mad anthony

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

Monday, August 27, 2007

Somebody stole my credit card...

So I was sitting at my desk at work today, trying to get through a pile of laptops that needed to be set up, when my phone rang. Caller ID didn't show that it was anyone I was trying to avoid, so I answered it.

It was American Express, asking if I'd purchased a computer monitor from some no-name site this morning. I hadn't. Nor had I made the purchase at some online paintball store the day before, or some other site (I don't remember what it was, but it was something off the wall). Evidently, my card had been "compromised". Stolen.

They asked me if the card was physically in my posession. It was, nestled in my wallet next to my Giant frequent customer card. I asked them if they knew how it was stolen, and they didn't. They are sending me a new card, and removing the fraudulent charges, which is great, but it's a little disarming not knowing how it was stolen. I'm usually pretty careful. I'm a pro at spotting phishing emails, I shred pretty much anything with personal information, and I even try to avoid buying stuff online with it while I'm on my wireless router at home. I guess it could have been a randomly generated dictionary-type attack, or that some online or brick and mortar retailer I shop at stored it and had their database compromised.

So this is going to be a pain. Partly because I'll need to re-enter my card at every online merchant that I have it saved with (and I buy a lot of shit)- including autobills for stuff like my RePlayTV subscription and eBay, and partly because I can't use the card until I get the replacement (not that it's a huge deal, since I'm going to be working so many hours this week that I won't have time to buy shit - I actually made a point of doing a bunch of shopping this weekend so I'd be stocked up for the next two weeks. But more than that, there's the scary fact that despite my best efforts, someone managed to steal my credit card number. Now I have to worry that they've stolen other info, or another number, or my identity, and I have to watch my statement to make sure that there aren't any other charges they missed.

My parents are always paranoid about using their credit cards online, and refuse to buy anything online - the complete opposite of me, someone who has bought everything from cereal to shoes to electronics on the interweb. But maybe they have a point...

I do have to give props to Amex for catching it as quickly as they did - I don't know what secret algorithms they use to detect fraud, but they caught it very quickly, and the charges they asked me about were all fraudulent. Obviously, it's in their best interests to - since they are liable for it, and since they want to keep angry calls from customers wanting to know why they got charged for paintball supplies to a minimum - but it's still pretty cool that they know I got robbed before I did, and their rep was also very professional.

That's chef mad anthony to you....

When I was younger and still lived with the 'rents, I used to actually cook sometimes. I'd help my mom cook, or offer to make dinner.

Oddly enough, since I started living on my own, and actually needing to cook so that I don't starve to death, as opposed to for entertainment, I stopped cooking. There were two things that got me out of the cooking habit - my first real job was a night shift, which meant that cooking a real dinner rarely made sense - I lived off of Taco Bell and pizza bites. Also, for about 3 years I lived in a house that didn't have a real kitchen in easy reach. It was a shared brownstone, and my floor had a kitchenette of sorts - microwave, sink, fridge, but no real stove or oven - just a toaster oven and one of those $8 electric burners. There was a huge gourmet kitchen two floors down, but I was too lazy to carry all my shit down there to cook. Plus, my landlord/housemat was a neat freak, and I didn't want to be bothered with making in sparkle post-cooking. I also didn't have a whole lot of time to cook, plus spending a whole bunch of time cooking for one doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So now I have my own place, with a real kitchen. Granted, it's a tiny kitchen - the listing called it a "3-step kitchen" - it's basically a galley kitchen. Still, it's got some counter space, and an actual stove and oven - which I seldom used. I've developed such a reputation as someone who doesn't cook that a few months ago I had some free time and invited bsom and his wife over for sausage and peppers, and they were amazed that I could brown an onion.

But I decided to take a stab at cooking again last night - starting small. I made sauerkraut. I was motivated by two factors - a craving for sauerkraut and a copious amount of hot dogs - I had bought a bunch on sale, plus had a bunch left over from my party.

It came out pretty good, and my house barely reeks of onions

Mmmm... sour

wanna touch my wiener?

So I'm hoping in the next couple months, now that I have time, I will actually try cooking some more. It reminded me of my parents, of being home, of pleasant memories from my youth. Plus it tasted good.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Don't go making phoney calls...

The good news is that I'm going to be making a ton of overtime the next couple weeks. The bad news is I'm actually going to have to work for it, by answering phones at our helpdesk at the college I work for.

When I started here, I started at helpdesk, working nights. It seems that everyone starts either at helpdesk or doing night lab and classroom support at one of our satellite graduate campuses. When a position somewhere else opens - desktop support, day/main campus lab and classroom support, system engineer - someone moves up off one of those areas and fresh meat moves into helpdesk.

I don't like helpdesk. Every time the phone rings, I worry that the person will either have a problem I can't solve, or yell at me.

But for some reason people seem to think I'm good at helpdesk - I've had managers tell me I did a good job, and users calling in tell me that they were glad they got me. There are a couple possible reasons for this:
- I suck, but everyone else sucks as much or more. In the land of the the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
- I'm actually good at something, which I have trouble believing. But I think what part of it is is that I'm not as technical as some other people in IT. Unlike some of my coworkers, I haven't been building computers from scratch since the age of 9. My parents didn't get a real computer with internet access and Winders until the late 90's. Most of my computer knowledge is self-taught or taught from on-the-job. So I tend to be untechnical enough that I can break things down for people (look for the little picture in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen by the clock). At the same time, I've done enough desktop support that I can solve many of the basic problems, and I've done a little system administration, so I can solve basic problems with that kind of stuff too (ie shared drives, lack of access to printers).

But I haven't done much helpdesk lately, so I'm going to be rusty, plus our policies and procedures have probably changed since the last time I answered phones. The other interesting factor this year is students coming to campus with Vista, which I'm not exactly a pro at - I have a Vista machine on my desk at work (which has started blue-screening on a regular basis for no apparent reason), but I'm not exactly a pro with it.

On the other hand, I'm working two nights this week, plus all 3 days over labor day weekend - and presumably a few nights the next couple weeks after that. So I'm going to be tired, pissed off, and have no free time starting Monday. On the plus side, I'll also be much closer to getting my truck paid off...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wanna be a (tennis) baller?

For the last couple weeks, two of my friends/coworkers have been trying to get me to play tennis. I was kind of torn - on one hand, it would be a good way for me to get exercise in a more social and different environment than the gym, to learn an new and possibly enjoyable skill, and possibly to meet women who look like Anna Kornikova. On the other hand, I have horrible hand-eye coordination to the point that I have trouble taking a shower without falling down, have a fear of getting hit with flying balls, and am not a big fan of the outdoors, which I feel would be better if it had a roof over it, some walls, and possibly some sort of HVAC system.

But yesterday, I let them talk me into playing tennis with them. Which of course turned out to be the hottest and most humid day of the week, if not the month.

Playing tennis is sort of a misnomer. Essentially, one of coworker (who is really good) stood on one side of the court and I and another coworker (who is pretty good) stood on the other.

As expected, I sucked at it. Despite being hit easy shots, given a ton of advice on how to stand/hold the racket/hit the ball, I still swung like a blindfolded kid trying to hit a pĩnata, except when I did manage to hit the ball no candy fell out. When I did manage to hit the ball, it usually went either into the net, over the fence into the next court, or somewhere out of bounds.

The two people I played with were tired and covered with sweat by the end. I wasn't, probably because I didn't move around a whole lot.

I'll probably take another stab at it, and maybe I'll get bigger, but I don't think I'm going to be impressing Anna Kornikova anytime soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Is there anything wrong with being a 27-year-old kid?

Via yesterday's Bleat (towards the bottom) comes this John Leo book review of Death of the Grown Up. Leo and Lileks both ponder when adults stopped being so adult, but I don't really have much knowledge to expand on that discussion. Nor have I actually read the book.

But I do find the discussion interesting. I agree with much of the thesis - that we as a culture are holding onto many of the things that we used to expect people to abandon as children as they grew up. Adults seem to be somewhat less serious compared to what they used to be. What I'm not sure is what's wrong with that.

I'm 27. I have a decent paying job, an MBA, a monthly mortgage payment, a credit rating in the upper 700's, and a fully-funded retirement account (if I retire tomorrow, I could keep up my current lifestyle until at least January 2008). But at the same time I own a Nintendo Wii (and a playstation 2 in a box somewhere), drive a bright yellow pickup truck, listen to rap music, and haven't worn a tie since sometime in 2002.

One of the stats at the begining of the article that struck me was the stat that the average video gamer is now around 30. I don't see that as a problem. Just today, I walked into a coworker's cube - and into a conversation between two systems engineers - both married, with children, responsible adults whose job involves keeping critical systems running - discussing plans to play each other on XBOX Live over the weekend. What's wrong with that? They are doing something they enjoy. Is playing video games over the internet worse than the other stuff people do on weekends - hanging out at a bar, watching a baseball game?

I bought my first video game system (a refurbed PS2) a few months after I got my first real job, at age 22. I bought a Wii for myself about 2 months ago. I'm not a huge gamer, but it is a fun way to spend some time - a nice break from watching TV or reading a book or surfing the web. And it's really hard to compare to anything in the past. Sure, earlier games were more kid-oriented - because the technology wasn't good enough to captivate adults. Now, with faster processors and video cards, video games are much more realistic, and much more appealing to adults. And as the price has gone up - Sony's PS3 was $599 when it first came out - systems tend to appeal to older gamers who can afford to pony several day's salary to pay for that system.

So why are adults less serious? I think part of it is other changes in culture - people are getting married later and having fewer kids, which means more time to continue to indulge in "fun" activities, plus more money to do it. More people are going to college, which for many people combines the freedom of adulthood with the lack of responsibilities of youth. People have more disposable income, so they can indulge their youthful hobbies more.

But I think there is also just a change of attitude. West talks about how the idea of "making a life" and closing off certain options as one gets older is no longer "salient". While there are certain things you probably want to change at certain points in your life - once you have kids, you might want to stop hosting swinger parties - there is no reason you should give up things you enjoy just because you are older, be it a game of Halo or an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.

I think my life is a hybrid of adult responsabilities and youthful pursuits. I like it that way, and I don't think I should have to start wearing suits or listening to NPR or stop playing with my Wii because I'm older. And I think the West will survive.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hell weeks....

Most industries have their busy seasons - tax accountants dread the time before April 15th, toy retailers know that they will be busy from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and candy makers know that they need to make a ton of fun-sized bars before Halloween.

If you are in the higher education business, the start of school is when things get hectic. At the college where I work, mid-August to mid-September is when things get crazy. You have 3000+ students coming onto campus, and an equal number of mostly part-time grad students. Throw in new faculty and staff, and building renovations that were scheduled for the summer and are getting finished at the last minute, and mad anthony is going, well, mad.

The last week and a half or so has just been a perfect storm of coworkers being out or on vacation, people making last-minute requests that should have been made months ago, needed items being backordered, and things otherwise just not working the way they are supposed to. The more I get done, the more I seem to have left to do. I don't remember things being this crazy in the past, but we have 3 major renovations that are being completed this summer, so that's contributed to the mess.

I've been trying to take on as many responsibilities as I can at work in the hopes that it will demonstrate that I'm a good employee. It doesn't seem to help... in fact, I realized today at one of our monthly all-hands meetings that our new CIO doesn't even know that I work for our department.. she asked my other two coworkers for a status update, despite that fact that I've been doing/organizing much of the multi-pc deployments that we've had to do lately.

Of course, there are good things about this time of the year. I'm scheduled to work every day labor day weekend, which is when students move onto campus. That is good, because I'm hourly, and that means 20+ hours of time and a half. Plus they may need additional coverage in the morning or evening, which means more overtime, which will help my financial goals. The bad thing about this is that I'm going to be doing phone support, which people for some reason seem to think I'm good at, maybe because I try to convince people to hang up on me rather than have me hang up on them.

In a few weeks, this will all boil over, I'll have more money in my savings account and fewer open work orders in my ticket queue, and things will be back to normal (or as normal as my life gets). Right now, though, I'm going nuts. I've found myself really stressed - snapping at coworkers, yelling at slow-moving drivers while I'm in traffic I even found myself beating up on my phone at work after getting stuck in a voicemail loop. It went something like this:

Voicemail: To reach john smith, press 1...
(madanthony presses 1)
that is not a valid name or selection. to reach john smith, press 1...
(madanthony presses 1 again)
Voicemail: that is not a valid name or selection. to reach john smith, press 1...
(madanthony presses 1 again, then picks up the phone and slams it on the desk several times)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I hate when my ham(fest) gets wet...

So today was the Carroll County CARAFEST hamfest - and when you have webpage that uses the blink tag, you know it's going to be a good hamfest.

I still have a fair amount of inventory, even though I sold a bunch at the last 'fest and haven't bought a whole lot new. I wasn't expecting to sell a whole lot, and I didn't. It didn't have as much to do with my inventory than weather conditions, though.

I'm horrible about checking weather reports. So at 5:30 this AM, I'm driving the Ranger up 795, windows open, eating a Dunkin' Donuts cinnamon roll, bumping Atmosphere on the stereo, when I spot a few drops of rain on my windshield. Well, I figured, it's just a few drops. Maybe it will pass. Maybe it will rain itself out. Maybe it's raining over Owing Mills but not Westminster.

Unfortunately, it dripped all day. It didn't pour until I was homeward bound, but it drizzled on and off the whole time I was there. Not enough to want to go inside (plus, I found a windbreaker stowed in the extended cab of my truck) but enough that I had to keep my merchandise covered under mover's blankets most of the time. This hurt my sales - many of my customers spot stuff and come over, so having to lift up the blankets cut out sales to the lazy. I ended up grossing $247 - not awful, but I know I would have done better with a little sunshine.

The only thing I bought was a 4x backback cd burner - it uses parallel port to hook up, so it can come in handy for old machines (like old laptops) that don't have cd-rom drives and don't support USB. Well, OK, I did also buy a sandwich - this was one of the few hamfests that actually had, well, ham, of the pit variety, along with beef and turkey. I convinced them to make me a turkey and beef combo, and it was quite tasty.

bsom and the two students who went with us, on the other hand, bought a ton of stuff, including a giant speaker, a bench power supply, an oscilloscope, a bag of wrenches, a subwoofer, boxes of random resistors, capacitors, chips, and other small components, a box of old books, and a box of meters I couldn't identify, at least one of which had "SCRAP" scratched into it. It was free to tailgate, and bsom dragged a spare table for me to use, so he just parked in the tailgate area and piled his stuff in the back of his car. There was so much crap in the back of his Vibe that people thought he was selling stuff and started rooting around in the back, to the point where I had to close the trunk door.

The next 2 months or so are pretty dry for hamfests, and then there are three in a row, so I'll have some time to accumulate inventory and hopefully the weather will do better then and madanthony can make some more money. My HOA is sponsoring a yard sale next month, so hopefully I can move some crap then too - ski boots, anyone ?

And now, pics!

I'm looking for a capacitor about thiiiis big

buy my stuff, please...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why I kind of wish I hadn't bought a house...

I've been having a discussion with bsom and his wife on the housing market. I'm pessimistic on the housing market for the next few years, mostly because I bought a house last year and whatever I do is usually done at the worst possible time. I became an MIS major in college right when IT went in the shitter, I bought a PT Cruiser the week they went from being the hottest car to darling of the rental lot, and I seem to have bought a house right before the market tanked. If I ever start buying stocks, you should probably short them.

bsom and his wife are more optomistic. They bought a house about a year before I did, around the corner from where mine is, so they are in a similar situation, but since they don't see the world through shit-colored glasses like I do, they think things will be OK - that prices will eventually pick up, and that BRAC (Base Closing and Realignment, which is going to supposedly create a bunch of jobs at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, which is about 20 minutes away from Casa De Mad, will drive up prices.

From what I've seen, prices around Baltimore seem to be pretty stable. Looking at Zillow, I don't see any townhouses in my development that have sold for less than mine did, but most of them are probably 3-bedrooms and may have some other improvements. I also didn't check the mortgage deeds, so I don't know if any of them had cash back to the buyers at closing.

But I'll sometimes page through a local realtor's site, and see houses that look nicer than mine at less than I paid for mine. It could be that they are worse in real life. But it also seems like there is a good chance that if I'd waited to buy, I could have snagged a nicer house at a lower price.

I also think that the subrime explosion is going to have a profoundly negative effect on the market for houses, especially my house. As a "starter" house, there is a good chance that a potential buyer would be the kind of credit-challenged buyer that would need an IO/ARM/stated income or whatever to qualify, and nowdays you can't get those kind of loans. That sharply reduces the amount of potential buyers, and anytime you reduce demand and keep supply the same, prices drop.

I feel like I'm losing money by owning a house. I probably could have rented a decent place for less than my mortgage payments. My previous rent was about half of my mortgage, and included utilities. Sure, it wasn't building equity, but if I'd put that money in an interest-bearing savings account, I probably would have earned more than the negative return that I'm getting from paying interest on the depreciating asset that is my house.

I've also lost a bunch of freedom by owning a house. Pre-house, I had an escape plan. If I ever got too fed up with my job or life in general, I could quit and try something different - go to law school or something. I had about a year's salary in the bank. But then I went and threw that money away on a down payment and closing costs. Now I can't leave my job - I'm chained to making that mortgage payment every month for the next 38 years and 11 months. If I sell, I'll be broke - negative appreciation plus closing costs and realtor fees and the rest. So I feel like I've lost my freedom. Would I have made a drastic life-changing move if I was still renting? Probably not, but it's nice to have that option available.

The other thing is I'm not sure I made a great choice in the particular house I bought. I didn't look at a whole lot of houses before I made an offer on this one. There are things I like about it - good floorplan, big bedrooms, fireplace, plenty of bathrooms. But there have been issues, like the AC I needed to replace, and there are a bunch of things that I still need to do to make the house more livable - fence in the backyard, replace the front door, renovate the kitchen. These things all require spending money, and I'm reluctant to dump more money into this money pit - but if I ever do sell, these things will bite me in the ass. Also, I wonder if the layout - 2 bedrooms - will hurt me when it comes time to sell. I prefer having two big bedrooms to 3 tiny ones, but I'm not the typical buyer. I also wonder how much more "deferred maintenance" I'm going to discover as I keep living here.

There are certain intangibles I've gained by buying - I have more room, I don't have to fight for a parking space, I can go to yard sales. But all of these could have been achieved by moving to a nicer rental, and I'd have enough money in the bank to buy an Escalade for cash. Instead, I have a house, and enough money in the bank to buy a used Kia.

Monday, August 13, 2007

It's my party...

So Saturday night I had a little birthday get-together at Casa De Mad. I billed it as a graduation/birthday/housewarming party.

Ever since I bought my townhouse, people have been suggesting that I have some sort of party. I kept putting it off because of time, laziness, and a host of other reasons, but I finally picked a date and time. I had grand visions of reliving my college days, having the kind of loud parties where a bunch of people you don't know show up and where you have to worry about the cops coming. I wanted to give my next-door neighbors, recent college grads who seem to have loud parties on a regular basis, a taste of their own medicine.
However, I managed to pick the worst possible weekend - everyone seemed to be out of town or had other plans. So I had a much smaller turnout than expected.

It was still a good time, though. I fired up the gas grill I bought last year (it was on clearance) for the first time, and it worked out well. The big activity, though, was playing with my Nintendo Wii - it's way more fun with more than one player, and it's actually fun to watch other people play it.

So it wasn't a rehash of my college days. Which in retrospect, is probably just as well - unlike a certain college party, all my doors remained attached to their hinges, nobody pooped their pants in the bathroom and then passed out, and I didn't have to spend a day picking silly string out of light fixtures. And since I've become a bit of a lightweight in the last few years, thanks to the fact that I rarely drink anymore and that there isn't as much of me as there used to be, I can't drink like I used to - I was starting to feel kinda sleepy after beer number 4.

I do, however, still have a ton of booze left, including an unopened bottle of Jagermiester, most of a 30 of miller lite, and 23 cans of a creepy raspberry beer/alcopop that was on clearance at Well's Discount Liquors.

So maybe I need to have another party.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

This store looks like a dump! Awesome!

There is a post on the Economist Free Exchange Blog where the poster (probably Megan McCardle compares Indian retailer Pantaloon to Starbucks.

As the WSJ article it links (subscription only, but I found it on ProQuest, which the college I work for subscribes to) explains, Pantaloon is an Indian retailer that operates a chain of supermarkets called The Big Bazaar, which are aimed at what the founder calls "Indian Two" - basically, the people who work in domestic-help positions for the wealthy in India. They have some disposable income and are upwardly mobile, but are used to shopping at bazaars and to haggling. So the stores are designed to mimic this experience - bulk bins instead of packaged items, crooked congested isles instead of busy ones, and bad produce salted in the bins so people feel like they are getting a deal when they get good ones.

I think this is a brilliant idea, and I think it's more common than people realize in the American retail market (I'm American, and I buy a lot of shit, so I feel like I'm an expert on the American retail market). I don't think Starbucks is a good example, though, despite the occasional long lines. The Big Bazaar wanted their customers to feel at home - wide isles and bright lighting were something they weren't used to, and it made them feel uncomfortable. Starbucks goes for the opposite - I think they want newbies to feel a little out of place, a little intimidated by the stylish decor, by the drink menus with difficult to pronounce items, by the cup sizes that don't actually relate to the size of the drink (a tall is a small?). The first time you go into a Starbucks, you feel out of place - you feel like everyone is cooler than you. But if you keep going back, eventually you feel like you are one of them, you are an insider.

Sure, Starbucks has long lines and sometimes bad service, but it's not part of the design. In fact, the reason Starbucks has so many locations - often right accross the street from each other - is to cut down on lines while still preserving the small coffee shop atmosphere. That, and because people are lazy - they often want a coffee, but not enough to cross the street or make a left turn.

But there are plenty of stores that have a run-down, bargain-basement atmosphere by design. I read a book years ago on Home Depot - when they opened their first store, they were really going for the warehouse atmosphere - and decided that the concrete floor of the store was too clean. So they took a forklift and drove it around so it would scuff it up.

Ironically, Lowes went with the cleaner layout and a more female-friendly orientation, and Home Depot has since tried to move away from the warehouse layout. Part of this is a change of target market - instead of just do-it-yourselfers and contractors, the home-improvement stores are catering to everyone who owns a house - and offering installation for those who aren't handy enough- or don't have the time - to actually, you know, do it themselves.

But I can think of plenty of other stores with a carefully cultivated aura of crappiness. Aldi - the German chain that is expanding in the US - comes to mind. Their stores have an unusual layout, much of the merchandise is sold directly off pallets, you have to pay extra for bags, most of the stuff is their own brand, you have to put a quarter in to get a cart (which you get back when you return the cart). Many of them are located in bad neighborhoods, in sites that were something else that closed down. Shopping is an experience, but much of the products are really good, and the prices are good, so you feel like you are getting a deal. While some of the choices obviously relate to keeping prices down, part of it is probably that it makes you feel like you are being rewarded for going out of your way.

A similar environment exists in warehouse clubs - BJ's, Costco, Sam's Club. There, you actually have to buy a membership, which adds to the sense of belonging. The less than pleasant environment is part of the experience - huge warehouse, concrete floors, stuff dumped around, giant packages, limited selection - but low prices, and combined with the atmosphere, the feeling that you are getting a better deal than those suckers who shop at Safeway.

I could think of a ton more examples - factory outlets, Nordstrom Rack, Filene's Basement. Part of this is that these stores are meant to be cheap, and that they want to discourage the customers who are willing to pay full price from going there. But this is no accident - those cracked asbestos tiles are their by design, to make bargain shoppers feel like they belong and wealthy people who can afford to shop at the retail store feel they don't. The racks full of clothes instead of better displays is so you feel like you are getting a deal when you find that one nice designer shirt buried in a rack of stuff that makes you wonder "what was the designer thinking" or "who would actually wear this crap?"

I think the ultimate example of intentional suckyness to make customers feel like they are getting a bargain is Black Friday - the day after thanksgiving, when most retailers open stupidly early (often 5 or 6 AM) and have very limited quantities of very cheap stuff ($300 laptops, $30 hard drives, and the like). People camp out overnight, in the freezing cold, so they can find out what they wanted was sold out. Now, I'm a faithful Black Friday shopper - it's not like I have anything else to do the day after thanksgiving, and I usually make a couple hundred bucks reselling stuff I buy. But stores could make it a lot more pleasant, and they don't, because it 1)gets them publicity 2)gets people in the store and 3)gets people feeling like they are getting a screaming deal (sometimes they are, sometimes not so much).

While the Indian market is interesting, I don't think Panatloon's plan of crappiness by design is all that abnormal for retailing - but I don't think Starbucks is crappy by design, just by execution.

Happy Birthday to me...

So, today is MadAnthony's birthday. I'm 27 years old. yea!

I don't really like birthdays. They mean something when you are younger, when you are hitting milestones - 16, 17, 18, 21. Beside your car insurance rates going down at 25, there isn't much to look forward to past 21. If anything, it's depressing - you only live a certain amount of time, and you are one year closer to death. It also gives you the opportunity to reflect on how little you've done with your life in the last year - still single, still in debt, still short and hairy with a little bit of a belly.

Oh well, it's really just another day. I'm actually at work right now - I was asked if I wanted to work overtime, and since madanthony gots to get paid, I jumped on it. It's slow, which is nice. And I'm getting time and a half, which is nicer.

I am having a small birthday party tonight. A bunch of people had been telling me since I bought my house that I should have some sort of housewarming party. I kept putting it off, because, well, I'm good at putting things off. So I finally decided to have it, and figured I might as well have it on my birthday, since it fell on a Saturday. Evidently, I've managed to pick the worst possible day to throw a party - it seems like everyone already had plans (or they all hate me and have creative excuses, but I'm going with the former). So it's going to be a pretty small gathering, which means I'll have to drink most of the beer myself. Darn.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Give me my night back...

So I'm having a little get-together this weekend, so I had to make a trip to one of my favorite retailers on Tuesday - Well's Discount liquors. So I load up on clearance-priced raspberry belgian beer, a handle of Seagram's 7 (which oddly enough was only a buck more than a bottle less than half the size) and a small bottle of my old college friend Jagermeister. So I'm headed up Charles Street near TowsonTown Blvd and I see a bunch of fire trucks, a police car, and some other cars moving very slowly up the right lane. It almost looks like a funeral procession or something. I debate if I should find another route, but I figure I can probably get around it, plus I was curious what it was.

So finally a hole opens in the left lane. I move over and start to move past the procession. There's a banner on a Ford Econoline van about "taking back the night". Further ahead, the cars have various Citizens On Patrol signs (some of which resembled the ones used by pizza delivery drivers) and banners. I finally get past the mess, move back into the right lane, and hop on 695.

Evidently, this was for National Night Out. Evidently, clogging up traffic on major county roads is somehow supposed to reduce crime, as if criminals are intimidated by slow-moving processions of firetrucks, police cars, and private cars with stupid signs.

I would like to go on record as being against crime - and to be fair, the procession didn't delay me that much. But anything that holds up traffic, that makes people have to pass, is a bad thing. I also wonder if that's the best use of resources - I saw at least three county police vehicles (2 crown vics and a Jeep Cherokee) plus three fire trucks. Is paying cops and firefighters to make a symbolic gesture really a great use of my tax dollars? Does stuff like this really have any impact on criminals? I doubt it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Jim Cramer says we're all screwed... or does he?

Last week, Megan McCardle linked to this post lambasting Jim Cramer for saying that 100% of people were going to default on their mortgages.

Now, I think this is a little overboard. But it's important to realize that Cramer wasn't talking about all mortgages - he was specifically talking about "2/28's" - in other words, mortgages that are interest-only for the first two years and then switch to requiring interest plus principle payments. These mortgages are also often ARM's (Adjustable Rate Mortgages, ie the interest rate changes, usually based on the Fed's interest rates) and often have "teaser rates" - very low initial interest rates. Therefore, when they "reset" to requiring principal payments, plus interest payments at a higher rate of interest, they can cause problems.

Keep in mind also that the kind of people who get IO ARM's are probably not in the greatest financial position - they most likely either 1)didn't have enough money to cover interest plus principle payments at the time they got the mortgage (and were hoping their incomes would go up by the time it reset, which may not have happened) or 2)were hoping to sell the property or refinance when it reset - which will be harder since housing prices have stopped going up by 25% a year like they were a few years ago (you know, before MadAnthony bought) and because with subprime lenders (lenders who lend to people will sketchy credit) having trouble there are fewer lenders and remaining lenders are being tighter about who they loan to.

So while I think the 100% rate is high, I don't think that Felix's mention that But the idea that wealthy people will stop paying their mortgages because their houses are "fungible" is relevant, because wealthy people probably didn't take out 2/28's in the first place.

I do wonder how many people there are with 2/28's - I've heard stats that high percentages (50% or more) of borrowers were taking unconventional mortgages (ARMS, IO, ect). However, when I was house-shopping last year, I don't remember seeing anyone offering them = most of the IO/ARM's seemed to be 5/25 or 5/30.

And for the record, MadAnthony has a fixed-rate mortgage... but it's a 40-year.

Scenes from work, I've got your finger right here edition...

Coworker (seeing me waiting for our stupidly slow elevator): Did you push the button?

Mad Anthony: Yes. I pushed it with (holding up middle finger) this finger right here!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I guess I should be paid more...

Today's dead-tree edition of the Baltimore Sun had one of those "infographic" type things (they call it "by the numbers") showing that those with additional formal education are enjoying a pay advantage above those who have less education. (I couldn't find it online).

So, having gotten my MBA a few months ago, I read past some high school education and high school graduates and some college and college grads to "those holding a master's degree" - where I learned that 7.9 percent of Americans fall into this group, and that the average wage was $68,302, a 1.8% drop since 2000. Well, I thought, that's slightly more than I make, but not a whole lot after you factor in overtime.. and when you figure that those people probably have more experience, I'm probably doing OK.

Then I read further. Evidently, they didn't count those with Masters in Business Administration as having master's degrees. Instead, they grouped them with those holding JD's (Juris Doctorate, aka lawyers) and MD's. They are a 1.9% share of the population, and their average income is $119,343 - a 10.6% increase since 2k.

So evidently I'm way underpaid. Or their logic is flawed. Actually, it's probably both (how many people will admit they are overpaid?). But including MBA's with lawyers and doctors, while flattering, seems silly. While I would venture that most MBA's probably make more than I do (because they are actually using their degrees, instead of beating on computers with hammers all day), I would guess most probably don't make as much as the average lawyer or doctor. Sure, your typical Harvard or U Chicago grad probably does make that much bank, but your typical MBA isn't one of those people. 80% of MBA students are enrolled in part-time, weekend, executive, distance learning, or other non-full-time program. Sure, some of those might be bound for lucrative consulting gigs after graduation, but most are probably just hoping to move up in their current jobs. They are mid-level managers (or want to become mid-level managers), or accountants trying to meet requirements, or engineers who ended up in management positions and want to broaden their horizons. My guess is that few of them would put themselves on the same level as doctors or lawyers, or expect that their income would be as high.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe most people who graduate from part-time MBA programs make that much, but I would love to see it with MBA's separated from doctors and lawyers.

As far as the general gist of the article - that wage gaps are rising - I wonder if part of it had to do with more people having college degrees (or more). The stats only showed percent of the population, and income change. It didn't show how the percent of the population in those categories have changed. More people are going to college, so employers can now demand a college degree for jobs that didn't require it before. I don't need an MBA to do my job - I don't really even need a college degree - but I have one. If my job went to someone with a high school diploma, it would drive up the average income of high school grads, but since I'm overeducated, it instead drives down the average wage of advanced degrees. That doesn't mean that the average college grad is worse off though, just that there are more people with degrees out there.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

If everyone hates celebrity coverage, why is there so much of it...

A recent study (via OpinionJournal says that 87% of Americans think that celebrity scandals get too much coverage relative to real news. 8% think it's just right, 2% want more drunken Paris and Lohan.

So if Americans don't care about celebrity news, why is there so much coverage of it? I'm a big believer in efficient markets. In theory, if there is too much celebrity news, customers should be responding by picking news sources that downplay it, and news sources could get increased business by covering Hillary instead of Hilton. But they don't. So why the market failure - why is there a suboptimal (or should I say superoptimal) amount of celebrity coverage?

A few theories:

- People really like celebrity coverage, but don't want to admit it to the people who conduct surveys. After all, who wants to admit that they care more about Lohan than the war in Iraq, even if they do? News sources know this and deliver the amount of celebrity coverage that people really want, not the amount they claim they want.

- People don't care about celebrity gossip, but feel they need to keep up with it because other people care. They don't want to be the one person at the water cooler who has no clue what their coworkers are talking about when celebrity gossip comes up. So they follow celebrity gossip, and news sources deliver for this group.

- Maybe news reports just prefer covering celebrity scandals. They are easy for reporters to understand, unlike, say, the latest supreme court decision. And TV news reports are probably interested in celebrity, because they want to be celebrities.

- on a similar note, much of the coverage is TV, and TV is very visual. TV stations want people who are flipping through channels to stop, and covering celebrity news gives them an excuse to show pictures of celebrities, who are generally more photogenic than politicians. If you are idly flipping through channels and are a dude, you are more likely to stop on a news station that's showing a pic of Paris looking fetching in her prison orange jumpsuit than of Hillary looking angry in her black pantsuit.

- Maybe the 10% of people who find coverage to be adequate or lacking are all members of a really desirable demographic. TV stations want the ad dollars that the advertisers bring for those people, so their tailor news to them and screw the other 90%. This isn't all that far-fetched - starstruck people are probably the easily-impressionable people who buy lots of crap.

Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Thoughts?

Are fat people greedy?

Via an OT thread comes this article about the head of the British Medical Association, who thinks that fat people are "greedy" and don't need pills to lose weight, but rather need to take responsibility for their actions.

When I hear people talk about why some people are fat, it seems to divide into two camps. On one side are the "fat-rights" advocates, who say (between mouthfuls of fudge) that fat people can't help being fat - that they are fat because of bad genes, because of medical conditions that make them eat too much, that people are discriminating against them for things that they can't do anything. On the other side are people, usually people who have never been overweight, who see losing weight as just a matter of putting down the fork, and maybe taking the stairs every now and then. To them, a minimal amount of effort will make the tubbiest lardass skinny.

My thought is that reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. I'm not a doctor, or scientist, so everything I say has no scientific basis. That being said, I am a recovering fatass. I've posted this a few times, but this is a picture of me taken in December of 2004. On the other hand, this is a picture of me taken in May of 2007. As you can tell, I've lost a few pounds.

I'm not going to claim that I now live a perfectly healthy lifestyle. I still eat foods I shouldn't, or too much of foods that are OK in small doses. I work out regularly, but I do skip days or shorten my workout, and I probably should start lifting instead of just doing cardio. I could stand to lose more weight - I'm on the line between normal and overweight according to the BMI scale.

The thing about losing weight is that it is possible, but it takes a significant amount of work. I went from eating what I wanted when I wanted, to having to watch everything, to not being able to eat foods that everyone around me was eating. Prior to a couple years ago, I had never exercised. I'd never set foot in a gym. I started off walking laps around the reservoir near work, and eventually joined the gym at the college I work at, and slowly increasing the time and intensity of my workouts.

I had a few factors that helped out. I had plenty of free time to work out. I was (and still am) single, so I could set my own workout schedule and my own diet, and not have to worry about it's impact on a spouse or family. I could afford to buy decently healthy food. I could afford a gym membership, and work for a college with a really good fitness center that employees can join. I also had something motivating me - I had taken one of those "how long will you live" tests online and it said that I was going to die at age 56. I didn't want to die at age 56, so every time I wanted to eat something I shouldn't, or skip the gym, I told myself that it would kill me.

So I'm not going to take a holier-than-thou attitude that if I can do it, anyone can do it. It certainly is possible to lose weight, but it's not easy - I was fat for pretty much my entire life. I also live in fear that I will continue to backslide into my bad habits, that I'll start eating even more and exercising less and once again have to special-order my pants.

So in response to the original article, I think the doctor is wrong to use the word "greedy" to describe the overweight. I think fat people are fat partly because of bad decisions - because they eat more than they should of certain foods, because they don't exercise. But I also think that genetics are factor. Some people have high metabolism - they can eat a ton, work out infrequently, and are still skinny. Meanwhile, other people, like myself, can eat reasonably well, work out, and still have the belly of the pillsbury doughboy (he-he!). I also think that some people are wired to "feel full" with different amounts of food.

As far as the appropriateness of pills and surgery, I'm not sure. I'm not a doctor. I didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I'm guessing there is quite a bit of disagreement even among doctors. I certainly think that people can lose weight without pills or stomach stapling. But if those things work for people, and can make them lose weight and live longer/happier/more productive lives, it seems stupid not to make them available to people. My understanding is that those things only work if the person taking/using them makes lifestyle changes anyway - that they will help the weight-loss process, but that the person using them still needs to stop eating an entire can of frosting for breakfast.

The eternal quest for happiness...

My regrets post generated an email from a close friend and regular reader (must be the newly-repaired rss feed). I'm not going to copy the whole email, but the gist was that she felt that I was looking for happiness, and that I thought I'd tried to achieve previous goals (grad school, buying a house, losing weight) in the hope of finding it, and that my quest recent attempts at dating have been my next attempt. Her advice was that I need to learn to learn to be happy with what I have, that there isn't one thing that's going to make me happy.

I think there's probably a lot of truth in that.

I'm not sure that the things I've done in the past have been done in the hopes of finding happiness - at least, that isn't the reason I told myself I was doing them. I bought a house because I thought that it would be a good financial decision, because that's what responsible people do when they reach a certain age, and because, well, I need to live somewhere. I got my MBA because, well, it was (mostly) free, it seemed like a good follow-up to an undergrad business degree, because I thought it might help me in my career in the future, and because it would make my parents proud (and justify why I'd taken a job doing grunt work for a college). I lost weight because I wanted to live past 55.

But of course, in the back of my mind was the idea that things would be better after these things. And in some ways they are - when something changes for the better, and you get used to the changes, you forget that it wasn't always that way, that it was tougher then). Buying a house means no tiny apartment, no dealing with roomates, nobody hustling me for change outside my apartment, no not being able to find a parking space. Losing weight means I can walk up a couple flights of stairs without puffing like a chimney, that I can buy clothing from the normal section instead of the fat people section.

But I don't even have a real reason for wishing I wasn't single. I do think it's something missing from my life. I think most people who are in good, committed relationships would ascribe a significant amount of the reason for their happiness to their significant other, and would probably identify it as one of the most important things in their lives.

And it's easy to understand why. Having someone love you who doesn't have to (unlike, say, your parents) is validation. Someone likes you enough to want you to be a significant part of their lives. They want to be around you, they want to spend time with you, you make them feel happy. Out of all the people in the world, you are the person they want to spend their lives with. That's something powerful. And it's something I don't have, have never had, have never figured out why other people have and I don't.

Now, I know that there are people who are totally happy being single. They find happiness in other things - religion, travel, hobbies, friendships, ect - and are perfectly happy being single. But those people are rare, and I'm not sure I can be one of those people.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Scenes from work, use your hands edition...

Coworker (to another coworkertrying to cut the mess of a birthday cake that I tried to bake for bsom): Just give up and use your hands.

MadAnthony: That's the story of my love life.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

MadAnthony's brother visits...

I took the day off from work today. My older brother hadn't seem Casa De Mad, my sprawling townhouse in the rolling plains of White Marsh, and came down from New Jersey to see it. He visited a college buddy of his last night, as I was working late ('cuz Mad Anthony gotta stack those dollars).

So this morning I hit the treadmill, took a shower, threw on shorts and my Enjoy Capitalism t-shirt. I run some errands, which include getting stuck behind a truck hauling a modular office that had managed to get stuck on the exit ramp to Pulaski Highway. There was a follow car with lights behind it, but it wasn't helping. I finally put the Ranger in 4wd, drove across the dirt between the exit and on ramp, and got back on 695 and drove to the next exit and back. When I finally got back, the truck was still there. Wonder if it ever got out.

My brother came over when I got back, and I gave him the grand tour. He was impressed and called it "cavernous" at one point. He recently bought a 1-bedroom condo, so my townhouse is big in comparison (evidently, Maryland real estate prices are still cheaper than NJ).

He went back to his hotel for a while and then came back to go to dinner. We went to the Outback steakhouse, and then to Vaccaro's in Little Italy. Where I had one of those huh? experiences.

We got there and there was a wait for a table. In front of us were a rather cute, tall blond woman and her kind of greasy boyfriend. She was pretty, in an artsy sort of way. We ended up at a table behind her and her significant other. So I'm tucking into a slice of hazelnut chocolate cake and a Vaccaro's Cappacinio (made with cream instead of milk) when I hear a female voice going "hi". and again. I realize she's the blond chick is talking to me and look up. "I like your shirt". Surprised, I reply "thanks". She continues "I noticed it when you first came in". I say thanks again, and then she turns around.

I expected that if I got any reaction to the "Enjoy Capitalism" shirt, that it would be negative, so I was surprised. I also wished I could have come up with something more clever than a stammered thanks. Of course, I also wish she didn't have a man...

I thought dems were supposed to be against surveillance

So Baltimore wants to put up speeding cameras around the city. They need to get permission from the state, which they had tried to get previously but it was blocked by then-gov Ehrlich. But now a Democrat is in office, and he thinks it's a great idea.

Which is kind of funny, when you think about it. I thought the Democrats were against surveillance, but here you have a Democrat who wants to keep tabs on citizens and a Republican who is against it. I guess spying on terrorists is a no-no, but on ordinary drivers is OK.

I don't generally have a problem with cameras in public places - you have no right of privacy in public - but I don't like speeding or red light cameras. With red light cameras, there is some evidence that cities have shortened amber lights to catch more people and make more money. If reducing accidents was really the goal, they would make the amber light longer, which gives a bigger cushion for people who can't stop or don't see the light in time - but instead, it's a revenue source. And red-light cameras seem to be less at dangerous intersections and more at intersections where it's harder to stop - at the bottom of a hill, around a corner, ect.

The speeding camera study recommends placing cameras near schools, recreation centers, parks and churches. Which is pretty much everywhere, but it's for the children. Think of the children!

Now, I'll admit that part of my opposition to this is self-interest. I sometimes drive faster than the speed limit, and I don't want a ticket. But there are plenty of places in Baltimore where the speed limit is unrealistically low, and I know these will be the places that get cameras.

But I think people who drive like assholes are a bigger problem than just speeding. People who swerve, tailgate, drive at night without headlights, drive cars that are falling apart, drive drunk, ect are way more dangerous than speeding in a straight line on a 4 or 6 lane road with limited pedestrian access. Traffic enforcement by real police officers can also find other criminal activity - drugs, guns, unregistered cars, people with warrants - that a camera can't. Even though I don't like speed traps, I'd rather have a real cop - who can make decisions on a case by case basis, and can find other types of illegal activities in a traffic stop - to a camera.