mad anthony

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Losing weight - difficult, yes. Impossible, no...

I've run into a couple discussions lately - in this somewhat trollish FWF thread and today on Megan McCardle's blog making the claim that losing weight is impossible, that nobody can lose, say, 100 pounds and keep it off for any appreciable amount of time, because we aren't wired to lose that much weight.

I say that is bullshit, and I think I have some authority in the matter. Below is a series of pictures taken of me by my parents in December of each year from 2004 to 2008. I've posted them here before, but if you have never seen them:

December 2k4
December 2k5
December 2k6
December 2k7
December 2k8

When I decided that I needed to lose weight, in March of 2005, I weighed around 250 pounds and wore 46" pants. FWIW, I'm about 5"5". I currently weigh about 150 pounds and can fit into a pair of 34" pants on a good day (unless they are, like, skinny hipster jeans).

When I've posted these pictures on other forums, I usually get some complements about the weight I've lost. While that's nice, the point isn't that I'm special because I lost a bunch of weight. Quite the opposite, actually. I'm not some sort of superhuman with unusual willpower. I certainly have yet to figure out how to be as successful in, say, my career or my love life. So it's not that I have some amazing ability to achieve goals that other people lack. If I could do it, chances are a lot of other people also could, if they are willing to put in the effort.

What I did was pretty basic - watched what I ate, paying special attention to cutting back on fat, and adding exercise - which started out as 30 minutes of walking and eventually grew to 90 minutes on a Precor. I don't watch what I eat nearly as carefully as I used to, but I still try to eat healthy most of the time, and I try to exercise pretty much daily.

Did I have some advantages that other people lack? Some. I work for a college, so we have a nice gym, with long hours (at least during the school year) and a convenient location. I have enough free time that I could exercise - although when I started out, I was working 6 days a week and taking grad classes at night. I have enough income to pay for my gym membership and decent food. But I suspect there are a number of people who could do it - and I know some who have.

I've also heard "you'll just end up gaining the weight back". That is possible. I've managed to keep it off for the last 3+ years, give or take 10 pounds or so. But when I gain or lose those 10 pounds, it's usually traceable to something I've done eating-habit wise. And if I gain back a significant amount of weight, it will be because I either stopped exercising or because I became even less careful about what I eat. In other words, it will be because of something I did, not because weight just magically reappears on the body.

I don't deny that losing weight is hard - food tastes good. Exercise isn't all that fun, and it's even less fun when you are the fat guy in the gym, doing a slow workout and sweating like a pig next to some model-looking chick who is going twice as fast on the treadmill next to you and not breaking a sweat. But you know what sucks more than working out or having a protein bar for breakfast instead of 6 donuts? Dying young of obesity-related causes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Of roofs, Porsches, and deferred gratification...

I've been thinking about money a lot lately. Actually, that is not unusual - I've always thought about money a lot. But lately I've been thinking about spending it, not just about making and saving it.

Thanks to frugality, occasional overtime, and some good ebay/hamfest sales, my savings account has been growing, to a level close to what it was before I put the down payment on my house. The only debt I have is my mortgage and a student loan that I could pay off, but since the government keeps lowering my interest rate - it's now less than 2.5% - I can't really justify paying it off. It doesn't make sense to me to pay off a loan with that low an interest rate, and then later end up needing to borrow money at 6% or more if I need to buy a car or something.

And that is precisely what I've thought about doing - buying a second car. I've always been a little bit of a car nut, and the idea of something sporty and topless is appealing. I've noticed that the price of a used, several year old Porsche Boxter is about what I would spend on a new car. So my thought is in a year or two to buy one, and keep my current vehicle - a 2006 Ford Ranger pickup that is paid off and has ~43k on the clock right now - as a winter beater/hauler.

Financially, it's a completely stupid idea. I don't need two cars, especially not an expensive to maintain and insure German convertible. But at some point, having money is no fun if you don't spend it. Having a sports car is more fun when you are young(ish) and single like me, rather than waiting until, say, I'm retired. If I live long enough and am physically able to enjoy it at that point in my life.

My dad was recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He was planning on retiring in another year or so, but it looks like he'll probably be retiring sooner, once his vacation and sick time are used up, since he can't really do much of anything right now - he gets dizzy standing up or moving his head. I can't help but wonder if he regrets not retiring early, or not traveling or doing anything else while he was in better physical shape. I don't want to be in that position - I don't want to regret not doing something I wanted to do because I've reached a point where I can't do it anymore. I've also seen a few people - coworkers, a friend of a friend - die unexpectedly, in accidents or from unexpected killers like cancer or a heart attack. I can't spend money if I'm dead.

But I also want to be responsible. I'm also hoping at some point that I meet a girl, get married, maybe have some kids - in which case there are probably better uses for those savings than a car with the trunk in the front. I can't say I've had a whole lot of luck so far making that happen, but maybe the unexpected can happen in good ways sometimes.

But I may have to put my dreams of having another set of keys on my already-bulging keychain off for another reason. I've been wanting to get new gutters and some other minor repairs done on Casa De Mad, my 31-year-old money pit of a townhouse. I had an estimator over a few days ago, and he recommended a new roof as well. The home inspector when I bought the house 3 years ago said the roof was probably 8-10 years old (although he also said the AC was fine, when it turned out that the previous owners had only replaced half of it and that it was spewing huge amounts of water into the basement), so while it's on the low side of being due for replacement, it's not completely implausible that it needs to be replaced. That means dipping into the savings, which means putting off being able to show up in a dubbed-out buggy. I'm supposed to meet with the contractor this week to get the estimate, so we'll see. Spending several grand on a new roof sucks, not only because it means putting off other, more enjoyable purchases, but also because you don't get a whole lot of enjoyment out of it, like you do with new carpet or a remodeled kitchen. Nobody ever says "hey, I really like your roof" - but they probably would say something if it wasn't replaced and was leaking on them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Scenes from work, thanks! edition...

mad anthony: I guess I do kind of smell. (sniffs) sort of like chili. Maybe that's why I don't get second dates.

bsom: nah, can't be that. I mean, you don't smell that bad. I smell way worse. I smell like rancid sausage, and I've never had problems getting dates.

mad anthony: That may be the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.

Scenes from work, Skee-lo edition...

bsom (looking inside a PC that he's trying to cram 2 extra hard drives, a RAID card, and a firewire card into: I wish this was a little bit taller.

mad anthony: Wish it was a baller, wish you had a girl who looked good you would call her?

Friday, July 17, 2009

What housing crisis?

So I've got some work that needs to be done on Casa De Mad, my townhouse - I want to get gutter helmet knockoffs installed so I don't have to worry about cleaning out my gutters, and I have some siding damage that needs to be repaired. I emailed a large roofing and renovation company about it, and was told that there would be a 6 to 8 week wait just to get an estimate. Which sucks, because I was hoping to get it done during the summer, so I wouldn't have to take off from work during our busy fall season.

Now, I guess it's possible that the company was blowing me off because it was a small job. But even if that's the case, it suggests that they aren't hurting for work - that they aren't sitting around doing nothing, or they would be happy to get a small job. They must have plenty of large, profitable projects to do.

From news reports, we're supposed to be in something near the Great Depression, with everyone squirreling away money and refusing to spend it, and with nobody willing to put money into their houses that are now worthless. I'm guessing that's not really the case if there is that much of a backlog for getting home improvements done.

Part of this may be "nesting" - people are spending money on stuff for the home because they are going out less and spending more time at home. While Megan's article talks more about spending money on things for/in the home, like flat panel TV's (and I'm one of those people who is buying one), it may also extend to the home itself. It also may be that people who were going to sell their houses and move have realized that they can't afford to and are instead putting money into their current homes to make them more like what they want, since they will be in them a while.

Still, it suggests now may not be quite as bad a time to be a construction worker as one would think. And it suggests that maybe spending a bunch of money on infrastructure as stimulus might not have been as necessary as claimed.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A not very spontaneous post...

I use a couple online dating sites, one of which has a number of premade questions that users can send potential matches. One of them - and one that I've been asked a number of times - is "what is the most spontaneous thing that you've ever done"". I always struggle with this one, because about the only thing I can come up with is adopting my possibly insane cat - I had no plans to get a cat, but how can you say no to a napping kitten on your lap that needs a home? (I actually asked a woman this, and she actually said "I'm going to punt on this one". I really hope I can meet her in person, because she sounds like my kind of girl).

I'm not spontaneous. I'm the exact opposite. I plan things to the 9th degree. My days tend to be structured, even my weekends, to the point that if someone calls me and wants me to do something out of the ordinary, it pretty much confuses me. Part of this is there are certain things I do, like going to the gym, that have to be done within certain windows of time, so I have limited flexibility to move things around. Part of it is that it gives me a sense of control. Part of it may be that I'm just completely boring and uninteresting and unimaginative.

But the reality is, if I look at the things in my life that I'm most proud of, that I most view as accomplishments, they are usually things that took a bunch of planning, things where I set a goal, figured out what I needed to do to achieve that goal, monitored my progress. Things like getting my MBA, losing 100 pounds, or buying a house. None were spontaneous, but all were successful - well, the house thing is debatable given the market, but you know what I mean.

So if I'm looking for an ideal mate, someone spontaneous is pretty much the opposite of what I want. I want a woman who plans ahead, who makes choices based on thought and reasoning, not on emotion. Spontaneous might be fun when you are 18, but when you are 28 I'll take rational and capable of thinking in advance any day.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Scenes from work, dating edition...

mad anthony: I have a date tonight with a woman I met on eHarmony.

student worker: I know a bunch of people who met on there and got married.

coworker: I know people who met on there and got stabbed.

mad anthony: So am I the stabber or the stabee?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Adventures in TV delivery....

When networking companies talk about running broadband to homes, the classic problem is the "last mile" - the part of the network that goes from the switching station to people's houses. It's the hardest part of getting high-speed access to homes, because it's expensive and difficult to run cable to each house that might want broadband.

I'm thinking the last mile is also the biggest problem for online shopping.

Last week, I got an email from that they had an LG 42" plasma TV for $599 plus shipping. It was a pretty decent deal, and I felt like it was time to splurge and replace my 32" off-brand LCD with something a little bigger, so I ordered it.

I got tracking info, and it showed it would be delivered last Tuesday. It also said that it was indirect signature required, which usually means that you can sign a door tag. I figured it would work out perfectly - I'd leave the signed door tag and get the TV on Wednesday, which would be perfect since I would be leaving on Thursday to visit the parents in NJ.

So Tuesday night I come home to a door tag saying that an attempt was made. It had check boxes for what kind of signature was required, but none of them were checked. I signed the tag on the bottom and left it on the door.

So I came home Wednesday night expecting to find 42" of TV goodness. Like most things in my life, I found myself disappointed - no TV, just another door tag, this one with the signature part ripped off and "direct signature required". I looked up the tracking online, and it still said indirect signature.

Called FedEx. They didn't address the signature issue, but when I explained that I would be out of town they did offer to hold it for a couple days and deliver it today - Monday. Since I took the day off to drive down from NJ, I figured it was perfect. I made a point of leaving NJ early at 9:30 so I would be home when it came, and I made sure that I wasn't doing anything where I wouldn't hear the FedEx guy when he came. After a few hours I decided to check the tracking - and it showed an expected delivery date of tomorrow, with "package held for inspection" showing for the 2nd and for today. Damn.

So I call them again. The cute-sounding chick who answers has no idea why it's held for inspection, and she does see the notes that it was supposed to be delivered today. She also confirms that it was indirect signature required, but says some drivers still refuse to leave the item because they don't want to be responsible if it gets stolen (even though the signature thing you leave has fine print saying you release them from all liability). She says that she'll have the fedex depot call me in the next hour and let me know what's going on. She also tells me (contrary to what the last person I talked to) that I can't have the package rerouted, that only the shipper can. Damn again.

That was about an hour ago, so I think I'm probably not getting a call back, especially since the last time I tangled with FedEx ground I learned that the office closes at 5pm

So I pretty much know what's going to happen - assuming that the package isn't damaged or anything, they will try to deliver it when I'm not here tomorrow. Since that's the third attempt, they won't deliver it again, but they will hold it at the depot. Which means I have to spend my lunch break one day in the next week or so navigating the potholes of Dundalk to pick up my TV. I'm also going to have to talk someone at work into going with me, because the TV weighs 98 pounds, which is kind of bulky for one person.

The whole point of buying a TV online - and paying $53 in shipping - was, along with getting a better price, not having to worry about getting it home. Except that's exactly where I am now, and it would have been easier for me to pick it up from Best Buy, which is nearby and open at reasonable hours, than to get it from the FedEx depot. Unless it's a super-good price, I am never buying a large TV online again.

Back in Baltimore, and feeling kind of bad about it...

Well, I'm back in Baltimore - I left Jersey around 9:30 this morning and after a fairly pleasant and uneventful drive through PA, got back to Casa De Mad before 2pm.

I'm kind of glad to be back in Baltimore, and I kind of feel guilty about being glad to be back in Baltimore. As I've mentioned, my dad was diagnosed with MS about a week ago. He still has a bunch of tests to get done before they decide on a course of treatment, and at this point he has trouble doing much of anything - he pretty much gets dizzy if he moves his head too much. Which means my mom - who isn't in the world's greatest shape herself, thanks to heart problems and knees that are overdue for replacement thanks to arthritis - has to do all the stuff he normally does. I was able to help them out a little - taking out the trash, grocery shopping, taking my mom to church. I can't really complain, given that my mom has to deal with doing this stuff every day, and she doesn't have the advantage of age that I do.

My older brother does live fairly close by, so he is around to help. But I don't want him to have to shoulder the burden by himself - it's not really fair that he should have to put his life on hold just because he didn't move as far away as I did.

Traditionally, I've only gone up to visit the parents on holidays - usually Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and July 4th. I usually stay in Maryland for Memorial Day because it's the weekend of a big Hamfest, and for Labor Day because it's usually move-in weekend at the college I work at. It looks like this year it's not, so I can probably make it up for labor day, but I'm thinking that I need to do more - I'll probably go up at least one weekend between now and then probably late July or early August.

Part of me figures I probably should go up every weekend, or at least every weekend I can. After all, they are my parents, and I owe them a debt I can't every repay for bringing me into this world, for taking care of me for 22 or so years, for being there, for putting me through college, for the fact that I'm educated and gainfully employed and not living in a gutter somewhere.

But part of me also thinks that Baltimore has become my home, and wants to spend time here. It's where my job is, where all my stuff is, it's where my house is, it's where my cat is. It's where my small circle of friends are, and it's where potential dates are. Am I wrong for choosing that stuff over the people who brought me into this world? I mean, besides the cat, I have no real obligations - I'm single, I don't have kids, I'm not on the brink of financial disaster - I should be more willing to sacrifice than I am.

I feel a little drained - holidays used to be the time I would relax, that my mom would cook for me, that seeing my parents would make me feel better. Now it's more like a working vacation - I mean, I spent plenty of time sitting around surfing the net and studying for my Apple certification exam, but I also spent time running errands and helping with cooking and the like. But I also feel like a jerk for complaining about this, since my parents have to deal with this every day for the rest of their lives, not just for a few days a few times a year. Considering the circumstances, the 'rents were in reasonably good spirits, but there were a few times I got a little choked up - like when I went to the basement to grab a screwdriver to take the hard drive out of my mom's old PC. My dad - an electronics enthusist - has a small workshop area down there, with multimeters and boxes of parts labeled in his trademark half-print, half-cursive writing, and I found myself wondering if he'd ever feel well enough to be able to make it back down there and use any of that stuff.

I really hope that they can get a treatment program that makes my dad at least somewhat functional, or otherwise get some help for them. I'd hate to have to split my life between NJ and MD, but at the same time I'd hate to be the horrible son who forsakes his own parents so he can sit around his house and watch TV.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Defending the mortgage interest deduction...

The WSJ has a lengthy article on why we should get rid of favorable treatment of home ownership by the government, including the mortgage interest deduction.

The article argues that Subsidies for home ownership—in the form of full deductibility of mortgage interest, lower mortgage borrowing rates derived from government guarantees for mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and deductibility of local real-estate taxes—have long benefited those who own homes at the expense of those who do not...
Home ownership should not be considered a public good deserving of government subsidies even without the bubble collapse for a simple reason: Those who receive the subsidy get to capture the benefits in the form of home prices that are higher than they would otherwise be without government support. The subsidies make homeowners better off while they make renters worse off. They are, therefore, not Parieto optimal.

Now, in a perfect world, if we had a flat tax and no special-interest deductions, he would be right. But we don't - we have tons of deductions that transfer money from one group to another, none of which are fair. The mortgage interest deduction - which a sizable chunk of the population gets, for doing something that has at least some positive benefits, is probably one of the least unfair of the unfair tax policies out there.

There are some arguments in favor of a public benefit of home ownership - they tend to produce more stable communities, since people move around less. They give people an incentive to put money into improving their homes that landlords/renters don't - which means a higher tax base for property taxes for the state/county/town. For many people, they are a form of "forced savings", a way to set aside money for the future by paying one's mortgage. Home ownership often leads to employment for contractors and builders, additional sales at home improvement stores and other businesses. Do these advantages outweigh the cost to renters? I don't know, and it's probably not measurable, but I would say it's at least nonzero.

But the main reason I support the mortgage interest deduction is because it's pretty much the only deduction I qualify for. I don't have kids, my income is too high for me to deduct more than a few dollars for student loans, I don't give significant amounts of money to charity ('cuz I'm a jerk). I don't qualify for any of the stimulus-bill deductions of late - my truck is too new to trade in as a gas-guzzling clunker or to justify buying a new car and taking advantage of the sales tax deduction, I don't need new HVAC or windows on my house, I'm not a new homebuyer. Mortgage interest is pretty much the only deduction I get. When it comes to special interests, the government isn't otherwise very interested in how special I am.

The author argues that the mortgage interest deduction is an unfair transfer from poor renters to wealthy homeowners. But there are tons of other tax credits and government programs that transfer money from the wealthy and middle-class to the poor, from the earned-income tax credit to WIC and food stamps to student-loan deductions that fall off at fairly low levels of income. The mortgage-interest deduction is pretty much the only chance that mid to high income people have to keep some of their money, and getting rid of it in the absence of a decline in marginal tax rates would mean that middle class and wealthy people would be paying significantly more in taxes, and that the transfer of money from the middle class and wealthy to the poor would be far more extreme.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Scenes from work, dinner date edition...

Point of info, for those I don't work with... they are renovating the cafeteria at the college I work at, so they've opened one of the snack bars as a temporary food place, with a very limited menu, and called it "Demolition Cafe".

mad anthony: So I talked on the phone with this girl I met online. She said she'd like to meet me in person. So we have a tentative date for sometime next week. Now I just need to come up with a good place for a date.

bsom: Take her here. You can go to Demolition Cafe.

mad anthony: Right. I'll buy her the two hot dog special.

mad anthony: that sounds really dirty.