody. If you're looking for good hosting at value prices, please give them a try.

Nope, I didn't get paid, or get a discount, or anything, to write this. My friend Ben did me a favor when he pointed me to Rose Hosting a decade ago, and I'm trying to pass the favor on.