mad anthony

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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lamenting the creep of Valentine's day...

As someone who seems to be chronically single, despite my best (ok, my mediocre) efforts, I don't much like Valentine's Day. It serves as a reminder to me that I'm single and have not yet found a way to change that.

But if it was just one day a year, I probably wouldn't mind so much. I mean, if I was in a relationship, I'd probably want a day to celebrate it. I can't really begrudge those who have found someone from celebrating it, even if it reminds me that I haven't.

But what annoys me is that it doesn't seem to be Valentine's Day anymore - it's more like Valentine's 6 weeks. Back at the end of December, while I was still picking through clearanced Christmas candy, Target was rolling out pink chocolates and teddy bears holding hearts. And every time I open my personal email account, I seem to get at least one email from somewhere that I've purchased something, telling me the great V-day gifts they sell for the loved one I don't have. I even got one from Home Depot, a store nobody thinks of when they think of Valentine's Day.

I've written about my annoyance with Christmas Creep before - the fact that Christmas merchandise starts showing up in September, making Christmas almost anti-climactic after 4 months of fake snow and red and green everything. V-day is now the same way, except unlike Christmas I wasn't even looking forward to it in the first place.

I assume there are customers who actually shop that early - businesses don't usually put merchandise out if nobody is buying them. Part of it, though, is probably just that they have space to take up. Most modern stores leave a certain amount of room for "seasonal" merchandise, which is easy to fill up around Christmas and during the summer when you have giant piles of patio furniture, or with school supplies in August. In January, there isn't much else to put out, so stores put out V-day crap, figuring that some sales are better than having empty space.

And thus the lonely get six weeks of being reminded of their loneliness.

Am I motivated?

I've been thinking a lot about what I want to be when I grow up.

Well, OK, I'm already all growed up. So it's more, where do I want my career to be in a few years, or how much risk am I willing to take in the hopes of furthering my career?

There are two things that have gotten me thinking about this. The first is a conversation with an employee in another department who is leaving the college I work for to take a position with a private company. He game me some career advice - essentially, get out of higher ed, go into the private sector, and get a job with more responsibility and more pay, and more of a future career path.

I've also been playing with eHamony, the online dating site run by the creepy old guy. One of it's pre-made questions for communicating with matches asks about how motivated you are, career-wise, and I'm not really sure where I fall.

In the past, I've had goals to achieve a certain standard of living - buy a house, buy a new car, ect. I've pretty much gotten there -I have a house that's bigger than I really need, reliable transportation, and most of the gadgets I could want. While I would love to one day own a stupidly expensive car, I don't NEED one, and probably wouldn't be all that much happier with one.

The thing about education is it's generally recession-proof. Colleges don't get bought out, they don't usually outsource IT jobs to save money, and they don't do GE-style "fire the bottom 10% of employees every year" things. Pay tends not to be highest, but there are a ton of perks ranging from free tuition and cheap gym memberships to a generous 403b contribution percentage and lots of holidays off.

Plus, my job has one other perk - I'm hourly. That means overtime. While OT is never guaranteed, I've done pretty well with it over the years. I worked Saturdays almost every week for nearly three years, and right now I'm working nights one day a week, plus the occasional weekend or late-night fill-in. It's not going to make me rich, but it provides some extra cash for the occasional splurge, and it certainly helped me make the downpayment on Casa De Mad. One of the reasons that I get so much overtime is because I work so much overtime - people here know that I will usually accept it if offered, so if they need it filled they ask me. I will also ask managers if they need someone to fill in when it's getting close to a time that it's usually needed, like start of school or finals time. So I'm motivated enough to seek out opportunities for OT, but not enough to leave the bubble of academia.

The other thing is that I really like the people I work with - I don't have much of a social life outside of work, and most of my friends and acquaintances are here - so I wouldn't want to leave and go somewhere else. I've also built up a fair amount of institutional knowledge of how things are done, and a network of people I can go to when I need help.

At the same time, I am becoming somewhat frustrated with my job itself. I work in desktop support, a job I loved as a student when I was 21. Now that I'm 27, it's not quite the same. Sometimes it's interesting, and I do get to meet lots of people. But after a while, it gets boring - most of the work is repetitive , setting up machines, installing software, delivering keyboards to people who spilled coffee in their old ones. Sometimes I feel somewhat overqualified - I've got an MBA, and I'm doing a job that for the most part could be done by someone with a high school education, or possibly by a well-trained monkey.

But that is part of the problem with academia - because it's nice to work in the secure bubble, there isn't any reason for people to leave, and new positions and opportunities to move up seldom come. In theory, now should be one of the best times to move up where I work - we have a new CIO as of last year, we're doing some major systems migrations - but so far there haven't been any real staffing changes or chances to move up.

So what will the next few years bring for madanthony's career? Damned if I know. My guess is one of a few possible outcomes:

-Something finally does come along, either internally or externally, and I move to a job that's more challenging/interesting

-I get pissed off and decided to take a totally different path, like go to law school

-I finally develop interests outside of work, like a social or dating life, and start to not care so much about not finding fulfillment at work.

-I continue to do the same thing I've been doing and slowly go nuts.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Parking wars and smash labs...

Over the past couple years, I've developed a weakness for reality shows. Not the kind of shows where they put a bunch of random people on an island and have them fight over a bag of Cheetos and a Pontiac Aztek, but the kinds where they follow ordinary people around their jobs or watch them try to flip houses or conduct science experiments.

I like reading, but I don't really like nonfiction - fiction seems like a waste of time, a missed opportunity to learn something. TV is more of a guilty pleasure - I watch it when I don't feel like doing anything else, so I'm a little more willing to let my brain turn to mush.

Ironically, one of the things I like about reality shows is I can usually multitask - surf the web on a laptop while I watch or clean the living room - without missing an important plot twist.

So there are two new shows I've added to the RePlay and have been watching.

The first of these is Smash Lab on the Discovery Channel. It comes on after Mythbusters, and is aimed at the same demographic - young geeky males who like seeing stuff blow up. It's been heavily advertised in Maxim and other places.

I've seen a couple episodes, and, well.... ehhh. It's OK. But while the explosions on Mythbusters are cool, they are only a small part of the show. You need something to fill the other 58 minutes where stuff isn't blowing up, and Mythbusters does that with interesting hosts, good narration, and, well, Kari Byron, who is not only cute and funny, but can weld. Smash lab, on the other hand, has three totally unmemorable guys and a female scientist who is cute, but no Kari. And the whole point seems to be to make big explosions, with minimal scientific content. The things they've tested - aerated concrete highway dividers, carbon-fiber wrapped mobile homes - probably haven't been done because they are not cost-effective, and aren't really major scientific breakthroughs.

The other show I've been watching is Parking Wars, an A&E show that follows around the Philidelphia Parking Authority as they tow, boot, and release cars. It's actually not as bad as it sounds. Obviously, it's done with the participation of the PPA, so it tends to show them in a good light. And some of the customers are jerks, cronic scofflaws, or nuts. It's hard to feel too bad about someone who complains he can't pay the parking tickets on his dubbed-out late model Escalade because he needs to feed to his family. Then again, not all the employees are sympathetic, like the one who hides in the bushes to write tickets or points to an upside-down sign to write tickets.

I have mixed feelings on the whole parking thing. I've gotten a few tickets here in Baltimore, and it's usually been in places where you can stare at the signs for several minutes and still not be sure if you can park there or not. Cities use parking enforcement to make money, and they make it difficult to know where you can park or to fight an unfair ticket. Towing is even worse, and the people I know who have tangled with the Baltimore tow yard have horror stories (Philly's actually looks better - it looks like they stay open until 7, at least). But it's hard to feel too bad for people who have their cars booted, given that they need 3 unpaid tickets to get the boot.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Things I hate about winter..

Since I'm on a list-posting kick:

1)Chapped hands. My hands bleed at the slightest cold and wind, especially since I'm a serial hand washer, which makes them dry out. So now they are all gross and scabby looking. Lotion helps, but I forget to put it on, it feels greasy, and it actually hurts while it sinks in. Plus, I hate being the kind of guy who moisturizes. It makes me feel less masculine.

2)Scraping ice off my truck. Especially since it's always in the morning, when I'm already running late to work, and it makes my hands bleed more.

3)The ten minutes before my truck is warm enough to turn the heat on - there is nothing worse than a burning-cold steering wheel.

4)the feel of a cold wind. It just makes everything feel more miserable. It turns simple household chores, like taking out the trash, into agony, because I don't want to go outside. I've got like a month of recycling built up because I can't bring myself to go out in the cold.

5)wearing extra layers. During the summer, if I'm going to the gym after work, I can take a pair of shorts and a pair of sneakers. During the winter, I also have to take sweatpants and a sweatshirt to change into afterwords.

6)heating bills. I don't turn the air conditioner on until the temperature hits at least the high 80's. But the heat is on all winter, and the bills are getting bigger every month.

7)Ice. I have a horrible sense of balance. I am an ice pussy - I'm scared to walk on ice for fear of falling, and I walk at a speed at which old ladies pass me. I don't do all that well driving in it, either.

8)women look way better in shorts and halter tops than in bubblegoose jackets and those ridiculous Uggs boots.

9)It's way easier to throw a party when you can throw some burgers on the grill. Plus, I can sit outside and smoke a cigar in the summer if I want to.

10) There are way more hamfests in the summer. Plus yard sales.

So, if I'm going to be so negative, I guess I should throw in a few positives.

Things that I kind of like about winter:

1)Snow days. I work for a college, so I get them off sometimes. Of course, we haven't had any yet this year.

2)Christmas vacation, MLK day

3)Trader Joe's winter blend coffee, Starbucks Peppermint Mocha Latte

4)extended hours at the gym

5)the knowledge that summer invariably follows winter

Things that make me feel good, even though they probably shouldn't

1. Laughing at my cat when she does something stupid and possibly painful, like falling off the couch or trying to jump through a glass storm door.

2. Noticing women on facebook who would never go out with me have changed their status from "in a relationship" to "single"

3. Taking a really big poop - there is a certain sense of accomplishment, like "hey, I made that".

4. Calling someone I don't want to talk to and getting there voicemail - hey, I tried to do my part, but I can put off having to deal with you!

5. Getting blog posts just by making lists of things where I can't even come up with five entries. Maybe I'm not so vindictive after all.

madanthony gets philosphical...

Religions have debated since the beginning of time how much control we have of our own lives. Some people throughout history, especially the Calvinists, have believed in the idea of predestination - essentially, that our paths are predetermined and that there is nothing we can do about it. It's the opposite of free will, the idea that we do what we do because it's what we were meant to do.

The idea is in some ways depressing. If our lives suck, it's because they are supposed to suck, and we can't do anything about it, and if we succeed, it's not because of anything we've done, but because we were supposed to succeed through fate/God/whatever.

But there is also a certain amount of comfort to it - the idea of things happening for a reason, that anything we do is part of a bigger plan. In other words, maybe things just suck now because they will get better later. Maybe something that sucks will serve as a launching pad to something that doesn't suck, or something that appears not to suck would turn out to suck if it had happened.

But I tend to shy away from this. For one thing, it's hard to be a Republican if you believe that people can't control their own destiny. For another, it diminishes any actual accomplishments you make, because they were achieved not through anything you did, but because they were destined to.

So I would prefer to look at the world as a series of opportunities - that maybe fate isn't writing the ending of your life before you are born, but rather setting out one of those choose your own adventure books where every now and then you come to a point where you need to make a decision, and that decision determines if the villain captures you - I mean, the future path of your life.

There are some things I can look on in my past and say "hey, my life would be totally different if I hadn't made that decision". If I hadn't gone to the college I went to, I wouldn't have ended up moving to Maryland. If I hadn't lived off-campus my senior year of college, I probably wouldn't have looked for a summer job with the technology services department of said college - which meant I wouldn't have ended up working there (eventually) after graduation. If I hadn't changed my mind about another job I was going to take after graduation, my career path would also have been different.

But there are the less obvious ones as well. Several years ago, I was at work on a Saturday, and I took one of those "how long are you going to live" quizzes - which said I would be dead in about 20 years. That inspired me to finally lose some weight, and while I still don't get mistaken for a Calvin Klein model, I am at a point where I no longer need to special-order my pants.

Which makes me wonder how many other minor, tiny things there are that could have dramatically changed my path, but I didn't make the path-changing decision, and thus never noticed them.

So what has inspired madanthony to get so philosophical? Unlike my college days, it's not a case of Shaeffer Light and a plastic handle of vodka. Rather, it's the thing that's caused so many bad movies and songs to be written - the as-yet-unsuccessful pursuit of true love. You could look madanthony's chronic inability to date in two ways - it's because I've made bad decisions, like not getting out much and not really paying much attention to my looks. Or maybe it's the way it's supposed to be - that the reason I'm still single is because I'm supposed to be, because if I wasn't I couldn't meet the person I'm supposed to meet.

I guess the reality of it is probably somewhere in-between - there probably are some missed opportunities along the choose-your-own-adventure book of madanthony. But hopefully there are also still some chapters that I haven't gotten to yet, that I can pick the path to the right person rather than get eaten by the monster of loneliness.

But if I'm going to hold the views that people on welfare need to get jobs and fat people need to put down the fudge and hit the Precor, I'm also going to have to hold the view that I am not totally a victim of circumstances or previous bad decisions, but rather that I can make my own luck, however that is. Maybe it will be through online dating - so far, I've had more communication with a week of eHarmony than I had with 6 months of, but nothing major yet - or maybe through some other path I haven't found yet. There is, I suppose, a comfort in telling myself that "it was meant to be this way", but I think with that comfort comes an ability to accept fate rather than try to change it, and I think that would hurt me in the long run.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I ♥ tax time...

Most people have a strong negative reaction to tax time. For the most part, I never really cared - I would typically get a few bucks back, which was nice, but not enough to get excited about.

Then, last year, I bought a house. Now, I look forward to tax time - as soon as the calendar switched to 2008, I started looking for deals on TurboTax and checking the mailbox for my 1098's and W2.

Yesterday, I got the last two things I needed to complete my taxes - my employer's W2 and the copy of TurboTax I ordered from

So this morning, I brewed a little more coffee than usual, plopped my sweatpants-clad butt in my leather office chair in front of the MadAnthony Command Center (actually a Celeron with dual flat panels) and did my taxes.

In an hour or so, I had my returns done. I'm getting back $4,088 from the Feds and $1,244 back from the state. I even got a $55 energy savers credit for the new door I got last year.

Granted, I don't know when I'll actually have the money in pocket - I'm going to mail my return today (because I can't bring myself to spend the $18 to eFile), but the Fed return says that they would prefer you to mail it after February 11 because they can't start processing them until then because of the changes to the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax). But considering that my plans are to use the money to pay off some debt and get my backyard fenced, it's not like I need the money immediately.

Most of the time, I question my choice to buy a house last year. After all, prices have dropped, and home ownership has it's share of hassles and costs. But when I see how much my rebate increases after I plug in my mortgage interest, I'm thrilled. Yes, I know it's my money, that the government is giving me back. And it's possible that even after you factor it in, it may have been cheaper for me to rent than buy, at least in the short term. But it definitely makes home ownership more attractive.

So should madanthony get a break just for owning a house? Is it fair that people who can't afford houses don't get these breaks? Given the recent events of the housing market, you could argue that the last thing people need is an incentive to buy houses. But long-term, I think home ownership is a good investment - at some point, you get it paid off, and that takes away a big monthly expense, and long-term it does generally increase in value. And it's a good way to force you to save, since lots of people might not actually bank the extra money they save on cheaper rent.

But I think it's also good in other ways. It helps communities - areas where people own their homes tend to be more stable, and people tend to be more concerned about the goings-on, than people in areas that are all rentals. Homeowners are also going to spend more money on their homes, keeping people employed in lots of related sectors. In the 18 months I've owned Casa De Mad, I've spent thousands getting new carpet, a new AC condenser, a new front door, plus lots of smaller purchases - paint, electrical, light fixtures, furniture, ect. Housing is a huge employer, and things like home improvement can't be outsourced or done cheaper in China. So I do think it has merit.

My badge is bigger than yours...

Via Instapundit comes this hard-hitting look at badge inflation - the growing size of badges on full-size pickup trucks.

Badge inflation is not new, however - manufacturers have been doing it for years, and not just on bigger trucks. Here is a picture of the back of a 2001 Ford Ranger - the link shows a heavily modified SEMA one-off, but the tailgate and badging is the same as the production. here is a picture of the back of MadAnthony's 2006 Ranger - note not only the giant Ford logo in the middle, instead of the tiny one in the corner, but the addition of a fairly prominent Ranger badge.

So what are my thoughts on all this? Meh. It makes sense - with the advent of wind tunnels, aerodynamics, and the like, vehicles tend to look more similar, so it makes sense that car companies want potential buyers to be able to identify them - there is no better ad for a vehicle than seeing it on the road and saying "wow, that's cool, what is that?". Of course, that applies less to trucks, which tend to be less aerodynamic and more distinctive - but still, there is only so much you can do with what is basically three boxes (hood, cab, bed). Pickup buyers also tend to be very brand-loyal, so many of their customers LIKE having a giant logo.

I can't really complain that they look tacky, not when I drive a truck that's painted double-yellow-line yellow. And given the amount of blank space on a pickup's tailgate or grill, it doesn't really look that bad. I'm less a fan of the trend of putting stickers on the back of the bed on the side over the rear axle - not so much because they tend to be big as because they tend to be obviously stickers, which I think looks cheesy - my Ranger has a silver 4x4 badge (which you can kind of make out in this pic which I've debated pulling off. I wish they would replace those with a simple badge.

Friday, January 25, 2008

madanthony's thoughts on the tax refund thing....

So, it looks like everyone is getting a bunch of money from the government. Joy.

So what does madanthony think about the economic stimulus package? Not much. First of all, I'm not entirely convinced that the economy is in that bad of shape - I think politicians want it to be, so they can have something to rescue, and the media likes reporting bad news. But I think the average American is doing OK, even though some individual industries (housing, car manufacturing, banking) are having their share of issues.

So I'm not sure the government should be stimulating anything to begin with. If they insist on doing something, I'd rather see them doing tax refunds like they are than doing massive government spending. True, government spending can be targeted more to certain sectors, but it's still money that taxpayers paid in, and they should be able to spend it.

I'd like this whole thing a lot more if there were some sort of, you know, spending cuts to accompany it. But no. So we are getting some of our own money back, but we'll have to send it back to the government later, with interest. Which sucks more for young(ish) people like me.

I'm also not thrilled with the fact that people who didn't pay taxes are still getting $300 back, as are people who paid next-to-nothing in taxes. That's not a tax refund, it's welfare, it's a straight-up transfer of money from people who work for a living to people who don't, and I'm not a big fan of that.

So what will madanthony do with his windfall? Nothing, yet. It will probably go into my savings account briefly, and then be used to either pay off my truck, if it's not paid off by the time I get it, or to pay towards my mortgage, in the hopes that I can get my equity above 20% so I can drop PMI (private mortgage insurance). So I won't directly be stimulating the economy, although you could argue that this will give banks more money to loan out, leading to more spending by other people and lower interest rates.

There are a ton of things I want to buy or do eventually - remodel my 70's-era master bathroom and kitchen (which I'd also like to expand to have enough cabinets to store 2 plates instead of 1), buy a new computer, eventually either buy a new truck or a second cars. But those are long-term things that $600 is just a drop in the bucket towards. I do plan on getting my backyard fenced this summer, and I'll probably buy some small stupid impulse buy items, but for the most part I'm in debt-repayment mode right now.

And I'd guess a lot of other people are - it hardly makes economic sense to buy things you don't really need when you are paying interest, which will probably mute much of the effect of this money.

So I never thought I would say this, but I would rather not be getting the check that I'll be getting.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Privacy doesn't matter...

I went to the Timonium minifest hamfest yesterday with bsom. While we were there, an older gentleman started talking to bsom looking for suggestions for a video-editing machine he was building. While he was talking, he mentioned quite a few rather paranoid things - he runs Windows 2000 because he doesn't want to do online activation/validation or have to run Windows Genuine Advantage. He mentioned that he runs a linux machine for connecting to the web, because he's worried about someone tracking his search history, and that he has heard that Microsoft EULA (end user license agreements) give Microsoft the rights to anything you create with your machine, that Google had a plan to turn on your webcam and microphones and then run all the video and audio it captured through it's supercomputers, and that Microsoft Windows XP keeps a hidden encrypted partition on your hard drive that backs up all your data and can only be opened by the NSA.

Obviously, he goes to the more tin-foil side of the privacy game. But I don't get the big deal about privacy. Obviously, there are things I want to keep private - I don't want my credit card number or social security number getting out, but this isn't because of deep, dark secrets but because I don't want my identity/money getting jacked. I wouldn't want to live in a glass house, and while I have an IP camera in my basement that anyone can view, I'd be reluctant to put one in, say, my bathroom. But that's mostly because I don't look good naked.

As far as my browsing history, I'd probably be a little embarrassed if my mom or my boss's boss' boss saw it, but I don't really care if a faceless corporation sees it. Hell, if someone really wanted to watch my home office for 24 hours a day, they would see 22.5 hours of dark and wall most days, and during the hour or two a day I use my PC, they would mostly hear me typing, and occasionally singing off-key to iTunes or yelling at my cat to stop biting me.

If anything, I wish companies had better information about me. Why isn't junk mail targeted - why do I get so many offers for shit I would never buy that I need a special shredder just for it? I get offers for credit cards offering airline miles as rewards, despite the fact that I haven't been on a plane since 2001. And email, being nearly free, is even worse - besides the usual spam, I get emails from companies I bought one item from on clearance 2 years ago (thanks, J Crew, and no, I'm not going to buy $175 worth of preppy gear to get free shipping).

I'm intrigued by the idea using all the info that companies can gather about me to help me find products I like or to save money- better direct marketing, coupons for products I use, reminders that I'm about to run out of Vault Zero and coffee filters. I don't care if the big corporate entities know that I like gourmet peanut butter and read deal sites. And I'm convinced that there is nothing sitting on my trusty Celeron that Microsoft has any desire to read or own.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Can someone design a profitable dating site that doesn't suck?

In madanthony's quest to not spend the rest of his nights sitting home eating Trader Joe's Schoolhouse Cookies right out of the container while watching reruns of Property Ladder while watching his cat claw the sofa, madanthony has turned to online dating sites, with no luck. But as a guy with an MBA, an overflowing bookshelf full of business books, and a mind that is constantly trying to figure out how to make money with minimal effort, he wonders why nobody has really come up with a business model that makes money while not sucking.

I started thinking about this a lot after reading this article from which tries to come up with a workaround for paid sites that require you to subscribe to contact a user. My first thought was that he wants to get something for nothing - that if you want the services of a dating site, you should be willing to pay for it. But after reading his article, and thinking about my own experiences with several sites, both paid and free, I'm starting to think he has a point. Dating sites do use your profile to get other people to subscribe, but more frustratingly they mix the profiles of unpaid and paying members together in such a way that makes it frustrating, especially for their paying members. Many sites will make profiles available, so interested parties can contact people they are interested in, but the person emailed can't read it unless they are a member. This is annoying, because 1)you waste time reading profiles and sending emails to someone who will never read your email and 2)you never know if you were rejected because someone didn't like you, or just because they weren't a paying member and decided they didn't want to become one.

The other trap of lots of dating sites is old profiles - match, from what I've read, is notorious about not deleting people's profiles even if they haven't logged in in forever. They do post when the last time a person logged in was, so you can avoid emailing women who are now in a relationship, dead, married, or no longer into guys, but you still have to sift through all their profiles, and it makes the site look like it has far more matches than it does.

So pay sites make their money from paying members, and sometimes do things like using unpaid, uncontactable people to get you to pay. So what about free sites?

There are a handful of free dating sites, but they suffer from one of two problems - either everyone uses them, so there are lots of useless profiles to wade through, or not enough people use them to make it likely that you will find someone who matches you.

The other thing is that I get the impression that the people running free sites aren't having much luck getting decent advertisers to support an ad-supported model. Every time I log in, I get ads for sleazy, date-related stuff - sites to meet sugar daddies, dating sites for people with herpes, books on how to score with women. It's kind of surprising in this day and age - where online dating is considerably more acceptable than it used to be, and where many of the people using dating sites are professionals, people who put jobs and education above dating for the earlier part of their life and are now dipping a toe back in the water. It would be nice if mainstream advertisers would realize that there is a market there. Then again, maybe they figure that the people with disposable income are using paid sites.

So is there a business model that works for personal ads - one other than holding you profile ransom for big fees or subjecting you to ads for dating sites for overweight herpes sufferers? One interesting model is Salon Personals, run by FastCupid/Springstreet, which also runs personals for The Onion and some other sites. I haven't tried it yet, but I do know at least one couple that met over it and eventually got married. They do have premium gold and silver subscriptions, but they also offer the ability to email members by buying points (although I can't figure out how much a point costs). It's an interesting idea, and it seems good for the casual (or picky) browser. It also has another advantage - by making it cost money to email a user, it discourages people from just emailing everyone - which mean less competition from suitors and less having to pick through a ton of emails for people on the receiving end.

As I said, I've posted profiles on a number of sites, with no luck so far. But I figured I could also use this as a review of the sites I've tried: - the biggie. Paid site, lots of profiles, decent interface. As I mentioned before, the fact that it keeps old profiles and mixes paid and non-paid subscribers is annoying. I also haven't been impressed with the women who have profiles on it, most of whom seem to be primarily interested in drinking, bar-hopping, and going to baseball games. Which is probably what everyone except me wants in a girlfriend.

eHarmony - I actually just signed up for a paid subscription for this a couple days ago thanks to a coupon code I found on fatwallet. I can't really make much judgment on it yet. The fact that it filters your matches by ones it thinks are compatible instead of making you wade through 10,000 profiles is nice. The pre-made questions for "guided communication" is a nice idea to break the ice. It does, however, suffer from the same mixed paid and unpaid profiles and older member issues.

OKCupid - a free site. Has one of the best interfaces, nicer than many of the paid sites. Also has some social-networking type aspects (blogs, quizzes, ect) and an eHarmony- like matching quiz. I love the look and feel of the site - I just wish there were more members who I was interested in. It's the opposite of match - instead of party girls, it's mostly full of uber-artsy types and hipsters. The social networking aspect also means that not all the women with profiles on it are looking for dates.

Plenty Of Fish - the biggest free site. I've heard people swear by it, but I can't stand it. The interface makes my head hurt, and when it shows pics it resizes them so they all look distorted. It sends you emails with "your matches", but it's really just a link to the main page. And because it's free, it seems to attract the dregs the socio-economic ladder and dating pool - all the profiles I look at seem to be either single mothers, women who weigh as much as a Volkswagen, or sound batshit crazy.

JustSayHi - like OKCupid, this would be a great site if it actually had a user base. It's got some neat features - a friends social networking thing like myspace/facebook, a feature called "mutual match" where people can vote on profiles - if both people vote they might be interested, it shows up in a box, and you can contact the person knowing that they are interested. The problem with mutual match is if you vote yes and the person doesn't show up, you don't know if it's because the person isn't interested or if it's because they don't use the feature. Plus, it doesn't have a huge user base.

No More Dates - aimed at over-25's looking for eventual marriage. Makes you fill out a very long, hour-plus survey - and then refuses to give you your results unless you put in valid email addresses of two friends (which really seems dumb considering it's core market is probably people who are realizing that all their friends their age are already married). Then it told me I didn't have any matches. Maybe it's just that it's too new, but the email harvesting plus the lack of matches doesn't make me think too highly of it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

How technology is making us better off, even if we aren't richer...

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about how much the content of cars has increased, while inflation-adjusted prices have remained pretty much the same. Clearly, the same applies to technology, and nothing illustrates it better than this Megan McCardle Post featuring a 24 parody as if it were shot in 1994.

The comments devolve into people debating if GDP has really increased, and what portion of it is technology. I think that's besides the point. The fact is that a ton of things we wouldn't think could be done at all 15 years ago are now well within reach of pretty much everyone. We are safer, because pretty much everyone carries a cellphone and can call for help in case of emergency. We are better informed through the internet, better able to communicate and interact with friends and strangers, to network and meet people, to research things. We can find ourselves with cheap GPS units, watch TV on screens bigger and flatter than we would have imagined 15 years ago, and capture and share our memories digitally through pictures and video.

MadAnthony was just starting high school in 1994. But from what I understand, the college I work at used a Digital Equipment Corp VAX for email, and dorm room connections were a parallel cable plugged into the back of your ROLM phone. Most students didn't have PC's in their rooms, and those that did had bulky desktops with CRT monitors. Today, most students have a laptop, a cell phone that doubles as a computer, and can connect wirelessly from anywhere.

A few weeks ago, I was driving back from NJ, and was pulling out of a convenience store where I had just paid for my hot dog with the Blink feature on my Chase card (which uses RF so you don't have to swipe). I settled into the seat of my Ranger, fired up some MP3's off the stereo (my factory system reads MP3 CD's), and turned on my Tom-Tom GPS - and it dawned on me that the future really was now - that I was using a bunch of technology that was unaffordable a couple years ago and impossible to buy at any price a few years before that. And that's the kind of better living that isn't measured in a market basket of goods or other traditional economic statistics.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Will stopping forclosures hurt more than it helps?

So everyone seems to be wanting to make it harder to foreclose on houses - as I mentioned before, Hillary is running ads saying she is going to freeze foreclosures, while in Maryland this sad story is prompting talk of changes to the laws regarding foreclosure to make it harder and slower to foreclose on houses.

The Columbia taxi driver's story is sad - it's a perfect storm of mistakes that resulted in him losing his house - the title company never paid off his mortgage, the bank lost the copy of the check that would prove he paid it, he didn't get the foreclosure notice, the lawyer he hired couldn't legally practice in Maryland.

It's sad, but it's also one-of-a-kind - most people who lose their houses don't lose them because the bank or title company screwed up the paperwork, but because they didn't, well, make their mortgage payments. And laws made because of one-of-a-kind cases aren't usually good laws.

I had found a really good article a while ago on how a large chunk of mortgages that people defaulted on involved fraud - people lying about their income and the like - but the best I could find now was this.

But while it's sad to see people kicked out of their houses, it's also necessary for our credit system to work. If mortgage companies can't foreclose on houses from people who aren't making payments, then they are going to be much more careful about who they write mortgages to, and they are going to charge more - and first-time buyers, buyers with thin credit files, buyers with bad credit - are not going to be able to get mortgages, or are going to be charged way more. And that's going to hurt home sales and home values anymore. And meanwhile, people who lied on their mortgage apps or who haven't bothered making payments are going to keep living in houses free of charge.

The reason that mortgages are typically at a far lower interest rate than, say, credit cards (not counting promo balance transfer offers) is because they are secure debt, and because the bank knows they can take back the house if the buyer doesn't pay. Take that away, and mortgages get more expensive and harder to get.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why Circuit City is not a lesson in bad management...

Via this fw thread comes an article that claims that Circuit City's recent financial troubles are due to it's decision to fire experience workers and replace them with cheaper workers.

I don't think that it's that simple. People want to believe that there is a direct relationship, because firing your best, highest paid workers because they cost too much is kind of an asshole move. While it obviously didn't help as much as they hoped, I'm not convinced that it hurt them either.

I'm not sure how many people expect customer service when buying electronics anymore. I can't honestly comment about the service at Best Buy or Circuit City, because when I go to either store (or any store), I seldom ask the salespeople any questions other than "do you have this in stock" and "can you check the price on this". As a deal shopper, I often look for stores that have bad customer service, bad locations, inconvenient hours, or are poorly stocked - those are the stores that will have a pile of clearance stuff lurking in the back that nobody bothered to put out, or something with a price tag that is way higher than the price in the system because nobody changed it, or the store with no parking and shitty hours, because they will have stuff left in stock that other stores don't.

When I am making a big purchase, I don't depend on salespeople. First of all, for electronics, I work in IT, so I'm familiar with quite a bit of stuff. When I don't know much about a category, I research online, or I ask a friend/coworker who is more knowledgeable about the area what they recommend. Now, not everyone is lucky enough to work with 50 really smart geeks, but most people know someone they trust who they can go to for advice about technology. I don't know how many people really expect the salespeople at a store to be experts, or trust them.

I think the problem of Circuit City is less that they have fired their best sales people and more that they are stuck in the middle when it comes the market. I recently read Trading Up, which theorizes that the market is splitting and that the successful businesses are either targeting the high end or the low end, while companies that serve the middle market are screwed. Circuit City falls into that middle market.

On the high end, stores like Tweeter, Best Buy's Magnolia, and lots of mom-and-pop stores and small high-end boutique chains (like in the Baltimore area, the Big Screen Store and Gramophone) are grabbing the people for whom money is no object. On the low end, stores like Target and Wal-Mart are selling tons of electronics, both the small stuff like MP3 players and the big stuff like flat panel TV's. Plus, lots of stores that traditionally didn't sell lots of electronics have started to - you can buy GPS devices, MP3 players, and TV's from stores like Office Depot and Staples, and even at grocery stores like Aldi.

And then there is the web. Price-conscious shoppers - both at the low and high end - can go online and find the products that they want at the cheapest price, without even having to put on pants. Furthermore, stores like Circuit City make most of their money on accessories, like printer cables and audio cables. With sites like Monoprice, people can price-shop the brick and mortar stores for the printer on sale at cost, and then buy the USB cable online for $3 instead of $32.

So why has Best Buy been succeeding? Part of it is that they have been aiming more to the high end customer than the middle market - with Magnolia, as well as with their announcement a few years back that they were trying to discourage "devil customers", getting rid of rebates, and otherwise just not competing on price. They have stores that are newer than Circuit City's, often in better locations, and that are bigger and just seem more "fun" than CC. Their Geek Squad acquisition gives them a degree of trust among people who actually want hand-holding from a store.

Personally, I shop based on price. Most of my big purchases are from non-tradtional outlets - my pc is from the late CompUSA, my mp3 player is from woot, my flat panel monitor is from Office Depot, and my flat panel TV is from Target. I shop at Circuit City occasionally, when they have a good deal, mostly with rebates. I can't remember the last time I shopped at Best Buy, since they killed off their rebates and stopped having good deals. But I'm far from typical.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Scenes from work, pussy is going to kill me edition

mad anthony's boss: You know, I heard on the radio that people with pets live longer lives than people who don't.

mad anthony: really? Because I'm pretty sure my cat is going to be responsible for my early death. Probably after I trip over her and fall down the stairs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Are we really that screwed, economy-wise?

I've been sort of half-following the primaries, although yesterday I went to the gym with a Zune with a dead battery, and was forced listen to MSNBC through the headphone jack on the treadmill instead. They were playing this Hillary Clinton ad - which isn't all that different from this Huckabee ad, except that Huckabee actually had a funny tag line.

Populism, the forgotten man, the fact that we are all screwed economically and are about to lose our houses and not be able to put gas in our cars - these seem to be major themes in many of the campaigns from members of both parties. Are we really that bad off?

I bought a house at the top of the market. It's disappointing that I'd probably lose money if I sold it. It's also disappointing that I could probably have bought a nicer house for less money if I'd waited a year or two. But while I may cringe every time I write a mortgage payment check, I'm not going to be on the street anytime soon.

And gas costs more than I would like it to, but I have yet to reach the point where I have to decide between gassing up the Ranger or eating dinner.

Maybe I'm lucky - I work in higher ed, a fairly stable field. We aren't going to get bought out by the college down the street and outsource all our educating to China.
But to me, while people have probably been better off in the last few years, they aren't exactly bread-line worse off.

Now, I realize today is the Michigan primary, and economically, Michigan is screwed - so obviously these ads were aimed at there, and maybe less at more prosperous states. But Michigan wasn't dealt it's hand by the President, but by it's local government and by missteps by both unions and automakers.

And that brings the big question - how much should the President, whomever he or she may be, really be doing about things like gas prices and foreclosures. Should the President really stop people who voluntarily signed up for mortgages they couldn't pay from losing their homes that they haven't been paying for? And short-term, there isn't much the federal government can do about gas prices - in Hillary's ad, while the narrator talks, "explore alternative energy" flashes on the screen. I think alternative energy is great - anything to reduce depending on the middle east for the fuel that makes our nation run - but I question why the government, and not private industry, should be doing that. But even if you want the government to be driving alternative energy, it's going to take years, if not decades, before it's developed to the point that it actually lowers gas prices.

I wonder how other people like me - who are a little grumpy, but not pissed off - are reacting to ads that to me suggest bread lines and "will work for food" signs. I wonder if candidates who are overly negative about the current state of our economy will find themselves rejected by the majority of people who are still employed and haven't lost their homes...

macbook airhead...

I have a weakness for little laptops. The first laptop I bought was a 12" Apple Powerbook g4 (866mhz). I have a boxful of old Toshiba Libretto ct's that I keep saying I will one day cobble into a working one. Over the years I've owned a couple librettos and portege's that I've bought and sold. My current (work-owned) laptop is a 13" Macbook "blackbook", and I recently got a freebie Sony Vaio ultraportable that I'm having a hard time bringing myself to eBay after bringing it back to life, despite the fact that I don't need it and could get several hundred bucks for it.

The reason for my small laptop lust is that I'm a two-computer kind of guy. I can't be tied down to one machine. My theory is that it doesn't make sense to try to compromise and use a laptop for everything. At home, I want a big beefy desktop with lots of storage, a dual-monitor display, and kicking speakers. When I'm traveling, or just surfing the web while watching TV, I just want something small and light that I can easily use.

So I have mixed feelings about the Airmac, I mean, macbook air. I like that it's incredibly light. The multi-touch trackpad, lighted keyboard, and thin form factor are awesome. The fact that you can get a solid-state drive (even if it is a grand)is awesome, because they are the wave of the future, plus every hard drive I touch seems to fail on me.

But I can't imagine using an airmac as a primary machine, especially without an optical drive. I understand the logic of taking the optical drive out - it takes up a bunch of space, and these days so much can be done over the network - but it is very nice to be able to watch a DVD on your laptop every now and then while traveling or the like, and it makes installing software much easier. Yes, I know there are ways around it, but it's still not as easy as just popping it in.

I love the idea of a small, portable pc, but for what I would use it for, something like the Asus eeePc makes more sense. It's hard to justify spending $1800 to $3100 for what is essentially a toy.

But it's a very nice toy, and I'm sure it will sell decently to people who can afford such nice toys.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Thanks for the years of service... have some crap...

So it was five years ago at the end of next month that mad anthony quit his part-time data entry job, loaded a sleeping bag and and some clothes into the back of his PT Cruiser and drove from his parent's house in NJ and headed to a 1-bedroom apartment in Northeast Baltimore to start work at his current job.

And in thanks for the five years of service at said job, madanthony's employers have sent him a catalog of useless crap, of which he gets to pick one item. The items include watches by companies I've never heard of, some clocks that look like the kind my mom used to get for free for renewing her subscription to Reader's Digest, and some crystal vases. I'm actually leaning towards the 20-piece flatware set, because I tend to run out teaspoons, thanks to my steady diet of ice cream and cereal.

Now, I've posted pretty much every Christmas about the deadweight loss of Christmas giving - economically, people would be better off keeping their money, instead of buying something that someone doesn't really want.

It's even worse when it's a company doing it, because they have no idea what their employees want. The point is that they are recognizing their employee more than anything. Still, I'm guessing the employer pays far more than the value of the gift to the employee, since they are paying a company not only for the crappy gift, but also for the service of mailing them a fancy catalog, letting them order their "prize", and delivering it.

It would probably be cheaper, and more appreciated, if said employer instead gave, say an Amex gift card. Most people would rather have cash than a cheap no-name multitool or another picture frame (and if they really wanted those things, they would have bought them). At least with cash, I could buy something useful, like a case of hot pockets or half a tank of gas.

Now, I suppose I should be greatful - lots of employers don't do anything for an employee's 5th anniversary. But if they are going to spend the money, it would be nice if it was on something people actually wanted.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

How not to mind control customer service reps...

Last week, Consumerist published an article of how to how to mind-control customer service reps. It was filled with bad advice, much of which was ripped apart in this fatwallet thread.

Now, I've never worked in a customer-service position for a major bank, credit card company, phone company, or the like. However, I have worked for several years at the helpdesk of a small college doing tech support. While I now do desktop/deskside support, I still fill in on phones sometimes. Since my experience is in a smaller and academic environment, and involves more technical troubleshooting than just support, it's different, but there are still a bunch of things in her list that made me wince.

Some of the advice is very good - be calm, especially when you start out. If you start off the phone call looking for a confrontation, most people on the other end of the line can sense it, and they are going to be less helpful, because they figure you are probably the kind of person who is never going to be happy.

Being ready before you call is also a good idea. In my case, if you are calling for tech support, it works better if you are in front of your computer and have it turned on and plugged in before you call, and if you can give me any error messages or information about your computer. Now, I realize that you may not be able to give me, say, your IP address without me walking you through it, but I shouldn't have to wait while you turn your computer on.

Getting the name of the person is actually advice that is probably more useful in a small environment like the one I work in. In a big corporate call center, there are probably so many people named, say, John, that getting their name doesn't mean much. But in a small environment like ours, it can be useful to know who you talked to. In our organization, however, it's even more useful if you get a ticket number - other places may refer to it as a reference number or an incident number or something else. Either way, it shows that something has been entered in our database, so there is a record if you call back. It also makes it easier for us to look up if you call back, and it verifies that there is an electronic paper trail if you have problems down the road.

The piece of advice I really disagree with is insisting on a supervisor. First of all, in our organization, there isn't always a manager on duty at night or on a weekend if you are calling then, and they really are often in meetings or on the phone. More importantly, most of the people we've had as managers are better at management than they are at technology - if you are having a technology issue, there is a much better chance that the front-line person can solve your issue than a manager.

As far as telling the csr/supervisor that they are going to fix the problem, that's useless. If you have a problem I can solve, I'm going to solve it no matter if you tell me that I am or not. If it's something I can't solve, I'm going to put in a work order or transfer you to someone who can fix it. If it's something that we don't do, that is technologically impossible, that is waiting for a part, or otherwise can't be done at the present time, it's not getting done, no matter what Jedi mind tricks you try.

As far as telling your story without pausing, if this is a tech support scenario, you may well be wasting your time and mine. There are plenty of times where someone says a key phrase that instantly tells me what's wrong - either that they are making a common mistake or it's a common problem or a bug in the software or hardware that we run into regularly. Plus, if you tell a long story, there is a good chance the person on the other end will zone out at some point, or miss something, or otherwise stop caring. Letting them ask you questions will actually make the process faster, because they can narrow down the issue, and won't have to ask you to repeat stuff after your monologue .

Much of the other stuff is fine and common sense, or depends on the organization (we are small enough that much of our policy is word of mouth, so we don't always have written stuff we can send you, although we are working on that). But some of the stuff, especially immediately asking for a supervisor, just struck me as so wrongheaded that I wanted to write something.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The paradox of lack of choice...

Much has been said about expanding consumer choice in recent years. Thanks to technology that makes it easier to make small batches of products and better distribution through things like the internet, consumers have more of a variety of goods to choose from than ever before. Some people have even theorized that we have too much choice, which I've looked at before.

So if we have so much choice, why am I drinking a Diet Pepsi right now, when I'd prefer, say, a Diet Mountain Dew?

I'm at work, and while I usually bring a 12-pack of soda to work and keep some in the fridge (because I'm cheap), I forgot to put any in the fridge, and I'm starting to fade due to lack of caffeine, so I went in search of a tasty beverage to the vending machine area of the building. Alas, the only beverage that met my requirements (diet and caffeinated) was DP.

The irony is that the machines we have were designed to allow for a wide variety of choice. They are the glass-front design (like these , where there are a bunch of rows and you can see what is in each row. That means that they can be stocked with a wide variety of beverages instead of just a few like on traditional machines with buttons.

Except they never are. They have Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, water, a couple kinds of juices, a couple kinds of iced tea, Gatorade, and one flavor of Frappaccino. Despite the dozens of regular and diet sodas out there, the only soda you can get is Pepsi or Diet Pepsi. And the stock in there is planned - they have actually magic-markered what to stock on the side of the inside of the machine so the driver knows what to put.

Now, I know this is the vending machine company, Aramark, and not the college or Pepsi. But it seems stupid to have a machine where you can put a bunch of different stuff in, only to have a couple varieties.

I guess part of it is that, if you are going to buy out of a vending machine, you probably will buy something even if what you really are craving is out. But there probably are some people who pass it by because they don't like what is in it.

I've noticed the same thing with convenience stores and fast food restaurants. They usually only have one diet soda in the fountain, despite the large number of diet soda drinkers out there. I give props to Chick-Fil-a, which has been putting Diet Dr. Pepper in a bunch of their stores, and to Sheetz, the only place I've ever seen Diet Mountain Dew in a fountain. But why can't other stores follow their lead and offer their customers more choices?

I'm sure there are other examples out there where retailers miss obvious opportunities to deliver the varieties that consumers crave.

The spirt is willing, but the flesh wants to hit the snooze button...

I can't get out of bed. Through the years, I've developed an impressive ability to sleep through alarm clocks, to wake up, walk across the room, hit the snooze button, and get back into bed.

I've developed ways of trying to work around my inability to get up. I try to do as much as I can the night before - get out my clothes, get together anything I need to take to work, pre-load my coffeepot and set the timer, make my lunch. The idea is that when I stumble out of bed, I simply take a shower, throw on some clothes, pour a cup of coffee, make sure the cat has food and water, and run out the door. But I'm still usually later than I would prefer to be, because I still sleep too late to get all that stuff done.

It's even worse when it comes to weekends, to days where I don't absolutely have to be at work at 8:30 am. Like today.

I'm working today from 12 to 5 in case students have any issues with early move-in (so far they have not). Since the gym is still on winter break hours, they close at 4. My plan was to get up around 8, be at the gym by 9:30, and get my normal 90 minutes of cardio in before my shift.

Of course, like most things I do, I failed miserably. I didn't get up until close to 9, didn't get out the door until 9:45, and didn't hop on a Precor until 10:20. Which meant a 60 minute, 5 mile, 600 calorie workout instead of a 90 minute, 900 calorie, 8 mile workout.

I don't understand it. I knew when I went to bed last night that I wanted to get up early. When I finally did get up, I was angry at myself for not getting up. But I still couldn't get myself to wake up - even though I wanted to be at the gym, for that moment in time, I preferred being under the covers, cat purring at my side, instead of in the shower getting ready to face the day.

I guess on one level this is endemic of my general failures in life. I tend to have grand visions of where I want to be - successful at work, successful socially, physically fit, eating healthy, but when it comes to the real world, I'd rather do the short-term stuff that screws up the long term stuff - staying in bed instead of working out, eating deep-fried crap instead of salad, ect.

I guess I'm not alone, though - in the book More Sex is Safer Sex, Steven Landsbury ponders why people lock their refrigerators trying to lose weight - after all, if they are rational and really want to lose weight, they shouldn't need to, and if they choose to eat, then it means they prefer drinking that six-pack of Coke to six-pack abs. His original theory was that it's because the opposite sex is genetically programed to prefer that. I don't really buy that, but I do buy the alternative explanation - that it's because of the battle between your present self and your future self.

Long-term, it's better to eat better, and to go the gym instead of sleeping in. Short-term, however, it's much more enjoyable to have that donut or stay under the covers. I also wonder if their is an evolutionary aspect to it - in the wild, before man evolved, there was no way of knowing where the next meal would come or when the next time one could safely sleep would be, so maybe we are just wired genetically to eat and sleep when we can as a sort of survival mechanism.

When I was really fat, part of the way I got myself to work out and to watch what I ate was to remind myself of the consequences of my choices - eat a donut and be dead at 50, or lose weight and live long enough to collect social security. Now that I'm just a little fat, it doesn't work nearly as well - sometimes eating the donut and dying at 79 seems better than skipping it and living until 80.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A working weekend...

I'm not one of those people who "lives for the weekend". Sure, it's nice to not have to go to work, and to sleep in. But I don't have the most active of social lives, so most of the time I spend my weekends running errands, being bored, and feeling guilty about not getting stuff done and like a loser for not having a bunch of cool stuff to on the weekend.

But I was actually kind of looking forward to this weekend. I figured I would probably have to work Sunday - it's the day all the students come back at the college I work for - but at least I would have Saturday off to go the gym and do laundry and get the oil changed in my truck. Plus, for some reason, this week felt long. I don't know why - work was slow, with most of the students and professors gone - but sometimes it's better to be busy than bored. Maybe it's because it was the first full week after a long Christmas break. Maybe it's because I've actually been good about going to the gym, and it's kind of beating me up. Maybe I've been eating too much Target clearance Christmas candy. But I figured a day to recover - to sleep in and get some stuff done - would be good for me, and I would enjoy it.

That was the plan until around noon today, when I was asked to work Saturday from noon to five.

I shouldn't complain. It's overtime, and I can always use the money - when you've got $220,000+ in debt hanging over your head, you can't turn overtime down.

But it means basically 12 days in a row without a day off. It means I'll have to put off my oil change another week and another couple hundred miles. And it means I'll have to struggle to get to the gym and to church - I can't afford to miss a day at the gym, which means I need to get there at 9am or so tomorrow morning. It's a pain because it's basically only a half-day of overtime, and it's smack in the middle of the day, which breaks the day up and makes it hard to accomplish much.

On the plus side, I have a three-day weekend next week (thanks, Martin Luther King!). Unless that changes...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reflections on a furball...

I sometimes wonder if I'm a good "parent" to my cat. I mean, I do the basics - keep her food and water bowl full, her litter box poop-free, her vaccinations up to date, and a variety of catnip-filled toys for her to play with briefly, and then lose.

But I leave her home alone for long periods of time, and probably don't play with her as much as I should. Much of the time, I feel like all I'm doing is trying to stop her from doing stuff that she wants to do, like eating my food or running out the door or kneading my chest at five in the morning. Is she happy at Casa De Mad, or would she have been better off if she'd never fallen asleep on my lap on a warm August night?

This morning I was driving to work, running late as usual, when I saw one of those things that breaks the heart of anyone who has ever had a warm cat sleeping on their lap - an orange tabby lying dead in the middle of Woodbourne Avenue, red blood and orange fur on the yellow line, the unfortunate feline victim of a passing car. The streets are a tough, and often lethal, place for a kitty.

I suppose there are far worse fates for a cat than a life of shredding madanthony's couch.

Scenes from work, songs of pr0n edition...

coworker1: Well, some porn stars have crossed over to mainstream movies. Like that one, what's her name?

bsom: Tracy Lords

mad anthony: isn't that the chick that the Bloodhound Gang had that song about?

bsom: no, that was Chasey Lain.

mad anthony bsom, singing in unision: Mom and dad this is Chasey, Chasey, this is my mom and dad. Now show em those titties! Show em those titties!

coworker1: you guys scare me.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Hacking the Target Christmas clearance...

So for the last few years I've tried to hit the Target Christmas clearance, but last year I discovered the secret to getting awesome deals. So of course they changed up the rules this year.

Target has a very specific clearance markdown schedule, where items drop a certain percentage, usually 15-30-50-75 off. For holiday merchandise, the schedule after the holiday is more like 50-75-90 off. Obviously, by 90% off, not much is left, but you can get some crazy deals.

The fun thing about Target is that they will have seasonal merchandise that isn't obviously seasonal merchandise. This is cool because it will often be hidden among normal items, because other people won't know it's clearanced so it will sit there, and because it's often items that you can use everyday, not just holiday stuff.

Last year, Target had a bunch of household items included in this stuff. I got a ton of Glade Apple Cinnamon candles for 64 and 29 cents, Glade sprays for 29 cents, Method sprays for 39 cents, and method plug-ins for $1. I also got several 35-packs of Dawn dishwasher tablets for $1.50 each.

This year, though, Target did not clearance the holiday scent stuff with the other stuff. But they still had some other hidden treasures.

In addition to the usual obvious holiday candy, I was able to snag some "hidden" Giradelli chocolate - 3 bags for 74 cents each from one store (75% off), and 4 more today for 29 cents each. They look just like the normal bags, except for a holiday pattern and a holly leaf, and were with the rest of the full-price Giradelli. I also snagged four boxes of Choxie truffles for 50 cents each.

I also got two bags of Archer Farms "holiday" coffee (Winter blend and Hot Toddy) for about $1.57 each. I could have bought more of the Winter blend, but passed it up since I usually buy whole bean coffee, and usually prefer darker coffee (or Trader Joe's spiced Winter Blend).

The other odd hidden item was a bottle of Archer Farms spiced apple cider for 24 cents.

People on one of the deal forums I read also reported finding Archer Farms yogurt and Coffeemate creamer in holiday flavors for 90% off, but I didn't get a chance to visit a Target with a big refrigerated section.

It's not as good a deal as last year - I could have used some more plug-in air fresheners, although I still have a ton of sprays, candles, and dishwasher detergent - and I probably shouldn't have bought so much candy, since I'm trying to get back on my diet (although I've brought it into work and quite a bit was eaten by my coworkers).

Still, there's something about finding something hidden in plain sight on the shelves and getting it for pennies on the dollar that feels good - sort of like you are sticking it to the man, like you are smarter than the hundreds of other customers who passed that same item by not knowing that it was really only 10% of the price that was tagged.

The joys of being single?

This thread on fatwallet, in which a member pondered the how often he sees guys ask their wives to buy stuff at Costco, only to be told no, makes me wonder.... maybe their are good points to madanthony's chronic single-hood.

Well, maybe not. I don't shop at Costco. And I don't buy a huge amount of random stuff, and when I do, I usually am pretty careful about not spending too much on it.
Then again, I have bought quite a bit of stuff in the last year - Zune, Wii, lcd tv, not to mention my rotating stock of inventory for my eBay and hamfest businesses, and my random collections of old computers (right now, there are four laptops sitting in my living room, two of which actually sort of work).

I don't live a crazy life. I don't go out partying, I don't spend a whole lot of money on crap (other than crap I can resell). But I am kind of messy, I have my odd habits, I spend a lot of time doing certain things (working overtime, going to the gym) that I could see causing strain if I had a relationship to put strain on.

So maybe I should be glad that I can live life on my own terms. Still, I'd probably trade my ability to shop on my terms for the right woman.

Then again, maybe I'm not as free as I thought, as one commenter pointed out:

WhoIsThat said:

Does this happen to you?

MadAnthony said:

Nope, I'm single....

ruhroh said:

No you're not. Your kitty owns your ass and you know it.

Dropping the brown zune, again...

So I finally got around to installing the newest versions of the Zune firmware and software on my brown Zune 30. I was a little reluctant to install it, because installing the original software took me several days to get working.

Installing the new software wasn't much better. The first time I tried updating it, I got a generic failed to install message. Not wanting to break what works, I figured I'd wait. But a few days ago I figured I'd take another stab at it. So I installed the software and updated the firmware, and then plugged in my Zune. And got this encouraging message. So I clicked OK, and then got a white box that appeared and then my machine froze. Restarted and the same thing happened two more times.

So I went to Microsoft's Zune website and discovered this TSB that this is a known issue. Evidently the visualizations for the Zune are just too good for my video card to handle, and I needed to add a switch for it to run.

Now, I will admit I don't have the world's best video card - my machine is a Cisnet Celeron 3.06, with the main monitor powered by a SIS/VIA onboard graphics card (I have a second monitor hooked up to some sort of eVGA/Nvidia PCI card that I got for $10 after rebate). Still, I don't think I should have to upgrade my video card just so I can use an MP3 player without my system shitting the bed.

I don't want "visualizations" from my music program. I want to be able to easily take the music on my PC and put it on my MP3 player so I can listen to gangsta rap while I'm on the Precor at the gym.

So how is the new software? eh. I actually thought the old software was a little easier to use. I liked the old firmware better too - it had a couple different color schemes, while the new firmware only has one. It displayed album and artist for all the albums, not just the one that you have selected when you are looking at the album list. And it didn't have the kind of cheesy, 70's-throwback skinny Zune font for everything.

I've told people who are surprised that I bought a Microsoft Zune, since I'm a big Apple fan, that I would have bought an iPod if Apple made a 30 gig one with a nice color display for $85 (what I paid from woot for my refurb). I have to admit that that the extra money you spend on iPod buys much better software and ease of use, even if the MS hardware is nicer in some ways. I still use iTunes as my MP3 player, even though I haven't used an iPod in 6 months or more. I will use the Zune software only to update my Zune, and the day I buy a different MP3 player and eBay the Zune will be the day that I delete the Zune software from my PC.

Hey tax system.. I hate you, don't ever change...

Back when I was in college, I thought that a total reform of the tax system was a great idea. I would read Amnity Shales The Greedy Hand or listen to Steve Forbes and think how much better we would be with a flat tax, without all those crazy deductions that all those special interests have gotten into the tax system.

But now that I have an income that exceeds four figures and a household budget that goes to expenses other than Schaffer Light and plastic handles of vodka, I no longer think that a wholesale reform of our income tax system is a good idea, no matter how unfair our current system is.

That is what makes me nervous about Huckabee's fair tax proposal - you can read good analysis from James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic's Megan McCardle.

But beyond the specifics of Huck's plan, there are problems with any major change of the tax system, be it the VAT-like fair tax, the Steve Forbes flat tax, or anything else that gets rid of the current structure and starts from the ground up.

Any tax system will reward some people and punish others. The problem with rewriting the tax law is that it arbitrarily punishes groups of people for making decisions that were entirely rational at the time that they were made - decisions like how to invest, to save money, to buy a house.

The idea of getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction is, of course, one that especially hits close to home. You could argue that it's unfair to subsidize homeowners just for buying a house, and the recent volatility in the housing market suggests that maybe the last thing people need is more incentives to buy a house. But the fact is that lots of people made the decision to buy a house based at least partly on the existance of the income tax credit - they included it in their budgets and their rent-vs-buy calculations before they decided to buy a money pit, I mean, buy a house. And I know the fair-tax crowd will argue that it doesn't matter if mad anthony gets his tax rebate, because he'll save so much money under the Fair Tax proposal (which is doubtful, because mad anthony loves buying stuff), but it matters because it will affect housing prices. If you don't get extra money for owning a house, then houses become less valuable, and people (like me) who bought houses suddenly find their biggest asset is worth even less. And a tax proposal that takes a big bite out of the value of houses couldn't come at a worse time in terms of housing prices.

There are a ton of other examples - housing just comes to mind because it's a subject that's always on my mind. The fact is that people make decisions on how they spend and save money based on the rational expectation that the tax code will remain pretty much the same. Markets function best when there is stability, and ripping apart the tax system is the exact opposite of stability. Even if we'd better off under some other tax system in the long run, the short-term effects would be so serious as to make it not worth it.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

madanthony on the primaries....

So, today's the Iowa caucuses today, which means I guess I should put forth an opinion on the people running. I'm not as interested in politics as I used to be, because I've realized that, living in a state with an overwhelming democrat majority, I'm not going to influence elections either way.

So Republican-wise, who would I like to see win? Honestly, there's no candidate who really stands out to me. I would probably pick Fred Thompson and Rudy Guliani as the two best of the bunch. Thompson actually seems to have solid policy ideas (including an optional flat tax), is hawkish on defense, and seems likable and moderate enough to have a chance of winning. Plus, he's on Law and Order! Guliani also seems moderate enough to win. I'm not a huge fan of his record on gun rights, but I think he would probably realize he would need to be pro-gun to win and be re-elected. I also think he is great on defense and has great crisis-management skills.

So the rest of the field? I don't like Huckabee - he strikes me as weak on defense, a bit of a nanny-stater populist on social issues and worst of all, awful on fiscal stuff - he wants to replace the income tax with a 23% sales tax, which would screw over seniors (who are living off savings they already paid taxes on) and probably tank the economy. Romney also strikes me as being more socially conservative and more fiscally liberal than I would want a candidate to be. Ron Paul is a raving nutjob, who lives in a fantasy world where the US doesn't need to be involved in the world in terms of defense and wants us to go back to the gold standard.

On the democrat side, I hate to admit it, but Hillary may be the lesser of the evils. She does have more experience than Edwards or Obama, and is probably the most hawkish of the three on defense. Obama has minimal experience, and rocketed to popularity mostly as a matter of being in the right place at the right time, when it came out that Jerri Ryan's ex-husband was kind of a sex-crazed freak. Edwards is annoyingly populist, with his two-Americas claptrap, plus his previous experience as a trial lawyer, suing doctors with junk-science claims, annoys me.

With a field like this, I'm not really looking forward to election '08. Maybe I should move to Canada.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Now I'll know where they put my sheetz...

I'm a big fan of giant convenience stores - the kind of place where you can get reasonably priced gas, decent hot food, and coffee that doesn't taste like brown water. The two best, at least around the way I travel, are Sheetz and WaWa. They recently opened a Sheetz in Harrisburg, on the way to and from my parents house, and I've been stopping there, despite the fact that it's on a less than convenient exit - getting back on I-83 South involves a couple-mile trip down a surface street, followed by a few sharp turns on narrow roads. They are pretty much the only place I've found fountain Diet Mountain Dew, plus you can get two passable hot dogs for a buck.

So I happened to be killing time on their website and noticed they have something very cool - GPS POI (Point of Interest) files for Garmin/Magellan and Tom-Tom GPS Devices.

I'm the proud owner of a Tom-Tom One (second edition, refurb) that I bought a couple months ago after bricking my Pharos Drivemate after trying to hack it, and then playing with bsom's Tom-Tom. Of course, a few weeks after I bought it all kinds of deals popped up to get it cheaper, but it's still well worth the money.

Now if only there were actually some Sheetz the way I drive to work...

Mad Anthony's 2008 new year's resolutions...

So it's that time of year when people start to think about new year's resolutions. In the past, I've never really thought of new year's day as a big deal - as a student, I've tended to measure passage of time in semesters, not calendar years. I still do - I work for a college, so months mean less than fall and spring semesters. But it is still a good opportunity for me to look at my life, and at the things I'd like to improve. But writing new year's resolutions is easy (I type fast). Performing them is hard. After all, if they were easy, you wouldn't need to write them down and make an effort to follow them. Rather, they are either the things you know you should do but don't want to do, or the kinds of things that you want to do, but haven't figured out how best to do it. And so it begins.

1)Get in shape This is one that I've had for the last few years, and I've been pretty good about. I am a few pounds lighter and maybe a half inch or so less in the waist - but I've definitely gained a few pounds in the last couple months - a combination of less exercise, too much food (especially thanks to a business trip earlier this month that involved an all-you -can-eat waffle bar and a greasy spoon diner down the street from training). My weight's been bouncing around between 150 and 160 the last few months. Ideally, I would like to get it down to 140 or so, and cut my waist size down to a 34 (it's been hovering around 35/36 of late). This means I'm going to have to be more religious about exercising, and that I'm going to have to stop snacking, and stop allowing myself to splurge on stuff when I go out to eat or don't feel like cooking and get fast food instead.

2)pay off some debt right now, I have three major chunks of debt - a car loan on my 2006 Ranger, the mortgage on my house, and a student loan from college. Ideally, I would like to get the car loan paid off and start working on the mortgage. Yes, I know traditional wisdom is that mortgage debt should be the last to be paid off - interest is tax-deductible, and it's typically at a lower interest rate than other forms of debt. This is true, but when I bought Casa De Mad, my sprawling townhouse, I put down less than 20%, and thus am paying PMI (private mortgage insurance), which is costing me an extra grand or so a year. My plan is to keep throwing money at the mortgage until it gets low enough to drop PMI, and then focus on other financial goals.

3)find someone - this is the one I hate, because every year I put it on my list, and every year nothing happens with it. I hate it not only because I hate being single, because I feel like the longer I'm single, the more likely it is that I'll never find someone, and because I feel like there must be something wrong with me that causes my permanent state of single-hood. But I hate it most because there is no clear set of steps to achieve it. The steps to my achieving resolution 1 are easy - eat less, exercise more. The steps to achieving resolution 2 are also easy - spend less, earn more. The steps to 3 are not so easy. I've tried online dating, and so far have come up blank. While I plan to keep checking the handful of sites and sending out the occasional email, I'm realizing that the odds of meeting someone online are pretty slim, especially for a guy - the ratio of single men to single women seems to be in favor of the women, and, much like the real world, the expectation for online dating is always that the man must make the first move. I feel like I'm more likely to meet someone in the real world, but I'm not a big fan of the real world - and I don't really do the kinds of things that put me in places where there are tons of single women, nor am I the kind of person who is good at approching women. So while this is a resolution I want to work on, I'm still not sure of the best way to achieve it.

4.Home Improvements - there are a bunch of things I would like to do around my house. Some of them, like redoing the kitchen and master bathroom, are big-ticket things that I have no plans to do for a few years, as much as I would love to rid myself of my 70's-era shower enclosure and cabinets. But I do want to fence my backyard in (something I was going to do last year and never got around to it), finish rewiring the electric plugs and switches, replace a couple more light fixtures, get carpeting put down in my basement (when I had the house redone, I had the basement hallway left undone because my AC was leaking. AC was replaced last year, but carpeting was never put back), get the fireplace cleaned and inspected so I can actually use it, and maybe do some landscaping (as I am not as enamored with white gravel as the house's previous owners).

5.take better care of health issues - about a year and half or so ago, my doctor retired, and I have yet to find a new doctor. I also could really use new glasses, as my current ones are scratched and way too big for my new, smaller head. I also have put off dentist visits, which is probably why it hurts when I chew. These are things I really should take care of in the new year, and probably are things that would benefit me long-term. Still, I don't really like doctor's visits, or spending money, or having to take time off from work, which isn't looked on favorably where I work. But hopefully I can bring myself to get some of this stuff taken care of.

6.find happiness - I've been less than thrilled with the way my life has been going in some ways the last 6 months or so. Much of it is related to good old number 3, my chronic inability to find a single woman who wants to spend more than 3 seconds near me. I think another part of it is that, up until recently, I was stupidly busy - I was working 6 days a week, taking grad classes, and didn't really have time to think about if I was happy or not. Now I have more free time, and less distractions, and I've looked at my life and I'm not always thrilled with what I see. Part of what I need is to find hobbies and things I enjoy to take up time. Part of it is that I need to stop comparing myself to others, as there is always someone doing better than me in some area. Also, I need to stop worrying about stupid shit, or things I can't control, or things that are unlikely to happen. Of course, much like finding love, most of these are easier said than done.

7.get another cat - Ok, this isn't really a resolution. For that matter, it's not really something I'm even sure is a good idea. But I do feel bad that Nibbler is alone for most of the day when I'm not home, and that I don't always have the time or energy or patience to play with her when I am around - so I'm thinking getting her a feline friend might not be a bad idea, although I still need to decide if the cost and responsibility of another cat is really something I want to take on.

Then again, if I'm looking at changes in the past year, Nibbler is probably one of the bigger ones. I've never had a non-aquatic pet before (my older brother is allergic to fur). I kind of was talked into adopting Nibbler - she was living behind one of the dorms at work, and the students who took her in needed to find a home for her quickly. I worry that I'm not the best cat-parent to her, but I'm still glad that I took her in. Even though she likes to bite me, and it can be a handful trying to keep her out of my way, it's nice to come home to something, to see her follow me around, and to have her curl up next to me in bed at night and purr. Although I do wonder if I'm becoming a crazy cat lady, especially when I talk to her.