Friday, April 28, 2006

One for the money, two for the show

I collected my first freelance graphic design paycheck yesterday.

One of our vice presidents here at the credit union is starting a neighborhood association - near downtown Jackson - that will address property values, crime, security and such, and she wanted me to design a flyer/invite to send to all the residents.

"I'll pay you," she said.

Well, how about that?

She gave me the details - who, what, when, where, why - and said she wanted an "urban" yet "classic Jackson" feel to it. That was all. The rest was up to me.

Luckily my new digital camera came in last week, giving me the first real opportunity to use it. I took it to each of the neighborhood's four street corners and took shots of the street signs, then used them on the flyer.

She was pleased. There was a bit of tweaking, but she liked the finished product.

Then came the "billing." I'm a rookie at this type of thing; how much is my time and effort really worth on the market? When I worked for Jackson Magazine they gave me a flat rate for each story. But here I could charge for my time or a flat rate for the whole project.

I ended up doing a bit of both. I figured, since this was a non-profit, organization-type group, maybe $10 an hour would be okay (figuring that, if I ever got corporate projects, I would charge them double - which is still a deal, I think). So I downloaded a neat little time-clock application that automatically made an invoice as you worked on your project.

I guess you could call me a "small business person." Small as in "$20 and one project" small.

That's what I charged her - $20. I spent about two and a half hours on the flyer, but I shaved the last half hour. What can I say? I just like doing the work.

She even came up to me after and said her mom really liked it, and might commission me for more projects.

Dave Lawrence - open for business?

I've toyed with the idea of doing freelance stuff on the side. I always thought it would be cool to design local bands' concert posters, or do flyers for non-profit groups in town (usually because they look so eye-scratchingly awful). This is a good start.

But now I have to think of a name for my new little enterprise. And a logo. Maybe some letterhead and a business card.

I'll need an intern, of course, and an administrative assistant. Maybe a CFO.

Now taking applications...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

'Worlds Away' pays tribute to Carl Sagan

[Much thanks to Driver for sharing this Washington Post article with me. Definitely brought some sunshine into this cloudy day.]

Worlds Away
When it came to earthly obsessions, Carl Sagan took the long view

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 23, 2006; W15

We moved offices, and I began to purge files, stuff I don't need and haven't looked at in years. Digging deep, I came across a fat file marked "Sagan." The astronomer died in December 1996.

Save? Throw away?

From the documents, a voice emerged.

"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that there is anyone who will come and save us from ourselves."

Carl Sagan! You could hear those explosive consonants. Who else could utter a phrase, with a straight face, like "the great enveloping cosmic dark"? Sagan insisted that we think bigger. Look upward and outward, he said. Get cosmic.

It's something you don't hear so much these days, and not just because the space program is in a funk. Our concerns are extremely terrestrial: war, disease, hatred, poverty. The preoccupying figure of this decade is not the astronaut but the terrorist.

Sagan cared about earthly subjects, too. He was your basic progressive liberal, a college professor, a peace advocate. But he saw our human obsessions as trivial in the grand scheme of things. The universe isn't about us, he would say. He railed against human arrogance, against "our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe."

And yet the voice in the file is that of a person who liked human beings, who rooted for them. Perhaps because Sagan had seen so many desert worlds out there in our solar system, so many cold, airless, sterile planets and moons, he appreciated the one place where we know life has proliferated, and where intelligence has somehow appeared. Here's Sagan explaining why he wouldn't ban all medical research using animals: "I'm sure if I were a lizard, I would be arguing about sacrificing the humans so we can get better medicine for the lizards. I'm sorry. I can't help it. I'm a human."

Throughout his career, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Sagan was fascinated with life beyond Earth, a subject that carries with it the hazard of sounding very silly. In a Scientific American article, he wrote, "If a silicon-based giraffe had walked by the Viking Mars landers, its portrait would have been taken." Sagan didn't actually think there might be silicon Martian giraffes, but he was glad that the Viking landers would be ready to take pictures of any animals bounding around.

Here's a 1981 letter from Sagan to someone who thought alien life forms would be very much like creatures on Earth. Sagan disagreed:

"We have a worrisome tendency to think that what we see is all that can be. . . But why five fingers? Why fingers rather than tentacles? Why the agonizingly slow data processing in our neurological systems? Why not multi-spectral infrared sensing? It's easy to think of a wide range of anatomies, physiologies and sensory modalities that have not been adopted by humans or indeed by any other creatures on the Earth."

Which is a much more elaborate response than simply, "Thank you for your interesting letter."

Sagan would be so useful today, what with all the debates about science and religion. By most definitions he would be called an atheist, but he hated the term. "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."

He didn't think science drained any of the majesty from the universe, but quite the opposite.

"The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos."

Here's Sagan's text for a statement he persuaded President Jimmy Carter to include on the Voyager Record, a disc designed to be heard by an alien civilization should it ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft:

"This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America, a community of 240 million human beings among the 4.2 billion who inhabit our planet Earth. We are still divided into nation states, but are rapidly becoming a single global civilization which covers our tiny but very beautiful world . . . We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems which face us, to join a community of galactic civilizations."

We haven't solved our problems. Some people on Earth aren't even fully ready to join human civilization, far less a galactic one. Sagan would be saddened by much of what he sees today.

But he'd be out there fighting for science and the human future, imploring us to be smarter, braver, more cosmic. So the Sagan file will stay. Some people you need to keep around forever.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Money: it's a gas

"Most don't know enough about money" ran the headline in last night's paper.

More and more articles, I've noticed, have focused on people's inability to save - and how they are falling deeper into debt. The national savings rate has been in the red for months now.

And hey, with so many credit card and home equity options out there, not to mention an insane consumer-driven market, it's no wonder more and more people are going in to debt.

More than 2 million people. That's how many bankruptcies last year.

The tips for saving, I've been reading, include putting just a little bit away out of each paycheck, keeping a budget, tracking where your money goes, and paying off the bigger credit card debts as soon as possible. Also, avoiding those little Starbucks trips every day can save quite a bit over time (I always think about smokers when this tip crops up).

Also, with the instability of Social Security, the alarm has been sounded about retirement savings - especially with our generation.

I like to think of myself as a savings success story. I remember college, and how much I used my Associates Student Visa card. I paid tuition with student loans. I worked, sure, but it wasn't enough. I survived on debt.

And now most of that debt is with me today. But the difference is now I have money in the bank (sorry - credit union).

Out of each weekly paycheck, I send $100 into my savings, $10 into a Christmas Club (greatest invention ever) and $10 into a Vacation Club, with an extra $25 going into a second savings account that helps me pay off my credit cards.

I also deposit into my 401(k) every week. In fact, I switched to a no-payment health insurance plan and put the money I saved into my retirement account.

I'm lucky. No one really taught me how to do this - it just seemed to make sense to me. I remember feeling so insecure financially in school that I resolved never to feel that way again. And it's worked.

Lately, though, it's come into even sharper focus. I've started to use the Quicken software on my iMac to track my ins and outs. At the end of each month, it gives me two charts: income (yellow) and outgoing (blue). Basically, am I making more money than I'm spending? In the three months that I've tracked, two of the yellow graph bars are bigger than the blue one. So I'm two-and-one since January.

It's taught me to think about purchases before I enter that PIN number, or click "checkout" on a web site. Do I really need this? Can I live without it?

It used to be I could never say no. I felt like I was fueling the retail economy on my own, thanks to my credit card. I think Driver told me I was "a great consumer."

Now my credit cards are in hiding, and only come out when I need to make a giant purchase (my iBook, say) or fix my car. That feels good.

No, that feels better. It's the security I'm after, and in some ways I've achieved it.

I don't know about advice. I still have relapse moments. I usually don't spend any money during the week, but then blow a bunch on weekends (bars, trips, friends, etc.). And - in the middle of all this - I'm taking a huge trip in May that will virtually wipe out my savings.

Sometimes, though, I like to treat myself. I think I've earned it.

I've found that saving even just a bit each week adds up pretty quickly. Save $25 a week, and that equals about $100 a month, which equals about $1,200 a year. You save $1,200 a year and you'll be sitting pretty good. Better than the national average, certainly.

Money - it's a gas. But I'm learning how to keep it all from blowing away.

Now off to eBay...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Courage: you couldn't come at a worst time

To live is to see change, but here lately change has been hitting me like a truck.

Consider this:
- I got a new apartment in September
- I've made lots of new friends, and reunited with a few old ones
- I've garnered more responsibility with Rotary and Recycling Jackson
- A few side projects - Jackson Magazine, for instance - ran their course
- I've organized two outstanding ATO alumni events
- My grandma is probably going to lose her house next month
- My car was broken into, shattering my sense of security
- I've reclaimed my personal time, at the expense of some important relationships
- ...let's not even get started on that word, "relationships"
- I'm planning a country-spanning trip in May
- I became an MacGeek

...these are the concrete things, issues and events that have their place on a calendar or in my inbox somewhere. But then there are the more insubstatial factors. This general, unplaceable sense of change and disruption and...progress? Evolution?

Transition. That's the word I'm looking for.

There was moving to Brooklyn and attending Columbia for high school. Going to Adrian. Sophomore year of Adrian. Senior year of Adrian. Graduation. Moving out of dad's. Becoming single. Getting involved in the community.

Now, there's now. The year of our lord 2006.

Lots of friends have written about this "quarter life crisis" - how, here in the real world, life is a bit tougher than they imagined. Or maybe they just can't find a sense of direction. Or are asking themselves, "Is this it? Jesus!"

I'm not feeling any of that. But still, a sense of foreboding; an ethereal electricity in the air. Could be rain.

Could be something bigger.

Guess it just feels better to write it out there, and see if I'm not crazy.

Can anyone else smell it? Or am I just being a doom junkie?

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

The center of the universe

It's probably not hard to believe, but there are still folks who believe the universe - the sun, the moon, the stars, everything - revolves around the Earth.

I remember reading a survey not long ago about how some 25 percent of Americans didn't know that the Earth, in fact, goes around the sun. But then some Americans don't know that George Washington was our first president, or that there are - surprise! - 50 states.

Don't laugh - I'm serious. Look it up. Jay Leno shows this all the time.

But now it seems "geocentrists" are getting serious airplay. I opened up Saturday's Citizen Patriot to find, in the "Religion & Ethics" section, the headline "This world view has sun revolving around the Earth."

Welcome, folks, to 1524 AD.

The guy in the article, Robert Sungenis, believes that "Galileo was wrong" and that the Bible is all he needs to know that geocentrism is the way to go.

"If you see the Earth as just a humdrum planet among stars circling in a vast universe, then we're not significant, we're just part of a crowd" Sungenis says. "But if you believe everything revolves around the Earth, it gives another picture - of purpose, a meaning of life."

The key phrase in there, I believe, is "believe."

This is kind of like saying America is God's chosen nation, a citadel on the hill that was blessed by the Creator to Do Great Things. And you could make a case, but I haven't read anywhere in the Bible "The U.S. can doeth no wrong."

You can believe the sky is striped, pickled, and polka-dotted, but that don't make it so.

Normally I wouldn't care much about some wacko spouting his wacky ideas, but because this article appeared on the front page of the "Religion" section, it's like saying the argument has some merit. Of course the journalist who wrote it gave time to scientists, who said geocentrism is (rightly) flat wrong. But that wasn't the focus of the article.

There was even a Catholic organization who offered $1,000 cash-money (how much is the world worth, anyway?) who could prove heliocentrism, or a sun-centered solar system, was correct.

Let's forget, for a moment, that heliocentrism has landed men on the moon, sent probes to the gaseous giant planets, landed a rover on Mars, and has provided evidence for the governing laws of the cosmos. Let's pretend all that is in doubt (which it isn't, if you're sane).

The rub here is that this guy believes he's right, and that's all he needs. No evidence, no proof, not even a large cadre of scientists and theologians who back him up.

The thought that the Earth isn't the center of the universe just drives this guy crazy, so he invents a system (or revives it, depending on your viewpoint) that makes his ideas correct. I heard a similar line of reasoning from a guy in the Nineteenth Century, who was so scared of hellfire that he invented a religion that didn't have a hell.

Today, we call these folks Jehovah's Witnesses.

We know the Earth isn't the center of the universe. Einstein even showed us that there is no such thing as the "center of the universe." We know the planets, Earth included, orbit the sun, which orbits the Milky Way galazy, which is part of a cluster of galaxies called the Local Cluster...and so on. The Earth is a humdrum planet, taking the entire cosmos into perspective. There's nothing special about us, except that we're alive - and that's only, so far, because of good luck.

Science works. It's not perfect, but it has a tremendous, prophetic power to make workable predictions about how the universe operates. Nothing comes close to making as accurate predictions as science. Believe what you want - that much we know.

But giving airtime to any nutjob who comes along and says "This I believe" is irresponsible. Questions and skepticism of science is fine - bring it on. The only requirement is you do a better job of explaining the world than what's already here, and you back it up.

Belief, unfortunately, doesn't have what it takes.