mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Imagine the pesto-bilities

I've been trying to cook something every weekend. I was in the Weis yesterday and noticed giant bundles of fresh basil, so I got the idea of making pesto.

Pesto (in addition to being one of the characters on the goodfeathers) is another one of those foods that brings back memories. The woman who lives next to my parents used to grow a huge garden, and she'd give us fresh basil every year that we'd make into pesto. Plus, it involves little actual cooking, and involves use of the blender, the second-manliest appliance around (the blowtorch used to make Creme Brulee being the first). I mean, it's got a liquify setting. This is actually the first time I've used my blender, which I bought last year from Linens N Things for $4 after rebate and coupon, figuring I could use it if I ever needed to make girly drinks or something, but the total lack of girlies at Casa De Mad has rendered that moot.

Pretty simple - peel some garlic (I used twice what the directions said, and still probably should have used more), pick off the leaves of the basil, throw in blender, chop, add olive oil and grated cheese, heat, dump over whole wheat pasta.

It came out pretty good, although my allergies have been bothering the heck out of me the last few days, which has kind of killed my taste buds. It's also not something I should probably make on a regular basis, since it isn't the healthiest - olive oil is still pure fat.

that good green shit

mmm, saucey!

dig in!

to do... write blog post....

While my friend BSOM and his wife t were over on Friday to play with nibbler, bsom noticed my "to do" list sitting on my coffee table. His main comments were on my inability to correctly spell "vacuum" (it's one of those words I always spell wrong, I know I've spelled it wrong, but I don't know how to spell it right) and my inclusion of the rather generic term "cooking" (I've been trying, once a week, to actually cook something for dinner, which I've been blogging about - this week was pesto, and you can expect a post about it in the near future).

But it got me thinking about to-do lists. They are interesting, because they serve two purposes - to remind you of things that you need to be done - giving you a sense of urgency, and to keep score of what you've done- giving you a sense of accomplishment.

Of course, things on to-do lists are seldom enjoyable. Nobody puts fun stuff on there, because they want to do those things and don't need prodding. And if the things on there are so important, why do you need to be reminded? Mine contained a number of less-than-fun household chores - laundry, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, getting a haircut. I accomplished most of them, although I think I'm going to put off cleaning the bathroom until tomorrow night.

But it raises the question - why do we need to-do lists? If the things are so important that they NEED to be done, I should be able to do it without a misspelled list scrawled on a piece of scrap paper. On the other hand, if they are unimportant enough that I can forget to do them, do I really need to do them.

They are mostly tasks I've put off, because I've been busy with other things the last few weekends - community yard sale, start of school stuff with work, ect. But next week is a two-hamfest weekend, so if I didn't get stuff done this weekend, it would have to wait another two weeks.

But once again, if it's so important my floor be vacuumed and my hair be shorn, why do I have to write it down (other than that, since I'm single, I don't have a wife/girlfriend to remind me to do stuff). And if I decide I would rather watch TV or read a book or sleep or blog than do housework, isn't that a rational decision?

Well, probably not. If anything, a to-do list is an attempt to balance short-term wants and long-term wants, to provide incentives to satisfy long-term wants. I might rather watch Property Ladder reruns today, but I'll regret it next week if someone drops by and notices that my floor is covered by a thick layer of kitty litter and lint.

We often need to trick ourselves to satisfy our longer-term wants - think 401k and other retirement accounts, where we save money because we never see it - it comes out of our paycheck, so we get used to it not being there - but if it was in our paycheck and we had to save it, we probably wouldn't. To-do lists are a little bit alike - they guilt us into doing those things that we know we should do, even though we don't want to.

The joys of home ownership, blah blah blah...

Before I bought Casa De Mad, my sprawling 1100 square foot townhouse, I lived in a turn of the century brownstone in the middle of Baltimore City. It was owned by an older gentleman who rented out rooms, and every time something broke - as things tend to do in a hundred-plus year old four-story house - he would grumble about how the joys of home ownership are unending.

I see his point. Right after buying my house, I discovered that the heat pump was all kinds of fuxored, and I ended up dumping most of last year's tax refund into replacing it, so that my basement wouldn't be full of water from the old, leaking heat pump when the AC was on.

Now it looks like I'm going to be buying a new door. When I came home from dinner at Field's on Friday night, I spent about 5 minutes trying to open the front door before giving up and walking in through the patio door in the back. And the same thing happened to me Saturday morning after coming back from a disappointing round of yard sale shopping (total haul, 1 catnip-filled mouse). So I took a look at the door. It opens fine from the inside, but - even if unlocked - if I push the outside lever to open it, the little thing that holds the door closed stays in place.

Now you are probably wondering why I don't just replace the $100 or so doorknob instead of replacing the whole door. Well, because it's kind of like putting a new transmission in an '87 Yugo - it's silly to replace part of something when the rest of the thing is in poor condition. I'm pretty sure my house has the original doors that were installed in 1978 when it was built - it looks like many of the other doors in the court. Aside from being a little warped/dirty/dinged in places, its one other major problem. It has one of those doorbell/viewfinder things on it, like you see in NYC apartments. The doorbell mechanism is broken, so it tings instead of dinging. I actually special-ordered a replacement, but it didn't fit. So I can't replace it, and I can't take it out and install a conventional doorbell without having a hole in my door. So I will eventually need to replace the door. And if I'm replacing the door, the doorbell, and the hardware, I'll need to replace the rather beat-up storm door, or the whole thing will look silly.

So I guess in the next month or so I'm going to need to deal with this, because walking to my backyard to get inside is going to get real old once it starts snowing. I really don't want to spend money on it - I was trying to put away enough to get my truck paid off in the next couple months, and then put the rest towards trying to build enough equity in my house to get rid of PMI (private mortgage insurance, generally required when the amount owed on the house is greater than 80% of it's value). But I'm probably going to have to dip into my savings for the door renovations, which puts my debt-payoff strategy on hold. Every time I feel like I'm finally making financial progress, something comes along and kicks me in the teeth - if it wasn't for this, I would probably have the truck paid off by December.

Plus, replacing a front door - almost as much as replacing a heat pump - isn't sexy. There are certain times you spend a bunch of money, but you get something cool to enjoy out of it, something highly visible - like a new kitchen or bathroom or car or TV. But I see my front door maybe 2 minutes a day while coming or going, and it's hard to believe that when it comes time for me to sell my house anyone will notice - I can't imagine a potential buyer going "what really sold me on that property was the front door". But if they can't get the front door open, there is no chance they would buy it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Of neighbors and HOA's...

Virginia Postrel has an interesting article about homeowner's associations - HOA's - and the fine balance between keeping neighborhoods nice and not overly restricting the people who live in them from doing what they want to do.

I live in a townhouse that is under a homeowner's association. Every three months, I send them $90, and in return they send me a badly-edited newsletter a couple times a year. Actually, they do a decent job of keeping the public areas of the townhouse courts and do things like pay for insurance and water bills. But for the most part they are pretty passive. When I moved in 14 months ago, they noted that I was supposed to have shutters around my door that the previous owner removed. I never installed them, and they haven't said anything to me since. And the dues are pretty reasonable compared to other places I looked at.

We do, however, have a very limited list of colors we can paint houses - the HOA rule book actually lists the specific colors, as well as what corresponding colors the trim can be painted. I don't really care though since 1) I like the color of my house b) I'm too lazy and cheap to do anything about it and 3) my house has vinyl siding, so it would be pretty expensive to change it. They also have other restrictions on things I don't do, like owning campers and boats.

So to me, it's not really a big deal, but I guess it's good that I don't have a more restrictive HOA. Although I wish it had something against drunken neighbors.

(do you like that segway? I've been meaning to write the following part of the post for a while, but I saw the HOA article and wanted to cover that post too - so now I can do two segments at once...)

See, before I bought my house, I did think to drive around the neighborhood a few times, but I made the mistake of doing that during the day, during the week. I was worried that I would be the bad neighbor - after all, most of the people in my neighborhood are older, mostly with families. Would a young, single, twenty-something fit in with all these older homeowners? But I managed to find a townhouse that was next to the only other people younger and more immature than me.

The townhouse on one side of me has a couple with a young kid who calls me "the guy with the yellow truck". The house on the other side of me is inhabited by, as far as I can tell, two recent college grads and their girlfriends, and three dogs of various sizes.

I figured it was a bad sign when I was moving in and my neighbor who lives behind me commented about the loud parties that they had. And they do - it seems like, in decent weather, their favorite weekend activity is going in their backyard, getting drunk, and screaming and cursing with twenty or so of their closest friends.

Now, I'm probably player-hating more than anything - I'm envious that they are sitting around having fun while I'm sitting alone on my couch eating ice cream straight out of the carton and watching Flip This House. But it seems like they manage to have their parties 1)when it's warm enough that I have the windows open but not warm enough to have the AC on, so I hear them yelling and 2)on a night when I either have to get up early for a hamfest the next day or when I have to work the next day, and I really need to get to sleep.

There are some other associated annoyances - every now and then, I find empty beer bottles in my backyard. I also regularly find dog poop on my front yard, and I'm pretty sure it's them, since I've seen their dogs on my lawn pretty frequently.

Now, on the scale of bad neighbors, they could be far worse - they aren't selling drugs or committing crimes, and they don't have a car or refrigerator on the lawn. And it's good that if I ever have a loud party, they won't call the cops on me - however, I don't really have loud parties - the couple I've had have been pretty tame. Still, it amazes me that out of 94 townhouses, I managed to buy the one with probably the worst neighbors in the complex. They, on the other hand, lucked out - I'm not the kind of person who would ever confront them or call the cops on them, because I'm a giant pussy. I can only imagine if they lived next to someone like, say, my parents. I also think it shows a certain amount of disrespect to neighbors (especially the ones with kids). I curse all the f-ing time, but rarely so anyone who doesn't know me can hear me, and I for the most part try to live my life so it has as little impact on other people as possible - the right to my fist ends where your nose begins. I wish other people - especially those living next door to me - thought the same way.

Why I hate change (in corporate computers, anyway)..

So the college I work for buys Lenovo computers (the former IBM PC division, now owed by a Chinese company). Recently, they made a minor but annoying change - the new machines ship with USB keyboards, and the computers no longer have PS/2 ports (you know, the round ones with all the pins).

This doesn't seem like a big deal, but it can get annoying if you are delivering a new computer to someone - you have to make sure that you bring a new keyboard, and that it's the right kind of keyboard. It's also a problem once people start destroying their keyboards by spilling them, dropping them, or throwing them across the room - you need to hope that you bring the right keyboard with you.

Now, I'm not against technological change. But some changes don't really make much of a difference, but make things more inconvenient for the people who have to support them. I mean, does anyone feel that they weren't getting enough throughput on their PS/2 keyboard and need something faster? Not to mention that it usually takes a little while for windows to recognize the usb keyboards and mice.

Other changes that have annoyed me:

-computer color. Back when I first started working in hardware support in 2001, we got our first shipment of black computers - stylish black-and-blue IBM Netvista Celeron 733's, complete with black CRT monitors and black keyboards and mice. They looked cool, since pretty much all machines up to this point were a dirty white putty color. But it created it's own set of issues - as stuff failed and needed to be swapped out, we ended up with black machines with white monitors, white machines with black monitors, white keyboards, mice, cd-burners on black machines, ect. We're slowly weeding them out, but even today - 6 years after all the pc's went black and never came back - we've still got a ton of white CRT's out there, because they last forever and work - but look ancient.

-PCI-express video cards. Sure, I'm sure PCI-X has some great advantage for gamers. I'm not one, so as long as graphics are good enough for surfing the web, I'm happy. But in a business environment, the only reason we upgrade video cards is so that people can do dual-monitor setups. So it's a pain when you replace a machine that had an AGP dual-head video card, and then realize that the new machine is PCI-X and you need to order a new video card - so you get to spend more money, plus piss off the user because they don't have their dual-monitor setup until the new card comes in.

-ADC monitors. OK, usually I'm a total Apple fanboy and they can do no wrong. But several years ago, Apple decided that they were going to make their own standard of monitor connectors - ADC, for Apple Display Connector. It was a nice idea, in that it was just one cable for power, video, and the built-in USB hub. Except it only was in use for a couple years, and nobody else used it. The older macs - from G4 to early G5 - had them, but new macs don't. The monitors were actually very nice - I have one of the last CRT studio displays at home, and it's the best CRT I've ever seen (plus it looks hella cool, but they were also very pricey ($500 - $1000) and are now pretty much useless. Sure, you can buy the apple ADC to DVI adapter, but they are still expensive, clunky, and only work on certain monitors. There is something to be said about open standards, and Apple is usually pretty good about them. With ADC, they weren't.

-Windows Vista. OK, actually every new version of Windows is usually painful at first, until service packs and third-party apps have caught up. And Vista is pretty, and has some cool features, plus native support for things like serial ATA (SATA) hard drives and the ability to support more than 2 gigs of RAM. But it still seems to have a ton of issues, somewhat overprotective security, and a bad habit of random BSD's on the machine I've been running at my desk at work so I could get used to it (I kept my old XP box, and still use it for certain things that I'm too lazy to hack Vista into playing with, like Novell network drives or our roll-your-own Purchase Order system. But every time I talk to someone, they ask me when we're rolling out Vista, and all I can tell them is "eventually". I'm sure my job is going to be even more fun once we actually start deploying it into production environments.

There probably are some others, but these are the ones that have annoyed me lately.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Evidently I've been wasting all my time at the gym...

Via this post at Consumerist comes an article claiming that exercise is a waste of time - that weight is based mostly on what we eat, and if we exercise more, we just get hungrier and eat more to make up for it.

Both the original article and the consumerist cite a Finnish study that showed exercise as either leading to a decreased rate of weight gain or an increased one. Except the studies weren't of people trying to lose weight, but rather of people who were trying to keep from gaining weight back - they were in the weight maintenance stage.

Now, I don't have any fancy studies. But starting in 2005, I started to get serious about losing weight after taking one of those "how long will you live" tests and finding out I was likely to be on the wrong side of the dirt before age 50. I started to watch what I ate - and for the first time in my life, I also started to exercise - a little walking at first, and then worked my way up to joining a gym. Over about 2 years, I dropped about a hundred pounds and about 10 inches in the waist , and I've managed to keep it off.

That's not to say I'm in perfect shape. I'd like to be about an inch less waist-wise (right now I'm between two pants sizes) and my weight is right at the line for the CDC's cutoff between normal and overweight. I've still got a little flab around the belly area.

And I have let some of my old eating habits creep in - desert, the occasional deep-fried dinner or greasy diner breakfast, muching on cookies at meetings at work. But I do eat better than I used to.

I think, though, that exercise also plays a role in. With a few exceptions when time hasn't permitted, I generally do about an hour and a half of cardio a day, most days. Nothing too intense, but if I can trust the calorie counters on the equipment, I burn around 900 calories as I cover my 8 or so miles. That leave a lot of room for the occasional chicken tender dinner.

The thing is, I've been trying to lose weight my whole life. This is the first time I've made any effort to exercise, and it's also the first time the weight has stayed off for any length of time.

Now, people are very different, both in terms of genetics and motivation. Some people may do better with just diet. But I don't think I'm one of those people.

And I think there are other reasons to exercise, even if it doesn't make a huge difference in weight loss - it builds muscle, it strengthens the heart, it gets you in better shape to do other physical activities. I've read about studies that shows that it helps release chemicals that combat depression (gee, imagine how depressed I'd be if I didn't exercise) and possibly makes you smarter. It's a good way to meet people - I go to the gym at the college I work at, so I get to see coworkers in a nonwork environment. It gives you a certain sense of accomplishment. It's also a good place to see chicks in short shorts and spandex tops.

So Finnish studies be damned, I think I'm a lot better off with my daily workouts.

Dispatches from the lack-of-dating front..

Every now and then, someone who I've mentioned that I've been trying online dating asks me how it's going.

The answer... nowhere.

I've had profiles up on some of the free sites - OKCupid, PlentyOfFish - for a while, and I also paid for a six-month subscription (but, cheapass that I am, I got a significant discount).

Match had another promo. If you send 5 emails a month for 6 months, and keep an active profile, and still haven't met anyone, you get another 6 months free. So the first two months, I made a point of emailing at least 5 women per month. None wrote me back. Granted, there was only 1 out of them who actually sounded like a catch - and a few days after I emailed her, she took her profile down (presumably because she had met someone, and not because she was so creeped out by my email). After the first two months, though, I realized this was kind of silly - why was I trying to get extra free months on a dating site that wasn't really working for me. The fact that I was pretty busy with start-of-school stuff at work also made me less inclined to spend hours searching for women who didn't have anything in their portraits that specifically ruled me out, like wanting guy who was tall or who didn't want to date a creepy guy. (Sadly, I have yet to find a woman who does want to date a creepy guy, or I'd be so money).

Since I signed up, I've read a lot more about people's actual experiences on match and other dating sites - this slickdeal thread, this fatwallet thread, and most recently the comments on on this Megan McCardle Thread. There are a number of comments about match that I find to be true, or at least somewhat true.

One of the biggest complaints is that match makes it hard to delete profiles, plus people are lazy - so there tend to be a lot of old profiles, which makes it seem like there are a lot of potential matches - but in reality they are people who haven't logged into the site in months and are no longer interested. This does make it seem like there are a lot more people than there are. It's not a big deal when searching, because you can sort by most recent activity and see when the last time they logged in was. The problem I run into is that I keep seeing the same people's profiles over and over again - I'll be reading one, and it will seem familiar, and I'll realize I already read it a month ago.

People also have mentioned that match attracts a lot of people who aren't really looking for a serious relationship, and I've seen a lot of ads that say this outright. There are also a lot of people who want very specific thing in a date. There also seem to be a lot of people saying that it is way harder for a guy - that the balance seems to favor women.

I still plan on keeping an eye on match until my subscription, and if someone appealing pops up I'll certainly message them, but match doesn't seem to be the end-all solution I hoped it would be.

There are still a few other dating sites I haven't tried - eHarmony, the Spring Street sites (like The Onion), Craigslist, and a few others. But I'm starting to feel that internet dating may not be for me. Maybe I'm too picky, maybe I just am more appealing in person than in pixels, maybe I'm just totally undateable.

And maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on dating, like it's the only thing that's going to make me happy - maybe if I spent more time reading/learning/getting another grad degree/ taking up a hobby / starting a business, I'd care less about being single. But it would be nice to come home to someone other than my kitten (who wants to run out the door when I open it), to have someone to talk to, to share experiences with, to do couples things with instead of always being a third wheel. Plus, if I was married, my car insurance would be way cheaper.

I was hoping internet dating would work for me because dating in the meatspace hasn't. I don't understand how people manage to meet people of the opposite sex. Granted, I don't do things that put me in a lot of contact with single women - I don't really go to bars (I get drunk off two beers, and I suck at making the first move, plus I don't really have any friends who are single and drink to go with). I go to the gym at work, so I can't really hit on the women there because they are mostly students at the college I work for, and employees are forbidden from dating students. I've never understood how people meet at church - I go pretty regularly, but there aren't a whole lot of opportunities for small talk, and my church hasn't had any young adult gatherings or theology on taps recently that I know of.

So it might just be me, my kitten, and this blog for a long time...

Monday, September 24, 2007

y-a-r-d-s-a-l-e, yardsale...

so Saturday was the community yard sale in my townhouse complex. I had been looking forward to it for a while, because I had a bunch of crap I wanted to unload, hopefully in exchange for money.

So I was up around 6:45 on Saturday morning and dragging crap out to the road that splits my court from the one next to it by 7:20- by which time most of my neigbors were already set up. There were quite a few people selling, and a decent amount of customers.

There was probably more stuff I could have dragged out to sell, but I didn't have a whole lot of time to get stuff together (well, that and I'm bad at prioritizing and time management). I dragged out ski boots from last year's auction buy, some housewares, some health and beauty items from my couponing days, some consumer electronics that I've been dragging to hamfests, and a bunch of xxl clothes from my fatter days.

I did pretty well. I sold 5 pairs of ski boots (4 to the same guy), and a ton of other stuff. I started out with $50 in my pocket to make change, plus a small handful of quarters, and ended up with $129 and a much larger handful of quarters - so I would guesstimate that I made about $85. Not bad for a bunch of stuff that's been hanging around my house for the last year.

I also loaded up the truck at the end of the sale with the rest of the kid's ski boots that I had left, plus the xxl clothing I had left, and dumped it at the Goodwill on my way to the gym that night. So I have less crap, and that's good.

When I was sorting stuff, I pulled out the better clothes and those are going on eBay- I probably won't get much (based on previous experience) but I'll get something, plus some feedback (hopefully positive).

I realized when I was getting stuff together for the sale how much crap I have in my basement. About 2/3 of my basement is storage/laundry room unimproved space - the rest is the family room (where the NibblerCam is. The sale helped a little, but I still have most of the room stacked with crap, and need to put in some serious time doing cleaning. Cleaning is my least favorite activity, and I hate getting rid of stuff, but it needs to be done - someday I'm going to need or want to move, and the less crap I have, the better - especially if I can monetize some of that crap. More short-term, I have a set of Pearl Export drums in the basement of my parent's house in NJ that I haven't played since about freshman year in college. I'd love to export them to Maryland and start playing again, but I can't justify setting them up anywhere other than the basement, both for space concerns and to minimize the impact on my neighbors. So I need to get a chunk of space cleaned out for that.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Favorite lyric from a song you've probably never heard...

every day that gets to pass is a success, and every woman looks better in a sundress

If you are wondering why posts haven't been more frequent...

I'm sorry, I can't let you post that

Saturday, September 22, 2007

All pussy(cat), all the time....

If you are anything like me, you find yourself wondering "I wonder what madanthony's kitten, Nibbler, is up to right now". Well, now you don't have to wonder anymore. Presenting the NibberCam:

The camera uses ActiveX controls, so it will only work on Windows and in Internet Explorer. You will get a welcome page - click on "view video" and install the camera.

The camera is a Linksys Wireless B IP Camera, but I couldn't get it to play with my wireless network, so it's actually hooked up to a Logitech Gamelink wireless bridge device.

The camera is aimed at my basement family room. She doesn't seem to spend a whole lot of time down there, but I've seen her there in the afternoon a few times. I don't usually leave lights on in the room when I'm not home, so the light is coming in off my patio door, so at night all you will usually see is black.

I think I need a new career...

So a few months ago, the college I work in tech support for got a new CIO. We have "all hands" meetings monthly (often called "all hands on cookies" by staff for the cookies served at the meetings). We had one a few days ago, and the new CIO delivered her 60-day report of what she has observed and what she wants to change.

I work in our desktop support group, which is basically myself and two other people who are responsible for supporting faculty, staff, and administrator's machines.

It's not that the presentation was negative on the group I work for - "desktop support" was actually listed as one of our strengths. But that was the only mention of desktop support - the rest of it focused on big-picture stuff - upgrades, process management, trying to do a better job of handling large-scale upgrades and making sure that other departments don't implement systems without our department's involvement.

Which pretty much has nothing to do with what I do, which is day-to-day support. The closest I get to a project is people requesting, say, a half-dozen computers and a couple printers. Most of what I do is small stuff - replacing parts, replacing single computers, ect.

The thing about desktop support is it doesn't get a whole lot of attention unless we mess up. Computer hardware, software, and operating systems have gotten stable enough that that they generally just work, and when they don't they can easily be fixed or swapped out. Computers are like electricity. When you plug something in, it turns on and works, and you expect it to. If your power goes out, it's a crisis, but it's also rare.

It's gotten to the point that people are shocked when their machines break - they haven't figured out that there are still moving parts in hard drives, that capacitors sometimes fail, that sometimes things break and it's not that they or someone else did anything to cause it.

I enjoy desktop support - I get to play with technology, I get to meet people, I get to solve problems. But aside from managing the department, there isn't a whole lot of places for me to go, because I'm not really involved in big-picture stuff.

I like my employer, and I don't have any plans to leave. So I need to find a way to somehow get involved in the bigger-picture, project-planning type stuff. But I'm not sure how to go about doing that, besides just trying to increase my skill set and do a good enough job doing what I do - but a lot of moving up seems to be being at the right place at the right time - which I have been in the past. I do have my MBA, so that will help, and I'm trying to make sure that I go to P.M.P. (project management professional) training that my employer is offering. So we'll see.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Some interesting thoughts on the housing market...

I stumbled on two interesting articles about the housing market on two different economics blogs. Since the housing market is something I'm always interested in, because I have a very large dog in the fight (having managed to buy a townhouse last summer at what was evidently the very peak of the market), I figured they were worth commenting on.

The first is from the economist. Much of it deals with the idea that the quest for cheaper housing has caused urban sprawl, as people spread outward in search of cheaper housing prices. As the writer points out, much of what is saved in cheaper housing prices is eaten up by transportation costs.

I don't think it's quite this simple. People do leave the city for cheaper housing in the 'burbs, but it's not the only reason for them to leave - they also leave because of better schools, less crime, lower taxes, cheaper car insurance, because they want to have features like a lawn that are difficult to have in the city, and because living in the city can be a hassle in a ton of ways, from parking to grocery shopping, and because the features they want in a house may not be available in the city.

I've lived in a few different places in Baltimore City, ranging from places that are barely in the city (an apartment complex in Mount Washington as a college student, a duplex in Hamilton as a recent college grad), to the dead center of the city (a rented room in Reservoir Hill). The things I like about being out of the city include most of the things I listed above, including the crime aspect - the wheels got stolen off my car when I lived in that Mt Washington apartment complex.

In one of his books, David Brooks commented that cities have turned into places filled with those too poor to get out and those who are rich enough that they can afford to get around the difficulties of city life. I think that's accurate. I think it's also the reason so many people buy houses in the suburb. It's easy to find a cheap, run-down house in a sketchy neigborhood in the city, and it's easy to find a nice million-dollar mansion or half-million dollar restored rowhouse. But finding, say, a $250,000 or so house in a decent neigborhood where you feel safe and don't find your car on blocks on a Friday morning is near-impossible.

I also have a problem with the claim that the suburban lifestyle causes people to own cars, eating up the housing cost savings because they have to spend it on transportation. Sure, there are certain cities - NY and DC - that you can live in without a car. But that's not to say those are typical cities. There are few neighborhoods in Baltimore that are easy to live and work in without a car. People in cities who don't own cars generally don't have cars because they can't afford them, not because they don't want them or wouldn't find them useful. And if you own a car, even if you don't use it or don't drive far, you still have significant transportation expenses. Many of the costs of owning a car are fixed - car payments, insurance. Sure, you use less gas need fewer oil changes if you have a 10 minute commute (like I did when I lived in the 'hill), but my car payments and insurance were more than my rent when I lived in the city.

The other interesting article is from Megan McCardle at The Atlantic, who is outlining why she doesn't think houses will go up in value - because taxes are unlikely to increase sharply (so the tax benefits won't increase sharply) and because it's unlikely that mortgages will get longer than 30 years - but the wild card is land, because there isn't going to be more land, and zoning restrictions and environmentalists often limit the amount of available land. For the third, on the positive side, I'd also add that favorite realtor's maxim - location, location, location. There's plenty of land, even buildable land - but it's not always near where jobs or other things people want to live are. While people have fled to the 'burbs, jobs still seem to be in cities - so first and second ring suburbs will probably still be in demand (I hope).

But what I really found interesting was the 40-year mortgage comment - because I have a 40 year mortgage. My logic for getting it was that it would keep my payments more manageable, but I could always throw more money at getting it paid off as my income increased and I got other debts paid off. Plus, I have a pretty good interest rate, so if we ever have Carter-like levels of inflation, I could take the money I would use to pay off the mortgage and put it in a 20% savings account. Being risk-averse, I would rather have a fixed rate 40 than an ARM or IO. If housing prices start going up, I wouldn't be surprised to see the 40 make a comeback - lenders get an extra 10 years of interest, plus less risk of default, because the minimum payment doesn't change - much of the trouble recently has been with ARMS (adjustable rate mortgages where the interest rate changes) and IO (Interest Only, where the first couple years are only interest and not principle, after which the payment increases when principle is factored in). After all the defaults on IO's and ARM's, lenders are going to want to avoid them, but they still will want to write loans to people who can't afford the payments on a 30-year fixed - so the 40 may make a comeback.

So should you buy a house? Am I a moron for buying one - should I mail the keys back to the lender and put my stuff in ministorage? Who knows. I just thought these articles were interesting food for thought.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Is skipping lattes the road to riches...

On the finance forum of a message board I frequent, someone posted a review/summary of the book The Automatic Millionaire. There were several pages of good discussion about it, but one of the things that got debated the most was the "latte factor".

If you've read any articles or books on personal finance, the latte factor is a common argument. The idea is that people often have spending habits where they spend small amounts of money on items each day that, when added up, are a significant amount of money - like buying a $3 latte every day.

The discussion was torn between two camps - the "well, forget saving money, just get off your ass and get a better job so you can buy as much overpriced coffee as you want" and people who saw saving small amounts of money as a good idea. I fall into the latter.

Now, if you are putting away a ton of money in savings and retirement funds, are debt-free, and don't have any financial goals that you can't meet, then there is no need for you to go digging for little things to cut back on. But most people don't fall into those catagories - they wouldn't mind having a little more money.

And let's face it, there are two ways to have more money in your budget - earn more or spend less. And I guess most people can earn more long term - but not everyone wants to do what it takes to increase their income. Maybe they enjoy what they do or the people they work with. Maybe they have a job that they really enjoy or find really rewarding, but isn't very financially lucrative. Maybe they have a hobby or family that they enjoy spending time with, so they are willing to give up income so they can spend more time with their kids or their model airplanes.

The point is that cutting spending, while not likely to make anyone rich, is a good way to have a few extra bucks in the bank at the end of the day.

So where does mad anthony fall into this? Well, I don't buy lattes, or purchase prebrewed coffee on a regular basis. I have a Cuisnart grind and brew programable coffeemaker, so I load it with decent beans the night before - usually Starbucks or Trader Joe's - and take a steaming mug of homebrew with me for the ride to work. I like Starbucks coffee, but I can't justify the cost - or taking the time to stop. I also have been taking my lunch to work. This is a hard one for me - lunches are a big social thing where I work, and I kind of feel like a loser sitting at my desk eating my turkey sandwich. But I ran the numbers one time, and came up with something like a $1200 savings every year if I brought my lunch rather than eating in the employees-only all-you-can-eat buffet at work - plus it's healthier, and I'm trying to keep my weight in order.

If there is some small expense that you enjoy, that's your reason to live, then you probably should keep it - and if you need to, find something else to cut. The thing about budgets is that you can't have everything, and often you need to cut one thing if you want something else. The trick is to figure out which things are most important and spend money on those things. People have a tendency to spend a lot of money a little bit at a time without really thinking about if that's really the best use for their money, and the latte factor is a good way to rethink your priorities. And for many people, even when your income increases, your spending increases to match it - so my BMW-driving boss still keeps hoping to win the lottery.

The you-can't-have-everything thing works on bigger things too - it's the reason economists love cost-benefit analysis. Many economists don't think the government should put a bunch of money into stopping global warming - not because they don't think it's real, or a threat, or that it might kill some people. However, the money spent on stopping global warming could be better spent on things like prenatal care and clean water for people in Africa, and could save millions of lives instead of dozens. It's the reverse of the latte factor - spend a small amount of money on small things, and save a lot of lives.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Faster, pussycat, kill. Kill!

And now, for some kitty pics:

lets go kitty fishing

she doesn't seem interested in the bait

I think we got a bite

aww, I think she's undersized. throw her back!

Poor Opposum doesn't know what's in store for it

Kitty gonna eat the whole thing

And if you are wondering how Nibbler is doing, pretty good. She still has a bunch of bad habits I hope she grows out of - she likes to bite (I've been trying to give her toys and tell her not to bite, like she understands English), she likes to climb up me (and I have a ton of claw marks on my stomach to prove it), she likes to climb on my dining room table when I'm eating dinner (but my food does look better than hers), and if I'm in one of the rooms she's not allowed in (bedroom, because I can't sleep with her jumping on me, and office, because she likes to pull on wires, and I've got like 4 computers hooked up) she sits outside and meows sadly, then bum-rushes the door when I try to leave.

But she does enough cute things to make it worthwhile - she likes to climb on my lap and rub her head on the bottom of my goatee, she follows me around up and down the stairs, she chases her tail, and she occasionally takes a catnap on my lap.

When the stars make you drool...

I've been trying to cook more of late - I enjoy it, and while I wouldn't say I'm great at it, I suck less at it than I do at, say, wood carving. Plus, you can't eat wood carvings, while you need to eat food. Plus, if I ever find a woman who will talk to me, I can impress her with my mad saute-ing skills

So I've been making a point on Sunday evenings to try cook something. Nothing elaborate - a few weeks ago I made saurkraut, and last week I made that madanthony standby, sausage and peppers. Tonight I made Pasta Fagiol. It follows the traditional madanthony cooking formula - fry some stuff in olive oil (in this case, fresh garlic) and mix it with some other stuff (in this case, tomato sauce, pasta, cannenilli beans, and some Italian Seasoning). It's just like how my mom makes, except I used small shells instead of diatalini.

It came out good, and now I have dinner for the next couple nights as well.

that's amore!

The choice is yours..

I've heard various allusions to the book The Paradox of Choice - a guy who claims that there are too many choices in the world, and it overwhelms us. He had done experiments where, for example , people had to pick a favorite jam from a selection of 6 or 24, and fewer people could pick a favorite from the 24 because they were overcome by the amount of choices.

I always rejected this idea - after all, I'm a big believer in the free market. If people didn't want choices, they would just buy the same stuff, and new products would go unpurchased, and companies wouldn't come out with anything new. The fact that there are so many products suggests that somebody buys them.

Yesterday, however, I had one of those experiences where I wondered if mass customization was getting a little too custom. I had some time to kill and a craving for a Chic-fil-a breakfast biscuit, so I pulled through the drive thru. After getting my food and large coffee from the perky blond teen behind the window, she asked me if I wanted creamer for my coffee. I said yes, and she asked me what kind. It threw me. Sure, some places have those flavored creamers, but I've never been asked what kind of creamer I wanted at a drive-thru before. It threw me, and it took me a few seconds to stammer out a. "umm, regular".

But of course, I'm not any worse off for having more choices, and meanwhile someone who loves Irish Creme coffeemate is probably thrilled to be offered a choice.

Last week, I had another choice experience. I did something I haven't done in a long time - shopped at a different grocery store. I generally alternate between Trader Joe's, where I go for certain foods they have (they have some great frozen chinese food that's reasonably healthy) and Giant - I got into the habit of shopping at Giant in college - I lived in the city, and it was the closest decent grocery store - Baltimore City doesn't have a whole lot of major chain grocery stores. So when I moved to the county, I continued to shop at Giant, especially since there is one right around the corner from me. However, I've had trouble finding a few items, plus I've been less than thrilled with their service, or the moldy loaf of bread they sold me. My friend bsom has waxed enthusiastically about the Food Lion around the corner from him, so I decided to give it a try. In some ways, they were better, and they had a few things that Giant didn't, like bagged saurkraut, but they also didn't have certain things I liked - like my favorite pasta sauce, Barillia Arribitia hot pepper (that, served over whole wheat pasta, is a great way to do a little spring cleaning of the lower intestine).

But that's the way I shop - there are some things (like pasta sauce) that I have strong preferences about. But other things - bread, lunch meat, toilet paper - I don't care as much about, and I'll buy whatever is on sale and/or I have a coupon for. Most people are probably like this - they have things they are passionate about in certain catagories, and ones they don't care about. So one person may stick with Miller Light and another may be studying the IPA section, while person one may really care what kind of toothpaste they use. Choice means that when it comes to the things you are passionate about, you can get the perfect item - but as a cost for that, you may have to look a little harder on the shelf for stuff you don't care about - or scratch your head in the Chick-fil-a drive thru when they ask you what kind of creamer you want.

I had the idea for this post sketched in my head, but when I started typing it, I googled the whole jam thing - and came up with this two year old Reason Mag article, which ways a lot of the same things I said, but better and more in detail.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Don't give peace (marches) a chance...

So, I was walking out of work and heard a bunch of honking today. At first I figured it was just someone making an illegal left, but it seemed like more than that. I walked to my car and drove to the gym... and then remembered that it was the peace path for September 11. The usual suspects from the college were there - a couple students, a couple professors, a few people from the religious/community service center.

They did do a good job of making it "peace" themed - most of the signs just said "peace" or "honk for peace" and there were no angry "Bush kills kittens" type signs. There were the obligatory "war is not the answer" signs, though.

And of course, it's hard to be anti-peace. But that's the thing. Nobody is anti-peace. People like me who have supported war in Afghanistan and Iraq don't want to live in permanent state of war - they just recognize that sometimes a short period of war is necessary to achieve a longer period of peace. And war can achieve a certain kind of peace, either by destroying an enemy's capability of attack or by demonstrating that attacks will be met with a greater level of attack - the mutually assured destruction of the cold war.

And I always wonder about the "war is not the answer" sign people. I mean, I can understand being against a specific war, but do these people really believe that all wars are wrong - that we should have stayed out of World War 2 and let Hitler keep the ovens going, that we should have skipped the American Revolution and stayed British?

I would love to live in a world where there was no war or violence, where Al-Queda operatives weren't trying to turn household chemicals and used cars into deadly weapons, where Iran and North Korea weren't stockpiling nuclear arms, where there was no need to to defend oneself or one's country from attack. But that's not the world we live in, and sometimes war really is the answer.

Gee, I would have thought I looked at least 14...

Do you ever have one of those situations where someone says something to you, and you know they just intended it either as a compliment, or at worst just a comment, but it just seems wrong, and you puzzle over it for a while? I had one of those today.

I was replacing a computer for someone (in a fairly important position) and had the following conversation:

computer user: are you a full-time employee or a student?

mad anthony: full time employee.

user: really? Because you look like you are about 10.

Now, I do get mistaken for a student on occasion. I've been out of college for five years, but I am short, and I dress pretty casually (I was wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and a pair of Pony casual sneakers)- when your job often has you crawling under desks or moving equipment across campus, it doesn't make sense to wear anything nice, since it's just going to get snagged or dirty. I've even been carded a few times in the last couple months. But I figure I look older than 10 - I mean, how many 10 year olds do you know who have goatees?

Still, now I can blame my constant state of single-ness on something else. Chicks probably think I'm too young. I mean, I figured that I probably creep out all the cute coeds at the gym at work because they think I'm that creepy old guy, but maybe not...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

It's been that kind of week...

Some people make charts or put entries in calendars to figure out things like how much they are working out. I have a better system - I look at the trash in the trash bag in my truck.

I keep a plastic grocery bag tucked into the dashboard of my Ranger. I usually drink a Propel every time I go to the gym, and finish it on the drive home. So if at the end of the week I have a bag full of empty Propel bottles, it's been a good week.

There haven't been many propel bottles in my trash the last couple weeks. In fact, in the last two weeks, I've made it to the gym 3 times, when most weeks I would have gone almost daily. I've also been eating the worst foods imaginable - I've been living off fast food, college cafeteria food, vending machine candy, chinese food, and cereal. Tonights dinner was a cliff bar and pack of Tastycake butterscotch crimpets.

Why? It's move-in week at the college I work at, and shit just keeps hitting the fan. I've been working late every night, mostly until 8 or 9. So I do my normal job - run around to people's desks to fix their computers and have them yell at me because stuff doesn't work - for 8 hours or so, and then I sit on the phones for another 4 hours or so while students yell at me because their internet done broke. I've logged something like 35 hours of overtime the last week. This is great for my bottom line - I'm hoping to get some of my debt, like the loan on my truck, paid off in the near future - but I feel like shit. Between not getting a whole lot of sleep , eating diet consisting entirely of processed sugar and grease, not getting any exersize, and having to deal with people complaining and computers that won't cooperate for 12 hours a day, I feel.. just bad. There isn't a better way to describe it. I wake up tired and sore, go to sleep tired and sore, and am tired, sore and grumpy for much of the day.

I know in another week or two things will get back to somewhat normal, and I'll feel better. And I'll have made a metric assload of money. But right now I just want to curl up and go to sleep, and I can't.

The other thing that sucks is I haven't really had any time to spend with Nibbler. I've been keeping her in my basement family room, because I'm not entirely sure the rest of the house is quite kitten-proof yet, and I feel bad about it. When I come home at 9:30 or so she starts meowing frantically, the way she did in the cat carrier on the way home. She's been very aggressive the last couple days, pouncing on nothing (I bought her a stuffed possum with a rattle, which seems to love, and I'm convinced if Casa De Mad ever gets infested with possum, they will be so dead). She keeps rubbing against me in the morning when I check her food and water before I roll out to work, and I feel bad, but I gotta earn them dollars. I figure I'll give her run of the house this weekend, when I'll actually be around, and see how things go. I'm still scheduled to work some overtime next week, but I don't think it will be as much as this week (although I wasn't scheduled to work nearly as many hours as I did), so hopefully next week I can catch up on my cat-bonding and my sleep.

Assuming I can make it through the next day or so without having a nervous breakdown or falling asleep driving home.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sure, you can see my receipt...

This seems to be one of those things that pops up every now and then and gets people all sorts of enraged, and I don't really get what the big fuss is. Some guy in Ohio refused to show his receipt at a Circuit City in Ohio and got himself arrested. A few days earlier, some guy did the same at TigerDirect's brick and mortar store in Illinois and got "illegally detained" by the store.

Yes, the law seems to be on the side of the consumer in both of these cases - evidently, stores (with the exception of membership clubs like Costco where you have to sign an agreement that can include that they are allowed to do this) are not required to make you show a receipt or inspect packages. And yes, it does seem like the police and store management overreacted and did not behave correctly.

But I really have trouble understanding why people get their panties in a bunch over having to show their receipt. To me, it doesn't seem like a big hassle - when this kind of story gets posted on message boards, there are usually people complaining that they hate having to wait in line for half an hour. I can't say I've ever had a receipt-showing that took more than, say, 30 seconds, so I don't know what kind of hellholes they shop at.

It's fairly clear to me why stores want to see receipts and look in bags - to prevent shoplifting. It's not even so much that they catch shoplifters as the fact that they check packages discourages people from shoplifting in the first place. And I'm against shoplifting - it raises costs, which raises prices (and probably helps fund all sorts of other illegal activities). I can also see why a store would be suspicious of someone who makes a big deal out of refusing to show a receipt or stop - since most people show their receipts, it's unusual behavior and makes the store wonder if they have something to hide.

I think there are a lot of unfair things in the world. I don't think having to show your receipt on the way out of Circuit City is one of them. I can't imagine too many things that I feel strongly enough about that I would be willing to get arrested for, and I can't help wonder if there aren't better causes for people devote their energy and passion to than the right to walk out of circuit city without showing your reciept.

Monday, September 03, 2007

How to hook your computer up to your campus network...

So, the last couple days I've been spending 8.5 hours answering the phones at the helpdesk of the college I work for. Good for madanthony's wallet, bad for madanthony's sanity.

I've noticed certain things that people do when they call in, that if they would stop doing would get their problems resolved faster, and help keep me from going nuts.

-If your college hands out instructions, then you should probably read them before calling your school's helpdesk. Many schools, including ours, will have a web page with instructions that comes up automatically when you log in. If so, you should read this before you call the helpdesk. If I had a dollar for every conversation that went like the one below, I could put dubs on the Ranger:

caller: I can't get to the internet. I keep getting a message that says I'm blocked.
mad anthony: Do you see a link that says Click Here to scan or to install software?
caller: yes. should I click that?
mad anthony: yes.
caller: oh, that's working.

- before calling the helpdesk, figure out what kind of computer you have. Do you have a mac or a pc? (tip - if there is a giant glowing apple on the back of your laptop, it's probably a mac). If you are using a Windows machine, it's good to know which version of Windows you are running (XP or Vista). If you right-click on my computer and click properties, it will tell you what version of Windows you have.
Things that don't tell me which version of windows you have: the brand or model of computer (dell, ibm, ect), the form factor of the machine (desktop, laptop) or the kind of processor you have (Centrino is not an operating system).

- At our school, we have a few people set up in an office looking at computers. If I spend a few minutes troubleshooting stuff with you and can't get it working, and if it's giving me an error message or behaving in a way I haven't seen, I'm going to ask you to bring it to us. Don't be a dick about how you don't want to have to walk all the way across campus. It's a laptop, it's not designed to be portable, and it's not like you aren't going to walk just as far to get to class every day (or even further at night to get to the local bars). There are a lot of problems where the answer is more obvious when you are seated in front of the machine and can get a better idea of what the computer is doing and what programs are installed.

- Don't ask the person answering the phones if they know what they are doing or if they are sure when they tell you something you don't like. Either they do know what they are talking about, and it makes you seem like a jerk and makes them less eager to help you, or they don't know what they are talking about but aren't going to admit it and still think you are a jerk. Start of school is a hectic time for helpdesks, and they aren't usually set up for the volume of calls they get, which means they often pull people from other functions (desktop support, classroom support, managers, ect) or have students or contractors answering the phones. Be patient with them and polite, and chances are even if they don't know how to fix the problem they will try to find someone who can.

- If you are a parent, and your son/daughter tells you that their internet is broke, don't call the helpdesk from 3 states away with no information and expect us to be able to fix it. Your child is at least 18 years old and pretty much living on their own. If they can figure out all the rest of the aspects of college life, they can figure out how to pick up a phone. It's a great chance for them to learn independence (and experience phone customer service, something they will probably become very familiar with as they grow to adulthood). It's also much easier for us to solve a problem if the person we are talking to is in front of the computer and knows what it's doing or not doing.

- As a geek, I'm familiar with how important the internet is in everyday life, and it's a rare day that I haven't checked my email a few dozen times. Still, humans can survive several days without internet access. So don't tell me how you can't live without it, or that you need it to find out where your classes are. We have a dozen computer labs, several public-access cybercafes, and a number of public wireless hotspots. Even if you can't get online from your room, you can get online somewhere to email mom so she knows you are alive and figure out where that 8am philosophy class that you are going to sleep through is. We'll get it fixed as soon as we can, but we're not going to drop everything and run - there are 2800 other students here.

- Don't yell at me because our software sucks or because you can't run a wireless router or your favorite peer-to-peer app, or because we didn't tell you that you will need to uninstall some obscure program you had installed that 3 people use. I didn't write the software, I didn't write the documentation or set up the network rules. Realize, however, that most schools have the same restrictions, use either the same software we do or similar software, and that we can't anticipate every bug, glitch, or random device with an ethernet port that you will try to run on our network. Also understand that, as much as I hate the communist reek of "this is for your own good", it really is. Before we had any restrictions on our network, there were times where viruses caused us to have to shut down entire residence halls for days because one machine was infected with a virus and was port scanning and trying to infect other machines in the same subnet. The same goes for wireless routers - we've had misconfigured ones acting as dhcp servers and issuing ip addresses, causing other people not to connect. The thing about the real world is there are sometimes certain things you want to do but aren't allowed to, and you have to deal with it. While college isn't the real world, there are some aspects that are similar...

- just because we are tech services, we don't fix everything with a plug. We won't replace your light bulb or your fridge. call facilities for that.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

kitty porn...

finally got a few pics of nibbler. She's hard to get pics of - she moves fast. And she's black, so she blends in with stuff.






Saturday, September 01, 2007

here, kitty...

Well, I adopted a kitten.

I had a long, elaborate post that I started writing, but I never got around to finishing it. I also wanted to post some pictures, but I haven't gotten a chance to take and post any - she runs before I can get a picture. I have a few, but I haven't had a chance to get them off the camera yet.

Anyway, she's about 5 weeks old, black with a hint of tan. She's been good so far - uses the litterbox, hasn't broken anything, seems to tolerate me (when she's not trying to claw my face off), seems to fall asleep on my lap right about when I'm ready to get up. I named her Nibbler, after the pet/alien on Futurama, and after cleaning her litterbox, I think it fits... her poop has the weight of a thousand suns.

I've been keeping her in my family room in my basement and letting her play upstairs when I'm home - which hasn't been much lately because of work, and probably won't be much better - it's move in time, plus we have a coworker out on disability, so I'm going to be working a ton of overtime. Which is good, because I've gotta put kitchen chow on the table now. But I wish I could spend more time with her.

Being the constant worrier that I am, I worry if can be a good cat owner. I've never had a pet before (except fish, and they don't count), and I'm still getting used to being around one. I feel a certain sense of responsibility - I'd compare it to having a child, but that's not really fair to people have children, since you can't lock your five week old kid in the basement for 12 hours with a box to poop in and some food and water.

So this will be a new adventure, and I'll try to get some pics soon.