mad anthony

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

Monday, May 26, 2008

If a shitty company falls, does it mean we're in a recession?

A few months ago, I was at work talking to a coworker when someone on CNN started talking about how the economy must be in a recession because some retailers were having trouble. The retailers they named included Macy's and Ethan Allen - stores I, and the coworker I was talking to, never even considered shopping at.

A few days ago, I was reading the Baltimore Sun. I can't seem to find the article online, but the gist was similar - the economy is in the tank, as you can tell from failing retailers. Those retailers: Sharper Image, Linens N Things, and Talbot's.

I'm aware that everyone seems to want to be able to declare that the economy is boned, and that we should expect soup lines and stockbrokers hurling themselves from windows. I'm of the mind that while the economy could be, and has been better, it's not doing all that bad. But that's besides the point.

The fact is, retailers fail all the time. That's part of Joseph Schumpter's idea of the creative destruction of capitalism. Some companies win, some lose, as new companies come up with better ways of doing things that old companies did, or as old companies don't keep up with changing markets.

And that, to me, is what's happening here. It's normal for retailers to go out of business, to have to close stores, or to have sales shrink - retail is enormously competitive, customers are fickle creatures, and the switching costs of going to another store are minimal. Throw in the internet, and it's surprising that chain stores remain in business as long as they do.

And the stores that have been cited have long been marginal or having trouble. I'm not really sure what Talbot's sells, but I've always associated it with clothing for rich old women. Linens N Things is one of those stores that's always puzzled me, if only because their pricing strategy seems to be to raise the price of everything 25% above their competitors, than offer 20% coupons. I can never tell the difference between them and Bed Bath And Beyond, and I seldom shop at either. If I need common kitchen stuff, I pick it up at Target during my regular shopping trips. If I need something complicated, like the scone pan my mom wanted for Christmas last year, I have had better luck finding it at Amazon than at a category-killer, and I dont' even have to put on pants to buy it. As far as Sharper Image, they have always sold cheap plastic crap that answers questions nobody's asked, like "what if my tie rack was motorized".

I'm not saying that a slower economy didn't hurt these businesses - but they were eventually going to have trouble, and just because a few retailers are going bankrupt doesn't necessarily mean the economy is dead.

As a casual bargain shopper, I watch retail pretty carefully, because I can occasionally scoop up deals at going out of business sales. In the past few years, CompUSA has closed up shop, and Radio Shack and OfficeMAX have closed a ton of stores, as have a number of regional department store chains, but these haven't been hailed as the end of the economy, probably because there wasn't an effort to portray the economy as broke. Now that it is, suddenly Sharper Image is an important economic indicator instead of the place where you buy gifts for people you don't really like and don't know what to get.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Trying to slay the pack rat...

I'm a pack rat. I collect junk. It's a habit that I'm trying to break, but I'm not having a whole lot of luck.

I wonder if it's an inherited trait. My mom is much like me, the kind of person who saves everything. I've heard different theories on why some people keep stuff - it makes them feel secure, it takes the place of friends, it's a hedge against poverty.

Part of my problem is that I'm in the crap-resale business. There is truth in the old adage that one man's trash is another man's treasure, and much of what I do on eBay and at hamfests is try to find one man's trash and resell it to someone who treasures it.

And part of it is that this takes up space to store merchandise - plus, if I buy stuff at auction it often means buying lots like "contents of 3 shelves", which often means buying some complete crap to get a good item that's in the lot. That takes space, and getting rid of that stuff is often difficult.

Plus, since I eBay, I save packing materials. I have entire closet full of bubbles, packing peanuts, and brown paper, plus piles of boxes.

Plus, since I like to keep certain computers and the like that I find interesting, and I also try to keep a supply of spare parts, because I can often get them cheap and hate to end up having to pay full price when something fails or I need to test a broken system and I sold all of my spares.

There are a lot reasons I wish I didn't have so much junk. It gets hard to find stuff. I'm constantly having to move stuff to make room for more stuff, to find stuff, to get somewhere. People who visit my house notice the clutter, and it embarrasses me - I find myself closing doors so people don't see my crap (something that my mom was notorious for, as well). If I ever need to move, the more stuff I have the bigger pain it will be. If I ever meet a girl, it's likely to be a stumbling block. And if my house ever catches on fire, I'm likely to be found dead, my charred corpse buried under a collapsed stack of pc cables and size xxl t-shirts.

I'm trying to change. I dragged a ton of stuff to today's hamfest, and am hoping to hit a bunch more and get my stash down by the end of the season. I'm also working to clean up the place where much of my crap is - the basement. I recently hauled the last of my auction-purchased ski boots to the Salvation Army, and plan on making a few more trips to get rid of XXL clothes that no longer fit me and other stuff. I was saving much of this stuff, hoping to eventually yard sale or eBay it, but I'm figuring since it's sat here this long and I haven't, I never will - the longer I keep something, the less likely it is that I will sell it. I'm getting to the point where I'd rather have the space than the money.

I'm trying to hold myself to 1-year rule - if I have something for a year and I haven't used it, it gets sold, donated, or tossed. I know I'll violate this, but hopefully it will get me to get rid of some stuff before I'm completely overrun with crap.

Of course, I could be worse - I have a coworker who is going through the same thing I am, except he is renting 2 storage units to store all his crap. And at today's hamfest, I talked to a guy who mentioned that he has a 10,000 square foot warehouse full of old computers and other stuff he collects, including 400 Electrolux vacuum cleaners. If I ever get to the point where I need to pay to store my crap, I know I'm in trouble.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Where did all the expensive German cars come from?

When I was in bumblefuck, PA last week, we made a late-night convenience-store snack run. On the ride there, one of the guys commented that when he grew up in rural upstate NY as a kid, he would see ads for BMW's and Mercedes cars and wonder why they paid to run ads for them, because he would never see them around. Why were they advertising cars nobody bought?

He had a point. I'm a few years younger than him, and grew up in Somerset County, NJ, which in the past has made the top-10 richest counties in the country (though not for the part I grew up in). I can't say I never saw a beemer or a benz as a kid, but they were definitely rarer than they are today - it was a "oh look, a mercedes" moment, something out of the ordinary.

One of the reasons that was brought up was that both carmakers have moved downmarket, and it's true - heck, both bwm and mercedes have introduced hatchbacks in the last 10 years, although neither sold real well. But the price has come down, and they have smaller cheaper models.

I think there is another reason, though - long-term auto financing. It wasn't that long ago that most car loans were 3 or 4 years long, way too short for the average American to spread the cost of a luxury car over. Now, though, 6 year or longer loans have become not only available, but common. I wrote a post on this last year, and the article I had read included stats that said the average loan was 71 months - nearly 6 years. Part of the reason people are probably taking on such big loans is because they are buying more car, and need more time to pay it off.

Leasing is probably another reason for the prevalence of luxury cars - it's another way to get people into vehicles that they otherwise couldn't afford by lowering the monthly payments - but also causing the person to always have those payments, since they never actually own the car.

Is this good or bad? You could argue it's good - people are getting to own (or lease) the cars of their dreams, to get luxuries and enjoyment they otherwise wouldn't. But from an investment/net worth standpoint, it's probably not a great thing - cars are depreciating assets, and spending more money on them is not a way to build net worth. Having a car payment means much less flexibility in budgeting, which is bad if you get laid off or have a sudden unplanned expense like medical bills. And spreading payments over a long period of time means a much more chance of being upside down on your car - owing more than the car is worth. That can suck if you are in an accident where it's totaled (and didn't pay for GAP insurance). It can also be bad if you find yourself needing to change vehicles because, say, you drive a Miata and your wife is having triplets.

MadAnthony, for the record, is not one of those people with a fancy german car. I drives a 2006 Ford Ranger, which is paid off. I often feels self-conscious, because I feel like everyone else on the road has a cooler/better vehicle than I do. But they also probably have giant loans, which I don't.

Scenes from bar trivia, is she edition....

bsom: It wouldn't surprise me if it turned out she was a lesbian. Or a man.

mad anthony: True. (pause). I'd still do her.

bsom: even if it turned out she was a man? Or a tranny?

mad anthony: pre-op or post-op?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Should MadAnthony be allowed to breed?

I've been thinking about kids a lot lately. It seems like half the people in my department have either recently had kids, are pregnant, or married to someone who is pregnant.

In some ways, it boggles the mind that some of these people are going to be responsible for the care and feeding of another human being - but I'm sure that they will do OK, and raise great kids. But it's still disarming to realize that, say, the college roomate that drove us around our apartment complex parking lot half-drunk while we sat in the bed of his pickup on a pulled-from-the-trash armchair is now raising a nearly-year-old son.

My thought on kids has been that I probably shouldn't be entrusted with another living thing. But when I realize that other people seem to be doing OK at it, I wonder if maybe I could. There is something beautiful about the idea of being part of creating a life, of passing down my genes and my ideas, and of leaving someone on this earth when I'm no longer there.

And the part of my brain that thinks like a business major thinks it could help me in the dating market. (It also could be that the reason I'm single is because I tend to look at dating as more of a market and with less focus on the whole romance angle). It's not unusual to find personal ads for women who seem to be very interested in having children in the near future - mentions of kids, kid-related professions like teacher, pics of them with other people's rugrats. It would seem like women like that might be most likely to be interested in some of madanthony's strengths - frugality, stability, a decent job that provides free college tuition - and more willing to overlook my lack of rugged good looks or an adventurous and outgoing personality.

Then again, sometimes I find myself reverting back to the "I can't be trusted with anything that poops" thinking. As most of madanthony's readers and meatspace acquaintances know, about 9 months ago I acquired Nibbler, a female domestic shorthair that's half angel and half devil, a (to borrow a Brother Ali line) a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi. I think I'm a decent owner to her, although i probably could play with her more. She isn't as affectionate as she used to be, but I suspect that's more her getting older than anything I've done. But every now and then I catch her doing things that could be bad, like eating silca gel or rubber bands.

But last week, I one-upped that. I came back from running some errands, and carrying stuff in the house. I left the front door open, with the storm door closed, while I put away groceries and the like. Finally, I closed the wooden door and then wondered where the cat went. I searched the house - bathrooms, closets, behind furniture, and couldn't find the cat. I could hear her meowing, a sad mournful "mrow!", but couldn't find her. Finally, I tracked the sound down to near the front door. Maybe she got out. I open the wooden door- and discovered that I had managed to shut her between the front door and the storm door.

She was fine, but I felt awful - and wondered if I should be trusted with a living thing after all.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What I did on my weekend vacation...

Most weekends during the summer are pretty much the same. I catch on stuff around the house, go to the gym, pet the cat, watch some tv, nap, run some errands, and maybe hit some yard sales if the weather is ok.

This weekend, though, I went into the woods and shot a Thompson submachine gun, among other things.

There is a group of shooting enthusiasts in the IT department at the college I work for. Every year, they would take a trip to a cabin owned by a coworker's gun club. I was invited last year, but declined because it was the weekend of a hamfest. I regretted that, because later that year Jimmers, the gun club member, passed away, and I missed a chance to spend a weekend with a really cool person, a chance I would never get back.

But luckily Jimmer's wife decided to continue the tradtion, and she and her two sons joined us for a weekend of shooting. I came along, despite having fired guns a grand total of two times before this weekend. I'm a horrible shot, and usually need to be reminded of the basics of using a gun, at least the stuff besides which end to point towards the bad guy. But I enjoy shooting, and it's also an opportunity to spend some time with a really cool group of people. So Saturday morning I drove to coworker's apartment, loaded the essentials (a sleeping bag, clothes, and 24 cans of discount-priced beer) into his Mustang and headed towards Confluence, PA.

Three hours later, we were there - a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in an area whose main industries seem to be white-water rafting and timber production.

I didn't get to do a whole lot of shooting - I mostly hung back and watched the other guys shoot. I did get off a few rounds with a Sig 9mm that a coworker borrowed for me to use from a friend, and shot a couple other guns, including a Thompson submachine gun, which did an amazing amount of destruction.

We also ate well - dinner and breakfast at the Lone Star - a local resturant not affiliated with the steakhouse chain- where the portions were huge and the prices low. Unfortunately, I was getting over a bit of a cold, so I couldn't taste dinner all that well. We also got rain most of Saturday night, which cut into shooting time.

Still, despite feeling like crap for most of Saturday, it was fun. I got to hang out with some cool people outside of work, shoot some guns, eat some good food, and relax. It was nice to be away from technology, from email, from the distractions and chains that I typically structure my days around. Jimmer's widow and kids also seemed to have enjoyed themselves, which was good.

The weekend also made me once again consider buying a gun of my own. True, I probably wouldn't use it all that much - range time isn't cheap, and spending time shooting usually means giving up spending time doing other things, like going to the gym. And part of me is probably just wanting to fit in with my gun-enthusiast coworkers, most of whom were raised in gun-friendly households and shooting since they were 3 feet tall. But there are a few concrete reasons for wanting my own piece - it would let me become familiar with a weapon, which would be easier, and would let me become a better shot, at least with that weapon. It would let me buy cheap ammo online instead of having to buy ammo from the range like I do if I rent. And if I did decide I didn't use it enough to justify keeping it, I could probably resell it and get back most of what I paid for it. I hate spending money, and I have some long-term things (like paying enough of my mortgage off to drop PMI) that I want to save it for, but I'm still giving it some serious thought - not that I need to make up my mind right now. After all, I've got plenty of time until next year's trip....

And now, for what everyone's been waiting for - the pics!

the so-called "arsenal of democracy"
another shot of the weapons cache
me with the tommy gun
the cabin we stayed in
the woods outside the cabin
another shot of the woods outside the cabin
Clark, a coworker, with the Thompson
another shot of Clark with the tommy gun
the borrowed Sig 9mm
Stop! Rifle Range!
another shot of the entry to the range
got bullets?
The Lone Star Restaurant
the crew eating dinner
pickled egg, anyone? - I ate one, but thanks to my cold couldn't really taste it.
Chicken Fried Steak
route 68, on the way back

Gee, that doesn't seem like bias...

There is much debate over media bias. Some people on the right feel that reporters often have an unconscious bias towards liberal politics - that the kind of people who get into journalism often are also the kind of people who are into liberal politics, and sometimes that bias shows through. The idea isn't that reporters have an evil, vast left wing conspiracy to bend the media to their whim, but rather that they have their own ideas and they tend to show up in articles even when they shouldn't. This is the crux of books like Bernard Goldberg's Bias. Others, generally on the left, argue that the media is fair, or biased right, since many of the media outlets are owned by big corporations that often share right-wing theories on policy.

Well, sometimes I find an article that's presented in a way that I feel makes the right look bad needlessly. One of them was in yesterday's Baltimore Sun, Massive fraud' nets plea of guilty. The article was of interest to me because it concerned CMAT, a bankrupt nonprofit whose auction I attended last month, where I bought a number of items, including 9 file servers for $5 a piece, which turned out to contain several hundred dollars worth of parts each.

But what I objected to was the subtitle - Md. man, former donor to GOP, could get 30 years in multimillion-dollar, years-long scheme. Now, the article doesn't focus on anything about his politics. It has one sentence stating that He is a former finance committee chairman for Michael B. Steele's U.S. Senate campaign and for Mitt Romney's presidential bid. There is no link between this and his fraud - no example of quid pro quo for his donations, no bills making it legal to embezzle money that he tried to get on the table, no evidence that any of the politicians he donated to or volunteered for knew of his fraud. Yet this is important enough to be mentioned in the subheading, and probably would lead someone who skimmed the headline but didn't read the article to suspect that the link was far deeper than it was.

I'm not saying the article shouldn't have mentioned the connection, but putting it in the subhead when it has no real link to his conviction or plea seems disingenuous.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I need an e-bay-cation...

I've been an eBay machine for the last couple months. Over the last two months, I've sold 56 items for a total of $2,032.16.

So I think it's time that I take a break. I've got 3 auctions that end tomorrow. After that, I plan on not listing anything until Memorial Day.

Part of this is that I'm running low on inventory. Of the 11 video game systems I bought at auction a couple months ago, I'm down to one that ends tomorrow. I've sorted through my "contents of shelves" auctions, gotten most of the good stuff described, listed, and shipped off to mostly satisfied customers, and pocketed a few bucks.

Now, I still have some stuff - a couple modems, some toner cartridges, a bunch of laptop power supplies and docking stations - and those will be going up in a few weeks. I'm sure I'll find some more deals that will go up as well. I'm also hoping to get a few items that have been sitting around the house fixed, described, and listed (and maybe convince bsom to fix a few more items...). I'm eager to get some junk out of my house and some money into my bank account.

But I'm also tired. The problem with selling a lot of used equipment, like I've been doing, is that it's a lot more work than selling the new-in-box stuff I used to sell back when rebates and clearance were easy picking. With NIB stuff, I can just copy the description off the box, take 2 pictures, and throw it in a box. With used items, I have to test it, take tons of pics to document descriptions, write a careful description, and pack it carefully in a ton of bubble wrap - I've gone through several hundred feet of the bubbly stuff in the last few months, and I don't mean champagne. And then I need to hope it actually did work - I've had to refund two sales, one an item I couldn't test and the other one that tested OK for me, but that I believed the buyer that it didn't work based on where I bought it.

And then there are the ridiculous buyers - I got an email today from a buyer demanding I cut the flat-rate shipping on an auction she won in half - on a brand-new in box toner cartridge that sold for a whopping $1.25. Shit, I'm not going to lose money when I could have taken the damn thing to Staples and gotten a $3 coupon for it. I nicely told her to go to hell, and haven't gotten a response yet. I'm hoping she doesn't destroy my 100% feedback, but I know it can't last forever.

And I'm realizing how much of my time is going to eBay. Last night, I came home from an occasional game night with friends around 11:15. I was then up until 1:30, mostly doing eBay stuff - emailing, packing, ect. Now, it's not like I have a whole lot of better alternatives for my weeknights (I mean, besides bar trivia), but it would be nice to relax. It doesn't help that work has been crazy of late thanks to our current AD migration project, so it would be nice to have some time to relax at home instead of having another job.

I'll still be putting time in for the next few weeks - new descriptions and pics, shipping the last few items - but I'm not planning on listing anything. Plus, I have a Hamfest Memorial Day Weekend (praying for good weather...), so hopefully I'll make some more money there, get rid of items that are too big or low-value to eBay (including my $5 file servers).

And nobody will complain about my shipping charges.

Reality Bytes....

I go to the gym as often as I can. That means time spent on exersize equipment, and now that students are gone from the college I work for, and whose gym I go to, it means I can actually snag the one precor that faces the six LCD TV's that line one wall of the gym. I'm not one of those people who asks them to switch it to a certain program, though - I watch whatever happens to be on, which is often reality TV.

Lately, at least one of the TV's has been tuned to Bravo. Usually that means Top Chef, a show that's growing on me since I loves me some foods, although I do find it depressing that many of the chefs are my age or younger and own their own restaurants, while I have trouble microwaving a can of soup.

But today Top Chef was tuned to Work Out, which showcases the beautiful people who work in a gym in LA.

I find myself hating this people and envying them at the same time. The people aren't really very terribly interesting, but they are easy on the eyes. The cougar-ish owner of the gym and her 25-year old girlfriend who spend half the show making out. The other cute female trainers. I envy the male-model-turned-trainer who is dating his hot blond client after one workout session. But at the same time, most of the characters come off as shallow, self-absorbed, petty, vindictive, and annoying. I'm mean, they work at a gym in LA - what do you expect?

I've often joked that someone should make a reality show about working in tech support. Given the fact that there have been shows on every job, from Dirty Jobs to Parking Wars to King Of Cars, I'm surprised that someone hasn't made one about the exciting world of IT. Our job has plenty of crisises (some real, some invented), lots of trying to get stuff done by the deadline, attempts to figure out and solve difficult problems, and plenty of interaction between coworkers. And the people who work there are an interesting bunch - everything from confirmed bachelors to people with piles of kids, recent college grads and people about to retire, people who barely made it out of high school and people with Master's degrees, politics ranging from gun nut libertarians to tree-hugging borderline commies.

But we are also a pretty homely bunch. No six-pack abs or muscled arms, and nobody wears spandex or sports bras to work (thank God!). So even though I think we are way more interesting than gym rats, I don't think we're ever going to be on TV. Not even on G4.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In the corner, choosing my religion....

Sometimes, I'll read a book on a subject I normally won't, just because I've read other things by the author that I liked. That's why I recently picked up Steven Dubner's Turbulent Souls (evidently also re-released under the title "Choosing my Religion". Dubner, of course, is co-author, with Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics, the book that made economics fun for lots of people (except me, because I always thought it was fun).

Dubner's parents were both Jewish, but converted to Catholicism and were quite serious about it. His father battled depression thoughout his life and died when Steven was 10. Steven drifted away from the church, but then eventually began exploring his Jewish roots and the Jewish faith, and eventually converted to Judaism - much to his mother's dismay.

Dubner's book brought on a bunch of emotions, because religion is something I've found myself struggling with for the last 10 years or so. My parents are very Catholic, heavily involved in the church, and accepting of all of the church's teachings. I went to Catholic school my entire life. I chose to go to a Catholic college, and I think I was on some level hoping that it would make me more religious, but it didn't.

I envy my parents for their deep faith, their certainty that there is a world after this one and that they are on the right path to it. I'm not always so sure.

I tend to think there is a God. I can't really explain the existence of the world, the reason for being, how nature just kind of works, without believing that something bigger than myself, than humans, was involved. Even if the world came into being from a single atom in a big bang, what made that atom?

But I struggle with the details. Believing that what happens in life is part of God's plan makes life easier to understand, makes bad things and pain and death easier to deal with, but I'm not always sure that there is a plan, that there is an afterlife where the injustice of this world is made right.

And that makes the details of Catholicism harder to accept - it's prescriptions on the details of everyday life. As a result, I tend to ignore the ones I don't like, to be a cafeteria Catholic who picks and chooses what he follows. But I'm also so steeped in the church's teachings that I feel guilty about the stuff I don't follow - but not guilty enough, evidently, to actually follow it.

My reasons for following the Church at all are several. As I said, I do tend to lean towards their being a God, and thus it follows that I should probably participate in some sort of worship and prayer of said God. Following the religion that I was raised in is obviously the path of least resistance when it comes to choosing a religion, and that's what I've done. It keeps my parents happy, and I can't imagine how upset and heartbroken they would be if I stopped going to mass. My mom also cleverly asked me to save the church bulletins from my church so that she could read them (and presumably, to prove that I'm going to church). This isn't to say that my parents aren't tolerant of people with other religious beliefs - but I think that they would prefer their son not be one of them.

I guess I could start church-shopping - reading about other religions, trying other churches, see if there is a religion out there that does a better job of explaining why I'm on this earth, and what I should do about it. But that seems disloyal, seems like a recipe for family discord and more personal guilt. Unlike Dubner, I don't have another religion in my family tree to turn to for answers, to pull me in.

In fact, tradition is one thing I like about remaining (nominally) Catholic. It provides me a link to my past, when I was a child in Catholic grade school, rocking the plaid tie and uniform pants, believing without question everything the nuns said. Going to mass with the 'rents on Christmas, Easter, on Sundays when I visit them for the weekend feels comfortable, feels like something that ties me to them and to earlier generations of the MadFamily.

So I remain, torn between tradition and instinct, between what I feel like what I should believe and what I'm not sure if I believe.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

No destination....

I've noticed that when I read online personal ads, one of the hobbies that most single women in my age group seem to list is travel, especially international travel, usually accompanied by pictures of them standing in front of exotic locations.

I've never understood the appeal of travel. It's always stuck me as a waste of money, and that attitude probably isn't helping my efforts to shake my single status.

But I really don't understand the appeal. Part of it is that I see travel as one of those things that's probably more enjoyable if you have someone else - not to mention the economies of scale that lower the cost per person. International travel doesn't really appeal to me, if only because there are so many things in the US that can be seen so much more easily and cheaply. The other thing about travel that I'm not big on is what to do at night - I'm not the kind of person who randomly strikes up conversations with people I've never met, so I tend to spend my nights on business trips by myself eating take-out fast food in my hotel room while watching reruns of Family Guy.

If pressed, I could come up with a list of places I wouldn't mind seeing in the US - the Peterson car museum in LA, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, a ton of breweries and wineries across the country. I'm not a big flier, but I like driving - like watching the miles tick away on the Tom-Tom, like trying regional fast food chains, like seeing places that are similar, but different in little ways, from where I live.

But there are two things that block me from doing this. The first is money. It's not that I couldn't dip into my savings and pull out some money for motels and gas and gas station hot dogs. It's just that I don't want to. To me, spending money on services, on food and gas and rooms equiped with king-size beds, is an inferior use compared to hard goods. I've vowed not to make any big purchases until I've paid off another 10% of my house so that I can drop PMI, and that means no vacation spending. Once I've done that, I have a long mental list of things I would rather spend money on - redoing my master bath so it doesn't look like it's made entirely out of calk, replacing the cabinets in my kitchen with ones made after the Carter administration, buying a second, sporty, car, buying a TV from a brand not sold exclusively by Target.

The other part of the money angle is that, when you factor in mortgage payments, electric bills, repair costs, and other expenses, I'm probably spending something like 65% of my net pay on my house. I feel like I should spend as much time as possible in it, not in a hotel halfway across the country.

The second is time. My job gives me a very generous amount of vacation days - which I never use. Right now, I'm maxed out on vacation days (I've stopped accumulating them) and have 3 personal days that I'll lose sometime next month. But we are in the middle of a never-ending project right now and we were told not to take time off. Other people have anyway, but I'm aware that I'm on thin ice job-wise and don't want to do anything that will risk my job. Plus, when I've taken time off in the past, managers have commented that things have gone well in my absence - if I spend too much time away from the office, it will become obvious that they don't need me, and I'll be out of a job. I've also taken on some new responsibilities (Mac support, image development, software application deployment, SOP documentation, ect) that I'm already having trouble keeping up with - days away from the office are only going to put me deeper in the hole.

That's not to say that I never take time off - I'll take a day here and there to visit the parents in NJ (usually around holidays) or if I'm having work done at the house, or to take my cat to the vet. But my attitude towards vacation days is that that they should be used for needs, not wants - that they should be taken because thee is no other way to get something done, not just to go somewhere for no reason.

I realize that that my viewpoint on vacation days, as well as vacation in general, is probably not shared by a lot of people. Which is probably part of the reason that my life isn't shared with anyone, either.

I'm told it means "empty orchestra"

There's a list of things that I enjoy doing, even though I'm not very good at them. I go to the gym regularly, even though I'm that one flabby guy in a sea of perfectly toned bodies. I will accept invitations to go shooting, even though most of my shots end up on the edge of the target, and to go bowling, even though about half my balls end up in the gutter.

I guess I can add Karaoke to that list.

A little backstory. For the last month or so, bsom and I have been going to Mango Manny's, a bar in the basement of a Ramada Inn. The food is a step up from your average cafeteria and the atmosphere resembles a basement dressed up to look like a tiki lounge. But I still like the place - the crowd is laid back, the beer is cheap, and we've placed in the top three pretty much every week, and our "team", Sofa King Stoopid, is currently in second place overall, mostly due to bsom's massive knowledge of movies and music.

So when we went this week, we found out that they now have karaoke. Now, I like to sing, though I'm not very good at it. So I figured I'd give it a try - it's not like I knew the people there, or really cared what they thought of me. I picked Cake's Short Skirt Long Jacket, because 1)it's basically spoken word and 2)it's got the line "she's trading in her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron (madanthony's first car was a LeBaron).

I discovered that it's harder than I thought. Aside from the fact that I can't really sing, it's weird trying to sing without lyrics - even when you've got the screen in front of you, it's hard to know if your timing is right, or if you sound anything like you should.

So now the creepy group of regulars probably think I'm even weirder than they did before, and bsom has a recording on his iPhone of me going "loooonnngggg jacket".

Still, I'm tempted to do it again. I mean, I can't sound any worse, can I?

Scenes from work, this is a bad time edition...

mad anthony: So, I was taking a pee earlier today and the director of our department asked me to look into how we can get macs to connect to our active directory shares from off campus

coworker: well, that's good. It's an important issue, and I'm glad to see your department is looking into resolving it.

mad anthony: no, I don't mind that he asked me to do it. I just wished he had picked a time when I didn't have my dick in my hand.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Scenes from work, if I was a girl edition...

mad anthony: education is useless. I have an MBA and it's gotten me nowhere. I could have spent that time better.

coworker: I disagree. In fact, if I could live my life over, I'd want to get more education early on in life.

mad anthony: If I could live life over, I'd want to come back as a hot chick. They have it easy.

Scenes from work, say what you really mean edition

mad anthony: I don't think that person likes me very much anymore.

coworker: I don't think they ever liked you.

mad anthony: I know, but they don't even bother pretending that they like me anymore.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Scenes from work. what's in a name edition...

coworker: Yes, we really have student worker with that last name. He says he doesn't tell girls his last name until the third date so he doesn't scare them off.

mad anthony: I have a normal last name, so I can't blame my inability to get dates on my last name. Must be my horribly disfigured face.

coworker: or maybe your completely disturbed personality.

mad anthony: gee, thanks.

Hey, I'm a member of a disadvantaged group...

The college I work at is currently involved in a backend software migration, which is requiring us to visit every machine on campus. Yesterday, we visited our school's department in charge of supporting the disabled.

While I was waiting for a machine to reboot, I started paging through one of the pamphlets they had in a rack - about dealing with people with disabilities. Surprisingly, one of them applied to me - people of short stature.

One of the pieces of advice jumped out at me - don't pet a short person on the head or kiss them on the top of the head. So, of course, I showed the pamphlet to one of our system engineers, one of the few people in our department who I tower over (ok, by tower over I mean by like an inch and a half )- and then patted him on the head.

He thought it was funny, and kept a copy.

I'm not sure how short "a person of short stature" is, or if I technically qualify. But while I've long thought there were a lot of things wrong with me, height has always been low on the list. Maybe I should give it more weight - after all, studies show women dating online look for tall guys, so maybe that accounts for my inability to find love on the intertubes.

Since I'm evidently a member of a group that's clearly disadvantaged, I need to start using this to my advantage. I'm currently applying for a promotion - maybe if I don't get it, I can blame it on prejudice against people of my height. Maybe I can ask for special accommodations at work, like a desk chair with a working height adjuster (I found my current work desk chair in the trash).

Or not. I know nobody (except maybe potential dates, and suing them won't help) judges anything about my height. And I really don't care if you pet me.

Why I think people should be able to do stupid shit...

Consumerist has an article about a gadget that car dealers are using to make sure risky buyers pay their bills. The device is attached to the car, and when the buyer makes a payment they get a code they enter in the device. If they don't pay, they don't get a code, and the unit beeps at them - and then eventually disables the vehicle. It's had a dramatic effect on the number of people who default on car loans.

I think it's a great idea. It gets rid of one of the biggest problems of car loans - the fact that your collateral is on wheels and easy to move and hide. Repos are expensive and dangerous. This device makes them unnecessary. More importantly, it lets the marginal borrower - the person who otherwise wouldn't be able to get a car loan - get one, because the lender feels more secure about the collateral.

The comments section is full of people discussing it - while some see it the way I do, many others think it's horrible - an invasion of privacy, an embarrassment, and that if people can't qualify for a car loan without a black box in their car, they shouldn't get a car loan at all.

I'm a big believer that humans are for the most part rational - that they enter into contracts voluntarily because they feel they are better off with them than without them. I think this is one of those cases. If people choose to get a car loan that involves the device, clearly they feel that it's a better choice than not having a car. And given how car-dependent our society tends to be, it's not surprising that some people would make that decision. A car is often freedom - a chance to get to a better job, live in a better neighborhood, to be able to shop at better and cheaper stores. It's easy to understand why some people would be willing to put up with a device for that freedom, and it's arrogant of people who don't have to make that choice to try to pass laws preventing people from making those choices.

I feel the same way about the other popular whipping boy of consumer movements - payday loans. Yes, when you take a two week payday loan and break it down into an annual APR, they often have stupidly high APR's. But that's because they are short-term loans, and they have high fixed costs for origination and servicing, plus high default rates. And yes, they are often misused as long-term loans instead of short-term loans. Yes, they are often used to buy stupid, useless shit like rims or stereos. But for someone who has the choice of a high-interest payday loan or no money at all to pay bills or take their kids to the doctor, they are better than nothing, and regulating them removes that option. The alternatives can be even worse - loan sharks, turning to crime. Restricting choices because we don't like the reasons some people choose them is still a restriction on freedom, and it also means that some people will be worse off.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Must keep moving...

I was talking to one of our student workers a few days ago. He's graduating in a few weeks, and recently interviewed for a job. He was asked when he could start, and told them as soon as he graduated. They told him a few times that if they hire him, he's welcome to take off a couple weeks between graduating and when he starts. He said he would rather start ASAP - and that he figured I was the same way, that I probably spend the weekend waiting for work to start again.

I said that I wouldn't go that far. But there's probably some truth to it.

I can't say that I spend the weekend waiting for the workweek to start. There are a lot of things I like about my job - coworkers, the chance to play with technology, to solve problems. But there are enough things that I don't like about work - office politics, angry users, having to wake up on time - that I can't say I'm usually looking forward to Monday morning.

But I do feel listless on weekends if I'm not busy. I try to be doing something - yard sales, hamfests, doing stuff around the house, running errands, bargain hunting, blogging. On Thursday or Friday, I'm usually making a to-do list on the back of a piece of scrap paper. While I usually don't get everything on it done, I usually make a pretty good dent in it (and the stuff that doesn't get crossed off is usually the stuff I hate doing the most, like cleaning).

I'm probably more attached to work than I should be. Except for a handful of college acquaintances and their circle, that I seldom see, most of my friendships and social activities are with coworkers. It sort of works, in that we tend to have similar interests, but just like college friends, as people start to move their lives in their own directions, I tend to see those people less. Work is kind of my rock, the one certainty in my life, the one thing I'm not trying to change. Which is why I get paranoid every time a minor change occurs, or when I make a mistake - I start thinking of what I would do if I got fired, and where I would go and what I would do, and I'm not sure what the answer is. Sometimes, though, I wonder if it would be the best thing that could happen to me, if it would force me to take another look at my life, to take another direction.

When I'm home, I still need to be doing something. I tend to feel bad about just sitting down and watching TV or something (and more and more have found myself having to constantly delete stuff off my 60 gig DVR because I keep running out of space). Even when I'm watching TV, I tend to be doing other stuff - eating, cleaning, websurfing, reading the paper. I'm used to having multiple things going on at one time - listing to music while blogging, going to the gym and watching tv, listening to my Zune, and doing my workout.

I sometimes wonder if I'm being a good "foster parent" to my cat. I don't play with her all that much, and I feel like I should be more. But I'm starting to realize that she's a cat, not a madanthony. Unlike me, she has no problem just laying on the floor staring at stuff. When she plays, when she attacks my shoelaces or the blinds, it's probably out of instinct, not because it's on some kitty to-do list. When I shake her awake from her position at the foot of the bed in the morning, she probably doesn't start thinking about what she needs to get done that day the way I do. She doesn't check her smartphone to see what she has scheduled. She just exists, and enjoys every day.

I can't have the same carefree life as my kitty. Unlike her, I don't have someone to fill my food bowl every night and clean up my poop. I've got to work, I've got to hustle if I want to eat and pay my mortgage and buy toys that I hope will provide me with some temporary distraction.

But I wish I could relax for a little while sometimes...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Maybe I should have bought a house in a HOA with higher expectations...

I came home from the gym and running some errands tonight to find a notice from my homeowner's association in my mailbox.

My heart sank a little - what would have to do now? Would they make me install the shutters around my front door that are required, and were mentioned when I bought the house, but never again? Would they comment on my yard, which could use a mowing? Did my new door not meet their standards?

Nope. The notice was asking residents to clean the animal feces out of their backyards, because they are food for rats, and because, well, poop smells when it gets hot.

Phew. Nothing to worry about - after all, my cat Nibbler is an indoor cat, so she doesn't poop outside, and besides, she poops rainbows anyway.

It's not easy hearing about being green...

One of the staples of sitcoms of the 80's and 90's was the "very special episode" of a show - which usually dealt with some serious issue, like drinking or drugs or death or AIDS- striking one of the characters, given as a less on in not drinking or using drugs or having unsafe sex. Of course, those episodes also tended to be preachy and unfunny, contrived to force a message down people's throats.

The newest thing that producers seem to want to force down throats is environmental protection. I don't watch a whole lot of TV, and what I do is a mess of reality shows (Mythbusters, Smash Lab, Ace of Cakes, Flip This/that House, The First 48) and a handful of action dramas (CSI, NCIS, L&O, The Wire) that combine the two things I look for in a TV show - hot chicks and stuff blowing up. One of the shows that makes the cut is Numbers - it's not exactly brilliant writing, but it combines the occasional interesting discussion of game theory or computer search algorithms with, well, stuff blowing up. But in the last couple episodes I've watched off the DVR, they've been trying to integrate - badly - a story line about "greening" the house that one of the main characters live in.

Yes, I know we should care about the environment. But I think most people tend to do most of the basics of environmental responsibility - recycling, trying to save gas, ect - and I doubt those who don't will be changed by a few minutes of TV. However, those of us who watch TV as an escape, who just want to get lost in the world of drama, of the FBI, of stuff blowing up, are subject to an annoying discussion of environmentalism, badly hidden like a 30 pack in an underage college student's suitcase.

I feel like it's going to get worse - every company seems to want to be green. I've seen Fox running green promos during Bones, although luckily the plot wasn't marred by discussion of alternative energy - yet. If NBC and CBS and the like want to run programs about the environment, or ads and promos about it, or put stuff on their websites, fine. But I'd appreciate it if they wouldn't try to cram it into every show like an overweight woman into a slinky dress. I watch TV to be entertained and escape, not to be preached to about how we are all doomed if I don't trade in the Ranger in for a Segway and convert my townhouse to run on biofuel.

Friday, May 02, 2008

scenes from bar trivia, we tall did edition

announcer: And in 6th place with 290 points, eye we tall did.

girl 1 from Liquor Chicks (the team at the table next to us): Heh. Now I get it. Retarded.

girl 2 from Liquor Chicks: you are retarded.

(we managed to come in 3rd place, winning 20 bucks, thanks to sucessfully getting the final question and betting the max. That was enough to pay our bar tab, 2 beers for me, 2 sprites for bsom, leave a 40% tip, and to stop at taco bell on the way home. And discover that they were out of nachos and mexican pizza. How the hell does a restaurant that closes at 3am run out of major ingredients at 11pm? )

Dating advice, or why I'm a donkey...

I find myself occasionally reading dating advice from places like yahoo or, more recently, from the advice section of eHarmony. Like this article on not being an Eyeore.

Surprisingly, this article isn't the first place where I've been compared to a certain depressed donkey. I can remember one of my friends in high school using the term to describe me, as well as people recently.

The problem with dating advice is that it's generally completely correct... and completely generic, and non-specific, and thus useless. Telling people to be more confident doesn't make them more confident. By the same token, telling people that the trick to being happy is to find things that make them happy and do them, or that the trick to dating is to find places where lots of single people with similar interests hang out.

Well, if I knew of a place full of attractive single women with similar interests (that is, cats and eBay), I would be there instead of blogging, and sites like eHarmony and match wouldn't exist.

Same thing with doing things that make you happy. Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out what makes them truly happy. And even if you have hobbies that you love, you don't spend all your time doing them - you need to spend time doing things like working and sleeping and washing dirty dishes and cleaning the cat's shitbox. Life isn't fun all the time, and you don't always have the luxury of only doing things that are enjoyable.

I'm realizing that the people who write dating columns don't really know anything that people who don't read them don't know. The trouble with people who need help with dating (like me) is they are aware of the generalities - that they need to be more confident, that they need to find activities that they enjoy and places full of people like them. The hard part is finding those things. Because those things vary from person to person, general advice is not going to help much. And because those things are often hard to find or do, telling people that they should do them only makes them more frustrated.

I've joked in the past that compared to dating, things like saving money to buy a house or losing weight are easy, because they are just math - save more, spend less, eat less, exercise more - while dating involves someone else's interaction. That is, of course, completely wrong. Well, not completely, but like most dating advice, it's vastly simplified. Every fatty knows they need to consume less and burn more - the hard part is the specifics, what foods to eat and what to avoid, how and when to exercise, and how to break bad habits, peer pressure, and time constraints. I've had some sucess in the last few years losing weight, and I've managed to keep the bulk of it off - but that was after about 10 or 15 years of being fat. And yes, that whole time I knew how to lose the weight in the abstract - I just hadn't figured out how, or developed the willpower to actually do it.

And the same is true of dating. The problem is not that I don't know what I need to do, the problem is I'm not sure of the specifics - how to do it.