Money: The Root of All Evil?

Some ideas and sayings die hard, even when they are demonstrably wrong. In this case, the saying "money is the root of all evil".

To understand what the saying means, we first need to ask, what is money? Essentially, money is nothing more than a medium of exchange. It is a tool or means of allowing people to engage in indirect exchange instead of direct barter. It is usually considered the most commonly exchanged commodity in a society.

As such, money was developed spontaneously in society by people who were having difficulties engaging in direct barter--money solved a difficult exchange problem and made it easier for people to trade with other people in a more convenient form. Commodities like gold and silver were eventually adopted because they were considered most suitable for use as money, given their particular attributes.

Note that money arose spontaneously out of human need--it was not created by governments. Governments only later appropriated the money-making process, which was originally a private function. Only by government appropriation could we have reached our current situation, where debt-backed paper (Federal Reserve Notes) is considered to be "money". Switching back to a commodity-based money supply would currently be difficult and illegal; government would not allow it if they can help it.

So money is a tool that enables the convenient exchange of goods and services between people. To say that money is the root of all evil is to say that voluntary, indirect exchange between people is evil. To a libertarian, and I hope to most other people, this seems like an absurd thing to say. How can it be evil for me to give someone money in exchange for groceries, clothes, books, or other things that I want and need to live my life? Or for people to give me money in exchange for my labor, goods, or services?

Quite simply, voluntary indirect exchange is about as opposite evil as you can get--nothing has improved people's lives as much as the division of labor made possible by indirect exchange through money. It's true that through theft, fraud, or counterfeiting, some people can get money without producing any beneficial good or service in exchange, but that's a small subset of all economic transactions, and doesn't outweigh the benefits of money or change the moral equation.

It's also true that there are serious problems with our current Federal Reserve system and fractional reserve banking, so much so that some consider the Fed itself to be issuing "counterfeit" money. However, this is not fundamental or inevitable to money, but is simply a problem caused by the politics of government taking over the production of money instead of leaving it in the private sector.

In this light, it should be obvious that money is not the root of all evil, coercive power is. The next time someone brings up this old quote to you, perhaps you should ask them what they mean by "money", and maybe they, too, will see the light.


The Plucked Psaltery, Unusual Musical Instruments, part 3

The plucked psaltery is a simple musical instrument with a basic but pleasing sound. It's basically just a piece of wood with strings running across it, fretted at one end, with tuning pins to tune the strings.

While the origins of the psaltery are unknown, it must go back to at least the medievel period, and possibly as far back as Biblical times. Medieval engravings show a 'hog-nosed' version of the psaltery.

It also goes by other names: lap harp, Music Maker, Melody Maker, Melody harp, etc., but "plucked psaltery" seems to me to be the most basic categorical term for it. It belongs to the more generic category of "zither".

The most common version of it is the Melody Maker, a child's musical instrument often made in Russia or other parts of Eastern Europe. It comes in a trapezoidal shape, like a triangle with one tip cut short, and has 15 strings tuned in the key of G for two octaves, and thus is diatonic, not chromatic.
It's fun and easy to play: just pluck the strings with your fingers or with a guitar pick to make a louder sound. You can play familiar melodies, or with trial and error come up with more interesting sounds. Like most things musical, more practice and more understanding of music helps to make better music.

It's not very loud, so if you want to perform or record with it, you'll need to look into pickups or microphones to do so. One simple reason that it sounds so good is that after plucking a string, you just let it ring out until the vibration stops, or until you want to play the same note again. Thus, you get a warm, reverberating, echo-y type sound as you strike new notes while the older notes are still ringing. You can get a nice, swelling sound by playing several notes rapidly in succession.

It's even possible to dampen unwanted strings and play full chords, autoharp-style, although this is a bit difficult to do manually. Or use both hands to play more than one note at the same time.

The children's versions are pretty cheap, for about $40 or less. In fact, I saw that Wal-Mart now carries a version for under $20. However, some folk music instrument makers (like Craggy Mountain Music) make and sell higher quality instruments for more money. You can also occasionally find a decent one on E-Bay.

I'd recommend getting a cheap one to try out, and if you really like it, then go for a more expensive, quality instrument. It's a good instrument for musical beginners (children and adults) and fun even for more advanced musicians.


The Golden Age of Online Comics

This is the golden age of online comics, or comics on the internet. So now that you know, you too can walk around and say, "Gee, I'm living in the Golden Age of online comics!" Heh.

But seriously, there are tons of online comics, with more being created every day, and they're almost all free! Of course, they vary considerably in their quality and style, from very crude to animation-style to cgi. Some strips are even made from photos or recycled, public domain art.

A lot of them are humor strips, and many combine humor with science fiction, fantasy, or some other genre. Curiously, I find very few super hero strips--maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places?

Many of the traditional syndicated strips are available online, as well. Check out comics.com, for example. However, newspaper syndication has always been difficult to break into, and is probably harder now that newspaper circulation is dwindling. Most online comics will never be seen on newsprint, although one revenue source for online comics artists is to sell collections of their strips.

Some online comics aren't done in the "comic strip" format of a few panels, but are done as full pages, like an online comic book, one page at a time. Girl Genius is like this, for example, but then it originally started as a real comic book before going online. And creator Phil Foglio has done quite of bit of comic book work in the past, too.

One thing that bothers me, though, is the creative limits most online comics artists place on themselves. Scott McCloud has already done two books and several online stories and articles of his own that explore the limits of comics on the web.

For one thing, why have panels or borders at all? Why not just a set of borderless pictures loosely separated by space (or in some cases, overlapping pictures for compression of time or action sequences)? Why should they even be in a straight line? Or another possibility is simply that each picture is a separate web page, and you click on the picture to go to the next picture.

There's always the possibility of animation, as in animated gif's, but I think if you do that too much, you really have an animated film, and not a comic, or sequential art.

And there are no practical limits on story content. Sci fi, mystery, romance, suspense, historical, humor, etc. As an online comic artist, you are free to tell the story or stories that you want to tell, without editorial constraint. Even adult material, although one still needs to be a bit more careful with putting it online.

So, just remember, we're living in the Golden Age of Online Comics. Enjoy!

There's only a few online comics I keep up with every day (I do have to get some work done for my employer!), although there are many that I check up on every now and then:

Diesel Sweeties
Sluggy Freelance
Girl Genius
Starslip Crisis
Chainsaw Suit
F Chords
Station V3

Other comics I occasionally check on:

Lost and Found
Fish Tank
Mansion of E
Penguins with Baseball Bats
I Can't Draw Feet
Marooned: A Space Opera in the Wrong Key
Rocket Llama
Ebb's Children
Silence in the Darkness on Q16
Two Lumps: The Adventures of Ebenezer and Snooch
The Bunny System
General Protection Fault
Anarchy in Your Head

And I come across other new ones every now and then to check out.


Drug policy and the community

For some time now, it has seemed to me that laws against recreational drugs were an attempt to protect people from themselves. This alone makes the drug laws unwarranted, and an immoral intervention into the personal rights and responsibilities of individuals. Furthermore, if we look at the drug abuse problem, it seems obvious to me that either addiction is real, and drug abusers need medical help, or it's not real, and it really is a matter of personal choice. Addiction might undermine personal responsibility, but neither possibility justifies criminal prohibition.

How will jail time and confiscation of personal property help the drug abuser? And why should such penalties be applied to responsible drug users who do not have an abuse problem? Exactly who is being harmed by these activities? Even if you say friends and families are being "harmed", that still doesn't justify the penalties. After all, does it make any sense that the way to save the "destruction of families" is to do just that: destroy the family?

Furthermore, after spending some time with a drug addict who can't seem to help herself, I'm more convinced than ever that criminal prosecution is a stupid way of dealing with the problem. In an old column (from the 90s, IIRC), George Will once wrote about drugs that it was better to have a localized criminal problem than a generalized social problem. Nice try, George, but the trouble with "localized criminal problems" is that they tend to not stay "localized". Even as a criminal problem, it is still also a social problem, but the criminal laws make it harder to deal with as a social problem. Also, these drug laws are diverting law enforcement efforts away from their legitimate function of protecting individual rights, providing us all with less general protection. Thus, the drug laws themselves are hurting society in general.

One other thought has occurred to me, besides the "friends and family" argument. Given that drug users are perceived as unproductive or underproductive members of society ("slackers"), it may be that the justification for drug laws is the productivity of society, that drug users are harming society by not being more productive. This is more of a communitarian argument, and depends upon the belief that the individual must be subservient to the community as a whole, or at least, that individual rights are no greater than the needs or rights of the community as a whole, and need to be balanced.

Once brought out in the open, this argument is easy to demolish. Wasting law enforcement resources on recreational drug users does nothing to make the community more productive. It also assumes that individual rights and society in general are in conflict, which is itself an unexamined and I think unwarranted assumption: the rights of the individual and the interests of the community are properly complementary to each other, and not necessarily antagonistic--the community is simply a bunch of individuals with certain things in common, like locality or interests. Finally, there are plenty of other unproductive or underproductive people in society, and they are not criminalized. In fact, some of them are "rewarded" for being unproductive: welfare recipients, farmer subsidies, corporate bailouts, etc.

The real problem in dealing with the communitarian argument may be making people aware that they are holding these assumptions in their subconscious, and not recognizing them as assumptions.

Ending drug prohibition (the War on Drugs) won't solve the drug problem by itself, but it will stop creating additional, unintended problems for us, making it harder and more intractable for society to deal with. Ending the assumptions about drugs and drug use is a good place to start towards ending drug prohibition.


Laissez-faire and the Financial Crisis

It's funny how so many people are ready to jump on laissez-faire, the free market, or capitalism as the cause of the financial crisis. Exactly when did we have this glorious economic period, anyway? There are regulations too numerous to mention, and of which people are obviously unaware, to believe "deregulation" was the cause of the crisis. If nothing else, the mere existence of the Federal Reserve should disabuse anyone of that notion.

Laissez-faire no more caused the current crisis than it did the Great Depression of the 1930's. Anyone who thinks Herbert Hoover sat on his hands and did nothing when the Crash occurred needs to read some more history. Hoover did quite a bit in trying to deal with the crash. And Hoover himself was no big fan of laissez-faire, and says so in his book The Challenge to Liberty. When Franklin Roosevelt took office, he did the same basic things that Hoover did, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, since they were both unwilling to admit how much the Federal Reserve, created in 1913, had to do with the problem, their actions were useless at best, and most likely helped to prolong the Depression, instead of ending it.

The Fed made possible the Roaring 20s, the biggest boom this country had ever seen, but it was unsustainable, created by the Fed's loose money and easy credit policies. Austrian Economics describes this problem as part of their theory on business cycles. The bust we know as the Great Depression necessarily had to follow so that the market could correct the malinvestment created by the Fed's policies.

These same policies have cursed us over the decades since then, giving us continual (although gradual) inflation that has degraded the value of our money and earnings, and created other boom and bust cycles, though not as big as the one of the 20s and 30s.

The dot com bubble of the 90's was one such boom/bust period, and now the housing bubble of the 2000's is just the latest boom and bust that we are experiencing as the financial crisis.

Without understanding the causes of the financial crisis, especially the Fed's part in it, neither Obama nor McCain will be able to fix the problem, any more than Hoover or FDR were able to fix the Depression.

Why do people want to blame laissez-faire, free market capitalism? I can most charitably conclude that it stems from a misunderstanding of laissez-faire. The essential argument they make is that the Fed and the federal regulators allowed the banks and Wall Street too much unregulated freedom to operate, and didn't properly constrain them when they made bad decisions. And yet, even if that were true, they were still protected from the consequences of their bad decisions, as government regulation was still in place to back them up or bail them out.

This freedom without responsibility is license, made possible by government regulations, not the lack of regulation. In a laissez-faire, free market capitalist economy, freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand. Businesses would be free to make decisions, but would suffer the consequences of bad decisions, usually in the form of losses. The losses would tell them to change their policies, or else risk going out of business and letting other businesses take over their assets. They would not be able to socialize their losses as government is allowing them to do now.

Technically, I suppose government license, protection, or subsidy should not be considered government "regulation" the way other government rules and regulations are, but nonetheless, it would not be possible without government policies and power. This crisis could not have occurred in a true laissez-faire, free market capitalist economy, and this is true even if we accept the arguments about "deregulation" leading to the crisis. Governments allowing license or freedom without responsibility is no better than governments requiring burdensome regulation (responsibility) without freedom.


The Melodica - Unusual musical instruments, part 2

The melodica is an interesting musical instrument. A combination wind/keyboard instrument, you select your notes or chords with the keyboard and blow through the mouthpiece to make sound. You generally just hold it up to your mouth, sort of like a trumpet, although they usually come with a long tube you can use so that you can hold it away from you (easier to see the keys you're playing), or set it down on a table to play two-handed instead of with just one hand.

It has a harmonica-type sound, because internally, it has reeds that vibrate from your breath, like a harmonica. With the keyboard, though, you can do more complex things than a harmonica: complex melody lines or unusual chords or clusters.

Since it's a wind instrument, breath is important. It takes more air to play lower notes (thicker reeds?) or chords, so a good lung capacity is helpful--or else plenty of breaks in the music to catch your breath. Since you need to press the keys AND blow air through it, you can do different things with your technique depending upon how you combine the key presses and air blows. Unfortunately, it's hard to do pitch bends. You can kind of fake it with partial key presses, but doing tremolo with your breath is pretty easy.

While the melodica can be fun to play, the reeds frankly give it a cheesy kind of sound. It seems to me that it takes more effort to make it "musical". Still, it never hurts to have another sound you can throw into the mix, or if you need to "fake" a harmonica. I especially like using it as a rhythm instrument with complex chords, but that's just me.

Be sure to check out the link on the title for more information.


An Open Letter to the State of Oklahoma

The general election is getting close, and I thought I should say something about it:

An Open Letter to the State of Oklahoma:

Dear Oklahoma,

Once again, just as in 2004, I am forced to either voter for the lesser of two evils, or abstain from voting. I can vote for Barak Obama of the Democrat party, or for John McCain of the Republican party, but I cannot vote for Libertarian Bob Barr, Independent Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, Constitution Party candidate Charles Baldwin, Independent Alan Keyes, nor any of the other, lesser known candidates. No Oklahoman can. In fact, Oklahoma is the only state that will not have any other presidential candidates on the ballot. Oklahoma doesn't even allow write-ins.

I must say, I find this very frustrating. Why am I and others to be denied a candidate who truly represents our views? Other states have eased their ballot access requirements, so why not Oklahoma? Is Oklahoma really such a restrictive and exclusive state when it comes to politics?

I know that you're very zealous of the Two-Party system, but remember that two is only one more than one. As issues like the Iraq war and the financial crisis should make clear, the two major parties really aren't offering us much in the way of policy differences. If democracy is really about the freedom to choose, then why are you restricting our choices so dramatically? Clearly, having the vote isn't nearly as powerful as being able to select who or what the people are allowed to vote for.

As children, we are raised to believe that we live in a free country, but excessive restrictions and regulations do not constitute freedom, no matter how free one is to complain about them. This is never more obvious than when the restrictions apply to the electoral system. The state constitution promises Oklahomans free and open elections, and every election cycle, you break this promise. The pre-1974 restrictions were tolerable, although they were still restrictions on elections. Since 1974, you've deliberately gone out of your way to make it excessively difficult for third parties to gain ballot access. With tremendous efforts, they have sometimes been able to get on the ballot, but the resources wasted on gaining ballot access ensure that they have little left to spread their message to the voters.

This is nothing but a protection scheme for tired, failed policies that offer nothing new to the voters. Have you not wondered why more and more Oklahomans are registering as Indepedents, instead of staying with the "protected" major parties? Voting in a primary election is no big deal unless you actually care about who the candidate is for a particular party.

I like Oklahoma. I was born and raised here, so it has enormous sentimental value to me. It also has a relatively low cost of living without sacrificing too much in the quality of life. But I fear that your restrictive policies are holding us back, and keeping Oklahomans from being all that they can be. There is no good reason for Oklahoma to be the worst state in the union for ballot access. It is too late for this election cycle--2008 is practically history, now. But it is never too late to make improvements for the future.


Food, Digestion, and human waste products

And now, instead of more grumbling about government's handling of the economy, something completely different. I'll try not to get too scatalogical in today's post. The human body is an incredibly sophisticated, complex organism. Humans are omnivores, capable of eating a wide variety of things for food sources. Anything we eat or drink that the body cannot use passes through the body and is exited as either liquid or solid waste. But what if you could eat only food sources that the body could completely use?

If there was no unnecessary food item in your diet, then you would not need to go to the restroom. Is such a food possible? Is it desirable?

To make it possible, you would need to eat the right kind of food products, the kind your body can effectively and efficiently make use of, and you would need to eat the right amount that your body needs. I suppose if you ate more, your body could save some of it as fat instead of getting rid of it, but that's not especially desirable either.

I don't think there are any 'natural' foods that wouldn't produce waste. Certainly, switching to a low carb diet has changed my own waste. So I imagine that we would need to come up with some kind of processed food to be the "perfect", waste-free food. That would entail knowing exactly what the body needs and doesn't need so that we can avoid what we don't need. I don't think the nutrition experts know enough about the human diet to do that. At least not yet. And it would be complicated by the fact that your body needs different things at different times, so it wouldn't just be a static variable every time.

Of course, even if it's possible, there's the question of how desirable it is. It seems pretty obvious to me that we could save time, water, and toilet paper (and have fewer plumbing problems) if we didn't need to go to the restroom. You'd never again be standing in line or waiting somewhere, squirming in discomfort until you were free. That seems pretty desirable to me.

However, what would happen to your body without passing waste products? Think of fiber, for instance. People are encouraged to eat more fiber so that they will be more "regular", but other than that, I don't think the body has much use for fiber. That's why fiber can be subtracted when calculating "net carbs" in a diet--the fiber doesn't count. Of course, if you don't have anything else to pass, then you'd be doing nothing but eating fiber to pass fiber through your body, which seems pointless.

Nonetheless, your intestines, kidneys, etc. might need some occasional waste to process to keep them functioning properly. I'm not sure medical science knows enough to say for sure (or maybe nobody's asked them such a silly question!).

This is just one of those weird ideas I come up with every now and then. I don't have any answers for it. Maybe you do.


Our Next President and the Bailout

Both McCain and Obama voted FOR the financial bailout. Hey, one of these guys is going to be our next president! Which financial genius will it be? And where's the REAL opposition candidate? Oh yeah, ballot access laws are designed to keep them off or drain their funds so that they can't really put up a decent campaign.

Our alleged Two-Party system is looking more and more like One-Party every day. When we have no real choice, will Americans finally wake up and admit that the system itself is not merely broken, but fundamentally flawed?


On the Financial Bailout Vote and Certain Responses

This Reuters article on the bailout vote, Conservatives stand firm on opposition to bailout, gives me mixed feelings. Yes, it's good that they opposed the bailout, but the vote was a little too close for comfort. This part especially troubles me:

"Conservatives strongly oppose the rescue plan proposed last week by U.S. President George W. Bush, arguing that it amounts to government intervention in the free market and would misspend taxpayer money to help big banks."

Uh, yes, it would be misspending taxpayer money, but what La-La Land are these conservative politicians living in if they think we currently have a free market? It's good that conservatives are voting against Bush, but it still seems that they don't really understand the problem in the first place, except for Congressman Ron Paul. It was the previous interventions in the free market that got us into this situation. Remember the Federal Reserve? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Subprime mortgages and fancy financial derivatives?

The article also quotes talk show host Neal Boortz as saying "I'm not particularly distressed that the bailout bill did not pass. I want to see this thing (the bill) flesh itself out a little over a period of days."

Um, what? This alleged "libertarian" simply wants a better bailout bill to be passed? How about "No bailout", Mr. Boortz? How about "Let them fail," Mr. Boortz? Are you one of those so-called "vulgar libertarians" I keep hearing about?

Oh well. If nothing else, it makes for good comedy. I suspect we will need it in the days to come.


Financial Bailout Nonsense

Okay, okay, the big news lately is about the financial bailout package Congress and the President are trying to work out. In my opinion, this is a big mistake. We shouldn't be bailing out businesses for making bad business decisions, but letting them suffer the consequences of their actions. Instead, our government wants to make everybody pay for their mistakes. "They're too big to fail", they say. Nonsense, no company is too big to fail.

More importantly is how we got into this mess. Ultimately, it boils down to the Federal Reserve's policy of inflation and artificially low interest rates. By manipulating the money supply and keeping credit cheap, the markets were led into making business decisions that would not have been considered profitable at the true market interest rate.

The housing boom is a perfect example of this. Subprime mortgages would never have happened if lenders didn't have the support and guarantees of government to back them up. But they did, so they allowed people who really couldn't afford to buy houses to buy them, and put stress on the system when these people learned the hard way that they couldn't afford to buy houses. But why bail out the lenders? Why not bail out the homeowners directly? It still wouldn't be a good idea, but the fact that they don't do it goes to show who will actually benefit from the bailout--not the end consumers, but the financial firms who made the bad decisions.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are GSE's that wouldn't even exist on a true free market. On a free market, businesses that make good business decisions are able to win more consumers (by satisfying them) and earning bigger profits that can be reinvested in the company to improve or expand the company. Businesses that make bad decisions end up losing money (i.e., they are failing to satisfy their customers), which tells them they need to make changes or else go out of business. The assets of businesses that go out of business are purchased by better-run businesses that then put those assets to better use. That's how it's supposed to work.

The bailout will reward businesses for bad decisions, and punish the better-run companies for not making the same bad decisions. The bailout will do that by the same means that got us into this mess in the first place: increasing the money supply and keeping interest rates artificially low. That's not going to fix the problem, merely prolong the problem. The market needs to correct for the bad business decisions, not prolong the bad business decisions.

The financial crisis is the direct result of government intervention in the economy, not capitalism, and the bailout is more government interventionism and will not solve the problem.

Of course, this is all my opinion and assertion. For more extensive information, check out "The Bailout Reader" at the Mises Institute website: http://mises.org/story/3128


Low Carb Diets

So I looked into the Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets. It makes a certain amount of sense to me, although I'm not sure if it really works. After reading one of the Atkins books, I decided to try a low-carb diet, although I'm not specifically following the Atkins plan. I have lost some weight, and I'm back under 200 pounds, but I've plateaued at 190 pounds. At 5'7", I figure I should be closer to 160 than 190, but I'll settle for feeling good about myself.

What I find interesting about Atkins is the idea that carbohydrates are what make you fat, not fat or just too many calories. That is, the body uses carbs for energy, and any carbs that it doesn't need for energy are turned into fat. While food fat and proteins can be used by the body for energy, the body supposedly doesn't turn the excess into body fat, but simply flushes them from the system as waste products. Thus, if you cut back on carbs so that you eat less of them than you need for energy, then you should lose weight, and the energy requirements not fulfilled by carbs will be made up by protein and fat in your diet.

Is it true? I don't know, but like the cartoon cat said, "Dat sounds logical." I've been doing low-carb for a little over 3 months, now, and while I have lost some weight, I still haven't lost as much as I expected to. It's true that my, ahem, solid waste has increased, so I suspect that my body really is passing excess fat and protein from the body.

And of course, I have other caveats: I'm not counting calories or even carbs, and I weigh myself rather infrequently, so while I've certainly cut out a lot of pasta, bread, potatoes, potato chips, candy, and other sources of carbs, it's still possible I'm getting more carbs than I think I am. And as a desk jockey, I don't really get too much exercise, although I take the Kickbike to work every day, and on weekends I have a friend that likes to go walking. So it's entirely possible I'm not sticking as close to the diet as I ought to be.

If the above explanation for low-carb diets isn't true, then what is true about low-carb diets? One explanation is simply that high carb foods are less calorie-dense, while low-carb foods are more calorie-(and nutrition) dense, and thus, you fill up faster eating the low carb foods. That is, you'll feel full faster by eating steak and broccoli than by eating pasta and potatoes. Maybe so, but it's been hard for me to notice any difference like that in my own personal experience.

Another 'explanation' comes from the Paleo diet, a low-carb variation. Basically, the Paleo diet suggests that early man didn't have easy access to high carb foods, and thus, his body was more adapted to a low-carb diet of meat, eggs, nuts & berries, and the like, and not enough time has passed since the development of agriculture for humans to adapt to a higher-carb diet. Possible, but I tend to be skeptical of evolutionary explanations for modern issues.

However, the Paleo explanation does bring up another interesting angle. The human population started drastically increasing with the development of agriculture. Why? Agricultural farming was a productivity increase--people could start counting on a steady supply of cheap food and had to worry less about when they could eat again (note that another aspect of Paleo dieting is intermittent fasting, as early man couldn't always eat regular meals). With agriculture came the development of "staple" foods, or foods that provided basic sustenance to the population: grains, rice, potatoes, beans.

Thus, the development of agricultural staples, along with the low-carb explanation, helps explain obesity in poor people in modern developed societies. When I was younger, it seemed to me that fat was cheap. I was wrong, but not completely: carbs are cheap, not fat, and poor people who stretch their food budget with excessive carbs may tend to be fatter than normal.

Dr. Atkins also suggested that our modern, high-carb diet is responsible for the increase in Type 2 Diabetes in our society. High carb foods tend to also have a high glycemic index, which, when consumed, tends to increase the production of insulin in the body to deal with them. This tends to put stress on the body and increases the chances of insulin resistance, and insulin levels being all out of whack, and thus, diabetes. Yeah, I'm not being scientific in my explanation, but check out an Atkins site for more detailed info.

Simply put, carbs are cheap, but the body doesn't handle them too well. Thus, a high-carb diet results in poor nutrition, obesity, and diabetes. Several of these links seem to go together, so I think it makes a lot of sense. It certainly makes more sense than the gobbledy-gook the nutritional 'experts' keep feeding us. Does anybody really believe the Food Pyramid is the key to a good, nutritional diet? What's lacking is good, solid proof, either way, so the jury is still out.

Nonetheless, even if you don't want to start a low-carb diet, it probably wouldn't hurt to cut back on the junk food in your diet--we all probably get way too much sugar in our foods, especially in the processed foods. And sugar is a carb. But if the low-carb people are right, we have much more to fear from carbs than from fat.


Olympics 2008

Olympics, Olympics, Olympics! It's hard to avoid the Olympic games right now, even if you're not into sports. But what really gets me is the nationalistic jingoism that surrounds it. People want to criticize China for making such a big deal out of hosting it, but other host nations, including the U.S., also make a big deal about it.

And yet, why do people get all nationalistic about it? I mean, these are presumably the top amateur athletes that a nation has to offer in the competitions, meaning these are exceptional people, not ordinary people who are representative of their nation. So an American wins the gold in some particular event? It doesn't mean that I'm (as an American) a particularly gifted athlete, or that Americans in general are especially athletic. All it means is that one person is the best athlete in that event at that time, and he just happens to be from the United States. A Chinese athlete winning the gold doesn't make China a better (or worse) place, either. So all this nationalistic furor seems way over the top for me.

If anything, the Olympics are supposed to be above politics and nationalism, a chance for people to come together and celebrate the best that humanity as a whole has to offer, and to show the best that people can be. A win by an athlete from any country is a win for all of us.


Williams Keytar - Unusual musical instruments, part 1

I got a Williams Keytar, the V-1 model! Why? After playing around with autoharps, zithers, bulbul tarangs and other strange instruments, I still longed for the perfect combination of strings and keys. While I'm not sure this is the perfect combination, it's a lot closer than anything else I've come across.

How to describe the Williams Keyboard Guitar? Well, it's like a guitar, but instead of a fretboard for selecting notes and chords, you have an actual keyboard instead. The V-1 has 12 strings and keys, from C3-B3, so you can finger any possible chord type, although you have to settle for inversions of some chords to do it.

Like the Bulbul Tarang, pressing a key pushes a string down onto a metal platform and "frets" the string to that pitch. Unlike the Tarang, pressing a key only frets one string (one key per string), not all the strings, and thus allows for true polyphonic playing that the "Indian Banjo" is incapable of. Simply pushing the key down like that makes a sound, but you get a louder sound if you strum the string(s) at the same time. In fact, you can use the difference in volume to create complex rhythmic patterns.

Thanks to the strings, you get a very guitar-like sound out of it, even though you don't usually get the actual guitar voicings. Run it through some guitar effects, and you can get some very cool sounds and noises out of it. Chorus, reverb, distortion, any effect that you'd put on a guitar.

Because any unplayed strings are dampened, strumming the strings can give you that "washboard" effect. While that could be distracting, I think it adds interesting "guitar-like" noise to the sound. However, the effect can be lessened by playing more complex, four-note chords instead of simpler three-note triads.

Like I said, you can make sound simply by pressing the keys, and thus, can play melodic or harmonic lines as well as chords, but because the volume is lower than by strumming, and because you're limited to a 12-note range, the Keytar is not well-suited to soloing. The V-2 model has a 2-octave/24 string range, which would help there.

The default strings are pretty thin, though. The four lowest strings are .023 and sound pretty good, but the eight higher strings are all .009's. One of the first things I did was buy some heavier loop end strings to replace the .009's. I got a couple of .012's, .015's, .017's and .020's. I figured I would lay them out from highest and thinnest to lowest and thickest. Alas, I suck at changing strings, and ended up breaking a few while trying to get them on and tuned up. I ended up keeping 3 of the .009's so I would still have all twelve playable strings. But I do think the heavier strings help give it a meatier sound--I'll go get some more strings and try again to finish re-stringing it.

When I first saw pictures of the Williams Keytar, I figured playing it guitar-style with the strap over your shoulder would be awkward. I was right. It can be done, but it's really easier to play it sitting on your lap, or simply laying it flat on a keyboard stand and play standing up.

I don't know about that triangle-shaped, aluminum body, though, and I do wish they had some other colors for it. I suppose the aluminum body made it easier to do the precision machining and put it together, but I'd still like to see a solid wood body with some nice curves on it. The aluminum with the sharp edges just seems too harsh, although I suppose it could be considered a plus for metal or thrash musicians.

All in all, I'm really enjoying playing the Williams Keytar, and expect to start writing and recording with it pretty soon. I'd also like to get the V-2, but at $999, it'll have to wait a while. If I could just get someone else to do the re-stringing for me! ;-)


Kickbikes, or an adult push scooter

Ever had a scooter when you were a kid? You know, two wheels, handlebars, and a running board you stood on. You pushed with your foot and rolled along. Well, now there's an increasing number of adult versions of this.

I had come across a kid's scooter a few years ago at the thrift store, and got it because it seemed interesting. It had a 14" front wheel and 12.5" back wheel, and was actually big enough for an adult. I'm still not sure if the 14" was standard, or if someone added it on after the fact. I fixed it up and tried it a little, but it never seemed too impressive.

However, it occurred to me that it might roll better and faster if it had even larger wheels on it. I eventually found such a device on the internet, or actually two of them. One is called a Kickbike (http://www.kickbike.com/), and another one is called a Sidewalker (http://www.sidewalkerscooters.com/). In fact, at Sidewalker scooters, they have a 26" model, a 20" model, and the more traditional 12" model, while the Kickbike models are all 26" or 28".

It took me a while, because of my limited budget, but I just recently got a Kickbike from Kickbike America, the City Cruiser model, with fenders and a basket. Frankly, I really wanted a model with wider, mountain bike tires (because city streets around here aren't all that good), but I still wanted the fenders and basket as well. I just ended up getting the cheaper model.

All in all, I'm pretty happy with my purchase. It really is fun to ride, although I must stress that it's not quite as fast as a regular bicycle, and not quite as easy--it takes more effort, which is probably why the sites advertise it as a good way to get exercise. Other factors that I like are no gears, no chain, and no pedals. This simplifies the mechanical operation and the maintenance on it--you only have to worry about the wheels, tires, and brakes.

There is apparently a certain following for these in Europe, but there also seems to be an increasing interest in the US, although certainly not enough for any local place to sell these. I got mine from Kickbike America (http://www.kickbikeamerica.com/), or the Sidewalkers are available from http://www.sidewalkerusa.com/. More recently, a third brand of these scooters is now available at http://www.footbikeusa.com/.

I've taken mine to the local parks, including Tulsa's River Parks trail, and the occasional back lot or street with a good hill. Mostly, though, I've started commuting to work on it. Fortunately, my current job is only a little over a mile away from my home, and only takes about ten minutes to travel. I've certainly gotten my fair share of stares, smiles, and questions from people about it. I suspect that I'm the first person in Tulsa to get one. Okay, sometimes I feel a little silly on it, but I usually get over that by enjoying the ride. There's nothing like getting on a downhill slope, even a gradual one, and just coasting all the way down it.

As I said, these can't quite match up to a good bike in speed or distance, so don't expect to zip past any but the slower bicyclists or kid's bikes. However, the kickbike is certainly much faster than walking. It's good for shorter trips (less than five miles), and is especially good where you might make frequent stops, like window shopping, at a park, or scenic viewpoints.

I especially got the City Cruiser because it came with a basket, but the basket is slightly smaller than a standard bike basket. I'll probably end up replacing it with a standard bike basket, or the Bell removable basket. You could conceivably put a front rack on it, like a bike, but a back rack would be harder to do, and could interfere with your legs when kicking.

I was worried about locking the kickbike up when going somewhere, because from the pictures, it didn't look like there was any good way to run a chain through it except for the wheels. In fact, there is a loop in the frame right near the back wheel, so I run my cable through that as well as through the rear wheel (the front is too far away) to lock it up.

Last, but not least, I'd like to get a second one, or actually, I'd like to get a Footbike, because they have a nice pearl blue color option that I really like. Plus, I'd like to be able to go scootering with a friend or companion, and not just by myself.


Checks in the mail

I don't write checks very often anymore, and I don't usually carry much cash on me. I pay for most things with my check card (debit card), usually by running it through VISA as a credit transaction. I can pay most of my bills online now. So I don't write checks very often.

I still have the occasional bill or payment that requires a check, so I finally got low enough on my starter checks that I decided to order a new batch of checks. I went to Checks Unlimited and found the type I had used on a previous account and liked so much (Autumn Leaf). I submitted my order, and a couple of weeks later got the checks in the mail.

What was different this time, though, is that they send you a relatively flat package instead of boxes of checks. They say this is so they won't be obvious to thieves as check boxes. Here's the interesting part, though. They include flat, unfolded check boxes, so you can fold the boxes into shape and store your checks in them.

Frankly, the package they sent the checks in is pretty sturdy, and I wouldn't mind just storing them in that. But I couldn't resist putting the boxes together, so I sorted out the checks and stuck them in the boxes numerically. A relatively simple activity, but still one of those slightly time-consuming activities when you have nothing better to do.

It's not quite as elaborate as these Phillip-Morris mailings I occasionally get. Somehow I ended up on their mailing list, and they started sending me stuff. Colorful, extravagant, fold-outs, boxes, flaps, and other interesting things. Once I got a free cd, but it was nothing I was terribly interested in. But for the most part, their mailings don't provide any activity as useful as the check boxes. Ah, well, back to a real hobby, like blogging.


Robin Hood

Mill Creek Entertainment, a company best-known for its cheap dvd's, has just recently released the complete first season of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1950's television show that starred Richard Greene:

I had seen a few of the episodes and greatly enjoyed them, in spite of their half-hour length and being in black and white. I picked up this collection at 'evil' Wal-mart for five bucks and have been watching these early episodes in chronological order. These are fun shows to watch, and they stayed fairly close to the legend of Robin Hood.

Everybody knows about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. They stole from the rich and gave to the poor, right? Well, not exactly. They didn't steal from the rich merely because they were rich, but because they gained their riches unjustly. Robin and his men helped those who were being wronged or too heavily taxed by Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Thus, some libertarians see Robin Hood as a good guy. And to a large degree, I suppose we can consider him to be so. Still, we should probably consider just what Robin Hood was trying to defend. Prince John was the brother of King Richard, and John was ruling in Richard's absence. Robin was fighting against John's corruption and evil, and the sheriff was his best-known enforcer of John's laws and taxes. And yet, John was the rightful ruler in Richard's absence. And why was Richard absent? Because he was away on the continent fighting in the Crusades against Muslims! Perhaps the heavy taxes were necessary to pay for Richard and his army while they were fighting. And Robin himself is usually considered to be one of Richard's knights who, for one reason or another, had to leave the Crusades and return home.

Basically, though, Robin was awaiting the time when 'good' King Richard returned from the Crusades and once again ruled justly over his people. So, according to Robin, good government is just a matter of having the 'right people' in rule. That doesn't seem too libertarian to me.

Of course, like most legends, the legend of Robin Hood grew and changed over time. Many of the legend's best known features came much later in history, and the earliest stories of Robin Hood bear little resemblance to the portrayals by Errol Flynn or Richard Greene. More about the legend and history can be found on the link in the title of this post, or at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood

I've also seen the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks silent film Robin Hood, and it was really quite impressive for its time. Well worth watching if you like Robin Hood.


Say "emulsified"!

If you read "The Little Things", you'll remember that I talked about the difference between individually wrapped slices of American cheese and sliced cheese that's not individually wrapped.
Wikipedia comes through to explain the difference:

The individually wrapped cheese slices are typically the least like natural cheese. These "slices" are actually individually poured onto each plastic wrapper and then set to emulsify. Small (e.g., 16 to 36 slice) blocks of presliced, but not individually-wrapped, American Cheese are also marketed, often with the branding "deluxe" or "old fashioned".

Viva, la difference! You can go to the linked article for the full story on American cheese.


Free Money - A Stimulating Package

It's been a while since I wrote anything except in my favorite on-line forums, but I recently wrote this article about the Stimulus package Americans are supposed to be getting. At this point, I'm not sure it's going to be officially published anywhere, so I figured I'd post it here.
Free Money!

Oh, boy! In May, thanks to the stimulus package, the federal government will be sending out checks to most Americans in the $300 - $600 range, to be spent on whatever you want. Woo-hoo, free money!

Or is it free? Just where is all this money going to come from? Well, government gets its money from three sources: taxes, borrowing, and printing.

If they're going to pay for it with taxes, and they're not taxing us now (that would defeat the point of the "stimulus" package), then they must be planning to take it out of future taxes. But if they don't cut government spending somewhere, the only way taxes can pay for it is by raising taxes.

If they're going to borrow more money (through Treasury Bills, bonds, etc), they won't have to raise taxes. But the federal government is already borrowed to the hilt. The national debt continues to increase every year, especially for our out-of-control military spending, and the debt is so massive that other countries are losing faith in the U.S. dollar, which is why the dollar is being devalued compared to other currencies. How much more can they borrow if fewer people believe that the goverment (and taxpayers) will pay it back? Governments can't really go bankrupt, but they can sure do a lot of harm to the economy while trying to.

Lastly, they can print more money. Or they could, except that under the current system, the Federal Reserve and not the government decides how much money should be added to the economy. The law could be changed, but that would be considered a rather drastic change to our financial system. Since its creation in 1913, the Fed has had a nasty habit of increasing our money supply every year, and thus devaluing our earnings and savings, while trying to offer artificial and unsustainable "boosts" to the economy.

In fact, what the Fed does is much like what the current administration is hoping to do with the stimulus package. Like eating a candy bar, the "sugar rush" of the extra money will help temporarily, but without the means to sustain it, there will necessarily be a corresponding fall or crash.

Sustainable economic growth requires balancing supply and demand. Production must be geared towards satisfying consumers' most urgent wants first, and to their less urgent wants secondarily. Consumers tell producers what to produce not only by what they're willing to buy, but by what they're not willing to buy, and by how much money they're willing to save and invest instead of spending right away. Prices are the means of conveying this information to producers, including the "prices" of interest rates.

Interventions in the economy in the form of easy credit, increased money supplies, or stimulus packages are unsustainable because they upset the balance between supply and demand, not improve it. Once the balance is upset, the economy necessarily has to reconfigure itself and find a new equilibrium, a new point of balance. The result of intervention is a zero sum game, with both net winners and net losers to make up the balance.

The best thing Americans can do with their stimulus check is not to spend it, but to use it towards their debt. Or, if you're one of the few Americans not in debt, invest the money. If we do that, the "boost" to the economy may not be as great, but the inevitable crash that follows won't be as great, either.