Jonathan's Blog Thoughts, interests, and webdesign sandbox

23Sep/120

Animal Farm by George Orwell: Review and Reaction

1954 Cartoon of Animal Farm

I finished reading Animal Farm today, a short-ish story (just over a hundred pages) about a farm owned by an incompetent human who neglects the animals, leading them to revolt and throw all humans off the property. As they work to prove that "two legs bad, four legs good" by running the farm on their own and making everything common, it doesn't take long for a new authoritarian regime to rise, under the leadership of Napoleon the pig.

It's a quick read and a fun story, with the personification of the animals done so well you forget you're reading a political satire on Stalinism.

From what I'd heard about the novel I went in thinking that it was going to be anti-socialist, or anti-communist. During the "revolution" against Farmer Jones, however, the reader sees that the animals are completely justified in finally fighting back against their drunken and abusive master, and their ideals are noble and selfless in establishing a new form of government with the goal of making all animals equal and no animal the servant of another. The animals actions are portrayed as heroic.

The Animal Farm runs in to trouble not from bad ideals, but from ignorance and blind trust in how the government is run. The more intelligent animals (pigs and their trained canine henchmen) use propaganda of patriotism and fear to put themselves in positions of authority and continually distance their lives and responsibilities from the other animals. This distancing allows the pigs over time to adopt practices of authoritarianism such as carrying whips, and to differentiate themselves from other animals by wearing clothes and sleeping in beds. The animals' ignorance and inability to remember the past make them easily swayed by the occasional display of rhetorical eloquence from the pigs.

My main takeaway from the book is a sense of gratitude to live in such a unique country, with a government framed so that power is divided up and not concentrated in the hands of a few.

However, as George Bernard Shaw once said (and I would add "Republic" to this quote as well), "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." While a satire on what Stalinism was, many themes of this book are enduring and should be a warning to make sure we deserve the government we want. Our system of checks and balances might make it difficult, but it is not impossible for ourselves to fall under the shadow of authoritarianism; when it happens, it is our own fault and through our own ignorance. The clearest example of this to me comes around every four years.

In the months leading up to a presidential election I hear blame and praise for almost everything the entire government is responsible for - and isn't responsible for - placed on a single man or woman: the President, or the opposing party's nominee. We seem to forget or ignore for our own convenience that the President is head of just one of three branches of the federal government, which is just one layer of government we support. This growing mentality that one person is the key to affecting real change has allowed presidents backed by either party to exercise power and authority that goes beyond what our Constitution intended and created a bureaucracy of nearly three million people, not including military, whose living comes only from tax dollars.

In Orwell's story, there are many issues "of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm… But still, neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good." The greatest question in my mind after reading the book is this: are we handing off our most important issues and our earned money to those living in the "house" far away, when solving our problems out in the "field" of local, city, county or state governments would allow us to personally get involved and have an actual voice?

This analogy has its limits, but watch even a local news station and see to whom we give our power by where we put our attention.

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22May/120

Why I bought an Amazon Kindle Touch

Over the last couple months I've been looking at different E-readers, and I decided on the
Kindle Touch. Like any big decision (which means deciding to buy anything that costs more than a hundred dollars) I decided what I wanted, and then weighed the options. Here's why the Kindle Touch came first....

  1. E-ink makes me feel like I'm reading a book. I love the no gloss or backlight feel on my eyes. The only downside is the flickering of the screen as the ink resets with page changes, but it was a matter of an hour before I was used to it.
  2. The size is right. I feel comfortable taking the Kindle anywhere because of it's low profile. It also has future potential for fitting in a kneeboard while flying.
  3. The touch screen: the original Kindle looked a little cumbersome to me, having to scroll over the screen and a keyboard using a few buttons. The touch version feels more smooth and intuitive.
  4. The most critical capability was to be able to read .pdf files, and search them like I can on a computer by hitting Ctrl + F. The Kindle delivers, and is easy to use for referencing professional publications.
  5. I don't have to buy everything - my local library let me to check out five books on my Kindle at a time, for 14 days, free of charge. Sold.

Kindle Touch 3G, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 6" E Ink Display - includes Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers

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15Mar/122

What to do with Emergency Fund Money

How I'm Making Sure My Rainy-Day Funds Don't Get Washed Out

Emergency Fund

I wouldn’t say life is easy with the training I’m going through right now, but there’s a bright side to being a single guy with only enough time to work, study, eat and sleep: There’s really not enough time to spend the money I earn.

While maxing out an IRA and contributing to the equivalent of a 401k, I built up enough cash to cover expenses for six months. I followed the advice of family and professionals by calling the money an “Emergency Fund” and put it in what used to be a high-yield savings account. Now that account doesn’t earn enough interest to pay for the gas it would cost to drive to the bank and make a withdrawal.

The image of my money lounging around at some bank doing nothing while I slaved away at work all day was driving me crazy. Sure, it was accessible “just in case,” but between low interest rates and inflation, I was really just paying someone to hold it for me.

So I set out to find a better place for my money. It was time for my cash to build some character, go out in the world, and earn it’s keep. Then give all that keep to me. Here's a list of my criteria for the account, along with my reasoning behind each item, and what options it takes from the table:

  • Expected returns outpace inflation
    • I want my money working and gaining purchasing power with time, and can accept a certain amount of risk to do it.
    • Until I see APY’s above 4% again, this eliminates basically every savings account and CD out there right now in addition to money market accounts, high-yield checking accounts, etc.
  • Funds accessible within 10 business days
    • Faster shouldn’t be necessary. My work would let me know months ahead of time if I was going to be let go, and the budget I use already has a month buffer on expenses. Having a delay would prevent me using it for any sort of impulse buys as well.
    • CDs, T-bills, bonds – anything with a time limit to mature is out.
  • Not penalized for withdrawal at any time
    • Self-explanatory. If things really go bad and I need cash, I’m not paying to get to what’s mine.
    • Again, CD’s and savings bonds are out of the picture, along with tax-deferred accounts like just calling an IRA or my 401k my emergency fund.
  • Minimum time spent managing
    • A little risk is alright, but spending time managing it is out of the question.
    • This means no day-trading with emergency fund money. Also, eliminates the idea of using a Prepaid Credit Card like Mango that has pretty great interest rates, but would make me direct deposit at least $500 a month to not get penalized, spend a certain amount to make sure I don’t hit $5k and lose the interest rate, and then there’s the… well, you get it. It’s complicated, and more trouble than 6% interest on 5 grand is worth.

So where did that leave me? A couple options were still out there.

Peer to peer lending. I’d heard a lot about companies like Prosper and Lending Club and was intrigued that I could invest in their safest loans and get around 4% return on average. I would have gone farther with this, but unfortunately not all states allow it, and even if they do you have to meet certain net worth or annual income requirements.

The other option was some sort of fund with a broker, specifically Vanguard because I already have my IRA with them and they consistently have the lowest fees, and I can purchase Vanguard funds for free. I looked at Dividend Growth, bond funds, and others, but I finally made a decision after reading a book loaned to me by a friend, "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" and deciding what risk I could sleep with. I went with putting my emergency fund into the Vanguard S&P 500 Index ETF. Here’s why:

First, the S&P Index typically in the short term performs better than 48% of managed funds, and in the long term goes up to more than 70%. Anyone who’s read the book can see its influence here. I’m confident that over time it will not only beat inflation but provide a competitive return to any other option out there.

Second, and more importantly, the risk was acceptable. From October 2007 to March 2009 the fund dropped in value 56% in what is now being called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Worst case scenario is this happening again. And I lose my job. And get hit by a car. I could go on, but you get the picture. By putting enough money in to cover twice over what I need for six months of living, I’m confident I’ll have the money I need when the time comes.

I wrote this post mostly just to organize my thoughts and my pretty extensive research on what to do with emergency money. I’m aware it’s boring and dry, but the great thing is, the decision is made and I don’t have to think about something this boring and dry for a long time. I can sleep just a little better knowing that I’m reasonably protected from a no-kidding emergency, and that my rainy-day fund is doing something even while the sun is shining.

 

Filed under: Books, Finance 2 Comments
5Oct/110

Reading the Gospels with Jesus the Christ by Talmage

Standard Works with Jesus the ChristIf you're looking for a way to make your study of the Gospels more meaningful, you might like this.

Twice in the last few years I've read and studied the Gospels of the New Testament. Last time, in January of this year, I decided to study them in harmony - not just to get a better chronological sense of events in the life of the Lord, but also so that I could study it in conjunction with James E. Talmage's Gospel Commentary, "Jesus the Christ."

This wasn't my first attempt at reading "Jesus the Christ." It's an incredible work, but pretty heavy, and I never felt like I got much out of it. This changed when instead of trying to plow through it, I would look at the scripture references for a given chapter and read those first; Talmage's comments became more significant and interesting when I compared them to my own impressions and thoughts from studying the source just prior.

For the most part the idea was great, and I developed a deeper understanding for the mortal life and sacrifice of my Savior. However, it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. While Talmage uses extensive references to the Gospels, he doesn't reference everything; so in order to read the Gospels completely while studying his commentary I had to find out which verses weren't being covered, and assign them to an applicable chapter. To do this, I started building a simple spreadsheet.

The end product is a table of the chapters from "Jesus the Christ" by James E. Talmage with their associated references to the four Gospels of the King James version of the New Testament. If the reader goes through all of the referenced verses for each chapter of Talmage according to the table, he or she will have read the Gospels in their entirety.

I hope this table will be as useful for you in your study of the life of of our Savior Jesus Christ as it was for me. Click the link below to download the .pdf and let me know if you have any questions or corrections.

Download JCHarmony.pdf

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4Jul/110

Four Hour Workweek


Love this book, despite every lifestyle choice I've made being exactly the opposite of what he would advise.

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3Jul/110

Review of I.O.U.S.A.

I just watched an eye opening documentary about the national debt on Netflix. Yes, it's a Saturday night, and yes I am bored waiting around for the next part of my training to roll around, but I don't regret taking the time to watch this film. I just wish the DVD was cheaper so more people would see it....maybe if it was subsidized by the federal government... That could be worth it just for the irony, but is probably as likely to happen as my pre-voting open-book Constitution quiz idea.

I don't want to rehash all of the amazing points it made; there's no way I could do justice to how well the creators of the film presented the material. However, I did want to share my two personal takeaways from the movie:

  1. I would support a Balanced Budget Amendment to the constitution or any politician whose promises and track record show he/she would make balancing the government's budget the highest priority. With that in mind, I support Mitt Romney for president in 2012 for his stance on fiscal responsibility.
  2. I will continue to save what I can, especially at this time in my life when my truly necessary expenditures make up only a third of what I earn.
  3. I will never go into debt except to buy a modest home when the time is right (i.e. when I'm not required to live on base).

That's all I've got. Great film. Watch it. Vote like you learned something. Just to drive the overall message home, here's a related SNL clip:

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10Mar/110

Nova: Battle of the X-Planes

The coolest, most interesting documentary I've ever seen:

Maybe it's because I was thinking of becoming a test pilot (now decided), maybe it's because I'm in a grad level aircraft structures class. I loved every minute of this.

Filed under: Movies, Random No Comments
22Feb/110

How to Make Snow Ghosts

If you're bored and you've got some snow, this is the post for you. A group of friends and I were playing around yesterday and found out how to take some cool/creepy looking pictures.

So here's how it's done:

Step 1: Stick your face in the snow.

Step 2: Take a picture using flash to reveal the snow ghost.

For some reason when you make the print and just look at it, there's not much to see; but when you take a picture at a slight angle with a flash, all the detail just pops out. Hope you have as much fun as we did making an infinity of these things!

Filed under: Random No Comments
10Feb/111

Dealing with the Fear of Public Speaking

Sean Penn in "All the King's Men" In one of my classes a couple weeks back we talked about how irrational our fear is, especially when it comes to talking in front of a crowd. For the most part, the audience wants you to succeed, and yet somehow our thoughts find a way of drifting to all possible worst-case scenarios. My teacher said that professionals are able to "redirect" their thoughts.

Well I'm not a professional, but when I gave my first speech in front of my peers it seemed to go well because I used a simple technique that appealed to my trust in logic.

If I'm nervous and start focusing on the consequences of maybe messing up, I say to myself, "it's true I might screw this up - but if that's possible, then it could also be that I'm going to nail it," and start thinking what the consequences would be after giving the best speech of my life. If I really go after that line of thought, I don't see how I could deliver without a smile and some serious confidence.

Filed under: Thoughts 1 Comment
5Feb/112

VW “Force” Commercial

I don't know what it is I love about this commercial so much, but I've watched it at least 5 times now and it still gets me laughing:

Filed under: Random 2 Comments