Saturday, December 29, 2007

Striking Writers

You know, I have very little sympathy for the writers who are on strike. Oh, I know, they want to be paid for their work that ends up on the Internet, and I think it's smart of them to see that the Internet will likely play a huge roll in the entertainment industry in the future and to carve out their niche now rather than later. I even think they deserve to be paid for the work they do.

What disturbs me, however, is the strike. And I hate the fact that the negotiations have become so public. Neither side wants to budge on their position, and I'd bet a big reason for that is because if they do, they'll be seen as "weak" or the "loser" in this epic battle the news media has created. And everyone in the industry pays the price. I don't mind of writers themselves want to strike, but it's caused others to lose their jobs as well who have nothing to do with the strike. Cameramen, actors, set designers, and those thousands of folks that create what writers imagine are out of jobs. Did the writers ever consider them? I don't think so. Are the writers banding together to figure out a way to help all these displaced people? No, they're more interested in themselves. Selfish, little people they are. If it hurts the rest of the industry, it's not their problem.

And that's the part that bothers me. I read that the Ellen DeGeneres show went back on after shutting down for one day, and she took a lot of flak for that for "not supporting the writers." Good for her! She's supporting her employees, and she should be applauded for that.

If I had my way, I'd just fire all the writers and replace them all. If they don't like their jobs or their compensation, they can find something else they do want. No matter how this all turns out, there's going to be a lot of hurt feelings and grudges. What happens when the writers come back to the Tonight Show and all the cameramen had been fired or are at risk of losing their home because they haven't been able to pay the mortgage? You think they'll be working together as efficiently as they were before?

Nothing, and I mean nothing good will come from this strike. It was a stupid thing to start, and I'd like to see the writers go back to work even if it's under the agreement that all new work will get paid with whatever agreement they can come up with later. Perhaps when the stakes aren't so high or public, the two sides can quietly come up with an agreement they both like. If it's the Internet that's the big sticking point, perhaps the writers can refuse to work on any material destined for the Internet but keep working on everything else.

I might support the writers more if they weren't so happy to inflict pain on so many innocent victims, but they've long lost my sympathy.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bill Gates is Stupid

Seriously, he says the dumbest things sometimes.

To catch you up, I attended the annual shareholder meeting for Microsoft last Tuesday. I'd never been to Microsoft's annual shareholder fest--not nearly the event that the Berkshire Hathaway meeting is, but it was held right here in downtown Seattle and walking distance from where I am. Why not? It might be interesting? =)

It had it's interesting moments, but I'll skip ahead to why Bill Gates is stupid. During the Q&A period, one shareholder asked about the stock price, and why several of the top management--including Bill Gates--sold stock mere days before the stock started going down. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $37 million, I think he said.

Frankly, the fact that Bill Gates sold about one-tenth of one percent of his Microsoft fortune is rather a non-event to me, and it was wisely pointed out that they all still had the vast majority of their fortunes tied up in Microsoft stock. Their interests were still very aligned with the average shareholder. It was a stupid waste of a question, I though, but Bill Gates said one thing that really bothered me. He said he agreed that they wanted a high share price.

Oh really? And why is that? They announced a share buyback plan recently that would buy several billion dollars of Microsoft stock. Now why would I want them to buy stock at a high price? That's just stupid. As a shareholder, I'd rather the stock price be LOW so they can buy back MORE stock for the same price. As someone who'd be perfectly happy to buy more stock, I'd like the price to be LOW so I can acquire shares cheaply. The only people--and I mean the ONLY people--who benefit from a high share price are those who are looking to get out. Those who want to sell their stock? And why the hell should we care what they want? If I were management of Microsoft, I'd rather make people who are in for it for the long run happy.

Look at what happened the last time Microsoft had a "high" share price. Back during the go-go Internet days. Rocking in the year 2000, Microsoft's stock traded at nearly $60/share. Today? It's at $34.09 at this moment. Those folks who sold at the end of 1999 or the beginning of 2000 obviously did very well for themselves, but pity the fool that actually was buying into the company at the time. I remember back then thinking people were completely NUTS for buying the stock at such unrealistic prices, and I even remember Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, being quoted as saying the stock was too high. Then why the hell were you all buying billions--BILLIONS!--of dollars worth of the stock with shareholder money? Money not well spent, as it turns out, and is rather surprising for people who supposedly have most of their net worth in the company.

I so wanted to say something. I could have, too. I was seething. I wanted to them NO! Don't listen to people who are looking to SELL OUT! Consider the people who who rather BUY IN! Consider the people who are already bought in and want the most bang for their buck with the stock buybacks. I could have said something too. There were several people around the room with microphones, taking questions from shareholders. One of them stood a mere three feet away from me, and absolutely nobody was there to ask questions. I could have jumped up and told Bill what I thought about his statement about wanting the stock price high. NO! Don't do it!

But frankly, I didn't have the guts to call out the richest man in America as an idiot. Well, not in THAT public of a forum, at least.

A couple of days later, I read an article in the local paper that covered the shareholder meeting, and they mentioned all of the questions and answers covered during that Q&A period, including that question about the stock sales and share price, and including Bill Gates's comment about wanting the stock price high.

It so easily could have ended up mentioning me in the article. I'm not sure if I'm relieved it didn't, or upset that nobody else spoke up against such stupidity either.

Truthfully, I don't think Bill Gates really is that stupid. I suspect he meant that he wants to work on building products and selling products so the company deserves a fair value that continues to grow as high as possible, but that's not what he said. And for some people--I like to think it's the exceptionally smart people such as myself *wink*--we'd rather have the stock price to down. I could buy more stock cheaper, AND get even more through that stock buyback plan.

I do wish somebody said it, though, even if it wasn't me. Maybe next year.....

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Just Saved a Ton of Money on My Car Insurance!

As many of you may know, I'm planning to thru-hike from Key West, Florida, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. I expect to start January 1st and end April 16th.

I've been trying to get my affairs in order. Sounds like I'm about to die, huh? One thing I wanted to do--get rid of my car. I can't drive it on the trail, and I rarely ever drove it when I'm not on the trail. Half the time I did drive it, it was because I hadn't used it in two weeks and I didn't want to run the battery down completely! It had to go!

And off it went. I drove it down to Eugene, gave it to fellow letterboxer Spiral Seeker, and we had a grand little impromptu gathering where we laughed, swapped stamp images, and I carved a quick and dirty event stamps. Signed over the title of my car, and jumped a train at 5:30 this morning back to Seattle.

So I called about adjusting my car insurance--most notably, the fact that I did not have a car anymore. I figured that might save me some money, eh? =) Turns out, I couldn't just drop the car from my policy since policies are tied to the car, but there was another form of insurance--don't remember what the woman on the phone called it anymore--licensing something something whatever. But it would insure that I would be covered if I drove someone else's car. Cool! I'll take it!

Believe it or not, that actually cost $2 more than my existing car insurance! Now that's just stupid.... Anyhow, turns out I wasn't eligible for it because there's still a car registered at the address. Nevermind that Amanda has a stick and I don't know how to drive a stick, so there's no way I'll ever be driving her car. My "home away from home" in Oregon also has a car at that address. And of course, my mom in California has a car, so that address wouldn't work either. In a nutshell, you can only get this special kind of insurance if there are no cars at your address, and alas, all addresses I'm associated with have a car associated with them, so it turns out that wasn't even an option.

Screw it! Just cancel my policy. Most cars I drove should be covered by insurance anyhow--the car is insured, regardless of who drives it--and most of the time I drive now, it'll likely be a rental car company which are always happy to provide car insurance for you. Usually I'd tell them no since I was already insured, but that probably won't happen anymore. By golly, yes, insure me! =)

But WOW! I just saved a TON of money on my car insurance! By canceling my policy, they're giving me a refund for the part of the year that I won't be using it, AND I won't have to pay HUNDREDS of dollars to renew it--it was due to be renewed December 8th. (I always paid the whole year in advance since it's usually cheaper than paying month-to-month.)

Now that I'm freed from the shackles of a car, I thought, "Hey, maybe this would be a good time to finally become a legal resident of Washington?" So I surfed over to their website to see about getting a Washington state driver's license. Turns out, I can't! I don't have the documentation to prove I'm living in this state. Ironically, one of the forms I could use to prove my Washington residency is an auto insurance policy in Washington state. Ha! Like that's going to happen now! *rolling eyes*

There's a whole list of documents that can be used to prove my residency, and would you believe it, but I don't have a single document they would accept. Not one. Zip, zilch, zero. They won't accept me as a Washington state resident.

Part of the irony lies in the fact that I'm not really an Oregon resident anymore, despite my driver's license that says I am. I can probably count on one hand the number of days I've spent in Oregon this year (well, maybe two hands are required....) At this point, I don't see myself ever going back to Oregon. I love Oregon and would love to move back there, but Amanda would have to come with me! And she's a working stiff, and it's easier for her to fly into and out of Seattle. So I'm stuck in Washington, but find myself in this odd predicament where I can't prove it.

Even more odd, I'm actually breaking the law since I'm supposed to notify the state within 30 days of establishing residency. Well, I'm trying.....! But it's going to take more than 30 days to get all the documents I need in order to prove it. They won't let me say I'm a resident, then I'm illegal because I haven't notified them. ARGH!

So it doesn't look like I'll be getting a new, shiny Washington state driver's license anytime soon. But I'm going to file taxes in Washington for this tax year, since taxes are good proof and an acceptable form of proof. Being a registered voter is too, so I thought, "Hey! I'll register to vote!"

Except technically speaking, that won't work either since I can't register to vote unless I'm a resident of Washington. ARGH! That seems like a double standard. I can't register to vote unless I'm a resident, but I can't be a resident unless I'm registered to vote.... HELLO?!

So I'm stuck with my Oregon driver's license a bit longer. One of these days, though.... One of these days, I'll have the proof I need to show that I really do live in Seattle now. =)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My Bank went Bankrupt....

Yes, you heard me right. Years ago, back in 1999, I opened an account with a bank known as NetBank. It seemed right for me. I don't need no stinkin' branches. I had my paycheck direct deposited to the account. I never had any checks that needed to be deposited. I almost never wrote checks--just the once a month rent check and that was it. (Paid all my other bills online or with credit cards, electronic transfers, yadda, yadda, yadda.)

I felt strongly that there was a market for an Internet-only bank, and even considering investing in NetBank stock. (I actually did own shares for a short time, but quickly realized I didn't know enough about banking to feel comfortable investing in it and sold almost immediately.)

Early in October, I got an e-mail saying, in a nutshell, they had gone bankrupt and all the accounts sold off to ING Direct--a company I had heard of before but never knew anything about since I never did business with them.

I wasn't terribly concerned about my bank going bankrupt--the accounts were FDIC insured, so I'd still get all my money back. =) Yeah for FDIC insurance! I'd never had money in a bank account where that mattered so much before, though. I'd never had money in a bank that went bankrupt before. (On a related note, I read somewhere that out of over 100,000 accounts, slightly over 1,000 of them had more than $100,000 balances--and accounts are only insured up to that amount. Bummer for those thousand or so folks who stashed all that money in their bank, because they aren't getting their money back.)

It's still something of a pain, though. Obviously, I needed to retrieve my money and open an account somewhere else. Internet banking really isn't my thing anymore. It worked GREAT when I could direct deposit my checks, but now that I'm running Atlas Quest, I get a heck of a lot of personal checks and money orders and I don't have any branches in the Seattle area where I can drop them off. I either hang onto the checks until I make a visit to San Luis Obispo and can deposit the checks in a credit union I have there, or I mailed them off to NetBank just outside of Atlanta after endorsing them and writing "For Deposit Only to Account #...." to make sure nobody else would get the money if it were somehow intercepted. I never really felt comfortable mailing off checks, though. The post office is pretty reliable for the most part, but I'd rather drop them off at a branch and not depend on them.

I really need to open an account with branches in the Seattle area. Ideally, they'd also have branches in San Luis Obispo since I spend a fair amount of time there, and I do a lot of traveling anyhow. Branches all over the country would be useful. It's been eight years since I opened that NetBank account, and my needs have changed during that time.

In the meantime, though, I want to get my money out of this quasi-I-don't-know-what's-happening state at NetBank. ING Direct sent a couple of e-mails with their policies, one of which is that they won't accept money orders, which is a problem for me since I sometimes get those. Can't mail in money orders, and I don't have anywhere in Seattle to cash them. I'll just have to hang onto those until I make it to San Luis for now. (BTW: I now officially prefer USPS money orders over other types of money orders, because I can cash those at the local post office! It's the one type of money order I can readily convert into cash.)

So I'm thinking about opening an account with Bank of America or Washington Mutual or something. I don't really have any preferences, except that they need branches in both Seattle and San Luis Obispo, and preferably as many other locations as possible. Those two particular banks fit the location profile I want. =)

In the meantime, I'm very impressed with a lot of the stuff I've read about ING Direct. You actually have to opt IN if you want them to share your personal information, rather than opt OUT like most businesses do. And they sent me an e-mail saying if I transfered the stuff in my NetBank account to an ING Direct account, they'll credit my account $25. Cool! =) Why not? By doing it myself, it saves them the manpower of converting all those accounts manually.

So I opened the ING Direct account a little over a week ago and have been working on getting it set up and running. I had to change by bank account details in PayPal and Google AdSense to use the new account, which is a mutli-day process. They deposit a token amount into the account, then I log in later to verify the amount that was deposited to prove that it really is my account. Then I wanted to transfer the money in my NetBank money market account into my checking account and close out that money market account. My ING Direct account is linked to the NetBank checking account, so I can only pull money from that account.

Except that the transfer money between accounts option on my NetBank account no longer seems to be working. Looks like the NetBank website is slowly being shut down. I contacted support and asked them to transfer the money and close the account, and finally got the money market account cleaned out and closed. Now I'm trying to transfer it to my ING Direct account, and I can close the NetBank checking account once and for all.

I've spent *hours* setting up this new account, though, doing a little bit of work each day setting it up. First opening the account, then transferring an initial deposit, then updating my banking details on other websites, then closing out the NetBank account, then, then.... It's a freakish amount of work to go through just to change accounts. It's no wonder I never did it before! =)

On the plus side, however, Google gave me 92 cents to prove I really owned the account, and PayPal gave me 37 cents for the same. So after all this work, I'm up $26.29. Twenty-five for opening and transferring the account myself, and $1.29 to prove that the account really is mine to other financial institutions. =)

And also on the plus side, I have a whole heck of a lot of new ATMs I can get cash from for FREE!

But I still really need to open an account with a bank that has local branches in Seattle. And if you're sending me a money order, please get it from the post office. ;o)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Who put the Hassle in No Hassle?

This morning, I decided to cancel one of my credit cards. I haven't used it in months. I'm not even sure I've even used it this year, in fact. I have no need for it, nor do I foresee a day when I'll have a need for it. My other cards more than cover my needs. My Discover Card even has a whopping $10,000 credit limit--Lord knows what I'd need that much credit for--but somehow, over the years, I've managed to collect four different Mastercards and I figured it was about time that I retired one of them. (The others I want to keep since they can also act as debit cards and let me access the money in those accounts easily.)

The card is a CapitalOne Platinum "No Hassle" card. It has a $5,000 credit limit. I've had it since 2000, and this particular card I have in my hands expires July 25, 2010. Says so right there on the card.

So I called the 24-hour customer service number listed on the back, typed in my credit card number, last four digits of my SSN, and a bunch of other stuff to verify who I am, navigating my way through several layers of menus before finding the one to cancel one's hard. Clearly, "no hassle" does not apply to people who want to cancel their cards.

Finally, it put me on hold, with some 80s music playing in the background, which went on for several minute before a live person picked up. I knew what to expect--they were going to try to convince me not to cancel. I've canceled cards before, though I usually do it in writing so as to avoid the hassles of the hard sell. The one time I called to cancel credit cards in the past, the cards weren't even mind--they were my step dad who died. When they ask why I want to cancel the card, I'd tell them because the account owner is dead. That got things done real fast. =) My error in this case, was to admit that I was still alive and just didn't want the card anymore.

"But you're a customer in good standing!"

"It costs you nothing!"

"But you've got a platinum card!"

"We recommend you keep it for emergencies!"

And I continued to say no, no, no!

"But you have 5000 points on it!"

I do? *raised eyebrows* I didn't know that. Must have given it to me many moons ago for some silly reason.

"Can I redeem them or cash them out or something?" I asked.

"Yes, let me transfer you to the rewards specialist (or whatever they're called)."

So I'm on hold again, listening to more 80's music. I wait a few minutes before another person picks up, who asks for my account number, last four digits of my social security number, blah, blah, blah. (Gotta make sure it's really me, after all!)

"I'd like to redeem or cash out my rewards points," I tell her.

"You have 5000 points, but you need 20,000 points to get a $100 gift certificate."

"So is there anything I can get for 5000 points?" I inquire.


"Okay, then, can you cancel my card now." =)

"I'll have to transfer you to someone who can do that."

*sigh* I knew that was coming.....

Once again, I'm on hold for a few more minutes, before someone who probably lives in India answered. "Hlo, cn I hlp yu?" I swear he spoke with half his vowels missing, and I had a hard time understanding him.

"Yes, I'd like to cancel my card."

"Wht reson do yu wnt to cncl fr?"

To make a long story short--and it was some effort to get through that thick accent--he told me he had to transfer me to someone who could cancel my card. Hello?! That was supposed to be you!

"Lt me giv yu nmbr to cll n cas yu git dscnntd," he told me. "Ar yu rdy?"

I take down the number, thinking, just knowing, at some point, this call would magically get disconnected through no fault of their own.

Then he finally transfers me to a supervisor. I'm on hold for another couple of minutes before she picks up, and the connection seems to fade in and out during our conversation. More than once she asks, "Hello? Can you hear me?" More than once I said the same thing.

"I want *crackle crackle* card," I say. "CANCEL card!"

I repeat the account number several times, and it's not coming up for her, so then she wants my full social security number, zip code, blah, blah, blah to look up my account.

"Hello?" she says. "Can you hear...." Dial tone. I have been disconnected.

I try calling the number the Indian guy gave me, and it asks for me to type in my account number, blah, blah, blah. I don't really feel inclined to follow directions anymore, and just start pushing numbers randomly. I mean, sure, I could type in my account number, but why bother? Every single person I've talked to has always asked me to repeat it anyhow.

"Please wait for a service representative to answer your call....."

I was hoping the special number I got would put me through to a live person immediately so I could skip the menuing system, but that did not appear to be the case. I hung up.

It's lunch time, and I'm ready to get something to eat. I'll try canceling my card again later, but I'm smarter now. I won't fall for that whole "But you have 5000 rewards points!" trick this time. Nope. I'm even thinking about telling them I just died. Tragic car accident last week. "I'm the brother and just canceling all of the cards in Ryan's wallet."

On a related note, despite how hard it is to cancel credit cards, I am rather fond of them. I love my credit cards. Often times I go weeks without so much as a single dollar bill in my wallet, relying purely on credit cards. Nowadays, the main one I use is from PayPal, and it's attached to my PayPal account that so many of you premium members help fund. =) When I use that card, they give me 1.5% cash back, which I think is pretty good. My Discover Card, for instance, only gives me back 1%, and then I don't get the money until I've gotten at least $20 worth. The PayPal credit is immediate. And I don't have to send in a payment every month--it's just taken directly out of my PayPal account.

I love my credit cards, though. As long as one doesn't carry lots of debt on them or buy more than they can afford, they're nice little toys to own. =) (I always pay off my credit cards promptly.)

Back in my college days, I took an HTML class, and we had to do a project called "What's In My Pocket?" Basically, we were to make a website about stuff that was in our pockets. You'd think this would be boring, but with a little imagination, you can make the website about anything. "I turned out my pockets and.... a grain of sand FROM HAWAII came out!" Then you could babble on and on about your trip to Hawaii. Pretty simple.

I didn't choose a grain of sand, though. No, I picked out.... my credit cards. I had four of them at the time, and wrote a story about every single one of them. Three of them are all true. One of them I completely made up from the depths of my imagination, but I'll let you figure that out on your own. Not to worry--those pictures of my credit cards--I changed all the numbers so they weren't my real credit card numbers, and in any case, only one of those four accounts are still active today--the Discover Card. (And look--back then, it only had a limit of $1,900! My how things change.....) The rest have long since been retired for whatever reasons.

Anyhow, hope enjoy reading about What's In My Pocket? It's no Atlas Quest, but it was one of the first websites I ever made. There are some pretty wonderful pictures at the bottom of the AT&T Universal card I took in Sequoia National Park. For those of you who met the Flying Brain, there are pictures of her in the Discover Card story.

I'll let you know when I finally succeed in canceling my CapitalOne "No Hassle" credit card, though. =) Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seeing red?

You know those little ticker symbols for stocks? That show how much up or down a stock is on any given day? Almost anywhere you look, there's a pretty consistent standard that when a stock is up, it's green, and if it's down, it's red.

I read recently that red is bad--just the color itself scares people.... or something like that. They see red, and red means bad. It means stop. It makes people do irrational things like panic and sell their stocks, often when they should be buying more.

Now if you're someone that is buying stock, it is in your best interests for the price of stocks to go down. You don't get excited when your favorite lunch place raises prices, so why would you get excited when the stocks you want to buy go up in price? It's completely irrational.

So here's my suggestion: Switch the colors. If you're a net buyer of stocks, constantly adding more money to your portfolio, the stock prices should turn green when the stocks go down, and they should turn red when prices go up. Red is bad. Higher stock prices are bad. Lower stock prices are good.

It's the way the world should work--at least for net buyers of stock. Perhaps they'll become better investors, buying more when those numbers turn green, and perhaps panic selling when things turn red. At least it follows more of a buy low and sell high strategy that way.

If you're retiring and looking to sell out, well obviously, the current method works just fine. You want stock prices to go up, and green is good. =) You don't want stock prices to go down, and red is bad. (But still, wouldn't you rather sell on an up day?)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Butterfly Effect

I'm sitting here, when the latest issue of BussinessWeek, and just read this line: Bosses are particularly pessimistic about employment, with 34% saying they expect a hiring dip in the next 90 days. That's troubling, since the survey's take on hiring typically foreshadows the jobs numbers put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics six months on.

Stupid, pessimistic bosses. If they only knew that by lightning up a little bit, it would be good for the economy.

But wait a minute, I thought. What if the bosses were pessimistic because employees were complaining too much? Maybe we should start taking a survey of employees attitudes, since clearly they're more inclined to complain to the boss when they're in a bad mood as well.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say we could be surveying the better halves of these workers, because if they're distressed, obviously it must be because of problems at home.

In fact.... to push this a bit further, if we survey the kids of such families, we'd learn early on when there are problems in the household, causing them to bring their problems into work with them, causing the boss to feel depressing, causing hirings to slow, and the economy to slow. We might be able to know the economy is in danger of slowing FIVE YEARS before it happens! Six months, ha. Think big, people.

Wait a minute, but what if the problems at home are because the boss cut the breadwinner's pay to save money. Money is the number one cause of problems in marriages, after all. Maybe it really is the boss's fault after all. =)

Of course, maybe the boss wouldn't have had to cut their pay if the employees worked just a little bit harder and stopped spending so much time on Atlas Quest or any other noteworthy website. Of course, if I didn't create such an amazing website, people wouldn't be able to use it.

Maybe it's really my fault. Did my lone little website cause the fall of the global economy? Yikes! Sorry about that, folks. I'll try not to let it happen again. =)

Friday, October 05, 2007

I went to Costco today....

...and they had Christmas stuff for sale, and I even heard a Christmas song playing somewhere there in the background. I wanted to cry. It wasn't even Christmas. I saw my first pumpkins less than a week ago, and now we're already to Christmas?

Sometimes I wonder why they even bother to take down the Christmas decorations at all. Maybe Christmas only comes once a year, but does it really have to last three months?!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stupid Ways to Save the Earth

I'm an earth-loving guy. Really, I am. I like to walk through trees, leaves crunching under my feet. I like to keep my carbon footprint low--actually, I always have, but until the last year or so, I had no idea that was what the term was called. I walk to the grocery store and sometimes go months at a time without filling the gas tank in my car.

But enough is enough. Some of these ways I'm seeing to save the planet are nothing short of absurd. This afternoon, I walked to the bank--it was about a 1 hour and 20 minute walk, one way--to deposit a few checks. (I did make a quick stop at Costco where I purchased the Heroes season one DVD set and The Economy magazine along the way--I'm very efficient and like to get multiple things done when I'm off walking around that way.)

And while depositing these checks, I noticed a little sign that claimed if all Americans paid their bills online, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.9 TONS!

I got to thinking about that. Just 1.9 tons? In the grand scheme of things, that's not really a whole lot. It's the word "tons" that throws people off, though. People use it a lot to make things sound heavy. "It weighs a ton!" But have you ever tried to move a "ton" of rocks? I have. While doing some work up in Sequoia National Park many years ago, we had to dig up an old asphalt trail that was no longer in use, and a few of us dug out--if I remember correctly--19 tons of asphalt, carrying it out one wheelbarrow at a time. It was a nice little pile we made, and we felt a great sense of accomplishment at our pile, but I do remember looking at it and thinking, "That's what 19 tons looks like?" It's not as much as you would think.

At last count, there were over 300 million people in our country. That's 300,000,000 for people who like to see a lot of zeros, or 299,999,999 if I don't include myself and you like to see lots of nines. =)

And if every one of them paid their bills online, it would reduce those greenhouse gases by 1.9 tons, or 3,800 pounds, or 60,800 ounces. If you divide 300 million into that, that means each person who pays their bills online is cutting greenhouse gases by.... *drum roll please* 0.002 ounces.

Yes, you read that right. For each person who pays their bills online, they're reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two-one thousandths of an ounce. I seen farts in a tub that create more greenhouse gas emissions than that. Is that really the best suggestion they can come up with for how to save the world?

Of course, that sign really had nothing to do with saving the world. They want to save on postage costs. They want to save the cost of buying envelopes and mailing statements. Which is all fine and good--I love paying my bills online if for no other reason than that's 41 cents less I have to give the post office. Good enough for me!

But it's insulting to my intelligence to suggest that I'm saving the world too. Walking to the bank did far more than paying my bills online would.

Then I walked the 1 hour and 20 minutes back, with a quick stop at Taco Bell along the way. Alas, that stop may have contributed more to global warming than anything else I've done today. ;o)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

You're dumber than you think you are

I recently read that 90% of the working public believe that they are in the top 10% of best employees.

Which means about 80% of the population (or more!) think they're stellar overachievers but are wrong. Are you one of them? =)

At Pizza Hut.... I worked with a large number of very incompetent people and have little doubt I'd be in the top ten percent. My days at Intel.... Oh, I'm smart, but frankly, the job bored me and it probably affected my performance. I doubt very much I was one of the top 10% of their top employees. Fortunately, I'm pretty sure I wasn't in the bottom 10% either which is the place you really want to avoid. I have no qualms about being average. In fact, most people are. That's the definition of average, you know. ;o)

I like to think I do pretty well, but I'm not fooling myself. Deep down inside, I really am average.

Friday, August 10, 2007

It was a wild and wacky week in the stock market....

The last couple of days, I've noticed a strong focus on the stock market. It's been a "wild week" as one news anchor described it. Another said that investors are nervous and fearful. Today the DOW fell about 200 points, but ended up the day off just a few points. Whew!

Well, I'm an investor. Most of my assets are in stocks right this minute, invested in some companies that you may have heard of such as Costco, Boeing, and Microsoft. Guess what? I have absolutely no idea how well the stocks have done this week, and I really don't care. I'm not nervous, nor am I fearful. I am hopeful, however, that stocks will crash terribly hard. For a couple of weeks, at least, so I can buy up more for so much less. When I hear news anchors saying that I'm nervous and fearful, that I should step back and rethink my investments, I get very excited. To me, that means it's time to buy.

Why does the news always get everything so darned wrong?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

What Your Car Says About You

I recently read somewhere that the number one reason people give for buying a Toyota Prius--any guesses out there? Perhaps to do good for the environment? I never really believed that for a minute since the concept of hybrids didn't really take off until after gas prices more than doubled seemingly overnight a few years back. I would have guess it was to save on fuel costs, but apparently, that's not the reason either.

The number one reason people provide for buying a hybrid--it makes them look cool. They want others to think they are environmental stewards of the world. I'm a bit conflicted about that. On the one hand, it bothers me that people are more concerned about their image than they are about the world. On the other hand, it's kind of nice to know that we can peer pressured people into doing what's good for the environment. (Not all peer pressure is bad!)

Ever since I read that article, though, whenever I see a Toyota Prius, I can't help but think, "How sad. They must have low self esteem if they are so concerned about how they look."

At the same time, however, I have a bit more respect for those driving around in a non-Prius hybrid. Perhaps they're doing it for selfish reasons (to save money at the gas pump), or maybe they're doing it for the environment (two thumbs up!), or maybe a combination of both. But those are reasons I can understand and support. Oddly, the more someone actively works on their image, the less respect I tend to have for them. Be proud of who you are! And if someone doesn't like that, well, that's their problem, not yours. Isn't it? =)

What your car says about you (the serious version)
What your car says about you (the not-so-serious version)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Bush spares Libby from prison

Doesn't that title make you angry? Yeah, me too.

The article then quotes Bush as saying, "I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive." Excessive? I've heard the same thing about Paris Hilton's prison sentence, but I didn't see her get a pardon.

Perhaps Libby's sentence is excessive--I'm not sure what is typical in a case such as this. But doesn't taking Libby out of prison completely mean his sentence is now too light?

There was also this nugget in the article: "Bush stopped short of an outright pardon, leaving intact a $250,000 fine and Libby's two-years' probation."

Hey, anybody else out there would rather have Libby serve out 30 months in prison and pardon the fine and probation instead? I think that would have been a fair trade. =)

I'm actually very surprised about the pardon, and wonder if Bush is trying to hide even bigger secrets. I'm not normally one for conspiracy theories. I think Lee Harvey Oswald really did do it. But consider this. This just looks bad. Regardless of whether it's fair or not, it stinks to high heaven. Bush had nothing to gain by keeping Libby out of jail, but a whole lot of bad press (which is the last thing he needs). So why would he do it? For justice? This, from the same guy that's probably done more to erode civil liberties and privacy than perhaps any other president in American history? So really, why would he keep Libby out of jail with absolutely nothing to gain?

Libby was entrenched very deeply in the White House. He probably knows a lot of things that Bush would rather not have public. How do you buy such silence?

Okay, it's circumstantial. Maybe Bush is just trying to be a good man, pushing for a fair sentence. But he's not exactly an impartial observer to be making such decisions. Just because he has the legal right to do so doesn't mean he should. I'm very disappointed.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

If they have to tell you....

For those of you not living in the Seattle area, one of the news stations around here is the first to broadcast in high definition. King5 news. I saw it a month or so ago when they first started it, with a flashy intro like a laser cutting across the screen and a noise not unlike someone pressing 20 keys on an organ simultaneously. You know the sound--you hear it often at the beginning of movies when they want to brag about the sound quality. I wish I could tell you what it was called, but frankly, I don't really care. But I recognize that sound.

But here's the thing for me. I don't have a high definition television. The broadcast looks exactly the same to me. But now they make it sound like the news is so much glitzier because whew! Thank God we can see the pimple on the face of the news anchor. Well, at least if you have a high definition television.

I find the whole thing annoying, though. It's like a smack in the face to everyone who doesn't have a high definition set, and those that already have it--shouldn't they be able to SEE the difference anyhow? If you have to tell people you're broadcasting in HD, does it really count?

If that wasn't enough, the meteorologist on that station now has new software that can take you "into" a storm. You can view it in three dimensions. Is this really helpful? When I want the weather report, I really want answers to questions such as:
  • How hot will it be today?
  • How cold will it be today?
  • It is going to rain today?
All those satellite images of the clouds forming off there in the Pacific Ocean--I don't need that. Just tell me when it's going to rain! I don't really care what the temperature is 2,000 feet above me--I want to know what the temperature here on the ground is.

And then I realized. They're trying to dazzle you with all these pictures because.... they don't really know how hot it is going to be, or if it'll rain today! They're distracting you with useless information so you won't notice how little information they do have. It's all fluff. I don't care that an area of low pressure is coming in. What the heck does that mean? There have been times I've wanted to pay attention to the weather to see if it would rain, and while presenting all that fluff, my eyes glaze over and next thing I know, they're thanking me for tuning in and they'll be back at 5:00 the next morning. (And who the heck watches the news at 11:00 at night then gets up at 5:00 the next morning to find out what happened during that time?) And I'm thinking, "Damn! I missed the weather report! How did that happen?"

Now there's a little sketch they've been showing, where the news anchors tell you what they like most about summer. One of them says they like to lounge around in the backyard, and another one talks about how they can get together with friends and family and have a 'really good time.' And she says that in the same tone as if she's reporting the death of seventeen kids after a school bus ran off the cliff. Do these people even know what fun is?

I tell you, I would absolutely love to watch the late night news if the anchors actually had any personality at all. Why do the powers that be feel that they have to suck the personal element out of the news?

And finally, one last pet peeve about the news. I first noticed this while watching the news down in my hometown of San Luis Obispo. It was Kimberly Romo. I'm not sure why I remember her name so well, but I couldn't take my eyes off her whenever she was on. I'd just stare at those impossibly white teeth of hers, like a ship drawn to a lighthouse. I had this incredible urge to rub dirt all over her teeth.

Then I started noticing it on other people. Those blinding, white teeth. Impeccably straight. I've noticed it on actors and actresses. I've noticed it on family members and friends, who I won't name to protect their embarrassment. It's a terrible trend, and I'll tell you why:

They actually looked too perfect. It's look their teeth are fake! Ewwww! Granted, you don't want to walk around with brown or green teeth, but snow white teeth are ugly, people. Don't fall for their tricks. Lightening your teeth if they're badly stained from coffee or smoking is one thing, but they aren't supposed to be white either.

Not to be all negative, I have noticed a woman filling in for the sports recap on King5, which I absolutely love. A woman, telling the sports? It's the only time I've ever seen that happen. I can't say she's any better or worse than any of the men who've done the sports, but I love the fact that it's a woman who's doing it. It's about time one station has broken that particular gender stereotype. =)

I really hate television news, though. I watch it, but usually because it's late at night, I'm bored, and there's nothing else on. Especially now in this time of summer reruns.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Danger Lurks Everywhere!

There was a piece on the news the other day, about one in three cars on the road having dangerously under-inflated tired. And they shows a harrowing video of a mini van swerving around cones at a high velocity with tires that probably needed an extra 20 psi in them, and you could see the sides of the tire stretching horizontally under the pressure.

The is the worst case of hype I've seen in a long time. I've seen a lot of car tires in my day, and while walking around the parking lot here, it's entirely possible that one-third of the cars have under-inflated tires. But not one--out of over one hundred-or-so cars I checked out--not one had tires as under-inflated as shown in this so-called piece of breaking news. At worst, the tires have been low about 5 psi of pressure, hardly a "dangerous" situation in my book.

My tires have an "ideal" pressure of 30 psi, and a maximum rating of 35 psi. I couldn't find a minimum recommended pressure, but the fact that there is an acceptable variance suggests that a tire that's not at the ideal pressure is not a safety hazard. Perhaps it decreases gas mileage, but it's not automatically a safety hazard.

And if you can believe that video, severely under-inflated tires are only a safety hazard if you drive a mini van through a series of curves like a race car. NOT LIKELY, I should think.

Stupid, fluffed up piece of news. *grumbling* That was the best they could come up with?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Evolution of a Newspaper Reader....

The other day, I was reading through the Seattle P-I, and it occurred to me that I've evolved over the years. When I was a kid, my favorite section was the comics. It was like that section was designed specifically FOR kids, and I liked that. I never understood why so many of the comics weren't very funny or didn't make sense to me, but they were cartoons! It was for kids, darn it, and I could enjoy some of the comics such as Garfield. That's a comic that kids can understand.

I outgrew Garfield. Too simple and not nearly as funny as when my brain was still in its formidable development years. Today my tastes lean towards Ziggy and Dilbert. Most of the comics I still don't think are very funny. Why do they call them comics again?

But that's not my favorite part of the newspaper anymore. Sometime around high school, I preferred reading the front page stuff. It was educational and made me feel smart. I learned about the political landscape, read about scandals, and so forth.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that most of it--it really doesn't matter much. Most the stuff on the front page doesn't actually have much impact on an individual such as myself. I don't have a paper handy at the moment, but a brief look through the major headlines includes such insights as:

Al Queda says holding U.S. soldiers in Iraq
Bush visits Jamestown on 400th anniversary
Airlines risk ballooning frequent-flyer payout
Pope decries rich-poor gap in Latin America

U.S. soldiers held by Al Queda in Iraq--sad (assuming it's even true--just because they SAY they have soldiers doesn't mean it's true), but there's not a whole lot I can do about that.

Bush visits Jamestown: I'd like to think he has better things to do than celebrate the conquering of the Native Americans, but that's REALLY old history and him visiting Jamestown doesn't have much impact on my plans for this afternoon.

The airlines impeding doom due to ballooning frequently-flyer miles? I don't have much in frequent-flyer miles--I actually prefer to use the few I do have for magazine subscriptions to Smithsonian or BusinessWeek--and even then I suspect the "problem" is being blown way out of proportion. Yes, perhaps airlines have built up a large number of frequent-flyer miles that are coming due, but people who use them have actually paid for them in one manner or another, regardless if it was by buying flights, milk at the grocery store, or renting a car. The airlines have essentially got themselves cash up front to collect interest and invest and don't have to pay out for months or years. Pretty good business, I should think. The more frequent-flyer miles grow, the better it is for the airlines. But still, it's not my problem. It's something the airlines have to deal with, and perhaps those who have a large number of frequent flyer miles, but for the average joe, it's not important.

The Pope decrying the rich-poor gap in Latin America. That's true, but what am I supposed to do about that? As individuals, we can't fix that problem. Heck, we can't even fix the growing rich-poor gap in our own country much less worry about Latin America's rich-poor gap.

These are the top headlines for today? And not one of them has any effect on my day-to-day living.

Then I moved onto the business section of the newspaper. That's now my favorite section. This is the section that can change my life. Invest in companies, search for ideas, and the pros and cons of various industries and companies. I can actually do something constructive with the information from the business section. I bought Boeing stock a few years back. Airlines were having a tough time of it after 9/11 and the recession, the company was having ethical lapses left and right, and they decided to develop the 787, a.k.a. the Dreamliner. The more I read, the more I liked. The hard economic times were temporary. The ethical lapses could be overcome. The company could fix itself, and I was thrilled when the CEO got the boot, and even more thrilled when the next one got the boot after an affair with a co-worker came to light. They're cleaning house. And I felt very strongly that the Dreamliner was going to be a huge success. I couldn't understand why Airbus was so focused on their mammoth big plane. The wave of the future is not a hub-and-spoke model.

I read a lot about Boeing back then, and finally decided to put a pile of money from my IRA account into it. The stock has done quite well since those dark days, more than doubling from my purchase price. I eventually sold half of those holdings to buy into Costco, another company whose stock I decided was suffering from temporary problems that could be fixed.

I wouldn't buy either of the companies at today's prices, and I'm actually leaning towards selling them for other companies with more promising prospects. They're both solid companies that are doing very well right now, and unfortunately everyone else knows it. =) Companies like Home Depot and Wal-Mart look much more interesting to me since everyone has so much fun picking on them. They've both stumbled badly, but they're still both behemoths, they're both still very profitable, and both will eventually get their acts together.

Once I become president of the United States, though, I suspect the front page will probably be of more interest to me. I wouldn't be able to invest in individual businesses (too many conflicts of interest), but as president I could do something about the problems on the front pages. =)

Okay, I don't really intend to become president--terribly thankless task, if you ask me--but it makes me wonder.... Will I always be a fan of the business section? Or will I continue to evolve and discover the joys of another section sometime in my golden years?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Just say no!

I did my taxes this last weekend. It's the American way. It's been awhile since I've worried about taxes. Ever since becoming unemployed, I'd have the occasional income from dividends and interest, or the sale of a stock. One year I even converted my traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, but it was small enough that I didn't have to pay any taxes on it since it was below the standard deduction.

Alas, I'm sad to report, I am no longer unemployed. I have joined the ranks of the self-employed, and running Atlas Quest is my job. =) Gotta pay taxes--not a whole lot mind you (the government doesn't require you pay much if you don't make much)--but for the first time in several years, I'm an honest-to-goodness tax-paying citizen. I'm helping to pay those poor soldiers stuck in Iraq, road improvements, teachers, and subsidizing farmers everywhere. And, I'm embarrassed to admit, helping to pay the president's salary.

But it's the American way. I'll get over it. The thing I don't get, however, that makes me mad is that little check box on my 1040 asking if I'd like three dollars to go towards the presidential election. HELLO?! Why would anyone but a politician check this box? Do you want to see your tax dollars used to create attack ads on television? Annoy you with stupid little banners people put up in their yards? And bumper stickers that you'll still see stuck on used cars for years and sometimes even decades after the election is over?

Checking this box supposedly does not cost you anything more. Oh really? Where, do you suppose this money comes from? That three dollars could have been used to help pay down the national deft. It could have been used to hire more teachers, fix broken bridges. And you want to throw it down the toilet so politicians can bad mouth each other?

Sure, it's only three dollars, but there are so many more needy places it can be used. Don't give it to the politicians. Use it for a better America instead. I'd like to change that box so if I check it, the president (or even my representatives in Congress) would be required to pay ME three bucks. See how they like it for a change.

Just say no to rich white guys asking for handouts. Let them earn it like the rest of the tax-paying American public.

Okay, that's not very fair. The top two Democrats for the presidential nomination are a woman and a black guy. I like that. I don't really know much about either of them. I know the woman was married to Bill Clinton and is the senator of New York, but outside of that, I really don't know a whole lot about her. The black guy is a senator for Illinois, is trying to quite smoking, and has a name strangely reminding me of Osama Bin Laden, but I won't hold that against him.

Normally, I don't care much about who's running for president so early in the race. The election is still over a year away and a lot can change before then, and I don't even know much about anyone who's running. Except that I absolutely love the idea of a minority being president of the United States. Black, female, gay, Hispanic, Asian, Native American--I don't really care. I'm tired of rich white guys running this country, and I just love the fact that in almost all probability, it will be a minority that will be the main contender for the presidential race for the Democratic party.

Okay, maybe a woman isn't technically a "minority" in this country--I think they actually outnumber men 50.1% to 49.9% or something like that, but there's never been a woman president before and I just want someone who's not a rich white guy in the oval office.

If you're tired of rich white guys running the country running this country, raise your hand? Yeah, I thought so. Let's give women and blacks a chance to screw things up too. It's only fair.

And check NO to giving them your hard earned money. Frankly, I don't think they've earned it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Are you scared yet?

Apparently, you should be. I was getting the oil changed in my car the other day, sitting in the lobby of Jiffy Lube waiting for them to finish with the car. Completely off topic, but bear with me for a minute, someone ahead of me went to the counter to pay and asked the luber if he could use a student or AAA discount, and the luber said he could use one or the other, but not both. And I thought, "WHAT?! They accept AAA discounts?"

So when it was my turn to pay, I asked about the AAA discount, showed them my card, and got 10% off the order. Remember that the next time you get your oil changed. I had no idea they accepted it--it's certainly not a discount they tell everyone about.

But back to the subject at hand--they had CNN running on the television and one of the reporters that covers Wall Street was talking about how "scary" last week was (or was it the week before that?) when the market dropped over 400 points in one day. The exact quote I might have wrong, but I think it was something like this: "It was very scary," and she nodded with a somber look.

I own stocks. Most of my money, in fact, is tied up in the stock market, but you know what? I wasn't scared. In fact, I didn't even know about the 'blood bath' until after the music had stopped when I was talking on the phone and Amanda mentioned that the market dropped over 400 points that day. My reaction was to raise an eyebrow. Not necessarily because the stock market dropped over 400 points, but rather I was surprised that Amanda would know it. She doesn't usually keep up with that sort of information. =)

I'll admit, the stock market doesn't drop 400 points in a day every day, but it was what? About a 2 or 3% drop? Not exactly something that would ruffle my feathers. I expect stocks to drop 2 or 3% on a regular basis. Heck, I expect stocks will often drop 10 to 20% over periods of time--maybe even more when times really get rough. And they think a less than 3% drop is "scary"? No, I don't think so.

If you think a 2 or 3% drop in the stock market is scary, you should not have put money into the stock market in the first place. This doesn't even rank as one of the 10 biggest drops in stock market history. As far as I'm considered, it's a complete and absolute non-event. Not even newsworthy.

But you know, they have to fill all that air time with something, so they call a 400-point drop scary. It sells paper. It keeps people glued to the television. People wring their hands in fear and frustration. But it's much ado about nothing. Don't fall for the hype.

And heaven forbid, do NOT invest in the stock market if a 2 or 3% drop scares you. That's just stupid, because it WILL happen to you if you're in it long enough.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Hypocracy in the House

The House of our esteemed Congress is trying to pass a bill so Wal-Mart cannot own a bank known as an industrial loan company. It is very much "let us pick on Wal-Mart because everyone hates them and we will look good to our voting public" kind of bill.

Target, for instance, already owns such a bank. Why should Wal-Mart not be able to? Wal-Mart says they want to create such a bank to process credit card transactions and such on their own instead of using a middleman which takes a cut and raises their prices and that they are not interested in running commercial banks for the public at large.

The fear, of course, is that they will change their mind and open Wal-Mart branded banks around the world. And maybe they will, but.... so what? Who will this hurt? Other banks are an obvious choice. More competition and all that. If Wal-Mart tries to undercut Bank of America, Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo, or whatever, they might have to cut fees, increase interest rates on your money in their vaults, or provide better interest rates for loans to stay competitive.

But you know what? I hate banks. I really, really hate banks. They try to nickel and dime you to death. They charge you if you do not keep a minimum amount in the account. They charge you to use certain ATMs. I have a list of possible bank fees from one of my banks that I might face if I do not jump through every single hoop at the appropriate time that that is about 30 items long! And "free checking" is rarely ever truly free.

Frankly, if Wal-Mart wants to compete with these folks, that is something I would very much support. You would not even have to change banks to benefit from the increased competition as the established players will have to cut fees and improve service to stay competitive.

And consider this--if mixing a retail business with a bank is such a bad thing, why are our esteemed members of Congress not trying to pass a bill so Wells Fargo cannot choose to buyout and own Krogers in the future? A bank is allowed to own a retail business, but a retail business is not allowed to own a bank? That is just plain stupid.

This is nothing more than a ploy by politicians to look good by picking on the evil Wal-Mart, but the only person that such a bill will help is the already existing banks--not the consumer. For the average working person out there, this is very bad legislation.