Category Archives: living

How much toothpaste should I eat?

This is not a question most people ask of themselves, and those that should don’t think to ask it.  It’s left to us parents to wonder: How many Crest commercial brushloads can my kid eat before I should worry about the fluoride?  Here’s a calculation to help answer that.

The safety data I’m using is from the 2013 article by the European Food Safety Authority EFSA, Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fluoride.  They state that regardless of age and condition, the adequate intake is 0.05mg per day per kg of body weight.  For a 20-kg person (44 lbs), that works out to 1mg per day.

How much toothpaste to get to 1 mg?  It depends on the toothpaste.  Most toothpastes have an indication of fluoride ion content.  We have a children’s toothpaste (Elmex) which states 500ppm fluoride ion, and a regular toothpaste (Crest) that indicates 0,15%.  Our fluoridated table salt contains 0,025% fluoride.  This works out to 2g of toothpaste for Elmex, 0,7g for Crest, and 4g of table salt.

That’s all very well, but few people visualize grams well.  For the salt, an online converter tells me we’re looking at 0,7tsp.  My not terribly precise kitchen scale indicated that for the Crest toothpaste, it corresponds roughly to one TV commercial brushload; for Elmex, to three such brushloads.

And then there’s tea… which weighs in at anywhere between 1.5mg/liter to 4mg/liter, perhaps even more, depending also on whether your water is fluoridated.  AcneEinstein has a more detailed treatment of the tea question, which also links to WHO guidelines that seem to only partially square up with the EFSA guidelines.

The upshot: monitor and train your kids, but don’t freak out if they eat a little toothpaste.  And don’t raise them exclusively on iced tea…

FATCA madness

More than a year ago, the IRS announced that they had 77’000 banks cooperating with them for FATCA.  Robert Wood wrote on that and a bunch of other scary IRS facts for citizens abroad.  (Really, $10’000 for a non-willful FBAR mistake?)

Today, July 18, 2015, the searchable list of Foreign Financial Institutions numbers 168’239 funds or institutions.  The UK alone boasts 23’568 – the first hit being “Mrs E M Brown Grandchildren’s Settlement.”  Other notable entries there: “17th Earl of Pembroke W/T -Lady Pembroke” and “Lord Clinton’s Marriage Settlement – Lady Clinton’s Fund.”  It appears that every fund that wants US investments in its portfolio needs to register with the IRS – and you know that means forms.  Reams of forms, to the tune of several tens of thousand a year, and even more potential data from the institutions that register.  And these forms probably can’t be e-filed, so a few of the roughly 95’000 IRS employees probably get to type those forms into a database and file them in a drawer somewhere.  Assuming 40’000 filings a year, with 9 pages per form printed out single-sided, that’s about five kitchen stoves worth of paper volume just for the registrations.  Of course, these registrations are chump change compared to the number of filings each year.  How do they keep track of all the information they’re gathering? 

What bugs me most about the list of Swiss institutions is that the pension fund I formerly used to use, one that converts part of the savings into a fund, is of course registered here, because they also trade with US shares.  But they’ve bumped me out, because I’m a US citizen and not worth their having to actually keep tabs on me.  (I’m still uncertain whether these tax-deferred voluntary pension schemes are even a good idea at all, just because the US probably doesn’t view them as eligible for any sort of tax deferment.)

So with all these hassles, I’m curious to see if I can even open a bank account in Ellie’s name before getting her registered with Social Security, because Postfinance (and pretty much every other Swiss bank) requires US citizens to fill out a W-9 form that allows them to share information with the IRS when requested.  And of course that form requires a Social Security Number…

At any rate, there will be two more accounts on our FBAR next year.  And for Janet’s sake, I hope that the IRS finally implement a copy-paste function within the PDF document for filing the FBAR, so she doesn’t have to re-type the Postfinance address a dozen times.

Male spirituality

The whole notion of male spirituality has bothered me ever since the “Wild at Heart” phenomenon.  I’ve heard many greet that adventurer’s manifesto with enthusiasm, while I myself felt misrepresented and misunderstood by it, and resisted it as something that appeared to force all men into the daredevil mold.  (Must I add that bravado isn’t me?)

So when the June 2012 magazine VBG-Bausteine of the Swiss InterVarsity equivalent contained a report on a course on male spirituality, I read it with interest and apprehension.  Felix Ruther summarized his own course on the topic: I’ll attempt a summary of the summary here as a reminder of what stood out to me.

  • Men tend toward liturgy, Ruther says.  Fewer words, more ritual, and knowing what is to be done make most men feel more at home.
  • Praying is unmanly: it’s an admission of weakness, after all.  But it’s also a great way to get the continually busy man to stop, look around, and ask the deeper questions: what does God want of me?  What do I want, and where do I stand?
  • Men prefer to model themselves after myths and mythical beings, not the psyche (I don’t understand the psyche part, but I’m leaving it in).  There are four essential mythical archetypes:
  1. Responsibility (Father/Patriarch/King)
  2. Competition (Warrior)
  3. Vulberability (Lover)
  4. Independence (Prophet/Jester/Magician)

Ruther says that if one of these archetypes is preferred without counterbalance, men descend into a skewed masculinity: the king becomes a tyrant or weakling, the warrior a sadist, the lover an addict, and the prophet a hurtful nag.  He calls men to integrate all archetypes: to fight for the good, to be captivated by beauty, to create safe havens for others, and to seek and speak truth.

This multidimensionality – whether fully accurate or not – is what I felt was missing from “Wild at Heart,” which I thought reduced manliness to a one-dimensional adrenaline quest.  If Eldredge had stepped back from his own frustration with the church to see the bigger picture, his wake-up call could have been much more effective.

Why is most everyone else a below average driver?

You know the people: it’s green, and they don’t move; they suddenly slow down to turn without using their blinker; they pass you, only to slow to a lower speed than yours; they slow down more than necessary for curves and crawl around roundabouts; they tailgate you and flash their highbeams even though you’re doing five above the limit.  You know the people.  And you might have wondered: why are there so many below average drivers?  Not necessarily dangerous drivers, but drivers who don’t think ahead, and don’t consider others, for all you can tell.

Why, indeed?  I don’t think I ever gave it much thought until I applied my, ahem, clearly above-average driving skills to looking like a below-average driver.  After a car ride that involved my wallet on the roof and other similar incidents or near incidents, it’s become painfully, odoriferously clear that our children do not deal well with curves unless they’re asleep.  The 90-minute drive to another family with young kids in particular without fail involves whining, stopping, and fresh air.  So this time we planned it with stops for fresh air, and plenty time for the drive.  And as I drove little old lady style around a bend, I realized that if the folks behind me were anything like my younger, childless self, they’d be muttering under their breaths about how some people just don’t know how to handle a car.

My younger self, for whatever reason, rarely if ever came up with another reason for slow driving than incompetence.  Kids close to throwing up?  Nope.  Spouse afraid of the drop-off?  Nope.  Distracted by a fight in the car or a fight before the drive?  Petrified because of a recent accident?  Weary and looking for a hotel after a long drive?  Nope, nope, nope.  Clearly below-average drivers, the lot of them.  Mutter mutter puddlebrains.

So, really, the reason most everyone else is a below average driver lies with me and my lack of imagination.  It’s simply easier to assume incompetence than to exercise my imagination to come up with a reason for that strange driving.  Without imagination, no empathy; without empathy, mutter mutter puddlebrains.  With my imagination engaged, on the other hand, empathy comes easily.

It scares me to see how easily I default into that assumption of incompetence, how lazy my imagination is.  It scares me even more to see how widespread a problem it is in the political arena.  We avoid the work of empathizing and instead assume ignorance and deploy sarcasm.  Witness the discussion around Brendan Eich’s resignation.  Witness, also, how roughly the same people who support the NSA gathering plenty of intelligence on US residents vehemently oppose intelligence gathering in connection with gun control, and conversely those that support gun control loudly protest the government listening to our phone calls.  Not only do they fail to see the tension between the positions they themselves hold, but they utterly fail to see how the people they denigrate actually share some of their most pressing concerns – albeit in the context of another political question.

I’m convinced that the prescription for both road rage and political rage is empathy, and I think I’ll start by giving my imagination workouts every time I’m tempted by an apparently lousy driver to mutter mutter puddlebrains.  With any luck, that’ll also make me a calmer, better driver myself.

Any other ideas on how to slowly build up the imagination and empathy muscles?


Maybe it’s reading too many subpar novels in my youth, maybe it’s recently having Sir Ernest Shackleton described as someone with “Menschenkenntnis,” or maybe it’s last week’s readings on Jesus talking to the woman at the well, but I’ve been reminded anew of how characters said to have this deep knowledge of human nature that allows them to quickly discern the other’s character have always impressed me.  And I used to wish I had that, too, assuming tacitly that it was either an innate gift or an automatic result of experience.

Often, in my youthful confidence, I’d tell myself I probably wasn’t that bad at it.  People would talk about being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and I’d evaluate myself as pretty ok at that, because after all it didn’t take me a lot of effort to answer the question: “If I was in their situation, what would I do?”

Only later did it dawn on me that the question was incomplete.  Besides “what would I do?” I’d have to answer “how would I feel?” and “what would I say?” and, finally, “would I really be able to come up with all that on the spur of the moment?”  Those took more effort to answer, and the answer came with less certainty (except to the last question, answered with an unequivocal “no.”).

And then, much later again, I realized that the question, although mostly complete, was actually wrong.  It isn’t “If I was in his situation,” but “If I was he, in his situation,” that ought to begin it.  If I could answer that, that would be empathy; that would be Menschenkenntnis.  And answering that set of questions is exceedingly difficult, at least for me.  Empathy is hard; Menschenkenntnis takes deliberate work and practice.

Unless you’re Jesus, I suppose.  It seems clear that omniscience would give him a leg up in the empathy department (and thank God for that).  But it shows a danger in the formerly popular WWJD approach.  Jesus repeatedly makes incisive statements about people who have just met him, whom he should not be able to know that well that quickly.  I can pretty much guarantee that imitating Jesus in this regard will in most cases lead to unmitigated disaster.  If I follow my gut and say: “Friend, you need to work harder on your marriage,” what could be the effects?  My “friend well met” could be single, and take me for a nut or a thoughtless boor: he’d likely give me a puzzled look and walk off.  He could be married (in which case, incidentally, my statement is by definition true), but he’d probably also give me a puzzled look, thinking “Who do you think you are to give me unspecific marriage advice, to imply my marriage is lousy?” or perhaps “You’d better be telling my wife that!”  There’s a tiny chance that I’d get him at precisely a moment of crisis where he breaks into tears and tells me his life story and how his marriage is on the brink, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath for it.  My “friend well met” might well be divorced, in which case he’d likely give me a puzzled look, perhaps ask “which one?” or inform me that I’m just a little late; or he might be widowed, in which case I’d have to forgive him if he punched me in the face for that insensitive comment.

Unfortunately, despite the poor statistical outlook of that approach, confirmation bias comes to the rescue of this questionable take on WWJD.  All the puzzled looks and blank stares, the slow backing away from me, would fade in the background beside that one jackpot moment where a stranger opened up his heart to me because I told him to work on his marriage, and I would cite that occasion as proof that I have considerable Menschenkenntnis.  Empathy, too, for didn’t I listen to that guy’s life story all the way to the end?

Further confirmation bias comes along in the guise of literary characters who have similar moments, who say after ten minutes of conversation just the right thing to soften the heart of stone or take the braggart down a notch.  These same characters often also come up with paradigm-shattering solutions to their problems, solutions that end up working (after a lot of nail-biting suspense) because nobody expected them.  What is rare in reality happens a lot in novels (if only because average reality isn’t quite storybook material), and if we read enough novels, these events begin to feel familiar, as though we might reasonably expect them to happen regularly in our life.

The trouble is, solutions to problems (be they dungeon confinement or cold fusion) require a lot of work and persistence.  Menschenkenntnis and empathy require a lot of work and persistence.  The shortcut stroke of genius is fine for novels and our omniscient God, but I think I’ll ask other questions than just WWJD before I tell a friend well met: “Friend, you need to stop looking at internet porn.”