mad anthony

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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hamfest and Asian...

Today was the Memorial Day Hamfest at the Howard County Fairgrounds. It's one of the few holidays I spend in Baltimore instead of going up to visit the family in NJ, so I can sell at this fest.

It was... OK. There were quite a few vendors, although none selling stuff I wanted (my only purchase was a $5 Linksys range extender). There weren't so many customers, though. I ended up grossing $357 - not awful, but not great either. I had a number of Dell systems, from P4 1.6 up to core 2 duo 2.13, and did not sell a single one. Usually I blow them out pretty quickly, but they were hardly looked at - and from talking to one of the other vendors, his experiences were similar. I don't know if it's because it's a holiday weekend or the economy or what, but while I'm glad to have some money and slightly less crap, I'm disappointing to not have even more money and even less crap.

I may sell at the Manassas VA fest in two weeks - I've never been to it, but since several of the other fests I've sold at in the past are gone (Fredrick, Gaithersberg) I figure I need to branch out. I'd also like to free up some space in my basement, and make some more cash - I'm in the process of trying to refinance my house, and if it goes through it will eat up most of my savings, so I need to start rebuilding them.

The other less than pleasant thing about the fest is that while I was glad it didn't rain, it was very sunny. I'm now bright red in various places on my body - evidently my skin can only be either clammy pale white or lobster red. I should have worn sunscreen.

After the 'fest, I headed off to Lotte to do some grocery shopping. Lotte is an Asian grocery store, plus food court and department store and some other stuff, all crammed into an old supermarket space in a strip mall. Shopping there is an experience - the parking lot is like driving in a demolition derby full of Asians in late-model Camry's, the isles are tiny and arranged in no particular order (it's not unusual to see the same product in a different brand in a completely different isle), they have things like live turtles, most of the packages are in Korean, occasionally with some Engrish, and you can buy things like hot bean paste in tubs the size you normally associate with industrial chemicals.

I bought mostly staple stuff - sauces, sesame oil, spices, apples - but also a few new things to try - mixed grains (which I suspect will not come out well in my rice cooker), some sort of diet Aloe drink, a "Hawaiian Banana", and some Azuki red bean ice cream, which I suspect I bought mostly because it's one of the ingredients that's always mentioned on Iron Chef. Haven't tried anything yet, so no reviews yet.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

madanthony is at the gym, getting ripped...

Up until about the middle of 2005, I'd never set foot in the gym at the college I work for (and graduated from), except to work on the computers there. But a few months earlier I had decided to make a commitment to lose weight, and to do that I needed to exercise. I had been walking laps around a nearby reservoir, but it was getting to be summer and hot outside, plus when it rained I was out of luck.

I got in the habit of going pretty much every day, unless I have something else I have to do. But in those 5 years, I've always stuck to the cardio side of things, eventually settling on the Precors and Ellipticals for my daily 90 minute workouts. Until a few days ago, anyway.

For the last year or two I've said I was going to do some sort of strength training or lifting, but never have. I've always been intimidated, both by the equipment and by the people who use it. But it's summer, and the gym is mostly empty, so I figured it was a good time to get a start - hopefully by the time September rolls around and the gym fills up I'll be comfortable enough to be around the kind of people who can lift Volkswagons, even though I struggle with lifting Matchbox cars. A coworker of mine who has a pretty serious strength-training routine generously agreed to show me the ropes, so last Sunday I dipped my first toe into the waters of upper-body conditioning.

I got a flurry of possible exercises. I've adopted a couple, the rest I plan to work in slowly once I become more comfortable with the equipment and better at using it. I've decided to ignore the conventional wisdom of doing a big 45 minute workout 2 times a week, and instead do 10 or 15 minutes every day. While I figure that isn't optimal, it fits better into my current workout schedule - I can do it after my daily cardio - and it's a lot more manageable.

My goal in this isn't to get ripped or anything. But I have pretty much no upper body strength, and have had my arms described as "spindly" by one of our student workers. I'd be happy if I can lift heavy boxes and open jars of pickles without straining - although I figure that it can't hurt me dating-wise, since I've never seen "spindly" as a "want" in a woman's online dating profile.

Of course, 10 minutes a day probably isn't going to get me that, but I do intend to increase it, and it can't hurt. When I first started exercising, I would walk for about 15 minutes. Now I do six times that. When it comes to strength training, I'm where I was at at cardio 5 years ago, when I weighed 100 pounds more than I do now.

There are some things I'm getting used to about the difference between cardio and strength training - when you do cardio for fat burning, the goal is more to be doing something so you burn calories and less to push yourself - the "fat burn" settings on the Precor aim for 65% of your max heart rate. Strength training is different - you want to do a small amount of intense stuff at your limit. You need to rest between sets. And while a good cardio workout and careful diet can shed several pounds in a week, especially if you are fat to begin with, the time frame I see in articles about lifting is "weeks and months".

Still, I have noticed that I can do a few more reps with a little more resistance than I could a week ago, which means I must be doing something right. And I don't feel nearly as sore afterwords as I did the first day, although that may be more my much-reduced workout length than anything else. But it's not like I could get any less strong, and hopefully I can build this up into a decent daily workout.

And never struggle with a pickle jar again.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Will 20% under-25 unemployment have serious consequences?

I was killing time in a coffee shop yesterday and thumbing through the Bloomberg News app on my iPhone when I stumbled on this article about unemployment among recent college grads. There was one thing that jumped out at me - Unemployment among people under 25 years old was 19.6 percent in April, the highest level since the Labor Department began tracking the data in 1948.

So almost 1 in 5 people under 25 are unemployed - and that presumably doesn't count those that are underemployed, like the engineer working as a banquet waiter profiled at the beginning of the article.

I think this is going to have vast and rippling effects on the economy. People in their early 20's are at the age where they start thinking about things like marriage, having kids, buying houses. People who are unemployed or barely employed tend to put those things off. Which makes me wonder if population rates are going to go down, if marriage rates are going down, if home sales will continue to be awful - because people will put those things off until they feel financially stable, and people won't feel financially stable for a long time.

It also is going to have implications for companies in the long term - if they aren't hiring and training new workers, they aren't going to have people to move up the chain when older workers retire. Many jobs require a fair amount of institutional knowledge, of on-the-job experience - and without new blood, there aren't people with those things to move up into management roles.

I also wonder what the effect will be on the market for things like new tech products - typically people in the under-25 group are the early adopters of new gadgets - but that takes money. I wonder how many inventions that would have caught on won't because their target audience can't afford them. I wonder how many more iPads would have been sold if 20% of people under 25 were't unemployed.

This is the first time I've seen the statistic, and I'm kind of surprised it hasn't gotten more press - it seems like it has pretty serious implications for the future of our country.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A weighty decision...

So back in January, work decided to have a "biggest loser" contest. I signed up - not because I really felt I needed to lose a whole lot of weight, but figured that I should at least give it a shot. I didn't really try very hard, though, and only lost a few pounds. A few weeks ago, I went to Vegas, and gained a few pounds, so I worked my ass off the next 2.5 weeks. I ended up losing a total of around 8 pounds, which gave me a loss of 5.7% - not far behind the third place finisher, who lost 6.2% - although I have no idea how many people were between him and I.

They are starting up again June 1st, and I'm wondering if I should give it another shot. I was thinking I would relax the next couple weeks - not intentionally try to gain weight, but not take any extraordinary efforts to lose it, either - and then go hard come June - 2 hour daily workouts and eat about half what I'm eating now.

But now I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't sign up at all. The thing is that I probably could stand to lose a couple pounds, but I don't think I could lose enough to win - and I think I'd be miserable. Because I really like to eat, and not being able to eat things I like makes me miserable -and since I already exercise regularly, I'd need to add a bunch more to actually lose rather than maintain. I normally do 90 minutes a day, so I would need to do 2 hours or more, which means not getting home until after 8.

The other thing is that a friend of mine has been trying to convince me to start lifting for years, and I probably should start. I think it would be good to add some muscle - but muscle means weight, which means I would need to do even more cardio if I want to lose weight while adding muscle. That means 3+ hours a day.

Which I could do, but I'm lazy. And therein lies the rub - not doing the biggest loser means admitting that I'm too lazy to put in the work necessary to win, which isn't a good thing.

But I also feel like I'm at a a point weight-wise where I'm not sure if it's worth the effort. I'm not saying I couldn't stand to lose some weight. I'm 5'5" and 142 pounds at last weigh-in. By the government's BMI calculator, I'm in the normal range for my height - but near the top. The range is 111-150. So I could lose 31 pounds and still be healthy - and I'm kind of curious what a 111 pound madanthony would look like. Would I be able to see my ribs?

But unlike where I was 5 or so years ago, when I was 250 pounds instead of 142, it's no longer critical that I lose a significant amount of weight, just nice. Which makes it a lot harder to justify putting a huge amount of additional time and missed ice cream cones towards it. It's my grad school dilemma all over again- I have the time, and I have the ability to achieve it, but it's a question of if it's worth the effort and time or if there isn't something better/more productive I could put towards it. And like grad school, there is no easy answer.

A man-child reflects on mortgages, cars, school, dating, and other adult pursuits...

A few months ago I was pondering certain things in my life - if I was going to continue the grad program I was in, about buying a second car, and as usual, why I'm a complete failure when it comes to dating.

The sports car thing probably isn't going to happen. I can't bring myself to drop a ton of money on something that is just going to cost me more money in repairs.

Instead, what I'm probably going to do is throw a bunch of money at my mortgage. When I bought Casa De Mad a few years ago, I did a 40 year mortgage at 6.3% or so, and put 10% down, which means I'm spending $80 a month on PMI - private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender if I default. If I bring the LTV - loan to value, the ratio of the amount owed vs. the value of the house - to under 80%, I can drop that. So I'm looking at putting another 10% down and refinancing into a 30 year at around 5%. That would shave 6 years off my payments, and probably around $200 a month... assuming that the house gets assessed at what I paid for it. Zillow says it's worth that much, but who knows if the bank will agree.

That will save me a lot of money long-term. It's the mature, practical, adult thing to do, and I can't bring myself to do anything else. It also means that I'm going to need to go back to being frugal, because it will put a huge dent in my savings, which I'll need to rebuild. Instead of buying a second car, I hope to replace the Ranger in a year or two, preferably with something with a backseat and a paint job that doesn't attract every cop in a 3 mile radius. And I want to pay cash for it, because unless it's dead it doesn't make sense to borrow to replace it.

As far as school, still not sure. My plan right now is that I'm not taking any classes during the summer, but I still need to decide for the fall. It's nice not having classes - I can do 2-hour workouts at the gym, eat real dinners, watch an hour of TV every night, and kill a book or 2 a week - ones I actually want to read. On the other hand, I somehow managed to get A's in both of the classes I took last semester, it would be cool to have another degree, and it's not like I have anything better to do.

One thing I was hoping was that with more time, I'd actually be able to date. But that's not happening - I've stuck my toe back into the cesspool of online dating, even renewing my eHarmony subscription, but so far not even a nibble. I guess I had some illusion that the cloud of failure that follows me around like PigPen's cloud of dust would somehow magically disappear and that the opposite sex would cease to be repulsed by me, but not surprisingly, that hasn't happened - which makes the idea of going back to class, where at least I can interact with people who can't stand me in person instead of just over the internet.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Oh, I see you aren't using this money, so we're going to take it...

Most financial advisers suggest that you should keep an emergency fund of about 3 month's salary for emergencies. When I finally reached the point in my life where I had enough money to do this, I did. I opened a high-yield savings account with an internet bank, deposited $8000 or so in it, and left it there. The idea was that I wouldn't touch it - because it was separate from my normal savings account and not particularly easy to access, it would be there if I needed it, but I wouldn't see it or think about it when I checked my normal bank balance.

Evidently, the state of Maryland has a problem with people leaving money to sit and earn interest. I got a letter recently that unless I contact the bank, my money would be considered abandoned based on state laws and be confiscated by the state. I have yet to respond, but I need to do so, or the government is going to take MY money out of MY bank account because I chose not to deposit or withdraw from that account. This seems like the stupidest thing ever. The law is here (pdf).

I can get the government to not take my money for no reason if I send a notarized letter back to the bank, which means I need to deal with a notary - luckily there are a few where I work. I'm guessing if I log in and move a few bucks in or out it would also do it, although I'm not sure since it's been over 3 years. The letter said they would turn it over in October.

Once again, I don't understand this. Why does the government feel that people leaving money in the bank is so horrible that they need to seize the funds of those who dare to do so? It also seems like the law is horribly outdated in the times of internet banking - the law includes text that some of the definitions of activity include going to them to get your interest record updated - kind of hard when you are dealing with an internet bank - or communicating in writing. Who the hell writes to their bank?

There are lots of naked grabs for cash that the government does, but rarely do you find one quite so blatant.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

All inclusive or nickle and dimed?

Two and a half weeks ago, I went to Vegas for a conference. It was my first time in Vegas, and it made me think about, among other things, pricing structures.

I don't travel much, but I have had the opportunity a couple of times to go for various training for work, and the last couple times I've stayed at "business class" hotels - a Marriott Residence Inn and a Courtyard, specifically. Both places gave you as much stuff as possible - free breakfast, free coffee and tea, use of a gym (one had an exercise room, one had a deal with a gym across the street), fridge in the room, ect. All small things, but they make your stay more enjoyable.

Despite a room rate that was twice what those hotels charged, though, staying at the Palazzo was different. Everything was extra - use of the gym and spa was $40 a DAY, a price I couldn't bring myself to pay despite my desire to keep in shape - especially since the college gym I go to, which includes a pool and rock wall just like theirs, costs me $30.. a MONTH. It has better hours, too. They had the obligatory mini-bar, plus snacks and bottled water on the dresser to upsell you.

Another example - I rented a car the last day. Not only did they try to sell me insurance, they asked if I wanted "full coverage or just liability" even though I wasn't required to get any. I did get the liability- I am a pretty shitty driver - and it cost about 50% of what the rate for renting the car was.

With a little thought, there are a ton of other fees and upsells we encounter every day, from extended warranties at Best Buy to cookies at Starbucks to baggage fees from airlines. And I'm really not sure how I feel about them.

As a consumer, I don't like when they sneak up on me - when I discover that to have something I want, it's going to cost me way more than I thought it would. However, I can also get some pretty good deals when I can buy the cheap item and say no to all the add-ons. As someone who minored in econ as an undergrad, I love them - they are a great example of price discrimination, where companies find ways to charge more money to people who are willing to pay more and less to people who aren't, and wouldn't buy their product at the higher price.

I do suspect I could make a bunch of money opening a gym on or near the Las Vegas strip that offered daily use for $15 a day or so, though.