Saturday, January 11, 2014

Travel Tips for 2014

Break a resolution yet? If any were travel-related, here’s some good news: In 2014, you can save while staying the traveler that you are.

In other words, set your nonnegotiable standards, then minimize costs and maximize value. For example: Let’s say you refuse to sleep in the same room with a stranger. That means you won’t be staying in hostels, so concentrate on lowering costs on hotel stays or short-term rentals.

Here are four issues about which budget travelers of good faith can differ, and some tips on cutting costs no matter which side of the debate you’re on.

A Room of One’s Own?

This is no longer just a hostel versus hotel debate. Private rentals throughAirbnb have long been in the mainstream, and hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing and BeWelcome are thriving — two visitors from Lyon, France, who found me through Couchsurfing, are staying in my living room even as I write this.

Hostels, however, will still be the mainstay for backpacker types. Many use the big booking sites or, but it’s also worth getting to know, a search aggregator not unlike Kayak. You’ll get to compare prices for Hostelbookers and Hostelworld (as well as the Eurocentric site HostelsClub). But even better, the site also shows ratings from all the sites, as well as lengthier reviews Hostelz pays travelers to write. That’s especially important, because hostels vary as widely as hotels in comfort and cleanliness.

For those who need their privacy, don’t write off Airbnb; you can set filters to show you only private rooms or even entire houses. And despite the name, I’ve found that many Couchsurfing hosts (though not me) offer spare bedrooms.

If you really want to stick with just hotels, there are ever more ways to save. Two new sites monitor hotel prices after you reserve in case prices go down: TripRebel simply refunds you the difference, and TripBAM alerts you if the price drops in the same or nearby hotels and offers to rebook your reservation. For the truly picky, TheSuitest uses hotel features and amenities to calculate a room’s value relative to its price, so you can find the best deal on a place with, say, a gym or great views.

And finally, a compromise of sorts: the growing Britain-based Camp in My Garden (, on which users can offer their backyards to potential campers. It’s dirt cheap, and tents are, after all, completely private.

Connecting the Stops

On a flight from New York to São Paulo last year, I sat next to a young guy headed to Buenos Aires quite indirectly. He had long layovers in São Paulo and Montevideo, lengthening a 10-hour trip to more than 24 hours. But to him it was a no-brainer — he’d save a few hundred bucks.

If that sounds familiar, you probably already know how to list flights by price and set filters to allow multiple layovers on sites like Kayak and Bing Travel. And here’s another tip for flights in Europe: The WhichAirline app and site ( can help you find inconvenient but very cheap connections that other engines don’t. For example, it found me a $119 flight from Paris to Budapest on the budget carrier Ryanair, with a layover of about five hours in Milan each way. (The cheapest option on the usually dependable was $280.)

If you’re anti-layover, consider making your dates more flexible. It’s far easier than it used to be. About a year ago, Google introduced Flight Explorer (, which displays a bar graph for the best prices to a specific destination over any specified time range. Even better, be flexible about your destination: Pick a region (“Western Europe”) and it will show you those same bar graphs for multiple destinations, starting with the cheapest options. You can also set the maximum length of the trip.

Miles Mania

There are two kinds of fliers: miles obsessives who pay more upfront for airlines in a specific alliance and shuffle miles-accruing credit cards to reap free flights at the end; and others who can’t be bothered, who just look to save on each individual flight, car rental and hotel, regardless of the brand.

Being a miles maniac requires a steep learning curve in a world that seems to be both endlessly complicated and constantly shifting. Navigating this world requires a lot of help, and many turn to smart sites Two new ones are also worth a look: Altimetr.comdebuted in June, and though it often takes a higher-end approach, evaluating business class service and private jets, it includes plenty of articles for the rest of us, like comparisons of frequent-flier programs and a useful intro to the whole points game.

If it’s all about frugality for you, try, courtesy of a husband and wife team of C.P.A.s in Virginia, which focuses more closely on how to save big. Their step-by-step guide to a free family trip to Disney World is a good test of whether miles mania is right for you.

The Grid: On or Off?

I post to Twitter and Instagram wherever I go, but not without feeling conflicted: It’s fun, but it’s also part of my job. I’m not sure I would do it if I were traveling for pure pleasure.
But for fans of social media — and other sorts of data usage — it’s undeniably getting cheaper to stay connected. Last year, T-Mobile became the first major carrier to include international data in its regular domestic plans; customers can now check their email in Mongolia or post to Facebook from Frankfurt with no additional charge. (There is one catch: the free data comes with a promise of only 2G coverage, though you can pay for 3G and 4G, as with other carriers.) And there’s no reason anymore to pay for international text messages; that’s what WhatsApp and its ever-growing list of competitors are for. (Of course, you can also use local or international SIM cards.)

Those who do pay for data now can use it to save money more easily than before. Last year saw Google’s Field Trip ( make the jump from Android to iPhone. The app alerts you when you are near attractions, restaurants, sales and the like, using information from an ever-growing list of sources. It’s customizable, and I’ve been teaching mine to stick to the cheap stuff. Now, among other things, it alerts me when I’m near a restaurant reviewed by master hole-in-the-wall-finder Robert Sietsema for

Of course, those who prefer to stay out of touch and find things the old-fashioned way don’t require any fancy technology tips to help them save. In 2014, as in 1914, they’ll get their budget travel advice from handy analog devices called human beings.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Courageous Americans!

The Travis County Commissioners Court took a stand for background checks at the gun show being held at the county Expo center.  Hooray for them!  More actions like this at the local level will force action on the federal level.

Go to Facebook and look up Travis County, Texas and see the comments - many more in favor than against their actions.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Governor Stands Up To Heroin

MONTPELIER, Vt. — In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was “a full-blown heroin crisis” gripping Vermont.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said. He said he wanted to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration.

“The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Governor Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”

Last year, he said, nearly twice as many people here died from heroin overdoses as the year before. Since 2000, Vermont has seen an increase of more than 770 percent in treatment for opiate addictions, up to 4,300 people in 2012.

Addiction Blogs

Governor Shumlin, a Democrat now in his second term, used his State of the State Message last year to focus almost entirely on education. This year, he appears to be one of the first, if not the only, governor to use his message, all 34 minutes of it, to focus exclusively on drug addiction and detail its costs, in dollars and lives.  More about Peter Shumlin

Law enforcement officers were among those in the audience for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s address on Wednesday. He urged treating addiction as a disease needing treatment, not just punishment.

Such speeches mark the opening of a legislative session and traditionally feature some pomp and back-patting as governors lay out their broad agendas for the year to come. Here, the mood in the packed House chamber of the Statehouse was somber as lawmakers considered the scope of the drug problem.

While it may be acute in Vermont, it is not isolated. In the past few years, officials have reported a surge in the use of heroin in New England, with a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths, as well as robberies and other crimes common among addicts. Those same statistics are being replicated across the country. Lawmakers in virtually every state are introducing legislation in response to what is rapidly being perceived as a public health crisis.

“The Centers for Disease Control and most national experts agree there’s an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in America,” Dr. Harry L. Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner, said in an interview. He said the rate of overdose deaths across the country had tripled since 1990.  CDC Statistics on Drug Overdose

“Nationwide, more people die of drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes,” he said.
Dr. Chen said the highest rates of substance abuse were found in New England and the Northeast. No one really knows why, he said, except that the region is a wide-open market for dealers with easy access from New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Law enforcement can be spotty in the rural areas up here, and users are willing to pay top prices.

A $6 bag of heroin in New York City fetches $10 in southern New England and up to $30 or $40 in northern New England, law enforcement officials said. The dealer gets a tremendous profit margin, while the addict pays half of what he might have to pay for prescription painkillers, which have become harder to obtain.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, lauded the governor’s single-minded focus.  “He hit it absolutely right,” said Senator Richard Sears, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “I’ve been dealing with addicted folks for years and have seen the increase in crime related to this addiction problem.”

Republicans were not impressed, saying that Governor Shumlin should have made room for other big issues confronting the state, especially problems with the rollout of its health care exchange.

She said that the governor’s proposal for what would be the nation’s first single-payer health insurance plan had also caused considerable confusion and controversy and that the speech was both “a missed opportunity” to address it and “a way to change the subject.”

Regardless, the picture Mr. Shumlin painted was grim. Every week, he said, more than $2 million worth of heroin and other opiates are trafficked into Vermont. And nearly 80 percent of inmates in the state are jailed on drug-related charges.

The governor made a plea for more money for treatment programs, noting that incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of treatment at a state-financed center costs $123. He asked for money to expand treatment centers, where more than 500 addicts are on waiting lists. He also called for rapid intervention programs so that addicts could be directed to treatment as soon as they see the blue lights flashing from police cars — supposedly the moment when they are most likely to accept help. To discourage high-volume dealers from coming into the state, he is seeking tougher laws.

Mr. Shumlin also wants to encourage discussions on ways to prevent addiction in the first place. He is providing a grant for an entourage from “The Hungry Heart” to visit every high school in the state.

The group will include Skip Gates of Skowhegan, Me., whose son Will, a science major at the University of Vermont and a ski racer, died of a heroin overdose in 2009. “I never knew any human being could feel this much pain,” Mr. Gates says in the movie of his son’s death. “It has redefined the rest of my life.”

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Courage? You Want To See Courage?

My elder daughter works in a rehab hospital and primarily with head trauma patients.  She knows, clinically, what Gabby Giffords has been going through these past three years.  It isn't pretty.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to keep working, to keep fighting, with the rewards are sometimes so terribly small.  It's too bad for our country that those we have elected to Congress don't have an ounce of the courage Gabby has.  Here is her statement today, the 3rd anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson.

Three years ago today, a gunman walked up to one of my Congress on Your Corner events, shot me in the head, killed six of my constituents, and wounded twelve others.

I've spent the last three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again, and how to sign my name with my left hand. It's gritty, painful and frustrating work, every day. It's never easy because once you've mastered some movement or action, you move on to the next. There is no rest. Read more about head trauma caused by gunshot.

Along the way, I’ve learned that our campaign to change our gun laws has a lot in common with my difficult rehab.

Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined. We pay attention to the details, looking for opportunities for progress, even when the pace is slow. And every day we recruit a few more allies, talk to a few more people, and convince a few more voters. Some days it comes easy, and we feel the wind at our backs. Other times, we tire of the burden.  See Americans for Responsible Solutions

I know this feeling … but I know that we’ll persist.

The road is long and difficult, but I need to know that I can continue to count on you in this fight. Let me know at the link below that you're in for 2014, and tell me why changing our gun laws is important to you.

Since the shooting, eight days into the new year is when I mark my own new beginnings and make my annual resolutions.

One year ago today, Mark (husband, Mark Kelly) and I started Americans for Responsible Solutions and made it our mission to reduce gun violence in a way that was consistent with being gun owners ourselves.

This year, I resolve to draw strength from the Americans who have joined our fight, and cede no ground to those who would convince us the path is too steep, or we too weak.

Over the last few months, I have achieved something big that I’ve not spoken about until now. Countless hours of physical therapy - and the talents of the medical community - have brought me new movement in my right arm. It’s fractional progress, and it took a long time, but my arm moves when I tell it.

And maybe that’s what it will take to change our gun laws — determination, teamwork, and incremental progress.

But I know we’ll get there, and I am thankful we’re in it together.

Gabby Giffords

Gun Report for 1/7/2014

Gun Report for January 7th, 2014

If more citizens were armed, criminals would think twice about attacking them, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said in a press conference last week. 

Craig, who served in the L.A.P.D. for 28 years, attributes a lack of confidence in his police department to the likelihood that someone with a concealed weapons permit will open fire, The Detroit News reported.

Urban police chiefs are typically in favor of gun control, but Craig said he changed his mind. Five years ago, he became police chief of Portland, Maine, where many concealed weapons permits are granted. “Maine is one of the safest places in America. Clearly, suspects knew that good Americans were armed,” he concluded.

“Studies have shown more guns don’t deter crime,” argued Robyn Thomas, director of the the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. “The more guns in any situation, the higher the likelihood of them harming either the owner, or people who have access to them.”

But Craig is not alone. Some sheriffs associations across the country reject gun control, citing individual rights. But urban officers would like to be able to access gun trace data, something prevented by the Tiahrt Amendment.

Detroit police have reported 73 justifiable homicides in the city since 2011. Here is today’s report.

Jennifer Mascia writing for the Joe Nocera blog

Cancel Your Subscription to Guns & Ammo!

On January 5th, I posted about the firing of Dick Metcalf for writing an article in Guns & Ammo suggesting that it is time for some reasonable limits on guns.  For expressing his opinion as a respected journalist, he lost his job.  Even though the firing of a respected journalist is worrisome, the fact that a magazine would abdicate their journalistic responsibility and refuse to take a stand for fair discourse is really scary.  How many other magazines are letting their advertisers have the final say over their content?  Now, the NY Times has published letters to the editor responding to the Metcalf story.  I have copied the first one, but there are others you can read by clicking on the link.  
To the Editor:
Re “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns” (front page, Jan. 5):
I read Dick Metcalf’s column, “Let’s Talk Limits,” in Guns & Ammo magazine and found nothing to cause the extreme overreaction that has come his way.
A more constructive response would have been a well-reasoned rebuttal, but that’s the whole point here. What I find disturbing is that this is no longer a conversation between dissenting sides.
As a responsible gun owner, I have never seen so many of these activists claim that the government wants to take away their guns. Registration is not confiscation. Limiting certain types of guns to law enforcement and military use is common sense. Gun restrictions have been part of American law since the 1800s.
This tyranny of the gun is being driven by a vocal few, aided by publications that abdicate their journalistic responsibility to weapons manufacturers and refuse to take a stand for fear of loss of revenue.
The issue is not the gun but the owner. Even the most rabid gun enthusiast has to have nagging doubts about a gun in the hands of an unstable person. Clearly, the conversation about sensible gun laws will resume only when gun manufacturers take the lead and support the proper use and responsible ownership of their products.
Massapequa, N.Y., Jan. 6, 2014
More letters

I'll Show You My Brain If You'll Show Me Yours

If I could go back in time and decide on a career, I would be a neuroscientist.  I am fascinated with the brain and how every human being has the same basic brain structure, but think differently, behave differently, believe different things and actually are as unique as their fingerprints.  No other part of the body is capable of such variety - my femur works like your femur, my ears and yours hear the same music, our lungs breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.  But the brain?  Wow, can it ever be different from person to person.   I would love to have Dr. Deanna Barch's job! 
Myelin-coated nerve fibers are very important in connectivity. Areas in red and yellow have high myelin content; darker areas have lower content. M. F. Glasser and D.C. Van Essen for the WU-Minn HCP Consortium
Deanna Barch is a psychologist by training and inclination who has concentrated on neuroscience because of the desire to understand severe mental illness.  She and her colleagues are working on the first interactive wiring diagram of the living, working human brain.  She and the others working on the project hope that the data they gather will help us understand how disorders of connectivity, or disorders of wiring, contribute to or cause neurological problems and psychiatric problems.
The Human Connectome Project is one of a growing number of large, collaborative information-gathering efforts that signal a new level of excitement in neuroscience, as rapid technological advances seem to be bringing the dream of figuring out the human brain into the realm of reality.
Read Entire Article

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"Food" for Thought

I have a 10-year old granddaughter.  She will be 36 in 2050, and probably will be wondering what to prepare for dinner for her husband and 1.8 kids.  (Or maybe her husband will be the one preparing the meal?)  In that year there will be 9 billion people on the planet - all of whom need to eat every day.  How are we going to feed that many people?  One of the ways is by creating foods, mainly grains, that are disease and pest resistant.  More info So far it hasn't increased yields to any significant degree, but we are in the early days.

But there is another school of thought that claims we can use technology and smarter growing methods to produce enough food for everyone without genetically modifying food.  They also suspect, and not without good reason, that GMO's are just another way of making us all dependent on "big Ag."

Impact on Health

Effect on Environment

Policy Questions

If you are even a little bit interested in environmental issues, you might enjoy this blog: Grist

This is the Country We Live In, Folks

I realize that InterMedia Outdoors, the company that publishes Guns & Ammo and co-produced Dick Metcalf's TV show, can censor anything they wish.  They have the right to determine what appears in their magazine.  But, in this case, it appears that the editors are not the ones determining the content for their readers, it is the gun lobby.  It's hard to believe that this is the country we live in.  A country espousing democracy, free speech, divergent opinions, and the right to express one's own opinion.  Dick Metcalf was simply trying to "work across the aisle" as we want our Congress members to do, and try to come to some sort of rational compromise on the issue of guns in America.  For that, he got fired.   

"The byline of Dick Metcalf, one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists, has gone missing. It has been removed from Guns & Ammo magazine, where his widely-read column once ran on the back page. He no longer stars on a popular television show about firearms. Gun companies have stopped flying him around the world and sending him the latest weapons to review.

In late October, Mr. Metcalf wrote a column that the magazine titled “Let’s Talk Limits,” which debated gun laws. “The fact is,” wrote Mr. Metcalf, who has taught history at Cornell and Yale, “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”

In the column that led to his dismissal, he said that too many gun owners believed that the constitution prohibits any regulation of firearms. He noted that all rights are regulated, like freedom of speech. “You cannot falsely and deliberately shout, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” he wrote.

“The question is, when does regulation become infringement?” he continued. Mr. Metcalf ended the column arguing that requiring 16 hours of training to qualify for a concealed carry license was not an infringement."