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Our Founding Fathers speak. March 27, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to share some wisdom from our Founding Fathers. Normally we quote our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. But the other Founders had a lot to say for themselves, too. So today we’re featuring quotes from George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Note especially the last three quotes by Madison; maybe he had a crystal ball and could see into our times.

From George Washington:

“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.”

“If freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

From Alexander Hamilton:

“Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”

“A well adjusted person is one who makes the same mistake twice without getting nervous.”

“Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of fifty.”

“Man is a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal.”

From James Madison:

“Philosophy is common sense with big words.”

“It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”

“I believe that there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

Are you a genius? March 25, 2014

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Our friend Ben’s mother always made it a point to say that however high your IQ was, if it wasn’t genius level, it wasn’t high enough. This wasn’t very encouraging to a child who didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand how to calculate if a cyclist is going along a train track at X mph and the train is chugging along towards the cyclist at X mph, when or where will they intersect? (And please ask me if I care.) But I suppose it did give me a lifelong interest in IQ tests.

The average IQ is estimated to be between 85 and 115, typically rounded off at 100. Genius IQ is usually said to begin between 140 and 145. Einstein never took an IQ test, but his IQ is estimated between 160 and 180. The highest estimated IQ was between 250 and 300, held by William James Sidis, born in 1898, an American who graduated from grade school after 7 months and tried to enroll at Harvard at age 9. (They made him wait until he was 11.) But again, this is an estimated IQ; IQ tests didn’t come into being until long after Sidis’s death. The highest confirmed IQ, 225, is held by 31-year-old Japanese-American astrophysicist Christopher Hirata. Other well-known greats include chess master Garry Kasparov (190), Leonardo da Vinci (estimated 180-190), Marilyn Vos Savant (190), and Stephen Hawking (160).

Could you be a genius? The most astounding thing our friend Ben has discovered in my readings on the topic is that it’s estimated that 25% of the population fall over the 140 IQ line. Twenty-five percent!!! That makes your chances pretty good, in my opinion.

I’ve enjoyed taking online IQ tests and comparing the results to my real-life IQ test, and have found the results (at least from the company I took them from) comparable. I initially took them to see if my IQ had declined over time since being out of school, or if it had improved from all the things I’d learned since then (algebra, alas, not being one of them). Just pitting your brain against a variety of questions in a set time strikes me as a good way to make sure the machinery is still well-oiled and operating. In short, it’s fun.

One of my favorite films is a documentary about, of all things, origami, called “Between the Folds.” It shows among other things how mathematical geniuses now use origami—paper folding, as in the famous Japanese paper cranes—to work out incredibly complex theories. One of its subjects, Erik Demaine, a child prodigy and now a professor of computer science at MIT (having been made their youngest professor ever at age 20 and received a MacArthur Fellowship, aka “genius award,” at 23), was asked why he did origami. He replied simply, “Because it’s fun.”

I encourage you to try one of these tests for yourself every now and then and see how you fare, assuming you find them fun. And never fear if you fall into the 75% who don’t rate genius level. Some of the most clueless people our friend Ben has ever known have been the most brilliant, but would get a commonsense IQ score of close to zero. Given any two choices that would either benefit or harm them or their loved ones, they inevitably, and repeatedly, make the wrong choice. Nor do they ever seem to learn from their destructive and damaging experiences, they just keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, the classic definition of insanity.

Which is not to say that they’re insane, or to cast doubt on their theoretical intelligence. But in terms of common sense, they’re just plain stupid. It’s when common sense and genius are combined that true magic happens, a happy life and the potential to benefit all the world. For ultimately, if you have no understanding of what a happy, fully human life is, how can you hope to benefit the world? And to be happy, you need to be able to enjoy and interact with the people around you and make the choices that benefit you and them, not float away and hope that somebody’s holding the end of the balloon string and taking care of all your earthly needs.

Like Erik Demaine, whatever your IQ is, try to do what’s fun for you.

Starlings: Love them or hate them? March 25, 2014

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“Listen to that wonderful birdsong!” our friend Rob announced while visiting us the other day. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were appalled: Rob was referring to the unmusical but deafening cacophany of the starlings that had taken up temporary residence in our tree canopy. These nuisance birds appear here in great numbers every spring, beating out all other birds at feeders and pooping all over the place. OFB suggested that Rob check out his car, which in fact was now liberally streaked with starling poop. “Yes, aren’t they just wonderful?”

Starlings are perhaps the best-known example of non-native species deliberately introduced to America by well-meaning idiots who didn’t understand what the consequences of their actions would ultimately be. (Multiflora rose and kudzu are others.)

In the case of starlings, some jackass was determined to introduce every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare into Central Park. In 1890, he released 60 pairs of starlings, and the rest is history: Their number is now estimated at 150 million. Ditto for the house sparrow, introduced also in New York in 1852, which has spread across the continent and displaced native sparrows and other birds.

These are deliberate introductions that have wreaked havoc with our ecology, not escapes like the Quaker parrot (aka monk parakeet) colony in Chicago or accidental introductions like the Japanese beetle and the brown marmorated stinkbug or, say, the Norway rat. Mercifully, most people now know better than to try to introduce non-agricultural species to the great outdoors, and there are regulations in place to try to prevent invasive species like the Asian carp, now in the Great Lakes, and Burmese pythons, now in the Everglades, from entering the country.

The house sparrow is a very handsome bird, to our eyes the most attractive sparrow. The starling, in its spring plumage, is spangled with a constellation of white stars on its dark feathers. The same could be said of multiflora rose with its mounds of white flowers or kudzu, which is prized in its native Japan for its nourishing and medicinal properties. It’s not their fault they’re here, it’s ours. Let’s hope we’ve finally learned our lesson. All that glitters is not gold.

The cheapest form of hope. March 24, 2014

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“He that can have patience, can have what he will.”

—Benjamin Franklin

Our friend Ben isn’t sure that I agree with our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, on this one. The ugly old guy is unlikely to get the beautiful young girl unless he’s rich and powerful and she’s shallow and greedy, however patient he is. The person who can barely add 2+2 without a calculator is unlikely to become the next Einstein, however patient he is. A techno-idiot like me is unlikely to become the next Elon Musk or Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg, however patient I am. Patience will not make an aspiring writer into a bestselling novelist or even get them published (not even talent can do that, it’s all about platform, but I digress).

Perhaps Dr. Franklin would have hit closer to the mark by saying “The person who truly knows himself can have what he will.” I know a 90-year-old widower who wanted to go out with a bang. He bought a Camaro, started throwing his money around, doubtless stocked up on Viagra, and let it be known that he had $2 million in assets. Then he went after a much younger woman in financial distress who liked to wear vulgar clothes that showed every inch of cleavage and was, in complete opposition to him, totally uneducated. He’s been happily married and getting exactly what he wants ever since. He knew himself, much to the surprise and distress of his family, who only thought they knew who he was.

The person who truly knows him- or herself has something the rest of us lack, which is focus, as well as patience. The person who lusts after a scientific breakthrough like that 90-year-old lusted after a young, hot wife will spend a lifetime looking, and will not feel that one second has been wasted. Instead, they will feel a continuous rush of hope. Every day, when they get up, they might find the Higgs boson or the gravitational waves that followed the Big Bang and established our universe and so many others, or a cure for cancer. What a great motivation to get out of bed and get going!

Our friend Ben is not big on getting out of bed, especially in the ongoing cold and dark. (Curse you, Daylight Saving Time.) But one thing helps, and that’s lottery tickets. Every day, I have one lottery ticket, and it could buy me and my family and friends financial freedom for the rest of our lives. I always buy the ticket for the biggest payoff of the day, and I always buy just one, which means I spend $11 a week on lottery tickets. Many of my friends ridicule me for this, since to their minds it’s a total waste of money.

But for me, it’s priceless, since what I’m buying is hope. Sure, I could spend $11 a week on soda or convenience-store hotdogs or candy or gum or some other trash. (I’m not sure if you can even buy a pack of cigarettes for $11.) I could spend it going to a movie if I didn’t buy anything additional from the concession stand. I could spend it on a drink at a restaurant. And then it would be gone.

To my mind, waking up each day with the possibility of financial freedom before me, for just $11 a week, is the cheapest form of hope. As Ben Franklin says, I’m happy to be patient, for each day offers the same promise as the last. It’s hope I’m paying for, not a financial windfall. It would of course be fantastic to win. If I won enough to support myself and Silence Dogood and those we love, that would be a dream come true. To win more than that and be able to support or found causes we believe in would be a lifetime goal achieved. But even if we never win more than $2 or $5 or $11, it’s still a great reason to get up in the morning, because every morning brings a new opportunity for all the world to open.

Signs of spring. March 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Finally! Spring is here, though it’s hard to believe here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We still have patches of snow on the ground. Ugh!

However, spring is making its presence felt. Snow geese and Canada geese are migrating overhead, filling the air with their distinctive calls. Our trees are full of squawking starlings (alas). We’ve yet to see the first robin, but it can’t be long now.

And, an annual delight, the first of our spring bulbs—the winter aconites and snowdrops—are in bloom. Winter aconites have small, starry, glossy buttercup-yellow blooms born on glossy green feathery foliage just a few inches tall. They’re bulbs in the genus Eranthis, not to be confused with the perennial aconites (genus Aconitum) with tall spires of purple flowers that look like upside-down foxgloves, giving them the name monkshood. These perennials are deadly poisonous, also giving them the name wolfsbane and many another referring to their poisonous attributes. But they’re still great perennials for the late-summer garden; just don’t feed them to your wolves!

Anyway, getting back to the cheerful little winter aconites, they couldn’t look less like the perennials and aren’t even related to them. How they acquired the same name is one of those botanical mysteries our friend Ben will have to look into. But I’d recommend them to anyone; the joyful clumps of yellow flowers slowly grow bigger every year, and seeds will give you new clumps nearby.

Best of all, they bloom at exactly the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), another small bulb with strappy leaves and downturned white flowers. These bulbs also spread, and grown with winter aconites, they create an Easter patchwork of yellow and white, cheering winter-worn eyes before the grass turns green or even the hellebores bloom.

They also require absolutely zero maintenance from you after you plant them. We started with a shovelful of snowdrops from a colleague that just happened to include a couple of winter aconite bulbs. We planted them in our shrub border, and over the years they’ve grown into the cheerful display that reminds us that spring really has arrived and many more glorious blooms are yet to come.

Streamlining Crock-Pot mac’n’cheese. March 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. My Crock-Pot (aka slow cooker) mac’n’cheese is simply the best. Based on a recipe from my friend Delilah, it’s incredibly rich, succulent and creamy, but the top is golden and crispy. Unfortunately, it’s also a mess.

First, you cook pasta until al dente in a big, heavy pot. That’s one pot to wash. You melt butter. Two containers. You beat eggs. Three containers to wash. Finally, you add all this, along with evaporated milk and tons of shredded cheese, to your Crock-Pot and stir to combine. I don’t know about yours, but my Crock-Pot is pretty narrow with high sides, so vigorous stirring to make sure it all gets mixed well usually results in some of the contents flying out of the Crock-Pot and onto its rim, sides, the counter, and/or me and the floor. Yuck!

We don’t have a dishwasher here at Hawk’s Haven, which means that all of these containers have to be hand-washed by me or our friend Ben. There just had to be a better way, and it finally occurred to me while making the iconic mac’n’cheese to take to some friends for supper last night. Why not mix everything up in the wide, heavy Dutch oven I used to cook the pasta, then just pour it into the Crock-Pot’s ceramic cooking container? D’oh! It worked like a charm, no fuss, no muss, and just two dishes to clean: the Dutch oven and the Crock-Pot insert.

By the way, our friends chose to serve the mac’n’cheese as the main dish with a side of broccoli and a hearty salad. Good choice! But if you’d rather offset the richness of the mac’n’cheese with something more substantial, we recommend a smaller portion served with Bush’s Grillin’ Beans (we like the bourbon variety) and homemade coleslaw.

We make our basic slaw with shredded green cabbage, shredded red cabbage, shredded carrots, pepitas (roasted, salted pumpkinseeds, for crunch), cumin seeds, cracked fennel seeds, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and blue cheese or Dijon mustard ranch dressing (just enough to moisten the slaw, not drench it). You could add any number of other ingredients, such as golden raisins and/or diced dried apricots, if you’d like a sweeter slaw. And I hope it goes without saying, salt (we like RealSalt) and fresh-cracked pepper to taste.

Getting back to the stripped-down mac’n’cheese recipe, here you go:

Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese

1-pound (16-ounce) box of pasta, such as elbow macaroni or penne

2 cans unsweetened evaporated milk

2 large eggs

1/3 to 1/2 stick butter

2 packages shredded sharp or extra-sharp white Cheddar cheese (4 cups)

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Paprika

salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta in a heavy pot until al dente; drain, but leave in pot. Return to heat, add butter, stirring until melted. Add evaporated milk and 3 cups of Cheddar, reserving the rest. Crack two eggs into the pot. Stir very well to blend all ingredients. Add ample salt and pepper, according to your taste. (You can substitute one of our favorite flavored salts, Trocomare, available from health food stores and larger supermarkets, for salt if you wish).

Pour the pasta into the Crock-Pot/slow cooker container. Smooth it out and top with the remaining cup of Cheddar, the Parmesan, and a generous sprinkling of Paprika. Cover the insert and turn the Crock-Pot on low. Cook on low for 4 hours, until the mac’n’cheese is set and the top is bubbly. Yum!!!! Enjoy.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Help your laptop keep its cool. March 19, 2014

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If you use a laptop, you’re probably well aware of how hot it gets sitting on a desk or table. The dreaded sound of the fan switching on always makes our friend Ben think an implosion is imminent. But fortunately, there’s a cheap, simple way to keep your laptop cool.

Silence Dogood’s friend Delilah, who’s an absolute genius at improvising, clued her in to this easy trick: Just go to a cookware store and buy a cooling rack. Silence explained that cookware racks are wire racks with feet that raise them up about an inch so air can circulate underneath. They’re used to cool pies, cookies, and the like, because that air flowing beneath as well as around and over the baked goods helps them cool down much more quickly than setting a pan or tray of cookies on the kitchen counter. Delilah found that it worked perfectly to keep her laptop cool, too.

So did we. Now I almost never hear the laptop’s fan activating, and if I touch the front of its top surface, even after a long day of abuse—I mean, use—it’s cool to just warm, as opposed to hot. Problem solved!

Silence and I have been using our cooling racks for years, so I can’t tell you where we got them or what they cost, but I’ll bet they were less than $10 and you can certainly find them on Amazon, and possibly even at your local supermarket. And what a difference it makes! Try it, laptop users, you will definitely like it. Thank you, Delilah, for another great idea.

Pit bull mauls boy; public supports pit bull. March 17, 2014

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What the hell are we thinking?!! This morning, our friend Ben read a story about how a pit bull in Arizona bit into a four-year-old boy’s face, breaking his eye socket, cheekbone, and jaw. The article showed a horrific photo of the mauled four-year-old and said that a Mayo Clinic surgeon said he would need at least two years of reconstructive surgery requiring numerous operations and hospitalizations. This is a tragedy, right? Our hearts should go out to the child, and to his family, who are now facing this nightmare.

But no. Apparently people’s hearts are going out to the pit bull instead. A Facebook page was set up to save the dog, which now has 4,000 names on a petition against euthanizing him and 40,000 likes. People have donated $5,000 so far to a fund to defend the dog in court against the charges. A lawyer has given his time pro bono—free—to represent the dog. An organization that exists to keep dogs who harm people from being euthanized has gotten on the case.

Meanwhile, a helpless little boy lies in the hospital in agony, tubes all over his body, unable to open his mauled eye. Apparently, the surgeon was successful at reconnecting the muscles and ligaments of his jaw so he’ll eventually be able to speak and eat.

The pro-dog contingent claims that it was the fault of adults, not the pit bull, that the mauling occurred: That the boy’s babysitter was nowhere in sight when he wandered into the pit bull’s yard. That the owners of the pit bull kept him chained in an open yard where anyone could wander in.

They are right, and more than right. A chained dog, left outside in the baking Arizona sun all day on a chain, enslaved, with only a bone, will not view people kindly. And he will especially not view anyone kindly who comes within chain’s reach and picks up his sole possession, the bone, as the little boy did in an attempt to play with him. It is the owners’ fault for not socializing their dog, for not spending time with him, for not making sure that he didn’t develop aggressive, possessive, dominating tendencies.

A dog should be trained from puppyhood to instantly surrender any toy or treat to its owners without displaying resistance or aggression, but this can only be done if the dog adores its owners and recognizes them in the adult role, hardly likely to happen if he’s chained outside alone all day. The owners of that dog should be in jail for the inhumane treatment of an animal and reckless endangerment of the dog and everyone who came in contact with him.

However, a dog that has been so terribly mistreated and who has developed such a dominance/possessive response is a public danger, and is unlikely to be treatable through behavior modification. If freed, he will most likely respond in the same way toward others who “invade” his territory or pick up his possessions. No, it isn’t his fault, but he should be euthanized before he hurts someone else. Euthansia, as those of us who have experienced it can say with total assurance, is quick and painless. If more people had watched their suffering pets’ faces relax in relief the second the injection occurs, we’d all be begging for the same treatment when our own suffering becomes unbearable. It’s a humane solution.

What dumbfounds our friend Ben is the social media outcry for the dog, as the boy lies suffering. Do you remember, as I do, the chimpanzee who ripped off the face, eyes, and hands of a woman a few years back? Imagine if Facebook had launched a page to save the chimp, if it had received 4,000 names and 40,000 likes and $5,000? What about the grizzly who ate two people alive? Picture the “save the poor grizzly” page. Surely in these instances someone’s voice would have been raised in outrage. But here we are, speaking up for the pit bull while no one speaks for the boy. What kind of people are we?!!

Don’t kill your dog. March 16, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben read an article on the Vetstreet website this morning about 26 things that could poison your dog. (Or cat, though given that Silence Dogood and I have had plenty of both, we find that it’s dogs who are most likely to eat anything they can manage to get hold of, from appetizers left unattended at a party to the contents of the cats’ litterbox.) The list included the usual suspects, like chocolate and antifreeze, but it also had a few shockers.

While it’s fairly well known that raisins and grapes and all members of the onion family (including garlic) are toxic to dogs—think kidney and liver failure—the article presented more in-depth information about the usual suspects: That dark chocolate was more toxic than milk or white chocolate, but that even cocoa-bean mulch could be toxic if a dog ate enough of it, and the good news that antifreeze manufacturers had volunteered to add bittering agents to their products to keep them from tasting so seductively sweet. (A single tablespoon of antifreeze can kill a dog, a teaspoon can kill a cat; please get your garage to top up your antifreeze rather than doing it at home.)

Obviously, toxic chemicals in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can harm or kill your pets. It’s so telling that vets insist that you keep your pets away from chemically-treated lawns until they’ve dried or the chemicals have been washed into the soil. What are we doing to ourselves, our children, by dumping these toxins on our land and therefore into our water?!!

Houseplants tend to present more of a threat to cats. With Easter on the horizon, please bear in mind that true lilies (including Easter or Madonna lilies) and lilies-of-the-valley are extremely toxic, especially the leaves, which are what cats are most likely to chew on.

Soft bones, like fish and chicken bones, pose a dreadful risk to both cats and dogs, as they can splinter and puncture the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. An unwatched plate of irresistible chicken wings or fried chicken could spell doom for your dog, and plates of fish bones set on the counter for a few minutes before the dishes are cleaned off could mean a late-night emergency-room visit with your cat.

But the most startling items in the article were things I’d never considered: coins and pills. Zinc is extremely toxic to dogs and cats, and since it’s a major component of our contemporary coinage, including so-called “copper” pennies, this is a serious issue. If a dog eats a penny it finds on the floor, it could die.

This was news to our friend Ben, but it didn’t come close to the revelation that the cause of most pet toxicity was people leaving out medications or dropping pills on the floor and not finding them, so that their pets wolfed them down and then died as a result of their owners’ carelessness. The meds can be over-the-counter, such as ibruprofen. They can be prescription meds like pills to lower blood pressure or prevent strokes. Even seemingly harmless stuff like Xylitol in gum, sugar-free candy, and toothpaste can kill your pets.

The vets said that you should never take pills in a place, like the kitchen or bedroom, where dropped pills could be eaten by a dog. They say to keep and take them in the bathroom, and keep them locked away, as you would to protect your children. Good advice for all of us.

Coin collecting: Toning up. March 15, 2014

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about one of the fun things about coin collecting. If you’re a pocket-change collector like me, you know how much fun it is to collect pennies, nickels, and quarters that have different designs. (Where are new dimes, U.S. Mint?!)

And I’m sure you know that coins change color over time. If you have old nickels, you may be grossed out by the greasy dull grey color they’ve taken on in their many years rattling around in pockets and purses. If you’re lucky enough to have found some “wheat ears” pennies in your change, you’ll have seen how they turned from their original bright copper to flat brown over time. (“Wheat ears” pennies had two ears of wheat on the back, and the design was used from the debut of the Lincoln cent in 1909 until 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial replaced it.)

Nobody would call these changes for the better. But there is a color change that is cherished by coin collectors. It’s called “toning.” Basically, it’s when a coin takes on attractive colors as it ages, and it’s another great reason to check your pocket change. Toning is usually most pronounced on silver coins—especially silver dollars, half-dollars, and quarters. You can buy spectacular examples covered with an entire rainbow of colors or just a couple, such as blue and gold, or coins that are now a gorgeous gold tone but started life as silver. (But buyer beware: Because toned coins have a higher market value than regular coins, there are a lot of fakes out there.)

But here’s what’s exciting: Regular pocket change can also be toned, and it doesn’t have to be old, either. Just last week, I found a Lewis and Clark nickel from 2004 in my pocket that had started to turn gold. Mind you, not that this is real gold, and not that pocket change ever has much more than face value, unless you really do come upon a rare penny or an old silver dime, quarter, half-dollar, or dollar. (I never have; they were pretty much all grabbed up after the Mint stopped producing silver coins in 1965 and went to alloys.) But toning is a fun and different look to add to your collection, and some of these toned coins really are quite beautiful.

So don’t forget to check that pocket change! As our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

Warmly,

Richard Saunders

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