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!