Monday, April 30, 2012

Hummingbirds Are Cool

Hummingbirds are cool

Hummingbirds are the coolest birds ever. Because they can hover. There. End of argument. Hovering wins against any other attribute.

There are lots of cool birds. Condors are cool, just because they're big in a wow-that's-really-massive way. Cormorants are cool. They can be trained to dive for fish and bring them to you. Who doesn't like a bird you can train to bring food? What if you could train a condor to bring you a steak? I bet they could bring the whole cow.

Parrots and cockateels and the whole parrot extended family certainly deserve consideration. Because they can talk. But it's not real conversation. Not like they're going to go on Jay Leno and yuck it up. Of course a parrot has probably already yucked it up with Jay Leno, beating me by a lifetime.

I heard that in Australia so many parrots have been released into the wild by owners who taught them curse words - and didn't realize they live for fifty years, because why would you set free your cursing parrot? - that now the released parrots are teaching the wild parrots to curse out in the jungle. With an Aussie accent.

Penguins get cool points for being cute and classy at the same time. I can't resist saying "no pun intended." For "cool" points. Never mind. All day long they get to play on a slip-and-slide made of ice. I got so sunburned and so scraped up on my slip-and-slide as a kid. Probably because we were under water restrictions at the time. I'm surprised there's no slip-and-slide app. Dibs.

And the waddle is completely endearing. If my co-workers at my last job waddled, I might have liked them better. But probably not. I wouldn't have minded if they had fins that kept them from typing pointless, long-winded, angry, accusatory, emails full of typos and sending me IMs to ask when I was going to be done with what I was working on when they IM'ed me. But if they had interrupted me to beg for fish, that would've been OK.

Other birds just can't come close. Pigeons are about as cool as rats with wings. Homing pigeons get a bit of a break, but not much. They're mailmen. And obsessive-compulsive. Vultures are a marvel because they eat stuff I can't, but the gross factor cancels out the cool. They would totally win Fear Factor. Crows and grackles are just plain annoying, although they possibly serve some function in the every-animal-adds-value earthly ecosystem. I just don't know what that is.

Ducks and geese? Average. Swans and peacocks? Classy, even beautiful, but not nifty. Not hovering.

Hummingbirds hover. They beat their wings so fast you can only see a blur! And it makes a low-pitched light-saber-esque whoosh when they fly by. "The Force is strong in this...bird." Other times it's a high pitch tsk-tsk-tsk sound. I think that means they're scolding someone. Might even be me. I was staring after all.

Based on messiness alone, the hummingbird feeder on our balcony is a total win vs the chickadee/sparrow bowl or the finch mesh sock. Those were a complete pain to clean up after. Although I do miss the chickadees. They're so cute, I just want to hug them and squeeze them and call them George. But not any cuter than hummingbirds. Who hover.

Yeah, sugar water - even with the time it takes to prepare it - wins against bird seed that has to be swept up all the time. No need to sweep up sugar water. Worst case you might need a mop. That would be a lot of sugar water.

Hummingbirds live on sugar water and tiny bugs they catch as they fly. Sort of like bikers. Except it would be beer and chicken wings and tiny bugs they catch as they fly. Down the road.

I suppose I can't give them coolness points for the iridescent heads, or peacocks would be back in contention. Except peacocks don't hover. That's definitely the trump card.

The other trump card is that I can stand out on my balcony three feet from the feeder and they still come for food! They don't mind me at all. No condors landing on my balcony. Or penguins. No condors landing on penguins either. Or even the other way around. Occasionally the hummers come towards me with the tsk-tsk-tsk sound. It's either a threat display, or they don't like the striped shirt I'm wearing with my plaid pants. Everyone's a critic.

Being enthralled by the whole hover ability means I'm even more impressed when I see one perch. That's when they look plain adorable. And then they hover again. Cool.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Leverage and Wealth Disparity

Lately I've been thinking about the role of leverage in wealth disparity. America is a land of amazing freedoms, allowing anyone to earn income with few boundaries, such as class or location. Meanwhile, I've seen repeated reports on the increased disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest in our nation over the past fifty years. I'm curious about three things: the role that leverage plays in increased wealth disparity, the minimum wealth that a society should deem as livable, and whether there is a need to limit the difference between the wealthiest and poorest individuals. Today I'll share some thoughts on the first of these. (Note - I'm using the term "wealth disparity" to talk about variance in wealth without passing judgment.)

Leverage is the ability to use resources to gain more resources. On a small scale, you leverage your savings by depositing it in a savings account. Your bank or credit union loans it out to others and pays you interest. You thereby leverage your savings into greater wealth. Greater leverage can come from borrowing money to invest (like using it to buy raw goods or inventory for sale, or to buy stocks on margin). Leverage is the basis of the adage "it takes money to make money."

I started thinking about the connection between leverage and wealth disparity on my last trip to the airport. I recently qualified for elite status with my airline. This means my employer and I spent a certain amount on travel for work and pleasure last year - approximately $3000. Now when I fly, I no longer have to pay a fee to check a bag, because I have elite status. The money I have spent is now earning me greater returns - leverage. I'm spending the same amount on the flights as other passengers, but I save a hundred dollars or so not paying those fees.

Flying is not a need in life. But I could argue that in today's economy, having a bank account for the safe-keeping of savings constitutes a minimum standard of protection. Leverage comes into play here as well. If you have a certain amount to deposit, you don't pay checking fees. (If you have a higher amount, you won't pay for checks. Higher still, and you get better interest rates on your savings.) If you don't have the minimum to deposit, you will see your balance eroded each month, meaning you have to earn more just to keep in place. Or you will avoid the banking system and use alternatives - like check cashing services - with their own fees.

There is a similar leverage effect from having health insurance generally provided by employers. I view low-cost access to preventive medicine as a minimum standard of health protection. With the current system, you need a certain set of skills to qualify for a job that offers affordable health insurance. Maybe you need additional skills to have health insurance that comes with preventive care fully covered.

As a side note, the perversity of these leverage effects is that they provide an obstacle to flexibility. If you want to try working for yourself, you have to contend with a lack of affordable health insurance along with the gap in income. Similarly, but less severely, if you want to fly a different airline with better routes, you have to build your frequent flyer status from zero.

What examples do you have of leverage that contributes to wealth disparity?