mad anthony

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Oh noes... tom-tom in trouble-trouble!

Wired has an article that GPS makers, especially Tom-Tom, are reporting lower earnings.

I own a Tom-Tom One, a refurb I bought in October for $170... right before they hit $125 for new ones on Black Friday. Still, it was a great purchase. Sure, most of the time I don't need it, because I know how to get to work and Target and the 'rents house in NJ. But it's come in handy a number of times - auctions, parties, and especially my trip to Indiana for work a few months back.

I like the Tom-Tom interface - it's easy to use, accurate, can be customized easily with waypoints, and is easily portable. Prior to the Tom-Tom, I had a Pharos DriveStation 135 - which worked ok, until bsom and I got the idea of hacking it to run Tom-Tom software, since it was basically a windows mobile device. That didn't work so well, and I still need to get it restored back to factory so I can list it on eBay.

It is amazing how cheap GPS devices have become. Tom-Tom was always a premium brand, more expensive than the generics, but of late has been pretty price-competitive with the cheap, never-heard-of them brands. I'm wondering if that's hurt them, tarnished the premium brand. But as more cars begin to be equipped with built-in GPS, demand for high-end units shrinks.

Personally, I prefer portable - easier to take to a rental car or someone else's car. And I'm glad I'm benefiting from getting a higher-end product cheaply. But I hope Tom-Tom can survive long-term.

gas lines...

People have responded to rising gas prices in a number of ways. Some people are trying to trade in their SUV's, but finding that dealers don't want them. People are carpooling, driving less, buying more efficient cars.

And how has madanthony been responding? I've been buying gas at stations that charge more than where I usually go.

Here's the deal. I have a membership card to BJ's, an east-coast warehouse club, which I got a discount on through a promo with my credit union. I seldom shop there, because I'm a single guy and it takes me forever to work my way through most of their giant-sized packages, because I don't really like shopping in a warehouse, and because they don't carry a lot of the flavors or varieties of some of the products that I like. But I do usually get gas there - it's usually about 10 cents cheaper than anywhere else, and I figure that makes up the cost of my membership fees. Plus, it's practically on my way back from work/the gym - I've got to go a little out of my way, but it's right off the road I take home.

Despite the huge number of pumps they have, there usually is a bit of a line to get gas - you are usually a couple cars back. Not recently, though. The last couple times I've gone there, the line has been wrapped around the pumps and through the parking lot. I'm talking 10 or 15 minute waits to get gas. The first time - I think on a Sunday afternoon - I put up with it. The second time - a Wednesday night, around 6:30 or so - I didn't, because I had bar trivia that night. Since then, I've gotten gas at regular gas stations and haven't been back.

It's possible that the lines are an anomaly, although the times are pretty close to when I normally go and I haven't run into them before. I'm not sure if higher gas prices have inspired people to look more for cheaper gas or what. I'll probably go back again and see if it's still stupidly long lines, but if it is I can't see going there for gas.

It's not so much the time factor - unless I'm giving up overtime to do something, I generally consider my time worthless - if nobody is willing to pay me for it, I'm willing to get paid for it by saving money. But my thought is that the extra gas that I'm using to drive to BJ's instead of stopping at a station that's directly on my route, plus the gas I waste in line while my engine is idling probably outweighs at least part of my savings.

Of course, the main reason I kept my membership was for the gas savings, but that's a sunk cost whether I use it or not. And I still do try to find the cheapest gas stations (and always feel like I've stuck it to the man if I buy gas right before a station raises it's prices a few cents a gallon).

And as far as that article about SUV's that I posted at the top, in a sick way I'm kind of hoping that stays true for the next few years. I've always wanted a stupidly expensive, gratuitously ostentatious luxury SUV - think Escalade, Navigator, Range Rover, or my new favorite odd duck, the Porsche Cayenne. If gas prices stay high and they keep dropping in price, I might be able to pick up a used one cheap in a couple years when I can justify a new vehicle. Sure, it will cost me more to keep it gassed up, but it will be balanced out with the lower acquisition cost. And I'll probably hang onto the Ranger even if I buy an SUV, and it gets decent milage (plus blends in better at Hamfest than a Porsche).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Yard over-worked...

When I bought Casa De Mad, my sprawling circa 1978, 1200 square foot townhouse in suburban Baltimore County, I had visions of having a lush green yard, the kind that neighbors envy. Then I remembered that I hated doing yard work.

Luckily, the first year I moved in, one of my neighbors offered to mow my lawn in return for borrowing "my" (left by the previous owners) lawnmower. Eventually, though, one of the wheels fell off my lawnmower and it became obvious that it was time for me to take over. Since I couldn't justify maintaining a gas mower for my tiny patch of grass, I bought a manual-reel mower from It works well, except that the tiniest twig will make it stop.

I put off mowing the lawn as long as I could, but when my next-door neighbors (a pair of recent college grads and their girlfriends.. and, frequently on weekend nights, about 20 of their closest drunk friends) mowed theirs, it became obvious that I would have to suck it up and mow. So Friday night, with a sky that was clear and a gym that was closed for an employee appreciation day, I mowed. Then I fired up the weedwacker that I bought last year and never used, and wacked some weeds. Then I installed some solar lights I had bought at the end of last year - made out of brushed nickel, instead of soda-bottle plastic like my previous ones. Then I raked leaves.

Yes, I know. Raking leaves is something you are supposed to do in the fall. Which I did, using my leaf vac to drag several giant bags of leaves - despite having a yard the size of a postage stamp, and despite not having any trees in said yard. But I was still able to pick 3 bags of leaves just out of the backyard, and there are more left, plus some in the front. Obviously, I didn't get every leaf last year, but I also suspect that some of them blew in over the winter from neighbors who didn't get every leaf either.

I still need to do some more raking - in the back, and in the front. I've got weeds in the back that need to be wacked and a shed door that is no longer attached to my shed. And then there are bigger issues - the giant hole in my back yard, the beds in the front and back that are full of ugly white stone and plants that resemble the stuff that grows in the kind of fields that they find dead bodies in on true-crime shows. I also have been saying for the last 2 years that I would get a fence installed in the back for privacy, but I have yet to.

I want to have a decent looking yard - I want to start spending time reading in the back yard. I'm planning on having some people over for a barbecue in the next few weeks, and a big summer party, and I'd like it to look good for those things. But at the same time, I really don't like doing yard work - I'd rather be at the gym, or blogging, or reading, or writing ebay descriptions, or anything that doesn't involve, dirt, bugs, and leaves. So my guess is that my beds will continue to look like a bad science project, and none of my neighbors will envy my grass.

Except, hopefully, the drunks next door. I might not have the best lawn on the block, but I do need to do just enough to not have the worst.

Should I write this post? I can't decide...

I sometimes have trouble making decisions. I've been accused by friends and coworkers of overanalyzing decisions, of reading too much into things, of not being able to choose a course of action.

What's odd is it only seems to affect certain things. I am a notorious eBayer, and often buy stuff at yard sales and auctions, where I have to make a quick decision about buying or bidding on stuff - and I generally do pretty well. But I think my decisionmaking is made easier by two factors - low failure cost and experience. I generally am dealing with things I'm pretty familiar with, so I have a pretty good idea what items are worth. And I tend to subscribe to the theory that I often have little to lose and much to gain when I buy something - if I buy something for $10, there's a possibility it might be worth $100. At worst, it could be worthless and I'm out $10 - but chances are it's something I can at least sell for what I paid for it, either on eBay or at a yard sale. So there is a possibly for a significant upside, and little downside.

My job also includes a certain amount of decision-making. Tech support means being able to take information - such as a description of a problem - and figure out how best to solve. I haven't been fired yet, so I must at least be OK at it. But once again, I'm made more confident by the fact that I've done it long enough to have some confidence in the results, and by low costs for failure - if it doesn't work, I (usually) can try something else.

On the other hand, when it comes things I don't have lot of experience to fall back, I tend not to be confident in my decisions. This leads me to put off making decisions, to try to gather additional information, and to be unsure what course of action to take. Because there isn't always information to gather, it also means taking insignificant things and making them significant, of putting too much weight on an innocent comment.

There are two areas I can see this happening frequently in my life - socially (both in terms of friendships and my failed attempts at entering the world of dating) and career.

For example, a few months ago there was an opening in another department at the school where I worked. I thought of applying. I read the requirements, and realized there was a lot lacking. I debated about applying. I finally decided to, only to have second thoughts when I realized it required references. I worried about using my coworkers, figuring that they might give a bad review because they didn't want to lose me, or that a good review by them would be interpreted as them wanting to get rid of me. Everyone I told this to told me I was crazy. I don't think I was completely off base, but my thought process was driven mostly by a previous boss I had who tried to block me from taking a promotion - I guess I assumed that that was the way everyone operated, rather than an anomaly. Ultimately, I ended up not applying for the job - I put it off until it was no longer open for applications.

The funny thing is, it actually turned out that doing nothing was the best move. The person who previously had the job ended up not liking his new career and re-applying for it. Since it's unlikely that I could have beat out a candidate with 8 years of experience doing the job and a PMP certification, applying would have been a waste of time.

But chances are that doing nothing is rarely a good strategy - even if doing nothing is the best move, it should be an active decision and not just happen by lack of commitment to a course of action.

So what's the solution? I'm not sure, and not just because I can't decide on one. I tend to think that, in a lot of cases, my tendency to put thought into decisions can be a positive. Thinking out decisions before acting often produces better results. But overthinking decisions makes it harder to make good decisions, because it tends to take minor considerations or improbable outcomes and assign them too much weight, making the final decision worthless. And some decisions probably don't need to be thought too much - namely, the kind with minimal consequences.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Oh noes, my mortgage....

So, I'm feeling like this lolcat right now.

No, my mortgage didn't readjust, since I don't have an adjustable-rate mortgage. But my payments just went up about $150 a month. The reason is one of the two things in life that you can't avoid - specifically, taxes. County property taxes pretty much doubled, which means my escrow account went negative, which means that I need to replenish it as well as pay more towards future taxes.

Is this going to bankrupt madanthony? No. Luckily, I've been doing OK lately thanks to overtime and good eBay sales, so I've got a little bit squirreled away. But the higher taxes, combined with higher gas prices, will be cutting into my ability to save towards financial goals - and ironically, one of those financial goals was trying to get some more equity in my house so I could drop PMI. Having more of my money go to taxes means less can go to savings, which means it will be a longer time until I can get that stuff paid off. It also means that I should probably start watching my spending habits again, not eating out so much, not buying stupid crap I really don't need, ect. Not that I do those things a lot, but if I can cut some of them out, it means more money to spend on - well, taxes and extra mortgage payments, which are pretty hard to get excited about.

Of course, it's really frustrating because if you accept the prevailing wisdom that the housing market is in the shitter, my house is probably being appraised for tax purposes for more than it's actually worth.

There has been a lot said about why the housing market is in the shape that it is, and what role is played by all the parties involved - borrowers who borrowed amounts they should have known they would never be able to pay back, lenders who loaned to people who shouldn't have been able to finance a ham sandwich (note: most financial advisers suggest you should pay for ham sandwiches in cash), the government for letting people do stupid shit. My tendency is to blame homeowners, and to a lesser extent mortgage brokers and banks. But this makes me feel a little more sympathetic to borrowers - even someone like myself who did the "responsible" thing and got a fixed rate loan is still a little surprised by how many hidden costs there are in owning a home - between increased taxes, all the additional things you need to buy for a house, and the cost of replacing surprise things like a leaking air conditioner or a door that no longer opens from the outside. I can understand how someone can get overwhelmed by costs they weren't expecting.

Not that it's not their fault - you shouldn't buy a house if making the minimum payment means that you have no wiggle room in your budget, and you should always have some emergency savings in case the unexpected occurs. But home ownership is more expensive and risky than most first-time homebuyers realize, and with the price that houses went up to, it was difficult to buy a decent house without spending more than you would like to.

Scenes from bar trivia, boobies edition....

(Scene: Mango Manny's, a bar at a Ramada Inn in Towson, that hosts a trivia night)

bsom: I think this is the movie that that quote is from (writes down quote)

coworker: And this is the year (writes down 1988)

madanthony: That looks like 19 boob boob.

t (bsom's wife): you need to get laid.

...several minutes later...

bsom: so do we agree with the is answer?

madanthony: (distantly) Oh, sorry. I wasn't paying attention. I was thinking about boobs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Love song for an Escalade...

I have a dark secret. Something I don't feel comfortable revealing to many of my friends, especially those whose politics move towards the left, or the faculty members at the college I work for. I like SUV's. The bigger, the more expensive, the more completely ludicrous the better.

It's a view not shared by many of my coworkers, even those who lean more conservative. Or, as one of my coworkers (who recently quit smoking and has been a little testy) commented recently:

I hate hybrid owners. But I hate SUV owners too. I'm not sure where that leaves me...

I also stumbled across this recent post on Amazon's Car Lust blog. Most of the pro-SUV comments were rational, people who felt that owners should be allowed to choose what vehicle they drive, and who understood that fast sports cars with honkin' V-8 engines aren't exactly Gaia's favorite mode of transportation, either. But the anti-SUV owners had nothing but insults for SUV owners, including one who claimed he once took a poop on the hood of a Hummer.

I'm a big believer in personal choice - that people should have a large amount of liberty in decisions that affect them, including what to drive. If people want a Pigovian Tax on gas to better pass on the costs of it, I could probably live with it - but given the complaints about high gas prices, my guess is people don't really care as much about the environment as they claim they do - or at least they care, as long as it doesn't cost them money or force them to change their lifestyles.

When I bought my current vehicle - a 2006 Ford Ranger XLT 4x4, I thought about getting an SUV, but I wanted something truck-based (on the theory that it would be tougher and stand up to Baltimore City potholes better), and in my price range there was exactly one SUV that fit that - the Nissan XTerra, which was more expensive and was a new model with uncertain reliability. The Ranger has served my purposes well, but every now and then I wish I had a back seat or a covered cargo area. My next vehicle will probably be either an SUV or a 4-door pickup/SUT type vehicle.

Pickups - both smaller ones like mine and larger ones - have managed to duck most of the criticism that SUV's get, probably because many are used for work. But many more are daily drivers like mine. I use it for carrying loads of stuff now and then - hamfests, auctions, the occasional large purchase - but most of the time it's empty. But the flexibility of having that space, and of having four-wheel drive when it snows, is worth it to me. Sure, I could rent a van when I need to haul stuff, but I sometimes go to auctions or stores not knowing for sure if I'm going to be buying a lot of stuff or not.

I do have to admit that, with the price of gas being what it is, I sometimes wonder if I would be better off buying a second, smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle and just using the truck when I need it. But with registration, insurance, and maintenance, it's probably not worth it. I've also put some thought into what my next vehicle will be - I've toyed with the idea of buying a used sports car as a second vehicle and keeping the truck, or maybe in a few years trading the truck in for a stupidly expensive gently used SUV (Escalade, Range Rover, Cayenne). By the time it comes time to replace the Ranger, I'll probably have changed my mind about what I want - or my needs will have changed. While an expensive SUV would be fun, it would probably get me some weird looks at work, and would be tough to use for hamfests or yard sales, where it's often to one's advantage to look poor.

But whatever I end up getting, I want to be able to pick from a variety of vehicles that meet my needs, and chances are that will include some SUV's. I think they combine a lot of practicality (4 wheel drive, lots of enclosed cargo space) and are enjoyable to drive (I like being high up). If some people prefer something else, be hit hybrid or sports car, I think they should still respect that others have different views.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A matter of taste...

A few days ago, Consumerist had this article about how the CEO of Starbucks was dissing McDonalds and other fast-food coffee, saying that it isn't "premium" coffee. Consumerist pointed out that Micky D beat Starbucks in their taste test. The comments section was full of people voicing their opinion of who has the "best" coffee.

The whole debate seems silly to me. Coffee, like most food products, is a matter of personal preference. People want different things in a cup of coffee - some like a coffee that's milder and feel that dark coffees taste burnt, others like one that's darker and feel that milder coffees are weak or flavorless. I think it's silly to pick a "best" coffee, or insist that your favorite brew is the best.

I'm an oddity - I really like the taste of Starbucks - I like a coffee that's a little bitter - but I seldom go there. When I need take-out coffee, I usually end up either at Dunkin Donuts - because they are cheap, their coffee comes in a nice styrofoam cup that doesn't leak and that actually keeps it warm for a while, and they have bigger sizes available. Plus, their lowfat blueberry muffins are pretty tasty. When I need coffee in hurry, I usually go to 7-11, mostly because there's one pretty much around the corner from me.

I will say that even if you don't like the taste of Starbucks, if you are a serious coffee drinker you owe them a debt of gratitude for giving the fast-food places and convenience stores some competition, and making them improve their coffee. Years ago, before Starbucks, coffee was a commodity. Nobody bought coffee at a fast food restaurant or gas station because they loved it's taste - they bought it because it was caffeinated. Fast food coffee was what Dad got on a long vacation drive so he would't fall asleep during the trip - he drank it because he had to, not because he wanted to. These days, you can get a decent cup at McDonalds or 7-11, because they know if they had the same brackish water they used to, everyone would go somewhere else.

And the matter-of-taste thing extends to a lot of other things - food products and beyond. Wine and Beer are two more things that people are often passionate about their favorite brand, but it comes down to what you prefer - just because you prefer a hoppier beer doesn't mean that someone else's favorite brew is "piss" or water. And taste isn't just about food - it also is what you drive, what OS is on your computer, or what kind of pet you have.

The beauty of free-market capitalism is that it fills needs - if enough people like what you sell, they will buy your stuff, and you will stay in business. So if both Starbucks and McDonalds are selling coffee, clearly they both make a coffee that some people prefer over the other.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Maybe the Dyson isn't so expensive after all...

I wrote a post a few months back about my Dyson vac. I had trouble bringing myself to spend over $200 on a vacuum, and can't imagine spending the $499 that it normally sells for on it (mine was a refurb from woot). That being said, it is a great vac - easy to empty, great suction, and has survived the occasional "accidentally went to close to my underwear and tried to suck it up" incident.

But to put it in perspective, Lileks today has a scan of theSears Kenmore Powermate Vacuum from the 1973 Sears catalog. $189.99, which he says is $440 in today's dollars. For a vac that 1)is Sears brand 2)is avacodo green 3)is covered in fake woodgrain 4)uses a bag instead of the nifty Dyson opens-on-the-bottom canister and 4)unlike the Dyson, probably frequently loses suction.

People often forget that the price of consumer items has really dropped in the last few decades, while the quality has improved. $440 will buy you a hell of a vac today, and one that is quite a bit more aesthetically pleasing. Something to remember the next time you think the prices of consumer products are too high.

Scenes from work, your kid is a pottymouth edition...

coworker: Well, I'm going to get out of here. My wife and kids are probably asking where the hell I am.

madanthony: You should probably tell your kids to watch their language.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More auction action...

In my time at work, I've managed to build up a certain amount of goodwill. I'm pretty good about coming in on time, working through lunch, and not taking a lot of sick days, and in return my boss is pretty cool about saying yes when I make the occasional request for a little leeway. So yesterday, I asked to take a long lunch so I could go to an auction up in Hunt Valley, and since it was pretty quiet and we didn't have anything scheduled, he was OK with it.

The auction was The Center for Management And Technology, a nonprofit that evidently was involved in embezzling several million dollars. It's always a good sign when the auction starts off mentioning that "there were several thousand computers, but they were seized by the FBI" and "there probably are some FBI people around, so don't steal anything".

There were a ton of good deals to be had - evidently, CMAT spared no expense. A lot of 6 Herman Miller areon-type chairs went for $300, a Cisco firewall that goes for $2500 went for a grand, and about $800 worth of Minolta toner went for $300. They did charge a 15% buyers premium, plus tax if you didn't have a resellers license.

I didn't want to have a huge amount of money tied up in inventory, wasn't sure of the value of some of the stuff, and didn't want to get into a bidding war, so I only bought 3 lots, although I bid on a bunch of other ones. Unfortunately, there were two other IT types there (one of whom was at the Record and Tape Trader's auction a few weeks back), so there were actually people who knew what stuff was worth and bid prices up - to prices that were good, but not a steal.

So what did madanthony buy? 3 lots:

Polycom Video system and phone - $175 - when I got it home, I realized the video system was missing the power supply - and sadly, I remembered seeing some stuff in another lot I didn't win that might have included it. Still, another one of the video systems sold for $406 on eBay, also missing power supply. If I can get the phone working, it will probably fetch $100 or so.

Everything on 3 shelves - $20 - bunch of wireless keyboards, mice, a few dell power supplies and laptop docking stations (which is the primary reason I bought it), and some other random desk-type stuff (labels, nametag holders, half-empty spindle of dvd-r's and cd-r's), power cables, network cables, a box of cat5, ect. I haven't really sorted this, and half of it's still sitting in my truck.

9 file servers, $5 each - Several people were looking at these and opened them up, but nobody else bid on them - auctioneer kept dropping the price (price by the piece, buy the lot) and when it got down to $5 I bit. Nobody else did. I figured the cases alone had to be worth more than $5 and I could sell them at hamfest. When I loaded the truck, I discovered there were actually 9 and not 8. When I went back to work and plugged one in, I discovered that I got a hell of a deal. The cases alone go for $183.99 plus $25 shipping from Newegg. The motherboard is an MSI, the processor is an AMD Semepron 2800+, it has dual Seagate 80 gig SATA drives as a RAID, and 512 of Kingston RAM, plus floppy and cdrom. I figure I can probably get up to $200 a piece for them at Hamfest. And I paid $5.

If I had the same luck with women that I do with the last couple auctions I've been to, I'd be Hugh Heffner.

What's up, doc?

I've managed to avoid going to the doctor for the last couple years.

No, I'm not one of those people who thinks doctors are crazy or useless. I'm a big believer in modern medicine. I just haven't really been sick enough to justify seeing a doctor, and my previous doctor retired and I hated finding a new one.

But my knee has been hurting me for the last couple weeks, especially when I go to the gym. After waiting for it to "go away" and it not going away, I finally went to a doc recommended by my friend bsom.

So now I need to make up for all the time I've been doctor-less. I ended up with a stack of referrals the size of a research paper - bloodwork, mri and xray to figure out what's up with the knee, orthopedist to see what's up with the xrays and mri's of the knee, cardiologist (I had open heart surgery when I was 4, but I haven't had an EKG or the like in the last 5 years or so). She also wants me to get a sleep study because she thinks I might have sleep apnea, because my parents snore, I sleep through my alarm clock, and I'm addicted to caffine.

I did the MRI and EKG this morning - luckily, they are pretty much around the corner from my house, and I got an early appointment, so I barely had to miss any time at work. I need to make the orthopedist appointment soon, and get the bloodwork done when I can bring myself to fast for 8 hours. This is bad timing though, because we are in the middle of a giant migration project at work (from Novell Netware to Microsoft Active Directory), which involves my department touching, oh, about 1500 PC's. So I need to schedule my appointments around that.

It would be nice to be able to walk out of the gym without grimacing, though. And it's a lesson that if you procrastinate your doctor's visits, it will catch up to you.

And then after this, I should probably get a pair of glasses that don't fall off my face and get the giant gaping holes in my teeth patched.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Saving slugs and eating beefy jerky...

When I was in college, I took a mandatory ethics class with a professor I didn't exactly get along with. He was big into Catholic social justice theory, while I was a free market borderline libertarian. I didn't do well in the class grade-wise, and it may have had something to do with the first day of that class.

He wanted us to think about ethics and why we make the decisions that we do, so he asked us "do you eat meat? And if so, how do you justify it?". My brilliant answer: "If God didn't want us to eat meat, why does it taste so good?".

The thing is that while this answer sounds simple and jocular, it actually makes some sense. If you take the view that the world was created by God, or at least that He had a major role in it, then you would expect that He wouldn't make animals both tasty and a necessary part of a balanced diet unless he expected that they would be eaten. And if you want to look at it strictly from an evolutionary standpoint and leave God out of it, evolution-wise, the meat eaters won. If there ever was a race that lived only on vegetables, they died out. Humans have evolved with a taste for meat, and our bodies are designed to rely on it for protein and other things - people who are vegetarian or vegan have to go out of their way to find foods that make up for the nutrients that they miss by not eating meat.

So what made me think about this? Well, I came home from work and the gym on Friday, and picked my copy of the Baltimore Sun off the front lawn. (I subscribe mostly for the Sunday circulars and auction listings, and generally throw the rest of the week's papers in recycling, unread. But it's easier and cheaper than driving to the store every Sunday, plus I can stay home in my pajamas and read the paper). As I walked in, I noticed there was a slug on the paper, that had crawled from the wet grass onto the plastic bag. Ehh, I'll just throw out the bag and the slug. But then the slug started moving. It looked up at me with it's little slug eyes and waved it's tenacles, and I couldn't let it die. He was an amazing little creature, almost cute. So instead I found myself standing on my front stoop, trying to persuade a slug to get off the bag and go on the lawn by poking it with a ballpoint pen.

Then I went inside, washed my hands, and looked for something to munch on. I settled on a bag of Lemongrass flavored beef jerky I picked up a few weeks ago on a trip to a local Asian grocer.

So there I was, saving a slug, which is pretty much the lowest life form you can find, and generally regarded as a pest, while eating a cow, an animal considerably larger, smarter, and with more developed senses of pain and emotion.

Can I rationalize this? Well, the cow was bred for food. It needed to be killed to produce food, to fill a need. There was no need for the slug to die, I could save it in a few minutes.

But of course, the real reason was that the slug was alive in front of me, the cow met it's end somewhere in Canada (where, evidently, Asian beef jerky is made). If I had to kill the cow personally to get the jerky, I probably would have had some pretzels instead. My choices are not made so much by ethics, but by convenience, by an ability to ignore the gritty facts of where my food came from.

And you can probably extend this to the way I interact with other animals. I feel a certain sense of doing good that I adopted Nibbler, a stray kitten that was living behind one of the dorms at the college I work for. I'm probably not the world's best pet owner, but I figure she's better off than on the mean streets of Baltimore. But there are thousands of other cats out there that I haven't done anything to help, including Nibbler's parents. Stray cats in the abstract are easy to ignore, but it's hard to ignore a six week old kitten that keeps curling up in your lap and falling asleep.

And why just cats? Why does Nibbler get to sit on my lap licking her fur while I type this blog post, while some Canadian cow ends up smoked in a bag in my kitchen? Well, it probably helps that the cat is cuter, smaller, and can be trained to poop in a litterbox. But in the grand scheme of what is ethical, I'm not sure it passes muster.

So we make the decisions that we do - be it adopting homicidal kittens or eating tasty animal flesh - based on an ability to ignore the sometimes ugly truths behind them. But I'm not sure that that makes them wrong - I can't imagine I'd be better off without the cat (or having to take care of every cat in Baltimore), or that I could happily go through life without steak or Chic-fil-a sandwiches. Maybe ignoring inconvenient truths leads to the right outcomes after all.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

lyf sux?

So I'm making my traditional Saturday afternoon church/gym run, doing 70 in the middle lane of I-695, when I see a somewhat jarring license plate. I try to get a picture with my cell phone, but between the difficulty of driving and trying to take a pic, and my VX6800's god-aweful camera interface, this completly useless pic is the best I could do.

What does the plate say? LYF SUX - or for those who don't speak text message, life sucks.

Which seems kind of odd. The car is a Nissian 300Z convertible, base price $35,800. It was driven, top down, by a man and a woman who appeared to be wearing some Gucci shades.

So you have a couple, out for a drive on a nice Saturday in a car that cost more than the average American makes in a year, in one of the most free and prosperous countries on the planet, complaining that "lyf sux".

I'm hoping that he was being ironic, because if not he must have incredibly high standards for what makes life not suck.

There are certain aspects of my life I'm not happy with - mostly my complete lack of a dating life. When you've been single as long as I have, and when nothing seems to work to change that, you start to wonder what's wrong with you, and if you will ever figure out what it is and be able to change it. And my social life in general could live some help, considering that it's 10pm on a Saturday, and I'm sitting in front of my PC, blogging and editing pictures for stuff I'm selling on eBay while my cat stares at me from the other desk.

But other than that, it's hard to complain. The weather's nice, I'm gainfully employed, I have a reliable paid-off vehicle, I have a fairly nice place to live (even if housing values are falling as we speak, and even if it's got a few fixtures that were in style when Carter was president). I'm in decent health, I've got a family that cares about me, a cat that seems to like me when she isn't trying to gnaw my arm off, and several computers that are hundreds of times more powerful than ones that filled a room a few decades ago. I've got a $150 device that can look to the sky to tell me where I am and where to go, and an unlimited amount of knowledge and entertainment via the internet that comes into my house via a little black coax cable. I'll live longer and better, on average, than anyone else in history.

Life could be better. But it doesn't suck. And I don't even have a cool car, or a chick in the passenger seat.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jingle mail, Jingle mail, Jingle all the way...

One of the new phenomenas of the current housing market is "jingle mail" - people who are simply mailing back the bank the keys to their house and walking away. Others are going even further - living in their houses, without making mortgage payments, until the bank kicks them out. The Consumerist has one such story of a family waiting to get kicked out while bragging about how they are saving the money they would otherwise spend on mortgage payments and spending it on dinners out.

Judging from the number of comments, this is a subject that evokes strong feelings on both sides. Some side with the banks - these people took out a mortgage, knew the terms, and said they would pay, and now they aren't, and thus are being unethical (or to use the vernacular of some Consumerist commenters, are douches). Others argue that they are only being rational - their contracts said if they didn't pay, they would lose their houses, and they are doing exactly that. They are being rational and not making payments on a house that is worth less than they paid for it. Why should they pay the mortgage - what's wrong with walking away from a bad investment?

I can understand the logic of walking away, although I suspect they may regret it after it royally screws up their credit. But the problem is that while what they do may be the rational thing, people doing what they are doing will long-term make the housing market worse off, home ownership harder and more expensive, and people who do think it is sleazy to not pay your bills worse off.

The problem is that, until the last year or two, the mortgage market operated under a number of assumptions - the main one being that people seldom let their houses be foreclosed on. The theory was that people would let other bills go unpaid, run up their credit cards, turn off their cable, and otherwise do whatever it took to make sure that their mortgage got paid off. That is part of the reason that mortgage interest is usually really cheap - because it's low risk. The other reason, of course, is that it's secured by a house.

In the last year or so, this has changed. People are looking at the houses they've bought less as a residence, a home, something they don't want to lose, and more like a stock they bought on margin - if it goes up, great, pocket the money, but if it goes down, walk away. That risk is why it's generally expensive to buy stock on margin.

Mortgages will become the same way - they will become considerably more expensive to reflect the fact that they are riskier. Which means fewer mortgages, fewer homeowners, and lower prices for houses because they will have more sellers chasing fewer buyers.

This is what economists would call the tragedy of the commons, named after the public commons where sheep grazed in the years where it was normal to have sheep. Because it was public property, people overgrazed, which is bad - but since the benefit went to the sheep owner, but the cost was born by the community, it happened even though it made everyone worse off long-term.

The same is happening with mortgages. It's in the self-interest, at least by their calculations, to walk away from their houses. It benefits them. But long-term, this behavior will make people worse off - and it will make those who actually bought houses they can afford, and are paying their bills instead of walking away, far worse off.

One thing I would love to see happen is for states to hold people responsible for the difference between what their house sells for and what they owe on it. Some states, including California, are no-recourse, which means that you can mail your keys back and the bank can't come after you - which means people who bought houses with ARMS, negative amortization loans, or home equity loans are walking off scott-free.

Sure, banks and mortgage brokers made some stupid loans. But ultimately, banks didn't pay for those fancy buildings and those chained-down pens and those digital time-and-temperature signs by losing money on loans. They will make loans more expensive and harder to get to make up for it, and the honest consumer - the one who pays their mortgage, even though they know that at present they probably owe more than they could get for their house, are the ones who get screwed.

Quiz bowled over...

bsom: so it says they are offering prizes. I wonder what they are.

mad anthony: It's either something cool, like an xbox, or else it's like one in 8 will have their dicks ripped off

So yesterday, the college I worked for sponsored a "quiz bowl" - you pay $15, and have the chance to compete against other teams answering trivia questions to win prizes (a restaurant gift certificate or a gift basket). Proceeds went to Parkinson's research. bsom asked me if I was interested, and I said yes... I'm no genius, but I figured I'm reasonably intelligent and have a decent supply of random knowledge. bsom managed to recruit two other participants - one of our web guys and a friend of his, who were quiz bowl veterans.

Turns out I wasn't as smart as I thought. There were 9 teams. Our team, The Repetitive Print Defects (my brilliant idea) came in 6th. Granted, at least 2 of the teams had professors on them, so we were playing against teams that had people whose job is to know random useless crap. But there were very few questions where I knew the answer and the rest of the team didn't, and I missed a bunch of questions I should have known, including geography (generally my strong suit) and the bible (despite having spent my entire educational career, from Kindergarten to grad school, in Catholic schools). It didn't help that there were a lot of sports questions and pop culture questions, and no questions about technology, cars, business/economics, or anything else that I can bore you to tears about with random facts.

The evening wasn't a total waste. It was fun, it was for a good cause, and they had giveaways for everyone - including a travel mug, something that I can always use since I normally gulp down a cup of homebrew java on my way to work. And much like shooting, even though I suck at quiz bowl, I wouldn't mind doing again. In fact, our web guy mentioned that there is a bar near where I live that hosts them, and I think I'm going to see if I can drag him and bsom there some time - I figure it beats sitting home staring at the cat, plus it seems like a good opportunity to hit on smart chicks.

Monday, April 07, 2008

What can brown break for you, part deux...

So I've had more fun experiences with my broken modem claim from UPS.

I got a vm a few days ago from a UPS claim rep. She asked me a few questions, mostly trying to get a replacement cost for the broken modem - I had to keep explaining that it wasn't something I could just go out and buy another of. Finally, she told me that they would call back in two days if they had any questions, and if not I should get my check in 10 days for the $102.50 that the modem sold for, plus $7 and change for shipping. She also asked where the item was, and I told her that I didn't know and explained about the delivery attempt to my old address.

So a few days later, I get home and find a box sitting on my front porch, which was odd since I didn't remember ordering anything recently. It's the remains of my modem. I open the box and the thing is even worse than the pictures made it look - it crumbles like a broken saltine cracker when I pick it up, and the box is full of white powder from the pulverized case.

So yesterday, I get a vm on my cell from UPS that they will be by tomorrow to pick up a package, and if I'm not home they will leave a notice with additional info. I figure this is about the modem, but since they never called me to tell me to send it back, I figure I'll see what the notice says.

So I get home today. No notice. Then my cell rings. It's my old landlord, telling me they got a notice that they tried to pick up the modem. I call UPS, and they confirm that they did try to pick it up, and they will come to my actual address on Wednesday to pick it up.

She also tells me that they sent my check.... to my old address.

Evidently, they used the address on my account, which I never changed, and which can only be changed by calling UPS. The account department wasn't open when I called - I have to call back tomorrow. Sure, I should have changed my address. Still, the claim form I filled out specifically asked where I wanted the check sent. You think that's where they would send it. It's a good thing I'm still on good terms with my old landlord, or I'd be screwed.

So the lessons I got out of this:

1. When shipping UPS, overpack everything, because occasionally they beat the shit out of your package, and will try to get out of paying if they can find fault.

2. If you have a claim and get denied, complain. I get the feeling they deny almost all their claims, but pay them if you make the slightest complaint.

3. If you move, update your address on your account immediately, or it might come back to haunt you.

Recruiting millennials...

A few days ago, I went to an alumni case club meeting sponsored by the college that I got my undergrad and MBA from... along with my paychecks. It was on the iPhone, it was with a professor I had taken a couple classes with, and I figured it would be a good chance to do some networking, maybe hit on chicks with jobs, and keep up to date with business trends.

I ended up sitting with two women (both married, alas) who were in my MBA class, one of whom works for the same college I do. Before the discussion, the prof - who also does some consulting on the side - was talking about the problems recruiting "millennials" - the generation that comes after GenX, often defined as people born just after madanthony, aka after 1980. The problem is that they have always been told to follow their dreams, that they don't seem jobs as lifetime careers, and that they tend take jobs and then leave soon after to pursue something else. The prof had observed this in both highly skilled technical jobs and in skilled but more blue collar positions.

He had a few ideas, including contracts, but observed the contracts often result in people leaving as soon as they are done. Someone commented that the trick is to find out what people's passions are, and give them that at work - great in theory, but how.

And then the other person who works where I do commented that we seem to be the opposite. And I agreed - our problem is the opposite - nobody leaves, so highly skilled and educated employees (cough * madanthony * cough) are often underemployed because there are no places to promote them to.

Why? madanthony's fellow college employee mentioned benefits, and that's a big part of it - we get a generous retirement plan (with an 11% matching contribution from the college), free college tuition for the employee, their spouse, and their kids, decent health care, interest-free loans to buy computers, discounted membership to the college gym, and a ton of other stuff. So is benefits the answer?

I don't think it's just offering benefits - I think it's offering benefits that appeal to people who are looking for stability over emotional fulfillment or exciting. Take a look at that list - what kind of person is likely to want free tuition for their kids? Someone with kids, who is a lot less likely to decide to leave their job to join a band or go to law school. Offering a lot of benefits is good, but offering benefits that appeal to people who want stability is even better - especially if you tie those benefits to length of time - our tuition for your shorties benefit doesn't kick in until 5 years of service.

So offering benefits that appeal to people seeking stability, or that encourage people to be stable, is probably a good strategy. Tuition is one. Homebuying assistance is probably another good one - madanthony's occasional thoughts of quitting his job and pursing an entirely different path have been quashed by the need to send half of his monthly salary to the bank, lest he and his cute little kitty cat end up on the street.

But while the stability argument works on a lot of people from my generation - it seems like half of my coworkers are currently pregnant or involved in the creation of a pregnancy - there are still a fair number of single, childless, youngish employees where I work - including myself, of course.. So why, besides the free tuition for themselves, have they remained?

Well, part of it is that not every millenial/gen-x-er wants an adventure. Some want stability. And some just want a place where they get along with their coworkers, enjoy what they do, and make enough that they can pursue their passions outside of their jobs.

So the trick to keeping millennials? I think it's twofold. I think the "find a way to allow people to pursue their passions" is good, even though it's tough. Doing things that make it easier to pursue their passions while remaining employed is a good first step - generous vacation time, flexible time, ability to work from home - these are all ways that someone can keep their job while still touring Fiji or playing in a rock band. And as a bonus, many of them also appeal to people with families/kids - part two.

As the second part of part one, make work something people can feel passionate about and enjoy. Have the workplace be fun, a place people want to go, where they forge relationships with coworkers and do off-the-clock activities together - it's hard to leave where your friends are. Let employees work on stuff that isn't directly tied to their jobs - Google is great at this.

The second way - offer benefits that appeal to people who want stability - as I've already mentioned.

Now, the biggest argument with this is probably that millenials don't crave stability - they are single, don't have kids, don't need free tuition. But there are some who do, and maybe aiming your recruiting for people with a few years experience - who have gotten their wild early 20's out of the way - isn't a bad idea.

The other thing is that the state of the economy greatly how willing people are to stick with jobs. I had the misfortune of graduating from undergrad in 2002, right after the dot-com bubble burst. I remember going to job fairs where the most popular tables were those operated by government agencies, especially the IRS. When you could leave one job for another, people were willing to take the risk, but when there weren't any dot.coms left, not so much.

I think the same is about to happen now - there are already a ton of mortgage and real estate people looking for new careers, and if the economy is as far in the shitter as the media seems to suggest, there will be more to follow in other fields. Many of these people will be craving stability after having experienced how much being unemployed sucks. Which could be a great thing for employers seeking new workers.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

I'm a statistical anomaly ...

An article was posted on fw about the amount of housework done by men and women. The original poster played up that women work 7 hours a week more if they are married than single, but for single men the amount of housework goes down when they get hitched. Having kids greatly increases the work.

But part of the reason that it goes up for women and down for men is because single men out-housework single women:

Single guys worked the hardest around the house, trumping all age groups of married men.

I'm not one of those single men. I do the bare minimum of housework. The way I see it, there are two kinds of houswork - that which absolutely needs to get done, and that which can be put off. In part one - the necessary - is stuff like laundry, dishes, cooking, scooping out Nibbler's litterbox. If I don't do these things, I have no clean underwear and a house that smells like cat shit. In catagory two is stuff that can wait - vacuuming, going through clutter, cleaning the kitchen or bathroom. This is stuff that can wait, and often does.

When I do finally motivate myself to do these things, I'm proud of myself - it's nice not to stick to the bathroom floor, to have a clear space on the living room coffee table. But it isn't essential, and when it comes down to doing those things or making money on eBay or reading a book or watching a TV show, those other things win.

On the rare occasions that I have people coming over, I do clean - I want to present Casa De Mad in the most favorable light, impress people with my tasteful decor . But when it's just me, and I know it's just going to get dirty anyway, not so much.

I think part of it is I've tended to view home as little more than a place to sleep and poop. Spending too much time at home reminds me that I'm alone. Sure, sometimes I enjoy spending Sunday morning sipping coffee, watching The Journal Editorial Report off the ReplayTV, and petting the cat, but I tend to spend quite a bit of time at work, at the gym, or running errands - someplace but in my messy house.

So single ladies in the house, look at it this way - if you marry me, it's unlikely I could do any LESS housework than I do now..

Just let the housing market fall, already...

Via fw comes this article about the next stupid plan to save the housing market. It includes a $7000 tax credit to people who buy foreclosures and allowing homebuilders to use losses in 2008 and 2009 to offset profits in earlier years.

Both are horrible ideas. The foreclosure cash will make anyone trying to sell a house themselves less competitive, because if a buyer is looking at 2 similar houses at the same price, the foreclosed house is now $7000 cheaper.

Th homebuilder one is even worse. It encourages builders to keep building - if they have a project that they have a bunch of sunk costs (land, drawings, permits, ect), it may well make it worth developing anyway, as long as they make enough to pay the actual materials and labor, since they will get a tax credit if they lose money. That means more houses get built, in a market that already has more houses than it does buyers - especially buyers who can get mortgages.

The WSJ Editorial Report had an interesting conversation today (transcript here about the political implications of bailouts to borrowers. One guest pointed out that if a politician could communicate that since 6% of people are in foreclosure or 90 days plus past due, that means 94% aren't - and are footing the bill - and those people shouldn't be happy about it.

That's my viewpoint, but it doesn't seem to be a view many people share - this survey blames 40% of Americans blame the government for the housing mess, while 28% blame banks and 14% blame borrowers - you know, the people who bought houses they couldn't afford and now aren't paying for them.

What I would love to see is the government step away and let the market take it's course. Prices will drop. Builders will go bankrupt. People will lose their houses and be forced out on the street.

But all that stuff will happen even if the government gets involved. It will just take longer. The way I see it, the sooner the market hits bottom, the sooner it can start going back up. A wise rap artist once said that "you've got to get up to get down" - and you also need to get down to go up. Until people feel that housing prices are unlikely to go down significantly, people who are thinking about buying houses won't be willing to buy, and banks won't lend. Once they feel secure that the market has hit the floor, demand will increase, and then prices will start to go back up.

It may seem counterintive that madanthony - who bought a house at the top of the market in June 2006, and isn't sure he could get as much as he paid for it - certainly not as much as he's put into it - would advocate a hands-off approach. But I'm paying my mortgage, even though it means I have a lot less money to spend on a lot of other things I would like to. I have no plans to move in the near future, so staying in place isn't a big deal. But I'm sure I will want to sell at some point, and I figure that the sooner the market hits bottom, the sooner it will go back up, hopefully by the time I want to sell.

And part of it is annoyance at the idea of the government rewarding those who were irresponsible - who couldn't bother to read the terms of their mortgages, who lied on their apps, who bought more house than they should of, who drove the price of housing up in the first place so that my house cost twice as much as it would have a few years before I bought it. The people who aren't paying their bills get forgiveness for not paying their mortgage, lower interest rates, deferments, while I get a house that will be harder to sell. Doesn't really seem fair.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

We need a cat vomit cleanup in isle 1...

A few months ago, I was talking to bsom and he mentioned how often his two cats throw up. I proudly commented that my cat, Nibbler, had never thrown up. And that was true... until today.

I was gone this morning getting new brakes installed on the Danger Ranger. I came back, ate, did some other stuff, and was about to leave to run some errands when I noticed something at the base of my stairs. A closer look revealed it to be vomit - including a piece of rubber band. I'm constantly taking rubber bands away from the little furball, and she managed to find one and swallow part of it - I found the rest of it a little further away, not surrounded by vomit.

So when I went to Target, I picked up carpet cleaner as well. Which is good, because when I got back home, I discovered several more patches of vomit throughout the house - in my bedroom, in the family room where her litterbox and food is, and later under the coffee table in the living room. Of course, she managed to throw up only in places that have carpet, not on the easier-to-clean hardwood, slate, or concrete.

I guess I'm lucky - if the piece of rubber band had gotten further into her digestive system, I'd probably be looking at a dead cat instead of a vomiting one. I haven't noticed any new vomit (at least not in places I had previously observed to be vomit-free), and she's acting like her normal self, running around and trying to eat my dinner, so I think she's OK, but I'll keep an eye on her.

And an eye out for rubber bands.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I feel older than I am... and younger than I am....

I do online surveys for a couple companies - spend a few minutes answering a few questions about my buying habits, maybe watch an ad or two, and get a few bucks - nothing major, but it's the perfect activity for a cheapskate who looks to the internet to kill time.

I had one a few days ago for a product in a segment where advertising is traditionally aimed at teens, but a company was looking to make an entry targeted at adults like myself.

One of the questions was "I often feel younger than my actual age", while another was "I often feel older than my actual age". I found myself wanting to check "somewhat agree" for both, but figured it would probably make their database crash with it's absurdity.

But it depends what area of my life you ask me about. In some respects, I feel pretty mature, perhaps beyond my years. I bought my house at age 25 - which may not have been the best financial move, since I seem to have bought at the exact top of the market, but to me it at least suggests that I have some ability to save plan ahead. I got my MBA at 26. And I have a social life that is hardly more exciting than my parents, who regularly fall asleep at 9pm while reading from a 1958 edition of the World Book encyclopedia. Some of my hobbies - like going to yard sales and clipping coupons - are generally shared with the generation of people who buy Depends by the case.

But in some aspects, I feel like I'm younger than my age. I have a job where I can wear jeans and a t-shirt to work. I drive a bright yellow pickup truck with a custom bed cover(which is actually a pretty practical vehicle, and is paid off, but still doesn't exactly scream mature).

But most of all there is my love life, or lack of. I'm watching people my age - coworkers, friends, college buddies - getting married and having kids, and I don't seem to be getting any closer to that. I feel like I just can't seem to get to the next stage of life, and I can't seem to figure out how to change that. There are people years younger than me who are way ahead of me when it comes to the family life aspect of maturity.

So I guess marketers will not be able to figure me out, because I can't even figure myself out.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

madanthony talks back to rap music, jay-z edition

(from the unplugged live edition)

jigga man:
he did what he had to do for them
but along the way he got lost
fast cars, fast girls
you know the lifestyle

mad anthony: not really. I drive a Ranger, and I can't seem to get a date to save my life.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No, you can't get my number. And what exactly are you up to?

So I went to the mall after work today. My knee has still been kinda sore, so I figured skipping the gym for another day wouldn't hurt. bsom needed to drop off a macbook pro at the apple store, and I had nothing better to do and a fondness for mall chicken terriyaki, so I went with him. Dropped off the macbook, made a quick stop in Tevana so bsom could grab a stupidly overpriced ice tea and I could puzzle that anyone would spend $400 on a teapot (mine was $7, and has an electrical plug), then hit Sarku for dinner.

So we're sitting in the food court, finishing dinner, when a girl walks up to our table . She's short, brown - probably Indian, with a nose stud. I'm a horrible judge of age, but I would guess upper teens. She asks "excuse me, can I get your number?"

After a few seconds of shock, bsom goes "my number?" and she goes "ya". bsom then goes "no, I'm married" and holds up his ring. So she turns to me and asks me the same question, and I go "no". After a few more seconds, she goes "fine" and stomps off.

Of course, after the fact, I thought of a number of better responses than no:

-no. can I have your number.
-sure. 42.
-no. can I take your picture?

When we left, I noticed she was with a group of other teens, mostly girls. I'm guessing it was probably something pretty simple, like a bet that she could collect a certain number of numbers. Either that, or telemarketers have gone low-tech to get around the "do not call" list. But it was still pretty creepy.

Neither bsom nor I are the kind of people who get asked for numbers - especially not me. So I'm sure there was some ulterior motive.