mad anthony

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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Have I mentioned how much I hate this weather?

Back in October, I was already complaining about the cold. Of course, now that it's January, I'm wishing for the warmer days of late October.

The last month or so has been miserably cold. My heating bills have been stupidly high. My hands are chapped raw. Every morning I end up being even later to work because I'm scraping ice off my windshield. I've got to lug extra clothes to the gym so I don't freeze when I leave. My nose keeps running. The dry air of my house has made it electric, so everything I touch - especially Nibbler the cat and and her thick layer of conductive fur - gives me (and her) an electric shock.

Also, I can no longer walk up my front stairs. I neglected to clean the gutters this year, and so melting snow has overflowed them, leaked onto my stairs, and frozen, making it a sheet of ice. I've been getting into the house of late by walking accross the lawn, which is icy but not as slick, hopping onto the raised flowerbed, and then hopping onto my stoop. I plan on attacking it tomorrow with ice melt and a shovel, and hopefully most of the melted snow drippage will be done by then.

I do need to deal with my gutters. Two years ago, I also neglected to clean them or have them cleaned, and the same thing happened. Last year, I paid a random guy with a ladder and a pickup to clean them. He did a good job of getting shit out of the gutters, but also broke off a chunk of the soffit in the back of the house. So I'm thinking come spring/summer I'm going to have Gutter Helmet, or some knockoff installed, and also get the soffit fixed. That's going to mean doing two things I hate doing - spending money, and probably taking a day off from work while it gets done. But I suppose I don't really have a choice.

I keep telling myself that spring is getting closer - by mid-march it should be downright decent outside. But to get there means getting through the cold, grey, icy mess that is February, and they are predicting more snow/ice next week. Joy.

I've gotten to the point where I don't even care about snow days. I usually seem to waste them anyway, sleeping and doing nothing productive. Besides, I've got a ton of projects at work I need to work on, and they have hard deadlines. If work is closed for a day or two, it doesn't change the deadlines, it just makes it harder to meet them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow days and taxes....

So yesterday I got out of work at 1:30 due to weather. Which was odd, since the weather was way worse when I left for work in the morning than when I left work. But since more snow and ice was predicted, I guess it made sense to get everyone home before it came down.

Cool, half a day off. I could get all kinds of things done. But of course, I didn't. I got home, surfed the web for a while, and then took a 2 hour nap. Besides about an hour spent organizing my basement, I got absolutely nothing done. I didn't even work out.

When I checked the webpage for the school I work for before I went to bed, we were scheduled to open at noon. So I slept until 9 or so this morning, got up, ate breakfast - and then discovered that they had switched to being closed today. So I then spent the next few hours doing, well, nothing. Besides writing a couple eBay descriptions and spending an hour on the treadmill, I spent most of the day surfing the web.

Finally, at 3:30 I dragged myself outside to shovel the walk and clean off my truck. I had thought about going to the bank and an auction, but by the time I had the truck-sickle de-iced, it was too late to go to the bank, and I figured I probably shouldn't be driving anyway. On the plus side, my mailbox contained the last two things I needed to do my taxes - my 1099-G and my W2. I had gotten my copy of TurboTax from Amazon a few days earlier, so I spent this evening doing my taxes.

It was pretty painless - since I still had my turbotax file from last year, most of the info was imported, and it was just a matter of entering the new numbers. I'm getting back $3961 from the Feds and $1305 from the State of Maryland. Which is quite good. Now I just need to decide if I should throw it at my student loans, my mortgage, some home repairs, or just sit on it. I'm thinking student loans, because I evidently now make too much to deduct student loan interest - although that may not be the case next year if I don't make as much overtime. I do have a few things I need to do to the house, though. Especially since my master bath toilet catastrophically failed today - I'm hoping I can either jerry-rig it or replace the guts, although after about 10 minutes of fishing around the cold water inside, I decided to put it off and use the hallway bathroom instead for now.

So while I would have liked to have gotten a lot more done, I can't really complain - my taxes are behind me, which I thought would be a weekend project. So now I can use my weekend to clean. But I probably won't.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How do you know when you've reached Baltimore City limits? Just look for the snow...

I've talked about living in the suburbs vs. the city on a number of occasions. It's a subject relevant to me, as someone who works in Baltimore City and lived there for several years before buying a house in Baltimore County.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off buying in the city - if, as a single guy I'd be happier in a hipster area surrounded by bars and people my own age instead of in the 'burbs, surrounded by families and the occasional retiree. Given the fact that I get tired after two beers, I'm guessing probably not. For the most part, the advantages of living in the 'burbs - close to shopping, low crime, easy parking, peace and quiet, newer housing stock - outweigh the advantages of a shorter commute and more social opportunities.

But I've realized there is one more advantage to county life - better city services. My commute takes me down Perring Parkway, a 6-lane divided highway with a few traffic lights that runs east-west across Baltimore City and County. My drive to work this morning, during a light snow with some accumulation, was pretty clear - until I crossed over the line from Baltimore County into Baltimore City. Soon after, the right lane was literally filled with snow. I moved left, into the middle lane, which was clearer - not because of any plowing or sanding, only because of the tire tracks from previous cars driving on it. The rest of my drive was pretty much the same - city streets that looked like they hadn't been touched. And most of these were pretty main roads that bring lots of people into work.

As a young, single, guy, I don't demand a lot of services from local government. I've been in the library in my county once. I've needed the police once while living in the city, when I called the cops because someone stole the wheels off my car in college (I wasn't impressed with the dispatcher, who laughed and asked me if I knew who did it - if I did I would be beating them with a baseball bat, not calling the cops). Besides trash pickup (which where I live is done while I'm still in bed, so I can't complain). I don't have a whole lot of frames of reference for quality of service. But if road-clearing is any indicator, the services provided by the county are considerably better than those of the city.

Monday, January 26, 2009

In praise of partisanship...

While I was half-watching CNN at the gym, they had a question where people email their thoughts on bipartisanship. Most of the responses were "the Republicans are evil criminals who are saying no to everything Obama wants" mixed in with a few "well the Democrats suck, and they are infighting amongst themselves. Why would Republicans go with them"?

Here's the thing about bipartisanship. To me, what that means is a certain level of compromise - you put aside small differences to pass legislation that the majority of people want. Of course, I say that because I'm a Republican. For the Dems right now, bipartisanship is saying yes to whatever they want.

Of course, most Republicans aren't going to do that, for very good reasons. To be a Republican and still have a seat right now, you probably come from a very Republican district back home. The people who voted you in power probably want someone who acts like a Republican, and one who goes too far towards being for whatever the Prez wants has a good chance of facing a challenger in the next primary.

But I also think a certain amount of partisanship is a good thing. Our system of government was built on conflict, on debating ideas and proposals. It might not be quite as fun or entertaining as the British Parliament, where members can get pretty nasty, but it's there. And that's a good thing - it brings out different views on things, points out flaws or conflicts of interest, and gives people a better idea of proposed legislation.

Right now one of the things that Dems are going to want the Republicans to get behind is their bailout/economic stimulus plan. I'm not a big fan of any economic stimulus plan, and I predict that this one will be full of lots of pork, government overreaching, handouts to people who don't need or deserve them, and new programs that will never die, just get bigger and cost more money. This is a plan whose costs will be born by my generation and my generation's children. It should be debated, it should be opposed, it should have to be justified by the people who want to pass it. It is exactly the kind of thing that a minority party should not roll over on.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's been a two-hamfest week...

This week I had two hamfests. The first was the Timonium Minifest on Wednesday night. I left work a little early and was still pretty much the last vendor to get there around 5. I was told that people had gotten there as early as 1pm. They were out of tables by the time I got there - luckily, I had brought one, having run into the same thing last year, and bsom had two more in his car. I didn't buy anything, but did sell $189 worth of stuff. I also bought $5 worth of 50/50 tickets, and won - the prize was $21.

Today was the MMARC post-holiday hamfest in Odenton. Once again, I didn't buy anything, but I did sell $302 worth of stuff. I did miss a couple decent deals, including a p4 shuttle-type small form factor PC with an older Viewsonic flat panel monitor and a copy of Vista for $50. I had seen it and thought it was cool, but didn't ask how much it was - and the guy at the table next to me snatched it up. It would have been a steal, but while I probably could have gotten most of my money back just for the monitor, it probably would have just gathered dust for a while. Same with an early p3 Vaio for $100 that I passed up.

I'm pretty happy with my sales, and I've gotten rid of quite a few things, including stuff I've had for a while. I'm actually getting to the point where I'm getting low on inventory - I've sold a lot of my stock, and deals have been kind of thin lately. I'm hoping some deals or something come up soon. In the past there have been times where I seem to be out of inventory, and something comes up - sales, auctions, ect. I'm hoping it happens again, because I don't have a whole lot to sell. Then again, the next 'fest I'm going to sell at will probably be Memorial Day weekend - I usually go to the big fest in Timonium just to shop. That should give me plenty of time to build up some inventory - as well as to clean out the closets in my home office, which are full of way more stuff than I will ever use. I'm often have a bit of a dilemna - do I keep parts I might need someday but probably won't, or do I get rid of it and risk needing it right after I've sold it? Given the fact that I'm getting kind of tired of dealing with how much clutter I have, and would like to simply, as well as free up some money, I'm leaning to the latter.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Last month, I got a notice in the mail that I had to take my truck in for emissions testing. I was kind of surprised - I was under the mistaken impression that emissions testing was tied to registration, because my previous car had to get emissions tested right before the registration was due. Evidently, that's not the case, since I just renewed my registration a few months ago.

I was hoping to do it during Christmas break, but having crashed my truck into a Pontiac on New Year's Eve, I couldn't do that. It had to be done by February 11, so I decided to do it this morning.

In typical government fashion, the VEIP (Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program) locations are open mostly when gainfully employed people are at work. They are open until 7 two days a week and on Saturdays from 7am to 1pm. So I programed the location of the Erdam Avenue location (which is in the city, but closer than the Owings Mills county location) in my Tom-Tom and headed out around 11:20.

Getting there involved driving through a number of Baltimore's less premier neighborhoods, passing such establishments as a bar named Dicks' Halfway Inn. The center itself is located across the street from a junkyard and within sight of the sign for the Gentleman's Gold Club, a strip joint.

The wait wasn't as long as I feared - probably about 20 minutes to half an hour. Since my truck is 10 years newer than the 1996 minimum for ODB2 equipment, the test consisted of them plugging in a reader and verifying that there weren't any error codes. There is also a gas cap test, but according to the sheet they gave me after the test, they didn't do it because they didn't have the proper sized adapter. Which seems funny - my Ford Ranger isn't exactly a rare vehicle (Ford sold 54,000 of them in the first 8 months of 2008), which makes me wonder how many vehicles they actually have the right adapter for.

Actually, the whole test makes me wonder how much benefit there is. It seems silly to me that I had to have a 2.5 year old truck tested - I would guess most newer vehicles are going to be in compliance. And even if a vehicle fails, there are a bunch of waivers available - for diesels, senior citizens, for the disabled, for people who have dumped a bunch of money into fixing their vehicle but still can't get it to pass. (I want to say that vehicles with historic tags are exempt too, but I can't seem to find anything conclusive either way). Throw in the fact that people have to drive to the emissions centers, and idle while they wait for their tests (because if you have a pre-odbII car, the dynomometer/tailpipe test needs to be done with the engine "hot") , and I wonder if the emissions from the test outweighs what it saves. The $14 fee for getting a test done that I have to do doesn't exactly sit well with me, either.

But I have my test done, so I'm good until 2011 - when I'll probably post another rant about it.

I need to grow some balls...

The gym I go to has seven flat-panel TV's lining the wall in front of a number of the cardio machines, and I usually try to grab a machine that faces them and watch whatever happens to be on. Some people occasionally ask the gym staff to change one of the TV's. But there's one person, who always seems to get there just after me, and plop down in front of me, who insists that they change two of the TV's in front of him, one to CNN and the other to MSNBC.

Occasionally, the staff will ask if anyone is watching something before they change the channel. But usually they won't, and most of the time I am watching whatever was on the TV they change. But I never speak up, never give a "hey, I was watching that". Then I spend the rest of my workout annoyed because I can't watch the end of whatever I was watching. But more annoyed that I can't seem to muster up the balls to speak up.

I don't know why. I guess it could be that I feel I'm not worth it, that I don't deserve special treatment. But I think it's mostly just that I try to avoid conflict. I don't want to be seen as difficult, and I don't want to get in an argument or have people think that I'm making their life difficult, even if they are making mine difficult.

Obviously, this is bigger than TV's at the gym. It manifests itself in small ways, like at the grocery store, where if someone is blocking the isle I'll go to the next isle and swing back instead of asking them to move. It manifests itself in bigger ways, though, like being willing to lose almost $300 rather than confront a person who borrowed money and didn't pay it back. (I did end up calling him a number of times, but he just stopped answering and still owes me $89). But worst of all, it manifests itself at work, where I generally will do whatever people ask me to do, even if it's not really my job or is something I shouldn't do. I have a pretty good relationship with my boss and generally tell him what I feel, but I tend to shy away from talking to his boss, which means I end up talking to my boss who then talks to him, and usually something gets lost in translation, like a game of telephone. I tend to take on new responsibilities, even when I'm overwhelmed, because I don't want to say no.

And every time that cnn-watching gym patron walks in, I think "this is the time I'm going to stick up for my TV-viewing preferences". And I never do.

Work-life unbalanced....

I was walking out of work a few days ago. My friend/coworker bsom noticed me carrying a box with a laptop in it and asked "taking work home again?" "yup", I replied, and he gave me a sort of sad look of pity.

As far as overtime goes, it's actually a pretty good deal - I can take a laptop home and get it set up in the comfort of my home, while watching TV and petting the cat, and get paid for it. It certainly beats the couple days last week where I was in the office until 10, setting up iMacs and Mac Pros that could not easily be transported home. I could use the money, what with my tendency to run my truck into things, and given the state of the economy I'm lucky to have a job that's willing to pay OT (knock on wood). Although, given that my employer has recently instituted a hiring freeze and has several open positions that will thus go unfilled, they pretty much have the choice of paying OT or not having stuff get done.

And get done it must. I have a long list of things I need to do - standard break/fix tickets, computer replacements, application development and deployment. We're supposed to migrate our entire email system by the middle of the year, and it's my job to make sure the new version gets installed on everyone's computer. Except we just upgraded our software deployment server, so now we need to get that working before I can do much of anything else. We're having budget issues that are getting in the way of me getting equipment I need. We have another project involving our images for laptops, which I handle, where I spent the better part of a day with a consultant who ignored everything I told them about how we do certain things, told us he had fixed the problem, and then spent the entire day proving that he hadn't.

One of the key phrases that people like to talk about is work/life balance. For someone like me, who doesn't have a whole lot going on in the "life" part, it's hard to complain too much about the work portion. While I'm not about to put dub-sixes on the Ranger, I could be doing a lot worse.

Still, I can't help wondering if I would have more in the life category if I didn't have so much in the work part. Probably not - when I have a day off, I end up spending it running errands or doing stuff around the house or sitting around eating cookies and watching TV, not hitting on supermodels. Still, it would be nice not to have to skip or cut down my gym time - one of the few useful things I do with my spare time, and I do feel bad that I don't spend a whole lot of time playing with Nibbler the cat.

The biggest problem with work is that I don't see it getting better anytime soon. I've got a ton of work that needs to get done, and when those things are done there is another giant list of things that need to get done. Many of the things I work on are the kinds of projects that never end. I already don't take time off - I just hit the point where I start losing vacation time because I've hit my max, and I can't see ever being able to take another day off when I can't get stuff done as it is. I have some doctors appointments and stuff I need to do eventually, but I can't see missing work.

I guess it's a good thing that I'm single, because if I wasn't I probably would be pretty soon anyway, because I can't see too many women putting up with that. But I don't really see a choice either.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Timing is everything...

A few days ago, one of my tasks at work was to setup and deliver a new laptop to a new employee. One of my coworkers informed me that "by the way, she's really cute". I drop off the laptop and show her the basics, and have to agree with my coworker's assessment - she was cute, in a hipster sort of way.

Fast forward to near the end of the day. I get a call from a department that I had ordered a bunch of macs for that they want them delivered - and could I do it now? It was late, but I suck at saying no, so I agreed. I threw a 30" cinema display, 2 mac pro's, and an iMac onto our handtruck and start wheeling it across campus. It's cold outside, and I hate the cold - it makes me wheeze, and makes my nose run. I'd overloaded the cart - say what you will about Apple, but they build some heavy machines - so by the time I get near the building on the other side of campus, I'm panting, grunting, with snot running down my nose. I'm almost in, sounding like I'm about to keel over, and hear a "hi Anthony".

It's the cute chick from this morning, and she's just seen me in the worst possible light.

The lesson from this? When it comes to timing, mine is the worst.

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, Gladwell discusses the fact that, while success certainly requires things like skill, hard work, and intelligence, it also often depends on luck, on being at the right place at the right time, on culture, on things that nobody would have thought of. Bill Gates had access to a mainframe computer at his high school and a number of other opportunities that let him get into software development. Many of the successful lawyers involved in takeovers got there because they couldn't get into the big WASP law firms, so they worked for smaller companies that did takeover law before takeover law was cool/acceptable/profitable. In Canada, many of the best hockey players were born in January - just past the birthday cutoff for joining leagues, meaning they were nearly a year older than players born in December of the same year, and thus at an advantage.

This doesn't, of course, mean that successful people succeeded only because they were in the right place at the right time - Chances are plenty of other people had the same opportunities and didn't take them, and presumably some people overcome bad timing.

But I do seem to have hit some trends at the exact wrong time. I graduated college in 2002 with a degree in Management Information Systems, right after the IT bubble burst and after 9/11 dampened the economy. Had I graduated a few years earlier, I would have been able to easily get a job, though how long I would have kept it I don't know. Had I graduated a few years later, I probably also would have had an easier time finding a job, because the number of IT grads decreased thanks to, well, the lack of jobs a few years earlier.

The same applies to buying a house - I bought in 2006, which made sense from my perspective - I had a few years to save up some money and get an idea what I wanted. I couldn't realistically have bought in, say, 2003, since I started the year unemployed with a negative net worth. But I managed to buy pretty much at the top of the bubble. Maybe I was dumb for buying when I did - but there are plenty of people who bought in 2002 or so and made a shitload of money not because they were incredibly smart, but because that happened to be when it made sense for them to buy a house.

Now, I can't complain too much - I can think of a number of times I was in the right place at the right time, where things worked out - getting the job I currently have happened because of a series happy accidents, from applying for a job as a student to having someone leave when I was looking for a job. And in terms of the lucky sperm club, I certainly could have done worse - I was born to a middle-class family that placed a high value on education, during a time of economic and technological prosperity, at least when looked at in the whole history of time.

Still, there are so many small, insignificant things that can make a big impact on the path of life. I can't help wonder if I wouldn't be single if I had made one small different move somewhere - talked to someone I didn't talk to, go somewhere I decided not to go, clicked on an ad on a dating site that I didn't.

Or delivered a load of heavy computers in two trips.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Oh day off, I had such high hopes for you....

Today was MLK day, which meant a day off from work. I figured it would be a great opportunity for me to run some errands and get a bunch of things done.

Slept in. I wanted to go to the gym, but it didn't open until 11 because of the holiday. But I managed to procrastinate until 11:30, when I went to leave - and discovered it was snowing. Pretty well. I figured I'd wait it out, because I didn't want to drive in the snow, especially after my accident a few weeks ago.

So I waited. And waited. And it kept snowing. I surfed the net, read. Still snowing. Decided to skip the gym and use the treadmill, and skip the auction I was going to go to - from the pics online, it appeared to be mostly sports memorabilia and expired food, anyway. And not even expired food I liked.

So I decided to clean the entrance table where I throw all my mail that I don't know what to do with. So instead of a giant pile of papers I have no clue what to do with, I have a bag of recycling and several smaller piles of paper I have no clue what to do with. This is partially because I'm a packrat, saving every receipt and bank statement. It's also partly because my mom is also a packrat, and will often send me an envelope full of coupons for products I don't use and articles that I don't read, but feel guilty throwing out. She also got me a gift subscription for Taste of Home magazine, despite the fact that most of my cooking involves making frozen food hot. I haven't opened any of them, but can't bring myself to toss them.

I also found a rebate check for $25 that had fallen, unopen, behind the table. Unfortunately, it said that it needed to be cashed by November 12. I guess I'll probably try to deposit it anyway, but it doesn't look good, and I'm kicking myself for losing it. I also found an unopened letter from my bank telling me that a CD I had was going to automatically renew 4 months ago, which explains why I forgot to cash it in.

I still have more stuff I need to sort. I got some little stuff done today - load of laundry, replaced the batteries in my smoke detector so it will stop beeping at me, loaded the truck for Wednesday's mini hamfest, squeezed in an hour (ok, 58 minutes) on the treadmill. But I still feel like I should have done more.

Inauguration, Sminauguration...

So everyone seems to be making a big deal of Tuesday's inauguration. I was scheduled to take a career development class that our HR department is sponsoring, but they decided to push it back because they were worried too many people would be taking off for the inauguration.

It's kind of weird, since I'm an anomaly - a registered Republican in a very blue state, who works in higher ed, which tends to be very liberal. The thought of taking off for the inauguration never occurred to me - but then again, the thought of taking days off for any reason has never really occurred to me.

I didn't vote for Obama. I'm not thrilled that he's going to be our next president. I expect that during his term, he will implement a number of the policies he's discussed in his campaign that I think will leave me and a lot of other people a lot worse off - handouts to low-income individuals disguised as tax cuts, card check leading to more unions and an even worse-off manufacturing sector, a heath "insurance" plan that will also become a huge cost center, and a tendency to care more about America's image abroad than it's interests.

Still, it could be worse. His cabinet picks and some of his statements suggest he may be more moderate than his campaign suggested, and he may not be quite as soft on terrorism as I feared.

I'm trying to think if I've watched any other inaugurations, and the only one I remember was Clinton in 1992, and only because my elementary school pulled everyone out of class to watch it. I didn't watch W's in 2001, even though I voted for him. Then again, I was a junior in college at the time, so I was probably drunk and wouldn't remember if I saw it or not.

Government pomp and circumstances doesn't really interest me. Even if someone I had voted for had won, I doubt I'd be too eager to watch it. I'm more interested in the policy, the actual things that will happen, than the symbolic ceremonies. If someone happens to turn the battered Crosley TV that hangs in our office on on Tuesday, I might look at it for a minute or two, but I'm not hitting the on switch.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

madanthony and the danger ranger are back in b-more...

Well, the truck and I are back in Baltimore. I have to say that the body shop did a really good job - it looks like new.

When I woke up this morning at 6:30 am, to go to church with the 'rents, it was snowing. This didn't exactly thrill me, since the thought of driving in the snow was not a pleasant one, given my complete lack of driving skills. But indicated that it was pretty much expected to flurry for the next two days, so delaying going back didn't really make sense - plus I wanted to be back in b-more, where my house and my cat and everything else are.

So I left Jersey at 10:30. It was actually a fine drive - the most dangerous part was walking down my parent's steep, snow-covered driveway. I made it back to Baltimore in 4 hours - didn't hit any traffic (literally or figuratively). There was some snow flurries coming down in places, but nothing stuck on the ground.

So now I'm back, with an afternoon and evening to myself. This would be a great time to get some stuff done - run some errands, put some time in on the treadmill, do some cleaning, ect. But I haven't, and probably won't. I've surfed the net for a while, and that's about it. I just feel burnt. I don't know why - it wasn't a long or unpleasant drive, although I did get about 5 hours of sleep last night thanks to my inability to get to bed before 1 am and my parent's inability to sleep past 6 am. It may be because I was kind of worried about driving, or because it's been a long week at work last week - 16 hours of OT and a bunch of crisises Right now, I'm debating between curling up in front of the TV or curling up in bed and taking a nap, and I think the latter one is going to win.

I do have tomorrow off - thanks MLK! - and I'm hoping to actually accomplish some of the things named above - plus there is an auction I might go to if the weather is decent.

Why walk when you can drive?

Megan McCardle had a post a few days ago about walking in the city vs driving in suburbia. I didn't see it until it was pretty commented-out, but it's an interesting topic.

Ryan thinks that people who think driving in the suburbs is more convenient are wrong - in the city, you can make lots of short walks everywhere. Megan thinks that's true, except for people with little kids.

Ryan lived in DC, while Megan has lived in NYC and DC. Because of that, I think they have a somewhat jaded view of what most urban areas are like. The fact is, even within city limits, there are very few cities that have the urban density to make it convenient to walk everywhere.

I've lived in 3 places in Baltimore City, not counting college dorms. None of them had much of anything walkable. Now, two of them were barely in the city - the Mount Washington apartment complex I lived in my senior year of college was literally on the line between city and county. My apartment in Hamilton - the top floor of a craftsman bungalow that was split into a 2-family - was probably about a mile south of the city line.

But the third place, and the place I lived the longest, was Reservoir Hill. It's not downtown Baltimore, but it's not the suburbs either - it's smack in the middle of the city, about 5 miles north of the Inner Harbor. It's a neighborhood of huge old brownstones, many of which have been divided into apartments. And there isn't a whole lot to walk to. There were a couple businesses that could euphemistically be called grocery stores, but they were the kind of places where the merchandise and employee sit behind bulletproof glass. There was a doctor's office, but it was a walk-in clinic that catered primarily to those on various government medical programs. There was Linden Liquors, a liquor store that was shut down by the city for being a "hub of violent crime". And that's pretty much it.

Is that typical city living? I don't know - but I would guess that most parts of Baltimore - and pretty much every city except DC and NYC, and maybe Chicago - are closer to it than they are to dense urban areas where everything is in walking distance.

I now live in the suburbs. While my commute is longer, I'm pretty much around the corner from my doctor, dentist, vet, grocery stores, Target, and a number of other things that I often had to drive out of the city to go to.

Of course, that's not the main reason I moved out. Other than kids - on the off-chance I ever have them, I wouldn't want to live in the city, because of crime and schools - there are a lot of other reasons to move to the 'burbs. One of the biggest is that when you want to buy a house, it's much easier to do it in the suburbs. Buying a house in the city means trying to figure out which neighborhoods - often which streets or blocks - are good and bad. Even if you do find one, it means hoping that it doesn't change for the worse. Housing stock in the city is older, which means more repairs. Older houses often don't have the features of newer ones. Often, it's hard to find a house in a standard first-time buyer price range - when I lived in Resevoir Hill, most of the houses were either $25,000 burned-out shells that needed $200k of work to be livable, or $500k restored showpieces. Parking is a pain, and yes, you will need a car, and insuring it in certain city zip codes will cost you 2x what you would pay in the county - when I was 24 and had a clean record, I was paying ~$350 a month to insure a 2 year old PT Cruiser.

People who advocate walkable city life think that every city is like NYC or DC, when my guess is most are closer to Baltimore.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I'm leaving in a white minivan...

So tomorrow I'm driving up to NJ to bring my parents back their van and pick up my newly-repaired truck.

I'm glad I'm getting the truck back, but I'm not really looking forward to the trip. I'm still not totally comfortable with driving - I'm trying to find a balance between being pretty much scared to do anything and being the kind of careless that ends with me running into a Pontiac.

I also don't like driving in winter - besides the possibility of dangerous snow and ice, I don't like the cold. A drive on a nice spring/summer/fall day is enjoyable - windows open, music on blast. A drive in the winter is a burning-cold steering wheel and a trip spent trying to find a setting on the heat that's somewhere between "freezing cold" and "so warm I want to doze off".

Usually I look forward to seeing the parents, but after seeing them at Thanksgiving and spending a 11 days with them at Christmas, seeing them again is not a big deal. I'm only staying for one night. I'm coming back Sunday, even though I have Monday off for MLK day. That probably makes me a completely awful son, but I have a couple things I want to do around the house, errands I want to run, and a cat who I've barely seen the last month.

This has been a long week - I've put in 16 hours of overtime, had a bunch of projects that I'm drowning in, and have a bunch of work politics that are complicating things. I'd much rather be at my house doing nothing that spending 8 hours or more on the road.

It will be nice to have my truck back, though. It's funny how much I identified myself with it. I guess I'm one of those shallow materialist types like that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Skeletons (and 5 year old applesauce) in the closet...

One of the features of the tiny kitchen of Casa De Mad, my 70's-vintage townhouse in the rolling plains of White Marsh, is a small pantry (back left). It's narrow, but it's pretty deep and has quite a few shelves. For the two and a half years since I moved here, I've been storing food in it. It's become layered - in the front of each shelf is the stuff I use regularly. In the back is - well, who knows. Stuff I haven't touched in years. Stuff I've forgotten about.

It's gotten to the point that the pantry is full, and I've taken to storing some of my food and beverages in the corner of my dining room. Which wasn't terribly attractive, and since I'm hoping to hold another game night in the next few weeks and have some people over, I figured it was time to do something about that.

So last night I finally decided to tackle it. I swiveled my tv so I could see it from the kitchen, put Manhunters on from the DVR, and took everything out of the closet.

And the things I found. A package of applesauce with a "best by 2004" label. Tuna that was best used by 2007. Granola bars from 2005. A single vanilla snack pack pudding cup that was a disturbing shade of light gray. All in all, I filled a tall kitchen garbage bag with stuff that was at least a year past it's sell by/best used by date, and some of it was close to 5 years past, which means that I moved it from my old apartment, shoved it in the closet, and forgot it for nearly 3 years.

I feel bad about it, in the sense that not only did I waste a bunch of food, but I also wasted a bunch of money. I bet I spent at least $100 or so on the stuff I ended up throwing out. But the damage is done - I'm cheap, but not cheap enough to get sick off expired food rather than throw it out.

The good thing is that now I have a bunch of free space in my pantry, and I can actually see what I have. Two of my new year's resolutions were to save money and get organized, and this helps with both of those. I have quite a bit of usable food, and I need to work my way through that before I buy much more.

My next projects need to be my fridge and freezer. The fridge needs the same treatment - everything out, wipe it down, put back in what's usable. This is especially important since at some point I made the mistake of storing one of those jars of crushed garlic on it's side, and it leaked, and now everything I store in the fridge, including bottled water and butter, has a slight garlic-y taste. I'm pretty sure there is some 3-year old stuff in the freezer, as well as newer stuff that I need to use up. I'm thinking that, with the exception of perishables like bread, soymilk, and lunchmeat, and ingredients to accompany what I already have, I probably have enough food in the house to go a month or two without any serious shopping. I've still got Thanksgiving leftovers, and a ton of frozen convenience food in the freezer.

That means I can save some money on grocery shopping and get my freezer to the point where I'm not storing food in the automatic ice maker for lack of room. That's a win-win.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Craming down yet another housing price post...

When I came back from Christmas vacation, I had a stack of mail waiting for me. Mixed in with the Pennysaver and checks from mail-in rebates was a letter from the state of Maryland. It was a reassessment notice - evidently the state of Maryland reassesses the market value of property that it uses for tax purposes every 3 years. What was surprising is that my assessment went down - by $11,320.

I'm not really sure how to feel about this. It's certainly proof that housing prices are going down. It also makes it seem like one of my financial goals - paying off enough of my mortgage to drop PMI - is unlikely to occur any time soon, because if the bank reappraises my house it would require a far larger payment than I have cash on hand. On the plus side, this means that I'll pay less in property taxes - which is nice since I got hit by an increase last year based on what I bought the house for - which sharply increased my mortgage payments, since I had to pay this years taxes plus make up for last year's in escrow.

And on a marginally related note, the government is making it even easier for deadbeats who overextended themselves to stay in their homes. The Senate has convinced Citibank to accept cramdowns - principal and interest reductions on mortgages - for people in bankruptcy, and it's likely that other banks will do the same. There is a lengthy discussion on Fatwallet Finance about this.

Some people have argued that this isn't so bad - it prevents the houses from going into foreclosure, which could lead to higher losses by banks, and it could keep housing prices from falling due to those foreclosures.

My thought is that I'd rather deal with lower property values than reward people who often acted irresponsibly - lied on mortgage applications, bought more house than they can afford. Why should someone who overextended themselves end up with a nicer house than me that they paid less for, someone with a bankruptcy end up with better mortgage terms than my 803 credit score got me? Maybe this is cutting off my nose to spite my face, but the recent responses to the "financial crisis" seem to be to reward people who acted irresponsibly, paid for by those who scrimped and saved and worked overtime. Any illusions I had about the fairness of life are gone.

There are legitimate reasons to question the cramdowns, even if you accept the argument that foreclosures would be worse. Changing the incentives definitely creates a moral hazard - it rewards bad behavior. It distorts incentives. If you want to buy a house but aren't sure if you will be able to afford it, the idea that you will get a discount if you end up in bankruptcy makes buying too much house more attractive. It also makes filing for bankruptcy more attractive. Both of those mean that more costs will be passed on to consumers in future loans. It also means that interest rates will be higher to compensate for it - and higher interest rates tend to mean lower housing prices, which might eat up any of the advantages of keeping those foreclosures off the market.

When housing prices started falling, I regretted buying the house that I bought - I worked hard and saved for years to buy a house, only to see it drop sharply in value. My initial reaction was that I should have waited to buy a house. Now I'm starting to think that I erred in buying my house - I bought too small of a house. I should have figured out the most I could convince someone to loan me and bought a house at that price, with a teaser interest rate, negative amortization ARM. I could have then lived in the house for a couple years, than declared bankruptcy and gotten a nice discount and a low-interest mortgage.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The pictoral evolution of madanthony....

So I have had a sort of holiday tradition for the last couple years - I have my parents take a picture of me every year when I visit for Christmas. It's a good way of charting changes in appearance. Back in March of 2005 I started getting serious about losing weight, and over the course of two years I dropped about 90 pounds. I've also made a few changes through the years - I toyed with bleaching my hair, I grew a beard, and I finally got new glasses. Overall, I think I look a lot better than I did 4 years ago, although it hasn't really helped with the ladies.

So here we go. Photo credit goes to my dad. This was the first time he used my new DSLR, which is why this year's pic isn't as full-length as I would have liked - the other pics came out blurry.

mad anthony, December 2004

mad anthony, December 2005

mad anthony, December 2006

mad anthony, December 2007

mad anthony, January 2009

Driven nuts...

Well, I'm back in Baltimore. Drove down today in my dad's minivan. I'm hoping the truck gets fixed quickly, so I can drive back up to NJ and swap vehicles. I don't want to take any time off from work, so I'm not going to be able to get up there until the first weekend after it's done. Since my dad's recovering from surgery and my mom is retired, they don't really need the van, but I'd still like to get it back to them ASAP.

Before my accident a few days ago, I guess I was a careless driver. I'd had a few minor scrapes, but nothing big enough to involve insurance or get a ticket.

Now I'm a different kind of driver, and I think it's even worse. I'm a nervous driver. I'm scared shitless while I drive. Every time a car gets close to me, I flinch. Every time I come to a stop sign, I get nervous. I guess it will get better - I did seem better the second half of my trip back compared to the first part.

But the fact is, when we drive, we convince ourselves of a lie - that we aren't doing something potentially dangerous, something that could end our lives or someone else's in a matter of seconds. Usually it doesn't. But often, it's close. If we didn't see that car pull out in front of us or wait a few seconds after that light turned green, we could have been in a mess of twisted metal instead of continuing on our way. Normally, we don't think about that while we drive, and that's not a bad thing - it keeps us sane. It's like not looking down while climbing a ladder - if we ignore reality, we can continue. But the minute we realize how high we are, we start panicing.

As I said, I'm sure at some point I'll become more confident. The trick is to find the balance between confident and careless. I need to find it - I can't have another accident.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Buying food, underwear, and TV's in the same store...

I've always been interested in retailing - how stores get people to buy stuff there, how they compete, why people buy what they buy. I remember years ago, probably when I was in high school, reading an article on K-Mart and how they were expanding the food section in their stores. It didn't make sense to me - why would you buy food at K-Mart instead of a grocery store, and why would K-Mart want to go into such a low-margin business?

When I took accounting in college, I got one explanation - volume. Sure, grocery stores don't make much on each product they sell, but they sell a lot of product. They turn over inventory quickly, which means that they don't have as many holding costs as companies that have to keep stuff around longer.

But now that I'm on my own, and do my own shopping, it makes sense for another reason - convenience. Stores know that many times, you need some stuff and you don't have time to go to multiple stores - if they can sell everything you need, then you will stop there. Target and K-Mart and the rest may not make much profit on the loaf of bread or box of cereal they sell you, but they know that by selling it, you might also buy clothing or electronics or some other high-margin item.

And as a time-strapped professional, I like being able to pick up a few food items that I need - it seems like I'm always low on something - and also pick up other stuff, like clothing or household items or cat food or a get a prescription refilled. One of the Target stores near me has renovated recently, and added a ton more food, including several rows of refrigerator and freezer cases. Besides the novelty of buying Target brand cheese, it's cool to be able to do a ton of shopping in one place.

Sadly, where I live there aren't any SuperTarget stores yet - combinations of actual full-service grocery stores and regular Targets. I visited one in Indiana when I was there for work earlier this year, and it was awesome - especially since Indiana is one of the states that sells alcohol in grocery stores, meaning you could buy a flat-panel TV, beer, underwear, and bread all at the same time.

Figuring out Radio Shack's retail strategy..

A while ago, satirical website The Onion published an fake article entitled Even CEO can't figure out how Radio Shack still in business.

They have a ton of locations, but they usually seem empty, and their employees haven't struck me as terribly knowledgeable, especially the one a few years ago who, when I tried to find a usb hard drive that was on clearance, handed me a usb pci card and saked me if that was what I was looking for - leading me to think their motto should be "You've got questions? So do we!".

I ventured out today - my first time driving since I crashed a few days ago - to a Radio Shack near my parent's house. Since I'm going to be driving my dad's minivan for the next week or two while my truck is geting fixed, I wanted to get one of those cassette to 1/8" audio adapters for my iPod - the van lacks a cd player or aux input, and since I live in a radio-heavy city, FM transmitters don't work well. I had one in my truck, but I didn't feel like going back to the body shop to get it.

When I got to the shack, I was rather surprised to find a line at the checkout - I don't think I've ever seen more than 1 person waiting to checkout at a Radio Shack. I was also surpised at the price - $21.99. I knew it was probably considerably cheaper online, but I needed it now, so I bought it. And I was right that it would have been cheaper online- I could have gotten it for $2.40 shipped off eBay - from Hong Kong.

Which suggests that the profit margin on stuff from Radio Shack is freakin' ginormous - probably several thousand percent. Of course, their overhead is also way higher than eBay sellers - rent for stores in high-traffic locations, staff, inventory. But I guess there are enough people who need something now to make them profitable. Sure, you can get it cheaper somewhere else, but when you need an odd part in a hurry, you know you'll find it at Radio Shack, and that there is probably one very nearby.

My friend bsom has offered an alternative theory - old people - that I think is also part of it. Old people feel comfortable at the Radio Shack, because they are small and not as overwhelming as a Best Buy or Circuit City, and they are often close by in their neighborhood instead of far away like big box stores.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's resolutions, 2009...

Well, it's that time to make New Year's resolutions. The thing is that I make them pretty much every year, and they are pretty much the same. And most of them I keep, but the one that I haven't is the one I can't figure out how to.

1. Maintain weight - For the last couple years, I've put something to the effect of "lose weight". And for the last couple years, I have't really lost any weight, but I haven't really gained any either. Which I think actually is an accomplishment, especially since I used to be about 90 pounds heavier than I was before. It would't hurt me to lose a few pounds - I'm pretty much on the borderline of healthy and overweight. But I've also come to realize that if I wanted to lose weight, I would pretty much have to make major lifestyle changes - eat way less, exercise way more. Where I'm at right now, I watch what I eat most of the time, splurge when I want, work out most days, but skip it if I have something else I need to do. If I'm at the same weight I'm at now next year, I'll be OK with that.

2. Save money - for the last few months, I've made some splurge purchases - a new camera, a new computer, a new monitor, some smaller stuff. Now it's time to get back into savings mode, get back to not splurging on anything, get back to watching my bank account grow rather than the amount of stuff I have. I'm not sure what to do with my savings - I'm debating between paying down my mortgage, paying off my student loans, or just banking it in case - but either way, I need to get back to frugal mode.

3. Get organized/decrapify - I have way too much stuff. As an ebayer and hamfest seller, I buy stuff for resale, which often means having ton of stuff around. I want to cut back on some of this stuff - keep enough to sell, but get rid of the stuff that won't sell, and turn over inventory faster. Right now, my home office and my basement are pretty much wall-to-wall crap, and I want to go back to looking like I'm a civilized person. While building my computer, I discovered I had 4 brand-new computer cases, two of which I'd forgotten I had. That's ridiculous, and it shows how much crap I have and how disorganized I am. I need to throw out, sell, and otherwise get my crap level down to manageable.

4. find love, or find happiness without it - this is the one I always make, and never keep. Maybe because it's the only one that really requires something external. I find myself torn on the whole answer to the question "is there someone for everyone?" After all, there are over 95 million single Americans, 54% of them female. Among all of them, there has to be at least one who would be willing to put up with me. And I know plenty of quirky people who have managed to find better halfs. While I have my faults, I think I have some positive qualities too.

But the question is, if she does exist, how do I find her? I've tried a number of online dating sites, a church-sponsored singles outing, work, friends, and still keep striking out. There is a good chance I will still be single this time next year, and I need to start accepting that. I need to find more hobbies, take more trips, go out more - something to keep me from falling into the "I'm single and my life sucks" mode

5. Become a better driver, and stop hitting shit - in 2008, I had two significant property-damaging accidents and got pulled over twice - far worse than the other 10 years I've had a license. I need to start driving like an old lady, and I hope to have a ticket-free and accident-free year.

I've got some smaller goals too - fixing stuff in the house, keeping up with some doctor's appointments - but they aren't really worth itemizing (and not just because I probably won't keep some of them).