Monday, July 29, 2013

Can you really keep your autistic child eating healthy? Gluten-free, casein-free, sugar-free?

I invite other parents of autistic kids to share their experiences here (see the bottom of the post). 
I recently reviewed this book by Dr. Mary Herbert recommending dietary changes for kids with autism. Read my many criticisms of the book, but one can't deny that some kids see changes when their parents experiment with different diets. We're blessed that our son isn't terribly picky, particularly when he's hungry. He also doesn't have celiac disease or any digestive issues. We try to put a rainbow on his plate all day (because that's what we eat). We focus on whole grains, fruit and nuts, green vegetables, and try to get him some lean chicken and such. We rarely give him candy or other high-refined-sugar "treats." But it happens. For example, when we eat out he eats a Happy Meal while we eat salads.

The book above gives a (sensational) example of a child on a gluten-free diet who must be rushed to the emergency room after her grandmother unknowingly gave her some dinner with a gluten product. The implication of the example is that even small doses of harmful stuff matter. But America is the land of processed meat and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

So, is it possible in a life stage of public school and birthday parties to totally go off gluten, processed meat, high fructose corn syrup, etc. with our son? If he gets just a little, how much is too much? How do other parents answer that question?

My two examples that lead me to say "I don't think it's possible to be ____-free":
Elias attended a summer program for special needs kids sponsored by the county school system. There were a lot of autistic kids there, the teachers and helpers had special education expertise. Every day they had a snack, which were donated by the parents based on a list given by the teachers. It included lemonade drink mix, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers (despite signs on the school door about no peanut products being allowed on-premises) and cookies. They took a weekly field trip for a snack-- once to a donut shop, another to Sonic. Elias loved it, of course, but it's not exactly healthy, and not quite what I'd expect from special education specialists if diet matters in the behavior of kids. If these adults are giving my child that kind of food, how about someone untrained?

Yesterday at church, kids in the children's session were given marshmallows and other candy. When he saw the bag Elias immediately said "I want a marshmallow!" which he repeated several times. He doesn't know what's good for him, only what he wants. And most volunteer adults in a situation as the teacher yesterday would, of course, give it to him. Otherwise, he's the one left out (or I'm the adult in the room who becomes the "bad guy"). So, I let him do the marshmallows but intercepted the other candy. Had I not been there, who knows? (I don't blame the volunteer, she was only following the prescribed Sunday school curriculum to give out marshmallows. Our society makes it hard to present kids with healthy choices.)

If we want to be hard-core with our nutrition boundaries, we have to more forcefully advocate -- send Elias to school with his own food, which the teacher would probably have to take the time to help him open and eat; supply a note to every church we visit not to feed our child during their services, etc. In short, we'd have to be "those parents." Our son would have to be even more different than he already is, which bothers me most. It seems a high opportunity cost. So, what do we send him with? How long do we do that? 

Anyone want to contribute their experiences?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review (#15 of 2013) Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (Vol. 2) by John Lloyd Stephens (1838)

See my review of Volume 1 here. Download the entire book here.

John Lloyd Stephens was an American treasure, one of the greatest American explorers. One has to admire his boldness, traveling without a great deal of plans and leaving his fortunes to chance and the hospitality of strangers. I've done that a bit myself, but not in the vastly underdeveloped days of the 1830s.

I enjoyed Volume 1 the best; there is much less excitement in Volume 2. Means of transportation is the hardest thing for the modern reader to comprehend, but is the centerpiece of this book as Stephen travels Eastern Europe on long carriage rides. Stephens and his fellow travelers, (he picks up a new one at each destination), hire a coach and a servant/driver, then are left at the mercy of the post houses, all of which are operated by Jews. It seems commonly accepted that these Jews were out to cheat the traveler, particularly foreigners, and Stephens' disdain comes through clearly.
Many of the words of vehicles Stephens travels in come from either the French or Russian, a few of which are found in the dictionary on my iBooks reader, meaning they were incorporated into English vernacular at the time. One has to imagine what he's traveling inside, and how he's sleeping on hay at the bottom of carriages; uncomfortable, to say the least. He gets the benefit of traveling to Russia in the summer, at least.

Stephens doesn't come across many Americans in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though he does spend some time with the American consular in St. Petersburg, an actual American instead of an installed local. Stephens retells Napoleon's failed taking of Moscow, and other parts of the Napoleonic wars relevant to the lives of veterans he comes across-- many French veterans were residing in Moscow at the time, some by exile.

I've looked at the same "world's largest bell that's never been rung" and "world's largest cannon that's never been fired" that Stephens marveled at in the Kremlin. He visits many palaces and museums in St. Petersburg, some of which no longer exist. He expertly retells highlights of the lives of Russian czars, and the reader wonders if Stephens learned the information while he was there, or had known it his whole life. He communicates in fluent French to most he meets with.

Stephens befriends a Pole who travels with him to Warsaw. Poland is suffering under Russian rule after a failed revolution in 1830. I learned a lot about Napoleonic history and Polish history from this book, Stephens does a good job informing the reader of its importance. I also learned of the Polish heroes who fought in the American Revolution, who apparently all Americans still honored in the 1830s. Tadeusz Kościuszko being one of the most important. Kosciuszko was inspired by Washington and Jefferson to fight for democracy in Poland in the 1790s. This admiration of American freedom and democracy is often found among peoples Stephens encounters. They love meeting an American, although they are surprised to find he has white skin (ie: not an American Indian).

The Poles strike Stephens as romantically patriotic but maddeningly bureaucratic. Few speak any languages he does, and he has a very hard time getting visas for his travel (visa issues are a recurring issue in his book, quite amusing to travelers of any era). By the time he visits the tombs of Polish kings in Cracow, he's ready to be done with Eastern Europe.

The book ends rather abruptly as Stephens departs. I give the whole book as 5 stars out of 5. One can learn a lot about European and American history through Stephens' retelling.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How to do P90X (my tips)

Last Sunday marked my Day 90 (technically, Day 97 because I repeated half of a bad week). This was my second time to do P90X seriously, but my first time to complete 90 days (I got injured about Day 74 last time). I share my recent fitness stats at the bottom.

Here's what I've learned and recommend:
1. Follow a diet plan, either P90X's plan or something else that allows you to keep track of your calories and nutrition. I recommend (with a great iPhone app). Most people don't eat enough calories in their day and wonder why they don't lose weight. Many people don't eat enough of the right stuff (ex: protein) and don't realize that their reps/performance suffer as a result. Tony Horton often points out that most people don't even need to work out if they'd just eat right. Calculate how many calories you need to maintain your current weight (roughly 1800 for me) and know that if you eat less than about 1200 calories (varies per person) your body is going to go into starvation mode and you won't lose the weight or be healthy.

2. "Drink your water, people!" Get hydrated. You need to drink 64 oz. of water a day even without exercise. More with exercise. Are you drinking two glasses of water before you eat breakfast and get your first cup of coffee? Your overall health and fitness performance suffer if you do not! Do this:

Here are my tips on each workout:
1. Ab Ripper X - Do this first on your combo days. I struggle with good form when I do it while wasted after the first exercise. I don't want to come back at the end of the day, finish Ab Ripper and take another shower.

2. Chest & Back; Chest, Shoulders and Triceps - Get a combo pull-up/push-up bar like this one. I was fortunate to work in a basement that had a mounted pull-up bar, so I just used my combo bar for push-ups. Also, mount some bands from the ceiling for when you're "feeling wasted." I would try to do max reps on the pull-up bar, and then with whatever time was left do a few reps on the bands.

3. Plyo X - I saw an interview where Tony talks about how Beachbody doesn't let anyone wear running shoes in their workouts as the lateral movements will hurt your feet. Get some Trainers or go barefoot (what I do).
Also, consider subbing some Insanity exercises for Plyo X to burn more calories.My in-laws have Insanity and I borrowed Plyo Cardio Circuit for these days.

4. Shoulders & Arms, Back & Biceps - Consider using fitness bands for certain sets. You get a great burn, the isometric hold action is great.You also don't have the joint and bone issues with bands-- using bands for certain sets is how I was able to complete all 90 days injury free.

5. Yoga X - DO YOUR YOGA! People think the weight lifting and pull-ups are what P90X is about, but it's not-- it's Yoga! Yoga X is the hardest exercise. Watch these clips with Tony talking about Yoga.

He's one of the most flexible people in the world for how muscular he is. Why? Yoga. You're already doing some of the yoga exercises in the other workouts, so Yoga X day will help you do those better. It will also stretch you out, improve your push-ups, and help your breathing. If you have a problem doing "oms" at the end, then you also should have a problem signing in the shower or humming to yourself during the day as they're essentially the same thing.

6. Legs and Back - No advice here.

7. Kenpo X - Grab some wrist/ankles weights or handweights for these to get some extra burn. Also, consider subbing for Insanity Pure Cardio here if you just want the calories. The Kenpo stretch is money after the previous day's workout, though.

8. Core Synergistics - Just do it. Or substitute some Insanity core-crushing exercise. Core Synergistics is probably my least-favorite exercise.

9. X Stretch - Rarely did X Stretch. I tried to follow Tony's advice in this interview-- don't take any days off. On your off day, do something fit you love like biking, hiking, or something else. I would often do Jillian's 30 Day Shred Level 3 on these days.

(You can learn a lot from this interview.)

I came back from Turkey in February overweight and out of shape, roughly a size 35.
Going into my final week:
My weight: 163.6
Body Fat%: 17.6% (a little on the high side but better than I began)
Body water%: 56.9% (i'm not dehydrated!)
Muscle mass: 128.2
Physique rating: 5 (basically optimal. Could have more muscle mass, but I'm healthy)
Daily caloric intake to maintain body weight: 1779
Metabolic age: 27
Bone mass: 6.8
Visceral fat: 5 (1-12 is considered healthy, 13-59 excess).
I'm a comfortable size 32.

I can't do 130 pull-ups, but I can do many more than when I started. I wrote everything down for the first couple weeks, then I stopped. I kept getting "all jacked up about the numbers" instead of just "do my best and forget the rest." I kept mental track in my head of roughly how many I did last time, how many I thought I could do, and went for it. Keep pushing "play." 

My goal is to keep working to improve my body fat percentage and look better. So, I've started Insanity. I'm considering alternating weeks of P90X with Insanity to keep up the weight training.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My son's superpower

My five year old son was diagnosed as having sensory processing disorder (SPD) a few years ago. He's the type who needs more and stronger sensory inputs to make sense of his world. That means he really loves spinning, going fast, touching everything, and wind & water sensations that cover his body. Hence, running through the sprinkler is really fun and there is no speed that is too fast on an ATV or watercraft. 

One thing he loves is for me to make "April showers" with the water hose, spraying it up in the air so he can stand under the waterfall, like rain. As he stands there and soaks it in it reminds me of the movie Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic. Daredevil is a blind superhero who can "see" via his heightened senses whenever it rains.I wonder if it's a similar sensation for Elias.

When we spend time at my parents, he gets to ride a 4-wheeler, boat, and waverunner. He squeals with delight for the entirety of the trip and says "Go faster, Daddy!" about every 10 seconds. Look how unhappy he looks as we idle along posing for this picture.

"No! Let's go, Daddy!"
We get up to 45 mph on most of the craft in brief spurts, and he just loves it. The waverunner is about perfect with the vibration and the noise, along with the wind and the water splashing. He loves the motion of the waves and being able to spin it around and around. Riding the golf cart afterwards is usually a let-down.

No fear on ATVs and watercraft, my son's superpower.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A follow-up post on Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man

(See my initial post here.)
The Great Depression should teach us a few things about the economic consequences of well-intended policies.
As unemployment rose in 1929, Herbert Hoover worked to convince industries to increase wages-- the idea being that an increase in household income leads to an increase in expenditure. FDR later mandated the wage increases under the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The fallacy is that businesses just have extra money sitting around to give employees. If I make a product for $1.00 and sell it for $1.50, and then the government says I have to spend $2 to make that product, I either have to raise my price, cut my production costs (like laborers), or go out of business. Unemployment climbed to over 25% and no one wanted to be without a job, so workers were willing to work for less than the federal mandate in order to keep their jobs. The result was that the Roosevelt administration prosecuted those companies, shutting the businesses down (putting everyone out of work) and further exacerbating unemployment. To whom does that make sense? The Fed kept the money supply too tight and prices were falling. Frustrated business owners had to argue in court that the market determined the price they could sell their products at while prosecutors painted them as immoral people preying on workers and customers. Don't believe me? Look at the court transcripts from the Schechter Case.

FDR, frustrated by the Supreme Court declaring the NRA unconstitutional, pushed the undistributed profits tax into law in 1936. This forced businesses to pay shareholders dividends, rather than saving or reinvesting that money into the company. The rationale being that an increase in shareholders' household income will lead to increase in expenditure/aggregate demand. But most companies like to save for downturns, so that they don't have to lay off workers. They also like to invest in research and development, new plant and equipment, and other expansions that, in turn, employ more workers.
When another downturn hit in 1938, companies didn't have the reserves they would have had in the absence of this tax. It was eliminated in 1939. Did we learn from this?

Maybe not entirely. You can see an echo of this in this misleading article by Jordan Weissmann today, advocating an increase in the minimum wage and lower profits for McDonalds. Sounds like 1929, to me. Raising wages will be great for those workers who don't see their job or hours cut. But given that the typical minimum wage worker is <=25 years old an in a household earning $50,000 or more, does this make sense? Given that unemployment is elevated and the Fed is keeping money too tight ...sounds a lot like 1929.

The Affordable Care Act's employer mandate is the same as a mandated wage increase-- employers who have more than 49 employees have to provide health insurance or pay a fine. So, some employers aren't expanding beyond 49 employees, and some workers are going to see their jobs and hours cut so the company can stay in business. It's not that the company is "immoral" or "cruel" (like FDR said), it's just that the owner wants to maintain his livelihood, and his workers do too. That's a structural problem that is exacerbated by the Fed's passive tightening. There were debates then about the unemployment, how much was structural instead of demand-driven. There are similar debates now about whether businesses aren't hiring because demand or whether it's structural hurdles like the ACA. We obviously didn't know what the impact of the 1930s policies would be, but we can look back and see the consequences. Shame on us if we repeat it with similar mistakes.

When money is tight, fiscal expansion and federal stimulus don't have the permanent effects you would like them to-- it's hard to prime the pump. Tariffs like Smoot-Hawley and mandated nominal wage hikes have greater negative impact than they would normally have (they would have negative impact anyway, and that's important to remember). The Fed is always the second-mover, able to offset through monetary policy any fiscal policy it chooses. But as Scott Sumner and the market monetarists are fond of pointing out-- we don't seem to have learned anything from the Great Depression about having better monetary policy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review (#14 of 2013) The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man The narrative of FDR's New Deal as I learned it in AP U.S. History goes like this:
After the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing economic collapse conservative President Herbert Hoover refused to do any fiscal policy to help remedy the situation and the gold standard kept the economy from growing. The Smoot-Hawley tariff passed, making things much worse. FDR's New Deal was successful in putting people to work while expanding government and even though the retrograde conservative Supreme Court tried to block him, FDR won on the major issues. But even with the New Deal, the U.S. couldn't reach full employment until World War II. But is that really accurate?

Shlaes' book painstakingly lays out a timeline from the 1920s to 1940 that examines the individuals, culture, legalities, and politics of the New Deal and its effect on American life and the economy that examines the above. She looks at the New Deal through the academic articles published at the time, newspaper, magazines, court transcripts, radio shows, diaries, biographies, and other sources that remind us what Americans were thinking and arguing at the time.There's a lot of forgotten history, including the important Schechter case, and newly discovered history since the fall of the USSR

The title of "The Forgotten Man" comes from this essay by William Graham Sumner written in 1883. Suppose persons A and B see person X in need. They agree to draft legislation to help person X, but never consider person C, who must also be taxed to pay for that legislation. Person C is the "Forgotten Man." But FDR's speechwriters used "Forgotten Man" to describe Person X, instead. That contrast is the heart of the political battle in the 1930s.

There were three major problems that turned an ordinary recession into the Great Depression (these are my list in order, taking what I already knew with what Shlaes provides):
1. Tight money. But it wasn't the gold standard that was the problem. In the late '20s and early '30s, the U.S. was running trade surpluses and gold was flowing into the U.S. Under the rules of the gold standard, the Fed should have been printing much more money. But, it chose to sterilize the printing by simultaneously selling bonds, keeping the money supply from growing. Milton Friedman explained this pretty well (with a cartoon) in this video. The Fed also punished banks that were not federally chartered, having different rules of lending for state and federally-chartered banks. Sound state-chartered banks facing runs were not helped, and thus they collapsed. When Bank of United States collapsed (see Friedman video above) the Fed didn't act aggressively to end ensuing runs. The Fed had a fear of inflation, and that was shared by both Hoover and Roosevelt. It's often forgotten that in the 1932 campaign FDR repeatedly blamed Hoover for creating too much inflation a charge that was just as absurd then as now. (FDR later implemented various methods in attempts to increase inflation. Whether his campaign was disingenuous or he had an actual change of heart after office isn't addressed by Shlaes.)

So, banks and industry were starved of needed cash and deflation set in. This would continue to be a problem throughout the Depression, and wouldn't change until FDR removed the U.S. from the gold standard and the Fed printed money to help pay for World War 2.

2. Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 (read the entire link). Republicans are to blame for this, particularly Hoover who was literally begged by businessmen, friends, and donors to veto the bill. Scott Sumner read every NY Times in this period and concluded that the stock market's decline wasn't irrational, it was in response to what everyone knew would happen if the bill became law. Foreign nations all condemned the law and retaliated, driving up the price of doing business for everyone. There's a reason why Bretton Woods had a focus on increasing trade after WWII and why we have had GATT and the WTO. More trade > less trade--it's a proven fact. Things wouldn't have been as bad if money weren't tight (see #1) but those failures of federal government made a perfect storm.

3. The Dust Bowl. (This aspect is touched on the least in the book.) Famine and major crop failures are a big problem when banks are starved for cash and failing. There is nothing the Fed or the federal government can do when poor agricultural practice hits the proverbial fan other than offer relief and support better practices next time. With #1 and #2, this is a perfect storm.

FDR eventually took the U.S. off the gold standard, but monetary policy was still very poor in the 1930s. I don't blame Presidents for poor monetary policy, though. He also worked to slowly undo the effects of Smoot-Hawley, and the data seem to indicate that this helped business expansion.

Besides #1, however, the New Deal is what maintained the Great Depression and kept unemployment from falling. Shlaes' bias in devoting much of the book to this subject has irked the ire of Progressives, but an honest look at the facts she puts out leaves it hard to question her conclusion.

Herbert Hoover had been in favor of fiscal stimulus-- he was a career engineer who explored ways government could help engineer full employment. When recession hit, he ordered state governors (including FDR) not to cease any projects and to spend as much as they could. This footnote gets forgotten in history, FDR blasted Hoover for not spending "enough" but also for running budget deficits-- the ironic tension is evident in the book.

FDR was the caricature that modern-day Republicans make of Obama today. His policies and campaign statements were often contradictory and hard to reconcile. And FDR had actually proclaimed "war on business," which he conducted vigorously: 
Imagine a world where the federal government starts prosecuting tailors for how they produce certain clothes. Where it's illegal to charge a different price for a clothes iron than what the government says, and illegal to let your customers choose which hen or puppy he wants-- he has to take what he's given. Sounds like Socialism, but that that was FDR's unconstitutional NRA. Forgotten in modern history are things like the important Schecter case, where the Roosevelt administration condemned some Jewish rabbis as "immoral" for butchering chickens to meet with kosher standards and allowing their customers to choose which chicken they wanted, rather than take whichever was pulled first out of the coop. 60 charges were brought against this relatively uneducated Jewish family, who was sent to jail and fined an amount they couldn't afford. This wasn't an isolated incident, multiply this over thousands of small businesses and court cases all across the U.S. Roosevelt was determined to prosecute anyone who did not obey by the rules of the massive and complicated NRA. This continued until the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, which Roosevelt of course publicly condemned.

Equally bad, FDR began a war on "tax dodgers" that included prosecuting people for using deductions and loopholes that were perfectly legal at the time their taxes were filed. Andrew Mellon (who had been Treasury Secretary and helped write the tax laws) and Samuel Insull being two of the most famous cases (both were aquitted). Imagine being allowed a deduction for deducting the mortgage on your second home only to have the government prosecute you for taking that deduction a few years later-- that's exactly what happened under FDR, who used his fireside chats to continue to attack the wealthy and justify the court cases. (Shlaes documents how some Democrats in the 1932 campaign voiced their objections to Roosevelt's method of using class warfare as a campaign tactic.) Capital fled the U.S., no surprise.

While the federal government now employed many more people in various programs, there was still a lack of fiscal stimulus. The private sector wasn't contracting because the government was expanding, it was contracting because of the various constraints being put on it (the list is too long for this post, read the book).  FDR raised cut spending and raised taxes across the board in 1937, including imposing taxes on those who had not paid them beofre, in an effort to balance the budget. This alienated some of FDR's advisers who had argued through the 1930s that the solution to the economic problem was government expansion, not austerity. By 1938 the Administration was wondering "what went wrong?" and the Republicans began to gain a foothold again. But war was looming in the background...

Shlaes follows the lives and actions of a few people over two decades-- Herbert Hoover, FDR's brain trust, Wendell Willkie, an African-American leader in Harlem named Father Divine, and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.

Several members of FDR's cabinet and "brain trust" (like Rexford Tugwell) were academics who had made a trip to Russia in the 1920s where they were given almost unlimited access to factories, collective farms, and Stalin himself. They were mostly impressed by the Soviet experiment, and this period is documented by Shlaes. When they returned to the U.S., they penned articles for up-and-coming journals like The New Republic, discussing how similar Progressive programs could be implemented in the U.S. Some New Deal programs, like the collective farm run by Tugwell under the Agriculture Adjustment Act, were designed straight out of their notes from the Russia trip. This was pretty fascinating to me. Shlaes documents how the Left, generally speaking, faced an intellectual crisis in the 1930s as Stalin consolidated power and murdered many of the Trotskyites FDR's "Brain Trust" had met with and thought highly of.

Willkie starts as a successful business man, Democrat, and Roosevelt supporter, who then has to bend to the federal government after the TVA was up and running--he was forced to sell the majority of his company to the TVA. He becomes a centrist Republican, running against Roosevelt in 1940 and becoming one of the first to articulate the overreach of the New Deal in a way that garners nationwide support and action.

Father Divine's cult provides lavish meals to the poor of New York during the height of the Depression, preaching peace and racial harmony. He champions an African-American boycott of the 1936 election after FDR refuses to move on anti-lynching legislation and increases his criticism after FDR appoints a KKK member to the Supreme Court.

Recovering alcoholic Bill Wilson co-authors his book and launches the self-help movement, which Shlaes holds as a contrast to the New Deal as a "government must help everyone" movement.

Having read some works on the Great Depression, I thought I knew more than I did. Shlaes book is very interesting and thought-provoking throughout. I highly recommend reading and discussing it. Five stars.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

How to apply for jobs

If I ever run a business, I will make sure the HR department is organized such that applying for a job is relatively a pleasure. Every applicant will get a response about his/her status and the decision that was made. Because that is definitely not the norm, and it's a shame.

I'm not the expert on getting jobs, but I have several years worth and hundreds of job applications under my belt since finishing graduate school in 2007. Unemployment (or underemployment) is among the most mentally and emotionally frustrating experiences a man can face. There are no shortage of websites with advice, particularly from HR people, many of which are contradictory. This is just my own advice on how to apply for jobs and maintain your sanity:

  • Applying for jobs is like taking a class or exercising-- it's work, and I approach it like that. Just like you should have at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise each day, I aim to apply for a certain number of jobs each day-- or spend a certain number of minutes researching a specific job I want to apply for. 
  • Use an aggregator like to send you daily updates of jobs matching key words and geographic locations you specify. That will help motivate you to #1 to check some of those jobs off the list. isn't looking at Craigslist and a few other sites, so also use another aggregator like If a specific company allows you to sign up for email updates or RSS updates of their jobs, by all means do so.
  • Keep track of your cover letters using Google Docs or something else since they're likely to be similar. This will give you easily-editable templates you can modify for the next application. Just proofread carefully! (You should also keep track of the jobs you're applying for on a spreadsheet, noting what, when, contact info, and when you hear a response.)
  • It's recommended that you edit your résumé to match the specific job you're applying to. This may mean you have a dozen résumés on your hard drive. I find that frustrating, personally.
  • Many of the large companies outsource to automated systems, like Taleo, which are pains and hassles. Taleo Talent Exchange is supposed to let you create one job profile from which you can "easily" apply to multiple large firms utilizing the system. However, I find that many companies have different versions of Taleo and often when I try to connect the specific job application to my Taleo account, I get an error screen and have to start again. This is frustrating, and job-seekers' frustrations with this system are well-documented. Nothing irks me more than to see the "perfect" job description and to be unable to apply without having to spend hours with this frustrating system. I have the time, then I take the time; otherwise, I pass.
  • Connect personally with someone on the hiring end (ie: avoid relying on portals like the above). Utilize for this. I've read where HR people at large corporations say hiring is done on LinkedIn rather than their jobs portal (frustrating, right?). If you see the hiring contact listed in the job description, contact him/her out on LinkedIn. That will give you an immediate, personal connection to the person responsible. This recently got me to second base with a company. You can also find your would-be coworkers on LinkedIn and learn about the position.
75% of hires are internal hires, so if you're switching companies you have a high bar to prove that you fit into that particular organization.  It's recommended to do research of a particular job, to include hints in the cover letter that you've done your homework. That might be easy for large corporations where their values and quarterly report are available online. For smaller ones, the only way to know about the company is to ask people that work there. If you're shotgunning for a particular field or geographic location, which may not be close by (like me), then it's much harder to do deep research into each application.

I'll have a future post on what else to do to stay sane.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review (#13 of 2013) The Autism Revolution by Martha Herbert, M.D, PhD

I think it's inappropriate to use "revolution" or "miracle" in a book title unless one is writing about historical and supernatural events. This title wasn't even the publisher's choice, it was the author's-- she repeats the word often. I am disappointed to see how highly this book is rated on Amazon.

This book's main idea in one paragraph:
Whatever problem your child has, try changing his or her diet in small ways and see what happens. Keep a log of the changes and try to do it systematically-- try to control for other factors. Good things might happen (and they might not).

Dr. Herbert never defines what "autism" is. There is mention of a spectrum but she never explains that--she never says "Asperger's" or tells the history of autism and how it is diagnosed. That's a real weakness of the book.(I recommend this book as a starter instead.)

She is often quick to say "This particular method is unproven" or "there is thin evidence" or "this treatment may not have been the reason the child's autism improved..." but that doesn't stop her from going on for several pages about those treatments, even ones she doesn't recommend. She talks about the genetics, and unknown other variables that lead to autism and other developmental problems and readily admits that perhaps environmental choices may not prevent them, but then makes it sound as if you condemn your child by not making the right environmental choices.

I think this book is almost dangerous to give to a pregnant woman-- many of whom I know are already overly anxious about diet and toxins. If you avoid everything the author says to avoid (over multiple sections of the book), you must live in a bubble. Avoid the outdoors because you might be exposed to exhaust and pesticides; avoid non-organic foods; avoid cleaning your house because you'll stir up dust; avoid cats; take multivitamins but not too many and not the wrong ones; the list goes on.  You're left with the impression that even one exposure to a free radical may be the single thing that caused your body to create an autistic child, but then she throws in the caveat "maybe not. You may never know." You could eliminate much of the book with the repetition of the long lists with the "maybe not" caveats. Why waste ink worrying about so many little things?

The anecdotal stories in the book were interesting to me, particularly the autistic adults in the book who made life changes and saw results. I've no doubt that many parents felt outraged that doctors were ignoring their children's gastrointestinal symptoms. Some kids may indeed have been displaying autistic symptoms because their body was reacting to celiac disease. That wasn't the case in my son's autism, but I don't discount the power of various foods and chemicals on his behavior-- anyone who's ever been around any child knows that what the kid eats matters (sugar rush, anyone?). Every parent I know tries to give their children more nutrients and less garbage, even just for the sake of it.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is mentioned in the book as the only behavioral treatment with documented results.  I felt that it and others got short shrift in Dr. Herbert's "revolution" compared to the lengthy cartoonish illustrations of how the brain and immune system work and respond to bacteria and toxins. The detailed analysis of various chemical compounds was also a bit much. Let's focus on what the data say.

In all, I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

How to make and lose money on eBay

I've been selling toys and other items from my childhood on eBay for the past month and have learned a few things, so here are my pointers.

First, a story: I sold a set of 16 GI Joe figures from 1989 and 1992 still in their original packages for $405 when I was expecting something like $25. I paid a little extra for shipping, including insurance since it was now valuable.
Then, I got it shipped back to me (at my expense) for some very minor manufacturing defect after the buyer filed a complaint. The old figures sometimes get a hairline fracture on the elbow joint (see picture. Mine were not that obvious).

These figures are tiny and this picture is very blown up.
When a collector asked me during the auction "are their cracks in the elbows? Are these figures just repackaged used figures?" I said "All figures are unopened and haven't been touched since the factory. No cracks in the elbows or obvious flaws." The ones I looked at certainly had nothing wrong. I wasn't aware that the 1989 figures had an endemic flaw until later (good luck finding one without cracks).

When I relisted them, I included in the listing which figures I saw elbow cracks on. My figures sold for $35 plus shipping. I basically broke even on the amount of shipping and insurance I paid and had a time-consuming hassle.

So, my advice:
1. List obscure items the same time you list well-known items. People click on "See seller's other listings" and it works for you. I listed a fairly random toy by itself and got 4 views and no watches during 7 days. I re-listed it while listing several other popular (but unrelated) toys and got several watches and two bids.

2. Any discrepancy between your listing and actual product can lead to time-consuming complaints and you not getting your money. So, either just say "items are as pictured" and leave the risk on the buyer to ask questions, or disclose the various details and expect a lower selling price either way.

3. Take the time to box up and weigh the package to let each bidder calculate his own shipping.  Doing that allows you to get free tracking on the package and print out your labels immediately--less hassle at the post office.

4. Listing at $0.99 ultimately leaves you with the most watchers and bidders.

5. Have all of your listings end on Sunday evening. That is when the most buyers will be home and available to compete for the product. Ending it on a weekday morning is a bad, bad mistake I've seen people make (to my benefit, I got some stuff cheap on an early Tuesday morning). 

6. Set up an automatic claim-filing process that begins 48 hours after bidding ends. About 20% of bidders on ebay aren't going to pay for the product if they win it, for whatever reason. Time wasted re-listing the product is valuable to you.

7. Tweet your listing out. Collectors of items are always scouring the web, they'll find your tweet and link.

8. Understand that eBay is set up to be slanted toward the buyer. You cannot negatively rate a buyer who does not pay you, all you can do is file a complaint (which no sellers will ever see). I have my listings set up with an option to block bidders who have more than 1 non-payment complaint in a month. That's going to lead to less bids, but hopefully more honest bids.

9. You need at least 25 positive seller ratings to get immediate access to your PayPal payments, so remind your buyers if they have not rated you and remember to rate them. My current listings:

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Book Review (#12 of 2013) The Great Seige: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford

The Seige of Malta is probably the greatest war story you've never heard. It is definitely one the greatest, most important battles in European history. There's a lot of fascinating history in this book. Bradford has basically devoted his life to the subject, and I'm amazed at how much detailed history exists about this period. It would make a good movie.

Suleiman the Magnificent is elderly and the Ottoman Empire at its height-- having been stopped at Vienna but still recording victories in Eastern Europe and on the Mediterranean. Europe is struggling, the Reformation is changing it internally and several kingdoms are struggling financially.

Malta is the official property of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This Order is quite fascinating, having been established to build hospitals and provide medical services, the group evolved as pilgrims going to Palestine ("The Holy Land") became increasingly under attack by Muslims and pirates with ties to Muslims. The rites of passage and organization of the Order was fascinating to learn in itself-- people in the 21st Century just can't fathom the conditions of naval warfare, prisons, and slavery in the 1500s much less the ideas of chivalry and honor that bound clans together back then. 

The Knights become very effective raiders, plundering many Ottoman ships and being a thorn in the Emperor's side-- so Suleiman scouts it out and makes a decision to take the island. Capturing it would give him a foothold to launch attacks into Sicily, Italy, and Spain-- something terrifying to the Europeans. The Emperor summons overwhelming force and his advisors estimate the island can be taken in mere days. The Best of the Best of Ottoman warriors are described by Bradford.

Grand Master de Vallette is the Knights' fearless leader and hero. Himself elderly, he is a veteran of warfare and Ottoman slavery. He organizes the defense of the island's force of 6,000 or so against 20-40,000 Ottoman warriors. The Ottoman forces make some initial, very costly, mistakes. The Knights defend the fort of St. Elmo to the last man, killing Ottomans at the rate of 7 to 1. The Turks' best and most revered leader, Turgut Reis, dies early in the fighting. Several other forts remain, and the Knights hold out while waiting for help from the rest of Europe.

Malta was sort of the Leningrad or the Alamo of its day, with wide implications. What was supposed to end in days stretches from May to late August, until finally a large relief force arrives from Sicily after the Ottomans' morale is broken and their ranks are decimated by battles and disease. The Ottomans retreat in disgrace and Suleiman dies the following year. It's the beginning of the long decline of the Ottoman empire.

The Order apparently kept detailed records, but Bradford seems to draw on Turkish/Ottoman sources well also. I enjoyed learning the Ottoman history as much as the European side, which is why I was eager to read this book. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. Bradford seems to have a slight bias writing for the Knights, so that cost him half a star.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Health pet peeve

I get annoyed when people I know talk/blog about protecting their family from toxins, shun Wal Mart for Whole Foods in order to buy organic, and fear things like BPA but don't stop to be introspective as to why they and their kids often get sick. They worry about the minor .001% and not-very-scientifically-proven things yet completely ignore the majors that are proven to be most effective. I've seen how dirty some of your kids' hands are. How often do they wash them? How do they wash them? Good handwashing will prevent transmission of the vast majority of diseases. Do you follow the CDC's guidelines?

Sing the "Happy Birthday" song while you wash your hands. Some parents seem to think that if their kids don't go outside, their hands don't get dirty. They ignore the germ factories that are iPhones, Xbox controllers, and table tops.

The other pet peeve is the way Americans bring germs into their home by wearing their shoes around the house. Why is it that we walk around outside where dogs poop, people spit, and chemicals are dripped from cars onto the street right onto our carpets where those germs can be deposited? Who spends time sitting and playing on carpet? Our kids.When you leave the U.S., about the first foreign cultural thing you learn is to take your shoes off and leave them at the door.  Americans are among the most health-conscious unhealthy people in the world for neglecting the simple things.  

So, please don't talk to me about how dangerous our world is unless you've taken care of the basics above. Don't talk to me about pesticides and electromagnetic fields while you're standing on my carpet in the shoes you wear outside every day.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Book Review (#11 of 2013) Calvin for Armchair Theologians

This book could also be titled "John Calvin in Four Hours." It is a brief biography, a summary of his religious views, and a look at his lasting impact on Western thought.

Apparently little of Calvin's personal correspondence remains for historians to pore through today. He didn't keep a journal or write an autobiography. But he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (about 1/3 of this book is devoted to explaining Calvin's views from ICR), wrote some speeches, and engaged in some debates.

Calvin started out on the road to the Catholic priesthood but was redirected when his father began to have falling-outs with the church. Calvin studied to be a lawyer, was well versed in humanism and making arguments through rhetoric, learned Greek, and joined other humanists who were pushing for reform of the Catholic church.

Calvin's role as a minister in Geneva, instrumental in shaping and enforcing the state's religious laws, was maybe most educational for me. He's famous for his debate with Servetus, which led to Servetus's condemnation to burning at the stake. Most people today are unable to fathom 16th century Europe, with city-states under Church authority competing for power with one another and debating doctrine and heresies; a Europe faced with the Ottoman threat from the East and Protestant-Catholic divisions within. Calvin was very influential in the Protestant movement, helping write liturgies and defining doctrine.

Elwood doesn't explore the historical context in an in-depth manner. He briefly describes it and summarizes Calvin's life inside it. Elwood concludes the book with a look at Calvin's "theological family tree." He makes the claim that today's liberals from Reinhold Niehuhr to today's liberation theology teachers all ultimately spring from Calvin's lineage. In that sense, Calvin has been very underappreciated.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Very accessible and informative. Lacks the depth you might want in a biography, but I look forward to reading Elwood's "armchair" biography of Luther as well.
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