The (Lack of) Glamour of Air Travel

Similar to riding horses, shopping in Abercrombie and Fitch, and playing craps at a casino, traveling by air is one of those activities that always seems glamorous and fancy up until you actually do it.  Hold on a minute, scratch that.  I’ve played craps before and it’s quite enjoyable.  Replace that with taking a taxi.

I have performed all of these activities, and one of their most striking qualities is how much less fun they were to do than they seemed from afar.  As a graduate student living halfway across the country from the rest of my family, I find myself at the unfortunate intersection of “needing to fly regularly” and “I’m poor and need to take three flights at 1:30 AM”.  And this is not a fun intersection to be stranded at.

But traveling via airplane is an interesting combination of wonder and utter frustration.  The indignity and bother of removing every single object from my person at security screenings?  The incredibly overpriced and meager selection of food for sale in airports?  The disturbingly squishy chairs that somehow can never be comfortable for more than five minutes?  The stale, dry, dirty air on the planes themselves?  All of these little frustrations come together to make traveling by air a rather unpleasant experience.

On the other hand, I can never quite shake that sense of wonder I feel as the plane finally lifts off from the runway.  Wilbur and Orville Wright flew for the very first time in 1906 (I know that off the top of my head – be impressed), and now, barely over a hundred years later, we clamber fearlessly into metal tubes that streak across the sky, higher than we can breathe, propelled by the constant combustion of incredibly flammable liquids.

Flight is a marvel, something that humanity has strived to attain for thousands of years.  And yet, today we treat it as an inconvenience!  What plasticity the human mind possesses, to shift its mindset so radically in just a few generations.

But I’m a scientist, not a philosopher, so I’m going to brainstorm a few ways that we could shake off a few of the annoyances associated about airplanes:

1. Security checkpoints are long and annoying.  We may have switched over to millimeter wave detection, but why in the world do we still need to take off our shoes and empty our pockets?  Let’s get some automated smart scanners that generate a three-dimensional scan and identify weapons, combined with chemical sniffers that can detect single molecules of explosive.  And to be honest, I don’t really care if some balding TSA agent happens to see my outline beneath my clothes – more incentive for me to stay in shape!

2. The single most infuriating thing about air travel, in my opinion, is the waiting.  Oh god, so much waiting.  I’m sure that most airlines have very complicated computer algorithms to determine when and where flights take off from and are destined to land, but let’s take it a step further.  When I check in, I want to be sent an electronic boarding pass with a QR code and a date and time.  I want to know that, at that specific time, I can walk straight onto the airplane.  We’re already getting close with zone boarding, just put everything on a timetable!  You’ll know exactly when you need to be at the airport, and with security automated, you simply walk in, spend 30 seconds being scanned by computer, and then proceed directly to your gate and onto the plane.  And if you miss your flight and rant to the gate agent, let them kick you out – there’s a giant time stamp that told you exactly when you had to be there.  So sorry you failed to comply with the clearly presented information; better luck next time.

3.  A simple request: give us some damn couches in the waiting areas!  When my connecting flight lands at 2 AM and I have three hours to kill until my next connection boards, I want someplace where I can actually stretch out without having several metal armrests enthusiastically attempt to mate with my spine.

4. Solving the food issue seems pretty simple if security can be resolved; with rapid, automated security checkpoints, it shouldn’t be hard to walk out, grab a cheap and delicious burrito from someplace like Chipotle, return in through security again, proceed directly to your flight, and then sit there regretting your choice in meal.  No more taking advantage of the trapped herd of fliers inside security, tiny and unappealing food kiosks!

5. Comfort on the plane itself is a bit trickier.  Sure, we could rip out half the seats on the plane so that we can all enjoy a bit more leg room, but the airlines are already running on pretty razor thin margins, and the more people they can corral onto a plane, the better.  So let’s go the other way; instead of removing seats, let’s improve them!  I’m thinking that we go the modern route, get Aeron in here to make us something beautiful out of nano-engineered mesh, and then make some cheap ripoffs.  These seats are three inches thick and still uncomfortable – shaving off a couple inches would make the seats a bit larger (for the, how shall I say, heftier fliers), add more leg room, and probably also reduce weight, which provides greater savings to the airline!

6. Free wifi on planes.  Seriously, why are we still charging for wifi on an airplane?  Motel 6 and most strip clubs have free wifi, for god’s sake!  (I am strangely proud of getting both god and strip clubs into that last sentence, by the way.)  I’m writing this post on an airplane right now, but I won’t be able to post it until we land, as my pride prevents me from spending six whole dollars for internet access.  I mean, that six dollars could nearly get me a tiny side salad in the airport.

Update and musings!

Hello, random spam and Google indexing bots that are still remaining loyal to my site!

First off, despite what the major media outlets are claiming, I’m not dead.  I am alive and well, kept busy by both work, working on my NaNoWriMo novel, and by the fact that Netflix has just released all five seasons of Chuck for online streaming.  Damn you, Chuck, and your silly everyman approach to being a super-spy.

If you’re wondering about progress on my novel, as I am sure that you all are (thoughts of a search bot: “Yay, he’s writing more stuff for me to index in hopes of coming across a tasty nugget of advertising!”), rest assured that I am meeting and exceeding my word targets.  It is currently day 8, which means that my novel is supposed to be at 13,333 words by the end of the day.

My novel is 20,000 words.  And I’ll work on it more this evening.

Thank you, search bots.  Please, you can stop your electronic beeping.  Is that supposed to be applause?  You should work on that.

However, I don’t just want to talk about all the congratulations that I’m receiving – no, I currently have a different train of thought passing through my mind-station.  And that train is named “The concept of intelligence.”  Weird name for a train, I know.

If people were given the choice of any three qualities or characteristics for them to wish to possess, their choices would likely be something like “Rich, Popular, and Smart.”  Actually, for some people they may replace “Smart” with “Beautiful/Handsome”.  Fine, Smart is in the top four choices.

But saying whether someone is smart or not is quite difficult.  And, surprisingly, I feel that, just like wealth, intelligence is a trait that can be changed – unlike looks, you can work on being smart!

In talking to many people, and reading many accounts on the internet (“See, I’m not just on Reddit to goof off – I’m conducting important sociological studies!”), I’ve seen a tendency for people to consider themselves either “smart” or “dumb”, and usually in a pretty static range.  They point at things like IQ tests, Mensa memberships, grade point averages, or college/job history to prove their intelligence.

I don’t feel that this is a good measure, however, as plenty of Mensa members tend to be arrogant blowhards that could use a couple months with their jaws wired shut.  And at the same time, I’ve heard people who would consider themselves to be “stupid” make surprising flashes of brilliance.  Instead, I feel that intelligence should be defined in a couple of different ways:

1. Intelligence should be segregated by area.  Knowing about biology, genetics, and biochemistry, while admirable, does not mean that I should let you fix my car.

2. For each and any area, intelligence should be defined as such:
“the amount of factual information known”
multiplied by
“the ability to draw inferences, make connections, and bridge gaps in this knowledge”
multiplied by
“the ability to express ideas clearly, as a percentage”

This formula is simple: there are three ways to increase your intelligence in any area!

Approach 1: learn more.  Read books, practice a skill, watch others, ask questions, add to your mental library.
Approach 2: practice making connections.  This is probably the toughest to train (and thus, comes the closest to being intelligence that you are born with).  But the more knowledge is truly understood, including the reasoning behind it, the more connections can be made.
Approach 3: talk, talk, write, and talk again!  I know so many intelligent people that are mind-numbing bores when they speak.  If you can’t communicate an idea clearly, you may as well not know it at all.  It is trapped in your head, unable to get out!

“But, Samwise, why do we even need to redefine intelligence at all?” you ask me.

“Spambots, it is very clear why this is necessary,” I reply.  “And I shall provide a personal example.  I know a person who knows nothing about science, my chosen field.  Biology is a mystery to her.  I possess years of experience and factual information about things like DNA, RNA, recombination, and genetic analysis that she does not.

“However, when I explain concepts to her, as soon as she has the background, she is able to quickly and intuitively follow my leaps of progression!  In her formula, the first value may be low, but the second value is high.

“Does this mean that, even focusing on biology as an area of intelligence, that she is dumber than I am?  Well, yes, as a total value at the end of the formula.  But that is due not to a lack of brainpower on her part – merely the fact that she doesn’t have as many facts as I do!  It’s easier to win a race in a Lamborghini than in a Volvo, even if the Volvo has a racecar driver behind the wheel.  Looking at potential intelligence, the second value, she’s just as smart as I am.”

Of course, by this point the robots have long since stopped indexing the page, so I’m talking to myself.  But my point stands.  Our measures of intelligence are shoddy, and they need to be improved.

A Word of Advice

Psst!  Hey you!  Yes, you, right there, looking at the screen.  Come in close, would ya?  I’ve got something to tell you.

Look, I know you.  No, don’t try and shake your head at me.  I know you.  You seem pretty well put together at first glance, make a pretty decent first impression.  Or at least a second impression.  You’re not a bad person, you’ve got some natural talents, some gifts, you’re not the dullest tool in the shed.  And hey, you know this.  So then, why are you so… what’s the word…


Yeah, that’s it.  And I know that, deep down inside, you don’t want to be ordinary.  You want to excel, be unique, stand out from the crowd, have something about you that no one else has.  Because hey, don’t we all.  Look around.  Everyone wanted to be normal as a kid, and now they want to be unique as an adult.  Paradoxical, ain’t it?

But no, you want to excel.  At something.  And hey, don’t we all.  But we’ve tried, and I can certainly attest to it, it’s damn hard.  Trying to be good at something takes work.  And to be great?  Good luck, there’s always someone out there who’s further ahead, further down the line.  And at some point, you stop and say to yourself, might as well give up now, huh?  Call it, not waste any more effort?

So here, I’ll help you out.  Lay a little truth on you.  You see everyone else around you, all those people who are better than you, who can somehow always have the right thing to say, to do, for whom everything always seems so damn easy?  See them?  The people who somehow seem to have it all figured out?  See them?  Know them?

It’s a lie.

Everyone, every single person around you, is scared, paralyzed, in mortal fear that you can see through the chinks in their armor.  They’re all projecting out shells of knowledge, of confidence, trying to seem impenetrable, while inside they cry and mewl in helpless despair.

That speaker, confidently giving his presentation?  He’s spent months slaving over this topic, and is scared to death that someone will ask him a question he doesn’t know, or he’ll blank on the answer and be booed off stage.  That guy effortlessly chatting up the babes at the bar?  He’s been rejected so many times, and he remembers every one of them, each with its own unique, exquisite sting of failure.  That girl strutting down the street, dressed in high fashion and making every man’s head twist to follow her figure?  Just this morning, she stood in the mirror, observing every minuscule flaw and hating herself for them.  They all seem so sure of themselves, but inside, they’re just as fragile as you or me.

So, what’s the difference?  If we’re all the same inside, why are they able to pull it off?  How can they step forward when everyone else hesitates or steps back?  What do they have, that you and I lack?

Really, it’s rather a chilling answer.  They know that they will fail.  They have failed before, have taken those wounds, sustained those scars.  And they kept on going.  It’s not natural talent, or trained skill, or confidence, or poise, or ability, luck, happenstance, or fortune.

No, it’s raw, bloody, dogged determination.  They refuse to hide away, to stay safe from rejection, failure, disappointment and sadness.

It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. 
Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

-Sophie Scholl

Confused Frustration

Author’s note: this was written on September 5th, so information may be slightly out of date.  I’m probably still feeling pretty much the same, however, since this is being published a good 6 days before even the first Week of Welcome activity.  Eh.

So, for anyone who doesn’t read the author bio on this blog, I’m currently a graduate student.

Oh, wait, what’s that?  My author bio doesn’t say anything about that?  Well, crap.  You’re right.  And just to prove how much of a liar I am, I’m not even a graduate student.  Good lord, I just keep digging myself deeper into this pit of lies.

Let me make an amendment.  I’m not a graduate student YET.  Not for another 11 days, when my program starts.

And I haven’t felt this lost in a while.

Ah, you ask, now hanging on my every word (and probably searching for more opportunities to point out my lies), but why are you lost?  The program hasn’t even started yet!  And you mentioned something about a Welcome Week up there in the italics at the top of this post, so they probably tell you everything you need to know and more!

Yes, oh unseen and mostly imaginary audience, this may be true.  And I hope that it’s true, as it would mean that many of my fears are unfounded and can vanish back into my closet.  But right now, I know next to nothing, and this makes me fear that I’m forgetting about everything.

Case number one: finances.  Now, according to some lovely letters on fancy official school stationary, I have been given a stipend of $26k per year.  Woo!  That’s more money than I made at my previous job, by lots!  I should be able to afford to cover my bed in money and then roll around in it, without the indignity of finding coins lodged in awkward crevices later!

Now, however, I’m not so sure.  From what I seem to be seeing online, that money is given to me before tuition.  And I have to pay tuition.  Not only do I have to pay tuition, but tuition seems to be somewhere between $20,000 and $48,000 per year.

Wait a minute!  How can I be getting 26k but paying out 20k or greater?  Given that my rent for the year is 500/month (which appears to be one of the cheaper options in my city of college residence), this means that, even in the best case scenario, I barely have enough to pay for my apartment.  And I cannot eat my apartment.

(Other issue: apparently I don’t get my financial reimbursements until November.  Kind of a long time to wait, don’t you think, university?  Don’t you??)

Even if money was my only concern at the moment, that wouldn’t be too bad.  Talk to financial office, eat cheap foods, consider second job, consider selling organs, etc.  Plenty of solutions.  But even that’s not my top problem (although it’s a close second).

No, as a graduate student, my number one priority is finding a lab to do research with.  A lab that preferably A) is aligned with my interests, B) that has funding/space for me, and C) that has a professor I get along with.  Mostly in that order.  Now, I have a decent idea of what I want to research.  But finding a lab that seems to match up with this is already proving to be a nightmare, and this is before I’ve even tried contacting them to see if they have funding or space.


On one hand, I’ve been reading online that it’s best to try and set up rotations before school starts.  On the other hand, there are also plenty of people who did not set up their rotations before school starts.  Now, I’m hearing about them on sites where they are lamenting the fact that they didn’t do this earlier, but they’re still around, right?  They made it, didn’t they?  It can’t be that bad.

I’d talk to my graduate mentors about this, but they are out of town for the next week.  I’d talk to my assigned professor about this, but I don’t have one yet.  Internet audience, can you see why I’m stuck?

Right now, I’m just going to try and read as much as I can about graduate school, read up on professors, and hope that some of this gets clearer.  Because, sadly, there isn’t much that I can do.

And that drives me crazy.


On the practical hilarity of poop jokes

Today, I’m going to tackle a treasured trope of many low-budget films and television shows – the poop joke.

This joke has existed since time immemorial, probably even to the point of being scrawled on the walls of caves, down below the actual important artwork that all the museums prefer to focus on.  While there is at least one poop joke present in just about every single comedy in existence, and I can guarantee that there isn’t a human alive who hasn’t laughed at at least one poop joke, they are still considered to be at the ass end of comedy (see what I did there?).

The question is, why?

Why do we consider poop jokes to be such shit?  I think that the first and foremost reason is that they are clinically overdone.  One of the best ways to ruin any joke, no matter how hilarious, is to overuse it.  The first time a monkey hits a man in the genitalia with a softball, it’s hilarious.  It will leave people literally rolling on the floor laughing (or ROTFL, for short).  However, after they’ve seen this on a commercial fifty times in the last three days while they want to just keep on watching Castle without such interruptions blocking Nathan Fillion’s sexy face, such antics aren’t nearly as funny.

So, overuse.  But that can’t be the only reason that film critics bite their pencils in half when confronted by a toilet joke.  Which is ironic, because those pencils are a great source of fiber.  But why else are poop jokes considered to be the lowest common denominator of humor?

Perhaps it is exactly because these jokes are so easy to relate to.  From the top-paid CEO to the janitorial worker in his employ, everyone laughed at a poop joke at some point in their life.  To a thirteen year old, the latest Adam Sandler comedy is hilarious.  But to the rest of us, these jokes are a symbol of how low we once sat, how we once considered such jokes to be the pinnacle of humor.

We may have moved on.  We may have evolved.  Over the course of our lives, we may have dragged ourselves up into the peaks of high society, raised ourselves out of the coffee and into the cream.  We have no inclination to look back, and don’t want to see our roots.  When such a simple joke is able to pull at our strings, to remind us of how we once started off among the shit, we groan, forcing it out of our consciousness to avoid such frustrating realizations.

Finally, perhaps because of how we dislike poop jokes, we have imposed a stigma upon them.  No matter how many times you attend the White House Correspondents’ dinner, you aren’t likely to hear a lot of comments on the brown stuff.  Why is that?  Because we have decreed that such jokes are the products of low class, and should not be associated with the upper class.  They have risen above such vulgar and derisive forms of humor!

Allow me to draw a parallel to horse meat.  Recently, there was a scandal over the discovery of horse meat in beef sold in Europe.  Horse meat, by the way, happens to be healthier in just about every way versus beef.  It’s lower in calories, less fat, more lean, cheaper to produce, less cholesterol, and is overall assumed to taste better.  However, because we have imposed such stigma on the act of eating horse, horse meat is considered to be vulgar and not worth consuming.

So not to beat a dead horse, but I have a reason for trying to avoid poop jokes.  Despite the fact that just about every human being, alive or dead, will get a poop joke, they tend to signal to the reader that the subject matter is low-grade, inferior, not valuable.  Much like poop.

And that’s too bad, because such jokes are literally dropping out of me on a daily basis!

First World Problems

One of the most bothersome issues I find in my writing is a lack of internal motivation.

Now, I feel that I need to clarify this statement.  I have plenty of ideas, and I certainly have a powerful drive to succeed.  My parents raised me with the core idea that I could succeed at whatever I put my mind to, as long as I was willing to devote the time and energy into improving my ability and making the necessary investments.

And you know what, random strangers of the internet?  Things have worked out fairly well.  I got into college on my first shot, plus a very nice package of perks.  I’m soon headed off to graduate school (admitted on the first round of applications).  I score at the top percentiles for most exams.  I am financially stable and secure.  I have a wonderful social life, companionship, and pretty much every basic need is filled.  I can manage my money, have a medley of hobbies to pursue, am a decent cook, and am doing fairly well in just about every aspect of my life.

Please note, before taking too much offense at this preceding paragraph, that I am not bragging.  No, quite the opposite – this is my issue!  I have no trauma in my past, no tragic flaw, no corruption or demons within that I must battle, no haunted face staring back at me from my mirror.  I am, to summarize, doing very well.

This really shouldn’t irk me.  Success, which is truly what I have achieved, shouldn’t be a drawback.  It should be something to celebrate, something to rejoice in and enjoy!

And yet, I occasionally find myself wishing that I did have some flaw, some character defect that I must strive every day to overcome.  And my motivation for such a flaw is nearly farce.  Curious yet?  Think you’ve guessed the reason?  Here it is:

I see other writers, other people in all different areas and fields, who can draw strength and inner focus from the challenges they have overcome.  Through their conquering of their inner demons, they find motivation, courage, and remarkable insight into the human condition that allows them to insert depth and emotion into whatever they pursue.

For me, on the other hand, a spoiled upper-middle-class white kid, born an American citizen, raised in a loving two-parent family, gifted with a good education, and with plenty of career opportunities in my field – what insight do I have?  I have not had any experiences with the rougher side of life.  The closest I have come to tragedy is on the cinema screen.  Knowing this, how can I hope to convey such depth and strength of feeling in my work?

I hope that, by now, you are actively cursing me.  Much like a spoiled, petulant teenage girl, I am complaining because my life is “too good.”  What arrogance!  How dare I mock my success, spit in the face of the great sacrifices that others have made to raise me to this position?  And I know, deep inside, that I am happy to not be fighting demons.  I am happy that I have not had to endure tragedy, that my life is a cakewalk.

Yet still, sometimes before I drift off to sleep (in my own apartment, paid for in full, without debt, what a stuck-up ass), I wonder whether I have not yet truly lived.

Go Clean Your Room

Author’s note: this is not a short story, but merely a personal rant.  I’m not feeling creative today.  Sue me.

(Author’s note: please don’t sue me.)

This past weekend, I visited the apartment of one of my cousins, who is married, living in New York, owns an adorable little dog, wears hats and somehow manages to look incredibly fashionable in them, and is, in general, doing much better at life than I am.  Upon entering his apartment, I was struck by one single question, powerful and overriding all others.

How in the world does he keep his apartment so clean??

Yes, that question deserved the double question marks.  Now that I am back home in my own apartment, I look around and see that I am surrounded by filth.  How does he do it?

I have cleaned before.  And I have even gotten my room to look spotless and amazing, similar to how his apartment seems.  However, even a day or two later, things have begun to decline, to go downhill.  First, it’s a shirt that I only wore for half a day, and isn’t ready for the laundry bin yet.  I can’t fold up this shirt, so I merely set it on a chair, ready to be worn again.  One shirt sitting out isn’t so bad.

After that comes a book or two.  Well, I just got back from the library with a half dozen books, but I don’t want to put them on my bookshelf, or I will forget them forever and won’t get around to reading them.  I know!  I’ll make a nice, neat little stack here on the floor.  That way they are visible and I will definitely get around to reading them.

Oh, look, some papers that I was working on!  Those are important.  I’m not done editing those.  I will set them right next to my bed, so that when I go back to editing them, I can reach over and pick them right up.  Yes, that is a good spot.

Next thing I know, my room is filled with random items, and I need to play a complicated game of hopscotch in order to get to my dresser in the morning.  I don’t think of myself as a messy person, but it seems that my living space is determined to prove me wrong.  Even more annoying is the fact that, whenever I go to clean my room, I realize that there are many other, more important things that I should be doing.  Like looking at pictures of cats on the internet. 

Every now and then, when I do realize that there are only two square feet of carpet still visible in my room, I will go on a cleaning binge.  Away go the clothes!  Begone, stray dishes!  Back to the shelves, you books!  Hiyah!  I really ought to be using a pitchfork.  An hour later, my room is spotless, and I can lie back in contentment.

Of course, this lasts for a good day or so before I’m leaving out an article of clothing again, thinking that “just one won’t hurt.”

And, as may be obvious by the subject of this post, I am writing this in an attempt to procrastinate instead of cleaning my room.  

Mental Depths and Shallows

In science, there’s a concept of buoyancy.  Things are buoyant if they float, that is, if their average density is less than water.  On the other hand, if this average density is greater than water, they sink.  If the density is equal to water, they stay wherever they’re placed, and are considered at “neutral buoyancy.”

Now, what’s the buoyancy of your thoughts?
No, I don’t mean the buoyancy of the brain.  Although, if you’re curious, the brain is actually at relatively neutral buoyancy, which is how it floats inside our heads without hitting the bottom of our skulls.
(Take a moment to consider this.  If your brain was to somehow come out of your body underwater, it wouldn’t bob to the top, like the rest of your body.  Instead, it would just hang there in the water, drifting back and forth along the currents . . . )
(Now imagine a whole school (flock?  Shoal?) of brains, roaming in the depths of the ocean.  Existing without bodies, they drain the mental energies of their prey, dragging down sailors from capsized ships into the depths, where the brains will feed off the dying thoughts . . . )
But I’m getting off topic.  No, think about thoughts.  That’s right, meta-thinking.  
There are definitely shallow thoughts:
  • “Oh my god, look at her dress.  It totally does not look good with her body.”
  • “How many of these could I fit in my mouth at once?”
  • “I’m sleepy.”
  • “I think I should watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
  • “Is this Justin Bieber?  I love this song!”
Yep.  Pretty shallow.  Splashing around on the edge of the mental pool.
On the other hand, there are certainly deep thoughts as well:
  • “What is my purpose in life?”
  • “What will happen to the universe, in the end?”
  • “How will I be remembered, after I’m gone?”
  • “If I eat myself, will I weigh twice as much, or nothing at all?”
Now, take a moment and reflect.  Do your day-to-day thoughts tend to be towards the shallow end, or the deeper end?
Personally, I have noticed that, like a joyful minnow, my thoughts seem to enjoy alternating between surfacing and diving.  While sitting or trying in vain to fall asleep, I will find myself pondering the deepest questions in life, when all of a sudden, my deep thoughts are interrupted by an idle wondering about when the next episode of Top Gear will be on.  Bam, back in shallow territory.
Going a step further, do different people have different mental buoyancies?  Does my friend, who watches nothing but reality television, have a brain that moors in shallower waters than mine?  Does another friend, who insists on reading dry and musty poets, have a brain hiding deeper in the depths?  
And now, for the scientific part of my brain: how could this be measured?

Money is weird.

Money is weird.

The whole concept is strange to think about, especially with the emphasis that is so often placed upon it.  Basically, money is simply a method for trading the work that you put in, for goods and services that you can enjoy.  It’s just the reward that’s earned.  You help out society by doing work that betters the world, or at least the immediate community, and in exchange, you can pick out food, toys, and keep your home warm at night.

And yet, money has grown into so much more than that.  So many items in our world serve solely as status symbols, indicators of how much extra money is available to burn.  Nobody actually needs to drive an Italian sports car, or encrust their watch in diamonds.  The only purpose of these items is to brag about how much money is coming in.

Now, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the amount of money earned was directly proportional to the amount of good done for society.  It makes sense that inventing a medical cure that saves millions of lives should be worth more, financially, than restocking a crate of apples at a grocery store.  But so much money seems to go to managers, financiers, lawyers, people who don’t actually solve any problem.  Indeed, some of the highest salaries go to people that do nothing more than play with the money, swapping it back and forth to get rich off the pennies that slip through the cracks.

Like I said, money is weird.  It also seems especially strange when I am at work, when I talk with the homeowners I work with every day.

In many neighborhoods, I see homeless people pass by, see people driving five-hundred-dollar cars, see people where the Gap is high fashion and who will most likely never see their bank account hit six figures.  For these people, making forty or fifty thousand dollars a year is a huge accomplishment, and watching the reality TV stars parade around in their designer clothes and spend their days shopping and lounging by pools is a glimpse into another world, a world in which they will never be a member.

I like learning about finance.  I enjoy reading books about the stock market (yes, in my free time!  Shocking.) and make investments.  But so many people I know don’t have stocks, don’t think about money, don’t have much going for them financially besides a vague IRA into which they put the minimum.  Even though these people are just as talented as I am, if not more so, they are being handicapped by their lack of financial devotion!

I am not rich.  At least, not by my idea of rich.  I recently read that most Americans would consider “rich” to be approximately 10 million dollars.  Invested in a balanced portfolio, this would generate roughly $600,000 per year, which is enough to live in any city, pursue almost any hobby, and never have to work again for the rest of one’s life.

I don’t have 10 million dollars.  I can’t even imagine 10 million dollars.

But does this make me poor?  I’m debt free, on a career track, have a car, and have money in the bank.  I have a plan, I’m well educated on investments, and I don’t live beyond my means.  I certainly consider myself well off.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that I am incredibly rich and radically poor, all at the same time.  In so many ways, I am so well off, and yet I have so much more to work for.  Perhaps it is even stranger for me, since I can see the hint of light at the top of the tower, just well enough to show me how far I still have to ascend.  I can see a path, can set financial goals, but have a long and strenuous climb ahead.

Money is weird.

Times When You Don’t Want "Cheap"

In this uncertain economy, there are many places where the cheap option is the best. Generic brand food bakes just as well as name brands – your kids can’t really tell if those nuggets are Tyson or not. Nobody cares how much you paid for the all-leather trim on your steering wheel. In many areas, cutting back is a wise decision.

However, there are still some purchases where the cheap option really is the worst choice. Places where you should be willing, even happy, to pay top dollar. Here are a few:

  • LASIK. “Oh, you don’t want to spend over $400?  Tell ya what, we’ll let our med student take a crack at this one. This will give him a chance to try the controls of the machine for the first time!”

  • Auto repairs.  A good repair uses dealer-issued replacement parts. A bad repair uses bubble gum and cardboard. And no, you can’t “cobble a transmission together with old parts sitting around”.

  • Fire extinguishers. You know what happened to the last guy who thought he could save a few bucks by buying “gently used” extinguishers?  Here’s a hint, he didn’t freeze to death.

  • Guns. No matter what that guy in the back alley tells you, guns do not “mellow with time like fine wines.”  You know what they do?  They explode.

  • Plumbing. I don’t know about you, but I think plumbing was an amazing invention. The less time I spend in contact with human waste, the better. And I am willing to pay top dollar to make sure that those pipes won’t suddenly put me in immediate, intimate contact with it.

And finally…

  • Donating to online blogs. Those writers work hard to provide you with your daily reading material, and they should be compensated. Preaching? Me?  Nahhh.