Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Grapes of Wealth

Something really strange happened this year to the grape vines I planted last year:  something I wouldn't have expected and that, frankly, I was completely unprepared for.

I found grapes on them. 

I know that in other people's yards, grape vines yield grapes, but this my yard:  the Yard of the Basil Killer, the garden where the weeds outnumber the tomatoes 8-to-1.  I put the grape vines in the ground last year; I read the instructions about fertilizing and pruning, and then I proceeded to not-fertilize and to not-prune.   So I naturally figured I'd have a bunch of fruitless vines among the tomato-weeds.   Or maybe I'd get a few grapes that would be snatched by squirrels.
Bunches of charity requests.  Not the same as grapes.

But instead, the grape vines decided to be fruitful.  Bunches and bunches of grapes (literally, bunches) appeared.  The grapes themselves taste awesome  -- not like the grapes I've had from the store, but really wonderfully delicious.   But with seeds.  So eating them is a bit of an adventure, because each yummy little orb of a grape has, like, 4 seeds in it.

Thing is, the grapes don't just hang around waiting to be eaten.  They hang around, but if I don't eat them, they turn brown and yucky.  So this past weekend I realized I'd better do something about the fact that my back yard was, for a brief moment in time, a vineyard.

Bunched together in rubber bands, by who sent the request.
I'm not much of a grape juice drinker, so I decided instead to halve each grape, remove the seeds, and freeze the fruit. (Because frozen grapes = yummy).

But it turns out that de-seeding grapes takes me a long time, if I'm not trying to simultaneously turn the grape into juice.  Like, it took a few hours.  So while I de-seeded, I watched TED talk after TED talk.   Bunches of TED talks. 

Since I have recently been through our family dOnnOr (where we sort through charity envelopes and try to decide where to send our money), I've been thinking a lot about ways to increase the likelihood that the money I give away has the same kind of intentional, effective power as the money I spend (or often, don't spend) at home. 

Dude, even carrying the envelopes around was a bit of a chore.  
I know about Charity Navigator and Charity Watch (are charities spending money on projects, or on administration?).   And I've been learning dribs and drabs about the Effective Altruism movement and the GiveWell site.   But I the more I learn, the more I realize that I still have a freakin' heck of a lot to learn. 

A post-it note on N-son's door.
So I watched a bunch of videos on giving stuff away, and eventually started this playlist on Generosity.  (I got halfway through, and want to see more). 

I know that malaria nets and deworming are some of the most effective ways to save many lives for small amounts of money.  That, I get.

And I dug a bit into improving lives by giving really poor people a bit of money, no questions asked.  That's scary and counter-intuitive, and I'm still sussing that one out.

But I haven't yet figured out how to deal with the big messy problems that transcend counting people who are still above ground and comparing that to the number of human beings who died.

So this year, with each check I wrote,
I included a slip of paper that asked:
"We are trying to reduce the amount of waste our family generates. 
Please send us only one request envelope per year. 
Mailing us the request in June or July would be fine;
we don't need or want other mailings."
For example, what if I worry (as I do) that environmental degradation leads not only to loss of human life, but also to international conflicts, to global refugee crises of unprecedented proportions, and to irrevocable damage to our ecosystem?  How do we figure out how to give effectively to organizations that want to save the whole world?   How can I tell whether the money I give is effective at combatting attitudes (personal, business, government) that thinks that a strong economy automatically outweighs a strong ecology?  I haven't figured that one out yet. 


So in my spare time -- or at least, in my grape time -- I try to learn a little bit more.  I chop grapes, and I hear about how Bill and Melinda Gates work together, and about how the mind of altruists work, and about how pro-social gifts make us happier than spending on ourselves does, and how sometimes poor people actually know better than aid workers how to spend money that alleviates extreme poverty --- and I don't quite answer the questions I wanted answered, but I get closer.

And also, I get frozen grapes. 

From my vineyard. 


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Miser Family Update, peachy keen edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Family household.   We've recovered from our flights back from the family vacation with my dad and sisters, and I immediately threw myself into editing my book.  There's a deadline ahead of me -- classes start next Wednesday -- so I'm diving deep into the sandpit of spell-checking, deep reading, figure futzing, bibliographies and indexes.   Because the storm of students is fast approaching!

Sticky note on N-son's door.  Good advice.
N-son has applied to a bunch of different jobs -- and I got a flush of motherly pride when the head cook at the soup kitchen where I volunteer weekly heard about this, and immediately urged N-son to apply for a cook job there, where the cook could mentor N-son.  And another chef there said, "You get this job, and I'm going to make you into a cook if it kills you!".  So maybe I'm the proud mom of a future dead cook.  Yeah.

Also, segueing into things that can kill you, N-son has learned how to ride a bike standing up . . . with no hands.  I have seen this with my own eyes, folks, so it's no lie.  (He doesn't pedal; he just coasts along, but still it's darned impressive).

My husband can't stand up handless on the bike, but he's still loving riding.  In fact, he's having a bunch of trouble with his knee, which hurts all the time except when he's riding.  Which suggests (as his doctor jokingly did) that he should just ride all the time.  Nonetheless, we're going to see if other, medical-but-not-cycle interventions might help. 

Segueing back again to cook-things, I've torn myself away from math to prepare the larder.   N-son and I put up 28 quarts of tomatoes early in the week; we also shucked 4-dozen ears of corn and canned 6 quarts of corn.  And on Saturday, I-daughter brought by a pair of friends; K-daughter and A-child and N-son joined in, and the seven of us picked 92 pounds of peaches, and then canned 47 quarts of sliced peaches.  It was an awesome canning party!

A-child likes picking peaches, and washing them at home. 
Next week will bring a new kind of excitement, with classes starting for many of us.   I'm so glad to have a bit of vegetable summer ready to follow our family into a fall that promises to continue to make us wealthy in our adventures.   May you and yours be similarly prosperous.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sunrise over tomatoes

I think this has become one of my favorite sights: the sunlight in the eastern window, just barely illuminating a row of jars of new food.
Tomatoes in the dark.
Yesterday, N-son and I spent 4 hours "putting up" tomatoes.   We canned 28 quarts of tomatoes and 4 more quarts of tomato juice. And this morning I rose to test the lids, and discovered happily that all-but-one of the jars sealed properly. 

There's a word -- liminal -- that I've kind of fallen in love with.  It means, "relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold".   Sunrise over canning jars is a liminal moment: a threshold between yesterday's hot, messy work and the comfort of having summer tomatoes in my winter basement.  And canning jars full of tomatoes, when backlit by the rising sun, are beautiful.

At a pre-semester gathering last week, a colleague of mine picked my brain about trash. (That happens a lot nowadays).  She, like many other people, lamented the recent changes in recycling rules and said she wants to produce less trash, but "I'd have to totally change how I shop".   She buys bulk food at Costco, because that's how she manages to afford organic food for her family.   But apples come packaged in plastic containers that are almost like egg cartons, keeping each piece of fruit isolated from the others.  So much plastic, she frets, and now she can't dump that container in her green recycling bin.  But what choices are there?

Of course, she's right that if she wants to do it differently, she'd have to totally change how she shops.  For me, this change came over the course of many years, and by now the idea of buying apples out of season seems like a bizarre, almost alien, practice.   Of course I buy apples from an orchard in October and then can applesauce.  (Cherries in June; peaches in August).   I have fresh fruit in the summer, or when scavenged from catered events my college holds, and the rest of the time I eat fruit from the basement or not at all.  This is such a different way of thinking, of living in the world.

As an example of a different way of thinking, here are some "notes to self" that I'm gathering as the sun rises over my tomatoes.   Other people make shopping lists for their next trip to the grocery store, but I'm making lists for next August:

  • Canning tomatoes and not tomato sauce goes a lot faster.  Continue this practice?  
  • I got two buckets of Roma tomatoes.  This last year, though, we ran out of jars of tomato stuff in May; next summer should I get three buckets?  Or with N-son moving out to go to school, will two still be enough?  Not sure.
  • We spent two hours actively chopping, and about a half-hour cleaning; the other hour-and-half was just processing time. 
  • When I let N-son pick the music we listen to, he picks Reba McIntyre, same as last year.  Apparently, she writes good canning music.
  • If I get more tomatoes next year, especially if N-son isn't around, I'll need to budget more than 4 hours for canning. 
This is a hugely different kind of thinking than my colleague does, and for a very small difference in trash output.   (In fact, metal tomato cans and glass jars are still recycle-able in our area, so this is really just a difference in how much we'd recycle).  And I don't know if it's a huge difference in cost -- our 32 quarts of tomato stuff cost $24, plus gas/energy expenses.  

My colleague gets the convenience of not having to spend a day each summer devoted to tomatoes, and another day in the fall devoted to apples.   For me, I get the convenience of not needing to grocery shop weekly during the cold and paper-work-intense winter months.   Not a better life necessarily, but certainly a different one.

But seeing the sun rise over my tomatoes . . . well, that's a moment to enjoy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

LaTeX dOnnOr invitations

Here's a totally geeky little aside.   Mathematicians often use a typesetting language called "LaTeX" to help us typeset our papers so that we can write all those complicated formulas and draw all those graphs.

I spent a happy afternoon futzing around with LaTeX and Tikz code to come up with some invitations for our upcoming dOnnOr, and I thought other TeXXies might appreciate grabbing this code for themselves.

The invitations, when printed out (on pre-cycled paper, in my case!) and then cut around the lines, look like this:

Unfolded, printed out flat, they look like this:

Note the rotated text!  Cooly-oh!

And here's the code (I replaced my own phone number with the first 10 digits of "e"):




[line cap=round,line join=round,>=triangle 45,x=1.0cm,y=1.0cm]
\clip(-5.1,-15.1) rectangle (15.1,5.1);

    \draw [line width=2.pt] (0.,0.) circle (5.0cm);
    \draw [line width=2.pt] (0.,0.) circle (2.0 cm);
        \draw (0.0, 3.0) node {\rotatebox{180}{\large to the D\OO nn\OO r}};
        \draw  (0.0, -3.3) node {\rotatebox{180}{Y\OO u are }};
        \draw  (0.0,-2.8) node {\rotatebox{180}{c\OO rdially invited }};
    \draw [line width=2.pt] (0.,-10.) circle (5.0cm);
    \draw [line width=2.pt] (0.,-10.) circle (2.0 cm);
        \draw (0.0, -6.5) node {August $X$, 2018};
        \draw (0.0, -7.0) node {6:3\OO\ p.m.};
        \draw (0.0, -7.5) node {at the h\OO me* of};
        \draw (0.0, -13) node {Miser Mom};
        \draw (0.0, -13.5) node {(our address)};
        \draw (3.0, -9) node {\rotatebox{300}{\small (* un-airconditioned)}};

    \draw [line width=2.pt] (10.,0.) circle (5.0cm);
    \draw [line width=2.pt] (10.,0.) circle (2.0 cm);
        \draw (10.0, 3.0) node {\rotatebox{180}{{RSVP:  271-828-1828} }};

    \draw [line width=2.pt] (10.,-10.) circle (5.0cm);
    \draw [line width=2.pt] (10.,-10.) circle (2.0 cm);
        \draw (10.0, -6.8) node {We will dine on h\OO mbergers};
        \draw (10.0, -7.3) node {b\OO gels, and \OO pples \dots };
        \draw (10.0, -12.5) node {\dots and some of us will say things like,};
        \draw (10.0, -13.0) node {``Pl\OO se p\OO ss the s\OO lt.''};
        \draw (10.0, -13.5) node {(But you don't have to, };
        \draw (10.0, -14.0) node { if you don't want to).};



Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How my dad gives money away

A couple of years ago, I was googling my dad for some reason, and the first page that happened to come up was a press release from a university: my dad and mom had donated a boatload of money.  In fact, they'd donated enough money that the university blew the trumpets and waved the public relations flag, in hopes of encouraging like-minded philanthropists to be similarly generous.

I tell you, it gives me the warm fuzzies knowing that my dad's internet legacy leads off with generosity.  And the small mountain of physics publications and connections that follows after that first link isn't bad, either. 

One of my early childhood memories is of my dad explaining the check he was writing.   He told me that the Ku Klux Klan was coming to town, and that there were people who thought they shouldn't get a chance to speak.   He told me that he disagreed with everything the KKK stands for, but he was sending money to a group that was dedicated to making sure all voices --- even unpopular ones --- got the chance to speak out loud. That conversation made a huge impression on me, both because of the bizarre juxtaposition of intolerance and inclusion, but also because it planted the seeds of directed donation in my little 7-year-old head.

So last week, with our annual family dOnnOr coming up in the near future, I took advantage of being with my dad on family vacation to ask him about his approach to giving money.  I asked, and the first thing he did was start laughing:  giving money "gives back", he told me.  Recently he'd counted what came back to him from charities that were egging him on:

  • "4800 mailing labels" (he claims), of which he's used 20
  • 50 notepads
  • 13 calendars
  • pens, pocket calculators, cards

Where does my dad give his money, I asked?  He said he gives to places that educate women, because it's one of the things that's shown to stem the population explosion.  He gives to the arts (the opera and the symphony).   Although he never served in the military, he gives to disabled American veterans, and because of that he's now on a gazillion veterans groups mailing lists.  And not surprisingly, he still gives to progressive causes, like the ACLU and the People for the American Way, plus a few political candidates from Emily's List.

I still have my annual "charity envelope sort" ahead of me, as we get ready to decide the charities that we'll contribute to this year during the dOnnOr with my kids.  The process still feels more random than I'd like, even though I have a partial philosophy of giving, and even though we've done a bit research into the charities we've given to in the past.  But practicing giving money away with my kids still feels like a valuable exercise, even if I don't quite get it right.   

Thanks, Dad!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Miser Family update: people and places version

Life has been rich with travel, and full with family and friends, in the Miser Mom household recently.  Two or more weekends ago, J-son asked to come down for a visit; we spent time together at church and he got visits from a huge group of friends, who chilled with him in our back yard before I had to take him back.  

J-son and his buddies in the back yard. 
And then, having driven the car a hundred-ish miles for the sake of a few hours with my son, I jumped on an airplane and flew to Denver for the big math meetings.  I feel increasingly conflicted about air travel these days, as anyone who knows my eco-mentality might understand. 

And yet, MathFest.  Some of my favorite people in the world to reconnect with.   I get to learn how Hollywood uses differential equations to make animated snow.  I get to meet with my editor and one of my coauthors.  I get to catch up with friends I haven't seen in 6 months, share stories about retirement plans, ideas for books, schemes for converting the academic world over to mastery-based grading. It's not about flying for the sake of spewing jet fuel into the atmosphere, it's about connecting with people

A rough sketch for the possible cover of our book.
Not that travel itself isn't amazing.   Denver is a fabulously beautiful city, with amazing sculptures.  I loved walking around in the city and just looking at things, during the few times that I wasn't at workshops or talks or connecting with old and new math friends.
Chinese Zodiac sculptures outside the Denver Civic Center museum.

And after MathFest, as if flying from the East Coast to Denver isn't eco-moral-ambiguous enough, I then hopped on another plane and flew to Montana, where I got to reconnect with my dad and sisters.   Who, also, I only see about twice a year.  My dad is the one who chooses the locations, and my sisters and I gladly bow to the patriarchy and follow where he leads.
Pausing during a hike in Glacier National Park

Whitefish, Montana happens to be a beautiful place that he's led us to, by the way.  We've had wonderful times hiking (for those of us who like hiking, which I do) and taking boat tours, and rafting, and more hiking, and riding scenic lifts.   But really, just hanging out with my sisters is the best part.  We do fitness blender together, and catch up on our lives.  We commiserate over the travails of raising up our kids and crow over their successes; we brag on how spry our dad is; we remember stories and offer encouragement and compare what it's like to move into our second half-century.
Nine of us at the top of a scenic lift
 I am so very, very grateful for the chance to spend time with these people I love.  I try to remember to be very, very grateful for the many other "ordinary" things I often take for granted.   Letters from Haiti help to remind me to practice gratitude; we got an update from the missionary who is helping us support a young man, X-son, down there.  She writes
Life is still very hard for him He is living with his mother. Water is scarce on the mountain.All water must be hand carried up there. And it is far. Someone tried drilling but it is too high up and they never hit water. There is a water tanker truck that goes up there but if they do not have money to buy water, they have to do without. Food is still scarce. It is life in Haiti.I know he needs shoes. He told me he just wants to make a better life.
She also says,
He is working on his inscription for his last year of school. Are you still interested in sponsoring him for the 2018-2019 school year? He is hoping you do. . . .  He is doing well. He is excited for his last year.
We're not going to go fly to see him again, I'm pretty sure.  But we will continue to support his schooling, and we'll chat with the missionary about the wisdom of helping him get shoes (dependency and corruption are very real possible downsides to sending money to Haiti, so we do our best to help in ways that are actually helpful, and don't just make us feel virtuous and do-goody). 

And that's the news from the Miser Household, which continues to be wealthy in our traveling adventures.  May you and yours be similarly prosperous.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Recycling (or not)

The recycling rules are changing in my neck o' the woods -- perhaps in yours, too.   My city has announced that in the future it will accept only four kinds of recycling:

  • clean metal food cans 
  • plastic jugs that have necks ("no yogurt containers", they emphasize)
  • clean glass jars
  • clean corrugated cardboard 
My college's waste hauler accepts these four, plus newspaper and cardboard drink containers.   No office paper.  

The situation has put a bunch of my dearest friends into tizzies.  We're sending emails back-and-forth about drop-off locations for those things we've been accustomed to dumping in the green bin, but can't any more.  One of my friends, slightly inclined to conspiracy theories, rants to me that this is a plot by our waste haulers to get more burnable trash (which they lucratively convert into energy and air pollution).

It's a good time for us to remember that recycling was never The Answer.  Turning plastic water bottles into plastic park benches is not a way of saving the planet, no matter what the hype says.  Avoiding waste in the first place is significantly more effective.

Probably the biggest shocker to all of my eco-friends is that office paper will soon be going in regular trash cans.   We've been trained for so long, and have accustomed ourselves for so long, to thinking of white paper as being the ultimate poster-child of recycling.  "Save a Tree!" is the rallying cry for recycling, after all.   I admit that I myself am less immediately concerned about what happens to paper, and will instead focus my first, fiercest transition efforts on reducing plastic.    

Still, the whole recycling uproar, together with a sudden spike in unsolicited credit-card offers to my sons, means it's probably a good time to think again about avoiding paper we *don't* want: junk mail.

A quick google search of  "How to stop unwanted mail" reveals a bunch of helpful sites.  Here are two places, with a bit of representative advice:

If you decide that you don't want to receive prescreened offers of credit and insurance, you have two choices: You can opt out of receiving them for five years or opt out of receiving them permanently. 
To opt out for five years: Call toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit www.optoutprescreen.com. The phone number and website are operated by the major consumer reporting companies. 
To opt out permanently: You may begin the permanent Opt-Out process online at www.optoutprescreen.com. To complete your request, you must return the signed Permanent Opt-Out Election form, which will be provided after you initiate your online request.

First, look for any of the following phrases: return service requested, forwarding service requested, address service requested, or change service requested. If you find any of these phrases, write "refused, returned to sender" on the unopened envelope. Mail sent to "Resident," "Current Resident," or "Current Occupant" can be refused if it contains one of the above endorsements, or is sent First Class. When you receive unsolicited promo products, you can mark the envelope “Return to Sender” and put it back in the mail.